The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
Boone frowns. ‘You want to go down now? In the middle of the night?’
‘Of course! There’s no time like the present.’
With a shrug, Boone bounds back down to the truck, and in a few minutes is back with an armful of ropes, buckles and climbing gear, which he proceeds to set up at the side of the hole.
‘You sure you won’t join us?’ he says to Kris as he works. ‘Whatever we find down there, it might explain a few things – like who put this face here. And why.’
Kris shakes her head. ‘I’ve never seen the attraction of potholing myself.’
‘Has anyone else been down here?’ asks Nakayama.
An odd, bitter expression Boone’s craggy face for a moment, then he nods. ‘These tunnels spread out for miles and there must be dozens more entrances – the abos use some of the caves for their ceremonies. But if you mean has anyone else seen the spacecraft, then I’m pretty sure the answer’s no. We’d have heard about it if they had, wouldn’t we?’
‘You’ve seen a spacecraft down that hole?’ Kris demands, astonished.
Boone looks confused as he buckles up his harness. ‘Of course I saw a spacecraft. That’s why I wrote to your magazine.’
‘Changing your mind about joining us?’ Nakayama grins at Kris as Boone starts to descend into the hole. ‘It’s not too late, you know.’
Kris takes another step backwards, in case Nakayama tries to push her in, then Boone disappears beneath the ground. She is acutely aware that She and Stuart are alone, unarmed and miles from anywhere, with only an agent of the Ylids for company.
The situation isn’t lost on Nakayama either. He follows Kris menacingly across the shelf of rock.
‘Alone together at last,’ he says.
‘Isn’t it traditional, at this point in the proceedings, for you to gloat about your plans and tell us just how clever you are?’ Kris says weakly. She glances over her shoulder back at Stuart and the truck, wondering what his car theft skills are like. If she can keep Nakayama talking, he might have time to get the engine started.
‘If you insist,’ Nakayama replies with a sigh. ‘But I really don’t have time to gloat. Suffice to say I’ve been hard at work for a very long time – and your people have only just noticed. The phrase ‘caught napping’ springs to mind. You really should learn to pay more attention to the ravings of madmen like Mr Boone. Though it may be too late for that, I suppose.’ He glances back down the hole. ‘He is almost correct, with his pretty patterns of circles and lines – though I prefer to imagine it as a watch I’ve been winding for months. A turn here, a turn there. Just one more turn and the spring is wound up. And what will happen when midnight strikes, I wonder?’
As he speaks, Kris remembers Boone’s map, and the red and black marks focused on Uluru. She wonders if she dare press Nakayama about it, but he has already changed the subject. And worringly, he is folding a piece of paper in his hands.
‘The ancient art of origami has always fascinated me,’ he says, almost conversationally. ‘There is something god-like about it, don’t you agree? The creation of form from a blank sheet of paper…’
He raises a flat yellow circle to his lips and blows gently, and in second or two it has swelled to a paper ball a couple of inches across. Then with a sudden violent motion, he throws it into the air. Kris ducks instinctively, but the orb sails high over her head and lands in the back of Boone’s truck. Stuart has barely a moment to leap aside before truck and orb explode in a deafening fountain of fire and sparks.
When Kris finally dares unclamp her hands from her ears, Nakayama is laughing at her.
‘I believe it is also traditional for me to now devise some ingenious method of killing you. But that will not be necessary, I think. You are quite capable of accomplishing that yourselves. And I would so hate you to miss the party.’
And with an incongruously polite nod, he starts to follow Boone down the hole.
‘You seem very sure of yourself,’ Kris yells after him, angrily. ‘But can you be sure your Ylid masters won’t turn on you one day? There must be something in this for you in this new world you’re creating.’
Nakayama smiles into the hole. ‘Oh, there is definitely something in it for me.’ Then the darkness swallows him up. ‘And don’t even dream about tampering with the rope,’ he calls.
Kris jumps back nervously, almost expecting another bomb. But nothing happens. She looks over the edge of the rock shelf at Stuart, who is climbing out from behind the nearest scrubby tree
‘Looks like we’ll have to walk back,’ he calls, inspecting the smoking remains of the truck. ‘At least we have plenty of moonlight. Though I’m not too sure of the way…’
Kris gazes across the vast expense of inky bush before her. It feels suddenly very cold, and the eerie animal howls are getting closer.
‘I wonder if things would have turned out differently,’ she mutters, ‘if I’d told Boone we’d come to deliver his water purification tablets?’
It is all Belle-Marie can think of to say, in the circumstances. She stares at the silent, empty space that Katrina and Grace occupied, a heartbeat ago, then glances nervously at Long Jack. If he really is an Ylid, as Katrina claimed, she might be in trouble – and she’s certainly in no position to threaten him. But Long Jack looks almost as surprised as Bell-Marie feels.
‘What happened?’ he asks, pushing his baseball cap to the back of his head.
‘I was hoping you might be able to tell me,’ Belle-Marie mutters. ‘One moment Grace was folding that origami thingy, next she and Katrina were gone. What happened to them? Where are they?’
Long Jack seems not to hear her questions; he starts scuffing his grubby trainers through the dust and muttering to himself. ‘…origami… could it be him?… impossible, surely… Where did she find that figure?’
Belle-Marie realizes he is talking to her. ‘Er, it was just lying around at the airstrip. Katrina thought someone was watching us – I suppose they might have dropped it.’
Long Jack stops pacing and regards her levelly. ‘If what I suspect is true, it is vital you rescue your companions – and not just for their sakes.’
‘Why? What are you talking about?’ Belle-Marie is getting annoyed; she’d expected Long Jack to be unforthcoming, but this deliberately obscure teasing is even worse. ‘Just tell me where they are and we’ll go find them’
‘That might not be so easy.’ Long Jack’s expression is grave. ‘If they are where I think they are.’
‘And where is that?’ Belle-Marie grits her teeth.
‘The place you call the Dreaming.’
Belle-Marie almost laughs, then remembers she’s witnessed stranger things. ‘But you’re a Karadji, right? That means you’re in tune with the place. You can just nip in and rescue them.’
Long Jack sighs. ‘I may be a Karadji, but the Dreaming is not made of the same stuff as this world. I cannot enter it.’
‘But – ’
It is impossible.’
As Belle-Marie looks into Long Jack’s ancient eyes, she believes him. But this doesn’t calm her down. ‘You asked us to help you! – though you haven’t had the grace to tell us how, or why we should – and this is how you repay us?’
Long Jack lowers his voice. ‘Certain forces known to both of us are seeking a confrontation that I must avoid at all costs.’
‘So we do the confronting for you? Well, thanks for the offer, Mr Wunuwun, but I think we’ll just have to turn you down and try to get by on our own.’ “We” being an exaggeration, of course, now Belle-Marie seems to be the only party member left. But the apparent hopelessness of the situation only fuels her fury as she turns her back on Long Jack and stamps away towards town.
‘I’d speak to that friend of yours first,’ a voice calls after her out of the darkness.
‘I’ll do just that!’ Belle-Marie yells back, without stopping. ‘If he ever shows his face again!’
‘Last time I saw him,’ Long Jack replies, his voice getting fainter, ‘ He was teaching the kids to play soccer. Although I didn’t mean that friend. I meant the one who saved your life…’
Katrina stands very still. Only the hand that holds the gun moves, and that is trembling slightly. She stares down at her knuckles. They turned white some time ago, but rather than approaching transparency now as she’d feared, they are regaining some solidity – as is the rest of the world. It is as though she’d walked from sunlight into a dimly lit room and her eyes are slowly adjusting to the change. Just as slowly, she starts to count to a thousand.
‘This is quite fascinating.’ A reassuringly three-dimensional Grace peers out across the endless stretch of sand and scrub before them. It was dark when they left, Katrina seems to remember, but the sun is right overhead now. She wipes her perspiring brow as Grace continues: ‘I’ve no evidence for this, of course, but I wonder if we have ended up in the aboriginal Dreaming.’
Katrina grimaces. ‘That’s the last time I have cheese sarnies for supper. No hard feelings about that origami business, Grace – but I hope you’ve got some idea when we’ll wake up.’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Grace replies. ‘But it might help if we take a look around for anything that look likes the symbols we saw on the blanket map.’
‘Good idea – I think. I’ve got a map, too – the copy of the ceremonial shield I took from Bridgit McMahon’s bag.’ It is still there, Katrina is pleased to see. She spreads it out for Grace to examine.
‘Ah yes, I remember…’ Grace murmurs as she studies the map. ‘The story of the Walpiri Women. The goanna burrow, the dunes, the fire…’
Katrian shields her eyes against the sun and squints into the desert. ‘Ermm, this might be just a coincidence, or suspiciously good luck – but isn’t that a burrow over there?’
Grace plucks the map out of her hands and strides through the scrub towards it. With some trepidation, Katrina follows. As they get closer, two hazy human forms appear.
‘You’re right – look! It’s them!’ Grace exclaims. ‘They’re hunting the goanna, just as they did in the story.’
‘And they’re carrying it back in their bowl, too.’
Just a few yards further on, identical shady figures are climbing slowly up a sand dune.
‘And there’s their camp,’ says Grace. ‘Every stage of the story is represented here – somehow. Hello there!’ she calls. ‘How are you?’
The shadowy forms don’t react to her shout, but Grace is undaunted. Before Katrina can protest, she is hurrying towards the fire, gibbering loudly in a language Katrina doesn’t recognize. With a groan, she follows again – Grace is the cerebral one, after all, and Katrina feels it her duty to look out for her, however crazy her actions might be.
Grace is disappointed by the Walpiri Women’s reaction to her ancient Ylid greeting. Whether it lost something in translation, she doesn’t know, but as she speaks the women shriek as one, then charge headlong into the desert, fleeing as if for their lives.
‘Wait!’ she shouts after them, in Ylid. ‘‘I don’t mean you any harm!’
But the women are already out of earshot. Grace stares glumly at their footprints in the sand.
‘Was it something you said?’ Karina grins, coming alongside her. ‘At least we’ve got nothing to fear here, if everyone’s as nervous as that… Ah – look! A nik-nak at last! I’ve been looking for one for ages…’
She drops to the ground excitedly, and digs out a bleached bone spear-thrower that was lying half-buried in the sand – left by the Walpiri Women, she assumes.
‘This will look lovely on the bedroom wall back in my London pad,’ she muses. ‘Or in the bathroom perhaps…’
‘We can discuss interior design later,’ Grace says grimly. ‘Right now, we have company.’
Katrina jumps back to her feet. Heading across the endless plain towards them is a short, chubby, sweaty figure dressed in lederhosen.
‘I thought I heard voice,’ it hails them. ‘Greetings – are you human?’
Several hours’ trekking over rough ground is more punishment than Kris’s knee has taken for years, and with the cold and the darkness and the bad memories every jarring step brings back, it is only her pride that stops her collapsing, unable to go any further.
Surprisingly, it is Stuart who saves her.
‘You’re limply rather badly,’ he says, looking concerned. ‘If you like, you could wait here while I go on ahead. It isn’t long before dawn and we can’t be far from the road. Someone might drive by and I can get help.’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt,’ Kris grunts with as much bad grace as she can muster. She tries not to show her relief as she drops onto the ground. ‘But try not to get into trouble, eh?
‘Me get into trouble?’ Stuart grins.
It really is quite touching, Kris thinks, as he gives her a wave and heads into the night. But not for long – no sooner has the top of his head disappeared over the summit of the next ridge of boulders, than a startled squeak and a howl break the silence.
‘Idiot!’ Kris growls. Painfully, she struggles upright and clambers over the boulders. Stuart is slumped in a heap on the other side, clutching his left leg in anguish.
‘Something bit me!’ he wails. ‘I felt it on my ankle, then – ughh!’
With some distaste, Kris gets to her knees to inspect the damage. It is hard to tell in the dark, but Stuart’s ankle is definitely bleeding. She looks around for some sign of the culprit, but can see none.
‘I feel kind of dizzy,’ Stuart moans. ‘You have to suck out the poison – hurry!’
Kris grimaces. ‘I seem to remember reading somewhere that you shouldn’t do that,’ she says. ‘And we don’t know it was poisonous, anyway. It could’ve been, uh… a wallaby or something.’
‘A wallaby!’ Stuart yells. ‘It had more than two legs! I could feel every one of them, every little scratchy foot, creeping over my skin – ’
‘All right, all right – calm down,’ Kris mutters. ‘You stay here and I’ll go down to the road.’
‘No wait!’ Stuart gasps. ‘I can see headlights!’
For a moment, Kris thinks he’s hallucinating – maybe he really is poisoned. But then she sees the headlights herself, coming straight off the road towards them. She leaps up and waves her arms.
The vehicle is yet another truck – a ubiquitous form of transport in these parts, Kris has realized. This one contains a small, spotty youth dressed in leather chaps and a rodeo shirt that seem several sizes too large for him.
‘Can you help us?’ Kris calls. ‘My friend has been injured.’
With an ungracious scowl, the youth jumps down from the truck and stamps towards them. ‘Bloody tourists!’ he growls, not entirely under his breath. ‘What the hell are you people doing out here at this time of night?’
‘We were hiking,’ Kris replies, trying hard to remain polite. But the youth’s scowl only deepens.
‘Hiking! This is the outback, lady, not Disneyland. You could’ve got yourselves killed.’
‘I think I have!’ moans Stuart. ‘I’ve been bitten by something hideous. My leg feels like it’s on fire.’
The youth raises his eyes to the heavens, then stoops to examine Stuart’s leg. The look on his face resembles that of the all-night plumber Kris called out the last time her boiler blew.
‘Funnel-web spider,’ he says at last, clicking his tongue loudly.
‘Is that serious?’ Stuart gasps.
The youth straightens and turns to Kris. ‘Looks like I’m gonna have to break my journey and take you two tourists into town. We’re real hospitable round here, you know.’
‘Hmm,’ Kris says. She’s not convinced about the youth’s diagnosis, but the offer of a lift is a godsend. ‘I’ll help you get Stuart into the truck,’ she says.
‘No – I’ll do that,’ says the youth, but Kris has already spotted the tins of black and yellow paint amid a pile of ropes in the back.
‘That’s funny,’ she says. ‘This paint is exactly the same shade of red herring as the face we saw on a rock back there. Was that meant to wind up the tourists as well? If it was, it doesn’t work.’
The youth looks embarrassed and clears his throat, then pulls a tarpaulin over the paint. ‘We better get moving,’ he grunts. ‘You want that ride or not?’
Belle-Marie tries to snatch a couple of hours rest, but can’t sleep – it is barely past dawn when she rises and goes down to the bar to use the phone. To her amazement, Bob and the barman are there – by their bleary eyes and rambling conversation, she guesses they’ve been up all night. The rest of the revellers seem to have found their way home, though; the street outside is littered with empty lager cans and fallen wreaths of bunting.
‘Think I’ve had too much to drink, mate,’ slurs Bob. ‘I jus’ seen mad ol’ Boone’s wife runnin’ down the road like a ghost, all in white. Must be all o’ ten years since she left him…’
‘If you’ve seen Bridgit Boone, mate, you’ll be needing another drink!’ The barman burps and cracks open another bottle.
Belle-Marie sidles past, trying not to attract attention – Kris and Stuart are still missing with Bob’s truck, and she doesn’t want to get involved in awkward explanations. To her relief, though, the drinkers don’t notice her.
Gino is also out and about early. When the young members of his budding team had finally drifted away to bed last night, he had flitted around on the fringes of the corroboree until that too broke up. The last couple of hours he has spent pacing around the golf course, wondering where the next settlement is; he’d like to speak to a tribal elder other than Long Jack Wunuwun – though he still hasn’t challenged him about that business on the plane.
Finally, not long after dawn, he turns towards the hospital.
Another ward, another nurse, another subject for his charm. She looks genuinely sorry when she explains that Bridgit McMahon is asleep. ‘We’re not used to visitors so early,’ she simpers.
‘That’s OK. I’ll wait awhile.’ Returning the nurse’s smile, Gino flexes his weird hand – it has stiffened up during the night.
‘Is there a problem?’ the nurse asks quickly.
‘Er, yeah,’ Gino replies, cautiously. ‘We had a pretty heavy goalkeeping training session last night.’
The nurse nods, as if she knows what he is talking about. ‘We could take an X-ray, if you like. You might have chipped a bone.’
It is one of the stranger chat-up lines that Gino has encountered, but he is tempted to go along with the nurse’s suggestion. If it could shed a little light on what’s going on with his hand, it might be worth it.
‘And that is my story,’ Erich F Schutz concludes, with a flourish. ‘Betrayed, mocked, humiliated – then taken up to the stars by them! I am surprised to find you here, though,’ he adds, rather sniffily. ‘I thought I was the only one.’
‘This certainly is a very impressive, er… mothership.’ Grace peers into the haze. Though she and Katrina seem to have been there for ages, the sun hasn’t moved in the cloudless sky. ‘If you didn’t know, you’d never guess.’
Schutz grins happily. ‘This alien technology is more advanced than we can imagine – we are but gnats and ants to them!’
‘Let’s hope they don’t get the bug gun out,’ says Katrina.
But Grace nods, still humouring him. ‘How long have you been on board?’ she asks.
‘I have no idea.’ Schutz raises his hands. ‘Seconds, perhaps – or centuries. Time as we measure it means little to age-old beings such as these.’
‘Have you found any way out while you’ve been here?’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ Katrina interrupts. ‘We’re on a mothership, Grace. It’s not like we can open a door and walk back home, you know?’
‘Your most attractive young assistant is right,’ Schutz says, with an appreciative grin at Katrina. ‘But why would I want to leave? Since I was very small, just a little boy in the mountains, I have known that a great destiny awaited me. And now that destiny is here. I, Erich F Schutz, have been chosen – of all men on Earth – to be the first conduit between humanity and them!’
Grace’s eyes widen slightly. ‘Have you made any contact with the crew?’ she asks, nodding over her shoulder at the Walpiri Women. They are back beside their campfire as if nothing had happened earlier.
Schutz laughs condescendingly. ‘Surely you do not believe…? Oh no, my dear new lieutenants! These creatures are not them. They are merely holographic recordings – yet another technological advance. This entire ship is a vast repository of human and alien history. I have learned much since they brought me here.’
Grace must have looked dubious, because he adds: ‘If they were living, madam, they would react when I speak to them.
‘So what have you learned?’ Katrina asks.
‘Much that confirms my own speculations, I’m pleased to say. Although not surprised, of course. Come along – I will show you!’
Katrina and Grace exchange glances, but follow him anyway; there doesn’t seem much else to do.
‘One can find anything here, if one knows where to look.’
As the SITU agents gaze out across the desert, they can almost see what Schutz means. If they concentrate long enough on any particular area, shadowy figures emerge from the haze; moving across the landscape like the Walipiri Women, in unreadable ways. Then Schutz stops and points.
‘They came to Earth to escape the total destruction of their home world. You can see it over there – a fertile planet obliterated, swallowed in the darkness of space!’
Grace and Kris follow his gaze, and as one, they gasp. The scene is impossibly distant, but so close they could reach out and touch it. It is like watching events from the far side of a misty valley.
‘Here come the lifepods,’ Schutz continues. ‘One for each individual, like a shower of shooting stars. Some bound for the safe haven of Earth, others for distant worlds. One comes to land in the place we humans will one day call Australia…’
Grace stares, entranced, at the crumpled, silvery spacecraft in the sand. ‘And what happens next?’ she breathes.
‘That is what I intend to find out – and then, to fulfil my destiny!’
And with a whoop of joy, Schutz strides towards the vision.
Katrina turns to Grace. ‘What do you make of that?’ she asks. ‘I’m not blessed with Erich’s divine insight, of course, but that fertile planet looks more like an island to me, and the darkness of space must be the sea.’
Grace nods in agreement.
‘Do you think we should take a closer look?’
It is early morning, and the vast empty sky has filled with a sickly grey light, but the truck is still bouncing along the road. Despite herself, Kris is becoming concerned about Stuart’s condition; he seems to be getting weaker by the minute and his breathing is steadily shallower.
‘Can’t you go any faster?’ she snaps at the youth.
‘You wanna get out and walk?’ he snaps back.
‘Watch out!’ shouts Stuart, frantically. ‘You nearly hit Katrina and Grace!’
‘He’s getting delirious,’ Kris warns.
The youth half-turns in his seat and wags a finger at her. ‘Now just you listen, lady – I’ve had about as much as I – shit!’
Then he yells incoherently, as a trail of pits like giant footprints appear from nowhere across the road. He swerves to avoid them then slams on the brakes, but too late. A gaping gorge opens dead ahead and the truck ploughs straight into it.
Kris buries her head in her arms. All she can hear is screaming metal; her nose fills with the stench of burning. She hears herself shout Charlie’s name…
Then she raises her head and opens her eyes. She was thrown out of the truck as it crashed, she realizes; she is lying in the road, with the truck five or six feet below her, on its side in the gorge. She can see the youth and Stuart, but neither are moving much. Trembling uncontrollably, struggling on her aching knee, she drags herself to her feet.
Belle-Marie doesn’t know whether to be angry or relieved when she finds Gino at the hospital.
‘Where have you been?’ she demands. ‘We’re in all sorts of trouble – ‘
The nurse at the desk clears her throat. ‘May I help you?’
‘I’d like to see Bridgit McMahon.’
‘Another one?’ The nurse looks at her disapprovingly. ‘I’ll go see if she’s awake.’
With the nurse out of the room, Belle-Marie turns back to Gino. ‘While you’ve been playing football,’ she hisses, ‘this party has fallen apart.’ Quickly, she explains about Kris and Stuart’s non-return from John Boone’s homestead, and Grace and Katrina’s mysterious disappearance.
‘That’s a shame,’ says Gino. ‘I wanted a word with that ungrateful sheila, Katrina – ‘
Belle-Marie ignores him. ‘I’ve left a message with Geoff Blaize to get in touch with an agent called Maddy Hook – she’s a bit strange, according to my husband, but she knows her stuff when it comes to magic. And Bridgit may be able to help. She had a map of the Dreaming, and I’m sure she knows more than she’s letting on. And any suggestions from you would be helpful, too. Is that yours?’ she adds, noticing the radiograph on the nurse’s desk.
‘Yeah. Take a look,’ Gino says, and holds it up to the light.
Belle-Marie can recognize a hand when she sees it, though what the dark patch in the centre might be, she has no idea.
‘What is it?’ she starts to ask, but the nurse’s return interrupts her.
‘She must have climbed out of the window,’ she cries. ‘Your friend Miss McMahon is gone!’
8:00 am, Wednesday 27 December 2000
Belle-Marie and Gino: the hospital in Madeleine
Kris and Stuart: somewhere on the road to Madeleine
Grace and Katrina: the Dreaming