by Claire McCague
Prologue: Wellington, Present Day
The possum invasion was a serious problem. Millions of alien, Australian brush-tailed possums were munching through New Zealand’s bush, forest, and farmland. This guaranteed continuous research funding, which Harry Hatarei appreciated. It suited him to study an immediate threat to his home islands. That said, the problem had been around for a hundred and seventy years, and Harry wasn’t cruel enough to solve it.
He pulled open the heavy middle drawer of his filing cabinet and sank a chipped coffee mug into the birdseed piled in it. His paper, which used road kill data to track possum populations, had been rejected and correcting it would require painful statistical contortions. The Maori professor preferred to tackle his research like a rugby fullback — fiddling with numbers put him up the wall. Outside, the sun was pressing fingers of light through the cloud cover of a damp August day. He tossed the birdseed out the window of his cramped office in the biology department.
The phone rang as birds fluttered from the tree shading his window. He answered it immediately. “Harry, here.”
“It’s Ben. Do you have time?”
“Paperwork is quicksand,” Harry answered. “Save me.”
“I’m tracking some critter sightings up by the Carter Observatory.” Ben was a local park ranger often tasked with trapping pest-possums. “All the reports are strange. Folks swear that they’ve seen a couple of red pandas or wallabies or baboons, but the zoo has rattled all their cages and they aren’t missing a thing.”
“You’ve got a problem if people can’t tell a primate from a kangaroo,” Harry noted.
“There’s a fellow who thinks he saw two baby moa birds. Half the height of an ostrich instead of twice as big,” Ben replied. “If it’s a prank, the people making the sightings aren’t in on it. I’m starting a grid search.”
“I’m on my way.” Harry hung up. Digging the keys for the biology department’s animal transport truck from his pocket, he headed for the parking lot.
It took a handful of minutes to reach the hill that lifted a swath of green in the heart of Wellington. He turned onto an access road for official park vehicles and pulled off beneath a stand of possum-infested trees. Locking the truck, he hiked the trail to where Ben was organizing the search. A wiry bystander, who was loudly insisting the extinct moa bird had been resurrected from DNA fragments, greeted Harry enthusiastically, hoping for an expert ally. Harry pledged an open mind and extracted himself to join the grid search. After four hours, he asked Ben to call if anything dropped from the trees and headed back to where he’d parked.
Blackbirds burst from the underbrush as he approached the truck. The doors on the box canopy were ajar and a glint of metal caught his eye. The padlock from the cage in the truck was on the ground, open and undamaged. He glanced around, figuring someone had tried to rip him off. Tugging the door, he let it drift open, looking to see if the department’s shovel was still in its mount.
A glimpse of movement made him leap back. Two porcupines were hunkered in the cage. While Harry grappled with the incongruity of porcupines occupying his truck, their quills changed color, taking on the dark blue of pukeko birds. The skin beneath the spines was rust red. The one closest to him looked through the bars of the cage with pupil-less yellow eyes. Its oddly knuckled fingers were wrapped around a short length of fallen wood, gripping it as any climbing mammal might. It turned the branch in its hand, and then passed it to the second creature.
Harry stepped forward, bracing a hand against the door frame of the truck canopy. “You’re not a possum.”
Chapter One - Ten Days Later
Estlin Hume was ignoring the squirrel on his bedside table. The squirrels in the closet and under the bed were easy to ignore — they’d settled and were dreaming quietly — but the one on the table wanted to place a hand on his pillow. It wanted to line a nest with his dark hair. Any violation of the no squirrels on the bed rule would force Estlin to get up, fetch bricks and chicken wire, and deal with the latest security breach. So, he was trying not to think about the squirrel because thinking about squirrels only encouraged squirrels to think about him.
The cell phone on the bedside table buzzed. The squirrel became a projectile, leaping onto the window curtains. Estlin’s nerves jumped with it. He jerked against the bed, as though waking from a dreamed fall. The phone hit the floor as he fumbled for it with fingers that felt like they were the wrong size.
Squirrels bounded around the room. One of them bounced against the windowpane. The others scattered and climbed, collectively forgetting that they’d broken through the eaves of the old farmhouse and gnawed a gap from the attic into the closet.
Estlin grabbed the phone, checking the display. The caller ID was restricted. “Hello?”
“Lyndie! Are you home?”
“Harry?” Estlin recognized the voice immediately. Harry lived on the other side of the world and never paid attention to time zones.
“Are you home, Lyndie?”
“I’m in bed.” Estlin sat up, leaning against the headboard. He raised a hand to quiet the squirrels.
“Good, you’re home. I assumed you were home. He’s home!” Harry called out.
Estlin reached for the lamp, needing light. “What time is it?”
“It’s nine o’clock here. What’s that there? Late or early?”
“Both.” The old wood clock on the wall suggested it was two a.m.
“I’ve got a job for you.” Harry was professor and possum expert who often sidelined with other species — work that ranged from rat control to contracts with wealthy individuals who could afford a specialist when their exotic pets seemed depressed. “An exciting job.”
“I don’t like exciting jobs.”
“Yes, you do.”
Estlin slid under his light blanket and contemplated the rain damage on his ceiling. His last working holiday with Harry had cost him too much. He accepted the medical bills, but the officious denial of the expense forms Harry made him submit to Victoria University had irked him.
“I can’t afford your jobs,” he said.
“This one pays. Forty grand for five days, plus travel.”
Estlin froze. He lifted the phone from his ear and wondered why Harry was calling from an unlisted number. “What kind of job is this?”
“The kind where we don’t talk about it until you’re down here.”
“Can’t say,” Harry answered. “Lyndie, you can’t miss this. Pack now — don’t pack — grab your toothbrush. Your ride is on its way.”
“No camels. I promise.” Harry hung up.
Estlin looked at the phone. The squirrels regarded him expectantly.
“I’m leaving,” he said and rolled out of bed. He pulled on a pair of jeans, slipped his wallet into the back pocket and dug through his underwear drawer for his passport. Stopping at the window, he heaved it open, propping the sash with a stick he kept on the window sill. “All of you, out. Out!”
The squirrels did not want to go. It was a constant side effect of his extreme, involuntary empathy with animals. It made him a useful assistant for Harry, but otherwise complicated his life. When he asked them directly, the squirrels said he was tasty, filling, warm, soft, smelly, furry and shiny. These were truthful answers, but incomplete. The squirrels didn’t have a sensory or conceptual symbol for what it was they liked about him. He was just shiny. He was so shiny that they gathered from miles around to find out what was shiny and stayed to bask in the glow.
This caused problems. He’d been expelled from three universities and one veterinary college. He’d given up on urban and suburban living because among every set of neighbors there was a kind, tree-loving soul — a concerned citizen — who watched in horror as a horde of bark-stripping squirrels killed every tree in an expanding death zone around him.
The tree-lovers were compelled to phone municipal bylaw offices, wildlife conservation societies, animal welfare, and the police. This was problematic, especially as the issue was never resolved by fines or injunctions. Several of the offended parties had ultimately turned to their gardening sheds, where sharp implements lined the walls. Estlin did not like having axes swung at him. Having been assaulted with gardening tools on three separate occasions, he couldn’t dismiss the events as freak and unlikely happenings.
People prone to making helpful suggestions usually felt he should get a cat, not realizing that this would only lead to untold levels of carnage.
He’d tried houses and high rises and lost every damage deposit. He’d camped in a condemned mine — a low point — and had lived on a cabin cruiser for a record six months until it sank. When he inherited the farmhouse from a reclusive uncle, from his first view of its peeling paint and sagging deck, he’d seen the beauty of the place. The isolated house on the southwestern edge of Alberta was next to a provincial park and miles from the nearest active farm.
It wasn’t perfect. Work was hard to find, the squirrels still gathered and every storm stole shingles from the roof. But he didn’t have to worry about being hacked to death by an irate neighbor whose sanity had been gnawed away by the tree-rats.
At thirty-three, Estlin accepted his lack of ambition. His squirrel affliction made keeping a job impossible, so he’d never linked his happiness to advances on a career path. Now, he owned twelve acres of wild grass. If he could keep the roof above him, he might be able to live an unremarkable life, perhaps even get a dog, if he could find one willing to ignore squirrels.
“Out, now.” Estlin pointed at the window. The squirrels tipped their heads and thought about it. He glared at them. “Out.”
Bright stars and the quarter moon cast dim light on the flat expanse of tall grass. He heard the distant rumble of prairie thunder. The rumble broke into a grating roar as a bright floodlight swept over the house. The squirrels shot out the window and galloped across the roof as a Harrier jump jet did a wheels-down, dirty pass taking three shingles with it.
A blast of heat swept into the room. Estlin yanked the stick from the window, letting it drop closed. The Harrier turned, then inexplicably paused, hovering on the raw power of its downward directed engine, before descending vertically into his backyard. The deafening engine swallowed and whined as it shut down. The canopy slid back.
“What the—” Estlin stepped away from the window and grabbed a green T-shirt from the floor. He pulled it on and leaned forward to look out again. The pilot was climbing from the cockpit.
Running to the hall, he nearly killed himself careening down the stairs, his feet ahead of his brain. In the kitchen, he stopped to check reality. The Harrier was still in his yard. He stepped into the sandals on the kitchen mat and opened the back door. The pilot was on his deck with her hand raised to knock. She was smiling and her cropped brown hair was spiked in odd directions. Helmet-head, Estlin thought, is sexy.
“Lyndie Hume?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “Estlin, actually,” he added, correcting the nickname that only Harry inflicted on him.
“I’m Flight Lieutenant Verges, Royal Air Force.” She removed a black glove to offer her hand.
“Welcome to Canada?” He smiled weakly, trying to meet the strength of her handshake.
“I’m hitting all the air shows.” She slipped her hand back into her glove, adjusting the Velcro cuff of her olive flight suit. “Are you good to go?”
“That’s a Harrier,” he said.
“An old T.10 trainer, yes, sir,” Verges agreed, lifting her chin with pride. “We’ve taken most of them out of service, but there’s still nothing like it.”
“And you’re my ride?”
“Yes, sir. I got pulled from a repositioning flight to give you a lift.”
“Does that happen?”
“Never,” Verges grinned at him. “It was a real test of the guidance system finding your corner of nowhere. Are you ready?”
No, he thought. “I haven’t packed.”
“There’s no room for luggage.”
Harry, Estlin realized, had said not to pack. Harry, apparently, was an unbelievable bastard. “I need to make a phone call.”
“We’re chasing the clock, sir. My orders are to get you to Whidbey at all speed.”
“What-where-when?” He could smell the engine exhaust. The Harrier was radiating palpable heat. Estlin was drawn off the deck towards it. “Where?”
“The American Naval Airbase on Whidbey Island.” Verges paused, squinting at him. “Have you had any experience in tactical aircraft?”
“No. None. None.” He wanted to be completely clear on this.
“We’re breaking rules tonight.” Verges was serious, her brow pinched. “If you wanted a joyride, you’d get eight hours of training and a flight suit. This isn’t a joyride. They want you on the coast five minutes ago.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m flying you to Whidbey Island,” she answered.
“Right.” Estlin cautiously touched the narrow step ladder extending from Harrier’s fuselage below the cockpit. The question of his willingness to fly off with no notice and no answers wasn’t much of a question. Harry had called, and he’d do whatever Verges asked because she was offering to take him somewhere in a Royal Air Force fighter. “How do I…?”
“Climb up.” Verges placed her hand on the ladder directly beneath his, standing close, exuding confidence. “Step onto the seat and then down. Don’t touch anything.”
He climbed and Verges followed him. She reached in and swiftly buckled him into place. “The release for the belt is here. Don’t touch it. Don’t touch the stick, the throttle, the switches. Don’t touch anything. Don’t touch anything marked in red. Don’t touch things marked in yellow, either. The eject is here. Don’t touch it. Hands off at all times. If something happens, I’ll punch us out. Nothing will happen. We’ll go up. We’ll go fast. We’ll make a runway landing at Whidbey. Headset. Helmet.” She handed them to him and brusquely corrected his fumbling. “The sick bags are there. Don’t hesitate. Don’t miss.”
Verges tapped Estlin’s shoulder and pointed at the cluster of concerned squirrels that had gathered beneath them. “Are those pets?”
“The engine can melt asphalt.”
“Oh.” Estlin lit a fire in his mind. He imagined the ground burning brightly. He imagined the heat and the smell. The squirrels scattered.
“Did you just—?” Verges stopped short.
“No,” he said.
She looked at him with the spark of excited realization in her eyes. It was a rare reaction to Estlin’s oddness. Most people blinked and looked away when the squirrels danced around him.
“Ready?” Verges asked.
Verges checked his harness again. “You’re ready,” she said and closed the back half of the canopy over Estlin, pressing it firmly down before she climbed into the trainer’s lead seat. Estlin contemplated the dials, switches and levers surrounding him, particularly the stick between his legs. It was placed and shaped in a way that made him want to wrap his hands around it. He flexed his fingers and curled them back towards himself.
“Radio check.” Verges voice sounded directly in Estlin’s ear as the forward canopy slid into place and locked. The engine was already roaring. “Respond, please.”
“I hear you,” he answered, hoping there wasn’t a switch he needed to press. His hands were sweating.
“Remember to breathe,” Verges said. “Here we go.”
The plane lifted off, then jumped forward. Estlin pressed his hands to his knees and drew a sharp breath as the Harrier rapidly accelerated. There were two display screens directly in front of him. Everything else was a stick, a lever or a switch. The dark beyond the windows was disorienting. He swallowed and his ears popped.