Excerpt for Aurealis #115 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Edited by Dirk Strasser

Published by Chimaera Publications at Smashwords

Copyright of this compilation Chimaera Publications 2018

Copyright on each story remains with the contributor

EPUB version ISBN 978-1-922031-72-3

ISSN 2200-307X (electronic)


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Hard copy back issues of Aurealis can be obtained from the Aurealis website:


From the Cloud—Dirk Strasser

The Spoils—Clive McAlpin

The Empty Quarter—Jai Baidell

Sacrifice—Pierce Skinner

What We Take for Granted: The Australian Fantastical Imagination and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite—Gillian Polack

The Outsider: Disturbing Parallels in HP Lovecraft’s Life and Fiction—David Ellrod


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From the Cloud

Dirk Strasser

We all have books that we read when we were younger and which led us into fantasy or science fiction or whatever genres we choose to spend the bulk of our time reading as adults. These are often called gateway books, those novels that opened up reading for us. While some of my gateway books into fantasy include staples such as The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series, I would also count a handful of more obscure books as my way into fantasy in particular. I suspect we all have some of these lesser known books in our reading past that have had a profound influence on us.

I think of these as portal books. A gate is a public entrance, a way in that everyone is aware of. Some of us may choose not to enter, but there’s no denying its renown. It’s there for everyone to see, bold and unforgettable. Like Babylon’s Ishtar Gate or the Golden Gate of Byzantium or the Meridian Gate to the Forbidden City. But whereas a gateway is public, drawing attention to itself, portals are hidden, only visible to the few—and that’s often where the truly profound magic lies. It’s these sorts of books that reveal most about us. While gateway books are those we share with others, portal books are more personal—they divulge our uniqueness. We rarely talk about them because others will most likely not have read, or even heard of, them.

One of my portal books was so buried in my past I couldn’t even remember the name of it. (By coincidence, it also featured a type of portal as a plot device.) It was by British author E (Edith) Nesbit. Her most famous novel is The Railway Children, but this well-known book had little impact on me and I barely remember reading it. At around age eleven I scoured my local library for E Nesbit books. I found many of them a little disturbing. She didn’t write like the other authors I’d read. There was an edge to it I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps I’d now call it a hint of the grotesque, a slightly off-kilter frisson. The novel I remember most powerfully, the one that I would nominate as my key portal book, was about a dirt-poor crippled orphan boy in Edwardian London who mysteriously travels to an alternative world 300 years earlier where he’s a healthy son of a nobleman. The story didn’t pivot around predictable plotlines. I haven’t re-read it since, but I remember the boy moved between the two periods several times until it got to a point where he had to make a choice. I remember being floored by his freely-made decision to stay in the world where he was dirt-poor and crippled because he was needed there. The novel was called Harding’s Luck.

It’s usually relatively easy to pinpoint how gateway novels have affected you. The influence of portal books, by their nature, is harder to tie down. I’ve only recently realised the connection between this book and my latest novel, which while having a totally different setting, structure and feel to Harding’s Luck, is about portals and the crucial decisions they force on people.

I don’t expect too many of you to have read Harding’s Luck, and I suspect its life as a potential portal book is over. Younger readers these days will probably baulk at the Edwardian street language, and for those of us older readers, the time for gates and portals into reading will never return. You can quite easily find Harding’s Luck online these days. But of course, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve read it. You all found your own portals.

All the best from the cloud.

Dirk Strasser

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The Spoils

Clive McAlpin

I been on another brannigan and I’m hiding out from the gallowboys what’s on me tail when the Musician finds me in the Jackaroo’s Arms out Etherton way.

I’m ropable that night on account of me money being all gone on the races, but also because that’s the day I had to shoot me horse Margie. Calm old girl never spooked much in the Spoils when one of the unfinished come too near. Some horses get one gander at them melty-looking buggers what once was bandicoots or roos, and they lite out, and your saddle better be tight bloody cinched. I was hiding in the scrub from Toff and his boys what wanted to dice me up for me debts and if Margie wasn’t such a calm old girl maybe that taipan wouldn’t of managed to batten on and fang her up full of the venom what would of done for her if I didn’t put her down first.

Well I’m drinking away me sorrows and wondering how to earn enough to pay them boys now that I got no horse when the Musician picks me out across the bar. Now there’s a tracker if ever I seen one, he thinks to himself, struth that’s the man for me. Comes up punchproud, soft-looking fella. Begins to introduce himself. Tells me he’s a musician. Skinny in little round smart specs and one of them oversize jumpers the kids all wear now and I see he’s cityfolk and lucky to still be wearing his skin this far out of the Harbour.

‘You look like a capable bloke,’ he says, ‘know your way around the Spoils I reckon.’ Got his eye on me toothy hat what I was lucky I didn’t lose with everything else.

‘Could do,’ I says, cagey now cos I got the twitch he has a job for me.

‘Bet you’d know how to find something out there.’

‘Nothing out there worth finding, mate,’ I tells him. Playing hard to get, like. I turn back to the bar but I can see side-eye he’s still watching me.

He waves Jock over and says, ‘Rum for me, and one for my friend here.’

As he reaches down to tap his bead to pay, I says, ‘And one for me horse. A drink to remember Margie what was did for today in the scrub.’

The Musician freezes for a second, but then he nods, them virtual glasses shining in the pub light, and flicks his bead, and I think maybe this kid will be good for a few Bradmans, maybe I’ll square me debt and won’t get me throat slit by Toff after all. And already I should see that there’s something bad and funny about this kid but I don’t. Course I don’t.

Once we’ve poured one out for Margie I ask him flat what he wants to find out there in them Spoils and what it’s worth to him.

He says, ‘Well, the short of it is my pet has run off and I want to track her down. She’s scared and she’s sick without her special food and I need to find her.’

‘Pet is it?’ I says. ‘Not a fuckin’ crocodile is she?’


‘Bloody mod leopard what can change colour like a chameleon? I seen one of them out there, some lux twat’s fancy pet what he didn’t want anymore.’

The Musician sniffles a laugh and his eyes are shining. ‘Alice is nothing like that, chief. I promise.’

‘Then what? Standard mog? Labrador? Bloody axolotl?’ And I’m ropable again and doubly so because now I think I don’t have a job after all and I’m too honest not to tell the little shit, ‘Mate, your pet’s dead. Your pet’s in the belly of something what one generation back was a carpet python. It’s fallen down a hole and dirty seep’s peeled it like a grape. It’s died in the hail or a bad fog’s turned it inside-out or a pack of dingos has done for it. You’re wasting me bloody time.’

But he shakes his head. ‘I know she’s in danger. She’s not a labrador and she’s not an axolotl. I’ll explain once we’re out there.’

I lean back and put the eye on him. ‘Secrets cost extra.’

He only shrugs and waves Jock over again. He holds his rum better than I expected.

Before we go to Shanghai Kitchen to get a feed and hammer out a deal, I make him show me his balance. He’s got one of them new kinds of bead in his thumb and he shines a picture of his account on the bar—struth —corp seal an all. Like one of them shadow puppet shows me and me sibs liked so much as kids. He’s got 80 K in there and I says, ‘What kind of muso has eight hundred Bradmans just swimming around on his bead?’ And I think, you might be a cold fish but you don’t know much about this part of the world if you think flashing that kind of money in a bar ain’t stupid.

He smiles and tells me he ain’t just a musician.

I bumble back to me swag out in the scrub at the edge of town full of rum and wontons and a sorta hope that I might live to see next month. Well the hope is shook outta me before sun-up by rough hands and me first still-sleepin’ thought is that it’s him, it’s the Musician, and he’s got something for me. He’s going to change me into something else, and I see them shining lenses, the eyes behind what don’t believe in nothing.

But it ain’t the Musician. It’s Toff and his gallowboys, run me down even out here.

‘You been witnessed, cobber,’ Toff leers, ‘swilling bevies you can’t afford. You want I cut them out of you?’

And I tell him not to bother given as I already pissed them out, and he confers on me a shallow slice like a smile across me belly with his blade.

‘I’m good for it, Toff,’ I says when I got me breath. ‘Listen, kid I was drinking with’s got a job for me, savvy?’

He sits back on his heels and touches the bit of platypus rib he wears through his nose. ‘A job or a ride out of here?’ And his knife flashes in the dark.

‘A job, brother, I swear it. Tracking in the Spoils. Kid’s backed. I seen proof. I’ll have your money in a week.’

Toff thinks for long enough that I can hear his mates getting restless for the jugular spray what I know they live for. Finally the knife glints one last time and disappears. He stands up and filches through inner pockets in his jacket, tosses me a bandage and dressing, turns to go. ‘Jump the rails if you like, mate. You know I’ll run you down.’

* * *

The more I move the less me head hurts, but the more the gummy scabbed cut in me belly tugs against Toff’s dressing. Morning’s walk along the highway is hard, but I’m beginning to get me rhythm by the time I reach the rest stop where the Musician told me to meet him. It’s the seeking rhythm where everything goes away, even meself, and the thing what I’m tracking is the only thing left in the world. Not that I know what I’m tracking yet, but I can feel that rhythm in me thighs ready to take over.

The Musician is waiting for me, leaning against a hire car shiny under new dust. Little shit could at least have given me a ride. But this kid is me only chance to keep me guts where they belong, and besides, I seen he’s got a sac of coffee from Rosie’s. I forget me grief and sling me gun to get at me hoosh mug for a pull of that steaming nectar.

I jerk me chin at him. ‘Time to deal me in, mate. What are we tracking here?’ I notice he’s still wearing them little round eyeglasses and I can see in the daylight that they aren’t smart specs at all, might even be real specs for seeing through. Might call something like that on a cityboy just prance and affect but in the scrub they seem sort of sinister.

‘I can give you an idea of her dimensions and gait and show you her tracks where she got away. Will that be enough to start?’

I snort. ‘How you think I’m going to find something I can’t pick out of a bloody line-up?’

‘I don’t trust you enough to paint you a picture.’ Sober now, steel glints in the kid. ‘If you won’t take me out there for the money I’ve offered you, someone else will. Probably for less.’

He’s smelled me desperation. Little shit’s got me over a barrel and knows it.

‘Show me the tracks then,’ I says. The sun has begun to peep above the trees. We’re starting later than I’d like. I wonder how the kid would fare spending a night in the Spoils. ‘Where’d you lose her?’

‘East along the road.’ He points. ‘I’ll show you.’

White gums line our path beside the old highway. Where their bark is cut, the red inner flesh leaks terrible dark stains. He explains as we walk, ‘I played two shows in Coffs Harbour last week and came out here to record some ambient material. Alice and I were on our way back to the Harbour.’

‘Why’d you stop?’

‘Car hit a kangaroo and I got out to make sure it hadn’t damaged the sensors. She escaped through one of the windows.’

‘Why drive and not fly? This road’s just for freight and bikies.’

He shrugs.

‘Could have taken one of them long-range pods,’ I press. ‘You had the money.’

His mouth twists. ‘Alice doesn’t like to fly. She—’ but he breaks off because he’s had a first gander at the Spoils where the trees get thin. I can see as far as a distant rumple in the land with a row of broken trunks along the top like fish spines, though the Spoils are leagues across. Curve away to the north and the west and Etherton is nestled like a suckling calf to feed off salvage and them sickos what they call disaster tourists.

‘Looks too toxic to walk on,’ he whispers.

‘Ain’t no fog at least.’ The land looks steamy and ashy this morning, no ways a place for a stroll, but it’s not so bad as long as the fog holds off. When it does come, you sometimes can’t go out for weeks at a time it gets so bad.

Soon we’re back in tree cover and the Musician gets some of his colour back. ‘You need to know a bit about Alice to find her, I understand that. Well she’s about the size of a small kangaroo but heavy.’ He looks around, then walks through thin scrubbage to the side of the highway. ‘This is where I had the car stop.’

I can see wheel marks in the gravel. I can see his scuffs where he went to the front of the car. More scuffs where his pet clambered out the driver’s side window.

‘I didn’t think she’d go for it like that.’ He looks suddenly sad.

‘Not fond of you was she?’ I say, and the look he gives me shuts me up. The look you might see in a bar before someone gets his throat scooped out with a broken bottle. ‘Never mind,’ I says, and say no more for I’m following them scuff marks which are turning into tracks as gravel becomes dirt. And they’re the strangest tracks I ever seen in me life. I follow them to the edge of the scrub and look back at the Musician. ‘How many legs your Alice got?’

‘Eight.’ He gives me a look I can’t read, and we go through the scrub and step out onto the sickness.

* * *

We meet our first unfinished before noon, hear it snuffling above us when we’re arse to wind climbing a bare wash south of Split Tree Hill. It’s a deep snuffling, might say barrel-chested, and I bring me gun around sharpish and wave for the Musician to stop his wickering and keep his head down.

‘What is it?’ he whispers.

‘Unfinished,’ I whisper back. ‘Big one. Just up the rise, sounds like. We’ll sit tight and he’ll move off after a bit.’

Old mate goes on snuffling but doesn’t seem keen on moving off.

Why do they call them that?’ the Musician whispers. ‘Unfinished?’

Look like someone was making an animal out of clay and got on the grog halfway through. Roo, camel, goanna. I seen birds even, seen an ibis big as an emu and his beak all wrong.’

What’s this one, then?’

Let’s climb up and have a squiz.’ I lead the way along the side of the wash to where some rocks at the crest make for good cover and we wriggle up behind them.

The snuffler is about bull-sized but I reckon his grandparents was wombats. He’s rooting in a leafless thicket, deaf to the world.

It doesn’t look so dangerous,’ the Musician mumbles.

Calm old fella I reckon. Let’s go round him.’ I sling me gun and we shuffle back a safe distance then go on our way.

‘What’s the bore on that rifle?’ the Musician asks after a while.

‘Bloke who sells me the ammo calls it a buffalo shooter.’

‘You ever have to drop one of these unfinished with it?’ he says.

‘Often enough that me ears still ring when it’s quiet.’

All that day we follow Alice’s trail, and the more I read her tracks the less I can see her in me mind. I’m aching to ask the Musician again what she is, what she’s for, but I know he won’t tell me nothing until he’s good and ready. When the sun’s gone and it’s time to camp he don’t want to stop, says she’s got to be close and we’ll lose all our progress.

‘Too dangerous to travel in the dark,’ I tells him.

‘What, because we might run into more wombats?’

I shake me head. ‘There’s sinkholes full of seep. Fall in you’ll get wet. You’ll come back into town right as rain but soon your skin will start to blister, then it’ll bubble. By the time you pike, you’re just a sack of puss leaking out a thousand holes. Seen it happen.’

Well that shuts him up. He don’t say nothing while we have a feed of damper and he don’t say nothing while we sit over our tea from the billy. I’m nodding off when he says at last, ‘When I was a kid I’d go to the museum. They had a prehistoric fauna display. I remember the giant wombat in his hole. He wasn’t one of the animatronic ones but there was something about him in there, in the shadows. Like he might come alive at any second.’

‘Ain’t been to a museum.’

‘The first people here lived alongside them. That was part of the display too. Probably hunted them just like you.’

‘Them unfinished fellas out there aren’t the same as real animals. Mostly can’t breed. There’s rules us trackers have, like’—I try and find the word—‘like a code. And rule number one is never forget that the Spoils ain’t natural. Start thinking this place acts like you expect it will in your guts, you’re dead. Nastier them unfinished look, the less they act like normal animals. Normal animals are sensible. Except goannas. Silly buggers, goannas. And bloody taipans,’ I say, panging suddenly for Margie.

I ain’t expecting it, but he grins. ‘Sounds like another rule should be, “if it’s got scales, keep your distance.”’

I nod and poke the fire. And that’s when we hear the music. Far out across the flats, coming to us on that night wind what smells of rust and battery acid and rotting gum leaves. Like singing, but also like harp music, or how I think harp music is on account of not having much occasion to hear it. It’s kind of like them things, and other things too what I ain’t got words for, new sounds what maybe nobody’s got words for. I set down me stick. ‘That’s her, ain’t it? Alice.’

The Musician’s half-stood, but he’s heard how far off she is, probably remembered what I said about sinkholes, and he sits down again and his throat bobs. ‘That’s her,’ he says.

I don’t say nothing for a long time. He’s silent looking at the fire and we’re both listening to Alice. After a bit he looks at me, then he looks back at the fire, then he says, ‘She’s not just a pet. She’s an instrument. A musical instrument. The only one of her kind. Made in Shenzhen out of kangaroo, whip-poor-will, fallow deer, cricket. A living synthesiser.’


‘Stupendously. My family is lux. I know I probably shouldn’t tell anyone out here that, but,’ he raises his head again, and the fire flashes off his spectacles, ‘I suppose I trust you.’

I can’t really get me head around what he’s said but I ask, ‘Was she your idea? Like to make money from shows and that?’

‘My idea. It’s like building a bandmate who can’t skip practice, who doesn’t have her own life to worry about. Who can’t fail to understand you.’ He looks up and peers into me eyes suddenly. ‘Money has nothing to do with it. My music will never have the kind of following that would even begin to pay for her blueprint. It’s about the art.’

For a while we stop talking and just listen to the wind. Alice has gone quiet but something in her cries has given the night-sounds life, made them into music too. After a long time I says, ‘I don’t want to disrespect your story or nothing, but given your gab just now, I think this hunt is worth a lot more to you than you made out at the start. I reckon we might want to renegotiate.’

I half expect him to fly off the handle but he only says, ‘Whatever you need,’ barely listening.

I name a figure and he nods. I feel like a bit of a bastard since me word is usually me bond. But saying you’re lux ain’t a lie you tell out here for fear of being took for ransom. And even me newly named figure, which will buy me a way out of Toff’s throat-cutting and buy me a new horse and maybe a little bit of land and a box house to put on it—even that figure is sheepfeed to one of the lux. ‘Right then,’ I says, ‘I’m turning in.’

I stand up, me knees creaking like one of the bunks at the Jackaroo’s Arms. I go out of the firelight to piss and then I get in me bivy bag and shut me eyes. I don’t hear the Musician move for a long time. After a while his creature’s song starts up again, never the same from one moment to the next. As I get closer to sleep, it gives me dreams, or the beginnings of them, of lives I didn’t end up having but might have had.

* * *

For all that we seemed so close to her in the dark, the next day is a tough bloody slog across some of the bad bits, patches of thick bush all dead but somehow keeping its leaves on, unnatural-like. We’re deep in the Spoils now and I’m worried about fog and much else besides.

‘Why are you so afraid of fog?’ the Musician says when I mention it.

‘It ain’t the kind of fog you’re thinking of,’ I tells him. ‘It’ll strip the paint off a grounded pod overnight. Trackers what get caught in it don’t usually make it back but if they do, well… You should hear them trying to breathe. Four caught all together one time I remember, the Jimbridge crew. Them lot didn’t last long after they got back. Good blokes all of them.’

‘But what is it? Sounds like—like chemical gas from a war zone.’

‘Nobody bloody knows what it is, do they?’

‘But studies must have been done. Australia’s a first-world country, not some half-evacuated Tropic Band backwater.’

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