All Done – Off to Jupiter

img_3538A taste of my fiction… Ghosting Europa is a little sci-fi, a little science-fantasy, a little metaphysical and wholly made up.  After offering instalments throughout December the full story in a straightforward reading format is now offered in full under the above tab, Ghosting Europa.

I hope you like it. If you do, I’d be thrilled if you shared.

A wonderful 2019, to you all.


4. Ghosting Europa

Happy New Year!

This is the last (4/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa.

At 11:55pm, Algernon Spires walked into the limelight and belted out a virtuoso performance. How could he have doubted himself? As he held the final note, the compere counted in midnight. Algernon’s voice boomed through the first explosion of colour in the sky and for the next fifteen minutes. The orchestra attempted to come in on top of him but he kept his note. All heads were upturned as rockets painted the sky. Few would notice and none question, the lights that flickered on and off in time with his vibrato in the old buildings of the Rocks. But dogs barked. A slight breeze picked up. The flickering lights spread to other old places and the occasional high-rise. The forlorn buildings on the lower north shore were most active. As the breeze gathered momentum, a wave of twinkling lights moved out across the suburbs of the city.

Onstage, Algernon’s entire body was a blur of oscillation. His focus was on the water. Droplets were spraying up from the surface, as if thousands of invisible pebbles were being thrown in. To anyone who chanced to look down, they would have taken it for rain. But there was no rain. The vibrato in Algernon’s voice intensified until finally all of the flickering lights went out, the wind died down, and he finished his note.

Deep on the watery bed the ammonites began to spin as each was bowled over by a direct, invisible strike. They rolled in their organised arcs, shedding mass as they transformed from weighty, white fossils to translucent, vital beings of electric blue radiation. They sparked together, energy finding energy, invigorating the spiral. It rose. It pulsed. It spun. It became a vortex, draining blue light through its focal point, whipping the waters around it into a maelstrom, intensifying its focal density as it turned. Then, bang! It was gone.

“You right, Buddy?” Arn asked Algernon. Algernon was cleaving onto Sheila as if he had the bends. His throat was a deep crimson-mauve above his tux. His face was red. He drained a two litre bottle of water then pointed in the direction of the Observatory.

“Good!” Arn took off, pushing his way through the crowds. “If we don’t hurry we’ll miss their landing,” he called.


“The Ammonites went back to Europa.”

Sheila didn’t understand. Until this afternoon she ignored most of his talk of aliens. Now she wanted to know. On the way back to the theatre they had met him in the catchment. He began explaining that the Ammonites originated in Europa, the watery moon of Jupiter. Europa vibrates with the tension created by opposing gravitational forces – its own and Jupiter’s. Water pressure on Europa is constantly fluctuating. Life must compensate for the pressure changes. Ammonites evolved the many-chambered shell to do just this. Their spiral formed as a horn that produces the sound waves that guide them, like echolocation, he had said. It was as far as he got before they reached the theatre. It didn’t mean a lot to her. Now he continued.

“Jupiter inundates Europa with radiation energy. The Ammonites have evolved a coping mechanism for this too. Under intense water pressure they’re able to shed their physical mass down to just their impulses, their souls. Once they reduce to this electric blue impulse, they can travel through space and mass. They can spiral down infinitely in size to move through highly compressed matter – the inner-space environment of a single, sub-atomic particle – and then spiral out again infinitely to experience much lower compression of matter – the almost vacuum of outer-space. They play their radiated shell with virtuosity to travel across the universe. Without its music they can’t travel. Separated from their shells, they are bodiless souls, ghosts in need of a home.”

“Like real ghosts?”


“Like poltergeist moving things around?”

“Just until they find a host body to…”

“Possess,” Sheila finished his sentence for him.

“Just like a Horror Movie, but they didn’t have a choice.”

“We’re going to the Observatory to see these ghosts?” she asked, hearing more disbelief in her voice than she felt. “Isn’t the sky a little too polluted tonight?”

“Up there,” he pointed, “not down low on the horizon where Jupiter hangs.”

They had been forced to slow their pace. Instead of dispersing a crowd had gathered at the Harbour railings on the far side of Circular Quay. An ambulance crew was attending to a couple of bodies newly pulled from the water. As they walked by, Algernon splintered away and joined the crowd milling around. He recognised the injured. They were Hyde Park dwellers. By the time Arn and Sheila caught up, they were pronounced dead. Alger tried to shepherd the other two away but not before they realised whose bodies were being wrapped. It clicked. Ammonite souls had been inhabiting Alger’s disenfranchised friends’ bodies. This journey to Europa took place with a couple more souls than was originally intended.  As the ambulance crew loaded the cadavers into the van, Alger warbled incoherently.

“They couldn’t wait anymore. They’re home-free,” Arn said.

“Do you call dead, free?”

“That’s just the human body. If they can discard their Ammonite shells, they don’t need their human ones.” Arn shrugged.

“What about the humans?”

Alger started warbling at her.

“Where are their souls?” she demanded of him.

“No bodies can be inhabited unless they agree, like a rental. Or leave their transpersonal chakra open. You know, the drug thing,” Arn proffered. The penny dropped.

She turned to the being masquerading as Alger. “Where’s Alger?” He grabbed her hand and together they jumped the railing into the harbour. They plummeted into the cool depths oblivious to any bystander who may have seen them. Their fossils glowed and their minds communicated.

“The only way we can experience your world as you do is in your bodies. It’s dangerous. Once our impulse leaves our shell it’s almost impossible to reinhabit it above the depths of your oceans. Many have been stranded here. Millennia have passed since the great receding of the waters.  It was easier then. But your world was even younger. Your kind hadn’t evolved yet.”

He waited a moment for this to sink in. Sheila was horrified. She knew that he wasn’t normal anymore but she hadn’t expected this. Was he dead? Whose impulse was communicating with her now? By impulse he meant his soul. But it wasn’t Alger’s soul. He was an alien. Alger was human.

“So much time has passed. My kind’s radiation has deteriorated despite our immortality. It’s our life spark – the way we travel, how we feel, our consciousness, our essence no matter what material entity we inhabit. It’s as essential as a highly pressurised environment for our movement between worlds.”

All she could think was that he was in Alger’s body! What were his intentions? She let go of his hands and immediately began paddling to retain their submerged depth. He could sense her ambivalence and appealed to the sense of wonder she had experienced that afternoon.

“We came here to explore this new world. We should have remained low but the shallows were so enticing with their sharper, technicoloured vibrations.”

She could understand that want. But there were ethical boundaries. Sheila felt the ribbing of the fossil at her neck with her hand. It was warm and heating up. She felt its static electricity and knew that somehow it was helping her respire. Whooshing the water around her she kept both her arms within her sight.

“That which you wear is empty, save for your own vibration. My kind were too eager to leave the nurturing pressures they arrived in. They lost their carapaces as they ascended. Their shells petrified into what you recognise as fossils, ammonites. So altered and weighty, the delicate vibration of their impulses could no longer bare their shells. They fell away to the ocean floor.”

Again he waited for a response from Sheila. Her mind was racing. Images and sounds of the last fortnight entered her mind. The field of fossils on the ocean floor, spirals of all sorts in the apartment at Arncliffe, Arn loading boxes of fossils into her car, reports of sightings of Alger at the nuclear facility in Sydney’s far south, street people diving into the harbour…

“Once the fossils had been irradiated and positioned they needed a means to leave the human bodies they were trapped in. A strong vibration like a beautiful song had to be produced that could open their borrowed physical senses and let their souls soar away.”

Alger’s voice! Foreboding gripped her.

“There have been too few, ripe carriers over the ages since we first arrived. My people have had to reinhabit bodies as often as you will take breaths in a lifetime and more. Those who couldn’t find a suitable body have haunted many dwellings waiting for one. Tonight we sent those bodiless spirits home.”

“We? You and Alger?” Sheila demanded.

“His body is an exemplary specimen, a meticulously honed tool. Without his incredible lung capacity, the strength of his diaphragm, the elasticity in his larynx, so many souls would be lost… It’s a pity for him he didn’t respect the life force he was given.”

“But your gain. Where is he and the two who died?” Sheila had to work hard to maintain herself at a stationary depth. Her waterlogged gown wasn’t helping.

“You must understand something about souls. A soul is fragile and vain. It has to be exercised and feted by the beauty around it. When it acknowledges simple sensory pleasures and has abstract thoughts it rises above physical need. All life inhabits matter for its own sake but when it begins to acknowledge that it does, a soul arises. Its aura emanates away from its material core and it experiences the higher states – music, love, laughter, reason. They allowed their souls to be reabsorbed by their physical bodies. They were already dead. Their sacrifice was inconsequential when you realise how many souls were saved. To save your people, wouldn’t you sacrifice the life of another, lesser being?”

“Give him back.” She paddled her hands and feet feverishly, losing her shoes.

“He may be fully absorbed by now.”

“You can’t hold onto his body forever.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” he replied with pervasive gravity.

“His memories are still alive,” she argued, adjusting her dress straps as they fell off her shoulders, hampering her movement.

“Yes. His love for you is compelling. Too compelling”

“Save him.” She was struggling.

“It would be very difficult.”

“You owe him.” Her head pounded.

“Once I’ve gone, he may not be able to collect the rent.”

“Then you’ll owe me.” In the silence that ensued, Sheila realised that Alger’s alien had formed an emotional attachment to her, aside from Alger’s. Was he expecting for her to pat him on the back and ask for another jaunt through the harbour before he left?

“Save him!”

“We will need a pressurised environment to do it. We cannot do it in the Harbour. We would risk transporting the dolphins that buoy up the human bodies. We need a small controlled tank, like the one in the Museum exhibit by Hyde Park. Arn will need help. Call your brother and come to the Museum. There are no guarantees that Algernon will survive my exodus.”

Sheila left him, surfacing quickly. Her head ached. She realised the folly of jumping into the Harbour in her evening dress. Finding her clutch by the railings, she was thankful her phone and keys were still inside. Arn was nowhere in sight. She didn’t wait for Alger-alien. He repulsed her. She needed to think.

If she got Alger back, who would he be? The addict?

It was months into the run of the show before she saw the extent of his chemical entrapment. He needed something to ground himself with after a performance and something to take him there before. He took something to sleep and something else to help him wake. Assuming that his body was able to cope with going clean, could two weeks of the strong, alien life force governing him be enough to block the chemical detour his physical body operated on? Assuming he wanted to get clean.

He was a constant source of her sleepless nights. When he didn’t come home after a performance she’d call her brother and they’d go looking for him. Whether he was gone a night or several days he would invariably turn up passed out somewhere public, somewhere he would be found – a park, a train station, public amenities. Then one morning he was found by accident when a car went through the façade of a condemned house. He was barely alive. An ambulance was called and he was hospitalised. He wasn’t ready for rehab. It was hard work. If he really intended to get clean he would have to give up being Algernon Spires, singing sensation, and Alger, everyone’s best mate. At least for a time.

But if he came back sober how would she know whether he was Alger the human or Alger the alien? What if he really was just a body kept alive by a foreign, alien soul? And could she go through with his depression if he returned to the state he had left in? She needed healing, herself. She had to face the probability that she would be bringing it all on herself again. Dread gulfed her. What was she doing? She would never again allow herself to be ensnared by the push and pull of his addictions.

Was it Alger who brought the alien to her or was it just that the alien needed her to implement his plan? What did the alien mean by Alger’s love for her was, “too compelling”? Why did he bother taking her out underwater, giving her such wondrous experiences? He didn’t benefit from it. Why bother breathing her to sleep? Why should he care? Why come home at Christmas? Why be so tender with his mother? Alger cared. Alger knew how much he had taken away from them. Alger knew how much he had hurt her. She finally understood why he left. Now, she needed to talk to someone who understood her, who would listen. She needed the old Alger.

Not two weeks after his return she was calling her brother in the middle of the night again. Why did the alien want Jason? Her brother was a school teacher and trained in first aid.  Could that have something to do with it? Jason didn’t need to be convinced, he’d been expecting something to go wrong ever since Alger had returned. She kept walking out the frustration of the last couple of years.

At the theatre she changed into her stage-crewing blacks, met her brother at the stage door and led him down to the Dungeon. Arn, changed for the occasion, was waiting for them by the grate. Together they entered the catchment, squeezed through the void between the sound proofing and the bedrock and made their way to the roof of the rail tunnel. Once they climbed down, Sheila realised a drop in the water level from the afternoon. Rail Corp really were hard at it.

They followed the feel of railway sleepers beneath their feet, backtracking via a railway exchange, towards Museum Station. The faint rattle of trains on the City Circle was disconcerting. They were walking straight towards it. The water level fell to a comforting sludge. Soon the sludge became mud, then rubble. Gradually, as they moved forward, a faint bead of light spread into a beacon. It was the lit platform of St James Station, just one stop short of their destination. Bollards over the tracks and the gentle round of moving escalators confirmed that this part of the City Circle was operating. So too, would Museum Station be. Bending low and keeping hard up to the embankment of the platform they moved from the darkness through the light and back into the dark of the tunnel. They strode quickly up the tunnel keeping the vibrating lines of steel on either side of them. They intended to feel an approaching train before they heard it and hoped that “limited service” meant fewer trains.

When they reached Museum, Arn retrieved his discarded pick from beneath the platform and led them through a manmade rent into the catchment under the road. Hopefully, by the time they were to return, the trains would have stopped for the night.


The Australian Museum

The Creatures of the Deep exhibition was unique. For the first time ever animals living in the deepest oceans could be exhibited alive. Until now, efforts to catch living, deep-sea fauna and bring it to the surface had failed. This kind of biota collapsed when removed from their highly pressurised ecosystems. Finally, the museum had at its disposal the technology to net and nurture deep sea creatures in pressurised tanks. Since the water had to be constantly refreshed and re-pressurised, the Museum floor had to be fitted with appropriate drainage in case something went wrong and the tanks imploded or the pipes burst. Tonight that drainage system served another purpose.

The glow from the tanks lit the exhibition hall and provided a pilot through the drainage grates into the catchment for Sheila, Arn and Jason to navigate by. Alger-alien and his handful of leased-bodied friends were waiting for them. Their pendants were glowing.  A couple of them removed the grates and helped the trio up into the exhibition hall. Alger-alien immediately took Sheila’s mobile phone, torch and pen from the bum-bag strapped to her waist. He put the torch in his mouth, displayed her number on the phone and indicated for her to draw its digits up his forearm as big as his arm would accommodate.

The Hyde Park aliens removed the lid from the largest tank and gingerly laid it on the floor. Mounting a ledge they surrounded the tank. Transparent, white sea-cucumbers lolling on the gravelly bottom were its unsuspecting, sole occupants.  One at a time, the hobo-aliens began humming in a fugue of varying keys. The first low and gentle notes sent ripples over the water’s surface. A higher pitch, a tenor, from an adjacent side of the tank turned their direction. Immediately they were driven back by the dramatic reverberation from a high soprano directly opposite the first voice. Swayed across by a baritone charge the ripples were pushed to complete a circle. One by one the alien occupiers untied the ammonites strapped to their necks and threw them in. Arn looked on.

“Why’re you the lazy one?” Jason asked him.

“I’m human!”

The swirling surface gained momentum. The humming became warbling. Alger’s bass register joined in as he mounted the ledge. The lower waters began to shift with the surface. One by one the fossils became translucent. Alger’s voice gained intensity and volume. A deep vortex began to form in the tank. It rushed around in great turbulence picking up the ground cover off the floor. The tank became an opaque, brown slurry. A flash of flickering blue light illuminated a shell circling close to the eye. An alien host jumped in. Warbling rebounded off the walls of the exhibition hall. Blue radiation erupted through the submerged body and through the shell. The body started to convulse: limbs contorted, spine arched out, head snapped back and forth. Spasm after spasm erupted through its human frame.

“You’re killing him!” Jason yelled, leaping up onto the ledge. He yanked the circling body over the edge of the tank and struggled with its dead mass until Sheila reached him. Together they dragged the body away. They laid him on the floor and pushed out as much water as they could before Jason began CPR.

The others continued their song, calming the waters to equilibrium. The sea cucumbers seemed unperturbed by the commotion around them but there was one less ammonite at the bottom. The surface of the water began to swirl again as humming turned to warbling. Arn was mesmerised.  The human host they’d just pulled from the water began to breathe on his own. He was exhausted and confused, but alive. Sheila and Jason sat him up against a wall and returned tank side.

The process was repeated for each of the aliens. Not all of the bodies revived as quickly as the first. Sheila had to learn CPR on the job. When only Alger’s guest remained, dread overwhelmed her. With each successive transport, the vortex moved slower and it took longer for the fossils to become massless. Alger’s voice was stretched even to his limits

“What if he can’t do it on his own?” she asked Arn over the din.

Arn didn’t answer. Distracted since the first man dived in, he was useless in reviving any of his colleagues and now all he could manage was short breaths – as if it were he who carried the burden of the sonic transportation.

Alger-alien’s warbling escalated into a thunderous crescendo when finally sparks broke through the sludgy wash. His submerged ammonite slowly materialised, electricity cracking away from it. It was his time. He took hold of the edge of the tank to pull himself up. His voice had to remain steady and strong until he jumped in. Poised for his entry, Arn leapt in ahead of him. Splash! Alger-alien shrieked. What was Arn doing? Spasms contorted Arn’s body. Sheila and Jason clambered to pull him out. His body kept whirling away from their grasp. Alger-alien shrieked repeatedly. Fear. Horror. Loss. Alger-alien was doubled over. Harrowing emotions were rising through his abdomen. What to do? Fishing Arn out took longer than the others. When they got him on the floor, both siblings worked on him.

Then Sheila remembered her ammonite. Removing it from around her neck, she threw it to Alger-alien. He dropped it in the water and began humming. The low vibration of his mantra rounded the hall like a meditation. It rang in their ears and pulsed through their heads. Arn was oblivious to everything. Jason banged hard on the older man’s sternum. He pushed and breathed for him. But Arn wasn’t coming to.

Alger-alien’s voice kept changing keys in quick succession and increasing volume as he tried to emulate the fugue of his lapsed choir of five. He warbled from bass to alto, from baritone to soprano and tenor in deafening succession. The windows tapped in their sills. They were pressed to buckle by the changing air pressure in the hall. Would they?

Plosh! Alger’s body was floating in the tank.

“Jason!” Sheila screeched. Her brother wasn’t moving fast enough. Arn wasn’t reviving. Jason was reluctant to give up on him just yet. Sheila ran, grabbed Arn’s pick, and smashed the tank. Water and glass exploded onto the floor. Algernon’s body washed out of the tank. She rolled it away from the debris, cleared his throat passage and banged his chest. His body jerked.

“We’ve gotta go.” The museum’s alarm system had been triggered. Jason pulled Sheila up, then checked on Algernon’s breathing. “He’ll live.” He fetched Arn’s pick and they left through the drain, entering the catchment.

The tiled tunnel of Museum Station echoed with the babble of waiting commuters. The vandals of the Museum couldn’t risk being seen. They waited for the train to come and go in the rented wall. It was travelling in the same direction they were. They crept along the brickwork burrow after it, knowing that as the subway was no longer a circuit, it would only stop a couple of times before it returned. They didn’t know of anywhere they could shelter when it did. They ran.

When the train stopped, they slowed. Had it reached St James? Was it changing tracks to head down to Martin Place? Would they be able to hear a change in its motion if it was coming back up? Would they feel its different vibrations on the sleepers and up through their feet? Yes, they could. It was still at a distance. Into the pitch they ran towards St James. Their sight overwhelmed by nothingness, the predictability of each sleeper beneath them, their only guide and solace. Plank to plank they flew. Subtle relief in glints flicked into the black void came glossing over Art Deco tiles before they realised that they’d run recklessly far into the station.

“Hey! Get off the tracks. Back up here!” A security guard was leaning over the platform escarpment. They were being motioned closer into the light. He reached down to pull Jason up. The surly guard was alone.

“Gotta death-wish? Trains are running.”

Taking hold of the guard’s hand, Jason strategically put both feet on the perpendicular rise of the platform. The guard was forced to lean back to stop from face-planting forward. Both men were locked in a hold maintained by levying their bodyweight in opposite directions.

“Easy up.”

But Jason didn’t. He let go instead. The guard fell backwards and he and Sheila bolted past the platform, still on the tracks, and into the sheltering blackness on the other-side.

Here the vibrations from the track had changed. The train was approaching. Its rumble grew with their every pace. Had it passed the exchange? If they could get there before it did, they could wait on the other side until it passed.

But, Jason slowed down and bent over.

“I’ve got a stitch.”


“C’mon.” She pulled him along.

Clap! Clap! Bang! Echoed down the tunnel as the train passed over the intersecting tracks. Its approach rumbled up their feet. They threw their torch beams up the brick walls looking for service doors or any kind of alcove they could shelter in. There was nothing, just shallow buttresses. Would they be enough? Madly wanting to block their ears against the barrelling roar they flattened their torsos to the wall on either side of the protruding brickwork. The train passed and kept passing and passing, spraying them with grease. Its wind drag teased their bodies away from safety. Peeling away, they snapped their heads back to the wall, once, twice. After each tiny release it was harder to stay true against the wall. Carriage after carriage screamed its own cry by. Finally, it was gone. They’d make it. The exchange was just up ahead. No more trains, just a sludgy tunnel. From there it was back up the ladder and they would be in the catchment by the theatre in no time.

Squeezing up through the drain into the Dungeon, they went to her office. She printed out the company list and madly started calling. There’s been an incident. Alger is in trouble. Call an ambulance to the Museum. Don’t mention any names. She knew his Hyde Park henchmen would need more than one ambulance. On the busiest night of the year, she had to make sure this distress message was responded to immediately. She showered, changed and waited for a phone call. It came. There’s been an accident. Would she mind coming into St Vincent’s to identify a patient? Relief – patient, not body. Jason drove her there. Yes, she was Mrs. Spires. No, she couldn’t identify the others. She never did learn Arn’s real name. She couldn’t help them with any personal information about him, for he never shared any.

She spent the night waiting to see if Alger would pull through. Waiting to see who would wake – the alien or the human. At some point she fell asleep. When she woke, his respirator had been removed. ‘Nil by mouth’ was written on the whiteboard strip that also bore his doctor’s name. He had a drip in his arm. His ribs were bandaged. His skin was peeling. There was bruising from his neck down to his chest and he was in a heavy sleep. She drew the curtains around his bed.

When Jason arrived midmorning, the curtains were still cocooning the bed.  His sister was asleep in a courtesy chair. Algernon hadn’t woken. Reports of the museum vandalism were all over the media. Most of the others had woken up. All were suffering from exhaustion and treated for decompression sickness. They claimed not to remember what happened. No hint of drugs was found in their systems although they were known for substance abuse. Had they been checked for radiation poisoning, a different story may have emerged. But they weren’t. Their family members were being located.

When a police officer arrived to check on Algernon’s ability to answer questions, it was Jason who spoke with them. Yes, that was his sister’s phone number on Algernon’s arm. Yes, they were estranged. His sister was spending New Year’s Eve at a house party at his flat. He drove her into the city when the call came from the hospital. He asked them what his in-law/outlaw brother-in-law was mixed up with at the museum. He never knew him to be a vandal before. Come to think of it, his bother-in-law didn’t much like water either.

The officer responded to Jason’s chatty openness. No-one could make sense of what happened to the exhibit. One possibility was that the glass tank imploded under pressure. The sea-cucumbers had all died and so had Arn. Arn’s ammonite was around his neck when they found him. There was no mention of any other ammonite fossil in the debris. Jason took the officer’s calling card, assured him that he would pass it on and waved him off.

“Thank you,” Sheila said as she got up and pushed the curtain aside to make room.

“D’you think Arn made it?” Jason asked her.

“Reached Europa?”

Alger-alien’s words came back to her. Would she sacrifice a lesser life to save her people? Was he referring to the sea-cucumbers or Arn? She shivered.

“Who knows? He can’t exactly, ‘phone home’.”

“Poor bugger.”

But Arn was free. As free as a nautilus navigating through cool, churning waters. Awed and humbled by the sights and sounds that he could explore and the companions he could finally, fully relate to, he burst into song. Whooshing himself gustily through the extra sub-terrestrial waters beneath Europa’s icy ocean caps, he spared not a thought for those he’d left back on Earth. Life was good.

“Is Spatchcock gonna be okay?”

“Looks like.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Depends on who wakes up.”

“My bro-in-law the alien. Now, there’s a conversation starter.”

“That won’t happen.”

“And if it’s Alger?”

“I don’t know . . . It depends. . . ”

“You don’t need to go through all that shit again, Sis. None of us do.” Jason eyed Algernon’s drip.

“It’s just saline. He’s suffering from exhaustion and a severe case of the bends. They want to give him a psychological assessment.”

“Glad they said it, not me.”

Jason left with promises to check in on them soon. Over the next couple of hours Algernon started shifting around, half opening his eyes and drifting back into sleep. Sheila dozed on and off, happy to prolong the moment when she would learn who her vigil had been with. It early afternoon before a nurse came in and forced the situation.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said and pushed open the ward curtains. Light flooded Alger’s bed. He winced and turned away from it, taking Sheila’s hand with him. Looking at what he held, he turned back to the light. Tears streamed down his eyes.

“You’re here,” he rasped, fire burning his throat as he spoke. He pulled her face close to his and gazed into her eyes. He saw no judgement there, just expectation. Her warmth gave him courage.

“I love you,” he offered.

“I know.”

He was hoping for more. He waited. If she voiced it aloud she would come undone. She was going to be cautious but didn’t want to close any deals without setting the terms.

“I quit my job.”

“I know,” he said, slowly running his fingers over her cheeks, her chin, her lips.

“How much of the last couple of weeks?



“You couldn’t tell the difference?”

“He was you, A broken you. A messed up, weird kind of you. He was a ‘you’ that I thought I could put back together… Your Mum knew. She never had hope that you could go clean. I wanted him to be you so badly.”

“I meant the hair…lank, old man, the Salvos couture, just the look for my next casting call,” he teased her.

She sat on the mattress beside him. Shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg, they held hands. He pressed her hand against his lips. Extending her left arm before them with his own beside it, he splayed out their fingers. A white line high around his ring finger indicated where his wedder had sat.

“I never took mine off.”

“You left.”

“I’m back.”

“So it would seem. I was going to get around to remodelling mine.”

“Not with sea fossils, I hope.”

“No, they have a better ring around the throat. I can’t recall where I put them.”

“They’re in that little trinket box in the top drawer of the dresser.”

“What a nosey alien you were.”

“I was hoping that you’d wear them again.”

Sheila responded with caution, “I can’t go through the darkness again.”

Algernon relied with equanimity, “I promise, you never will.”

Sheila remained silent. She couldn’t answer straight away. Her life was about to change again and she had to digest it. Algernon held his breath. Any reasoning woman would say no. She was such an incredibly strong woman. She deserved more than what he had put her through. She started to cry. It would be okay if she said no. He pressed kisses on her tears. He couldn’t love her less.



3. Ghosting Europa

Merry Christmas!

This is the next (3/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa


Cruising along the highway with the windows down, the wind blowing their hair, Alger sang, “Country roads take me home” all the way to Brighton. The bulbous shell around his neck was glowing like a Christmas ornament. She realised that he never took it off, just wore it beneath his clothes most of the time. Its soft warm light was contained around his throat. As they walked into the house, Sheila instinctively turned the hallway light on. A split second later his fingers covered hers as he flicked the switch off again.

“But how will you see? I’ve made quite a few changes in here.” The brightness of the shell didn’t compensate for electric lighting.

He took her hand and placed it on his chest, then swept the rest of her up into his arms. She didn’t expect this. She felt the vigorous beating of his heart as well as the purring he had been putting her to sleep to emanating from his chest. Again, she absorbed the undulations of his lungs as his chest grew and then contracted. It was a different rhythm to any she had felt from him before. She didn’t feel at all tired. His diaphragm was producing a warbling sound, unique from the vibrato that his vocal chords propelled onstage. It made her more alert. Somehow, he was using these waves to navigate through the house in the darkness. They bumped into nothing even though the living room posed a labyrinth for them.

“Sheila, zat you? You’ve gotta wipe the answering machine. Gotta go. I’m doing graveyard. See’ya Boxing Day.”

“Sure.” Sheila cringed. Alger had stopped abruptly and was looking at her quizzically. Their combined weight in the same footfalls wouldn’t stop the floorboards from creaking hello.

“We have tenants, now.”

She was grateful that he couldn’t say anything. With Christmas tomorrow, at least they’d have the house to themselves. Alger’s thrumming slowly started up again as he took the next step forward.

It was mid-afternoon when they were woken by heavy banging on the front door.

“Sheila, open this door. Your car’s in the driveway.” Her mum.

“I want to see my son!” His.

She reached for her robe. He ran for the shower. A trail of airy skin cells wafted after him. The mums came in with beef pancakes and a lamb roast. His father followed with a bottle of scotch.

“Since when’ve you stopped answering calls? And dusting?” Her mother poked her in the chest.

“D’you think we don’t watch the news?” His mother sent her a withering glance. “Has he been eating? He looks like a ghost.” They brushed passed her and set up camp in the kitchen.

Bristling, her mother began, “Of course he’s been eating! Do you think my daughter would let him starve? Honestly darling, these God-forsaken hours that you’ve endured the last few years should stop now. If you’re forced to work so hard to pay the mortgage, all by yourself, that you don’t get time to dust, then you’re working far too long. And you’re not charging the tenants nearly what your place is worth. You’re never here – they have the place to themselves, at least get them to vacuum. I’ve always said you have to be pickier with the company you keep. You’re going old before your time…”

If Mrs Spires heard a word she showed no sign. Distracted and pathetic, not seeing her son in the last week had taken its toll. Mr Spires turned away from Sheila’s mother and held his tongue. The doorbell rang again. It was her brother, Jason.

“Merry Christmas!” He kissed her on the cheek. “Where’s Spatchcock? You lost your phone?” He handed Sheila a large plastic container. “The meat’s already marinated. Got any heat beads? I’ve left the Weber round the back.” He barged into the kitchen and stopped short. The rest were sitting around the table. “I told you I’d handle them first.”

“You can’t tell us when we can see our son.” His father rose.

“The situation calls for…” Jason began.

“Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” Alger crooned from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He was dripping water onto the carpet. His mother inhaled. His hair was nearly all white. He was rake thin.

Sheila thought that he had gained a little weight since he’d returned, regardless, he no longer filled out his bathrobe. It wasn’t for lack of food. He ate all the time judging from the number of take-away orders making their way to his dressing room. Of course, Arn was in there too, but still… Alger was never overweight but neither was he ever bony. His father approached him, faltering as he placed his hand on his son’s back. He winced.

“Heatbeads, Sis.”

The Huas left them alone.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” His mother pulled his sunglasses away. Immediately they began to run. She stared at them. Tears trickled from her own. He embraced her.

“That’s alright, Mama. That’s alriiiiiight!” he sang to her softly, lulling her with the gentle rhythms of his chest. She held him for a long time and then abruptly broke away.

Throughout the rest of the afternoon, Mrs. Spires made no attempt to speak with her son. She just watched him. She watched the way he moved, the way he walked. She watched her husband’s bungled attempts to start a conversation with his son. She watched their son nod a lot and stuff his mouth with food. She watched him shelter in the sanctuary of Jason Hua’s incessant chatter. She watched him burn sausages and refuse scotch. She baulked at the wordless exchanges he shared with Sheila. By sunset she had had enough.

As she left through the front door she asked Sheila, “Where’s my son?”

“Eating chops out the back.”

“No. You know it too. You’re wearing this shell-thing and playing house,” she flicked the white, spiral pendant below the base of Sheila’s neck. It glowed with his warmth. It was him. He had given it to her last night.  Now it was hers. Instinctively, Sheila raised her hand to protect it.

Mrs. Spires gasped. “If that’s my son, where are your rings?”

Sheila clasped the pendant. She had taken her rings off a long time ago.

“What is he?” She glared at her daughter-in-law.

Sheila was pulled in a step by Alger’s long spindly arm around her waist. They hadn’t noticed his stealthy approach. Now he cradled her against himself and with his free hand he waved an offer of a half-eaten lamb chop at his mother. She stormed out. His father sidled up from behind.

“When he’s able to hold an adult conversation, love, bring him to the house.” Mr. Spires clasped her hands, nodded at his son, and left. Her mother and brother went soon afterwards with reminders to call if they needed anything.

Rain fell gently through the twilight. Alger took Sheila by the hand and led her outside. They stood together, their chins arched up, their faces catching droplets. The rain couldn’t wash away his mother’s words. They were palpable. Trying to leave them at the door they began walking. Slowly at first, they soon gained traction. Pitter-patter became pulse. When they reached the beach, it was dark and pouring. No presence of the wind yet, he stopped her on the sand. He took his t-shirt off and then her blouse. Leaving the rest of their clothes on the shore they dove into the water.

Swimming away from the enclosure, they headed out through the vast, opaque waters into the heart of the bay. They matched each other stroke for stroke as they tore away from the shore. The water had been warming up in the summer sun but was now cool again. As it lapped against their foreheads, the stress of the last few hours washed away. She tired first and allowed herself to float, then tread water while she watched him. Her husband hadn’t liked the water. She wasn’t even sure if he could swim. Was it him who plunged and rose in a circle around her? They didn’t have a lot of free time to go to the beach before. She could only remember their reef trip now. Perhaps he had gotten over it? Perhaps it was the substance abuse that made him avoid it? Had he left that behind? She hadn’t seen him touch anything since he’d returned, not even scotch.

Each time he drove down through the water he would take longer to resurface. She soon realised a pull, like a rip, over her body. It was drawing her away. She allowed herself to be carried. The rip took her in an arc and brought her back and around. He plunged and bobbed up through it. She went round and round in smaller, gentler arcs until she was held in the centre of a circular thrall. Tiny bubbles began breaking the surface in front of her. She felt their effervescence through her toes and tingling their way up over her calves, knees, thighs and torso. She splayed her fingers through them and wriggled her body over them. Then a short, dull nudge swept by her knees. Then another. And another. Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself under. The pendant he had given her glowed, lighting the water.

Silver plated glomesh quivered as schools of fish swam in streams before her. Yellow fins swept away rolling pink lustres as rippling stripes ascended into view. Broader bodies waddled past with their smaller families in the wake of flickering spritely pencil line populaces. Different communities overtook and intersected each other’s trajectories while they negotiated the subtly spiralling waters. Each clan had its own unique markings and tone. She could reach out and touch them. So many beautiful fish. So close. They swam in concert around her. They didn’t question why they did, they just lived. She joined them.

Reluctantly she came up for air. The water went dark again. Looking over the surface she realised that she was in a whirlpool defined by distending arcs of frothy wake somehow of his making. She felt heat against her throat. It was his pendant. He surfaced in a bound through the focus of the vortex. His torso was vibrating. The rip brought her into him and they dove under together. This time she descended deeper into the maelstrom. He led her farther down, still. She saw different fish. Bigger fish. Dolphins. They all circled her. No, him. His torso was oscillating. Abruptly he stopped it. Pressure popped in her ears. He began again, orchestrating the waters. The rip changed direction. The fish started moving away. She was shot up to the surface, followed by a dolphin. Then another. Then him. He was breathless. Taking hold of the dolphins’ dorsal fins, they were hurdled through the wake of the swirl. Clinging on to the moment they held tightly all the way in to the shallow shore.

At home he cleared the fridge of leftovers.


The Second Week Begins

The next morning, stuck in traffic, Sheila had no need of a radio. He sang her a litany of songs that had meant so much to them. If he was not Algernon how could he know them all?

His mother! Her words haunted her. He had to be Alger. But they hadn’t had a conversation yet. Would they ever? She had so many questions. Something had happened to him. What she understood from their swim was that he communicated in sound waves with the fish, like the fish. His emotions and needs were conveyed by the pulsing of his diaphragm, larynx and vocal chords but not in human speech. His language was wordless. Whatever had happened had taken away his ability to speak but not his memory, emotions or understanding. He coupled his memories and feelings with songs that had evoked those same emotions. No longer able to form his own sentences, he borrowed lyrics that conveyed his sentiment.

“I’ll stop right now, but I’m stopping with you.” He was bobbing up and down on his seat to a Guetta song. She didn’t realise until he repeated himself, banged on the dash and pointed to the sidewalk that he meant for her to stop the car. Arn was back on duty, waving his placards. Time to go, was a new slogan by the look of it. She pulled over. Algernon jumped out and went around to the boot. He tapped it and yodelled loudly at her. Sheila popped it. Arn pushed his shopping trolley there.

“Just two boxes today,’ Arn said. Algernon loaded them.

“Of what?”

“Ammonites, of course.” His hand went to his throat. He wore a different shell to the one she first saw him wearing. The chambers of this one were enclosed in a perfect, white bulbous spiral. Like the one around her neck.

“Forgive me for thinking mine was special,” she said more to herself.

“Is he singing New Year’s Eve?” Arn was leaning in through the open car door.

“On the Harbour? Yes. David’s still sick.”

David’s illness was freakish. More, the way he got sick was freakish. He was washed overboard the Manly ferry. Apparently, the waters got choppy of a sudden in the middle of the Harbour. It took a while to fish him out. He caught a chill that deteriorated into laryngitis and possible pneumonia.

“Saturday, then,” Arn said and resumed his post. When Algernon got back in the car he was wearing an ammonite too.

“What are you going to do with them?” She asked, frustrated. He warbled what she intuited to be an apology. He was silent after that. She noticed ammonites on the bus shelters advertising the Creatures of the Deep exhibition. Apparently, they were pre-historic fossils. As they approached the intersection by Hyde Park he broke out in song, “Stop right now. Thank you very much!” This time she did. He stacked the boxes on top of each other and ran through the shrubbery into the Park. She could hear him yodelling as she pulled away. By the time she left the traffic lights the human denizens of the Park began converging on him from the hedges and benches.

The rain continued to fall that week. She and he established a new routine. In the morning they would stop by Arn’s to pick up boxes. Arn would stay at his post on the footpath and she would continue with Algernon to Hyde Park where he would disappear with them. He’d arrive at the theatre in time for an ice-cold shower before getting into make-up. At night the two of them drove home. Arn stayed away from the theatre. During the week, photos of Algernon bathing in the Hyde Park fountains and various waterways in Sydney surfaced on social media. There was even footage of him at the nuclear facility in the city’s south. At work, the novelty of his return had worn off and most stayed away from the number one dressing room.


New Year’s Eve

The City of Sydney was celebrating. Lights lit the canopies of trees in the park, vertical banners flapped high above the streets, a flotilla of boats was on the Harbour, a greater police presence was on the streets, and a limited train service returned to the City Circle. At night thousands of Sydneysiders would flock to the Harbour foreshore to watch the fireworks bring in the New Year. Private parties were hosted in high rise buildings and on rooftops of public buildings. The Sydney Observatory had a prime position, situated by the south-west pylon of the Harbour Bridge. It would host its annual New Year’s Eve Gala. Arn claimed to be invited.

That morning Arn shaved his beard, gelled his hair and wore a tuxedo. His white pendant hung under his bow tie. He received wolf-whistles from passing traffic with royal aplomb. Sheila would have driven past him if it wasn’t for his “runaway” trolley hurtling at her car. He looked decades younger. When she slammed the brakes, he abandoned the trolley and jumped into the back. For the first time, Arn entered the Theatre Royal through the Stage Door and watched the show.

A full company meeting was called in the auditorium after the matinee. Sheila announced her resignation. Nerida would step into her shoes for the tour. David was on the mend and was on track to open in Brisbane. It was no surprise and a relief to some that the new and creepy Algernon wouldn’t continue. Sheila cited family concerns as the reason for her sudden departure. Everyone understood her meaning. After more than five years working together and living life around show times, they were more than friends, but not quite family.

Alger was back and determined to be clean it seemed. She decided to dedicate time to his healing. Surely if he was able to sing, his ability to talk and use language could be restored. She missed him. She missed his humour and his insights. She missed the in-control him, sorely. He had been her ballast and her sounding board. They walked through life’s banalities, a team, and stood by through each other’s challenges. They were on the pulse of each other’s needs. If at times, the borrowed power her role afforded her needed tempering, it was Alger who did it.

She pushed her team hard and herself even harder. Skipping meals and overtime were standard with her. The bump-in demanded it. It was a gruelling, six week ordeal where carpenters, riggers, electricians, stage-mechanists, sound technicians and computer programmer-operators had to be co-ordinated before the performers, orchestra, pyrotechnics and costume and make-up departments arrived. Algernon would finish in the rehearsal space, get dinner and bring it to the theatre. He would make sure Sheila stopped and ate and then waited for her to finish so they could go home.

It was 11pm on the last Saturday night of the bump-in when the stage was finally ready, or so they thought, for the first technical run through on the following Monday. Then, they tested the candelabras. Folded down on their tracks and at rest in the wings, they were programmed to travel onstage at a particular musical queue. It sounded. They were off, fanning up and moving onstage. Then one stalled. It bucked and stopped. Pop! Something burnt. Smoke distended up from the joins in the floor panels. There was a black out. Torches lit, Sheila wasn’t allowing anyone to go home. They’d been there since 9am but she had to get to the bottom of it that night. The floor had to be ripped up, the problem found and the cable replaced as far as she was concerned, before they left. She wouldn’t know whether she’d have to call the carpenters back in tomorrow until after the floor had been re-laid. The floor panels had to be fitted seamlessly and repolished so that the show-piece remote-controlled boat could glide along its hard-glossed surface as smoothly as if it was on water. She had to know tonight.

The crew were exhausted. It would take hours to sort out. She locked horns with the Head Mechanist and the Head Electrician. They argued to come in tomorrow, their scheduled day off. But if she had to have panels cut, sanded and polished, the rehearsal schedule would be pushed back and encroach upon the previews. Out of nowhere, Alger appeared onstage with a couple of slabs of beer. The tension dissipated. The floor was pulled up. The electrical fault located and a plan of action was in place for the morning. The previews went ahead as scheduled.

Until the show opened she was running on adrenaline. Once the set had been installed and the electrical wiring and programming had been carried out, the physical movements of the stage crew had to be mapped out. The stage beyond the draped wings was an ants’ nest of activity. To offer the same show, performance after performance, meant plotting the whereabouts and tasks performed by each flyman, LX crew, stage mechanist, prop person and dresser throughout the performance. Each musical queue would set into motion a human chain reaction that would transform the setting and the performers within minutes, sometimes even seconds. Safety in timing was paramount. A high threshold for stress was required to pull it all off seamlessly. Yet it didn’t compare with the expectations levelled on the cast, especially the headliners. They had to be perfect.

Months of preparation were culminating in one evening that would secure the tempo of all the others that followed it, opening night. The journey began with auditions for the performers and musicians, casting calls for the leads, followed by intensive timetabling of rehearsals, sound checks, costume calls, technical rehearsals, publicity calls, interviews and previews. A barrage of advertising assailed all public platforms of communication – web browsers, social media, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, sides of buses, backs of taxis, bus shelters and train platforms. The city was being told something wonderful was about to be offered to them – a caress of music and imagination that would transcend their mundane existence, a magic that would hold them under its spell long after they had left the theatre.

Would the production be able to live up to the hype? Would Algernon?

When the front-of-house curtain dropped at the end of the opening night performance it ushered in a moment of silence. A particular, familiar, moment of silence. That moment of expectation where time froze. Where everything froze. When the entire company concentrated on what they wanted to hear. Then it came. It erupted through the auditorium. They’d won.

When the curtain fell again there was an outpouring of hugs, kisses and back-patting on-stage as the entire company converged there. More would follow at the opening night bash. When Sheila met Algernon in his dressing room, he was already out of make-up. Euphoric, his eyes lit up with a Cheshire grin when they met hers. He pulled her inside and bolted the door. They were late for the party.

Today, as the company headed out for their “Farewell Sydney” lunch, she and Algernon met Arn in the Dungeon. Determined to learn more about the new Alger, Sheila had brought a swimsuit to work and joined them as they removed their outer garments and slid through the grate.

The water level by the Theatre had dropped off to a muddy slush. Sheila regretted leaving her shoes in the dungeon. The slippery rubble under her feet was uneven and sharp. By the light of her torch and the glowing ammonite at her neck Sheila could see. The new concrete, sound-proofing wall had been erected but it didn’t form a proper seal with the surrounding bedrock. Single file they were able to squeeze through a gap and into the bed of the Tank Stream. Hemmed in between encroaching concrete buttresses and monolithic rock on one side of them and the repaired, brick railway tunnel on the other they trudged along single file. Faint echoes of distantly moving trains and dredging pumps could just be heard.  Soon the brickwork merged into the bedrock. They were at a dead end. Arn began to climb using the uneven surface of the rock to assist his ascent onto the tunnel roof. Once there he fell through it with a splash. The break in the brickwork was fresh and inconspicuous to maintenance crews.  Alger followed and gave Sheila a hand up. Luckily, the water in the railway tunnel was waist deep.  No trains would be travelling through this part of the track anytime soon.

Arn fussed through the water looking for something, straightening with concentrated effort. Algernon joined him in extending a ladder from the tracks to the hole in the ceiling.

“Our way back,” Arn said.

They waded along the railway line almost all of the way to Circular Quay, veering off into the catchment system through another conveniently rented wall just before the rail tracks emerged above ground.

Sheila was surprised to see others in the catchment. More so when their chests warbled audibly. Headed in the same direction through the now-flowing water, the strangers waited for them to catch up. They too, were wearing ammonites. Their call glided to and fro over the water through the old brick canal. Algernon responded. There were others further along. They were all carrying boxes of ammonites. Boxes marked Chemhaz and stamped with Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s logo. Sheila and Arn remained silent while the rest communicated. Light penetrated the darkness as they neared the end of the tunnel. Sheila thought she recognised the others as the hobos from the park. Algernon seemed to know them well. Was he instructing them? Allowing her eyes to adjust to the brighter light she approached the circular mouth the light was flooding through, feeling like a caver. Below a precipice, the harbour was just before her. The shoreline opposite appeared suburban taken in from her vantage point but she knew roughly where they were.  Arn began organizing the ammonites into netted drawstring bags. He handed each man two before they dove into the harbour from what would appear to be a retaining wall. Beyond the rush of water gushing away from their canal, a school of dolphins frolicked in the harbour.

Algernon took Sheila firmly by the arms, smiled into her eyes and leapt into the Harbour. He drove down hard through the cold and pulled her along. Her ears popped. She could feel the ammonite around her neck heating up as they dropped. Achieving a nauseating depth they stopped. He placed his palms over her ears and gently pumped. Conscious that his Hyde Park cohorts were stealthily slipping away, he took her by the hand and wracked a crenelated stroke through his body. Hers followed suit. They moved forward in the direction the others had disappeared through. Alger was confident in the way and they quickly caught up. Strangers in this environ, the group was soon escorted by a pair of curious dolphins.

Sheila kept her mouth closed and swallowed away the pressure in her ears as they swam on. The farther they went, the less her need to even the tension in her head or work so hard to maintain her body at the depth they were moving through. By the time she realised that she should surface for air, her head had stopped feeling heavy and she actually didn’t feel the need to breathe. Still, she thought that she should go up. Stopping, they quickly lost sight of the others.

Don’t be frightened.” The phrase entered her head as a feeling, not a sound. He held his breath but his diaphragm was pulsing. He was speaking!

Feel the wonder of my world,” he seemed to be saying. He pulled her forward. She felt the coolness in the water she was slipping through. It was washing away her tension and inviting her to move through it. Why didn’t she need to breathe? She felt the vibration of his diaphragm entering her chest. It was amplified through her throat by the ammonite. He urged her forward.

“Close your eyes.”

She did. Her diaphragm pulsed. She sensed movement around her. The water was alive. It was trickling in patterns, in dappling shades and in broad, adagio fields. Fish! Many different schools of fish! Denser textures of movement vibrated in her throat. Tiny schools played on her vocal chords. The allegro pace of looser patterns, medium-sized fish, rung around her larynx. The dolphins were close by, she sensed them in her lungs. He was there of course, andante, pacing beside her. She couldn’t open her eyes, she didn’t want to risk losing the tantalising sight of her respiratory system. She urged herself forward and felt the sea peel back over her entire body. Then she barrelled back. Up, down, sideways and diagonally she tried out her new gait. She felt free. She splurged through the depths purchasing every rhythm and motion the sea had to offer.  Lost in her reverie she lately realised that he was gone. Surfacing would be easy now. If she wanted to.

“This way,” he called through her mind. Opening her eyes, she was enveloped by the murky blur. She closed them again.

“Over here.”

She couldn’t see him or hear him but urged herself to follow. His signal was faint now, diminished by distance. She felt her ribs contract and expand and coil. She sped through the waters navigating the seascape, acknowledging its quilted amplitudes until she lost his andante field again.

“Where are you?” she demanded.


She opened her eyes and looked around. Just below was the ocean floor. A plethora of phosphorescent ammonites lay there arranged in a tightly coiled spiral. Its expanse was vast, beyond her vision. She saw the men from the tunnel adding to the formation, fitting more in and disappearing into the darkness just metres above. Overhead, she could sense more dolphins.

“Where are you?” she asked again.

She felt a small spinning motion in front of her. She opened her eyes to an ammonite hovering just before her face. She tried to swat it aside but her arms weren’t moving.

“I’m just here.”

She closed her eyelids. He was so close, but where?


She opened them again. The ammonite began spinning as if in response. It looked similar to his shell but transformed, disembodied in its own exoskeleton. It was no longer calcified like the fossil she thought it to be. It was translucent, containing the sea in a glowing white membrane flecked with electric blue veins. She needed to see her own. Belatedly, she realised a feeling of static tingling through her body. It had been with her almost imperceptibly, a low frequency drone, throughout this swim. Now in her stillness she understood its veracity. But she couldn’t see her ammonite. Looking too far down at the sea floor she turned a somersault and then another. Where were her legs? Her arms? Her body! She felt hot. She panicked. She wanted to breathe. She wanted to surface. The drone magnified. It engulfed her. She willed herself to surface. She felt the pressure all around and through her change and erupt over her ribs. What she thought were her ribs. She took off vertically. A heaviness descended on her body as she ascended. The rhythms of water-life receded the higher she rose and her velocity slackened.

She no longer sensed dolphins swimming above her. But they were there. In an instant her body felt foreign, burdensome, lame. She had no control. She was sinking. She felt a swelling in her head, a knock, a bump, and immediately a firm cushioning, buoying her neck towards the light. Her body dragged after it. A dolphin was beside her. She reached for its dorsal fin. They jetted up. Inertia was threatening her consciousness. Breaking the surface, her head erupted. She gulped mouthfuls of air. She felt for the fossil at her neck. It was hard and hot. Her skin around it was red and flaking. Running her hands over her chest, she realised that she was peeling all over.

Alger surfaced through a spiral of bubbles a moment later, a dolphin beside him. His ammonite was glowing. She thought she saw a blue vein flicker over it and over him. The creature and the ammonite.

However he did it, she had done it too. Bizarre. She had swum as an ammonite.

The Dolphins bore them both back through the Harbour. Under and over the waves, the looming skyline drew brought to mind their commitments. If they were to make make-up in time they needed to hurry back to the theatre.

They surfaced under the historic wooden pier that housed both the Sydney Dance and Sydney Theatre Companies. Why here? Was here, practical or personal? Why this pier? Did it conceal a short cut to the Tank Stream? Or did he remember its significance for them? Did he direct the dolphins there? How was any of this possible? Could he always do this? Even back then?

They had met in the pier café. She was crewing for the Dance Company while he was rehearsing at the Theatre. Regardless of being the only ones in the café their lunch orders were mixed up. She was given his sesame seed bun instead of her chia seed one. She was letting loose on the waiter when Alger appeared with her plate. He was happy to swap with her if she was with him. She paused a little too long. He promised that he hadn’t spat in it. But how did he know that she hadn’t spat in his, she had countered. He didn’t, he assented. She was fine for him to have her order. She would brush the sesame seeds off his. No, he insisted she have her order. No, she maintained, it was fine. He slid into the chair beside her, picked up the burger bun in front of her and spat in it.

“Now we have to swap.” He gloated.

“Really?” She picked up the bun in front of him and spat as well. He grabbed the burger she spat in and ripped out a mouthful. She followed suit with the other, dropping her jaw as low as she could while she chewed.

“I can think of more creative ways of sharing saliva with you.” He had laughed.

Now she looked at the man treading water in front of her. Was he remembering this moment too? How would she know if he was? Then he spat at her, straight in the face and laughed.


Sydney Harbour Fireworks

Ravenous after the show that night, she and Algernon, downed an entire roast beef with gravy and baked vegetables, two trays of lasagne and a Peking duck with special fried rice.  Arn thought they’d be hungry. Maybe he should have gotten another extra-large tray of rice? Algernon had to keep his strength up for the exodus after all.

Once dinner had been shovelled down the three of them were picked up by a limousine and driven to the Opera House forecourt. VIPs, they were escorted through the crowd to the especially erected pavillion stage. The rain had stopped and Sydney’s biggest annual party was in full swing. Algernon was due to sing just before the midnight countdown commenced. He seemed nervous. The performance would be a highlight of a national telecast. He paced across the landing of the steps to the stage. There were hundreds of thousands of people along the foreshore. He looked across the harbour scanning the low rise dwellings and high rise towers of the lower north shore. His lips softly expelled staccato clicks his tongue created on the roof of his mouth. On the south side, the buildings around the Quay stood in anticipation. The bridge was still. He tapped his security pass in quick repetition across his knuckles. He searched the sky. He took deep breaths. It was the first time he seemed out of water before a performance.

“Don’t worry buddy. They’ll all be here.” Arn tried to soothe him.



The final instalment to be…must be New Years Day, of course!


2. Ghosting Europa

This is the next (2/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa

Her jaw dropped. “What have you done to my wall?”

It was Arn! He squeezed through the fissure and entered the Dungeon followed closely by a bedraggled waif with his head hung low. It was surreal.

“I didn’t do all of that. It’s the Tank Stream. It’s being fed by the stormwater system and it’s filled the subway. Dredging’s going on. They’re using old pipes to help with the flushing. One broke.”

“One pipe couldn’t have caused this kind of damage,” Bob jeered.
“It was helped by dodgy sound proofing, trains rattling past, and the rising water.” Arn addressed Sheila, “They’ve skimped on the cement mix. This sound barrier thing you’ve got happening is cracking all around.”

Sheila glared at him.

“Come, I’ll show you.”

Leaving the waif behind, Arn led Sheila and Bob back the way he came. They entered what was supposed to be an airlock channel. It was more canal than channel now. They waded through knee deep water to get to another rented, concrete wall. The old brick subway could be seen beyond. The water level was deeper in there and unbelievably had ripples – tell-tale signs of a current. The dredging work down the tunnel carried up to them in hammering, hollow sounds, confirming Arn’s words.

Sheila snorted at Arn, “So you swam to the Harbour from Pitt St?”

“Just like I toldya I would. No reason for stories.”

She had seen enough. When they returned to the Dungeon sandbags were in place. A pile of towels had been left for them on the crash mat and a mech was mopping up. Nerida was on the ball. Carmello, his well-wishers and Arn’s waif were missing.

“Shoes and socks off,” she ordered and handed them each a towel.

“I think you can start putting this production to bed.”

“Not until the fat lady sings, Bob. We have phone calls. D’you know how much money this show makes the State in tourism? If I have to cancel the final fifteen performances my bosses will sue Body-Corp, Rail Corp, Sydney Water and the State Government for loss of goodwill and income. Dredging will stop when we’re on. I want the Dungeon sealed, watertight, by tonight.”

“What about your Phantasm?” Bob asked.

“It’s a scratch!” she said with more bravado than faith. She didn’t have time for this, she had to go shore up the cast about the performance.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my life?” She demanded not completely rhetorically from Arn. A female voice pummelled down the hallway. At least someone was warming up. “Where’s your friend?” She belatedly remembered the waif.

“The kitchen?”

The Green Room was so crowded when she got there that she had to push her way in. It seemed the entire company was in there focussed on the far couch beneath the overhead TV. The last thing Carmello needed.

“Oxygen, people!” she demanded, but Carmello wasn’t there.

“Ambo’s came and took him to St Vinnie’s. Great to have Algernon back. He stepping in tonight?” Grahame from wardrobe asked.

“Algernon?” Then she heard Christine trilling. Immediately she was joined by a baritone voice with that distinct quality that stamped his every note. She pushed a lump down her throat. Her eyes stung. She didn’t have time for this. She walked back out into the hallway. Arn was there.

“What are you doing in my life?”

“Looking for a bathroom.”

“It’s over there,” she pointed and then thought better of it. She took Arn’s hand and led him to the Phantasm’s dressing room. The timbre in Alger’s voice seemed to follow her down the hallway. “There’s a toilet, a shower and a bar-fridge in here. Get him and clean him up. I’ll be back.” She took a breath. Alger’s voice mired in her ears. Damn him. Her buzzer cleared it. It was Grahame. “Algernon’s costume is waiting for him, if you think he might have need of it”

“Too bad he quit. Carmello is still scheduled for tonight.”

She spent what was left of the morning making calls. With the Production Manager away for Christmas, Sheila had to step up. If she could prove herself, it could mean a promotion with the added perk of being a nine-to-five job. She had lunch at St. Vincent’s with Carmello. He was waiting for the registrar to discharge him. He assured her that he was up to doing both the Dress and the Performance that night. Time poor, Sheila left him a cab charge and returned to the theatre. More phone calls awaited her. She hadn’t opened her email yet either. Too busy to call the queues herself, Nerida had stepped in for her.

The wings were crowded when she finally made it prompt-side. Why were there more people there than usual? Something didn’t sound right – as in, normal. She joined the gathering that was watching the performance on the small overhead monitor on a boom stand that was permanently set up in the wings. The Phantasm’s costume hung from him. Couldn’t Grahame have done a better job altering the tux? What was with the white wig? And why was he wearing the old, full mask? Something else was different too. The entire cast seemed to have lifted their game. Every voice sounded sweeter, stronger, more rounded. That was a plus. Turning her gaze from the black and white glare of the monitor, she looked directly at the performers. They were marking their character’s movements but their lips weren’t moving. All of them, except the Phantasm. Every syllable he sang rang out like a physical force, palpably encircling, entrancing and holding every auditor enthralled. Heads edged forward, ears angled closer, mouths dropped to drink in his sound. His voice poured into them, his music overflowing. He didn’t stop singing when his lyrics did. Somehow, he couldn’t. Soon he was singing every single line of every part of the libretto!

“I couldn’t get discharged in time.” Carmello was at her elbow. Sheila looked at him nonplussed.

“Lovey, you can’t go on without a Dress,” Grahame commiserated Carmello. “Honestly Sheila, I didn’t think your man was going to be able to do it. He didn’t utter a word during his fitting. Nothing, in the two hours he was in makeup. Lucy had a hard time getting him to look up. His eyes kept running. He was skittish, making strange noises. Lucy was irked. They used to have a good banter before, you know. Then he croons like that.”

“The tux is swimming.” Sheila fixed her gaze on Alger.

“He needs good, home-cooked meals,” Grahame said and patted her on both shoulders.

“You volunteering?” she countered. “What happened to the toupee?

“Ahhh. It’s a tad tight now with that shock of white hair he’s sporting.”

“Cut it.”

When Sheila went downstairs, she was armed with paperwork. Stepping out of the shower in his bathrobe, Alger was free from prosthetics and dripping water all over the carpet. Some things never changed. He wore a white, bulbous shell strapped around his neck like the one Arn showed her this morning. He kept his gaze averted as she went through the company’s offer for the last fifteen Sydney shows. As she turned to leave, a melodious, “Shao Hua,” escaped his lips and their eyes met.

“You lost the right to call me that when you left. If you disappear again before the end of the fifteenth show, head office will make sure you never work again in musical theatre anywhere in the English speaking world. Got it? Go over the libretto. Don’t stuff it up for the others. A barber will be here within the hour.” Arn stopped her from stalking out.

“You may inform the City of Sydney that Algernon Spires will be available to fill in for David Cole at the New Year’s Eve, Harbour Concert. And the herbal tea has run out in the Green Room. We could do with some in here too. And biscuits.”

She fumed all the way down the hall. Arn had taken her for a ride this morning. The looney was now a doyen of public relations, for her ex!

No-one noticed her in the doorway of the Green Room, but she heard them.

“He’s not the full quid.”

“Sure he can sing. Why can’t he talk?”

“A bit whacked the way he doesn’t look up atchya unless he’s on stage.” Sheila was about to walk away when the TV blared, “Twitter has gone mad today after reports that Algernon Spires will reprise the role of the Phantasm tonight. It seems the phantom sightings of the Phantasm last night were no fantasy.” She walked upstairs and started returning more calls, emails and sms’. At night the curtain came down to a standing ovation. He was back.

The End of the First Day

When all the sets and props were covered and the cloths rehung for the beginning of the first act tomorrow, Sheila retired to her office and waited for the call from Stage Door.

“All signed in, have signed out.”

“Thanks Joe. I’ll lock up.”

“Great to have him back.”

“Good night.”

Her day had finally come to an end. The theatre was quiet but the Phantasm haunted her mind. She wanted to scream. He must have left. Who knows where he would sleep tonight? She’d found him in all sort of places in the past: stairwells, park benches, a bus shelter, under a tree. She couldn’t go home. Was he expecting her to take him there? Did he still have the keys?

She finally looked at her personal phone. Twelve missed calls: one from her brother, two from her mum, four from his and two from his dad. Her mum would forgive her for not calling, but his parents? What was she supposed to say to them? Yes, your son is back. He looks ill, emaciated. He doesn’t make eye contact. He won’t speak. But he can sing. No, you probably can’t talk to him because he has someone speaking for him – the crazy lunatic from the highway who waves placards about aliens coming to steal our bodies!

What if he went home? Her tenants would get a shock. So would he. While he was alive… before he left, he wouldn’t let a room in the house, no matter how much she demanded. Afterwards, repayments had an ominous quality. She did it. She should have done it before. He supported his habits before his share of the mortgage. She wasn’t going home tonight. Instead, she took a blanket from the Green Room and brought it back to the stage, turned on her torch, turned off the lights and climbed the ladder to the fly floor. Few, if any, would find her in the morning. That’s how the chaise lounge managed to stay there after a long-forgotten show had bumped out. Tonight, it was her solace above the stage.

Finally, she closed her eyes. She released a long sigh. It wasn’t enough. She dragged air in through her nostrils and pushed it out through her mouth. All away, all gone. She focused on the silence to blur away every thought, every memory. It was something she had become accustomed to doing, clearing the mind, focusing on nothing. Training on focusing on nothing. It was exhausting. It took so much concentration and with it every natural process of falling asleep. She’d rise more tired than she’d fallen. It was her habit since he first started disappearing. It was better than letting the demon, “what-ifs” drain away her composure. And her sanity.

Now, she called in sleep through her senses, through the rhythmic whir of the air conditioning. It spun the air in cycles of sounds: whirrr, whirrr, whirrr, whirr . . .

Whirling and laughing, he twirled her grandmother. They flirted outlandishly with each other whenever they were together. Nai-nai called Alger, her Mei Lanfang. Nai-nai loved the Beijing Opera. Alger watched it with her on TV when they visited. He would complement the colour and the actions of the performers. He was impressed with their mime and athleticism but especially what they were capable of achieving with their voices. Well then, why didn’t he give it a go, Nai-nai would challenge him. She promised not to wet herself laughing when he couldn’t. Oh, for the sake of saving her carpet cleaning expenses, he’d just watch. Secretly, he rented a DVD from the library and started practising. He loved pushing his voice and seeing what he was capable of, what he could master. Then one day he surprised her with the DVD and his voice. Nai-nai said he was as good as any Occidental could get. But…there, there love, he had enthusiasm. After that she would put on her best dress to greet him and they would serenade each other. It broke Nai-nai’s heart when he disappeared, disappeared, disappeared…

She had to focus on the air conditioner. She took a few deep breaths and tried again. The blades whirred, whirred, whirred around. He was so funny about his throat – his singing apparatus. He knew that his range and capabilities were unique and he burned with curiosity to know how special, but he didn’t let any professional near him. He wouldn’t even trust her GP when he got a cold. Was he afraid of having his tonsils taken out? No, his colds were never that bad. All he needed was a dram or two of scotch. He did his own in depth reading on what a healthy throat looked like and the minutiae of its operations. He knew all the various ailments that could affect human sound production and particularly liked finding case studies of people with deviant conditions. Whir, were, err, erred…

When her brother’s students heard that Algernon Spires would be part of their science lab, their social media activity boosted his public profile. He had an incredible range: bass, baritone, tenor and high falsetto to test. Her brother’s students measured and gauged the sound waves he was able to produce. He mixed it up as best he could for them. But could he crack glass? Always the entertainer, he could try. How thick did they want the glass to be? He didn’t like to disappoint. It was his way of insinuating himself into people’s affections. Her brother had adored him.

Breeeeathe, breeeeathe, breeee, borh, orh, erh, err . . . The air conditioning wasn’t strong enough for him. She found him standing on top of the bedside table, holding his hair back off his forehead and rocking in front of the wall outlet, exhaling. It was her first indication of the severity of his addiction. They were holidaying in Queensland. She loved diving and chose the island because of it. He was expecting a laidback resort-style break, lounging by the pool and ordering drinks. When she insisted that he come out with her to the reef, he reluctantly agreed as far as staying in the glass-bottom boat when they got there. He was uneasy in the ferry that took them out. He stood at the bow clenching the rail and absorbing the drag on his face, not moving from his hold. When the boat anchored he began to fidget and stayed away from the glass-bottom launch. Self-consciously, he chit-chatted with strangers at the back of the queue, helped the cabin crew collect glassware, checked to see that the orange, ring buoys were secured to the railings and struck up some more small talk with the latest stragglers to the end of the line. He was the last to get on. He didn’t look well when he did

The water surface was flat, perfect for viewing coral. She couldn’t help him. The Great Barrier Reef was magical. She would only be about half an hour. He’d get it together. She shouldn’t need to hold his hand.

When she surfaced, he was ensconced in a crowd and singing sea shanties with the crew. His colour wasn’t quite right. Hemmed-in by people, at least he couldn’t see the water. He spent the return trip shaking and throwing up.

Back in their hotel room he had showered first. It seemed to give him little relief. She took her shower and found him on top of the bedside table when she popped back in the room for the hairdryer. He held his face up to the air conditioning vent and rocked backwards and forwards. She told him to take it easy until she was ready and they’d go for a walk. When she finally came out, he was gone. She looked for him in the restaurant and by the poolside. Quelling her embarrassment, she asked concierge if they had seen him. No, but, uncharacteristically, the bar at the far side of the resort was really busy tonight. She thanked them and tried not to slink away.

He was there, jamming with the house band. She walked in alone and stood alone at the bar. She stayed for a set. He’d stopped shaking. She returned to their room. It was the first night that she lost sleep over him. When he finally got into bed he stunk of pot and scotch.

Err, err, rrr, rrra, rrraw . . . That was the state of her nerves, raw. Why didn’t she run then? He was a nightmare. But she had made a lifetime commitment. It was a harrowing mistake. Now, he was back. Breathe.

Hindsight was an anathema to sleep.

This wasn’t the first time that she had spent the night on the cat walk. On occasions that she pushed herself too hard or partied too long, the chaise was easier than the drive home. Tonight was the first time that she didn’t fall asleep right away. She was metres above the floor in an empty theatre that housed more than eleven hundred patrons and two hundred performers and crew. Her loneliness was cavernous. Pitch dark, her torch was sheathed in her pocket. If it dropped through the open rail floor, she would have a hard time descending. The dark didn’t frighten her. She didn’t need to move in it and the theatre was secure… until this morning, until Arn. But the wall in the Dungeon had been repaired, and a drainage grate was installed.

Arn. He was harmless. Wasn’t he? He was that frail old bogey from the highway. Don’t get too close to him and he won’t blow over. But he wasn’t frail. The length of his pale hair and beard was beguiling. His hair was actually as light-blond as it was white. Was he 30? 40? The average Aussie, homicidal, male psycho was in his 40’s, so said the tabloids. Did mental illness make him impotent or did it empower him? Cajoled to come out of his hallucinatory world, could he evoke strength, violence? He must be hallucinating – all that crap about spirals and…swimming to the Harbour down Pitt St… through the subway? If he was sane, a self-directed being, how was it that he lived in a housing commission estate? Unemployment? Circumstances beyond his control; mental control, perhaps? Was he just another dole bludger, just smart enough to get around the welfare system? Or was he a deserving innocent incapable of engaging with the structures and strictures of modern society? He waved placards at the traffic every day convinced that aliens were coming to get the human race. Was it drugs? Madness? Was he dangerous?

He had shown his strength, stamina and resolve that morning in the rain. Knocked down in the traffic and bleeding, he was able to sprint around the city half an hour later, and go swimming, apparently. Physically, there was no reason for him not to be able to support himself. He had more presence of mind than he would have the world believe. He seemed to be exactly where he wanted to be all by chance bad luck. Bad luck that he was able to manipulate? Or was it resolve? Did he target her car this morning with his shopping trolley? How did he know it was her car – she had bought it after Alger had disappeared? He knew what he was doing, he was orchestrating it. He wasn’t an idiot and he wasn’t feeble and he had an agenda. Why was he targeting her? Was he dangerous?

Her body quaked, she took in a deep breath to settle it. Arn Cliffe wasn’t a name. It was a suburb. He couldn’t be living in that no-door storeroom there. Who was he? What was his agenda? Where was he now? Was he dangerous?

Joe said that everyone who had signed into the theatre had signed out. She took another deep breath. She had to be alone. The Dungeon… Instinctively she looked down. No human could access the theatre from there now. Could they? She would hear it from her perch if they did. The silence would alert her immediately. She inhaled. She was alone. The emptiness around her filled with the mechanical revolutions of the air conditioner, reinforcing her sense of safety. It was all she could hear, the slashing of blades through the air. If she could just synchronise her breathing.




“Whu, Whuua…”

Her eyelids flicked up. “Who’s there?”


“Whua…” It was an expulsion of air more than a word.


“Hua.” It was her name.

“Who’s there?” She was cold.

“Hua.” The sound jettisoned up the ladder, striking her chest.

“Ha, ha, very funny.”

“Hua.” Its bass sound dropped.

Schwipe, clink! Metal hit metal.

“Hua!” rose. She caught its wind in her throat. “Hua,” fell and the air fell away with it.

Clink! Schwipe, Clink!

“Show’s over.” Her throat constricted. Schwipe, clink!

“Hua.” Her breath released. Clink!

She coughed. “Phantasm’s… gone,” laboured out her voice. She heard schwipe slide up the ladder and clink as a metallic ring grabbed onto the next rung.


“Show yourself!” Her elbows, her knees, tensed. Clink! Her tongue receded into her throat. Saliva seeped into her mouth. Schwipe. Another advance up the metal ladder accompanied the peak and trough of “Huas”. Her jaw dropped. A small, luminescent circle emerged above the cage floor. It rose. Clink! Schwipe-clink! It stopped. Silence. Clink! Schwipe, creeeak! Her nostrils flared. The disk bobbed. Schwipe-Creeeak. The sound and the light were advancing together but distinct from each other. Creeeak. Her chest was heavy. It was pulling down. She turned on her torch, its slim beam couldn’t penetrate far enough into the darkness. There was a figure there on the cat-walk. The follicles of her cheeks petrified. Creak. Closer.

“Hua…Hua…,” oscillated in the air with a leonine, base resonance. It was pervasive. “Hua.” It penetrated her chest. Her lungs filled with it. “Hua.” Her diaphragm moved with it. In and up, “Hua,” down and out. Her breath rose and fell into its rhythm, deliberately. “Huuuuah,” up her face and across her forehead. “Hua.” Involuntarily, the furrowing of her forehead relaxed. Her cheeks slipped back towards her ears as her control of them left her. ‘Hua.” She felt herself lilting. “Hua.” Her breath was in its thrall. “Hua”, was expelling muscular tension in gusts throughout her body.

“Hua,” she breathed… The feeling was soothing… “Hua,” she breathed again. She didn’t want it to be. “Hua.” The rhythm was warming her, releasing her, lightening… drifting… “Hua.” She didn’t think it was right… A weight of “Huas” bore down on her crown, her forehead… her eyes… her limbs. “Huuuua”. She expelled them in gusts through her mouth. All the while he came closer. She closed her lids. Giddy… she sank back on the chaise. “Gohua…huaway.” She inhaled the subtle odour of his scent. So…close. “Hua.” He lifted her blanket. His breath was on her neck, in her chest, down her torso. She breathed him in. So warm, so… familiar… so alien. She slept.

Several hours later they were woken by the strobe of the overly close, worker lights.

“Algernon! C’mon. They made us a door. Let’s go.”

It was Arn. How was he onstage? Sheila stirred first. Alger held her back a moment. He hummed a couple of low frequency tones into the curve of her neck, their vibration flooded her with warmth. Then left down the ladder without a word. In disbelief she threw off the blanket and was inundated by a white cloud of dust. She coughed. No, it was dandruff, or was it … skin? Arn released the trapdoor and dropped behind Alger into the dungeon. Sheila raced down the ladder through the trap and onto the crash mat after them. They were stripping down to their underwear. Alger’s skin was peeling all over. His chest was an eyesore, burnt red raw. His eyes were watery. He garbled something at her and grimaced.

“No fear, I’ll have him back for make-up,” Arn promised. With that, both men crouched down by the new water drainage grate. They removed it. Climbed into the shallow reservoir and swam away into the city’s storm-water catchment system.

The First Week

Algernon was an enigma. He kept to his dressing room when he was in the theatre. He spoke to no one, just acknowledged everyone with a wave. He made eye contact with no one, except Arn. Sheila avoided his gaze. When he looked at her it was with a sense of longing but he said nothing to her. He avoided the Green Room and the stage when he wasn’t performing. He dimmed the lights in his dressing room and took overly long, cold showers before and after each performance. His eyes were constantly glassy. Lucy complained that she couldn’t do his make-up. Once she turned up the lights and his eyes gushed torrents. When she removed the prosthetics at night, his face was red and puffy with the odd welt. Each time he’d crack apart a whole tray of ice into a hand towel and bury his face in it. He’d never reacted to the latex before. Onstage, his performances were electrifying. After the final curtain he would disappear into his dressing room and re-emerge when everyone had left.

On the second night just before lock-up he showed up at Sheila’s office and waited there for her to log off. He silently sat in an armchair in a corner. She wasn’t ready to deal with him yet. She avoided looking at him. Too hyped up from the show, she procrastinated answering emails, filling logs, writing references and every other task she could easily have put off. He could be patient. His presence was perturbing. Why didn’t he say something, anything – how’s the weather outside?

Sheila retrieved her personal mobile from the desk drawer and threw it to him.
“I’m not the only one that’s been waiting to hear from you. You deal with them.” He caught the phone. She caught his gaze. He took her hands in a single lunge forward. He held them captive. She was forced to look at him. Watery, something was imploring her in his eyes. Was it fear? It was need. Why now? Why was he back? The landline rang. She broke away.

“Thanks, Joe. You’re fine to lock up.”

Alger hadn’t moved. He didn’t look at her phone. He just looked at her, waiting, expecting. He spoke not a word. But she needed him to talk. His eyes did his begging. She wasn’t going to do his bidding. She needed an explanation. His eyes were welling up. She dimmed the lights to ease them. It didn’t ease the tension in his face. What had he gone through? What was he still going through? She was always there putting him back together, before. Was he feeling remorseful for what he had put her through? He needed comfort, security. Perhaps then he’d talk, tell her why. She had loved him so much. He had hurt her so deeply. She wasn’t going to take him home. She led him into the wings and up to the fly floor instead. He held her to him on the chaise for a long time, saying nothing. Subtle tremors through his body belied his tears. There was fear there, she was sure of it. She asked him softly. Still, he said nothing. He needed her to just be there. She needed answers. She could be patient, too.

Each night thence she would join him on the fly floor and wait for him to speak. He, in turn, would hold her closely and breathe away his fear and her insomnia into a deep, dreamless sleep. In the morning Arn would wake them and the two men would disappear down through the Dungeon floor, returning in time for make-up.

Christmas Eve

When the final curtain came down on that first Saturday night and the stage was cleared, Sheila went down to Alger’s dressing room. Arn offered her a cup of tea and a biscuit. They watched Lucy work in silence.

“They say the rain’ll stop by tomorrow,” Lucy said as she began packing away her kit.

“Two weeks of cats-n-dogs. At least the wind’s died down.”

“Hmm, the rain has drawn out the dredging work in the subway,” Sheila mused.

“And the Tank Stream flows again,” effused Arn.

“We’ve been really lucky with our audiences. They haven’t been turned off. And the media hasn’t picked up on how close we are to the catchment. They say the subway’ll be another week.”

“In a week the winds will spiral again and the rain will fall once more,” prophesised Arn.

“I thought I’d seen you somewhere before. Aren’t you the guy that stands out on the highway waving warnings about aliens?” Lucy asked him.

“Yes!” Arn beamed.

“You know you’re not the only one doin’ it now? There’s someone on Parramatta Rd, the Eastern Distributer, the Cahill Expressway… It was on morning talk back.”
“By Monday, I’ll have all major roads into the city canvased!” Arn cradled the back of his head in both hands and slouched lower into the couch.

“Because the aliens are coming.” Lucy laughed.

“Noooo! Because they’re leaving!”

Lucy laughed even harder. “So am I. See’ya Monday.”

Alger turned to Sheila expectantly. “There’s no show tomorrow, it’s Christmas. No-one will be here. The electricity will be cut. There’ll be no air con. Rail Corp will be making a lot of noise,” she explained.

“I, actually go home at night,” Arn said.

“Merry Christmas then.” She found Alger’s eyes. “I’ll be going home, too.”

He walked over to her and took her hands, looked her straight in the eyes and opened his mouth. “Ohohohohoh,” trembled out. He squeezed her hands and tried again, “Ohohomh.” He wanted to go home.

1. Ghosting Europa

This is the first (1/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa

The Ammonites

The Ammonites had lost hope of ever returning home. The conditions they required hadn’t arisen in millennia. Would they ever? Yet they were a patient race. They waited. They watched. They searched. Evolution was an excruciatingly slow process. How difficult it was for Earthlings to learn. The same mistakes – generation after generation. The fear that drove them, that blinded them! The greed that purchased their blindness! The mendacity of their inconstant resolve! But human beings were the Ammonites’ last hope – saving a visitation from a more advanced, alien breed – an intelligent, generous, musical breed. If such a race even existed anymore.
Then, in the early twenty-first century an extraordinary human being came to light. Extraordinary in his physical composition – he was born with the potential to create sounds, music that was beyond the heavens. Human evolution was finally catching up. Would he be able to understand their plight? Would he be willing to help them? Had human empathy also reached maturity in him? What if it hadn’t? All they really wanted was to go home. Would he understand their need? Could he be moved by it? They couldn’t pay him… Did they need his permission? How well did he maintain control over his own mind? His body? Could they not just commandeer him? It would only be for a little while. Not long at all, when considered from their particular perspective. They had waited long enough.

The Homecoming

Slam! Skiiiiiid! Brake! Head forward. Snap back! Blaring horn, screaming driver, swishing wipers, traffic starts and inertia stops! What’s going on? Just the wind? The rain? That was the third near miss in the last hundred metres. Sheila Hua leaned forward to the radio knob, thankful for the partial cover of the dash. She was far too close to the car in front, but thankfully not on top of it.

“For the first time since British Settlement, the Tank Stream has risen and flooded the City Circle. All trains in the subway have been cancelled. All southbound trains terminate before the Harbour, east…”

Sheila knew she’d be late. She turned down the radio and commanded, “Call Nerida.” Nerida came to work from the north side. For sure she’d get to the theatre first.

“Now Bryan, what exactly is the Tank Stream and why have we built our subway on top of it?”

Few of the cast or crew came from the south but enough to delay today’s technical run through and understudy rehearsal. Sheila had the instrumental recordings. The orchestra didn’t have to be called until the evening performance. The pit had to be sand-bagged. Part way through the second act last night water began seeping in from under their feet. It defied logic. The water level was slowly rising in the subterranean theatre, with no sign of it having penetrated down.

“It’s why this site was chosen for the original settlement at Sydney Cove. Fresh water. It runs along under Pitt St, then George, all the way to the Harbour.”

“You mean ‘ran’.”

Nerida wasn’t picking up. Inclement weather or no, the show had to go on. It was full house tonight and for each performance until they closed, two weeks from now. Then onto Brisbane. Refunding was not an option.

“No, ‘runs’. As the city grew it quickly became polluted. As far as anyone knew, it dried up. When time came to extend the subway, its bed provided a ready trajectory from Martin Place to the Harbour. A tunnel across to the Museum Station was added to make what we call the City Circle.”

“That’s a lot of track, can it all be flooded?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out. It’s possible the storm-water catchments running along the subway are leaking in around Museum Station. It’s all downhill from there.”

“What of the underground shopping levels within the subway grid…”

“And the Theatre Royal is right in the heart of that grid. Just one of my headaches today.”

Sheila slammed the brakes. Her head flew forward and rolled back into the head-rest. Arrgh! She started pushing buttons.

“An amazing sight in Sydney Harbour. The school of dolphins taking shelter here have decided to stay…”

“Talk, talk, talk!”

“Entertainment news just in. A question hangs over tonight’s performance of, ‘The Phantasm,’…”

Slam! Brake! Forward thrust! Ouch! Her neck.

“The production has been plagued with bad luck since it opened in Sydney five years ago. First it was the disappearance of troubled lead, Algernon Spires. Now, current lead, David Cole, has been diagnosed with a drastic case of laryngitis…”

Argggh! She slam-poked another button.

“We don’t get cyclones in Sydney. It’s a series of interlinked low-pressure systems causing the category two winds and torrential rains.”

“And the spiral pattern on the synoptic chart?”

“Just a symbol.”

Sheila zoned out with the monotonous drone of the meteorologist. Looking over the dashboard she couldn’t see the city, it was clouded in indigo. For the moment, the wind lay dormant and the rain cried off. Storm-water runoff bilged away from the gutter, regurgitating debris onto the road while idling exhaust escaped the matrix of barely contained vehicles around her. She wondered what sort of night New Year’s Eve would be, just two weeks away.

On the footpath before the old housing commission complex the local crazy was on patrol. The weather-beaten, grizzly-beard was a local landmark. He stood by the highway every day for years trying to save a world that recognised him but didn’t bother to learn his name. Today, just momentarily, he would hold her attention. “The Whirly-Whirly is near. Europa Comes!” was clearly written over a simple image of a UFO on his sandwich board. Sheila changed channels again.

“…Viral on social media. A genuine sighting it seems…” Sheila tensed. “He has an enormous fan base and they’re not satisfied his case has closed. No body was ever found.”

She clenched the steering wheel.

“So we shouldn’t be surprised that, yet again, there’s been another Algernon Spires sighting.”

She sat upright.

“This time he was in the Rocks area near the Bridge.”

She pushed her spine into the cushion of her seat.

“I find it strange that he’s always busking somewhere around the Harbour.”

“Exactly.” Sheila leaned forward in her seat.

“Why isn’t he seen doing the groceries for his mum or out with his girl, you know, normal things?”

“Shut up!” She banged the steering wheel. Brake! Screech-skiiiiiid! Slam! Bang! Head forward. Whip back! Arrrgh!


Sheila yanked up the handbrake and jumped out of the car. Too late she’d noticed the alien-guy in front of her. A shopping trolley had rebounded off the nose of her car and into him. Where had it come from? It was weighed down with boxes. He was lying still, trapped beneath it. She manoeuvred it away from his body and into the gutter. It took him a few seconds to realise what was happening.

“You okay?”

He was looking up, beyond her. It started to rain again

“Your head took a big knock.” She crouched down and cupped his head in her hands. Wisps of blood flowed in the water over the asphalt. He tried to push himself up.

“It’s going round. Right now. It’s happening now!” He should be lying down, Sheila thought, but not on the road. He tried to get up again.

“It’s happening now, I tell you. There’s no time to wait!”

“I’ll call Emergency.”

“No!” he spluttered out water and saliva. She couldn’t make out his words. Something, something, “going home.”

“Let me help you,” she said and propped up his back.

Horns blasted as the traffic banked behind her car.

“Get off the road!”

He wasn’t as fragile as she’d expected.

“Am I taking you to these flats?” she asked as she raised him to his feet.

The housing complex was depressed from the street level but rose several storeys above it. Built in the forties, its cluster of maroon brick buildings with their white window jams was laid out in rectangular courtyards. With no visible access from the highway, Sheila would have to drive in via a side street.

“My trolley?”

“If you can get into my car I’ll put your trolley on the footpath.”

The trolley had slipped downhill several metres and was haphazardly jutting out into the traffic, one wheel wedged in the storm-water outlet. Its basket was covered with posters and pamphlets. Beware the Coming Spiral. Beware the Gathering Winds. She had to remove a couple of boxes before she could free the trolley. She brought them back to the car with her.

“My trolley?”

“It’s on the footpath. Here’re your boxes,” she said and placed them on the back seat.

“I can’t go without my trolley.”

“Just sit in the car while I move it off the road and I’ll get your trolley.” She added having the car cleaned to her mental to-do list as she parked just in from the highway. She didn’t want to distress him. She took out the emergency first aid kit from her glove compartment and cleaned the back of his head. She had expected more of a gouge than a graze from the amount of blood escaping. It was a head wound but he would be alright. She left him in her car while she retrieved the trolley. Giving him a hand up, he stretched out for the handle-bar and leaned on it.

“My place’s on the fourth floor,” he told her, staggering as he pushed along the concrete path between lawns. “There’s no lift.” He stopped, his silent gaze asking her assistance.

“I’ll take you up.”

“I suppose the trolley will have to stay downstairs,” he said as it stalled in a deteriorated join in the concrete path.

“Mmm, I suppose it will.” Sheila tried pushing the trolley forward for him. It baulked in the cracks.

“Someone might take my pamphlets.”

“I’ll bring them to you.” Why was this happening? She was already late. She took hold of the basket and pulled the trolley free, then tried ringing Nerida again. The alien-guy veered off diagonally, through a yard of empty hoists that would wind in the wind, milling clothes dry. Nerida wasn’t picking up.


“You think so, too?” He stopped under a hoist. “They don’t go anywhere. I’ve tried. Wind up! Unwind, down! The problem is this part here.” He pointed to the thread in the nearest hoist. “If only it were a true spiral. They’d all be ships. I’ve got my spiral, my fossil. Not man-made, but eternal. See.” He held his pendant out to her. It was a brown polished stone that looked like a flattened snail’s shell. Tightly packed tiles grew in graduating increments, circling away from a central point. “Its passenger is gone.”

Sheila tried calling Nerida again.

They left the trolley in the foyer. Holding tightly onto the bannister, the alien-guy climbed the stairs slowly. He didn’t seem injured. He seemed quite sturdy. It was a relief to her conscience.

The building was quiet. Not even a muffle escaped the closed doors on the way up. On his landing she was surprised to find that in lieu of a door he had a screen made of drops of threaded shells. To the left of the doorway was a kitchen, to the right was what she supposed was once a living room.

He was a hoarder of sorts. Not your average bag-lady variety. Boxes obscured the skirting boards all around the room. Each had its own style of treasure. There were all manner of conical seashells in one, various spinning tops in another, snails in the next, then coils of rope, metal springs from the insides of pens, old shock absorbers, a miscellany of brass instruments, and vinyl records in another. The walls were papered in posters depicting spirals that he couldn’t bring upstairs with him: whirlwinds, whirlpools, the spiral galaxy, a chakra diagram, and even soft serve ice cream. In the middle of the room her gaze rested on a yoga mat.

“For communicating,” he explained, “through spirals.”

“Yes, your pendant.” Sheila condescended.

“Of course not! Our chakras are spirals. We communicate through them. Guard them at all times. Never do drugs.” He pointed to the poster explaining the chakras. “Leave the transpersonal point chakra open and ‘They’ will dive in. ‘They’ will take your body like a new coat.”

“Says the man with no door. I’ll just go get those boxes,” she said and tried calling Nerida again. After her second trip up, the alien guy finally shocked her.

“Are there many drugs in your theatre, Sheila?” Sheila? She froze. “I am Arn Cleef,” he offered.

“Who happens to live in Arncliffe, right? How’d’you know me?” She crossed her arms over her chest.

He raised his eyebrows, a picture of innocence, “That’s what we’re doing now, introducing ourselves.”

“How’d’you know my name?” she demanded.

“It’s on your ID pass. Sheila Hua, Stage Manager.” He pointed to the plastic card pinned to a keeper on the waistband of her trousers.

“Oh,” Sheila said sheepishly. “If you’re right now, I’ve got to go.”

“Difficult question about the theatre? Drugs break off the hinges.”

“I’ll be off.” She turned towards the doorway.

“So, it’s hit and run then?”

She paused before the shell curtain, “No, you’re alright. I’ve got to get into town,” she said a little hopeful.

“Me too. Can I catch a lift with you?” He stepped towards her.

“You’d better rest, just in case.” She started down the stairs.

“Just in case you injured me and didn’t call an ambulance?” He cast a line.

“But you’re okay.” He did look a little pale. But what was normal for him?

“You better take me to Emergency, just in case.” He reeled her back. Emergency? He had the look of frailness about him that she told herself was due to his age. Age made him look frail, not being knocked down by her car. She was late for work.

“Where’d’you want to go?”

“The Harbour.”

The traffic stopped and started all the way into Circular Quay. She didn’t get a chance to find a free car space before he ran out, anything but frail. She watched him bolt towards the water. He was shouting, “I’m here!” He wasn’t slowing down. He was going to run right into the railings. He did. Few seemed to notice. A homeless man, slumped against the railing in the wet, got up for him.

She had to drive down under the Bridge before she could turn the car around to head for work. By the time she returned, Arn was up and walking towards her. He opened the passenger door and sat down.

“I missed it. I think it happened last night . . . To the museum.”

“I’m not a taxi. My work is more than half the way there. You can walk from the theatre.”

Posters advertising the Australian Museum’s Creatures of the Deep exhibition were lit up in every bus shelter going up to the city centre. She supposed the exhibition was what inspired Arn’s tirade about deep-sea, space travel. She had regretted asking him why he’d wanted to go to the Harbour on the way in. He’d babbled on about interstellar-echolocation, Jupiter and her moons, sound rarefaction in dark matter versus sound compression in inner space, bioluminescence in the age of the dinosaurs and wandering ghosts. It was a cacophony of ideas she’d tuned out on. She wasn’t going to ask him what he’d thought he’d missed, now. She hoped the museum staff would know how to deal with him. St. Vincent’s was only a few blocks away. That is, if he got himself to the museum at all. She changed her plan.

Stuck at a red on College St, Arn wasn’t about to wait for the lights to turn. He ran the last couple of blocks to the Museum, ignoring pedestrian signals. There, he crouched by the curb side in front of the main entrance. Was he looking for something in the storm-water drain? Before the traffic reached him, he’d gotten up and crossed the road to Hyde Park. She lost sight of him there. Maybe she should have taken him to St. Vincent’s instead? Physically though, he was okay.

Finally alone, Sheila went through a checklist of things she had to do. Nerida was still not answering. She assumed that mobile networks must be down. The show was so dependent on its electricals…

“Confirmation! One arrived in the Harbour last night.” Arn was back in her car. She had just rounded the park in front of the museum. “Quick, the Harbour!” he commanded.

“No more! I’m going to work. You’re getting out at Pitt St.”

“Yes, I can swim down from there.”

“You do that!”

The Theatre Royal

Sheila felt relief as she walked through security at Stage Door. “All in?”

“Mostly late but accounted for. The Dress Circle is flooded, so’s the Dungeon. The Pit’s been sandbagged. Power was down on all floors ‘til nine. Body-Corp Bob is here already. Carmello’s in make-up and the heaters have just arrived.”

“Thanks Joe.”

“Sheila,” he paused, regretting that he’d started. Should he warn her? Upsetting management was never a good idea, but then what would he avert downstairs if he did? “There was another Algernon sighting. It’s the talk of the Green Room.”

“There’s an Algernon sighting every month. It’s all hype. His fans not letting go. So should you.” Sheila descended two flights of stairs to reach the stage. She had just placed one foot on the landing when Nerida rushed her.

“Downstairs, the Dungeon…”

“Is flooded. The heaters are up at Stage Door. Get a couple of mechs to take them down to the pit. Cancel the Orchestra for the rehearsal. Cross your fingers the heaters will keep the Pit dry for tonight. I’ve got the instrumentals. It’ll be a tech/dress. How’s Carmello?”

“Nervous. The third understudy, never thought he’d do a live one. Body-Corp Bob…”

“Is in the Green Room. Let me logon and I’ll be right down.”

“Sheila, there’s one more thing.”


“It’s gone viral. It’s so much like him, climbing the Bridge near the Observatory. Very thin, scruffy and yodelling like…”

“Like someone pulling off a hoax. You know, he did my head in when he was alive. Disappearing, he did me the favour of a guilt-free break up. I wish everyone would just get over it.”

“His tat was really clear, Shao Hua.”

“Too bad he never respected her. He was a junky. He couldn’t value himself. Just a physical body without a soul keeping itself alive with a drag, a jab and a snort. Drop it. We’ve a show to stage tonight.” Sheila took a deep breath.

Crash! Boom! Ugh! The noise cracked its way up from the open trap in the stage floor, churning up dust and the stench of foul water.

“Yo, Sheila! The dungeon’s flooding,” called an LX guy testing lights. He was leaning over the railing on the catwalk, looking down into the Dungeon through the open trapdoor. “Part of the wall’s come in. Hey! Anyone down there?”

The Dungeon was directly under centre stage. When a performer “fell” through the trap, he landed on a crash mat there. It was a relatively small, rectangular room hung with exposed pipes and fuse boxes and bounded by imposing concrete walls. No carpet, no luxury. It was a part of the stage proper on the floor that was also home to the dressing rooms and the Green Room. When its door was closed and performances were over, it was mostly forgotten. Body-Corp Bob was already in there when Sheila arrived. He was crouching over a tuxedo-clad figure lying on the floor. Out cold, his forehead was gushing blood through his prosthetic make-up. What was Carmello doing down here?


“It’s the acoustics.”

“He was preening his ego before the Dress.”

“Is he alright?”

“Couldn’t cut a break, poor buddy.”

“It’s the curse of the Phantasm.”

A small crowd had gathered at the door.

“Get him to the Green Room and get him some ice,” she called out over the din as she paged for an ambulance.

The concrete-rendered wall that enclosed the stage-right wing on the floor above was spewing water through a jagged rent here below. The thickness of exposed wall was confronting. What sort of pressure was at play?

“Sandbags, pronto!”

What was that echo? Metallic ringing reverberated, expanding and contracting in rolling waves through the room. It had to be a pipe. Where was it coming from? Inside the room or beyond the broken wall?

“How high is that Tank Stream supposed to be right now?” Sheila asked Body-Corp Bob.

“It couldn’t have caused this. Sydney Water’ll have to assess it. The wall’s so thick it’ll have impacted the rail tunnel. Rail Corp’ll have to be notified.” The propulsion of the water began to increase.

“How soon can it be fixed? We’re booked solid until New Year’s Eve.”

“You may have closed last night.”

She paged Nerida. “Buckets and sandbags in the Dungeon. Now!”

Scraping came from the other side of the wall. A chinking accompanied it. Crack! A weight of wall the size of a soccer ball rolled in to them. Water surged after it. More chinking. A smaller chunk of wall escaped. Then another. The flow relaxed to a loll.

“Who’s there?” Sheila demanded.

“Hello, Sheila!”

Part Two, coming next week.

My Fiction

Sci-fi, romance? No, fantasy. No, not really. Romantic – sort of – science fiction, fantasy with space travel but not with space ships, with sea shells – well, not quite. Ammonites, space travel with ammonites – fossils of prehistoric organisms. But they are more than just organisms. They are curious, adventurous and a wee bit unethical.

During the lead up to Christmas and New Year I’ll be posting four instalments of a novella that I’ve written that coincides with the holiday period and the major focus of this blog – the theatre. It’s set in the Sydney CBD and railway tunnels and, drum roll… Sydney’s subterranean, Theatre Royal.

It’s a work of fiction that I’ve drawn from my experiences working in stage blacks as well as taking in the sights, exhibitions and traffic of my city. I call it, Ghosting Europa, as in the moon orbiting Jupiter. As each new post is blogged out, I’ll be transferring each instalment to the tab in the horizontal bar above, Ghosting Europa. I hope you like it.

If not, no fear, the new year I’ll be questioning history and theatre with my usual appetite.

AI: Puppets or Puppeteers?

AI – Artificial Intelligence – it conjures up many emotions and motivations – wonder, fear, ambition, competition, vainglory, greed, hope. What is it really? Is it changing too quickly to define? It seems that when we talk of AI we understand different things. There is the sci-fi aspect – Rosie, the Jetsons’ goodhearted home-helper whose autonomous decision making and fast responses will save the domestic day vs Dr Who’s evil Cybermen, robotic soldiers with steely resolve, incapable of autonomous thought and whose metallic responses are powered, in now a very retro way, by commandeered human brains. Then there is the, very now, commercial application of man-made deep learning neural networks that power the advertising powerhouses of Facebook, Microsoft, Uber and Google. Glorified number-crunching processes that we have all interfaced with each time we’ve seen an ad on FB or Google that funnily enough espouses the desirability of that product or service we researched last month.  And then there’s that nebulous space inbetween, research, where the limitless horizons of science fiction are the endgame.

When Google’s AI program AlphaGo beat its human opponent at the ancient Asian boardgame, Go, it wasn’t a case of technology streamlining itself to play a more difficult game of chess. For AlphaGo to win at this game it had to play against the logic of winning. It had to learn that its opponent was playing to a cultural norm. That by playing an unexpected move it gained the psychological high ground and won. Did it signal the beginning of autonomous thought by a machine? Did it mark the first seed of free will? Or was it programmed to collect data on its opponents moves – as in the frequency of a style of logic – and assess the likelihood of the opponent playing against this style?


Free will and breath, the common denominators of intelligent life, or are they? Just how intelligent can computers become? Will they ever be able to make autonomous decisions, moral judgements and act on them? Like Pinocchio will they ever be able to transcend the limitations of the materials from which they are made and breathe?

No matter our opinion on the matter, AI is coming and in some ways is already here. But we are told that we can make our voice heard. The Montreal Responsible AI Declaration is a survey of opinions on the matter that cover a series of issues that can be thought to determine personal liberty or impact on it. The University of Montreal through the survey hopes to gather opinions to guide it in writing a protocol for AI researchers and developers to abide by.

 It is requesting your say until 31st March, 2018.

Questions fall under the categories: well-being, autonomy, justice, privacy, knowledge, democracy and responsibility. Some of the questions are very specific and confronting e.g., Is it acceptable for an autonomous weapon to kill a human? while others are so general, they are difficult to limit to a clear response after a first read e.g., how can AI contribute to personal well being?

The types of questions posed highlight concerns that may not immediately cross the mind of the uninitiated. Must we fight against the phenomena of attention seeking which has accompanied advances in AI? This is a question of personal vanity and advancement against perhaps the greater good. Should machine learning be aided to advance when the developer doesn’t know what the machine will be exactly capable of – simply so the developer can show off or sell/publish his/her work?

Or Must we fight against the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small number of AI companies? At the moment machine learning, the back bone of AI needs a lot of data to operate. Amounts of data so large that few companies are able to collect and manipulate it, companies like Google, Facebook, Uber. These companies are not only data rich but money rich. What is to guarantee that profit motive won’t weigh heavier than an altruistic world view in their decisions of what to develop and how to use it?

There are questions that relate to freedom of speech. How to minimise the dissemination of fake news or misinformation. This statement is a little unclear. Are they referring to fake news and misinformation about the advancements in AI research and development or fake news in general? Fake news actually takes hold of the imagination because it’s answering an anxiety or fulfilling some kind of need, be it curiosity or a dearth in answers. What it does do, at its best, is inspire discussion and research.

Another question relating to freedom of speech and freedom of the individual in general is, Should research results on AI, whether positive or negative, be made available and accessible? Because AI has the potential to impact us all in the way we will live and the way that we earn a living and the world our children will inhabit, AI research should be accessible to all, in my opinion. What must be kept in mind though when thinking about this question is that not all countries foster the same level of freedom for the individual and not all private multinational corporations would be open to sharing their advances that give their marketing strategies an edge and so will have no qualms with using published research but not sharing their own advances (or making transparent the algorithms that form their AI’s Internal decision making processes). AI development is viewed with such trepidation by some that publishing adverse results in behaviours or outcomes may stymie further development funding in that area.

How to react when faced with AI’s predictable consequences on the labour market? This question brings bias into consideration. I recently asked a programmer whether he thought AI development is a good or bad thing. His immediate response was that it was a good thing. It will take away all of the mundane jobs and only the creative ones will remain. His bias was talking. He is an educated, well paid individual in IT. The kinds of jobs that would engage him will be beyond the understanding of many people of sound body in the community. A repetitive job or one that requires little decision making but simple routine-pattern following would not only bore him but take away some of his pride. However, to many in the community being able to perform simple tasks repetitively and earn money for them is a source of self esteem and income – consider mentally and/or physically handicapped people.

AI can not only impact the labour market in the jobs robotic machines could replace but if placed in charge of hiring individuals, they can impact on who gets the job. Arguments have been raised that the personal bias of the programmers of AI have been and may continue to reflect in their outcomes.

The ages old question about original sin and who was more culpable, the snake that gave the knowledge of sin, the woman whose curiosity passed on the knowledge or the man who used it, surfaces in the question, Can an artificial agent, such as Tay, Microsoft’s “racist” chatbot, be morally culpable and responsible? When I read this I had to ask how culpable was the team that wrote the program that fed the chatbot the data it used? Should they have placed a censor on the chatbot, effectively restricting the download of certain words, images or phrases? How would that have impacted its learning?

What if an AI’s behaviour was morally reprehensible and dangerous? eg., an AI that is placed in charge of an abattoir chooses to slaughter not only cows but any four limbed creature that inhabits the yard. Who would be to blame – the AI trying to exceed its quota or the programming team that failed to impress upon their creation the idea of limits or the ability to discern the difference between a Shetland pony and cattle?

For me the most important question asked is: Must AI research and its application, at the institutional level be controlled? Here I have to ask what sort of institutions are being referred to and what and how would the control be policed? What if the institution was a country manipulating its census data to feed an AI application?

In my ideal future, AI would be used to do the tasks that are out of reach of our physical realm  – because they are too small – as in genetic manipulation in medicine, past our reach physically –  space exploration, navigating the Kuiper Belt and beyond – or past our reach for their enormity and the immediacy of their need, like solving environmental catastrophes – or to avoid physical danger or risk.

AI is fascinating and exciting to me but I believe it should also be reined in. IT should serve humanity to humanities betterment and that of our planet. IT shouldn’t be replacing mundane jobs. It shouldn’t be aimed at increasing our leisure time – don’t we have enough – who will work in the end? It should be gathering data and leaving the processing of that data to us. While it doesn’t have a conscience, it should be leaving the decision making to us who do. It should be out there exploring, advancing medicine, studying clouds and global cooling efforts and generally opening new vistas, ai!

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Aliens, Ghosts and Vanishings


Aliens , Ghosts and Vanushings is a wonderful book by the talented and fun-loving tweens author, Stella Tarakson. She looks at creepy, spooky, reality-pushed stories that have passed into Australian folklore. She presents these stories that are so beloved you just want them to be true in a manner that suggests they are and then gives the other-hand, scientific-historic explanation as well. It’s up to the reader to decide what they will accept.

There’s the Westall High School UFO sighting where 200 witnesses saw a UFO land and take off in a field near the school; the apparent discovery of a massive vein of gold outside Alice Springs in Lassester’s Reef and the location’s subsequent loss; bunyips and drop bears and many, many more curiosities.

The UFO story I find most convincing was caught on radar in 1954 and remains unexplained -the Sea Fury Incident. The disappearance of Harold Holt and Azaria Chamberlain are in there too.

My favourite story by far is the Princess Theatre ghost. She tells the nice side of the story. The story that won’t frighten away theatre-goers from attending the theatre nor actors and crew from working there. It’s a little scarier than that I found out when I was a prop girl on the Phantom of the Opera many years ago.

Stella Tarakson will be doing a book signing at the Berkelouw in Cronulla Mall this Saturday at 1 pm. A great time to pick up a copy, meet the author and get your copy signed.

The Mask, the Monument, the Antiquarian & the Antipodean SF

“Shakespear’s Monument in the Chancell (not in the Parish Church of Stratford Upon Avon) by adjoyning it (I have seen it) Mr Garter Anstis offer’d to get me a cast of it his face . . .( I have got it)”

George Vertue, c.1737.

Writing an, “about me” page or biog is daunting. Attached to my blog, I inevitably feel that I have to somehow justify why I would have the knowledge or know-how to interest you. The other question that it confronts me with is, why blog? And then, why WordPress? The simple answer is that I’ve been told to. Along with, ” If you want to write you must read a lot, and write every day.” As well as the idea that when you blog you put yourself on the line. You have to push yourself to be clear in your thoughts and focus on communicating your ideas. Because WordPress was the buzzword at writer’s festivals, I chose this platform. I think it was a good choice as we who blog here are a part of a writer-reader community. I think it’s paid off. Why?

I’ve just had my first short story published in the Anitpodean SF – issue 206. My story is Regene-eration and, yes, there is a theatrical element to it. If you are interested in reading it – GO AWAY NOW!!!!! Because I’m going to write about the inspiration behind it before my thoughts trail off.

AntipodeanSF Issue 206

AntipodeanSF Issue 206

We write about what we know, what we think we know or what we can imagine. In my case I had recently read Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s, The True Face of William Shakespeare and was inspired.  I read the coffee table version of her thesis that used forensics, professional criminology techniques, old fashioned reading and archival research to find the true likeness of William Shakespeare and in the process test the authenticity of the Darmstadt Death Mask. What is the Darmstadt Death mask? Why, it’s an authentic plaster cast of the face of the man from Stratford, complete with an inscription date of its execution, 1616, and with the down turned moustache and gaunter face of the first sketch-picture of the Stratford monument by antiquarian William Dugdale! So we are told. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s thesis is an impressive case study.

Her extraordinary research techniques are fun and fascinating, if not convincing. (I can’t have faith in the results of a study that seriously considers images painted with the subjective eye of another human being as being true and precise testimonies of the appearance of their sitter. One of the first pitfalls I was warned against in studying life drawing is that we who draw/paint portraits will err with our judgement primordially making our sitter look a little like ourselves.) Where I admire Hammershimidt-Hummel’s work is in her archival research. The Darmstadt Death Mask turned up in the 19th Century with the claim that it was Shakespeare’s Death Mask but its provenance was incomplete. How did it come to be in Germany?

Hummel tells us that it first appeared in 1842 in an auction catalogue for the possessions of Count Franz Ludwig von Kesselstatt, former Canon at the Cathedral in Mainz. It was displayed in the British Museum in 1864 as Shakespeare’s Death Mask, despite the lack of explanation of how it came to be in Germany. Hammerschmidt-Hummel came across the following quote in her archival searches:

“After his return from Vienna, he (Franz Ludwig von Kesselstatt) went to Strasbourg and Nancy to improve himself, stayed there until March 1775, and then set off on his Journey to London.” (1)

So he went to London. She presents no evidence for his having purchased the mask and indeed whose mask it may have been. Many men died in England in 1616. It could be anyone’s death mask. Where is the evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford had a plaster death mask made?

When I read The True Face of William Shakespeare, I got sooooooo excited. You see I had gone through the Walpole Society’s compilation and publication of the 18th Century English antiquarian, George Vertue’s (1684-1756) Notebooks, and read this:

“Shakespear’s Monument in the Chancell (not in the Parish Church of Stratford Upon Avon) by adjoyning it (I have seen it) Mr Garter Anstis offer’d to get me a cast of it his face . . .( I have got it)”(2)

Vertue I [v.106, BM 586],The Volume of the Walpole Society, XVIII (1929–1930)

And then he repeats this in a different notebook:

“. . . to Stratford on Avon – W(m) Shakespear Poet his monument in the Church his bust got a cast of it in plaister”

Vertue [v.47 BM 30] (3)

Vertue furnishes us with two mysteries here.

The First Mystery

Could Kesselstatt’s mask be the plaster cast John Anstis made from a monument to Shakespeare residing in a room adjacent to the Church in Stratford? The Charnel House perhaps? George Vertue’s notes are intriguing. He was compiling information about all the painters, limner’s and engravers who were active in England to his day. Like many early antiquarians, he gathered a lot of information that he never edited into a history. His Notebooks were not kept for the use of anyone outside of himself. They are lists of art and in whose household he had seen them or where one of his antiquarian buddies had. Entries are not dated nor in chronological order and he seems to have filled some of them simultaneously.

Just before Vertue’s death, Horace Walpole (1717-1797) purchased his Notebooks and compiled the first history of artists working in England. Walpole, a connoisseur in his own right, edited the Notebooks and presented the history from his own understanding.Could he have also purchased the plaster cast? The plaster cast is not listed in the auction catalogue for the sale of Vertue’s books. He may have sold it privately before his death. Walpole being a connoisseur with a taste for the macabre would have been a candidate to purchase it.

Walpole is credited with writing the first English Gothic novel, The Castle of Ortranto (1764). Shakespearean scholar, Samuel Schoenbaum, in his Shakespeare’s Lives(4) reports his more macabre interest in Shakespeare. Apparently in 1769, Walpole offered a challenge to anyone who could furnish him with the skull of Shakespeare.  When it was presented to him in 1794, he declined to pay. If we entertain the idea that Walpole purchased the mask along with the Notebooks in the 1750s, he may have offered the challenge so that he could validate the authenticity of the mask. By the time he was offered the skull, he may have already on-sold the mask and therefore had no need of its authentication. Why would he sell the mask you may ask? In building his dream manor, Strawberry Hill, he was conscious always of his available funds.

Walpole is remembered today as a letter writer as well as an art historian and connoisseur. His letters are an important source of information for his times. He wrote them with his eye on posterity. He is said to have asked them all back and edited them and so they survive in a form that he would have approved for print. Did he mention the mask or Kesselstatt in any of his letters for 1775-6? Not that I could pick up. Would he have wanted posterity to know of such a deal if he did?

Thus the mystery of the provenance remains. But then there is the other mystery. George Vertue makes reference to there being TWO monuments in the 1730s – one in the Chancel and one in the room beside it! Are these the two he meant. . .?

File:Dugdale sketch 1634 Detail.jpg

A thumbnail sketch, from life, of the monument before by William Dugdale (1636). Notice the sack of grain?wool?agriculture! See the differences in the top of the monuments.

The Shakespeare Monument as it has appeared since the 18th Century and can be seen today in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford

The Shakespeare Monument as it has appeared since about the 18th Century and can be seen today in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford


(1) Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard, The True Face of William Shakespeare, Chaucer Press, London, 2006, p.117.

(2)George Vertue, “Notebooks”, The Volume of the Walpole Society, XVIII (1929–1930), XX (1931–1932), XXII (1933–1934), XXIV (1935–1936), XXVI (1937–1938), XXIV (1947; Index), XXX (1951–1952; Index).

(3) ibid.

(4)Schoenbaum references Argosy and C.C.Langton, A Warwickshire Man, How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found, (1879) in:

Schoenbaum, Samuel, Shakespeare’s Lives, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991.

photo credits

The cover of Antipodean SF issue 206 features the cover art  – Who wins? (credit – Photovision, Pixabay)

1636 thumbnail sketch by Dugdale (1605-1686) of the Stratford Monument, from Wikimedia Commons

Stratford Monument as we know it:

Image from page 183 of “Shakespeare’s England” (1895)

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images /Foter / No known copyright restrictions

2. What Authorship Question: Dr Who? Homer? Shakespeare?

Can stylometry pick the difference between Dr Who, ala Team Davies vs Dr Who ala  Team Moffat?

Spolier Alert: 2005 –The End of the World; Dalek; The Parting of the Ways

2006 – The Impossible Planet; The Satan Pit

2007 – Last of the Time Lords

2008 – Journey’s End

2010 – Vincent and the Doctor

2013 – The Time of the Doctor

Stylometry is the recognition and quantification of patterns of building techniques in the creation of art. The frequency of use of a technique, or groups of them, is thought to be unique to an artist. Armed with the resulting statistics authorship of pseudonymous works or disputed authorship is able to be clarified. In theory at least.

If we take writing for an example, what a stylometric study can focus on is the frequency of use of a particular word over its synonyms; the frequency of coupled words; a favouring of a particular phrase; or the use of archaic or obscure words over more common ones. Apparently the author leaves his/her unique signature in their technique. The same principles are used in music and the plastic arts. But what about TV?

Stylometry threats, slide, Deceiving Authorship Detection talk, 28C3, Berlin, Germany.jpg


Dr Who has been screening on and off TV for over 50 years. In that time there have been 13 Doctors (including the one with no number). If a sample of screenplays were to be picked up for any season over those years there would be a recurrence of words that could be used for a stylometric analysis. This recurrence has a ratio, an operand, in the larger canon of Dr Who screenplays. Because TV is a visual storyteller, I would also employ other operands: visual elements and props. My computer program would search for an enigmatic alien, a sonic screwdriver, the Tardis, an earthling companion, villanous Daleks and Cybermen.

DR.Who. Sand Sculpture.NikonD300s. DSC_1867-1874

Dr Who sand sculpture, featuring from left to right: The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith); Daleks; the Tardis; Cybermen; and the Angels from the terrifying “Blink” episode.

As separate operands I would have themes. My program would: chase time travel throughout British history and the development of the British consciousness; feature an earth coveted by ferocious aliens; return to the alienation/separateness of the well-meaning, travelling Time Lord; have a sense of wonder at the unknown possibilities of the Universe; and espouse the power of the mind for pacifism over physical aggression.

On paper there appears to be a homogeneity of storytelling elements. A stylometric computer program could be forgiven for not being able to recognize what the fans do, it’s changed a lot over the years. A die-hard Whovian for the early episodes may serve you an earful of deficiencies: the new ones move too fast; there’s too much lovey-dovey going on; too much soap-opera with the families of the companions; there are consequences to the adventure that weren’t dealt with before – do they really need to be dealt with??

You may want to fob it off as old-fogey talk complaining about anything new, but then again fans of the 2005 reboot will tell you the 21st century Doctor has undergone a transformation bigger than a few regenerations. A die-hard Whovian will tell you that something changed when creative supervision passed from Russell T. Davies to Steven Moffat. Not that one approach is better than the other, but that they’re different.

The Tardis in the background

The Tardis (disguised spaceship) in the background

The Davies’ episodes tend to be darker. The Moffat ones, more optimistic. I see an underlying thread that binds the Davies episodes that is missing from the Moffat. That thread is Christianity, specifically Davies’ excursions into turning upside-down and inside-out the basic trappings of Christianity, its Jesus story. He questions the need for the story when it’s message, love-acceptance-pacifism, can exist without it. Again and again the belief that God is male, that Jesus is a man, that the creator of an entire race can be the omnipotent creator of all things, races, universes, is questioned. Religious inspired imagery is worked into the futuristic storylines. E.g., In the episode, The End of the World (2005), the Ninth Doctor takes his new companion Rose Tyler to the year 5 Billion where they will watch the explosion of our Sun. The Sun, the source of all earthly life, is coming to an end. To its end of days. To its Apocalypse. The only place to survive from the explosion is on a space station. It’s shape, a gothic-proportioned cross.

In the Dalek episode of the same season, Rose is most obviously set up to assume a divine role, not like the Virgin Mary, but akin to the triune godhead. The imprisoned Dalek is a souless, metallic robot, born to sin, from sin, and is predestined for mass genocide. It maintains within it a spark of life but no higher faculties. The camera focuses in on Rose’s hand as she approaches it. We see her fingers, stretched out to touch it. It’s a very famous sort of stretch, Michelangelo painted its prototype in his masterpiece, the Creation of Adam. After God touched the earthen Adam, after He had given him His image, He gave him life. When Rose touches the metal skin of the Dalek, she passes to it her DNA and gives it sentient life.

The Davies team are not through with Rose yet. In the final episode of the season, The Parting of the Ways, Rose assumes the role of Messiah, Holy Spirit and God. After the Daleks invade a Game Station where Rose and the Doctor have been trapped, Rose is tricked into the Tardis by the Doctor in order to save her life. He believes that he will die. She is returned to her own time and told via hologram to have a good life. Instead, Rose opens the heart of the Tardis and allows its power to permeate her being. She becomes both omniscient and omnipotent. Travelling back through her experiences with the Doctor, she leaves cryptic warnings for him everywhere. She doesn’t do this physically but using the power of the vortex within her. Her words, her Logoi, are imprinted on the environment they shared. In the same way God is the Word (Logos) and by his word all things are possible. It echos Psalm 19:2-4

“Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world…”

While this consuming power rages within her she has the ability to destroy the Daleks and raise the worthy dead. This consuming fire, so reminiscent of the Holy Spirit, will destroy her meager human self as she cannot contain it. Pure of heart, like Jesus, she has come as a Messiah and is a willing sacrifice for the greater good. The Doctor by kissing her, draws the vortex/spirit within himself, saving her life but losing one of his own.

The role of Messiah is alluded to visually and thematically in the third season’s, Last of the Time Lords (2007).The Doctor, being left powerless under the Master’s control is humiliated and impotent. It takes the faith of the world in him, stirred up by his companion Martha Jones, to resurrect his verve and ability to overcome the machinations of the Master. When the Doctor realizes the power of this faith, he levitates towards the Master, assuming the pose of Jesus. After the Master is shot, the Doctor cradles him and urges him to regenerate, to save himself. This kind of love and forgiveness is beyond the understanding of the Master, who allows himself to die, to spite the Doctor. The Doctor who was twice the capacity to love and forgive is Christ-like. The faith of humanity in the Doctor empowers the god/Doctor. Human belief makes him vital and viable. Without human belief the god doesn’t exist.

Davies’ team work the idea that Satan, and via association God, are entities that our belief has created and maintain in a couple of very clever episodes written by Matt Jones, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit (2006). A planet orbits around a Black Hole without being sucked in. It’s an anomaly. How? Why? If nothing can exist in or escape from a Black Hole, something very powerful, yet unseen, is at play. Chained down a seemingly bottomless shaft, Satan awaits a body that his soul can possess so that he can be freed. While his soul is in the chained body of the beast, the planet encircles the Black Hole. Once he possesses the free body of a humanoid, he can leave the planet severing its orbit, allowing it to be pulled into non-existence. You see, while people believe in the existence of Satan he cannot be sucked into the nothingness of the Black Hole and so the planet was locked in impossible orbit.

Between Moffat and Davies there is another great difference. There is a darkness over Davies’ Doctor, in his view of the Dr’s personal life but also as a reflection of his world. This is best illustrated when comparing, Moffat’s (2010) Vincent and the Doctor episode written by Richard Curtis, with Journey’s End (2008) written by Davies. In Vincent and the Doctor, the Dr and his companions go back in time and meet Vincent Van Gogh. The encounter touches the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond as much as Amy pond touches the artist. When they return to present time, we hope that Van Gogh’s fate has been changed. That he doesn’t commit suicide. But he has. Is the episode depressing? A little, but it is also uplifting. Moffat’s team deliver a sad ending with a silver lining.

Journey’s End, on the other hand, proposes a “happily ever after” ending for Rose, the Doctor’s true love, that is ulcerous at worst. Rose must be irrevocably returned to her alternative-reality universe or the fabric of the cosmos will collapse. She may no longer participate in the adventures she has enjoyed with her Time Lord boyfriend. To compensate, the Doctor banishes with her, his human self that was accidentally begotten in the Tardis. The Human Doctor has all of the Doctor’s memories, intellect, values and emotion attachments. We must now look at the Human Doctor as the Son. He is best described in the words of the Apostles Creed:

“I believe in… one Lord Jesus Christ (New Doctor)

the only begotten Son of God (Time Lord Doctor)

begotten of the Father before all ages.

Light of Light, true God of true God,

begotten not created, of one essence with the Father…

For us (Rose) and our (her) salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit (Heart of the Tardis) and the Virgin Mary (companion Donna Noble facilitated the process) and became Human…”

The Human Doctor lacks his “father’s” immortality and ability to time travel. Rose is confused. Now they can grow old together and play house but without the Tardis, without the quest, is this Human Doctor the same person? Has he been emasculated? Can so much knowledge, verve, experience, be satisfactorily contained in a human existence?The Time Doctor returns to his universe, bereft of all companions, alone.

Darkness is expected before the regeneration of Doctors but not so in the transition from the 11th incarnation to the 12th. Under the watchful eye of Moffat, the 11th Doctor is allowed to age. He spends three hundred years in a place called Christmas, a beloved member of the town. He is on duty of course, safeguarding a wound in the fabric of the cosmos, however, he is not alone.

Could Stylometry really tell apart, episodes under Davies’ team from those of Moffat’s? I doubt it.

With heartfelt appreciation, I dedicate this post to my favourite Whovian, Stella Tarakson.

Photo Credits


Photo credit: gruntzooki / Foter / CC BY-SA

Dr Who Series Sand Sculpture

Photo credit: bobchin1941 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Tardis and Time Traveller

Photo credit: guzzphoto / Foter / CC BY-ND