science fiction and fantasy writer

Interloper

Shouts erupted from behind.

Barnestable turned in time to see a pair of Tinas roll off the top of the following van, punching and clawing at each other even as they hit the road and bounced onto the verge. Their sisters yelled indiscriminate encouragement.

“Oh, for crying out loud.” His head throbbed mercilessly. The sunlight bouncing off the pale bleakness of the countryside hurt his eyes.

With a groan, he leapt from his perch on the driver’s bench beside Monkey, landing heavily on his feet. The impact sent shooting pains up his neck and through his skull. He almost vomited. One of the troodons kicked the bars of the van beside him. Still lying on her side, the trood clung onto a bar with the sickle claw of her inner toe and raised her neck feathers like hackles.

“Hey! Is that any way to talk to your mama?”

The trood yapped a hostile reply. Monkey unfurled a simian arm to bang on the roof, which just set all three troods yapping. The camels belched and groaned.

“Shaddap!” Monkey bawled.

Barnestable set off at a staggering trot towards the fighters. Turtle beat him to the fray, grabbing the backs of the Tinas’ shirts and holding them up so their toes just brushed the dirt. They spat curses and kicked at his armoured legs.

“What the hell is this?” Barnestable demanded, pressing his palms against his pounding temples. “Aren’t you all one person? You’re fighting with your bloody self!”

The Tinas shook themselves free of Turtle. Both of them were bloodied, their clothes and nests of black hair smeared with salt and dust. They scowled down at Barnestable.

“Screw…”

“…you.”

“Yeah, screw you, Barnes,” their sisters chorused.

Barnestable watched, flummoxed, as the battered two rejoined the other six on the van. “I don’t deserve that.”

Turtle didn’t respond. Flies gathered on the tattooed shell of his head. Black tattoos over the interlocking plates of his exoskeleton made him seem more like some Brutalist artwork than a human being. Barnestable followed his gaze.

Part-covered steel skeletons of prefabbed buildings broke the monotony of the plain, a distance back from the road. Preoccupied with his migraine, Barnestable had taken them at a glance to be old farm sheds and paid no further heed. Turtle’s interest made him look closer. The tattered mesh of a perimeter fence hinted at the possibility of something more secretive and secure. Concrete stumps around it might’ve have supported auto-defence towers.

All around was nothing but rolling desolation – stands of pale feral wheat at the top of every low rise of the plain, saltpans in every trough between.

Like bloody Judgement Day. Barnestable wondered what the hell had been worth defending out here.

The compound spread some way beyond the ruined sheds. Furthest back lay a black tarmac landing pad and a large, irregularly stepped circular foundation. Barnestable frowned. Or what needed hiding.

“That wasn’t in the bloody briefings,” he said. He might as well have been talking to the replica of Turtle they lugged about with them as to the real thing. “Turtle?”

Turtle peered down at him. His inked slab of a face was hard to read, a graffitied brick with eyes.

Barnestable watched him stride away. “What is with everyone today? Rhone, what’s with everyone today?”

The last caravan had just passed. Barnestable gritted his teeth and jogged to catch up. He leapt for the running board and clung with one hand around an awning strut. The camels towing the van bawled complaints at the miniscule difference his weight made to the vehicle.

“Dammit, Barnes,” said Murph, as he hauled himself up to where she sat on the driver’s bench with Rhone.

Barnestable ignored her. Rhone shuffled across reluctantly to make room and he squeezed onto the end of the seat. “Well?”

Rhone was covered from head to toe in a blue chador. Barnestable could just make out the profile of her face through her gauze veil. Seated, his eyes came just above the level of her breasts.

“Aw, c’mon love,” he said, “you can tell me.”

“I’m not your love, Barnes,” said Rhone.

“I’m wounded. Wassup?”

At the opposite end of the bench, Murph rubbed at the bridge of her nose. A lanky woman with fair skin that tended to freckle, she wore a wide straw hat to keep the sun off her face.

Rhone hitched her cuffs sharply, causing a momentary bounce on the front of her chest.

“Shit, Barnes, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

He plastered on an ingratiating smile. “Only you, love. What is it? Woman stuff?”

“Troglodyte.” She rose abruptly and climbed over him and down from the van. “It’s not my stuff.”

“What, then?” he called after her. He pointed in the direction of the abandoned buildings. “Is there a cracked seal over there that I should know about? Rhone?” He didn’t think so. If there was an unsealed break in the Veil nearby the troods would be letting them know.

“Slick, Barnes,” said Murph. “Slicker than duck shit.”

Barnestable waved flies away from his face while he watched Rhone fall into step beside Turtle. His skull felt like it was cracking at the seams. Rhone was walking very close to Turtle. Barnestable frowned.

“It’s coming from Turtle? What the hell is she doing projecting his feelings?”

Murph grunted. “Really, Barnes.”

Up front, Goat Boy wove the solar off-roader, the troupe’s only powered vehicle, with stately slowness across the full width of the road. The resin statue of Turtle rocked gently on the trailer behind it. Loops rested her furry chin on her elbow over the side of the car door, nominally supervising his driving.

From the top of his van, Monkey called out, “Town’s ahead.”

Goat Boy whooped happily, the only member of the troupe immune to Turtle’s projected mood.

#

The caravan crawled down the shallow slope of the escarpment to the sand flat at sea level. Barnestable inhaled the sea air, hoping it would clear his head.

“Nice beach,” he observed, back on his seat on the troodon van beside Monkey. The beach’s cleanliness was marred at the southern end by sun-hardened hunks of tar from an old slick.

“Pity about the town,” said Monkey.

Which summed up most places along the west coast, outside of Perth’s tarnished glitz and suburban sprawl.

This town was bigger than Barnestable had expected, the tin-roofed houses sprawling along the beachfront and up the lower slope of the escarpment. He guessed its population to be pushing five figures. As they got closer, he revised the estimate down. The houses along the outer fringe were all empty, either boarded up or simply abandoned. The hairs rose on the back of Barnestable’s neck. There were plenty of ghost towns, back East, neutron bombed after the Veil had torn and Interlopers run amok. Empty houses held a different kind of silence to the desert.

There was still life here, though. Closer to the centre, maybe two in three buildings were still occupied.

Barnestable put on his ringmaster’s top hat and frayed red coat. Turtle and five of the Tinas were already hidden away inside the caravans, squeezed in with the tents and gear. Everyone else was in their places up on top.

“What the hell are these people still doing out here?” Monkey said softly. There was no mine nearby, and this wasn’t an ore port.

Of the people they passed, more had grey hair than not.

Barnestable massaged his neck with his fingers. “Waiting to die, mate. Just waiting to die.”

The highway morphed into the town’s high street. Monkey hammered on the roof of the van to stir up the troods. The vehicle shuddered as one of them head-butted the bars. People on the porches of the threadbare stores and eateries gasped at the geneered saurians. Barnestable sighed inside, as he often did, at the depth of their provincialism. Still, he told himself, what chance did they have? The mining cartels that claimed this end of the continent filtered all information coming into their zone of influence according to their own myopic self-interests.

He noticed a different reaction to the statue of Turtle, chained on top of the off-roader’s trailer. Instead of the usual exclamations of surprise, the locals’ response was to laugh and nudge each other knowingly.

Bloody useless intel, Barnestable thought, And what the hell’s got up Turtle’s arse that he couldn’t let us know?

“Ah, well,” he said to Monkey, “they can’t all be complete rubes.”

He stood up and raised his loudhailer. Suppressing a wave of nausea, he launched into his spiel. “Roll up, one and all, to Barnestable’s Travelling Mutant Freak Show and Circus…”

#

They set up camp on a scrubby sports oval beside the town’s derelict shopping mall. They parked the statue of Turtle outside and Goat Boy pegged out the camels to graze while the rest of them got the dome of the big top up on its ultralight polymer frame. The caravan annexes were joined up to the tent to make a covered village. Then Turtle and the other Tinas could emerge to help with the rest of the set-up.

The evening performance began with a tumbling routine from three Tinas. Barnestable cringed, watching from behind the stage curtain as they missed their marks and almost overshot their landings. The crowd didn’t notice, applauding every trick. The bleachers were packed, they’d pulled a good couple of hundred customers. There was one gap in the front row. Beside the empty place sat a sixtyish man with a full head of iron-coloured hair. A suntanned, mouse-haired waif of eleven or twelve sat on his other side, watching the performance with an expression of unabashed delight.

Barnestable looked up at Rhone. His headache hadn’t abated, so he couldn’t work up more than a mild disappointment she was still in her chador, waiting until the last moment to strip down to her show costume.

“Ready, love?”

After a pause, she nodded and murmured, “Already started.”

He could hear Murph and Loops bickering backstage. Rhone still had everyone caught up in Turtle’s funk. “You need to shut that down,” he said. “We can’t afford to be going flaky if we turn up a candidate or, God forbid, a bloody Interloper. And how come you’re giving me this bloody headache?”

“Because I don’t like to touch your mind, Barnes,” she said.

“Well, bloody shut it down.”

“I’m trying.”

Barnestable stepped away from the curtain. “Where is Turtle, anyway?”

“Barnes, leave him.”

He ignored her.

The replica Turtle lay on its back beside its trailer, but the real article wasn’t anywhere in the immediate backstage area. Barnestable kept searching.

Low voices caught his attention in the shadowed aisle between two vans. Turtle’s bulk was immediately recognisable. With him was a middle-aged woman who held Turtle’s hand in both her own.

The woman saw Barnestable and gave Turtle’s fingers a squeeze. She leaned up to say something that Barnestable couldn’t hear, then turned and ducked through the canvas flap that led outside.

Barnestable folded his arms across his chest. “Christ, Turtle, you know better.”

Turtle stared at the ground. “She won’t give the act away.”

“I wasn’t talking about the bloody act,” said Barnestable. “You know her.”

Turtle nodded. He chewed his words a while before spitting them out. “I was posted here, before the state government collapsed. Guarding the place we passed on the way in.”

“Figured that out for myself. Thanks for the advance notice, mate.”

Tattooed plates shifted on Turtle’s brow. “It was in your briefings, wasn’t it?”

“They skipped the bit about there being a facility out here,” Barnestable said.

Turtle snorted. “Bloody intel.”

“Did they get through?”

“The Veil? No.” Turtle shook his head. “No, there’s no seal over there. They cleared us out when the mining cartels took over.”

Barnestable considered him. “And the rest of it?”

Another silence, then Turtle said, “I had a woman in town.”

“A woman? You?” He turned it into: “You mean her?” Barnestable thought the woman was too old. But then, it was over a decade since the miners booted out the government in the West.

Turtle looked at him sharply. “A made man like me, you mean? As opposed to a natural-born freak like you. I got everything you got, Barnes,” he said. “Only bigger. And no, that’s her mother.”

“She’s not in town anymore?”

“She died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, mate.”

Turtle shrugged and pushed past.

“Just keep your mind on the job, eh?” Barnestable called to his retreating back.

He heard a muffled laugh. Goat Boy wriggled out from under the caravan beside him. He grinned and jiggled his horns. “Bigger,” he said, and scampered off after Turtle.

Barnestable started to shake his head, stopped with a wince. “Geek.”

He stumped back to rejoin Rhone as cheers marked the end of the Tinas’ performance. Monkey and Goat Boy raced past him and burst shrieking into the ring with Loops in hot pursuit, clutching outsized cutlery and with a napkin tied around her neck. They pranced about, earning laughs while the Tinas packed up their gear. Barnestable watched Turtle’s mother-in-law rejoin her – he assumed – husband. He frowned at the kid sitting with them.

No way.

Goat Boy fled backstage. Murph arrived with her cases of knives and Rhone chose that moment to start shucking her chador, distracting Barnestable when he should have been bracing himself.

Goat Boy landed on his back, sending him stumbling into the open.

“Faster, piggy!” Goat Boy cried, slapping Barnestable on the backside with the butt of his styrofoam lance.

They chased Loops around the ring a couple of times, until Monkey stole Barnestable’s ringmaster’s hat and announced, “The Mistress of the Blades!”

Rhone acted as Murph’s assistant for the first part of her act, while Murph juggled knives and cleavers of varying size and ugliness.

Loops and Monkey wheeled out the wooden target wheel, then pretended to sneak up on Rhone. She struggled feebly as they towed her over to the wheel and strapped her on. The theatre had its desired effect on the crowd. A hush fell in the tent. Rhone had a high forehead, full cheeks and curved little nose that made her face look like a kid’s. The rest of her, in Barnestable’s frank opinion, looked like she’d been designed by a man. Which, now that he thought of it, she probably had.

Possibly even the same man who’d designed Murph, he mused, watching her stand, hip cocked, in her red leathers and thigh-high boots while she made a show of selecting knives from the case Monkey presented to her.

The five blades went up in a high arc then, in a blur of movement as they came back down, shot across to thunk into the wheel around Rhone. Barnestable flinched. The knife that should have landed between her knees had struck not more than a finger’s width from the inside of Rhone’s thigh.

Murph tossed a couple of samurai swords around while Monkey retrieved the knives.

Something like an invisible mallet smacked into Barnestable’s already hurting brain. His knees almost gave way. Monkey dropped his armful of knives. Cries of surprise and alarm said that at least some of the crowd had caught Rhone’s mental cry.

Interloper!

Barnestable was about to yell it aloud, thinking they’d have to slaughter a quarter of the crowd to save the rest. But no: the troods were still quiet. This close to an Interloper, they’d be chewing through the bars of their wagon. His heart rattled inside his ribs. Murph was stock-still in the ring, a sword in each hand and staring fixedly at Rhone, ready to leap into the bleachers and begin the bloodbath. Minutely, Rhone shook her head.

Murph stabbed her swords into the ground and beckoned imperiously for Monkey to bring the knives. Monkey’s simian face was wrinkled with worry as he cranked the handle to set the target wheel, with Rhone on it, spinning. Barnestable could scarcely bear to watch. This time Murph was focused. The blades smacked into the wood perfectly on target. The crowd roared their approval.

Barnestable’s pulse was still racing when he and the Tinas wheeled Rhone backstage and released her from the wheel. Goat Boy drove a camel team into the ring with Turtle on the flatbed wagon that had carried his replica. The crowd laughed and clapped as he slowly stretched and started to move about. Murph and the clowns stayed out in the ring to help with his strongman routine.

“What the hell was that about?” Barnestable demanded, half of his attention on the gap in the curtains. He winced as Turtle failed to catch an iron weight Murph tossed up to him, narrowly missing Loops with its fall. Turtle flinched from Murph’s glare and caught the next one.

Rhone gathered up her chador. Her skin was flushed, making her scars stand out. They covered her in spiderweb-fine lines, tracing a two-dimensional map of her nervous system on her skin. More substantial scars peeked out of her hairline around her temples and ears. “I realised how close Murph got to hitting my leg.”

“Bull.” Rhone pulled the chador over her head and settled the veil in front of her face. She didn’t respond. “Did you at least do your job?”

She seemed to hesitate before nodding.

“We got a candidate?”

Another pause, before: “Two.”

“Two?” A town this size normally turned up between none and one. “Rhone?”

He wished he could see her face. In the ring, Turtle had pulled himself together and was plodding through his routine with a workman’s dourness.

“A young man and a little girl.”

Turtle held Murph up on one outstretched hand, which was even more impressive than it looked, since her ultradense muscles and bones meant she weighed substantially more than a born woman her size. Barnestable looked from Turtle to the kid bouncing on her seat between her grandparents.

“Ah, Christ,” he said. “That’s all we bloody need.”

Turtle’s routine ended with Murph and Loops standing on one hand, and three Tinas balanced on the other. The Tinas scampered up into the roof of the tent to distract the crowd with the trapezes while the rest of the troupe set up the troodon cage.

Even that didn’t go smoothly. Monkey clocked Murph in the back of the head with a girder. Fortunately her head was as hard as Turtle’s. She responded by scooping him up on one foot and, with a deft flick, sending him soaring up into the bottom of the trapeze net, where he hung upside down by his toes. The crowd were delighted, thinking it was part of the show and trying to see the wires. Waiting inside the cage, Barnestable doubted any of them considered what a kick like that could do to a man’s skull. Or the side of a house.

The troodons charged down the run from their van, jostling and snapping at each other. Barnestable raised his whip and chair and prayed that he’d get through the routine with all his limbs still attached.

#

In the morning, he sent Rhone and Loops out with the solar off-roader and the statue of Turtle on its wagon, ostensibly to drum up business. Rhone’s other mission was to find out where the two candidates lived, and search for any others who hadn’t been at the performance the previous night.

After sitting in stony silence through the troupe’s communal breakfast, Turtle zipped himself inside the annex where he slept. Barnestable left him to it. Without Rhone nearby to broadcast Turtle’s mood, the demeanour of the rest of the troupe lifted. Barnestable’s headache faded. Goat Boy produced a soccer ball and Murph, Monkey and a couple of Tinas followed him outside for a game.

The headache sidled back up about noon, announcing Rhone’s return. Bickering voices came from the direction of the big top – Monkey and the Tinas going at it. With a groan, Barnestable pressed the heels of his hands to his temples and dropped down from his seat in front of the comm set.

Rhone and Loops brought news of a third candidate, a woman. Barnestable gathered everyone together for a team meeting. One of the Tinas represented her sisters.

“Three in one town,” said Monkey. “Bloody jackpot.”

“Veil must be thin here,” said Murph.

Turtle’s shoulder twitched. He stared at his hands in his lap. Rhone sat around the opposite side of the table to him, her head turned away.

Barnestable leaned back in his chair, clasping a hot pack against the back of his neck. “How many in the house with the woman?”

Rhone said, “Three adult males, two of them younger. Husband and sons, I think.”

“Be an easy grab,” said Loops. “It’s only a few streets away. House backs onto the dunes and there’s an empty house opposite.”

“How d’you want to do it, Barnes?” asked the Tina.

Barnestable shifted his hot pack to his forehead. “We’ll take the woman and the young bloke after the show tonight and stick them both in the trunk,” he said. The proximity of the troods was enough to deter most local law enforcement from an inspection that might uncover the hibernation unit hidden under the false floor of their van. Bribery generally handled the rest. “Make it look like they’ve run off together.”

“She’s twenty years older than him, Barnes,” said Loops.

He spread his hands. “So? Is she ugly?”

“That’s why I don’t like to touch your mind, Barnes,” said Rhone.

“What about the kid?” asked Monkey.

Barnestable looked pointedly at Turtle. “Well?”

Turtle examined his fists on the table. “Sounds like you’ve got this one figured out, too.”

“They deserve to hear it from you.”

Tattooed plates shifted along Turtle’s jaw, muscles clenching beneath. “It’s my woman’s kid.”

A scatter of muttered swearing greeted the admission. Barnestable tossed down his hotpack. “Your woman’s kid?”

Turtle met his gaze. “Yes.”

Bullshit, Barnestable thought. He wished he could see Rhone’s expression. “Well. We gotta take her in, mate,” he said. Turtle opened his mouth to argue. Barnestable slapped the table. “For crying out loud, Turtle, Rhone did the right thing to tell me about her. If we don’t grab her, an Interloper will get her in the end. You want that? How many others would have to die with her if that happened? Is that what you want?”

Turtle shook his head. “She needs to be with her grandparents.”

“Will they bring her in?” Loops asked. Turtle stared at her. “If they’re willing, ain’t any reason why they can’t come with us openly. Town this size, half of everyone’s going to know about you and the kid’s mum anyway.”

Turtle looked at Rhone, then around at the rest of the team. Loops, Monkey and the Tina watched him as intently as Barnestable did. Goat Boy jiggled his head happily. Murph lounged with legs stretched out and ankles crossed, cleaning her fingernails with a file. In reality, she was probably the most alert of all of them.

“Christ,” Turtle said. “We all know what’ll happen to her after we bring her in.”

Barnestable stood up on his chair and leaned across to grab Rhone’s wrist, shaking back the sleeve of her chador to show her scars. He felt her muscles tense under his fingers, but she didn’t resist.

“This?” he said. “Maybe. If they think she’s strong enough to try it. And maybe she won’t survive if they do, the born ones often don’t. But she’d be dead as soon as an Interloper sniffed her out, anyway.” He released Rhone’s arm and she quickly shucked her sleeve back down. “More likely she’ll just live out her life in a protected facility with other like her.”

“What kind of life, Barnes?” said Turtle, his eyes fixed on Rhone.

“A longer one than if we don’t take her,” said Barnestable. “And no-one else will have to die because of it.”

Turtle sagged.

“So, you gonna bring them in?”

Stillness. Then a nod.

#

Barnestable stayed where he was while the rest of the team scattered among the vans and annexes. Rhone stalked away, hugging her chador around her, with Turtle following. Barnestable pressed his fingers around the base of his aching skull.

Dammit, Rhone. He picked up his hotpack and wandered outside, kneading the beads to heat them up again.

“Barnes.” Murph sat shaded by a sun umbrella on the roof of of the trood van with Loops and Monkey. Inside, the troods had piled themselves in a feathery heap. One of them clacked her jaws at his approach.

He clambered up via the running board and driver’s bench. Three Tinas occupied the roof of another van, basking in the afternoon sun, a row of identical underwear mannequins struck in different lounging poses. Their sisters would be inside, waiting to take a turn.

Monkey, Loops and Murph regarded him solemnly. Murph said, “What are you going to do about him?”

Barnestable realised his headache had receded again. Rhone must have kept on walking. He looked at Murph. She was older than him but the freckles across her nose and cheeks helped her look younger. “Let him stew for a bit.”

“He should have said something,” said Monkey.

“He didn’t know the kid was going to be a candidate, right Barnes?” said Loops. “Poor bastard. Christ, if I had a daughter I wouldn’t want her sliced up like that. Even if she survived.”

“It’s not likely she’d be chosen for remaking,” said Barnestable.

“Can we trust him to do what needs to be done?” Monkey said, rapping the roof of the van for emphasis. Below, one of the troods grumbled a complaint. “That’s the question.”

“Maybe we should just put him in the trunk,” said Murph.

Barnestable waved the threat away. “Give over, you lot. He wouldn’t fit in the bloody trunk, anyway.”

She snorted. “He would after I’d done with him.”

“He’ll come good,” Barnestable said. Christ, Turtle, you’d better bloody come good. “Just keep an eye on him in the meantime, eh?”

#

The second night’s performance was as tense as the first. Loops’ and Monkey’s clowning turned to genuine fisticuffs and Barnestable had to send Murph out to drag them from the ring. Once again, the crowd thought it was all part of the show. The troupe got through their acts otherwise unscathed.

“Pull your bloody selves together,” Barnestable snapped at Rhone and Turtle. “We’re saving her, remember? And this godforsaken town.”

The troupe settled down as the time to take the first candidate approached – or at least, Rhone finally got a lid on her emotional broadcast. The throbbing in Barnestable’s head receded. Even so, he decided to accompany the team himself.

He, Rhone and Murph set themselves up in the abandoned house across the street from the target. Sitting motionless in the shadows with their chameleon suits on, only their headsets and Murph’s matte-black, silenced sniper rifle marked their locations. Three Tinas came in from beachside as the entry team, with Turtle waiting among the dunes as backstop.

There was no chatter from the Tinas as they made their approach. They had no need to talk amongst themselves.

Barnestable said to Murph, “You got them?”

She had her eye pressed to the rifle’s scope, set to thermal imaging. “Yeah, they’re at the house now.”

“And the targets?”

A pause. “All in bed. Look to be sleeping.”

“Rhone? We good?” When she didn’t answer, he hissed, “Rhone!”

“Yeah, Barnes.”

He gritted his teeth. Of all of them, she most needed to be on her game. “Turtle? You all clear that side?”

Silence in his headset.

“Turtle?” Oh, no. “Rhone, where the hell is Turtle?”

A sharp intake of breath from Murph. “Shit. The woman just dropped off scope. Christ, the husband too. Whole bloody house is going dark.”

Barnestable stared at her stupidly. His gut felt suddenly cold.

“Get them out,” cried Rhone. “Get out!”

“Barnes, what the hell?” from a Tina.

“Interloper!” he cried. “Pull back! Pull back!”

“Jesus, Barnes, we’re already in.”

“Then get out!” he yelled into his mike. “Turtle! Turtle, you son of a bitch, where the hell are you?”

“It’s cold…” one of the Tina’s said. A staccato, collective gasp followed, then gurgles.

No!” screamed Rhone.

The voice began, that didn’t belong on this side of the Veil, speaking in a timbre and tongue that no human could manage. Murph threw down her headset. Barnestable wrenched off his and lunged across to Rhone, flinging her headset away as well. Her shoulders thrummed under his hands.

He shook her. “Rhone. Rhone. You can’t save them, love.” He lifted her bodily and pushed her towards Murph. “Keep it off Murph.” To Murph he said, “I’ll be back. Shoot anyone that comes out of that house.”

“On it, Barnes.” With unhurried coolness, she reset the scope to night vision and settled back down into a shooting position. The Interloper’s victims wouldn’t show up on thermal, with the Interloper sucking the heat out of them and everything around them, but they’d still be evident in the visible light spectrum.

Barnes ran, out the back door, vaulting the low fence into the back neighbour’s yard and down the next street. His short legs pumped, sprinting as hard as he could. The headache was back with a vengeance. Every step rattled his brain. He could see the pale dome of the big top a few blocks away.

Faster, piggy, he told himself. Jesus Christ, he hoped Rhone kept the Interloper off Murph. If it got out of the house… Once one Interloper got loose and started sending its human victims out to expand its foothold and enslave more pawns, it paved the way for others to follow. Then the only way to stop it was nuke every person in range.

Faster!

The troods’ wagon was around the far side of the camp. Barnestable took the shortest path – through the big top and between the caravans. The remaining Tinas were on the ground, flailing spastically and speaking in tongues, their distance from their sisters enough that the Interloper hadn’t yet got a complete grip on their minds. Their breaths misted in the cold air around them. Monkey had a silenced assault rifle trained on them, his face a study of anguish and indecision.

The Tinas shrieked – probably Murph shooting down one of their sisters. Barnestable snapped, “What are you waiting for? Do it!”

He kept running, heard the click and spit of the gun. Each time it fired the noise from the Tinas diminished, until there was only Monkey’s sobbing left behind him. Barnestable could hear the troodons, their yaps rising to near howls as they crashed about their cage. They could taste the Interloper’s presence, even from here.

Back outside, Goat Boy was up on the roof of the troods’ wagon, shaking his head and gripping the release to raise the gate.

“I’m here!” At the sound of Barnestable’s voice, the troods went abruptly quiet, staring at him with flat orange eyes. The feathers stood up all over their bodies.

“Mama’s here, babies,” he said, forcing calm into his voice as he rummaged in the locker under the wagon for their collars and leashes. “Time to go hunting.

“Ready,” he called up to Goat Boy. “Let me in.”

Goat Boy just sat and shook his head. Loops burst from among the caravans. “I called it in,” she said. Her voice was shaky. “Backup’s on its way.”

“Goat Boy!”

Loops looked up. “I got him, Barnes.”

She climbed up onto the wagon and prised Goat Boy’s fingers loose so she could lift the gate enough for Barnestable to slither inside with his pets. They circled around him in the narrow space, tails shivering and sickle claws flexing, but dipped their heads obediently for him to slip on their collars.

“Ready,” he called out to Loops. The gate went up and the troods leapt down, dragging Barnestable after.

“Whoa!” he called, digging in his heels. They paused for him to take the lead.

He set off again, willing his legs to run faster than they could. Faster, piggy! The troods loped along at his shoulders, casting their heads this way and that, their saurian brains tuned to the Interloper’s mental signature, but immune to its effect.

Barnestable kept them leashed until they started to pull ahead again, their snouts all pointed the same way, and he knew they’d locked in the Interloper’s location. Then he popped their collars and said, “Get ’em!”

The troods bounded ahead, silent now that the quarry was at hand. Barnestable stopped and filled his lungs to shout as loudly as he could, “Murph! Incoming!”

Murph’s hearing was augmented enough that if she didn’t get the message, it was because the Interloper had taken her and Rhone. If that was the case, his babies would be mincemeat and the backup force would be calling in a neutron strike.

#

A scramjet transport thundered overhead. Barnestable shaded his eyes to look up. That would be bringing the seal to close the tear in the Veil where the candidate’s vulnerable mind had let the Interloper come through. The first transports had arrived before dawn, packed with soldiers to lockdown the town. Barnestable had sent some of them with Loops to grab the young male candidate.

To Monkey, he said, “Run interference for us. We’re going after Turtle.” Monkey, sunken eyed, gathered himself visibly and nodded. Barnestable reached out to squeeze his forearm. “Hold it together, mate.”

He jabbed a finger at Rhone and Murph. “You two, with me.”

“Why me?” Murph wanted to know.

“Because she’s the only one he’ll listen to,” said Barnestable. “And if he won’t, you’re the only one who can kick his arse.”

They took a caravan and camel team. Rhone sat silently beside Barnestable on the driver’s bench.

“You going to make this easy and tell me where he is?” he said.

“Do you need me to?” she asked.

“Probably not.”

To the north-east, the transport plane’s escorts were toying with the air defence assets that one of the mining cartels had put up.

“Biggest damn balls-up of my career,” Barnestable said.

“It ain’t so bad,” said Murph from behind him. “The rumours are already out in the public, have been a long time. What’s one more seal?”

Just another finger in the dyke, Barnestable thought. He said, “Never lost a team member before, mate. I was proud of that record.”

He glanced back. Murph lifted her chin by way of acknowledgement. “There’s that.”

They fell quiet for a while, with just the creak of the van and the scrape of its wheels and the camels’ feet on the gritty road surface.

Rhone said, “Do you think they know what they’re doing to us?”

Barnestable glanced at her. “The Interlopers? You mean like maybe enslaving and sucking the life out of people might be just their way of saying ‘hello’?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Or maybe there’s no mind behind it at all. Maybe they’re just things, forces of nature.”

“Like fire,” said Murph.

A fire waiting in a room without enough air, Barnestable thought, and suddenly someone opens the door. Whoosh! Only the fire’s cold.

But who knew what an Interloper really was? All that came through that you could sense was that damned voice and the sudden loss of heat from the victims and all around them. As if the tear in the Veil – in the candidate’s mind – was a drafty open door and all that energy was fleeing through it into a much colder world.

A memory leapt up in his mind’s eye, the sort that sears into a person’s brain and never fades, of half-frozen bodies, walking dead, staggering out of a factory dorm where an Interloper had come through.

“No,” he said. “There’s a mind. They know what they’re doing.”

Murph said, “Does it matter?”

They found Turtle where Barnestable thought they would, camped out at the abandoned military base inside one of the old barracks shells. His woman’s parents were with him, and the young girl. They all stood as Barnestable and his companions approached. The girl slipped her hand through Turtle’s.

Barnestable eyed the kid. “She doesn’t look much like you, you know.”

Turtle smirked lopsidedly. “They don’t build us to breed true, Barnes,” he said.

“Tinas are dead,” Barnestable said. “Interloper got them.”

The smirk vanished. “Me being there wouldn’t have changed that.”

“Go to hell, Turtle,” said Murph, without any particular rancour.

“We gotta take her in,” said Barnestable.

Turtle was already shaking his head.

“You can’t protect her,” said Barnestable.

“He can’t,” said Rhone quietly. “But I can.”

She moved over to stand beside Turtle. Barnestable stared in dismay. “Hey, what about you and me, love?”

Rhone gave a short laugh. “There is no you and me, Barnes.”

He sighed, deflating. His hand waved randomly. “Yeah, well.”

Rhone went on, “And I can teach her to protect herself.”

“She’s born,” Barnestable said. “She can’t protect herself without her nervous system shielded. She’d need to be remade.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Rhone replied. The kid’s grandmother gently pulled her back behind Turtle. Barnestable stared at Rhone, wondering if that was true.

He looked up at Murph.

She finished picking her teeth, ran her tongue around them inside closed lips. “So can I kick his arse now?”

Turtle grunted. “You can try.”

She showed him a grin a shark would’ve been proud of and glanced at Barnestable. “Well?”

Barnestable ground his molars as he regarded Turtle, then Rhone, the girl, her grandparents. “How’re you going to hide?”

“Plenty of runaways out in the desert,” Turtle said. “Born and made. I’ll get work cracking heads or rocks for one of the miners, easy enough.”

Barnestable nodded. His eyes felt hot, the emotional load of the past day and night rising up. He got a lid on it. “We’ll leave you the van.” He drew in a shaky breath. “Come on, Murph. We got a long walk back. Should be enough time to get our story straight.”

Murph snorted. “Walk? That wasn’t in the job description.” To Turtle, she said, “One day, big boy.”

She prodded Barnestable’s buttock with the toe of her boot. “Faster, piggy.”

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2009

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