The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
Katrina stares blankly at the gently drifting remains of the old woman, then stirs them around with the toe of her once fashionable boot.
‘Well…’ she says slowly. ‘That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the top ten. This is turning into a really bad deal. Though, looking on the bright side,’ she adds to Grace, ‘at least you won’t have to ask to borrow her blanket.’
‘What happened to her?’ gasps Belle-Marie.
‘I don’t know,’ says Kris, grimly, ‘but whatever it was, it might account for the rest of them.’ She nods back at the town, and Belle-Marie shudders at the thought of the silent, empty streets and the hastily abandoned bar.
‘You’re not suggesting every single person in Madeleine turned to ash? Not everyone, surely?’
Kris shrugs. ‘Some pretty strange things have being happening lately – and as far as I can tell, it all began when certain people who shall remain unnamed started messing around in the Dreaming.’ She glares at Katrina.
‘We should go back there and stop it.’ Belle-Marie glances at Maddy’s instructions for the sigil, but Katrina merely sneers and heads off back across the golf course towards the truck.
‘People are dropping dead all around me in ever increasing numbers,’ she calls over her shoulder, ‘and now you seriously suggest bumping uglies with, frankly, a less than attractive and, more to the point, aromatic bunch of weirdos? Fat chance. I’m getting out of here – before I turn into a pile of sand, too.’
Kris opens her mouth to yell some cutting retort, but before she can think of one, Grace has started to follow Katrina.
‘She may have a point,’ she says.
Gino looks even more dismayed than he did a moment ago.
‘We’ve already seen how changes in the Dreaming can affect the real world,’ Grace continues. ‘The Dreaming and the land and the people in it are all inextricably linked, so really, it’s unsurprising that any damage done in the Dreaming may cause harm out here.’
‘Unsurprising?’ Belle-Marie is shocked at Grace’s cool appraisal of the situation. ‘I’d call the desiccation of hundreds of innocent people more than unsurprising.’
Grace looks a little taken aback at this outburst, but doesn’t respond; instead, she goes on: ‘I suspect that those born or living in the area are likely to be at greatest risk, but visitors – like us – might be affected over time. suggest we drive some way out of town and make the sigil there. It may be safer,’ she adds. ‘And more… private.’
She glances sadly back at the pile of sand that used to be the old woman, and clutches the rolled up blanket firmly as she climbs into the truck.
‘I’m still not too sure about this.’ Kris reads yet again through the sigil-making ritual; each time she hopes it might have changed, but it never does.
‘We have to get back to the Dreaming,’ growls Gino. ‘It’s our only chance of finding out whaddafux happening here!’ His shock at the likely fate of the young members of Uluru United is beginning to wear off, and is being replaced by a cold determination to do whatever has to be done. ‘We might be able to undo that emu business, or squash any island raising, or stop Armageddon… I’d rather not go alone,’ he adds, glaring coldly at each of the others. ‘But I will if I have to.’
Belle-Marie squirms under his gaze. ‘Well, I don’t think… I’d rather not, really…’
‘We obviously need to go to Uluru in the real world, not in the Dreaming,’ says Grace. ‘If the worst happens and the Ylids do mutually destruct, we might have to find some way of stopping the energy targeting major cities – or us! Perhaps we can redirect it onto the Dreaming somehow…? Though not if you’re there, of course,’ she says quickly, as Gino’s glare darkens further.
‘I’m definitely staying in the real world,’ says Katrina, idly cleaning her nails with the tiny spear. ‘It’s once bitten, twice shy, as far as I’m concerned, and keeping these two alien things apart is a good thing. The sooner we get to Uluru, the better.’
‘This is all very interesting,’ Kris mutters, ‘but it’s not what I meant, exactly.’ She points at Maddy’s instructions.
‘Ah – you mean the use of orgone energy?’ Grace frowns. ‘Despite the source, it seems just about plausible. I’ve seen plenty of examples of sex magic in my anthropological readings. Though whether it will work is another thing…’
‘Orgone energy, huh?’ says Katrina. ‘Isn’t that the stuff that Wilhelm Reich was always rambling on about? And didn’t Kate Bush do a song about it?’ She begins humming an unexpectedly tuneful version of ‘Running up that hill’. ‘I tried a bit of that tantric orgone stuff once after a but too much indulgence… can’t say I really felt connected to the universe in any mystical way.’
‘I didn’t mean that, either,’ Kris says. ‘It’s just that trying to muster enough sexual energy to power a sigil is going to be tricky for me, after…’ She sighs and shakes her head. ‘Any sigil I make will be powered by misery. If that works, then fine.’
Grace looks evasive. ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty at that sort of thing myself,’ she says with a nervous laugh. ‘I am getting on a bit, after all. Though we _are_ going to an end of the millennium world party, and they do get rather riotous, so I hear…’
‘So I’m on my own?’ says Gino, coldly. ‘Well, that’s fine by me. As there seem to be no better offers I’ll go and waste my seed on the ground.’ He looks around for some nearby tree or boulder to spare his blushes, then stamps off, angrily.
‘Try not to end the world again,’ Katrina calls after him, then adds to the others: ‘Can you end the world more than once?’
‘I feel really bad about this,’ says Belle-Marie, looking a little abashed. ‘I’m sure we’re doing the right thing in going to Uluru, but it still seems a bit… mean, just letting Gino go off on his own like this. Do you think we should lend a hand? Uhh – I don’t think I meant to say that…’
‘I’m sure Mr Ferrocco can take care of himself,’ says Katrina. ‘And _we’re_ the ones stuck in the outback following instructions on a moth-eaten old blanket. How much worse could things be?’
Grace nods absently. ‘In the Dreaming, Gino might somehow work out how to use Kunukban’s powers – and those we might be able to use to stop Mu rising, at least. Or Stuart might reveal some other way to defeat Yashimoto.’ She nods at Katrina’s new necklace, then suddenly sways, her hand to her forehead. ‘I feel dizzy,’ she gasps.
‘Me too,’ says Belle-Marie. ‘And is it me, or did it just get warmer?’
‘It’s probably another plague from the Dreaming,’ says Kris.
Katrina scowls. ‘As I was about to say, I’d rather not put my trust in Stuart, if it’s all the same to you. Let’s get moving – it must be at least a day’s drive to Uluru, and time’s running out. I wonder how we’re doing for petrol…’
She doesn’t get a chance to find out, however, for as she starts to walk back to the truck, a furious voice behind them yells: ‘Hold it there, you alien perverts!’
Raising her eyebrows quizzically, Katrina turns to see a figure she barely recognizes as Bob, the grizzled man from the bar. He is walking unsteadily down the road, a wild look in his eyes and a shotgun in his hands, and he is pointing it straight at her head.
‘That’s all of you!’ he adds, swinging on Grace as she takes a step forwards.
Grace clears her throat. ‘I’m sure there’s been some mistake. Perhaps you could put the shotgun down and then we can discuss – ‘
Bob gives a harsh laugh. ‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you? I put the gun down, you jump me? You’ve got a hell of lot of explaining to do first. Like what that fella was doing behind that rock, before he… disappeared.’
Katrina smiles sweetly. ‘Do we really need to explain that?’
Grace raises her hands, trying not to antagonize him further. ‘There is a rational explanation for all this, I assure you.’
‘There is?’ says Kris.
‘I’m waiting to hear it,’ growls Bob. ‘Let’s start with what you did to _them_.’
‘Who?’ asks Belle-Marie.
‘You know bloody well who. The town. Everyone.’ Bob stifles a sob. ‘They’re gone, disappeared. And it was you alien perverts that took them.’
‘No, that’s not it at all – ‘ says Belle-Marie.
We should’ve listened to Boone…’ Bob shakes his head, ignoring her, with another despairing groan. ‘Mad ol’ John Boone, we called him, with his crazy stories and wild ideas. We never guessed he was right all along…’
‘I’m sure he’d be flattered to hear that,’ says Katrina. ‘Or should that be ‘flattened’?’
‘He warned us, but we just laughed at him…’
Bob is looking increasingly out of touch – a dangerous situation, Grace realizes. She lowers her voice to the calmest, most reasonable tone she can manage. ‘I can’t pretend there isn’t something strange going on here,’ she begins, ‘but you have to believe me when I say that we’re not responsible.’
Kris sneaks a look behind Grace’s back to see if she is crossing her fingers.
‘So, er… Bob,’ says Belle-Marie nervously. ‘What exactly do you intend to do with us now you’ve caught us?’
Bob tightens his grip on the shotgun. ‘I’m gonna take you back into town, that’s what, and keep you safe under lock and key until the police arrive.’
‘Sounds like a good idea.’ Katrina nods condescendingly. ‘But if we _are_ alien invaders, what’s to stop us just teleporting right out of our cell?’
‘You won’t born in Madeleine, were you?’ Kris interrupts Katrina before she talks them back into trouble.
Bob looks confused. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘It’s just that… well, rather than going back to town, you might want to consider getting as far away as possible – and as quickly as you can.’
‘Though it might be too late already,’ says Katrina. ‘You’re already looking a little crumbly around the edges.’
Bob glances nervously at his feet.
‘I’d give it half an hour, tops,’ Katrina continues, ignoring Kris’ furious glare. ‘You’ll be a pile of sand like your cobbers back home, and we’ll be back on our way.’
Bob’s temper snaps. ‘Why you…’
‘Look at that!’ exclaims Belle-Marie.
‘I’m not falling for that old trick.’
‘No, really – look!’
Bob risks a look over his shoulder, as do the SITU agents. A big, black, featureless speck on the horizon is rapidly turning into a big, black featureless lorry thundering down the road towards them in a swirling cloud of dust.
‘Reinforcements, eh?’ growls Bob. He turns his shotgun on Belle-Marie, and for a heartbeat she is convinces he is going to shoot her. Thoughts of Daniel and Rhiannon race through her numbed mind, but the scream she hears next comes not from her, but from Bob, as he staggers backwards clutching the strange dark dagger embedded deep in his chest. A fountain of blood spurts into the air as he drops lifelessly onto the road, followed an instant later by the shotgun. It goes off, and Grace, Kris and Belle-Marie duck instinctively as the shot booms out. Katrina buffs her nails.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Kris yells.
Katrina shrugs, unconcerned. ‘If you want to argue about it, I’m happy to oblige, but I suggest we do it on the move.’ She nods at the approaching lorry then, pausing only to retrieve her dagger from Bob’s ribcage, leaps into the truck. Muttering angrily under her breath, Kris starts to follow her, but then stops in her tracks.
‘Nice work, Katrina,’ she says.
The left front tyre of the truck is flat, blasted through by Bob’s falling shotgun.
Within moments of his somewhat messy arrival in the Dreaming, Gino realizes that it bears little resemblance to what he had been expecting. Gone is the vast, timeless, changeable place described by Katrina and Grace; as Gino surveys the barren landscape, it is plain that the Dreaming now consists of a sea of shifting sand dotted with oases of a hard, black, glassy substance that seem to be growing in size even as he watches. Here and there he spots human and animal figures – the ancestral spirits and characters from ancient legends, he presumes – but they are no longer re-enacting their stories over and over. Instead, they are silent and still, as if becalmed in their seas of setting glass.
With a sinking heart, he sets off across one of the remaining tracts of sand; he only has to think of the emu, and in moments, it seems, he is almost there. What is happening to the Dreaming is clearly radiating outwards from this point; the ground is getting at once harder and more viscous, and Gino finds it increasingly difficult to walk, move, breathe or even think as he approaches the emu. Any lingering hopes he might have had of averting its death are quickly dashed. The bird-spirit is set firm into the glass like a smoky jewel or some ancient creature fossilized in a tar pit, and when he kneels down to tap it, it feels icy cold to his touch. With a weary sigh, he stands, and hears a soft crackling as he moves. Time to leave, he thinks – if he hangs around much longer, he might become frozen in glass himself.
He struggles back to where he started, and is casting around for the way to Uluru when he realizes he is not alone.
‘It’s good to see you, Gino,’ says Stuart. ‘You always were the only one who showed me any respect.’
‘I always wondered how it might feel to be a boil-in-the-bag cod steak.’ Katrina presses her nose to the translucent wall of their prison and shouts at the guard outside. ‘I suppose we should thank you for this once in a lifetime opportunity.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ comes a muffled shout back.
Kris isn’t amused. ‘Can’t you stop your stupid wisecracks, just for one moment?’ she snaps.
‘But I think I’m finally getting somewhere!’ says Katrina, aggrieved. ‘That’s that most we’ve had out of him since we arrived.’
It is early evening, and the SITU operatives have already spent most of the day as prisoners in the bar on the main street in Madeleine. Not the worst place to be detained by faceless government agent types in biohazard suits and helmets, but unfortunately they are entombed well away from the alcohol, inside a tent made of slick, thick and surprisingly tough plastic sheeting. The outside of the building is encased in a similar material, like giant shrink-wrapping, as is most of the rest of the town, from what they can see through the window. Only the big, black, featureless lorry is remains untouched in its parking place further up the street. Occasionally, it disgorges more white-suited figures bearing various strange pieces of machinery, or uniformed figures bearing firearms. There are several of the latter in the road outside the bar, though only one inside at the moment; less diligent then their previous guards, it is lounging about on a stool and channel-hopping on the TV. How well it sees through the huge, dark insectoid eyes of its helmet isn’t clear.
‘I’m gasping for a drink,’ Katrina continues. ‘Can you fetch me one?’
The guard ignores her.
‘Don’t get me wrong – it’s flattering to be considered a biohazard, it really is – but all this waiting around is getting rather tedious. We have a party to get to, you know!’
‘You’ll regret it if you don’t let us out soon,’ Kris mutters.
‘Is that some kind of threat?’ grunts the guard. The featureless white helmet doesn’t even glance away from the TV set as it speaks.
Katrina grits her teeth and rakes her nails down the wall of the tent. They don’t make so much as a dent. She wishes she had her dagger, but that was confiscated along with her gun, and is presumably somewhere inside the big, back lorry by now. ‘I’ve been pushed around once too often already today. Who the hell do you think you are, keeping us here without any explanation? You haven’t even read us our rights.’
‘Or offered us a phone call,’ adds Kris, somewhat mockingly.
‘You’re lucky we’re _not_ the police,’ says the guard, with a grim laugh that buzzes eerily through his helmet.
‘How is dear old Bob?’ asks Katrina. ‘Don’t tell me – he turned to dust, like the rest of them.’
The guard doesn’t respond.
‘At least he can’t press charges against you now.’ Kris scowls at Katrina.
‘And you won’t have to explain what happened to his truck,’ Katrina replies.
Belle-Marie feels almost disappointed; after enduring hours of this bickering, the prospect of a nice, quiet prison cell to herself seems quite inviting. A glance at Grace’s face suggests the anthropologist feels the same.
‘I enquired earlier, with no success,’ Grace calls to the guard. ‘But may I ask again – why are you keeping us here?’
‘We’re waiting for the big guns,’ says the guard, suddenly shockingly talkative.
‘By “big guns”,’ whispers Katrina, ‘I hope he means big guns, and not Big Guns.’
‘That’s very helpful, thank you,’ says Grace, hoping to capitalize on this new, open relationship. ‘Do you know when they might arrive? We’ve been waiting so long already.’
‘No idea. They’re busy today,’ grunts the guard, reaching for the TV remote.
‘So Madeleine isn’t the only place where this has happened?’ asks Grace.
Returning to his taciturn ways, the guard ignores her and hits the remote, and sunset over Uluru appears on the TV screen. It is a news broadcast, with a reporter standing in front of a huge crowd of people gathering in the desert. It is a relief to see that both people and rock are still there – until the reporter’s words drift across the bar.
‘…massive party tomorrow night…’
Belle-Marie gasps aloud. ‘Did I hear that right? She said _tomorrow_? Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve? But it can’t be – today is the twenty-eighth!’
Kris clears her throat. ‘Remember that sudden temperature change when Gino disappeared?’ she murmurs.
‘You don’t mean we lost two days of our lives?’ Belle-Marie is aghast.
Only Grace keeps her cool. ‘It’s possible, I suppose. Sex and death were inextricably linked in many ancient societies.’
‘But we didn’t get any sex!’ Katrina wails. ‘That’s not fair!’ She wags a finger at Belle-Marie. ‘I’ll be having words with your friend Maddy, if I live long enough to meet her.’
For the first time – Grace realizes – their guard is taking an interest in what his captives are saying. She turns her back on him and lowers her voice. ‘This is serious,’ she says. ‘Quite apart from being forty-eight hours nearer our graves, we might be too late to warn Long Jack – even if we were to leave here now.’
‘Which doesn’t look likely,’ whispers Belle-Marie.
Kris smiles grimly. ‘We could always let Yashimoto and Long Jack get together for mutual self-destruction. Then when Gino gets back from the Dreaming, we can send him to Mu take on whoever’s there with his new powers.’
She doesn’t mean this entirely seriously, but as the sun disappears over the darkening face of Uluru, it seems like this might be their only option.
Gino is at first surprised – and relieved – to hear Stuart sounding so well and and reasonably cogent.
‘I was expecting to have to heal you somehow,’ he says as he starts to turn. ‘It’s good to see you looking so…’
‘…well.’ He stops, at a loss as to what to say next. In his mind’s eye, he sees Bridgit McMahon’s drawing of the Walpiri Women – ‘living’ beings in the Dreaming reduced to stylized symbols in the real world. He can only suppose that this is how it works the other way round. The pattern of pits and lines and dunes in the sand look nothing like Stuart he knew, but at the same time, they _are_ him, somehow.
‘So… um… How are you feeling?’ he asks, warily.
‘Much better now. I think.’ The Stuart-shape shimmers like a sandy beach in the breeze as it speaks, but from where exactly the voice emanates, Gino has no idea. Maybe I’ve just gone totally crazy, he thinks, and it’s all in my head.
‘I remember my leg hurting,’ the shape goes on, dreamily. ‘It was a wallaby, Kris said. I can’t feel anything now, though I do seem to see things more clearly… How long have I been here, Gino?’
‘A few hours, maybe.’ Gino skirts around the Stuart-shape cautiously. ‘Though it seems like forever, too – a lot’s happened while you’ve been gone. We thought we’d lost you for good.’ He winces – it looks like they have. ‘That was a pretty neat trick you pulled with the spear,’ he adds, trying to look on the bright side.
‘What spear?’ the Stuart-shape breathes.
Gino grimaces. It seems Stuart’s mind is heading rapidly after his body. ‘Katrina’s spear,’ he says, slowly and patiently. ‘Or rather, the spear Katrina took from the Walpiri Women while she was here. She brought it out of the Dreaming – ’
‘She took it? That’s no surprise. She never had any manners. She hasn’t thanked me yet for the shark repellent I gave her for Christmas – ’
‘You sent her a message with it – remember?’
‘The message warning us that Yashimoto was going to Uluru.’
‘Yashimoto?’ Stuart’s voice sounds as blank as he looks. ‘I remember the name, I think… Isn’t he the reason we came here? It all seems so long ago…’
‘You and me both,’ Gino mutters. ‘You didn’t send that message, did you? But if not you, who? And why?’ He sighs and looks around him; the dark, glassy patches are still growing, gradually closing in on each other. It won’t be long, he reckons, before the whole of the Dreaming is frozen in time. And this trip is turning out to be a total waste of time. First the emu, now Stuart. I should cut my losses and get out now, Gino thinks – if I knew how.
He turns back to the Stuart-shape. ‘Do you remember when you first came here – to rescue Grace and Katrina?’
‘I don’t… I’m not too sure…’
‘Just try, eh? For old times’ sake? You’d been poisoned – by the wallaby – and you passed through a gateway on John Boone’s land. Could I get out through that gateway? Or do I need someone on the other side? Or do I need to be poisoned?’
‘I’m not sure the gateway is there anymore,’ whispers the Stuart-shape, sadly. Without a movement or word, it seems to draw Gino’s gaze to a nearby patch of darkness.
‘What’s causing this… change?’ Gino asks, exasperated. ‘No – I’ll take that back. I know what – or who -_caused_ it. But what’s making it happen?’
Fortunately, the Stuart-shape’s waning grasp of events doesn’t extend to matters concerning the Dreaming. ‘Time changed here somehow at the moment blood was spilled,’ it says. ‘Before that, the power – ungud – was spread all around the Dreaming, but now it’s focusing on Uluru – you can see it moving across the land. The frozen patches are places where it’s slowly leaking out.’
‘And causing a lot of damage,’ says Gino bitterly, thinking once again of his desiccated football cubs. ‘If all the power focused on Uluru was suddenly channelled out of here and into the real world, what would happen?’
‘The Dreaming would be destroyed – without ungud, all would be frozen.’
‘And all the real world would turn to sand? Or all of Australia, at least.’ Gino frowns. ‘What is this thing with Uluru? Why is it so important?’
‘It is the navel of the world,’ says the Stuart-shape, simply.
‘I’ve heard that before, I think,’ Gino muses. ‘The navel of the world… what does that mean, exactly? What’s a navel? An umbilicus, a connection…’
Gino grins at the mysterious pattern of circles and lines. ‘Well done, Stuart,’ he says. ‘You might have found my way out.’
‘Help me! Help me!’ rings out a scream. ‘I think I’m starting to turn to sand!’
Belle-Marie had nodded off to sleep, but Grace’s agonized shout jerks her out of her stupor and propels her anxiously across the slippery floor of the tent.
‘My feet have gone!’ Grace yells, writhing in agony on the ground.
‘I’m not falling for that old trick,’ comes a bored shout from the guard.
Belle-Marie skids to a halt and gives Grace an accusing glare as the usually staid anthropologist gets to her all-too-solid feet.
‘It was worth a try,’ Grace mutters sheepishly as she straightens out her clothes.
‘I must apologize for my colleague here.’ Katrina sidles up to the wall with a weary shake of her head. ‘But it is getting pretty rancid in here. I’d love to stretch my legs, take a breath of that cool night air… feel the soft touch of the breeze on my skin… I could make it worth your while,’ she adds, then slips off her necklace and starts to spin the spear around her finger. A slow, suggestive smile brightens her face.
‘And you won’t get me with that one, either.’ The guard gives a mocking laugh.
‘Haven’t we been here already today?’ grumbles Kris, under her breath.
‘I don’t know what you take me for,’ Katrina growls, feigned shock on her face. ‘But I’m not that easy – as you’ll find out, the moment I get free from here.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m sure,’ says the guard, waving a hand dismissively. He lounges back on his stool and reaches towards the TV again, then suddenly jumps to his feet and moves to the window.
‘What’s happening?’ calls Belle-Marie.
Behind the faceless helmet, the party are sure the guard is smiling. ‘Looks like you’ll soon get to prove if you’re as tough as you act,’ he says. ‘The big guns are here.’
He points at the ceiling, and the captives hold their breaths and listen. Coming ever closer, they hear the whirr of a helicopter.
Dangling from Katrina’s hand, the tiny spear begins to twitch.
In the Dreaming, Gino stares across the spreading darkness towards Uluru. Unlike much of the landscape, this scene is still fluid, and when he concentrates on the view, he can see what Grace described. Two small boys building the rock out of mud…
21:30 pm, Saturday 30th December 2000
Belle-Marie, Grace, Katrina and Kris: the bar
Gino and Stuart: somewhere in the Dreaming