Plugs

At the mouth of the Cave of Endless Hamsters stood two squat dumpy smoke-colored creatures, each the shape of a bowling pin. The one on left was slightly taller, and it shook with mild internal tremors. Both creatures seemed to waver in and out of existence, as if simulataneously there and not there, and their eyes glowed redly. They held short wicked-looking spears.

“Toll,” said the shorter one on the right.

Anya slid down from the back of the Turtle (who had promptly fallen asleep after they had stopped moving), and her feline companion leapt down smoothly to land beside her feet.

“Toll for what?” Anya asked.

“Whatchu mean? For passage through the cave o’course.”

“Is this cave really so important that it merits a toll?”

“Um.” The shorter one scratched its head and the taller one shivered where it stood.

“Do you enjoy your job?”

“What? Why you ask that?”

“It seems to me,” Anya said, “standing at the mouth of a cave in the middle of a forest waiting for people to come by so you can extort them would be quite boring. Yes?”

“Being punished,” said the taller shivery creature.

“By whom?”

“The Green Empress. She’s still sore at us.”

“Why? What did you do?”

Neither creature answered, and their body postures indicated sheepishness.

“Look, my name’s Anya.” She motioned to the cat. “This is my reincarnated father. We’re just looking for a way to get home. If I can offer you payment, will you be our protectors?”

“What? Us?” The two creatures turned toward each other and appeared to communicate, whether subvocally or telepathically, Anya could not tell. After a moment they turned back and the shorter creature said, “What about the empress?”

“Let me deal with her.”

“What payment you got?”

Anya reached into the pocket on her jumper and pulled out the black tri-cornered tooth she had extracted from behind the ear of the Olifanz. Previously dull, it now glinted in the filtered light of the forest. The two creatures started forward, their forms abruptly shifting completely into reality, the tooth somehow solidifying their existence after exposure to the light.

She held the tooth behind her back and said, “Payment after we’ve found the way home. Deal?”

“Yes, yes, o’course,” the creatures said in unison.

“Great. So what are your names?”

“Mister Hopeless,” the shorter creature said. “He’s Mister Shiftless.”

“Right,” Anya said, scratching the Turtle underneath the chin to wake it up. “So, are you excited to see the Cave of Endless Hamsters?”

“Dunno,” said Mister Shiftless. “Never been in.”

“Well, now’s as good time as any, right?” And she led the motley group inside.

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Previously:
01: Mini Buddha Jump Over the Wall
02: The World, Under
03: Androcles Again
04: Look Into My Eyes, You’re Under

Guilt, always so much guilt.
Merswe floated on his back down the river Mawkee, scouting for a mate. Around him, other males hooted and paddled, lifting sensory pads up to the sky, waiting for the females to come to them.
Such was his anticipation, so exquisite was the tension in which he floated for days, that Merswe almost missed it when it happened. The strain had worn him out and he was dozing when the women began falling. He caught one by pure chance, grabbing onto her hair and pulling her up before she could sink under the grey waters of the Mawkee.
They wept from the joy of having found each other, and from the sorrow of watching so many women die as they rained on the river and drowned before a male could reach them and pull them afloat.
Her name was Xi.
They fell in love instantly and floated together for a fortnight, making love while Merswe held her close to him to keep her from drowning.
Finally, Xi laid her eggs and Merswe took them inside himself, carefully stashing them in his innermost gill, close to his soul.
“I can take you with me,” Merswe said, bravely, “I feel so strong…”
But they both knew it was wishful thinking; manly bluff. Merswe needed his strength to make it all the way down the Mawkee and onto the rich muddy waters of Hope lake, where their children could hatch.
He cried as he let her go and she didn’t flinch as the water closed in over her. Around him, Merswe heard the cries of a thousand females who weren’t as brave as Xi and pleaded with their lovers to carry them on, only for a minute, only for a day. But none of the men were stupid enough to try. Eggs came first and the eggs must make it to Hope lake. The men pried their lovers’ desperate fingers from their fins, unravelled the knots of hair that tied them together and pushed them away. Soon enough, the cries ceased.
Merswe floated down the Mawkee, eyeflaps rippling red with grief. Xi’s eggs were safe, as were the eggs of Maya, Thi and Tes and all the others who had come before them. Finally, tears spent, he turned his gaze to the sky and waited for more women to fall.
Of his sorrow only guilt remained. Guilt, always so much guilt as Merswe floated on his back down the river Mawkee.

A new voice joins the Cabal today, one whose stories are powerful if (and perhaps because) they’re often more than a little unsettling. So please welcome Angela Slatter as she takes us on a dark road trip…


The dead girl sits in the passenger seat, watching me. Her face is etched with spider-web petichia and her eyes are jelly-red.

My hands are pale and tight at ten and two.

“I’m so sorry, Rachel,” I say. I really mean it, not just because I’m in big trouble.

“I cannot believe,’ she spits between blood-stained teeth, “that you slept with my husband.”

“It was an accident.”

“What, you slipped and fell on it?” It’s amazing the volume the dead can reach. I feel a trickle from my ear. My fingers come away red.

“I’m sorry,’ I whimper.

“Sandy, if you say that again, I’m going to kill you.” She deflates. “My own sister.”

“I’m – not going to say it again.” In front of us the headlights gallop, illuminating the bitumen and the piles of banked-up snow. I should have put the chains on.

“How long?”

“Only a few months.” It was more like eighteen, but least said …

“He decided he wanted to be with you so much that he strangled me?”

“Well, maybe he just liked someone who didn’t spend all her time in front of the mirror.”

“You could do with a bit more time in front of the mirror.” Recognising the truth, her retort lacks sting.

“There was no need for him to kill you. I really am sorry about that.”

“I appreciate you avenging my death,” she admitted.

Walter hadn’t realised that family comes first. He called me to help get rid of Rachel’s body. He dropped her into the boot and leaned over to brush hair away from her face. That’s when I hit him with the claw-hammer. Seven times. He slumped in on top of her.

Rachel is still talking. “It’s almost enough for me to forgive you.”

She reaches out. I flinch. Her hand passes through mine like needles of ice. I reef the wheel hard to the left.
The car fishtails, skids, ricochets around the bend and slams into a parked police car with an ear-shattering crash.
I hit my head on the steering wheel, see dark stars. I turn to Rachel, to see if she’s okay.
She smiles, fading away. “Almost.”
There’s the ‘pop’ of the trunk and I see the lid rising in the rear-view mirror. Two pissed-off cops clamber out the undamaged side of their vehicle.
I let the darkness flood over me. I’m not going anywhere.

Midnight passes, the new law takes effect. At first, nothing happens. About 12:20 Patricia’s climbing-rose wallpaper starts to move. Pastel pink and green dots are changing color, turning orange (orange?), swirling into new patterns, patterns that spell
The Home Depot,
with a happy homebuilder hammering away in 3D, with sound.
Okay, I shop at the depot, they have good stuff. Evidently someone knows what I like.
The Home Depot swirls around. The swirls form new patterns that are colorful and organic, and yes, they know what I like. But this I prefer to keep private. This better not be animated and with audio, but hard-core rhythm starts to grind out from a million microspeakers and some guy with my face and a horse’s member starts banging away at a groupie.
Shoving panic down. I have to get rid of this wallpaper. Patricia’s coming over. I’ve almost got her ready to move back in, and now this! The wallpaper abruptly changes to dogs catching frisbees, but I’m not fooled. This isn’t permanent.
“House!” I call. There is no answer. “House! Disable the new wallpaper.” The groupie is back.
“You don’t like me?” She pouts.
“I like you fine,” I say, “it’s just that this is not the time.” And why am I talking to wallpaper? Advertising nano is going to ruin my life. Unless this’s a glitch and they’re going to fix it soon. The wallpaper suddenly changes to a montage of historical ads. Cheesy jingles from the 20th century emanate from speakers that erupt like chickenpox all over the walls and ceiling. I run to the door (which is advertising some kind of mortgage refinancing) and it doesn’t open.
“Excuse me,” I say. The guy looks up from the ad and focuses on me. This is a little disconcerting.
“Sorry,” he says, “but you really should consider our offer. You’ll come out way ahead after five years.” The last part is muffled as the door slides into the wall and I dash out onto the stoop. Patricia is there, hand raised to swipe the identity plate. I almost knock her off the porch.
“I’m so sorry,” I start, but then my eye is irresistibly drawn to her dress. It seems to be an advertisement for home gym equipment above the waist and feminine products below. “I was going to say my house has been taken over,” I say.
She smiles. Words spell out on her teeth: “Yellow teeth? Don’t you fret. Ultra-white’s the brightest yet!” Today’s weather scrolls across her forehead. It’s going to be a nice day, she says.
The end

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