Bert felt jealous, cheated on, and blue. Then he discovered he could morph into a giant nightmarish slug...
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On Wednesdays and Sundays I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ novellas. You can check in regularly and read them bit for bit, or leave a message in my 'contact' page, and I'll send the entire digital story to you for free when published.
Life in the Clouds #6: Take a Slug ® James Field.
If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#4: Evil Portent ® James Field.
Previously from posts 11 - 14…
“Sit!” said the Elder.
“I am sitting,” said Bert.
The Elder’s eyes swivelled this way and that as if wondering how he could squeeze around Bert if he needed to escape. Bert felt sorry for the timid little wise man and offered his friendliest smile.
“You are confused?”
Bert wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question. “I don’t know where I am if that’s what you mean.”
“You are on a planet called Ewepiter, in a village called Lambdon.”
Careful to keep the smirk on his face, Bert shook his head. “Never heard of them.”
A slow grin softened the Elder’s panic, and his posture slumped. “Are you hungry, Bertling, thirsty?”
“I’m starving and me throat’s parched. A pint or two of beer would work wonders.”
The Elder lifted the lid of a large saucepan that balanced on a flat metal box. “I’ll make some porridge for you.” He scooped a handful of dry bamboo tips from a sack and tossed them into the pan. Then he added another handful, turned to glance at Bert, and added two more. After filling water and a handful of white powder Bert assumed was salt, he put the lid back on and tapped the side of the metal box with a finger. “Two minutes,” he said.
All the while, the Elder kept one eye on Bert, the other on the pan. “There’s water in the barrel by your right elbow,” he said.
A ladle hung on the barrel with cups of various sizes stacked neatly on a low table by its side. Bert chose the largest and gulped four cupfuls before his tongue came unstuck from the roof of his mouth. The metal box peeped, and when the Elder lifted the saucepan lid, steam belched out.
“Blimey, mate, how did you cook that?” Bert scratched his bald head. He didn’t see any flames beneath the pan or electric wires anywhere.
“It is part of the remnants of our technology, like the translator you wear on your T-shirt, and this cooker, and those doodads. Only a few of us retain the wisdom of how these contrivances work. I am not one of those, so I cannot explain.”
“Got any cream and sugar?” asked Bert as the Elder nudged a bowl of porridge in his direction and edged away again.
Bert blew on his spoon and, careful not to burn his tongue, took a nibble. He shuddered and gagged. The porridge was the most disgusting he’d tasted in his life: earthy, woody, like mild water chestnuts but with a bitter tang. “Blimey, mate, you’ve got to be joking. Ain’t you got nothing else?”
“What do you mean, no? Is this all you eat?”
“No wonder you’re all so small. Sorry, but I can’t eat this.”
Terror filled the Elder’s face. “You’re just like the Guardians. You crave meat. You prefer to eat us.”
“No,” said Bert, and hurriedly spooned porridge into his gob, his cheeks blowing out like balloons. “Look, I’m eating this yummy stuff.” He found it almost impossible to swallow and spat globs of the creamy sludge as he spoke, but he kept spooning it in. “Mmm! lovely.”
Bert stopped eating, set the bowl by his side, pinched his nose, and swallowed. He grimaced and coughed, then smiled and smacked his lips. The Elder watched him closely. It pained Bert to see the little man so frightened. “Look, I ain’t going to eat you. Not any of you. It’s true I eat meat where I come from, but they’re only farm animals.”
“To the Guardians, we are only farm animals.”
There it was again, a reference to the Guardians. “What do you mean? Who are these Guardians?”
A new wave of terror made the Elder shake. “The evilest monsters in the universe. They are from a different planet, and they have an open tunnel like the one you came through. They farm us and eat us.”
“Can’t you close the tunnel?”
“We could, easily, but they guard the doodad.”
“On a tower they erected on a hill near to here.”
Bert nodded. “The Citadel I could see when I got here?”
Bert held a palm up to stop the Elder from piling on more misery. “Look, as soon as I’ve finished this delicious porridge I’ll pop back to me own planet and leave you in peace.”
“You can never leave.”
It took a moment for Bert’s brain to register what the Elder had said. Even then, he thought he must have heard wrong. “Did you say 'never leave'?”
“Because the Guardians know we have opened a tunnel to another planet: your planet. If they find it, they will invade it.”
A sharp, disgusted snort broke from Bert. “Our people aren’t passive like you lot. If those Guardians come to our world, we’d clobber them good and proper.”
“Perhaps, but their weapon technology is awesome. They have a hand-held ray gun that destroys anything it touches. One sweep would wipe out this entire village.”
Bert raised his eyebrows and gave a glassy stare. “Listen, mate, I can’t live here. I’ll starve to death.”
“My friend,” said the Elder, “I am sorry and will punish the woman who kidnapped you.” He offered a deep sigh. “The day the Guardians discover you they will kill you. But isn’t that better than they follow you back to your planet and kill or enslave your entire population of Berts and Vegans?”
Irritation flared in Bert. Rather than do or say something he might regret, he crawled out of the Elder’s hut on hands and knees. He wanted to go home to Olive, to his Chums the Alsatians, and his horse, Big Foot.
The doodad that opened the tunnel between their planets was in the Elder’s hut. In his younger days, Bert had been thief, good at it too. Someway or another, as sure as his name was Bert, he’d snitch the doodad and transport himself back to Earth. As soon as he was back at number three Flintstone Terrace, all he needed to do was turn the doodad off. End of problem.
The alien woman waited outside. “Don’t be angry,” she said. “Stay here while the Elder dishes out my punishment. Then I’ll take you to my cottage.”
Two minutes later, she was out again, her face ashen. “Come.”
“What’s the punishment?”
“Food rationing for three days. Half measure.”
“That ain’t so bad. You can have my share.”
They trekked through the village of well-spaced bamboo huts and arrived at another stone-built house, not as large as the Elder’s, but cosier. Inside, a small man greeted the woman with a big hug, and tears flowed easily. Bert crouched, but could still feel the ceiling touch his bald head.
“This is the father of my children,” said the alien woman.
“Welcome,” said the alien father. “Are you hungry?”
Unlike the Elder, he appeared unafraid of Bert. For an Ewepitarian he was tall, almost reaching Bert’s belly button. The horny nodes on his forehead were more prominent than the woman’s, and his features hinted at a strong character. There were no chairs big enough for Bert, so he sat cross-legged on the floor, his head on a level with the alien father’s head. “Depends what you 're offering,” he said.
“Bamboo porridge. There is nothing else.”
“Then I ain’t hungry.”
“Sit!” said the alien father.
"I am sitting."
The alien father stared down at the floor, hands clasped. “You are here through no fault of your own.” He reached out to touch Bert, then pulled back as if not worthy. “I owe you an explanation.”
“Too blinking right you do.”
“Many hundreds of years ago, our people dominated Ewepiter in their billions. They drove almost all other species to extinction. Food was short, pollution was high, and our world was dying. We needed to find a new planet to live on, so we built the...” he scratched his head, concentrating, then shrugged, “the doodads.”
“The gadget that makes the tunnel between planets?”
“Yes. When we activate a tunnel, we have no control over where the other end opens. When we pass through, we anchor the other end by placing a doodad there too. Unfortunately, our first and only attempt opened on the Guardian’s planet. They invaded us, confiscated our technology, and farmed us for the meat of our bodies.”
“Why did you come to my planet then?”
“On all Ewepiter, we have just two doodads left. We’ve kept them hidden all these years and never used them. When the Guardians came to our village to round up the young, I ordered the mother of my children to gather all the infants in our village and take them through the tunnel to safety. If lucky, she might have found a planet where we could all escape. This time also, it opened on a hazardous world, and now you are here and can never return.”
“We closed the tunnel and hid the doodad again.”
“What about the one on my world?”
“What about if you turned the doodad on again at this end?”
“The tunnel would open, but you must never find it and use it, and neither must the Guardians. With the next opening, the Guardians will find it easily and invade your world, and the fate of the Berts will be the same as Ewepitarians. The destiny of your planet is in your hands.”
Cogs swirled in Bert’s brain. “What about if you smash the Guardian’s doodad? The one that opens to their world?”
“That is why we call them Guardians. They guard the doodad in the citadel on the hill. Nobody dares go there.”
“I tried to organise a surveillance group once, but everyone said I was mad.”
“So you just let them walk all over you?”
“What else can we do?”
In this post: Bert offers a dynamite explosion…
The alien father visibly shook in his boots.
“Why not let me go home and come back with a pile of weapons? We’ll soon stop these pesky Guardians. Then we can all live happily ever after.”
“I’d give anything to be as big and strong as you. Then I wouldn’t be so frightened of them.”
“Does that mean you’ll let me fetch some dynamite and stuff?”
“How can I trust you’ll return?”
That was a good question. But he meant it because it was the right deed to do. If it came to fight, he’d die for his buddies, even new buddies like these kindly little people who ate nothing but repulsive grunge. He had his moral values, too. He’d never allow bullies to lay a finger on children or animals, and he wouldn’t let space invaders continue to ravish this fine world for all the money in China. “If I didn’t come to help you, I’d never forgive myself.”
“No, forget it. It can never be. Our people are not warriors. In our millions of years of evolution, there has never been a war.”
“You were brave enough to go against the Elder’s rules and open a new tunnel to my planet.”
“Yes, and look what trouble I’ve caused. The Guardians are keeping an extra eye on us when all we want is inconspicuous peace.”
“Don’t look so glum, you saved the lives of all your children.”
“No, I didn’t. The guardians will come again, and when they see you, they’ll punish us. Oh, woe is me.”
Just then, a hammering of fists erupted on his door, and the poor man almost fainted.
To be continued…
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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike in this story. I like that it’s cosy, funny, and heart-warming. The plot, however, is a tragedy. There are two murders, and every character in the book, of which there are many, has a motif. With so many twists, turns, and red herrings throughout the narrative, it lost me in a virtual maze.
But the author commits the gravest crime: he introduces a new, guilty character right at the end of the story. Tut, tut, naughty.
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