The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
As the sound of the approaching helicopter gets closer, the SITU agents exchange nervous glances.
‘OK…’ murmurs Katrina slowly. ‘Trapped in a tent with the bug guns coming. Don’t think I like the sound of this…’
‘I’m sure we’ll soon be on our way out of here,’ Grace says reassuringly, though she doesn’t sound very convinced. ‘Once we’ve explained the situation to someone in a position of authority.’ She stares hard at the guard.
‘I’d rather not wait around to meet whatever’s in that helicopter.’ Katrina slips the tiny spear off its leather thong as she speaks – just in time, for in the blink of eye it is suddenly no longer a decorative nik-nak cum mystical writing implement, but a full-sized spear flying straight towards the wall of the tent. Katrina overcomes her surprise just in time to follow through after it; to her satisfaction, it looks almost like she’d planned the throw all along. The guard doesn’t recover as quickly, however; he starts to reach for the weird ray-gun-like firearm at his side, but is pathetically slow. Before his hand has moved an inch, the spear has ripped through the translucent plastic and impaled him straight through the heart.
‘Wow,’ says Katrina, impressed.
‘I wish she’d stop doing that,’ mutters Kris. She points at the window; a piercing light from above is flickering over the main street outside. ‘We’re still trapped, remember? And now we’ve killed one of their people.’
‘Not for long.’ Katrina works her fingers into the into the hole in the wall of the tent. Now the plastic is breached, it has lost much of its strength, and in moments she has torn a gap deep enough to step though. She strides across the bar, yanks the spear out of the guard, takes his ray-gun for good measure, and flings open the door.
‘I really don’t think this is a good idea,’ Kris calls after Katrina, as the expressionless black faceplates of every helmeted figure on the main street turn towards her.
‘On the other hand…’ she muses. ‘While they’re busy slaughtering Katrina, we can escape through the back…’
And without another look back, she slips through the hole in the tent and hurries out of the bar to the washrooms. A fearful din erupts outside. Grace and Belle-Marie follow her.
‘We’ll keep our heads down and grab the first vehicle we find,’ she says, climbing onto the wash basin to unlatch the window above. There is more of the shrink-wrapping here, but it is not as tough as substance of the tent and gives way under concerted attack with the pointy end of a toilet brush.
‘Do you think she’ll be alright?’ Belle-Marie glances back nervously, as a hideous, bone-crunching thwacking noise crashes deafeningly through the door of the washroom.
‘Probably not,’ Kris replies, coldly, though she does wince as the thwacking turns into a blood-curdling scream. With a shrug, she struggles out through the window, and drops to the ground in the alley behind the bar. She peers into the darkness, but can see no sign of any lurking government agent types; all are clearly occupied with taking Katrina apart. The squishy, squashy, spurting sounds from the road are really quite disgusting.
‘At least she died helping us get away,’ she says, thoughtfully, ‘though I don’t think that was the aim, somehow.’ She turns to help Grace climb down from the window. ‘Now let’s find a truck and get out of here before they get bored and come after us.’
Kris and Grace hurry into the shadows, Grace moving a little stiffly; her old joints are protesting at all this exercise after hours of inactivity. Belle-Marie comes out last, but hesitates before following the others. Another shriek fills the still night air, followed by a stomach-churning whirring, splashing noise. She remembers her first meeting with the rest of the group (one of the less sensible decisions she’s made in her life, she decides), and how Katrina and Stuart were the ones who tried to make her feel most welcome. She has no idea where or how Stuart might be now, but Katrina is most definitely in trouble, and it seems heartless to abandon her – however slight her chances.
Steeling herself for what she might see, Belle-Marie creeps up the alley and peers onto the main street.
‘Where have you been?’ Katrina calls. ‘You’ve missed all the fun.’
Open-mouthed in amazement, Belle-Marie can only stand and survey the carnage that fills the road. Mangled government agent types lie everywhere – thank goodness for the helmets, Belle-Marie thinks, weakly. She wouldn’t have fancied seeing their faces – the severed limbs, spilled intestines and gored brains are more than enough.
‘You haven’t been sneakily escaping through the back, have you?’ Katrina adds, waggling her tiny spear admonishingly in Belle-Marie’s direction. Belle-Marie jumps back as if it was she who’d just had her liver plucked out.
‘We thought we could find some transport,’ she whispers. Her voice sounds very far away; she is sure she’s about to faint, or throw up. The stench of steaming entrails is overpowering.
‘And leave me to do all the work, eh?’ Katrina clicks her tongue and flicks her long black hair over her shoulder. ‘Never mind – we’ve got transport here. I even kept the pilot alive!’
She points down the street towards the now stationery helicopter. Belle-Marie doesn’t look too closely; there is something unspeakably gory wrapped around the silent rotor blades.
‘I’ll fetch the others,’ she murmurs, unable to think of anything else to say. But Katrina isn’t listening; placing the spear on its thong around her neck like a medal, she picks her way around the pile of bodies and climbs into the lorry. Moments later she reappears, cleaning the blade of her strange, dark dagger on her thigh.
In the Dreaming, Gino gazes sadly at the Stuart-shape for one last time.
‘You’re not leaving, are you?’ it wails, and Gino can almost imagine a little tear welling at the corner of what might be its eye.
‘I was getting lonely before you arrived,’ it adds. ‘Can’t you stay a bit longer?’
Gino grimaces. ‘I’ll try to come back soon.’ Unlikely, he thinks – judging by the speed at which the frozen patches are advancing across the barren landscape. ‘But right now my main aim is to get the fuck out of here. I have to warn Katrina about the spear – it could be something terrible. Sweets to the sweet, I suppose…’ He starts to walk away, then stops. ‘Hey, er… Stuart. You may not have sent the message we did get through the spear, but do you know how it might be done? And more to the point, could you to do it?’
‘I don’t know…’ the Stuart-shape begins, then adds hurriedly: ‘But I can try! Just wait here with me and we’ll find out.’
Gino glances warily around him. ‘Okay, but make it quick. Although,’ he muses, ‘I would rather send a note than try making the sigil again and risk covering the others with something best kept between two people…’
‘There it is,’ breathes Belle-Marie as they swoop down over Uluru. ‘Though how we’re going to find Long Jack among all those people, I’ve no idea…’
The crowd has swelled massively since the news broadcast they saw in the bar yesterday; there must be fifty thousand or more on the plain, seething back and forth like a vast living ocean around the outcrop of rock. Uluru itself is glowing blood red in the darkness; a stage show is throwing eerily elongated shadows across the rock, and higher up, laser beams and projected images of Dreaming beings circle slowly across its face – emus among them, Belle-Marie notes, grimly.
‘What time is it?’ demands Kris.
‘Eleven o’clock,’ says Grace.
‘Eleven!’ Kris is appalled. ‘That gives us exactly one hour to find a needle in a haystack _and_ get more a mile away from here. And I thought flying was supposed to be quicker than going by road – ‘
Belle-Marie silences her with a wide-eyed glare and a curt nod in Katrina’s direction. Kris scowls, but bites her tongue.
Katrina doesn’t notice, however; her attention is on the pilot. ‘My friend’s right,’ she growls. ‘Anyone would think you’d been delaying us on purpose. All that refuelling and map-reading… You weren’t delaying us, were you?’ She fingers the tiny spear at her throat.
‘I wasn’t, I swear!’ squeaks the sweating pilot, and the helicopter makes an alarming dip.
Kris grits her teeth. ‘Let’s try and get this thing down in one piece, eh?’ she says, glowering at Katrina.
They land some way from the party, behind a roped-off area that is serving as a coach park. Even at this distance, the noise is tremendous; the warm night air throbs around them with music and singing and shouting and laughter.
‘It’s a shame Stuart couldn’t make it,’ says Belle-Marie, with a sigh. ‘He was really looking forward to this, back in Sydney.’
‘Gino, too,’ says Katrina. ‘But maybe he’ll turn up. If he needs some help with that sigil, mystical spears aren’t the only thing that I can grow with my skilled hands, if you know what I mean…’ She gives Belle-Marie a wink, then reaches into her bag and pulls out a coil of rope.
‘What are you going to do with me now?’ gasps the pilot.
‘Oh, I was thinking of stringing you up from the blades,’ says Katrina. ‘A bit like those big guns of yours…’
The pilot moans, on the verge of tears.
‘Katrina!’ warns Kris.
‘But as we need you to fly us out of here, I guess I’ll have to save that for later and leave you tied up for now.’
Kris shakes her head wearily and follows Belle-Marie outside. Together they stare at the vast crowd of people.
‘It’s not so bad,’ she says, sounding more hopeful than she feels. ‘Long Jack will surely stand out among all the beautiful people here. And we can start by asking if any of the aborigines here have seen him. There are bound to be some around – protesting about this desecration of their homeland – ‘
Then l let’s have some desecration!’ declares Katrina, jumping down beside them. ‘I’m gasping for it! I suggest we split up,’ she adds, sagely. ‘We’ll have more chance of finding him that way.’
Pausing only to check her spear, dagger, pistol and ray-gun, she strides boldly towards the crowd.
‘I’m a bit worried about her,’ Belle-Marie whispers in Kris’ ear.
Kris almost laughs aloud. ‘At least we’re on the ground now, though I won’t say ‘safe’. Hopefully _she’ll_ find Long Jack and they can fly off into the sunset together, for all I care.’
But the suggestion they split up seems sound, so she and Belle-Marie head off in different directions.
Grace is the last to emerge. Squinting into the bright lights ahead, she stops to stretch her knees, which are now aching badly from the cramped confines of the helicopter. It seems rather cruel to leave the pilot tied up inside (although perhaps not quite as cruel as butchering all his colleagues before his eyes), and Grace wonders if she might be able to loosen his bonds just a little…
‘Will you promise not to run away?’ she asks, turning back. Then she stops in surprise. There is no sign of the pilot – just an empty space on the seat and abandoned lengths of rope. Alarmed, Grace looks for a pile of sand – they were lucky this didn’t happen while they in the air – but all she finds is a creased scrap of paper, fluttering in the breeze. Instinctively, Grace grabs the paper before it gets away. But this time, she doesn’t even attempt to refold it.
Moving around the Dreaming is still as easy as Grace and Katrina described – almost before as Gino has thought of going to Uluru, he is there. Or rather, he is where it will be. Or was. Or is to become. Trying not to think too hard, he approaches the two boys with his hands outstretched peaceably – and ready to hide his weird hand if this should freak them out.
‘Do you kids fancy a game of football?’ he calls. But the boys do not reply, or even register that he is there – so engrossed are they in their game of mud-pies.
‘I was wondering if you might be able to help me,’ he continues, hopefully. ‘I need to get out of here – and quickly.’ And in some way that doesn’t involve exposing children to acts of depravity, he thinks. But still no response from the boys – after spending all of history playing in that mud, Gino supposes it is hard for them to adjust to the presence of a new face.
With a resigned shrug, he looks around for a suitable boulder to hide behind; spotting one nearby, he starts to trudge through the sand towards it, trying to work up enthusiasm for more sigil-crafting. Rather disturbingly, the first thing that comes into his head is Katrina, and so preoccupied by this image is he that he doesn’t notice the rock flying through the air until it hits him.
Dazed, he crashes onto the ground, rubbing his aching forehead. His hand comes away wet, and he quickly reaches for a handkerchief; he doesn’t know what effect the spilling of his own blood might have on the Dreaming, but he isn’t too keen to find out. It is only then that he starts to wonder who might have attacked him.
‘Take that, you pig-dog!’ shrieks a manic voice from not far away.
Gino looks up dizzily. At first he thinks he took a harder knock than he’d thought; all he can see is a sweaty, stumpy, purple-faced figure in lederhosen, jumping madly up and down and wagging a mocking finger in his general direction. Then, with a sinking heart, he realizes he knows his assailant. It is dusty and very much worse-for-wear, but unmistakably Erich F Schutz.
As she pushes her way through the throng with increasing desperation, Grace is barely aware of the curious glances she receives – the crazy-looking old woman clutching a blanket and a sheet of paper in the other and muttering to herself as she looks wildly left and right. If she did see them, Grace wouldn’t care – all she knows is that time is running out and she can’t find the others. She checks her watch for the thousandth time. It is eleven twenty.
She almost leaps out of her skin when her ribcage starts vibrating. But nothing fatal happens, so she tentatively inside her jacket – and finds a mobile phone. She has had it since Moscow, she seems to remember, blearily, but hadn’t even realized she was still carrying it. She holds it warily at arms’ length, wondering how to pick up the call.
‘Like this, grandma!’ laughs a helpful youth behind her.
She gives him a weak smile of gratitude and presses the phone to her ear.
Grace screws up her face in concentration. ‘You’ll have to speak up!’ she yells back. ‘I can barely hear myself think!’ She is not far from the stage now, and the very earth is quaking with the stamping of ten thousand feet and the incessant, mind-numbing throb of tuneless so-called ‘music’.
_’It’s me, Belle-Marie!’_ bellows the voice on the other end of the line. ‘My god – that isn’t Rolf Harris, is it?’
Grace gasps with relief. ‘Thank goodness! I have to talk to you – and Kris and Katrina, too.’ Belle-Marie starts to reply, but Grace rushes on regardless. ‘I’ve been thinking about the message from the spear. It _said_ it came from Stuart and we believed it – but can we be sure? Stuart would never have killed all those people, and it’s having a very strange effect on Katrina.’ She lowers her voice again, as she notices the worried looks she’s receiving from those around her.
_’Listen – ‘_ says Belle-Marie.
‘The spear was very keen to get us here, certainly, but what if it was controlled, not by Stuart, but by Yashimoto – or more likely, his agent Nakayama?’ Grace barely pauses for breath, so enthused that she has almost forgotten how late it is. ‘But why would Yashimoto want us to come to Uluru, knowing our aim is to stop him self-destructing with Long Jack…?’
She casts another furtive look around, but no one is listening to her now; the crowd around her has burst into applause as the racket from the cacophony from the stage ceases for a welcome moment. Nearby stands a cluster of ramshackle stalls selling candles, beads, pewter jewellery and a multitude of crystals in a rainbow of colours. They flash and gleam in the glow from the laser lights overhead, and Grace spots a sign tacked to the canvas roof of the stall: ‘100% amethyst, quartz, tiger’s eye, ideal for scrying, channelling’
‘Channelling…’ she murmurs to herself – then winces as she realizes Belle-Marie is shrieking desperately in her ear.
_’It’s about Long Jack I’m calling,’_ she yells. _’I’ve found him!’_
Long Jack Wunuwun? Grace had almost forgotten about him. ‘Good work!’ she shouts back – the racket on the stage has returned. ‘Where is he?’
There is a pause, then Belle-Marie’s voice returns, suddenly sounding fainter. _’There’s a kind of cleft about twenty feet above ground level in the north-west face of the rock. It’s shaped a bit like… like a mouth.’_
‘Like a mouse?’
_’Like a mouth! You can’t miss it.’_
‘I’ll be right there!’ Grace shouts, but the line is already dead. She wonders if she needs to turn it off, then checks her watch again. Eleven twenty-two. There might still be time to get Long Jack to a safe distance, though the helicopter would have helped.
‘I should have mentioned that,’ she says to herself.
‘Mentioned what?’ asks a voice behind her.
Gino struggles back to his feet, clutching a handkerchief to his bleeding head and regarding Erich F Schutz warily. ‘Good to see you too, Erich,’ he calls.
Schutz gives a brief, barking laugh. ‘Good to see me?’ he says sarcastically but to little effect. ‘I’ll give you good to see me, you stinking, traitorous pig-dog!’ And before Gino can protest, he reaches down, grabs another stone and throws it hard straight at him. This time Gino has chance to duck, and the missile bounces well wide.
‘I’d forgotten I might run into you,’ he says conversationally, raising his hands in a placatory manner. ‘What have you been doing with yourself while you’ve been here?’
Schutz gathers himself to his full height (which doesn’t take long) and sniffs haughtily. ‘I have little to do but twiddle my thumbs, I am afraid – since _you_ usurped my birthright.’
‘Me? Birthright? Usurped?’ Gino shakes his head. ‘Sorry, but this has been a really long day – can you be a bit more specific?’
‘I was the chosen one!’ Schutz persists.
‘Chosen by who?’
‘The Visitors. The aliens! The pilots of this wondrous ship.’ Schutz revolves on his heels, spanning the landscape from horizon to horizon. ‘They brought me here as their chosen representative of the human race. I was to stay here a while, learning what I could of their world, then return to Earth, bearing a gift for all Mankind to share!’
‘What kind of gift?’ Gino asks. After all the trouble he’s been through lately, Schutz’s problems are a little light relief. But even as he asks the question, the answer pops into his head, unbidden. ‘You don’t mean the crystal?’ he says, showing his hand, palm facing upwards.
‘It is _not_ a crystal,’ Schutz spits, turning a couple of shades closer to puce. ‘Pah! Ignorant fools! It is beyond your comprehension! And it was _my_ crystal, you hear me? _My_ crystal – not yours!’
To Kris’ relief, it doesn’t take long to find the cleft in the rock – though climbing into a giant open mouth isn’t number one on her list of must-try activities at this moment in time. There are quite a few people above her on the rock, but most are heading towards the summit, presumably to greet midnight there. Each passerby is greeted by excited waves from a crowd of young children and their parents who are picnicking at the base of the rock. Kris glowers back grimly as she scrambles up the slope above their heads.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ shouts one of the women, pointing at the shapes of crocodiles, lizards and kangaroos as they play across the glowing face of the rock.
‘If you like that sort of thing,’ Kris mutters – then almost loses her balance in fright, as a loud explosion sounds in the distance. She peers nervously over shoulder.
‘Oooh – pretty!’ coo the children as fireworks race into the sky.
Kris pulls herself together and hisses up at the opening: ‘Belle-Marie! Are you there?’
There is a scrabbling noise, then Belle-Marie appears in the giant mouth, just as the shape of a Sky Hero drifts across the cleft. It is an unsettling image.
‘Have you got Long Jack?’ Kris demands.
‘I – I -’ stammers Belle-Marie.
‘About time, too. What’s he doing up here, anyway?’ Kris frowns. ‘My knee is killing me after that climb. Oh, never mind. We have to get back to the helicopter – and quickly. What’s the time?’
‘Too late for you,’ laughs Nakayama, emerging from behind Belle-Marie.
‘Sorry,’ Belle-Marie mumbles, sheepishly. ‘I saw someone lurking around up here. I didn’t know it was him.’
Nakayama gives Kris a brilliant smile. ‘Well, if it isn’t our intrepid reporter from Crab magazine!’ he says. ‘Seen any signs of alien invasion recently?’
Kris scowls at him. ‘Not if I can help it. But much as I’d love to stay here and chat, we’re rather short of time – as I’m sure you’re aware.’ She gestures to Belle-Marie. ‘We really must be going.’
‘So soon?’ Nakayama raises a hand, as if about to wave them goodbye. Kris starts to duck, expecting lightning bolts or the like; but instead, all she hears is a dry, sinister rustling sound.
‘I would rather talk awhile,’ he says. ‘Why not make yourselves comfortable?’
Out of the dark of the mouth-like cleft, spews a herd of small origami crocodiles, each with rapidly snapping jaws and row upon row of gleaming teeth. Before Kris can move, she is surrounded.
‘So what is this crystal, exactly, if it isn’t a crystal?’ Gino asks, maintaining a friendly manner as he edges towards the boulder; Schutz has just grabbed another stone, and he doesn’t want to risk being used for target practice again.
‘It is a conduit.’ Schutz sobs miserably. ‘Through which They will bestow all their knowledge and power and greatness on the human race. And I – Erich F Schutz – was chosen to be their messenger! My name would have lived forever! And now, now I am no one. And it is all the fault of you and your friends!’
With an anguished wail, he lobs the stone, then reaches down for another, and another. Dodging the sudden hail of missiles, Gino swerves wildly left and right then vaults into shelter behind the boulder.
‘There’s really no need for this, Erich,’ he yells. ‘The crystal – or whatever it is – isn’t all that great shakes anyway. You just can’t trust these people – they promised _me_ all sorts of powers, too. And what did I get? Nothing, that’s what.’
Schutz clearly doesn’t sympathize. The stones keep coming.
Grace, too, is receiving little sympathy; every attempt she has made to start a conversation with this latest government agent type has met with nothing but an icy wall of silence.
‘Why do we never get a talkative guard?’ she muses, peering up at the motionless form through a gap in the front of her latest tent-prison. It is at least a proper tent – rather than the hot and sticky plastic monstrosity back in Madeleine – and they are even on the outskirts of a proper campsite; the sight of the neat rows of canvas stir pleasant memories of her younger days out on fieldwork. ‘It would be nice to spend the final moments of my life in half-civil company,’ she adds, with a sigh.
In stark contrast to her own mood, applause and peals of laughter ring loudly outside; through the tent flap, Grace glimpses the source of the commotion – a small, sheep performing startling acrobatics with a chick balanced on the end of its nose. It is one of the more bizarre sights Grace has seen, but when she notices the sheep’s keepers – two near-identical elderly men – a strange memory stirs in the back of her mind, as if from another life. Fitting, she thinks, given that she is about to lose her current one. She looks at her watch again. It is eleven thirty-five.
The crowd begin to cheer.
‘At least they can enjoy themselves – before the end,’ she says, grimly. ‘Everyone seems blissfully ignorant of the spreading national disaster – your people have made a excellent job of covering it up.’
She gets no reply.
‘You might have problems when the whole country goes up in smoke, I suppose – though of course, you won’t be here to worry about it… You don’t mind if I lie down, do you? I’m getting on, you know, and I tire rather easily these days.’ She spreads the old aboriginal blanket on the ground and reclines on it, gazing sadly at the ancient Ylid script on the cloth. I haven’t had a proper chance to study it yet, she thinks. So little time, so little time…
‘I don’t know if we could have done any better,’ she says, more to herself than to the silent guard. ‘We knew what happens when two Ylids meet, we knew the effect it would have at Uluru. Ungud released from the Dreaming into the world. Mu raised, the country destroyed… A reasonable idea, don’t you think, to come here and stop it? But it seems that we may have brought about the very disaster we tried to avert…’
‘You mean it will all be _our_ fault?’ Belle-Marie gasps in horror.
Nakayama laughs again. ‘Surely you didn’t think Yashimoto-san would sacrifice himself? Of course it will be your fault. We planned this all along and you have played our game very nicely, but ultimately, it is your own conceit that has brought you down.’
‘Conceit?’ grates Kris. She eyes the ring origami crocodiles warily. They’re only paper, she tells herself – but those teeth look razor-sharp.
Nakayama nods sadly. ‘You were so, so ready to believe the karadji would bestow his powers on you. You never so much as questioned it! And all the time the crystal was ours – and when midnight comes, Yashimoto-san will transmit his essence into your friend. Ka-boom!!’ He claps his hands, making Belle-Marie jump.
‘If Long Jack is here,’ she says, nervously.
‘Oh, the karadji is here,’ Nakayama says, with certainty.
‘Which is why you’re keeping us here, I presume?’ says Kris. ‘To stop us from warning him.’
The Ylid agent shrugs. ‘A little delaying tactic, but you have to admit, you had little chance of finding him, regardless of anything I might do. And less of getting him out of here.’
It is Kris’ turn to smile mockingly. ‘Do you think we came on foot?’
‘You’ll be leaving on foot.’ Nakayama nods towards where the fireworks went off, and Kris realizes they came from the direction of the coachpark. Not fireworks then, she realizes.
‘There’s still one fatal flaw in your plan,’ says Belle-Marie, angrily.
‘Which is?’ Nakayama arches one neatly-plucked eyebrow.
‘That ka-boom needs both Long Jack and Gino – and Gino isn’t here.’
All has been quiet for several minutes, so Gino risks a quick glance over the top of the boulder.
‘Arrghh!! You want more?’ screams Schutz, and the barrage of stones begins again.
‘You should be careful what you’re doing!’ Gino yells back, furiously; this is getting beyond a joke. ‘I’ve seen the effect careless stones-throwing has in the real world. I’d rather there was _something_ left for me to go back to.’
‘I will throw stones for precisely as long as I have stones,’ Schutz bawls, punctuating his words with more of the same. ‘And when I have no more stones, I am coming over your parapet and taking my crystal by force!’
He sounds crazy enough to try it. ‘Looks like the worst has come to the worst,’ Gino mutters. He drops to his knees and starts to scratch the sigil in the sand.
‘What do you mean he isn’t here?’
For the first time in their brief acquaintance, Nakayama’s cool exterior wavers. Clenching his fists, he advances slowly and menacingly on Belle-Marie. His origami creatures tense, too; Kris turns on her heels, trying to keep her eye on every one of them. She glances at her watch. It is five minutes to twelve.
‘I mean what I said,’ says Belle-Marie, standing her ground defiantly. ‘Gino isn’t here. Or at least, he’s not _here_.’
A slow light dawns over Nakayama’s smooth face. ‘He is in the _Dreaming_?’ he growls.
Kris wishes Belle-Marie would stop antagonizing him; she has retreated as far as she can, and the crocodiles are almost upon her.
‘In the Dreaming, yes – that’s right.’ Belle-Marie folds her arms, a triumphant expression on her face. ‘I’d say you and your boss have over-reached yourselves, Mr Nakayama.’
‘Don’t!’ hisses Kris.
But the creatures relax, as does their master.
‘The land and the Dreaming are closely linked here,’ he murmurs, almost to himself. ‘Perhaps it will be sufficient…’
Belle-Marie’s face falls. ‘You mean – ‘
‘Maybe,’ he says, slowly, ‘or maybe not. Who can say? But one thing is for certain – I am not waiting here to find out.’ He steps down out of the cleft and onto the rough track that leads down to the plain. ‘I have enjoyed your company, ladies,’ he says, with a brief bow. ‘But now I must take my leave.’
‘On foot?’ Kris shouts after him, bitterly.
Nakayama doesn’t turn back, just waves a hand at her at her again; he even has a friendly word for the picnickers on the ground.
Belle-Marie and Kris exchange glances.
‘Let’s do something.’
It seems as good an idea as any. But before she has taken a step, Kris realizes that Nakayama wasn’t being sociable that time, either – the army of origami crocodiles are on the move again.
‘They’re only paper,’ says Belle-Marie.
And to prove it, she prods a tentative foot in the face of the first one. It opens its paper jaws and sinks its teeth into her ankle.
‘Watch out!’ Kris yells in desperation, as Belle-Marie screams and starts to fall – a dozen more open-mouthed crocodiles are waiting to engulf her. She tries to run to her aid, but her damaged knee gives way, and as drops to the ground herself, vice-like jaws wrap around the back of her neck. She tries to shout for help, but no one hears her.
On the plain beneath Uluru, the countdown has begun.
_’Ten, nine, eight…’_
Lying on her blanket in the tent, Grace hears a gathering shout.
_’…seven, six, five…’_
Fifty thousand voices, raised as one in anticipation. Anticipation of what? Grace wonders.
‘I hear this is yours,’ says Katrina.
The Japanese man looks up from the half-folded sheet of paper cupped in his hands. A brief look of comprehension flickers over his flawless face. He opens his mouth to speak, but Katrina gets there first.
‘You can have it back,’ she says simply, and spears him straight between the eyes.
She walks away.
And then the world blows apart.
‘Can’t a guy jerk off in peace around here?’ Gino yells, as another stone whistles past his left ear. Schutz has worked out how to skim them off a rough patch on the top of the boulder, and every one is closer than the last.
‘I am almost out of stones, pig-dog!’ shrieks Schutz. ‘I will soon be coming for you!’
‘It’s lucky for the human race that those aliens are all in your head!’
‘And what do you mean by that?’
‘I mean heaven help us all if _you’re_ the best we have.’
‘That is it!’ Schutz screams, out of control. ‘I am going to tear that crystal right out of your stinking flesh. And then I will force it down your throat, and I will use my bare hands!’
All thoughts of the sigil gone, Gino leaps to his feet, re-zipping his flies; he, too, has totally lost it.
‘Come and try it, then!’ he screams back. ‘If you think you’re hard enough! Come on! What are you waiting for!’ He grabs a handful of fallen stones and starts pelting them back at Schutz. Schutz wails and shields his face with one arm, then charges straight towards him, bellowing a tuneless Teutonic battle-cry. Gino keeps up his attack, stopping only when Schutz hits him; together, they roll across the sand in a flurry of struggling arms and legs.
‘I am going to _kill_ you!’ Gino yells, wrapping his hands around Schutz’s throat.
‘Give me my crystal back!’ gurgles Schutz.
Then suddenly, they hear a shout. Relaxing his grip on Schutz’s windpipe only slightly, Gino looks around.
The two boys in the mud have noticed them at last. And they are laughing.
Schutz growls deep in his throat and wrestles himself out of Gino’s grasp. ‘How dare you laugh at me!’ he shouts at the boy. ‘Do you know who I am?’
He looks around for a stone to fling, but one of the boys beats him to it – plucking a handful of mud from their play-pit, he lobs it into the air. Schutz has the presence of mind to duck, and Gino takes it right in the face. As he scoops the sopping mess from his eyes, he hears Schutz, too begin to laugh.
‘Oh, very funny,’ he grunts. ‘But not as funny as this.’ And he grabs the back of Schutz’s lederhosen and tosses him into the mud. To his surprise, Schutz carries on laughing. It is all rather ludicrous, Gino has to admit. He stoops and grabs another gobbet, then turns on the Schutz and the boys, a broad smile on his face.
‘OK,’ he says, challengingly. ‘Let’s see who’s _really_ hard enough.’
On a warm, sunny morning in the new millennium, Katrina pays a visit to a hospital in Sydney.
‘So how are we feeling today, Dr… Smith.’ She regards the chart at the end of Grace’s bed with a dubious frown. ‘When you need tips on how to go incognito, try asking me first, eh?’ She peers at Grace over the top of her new shades. The anthropologist is looking well for a woman of her age with two broken legs.
‘I brought you some grapes,’ she adds, dumping a half-empty bag on the bed.
‘Why, thank you,’ says Grace, touched. ‘And thank you for coming to see me, too. I thought you’d be out of the country by now, what with the police and the government and who knows who else on our trails.’
Katrina shrugs, and winces, then flexes her bruised shoulder. ‘I’ve been lying low for the last few days. Hangover, you know,’ she adds, tapping the side of her nose. ‘That was one hell of a party.’
‘I’ll second that,’ grunts Kris, shuffling through the doorway on crutches. ‘I particularly liked the party tricks – like when Uluru vanished into thin air.’
‘Yeah, too bad,’ says Katrina. ‘Whatever will the Aussies do without their number one tourist attraction?’
‘And the stampede that followed it was fun,’ Kris continues, lowering herself gingerly into the chair by Grace’s bed. ‘Fifty thousand people in panic… I think every single one of them ran over me at least twice.’
‘You’re looking well for it, though,’ says Katrina. ‘And you barely notice those crocodile bites. If you squint a bit and turn away.’
Kris glowers at her, but manages a smile. ‘I suppose I’ll have to thank you for dealing with Nakayama. His hold over those creatures stopped the moment he was killed.’
‘Well, one good turn deserves another, I suppose,’ Katrina says. ‘I might come calling one day.’ She glances at her flashy new watch, then picks up her collection of designer-label carrier bags. ‘But now I must dash – I’ve a flight to catch.’
As she moves towards the door, Grace calls after her. ‘How did you know the spear belonged to Yashimoto?’ she asks.
‘Oh, I just put two and two together – I’ve got brains as well as beauty, you know.’ Katrina grins. ‘And the message from Gino helped – though I’d rather not say how he sent it.’
Grace shudders. ‘What a typical cunning Ylid plan – giving us a spear that possesses its owner…’
‘Possessed?’ Katrina raises her eyebrows. ‘Who said I was possessed?’
And with that she is gone, flinging her Vuitton handbag over her shoulder. It rattles loudly as she sways her hips from side to side..
Repeating the receptionist’s directions to himself, Gino is about to mount the stairs in search of Grace’s room, when he realizes he is being watched. He glances across the lobby, and sees Long Jack Wunuwun by the newspaper stand inside the door. With a long, deep sigh, he goes over to speak to him.
‘So how’s the Dreaming?’ he asks, deciding he’ll get straight to the point. ‘Did we stop things in time to save it?’
Long Jack narrows his eyes. ‘I’m not sure you and your friends stopped anything – but, yes, I am hopeful. With help, the Dreaming may one day return to the timeless state it once enjoyed.’
‘And what about you?’ Gino asks.
He shrugs. ‘Well, you’re a… you’re an _Ylid_, aren’t you? One of the bad guys?’
Long Jack gives him a wink. ‘We all have our guilty secrets,’ he says. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask about yours. Isn’t that mud in your hair?’
In the telephone booth by the receptionist’s desk, Belle-Marie holds her breath as the phone rings again and again.
_’Hello?’ _ comes a distant reply, at last.
‘It’s Belle-Marie. Is Rhiannon awake? I’d love to hear her, if she is.’
Moments later, she hears a familiar gurgle.
‘Happy New Year, darling,’ she says.
A hospital in Osaka, Japan. The young registrar stands at the foot of the bed, running one hand through her hair. Next to her the consultant peers through the patient’s notes. ‘So, another myocardial infarction, then? Celebrating the Millennium too hard, was he?’
‘Yes, another MI, but… I don’t know, there’s something odd about this one. See here – the cardiogram. The muscular damage is in a different pattern to what we would expect. This band of damage seems almost to wind around the heart. And on the X-ray you’ll see it’s substantially darkened.’
‘And the patient otherwise in good health. Hmm. Was he brought in unconscious?’
‘Yes, he just collapsed on the street, apparently, half an hour before the Millennium party.’
‘Well, when he comes round, we can ask him what he experienced.’ he tosses the notes back down on the foot of the bed.
_If_ he comes round, thinks the registrar to herself. She is as hard-headed as her profession has made her, but the damage this man’s heart has sustained – it looks as though a coil of burning rope has been wrapped around it. It is amazing he has survived this long, and there really is not much more that can be done for him. ‘I don’t think we’ll be hearing any more from you, Mr Inoshiro Yashimoto,’ she says softly to herself, straightening the notes and moving on after her colleague.