The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
There is a moment of stunned confusion in which only the scraggy dogs react; as if in response to some ancient enmity, they drop as one to a crouch, snapping and snarling at the shimmering form of the snake. Then Katrina rips out her dagger.
‘Time to be heroic for zero profit margin,’ she mutters, and without another thought dives straight at the snake’s dripping fangs, planning to drive the blade through the bottom of its jaw.
She doesn’t make it, though – and this time not because the dagger has taken on a life of its own. Instead, she is suddenly grabbed from behind and flung roughly onto the ground. Moments later Gino – for it he who manhandled her – joins her flat on his face, flinging his arms over his head – after first brandishing his right hand at the snake. It seems to react to this; a light of recognition flickers briefly in its flat, black eyes. Then it turns a somersault in the air, and with a fearsome hiss, launches itself at the crowd of children huddling, terrified, by the waterhole. Shrieking and sobbing, they scatter in all directions.
Instinctively, Belle-Marie chases after them, hoping to shepherd them to safety among the knots of spindly trees. She is vaguely aware of the young man standing his ground at the gila behind her, then he screams and the spade spins into the air as a sizzling bolt of fire hits him. She feels flames lick the backs of her own heels, then she, too, is pushed aside, and Bridgit McMahon crumples in the place where she’d been a moment ago.
From the side of the waterhole, Long Jack Wunuwun lets loose a terrible cry. Grace hasn’t heard the language before, but she assumes it’s the start of some occult snake-dispelling chant, and is ready to join in – as loudly as possible. But Long Jack says no more, and the snake, though it hesitates for a heartbeat, isn’t daunted; its scaly body swells, as if it is readying another blast. With Gino and Katrina still cowering and Belle-Marie saving the civilians, it seems up to Grace to save the day. She grabs the fallen spade and starts filling in the gila.
At last, the snake seems to weaken. Almost as an afterthought, Long Jack starts to help Grace, flinging handfuls of dusty earth in the hole. The snake lashes around helplessly, tongues of flame licking the trees and the dry, brittle grass; to Grace’s horror, one spark catches the edge of the blanket. Forgetting her priorities, she drops the spade and grabs at it, but the flames make short work of the fabric –blanket, symbols and snake disappear, almost in the same puff of smoke.
Gasping for breath, Katrina drags herself out of the dust and glares furiously at Gino. ‘You useless bastard!’ she yells, but the slap she aims it him has all the force of a limp sheet of tissue paper. She sighs, resignedly, and flops back down on a non-singed patch of grass. ‘Watering hole. Big snake,’ she murmurs. ‘This is just like that hallucination I had back in the eighties.’ She groans and reaches into her handbag. ‘Anyone fancy a herbal ciggie?’
From the veranda of John Boone’s homestead, Stuart watches the truck approach, ruefully wishing they’d parked their own vehicle somewhere out of sight – they could have tried to hide among the stilts beneath the house.
‘Any more good ideas?’ he whispers to Kris.
She puts down the map and shuffles hurriedly back towards the door, hoping it won’t look too obvious to Boone that they’ve been spying on him.
‘Who the hell are you?’ yells a voice from the truck. It jerks to a halt some way beyond the towering stack of old tyres, and a man who has to be Boone leaps out. He is suntanned and bare-chested, and wearing a faded floral waistcoat, football shorts and sandals. ‘And what are you doing trespassing on my property? Thieving? Or spying?’
He reaches into the truck and produces a shotgun, and Kris shouts the first thing that comes into her head.
‘We’re from Crab magazine – from England. We’ve come to talk to you… about… your next article.’
She regrets it immediately; Boone’s weathered face turns nasty.
‘Well, that’s what I call strange,’ he snarls. ‘Because if you’re from Crab magazine, why didn’t you travel down here with your friend?’
As he speaks, a slight and smartly dressed Japanese man climbs gracefully out of the passenger seat; though Stuart only glimpsed him briefly before, he is sure it is the man Belle-Marie pointed out to him in the club near the Bondi Hotel.
‘I don’t think that was a good idea,’ he mutters to Kris, then adds, loudly: ‘When she said we’re from Crab magazine, she didn’t actually mean – ‘
But Nakayama just raises a hand in greeting, and his smile is only slightly condescending. ‘Calm down, Mr Boone,’ he says. ‘A little paranoia is a healthy thing, I know, but you can take it too far. My two colleagues arrived on an earlier flight. I’d hoped to meet them in town, but it seems they found their own way out here. I trust you had a good trip, _colleagues_?’
Kris and Stuart exchange glances.
‘Er, yes,’ says Stuart. It seems the most prudent reply, faced with a shotgun-wielding madman and a suspected Ylid agent – albeit a seemingly friendly one.
Kris, too, is determined to make the best of the situation. ‘While we were waiting,’ she ventures, conversationally, ‘I couldn’t help notice your map, Mr Boone.’ She points down at the table. ‘Can you tell me more about the incidents you’ve marked on it?’
‘Not out here!’ Boone bounds up the steps so fast, the veranda creaks beneath him. He snatches the crumpled map out of Kris’s unresisting hands. ‘They might be listening!’
‘You must excuse my colleagues.’ Nakayama joins them at a more relaxed pace, his silky tones again diffusing an awkward situation. ‘They are only beginners – though they do learn quickly.’ He flashes Kris and Stuart a menacing glare. ‘I see you’re aware of recent events in Sydney,’ he adds, tapping a long, pointed fingernail at the black blob over New South Wales.
‘There’s something closing in on us, like a giant spider’s web.’ Boone drops his voice to a whisper and glances nervously up at the sky. ‘It was that business with Schutz that convinced me.’
A shadow seems to pass over his face as he says this, and Kris wonders if it has anything to with the involvement of the woman she suspects to be his estranged wife. But before she can think of a tactful way of broaching the subject, Stuart has interrupted.
‘Have the police found him yet?’ he asks.
‘He won’t be found,’ growls Boone. ‘You should know that. He’ll be up there – ‘ He points at the sky. ‘ – with _them_.’
‘Mr Walters knows all about _them_.’ Nakayama laughs darkly. ‘He had the best seat in the house.’
‘Who are _them_?’ Kris demands.
But Nakayama suddenly seems to tire of this banter. ‘Shall we be going, Mr Boone? I’m keen to see this new apparition.’
Boone eyes him dubiously. ‘It’ll be dark soon.’
‘All the more reason to stop wasting time in chatter.’ Nakayama ushers him firmly down the steps. ‘And my colleagues as anxious to see it as I. Aren’t you, colleagues?’
He bares his teeth in a brilliant grimace half way between a smile and a snarl.
Stuart smiles weakly back. ‘Er, yes,’ he replies.
It is some time since the skirmish at the gila, and Grace, Belle-Marie and Katrina are back at the now empty bar in town, trying to gather their thoughts. The sounds of music and merriment on the main street outside are a stark contrast to their mood.
‘Can we be sure it wasn’t Long Jack who summoned the snake?’ Belle-Marie has just been on the phone to Daniel, and is heartily wishing she was with him and Rhiannon.
Katrina nods in agreement. ‘It tried to blast everyone in sight, but him – funny that, eh? And he wasn’t in a hurry to stop it.’
‘He helped me fill in the hole,’ Grace protests. ‘And he did shout something at it.’
Belle-Marie sighs. ‘I suppose he did look shocked when it turned on the children.’
‘So something went wrong with the summoning. It just means he’s as incompetent as he’s dangerous.’ Katrina knocks back another shot of whisky. She looks worryingly on edge.
‘But what did he summon it for?’ Grace persists.
‘It was meant for us, obviously.’
‘But it turned away from you and Gino…’ Grace frowns. ‘Where is he, by the way?’
Katrina shrugs. ‘I don’t know. Gone walkabout again. This aborigine stuff seems to have gone straight to his head. Pushing me over like that – what the hell was he thinking of? Waiting for the snake to get so close he could see what it had for lunch? He’s never been interested in zoology before…’ She takes another long drink.
‘When you think about it,’ Belle-Marie muses, ‘it could have done a lot more damage, if it had tried harder. It was more like it was there to – ‘
‘Scare us?’ Katrina slams down her glass on the bar. ‘No one pulls that kind of trick on me. I’m going to get some answers. Starting with that Bridgit chick…’
Her barstool squeals across the boards as she pushes it away, and strides angrily out of the bar. The door swings wildly behind her.
Grace watches her go with a worried sigh; she can imagine what Stuart’s reaction would be – if he was here. It is almost dark, and there is still no sign of Stuart and Kris.
‘I’ll see about arranging some accommodation for tonight,’ she says to Belle-Marie. ‘Though we seem to be running out of party members! Then I’ll try to set up a meeting with Long Jack, to discuss what’s happened.’
‘I’ll go with Katrina,’ Belle-Marie says. ‘She may know more than she’s letting on, but I do want to thank her for saving me from the snake.’
The ‘hospital’ is a couple of rooms and a surgery on the outskirts of town, staffed by a solitary nurse when Katrina and Belle-Marie arrive. Her manner is rather less than polite, and she looks up angrily as the agents approach her desk.
‘She’s in there,’ she grunts, jerking her thumb at a closed door behind her. ‘She’s pretty badly burned, but she got off lucky, you know. Bushfires can take hold in minutes.’
Katrina nods sagely. ‘I guess they spread like… wildfire.’
The nurse scowls. ‘I suppose you think you’re clever, don’t you? Breezing in like you own the place, littering, starting fires, causing trouble. I’ve seen what tourists like you have done to other towns. But Madeleine is different. It won’t happen here.’
‘You may be right,’ says Katrina. ‘Madeleine _is_ different. The other towns have something worth seeing.’
The nurse’s face darkens as Katrina heads for the door. Belle-Marie starts to apologize, but Katrina interrupts her with a very loud whisper: ‘Don’t worry about her, Belle-Marie – she’s only jealous.’
She tosses back her long black hair and swings her hips as she goes in the room. Self-consciously adjusting her miniskirt, Belle-Marie hurries after her. It might be time for a change of clothes, she thinks.
Inside the room, Bridgit McMahon lies bandaged and unconscious.
‘Pity she’s out of it,’ growls Katrina in frustration. ‘All these tubes and drips and things… So many opportunities for non-gentle persuasion. But maybe I can wake her up somehow…’
Belle-Marie is horrified. ‘You can’t do that!’
Katrina purses her lips. ‘You’re right, of course – we might attract attention. But there’s nothing to stop us taking a look around.’
She reaches towards the chair by the bed, where Bridgit’s flightbag is sitting unattended. In seconds, she has it open.
‘Now what have we here…’ she says.
‘It’s such a shame that blanket got burned.’ In the flickering light of Long Jack’s campfire, Grace inspects the blackened shreds of fabric that litter the ground. ‘I’m an anthropologist by trade, and ancient scripts are my specialty. I’d have loved to take a closer look.’
Long Jack throws another charred stick on the fire. ‘It was only a blanket,’ he says. ‘There are plenty more where it came from.’
‘Really?’ Grace brightens. ‘I’d like to see one, if I may. Do they all use the same script? Is it a local language?’
‘That wasn’t a local language, as I’m sure you already know.’
There is a rustle in the grass, and Long Jack turns to listen to it; for a moment, the flames throw writhing shadows across his aged face. Grace peers into the darkness, but can see nothing. She shudders. The site of the filled-in gila isn’t the first place she would have chosen for her meeting with Long Jack, but the old man had insisted. It isn’t that far out of town, she thinks, trying to reassure herself – she can see the glare of floodlights, and every gust of wind carries snatches of music, applause and laughter. It is the night of the rodeo, though it seems like another world.
‘Do I?’ she says, at last. ‘I’m afraid I’m not an expert on this region. What did the symbols on the blanket say?’
‘They were the story of the Rainbow Snake, Kunukban.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard of him. He travelled around the country on some sort of ancestral voyage.’
Long Jack nods slowly, and the fire lights his eyes. ‘He came across the sea from a land far away in the West, escaping strife and catastrophe. His actions when he reached this land left many marks on the landscape. Although –’ He suddenly stops and chuckles. ‘No doubt an anthropologist would say that’s metaphorical – for “marks in the land”, read “effects on the human psyche”. Though the two are largely one and the same to the Yura.’
Grace frowns, unsure what to make of Long Jack’s speech. Sometimes, he seems to speak as if the aborigines are not his people.
‘I know the land is very important to you,’ she says. ‘I’ve heard there’s a native title claim under way here at the moment. Is that site particularly hallowed?’
‘It is the final resting place of Kunukban.’
‘Here? According to the stories I’ve read, Kunukban finished his flight at Ayers Rock – Uluru.’
‘The stories of the Yura are not tales as you would understand, Dr Ikanga. They have no simple beginnings, middles and ends. And no tribe knows the whole story.’ He takes off his baseball cap and runs a hand through his wispy grey hair. ‘Travel a few dozen miles to the north, and you’ll hear how Kunukban’s people fought with a tribe of men made of clay without souls; the sweat they shed filled a great lake that can still be seen today. But tribes to the west tell of the time that Kunukban slept for a thousand years; as he dreamed, he lashed his tail, and the earth it pushed up made a range of hills.’ He stands stiffly and stretches his back. ‘In _this_ land, the people know that Kunukban only rested at Uluru. Then he took flight again, and came here to hide. But this time he left no mark, so he couldn’t be found again.’
Grace is intrigued. ‘But who would want to look for him?’ she asks. ‘And what would a giant snake god have to fear?’
‘I don’t know about the snake,’ growls an angry voice in the darkness, ‘but you’ll be afraid of me – if you know what’s good for you.’
Grace turns with a gasp, half rising to her feet. Katrina is behind her, with Belle-Marie in tow.
‘What are you talking about?’ she starts to ask. But before the words are out, Katrina is holding a gun – the one she obtained at the nightclub in Sydney.
‘You’ve got a lot of explaining to do,’ Katrina snarls at the stunned Long Jack. ‘And pistol whipping’s optional.’
‘Stop that at once!’ Grace is furious; unusually, she raises her voice. ‘Have you gone mad, Katrina? We’re trying to talk here.’
Katrina laughs coldly. ‘Protecting your new friend, eh? You’ll change you mind when you see this.’
And with studied contempt, she flings a handful of photographs on the ground at Grace’s feet. Grace stoops to pick them up. All bear an Aboriginal Research and Resource Centre stamp on the back, and identification labels of widely varying age and legibility. The most recent date from the 1990s, the oldest from the 1870s.
‘We found them in Bridgit’s bag,’ says Belle-Marie, nervously.
In every photograph, sitting in standard anthropological pose, is Long Jack Wunuwun, exactly as he appears today. Though without the baseball cap.
‘You’re looking good for your age, Mr Wunuwun,’ says Katrina. ‘Or whoever you are. Or _whatever_.’
Grace shuffles the pictures, astonished. There is a crumpled and creased sheet of paper stuck between them – the one Katrina picked up at the airstrip, she thinks absently, as she pulls it out of the pack and starts to fold it this way and that.
‘I don’t think waving that gun around will help anyone, Katrina. Why don’t you put it away and let us discuss this like adults?’
‘I’m not doing a thing until he tells us what’s happening here!’ Katrina is clearly about to snap. ‘If you don’t like what you see, you can leave. But if you stay, stop fiddling with that bloody sheet of paper!’
Grace looks down at her hands. Unconsciously, she’s been following the creases. What is it? she wonders. An origami wombat?
Katrina reaches out as if to grab it, opens her mouth to speak. But Grace hears no more. As the final fold of the paper slips into place, the world turns suddenly black.
‘Where have they gone?’ gasps Belle-Marie.
Where Grace and Katrina stood a fraction of a second ago, a pile of old photographs flutters through the air to the ground.
Kris and Stuart have no idea where they are when they reach their destination; the sun set long ago, and they’ve been bouncing around in the back of Boone’s pickup truck for what seems like ages. At Kris’s instigation, Boone has kept them entertained with accounts of all the bizarre events he’s been collating, but most sound rather dubious to Kris – more like tabloid fare than serious supernatural occurrences. Nakayama sits quietly throughout, less interested in Boone’s tales than in making small paper animals; the dashboard of the truck looks like a menagerie when they come to a halt.
‘This is the place,’ declares Boone.
The engine cuts out and they are plunged into silent blackness. Then, far away, rather larger and wilder beasts start to call. Unconcerned, Boone grabs a torch and strikes out into the night, heading towards a steep rocky slope a few yards ahead. Stuart’s eyes widen slightly, and Kris realizes what he’s seen – Boone has left the keys in the ignition. But even as the thought enters her head, Nakayama pulls it out.
‘One can never be too careful,’ he says, smoothly. ‘Mr Boone believes some occult agency placed this face on his land, though I believe it was more likely scrawled by local hoodlums.’
‘Then why are we so interested in it?’ Kris demands.
Nakayama smiles enigmatically. ‘Come and see for yourselves.’
And with that he follows Boone, climbing nimbly up the slope. He doesn’t look back at the truck.
‘Now’s our chance to escape,’ hisses Stuart.
‘Where to?’ Kris peers into the darkness. The animal calls are louder now. ‘It won’t be long before they notice we’re missing, and how far will we get on foot?’ To Stuart’s astonishment, she climbs out of the truck and starts to climb the slope herself. ‘And we _did_ want to see the face.’
The painting on the shelf of rock is rather too big to make sense of, particularly in the dark; it was clearly designed to be seen from above. The black, white and ochre lines glisten mysteriously in the beam of Boone’s torch, but Kris can’t help feeling that Nakayama is right – the face surely owes more to Dulux than any spiritual force.
But Boone, at least, seems excited. Standing next to Nakayama, they make an odd pair – one anxious, crumpled and weathered, the other as smooth as a blank sheet of paper.
‘Here it is,’ Boone whispers.
They both lean over and stare at the ground. As Kris hurries across the shelf to see what they’re looking at, Boone shines his torch straight down. The beam fills a hole in the rock; in the centre of what must be the right eye of the face, Kris assumes. It seems to go on forever at first, then, as Boone’s hand shakes, she glimpses a glint of metal below.
Nakayama grins at her. ‘Do we have a volunteer?’
When Grace opens her eyes, Katrina is there – but Long Jack, Belle-Marie and the rest of the world have gone.
‘When I was a kid,’ Katrina whispers, weakly. ‘I saw the film of Watership Down. Have you seen it?’
‘No, I, er… I don’t believe I have.’
‘At the end of the film,’ Katrina persists, ‘when the hero rabbit pegs it, a spirit bunny takes him up to a place that looks… that looks just like this.’
‘You mean we’ve died and gone to rabbit heaven?’ More likely gone mad, Grace thinks.
Katrina shrugs, bemused. ‘I don’t know about heaven, but we’re not in Madeleine anymore.’
10:30 pm, Tuesday 26 December 2000
Belle-Marie: a waterhole near Madeleine
Kris and Stuart: somewhere on John Boone’s land
Grace and Katrina: ?