The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Last Flight of Kunukban
Chapter 9

 ‘Well, here we are.’ Kris suddenly comes to a halt and peers over Belle-Marie’s shoulder at the map, a dubious look on her face. ‘And what are we supposed to do now, exactly?’

Belle-Marie frowns. ‘Erm… I’m not quite sure…’

‘And there was me thinking Bridgit had explained everything.’ Spending hours out in the bush without food or water is beginning to take its toll on Kris – as is the growing pain in her knee, and the fact that she’s now having to half-carry an increasingly insensible Stuart. She lets him slip to the dusty ground, readying herself for a proper tirade, but Belle-Marie ignores her and goes to study the wind-blasted ridge of rocks. There are several shady clefts to be seen, but nothing that looks immediately like a gateway to the Dreaming.

‘We could try Maddy Hook’s idea,’ Belle-Marie ventures. ‘She suggested we perform a ritual using something belonging to Grace or Katrina – a personal item, or a strand from a hairbrush maybe. Although the last thing I want to do is summon something else from the Dreaming,’ she adds nervously.

‘Like a large snake, for example?’ says Gino.

Belle-Marie shudders. ‘Getting Grace and Katrina out has to be our priority, though – before they do any damage. I just hope it’s not too late…’

‘And what about Stuart?’ Kris nods down at the now unconscious body at her feet. ‘I wouldn’t rate his chances, if we don’t get him back to town soon.’

Gino kneels down beside him and inspects the swollen leg with distaste; it smells rather strange, and the bite wound is oozing a thick, black pus-like substance.

‘Has anyone tried sucking out the poison?’ he asks.

‘Are you volunteering?’ snaps Kris.

Gino hesitates, but is saved from having to make a decision by Stuart himself, who suddenly speaks in a whisper. He leans closer to listen.

‘He’s saying Katrina’s name,’ Gino murmurs. ‘That’s odd – I didn’t think they were close… And Grace… And something about an emu…’

‘He’s delirious again,’ mutters Kris. ‘Can we finish here and get on, please?’

She starts to head back towards the road, but turns at a shout from Belle-Marie.

‘Wait, Kris! Maybe Stuart can see them!’

Kris isn’t convinced. ‘You mean he’s seeing into the Dreaming with the aid of spider venom?’

Belle-Marie shrugs. ‘I don’t know. But it might explain how Bridgit saw her vision. And if Stuart _can _ see Katrina and Grace, he might be able to guide them here, to this gateway…’

 ‘Oops…’ Katrina stares at her smoking pistol, then at the crumpled emu, then at the now non-smoking gun. Grace looks at Katrina, Katrina looks at Grace.

‘We’ll pretend it was like that when we got here, right?’ Katrina grins hopefully.

Grace just shakes her head in disbelief. Then they both turn towards the disembodied sound of Stuart’s voice.

‘It’s coming from over there, I think,’ says Grace, with a heavy heart. ‘I’m going to investigate – it seems to be getting stronger. If you’re coming along, please try not to break anything else.’

Katrina glances down at the emu again, but it seems to be beyond help – and taking care of Grace is still her priority. As she somewhat sheepishly puts away her gun, she has to admit that Grace’s brains are more likely to get them out of this. Sighing wearily, she trudges through the shimmering sand after her; she can still hear the voice calling their names, though there is no sign of its source.

‘Why Stuart, of all people, I wonder?’ she calls.

‘Perhaps he is close to death,’ Grace replies, encouragingly.

‘Not near enough,’ Katrina mutters.

‘Or in a coma, maybe? Whatever the explanation, we might be able to use it to our advantage…’

‘That would be a first. He’s still up for geek of the year award, as far as I’m concerned – ‘

‘Look!’ Grace stops suddenly and points into the distance. Katrina follows the direction of her gaze; squinting into the all-pervading glare, she can just about distinguish a figure she recognizes, though he is rather less substantial than usual, and seems to be floating an inch or two off the sand.

Grace starts to hurry towards him, moving stiffly over the uneven ground. ‘Stuart – what are you doing here?’ she calls. ‘Are the others here too? Do you know how to get out?’

He doesn’t reply to her questions, but half turns and looks over his shoulder, as if in response to some sound from another world. Behind him, Katrina and Grace glimpse a shadowy opening into space, like a passage into nowhere…

 ‘We were starting to think we’d never see you again, you ungrateful sheila.’

Katrina wonders what Gino is talking about, then remembers the incident at the water-hole.

‘May I politely point out,’ Gino continues, ‘that my misguided Italian urge to protect la mama – or at least, la signora – was drilled into me at an early age, and I didn’t figure your little knife would be much use against a homicidal maniac snake. I’m sorry for trying to save your life, but believe me, not every offer of help is an affront to your girl power, or whatever the hell it is.’

Katrina purses her lips. ‘I wasn’t expecting any red-carpet treatment when we got back – and it looks like I was right. But still, it’s good to be back. I was starting to think I’d gone to Oz and wasn’t allowed to look behind the curtain…’

Ignoring this happy reunion, Kris peers cautiously into the cleft in the rock from which Grace and Katrina have just emerged. There is no sign of the Dreaming within, and no sign of Stuart.

‘It’s the best place for him, I’m sure,’ says Grace, with more confidence than she feels. ‘He looked in a bad way when we first saw him, and after hearing what you said about the spider bite – well, I’m convinced leaving him there was the right thing… The Dreaming is a timeless place, and I’m hopeful it will stop or at least slow the progression of the poison.’

‘And we can always nip back and pick him up later,’ Katrina adds brightly – though Grace hasn’t yet explained how they might achieve this. ‘The Dreaming’s just like a giant, mystical left luggage locker, really… So, what’s been happening in the real world while we were out of it?’

Belle-Marie starts to explain, but doesn’t get much further than Bridgit’s vision of the end of the world before Katrina starts to sing under her breath. Wondering if she has finally flipped, Belle-Marie pauses. ‘This isn’t time for – ’

###’It’s the end of the world as we know it,’### Katrina continues, oblivious.

‘Why?’ Belle-Marie opens her eyes wide in horror. ‘Tell me – now! What did you do in there…?’

 ‘We could try going back and giving the emu CPR.’

Katrina’s suggestion, though seriously intended, meets with little but derision from certain members of the party. She sits back in her seat in the truck, disgruntled.

‘OK, OK. Another astounding success, I admit. But I’m only trying to make the best of a bad deal. If we – ‘

‘We?’ Kris scowls.

‘OK, if _I_ started all this trouble in the Dreaming, maybe that’s the only place _we_ can fix it.’

‘And how, pray, do we get back there without Stuart to show us the way?’ Kris demands.

Belle-Marie shudders at the memory; one moment Stuart had been lying on the ground right before her – though on the verge of death, it had seemed. And then, in a heartbeat, he had faded into nothing. It was almost as though he’d never existed. ‘If we could find the spider that bit him – or a similar one,’ she suggests, hesitantly, ‘we might be able to concoct some sort of… potion.’

‘Eye of newt, leg of frog – that sort of thing, you mean?’ Katrina laughs unkindly. ‘I think I’ll take my chances with the giant snake god.’ She gazes up into the sky, as if expecting it to appear at any moment. ‘That vision of Bridgit’s explains a lot about her, you know. Like why she suddenly upped and left this highly desirable neighbourhood.’ She frowns at the parched earth and scrubby trees rushing past the truck. ‘And why she was so down on Mr The-Aliens-Are-My-Friends. I guess he touched on a sore point in that TV interview.’

‘Where is Erich, by the way?’ asks Belle-Marie.

‘He was last seen heading deep into neverland. The best place for him.’

Belle-Marie can’t help but agree, though she doesn’t respond to Katrina.

‘She spent ten years running away from what she saw in the Dreaming,’ Katrina continues, reflectively, ‘yet she was fascinated by it, too. Weird, huh?’

‘This armchair psychology is all very interesting,’ Kris interrupts, ‘but it’s not helping us sort out the trouble you’ve caused. Does anyone have any constructive suggestions?’

‘Why should the world end when blood hits the ground in the Dreaming?’ Gino muses, almost to himself. He studies his weird hand on the steering wheel, wondering whether any magical powers it might possess extend to healing properties. Though from what Katrina and Grace have said, it seems too late for such simple measures. ‘Maybe there’s nothing we can do. Maybe it’s happened already. Maybe what you saw was a re-enactment – or a parallel – of something that happened in the past.’

‘And I though it was us who’d spent too long out in the sun,’ says Katrina. ‘What the hell are you talking about, Gino?’

‘I’ve been thinking about what you two saw in the Dreaming, and I have a theory.’ Gino pauses, wondering what the others will make of it. ‘At first, there was just the Dreaming. No real world as we know it, no humans. I don’t know how the real world got started, but the human race began when those spaceships you saw arrived on Earth. The occupants – the aliens fleeing the destruction of their own world – engendered all of human life somehow.’

‘I’d say you’d been reading too many Erich Schutz books,’ mutters Kris, ‘if that wasn’t Belle-Marie’s favourite pastime.’

‘What you say is possible, I suppose,’ Grace calls from her perch in the back of the truck. ‘But it seemed to me that the place we saw destroyed was a sinking island, on Earth – not an entire planet.’

‘OK…’ Gino tries again. ‘Maybe the sinking island was part of a worldwide disaster – something like the Biblical flood, perhaps. All of humanity was killed off, and the aliens had to repopulate the Earth – ’

‘What is this thing you have with aliens?’ Kris interrupts again.

Gino gives her a withering look.

‘Keep your eyes on the road,’ she snaps.

Gino obliges. ‘If the Dreaming is a timeless place as you said, Grace, the spilling of blood could have been the event that triggered the deluge in the ancient past. Which would get you off the hook, Katrina,’ he adds with a grin. ‘Though it would mean that everything in the world is your fault.’

‘I’m certain there _is_ a correlation between the Dreaming and the geography and history of the real world,’ Grace says. ‘Though I’m not sure how, exactly. Erich said something about being able to find anything there if you know where to look, and it certainly didn’t take me long to find Uluru. Time and space may be fluid there – and somehow responsive to the wishes of the observer.’

Belle-Marie nods. ‘That kind of fits with what Bridgit said about the map of the Dreaming – that it showed events rather than locations.’

‘Of course – the map!’ Katrina raises her hands in exasperation. ‘I had it all the time. And we might have been able to use it to find our way around…’ She checks inside her now somewhat-scuffed Louis Vuitton flight bag. The photocopied map is indeed still there; a crumpled ball of paper lying forgotten among the firearms, the miscellaneous narcotic substances – and the ancient bone Dreaming spear. She hadn’t realized it was still in her possession. It is tiny in the real world, like the weapon of some Amazonian Barbie doll. Silently, she closes the clasp, not drawing the others’ attention.

Grace is still thinking aloud. ‘I wonder to what extent the things we saw in the Dreaming are actual historical events, and how much was allegory? Presumably the sinking of the island was real, and there’s no reason to think that the Walpiri Women didn’t build their fire, or the bird-men kill their lizard. But was Uluru really built by two boys playing in the mud?’

‘It may make no difference,’ says Belle-Marie. ‘If you believe it happened that way, then maybe it did.’

Grace nods. ‘Like the Rainbow Snake. The local aborigines believe that Kunukban left his resting place at Uluru and came to this area – but after what I saw in the Dreaming, I’m convinced that the being _they_ call Kunukban was actually the spacecraft I saw. The smoke trail it left looked just like a giant serpent in the sky. But what does this mean for Bridgit’s vision – the rising of Kunukban heralded the end of the world, but is that Kunukban the spirit creature, or Kunukban the spacecraft?’

‘Pity we can’t talk to John Boone about all this,’ says Gino. ‘I’m sure he would’ve had some theory.’

‘Poor Mr Boone.’ Belle-Marie sighs at the thought of his hideous death. ‘I wonder where that huge boulder came from?’

Katrina bites her lower lip. Huge boulder? She remembers her attempts at levitating rocks in the Dreaming – and flinging the rocks away when she failed…

‘And what might have caused those awful blisters?’ Belle-Marie continues.

Katrina almost protests aloud – that, she is certain, could not be her fault. But Belle-Marie answers her own question.

‘Could it have been the spaceship you saw flying over the road, Kris? It might have caused radiation burns, or something. And wasn’t that what Nakayama was looking for down the pothole?’

‘Boone did say he’d seen some sort of craft down there,’ Kris remembers.

Belle-Marie catches her breath. ‘Is this ship the same one that Grace saw in the Dreaming – the one mistaken for Kunukban?’

‘So why does Nakayama want it?’ Gino wonders. ‘If only we’d got our hands on it ourselves…’

‘Did you see what direction it was heading in?’ asks Belle-Marie.

Kris shrugs. ‘North-ish, I think.’

‘Uluru must be north of here,’ says Gino. ‘And it seemed to be at the centre of all the Fortean events that Boone had been recording.’

Katrina speaks up at last. ‘While we were in the Dreaming, I noticed mystical lines of power converging on a single point – could that have been Uluru?’

‘If it was,’ says Grace, ‘that could be the place to go next.’

‘If we make it that far,’ mutters Kris.

Katrina has to agree – the party (herself excluded, of course) is looking increasingly ragged. But she looks on the bright side. ‘If we follow those lines of power, we might find out what’s behind all this. Just like the Yellow Brick Road!’

‘How do the Ylids fit into this, I wonder?’ Grace frowns. ‘I’ve been thinking about the comment Nakayama made to Stuart and Kris – that he’d been in the region for months, winding a watch. Was he talking about the strange occurrences Boone noticed – including those in Sydney and here? Nakayama could be responsible for all of them – each new event building up some sort of ‘psychic energy’.’

‘Like ley lines?’ suggests Belle-Marie.

‘Like the lines I saw in the Dreaming,’ says Katrina. ‘They did seem to growing in power.’

‘He also mentioned something about the clock striking,’ Kris adds, darkly.

‘The time at which the accumulated energy is discharged, maybe? But when will that be? And for what purpose?’

‘I can guess where the discharge will happen,’ says Gino. ‘Uluru. Everything points towards it.’

‘But Nakayama also said that people would be looking in the wrong direction at the time.’ Grace frowns again. ‘So the clock will strike at Uluru, but the effects will be felt elsewhere…’

It is late when they get back to town, greeted only by a brooding silence that hangs over the empty streets. There is no hint of life; the only movement is the limp flapping of faded bunting in the breeze, a distant memory of Tuesday’s corroboree. Gino pulls up at the north end of the main street.

‘Now comes the hard part,’ he says.

‘You mean, explaining to the authorities what happened to John Boone?’ asks Grace.

Gino grimaces. ‘No – I mean explaining to Bob what happened to his truck. I was kinda hoping we might keep Boone under wraps. At least for the present.’

‘Under giant boulder, you mean,’ says Katrina, with a rather odd laugh.

‘We’ll have to report the road accident, though – someone might be missing that kid already.’ Kris thinks gloomily of the dead youth at the scene of the crash. There might have been room for him in the back of the truck with Grace, she thinks. But no one had suggested it as they left.

With sudden decisiveness, Belle-Marie leaps down to the ground. ‘While you make your minds up, I’m going to get back in touch with Maddy and see if _she_ has any ideas – and Daniel, too. And then someone should find Long Jack and try to get some sense out of him – we need as many allies as we can get.’

Belle-Marie slips into the bar and heads straight for the telephone, determined to remain unnoticed – there is no way _she_ is going to explain the trail of destruction they’ve left behind them. She needn’t have bothered, however – like the street outside, the bar is deserted; just a few half-empty bottles and glasses sit on the counter, and the only sound comes from the television set on the wall.

As she waits to get through to Geoff Blaize, she watches the programme idly. It is a news broadcast, though thankfully her fifteen minutes of fame seem to have passed – the airwaves are now full of the boulder that fell from the sky, crushing a house in Darwin (‘It’s lucky no one was killed – local airlines are being quizzed’), the mysterious disappearance of noted artist Bessy Clark (‘Her car was found run off the road, but police have found no trace of the driver’), the massive flooding caused by a tidal wave in the Solomon Islands (‘The government of the island of Nauru have sent a scientific mission to investigate the cause of this unprecedented disaster’).

Belle-Marie frowns. Nauru? Wasn’t that the place where John Boone was planning to take a holiday?

But the story has moved on – the pictures of drowned villages have been replaced by an impressive shot of Uluru, glowing red at sunset.

‘Here at Ayers Rock,’ says the reporter, cheerfully, ‘people are gathering already for the greatest party of this new millennium…’

Leaving Kris and Katrina decide how to deal with the authorities, Gino and Grace head off to look for Long Jack. On the way to the golf course (which seems as good a place as any to start their search), they stop off at the makeshift football pitch on the outskirts of town.

‘I want to see if any of my football cubs know more about these local legends,’ Gino explains.

‘Isn’t it a little late for soccer practice?’ asks Grace.

Gino shrugs. ‘It’s worth a try. And they’re very keen.’

The rough oblong of dirt has been forsaken, however; the only sign of Gino’s budding team are few crumpled tee-shirts that mark the goal-posts, and an old football, abandoned in the centre of the pitch.

‘That’s odd.’ Gino scoops it up. ‘That they just left this here, I mean. These abo kids don’t have a lot of money to throw around.’

‘Young people are so fickle,’ Grace says consolingly. ‘They’re forever changing their minds about what’s in and what’s out.’ Then she forgets all about Gino’s problems, as she spots a shady figure squatting under a nearby tree, watching them silently. She hurries towards it, calling Long Jack Wunuwun’s name.

It is not the tribal elder, however, but the old woman who greeted them at the airfield.

‘He is not here,’ she croaks, barely raising her voice above a whisper. Only her mouth moves, as she continues staring into the darkness. Tiny circles of smoke rise from the pipe between her teeth.

‘Then can you take us to where he is?’ asks Grace. ‘We need to talk to him – urgently.’

‘I said he is gone.’

‘Gone where?’ Grace demands. ‘Gone walkabout?’

Gino growls in frustration. ‘I’m sick of hearing that word! It’s just an excuse these people use when they don’t want to talk to you. Well, maybe _you_ can help – by explaining this!’

He thrusts the palm of his right hand towards the old woman. Whatever the X-rays might have shown, it looks like a normal hand in the moonlight, though the woman clearly spots that something is wrong. She puffs harder on her pipe.

‘The crystal carries ungud,’ she breathes, ‘the power of the karadji – passed on to his successor when he feels that he will die. Whoever gave this to you did you a great honour, whitefella. But with that honour comes a great burden, too…’

12:05 am, Thursday 28th December 2000
Belle-Marie: the bar
Gino and Grace: the golf course
Katrina and Kris: somewhere in Madeleine
Stuart: somewhere in the Dreaming

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