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Traveller Inceptio: Traveller
Traveller Inceptio: Traveller
Traveller Inceptio: Traveller
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Traveller Inceptio: Traveller

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If you were sent 1000 years into the past, would you survive?

Traveller Inceptio describes how the Transporter is accidentally invented and becomes public knowledge when it send a subject 1000 years into the past.

A Special Forces team of Travellers is then selected and trained with the intent to send them to Saxon England to explore what could be a very dangerous period of history.

From the beaches of Australia, to the forests of Saxon England, Traveller Inceptio reveals how Travellers discover they need a lot more than technology to survive the trials of early 11th Century life.

LanguageEnglish
Release dateJun 1, 2012
ISBN9781393592082
Traveller Inceptio: Traveller
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Author

Rob Shackleford

An English-born Australian, Rob Shackleford has lived in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and has travelled extensively internationally. His varied careers have included Customs Officer, SCUBA instructor, college teacher, and management roles in too many places. With degrees in the Arts and Business, he is mad keen on travel, SCUBA diving, family history, astronomy and playing the djembe and congas. Rob is father of two and lives with his partner in Queensland’s Gold Coast hinterland.

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    Traveller Inceptio - Rob Shackleford

    1

    His first view of the glade simply took his breath away.

    Michael stumbled after momentary dizziness and found himself on his hands and knees in the forest’s moist leaf litter. Dazed and a little disoriented, he quickly checked his surroundings before regaining his feet. With a small, self-deprecating smile at his uncharacteristic gaffe, he shook his head again and imagined what Murdoch would have to say if he was anything but alert.

    Brushing his palms together, Michael warily looked again through a holly’s glossy leaves to examine the flat, open area in the heart of the great forest. Three venerable, colossal oaks spread their mighty arms to have their branches entwine like fingers, shading lesser plants from essential sunlight to create the open space. Only occasional gaps in the canopy allowed pillars of gold to pierce the gloom and create a magical arena where elves or faerie folk might cavort and play.

    Michael blinked a few times to clear his head and then cautiously walked to the base of the nearest forest giant. At forty or so paces high and over ten paces across, the knotted trunk bulged like the muscled leg of a forest colossus. The tree’s other two silent conspirators were each of a similar size, while at the far end of the clearing, the remnants of a fourth oak stood in silent witness to the mortality of even these timeless beings, the charred crown proof of its destruction from a rogue lightning bolt.

    The glade was an extraordinary place that burst with life. Bird-song echoed through the surrounding forest as squirrels, with their bright, beady eyes and comic ear tufts of russet, eagerly chased each other along the boughs. It seemed imbued with a faery energy that gave him a feeling of overwhelming happiness and optimism.

    To have come so far.

    Michael sighed as he removed his pack and knelt to check his scant belongings. Strapped to the pack were three bundles: thirty arrows bound with leather thongs, a leather-covered short bow of horn in two parts that could be swiftly fitted as needed, and another bulkier pack wrapped in protective kid leather.

    His inspection completed, Michael stood, removed his heavy, woollen cloak and draped it over the pack to check the two swords slung at his waist. His calloused hands ran over their long, sharkskin handles that offered a superb grip, even when wet with water or blood. They made for a pair of deadly, versatile light weapons lethal in the hands of one as trained in their use as he. The air was cool with the memory of winter snows and the promise of summer abundance while the far-off murmur of a stream reminded him of pressure on his bladder. As he stood to relieve himself, a bird called with a clear, liquid note and to his right there was a flicker of movement as a fox dashed across the open space. The creature gave the ancient bole a furtive glance before casting a vulpine glance his way. He smiled and relaxed his reflex grip on his sword hilt.

    Something about the fox unsettled him. As the bushy tail vanished into the undergrowth, he frowned. What would make a fox hurry so?

    He shrugged, but as he looked back, he gave a start of surprise. Not ten paces away skulked a presence absent only a moment earlier, a presence of silent power. Intelligent, golden eyes gazed fearlessly. The magnificent creature had simply appeared from the forest gloom. A warning tingle ran up his spine.

    Wolf!

    Michael’s eyes locked onto those mesmerising orbs and the moments stretched into eternity. A large, healthy wolf like this would not be alone. His scalp prickled as he slowly moved his left hand from a diminishing urination, while the wolf’s moist nose wiggled slightly to drink in his scent.

    Was the wolf a decoy? His back was to the oak, so attack from behind was unlikely, but he took a slow, deep breath in preparation and tensed, unwilling to initiate unnecessary confrontation. If he was to draw his sword, it must be with speed and precision, as practiced countless times.

    The creature was utterly still. Only a quick glance of the yellow eyes to his right, then left, betrayed intent.

    Prey. He was prey!

    Michael deftly drew his sword, to pause only a moment, his blade pointed skyward and his arms stretched above his head. There was no room for doubt, not now. A whisper, and a fleeting movement glimpsed from the corner of his eye, told him what to expect. He swung the sword in a smooth, silver arc where it met a powerful, silver-grey body caught in mid-leap. There was a slight jar as the blade struck and passed through. He had at least hit something. A furry barrel of muscle struck his left arm and shoulder with a terrific jolt as he dropped into the swing, but his angle deflected the impact.

    There was a spurt of dark blood and an impression of falling pieces.

    With no time to evaluate his strike, Michael reversed his sword along his left arm and twisted in a thrust, hoping to strike the dark flicker that meant another attack from that quarter. There was a shadow, massive teeth agape, and his blade simply disappeared. This time his balance was off and the powerful predator slammed directly into his arms with a shock that tumbled him into the leaf litter. The sword twisted from his grip with a painful wrench.

    Expecting to fall under the powerful jaws of the wolf pack, Michael scrambled to his back and nimbly leapt to his feet. He drew his second sword and imagined them tearing at his face and throat. A quick glance confirmed the dark wolf by his feet had claimed his precious blade, impaled to the hilt. The wolf’s body stiffened as wide, silver eyes quickly glazed. Michael raised the shorter sword, a blade that would leave killing far too close. His wrenched right wrist sent a shaft of pain up his arm, but he was ready.

    He waited and watched for what felt like an eternity of heartbeats, but there was no further assault. The wolf leader, which must have ingeniously organised the attack, was no longer concerned with the man as it jumped about in apparent confusion. A large, silver female wolf ran in circles and peed in frantic spurts as she screamed out her agony with a wail that was pathetically human.

    The brief diversion might be sufficient for him to survive. As the silver wolf turned to face him, Michael was sickened at what he had done. The terrible blade had severed her entire muzzle and part of her skull, removing her left eye to expose the pink sinus cavity. All without making a clean, quick kill. A limp showed she had also lost her left foreleg.

    Her distress and screams confused another pair of pack-mates that burst from the thick undergrowth. Wasting no time, Michael dropped to one knee to extract his sword. Only the hilt protruded from the wolf’s thick, winter fur at its throat, just below those terrible jaws. Forced to both knees, his face perilously close to the wolf’s pink tongue and impressive canines, removing the sword was no easy matter. With his rear pointed to the sky, he was painfully aware of his vulnerability as he grasped the hilt with both hands and pulled. Another bolt of agony shot up his arm, but he was not going to leave his precious sword.

    Reluctantly at first, the blade was all too slowly withdrawn. Wolf-smell stung his nostrils and the creature’s dying squirts of urine soaked into the dirty knees of his breeches. Moments dragged, but once his precious weapon was free, Michael stood quickly and held it ready as he stooped to collect his pack and cloak. These he slung to his shoulders in one smooth movement, glancing down to find his breeches still untied.

    He turned to escape, but something caused him to stumble. There lay the severed, silver-furred muzzle; the wolf’s lower and upper jaws, the pink length of her tongue squashed into the leaf litter. In an action he could not explain, Michael sheathed his sword and stooped to pick up the two pieces. As he turned to flee, he slipped the weighty trophy into a convenient leather bag hooked on the side of his pack.

    A glance to his back saw the wounded wolf leap in great bounds to the far end of the glade where the ancient oak held silent court. The hollow tree was obviously the pack’s den and he had encountered a hunting party in the very heart of their home territory. More wolves joined her, distracted by her agitated screams. Michael’s survival relied on his escape from this place, for no man could fend off a pack of wolves. As he fled into the forest, every instinct screamed for him to sprint wildly, to cast off his pack and run in terror, but experience helped him retain control as he sought the clearest path through the trees.

    A shallow stream tumbled between mossy rocks and Michael slowed to cross at a careful jog. A foolish step could mean a twisted ankle, a fall, or worse. He could ill afford another mishap. The water was ice-cold. Panic still edged his senses, making his perceptions crystal-clear, his muscles ready to explode into action. Using roots from shoreline trees, he favoured his uninjured wrist as he clambered up the steeper, far bank. Feet chilled but not soaked, his breath deepened as, alert for more danger, he picked up his pace and ran silently through the ancient forest.

    2

    Phil Walker leaned over the green felt of the pool table with his battered cue poised. Resting the satin-smooth timber onto the wedge of his thumb and forefinger, he targeted the chalked tip at the white ball and, with a decisive strike, propelled his target. The ball ricocheted into the bumpers and missed the intended pocket while the white ball followed through and rolled neatly into the corner with a clunk.

    Shit! said Phil, and his companions laughed as his friend Yeti hooted in glee.

    For God’s sake! Go get stuffed, Yeti! Phil exclaimed as he gripped his own face in frustration and not-quite-mock anger.

    Accepting the abuse as a sign of affection and impending victory, Yeti collected the cue from his friend. The white ball clattered to the pool table’s return. Placing the ball onto the threadbare felt, he leaned across the table to line up his shot. The ball sharply collided with the black, which ran true and ricocheted into the targeted middle pocket. His arm raised in victory, with a shout Yeti again claimed his victor’s prize; a free drink paid for by the hapless loser.

    The music in the club boomed and all eyes turned to the promotional girl as she strolled across the room. Her job was to encourage the purchase of a particular brand of drink with the promise of special giveaways and, of course, her winning smile. Her long, shapely brown legs were hungrily watched by the club’s male patrons, and with not a little envy by the few females in attendance. It was Friday afternoon and the university club quickly filled with escapees from work and lectures. The young woman was one of three visual stimulants designed to increase sales and she appeared to be doing her job well as she offered sponsor hats, keyrings, and other ‘must haves’ in response to brand purchases from the bar.

    Recently licensed to sell alcohol, the newly refurbished university refectory had been renamed the ‘Billabong’ after the watering hole from poet ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s iconic Australian poem and song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Management’s clever marketing hoped to redefine the barely profitable food-hall into one of the university’s main revenue centres and the venue had soon evolved into the place for students to meet at the end of the busy study week. Typically, the Billabong became known as ‘The Hole’ and was rarely, if ever, identified by its proper name.

    Jeez, look at that, exclaimed Phil.

    The young woman gave a flirtatious flick of her shoulder-length, blonde hair as she chatted with a couple of self-conscious, pimply-faced students. She wore a branded tank top and the shortest red satin shorts imaginable. A cap, gym shoes, pretty face and friendly personality made her the hit of the evening. As she approached their pool table, Phil had in mind to engage her in a witty riposte that would make her laugh, but instead meekly bought a drink and watched her satin bottom wistfully as she walked to the next group of gawking youths. Yeti observed Phil’s obvious lust in good humour and shook his head. You are so fucking hopeless, he said loudly over the music. As regular attendees, they were familiar with the promotional strategies of the venue and considered, without prejudice, that promotional girls were by far the most productive.

    Phil snorted as he placed his drink onto a convenient bar table littered with empty glasses. Yeah, he said with a small smile, to be so lucky.

    Phil watched the object of his desires wave and dash in small steps to the familiar features of a short, dark-haired girl. They exchanged hugs, air kisses, and a quick, laughing chat before the promotional girl moved off with a seductive jiggle of red satin.

    Hey, Mel’s here, Phil called to the other two young men who stood by the bar table: Allen, who was in obvious social discomfort as he clutched a Coca-Cola while his companion, Craig, sipped a fancy drink on the rocks. Phil shook his head in disbelief and Yeti took the cue to smile at their private joke. As their research project was about to kick off, Phil, and as a result also Yeti, were compelled to associate more and more with the classic ‘Nerd Herd’. Allen and Chris were nerds of the highest order. This Friday afternoon was the rare social occasion where Phil, Allen, and Craig were to meet with the other research team member, Mel, to finalise key issues with their project supervisor, Dr John Crowley, who had called the meeting.

    Mel arrived at the table with a wave and yelled, Hi, guys! before immediately heading for the bar. Mel Conti didn’t strike a particularly distinctive figure and was another with whom Phil wouldn’t normally associate. She paused at the pool table to watch Yeti clean up a bemused Craig, who simply shrugged and sipped his drink. Yeti was Phil’s skate and surf companion, his best mate, a fixture the team had so far tolerated.

    Phil moved closer to Yeti and leaned forward to speak into his ear. Jeez, mate, here’s hoping! Looks like it’s going to be the night we find out if this project is a goer.

    Yeti nodded as he hungrily watched another of the promotional girls saunter by. Yeah, mate. Good luck! he replied absently. Phil knew his mate had been forced, all too frequently, to give heed to his concerns over the past year, but Yeti couldn’t resist repeating what was almost his mantra, just one more time.

    Phil nodded. Yeah. Thanks. Mel might be a nerd, but she’s done well. Let’s hope this year of negotiations has worked and I won’t have to work with you anymore.

    Yeti smiled as he turned back to the pool table. What’s the matter? Don’t you like working for dear old dad?

    Phil grinned as he watched his friend break another set. This time Allen was destined to buy the drinks. Rich dad he may have, but Yeti never admitted connections with a privileged life and always played hard to win his drinks. Like Phil, Yeti wore the international skateboarder uniform of black stretch-denims, skate tee shirt and branded skate shoes. Scraggy blonde hair, heavily tattooed right arm and a three-day growth completed the look for Yeti, who wasn’t even a student. He worked in one of his dad’s electrical goods stores as a storeman and truck driver. He was, however, the life of any party and Phil and Yeti were inseparable, always on the lookout for a new point break to surf, a ledge to skate, or a couple of suitably easy girls to pursue and conquer.

    Mel arrived back in time for Yeti to shoo Allen off for another pint of ale. Phil considered Mel another fortunate as her uncle had largely funded her studies. Because he was a director of one of the world’s most rapidly growing security companies, the university had recently submitted a proposal to fund research for a new type of baggage processing scanner. It was all Mel’s idea of course. Phil mentally shrugged. He had known Mel through a few joint classes and for some reason she invited him to be part of the proposed project. All he wanted from this was his PhD and then a decent job with decent pay. If he could last the next two years without killing these nerds, the millionaire’s gamble could actually pay off.

    To his relief, John Crowley finally arrived at the venue’s entry. He waved at Phil, skirted groups of students, and was soon at the pool table. Hello, hello all, he said as he smiled and nodded to each in turn. Crowley was in his early 50s, grey-haired, and plainly out of his depth in the noise and boisterous crowds that typified Friday night entertainment for most students anywhere. Yeti immediately thrust a frosty beer into Crowley’s hand and the academic smiled broadly before nodding his nervous thanks. With a jerk of her head, Mel suggested they move outside to one of the tables in the atrium away from the noise, a suggestion to which Crowley eagerly agreed. As soon as they were seated, Crowley got down to business. He looked at each with an expression of smug satisfaction. Well, the Dean, Dr Jackson, has been kind enough to give his final blessing to your proposed research project.

    Mel squealed in excitement and there were sounds of relief from around the table.

    As proposed, we’ve been allocated to the old research centre in Cotton Tree. You also might be interested to know that Mel’s uncle, owner and director of Helguard Security, has also kindly agreed to a bursary to fund each of you, he continued, causing all to give an exuberant cheer as they raised half-emptied glasses.

    Oh, thank God! No more checkout chick at Woolies, exclaimed Mel with a cry of utter relief.

    Phil smiled and gave a huge sigh while Yeti pounded his shoulder in congratulations. A monthly bursary would provide for modest living expenses and negate any requirement for part-time work. Finally, they would be full-time professional researchers. Yes, Crowley smiled, we’ve much to be grateful for. However, we are, of course, reliant on the university to guide the research to a well-documented conclusion. This also means that, thanks to Helguard, we’ll have all of the equipment and funding we’ve requested and a small operational fund managed by the university. Crowley raised his glass again. Thank you, Mr Conti, and thank you, Mel, for getting this kicked off for us. It has, after all, been a torrid year of negotiations.

    Yes! exclaimed Phil as he punched the air. Some months before, Mel had quietly told Phil that it was unlikely the university would turn down an industry research sponsorship, especially from a company with as high a profile as Helguard, but this final confirmation still left him with a feeling of weary exhilaration. Now Phil could complete his PhD in Electrical Engineering, and in a world hungry for better high-tech security, maybe lasso himself a juicy position in one security company or another. It would certainly beat a career as an academic or, God forbid, continuing working for Yeti’s dad.

    Phil knew each of the team had thoroughly researched their corporate sponsor. A Fortune 500 corporation, Helguard was a world-leader in card, fingerprint, retinal and iris scanners, as well as voice recognition technology. This made Helguard of intense interest to the militaries and the wealthy of the world, all of whom were constantly looking for new and innovative ways to keep unwanted people out. As Helguard was making a concerted move into the global market for remote scanners and sensors for cargo and passenger processing, they sought solutions to better detect everything, from explosives to drugs, and even radioactivity in cargo. With a growing customer base in Customs operations globally, Helguard recognised a trend for ever increasing public fear, and Phil planned to get onto that train and ride it for all it was worth.

    So, continued Crowley, it looks like you lot will have to get your skates on. I don’t have to emphasise that, for the university, this is a most important project. Over the next two years, you’ll not only engage in useful research to earn your doctorates in your respective fields, but you’ll also have to complete the very extensive documentary process involved in a PhD. Now I know you’re all very capable and just a little smarter than average, he smiled at his own joke, but you’ll also need to create useful solutions that we hope will make Helguard happy. He paused for effect before continuing. That means creating a special something that will make their luggage and personal scanners more saleable. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean creating something amazing from scratch, but Helguard will expect their pound of flesh. This very-sought-after sponsor is to invest in our expertise, so we need to get the results. If we’re smart, we might be able to justify further research and help develop systems that are even more effective. This is a big one, guys! This next two years could mean some very juicy career opportunities for you and more research projects for the university, so let’s cast a wide net and see what we can achieve.

    John Crowley looked to Mel in delight, raised his glass to her, and then to the others, in a silent salute of congratulations accompanied by his signature, beaming smile.

    With his glass raised, Phil knew the time for fooling around was over. Now they would have to achieve some serious results.

    3

    Breathing deeply from his exertions, Michael finally slowed to a jog that soon became a brisk walk. Though intimately familiar with his pack and weapons, their weight began to tell on him physically. He’d been on the move for almost half the morning, so it was time for a cautious rest.

    Ever alert for pursuit, he paused by a large, moss-covered log. He had detected no sign of the wolves since fleeing from the glade and hoped that, by now, the pack had lost interest in him. The encounter had been unsettling, especially if he considered how close he had come to a horrific death. There was also the she-wolf’s injuries. He shook his head to thrust the shocking incident behind him.

    Slipping his pack from his aching shoulders, he reached inside for a leather drawstring bag of nuts and dried fruit. Chewing the tough food hungrily, he sipped water from a water bag and further examined his surroundings. Moss-covered trees skulked, ancient and brooding, as if they held their breath to watch the intruder. Here, the forest was clear of undergrowth, though frequent gouges in the leaf litter suggested wild boar had rooted for acorns and truffles. Squirrels scampered above and he thought he spied the furtive glance of a lynx before it vanished from view. It was spring and some oaks were late to unfurl their foliage. Where the sun touched the forest floor, swathes of colourful flowers adorned the woodland like a bride. Patches of white or yellow mingled with clearings of blue as living colour carpeted every available patch of sunlight.

    Not for the first time, Michael checked his boots to confirm they had dried safely before setting off at a brisk walk, chewing as he went. He could ill afford wet feet, as they would become so soft they risked injury simply by walking. To conserve energy, his emphasis was no longer on speed, but on silence, for he was to be a shadowy observer in the forest. It was impossible to fully relax. He might still be the object of the hunt and could ill afford to blunder into more dangers. Besides wolves and boar, bears also inhabited these forests, so to remain invisible and alert would keep him alive.

    The day passed all too quickly, and with the fading light, Michael searched for a suitable place to camp. He had avoided boar on a number of occasions, having detected them by scent, rather than sight. Their droppings had been warm on the leaf litter and he opted to avoid any more confrontation. One boar could be a challenge, while a family of boars would result in injury and death. A threatened boar could charge from the dense undergrowth to gore with razor-sharp tusks before one even realised they were near.

    That night, Michael nestled between the protective, arm-like roots of an ancient oak. Gathered leaves made his mattress and the roots allowed some shelter from potentially inquisitive eyes and noses. He dined on travel rations and then lay warmly wrapped in his cloak where he slept lightly, waking often to quietly monitor his surroundings before drifting back to sleep until a chill morning shower. The woollen cocoon kept him snug and dry, and he lay a moment as he watched a marten scamper in the branches above as it searched for prey.

    Michael decided to try his hand at hunting and strung his short bow. After tracking for most of the morning, he finally caught up with his elusive prey. A fawn coughed slightly and fell where it stood as the second arrow pierced its chest. The startled doe lingered, her conflicting instincts for protection and survival battled for domination until, with a small cry of anguish, she fled, leaving her young to his fate.

    Using his razor-sharp knife, his seax, the hunter skinned and butchered the small creature, keeping the tender rear haunches for roasting. In the gathering gloom, foxes and a badger squabbled noisily over the unwanted remains he left far from his camp. Ever watchful for intruders, he savoured the freshly roasted meat as a most welcome relief from his rations. He glanced at the wolf’s muzzle and adjusted the stick from which it hung to best access the smoke so it would cure and not rot and stink. The chance of pursuit now appeared slim, but the thought of marauding wolves or bears kept him ever alert.

    The next morning, Michael soon became aware of a subtle change. Something caught his attention and he paused to scan the forest and listen intently. There was no variance from the usual hum of life as a few hedgehogs scurried in the nearby undergrowth. A log from a fallen giant lay across his path of travel. He sniffed carefully for the scent of wolf or wild boar but still nothing seemed amiss until there, almost unnoticed, stood the cut stem of a small plant. He knew of no creature other than man who would cut so neatly. The thought of people both excited him and inspired caution. Though he indeed sought the local inhabitants, people added complications and could be a blessing or a danger.

    As he continued his journey, more subtle changes became apparent. There was no longer any trace of boar, while deer became plentiful. Of wolves, thankfully, there was no sign, nor had there been since his first encounter. The forest was more open, with expansive stands of beech that allowed him to see far ahead. That meant he could better detect potential risks, but that he was also more exposed.

    It was later in the afternoon when a mere flicker of movement caught his eye. He stopped, sank to a crouch and waited, for it might be deer. There, some fifty or so paces distant, he saw another enigmatic flick of brown through the trees. He moved cautiously forward and kept to cover, his hand on the pommel of his short sword. A large tree prevented a clear line of sight, so he carefully tilted his head for a better look.

    Too late, Michael saw a scrap of brown garment that was almost the colour of the surrounding forest. There was a glimpse of a pale hand, a clothed arm and then a back and buttocks clad in a speckled brown shift with a cord or rope tied around the waist. A roughly finished, soft leather shoe shod a foot. The material blended into the forest so perfectly, Michael feared he could have blundered into the person if they had remained motionless, for it was a man who was, thankfully, facing away. Michael was close enough to see dirty, greying-blonde hair cut roughly, shorter than shoulder length, and judging by the top of the head, the prickly regrowth of what could be a tonsure, though one that had not been maintained for some time.

    Perhaps a priest or a monk. Whoever he was, he didn’t look like a warrior. The monk muttered to himself, possibly in prayer, for he stood and gestured with grubby hands that were frequently brought to his face as if in supplication or weeping. There was no evidence of weapons at hand, nor of anyone else in the forest, though this was no time for rash judgment.

    After watching for a few more moments, Michael moved silently until he hid behind a stout, mossy tree only a few paces behind the monk. He again carefully scanned the surrounding forest. A primitive lean-to where the monk apparently slept stood a few steps away and a staff, used as a weapon or walking support, rested against it. The monk continued to mutter in what sounded like Latin, so he listened and watched.

    Certain they were alone, Michael stepped silently and unseen from his cover and nervously cleared his throat to attract the monk’s attention.

    The monk was so lost in his muttering he appeared not to hear. However, the second gentle cough had him immediately freeze and fall silent as his hands flew to his face. Slowly, as if terrified at what he might see, he struggled to look over his shoulder. He watched as the monk caught sight of him and Michael imagined what he saw; an armed stranger only paces behind, hands raised, and with a cautious smile. Michael could smell him, his rank, musty, unwashed body odour and the wet-dog smell of damp wool. Though the monk looked harmless, Michael’s heart hammered and he was ready to explode into action if needed. He hoped first impressions would be enough to stop the monk from screaming or running in terror. After all, to be alone in the forest one moment and then have an armed man standing there the next would not be the most comforting of situations. Though he saw no companions, he had no desire to combat a hidden protector who might dash to the monk’s aid.

    The monk was stooped to a height that came only to Michael’s eyes. With a scruffy beard on a heavily lined face, his pale-grey eyes and mouth were wide open in shock, staring into the newcomer’s face. Michael clearly saw a few tombstone-like brown teeth that clung perilously to pink gums.

    However, the monk was full of surprises. Rather than being terrified at the unexpected sight of an armed intruder, his hands, clutched around a small wooden crucifix at his throat and flew to his mouth as he burst into tears.

    4

    Mel watched as, with some difficulty, Phil and Yeti manoeuvred a sheet of timber panelling through the doorways to position it on the framework the carpenters had constructed. Also watched by Alan and Craig, they held the timber while the tradesmen fastened everything into place.

    There! exclaimed Yeti with a flourish. Now you have tables for your precious computers. All we have to do is get them painted and we’re off to a good start.

    Alan and Craig gave a satisfied nod and reached for their paintbrushes. Around them was a steady buzz of activity as more cardboard boxes of equipment and components were delivered. Mel signed for them and checked with Phil before the boxes were stored. He was, after all, their engineer and most of the equipment was as he had ordered. She nodded a greeting to Crowley as he entered and looked around with obvious excitement.

    Very nice, very nice. He nodded and smiled at Mel. It looks like we’re moving along beautifully. You even have Yeti doing some work for a change.

    Mel raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Yes, finally. You might be surprised to know that he’s been quite helpful in getting our electronics at a better price because of industry contacts through his father.

    Crowley chuckled and looked at their new home, a small, former surfboard factory purchased by Helguard for their research, and he was obviously pleased to see the process of refit well and truly under way.

    Phil and Yeti cheered as the final benchtops were completed.

    So, benchtops are for the main computers to face the main research area for equipment assembly and testing. Crowley nodded in satisfaction. How are things progressing in accessing the computer components for Allen and Craig?

    Mel smiled. Well, they just arrived. The guys are wetting themselves in anticipation.

    Crowley looked to the latest load of cardboard boxes wrapped in packing tape. They’ll have some very impressive computers once these are assembled. That alone should keep them out of trouble. These computers would be the envy of any researcher. Even the IT guys at the university have been asking about them.

    Mel nodded and smiled. Come on; I’ll show you around.

    They walked from the main entrance through a tacky, stained melamine kitchen and across the old warehouse to their offices.

    We’ll do our main research in the open area, as you said, and, you know, assemble and test everything. That’s where we anticipate Craig and Phil will do most of their work. The offices here are for the completion of our documentation, so will probably be for Allen and I. Now as you know, our funding has included computers, phones and the like. We have all of the standard items, so once Craig and Allen build their systems, we’ll really get things kicked off in a major way.

    They paused to look at a quality, large screen television and Bose sound system. And this? asked Crowley with eyebrows raised.

    Mel shrugged. Well, Phil had included it in our equipment list and it was installed yesterday. I’m not sure of his rationale, but it was approved.

    The academic chuckled and shook his head, then looked to a shabby kitchen nearby and pointed to a couple of surfboards leaning against the kitchen counter.

    Mel shrugged again. Phil and Yeti’s; the beach is close and it is convenient for them... Her lame explanation trailed off.

    Crowley nodded, raising his eyebrows. Well, I can’t remember the TV, but okay. I have no problem with the odd youthful infringement, but Yeti has to be kept on a leash and Phil had better do his work. A lot’s riding on this.

    Understood, nodded Mel, but Yeti has been an enormous help, and in Phil’s defence, he already has a set of schematics drawn up that look really impressive. Once Allen and Craig have their computers up and running, we’ll be able to start some serious work. Allen has some software prototypes already in the draft stage and Craig has been working with Phil as to how Allen’s software will interact with the equipment. I think you’ll be impressed. Give us a week and you’ll start to see results.

    Crowley replied, And what about your modelling? I understand the mathematics involved is pretty high-end.

    Mel nodded. Yeah, well you’re right there. She smiled. My maths supervisor has been in touch and we have a few things on the boil, as you know. Like I said, give us a week and we’ll have something to show you.

    The new benches framed an area about the size of a large truck. We’re calling it ‘The Factory’. Just so you know, Mel added.

    Crowley nodded. Yes, I understand how these things can have a life of their own. My years of research in the aerospace industry were much like this, only a lot more security conscious—and better funded. He jumped as the sound system leaped into life. Some of the latest indie music boomed through the cavernous area. Does that go on all day? he asked critically.

    Mel laughed. Well, no. We’re coming to a consensus on music. Craig tried to play his base-heavy nightclub tracks the other day, but that was shut down quickly when his MP3 player vanished. He immediately blamed Yeti.

    Was it Yeti? asked Crowley a little sharply.

    Mel smiled again. Well, no. Yeti is actually pretty harmless once you get to know him. Everyone, of course, initially thought it was Yeti, but I actually think it was Allen. He’s so quiet and shy and a real sweetie, but he was the only one around. She shrugged again and giggled. "Music might be a problem, but we’ll sort it.

    Crowley frowned. Yes, we will.

    ***

    The strains of the Beatles rang through The Factory as Phil and Craig manoeuvred a few components to a frame that supported various pieces of equipment and a nest of wires. Both sang along, quite oblivious to the fact they had barely heard any Beatles music until only a week ago. Mel laughed to herself. Crowley had been as good as his word and had stepped in when the topic of music was raised. They had all agreed the only time for personal music was if there was a consensus or when working alone. At all other times, a more eclectic selection was played, from classical music to groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Doors, all introduced by Crowley, who turned out to be some kind of music aficionado. Though there was little resistance, Crowley remained adamant. I’ve seen many a good research team ruined by poor choices in music. You’ll be working closely together and the wrong music will have you at each other’s throats in no time. Listen to whatever you like on your headphones when you’re alone, but as a group, it must be different. Consider it part of your cultural education.

    The most surprising response was from Yeti. Man, that Mozart rocks! he had once commented to an amused Crowley while he helped Phil wire up test equipment.

    Mel knew Crowley felt Yeti was at The Factory more often than he believed beneficial but said nothing as long as he was helpful. Mel was happy with their efforts. Besides the whiteboards littered with formulae and goals, posters of skate and computer gaming products sat alongside a Chinese calligraphy piece she had created in an artistic moment. Phil and Yeti always started the day with a surf, while Allen and Craig stayed late some nights to play computer games, but as a team, they began to make progress. Mel made some exciting inroads into the mathematical theory behind her contribution to the project and Crowley was obviously pleased all was progressing as expected.

    The weeks turned into months and Allen successfully submitted the team’s first research paper. On recommendation by Crowley, Allen attended a computer-programming symposium in Melbourne where his paper was well received.

    Phil submitted his final schematics draft on the preliminary design of the scanner projectors to Crowley, who sent them to the Helguard technical team who closely monitored their progress. Mel knew the monitoring by Helguard was an area of contention, especially with Phil, who argued their research required freedom from industry oversight despite their sponsor’s strict accountability requirements. However, the Helguard scientists gave some helpful guidelines and valuable technical advice.

    I’m sure they’re just a bunch of geeks who want to help, argued Mel at one meeting. They seem quite obliging and helpful. They would want us to get results as much as we do.

    Phil simply harrumphed and said something about maintaining control of intellectual property and design, but soon acquiesced.

    5

    Phil sat nervously, looked out of the small window and willed himself not to want to pee. Helguard’s invitation to the Security Industry Trade Fair in Paris had taken them all by surprise, and before they knew it, Phil found himself with the rest of the team on a QANTAS flight. His first time out of Australia, he thought it fortunate to score the window seat until he found he could see nothing but clouds and was compelled to climb over Allan and Craig whenever he needed to visit the bathroom.

    He was enormously relieved when they finally arrived in Paris. They had a free day and despite his exhaustion, he was determined to miss nothing. The crowds surrounding the Louvre drove him crazy but the French women were something else. Familiar with the tanned, surfer girls he so preferred, he was mystified by the style and beauty of many of the Parisian women. Thankfully, Crowley continued his self-adopted role as cultural educator and guided them to the main sights.

    The next morning their sponsor, Mel’s Uncle Peter, met them for breakfast at their hotel. Not having had much experience with French hotels, Phil especially appreciated that he could access free porn on his TV and had promptly messaged Yeti. Mel described their accommodation as boutique, which Phil suspected would have cost a bomb, especially since it was only a short walk from Paris Expo Porte de Versailles where the trade show was held. He found Peter Conti to be an intelligent, friendly and good-looking man who, like his niece, was not tall. Phil was most impressed Conti was conversant with most of their research. His questions indicated a sound knowledge of each of their specialised fields as they applied to the project. They were again reminded that Helguard had made a significant investment in them. Results were not only expected, but were required.

    The perfect host, Conti delighted in French culture, though Phil’s atrocious attempt at French had their breakfast wait staff in fits of laughter.

    Later, Mel approached him and took him aside. Uncle Peter wants us to get a few things sorted.

    What’s that? he responded, alarmed they might not have completed a task their sponsor considered significant.

    Mel laughed. It’s okay, but look at yourself and, she motioned with a jerk of her head, the rest of us.

    While Crowley was dressed in a business suit, Phil was dressed in his usual skate shirt, black jeans and shoes while Allen wore a tee shirt with Error 404 – Clean Shirt Not Found emblazoned under his scruffy hooded jacket. We look like a grunge band, not researchers, explained Mel. Uncle Peter will be in be in meetings for a few hours with Dr Crowley, so he wants us to fix this.

    How? asked Phil. How the hell are we going to afford shopping for new clothes in Paris?

    No worries. He’s cashed me up. We all have to dress executive style, with enough business shirts to last for the next few days. We’ll be representing Helguard now, so we have to get dressed in something suitable.

    But this is suitable, complained Phil.

    Mel just shook her head. You poor boy, you really have no clue, do you? I’ll look after you.

    Phil frowned. That’s what I’m afraid of.

    ***

    The security trade-fair was nothing short of a new world. Phil and the team, dressed in stylish suits and ties, met specialists in security products that ranged from metal and bomb detectors to IT security, perimeter security, ID biometrics, and access control. While Allen and Craig drooled over the latest in IT system innovations, Phil spent hours talking shop with sales and technical staff from many other disciplines. Conti advised them to experience all they could, to check out the competition and see where the latest innovations lay.

    Phil finally met the Helguard technical team. They praised him for his creative approach as they pored over his schematics, offering alternative solutions while they made notes as to what equipment they could supply. Though not the largest security technology company, Helguard had a reputation for cutting-edge innovation. Phil had to swallow his pride, forced to concede that these professionals actually knew what they were talking about. Thankfully, they also seemed to value his work. Because they had years of experience in the real world of security technology, Phil realised the Helguard technical geeks were the experts most likely to help the team yield positive and practical results.

    Two more days at the show, with evenings dining with industry and technical specialists, helped Phil recognise how to better target industry demand rather than, as Conti sometimes described it, ‘academic bullshit’. By the time they had returned to The Factory in Australia, he had changed his focus to a more commercially viable set of solutions.

    After a couple of recuperative days, they launched back into their work. Phil initiated a redesign of the scanners and sent them to Helguard for comment. This may actually work, he muttered late one evening as he, Craig and Crowley had just completed a Skype discussion with a couple of the more senior Helguard technical specialists.

    Crowley wearily blinked and nodded, It will. The feedback I’ve received from Conti and his team so far is that they’re impressed. As you see, they’ve given us remarkable access to equipment and components we would never normally see and they’re beginning to talk to contacts we would never even imagine.

    Phil smiled. Well, let’s see what they come up with.

    Crowley returned the smile. Yes, well, the team is showing itself to be just a little bright. He clapped Craig on the shoulder. If Conti’s intuition is correct, this could turn out to be a very productive little project for us and for Helguard.

    6

    The monk stood before Michael and wept in an open-mouthed cry unlike grief or fear, more like—joy? He didn’t appear to be as afraid for his life as one would have thought when confronted in the depths of the forest by an armed man.

    To make matters even more disconcerting, he moved forward until his face was but a hand’s breadth away. There was an impression of rotten teeth and bad breath, an almost physical assault from which Michael immediately recoiled. Many of the monk’s teeth were absent. Obviously he rarely shaved, as his face was covered with stubble that could have been blonde or grey. His age was almost impossible to determine. He was particularly mindful of thick hairs and pocked blackheads that decorated the end of the monk’s bulbous nose as pale grey eyes adoringly gazed up at him. Michael froze uncomfortably.

    Without warning, the monk surged forward, as if to give Michael a hug. It was all he could do to fend the smaller man off with raised hands. Thankfully, he stopped at the last moment. Michael had no desire for any close contact with the damp wool that stank heavily. He scanned his surrounds as he realised this monk would be a perfect distraction for brigands, for he had become completely immobilised by the man’s unexpected emotional reaction. As he watched, aghast, the sobbing monk sank slowly to his knees, his eyes never leaving Michael’s face. Tears poured down his weathered, whiskered cheeks and soon the childlike weeping began to distress. Michael had seen weeping in many places—weeping of mothers for sons, of fathers for children—but nothing quite as mysterious as this. He crouched in front of the monk and reached to touch the man’s grubby hands, his other hand still on his short sword, just in case.

    On reaching out in comfort, his hand was grasped and held by the monk’s hard, heavily veined hands: hands with swollen arthritic knuckles aggravated by a life of hard physical labour. Before he could react, the monk kissed Michael’s hand passionately. There was an impression of a bristly face and a damp slobber of snot, so the initial reaction was to pull away. Yet he uncomfortably patted the monk’s shoulder and made soothing noises before he retrieved his hand and stood, encouraging the other to rise. More kisses were threatened, so he hurriedly addressed the monk in Latin, supposing he could speak the lingua franca of clergy throughout Christendom. Peace be unto you, brother, he said as he gave the slobbered hand a tactful wipe on the seat of his breeches.

    And to you, was the automatic sob in response. There was an accent and the words were understood, though at first difficult to decipher.

    What is your name? asked Michael.

    My name? the monk asked, as if stunned at such a question. My name ... my name is Oeric, Lord. Brother Oeric, he replied quietly and briefly averted his eyes.

    Oeric. Greetings, Brother Oeric, my name is... He paused. He knew it was best to provide his name in a format best suited to the local language. My name is Michael. He said it as ‘Meekal’ to give the pronunciation he assumed would suit.

    At the name, Brother Oeric wailed loudly and again placed his trembling, worn hands over his face. Before Michael could react, the man again fell to his knees and bent to place his face onto the leaf litter. Michael again scanned the surrounding forest uncomfortably.

    Indeed, they were alone.

    He again knelt and awkwardly patted the prostrate Brother Oeric on the shoulder. Oeric, Brother Oeric, is something wrong? Why do you weep? Come now, stand and tell me. What is the matter?

    After what seemed to be a titanic struggle, Brother Oeric managed to retain some control. Rising to his knees, he wiped his freely running nose and eyes on the cloth that hung over his chest, a simple square of wool with a head hole that was his scapula, designed to protect his long, brown tunic. Michael noted the silver line of snot and decided that if another hug was attempted, that was good enough reason to keep the monk at arm’s length. The monk wore a simple, one-piece robe of rough, raw, dark brown wool that enabled him to blend effectively with the forest. Attached to his scapula was a cowl, a large hood that offered protection from snow or rain in a fashion similar to the hood Michael wore on his own cloak. Michael watched the small man clutch his shaking hands together in a moment of muttered prayer before he looked up again.

    Lord, I give thanks that you are here, he said with eyes that were again downcast. He paused and gazed up adoringly, a look that was supposed to be a quick glance but which ended in a stare akin to wonder.

    Thank you, Brother Oeric. I also give thanks that I’m here, Michael replied quietly as he stood. He waited for Brother Oeric to continue. There was something distinctly odd about this, standing in a forest in such a chance, emotional meeting. Brother Oeric’s hands shook again as he continued to struggle for control, his voice quivered, and he looked down as he continued. Lord...

    Michael interrupted gently. Brother Oeric, please call me by my name. You don’t need to call me Lord.

    Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord Michael. I have cried unto God that we receive his blessing and his help. I came into the forest, Lord...um...Michael, to plead for God’s favour, for his kind and loving care, explained the monk quickly. His voice had dropped to a mutter, a mere whisper. Brother Oeric was small but made himself look even smaller as he hunched over, gnarled hands grasped around his simple wooden crucifix, his shoulders rounded and his head bowed. He did indeed need to have his tonsure tidied. The tonsure should have been a neatly shaved pate on the top of the head as a sign of a monk’s humility. It looked like the monk’s barber was a few months overdue.

    Michael raised his eyebrows and smiled encouragingly. He saw the monk glance at his mouth and Oeric’s eyes widened a little and his head again bowed quickly. Lord Michael, I give thanks to the Blessed Virgin, Mary, Mother of God. Thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord... He took a sobbing breath and resumed weeping.

    Michael sighed. He needed to gain control of a situation he had clearly failed to understand. Oeric, brother, where do you live? You cannot live in the forest, surely? he asked quickly before another continuation of histrionics.

    Brother Oeric paused and took another sobbing breath as he struggled to decipher Michael’s Latin, thus saving himself from another downward spiral into the leaf litter. He appeared to brighten and to gain a sense of purpose. Forgive me, Lord. Forgive me! Yes! The Blessed Virgin be praised! Yes, we must leave this place now and get to shelter and to Brother Aldfrid and the brothers at the monastery.

    Michael was relieved to hear there was a monastery close-by. As Brother Oeric had no possessions, he stood a moment, as if gathering himself mentally and spiritually, then, with a furtive glance to Michael to follow, collected his staff, and confidently headed off into the forest.

    As they walked, at first he said nothing, murmuring prayerfully into the hand that clasped his simple crucifix while casting furtive glances at his new companion, as if to make sure he was really there. Michael constantly scanned the forest without comment while Brother Oeric walked on. The small man carried himself with a slight limp, favouring his right knee when clambering up a steep slope or when crossing some of the many creeks. On more than one occasion, Michael was tempted to toss the little man into a creek to give him a much-needed bath.

    The monk was very thin and his ankle-length tunic heavily stained, but he carried himself with a determined purpose that made a brisk pace through the forest.

    7

    Mel couldn’t sleep. She had been experiencing a lot of frustration of late. There was a conundrum in her mathematical theories and it had her worrying at it like a loose tooth. She decided to take advantage of a public holiday and ride her bicycle to The Factory. There she would be free from distractions so she could concentrate on finding the solution.

    The streets were anything but quiet. The Factory was in the heart of a busy little seaside village and the tourists milled to take advantage of the gorgeous sunny weather. As the other team members would take every opportunity to enjoy the long weekend, their research facility would be empty. She rode down the esplanade along the Maroochy River and avoided the usual horde of joggers. Across the road, the white walls of high-rise resorts stood like sentinels, all identical in their efforts to appear unique. The stunning vista of the turquoise river and the morning sun sparkling on the clear water calmed her. Already children squealed as they splashed each other at one of the many beaches. A local farmers’ market blocked off one of the streets and Mel dodged shoppers who strolled in the sun. She suspected Phil and Yeti would have hit the surf long before the beach crowds, and as the already warm sun toasted her bare legs and shoulders, Mel knew the day would be a scorcher.

    On arrival at The Factory car park, Mel found the rear security door already unlocked. Fearing that someone had accidentally left the door open overnight, she was immediately concerned they had been robbed. The equipment may not make sense to most, but a thief could sell the computers and a vandal would wreak havoc and destroy valuable research.

    She opened the door to the sound of arguing. It was Phil, so she felt relieved that their gear would be okay. Removing her helmet, Mel wheeled her bicycle to park it in the kitchen as usual. The air conditioning was on and felt delicious. In the lounge area sat four guys. Yeti reclined in a beanbag with his cap backward and Phil stood in front of their large screen TV. They had obviously just returned from a surf as Phil still had white sunscreen on his nose and she recognised the two seated on their battered sofa as Dawsy and Little Sam, friends of Yeti and Phil. A bong sat on the tatty coffee table and the smell of ganja filled the room.

    Phil paused in what looked almost like a lecture, obviously making a point in an argument. Behind him, on the TV screen, Mel spotted the frozen image of Judy Garland’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Mel had actually expected to see the close-up of various explicit body parts from an exotic porn movie. The fact it was The Wizard of Oz intrigued her. As she walked in, Yeti waved and casual greetings were exchanged. Phil nodded to her before he continued. "No, you don’t turn up the sound on the movie. The idea is that you play The Wizard of Oz to The Dark Side of the Moon, and for some reason the two just go together and the music suits the movie. I don’t know who found it out, but it’s fucking cool. Ok?"

    All heads nodded.

    Yeti said, "I heard it was with Alice in Wonderland, you know, the Disney version."

    "No,

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