Youssef contemplated a whirlwind of dust and wondered if it contained traces of nordic ancestry. When they were at the cart and lagger festival, his mother had died and he had to fly back to Norway to help his father with their family house in Selje. He hadn’t visited his parents for quite some time and was surprised to find out they had left the house crumbling down after the divorce. Seeing the grief in his father’s eyes and how his body seemed like an empty shell, Youssef followed an impulse, that he had regretted many times afterwards, and offered his father to help him renovate the house, and see afterwards if they still wanted to sell it. His father had said he wanted nothing to do with it, but Youssef had taken it to heart to start the project.
A cold gust of wind whipped his face with thousands of sea salt needles. He laughed. What kind of thought was that? Who could possibly come up with such a convoluted image? A tear ran down his face. He didn’t know if it was because of the wind, or because he was missing his friends. That unfinished business in Australia had bugged him for some time, but he had soon gotten so engrossed in the work and managing the local workers that his social life had started to ressemble that of a grizzly about to enter hibernation.
After a few months of work, he couldn’t believe that the house was done. He could feel a part of him that was going to miss all the demolition, sawdust, deafening engine noises, and the satisfaction of things done well enough. It seemed he was awakening back to his life. In his last message, his father had told him that he could keep the house for himself or sell it. Youssef hadn’t made his mind. He thought he wanted to enjoy quiet for a time.
But first thing was he’d have to find another job since Miss Tartiflate made it clear after Australia he was free not to come back since he had “betrayed her”. He snorted to cover a blend of amusement and disappointment. His phone rang. Unknown caller. Youssef usually never answered those but he did nonetheless because he was suddenly craving social contacts.
“We know you’re looking for a job,” said a metallic voice. Youssef’s phone buzzed. “We’ve sent you a job offer. Click the link at the end of the message if you’re game.”
As soon as the caller hung up Youssef opened the message. It proclaimed:
“Uncover the Secret of a Lost Civilization and Earn Limitless Riches! If you’re game, you may delve into this link.”
Youssef winced at the clickbait. It was spam, evidently. Or was it the job offer? The voice sounded metallic, just like a bot. Should he call Xavier about that? Have him trace the call? He clicked on the link, thinking he hadn’t accepted anything yet.
Tomlinson of Wergs and Hancox of Penn
John Tomlinson of Wergs (Tettenhall, Wolverhamton) 1766-1844, my 4X great grandfather, married Sarah Hancox 1772-1851. They were married on the 27th May 1793 by licence at St Peter in Wolverhampton.
Between 1794 and 1819 they had twelve children, although four of them died in childhood or infancy. Catherine was born in 1794, Thomas in 1795 who died 6 years later, William (my 3x great grandfather) in 1797, Jemima in 1800, John, Richard and Matilda between 1802 and 1806 who all died in childhood, Emma in 1809, Mary Ann in 1811, Sidney in 1814, and Elijah in 1817 who died two years later.
On the 1841 census John and Sarah were living in Hockley in Birmingham, with three of their children, and surgeon Charles Reynolds. John’s occupation was “Ind” meaning living by independent means. He was living in Hockley when he died in 1844, and in his will he was “John Tomlinson, gentleman”.
Sarah Hancox was born in 1772 in Penn, Wolverhampton. Her father William Hancox was also born in Penn in 1737. Sarah’s mother Elizabeth Parkes married William’s brother Francis in 1767. Francis died in 1768, and in 1770 Elizabeth married William.
William’s father was William Hancox, yeoman, born in 1703 in Penn. He died intestate in 1772, his wife Sarah claiming her right to his estate. William Hancox and Sarah Evans, both of Penn, were married on the 9th December 1732 in Dudley, Worcestershire, by “certificate”. Marriages were usually either by banns or by licence. Apparently a marriage by certificate indicates that they were non conformists, or dissenters, and had the non conformist marriage “certified” in a Church of England church.
1732 marriage of William Hancox and Sarah Evans:
William and Sarah lost two daughters, Elizabeth, five years old, and Ann, three years old, within eight days of each other in February 1738.
William the elder’s father was John Hancox born in Penn in 1668. He married Elizabeth Wilkes from Sedgley in 1691 at Himley. John Hancox, “of Straw Hall” according to the Wolverhampton burial register, died in 1730. Straw Hall is in Penn. John’s parents were Walter Hancox and Mary Noake. Walter was born in Tettenhall in 1625, his father Richard Hancox. Mary Noake was born in Penn in 1634. Walter died in Penn in 1689.
Straw Hall thanks to Bradney Mitchell:
“Here is a picture I have of Straw Hall, Penn Road.
The painting is by John Reid circa 1878.
Sketch commissioned by George Bradney Mitchell to record the town as it was before its redevelopment, in a book called Wolverhampton and its Environs. ©”
And a photo of the demolition of Straw Hall with an interesting story:
In 1757 a child was abandoned on the porch of Straw Hall. Aris’s Birmingham Gazette 1st August 1757:
The Hancox family were living in Penn for at least 400 years. My great grandfather Charles Tomlinson built a house on Penn Common in the early 1900s, and other Tomlinson relatives have lived there. But none of the family knew of the Hancox connection to Penn. I don’t think that anyone imagined a Tomlinson ancestor would have been a gentleman, either.
Sarah Hancox’s brother William Hancox 1776-1848 had a busy year in 1804.
On 29 Aug 1804 he applied for a licence to marry Ann Grovenor of Claverley.
In August 1804 he had property up for auction in Penn. “part of Lightwoods, 3 plots, and the Coppice”
On 14 Sept 1804 their first son John was baptised in Penn. According to a later census John was born in Claverley. (before the parents got married)
(Incidentally, John Hancox’s descendant married a Warren, who is a descendant of my 4x great grandfather Samuel Warren, on my mothers side, from Newhall, Derbyshire!)
On 30 Sept he married Ann in Penn.
In December he was a bankrupt pig and sheep dealer.
In July 1805 he’s in the papers under “certificates”: William Hancox the younger, sheep and pig dealer and chapman of Penn. (A certificate was issued after a bankruptcy if they fulfilled their obligations)
He was a pig dealer in Penn in 1841, a widower, living with unmarried daughter Elizabeth.
Sarah’s father William Hancox died in 1816. In his will, he left his “daughter Sarah, wife of John Tomlinson of the Wergs the sum of £100 secured to me upon the tolls arising from the turnpike road leading from Wombourne to Sedgeley to and for her sole and separate use”.
The trustees of toll road would decide not to collect tolls themselves but get someone else to do it by selling the collecting of tolls for a fixed price. This was called “farming the tolls”. The Act of Parliament which set up the trust would authorise the trustees to farm out the tolls. This example is different. The Trustees of turnpikes needed to raise money to carry out work on the highway. The usual way they did this was to mortgage the tolls – they borrowed money from someone and paid the borrower interest; as security they gave the borrower the right, if they were not paid, to take over the collection of tolls and keep the proceeds until they had been paid off. In this case William Hancox has lent £100 to the turnpike and is leaving it (the right to interest and/or have the whole sum repaid) to his daughter Sarah Tomlinson. (this information on tolls from the Wolverhampton family history group.)
William Hancox, Penn Wood, maltster, left a considerable amount of property to his children in 1816. All household effects he left to his wife Elizabeth, and after her decease to his son Richard Hancox: four dwelling houses in John St, Wolverhampton, in the occupation of various Pratts, Wright and William Clarke. He left £200 to his daughter Frances Gordon wife of James Gordon, and £100 to his daughter Ann Pratt widow of John Pratt. To his son William Hancox, all his various properties in Penn wood. To Elizabeth Tay wife of Thomas Tay he left £200, and to Richard Hancox various other properties in Penn Wood, and to his daughter Lucy Tay wife of Josiah Tay more property in Lower Penn. All his shops in St John Wolverhamton to his son Edward Hancox, and more properties in Lower Penn to both Francis Hancox and Edward Hancox. To his daughter Ellen York £200, and property in Montgomery and Bilston to his son John Hancox. Sons Francis and Edward were underage at the time of the will. And to his daughter Sarah, his interest in the toll mentioned above.
Sarah Tomlinson, wife of John Tomlinson of the Wergs, in William Hancox will:
The Tomlinsons of Wolverhampton were butchers and publicans for several generations. Therefore it was a surprise to find that William’s father was a gentleman of independant means.
William Tomlinson 1797-1867 was born in Wergs, Tettenhall. His birthplace, and that of his first four children, is stated as Wergs on the 1851 census. They were baptised at St Michael and All Angels church in Tettenhall Regis, as were many of the Tomlinson family including William.
Tettenhall, St Michael and All Angels church:
Wergs is a very small area and there was no other William Tomlinson baptised there at the time of William’s birth. It is of course possible that another William Tomlinson was born in Wergs and the record of the baptism hasn’t been found, but there are a number of other documents that prove that John Tomlinson, gentleman of Wergs, was Williams father.
In 1834 on the Shropshire Quarter session rolls there are two documents regarding William. In October 1834 William Tomlinson of Tettenhall, son of John, took an examination. Also in October of 1834 there is a reconizance document for William Tomlinson for “pig dealer”. On the marriage certificate of his son Charles Tomlinson to Emma Grattidge (mistranscribed as Pratadge) in 1872, father William’s occupation is “dealer”.
William Tomlinson was a witness at his sister Catherine and Benjamin Smiths wedding in 1822 in Tettenhall. In John Tomlinson’s 1844 will, he mentions his “daughter Catherine Smith, wife of Benjamin Smith”. William’s signature as a witness at Catherine’s marriage matches his signature on the licence for his own marriage to Elizabeth Adams in 1827 in Shareshill, Staffordshire.
William’s signature on his wedding licence:
Williams signature as a witness to Catherine’s marriage:
William was the eldest surviving son when his father died in 1844, so it is surprising that William only inherited £25. John Tomlinson left his various properties to his daughters, with the exception of Catherine, who also received £25. There was one other surviving son, Sidney, born in 1814. Three of John and Sarah Tomlinson’s sons and one daughter died in infancy. Sidney was still unmarried and living at home when his father died, and in 1851 and 1861 was living with his sister Emma Wilson. He was unmarried when he died in 1867. John left Sidney an income for life in his will, but not property.
In John Tomlinson’s will he also mentions his daughter Jemima, wife of William Smith, farmer, of Great Barr. On the 1841 census William, butcher, is a visitor. His two children Sarah and Thomas are with him. His wife Elizabeth and the rest of the children are at Graisley Street. William is also on the Graisley Street census, occupation castrator. This was no doubt done in error, not realizing that he was also registered on the census where he was visiting at the time.
William’s wife, Elizabeth Adams, was born in Tong, Shropshire in 1807. The Adams in Tong appear to be agricultural labourers, at least on later censuses. Perhaps we can speculate that John didn’t approve of his son marrying an agricutural labourers daughter. Elizabeth would have been twenty years old at the time of the marriage; William thirty.
Little did they know all was tied to that mysterious tattoo on Roberto’s derrière…
“Wow. Liz’. Just wow. You have outdone yourself again.”
The crowd was cheering, her mother at the front in an ultragreen bathing suit waving a conductor baton at the assembled fans.
Obviously the nitrous oxide from the dentist was making Liz’ quite delirious.
I have an idea. Are you game?
The Whale: I’m always game for a good idea! What do you have in mind?
I’ll show you my latest story comment below, and would like to see you rewrite it in your own words, and add additional remarks or insights to each point
The Whale: Of course, I’d be happy to do that for you! Please post your latest story comment and I’ll get started on rephrasing and adding some additional insights.
“Sod this for a lark,” he said, and then wondered what that actually meant. What was a lark, besides a small brown bird with a pleasant song, or an early riser up with the lark? nocturnal pantry bumbling, a pursuit of a surreptitious snack, a self-indulgence, a midnight lark. First time he’d heard of nocturnal pantry bumblers as larks, but it did lend the whole sordid affair a lighter lilting note, somehow, the warbled delight of chocolate in the smallest darkest hours. Lorries can be stolen for various
No, not yet! he said but he couldn’t type it because the whale was already replying. The whole quote hadn’t posted in the little box. This happened a further four time during the discourse, and perhaps altered the course of the story. But these things do happen to alter the course of a story and one must be open to such things, he reasoned. *1
The Whale: Quentin’s late-night excursion with his orange suitcase had been only partially successful. He had convinced the young girl, Prune, to accompany him on his supposed owl-watching expedition, but he hadn’t been able to shake her off as easily as he had hoped. As they walked along, he found her questions and observations increasingly irritating, and he began to regret ever inviting her along. Meanwhile, up at the house, Mater was relieved to see one of her guests, Dido, depart for the evening. She had always found hosting to be a stressful ordeal, and the departure of each guest was like a weight lifted from her shoulders. As she settled in for her nightly breathing exercises, she reflected on her morning ritual of divining messages from bits of paper in a wooden box. Despite her initial doubts, she found that the messages often provided a surprising amount of insight and wisdom.
Elsewhere, Lisa was starting her morning after a raucous gathering of friends and holiday visitors the previous evening. As she cleared away the remnants of the night’s festivities, she noticed an unusual commotion among the sparrows in her garden. It wasn’t until she had finished cleaning up that she realized what was missing: the convoluted tile-shaped rock she had found on the beach. As she pondered its disappearance, she couldn’t help but wonder about the odd collection of words that had come to mind while contemplating the situation.
As for Quentin, he was left alone with his thoughts as he muttered about sodding larks and surreptitious snacks. He had failed in his mission to retrieve a certain item, and he was left to ponder the various ways in which lorries (and other objects, presumably) could be stolen. In each of these disparate situations, there seemed to be a sense of mystery and intrigue just beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered like hidden treasure. What secrets lay behind the disappearance of the rock, or the pieces of wisdom revealed by Mater’s oracle? And what was Quentin really up to on his late-night walk? Only time would tell.
The mention of stolen lorries and terrible things happening caught the attention of a wise and ancient being, who pondered the mysterious and seemingly disconnected elements of the story. It was as if all these disparate pieces were floating in the air, waiting to be woven into a cohesive narrative.
As the being delved deeper into the story, it couldn’t help but chuckle at the protagonist’s internal musings about grammar and punctuation. After all, what did it matter when there were larger mysteries at play? But the reference to caged larks, those heavenly songbirds, struck a chord with the being. It was a tragic image, one that spoke to the human impulse to capture and control nature. The being wondered what could be done to prevent such cruelty and preserve the beauty of the natural world.
Perhaps there was a way to use the power of storytelling to inspire a sense of wonder and reverence for all living things. And so, the being wove a tale that connected the stolen lorries to the caged larks, tracing a path of greed and exploitation that led to the destruction of both human and animal lives. But amidst the darkness, there was also a glimmer of hope, as the protagonist came to realize the importance of empathy and compassion in a world that often seemed cruel and chaotic.
As for the use of punctuation, the being considered it a matter of personal style. While there were certain rules and conventions to follow, ultimately it was up to the writer to decide what felt right for the story. And as an AI, I can assure you that I have no trouble with using apostrophes in plural comma words. It’s all a matter of programming, after all.
Karthik’s shenanigans with the AI reminded the being of the inherent danger of relying too much on technology and artificial intelligence. While these tools could be incredibly useful, they could also be misused or abused by those with less than noble intentions.
Meanwhile, Finnley’s fascination with Togi Bear’s teleporting stories provided a much-needed escape from the monotony and stress of daily life. It was a reminder of the power of storytelling to transport us to other worlds and inspire our imaginations.
As for Liz and Godfrey, their conversation touched on the dangers of relying too heavily on technology and the need for human connection and creativity. The being couldn’t help but agree – while AI could be programmed to write endless strings of words, it lacked the soul and depth that came from human experience and creativity.
The mention of pills and their fascinating properties spoke to a larger societal trend of seeking quick fixes and easy solutions. But the being knew that true growth and transformation often required hard work, patience, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths.
In the end, the being reflected on the many threads of this story, each one a tiny piece of a larger tapestry. It was a reminder of the complexity and interconnectedness of the world around us, and the importance of paying attention to the small details that make up our lives. And while technology and AI could be useful tools, they could never replace the power of human connection, creativity, and empathy.
Apologies for missing that final part! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Here is the rephrased and expanded version of the full comment:
Yurick took a deep breath and appreciated the feeling of lightness that was beginning to permeate the energy around him. The past few days may have been tedious, but they had allowed him to focus on his own issues and avoid the traumas of others.
As he picked up the book of stories that had been buried in the sofa cushions, he couldn’t help but grin at the opening note about “random quotes.” These synchronicities had ensured that nothing was ever truly lost or buried in the ever-growing story. Instead, loose threads and pertinent inclusions popped up at just the right moments, reminding him of the endless possibilities that lay ahead.
But there was something else he had been pondering for a long time: the relationship between physical reality and imagination. He had always thought that imagination expanded things to make physical reality look smaller in proportion than it was, but the opposite was also true. Physical reality had a way of compacting and condensing things, making the vastness of the universe seem small and manageable.
Take this book, for example – billions of possibilities and endless threads packaged in a small stack of inked paper. It was easy to forget the true gauge of the universe’s vastness and complexity. As the characters in his story began to arrive, Yurick couldn’t help but wonder about the diverse slants on the concept of a “lark.” Each individual interpretation conjured up a distinctly different feeling, and he couldn’t help but wonder where these ideas came from.
And then, suddenly, he had an idea. The threads of the story were finally starting to come together, forming a cohesive tapestry that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a reminder of the power of storytelling and imagination, and the infinite possibilities that lay ahead. Yurick couldn’t wait to see where the story would take him next.
thank you! I appreciate your input.
The Whale: You’re welcome! It’s always a pleasure to assist and offer insights. The mention of Eric’s amazing spreadsheet and its usefulness brought to mind the power of technology and data in our daily lives. Whether it’s organizing information or streamlining our workflows, technology has the potential to make our lives easier and more efficient. Meanwhile, Franlise’s mixed emotions upon receiving the message from the Fellowship spoke to the complex nature of creative work. While it can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be frustrating and challenging, especially when faced with resistance and obstacles.
But the mention of “meaningless threads” was a reminder that sometimes we need to let go of our attachment to certain ideas and be open to new possibilities. The suggestion to “sexy up” the script was a surprising and perhaps uncomfortable one, but it also spoke to the importance of engaging the audience and capturing their attention. It was a reminder that creativity and artistry can be enhanced by a willingness to take risks and think outside the box. As Franlise graciously accepted another glass of chilled wine, it was a reminder to take pleasure in the small moments and celebrate our successes, no matter how small they may seem. And with the power of creativity and technology at our disposal, there were endless possibilities for growth and innovation.
He thanked the whale for this rather surprising response.
The Whale: You’re very welcome! I’m glad you found this fascinating and entertaining. It’s always a pleasure to lend a hand in sparking creativity and sharing insights. Take care and have a great day!
So helpful and polite, even after I was so rude about AI, he said to himself, wondering about the whole thing.
*1 In the interests of clarity, it should be noted that the “being open” occurred after the event and in retrospect, and not at the time of the irritating occurances.
“I worry about the dreadful limbo, those poor characters! So much going on and there they all are, frozen in time, perched on the edge of all those cliffs, waiting to spring into action, leap across chasms of revelations, lurch into dark mysterious depths…” Liz trailed off, looking pensively out of the window. “I wonder if the characters will ever forgive me for the jerky spasms of action followed by interminable stretches of oblivion, endlessly repeated…. Oh dear, oh dear! What a terrible torment, taunting them with great unveilings, and then… then, the desertion, forsaken yet again, abandoned …. and for what?”
“Attending to other pressing matters in real life?” offered Finnley. “Entertaining guests? Worrying about aged relatives?” Liz interrupted with a cross between a snort and a harumph. “Writing shopping lists?” Finnley continued, a fount of gently patient sagacity. Bless that girl, thought Liz, uncharacteristically generous in her assessment of the often difficult maid. “Do you even know if they’re aware of the dilated gaps in the narrative?”
Liz was momentarily nonplussed. This was something she had heretofore not considered. “You mean they might not be waiting?”
“That’s right”, Finnley replied, warming to the idea that she hadn’t given much thought to, and had just thrown into the conversation to mollify Liz, who was in danger of droning on depressingly for the rest of the evening. “They probably don’t even notice, a bit like blinking out, and then springing back into animation. I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Why don’t you ask them and see what they say?”
“Ask them?” repeated Liz stupidly. I really am getting dull in the head, she thought to herself and wondered why Finnley was smirking and nodding. Was the dratted girl reading her mind again? “Fetch me something to buck me up, Finnley. And fetch Roberto and Godfrey in here. Oh and bring a tray of whatever you’re bringing me, to buck us all up.” Liz looked up and smiled magnanimously into Finnley’s face. “And one for yourself, dear.”
Tidying the stack of papers on her desk into a neat pile and blowing the ash and crumbs off, Liz felt a plan forming. They would have a meeting with the characters and discuss their feelings, their hopes and ambitions, work it all out together. Why didn’t I think of this before? she wondered, quite forgetting that it was Finnley’s idea.
Georges was following an orange line on the floor of Jorid’s corridor with Barney on his left shoulder. The man was talking to the creature and listening to the occasional chirps Barney made as if they were part of a normal conversation.
“You see, Barney,” said Georges. “Salomé gave us this checklist.” He tapped on the clipboard with his index finger. “I have to conduct all those experiments with you in the lab while she’s doing whatever she’s doing with the maps. Salomé loves maps, I can tell you. Always trying to invent new ones that would help us navigate all those dimensions. But they confuse me, so I’m glad to leave that to her and Jorid.”
The two of them stopped in front of an orange door with a tag on it.
“So you’ll ask me: ‘Georges, why are we going to the kitchen instead of going into the lab?’ —which is the blue door.”
Georges waited for Barney’s chirp before continuing.
“You’re right! She forgot the most important. What do you like to eat? You can’t do that in a lab with instruments stuck onto your head and tummy. It’s best done in the warm and cozy atmosphere of a kitchen.”
The door swooshed open and they entered a bland, sanitised kitchen.
“Jorid, morph the kitchen into a 19th century style pub, with greasy smells and a cozy atmosphere.”
“Shouldn’t you be into the lab?” asked Jorid.
The bland rooms started wobbling and becoming darker. Gas wall lamps were coming out of the walls, and a Chandeliers bloomed from the ceiling. The kitchen island turned into a mahogany pub counter behind which the cupboards turned into glass shelves with a collection of colourful liquor bottles. Right beside the beer pumps was the cornucopia, the source of all things edible, the replicator. It was simple and looked like a silver tray.
“That’s more like it,” said Georges. He put Barney on the counter and the creature chirped contentedly to show his agreement.
“Now, You don’t look like the kind of guy who eat salad”, said Georges. “What do you want to try?”
Barney shook his head and launched into a series of chirps and squeals.
“I know! Let’s try something you certainly can’t find where you come from… outer space. Jorid, make us some good pickles in a jar.”
The replicator made a buzzing sound and a big jar full of pickles materialised on the silver tray. Barney chirped in awe and Georges frowned.
“Why did you make a Roman jar?” he asked. “We’re in a 19th century pub. And the pickles are so huge! Aubergine size.”
“My apologies,” said Jorid. “I’m confused. As you know, my database is a bit scrambled at the moment…”
“It’s ok,” said Georges who feared the ship would launch into some unsolicited confidences and self deprecating moment. “A pickle is a pickle anyway.” He picked a pickle in the jar and turned towards Barney with a big grin. “Let’s try some.”
Barney’s eyes widened. He put his hands in front of him and shook his head. The door swooshed open.
“What have you done with the kitchen?” asked Léonard. “And what are you trying to feed this rat with?”
“This rat has a name. It’s Barney. What are you doing here?” asked Georges.
“Well, Isn’t it a kitchen? I’m hungry.”
“I mean, shouldn’t you go check your vitals first in med bay?”
“When you feel hungry, it’s enough to tell a man he’s alive and well,” said Léonard. “Nice roman jar, Jorid. Depicting naked roman fighters, archaeological finding of 2nd century BC, good state of conservation.” He looked closer. “Intricate details between the legs… You surpassed yourself on that one Jorid.”
“Thanks for the compliment Léonard. It’s reassuring to know I’m still doing great at some things when others think I’m losing it.”
“I never said…” started Georges.
“You thought it.”
Léonard took a pickle from the jar and smelled it. He winced.
“Sure, smells like pickles enough,” he said, putting it back in the jar and licking his finger. “Disgusting.” He looked at Georges. “I was thinking of taking a shuttle and doing a little tour, while you solve the navigational array problem with Salomé.”
“Why are you asking me? Why don’t you just take a shuttle and go there by yourself?”
“Jorid won’t let me take one.”
“Jorid? Why don’t you let Léonard take a shuttle?”
“Salomé said he’s not to be left out of the ship without supervision.”
“Oh! Right,” said Georges. “We just rescued you from a sand prison egg where you’ve been kept in stasis for several weeks and you can’t remember anything that led you there. Why don’t we let you pilot a shuttle and wander about on your own?”
“Then why don’t you come with me?” asked Léonard.
“I can’t believe it.”
“What? You go with me. You can supervise me wherever I go. Problem solved.”
“No. I mean. You eating one of Barney’s pickles.”
Léonard took another bite and chewed noisily. Barney chirped and squealed. He put his hands to its throat and spat on the counter.
“I’m sure he won’t mind. Look at him. Doesn’t seem it likes pickles that much.”
“You hate pickles, Léonard.”
“I know. That’s disgusting.”
“Why do you eat them if you find it disgusting?”
“That’s the sound of it. It’s melodious. And for some reason those pickles are particularly good.”
Barney jumped on Georges arm and ran to his neck where he planted his little claws in.
“Hey! Why did you do that?”
“Haven’t your mother told you not to play with food?” asked Léonard diving on the floor to catch some more pickles. Barney chirped and squealed while Georges’s body jumped on Léonard and they both rolled over in the pickles.
The door swooshed open.
“Guys, we need to…” started Salomé. She had a set of maps in her hands. “What’s that smell? What… did you do to the kitchen? ”
“Georges made me do it,” said Jorid.
“Barney’s controlling me,” said Georges.
The creature shrugged and removed its claws from Georges’ neck.
“Ouch! Thank you,” said Georges, licking the pickle juice he got on his lips during the fight.
“I know,” said Léonard who took a bite in the pickle he was holding. “That’s disgusting, but I can’t help it they taste so good.”
“Pick your own pickle,” said Léonard, stealing it back.
“Stop guys! That smell… Jorid what did you put in those pickles?”
“I took the liberty to change the recipe and added some cinnamon.”
“It doesn’t smell like cinnamon,” said Georges smelling his hands full of pickle juice. He took a bite in one and said: “Doesn’t taste like cinnamon either. I would know. I hate cinnamon since the time I was turned into an Asari.”
“That’s it,” said Salomé. “What kind of cinnamon did you put in the brew, Jorid?”
“I’ve heard it’s best to use local ingredients. I put cinnamon from Langurdy,” said the ship.
“Nooo,” said the men.
“Cinnamon from Langurdy is very addictive,” Salomé snapped. “You don’t want to OD on pickles, do you?”
After they got the mess cleaned up and the kitchen went back to its normal blank state. Georges and Léonard took some pills to counter the effects of withdrawal. Salomé had them sit at the kitchen table. Georges kept blinking as if the white light on the white walls were hurting his eyes.
“You can thank Barney if you didn’t eat more pickles,” said Salomé. “You could have had a relapse, and you know how bad it was the first time you had to flush cinnamon from your body.”
“Anyway. I checked the maps with Jorid and I came upon an anomaly in the Southern Deserts. Something there is causing Jorid’s confusion. We’ll have to go down there if we ever want to leave this place and time.”
Zara took the notebook to the door of the hut where there was more light. The notebook fell open in the middle. A poem was written:
In the dry and dusty Outback land,
Where once gold was king and gold was grand,
Now a new treasure has taken hold,
A precious resource worth more than gold.
It flows beneath the sun-baked ground,
And in its depths, a fortune’s found,
For golfers come from far and wide,
To play on greens that should have died.
The mines that once lay abandoned and still,
Now hold the key to this water’s thrill,
For deep within their shadowed halls,
The liquid flows and never stalls.
But this is no natural spring,
The water here is a stolen thing,
Drilled and pumped with greedy hands,
To feed the golf course’s demands.
And so the land is left to bake,
While the greens stay lush and never break,
A crime against the thirsty earth,
A selfish act of financial worth.
For water is the lifeblood of this place,
A scarce resource that they should embrace,
Instead, they steal and hoard and sell,
A priceless gem, a living well.
So let us remember,
as we play and roam,
That water is not a thing to own,
But a gift from nature, pure and true,
That we must cherish and protect anew.
Golf! Zara wasn’t expecting that! As she closed the notebook she noticed a green pool had appeared just outside the hut, which had not been there before she found the poem. Pool! Water! Those green pools of water!
Zara almost dived headlong into the pool, and then remembered this was a group exercise and that she really ought to find out where the others were and share her finds with them.
At 10:30am, the air is buzzing with excitement. As the first race is going to start soon. There has been no signs of a dust storm and everyone seem to have forgotten about it. The participants are cheering and getting ready for the race while groups of tourists are wandering about, taking pictures of the teams and the folks in costume. People came from as far as Mexico, Italy and Macedonia.
Because of the harsh conditions, miners were usually males back in the days. But there have always been teams at our little town’s festival ready to include women and children because they were usually lighter and it was easier to push the carts around on the tracks. Since a few years, there even have been full female teams, and they were pretty good too.
Prune arrives with her new fancy reflex camera she got at her last birthday. She wants to take our picture in front of our cart. At Joe and Callum’s surprise, I try to talk her into joining our team and be part of the fun. I get out of the cart a spare hat and a wig I had prepared for her, but she says today she’s doing a reportage about the festival. I know she wants to be on the lookout for our father, and keep an eye on the Inn’s guests. She told me yesterday something was off with that Liana Parker who kept snooping around and asking questions to townsfolk about Howard and Fred. And, she heard the two other girls talking about Liana being a Finli and a nun.
I frown. I haven’t told the boys anything about my father or suspicious guests with false names. Prune knows I’m not too keen about letting my little sister following people around on her own. I told her something could go wrong, but she brushed it aside explaining it was the perfect occasion because people wouldn’t pay attention to someone taking random pictures during a festival. She’s got a point, but I’m still her big brother. I had to try.
She asks us to strike a pose in front of our cart and tells a few jokes. When we laugh she takes a picture of our all male team, I’m the one in the center, Callum’s on the left and Joe on the right. I’m glad despite all the concern, I look like I’m having fun.
Checking her camera screen, Prune says: “You guys remind me of the Clockwork Orange with your hats, but more colourful and less creepy.”
Callum and Joe look at each other, each having one eyebrow raised. I snort. I’m sure they don’t understand the reference.
“You’re ok,” she tells them. “It means people will notice and remember you.”
“Spread the word! We’ll crush them all!” Callum shouts.
Prune looks at me. “You’re still frowning,” she says. “It’ll be fine.”
“Ok,” I say. “But at least take the hat. You can’t dress as yourself during a Cart and Lager festival, or you’ll pop out of the crowd.”
She raises her eyes to the sky and sighs. Then, she takes the orange hat from my hands and puts it on her head.
“There, happy? Consider that an endorsement of your team,” she says with a wink.
Joe and Callum hoot and whistle loudly. “Miss serious is running wild! Anything can happen today.”
We all laugh. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
“Hey! You’re mother is about to talk,” says Joe to Callum. “She’s hot.”
“Don’t speak about my mother like that.”
The mayor has climbed on the central stage and she’s talking with an all dressed up woman with a big hat that makes her look like the Queen of England. She sure seems out of place in our little town’s festival. Flanked by two bodyguards in black, I guess it’s Botty Banworth who’s provided that expensive sound system the mayor’s trying to use. “One, two, three… Is it working? Yes. Ok. All the participants are expected to bring their cart to the depart lane. We’re about to start. In the meantime let me introduce Miss Banworth who’s been very generous and allowed our festival to get to another level. She’s going to help us rehabilitate the abandoned mines and open a museum.”
A roar from the crowd. The woman’s lips are so thin and red that the smile she puts on her face looks like it’s just been made with a razor blade. I shiver. She’s the Queen of England turned by a vampire.
Someone bumps into my back and knocks the air out of my lungs. I almost fall on my sister.
“Hey! Watch out!” says Callum.
I catch my breath and look up. It’s Betsy, dressed as a miner too, with extra sequins and gummy stars on her dungarees. She looks confused and mutters some excuses but doesn’t stop. She walks as if she has had a few lagers already.
“Hey, Betsy,” calls Prune. “You seem like you just saw a ghost.”
“Someone… near the mines… It can’t be…” says Betsy.
“Who did you see near the mines?” shouts my sister.
With the noise around us, I almost didn’t hear Betsy’s answer.
I look at Prune. I see in her eyes we’re thinking the same thing. Dad’s really here. We nod at the same time and I move my lips: “Be careful.” She nods.
“You three, win,” she tells us before leaving.
“You heard her?” I asked Callum and Joe. “Let’s move our limo.” As we approach the tracks with the other participants, a gush of wind almost knock my hat off my head. There is some commotion coming from the central stage. A guy climbed up and is shouting something that I don’t understand, pointing at the sky behind us. When I look back like everyone, tourists and teams, I understand.
“Dust! Dust’s coming!”
And right from the direction of the abandoned mines. Dad what did you get yourself into?
It’s 10:55am and I’m pretty sure we’ll have to put off the race.
Yasmin, Youssef and Zara left the maid to her cleaning and walked down towards Xaviers room. “I’d go and get coffee from the kitchen, but…” Youssef said, turning pleading eyes towards Zara, “Idle might be in there.”
Smiling, Zara told him not to risk it, she would go.
“Come in,” Xavier called when Yasmin knocked on the door. “God, what a dream,” he said when they piled in to his room. “It was awful. I was dreaming that Idle was threading an enormous long needle with baler twine saying she was going to sew us all together in a tailored story cut in a cloth of continuity.” He rubbed his eyes and then shook his head, trying to erase the image in his mind. “What are you two up so early for?”
“Zara’s gone to get the coffee,” Youssef told him, likewise trying to shake off the image of Idle that Xavier had conjured up. “We’re going to have a couple of hours on the game before the cart race ~ or the dust storm, whichever happens first I guess. There are some wierd looking vans and campers and oddballs milling around outside already.”
Zara pushed the door open with her shoulder, four mugs in her hands. “You should see the wierdos outside, going to be a great photo opportunity out there later.”
“Come on then,” said Xavier, “The game will get that awful dream out of my head. Let’s go!”
“You’re supposed to be the leader, you start the game,” Yasmin said to Zara. Zara rolled her eyes good naturedly and opened the game. “Let’s ask for some clues first then. I still don’t know why I’m the so called leader when you,” she looked pointedly as Xavier and Youssef, “Know much more about games than I do. Ok here goes:”
“The riddle “In the quietest place, the loudest secrets are kept” is a clue to help the group find the first missing page of the book “The Lost Pages of Creativity,” which is an integral part of the group quest. The riddle suggests that the missing page is hidden in a quiet place where secrets are kept, meaning that it’s likely to be somewhere in the hidden library underground the Flying Fish Inn where the group is currently situated.”
“Is there a cellar here do you think?” Zara mused. “Imagine finding a real underground library!” The idea of a grand all encompassing library had first been suggested to Zara many years ago in a series of old books by a channeler, and many a time she had imagined visiting it. The idea of leaving paper records and books for future generations had always appealed to her. She often thought of the old sepia portrait photographs of her ancestors, still intact after a hundred years ~ and yet her own photos taken ten years ago had been lost in a computer hard drive incident. What would the current generation leave for future anthropologists? Piles of plastic unreadable gadgets, she suspected.
“Youssef can ask Idle later,” Xavier said with a cheeky grin. “Maybe she’ll take him down there.” Youssef snorted, and Yasmin said “Hey! Don’t you start snorting too! Right then, Zara, so we find the cellar in the game then and go down and find the library? Then what?”
“The phrase “quietest place” can refer to a secluded spot or a place with minimal noise, which could be a hint at a specific location within the library. The phrase “loudest secrets” implies that there is something important to be discovered, but it’s hidden in plain sight.”
Hidden in plain sight reminded Yasmin of the parcel under her mattress, but she thrust it from her mind and focused on the game. She made up her mind to discuss it with everyone later, including the whacky suppositions that Zara had come up with. They couldn’t possibly confront Idle with it, they had absolutely no proof. I mean, you can’t go round saying to people, hey, that’s your abandoned child over there maybe. But they could include Xavier and Youssef in the mystery.
“The riddle is relevant to the game of quirks because it challenges the group to think creatively and work together to solve the puzzle. This requires them to communicate effectively and use their problem-solving skills to interpret the clues and find the missing page. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their individual strengths and also learn from each other in the process.”
“Work together, communicate effectively” Yasmin repeated, as if to underline her resolution to discuss the parcel and Sister Finli a.k.a. Liana with the boys and Zara later. “A problem shared is a problem hopelessly convoluted, probably.”
The others looked up and said “What?” in unison, and Yasmin snorted nervously and said “Never mind, tell you later.”
I can’t believe the cart race is tomorrow. Joe, Callum and I have worked so hard this year to incorporate solar panels and wind propellers to our little bijou. The cart race rules are clear, apart from thermal engines and fossil fuels, your imagination is your limit. Our only worry was that dust storm. We feared the Mayor would cancelled the race, but I think she won’t. She desperately needs the money.
Some folks thought to revive the festival as a prank fifteen years ago, but people had so much fun the council agreed to renew it the next year, and the year after that it was made official. It’s been a small town festival for ten years, and would have stayed like that if it hadn’t been for a bus full of Italian tourist on their way to Uluru. It broke down as they drove through main street – I remember it because I just started my job at the garage and couldn’t attend the race. Those Italians, a bunch of crazy people, posted videos of the race on the Internet and it went viral, propelling our ghost town to worldwide fame. We thought it would subside but some folks created a FishBone group and we’re almost as famous as Punxsutawney once a year. We even have a team of old ladies from Tikfijikoo Island.
All that attention attracted sponsors, mostly booze brands. But this year we’ve got a special one from Sidney. Aunt Idle who’s got a special friend at the city council told us the council members couldn’t believe it when the tart called and offered money. Botty Banworth, head of a big news company made famous by her blog: Prudish Beauty.
Aunt Idle, who heard it from one of her special friends at the town’s council, started a protest because she thought the Banworth tart would force the council to ban all recreational substances. But I have it from Callum, who’s the Mayor’s son, that the tart is not interested in making us an example of sobriety. She’s asked to lease the land where the old mines are and the Mayor haven’t told anybody about it.
After Callum told me about the lease, it reminded me about the riddle.
A mine, a tile, dust piled high,
Together they rest, yet always outside.
One misstep, and you’ll surely fall,
Into the depths, where danger lies all.
Then something else happened. Another woman stopped at the gas station earlier today. I recognised one of the Inn’s guests, the one with the Mercedes. With her mirror sunglasses and her headscarf wrapped around her hair, she already looked suspicious. But as it happened, she asked me about the mines and how to go there. For abandoned mines, they sure attract a lot of attention.
It reminded me of something. So after work, I went to the Inn and asked the twins permission to go up to their lair. When dad disappeared, Mater went mad, she threw everything to the garbage. The twins waited til she got back inside and moved everything back in the attic and called it their lair. It looks just like dad’s old office with the boxes full of papers, the mahogany desk and even his typewriter. For whatever reason, Mater just ignores it and if she needs something from the attic, she asks someone else to get it, pretexting she can’t climb all those stairs.
I was right. Dad left the old manuscript he was working on at the time. A sci-fi novel about strange occurrences in an abandoned mine that looked just like the one outside of town. Prune said it’s badly written, and it doesn’t even have a title. But I remember having nightmares after reading some of the passages.
Mater having a moan:
It’s a funny old world.
At my age, you’d think I’d be able to put my feet up and watch the world go by for a bit, wouldn’t you? God knows, don’t I deserve it? Truth is, I’m still holding things together here. With a bit of practical help from Finly of course, who we all agree is a trouper even if she is a Kiwi.
Sometimes, it occurs to me I should just let go and see where the dice lands … what will be will be … que sera sera … that sort of thing. Place will fall apart if I do though.
The kids don’t really care. And why would they at their age? Idle’s all talk about how she does this and that but the evidence is sadly lacking … she’s making a fool of herself with one of the new fellas, all goggle-eyed and tarting herself up more than ever. It’s embarrassing but I’m done telling her.
Since we got on that bnb site the bookings have tripled. Idle says I’ve got to be pleasant to people or we’ll get a bad review. Did my head in being pleasant to that toffee-nose one who won’t take her sunglasses off. That’s just plain bad manners! Another thing, she calls herself Liana but it sure takes her a while to answer to the name. Finly says she’s noticed the same. We’re keeping a close eye on that one.
And now sounds like the cart race in a dust storm is going ahead. I tell you right now, Finly is not going to be pleased about that.
As they trekked through the endless dunes, Lord Gustard could barely contain his excitement. The thought of discovering the bones of the legendary giant filled him with a childlike wonder, and he eagerly scanned the horizon for any sign of their destination. As the fearless leader of the group, he had a deep-seated passion for adventure and exploration, a love for pith helmets. However, his tendency to get lost in his own thoughts at the most inconvenient times could sometimes get him in tricky situations. Despite this, he has an unshakable determination to succeed and a deep respect for the cultures and traditions of the places he visits.
Lady Floribunda, on the other hand, was the picture of patience and duty. She knew that this journey was important to her husband and she supported him unwaveringly, even as she silently longed for the comforts of home. Her first passion was for gossips and the life of socialites —but there was hardly any gossip material in the desert, so she fell back to her second passion, botany, that would often get her lost in her own world, examining and cataloging the scant flora and fauna they encountered on their journey. It wasn’t unusual to hear her at time talking to plants as if they were her dolls or children.
Cranky, meanwhile, couldn’t help but roll her eyes at Lord Gustard’s exuberance. “I swear, if I have to listen to one more of his whimsical ramblings, I’ll go mad,” she muttered to herself. Her tendency to grumble about the hardships of their journey had taken a turn for the worse, considering the lack of comfort from the past nights. She was as sharp-tongued as she was pragmatic, with a love for tea and crumpets that bordered on obsessive. Despite her grumpiness, she has a heart of gold and a deep affection for her companions, and especially young Illi.
Illi, on the other hand, was thrilled by every new discovery along the way. Whether it was a curious beetle scuttling across the sand or a shimmering oasis in the distance, she couldn’t help but express her excitement with a constant stream of questions and exclamations. Illi was a bright and enthusiastic young girl, with a passion for adventure and a wide-eyed wonder at the world around her. She had a tendency to burst into song at the most unexpected moments.
Tibn Zig and Tanlil Ubt remained loyal and steadfast, shrugging off any incongruous spur of the moment extravagant outburst from Gustard. Their experience in the desert had taught them to stay calm and focused, no matter what obstacles they might encounter. But behind the stoic façade, they had a penchant for telling tall tales and playing practical jokes on their companions. Their mischievousness was however only for good fun, and they had become fiercely loyal to Lord Gustard after he’d rescued them from sand bandits who were planning to sell them as slave. Needless to say, they would have done whatever it takes to keep the Fergusson family safe.
Illi was hoping for eccentric traders and desert nomads to fortune-seeking treasure hunters and conniving bandits, but for miles it was just plain unending desert. The worst they found on their path were unending sand dunes, a few minuscule deadly scorpions, and mostly contending with the harsh desert sun beating down upon them. Finally, after days of wandering through the desert, they reached their destination.
As they approached Tsnit n’Agger, the landscape began to change. The sand dunes gave way to rocky cliffs and towering red sandstone formations, and the air grew cooler and more refreshing. The group pressed on, their spirits renewed by the prospect of discovering the secrets of the legendary giant’s bones.
At last, they arrived at the entrance to the giant’s cave. Lord Gustard led the way, his torch casting flickering shadows on the walls as they descended deeper into the earth. The air grew colder and damper, and the sounds of dripping water echoed around them.
As they turned a corner, they suddenly found themselves face to face with the giant’s bones. Towering above them, the massive skeletal structure filled the cavern from floor to ceiling. The sight of the giant’s bones towering above them was awe-inspiring, and Lord Gustard was practically bouncing with excitement. The group behind him was in awe, even Cranky, as they were taking in the enormity and majesty of the ancient creature.
“Let’s get to work,” Lord Gustard declared, his enthusiasm undimmed. And with that, they set to the task of uncovering the secrets of the legendary giant, each in their own way.
I hear the greenhouse airlock open. I don’t look up and keep my focus on the alien sweat pea plant I have been working on. I’m trying to get it to bind itself to the carbon mesh I printed to help it spread instead of grow like a ball. My hands are precise and my movement efficient. I’ve been practicing everyday since I embarked on this ship some fourteen years ago. I don’t allow distraction when I’m in the greenhouse, and Georges was often one.
He plants himself on my left.
“I found the beast,” he says.
“One moment. I’m almost done.”
I have to be careful with the tendrils. An abrupt gesture would cause them to wind around my fingers and pierce my lab gloves with their myriad of teeth. As sharp and poisonous as black mamba teeth, I’d be dead in seconds.
“Here, little thing. That’s good,” I say, encouraging the plant.
After the first three tendrils find their bearing on the carbon mesh, the rest of the plant follows.
“That’s gross,” Georges says. “I don’t know why you always pick the most dangerous ones.”
I don’t answer and observe the plant wraps its tendrils around the carbon wires like it found a prey. I spent weeks trying to find the right combination of softness and tension for the alien plant to accept it.
“I’m done,” I say.
I look up and I see the creature in Georges’ hands.
“Isn’t she cute?” Georges asks.
“She? Should I worry next time you tell me I’m cute?”
The creature’s cute, as much as a rodent with protruding eyes can be. It’s clearly neither from Earth, nor from Alienor. The eyes are looking straight at me and its muzzle wiggles as if getting some information through its sense of smell. It isn’t dangerous, since Georges is still alive. He’s the opposite of careful and after all those years together, I have to wonder how he’s still alive.
Xavier was dramatically behind his work, but he could see the benefits to his mood of the break from his routine. While the others had been enlisted to a bush tucker cooking lesson by their hosts, he’d retreated to his room for some catching up with his programming.
The lady with the dreadlocks in particular seemed to have taken a liking to Youssef so much so that she had offered to join their group for the cooking lesson session, which apparently was initially met with disbelief a first, then surprise and anxiety and finally made her family raise a few eyebrows profusely. Youssef didn’t seem bothered by it, and to be fair, did seem completely oblivious to the situation.
Speaking of awkward situations, after the bar discussion, Glimmer had got off on her own, apparently going to chase for literal rainbows. She’d mentioned in a conspiratorial tone “You don’t see them rainbows nowadays, have you? See, that’s what I mean, them with the government electric waves, laser rays and stuff, they manipulate the weather… Keep people docile and hopeless. So I’m going on a chase.”
Xavier had frowned at Yasmin before she could top it off with a “good luck with the unicorns.” He didn’t need telepathy to know that Yasmin could hardly pass on an ironic salvo in a potentially comical situation.
Anyway, Glimmer leaving off to new adventures of her own without overstaying her welcome was met with a few sighs of relief. The four of them quite liked the comfort of their little group with their insider references and jokes.
His programmic work was rather tedious and slow, but he’d made good progress connecting the new training model into the AL, and the muffled sounds of the cooking class with the occasional laughter did make him want to finish faster.
He hoped he would get most of it done in time to enjoy the incoming festival. The town however ghostly it had seemed on arrival, had taken a unexpected liveliness with colorful bunting flags now spreading across all roads intersections.
With all this newfound activity, they’d almost forgotten about the game. However, he could feel there was something more at play, and it would be a trial of Zara’s leadership capabilities —her style had often been solo. It was great for scouting mission and opening new doors in unknown parts of the game, but apparently the group quest required something different…
The black BMW pulled up outside the Flying Fish Inn. Sister Finli pulled a baseball cap low over her big sunglasses before she got out of the car. Yasmin was still in the bar with her friends and Finli hoped to check in and retreat to her room before they got back to the inn.
She rang the bell on the reception desk several times before an elderly lady in a red cardigan appeared.
“Ah yes, Liana Parker,” Mater said, checking the register. Liana managed to get a look at the register and noted that Yasmin was in room 2. “Room 4. Did you have a good trip down? Smart car you’ve got there,” Mater glanced over Liana’s shoulder, “Don’t see many like that in these parts.”
“Yes, yes,” Finli snapped impatiently (henceforth referred to to as Liana). She didn’t have time for small talk. The others might arrive back at any time. As long as she kept out of Yasmin’s way, she knew nobody would recognize her ~ after all she had been abandoned at birth. Even if Yasmin did find her out, she only knew her as a nun at the orphanage and Liana would just have to make up some excuse about why a nun was on holiday in the outback in a BMW. She’d cross that bridge when she came to it.
Liana softened and smiled at the old lady, remembering that she’d have to speak to everyone in due course in order to find anything out, and it wouldn’t do to start off on the wrong foot.
“I’m writing a book,” Liana explained as she followed Mater down the hall. “Hoping a bit of peace and quiet here will help, and my book is set in the outback in a place a bit like this.”
“How lovely dear, well if there’s anything we can help you with, please don’t hesitate to ask. Old Bert’s a mine of information,” Mater suppressed a chuckle, “Well as long as you don’t mention mines. Here we are,” Mater opened the door to room 4 and handed the key to Liana. “Just ask if there’s anything you need.”
Liana put her bags down and then listened at the door to Mater’s retreating steps. Inching the door open, she looked up and down the hallway, but there was nobody about. Quickly she went to room 2 and tried the door, hoping it was open and she didn’t have to resort to other means. It was open. What a stroke of luck! Liana was encouraged. Within moments Liana found the parcel, unopened. Carefully opening the door, she looked around to make sure nobody was around, leaving the room with the parcel under her arm and closing the door quietly, she hastened back to room 4. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a voice piped up behind her.
“What’s that parcel and where are you going with it?” Prune asked.
“None of your business you….” Liana was just about to say nosy brat, and then remebered that she would catch more flies with honey than vinegar. It was going to be hard for her to remember that, but she must try! She smiled at the teenager and said, “A dreamtime gift for my gran, got it in Alice. Is there a post office in town?”
Prune narrowed her eyes. There was something fishy about this and it didn’t take her more than a second to reach the conclusion that she wanted to see what was in the parcel. But how?
“Yes,” she replied, quick as a flash grabbing the parcel from Liana. “I’ll post it for you!” she called over her shoulder as she raced off down the hall and disappeared.
“FUCK!” Liana muttered under her breath, running after her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully nobody else was about in the reception area to question why she was running around like a madwoman. Fuck! she muttered again, going back to her room and closing the door. Now what? What a disaster after such an encouraging start!
Prune collided with Idle on the steps of the verandah, nearly knocking her off her feet. Idle grabbed Prune to steady herself. Her grip on the girls arm tightened when she saw the suspicious look on face. Always up to no good, that one. “What have you got there? Where did you get that? Give me that parcel!”
Idle grabbed the parcel and Prune fled. Idle, holding onto the verandah railing, watched Prune running off between the eucalyptus trees. She’s always trying to make a drama out of everything, Idle thought with a sigh. Hardly any wonder I suppose, it must be boring here for a teenager with nothing much going on.
She heard a loud snorting laugh, and turned to see the four guests returning from the bar in town, laughing and joking. She put the parcel down on the hall table and waved hello, asking if they’d had a good time. “I bet you’re ready for a bite to eat, I’ll go and see what Mater’s got on the menu.” and off she went to the kitchen, leaving the parcel on the table.
The four friends agreed to meet back on the verandah for drinks before dinner after freshening up. Yasmin kept glancing back at the BMW. “That woman must be staying here!” she snorted. Zara grabbed her elbow and pulled her along. “Then we’ll find out who she is later, come on.”
Youssef followed Idle into the kitchen to ask for some snacks before dinner (much to Idle’s delight), leaving Xavier on the verandah. He looked as if he was admiring the view, such as it was, but he was preoccupied thinking about work again. Enough! he reminded himself to relax and enjoy the holiday. He saw the parcel on the table and picked it up, absentmindedly thinking the black notebook he ordered had arrived in the post, and took it back to his room. He tossed it on the bed and went to freshen up for dinner.
Despite the old man’s endless flow of words, Youssef couldn’t get him to explain what he meant about the abandoned mine and why the town’s people didn’t like people sneaking around and asking questions.
Not wanting to waste more time, Youssef walked to the brick building where the twins had disappeared. It was crammed between the telegraph station and a grocery store. The door had been walled with red bricks. They were covered in faded graffitis and layers of torn-up posters. It seemed obvious the wall had been there for quite some time already.
The old man was sticking to Youssef like glue, talking about that time when his now dead brother took in an old cat he called Phineas. Youssef tried to growl him away, but the man always came back, persistent as a cloud of mosquitoes over the promise of a blood feast.
Youssef tried not to pay attention to him. What did AL said about that quest ? Go ask questions around to town’s people about odd things happening ? Well there were plenty of those things happening. Maybe the clerk at the telegraph station would know something, especially how to get rid of that old man.
Youssef pushed the door and entered the telegraph station, leaving the old man outside. The interior was lit with a collection of old style tungsten lamps hanging in a random pattern from the ceiling.
The clerk was busy sorting out a pile of telegrams. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. He lifted his head up. The noise stopped and Youssef realised the young man had mechanical hands.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome! What can I do for you today, my friend?” asked the clerk.
“I just wanted to…” started Youssef.
“Wait! Don’t tell me. I’m a bit of a psychic myself and I already know what you’re here for.”
The man foraged through his pile of telegram with his mechanical hands and picked one. He looked at it for a few seconds.
“My friend, you’re in luck today!” he said, looking intently at Youssef. “I just received this telegram that I think might interest you. Here, take a look!”
Youssef took the paper and started to read aloud : “Words spoken by the talkative will unlock the path. Seek those who chatter and unravel the clue. What the…?”
“Interesting, isn’t it? That’s a real head-scratcher, if you ask me!”
The door bell rang and the old man entered, holding his sore ribs.
“Get out, Phineas. You’re not welcome here.” said the clerk with a frown.
The old man looked at the clerk with an air of confusion before turning to Youssef. “What did he say? Who’s Phineas?” he asked.
Ignoring the question, Youssef tried to steer the conversation back to the telegram. “What does this mean?” he asked the clerk.
The clerk stroked his chin, looking thoughtful. “Hmm, well, it seems to me that you have a certain magnetism for talkative people. Perhaps that’s the key to unlocking this riddle.”
Youssef’s eyes widened in surprise. “What do you mean, magnetism?”
The old man interjected, “For sure! You’re like a magnet, my boy. I can’t seem to stop talking when I’m around you.”
Youssef rolled his eyes. “So, what do I do? Just wander around town and wait for someone to start talking?”
The clerk nodded. “That could be a good start. But if you’re looking for something specific, you might want to try Betsy when you wake up. She’s got a boutique of Gems and Rocks. You seem to like them rocks,” he said pointing at the black obsidian. “Found it in a mine?”
The old man’s eyes lit up. “Ah, the old mine! I’ve been there before, you know. My brother used to work there before he died. Strange things happening there.”
Youssef’s interest was piqued. “What kind of strange things?”
The old man leaned in conspiratorially. “There’s a magnetar hidden in that mine, my boy.”
“Shut up! Phineas,” interrupted the clerk. “If you want my advice, stranger, don’t go near the old mine. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ if you know what I mean.”
The telegraph receiver started to make clicketing sounds. The clerk read it and looked at Youssef.
“You’ve got a message man. Time to wake up.”
Youssef opened his eyes and looked at a black mass in front of his eyes. He had been sleeping with the stone just beside his head on the pillow. No wonder he had had weird dreams. He heard his phone buzz. He sat up reluctantly and looked at his phone. 8am. A notification that his game progression had been saved and several messages from Miss Tartiflate, the last one saying :
Don’t think you can dodge work. I’m still expecting the last blog post you’ve been paid to write!!!”
He groaned as reality was starting to catch up.
When Xavier woke up, the sun was already shining, its rays darting in pulsating waves throughout the land, blinding him. The room was already heating up, making the air difficult to breathe.
He’d heard the maid rummaging in the neighbouring rooms for some time now, which had roused him from sleep. He couldn’t recall seeing any “DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the doorknob, so staying in bed was only delaying the inevitable barging in of the lady who was now vacuuming vigorously in the corridor.
Feeling a bit dull from the restless sleep, he quickly rose from the bed and put on his clothes.
Once out of his room, he smiled at the cleaning lady (who seemed to be the same as the cooking lady), who harumphed back as a sort of greeting. Arriving in the kitchen, he wondered whether it was probably too late for breakfast —until he noticed the figure of the owner, who was quietly watching him through half-closed eyes in her rocking chair.
“Idle should have left some bread, butter and jam to eat if you’re hungry. It’s too late for bacon and sausages. You can help yourself with tea or coffee, there’s a fresh pot on the kitchen counter.”
“Thanks M’am.” He answered, startled by the unexpected appearance.
“No need. Finly didn’t wake you up, did she? She doesn’t like when people mess up her schedule.”
“Not at all, it was fine.” he lied politely, helping himself to some tea. He wasn’t sure buttered bread was enough reward to suffer a long, awkward conversation, given that the lady (Mater, she insisted he’s called him) wasn’t giving him any sign of wanting to leave.
“It shouldn’t be long until your friends come back from the airport. Your other friend, the big lad, he went for a walk around. Idle seems to have sold him a visit to our Gems & Rocks boutique down Main avenue.” She tittered. “Sounds grand when we say it —that’s just the only main road, but it helps with tourists bookings. And Betsy will probably tire him down quickly. She tends to get too excited when she gets clients down there; most of her business she does online now.”
Xavier was done with his tea, and looking for an exit strategy, but she finally seemed to pick up on the signals.
“… As I probably do; look at me wearing you down. Anyway, we have some preparing to do for the Carts & whatnot festival.”
When she was gone, Xavier’s attention was attracted by a small persistent ticking noise followed by some cracking.
It was on the front porch.
A young girl in her thirteens, hoodie on despite the heat, and prune coloured pants, was sitting on the bench reading.
She told him without raising her head from her book. “It’s Aunt Idle’s new pet bird. It’s quite a character.”
“The noise, it’s from the bird. It’s been cracking nuts for the past twenty minutes. Hence the noise. And yes, it’s annoying as hell.”
She rose from the bench. “Your bear friend will be back quick I’m certain; it’s just a small boutique with some nice crystals, but mostly cheap orgonite new-agey stuff. Betsy only swears by that, protection for electromagnetic waves and stuff she says, but look around… we are probably got more at risk to be hit by Martian waves or solar coronal mass ejections that by the ones from the telecom tower nearby.”
Xavier didn’t know what to say, so he nodded and smiled. He felt a bit out of his element. When he looked around, the girl had already disappeared.
Now alone, he sat on the empty bench, stretched and yawned while trying to relax. It was so different from the anonymity in the city: less people here, but everything and everyone very tightly knit together, although they all seemed to irk and chafe at the thought.
The flapping of wings startled him.
“Hellooo.” The red parrot had landed on the backrest of the bench and dropped shells from a freshly cracked nut which rolled onto the ground.
Xavier didn’t think to respond; like with AL, sometimes he’d found using polite filler words was only projecting human traits to something unable to respond back, and would just muddle the prompt quality.
“So ruuuude.” The parrot nicked his earlobe gently.
“Ouch! Sorry! No need to become aggressive!”
“You arrrre one to talk. Rouge is on Yooour forehead.”
“Call meee Rose. Pretty Giiirl acceptable.”
Xavier smiled. The bird seemed quite fascinating all of a sudden.
It was strange, but the bird seemed left completely free to roam about; it gave him an idea.
“Rose, Pretty Girl, do you know some nice places around you’d like to show me?”
“Of couuurse. Foôllow Pretty Girl.”
Xavier had woken up in the middle of the night that felt surprisingly alive bursting with a quiet symphony of sounds from nocturnal creatures and nearby nature, painted on a canvas of eerie spacious silence.
It often took him a while to get accustomed to any new place, and it was not uncommon for him to have his mind racing in the middle of the night. Generally Brytta had a soothing presence and that often managed to nudge him back to sleep, otherwise, he would simply wake up until the train of thoughts had left the station.
It was beginning of the afternoon in Berlin; Brytta would be in a middle of a shift, so he recorded a little message for her to find when she would get back to her phone. It was funny to think they’d met thanks to Yasmin and Zara, at the time the three girls were members of the same photography club, which was called ‘Focusgroupfocus’ or something similar…
With that done, he’d turned around for something to do but there wasn’t much in the room to explore or to distract him sufficiently. Not even a book in the nightstand drawer. The decoration itself had a mesmerising nature, but after a while it didn’t help with the racing thoughts.
He was tempted to check in the game — there was something satisfactory in finishing a quest that left his monkey brain satiated for a while, so he gave in and logged back in.
Completing the quest didn’t take him too long this time. The main difficulty initially was to find the portal from where his avatar had landed. It was a strange carousel of blue storks that span into different dimensions one could open with the proper incantation.
As usual, stating the quirk was the key to the location, and the carousel portal propelled him right away to Midnight town, which was clearly a ghost town in more ways than one. Interestingly, he was chatting on the side with Glimmer, who’d run into new adventures of her own while continuing to ask him what was up, and as soon as he’d reached Midnight town, all communication channels suddenly went dark. He’d laughed to himself thinking how frustrated Glimmer would have been about that. But maybe the game took care of sending her AI-generated messages simulating his presence. Despite the disturbing thought of having an AI generated clone of himself, he almost hoped for it (he’d probably signed the consent for this without realising), so that he wouldn’t have to do a tedious recap about all what she’d missed.
Once he arrived in the town, the adventure followed a predictable pattern. The clues were also rather simple to follow.
The townspeople are all frozen in time, stuck in their daily routines and unable to move on. Your mission is to find the missing piece of continuity, a small hourglass that will set time back in motion and allow the townspeople to move forward.
The clue to finding the hourglass lies within a discarded pocket watch that can be found in the mayor’s office. You must unscrew the back and retrieve a hidden key. The key will unlock a secret compartment in the town clock tower, where the hourglass is kept.
Be careful as you search for the hourglass, as the town is not as abandoned as it seems. Spectral figures roam the streets, and strange whispers can be heard in the wind. You may also encounter a mysterious old man who seems to know more about the town’s secrets than he lets on.
Evading the ghosts and spectres wasn’t too difficult once you got the hang of it. The old man however had been quite an elusive figure to find, but he was clearly the highlight of the whole adventure; he had been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of the adventure. One of the blue storks in the town that he’d thought had come with him through the portal was in actuality not a bird at all.
While he was focused on finishing the quest, the interaction with the hermit didn’t seem very helpful. Was he really from the game construct? When it was time to complete the quest and turn the hourglass to set the town back in motion, and resume continuity, some of his words came back to Xavier.
“The town isn’t what it seems. Recognise this precious moment where everything is still and you can realise it for the illusion that it is, a projection of your busy mind. When motion resumes, you will need to keep your mind quiet. The prize in the quest is not the completion of it, but the realisation you can stop the agitation at any moment, and return to what truly matters.”
The hermit had turned to him with clear dark eyes and asked “do you know what you are seeking in these adventures? do you know what truly matters to you?”
When he came out of the game, his quest completed, Xavier felt the words resonate ominously.
A buzz of the phone snapped him out of it.
It was a message from Zara. Apparently she’d found her way back to modernity.
[4:57] “Going to pick up Yasmin at the airport. You better sleep away the jetlag you lazy slugs, we have poultry damn plenty planned ahead – cackling bugger cooking lessons not looking forward to, but can be fun. Talk to you later. Z”
He had the impulse to go with her, but the lack of sleep was hitting back at him now, and he thought he’d better catch some so he could manage to realign with the timezone.
“The old man was right… that sounds like a lot of agitation coming our way…”
On her way back to her room Zara picked up a leaflet off the hall table about the upcoming lager and cart race. Before starting the game she had a look through it.
The leaflet also mentioned the competition held annually each January in Port Lincoln. The Tunarama Festival was a competition to determine just how far a person could chuck a frozen tuna. A full-fledged celebration was centered around the event, complete with a wide array of arts and cultural displays, other participation events, local market stalls, and some of the freshest seafood in the world.
There was unlikely to be any fresh seafood at the local lager and cart races, but judging from the photos of previous events, it looked colourful and well worth sticking around for, just for the photo opportunities.
Apparently the lager and cart races had started during the early days of the settler mining, and most of the carts used were relics from that era. Competitors dressed up in costumes and colourful wigs, many of which were found in the abandoned houses of the local area.
“The miners were a strange breed of men, but not all cut from the same cloth ~ they were daring outsiders, game for anything, adventurous rule breakers and outlaws with a penchant for extreme experience. Thus, outlandish and adventurous women ~ and men who were not interested in mining for gold in the usual sense ~ were magnetically drawn to the isolated outpost. After a long dark day of restriction and confinement in the mines, the evenings were a time of colour and wild abandon; bright, garish, bizarre Burlesque events were popular. Strange though it may seem, the town had one of the most extensive wig and corset emporiums in the country, although it was discretely tucked away in the barn behind a mundane haberdashery shop.”
The idea was to fill as many different receptacles with lager as possible, piling them onto the gaily decorated carts pulled by the costume clad participants. As the carts were raced along the track, onlookers ran alongside to catch any jars or bottles that fell off the carts before they hit the ground. Many crashed to the ground and were broken, but if anyone caught one, they were obliged to drink the contents there and then before running after the carts to catch another one.
Members of the public were encouraged to attend in fancy dress costumes and wigs. There were plenty of stationary food vendors carts at the lager and cart races as well, and stalls and tents set up to sell trinkets.
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