The Butterfly Collection
We never take anything seriously until it is too late. The only government that prepares is the one no one is taking seriously. Relax and Live Life Large at your own peril... but READ THIS! The Butterfly Collection is the ultimate COVID-era, Sci-Fi, Political Thriller.
The Collector treats people like butterfly specimens...they collect them, pin them down, analyse them, and keep them for their own amusement and personal gain. Each specimen has a usage phylum. While not to be confused with the social butterfly, as they are harmless, but the collector is deadly! The initial entrapment is a deep manipulation. The specimen is snared and showered with praise until they are set in the case and ready to be pinned. The specimen is often mildly drugged and stroked into a mild soporific trance. Caught, it is kept to be prodded & poked. Always lacking and inferior, it becomes obsolete.
The Way It Always Starts
Astrid slid the birthday message from the screen of her smart phone with her thumb and rolled her eyes. Her mother was so old school, still sending texts. They were so B.C. She leant back in her ergonomic office chair and rested the phone in her lap. Was the pandemic really five years ago? Was she really struggling through her final year of high school then, locked down and in ISO?
She considered her mother’s message again: Happy birthday my darling 22-year-old. Ick! Twenty-two was sooooo old! No doubt her bachelor’s degree in Economics would be hung in her old bedroom back in Wangaratta in a few weeks if her mum had anything to do with it. The room she shared with her younger sister was a million miles away from her first job in the city, even if Melbourne was only actually 250 kilometres as the crow flew.
Astrid prevented herself from drifting off with the birds on the wing, as she might have under an azure sky, laying out in her dad’s sun-drenched rolling pastures. The sky above today was a series of white ceiling tiles, interspersed with banks of fluorescent lights, sprinklers and smoke alarms.
This was her fate, as it was for the dozens milling aimlessly about her new desk: computer screens and spreadsheets… yeah yeah yeah. Astrid leant over her keyboard and browsed through her emails. Lots of messages from People and Culture. She filed these under personal for perusal during her lunch break and focussed on the emails from her Line Manager: spreadsheet upon spreadsheet of calculations for her to get familiar with and to ‘check over.’
These looked like a challenge.
Astrid dived in. The only way was up with a conscientious spirit, just as her dad taught her. ‘A good day’s hard work never killed anyone,’ he used to say… before he died of a heart attack in the middle of a field aged fifty-five. 2020 was a tough year in the Astadorian household, as it was for so many. His funeral was limited to ten mourners, even in the countryside where the virus was rare. She often wondered if her parents had married earlier in life whether she would have had more time with him.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have been born at all…
Perhaps some thirty-something with kids would have mourned him instead…
He would have made a cool grandpa… Pop Astadorian… Pop Hast-adore-him… she smiled at her childish way of remembering her own ancient Pop.
She took a quick glance about in case she was caught out in remembrance instead of working. The action brought about a realisation… she was the only one working. Most of her colleagues stood about in small groups, laughing and scrolling through their phones. Slow day? ‘Never mind what everyone else is doing, Astrid,’ her dad used to say, ‘concentrate on your own path to success.’
She returned her focus to the spreadsheets that filled the twin forty inch monitors hanging over her desk. Concentrate
and don’t be overwhelmed… this was the easy part… her dad had taught her well. The problem was, after half an hour
of reflection, these spreadsheets made no sense. She remembered an old trick from an ageing lecturer, Mr. Oliver, if in
doubt use another medium. Astrid opened a drawer beneath her desk and slid out a transparent ruler, then printed
the worrisome documents.
Challenge number two: where were the printers?
Astrid locked her screen and spied out the nearest cluster of co-workers… four women and a man,
all seemingly aged in their twenties. Her father’s words bounced about her head again,
‘Always approach a problem head on, and remember no question is stupid, at least not the
first time you ask it.’
“Hi,” Astrid blurted out, “I just started today… in Accounts.” She
pointed to her desk.
“Oh, new blood!” one of the women exclaimed.
“We’re Accounts too, but don’t
tell anyone, it’s safer to be anonymous, and be careful of this one. He’ll have his
mitts all over you before you can cry out ‘I’m gay!’”
“But I’m not gay.”
“Don’t tell him that! God, look at him drooling now. He’s already planning a company holiday with you.
He’s got credits… the bonus of working for a company with Chinese overlords. They own an island in the
The sole man in the group offered Astrid his elbow, “I’m Michael. Fancy a week in Queensland over winter? I’ll
supply the bikinis.”
“Gross, Michael! You’re such a letch! Don’t listen to him, um…?”
“Right, number three on today’s new starter list of twenty. I’m Bev. Watcha lookin’ for?”
“Gees, on your first day? You’re one to watch. I’m trying to make six months without finding a printer.”
“Oh, is that like a green thing… conserving the forests?” Astrid asked.
“Nope. I just don’t wanna get noticed. They can’t say anything bad about you if they don’t see you. I’ll get my travel bonus at nine months and I’ll be gone after a year. Best you do the same. Best way to have your pay increased regularly and bot free holidays off the company. Only way to travel these days”
“But I really need a printer.”
“Really? Well, maybe try over there.” Bev and her friends pointed across the open office to the only solid structure in the middle of the floor space.
Astrid skipped across the floor to the central monolith… there were no doors here that she had access to… bugger. She scanned the desks on this side of the office. None were occupied. The office staff here also stood about in small groups sipping on coffee and discussing their smart phone screens. She approached the nearest cluster with less verve.
They waved her further across the office. She strode across to the far wall by the emergency exit and discovered a nest of printers behind a partition. None were occupied. In fact, all were in sleep mode, as if they had not been used this morning.
The printers required a key card or a login. Astrid tapped her username and password onto the touchscreen console. The spreadsheets that now seemed so precious slid out into her hand as it hovered over the output tray.
Once back at her workstation, she laid the printouts across her desk and ran through them line by line with ruler and pencil in hand. The anomaly remained.
Astrid approached her Accounts colleagues again.
“Ready to sign up for a holiday in Queensland, Missy?” Michael asked as he held up his phone. “I have some bikinis picked out for you. What do you prefer: demure or slutty?”
“I know what you’d like to see me in… in your dreams.”
“You’d be surprised. It’s more exciting when there’s more to peel off.”
“Well, you tell me where I can find our Line Manager and I’ll consider making a choice,” Astrid offered.
“You’re the easiest catch yet. Over there.” He pointed. “She’s the only one with her head down and bum up… as I usually like ‘em. So, lacy black demure or silky hot pink demure?”
Astrid glanced at Michael’s phone and walked off.
“Hey!” Michael yelled. “Which one?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know? You asked me to consider… I did, now I have work to do. Bye.”
“She’s got you sussed, Michael,” Bev laughed.
Astrid focussed on her Line Manager’s desk, blocking out the office chatter. She stopped in front of it and
cleared her throat.
“Sorry, busy, come back in an hour.”
Astrid dropped her printouts on the Line Manager’s desk. Shareen glanced over the
spreadsheets before looking up at Astrid over her half-moon shaped glasses. “And
“The new girl… did I miss your orientation?”
“They had too many new starters… I’m booked
“That’s bullshit… come back at two o’clock and I’ll introduce you around.”
“Oh, I’ve already met Bev and co. and found the printers.”
“That’s more than they’ve done in six months… what’s this then?” Shareen asked as she tapped the
spreadsheets Astrid dumped on her desk.
“Anomaly. There’s a whole stream of expenses missing… and it’s not hidden in the workbooks… it’s just not there.”
Shareen dragged over a chair. “Sit.” She spent the next hour trawling through the files she’d sent to Astrid. “You know, I’ve passed these through half a dozen hands and no one’s seen this.”
“Why didn’t you see it?” Astrid asked before the gravity of the question made her flinch.
“Not my job to look… that’s what you Niners are here for.”
“Most last nine months in your job, on average. They just want their Queensland holiday bonus. Three weeks in the Whitsundays.”
“Michael only asked me for one week.”
Shareen laughed. “Of course he did… he’ll spend the rest of the time with at least two others.”
“Hope you didn’t accept.”
“Nope. We got stuck at choosing bikinis.”
“Ha! That’s so Michael. Such a sleaze. I’ll be glad when his nine months are up. He can have his holiday in the sun. So hard to travel these days, since the pandemic started, and the Chinese keep most of the tropical islands in Queensland for their own workers. That’s why everyone wants to work here… and places like this… and that’s probably why you applied.”
“No. I just wanted a good job I could sink my teeth into. What about you?”
“I’m not interested in Queensland islands. Hate humidity. Makes my hair like an Afro for weeks. I came here to work… as did you, judging by this morning’s find. Come on, someone needs to escalate this, and I’m not about to take all the credit. There’s no ‘I’ in my team.”
Shareen led Astrid through the office and up to the next floor with printouts in hand. This space was also open plan, but the window perimeter was lined by a series of glass offices. Shareen approached one of the corner offices and tapped on the open door.
“Come in, Shareen… and company.”
“Thank you, Mr. Qin… sorry, this is—”
“Astrid Astadorian,” Qin answered. “She graduate top of her class, Monash University. Most impressive. Now first in team to ask question… most appropriate… it is your question, is it not, Miss Astadorian?”
“Good, good. Come in, both of you. Sit and ask your question.”
The two women stepped inside the office and sat at Mr. Qin’s desk. A young man of Asian appearance, dressed in a pinstriped suit, with a tattoo of a brush stroke circle on his earlobe, was perched on a chair in the far corner behind the door. He was not introduced.
Shareen handed the printouts to Mr. Qin.
He studied these briefly. “An odd question in an office where the dictum is not to question the sheets. Someone more important than both of you create these. Someone like me.” He glared at the two women through spectacles befitting the bottom of Coke bottles. “Do you have a problem with these results?”
The two women stared at each other, yet spoke at the same time, “Yes.”
“Most excellent. What did you discover?”
Shareen, as Team Leader, took the lead. “These are not figures I usually look at. Astrid brought the anomaly to my
attention. There seems to be an entire cost centre stream missing… the figures just don’t add up.”
“As intended, I assure you.” Mr. Qin unlocked a drawer in his desk and retrieved two swipe cards. He coded
these through a device on his desk and handed the women one each. “Take your keys to the library on your
floor, a room meant only for the best and brightest. You will find the solution there.”
“Thank you, Mr. Qin,” Shareen said. They left his office without the printouts.
“I didn’t know we had a library,” Astrid said as they returned to the Accounts Department.
“I only know of it,” Shareen replied. “I’ve never had access. I’ve heard it holds the records
and history of the entire company — digital and pre-digital.”
Shareen showed Astrid to the monolith in the centre of the
second floor. The women glanced at each other,
both thinking this 2m x 2m square
was only big enough for a solitary computer and barely big enough for a lift. Shareen stepped behind
the panel that hid the entrance and held her pass to the access panel. The light flashed green and the
door slid upward. She ducked inside before the door closed. Astrid followed her Line Manager’s lead.
Once inside, Shareen directed Astrid to the chair beside hers.
“This is a decontamination chamber,” Shareen said, pointing to the instructions on the opaque glass panel in front of
Astrid gasped. Beyond the glass was a vast library of books, journals, and cabinets, which reached out to an
imperceptible distance ahead and above.
“Close your mouth, Astrid. The decontamination countdown has begun.”
A digital clock, which started at 5, clicked over to 4… 3… 2… they held their breaths as instructed… 1… a mist floated down from vents in the glass ceiling. Astrid closed her eyes as the scent of lavender engulfed her. Who knew a visit to the office library could be like going to a spa… another perk of working here.
Her Line Manager’s chair shuddered, yet Astrid’s remained firmly planted on the linoleum floor. She opened her eyes and turned to Shareen, whose eyes were wide open… as was her mouth. The flesh on Shareen’s face began to flake away, followed by her hair, all of which was sucked up into a vacuum hidden amongst the ceiling’s vents. Shareen’s chin dropped to her chest as her hands let loose the arms of her chair, which ceased its shuddering. Her fingers flaked away from the diamante-encrusted nails up, all sucked into oblivion.
Astrid gripped her own chair, its shudder a portent, and she glanced down at her arms. Freckled and pale, flakes of flesh gathered over them, her attempted scream silenced by the vacuumed space…
Once Upon a Time in the East
Sometime in the future:
The torch’s flame flickered in the evening breeze, but shed little light on her surrounds. She raised the torch as high as possible to illuminate the overgrown path. The remains of crushed rock crackled beneath her boots with every step as her destination came into view. The flanks of a stone step pyramid rose up out of the moonlit vale. She gasped at its size and implications, yet she knew this was the perfectly appropriate site to meet the Ancient.
He stood upon the pyramid’s fourth step, torch in one hand, beckoning her with the other. His hunched form hovered at the entrance of a dark passage seemingly made for his decrepit body. She climbed up to where he stood and followed him inside the pyramid without question.
‘Sometimes,’ as he had told her when they first met in her apartment block in Acheng, ‘faith is all we have.’
She wasn’t sure what she believed anymore. The world as she knew it had fragmented, yet pieces of the past had been presented to her by the Ancient… things he could not possibly know about her. Most of these, she now knew were out of context, and this structure only added to the confusion. The passage into the pyramid led down to a rectangular space. The old man wandered about the chamber’s periphery lighting torches wedged into the walls with the one he carried. Once he had
completed his circuit, he sat cross-legged on the earthen floor. The angle and depth of the passage and the state of
the floor suggested this chamber was well below ground level, and the old man mocked her with its depth.
“Welcome to Diyu ,” the ancient said in a fractured baritone. “I am Minsheng… voice of the people. You are of
the people, but not of the people you thought, only of the people you imagined. Do you know of this place… do
you know what this place is?”
“It is… a pyramid.”
“Ah, and so it is. Some say this ancient stone structure is more than two thousand years old,
but who would believe such mythology? In the past, it was called the Tomb of the
General. Many now consider this a fabrication, not unlike the ‘Mausoleum
of Tangun’, the grand folly of the comical Korean Peninsula
Kims. Nothing was ever discovered here and no one ever
“What are history and science if not one group’s attempt to subvert the truth?”
“Ah, yes, young one. Well stated… as a member of the State should. Whatever your convictions,
however, this is a pyramid, so you do remember some things.”
“Is it… is this a memory… or is it a fantasy… One Thousand and One Nights…” she gasped…
“I don’t even know why I know that… what is Arabian Nights?”
“Ah, this is your jeopardy. Sit and I will tell you a tale.”
“Will it be like the one you told me when I brought tea to your apartment in Acheng… of the woman whose flesh
flaked away… do I know that woman? Am I that woman?”
“Ah, your questions grow well, but your guesses are unfounded. You are not Astrid Astadorian, nor are you related. You were born in Hong Kong, to Chinese parents…”
“No! I am from Acheng!”
The old man smiled, the effort an agony to him, which produced an odd grimace. “Ah, but no.” He dragged a calico bundle across the floor and unravelled its contents between them. “Consider this the first day of your education.”
“I am educated. I have the best education China can provide.”
“Ah, and now you speak like a fully fledged party member.”
“There are no parties, only the Proletariat.”
Minsheng nodded and slid the calico bag and its contents away from the young woman. “Ah, perhaps I was mistaken with my faith in you.”
She slapped her hand on the bundle. “Is this not your faith, wise man?”
“Ah, but no. I only invest my faith in people. Ideals were lost on me many years ago… when was that? Ah, 5 B.C.”
“B.C. — Before COVID… five years Before COVID… I’m not even sure what COVID is… should I know? Is that not a long time ago? Can you be so old?”
“Perhaps I am not, but it does feel like I have endured a century or two of skin fold shrinkage. Unfortunately, you are not yet worthy. Perhaps you are too far gone. Go back to your dreams of Arabian Nights. What you remember is too far from the truth to bring you back to reality.”
“No… I mean, please… I have travelled so far…”
“Ah, but yes you have. Much farther than you remember. If you are to continue this journey your world will be turned Down Under,” the old man said with a sly grin.
“Don’t you mean upside down?”
“I know what I mean, young one. Do you question first or discover first and question later?”
“My apologies, wise one… my apologies, Minsheng.”
The old man continued to unravel the calico, revealing a roll of bamboo slats strung together by hessian twine.
“These have been written over the course of a century by hands deviated in time. What the first writer believed the subsequent hands questioned, so the meaning is often confused, the statements within are commonly considered to be misdirected. Despite this, some think these stories are dangerous, yet they constitute the fabric of our society as much as they destroy it. I am their guardian, but I grow weary after forty years carrying their burden. I search for a successor. I may choose you… please, read, while I consider.”
The young woman scanned the markings on the bamboo slats, but the crimson characters were not the Hanzi characters she was used to. She understood over three thousand of these, yet she could not read the writing on the bamboo. She stared up at Minsheng…
“But… I cannot… I cannot read these.”
“Ah, no you cannot… because you have not been educated.”
“I have a university degree!”
“Do you? DO YOU! What college or university would that be? What have you been told… hmmm?”
“Come, sit beside me and I will meditate over the words on the bamboo.”
She did as he asked.
Once settled, he continued his lesson by passing his fingertips over the characters and reciting
their meaning. The odd pictograms traced out the story of Astrid Astadorian, but he did
not complete the tale.
“Why do you not finish her story so I can piece together the images?”
“Ah, another good question. Perhaps I have misjudged you,
but I do not have the time or the patience.
You cannot be too long away from
the life you lead, and you must continue in its existence. The illusion must be maintained.”
“What happened to Astrid Astadorian?”
“It is not for you to know at this point in time.”
“Tell me! Is it in here? Where can I find it?” She unravelled another scroll. “Which one is it?”
“Read what you have unravelled and you shall be enlightened, but I warn you, young one, Astrid’s tale flaked away
in the vacuum of time, as did her colleague Shareen.”
“Tell me, Minsheng.”
“Ah, it is but a tale of gods and gargoyles — those who shine their light on us and those who we shy away from, but who is the real monster… who really protects us from the elements?”
“You speak in riddles, Minsheng.”
“Do I? DO I! If a butterfly flaps its wings on the far side of the globe, does it create a typhoon here in China?” Minsheng dragged another bundle across the earthen floor and handed it to his prospective student. “Go, use this as intended. I want the specimen alive, mind you, and do not return until you succeed. Only then will I continue your further studies. Go, hop to your task like an eager grasshopper.”
The young woman carried the bundle out into the moonlight, where she discovered its content: a butterfly net… somehow she understood that the butterfly collection was important. Her dexterity with the net proved as surprising as the actual implement. She wandered into the nearby forest and after several swishes of the net collected a live specimen. She returned the butterfly to the old man. He plucked it from its net, studied its markings, and let it loose in the chamber to flutter between flickering torches.
“Ah, well done, but what species is this?”
“A Skipper…” she slapped her hand to her mouth. “I… I don’t know why I know that.”
“No, but I do. Yet this is not the genus you are accustomed to collecting.”
“Tirumala limniace.” She blurted out.
“Ah, quite, but why?”
“I… I’m not sure… but it is venomous… when crushed… and its venom is an antivenin… and I don’t know how I know this.”
“Ah, sometimes recollection takes but small triggers. Let us continue your study.” Minsheng unravelled another section of bamboo without looking and placed his fingers above the script for reference as he read. His eyes maintained their focus on the young woman without looking at her. She waved her hand in front of his face.
“Careful what breeze you make with your gesture,” Minsheng said, “for even from below ground level your hand could strike as a butterfly’s wings, far across time and space.”
“You’re… you’re blind.”
“Ah, mostly, but I can discern changes in light. Come, sit beside me. Read the tapestry with me.”
“I’m sorry to inform you, Minsheng, but this is not a tapestry. It is not made of cloth and needlework, it is paint on bamboo.”
“Are you sure it is paint. Look closer. I may be blind, but I know what these are. These tell their tale as a tapestry would. Each symbol is a picture, each picture is a word, each word is a piece of our puzzle.”
“Yet I cannot read what has been placed on the bamboo, Minsheng.”
“Ah, perhaps not yet. This was written specifically so. This had to be written in plain sight so as not to be lost, but it had not to be written plainly for the world is not ready for its secrets.”
“Am I ready?”
“Ah, another good question. We shall see. Perhaps we will pray and consider the tale of another man and his path through this world; a man worthy of the Beijing Tapestries.”
“The Beijing Tapestries! Are these the… No! This is heresy!”
“A myth for fingerprints to read, perhaps.”
“No, these should not exist.”
“Ah, yet they are hunted. Why do you think this is so? What could one hide in these that you should not see?
Do you find yourself curious? Do you wish to know the heresy?”
“Ah, quite right, for this life is not the badge we wish to pin on ourselves for eternity.”