The Sixes, the Wisdom, and the Wasp
By E J Delaney
Fereshteh Nemati was scared.
She knew she was gripping her bow too tightly. She knew she should never ever aim at another person. But it wasn’t bad technique she was thinking of, or breaking her father’s golden rule. It wasn’t even the sight of poor Mr. Heke lying unmoving by his desk.
What bothered Fereshteh most of all was the girl on the opposite side of the classroom: the one standing with arrow notched and back elbow held high, staring at her across the small wooden desks and half-open tidy trays.
That’s me. I’m shooting at me!
Watching herself in the mirror was one thing. There she’d be, every day, cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair, wrapping her head scarf and tying it just left of her chin. Her reflection did everything the opposite way. Her reflection held the brush in its left hand, and tied its roosari to the right.
The girl in front of her was no reflection.
This is wrong, Fereshteh thought.
She felt the nock of her arrow starting to come loose between trembling fingers. It wanted to fly!
The girl was no reflection, but like Fereshteh she looked scared and guilty and confused. She had the same heavy eyebrows as Fereshteh, with bags beneath her yellow-brown eyes, and skin the colour of a half-cooked pikelet. Her upper lip dipped in a bow-shaped crinkle. Her hair, wrapped loosely in the teal and white of Bahalana Primary, was mourner’s black in a class full of brunettes and blondes.
She also had the same deep scratch on her right cheek.
Fereshteh felt time slow. The arrow’s fletching tickled her chin, its feathery vanes like the fur of her pet rabbit Khargoosh when he nuzzled up to her. Fereshteh’s arm ached. As the morning tea bell chimed, she felt her grip slip and saw the same two questions burning in the other girl’s panicked eye:
How did this happen? How did I get here?
Well, that part was easy, at least in the beginning:
It was all Tim’s fault.
Timothy Carroll hadn’t asked about the scratch on Fereshteh’s cheek that morning; nor had he asked about her science project. Tim rarely asked questions, and Fereshteh wasn’t sure if this was because he didn’t notice things, wasn’t interested in them, or because he’d already worked everything out for himself. Whatever the reason, questions weren’t part of the routine.
The routine of walking to school began with Timothy saying, very solemnly, “Good morning, Feri.” (Never Fereshteh.)
Then Fereshteh would say, “Hello, Timothy.” (Never Tim.)
And then they’d walk.
Most days they walked in silence or with the heavy pitter-patter of rain sounding loud on their umbrellas and on the banana fronds and other drum-like plants of the hinterland. Tim never looked around much — he concentrated mostly on his feet — but Fereshteh often wondered at this dense foliage: Queensland’s so-called Sunshine Coast. Had her parents made a mistake when they moved here? Had they been tricked by the name?
Because surely this watery, hill-strewn jungle was nothing like Iran. Tehran, she knew, was elevated to the north, the city rising towards the bald, sometimes snowy heads of the Alborz Mountains; but even if some parts were similar, it was all so green and wet here!
With a sigh, Fereshteh turned her thoughts back to walking.
Tim might not have been interested in her science project, but Fereshteh was curious about his. Beneath the clear plastic wrapping, she could make out a jumble of electrical equipment: flat green RAM wafers and LED Christmas lights; the shell of an old amplifier; USB cables; a cracked iPad; egg cartons; and a wire coat-hanger on top, bent out of shape.
“Timothy,” she called. The rain beat a relentless tattoo across her umbrella’s stretched canvas. “What does your science project do?”
Tim stopped, turning to face her. The contraption — whatever it was — had been looped around his neck to rest against his chest, counterbalancing his school bag. He laid a protective hand over it.
“It is a machine for bringing about the Transposition of Information via Multiversal Equivalence.” Having stressed these four words, he turned to set off again.
Fereshteh shook her head. “I don’t know what that means.”
Tim paused. As the two of them stood there, their umbrellas formed what seemed a secret enclave. Water dripped heavily from the spokes and draped trickling veils across the colourful ridges in-between.
“It is a machine that allows travel across the boundaries of the multiverse.”
“Do you mean parallel universes?
“Boundaries of the multiverse.”
“I see.” Fereshteh thought of the still-stinging scratch on her cheek. “So, we could go to a universe where my arrow didn’t break this morning?”
“An iteration of the multiverse, yes.”
“Using your science project?”
“Does it work?”
This time Tim did turn away. He started walking again as if nothing had happened. Fereshteh hurried to catch up.
“Does it work?” she persisted. She stood in front of him now, blocking the path. “Timothy, you have to show me!”
She had her own project tucked beneath her arm, aimed at him. Tim lowered his chin to look at its thick bubble wrap. They stood for a moment.
“Okay,” Tim agreed.
And Fereshteh nodded: “Okay.”
Then Tim activated the machine.
Or rather, nothing obvious. Standing there with Tim, their umbrellas locked together to make a shield against the rain, Fereshteh was struck by a sudden, strong sensation they’d been here before. Well, of course they had! They walked this way nearly every day…
But it was more than that. Déjà vu, Fereshteh’s mum called it; the feeling that something you couldn’t quite remember was happening again. Fereshteh frowned. Could it be?
Slowly, awkwardly, she shrugged the umbrella’s metal shaft between her shoulder and neck, freeing a hand to dab gently at her cheek. The scratch was still there.
“Oh,” she said. She took proper hold of her umbrella once more and glared accusingly at Tim’s plastic-wrapped machine. “It didn’t work!”
Then again, had she really expected bits of old computer and egg carton to send them into a parallel universe? Tim was clever but he wasn’t that clever.
A loose thread of Christmas lights smirked at her, the LEDs twinkling green and red in the murk of the downpour. Tim nodded as if that confirmed his suspicions.
“Interference,” he said.
He took two steps sideways and then carried on past her. Clutching her umbrella in one hand and her bubble-wrapped science project in the other, Fereshteh followed.
“Saramo shire mālid,” she grumbled to herself. He played a trick on me.
They arrived at school a few minutes later, the white walls and teal roofs of the twin demountables and toilet block appearing ghostlike through a green, bushy expanse of beech trees. While Tim stomped up the stairs to the classroom, Fereshteh stopped off to say hi to Mr. Browser. The old Australian stock horse wandered over from under his tree and stretched his neck over the paddock fence, snuffling at her with wet black nostrils.
“G’day,” she whispered. She manoeuvred the umbrella so she could stroke the length of his long brown snout. “Who’s a good horse then?”
Fereshteh and Mr. Browser watched as Timothy closed his umbrella and hung it on a free hook outside the classroom. Having wiped his shoes a very deliberate five times each on the mat, he shuffled inside.
Their teacher, Mr. Heke, stepped out.
“Fereshteh,” he called. His pikorua tattoos rippled like spiral wind chimes as he beckoned to her. His voice was gentle thunder rumbling through the rain. “Time to come inside. It’s pouring down, e hine! Do you have your science project?”
“Yes, Mr. Heke,” Fereshteh called back. Then to Mr. Browser: “I think you’ll like it, Mr. B. It’s a model of hyperbolic geometry, just like what Maryam Mirzakhani worked on. It looks like a saddle.”
Giving the horse one final pat, she turned toward the classroom. Mr. Heke gave her a thumbs-up from the verandah and squeezed back through the doorway.
Behind Fereshteh, in the field next to Mr. Browser’s, Bahalana Primary’s lone archery target stood lopsided in the mud. Its red eye seemed to stare after her.
Fereshteh had thought having an arrow shatter in her face would be as bad as her day got. She was wrong.
By morning tea the rain had eased to a light drizzle. When the second bell rang, Fereshteh, who had been outside feeding her apple to Mr. Browser, came back in to present her science project. That was when she had the accident.
The younger kids had already shown off their work. It was more art than science in Fereshteh’s opinion, but Mr. Heke had crouched down and looked puzzled and amazed and exclaimed te wehi! a lot. Now it was time for the year fives and sixes.
Fereshteh was up first. Having carefully unwrapped her model — the complex saddle she’d worked so hard to sculpt — she carried it proudly forward… only to trip over Zach Hughes’ outstretched leg.
It wasn’t really Zach’s fault, Fereshteh thought, even as she stumbled, glad at least that she was wearing tracksuit pants under her school dress. Zach just couldn’t sit still in his chair. She knew she had to watch out for him.
As she hit the floor, she felt the model crumple beneath her. The saddle popped with the same finality as a cane toad when it’s run over. The class burst out laughing.
And that, she knew, wasn’t their fault either. Who didn’t laugh when someone else fell down?
But she was embarrassed, and her project was ruined. She heard Bethany King-Coyle squeaking like a jackal. Bethany King-Coyle, who sometimes made fun of Fereshteh’s nose…
“Aiii,” Mr. Heke rumbled in his Maori way. “That’s no good, e? Zach, you need to watch where you–”
And then Mr. Heke tripped, too.
At least, that’s what he wanted the class to think. From where she lay sprawled, Fereshteh could see that he purposefully hooked one foot around the other before plunging headfirst past his own desk and out the open door.
Seeing one of their own fall over was one thing; seeing the teacher go down was something else entirely. The class erupted.
With the attention taken off her, Fereshteh picked herself up and took the squashed remains of her project back to her desk. Tim turned to her, his expression serious.
“Are you alright, Feri?”
She nodded sadly. “Yes.”
Mr. Heke was still flapping about outside, slipping this way and that on the wet verandah. Tim pointed to Fereshteh’s crushed model.
“You broke your project.”
“Yes, Timothy. It was an accident.”
“Do you want me to use my Transposition of Information via Multiversal Equivalence machine again?”
Fereshteh regarded him. For a moment the hoots and delighted squeals of her classmates faded into the background. She thought about all the hours she’d spent with her mother, researching hyperbolic geometry. She thought how nice it would be to cross into a parallel universe where she hadn’t just flattened her model.
Then she remembered that Tim’s machine didn’t actually do anything, and she sighed.
“Sure, Timothy. Thanks.”
For the second time that day, Tim flicked the switches and turned the dials on his improbable device.
Fereshteh found herself outside.
She and Tim stood face-to-face on the way to school, the rain stinging their umbrellas. Fereshteh felt an ache on her cheek. The scratch from her exploding arrow was still fresh.
Fereshteh was hit by the same dizzying rush of déjà vu as earlier. The trees; the rain; the feel of her project tucked safely under her arm: she realised this was the exact moment when Tim had first tried to demonstrate his device.
It worked, she thought. It actually worked.
Her sense of wonder turned quickly to resentment.
“But what happened this morning?” she demanded. “I mean, now. Before. Last time!”
LED lights twinkled red and green beneath the machine’s egg carton eyes. Tim nodded.
“Interference,” he explained. “The Transfer of Information — the one we have just made — prevented us from finding the Multiversal Equivalence we sought earlier.”
He stepped past her and started back toward the school.
“But you see, Feri, I did not rub syrup on your head.”
Which was the word-for-word translation of saramo shire mālid. Fereshteh was amazed he’d heard her, let alone understood. She hurried after him.
“Wait! You said we’d be in a parallel universe. One where–”
“An iteration of the multiverse.”
“…one where I didn’t trip and fall on my model. Timothy, that didn’t happen. We’ve travelled in time.”
Tim shook his head but didn’t stop walking.
“No, Feri. It only appears that way.”
“We are in an equivalent iteration; one where the only difference is that, instead of my machine not working when we tried to use it, we did not try at all. Equivalence,” he repeated. “Not time travel.”
“But…” Fereshteh tried to sort it out in her head. (And she’d thought hyperbolic geometry was difficult!) “But if your machine was searching for a way to stop me tripping, shouldn’t we have ended up in a universe where–”
“…an iteration where, I don’t know, Zach stuck his leg out the other way? Wouldn’t that have been a closer equivalence?”
Now Tim did stop, his lips pursing as Fereshteh caught up to him. In the sudden stillness the rain seemed to chisel away at their umbrellas.
“Yes, Feri, you are right. The only explanation I can think of is more interference: just as our first use of my machine was disrupted by interference from our second, perhaps our second was disrupted by interference from our third.”
“Our third use?”
“One we are yet to make.”
Fereshteh shook her head. A strand of hair fell loose from her roosari.
“This is crazy.”
“No, Feri. This is the multiverse. It is closer than you think.”
Tim set off again, apparently satisfied with his own reasoning. Fereshteh was far from satisfied but at least she still had her model. It was reassuring in its bulky lightness. The pucker of its plastic air bubbles kissed at her skin.
“So it will all be the same?” she called. “Equivalent, I mean. The only difference will be that I don’t trip over Zach?”
“That is correct,” Tim said. “Up until that point the events of this morning will be exactly as we remember them.”
But they weren’t. Not by a long shot.
Bahalana Primary appeared in the gloom ahead of them, its three little buildings huddling half-drenched beneath the overhang of the big, bushy beech trees. Straight away Fereshteh could tell something was wrong.
Mr. Heke stood motionless in the rain, his big arms folded, muscles brooding as he stared out across Mr. Browser’s paddock. Mr. Browser’s empty paddock.
Fereshteh ran over, leaving Tim to trudge steadfastly up to the classroom. Her eyes darted around, searching for the horse. Behind the tree–? Lying out in the open, camouflaged in some way by the mud–?
No, she realised; there was nowhere he could be where she wouldn’t see him.
Mr. Browser was gone.
“But– but he was right here!” Fereshteh protested. “Where is he?”
She turned, tilting her head to look up at Mr. Heke; as if he might possibly know. Gently, he took the umbrella from her hand and raised it to cover them both.
“Wai ka hua, wai ka tohu?” He shrugged big, helpless shoulders, then translated: “Who can say? I guess someone took him, e?”
“But why?” Fereshteh looked past Mr. Heke to where Tim was wiping his shoes five times each on the classroom mat. “When?”
Mr. Heke shook his head.
“The little ones are upset, Fereshteh. You must be strong, e? Like Pai Apirana. You must show them it will all be okay.”
Okay? Fereshteh felt weak. The rain hammered accusingly on the umbrella above her. Mr. Browser was gone and somehow, she knew, it was her fault. Hers and Tim’s. When they’d used the machine…
How could everything be okay?
Mr. Heke stood still and mostly silent beside her. His only contribution was a stony rumble when he turned, monolithic, to face the paddock again. In the field next to Mr. Browser’s the weather-beaten archery target sat off-kilter, its legs half sunken in the mud.
“Where are you, Mr. B?” Fereshteh murmured.
In the crook of her arm, the bubble-wrapped saddle she’d spent so much time on seemed to weigh nothing at all.
The mystery of Mr. Browser’s disappearance was solved later that morning. He’d been taken by aliens.
This, when it was revealed, put Fereshteh in a unique position: with everyone else wondering why aliens would come down and abduct a horse, her question was why they hadn’t done it earlier.
Not that this was the first thing on her mind. The first thing on Fereshteh’s mind — and it left everything else a distant second — was the girl now standing, bow drawn, in front of her, and the fact she’d somehow ended up in an archery standoff with herself.
Sorry, Mr B. She squinted down the arrow’s shaft. Her fingers had turned numb, barely able to register the nock clenched between them. I do care, really.
With the horse missing, no one in the class had felt much like presenting their science projects. The grade fours were especially upset (the twins Bronagh and Tia snuffled their way through a whole box of tissues staring tearfully out the window), so Mr. Heke had them do maths instead.
“Mānawanawa,” he crooned, as much to himself as anyone else. “Mānawanawa, tamariki. Patience, kids.”
Not much maths got done. Worry and uncertainty set in even as the rain began to ease.
And then the mud wasp came.
Nobody saw it fly in, yet there it was: a black and yellow terror gliding silently hither and zither, its stinger an undetached nuclear-bomb chilli hanging dangerously low. This pointed warhead seemed to control the insect’s trajectory, weighing it down, jerking it this way and that, pulling it towards some random detonation…
Fereshteh watched as the wasp dipped drunkenly. In front of her, Finn Ferguson yelped and ducked under his desk. The Smith twins shrieked.
On another day, Fereshteh knew, Mr. Heke might merely have caught the wasp in his lunchbox and removed it outside. Today, though, there’d be no tender capture and release; no murmured warning not to come again.
Instead, Mr. Heke cursed — “Kātahi te–!” — and with teeth bared reached for his whacking-stick: the one he kept on nails above the whiteboard, despatcher of tiger- and red-bellied black snakes. He circled, tracking the wasp’s oblivious weave.
The wasp lost altitude.
Mr. Heke pounced.
Suddenly the wasp wasn’t there. In its place was another Mr. Heke, whacking-stick raised.
Two Mr. Hekes? For a moment Fereshteh thought she must be seeing things. (Wasp venom? Had she been stung?) But no; it was really happening.
Eyes wide, tattoos bulging, the two teachers came together.
The new Mr. Heke yelped. He looked up at the stick in his hand, surprise flashing across his face. “We are the Calque. We have taken your horse!”
The original Mr. Heke swung his stick. He, too, looked astonished. Fereshteh thought he probably missed on purpose, striking at his desk instead.
“E kāti!” he implored; then in English: “Wait!”
But it was too late. New Mr. Heke was like the wasp, flailing about at the end of a weapon it couldn’t control.
“We come in peace, e?” he boomed doubtfully.
Then he clobbered original Mr. Heke with the whacking-stick.
Mr. Heke fell to the floor, a mighty tree toppled. There came a moment’s silence, then chaos.
The Smith twins started screaming. (They were lovely girls, Fereshteh reminded herself, but could only use their brains once their lungs were clear.) Finn Ferguson scampered for the door, perhaps to fetch the principal. Bethany King-Coyle tried to follow him but tripped on Zach Hughes’ stray leg. She landed hard and made a noise like a dog’s squeaky toy.
“Look, Feri,” Tim pointed.
New Mr. Heke stood, confused. His whole body seemed to flicker: sometimes there, sometimes not. His skin turned bright yellow, his tattoos a waspish black.
Without thinking about it, Fereshteh rose from her chair and moved to the back of the classroom. Her bow and quiver of arrows were in their special box by the sporting cabinet. Fereshteh reached in and plucked them out.
“Feri, what are you–?” Tim began.
As Fereshteh turned around, new Mr. Heke shimmered and disappeared. In his place stood a determined looking girl wearing a Bahalana Primary headscarf. She had smooth skin and heavy eyebrows… and a deep red scratch on her right cheek.
She was clutching a bow and arrow.
“Fereshteh Nemati,” the girl said. Not only did she speak with Fereshteh’s voice, she got the soft vowels in her name right. “We are the Calque. We have your horse. We come in peace.”
She turned her sad brown eyes to Mr. Heke lying unconscious on the floor, then added: “At least, we try to.”
Fereshteh raised her bow.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “I mean, who are the… Calque?”
The other girl raised her bow in turn.
“We are aliens,” she said, a proud set to her lips. “We travel the universe seeking friendship!”
Given the current standoff, this seemed an odd statement. Both Fereshteh and her Calque double cocked their heads. The girl admitted: “We rarely find it.”
“But why do you look like me?” Fereshteh demanded. “And why did you take Mr. Browser?”
This prompted a fresh outburst of wailing from the Smith twins. Fereshteh winced, as did the other girl. They both pulled back their bow-strings.
“The Calque are blessed! We identify with the races we contact. We feel what they feel. In fact, we cannot help it. Wherever we go, we take on the form of our new friends; and their thoughts; and their behaviours.”
The girl glanced down at Mr. Heke again. Her nose seemed to hang in judgement.
“Sometimes,” she confessed, “it does not go well.”
“And Mr. Browser?” Fereshteh prompted.
“We understand it is the custom of humans to take hostages before meeting with new races. We found it difficult to choose.”
“So you took our horse?”
“Yes. We are feeding him lots of apples.”
Fereshteh shook her head. She stared at her doppelgänger — her alien lookalike; her alien act-alike — and tightened her grip on the bow.
The girl stared back and did the same.
How strange, Fereshteh thought, that Earth’s first alien encounter should involve archery and apples…
Amidst the fear and the dreamy confusion, she almost loosed her arrow.
How did this happen? How did I get here?
It was all Tim’s fault, she decided.
That was when Tim raised his hand; fully up, arm straight like he always did.
“Why have you come here, Calque Feri?” he asked. “Why did you select Bahalana Primary?”
The funny thing was, the alien didn’t have to say anything. Fereshteh already knew the answer.
The Calque couldn’t risk landing where there’d be guns or bombs or attack helicopters, or dangerous men in black suits whispering into their sleeves. The Calque were chameleons, and not just physically. They took their shape behaviourally. If they were met with hostility, they’d answer in kind. A big enough threat and they’d destroy the planet just by trying to blend in!
No, the Calque needed somewhere remote; a place of innocence; somewhere they’d be welcomed with open arms, not bullhorns and bullets.
Somewhere like Bahalana Primary.
Peering at herself, Fereshteh saw understanding dawn wide in the alien’s familiar brown eyes. Understanding and shame.
It wasn’t the Calque’s fault they’d had to take Mr. Browser, or that they’d entered the classroom as a mud wasp. And it wasn’t Mr. Heke’s fault he’d swatted at them; poor Mr. Heke, who on any other day would have been the perfect emissary of peace.
It wasn’t even Tim’s fault, Fereshteh conceded, whatever his machine might have done to bring the aliens to Bahalana Primary on a morning when they hadn’t come.
No, she realised; if the Calque’s mission of peace ended badly, only one person would be truly to blame…
She stared again at her own smooth features; at the ghost-pikelet skin and the nose Bethany King-Coyle found so strange. The alien stared back at her. With its roosari and bow and arrow it looked like Robin Hood, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck rolled into one and backed into a corner.
It looked frightened.
Fereshteh thought of her mother and father. She felt the soft tickle of the arrow’s fletching and thought of her big-eared rabbit.
“Mâmân, Bâbâ,” she murmured. “Khargoosh.”
She knew she should put the bow and arrow down. She’d only picked them up to defend the class, like Mr. Heke with his whacking-stick. Now she desperately wanted to change her mind.
But something was stopping her; the same force, perhaps, that had led the Calque to take Mr. Browser. Try as she might, Fereshteh couldn’t relax her grip on the bow.
And if she couldn’t, then nor could the alien who copied her. Sooner or later, like it or not, one of them was going to fire…
The morning tea bell started to ring. It sounded muted, as if for a funeral.
Fingers trembling, Fereshteh stared helplessly at the scared alien girl who looked just like her.
Which was when Mrs. Lang, the principal, charged in carrying her grandfather’s old rifle.
Fereshteh’s mother had often told her the tale of Arash the Archer.
Arash, who when the Iranian army was surrounded used his bow and arrow to make peace; Arash, who trudged in defeat to the top of Mount Damāvand; who fired an arrow that flew all morning and set a far-off boundary to end the war.
Arash, who was killed by the effort.
Fereshteh could never be a hero; she knew that. Not like Arash. Not when she was the one who’d brought about the problem to begin with. (And besides, if what she had in mind actually worked, no-one would remember.) There would be no statues; no legends; no stories sung long into the night. But maybe — just maybe — she could stop the conflict from spreading.
She as herself, and she as the Calque. Together they had to try.
In slow motion Fereshteh felt herself turn. Her eyes lingered on the Calque’s. They both understood: now was the moment.
“Whakawhanaungatanga,” she murmured; the Bahalana class credo. She wasn’t building relationships in quite the right way, it was true, but she thought Mr. Heke might still be proud.
“Whakawhanaungatanga,” the Calque girl chorused.
They both shot their arrows.
Mr. Heke may have come from a fierce warrior heritage but the children of Bahalana Primary all agreed: there was nothing more fearsome in the whole wide world than Mrs. Lang when she started shouting.
Well, she was shouting now!
Brought running by tales of killer wasps and whacking-sticks gone wild, their principal barrelled into the classroom, rifle raised.
“What’s going on here?” she hollered, barely slowing. “Mr. Heke, what–?”
Her charge was redirected by Fereshteh’s arrow, which buried itself in the floorboards by her front boot. Mrs. Lang stumbled. Her back foot came forward but then tangled itself on the second arrow, fired by the Calque girl and perfectly placed to trip her up.
The twang of bowstrings hung briefly in the air; twin vibrations fading into the moment. Before Bronagh and Tia could even begin to scream, Mrs. Lang lost her balance completely. The rifle lobbed from her grip as she flew almost gracefully into a headlong collision with Mr. Heke’s desk.
Finn Ferguson appeared at the classroom door just in time to bear witness.
“Ouch,” he observed.
Fereshteh dropped her bow and darted forward. The rifle fell safely into her hands.
In the silence that followed, the Calque girl looked at her own bow, then down at the arrow still sticking to the floor, and lastly at Fereshteh’s newly acquired rifle. The bow flickered yellow and black, then turned into a perfect replica of Mrs. Lang’s grandfather’s gun.
“We come in peace,” the girl said, in case they’d forgotten.
“Yes,” Fereshteh agreed.
Carefully, keeping her eyes on her alien self, she stepped forward and placed her rifle on Mr. Heke’s desk, next to his papier-mâché tiki paperweight. The Calque girl did the same. It was easy this time.
To everyone’s surprise the alien then broke into a beaming grin, revealing teeth as white as salt pillars.
“You greet us in peace!”
“Yes,” said Fereshteh again. She hung her head. “But I think you’ll have to leave.”
They both stared down at Mrs. Lang. The principal was alive but woozy, like a cassowary that had rammed into too many trees. Next to her, Mr. Heke was starting to stir.
“Aiii…” he groaned.
The Calque girl nodded. Seemingly out of habit she began retying her roosari.
“Yes, perhaps our mission of friendship has come too early. We will go away and return another time.”
Fereshteh set to work knotting her own headscarf.
“Timothy,” she asked, “why are the Calque here in this… iteration of the multiverse? If they weren’t there this morning how can there have been equivalence?”
“I have been thinking about that, Feri. I believe my machine was of too limited range.” Tim pulled at the twisted coat-hanger aerial. It bent towards him then sprung away in a limp wobble. “When searching for Multiversal Equivalence it did not map far enough into space. It did not perceive the Calque that were coming to Earth in this iteration.”
“I see.” Fereshteh turned serious eyebrows on him. “I think, Timothy, that your device might be too dangerous to keep using.”
“Except one last time. We need to go back and cause the interference that brought us here to begin with.” She sighed.
Tim nodded. “You are quite perceptive, Feri. And you, Calque Feri.”
Fereshteh and her alien double both cocked their heads: in opposite directions as they faced each other; everything and nothing like looking in the mirror.
“Now, please,” they said. Each smiled shyly and half-raised a hand: “Goodbye.”
Tim flipped the switch.
For the second time that day — or the third, depending on how you looked at it — Fereshteh Nemati vanished. When she reappeared it was to hoots and howls of laughter.
She was still in the classroom but the Calque had gone, and so had Mrs. Lang.
Mr. Heke was blundering about on the wet verandah outside.
“Aeha,” he lamented. He rubbed conspicuously at his head, pretending to be bruised.
Tim pulled at Fereshteh’s sleeve.
“I was correct, Feri. The cause of the interference was more interference, caused by the consequences of the first interference, which–”
“We’re back?” Fereshteh stood up. Her model lay on the desk in front of her, exquisitely crushed. “It’s all back the way it was?”
“Yes. I am sorry about your project.”
Fereshteh craned her neck, looking past Mr. Heke to the paddock beyond. Mr. Browser was there! The horse was back, his big brown snout thrust beyond the fence, hopeful nostrils questing for apples in the offing.
“Don’t be,” Fereshteh repeated, more softly this time, almost to herself.
“You are not upset, Feri?”
Fereshteh shook her head. Somewhere, she knew, the Calque were still out there, chasing their dream of universal friendship. One day it might even be nice to meet them again.
But not today.
Today, she’d take disaster: plain and ordinary; just a good old dose of things going wrong…
Just to make sure, though, she rubbed at the scratch on her cheek. Finding it still there, she reached out and flipped her broken model onto the floor.
“It’s not the end of the world, Timothy. Not unless I make it that way.”
Tim regarded her. “Yes, Feri, I think you are right.”
He pushed with two hands at his own project and sent it plunging after hers. The Transfer of Information via Multiversal Equivalence machine broke apart on the hard boards below.
Drawn by the noise, Mr. Heke stuck his head back through the doorway.
“What’s this, e tama? Have you and Fereshteh declared war on science?”
Fereshteh felt a strange contentment settle over her. The rain outside had faded to the barest of pitter-patters. She nodded.
“No, Mr. Heke,” said Timothy, frowning.
Fereshteh added: “We come in peace.”
Mr. Heke raised an exaggerated eyebrow at this, his forehead carved from soft rock; the ashen tuff of the Easter Island statues.
Then he, too, nodded, as if he reached the same conclusion himself every day of the week.
“Peace,” he agreed. “Maungārongo.”
He gestured with his chin for Fereshteh to sit down. As she did, she saw that Tim already had his maths pad out and ready.
“I guess it’s time for some maths, e?” began Mr. Heke.
And when the mud wasp followed him inside, he stopped and caught it carefully in his lunchbox.
About the Author
E J Delaney hails from Brisbane, Australia, and writes with an abiding fondness for middle grade and young adult fiction.
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor and academic who teaches creative writing to everyone from pre-schoolers to postgraduates. In 2018 she founded the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, a literary journal publishing multilingual creative work. When she’s not working with words, she’s either lifting heavy things or dancing.