The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
Hardly able to believe their continuing bad luck, Belle-Marie pushes past the nurse and into Bridgit’s room. But the nurse was right – the bed is empty, the window is open and the curtain is flapping in the breeze.
She hurries back to the reception to rouse Gino out of his reverie, but he is still studying the X-ray of his hand, a baffled look on his face. Western medicine has no answers for him, it seems, and he’d like to try the same trick he pulled back in Sydney – though unfortunately there don’t seem to be too many ancient aboriginal porters lounging around this one-eyed hospital.
‘Let’s go!’ Belle-Marie hisses. ‘We’ve got to find Bridgit before she gets lost or hurt.’
Gino sighs and stirs himself sufficiently to follow her outside. There is no sign of Bridgit, but Belle-Marie is already heading towards the bar.
‘It’s a little early in the morning for that, isn’t it?’ he calls.
‘I overheard them talking in there,’ Belle-Marie calls back. ‘Something about seeing a ghost. That must have been Bridgit!’
And sure enough, by the time they have turned off the main street and out of town, Bridgit is in view, staggering crazily across the empty golf course, her long white hospital gown flowing behind her. Belle-Marie accelerates to catch up with, but even before she reaches her, Bridgit obliges by turning her ankle in the hole on the thirteenth ‘green’ and crashing exhausted onto the ground. Belle-Marie kneels beside her.
‘Just lie there and rest,’ she says, patting her shoulder reassuringly. ‘We’ll fetch the nurse and get you back to hospital as soon as we can.’ She’d wanted to add something about answering a few questions first, but that doesn’t look too hopeful as Bridgit’s wide eyes roll madly in their sockets.
‘I have to stop them!’ she gasps.
‘Stop who?’ Gino joins them, a frown on his face. ‘Listen, if you know something about this hole in my hand and what the hell it has to do with that Rainbow Snake or anything else that’s been going on around here, I’d be grateful if you’d let me in on the story.’
‘Not enough time, not enough time…’ Bridgit struggles feebly to sit up, but Belle-Marie gently restrains her – however obstructive Bridgit might be, she can’t help feeling indebted to her for saving her at the water-hole.
‘You’re in no fit state to go anywhere,’ she says, with a pointed glare at Gino. ‘But if you tell us what you want to do, we might be able to help you.’
Bridgit coughs and closes her eyes, and for a moment Belle-Marie thinks she has lapsed back into unconsciousness. But then, with sudden renewed strength, she half rises and grasps Belle-Marie’s arm in one twisted, bandaged hand.
‘I’ll tell you,’ she whispers. ‘But first you have to promise to help me. You have to stop them – and quickly. Everything depends on it…’
Still dazed after the crash, Kris slumps beside the chasm in the road and down at the wreckage below. Eventually, she manages to summon the strength to call Stuart’s name, and gets an incoherent grunt in reply. A good sign, she supposes. Wincing, she pulls herself to her feet and checks herself for damage. Her knee is throbbing agonizingly – she must have twisted it when she fell clear – but otherwise she seems unhurt. Unlike the other occupants of the truck. With trepidation, she scrambles awkwardly down into the hole.
Stuart’s recovery was a brief one; when Kris reaches the remains of the truck, he is, if anything, less coherent than before the crash and his breathing is still alarmingly shallow. He is, however, in a better state than the driver, who appears to be not breathing at all. Kris is still feeling nauseous, though, and unwilling to inspect too closely the deep gash in the side of his head. With a grimace, she makes a quick search of his pockets, but they contain nothing she wouldn’t have expected to find on the average spotty teenager, including an unopened packet of Durex. Feeling somewhat guilty, she puts these few pathetic items back. He had been trying to help them after all.
With no sign of leaking fuel or imminent explosion (Kris checks this carefully, with her portable fire extinguisher close to hand), it seems safe to leave Stuart and the youth where they lie – ‘don’t move the victim’ being about the limit of Kris’s first aid knowledge. Shakily, she climbs back up to the road and hobbles down the road to inspect the trail of pits in the ground. From their shape and general positioning, they certainly resemble two sets of running human footprints – though impossibly large ones. And strangely, they already look weathered, as though they have been there forever and just appeared before Kris’s eyes.
Weakly, Kris decides that there is nothing more she can do here other than wait in the hope that someone might pass by. Spotting an outcrop of rock a few yards off the road, she hauls herself up onto it and gives few rather ambitious shouts for help. But there is no one to hear her except the circling birds (vultures? she wonders) high in the cloudless sky. Then her aching knee gives way and she drops heavily onto the rock – as the rock disappears from beneath her.
She lands heavily on the ground, winded, stunned, and pinching herself. The solid red lump of stone that must have weighed several tons at least has totally ceased to exist – as if some giant invisible hand had just reached into the world and idly plucked it out.
‘Or maybe I’m just hallucinating,’ Kris mutters.
Then the silence is broken by a swiftly approaching rumble. Expecting to see a vehicle, Kris leaps up and waves her arms in relief. But the road is empty, and it is a moment before she realizes that the roar is coming, not along the ground, but over it.
Instinctively, she drops to a crouch and flings her arms over her head, but the source of the noise is higher in the sky than she’d thought. Through shaking fingers, she watches in amazement as what can only be described as a flying saucer scatters the circling flock of vultures and soars away to the north.
‘I guess I took the idea of the Dreaming a little too literally,’ Katrina says as, with a heavy sigh, she picks up the latest stone she’s been trying to levitate and lobs it into the air. Even with her puny strength, it travels a satisfying distance before landing in the sand with a soft thud.
‘I was hoping to dream up a burger,’ she adds. ‘I’m starving.’
‘Perhaps we should be careful about changing our environment too much while we’re here,’ Grace warns her, nervously. ‘We don’t know what effect our actions might have in the real world.’
Katrina shrugs, sits down on the ground and starts to roll herself a joint. ‘If I’m going on the straight equivalent of a trip,’ she says, ‘I might as well be relaxed.’
Grace leaves her to it and hurries after Schutz, who is making heavy work of the trek towards the fallen spaceship.
‘I’d love to know more about this place, Mr Schutz,’ she calls after him. ‘You’re obviously a very important person here and I’m sure you have much to do, but if you _could_ just spare me a moment…’
Schutz stops turns around, looking interested. Grace presses on.
‘First of all – you mentioned the crew, but have you met any of them yet? Could you introduce us, do you think?’
‘Madam!’ Schutz speaks with a pompous huffiness that suggests the answer to both questions is no. ‘The “crew” – as you insist on calling them, as if this were the Starship Enterprise! – are alien beings with motives and inclinations beyond our ken. _They_ will chose when to make contact with us. They cannot be summoned like air stewardesses, with drinks and duty-free perfumes!’
‘What about navigating around the place?’ Grace persists. ‘How do you move between specific places or related scenes? You seem to be an expert at it already,’ she adds quickly.
Schutz waves a hand dismissively. ‘Ah, it is a simple matter. One chooses a story one wishes to follow and follows its path through the desert. The alien holographic recording technique is clearly attuned to certain mental processes – or _my_ mental processes, at least – for it seems to respond to my wishes.’
Grace is interested by this. ‘You mean, if I wanted to learn the history of, for example, Uluru, all I would have to do is think of it, and there it would be?’
Schutz scowls. ‘Perhaps. But I cannot guarantee that your mind is as well-attuned as my own – ‘
Grace stops listening, however, as out of the flat expense of sand ahead arises a massive red rock; Uluru – it has to be. Forgetting Schutz, she starts to wander wonderingly around it. The stone seems to change to colour as she walks, from red to gold to blue to green, and a host of shadowy creatures move back and forth across its face. Pausing for a moment, she watches a small, red half-man, half-lizard digging bowl-shaped hollows in the stone to retrieve its hunting stick. Then the half-lizard is dead and his bones and weapons are boulders, and a goanna is running towards her chased by two bird-like men. They catch and kill the reptile, and Grace sees the joints of meat turn into slabs of sandstone, and the smoke from the cooking fire turns to grey lichen on the face of the rock.
‘This is happening just as I read about it,’ Grace says, partly to Schutz, partly to herself. ‘The actions of the beings in the Dreaming really are moulding the landscape in the real world. How far back in history can we see, I wonder…’
‘I’m still not too sure about this,’ Belle-Marie whispers anxiously, as she and Gino creep up onto John Boone’s veranda. ‘Shouldn’t we head straight for the place that Bridgit showed us on the map? It seemed pretty urgent, from what she was saying.’
Gino shakes his head. ‘The Dreaming’s a timeless place, right? So it will still be waiting for us, whenever we arrive. Right now, I’m going to follow my instincts – looks like there’s no-one home,’ he adds, barely seconds after knocking on the door. ‘I’ll take a look around. You can stand guard,’ he adds to Belle-Marie, ‘ – if you have moral objections.’
Belle-Marie looks rather amused at this, though Gino doesn’t know why. Before entering the house, he pauses briefly to examine the papers on the veranda, which appear to document various common-or-garden ‘strange’ events that have occurred around the region in the last few months. Each one alone seems unremarkable, occupying just a few space-filling lines in their respective newspapers and magazines, but John Boone clearly thinks otherwise – the events are carefully marked on a large map, and have been connected by a network of lines. Gino produces a small camera and takes a series of photographs of the maps and the highlighted articles – who knows, he might one day get to discuss them with the rest of the party.
His investigation of the veranda complete, Gino goes inside. Luckily, the door is open (he’d been half-expecting it to be locked – though country-types might be naturally trusting, Boone seems madder than most), so there is no need to avoid leaving traces of his presence. A quick scout round is enough to show that Boone has very narrow obsessions – on what might have once been a dining table, is another, larger map, again criss-crossed with lines. It is clear how Boone believes that some sort of sinister network connects these distant locations, but, studying this larger version, Gino can’t help but imagine the pattern as a ring – albeit a rather misshapen one – encircling Australia and certain islands in the Pacific, and centred on Uluru.
Gino glances up at the portrait of the stern-faced ex-Mrs Boone, and wonders why she left. Each seems as crazed as the other – a perfectly suited couple.
While Gino is busy indoors, Belle-Marie takes closer look at Bob’s abandoned truck outside, but can find no clue as to what might have happened to Kris and Stuart – for all Belle-Marie knows, they, too, could have simply vanished off the face of the earth.
‘At least we can return the truck,’ she muses grimly to herself. ‘They must be running out of them in Madeleine by now.’
With a sigh, she leans against the side of the truck and takes out the message from Maddy that Blaize faxed to her earlier.
hi blaize!!! (and bellemarie and everybody)
wow, origami wombats!!! weve just seen butterflies and a scorpion and stuff.
ive never been into the dreaming but there must be ways or else the aborigine guys wouldve called it the death or the coma or something. if I was trying to get friends out of somewhere like that id do a ritual using something personal from them – or even better a BIT of them, like some hair from a hairbrush or toenail clippings or something. the little bit calls to the big bit, see? magics not difficult to do, just make up a like protective circle, sit in it, make something up (you might want to call to a ‘finding’ spirit like papa legba or ganesh but you can make that stuff up too), CALL to the missing people and burn the object in a sort of ceremonial way. or something.
its hard to help far away like this but i can try to make up a special finding sigil if you want and scan it in for you???
Belle-Marie isn’t sure what to make of this advice, but Daniel was certainly right about Maddy being a little strange.
Then she hears the door open behind her, and turns to see Gino coming out of the house. ‘Did you find anything useful?’ she calls.
‘Only that Boone needs a vacation,’ Gino calls back. ‘And it looks like he’s planning to take one – when I was looking through the bedroom, I came across a lot of travel agent-type information about some Pacific island called Nauru. It doesn’t sound much like paradise, though – apparently the whole place is made from guano… looks like we’ve got company,’ he adds, suddenly dropping his voice.
Belle-Marie spins on the spot, and immediately recoils in surprise. A man she hasn’t seen before is staggering off the track towards them; driven by desperation, it seems, though his face is horribly blistered, as if he’d spent weeks exposed in the desert, and every hobbling step appears to cause him greater pain.
‘You must be John Boone,’ Gino calls to the stranger, hiding a grimace. ‘We’re here about your wife – she’s in hospital in town. Or at least, she was until this morning – ‘
‘Here, let me help you.’ Belle-Marie approaches Boone, offering her hand to steady him – he is clearly in need of hospital treatment himself. But Boone staggers straight by her, and as he passes she realizes why; beneath the seeping, swollen lids, his eyes are as blank as a pair of milky white marbles.
‘What happened to him?’ she gasps at Gino. ‘Was it a fire? Another snake?’
Horrified, she can only watch as Boone continues his slow, pathetic, agonizing advance towards the house. Then he trips on a rusty beer can in the rubbish that lies all over the ground, and starts to topple to his knees with a gurgling wail of surprise. Belle-Marie can’t help but jump away from him, and he falls against Bob’s truck, leaving rancid yellow smears where his hands slide across the bonnet. Feeling a little ashamed of herself, Belle-Marie moves back to help – but that is the last she sees of him.
There is no warning – no rush of air, no sound as the boulder approaches. But suddenly, it is there, as if she’d blinked and somehow missed it before. A massive red outcrop of rock, weighing several tons at least. And Bob’s truck and John Boone have been crushed to atoms beneath it.
With a herbal cigarette in one hand and her cool new spear in the other, Katrina feels ready for anything as she sits on the edge of the misty valley and watches Grace head back towards her. She shouldn’t really have let the older woman wander off on her own, she supposes; she should be keeping an eye on her – making sure she doesn’t break a hip or anything. Who knows what health provision is like in this weird netherplace? But Grace seems well able to look after herself, for the moment, and Katrina is just getting comfortable. While she’s been sitting there alone, she’s realized that the landscape isn’t as sandily featureless as she’d thought as first; when she concentrates on the ground, she fancies she can see faintly glowing lines of energy deep under the surface, throbbing almost at bursting point, all focused on a single point, waiting for release…
‘If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear them.’ She nods at the stricken islanders across the valley, as Grace returns; at the flotilla of lifepods soaring over Earth and into space.
Grace squints at the scene, as a ship she hadn’t noticed before makes its escape from destruction; unlike the other, solitary craft, this one is populated by many shadowy figures.
‘They’re speaking ancient Ylid,’ she breathes. ‘I can hear talk of betrayal. The crew of the lifepod are traitors, somehow. There’s a term for them, but I’m not familiar with the word. Servants, maybe, but not quite. Created… engineered?’
Katrina grunts. ‘Maybe Mr “I’m-in-touch-with-aliens” can help – he knows so much about this place, after all. And if he’s outlived his usefulness, I can easily shut him up.’ She flexes the spear.
Grace looks over her shoulder. ‘Well, I don’t know about that, but perhaps we should all stay together. If Erich _was_ brought here for a purpose, he might lead us to a way out.’
Somewhat grudgingly, Katrina gets up and follows her back towards Uluru. ‘So what did you see?’ she asks.
‘I saw it created,’ says Grace. ‘By two boys, as they played in the mud after the rains at the dawn of time. I saw animals and people and things I can’t describe live and die there over thousands of years. I saw the Rainbow Snake, Kunukban, go to ground after his journey. And I saw something else too – the lifepod Erich showed us, the one that came to Australia. It was at Uluru, too, for a while, then it left and went elsewhere.’
Ahead, Grace can still see the damaged craft’s smoke trail, writhing high above the land like a giant airy snake in the sky.
Then she hears pattering footsteps, and turns with a gasp of surprise. Half a dozen lizard-men are charging across the desert towards them, with long blue tongues exploring for scents in the air as they run. All six are brandishing spears, and the look on their faces is murderous.
Belle-Marie is too busy following her map to notice the forlorn figure slumped by the roadside; it is only when Gino shouts that she looks up and realizes she recognizes it. After the shock of John Boone’s annihilation, the sight of a friendly (if haggard) face is such a relief, she almost laughs.
‘Well, fancy running into you!’ calls Gino, pulling their truck to a halt. ‘Not that we couldn’t manage without you, of course. What have you done with Stuart?’
Kris scowls back at him. Being kidnapped, spending a night in the open and barely surviving a fatal crash have not improved her temper. And her knee is killing her, too.
‘If we cut the tearful reunions,’ she growls, ‘we might have a chance to get him back – to hospital.’
As she leads them towards the scene of the crash, all three relate what has happened to them since Kris and Stuart left to visit John Boone.
‘So Bridgit thinks there’s an entrance to the Dreaming near here?’ Kris looks around, dubiously.
‘It was hidden somewhere in a ridge of boulders,’ Belle-Marie replies. ‘She marked it on this map for us. She found it ten years ago, she said, when she was looking for a worker who’d disappeared on her husband’s land. No one else seemed bothered about him – just said he must have gone walkabout. But Bridgit was suspicious.’
‘I take it she didn’t find him?’ Kris mutters. ‘Very reassuring.’
Belle-Marie shrugs uncomfortably. ‘But she did find the entrance – and she had a vision, too.’
Kris raises her eyebrows. ‘And what did this vision show?’
‘The end of the world, basically,’ says Gino. ‘Heralded by the rising of a giant snake from the Dreaming, and beginning with the spilling of blood by intruders there. She was very upset about it.’
‘Especially after last night. She had a nightmare in hospital – intruders in the Dreaming, just as in her vision ten years ago.’
‘And Grace and Katrina are those intruders?’
‘It seems so,’ says Belle-Marie.
Kris gives her a tight smile. ‘It’s comforting to know the fate of the world is in safe hands. Surely Grace and Katrina wouldn’t be mad enough to get in a fight?’
Katrina whips out her bleached bone spear and prepares to face the lizard-men down.
‘Don’t!’ Grace gasps, desperately. ‘They can’t see us, remember – not if we don’t interact with them!’
Katrina looks almost disappointed; she doesn’t put the spear away, but lowers her arm reluctantly as the lizard-men approach. Grace holds her breath. Then, as she’d hoped, they veer harmlessly around them; the objects of their venom are the bird-men at Uluru. A savage fight ensues as the two groups enter into battle over the butchered goanna. Grace lets out a long sigh.
‘Let’s get after Erich,’ she says. ‘And try to stay out of trouble.’
‘Whatever you say.’ Katrina grins. ‘But if you don’t mind, I’ll make sure that _this_ works here, first.’ She produces her gun. ‘We didn’t need it this time, but who knows what we might run into? I don’t want any weird physics messing with our only defence.’
And before Grace can protest, she raises the gun and takes a casual pot-shot at a passing emu. It squawks once then drops like a stone.
‘What did you do that for?’ Grace thunders.
‘Relax!’ Katrina pats her shoulder. ‘It was only an emu. Think of a big chicken. In a bun. Garnished with lettuce.’
‘Back in Sydney,’ Grace whispers, ‘I read about the totemic animals that populate the Dreaming. They’re said to be the ancestors of whole tribes in the real world.’
Katrina stares at the dead emu, aghast. And as she stares, the first drops of its blood seep into the sand. The ground around it begins to harden, to blacken and crack like fire-scorched skin.
‘I don’t like the look of this,’ she murmurs.
Then, as if from far away, she hears a voice calling their names. She looks up at Grace, astonished.
‘Isn’t that Stuart?’ she says.
3:00 pm, Wednesday 27th December 2000
Belle-Marie, Gino and Kris: on John Boone’s land
Grace and Katrina: the Dreaming