Brigandeers: Chapter 3: The Piper

At least this time we’re not going far. But it’s still three hours before we’re ready to head to the Taieri, which is a rich farming plateau about half an hour out of town. The airport, at the far end of the plateau, is a little further, but Nigel suggests we start with a trip there for some measurements, and I have to agree his idea makes sense.

We might be Stealth, but we seem to take a long time to get going. We’re anything but Stealthy when it comes to packing our truck.

Nigel grabs a whole pile of weird-arse equipment to measure goodness knows what, and piles it into the back of our old, beat-up truck. Then John demands he unpack it all, because apparently it is a safety hazard and has been packed incorrectly, and they re-pack together, bickering and arguing the whole time.

Best friends, those two.

I mind my own business, and pack some snacks for the trip. Sure, we might only be a few hours, but you can never be too careful. My mother used to say she didn’t know where I put all the food I eat, and I don’t know either, because no matter how much I eat I seem to stay skinny.

I’d love to say I stay “lean” but who are we kidding? I’m all angles, and none of them scream sexy. So I pack a few apples, a chocolate bar or two, and some sandwiches.

Just in case, you know?

By three in the afternoon we’re ready to head out to the airport. We might be Stealth, but we’re not fast at it. With the truck all loaded up, it is indistinguishable from the dozens of old farm vehicles that frequent the motorway between the Taieri and Dunedin.

But none of our equipment is to do with farming, apart from our two old dirt bikes piled on the back in the tray, tied down with straps. Everything else is Nigel-designed, built by John and Nigel, and will be operated by Nigel.

I have no clue about any of it. Ani and Marika do, but they’re not coming. Two tech heads – Nigel and John – on this excursion should be enough.

I query the amount of crap sitting behind me in the boot, and Nigel assures me it’s all absolutely essential. I’m not so sure, looking at the piles of metal and plastic and dials and dishes behind me, but hey, he’s our field guy. He should know. Besides, I can sit and mock him if he gets it all wrong, knowing that at least I don’t look like the stupid one.

The three of us don’t talk much on the journey about what lies ahead. Truth is, we don’t know and will make it up on the fly. Nigel knows what he wants to measure and track, and the rest will be guesswork.

The main discussion on the road is what to listen to on the radio, as we head down the motorway, trying to look inconspicuous. Nigel is sitting in the back seat behind me, and he wants classical music on the radio (god help us!), while John, who is driving, wants to listen to this bloody awful death metal music stuff that I can only describe as noise.

We agree on most things, John and me. Music is clearly not one of them. Between the three of us, we settle for a country music station. It’s the music of pain, and everyone hates it, but at least it’s fair that way. We can all suffer equally.

The mix of banjo and violins assaults me. I wish I’d brought earplugs. Or my music player. I’d almost prefer John’s death metal. No chance in hell I’d ever admit to that.

We arrive at the airport three quarters of an hour after leaving Dunedin, passing through Mosgiel, then Allanton and finally Momona, which is a tiny village built for workers at the airport, only a few hundred metres from the main terminal buildings.

We make our way to an outlying hanger that is mainly used for air freight. It’s a few hundred metres from the main buildings of the terminal.

John has tagged this place as being a safe base from which to do our investigations, as the company that owned the hanger went bung a couple of years ago and it is supposed to have been sitting empty ever since.

I hope he’s right.

The place seems completely deserted, as we pull up close to the building, which dwarfs our rather large truck. You know, you don’t notice how huge aircraft hangars are until you’re right up close next to one, and then you remember, with a bang, that Oh yeah, they’re built for aircraft to fit inside! D’oh!

It’s like when you get up close to one of those international passenger planes, then realize with a jolt that the tail is over 8 storeys tall. It kind of shocks you, when you don’t have anything to give a comparison of scale. Because all you see at any airport are other planes of varying sizes, all of them enormous. And you forget that, if you’re like me.

I’m not good with scale, unless I’m right up against things. Except trees and other living things I control. I can always figure them out, down to the last cubic millimeter.

I feel stupid when I think about how we call our little dusty warehouse back in Dunedin “the Hangar”.

I think we might have delusions of grandeur after all.

John turns the engine off, and steps out of the truck. Without another word to Nigel and me, he saunters over to the hangar.

“Oh great,” I mutter to myself. I just love the way he does this, never filling us in on what he has in his head that might constitute any sort of a plan.

I hear Nigel snort in the seat behind me. He and John’s love-hate relationship is pretty much in evidence right now. They despise each other in a loving, brotherly kind of way. It’s amusing to watch sometimes, when I’m not so stressed as I am right now.

We watch John tap gently on the window of the hanger’s human-sized door that leads into the part of the building partitioned into an office. Then I hear Nigel gasp as John breaks the window open with a swift elbow move when he determines there’s nobody home.

John slips inside the building, and I curse him silently.

I slide across the front bench seat of the truck, ready to drive. If things go pear -shaped, I’ve got to be ready to get us all out of here real quickly. That should be John’s job, of course, but he’s off all loaded up on testosterone, busy being James Bond. I have no idea how I’d get John out of here if things go wrong, but I guess I’ll figure that out if I have to.

Many minutes later, the huge main aircraft doors of the hangar begin to creak open and roll back. While we’ve been sitting here, sweating it out and worrying, John has figured the main doors out.

I see his silhouette against the dark interior, broad-shouldered and muscular, standing smugly in the gap between the huge doors as they roll apart, with his arms folded across his chest. I try not to laugh, and instead place a stern expression on my face. I’m pissed off and amused and I don’t know which emotion is in charge at the moment.

I get down out of the truck, and saunter over to meet him. “You could have told us it was safe,” I admonish him. “We do have mobile phones, you know.”

He chuckles at this, the bastard. “Didn’t need to. Besides,” he adds, with a grin. “I like to keep you on your toes.”

He turns to Nigel, and says, “Just drive it in, will you? The place is empty, and anyone who used this place isn’t coming back in a hurry.” He looks at me and replies, “Well, it’s not quite completely empty. Full of rats,” in response to my questioning look.

I shudder. We should have brought Ani along. Rats are her thing. Me, not so much.

John isn’t wrong. As Nigel drives the truck in (barely missing the hangar doors: I don’t know how he does it), a scurry of rats dashes here and there, moving swiftly out of the way of the wheels.

Nigel begins to set his equipment up, miniature homemade radar dishes and a host of equipment that I cannot even begin to fathom, all connected up to the arrays of battery packs we keep stored in the back of the truck, so we can be mobile and powered up at all times.

It takes him what seems like forever, but is probably only a quarter of an hour, to set it all up and connect to the power. Then he switches everything on with one master switch, his ruddy face focused and intent. Nigel doesn’t seem to notice how musty and foul the air inside the hangar is, but I do, and every few minutes I pop outside to get a breath of clean air.

Suddenly the vast space of the hangar is filled with the booming, crackling voices of people giving and taking directions from air traffic control, plus a spattering of security talk as Nigel fiddles with the dials. Nigel has got his equipment working.

“We’re in,” I say, with a grin.

“Not quite,” says Nigel. “It’s not the air traffic and security channels I’m after.” Frowning in concentration, he begins twiddling a few dials, and the voices are abruptly silenced, to be replaced by a low pitched hum, emitting from a central panel on one of his machines.

“There!” he says, obviously pleased. “That’s what I’m after!”

I’m confused. John, peering over my shoulder from behind me, pretends he understands what’s going on, but I can tell by his expression that he too has no idea at all what Nigel is trying to do.

Nigel reaches for a small handset that was hooked on to the main console, and lifts it up, switching it on, and lighting it up. He flicks out a tiny antenna that is attached to it. It looks pretty similar to any ordinary citizen band handset that you’d talk into, and that might have been its original purpose, but this has obviously been dismantled and altered a long time ago, and now has another life.

He turns the volume dial up on the handset, and it too begins to emit the same steady hum as the main console. Then he holds it up at head height, and begins to wave it in one direction, then another. The pitch of the hum rises and falls depending on which direction he’s pointing the thing.

I’m beginning to figure out what its for. “You’re homing in on something!” I say slowly.

“Not something,” he corrects me. “Someone. This device is tracking deviations in the earth’s magnetic field. And there’s a great big sucker of a deviation only a few hundred metres away from where we’re standing.”

“That’s what’s been making the aircraft navigation systems go haywire?” I ask, beginning to understand.

“Exactly.” He smiles, his ridiculous gingery moustache twitching upwards. “At least, I’m pretty certain of it. We’ll track it, and find out not what, but who, is causing the anomaly.”

He looks around at us all, his blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “Ohhhhh, this is going to be exciting!”

He takes a breath, and starts gently in a slow voice, as if explaining to small children.

“What we have here,” he says, indicating the handset he’s holding, then motioning with it across the bank of instruments he’s set up. “Are a series of instruments that measure deviations in the earth’s geomagnetic field. I created them myself, of course,” he adds, puffing his chest up a little. “Because nothing of the sort existed anywhere around here – not that we could obtain, at least.”

“The handset is a portable tracker. The larger systems give me feedback on the size of the deviation, the types of electromagnetic radiation we may be dealing with, plus a host of other details you probably wouldn’t understand, so I won’t bother you with them.”

Did I mention that Nigel can be a pompous git sometimes?

“I’m thrilled,” says John dryly. “This is all very interesting, but what I want to know is, how big an anomaly are we talking? You said it was interfering with aircraft navigation systems. Why isn’t the federal government on it? Why isn’t this whole area crawling with agents?”

Nigel shakes his head. “Maybe they’re stupid. Most government agencies are, you know. Maybe they can’t figure it out. Or maybe,” he adds. “The fact that the drug cartels own this joint is actually working in our favour, for a change.”

“Good point,” I say, deliberately ignoring the annoying tone in Nigel’s voice. Sometimes I wish he weren’t so damn clever. I continue: “I mean, just because the government pays off the drug lords doesn’t mean they all get along with each other, right?”

He nods. “Right. I can’t imagine anyone wanting lots of agents down here, all of whom would need paying off, when there’s already a lot of shady business going on.”

He grins. “It’s an extra element of risk that’s completely unnecessary. Besides, the amount of interference that the anomaly is creating, while massive in natural terms, isn’t enough to completely screw up the navigation systems of large aircraft.”

He coughs, and scratches at his ridiculous moustache. “Their backup systems will be fine. As it is, we’ve been dealing with magnetic anomalies for decades now, and all modern aircraft are equipped to deal with them, ever since the magnetic poles started shifting back late last century. It’s only the smaller, private aircraft that really have to be worried, and there aren’t enough of them that are being compromised to elicit any sort of significant investigation.”

Nigel, as usual, sounds like he’s swallowed a dictionary. I’m not sure I want to know what comes out the other end.

“You mean, it’s all too small to bother with?” I interpret.

“Exactly,” he confirms. “Sometimes being right in the middle of gangland works in our favour.” He waves the handheld device he’s holding at me, and the pitch its emitting rises noticeably. “Interesting,” he comments, a bushy red eyebrow raised.

“She’s not the anomaly you’re looking for, Nigel,” says John, with a sigh.

“Oh no, I know that,” says Nigel. “But check this out!” he points the device back towards the back of the hangar away from me, and it returns to its normal pitch, sitting somewhere just a little above an “A”.

“Now stand in front of the receiver,” he says to John, the delight at what he’s about to explain to we ordinary mortals evident in his voice.

John gives him a quizzical look, but does as instructed. I wait for something to happen. Nothing does. I look at Nigel. If he were any more excited he’d be wetting his pants about now – his face is flushed and his eyes are bulging. “Don’t you get it?

He points the device at himself. Nothing. No difference. I shake my head, not understanding what he’s getting at.

“Look! Look!” He points the handset directly at me, at my head, almost like a gun. Once again, the hum rises in pitch very noticeably.

I feel a chill cross my spine. I feel sick. Nigel sees my face.

“Yes, yes!” he says, thrilled by his own invention. “I’ve created a device that can find Stealths!” He takes a deep breath.

“And get this!” he continues. “If this – ” he waves the handset back and forth across me, as the hum rises and falls, up and down, like the doppler effect of a car buzzing past a busy road. “If this is what we get with an incredibly powerful Stealth like Rose…” He moves the handset to point away from me, in the direction of the Anomaly, and the hum is louder, deeper, almost inaudible, thrumming through the air, making the concrete floor throb with vibration. The noise is pulsing through my muscles, seeping through my skull and into my brain. “Then what on earth is the anomaly?

I turn to look at John. His eyes are wide, as he processes what Nigel is getting at. If the difference I make to the magnetic field is that of a minnow, we’ve just found a blue whale.

This doesn’t feel like a game any more.

“What the hell are we dealing with here, Nigel?” asks John, understanding for the first time what we might be about to face.

Nigel’s self-important facade suddenly collapses. “I don’t honestly know,” he says simply, shrugging. “But whatever it is, its either incredibly big or hugely powerful. Or both. And according to my readings, it’s definitely less than five kilometers away. Probably more like a matter of hundreds of metres.”

“It’s pretty obvious where it is then,” says John. “Remember that little village we passed on the way in, the one that was built to house people who work at the airport back in the 1950s?”

“I remember it,” I say, nodding.

“I’d bet anything that whoever or whatever we’re tracking is in there. Apart from a couple of farm houses and that petrol station on the corner, they’re the only buildings for miles. It’s got to be!”

“I’d say you’re right,” I say. I’m beginning to feel like I’m on the hunt, and getting excited. “There’s nowhere else. If Nigel is right, and it’s a person, or people, they’ve got to be living somewhere. They’re not going to be sitting out in the middle of a field of cows.”

“Unless it’s an animal,” argues Nigel. “There’s absolutely nothing in my measurements suggesting that what we’re tracking is a human being. I’d guess it is, but I might be completely wrong.”

“I don’t think we’re tracking a cow,” I say, trying not to sound like I’m pointing out the obvious.

“And If we’re going to investigate anything or anyone, I’m bringing a shotgun,” says John suddenly. “Because I don’t believe it’s a cow we’re looking for.”

He’s been fairly quiet throughout all this, but now there’s a threat of danger, he’s doing what he knows best: making sure we are protected. Making sure I’m protected. I’m annoyed, but I appreciate it just the same. “I’d prefer Rose stays here. You too, Nigel, for that matter. I can work that handset just fine if you show me how.”

“Not a chance,” I declare flatly. I see Nigel nodding vigorously. “What do you think this is, the 1950s? We’ll all go. But maybe send a drone through first?”

“I’d like to,” says John, “But there’s not a chance we can send a drone up this close to the airport without being noticed. This is controlled airspace, remember.”

I curse myself for offering such a stupid suggestion, and move on. “Then we’ll all go. I’m not staying here. Besides, you might need me. I’m not exactly incapable. Stealth, remember?”

John sighs, shaking his head. “I remember! I guess I knew it would come to this from the start. OK: we’ll all go. I’m not thrilled, but maybe that’s the best course of action.”

I’m pleased, but I don’t think either John or Nigel is.

“Let’s get going,” I say.

“Not so fast,” says Nigel. “I want to take some measurements first. I want to confirm my suspicions on a few things.”

“I’ll secure the hangar,” says John. “If this is going to be our base of operations, the last thing we need is someone walking off with our stuff the moment our backs are turned.”

Together John and I fit a new lock to the broken hangar door, and secure the main doors of the building, while Nigel messes around with his equipment, taking notes and confirming data. John and I then scour the whole building from the outside, check for any further entrances in or out.

We find out why there’s so many rats: a lamb must have wandered in from an adjacent field a couple of weeks ago, and now its small body is rotting in one of the corners, a feast for vermin.

John grabs an air rifle from the back of the truck, pops off as many rats as he can manage (about a dozen), then blocks the hole in the back of the hangar that the lamb – and rats – got in through, after taking the wee thing outside to dispose of it in the long grass.

It’s not a nice job, but immediately the musty old hangar starts to smell better. I’ve dealt with dead lambs before – at least there wasn’t much left of this one by the time we had to sort it out. It was stinky, but it could have been a lot worse.

By the time Nigel is done with his measurements and ready to go, we’ve secured the building, locked all the entrances (three of them all up, plus an assortment of cracks and holes) and have equipped ourselves with shotguns and hunting knives in our belts. I’m pretty familiar with weapons, thanks to my mother and her military training: she insisted that I learn to shoot as a kid. I think, in retrospect, she knew all along how different Ani and I were.

I wonder if she was preparing us. I wish I had the chance now to ask if that were true.

John unstraps the two dirt bikes from the truck, and he and I mount them, shotguns strapped across our backs. We look like something out of an old Western, but the weapons – and John’s presence – help me feel more secure.

Sure, I might be a Stealth, but it’s nice to have a good shot with you sometimes, to cover you when things go wrong. John is a good ally to have, and a damn good shot. As for Nigel, I’m not sure I’d want him in a fight, but his brains are incredible, and we could never manage without him. I guess everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

I’m riding the first bike and leading, and John is riding the other, a little way back. Nigel mounts the bike behind me, to ride pillion, because there’s no way in hell we’d trust him to ride a dirt bike and not kill himself, and he wouldn’t fit on the bike behind John. Plus it makes sense for Nigel to be a passenger. That way, Nigel can use his hand-held device to direct us, while I focus on riding.

He directs us to head towards the small village of Momona, only a few hundred metres from our hanger, then looks confused when the road takes a sharp turn. It’s clear his device is not giving him the feedback he expected. “No,” he says into my ear. “It’s not Momona. It’s not where we thought it was. Turn left here instead.”

I follow his directions, and take a sharp left turn, away from the main road, and down a smaller, less-used road. I’m glad we’re using dirt bikes: the road is bumpy and not well maintained. I know my butt will feel the ride for days afterwards.

I see a small, wooden farmhouse in the distance, on the left hand side of the road, sheltered by massive eucalyptus trees that shade fully half the house, their huge, drooping leaves shedding mess all over the roof and the yard.

The ground around the house is nothing but dust and stringy bits of bark. That’s eucalypts for you – where they grow, nothing else will – they poison everything else within twenty metres of their root systems with the oils they produce and the scent they send out underground through the soil. Eucalypts create a wasteland, comfortable only to themselves. They’re loners, like me. That’s how they like it. They’re the sort of tree I like and feel comfortable with. They make things feel like home.

I grok eucalypts. They make me feel powerful.

I ask Nigel if the house is likely to be our target. “Yes,” he says loudly, over the noise of the road. “Absolutely. No doubt about it. Be on your guard from now on.”

We pull up in the dusty front yard, scaring away a half a dozen mangy-looking chickens and a rangy-looking rooster that squawks annoyingly at our arrival.

The farmhouse looks lived in, but poor and unkempt, and I have the distinct impression that we’re being watched, although I can’t see by whom. Nigel’s device behind me has risen in pitch to a high screech, and he flicks it off.

“Yes,” he says. “We’re definitely in close proximity. This is the place all right.” His voice has a hint of awe. Ever the scientist. Yet I can’t help thinking we’re in danger, in the lair of something big and strong and powerful we don’t understand. He’s excited, yet all I feel is my nerves rattling.

John pulls up beside us, his wheels raising a cloud of dust. “This is it?” he asks warily.

“Apparently so,” I confirm.

“Only one way to find out,” he says, swinging his leg over and dropping the bike to the ground. Nigel dismounts my bike awkwardly, and I get off, dropping my bike to the ground while watching the house for any signs of movement.

“Come on,” says Nigel, leading us. He’s keen. I wish he weren’t.

The three of us walk to the porch that runs the full length of the front of the old wooden homestead, and Nigel knocks on the door. Almost immediately, a small boy of about four or five opens the door a crack and peers out suspiciously. “Who’s there?” he asks in a challenging, unfriendly voice.

“Is mum or dad at home?” asks Nigel.

“Yeah, mum,” says the boy.

Silence.

“Can we speak with her?”

The boy stares at us a long while, then yells to the back of the house: “Muuuuu-uuum! There’s some people here to see you!” He shuts the door with a slam, and through the wood we hear the muffled sound of his feet padding off down the corridor inside.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea what we’re going to say to her, or how we’re going to explain why we’re here?” I ask Nigel curiously.

“I thought the truth might be a good start,” he says. “That’s what I’ve done with all the foreign Stealths I’ve contacted.”

John is right on him. “No way! Foreign people who we’re never going to meet is one thing. This lady? We have no idea what she is or what she’ll do. All we know about her is she’s powerful -” He’s cut short by the sound of footsteps – two sets, one light and fast, one heavier and slower – returning up the corridor inside the house.

The front door opens. A tall, solidly built, heavily pregnant, black-haired lady regards us evenly with large brown eyes. “Can I help you?”

Nigel steps forward, and extends his hand. “I’m Nigel Thornton,” he says, smiling. “And these are my friends Rose and John.” He indicates the pair of us, and I try to smile warmly.

“We’ve been studying gifted children that come from families with autists, and we thought you might be able to help us.” Nigel looks down at the boy hiding behind his mother, and smiles again. “We find that many gifted children are coming from the same families as those with people on the autism spectrum, and you might be willing to talk with us about some of the…ahem…special gifts these children have.”

I’ll give him one thing: Nigel is very, very clever. And he’s very very good at manipulating people when he needs to do so. He’s not lying exactly, but he’s also not exactly telling the truth.

I decide right there and then to let Nigel do the talking on this one. I’m going to stand back. Keep quiet. I glance at John, and I know instantly from his expression that he’s decided exactly the same thing.

Nigel, you’re on your own now.

The woman’s face relaxes visibly. “Oh, that’s fine then,” she says, smiling a little, and opening the door wider. “Come on in. I’m Janice, and this is my boy Jacob. You’re part of the Triple Nine Society, and the program they’re running then?”

“Absolutely,” confirms Nigel, not skipping a beat, and I try not to appear stunned at the blatant lie. I’ve never heard of the Triple Nine Society, I’m damn sure Nigel hasn’t either, and now I’m curious what this is all about. “They’ve already dropped by to see you?”

I’m starting to realise that, although I see Nigel as a bit of a bumbling fool, when he’s in his element he’s way ahead of us. I feel a little bit ashamed of myself for despising him.

“Yes,” confirms Janice. “They were here just the other day, doing some tests on Jake here.” She motions her son, and he hides away even further behind her, as if not wanting to be seen. “I thought they were going to send someone again tomorrow though, so forgive me for not figuring out who you were. Come in,” she repeats.

“Thank you,” says Nigel, all but twirling his moustache like a circus showman, he’s so pompous. I try not to groan. We are so going to get found out.

John and I follow Nigel inside, and Janice leads us down a cool, dark corridor to the kitchen at the back of the house. She asks us to take a seat at the kitchen table, which we do, John and myself on one side of the table and Nigel on the other. She puts the kettle on, then rummages around in a desk in the far corner of the room and pulls out some papers while the kettle heats up.

Her son sits down on the floor next to the television, which is switched off, and plays with a pile of plastic bricks scattered across the floor. Nearby there are a few books of nursery rhymes and childrens stories. He’s obviously well cared for, despite the apparent lack of wealth.

“Here you go,” she says, placing the paperwork in front of Nigel. She has clearly decided he is in charge of our operation. I swallow bile, and peer over, trying to see what’s written on the pages in front of him. I’m aware of a fancy, gold-embossed logo that seems eerily familiar – a triangle, with an eye in it – at the top of the first page, but I can’t reach much of the underlying text. I hope Nigel has the sense to spell it all out for us.

“Ah, mmmm, yes, I see,” he muses, flicking through the content in front of him. Janice comes over to sit in the chair beside him, and places a pot of tea in the center of the table, then some cups for all of us, and sugar and milk.

“And you’ve been pleased with the tests so far?” Nigel asks Janice suddenly.

“Well, no, to be honest,” says Janice, with a frown. “When the last lot came to see Jacob, they seemed more interested in me. They claimed they were doing tests on him, but there were four men, and all the while one of them kept poking around the house, as if he were looking for something, while another one of them kept waving a little gizmo with an antenna on it around the house and, well, mainly at me. It was creepy.”

“And you have no idea why?” asks Nigel.

“No, none at all,” says Janice. “I don’t get it. I’ve done nothing wrong, so I don’t see why anyone would be interested in me.”

Nigel rubs his moustache with his left index finger, as if deciding something, then cracks his knuckles. Then: “Has anything…odd…been happening lately….anything that would make anyone want to do any weird tests on you? Or ask any odd questions?”

Janice begins to shake her head, then scrunches her eyes and looks more intently – more suspiciously – at Nigel. “What do you mean by ‘weird tests’? I thought you and the last group of guys are all at Triple Nine? Are you not?”

I realise with a shock that we could be in a very dangerous position right now, and feel John tense up beside me. With my mind, I begin to reach for the tree roots beneath the house, and find the ground full of them – huge eucalyptus roots, reaching across in the darkness, just metres below where we’re sitting, ready to be controlled, whenever I need them. Yes, they’re there, waiting for me. Waiting for my Call.

I feel safer now. I put my hand on John’s forearm, and when he looks at me I nod and smile, and he relaxes, knowing we’ll be okay no matter what happens because I can control this. My Power keeps us all safe.

“Ahh, yes, about that,” says Nigel. “Triple Nine doesn’t exactly have great communication within our ranks.” He chuckles, trying to sound calm, and almost succeeds. “You know how it is with government agencies.”

Janice nods, “I guess so.” She pours herself a cup of tea, and adds two teaspoons of sugar and some milk. Stirring the cup, she says thoughtfully, “I don’t know what you mean by weird tests, but one of the guys – the guy with the antenna thing – did freak me out a little. It made a strange sound every time he pointed it at me, but nothing when he pointed it at Jacob. Yet I thought it was Jacob these men were supposed to be interested in! And the questions they asked me!” She shakes her head, uncomprehendingly. “I don’t get it. Not at all.”

I sense that Nigel can hardly contain himself. Yet he tries to keep his voice level as he looks down at the  pile of paperwork in front of him. “I see from this that we’ve checked your blood group, ancestry – a good percentage of Irish there, very interesting, mixed with Han Chinese, of all things, hmmmm – religious affiliation, education background…we’ve covered quite a bit here. But no mention of the boy’s father. Most interesting.” He stares thoughtfully at Janice, then adds: “And no mention of the father of your new baby either.”

He scratches his nose. “Yes, I’d have to agree with these questions being odd, that’s for certain,” he says. “If you start with the assumption that the fellows the other day were here to study your son, that is.”

I could practically see the chill running up her spine. “You mean…?”

“Yes. Why didn’t they ask about Jacob’s parentage? His full parentage?”

I watch as Janice begins to process what Nigel is saying.

“I don’t mean anything by it,” says Nigel quietly. “But you might want to tell us what ‘weird tests’ they did while they were here. You see, I don’t want to alarm you, but we may have some rogue agents on our hands.”

Oh well played, Nigel. Well played, I can’t help thinking.

Janice takes a sip of her tea, and I can see the teacup shaking unsteadily. He’s unnerved her, all right. I have to admire the bastard. He is good at what he does. Just as long as it isn’t driving any vehicle known to man, or trying to hit on me, we are all good.

Nigel takes the teapot, and pours himself a cup of tea, then a cup for each of us, and adds sugar and milk for his and Johns, knowing full well that John has his black and unsweetened, like I do.

He’s thoroughly enjoying this. Prick.

“Now Janice, dear,” he says softly. “Tell me everything: what did they say? What equipment did they have? What tests did they do on you?” He sips his tea, looking completely at ease.

“Of course, I’m sure you won’t mind if we take copies of this paperwork, will you?” he asks lightly. “We need to know what they’re up to. But what sort of tests did they do on you? I hope they didn’t harm the baby at all,” he adds, looking at her large, pregnant belly in concern.

“Oh no, I’m fine,” says Janice, still looking shaken. “They seemed more interested in my eyes than anything, to be honest,” she sips her tea slowly. “They kept waving that buzzing thing with the antenna around, as I said, and finally, after what seemed to be a bit of debate between them, asked for me to stare into an odd kind of torch they had with them.”

Janice seems happy to be talking about her experience, and continues: “One of the men – the guy who seemed to be in charge – said he was measuring patterns in my irises, to see if it had anything to do with Jacob’s intelligence, as they were doing a study on something to do with that.”

She swallows her tea. “I knew at the time that sounded too silly to be true. But there were four of them, and just me and Jacob. Once I’d let them in, I didn’t really want to argue. And they seemed so official.”

“Some of the biggest rogues are,” says Nigel sympathetically. I’m glad I’m not drinking my tea yet, or I’d be choking on it. “They were interested in your eyes for a reason. Do you have any idea what that reason is?” he asks Janice, and she shakes her head.

“We have a light sensitive protein – cryptochrome – in our eyes that can detect the earth’s geomagnetic field,” says Nigel, his inner scientist reveling in the moment of his big reveal.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” he says, seeing Janice’s expression. “It’s a leftover from our ancient past. Not much use to anybody usually. Just because we have this protein, that doesn’t mean we can actively use it. Our eyes aren’t little compasses, able to detect the earth’s geomagnetic field.”

He leans his head to one side for a moment, considering. “But perhaps this ability hasn’t disappeared entirely. Maybe it’s only dormant in some of us, or even all of us. Perhaps it can be re-awoken…” He trails off.

“You’re suggesting that I can see magnetic fields?” says Janice dubiously. “Well you’re wrong. I can’t.”

Ahh,” says Nigel, with the air of a magician about to reveal his trick. “But how do you know that? How do any of us know that what we’re seeing is what anyone else is seeing? Hoe do we ever know that what is going on inside our own consciousness is the same as anyone else’s? Now that is an interesting question indeed!”

“I’m not special,” states Janice flatly. “I’m just the same as anybody else. If anyone is special here, it’s Jacob. That’s who the men came to see. That’s who is special here.”

“I think both you and I know that isn’t true,” says Nigel softly, and I shudder at the tone in his voice, which is almost menacing. “Jacob might well be special, but they didn’t come for him. They came for you. They were testing you.”

I take a deep breath. John and I have been sitting here silent for long enough. I’ve made my mind up. Janice seems like an ordinary, decent person. She doesn’t deserve this.

“Janice, listen to me,” I say, breaking in to the discussion. “You might not even know what you’re capable of.” She’s surprised to hear me speak. Surprised to hear someone other than Nigel speak.

I plow on, hoping – praying – I’m doing the right thing: “But just because you’re not aware you can do something doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Impossible things can sometimes happen. Sometimes ordinary people can do impossible things.”

“Maybe you’re not as ordinary as you think,” adds John, joining into the conversation for the first time, supporting me.

“I don’t get what you mean,” says Janice.

“Did you happen to go…fishing…four days ago?” asks Nigel. “Down at the Taieri mouth?”

Janice seems stunned. Then: “Ye-es…but why? And how would you know that?”

Nigel swallows another mouthful of tea, and gazes over the rim of his cup at Janice, who is beginning to appear fearful.

“Two days ago,” he says slowly. “Dozens of fish beached themselves down at the Taieri mouth, in a mass fish suicide event nobody had never the like of before.”

He takes another sip, and continues: “It wasn’t just fish. Crustaceans – crabs, little yabbies in the river further up. Even a couple of sea lions dead on the road two kilometers inland, well beyond the beach and anywhere they’d normally go. It was as if they’d got lost, confused. All dead. It was a mess. A complete mess. Horrible.”

He puts the cup down on the table, empty. “Autopsies undertaken by local scientists up at the University suggest that something went terribly wrong with the internal navigation systems of the animals two days prior to their deaths. Its as if they were suddenly unable to distinguish between the sea and the shore. More precisely, it’s as if they were clamouring to get to shore.”

He rubs his moustache with an index finger. “The scientists had never seen anything like it. They’re suggesting it resembled the old children’s story about a Pied Piper. Something – or someone – called the animals, and they had no choice but to follow. Even to their deaths.”

“I’m scared,” says Jacob, speaking up for the first time since we entered the house. “Mum was reading that story to me when we were down at the bridge fishing the other day. It was boring. I was bored. It was hot. I was hungry. Nothing was biting. We didn’t catch anything. And Mum said…” He stopped suddenly.

Nigel’s voice was low. “Let me guess: Your mother said she wished she could have called the fish to come to you?

He nodded. “Just like the Pied Piper.” He ran across the room to his mother and hugged her close. “Mum – we didn’t do this, did we?” His expression was one of shock and horror.

Janice looks at Nigel questioningly. Her voice is tiny, almost imperceptibly small: “Did we?”

Nigel looks her dead in the eye, his blue eyes cold and hard as steel.

“Yes. Yes, you did.”

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