21st Century Dreamtime
Steven Thorn

A riddle: what do an ex-astronaut, an Australian aborigine, a giant stone sphere, and the planet Mars have in common?

The sphere -- my sphere -- is built of stone, cut and measured orange sandstone blocks, washed through with yellows and reds, desert pastels, all cemented together with a flaking resinous substance the color of dried blood.

Over four meters in diameter, it rests in a bowl-shaped depression on a cliff. A meandering offshoot of the East Alligator River flows, murky brown and sluggish, a hundred meters below.

I found the sphere when I left Darwin nearly four months ago in the olive land-cruiser that now stands, wedged nose-first in a crack that zig-zags halfway across the jutting promontory.

The little I've learned of the sphere these past few months leaves me increasingly puzzled. It clearly predates white settlement, yet its construction would have required advanced tools and mathematics that the aborigines didn't possess.

Architecturally it seems related to the spiral minaret of Samarra -- which I have never seen -- and the Martian Helix, which I have. The stones are largest around the sphere's equator, and from there diminish upward and downward in spirals that end at the poles with pyramidal keystones. A circular opening in its southern hemisphere, though only a meter high, serves as the entrance.

It was through this entrance I would crawl each painted evening, returning from the river gorges that fragment this land as if, long ago, it was made of thick glass that had been shattered by a rain of hammer blows. I would moor my three-meter aluminum dinghy on the rocky beach below the cliff, rope together the crocodile carcasses hunted during the day, and walk up the narrow ledge that led to the top. Then, using the hand winch on the rear of the four-wheel drive, I'd haul the heavy saurians up and prepare them for Kundullajapininni, the enigmatic aboriginal who guts and tans them. Then the skins are ready for sale to representatives of exclusive French and Italian fashion houses. It's a lucrative, though illegal, business.

"What do you know about the sphere?" I asked him one star-fired moonless evening as we contemplated our first month's profits and the flickering campfire, and got drunk together.

"Maybe it's tjuringa for modern civilization. Maybe it's more personal than that," he said and laughed, his voice becoming as quiet as shifting sands, as deep flowing waters.

"Churinga? What's that?"

"Here." He threw a small stone to me, spiral-lined and colored much like the sphere. "A tjuringa for you, Spaceman."

"This is the Mars rock I gave you. You've carved it."

He opened his eyes wide, his teeth lit red by the fire, his pale palms weaving patterns in the darkness.

I studied the churinga while listening to the flow of his voice.

"You found the rock and it found you, so it is ever yours, Spaceman."

Rough gritty stone, perfectly spherical.

"Your tjuringa is the home of your spirit, a map of the pattern of your life."

Spiralling up and down, an impossibly continuous line, feeling it in conjunction with the minute variations on the stone's surface -- an impossible minute braille, sending electric thrills up my fingertips, lighting haunted images, memories, in my mind.

"Accept this. Sing with me, medicine man of the people descended from the spirits of the sky. Sing with me. Become spirit brother of sun and moon, planets and stars. Sing with me."

And he began a chant, deep and resonant, that seared me to the bone.

"No!" I said bitterly, interrupting. "I hate the stars, the planets of the stars."

He chuckled then. "Oh well. `Destinies once set can scarce be broken, but by the hand of death.' " A vaguely familiar quotation. "Don't repeat the words medicine man or people descended from the spirits of the sky to anyone." He had used the aboriginal words for those. "They are secret, sacred, tabu. It would be best if you forgot them."

After an uncertain silence, punctuated by the fire's crackling and the taste of whiskey, I said, "I'm sorry I couldn't accept." I offered the churinga. "It's just... just the past."

"No. What I have said holds true in any case. The tjuringa is ever yours. What happened to you, to the Mars Project? Why did it end?"

"Madness. I can't say. My secrets. My tabu."

"Ah well. Greater powers shape our lives than either of our societies' primitive rituals." He often mocked his own culture when we drank together. He had been born tribal, had attended the Australian National University (as had the medicine men of the last three generations of his tribe), and graduated with honors in medicine and philosophy. That's where he had been nicknamed K.J.

And that was the only time he answered my questions about the sphere with anything other than a strange look or a muttered aboriginal word. He was, to me, as mysterious as the sphere itself.

I was outside cracking the empty blue dawn with rifle fire when the autogiro appeared, a distant whirring insect, in my crosshairs. Coke cans and bottles exploded off the bullet-riddled hulk of the land cruiser as I let loose with the rifle. They lay scattered and ruined, fragments in the dirt like yesterday's forgotten dreams and remembered failures.

Harris, the Yank, and Kate.

I pulled the rim of the gray Akubra I was wearing over my eyes, protecting them from the dust swirling up as the 'giro swept in and came to rest just beyond the upturned land cruiser.

As I walked over to meet them, I reloaded the Ruger. They hopped out and walked toward me, Kate in jeans and white singlet, as beautiful as ever, Harris in a gray business suit, sweating even though the sun had not yet broken the horizon, grinning broadly with patent American insincerity.

"You're up early," I said as they hesitated. I slung the rifle over my shoulder. "How did you find me?"

Harris answered, "That aboriginal pal of yours said to follow the East Alligator River 'til we saw a patch of red desert in the middle of the jungle. He came into Darwin last week, sold some gator hides to a friend of mine."

"Crocodile skins," I corrected.

"Croc, gator, what the hell." He grinned again.

"So you found me. Why?"

"I was worried about you, Mark," said Kate. Harris slid his arm around her waist. Something between jealousy and hatred rose in my throat. I swallowed it.

"Going off on walkabout like that, not telling anyone. Thought you damned well killed yourself." Their eyes -- his blue, hers gray -- wandered over the land-cruiser.

"Unfortunately, I didn't damn well kill myself. You shouldn't have bothered coming here." I regretted saying it immediately, because Kate frowned and I realized she probably thought so too. I did want her to stay. I could put up with Harris and the emotions I thought I'd purged through rifle fire, alcohol and solitude, for just a few hours with Kate.

We had met one year after the Mars Project ended, with my three months of isolation finished and six months of rehabilitation ahead of me. We had been together for two years before coming to Darwin trying to trace the origins of a unique aboriginal artifact I'd bought, cheaply, at an auction in Brisbane.

It was cheap because most doubted its authenticity; two spheres, one slightly larger than the other, connected by a helix, carved out of a single piece of a dark, hard fined-grained wood. Aboriginal? Unlikely, said the assayers.

A strange, geometrically perfect scepter or club.

Strange to me because it summoned images, memories: through filtering glass, a blood-red, rock-strewn plain. Towering, twin spirals connected by sets of three bars 10 meters in length, each set indefinably patterned. Two vac-suited figures approaching from left and right. We form the points of a diminishing triangle around the Martian Helix.

Then... not even a scream. Static. Two vac-suits rippling as though the bodies within are turning inside-out. A blackness, consuming, feeling more like burning incandescent light. The image faded. I bought the scepter.

At Kate's suggestion we presented the Heritage Foundation with the artifact, and they presented us with a substantial research grant. After all, an anomic ex-astronaut can gain the kind of sympathy and publicity that cuts through the usual red tape, and an ex-astro's pension isn't that generous.

I loved her then. I loved her when she left me for Harris five months ago. I loved her now.

"Mark, are you still so serious, so dramatic about everything?" she asked.

Was I? I looked to the ground, where I was unconsciously tracing a circle in the red dirt with the toe of my boot. Were the powerful emotions that ran through me, that had motivated me since the end of my rehabilitation, just shallow melodrama?

I caused several ugly, embarrassing scenes during that last month in Darwin after Kate left me, and in a moment of clarity in the midst of a dizzying hangover, I stocked the land cruiser and left so my self-pity, bitter jealousy and anger wouldn't taint Kate's newfound happiness. A selfless act, I thought, a brave act of self-sacrifice for the woman I loved. Or, as I thought later in moments of drunken melancholy, the actions of an immature, emotionally self-indulgent, unsophisticated romantic fool.

Shallow melodrama? Only to those who lack a deeper sense of feeling, of understanding.

"Come on, Mark, lighten up. Let's talk things over. I've got a case of beer and a few quarts of Chivas in the 'giro." said Harris.

"Bring the scotch." I said, forcing a weak smile. He grinned and ducked back into the cab, then came out, still grinning, a bottle in his hand. Harris couldn't be that bad -- after all, Kate loved him, or at least thought she did.

"Weird place," Kate said as we passed the strange monument of the land cruiser, with its bullet-riddled panels, dusted all around with the jewels of broken glass and torn Coke cans, the rope from the hand winch vanishing into the gorge, and the wide bowl with its curious globe. My monuments to possibility and enigma.

"What is it?" asked Kate as we approached.

"I don't really know. But you know what it's related to, don't you?" Kate touched her fingertips gently to the surface of the sphere, and a thrill rushed through me. I watched her intensely, edging between her and Harris.

"The scepter and the Helix." Kate had shared my obsession, had become part of it. Maybe that was why I felt so hurt, so bitter and betrayed -- I had shared part of my delicately restructured soul with her. I placed my palm on the sphere close to her's, felt myself rocked by another emotional charge.

"I know the abs didn't build it, but it's too old to have been built by whites. I had a piece radiometrically dated and though that's only accurate up to a point, it dates back to the early paleolithic. No one's ever really explored this land properly, dug down to where its secrets are buried. There's been ages enough for a dozen civilizations to have flourished and died out here. Died without a trace. There's a lot of paradoxes, I know, but...."

I was again sharing my obsession with her. This was something between us, something that excluded Harris. If Kate had any ideas on the subject, she kept them to herself. Had I raved too fervently? Did I stare too intensely? Obviously she doubted everything I said and probably thought I was mad, otherwise she would have believed in the connection between the Helix and the scepter. Wasn't the sphere further proof?

"Looks like a crummy model of Mars," said Harris, reaching between Kate and me, pulling her hand from its intimate study of the texture of the sphere.

I crawled into the cool interior, followed by Kate, then Harris. I lit the gas lamp; hissing and flickering, it revealed the incongruous evidence of human habitation: a small gas-powered refrigerator; the back seat of the land cruiser, neatly covered in blankets; stacked and fallen paperbacks; Coke cans; tinned food; an albino crocodile's hide; bullets and bottles all pointing to the center of the floor as if by some curious magnetism; folded canvas chairs and two rifles leaning by the entrance.

I placed the Ruger with the other rifles and unfolded the chairs, while Harris and Kate puzzled at the unsettling, baffling effect of the interior of the sphere. Everything leaning at crazy angles and the illusory impact of spinning created by both the spiral pattern of the bricks, and the swirls and whorls in the colors of the stone, a chaos of indefinable pattern, giddied and disturbed them.

"Ice?" I asked as they sat, relieved, their sight now distracted by mundane things, though with that ever-wheeling universe fluttering on the edges of vision and consciousness.

Both nodded, I passed them glasses and sat myself. Harris poured the scotch, spilling it at first, again tricked by the angles.

"It fills to just above the entrance in the rainy season -- you can see the water line. So I'll have to..." I was going to say I'd have to come back to Darwin soon anyway, but I stopped, because it occurred to me that the whole depressing situation had caught up with me again. I gulped the scotch, picked up the bottle and poured another. I sat avoiding Kate's eyes, avoiding my own reflection in the bottom of the glass.

Harris eventually broke the silence. "A friend of mine'd pay a fortune if we could dismantle this thing and ship it to the U.S." I decided to argue with him, score some points off him in Kate's eyes.

"That's all you Yanks do, exploit and plunder everything you get your hands on. No wonder half the rock paintings have been chiselled off the walls since the tourist invasion. You bastards think you own the place."

"As a matter of fact, we almost do," he said, face flushed with anger. We'd been friends once, for a while in Darwin. I don't think he understood why I was attacking him. "I just leased the mineral rights from the tribal council. It's no worse than what you're doing -- illegally killing the wildlife."

"The government makes it illegal or legal at the drop of a hat. Anyway, hunting's man's work. It's not double-talking the abs out of their land by bribing crooked government officials. You think you can buy anything with your all-powerful bloody Yankee dollar."

"I can, and I have," he said quietly.

"Will you two please stop arguing," Kate said. Harris and I both looked at her. She turned to him and, whispering something, caressed his shoulder the way she used to caress mine. He grinned. I burned.

I stood, kicking back the canvas chair, and smashed the glass in my hand against the wall. Fragments.

"You Yanks are such hot shit? Let's see what you can do. I'm going hunting -- either come with me or piss off." I grabbed the Ruger, then picked up the Winchester and tossed it violently at Harris. He caught it, accepting the challenge.

The sun burned behind the sphere now, filaments of light spread and danced around its silhouette. We stood trapped between the deep blue bowl of sky, the red cracked dish of land, the green-brown shimmering horizon, in the black shadow cast by this unlikely eclipse. Forgotten satellites on collision courses, our converging orbits hidden in emptiness.

We walked down into the still-cool shadow of the gorge, cancerous cells corrupting the land's veins. Harris jumped into the dinghy, Kate hesitated.

"Let's just leave, Harris, please!" She said as if I couldn't hear. "The sphere, the desert, they've driven him insane." The words fell dead on my ears. Nothing more could penetrate the armor of my inner turmoil.

"No," said Harris.

I pushed and the dinghy slid into the water, stones grating on the smooth hull. I jumped in, rocking it, and ripped the cord. The outboard screamed as I over-revved, and we roared off dangerously, our wake lapping the corrugated walls of the gorge.

Kate screamed. Harris shouted, "Slow down, goddamn you! Slow down!" Echoes bellowed through the chasm as I cut the engine, not wishing to endanger Kate. Did I love her? Did I hate her? The dinghy slewed around a crooked elbow bend and clanged against the cliff wall.

"Look," I said, "There's no need to worry. I know these rivers like the lines in my palm."

"Just take it easy, OK?" Harris said, then mumbled, "Damn, I should've brought the scotch."

"OK. OK. A slow ride," I said, placating them. I knew where to head. The crocs would be moving downstream now, disturbed by the noise and shocked water. They knew when death was around, and would move away from it.

Slowly now, like bored, discomfited tourists, we broke from shadowy black water to where the sunlight sparkled on green.

Up ahead I saw bubble trails break the surface, signalling crocs underwater. I held the throttle at a dull throb, herding the beasts up a dead-end canal. Cliffs loomed above us, silent, watchful.

Harris sprang up and rapidly fired three wild shots, dangerously rocking the dinghy. Reverberations pounded back and forth like the cliff's rumbling anger.

"I saw one! A dark shadow under the water," Harris said, pointing with the rifle at the refuting water.

"Get down, you idiot," I said. "Don't stand up in the dinghy." Harris sat, still peering into the water. The crocs would be moving faster now, as death came closer. A dark stream clouded the green-gold water and Harris smiled.

"I hit one," he said.

"Don't shoot at 'em if they're under the surface."

"Why?" he asked, a puzzled look on his face.

"Because if you don't kill it with one shot, it's likely to leap out of the water and kill you." He grinned and laughed. I did too, though for different reasons. Kate sat quietly, frightened, or at least apprehensive.

We drifted into the lagoon that ended this canal. I cut the engine and felt my heart quicken to the rhythm of the water, thick with growth, that slapped and dragged at the boat. Lily pads smothered the surface, hid the depths. Gently swaying bull rushes fringed the sides. Dark algae crawled up the walls, coated the black wood that lay like the rotting corpse of some forgotten giant: fallen boulders against the far cliff his knobby skull; sharp stone ridges the bared bones of his broken, hollow rib cage; dead gum trees his skeletal hands clawing opposite sides of his grave; one knee, a stone arch lifting from the water, the other the snapped trunk of a once enormous tree; the bones of his feet a series of stone pillars that thrust from the water on each side of the entrance.

All clothed in glaucous algae, ragged swathes of dead brown weeds and bilious hanging moss: his torn and festering flesh. Buzzing clouds of insects rose and fell feasting on decaying vegetation.

This macabre apparition, the stagnation, the slow pulsation of the water, and the beat of a death chant filled me with despair, recalling my love, now dead, corrupted by a cancerous hatred and putrid jealousy that I had fed with self-pity until malignant. Now it pulsed within me, an adamantine fist clenching my withered heart. Harris and Kate sat quiet, oblivious to the vision.

Rushes to our left suddenly rustled. Harris fired as a dark shape slid into the water. Screeching birds flocked away over the cliff's edge. One remained, however -- a cawing crow in the tangled branches of a swollen boabab tree above the giant's skull, the highest point of the escarpment. I aimed my rifle at it, and, still cawing, it flapped lazily away.

"Here," I said handing an oar to Harris, "paddle us up to that rock."

"I thought you said there'd be some crocs?" Harris said, snorting, as the dinghy nosed into the skull's half-submerged eyesocket. I stepped onto the boulder and pointed to the lily pads closing over our wake. "Look."

He stood and turned as dark menacing eyes, long snouts and serrated backs surfaced. They seemed to watch us with a cool, appraising intelligence.

Then Harris fired, spasms of irrational fear shook him, and he fell backward into the water.

A four-meter croc slashed forward toward Harris, screaming and thrashing in the water. Another surfaced and snapped as Harris got a grip on the boat's edge. Kate screamed and shouted Harris' name.

I think I saw movement out of the corner of my eyes, but I shot the crocodile behind Harris as he hung halfway in the dinghy, then felt the crunching and tugging at my leg. I fell and started sliding down into the water.

Strangely, I was cool and calm, the pain in my leg seemed a distant remembered pain. Overhead, a crow circled and laughed. A flaming crescent sun broke the edge of the escarpment, a dark shape stood silhouetted there. I heard a booming, felt water cover my face, felt hands grip mine and felt no more.

Blurred memories: the boat slicing through water; the sky framed by cliffs; Kate crying; Harris somber and silent, and K.J. muttering and bandaging my foot?

The autogiro, a crow flying into the white hot disk of sun. Darwin below, a strange circuit board. Waking in Darwin Base Hospital, a searing pain in my left foot that was no longer there.

After a month in hospital, another in rehab, against my doctor's recommendation I left Darwin. I saw Kate the day before I left. She was going to the U.S. with Harris. She thanked me for saving his life. Is that what I did? And said he had deposited 20 thou in my account and promised more. He had signed over the 'giro to me as well. She said something about her contract being finished, her assignment, cancelled, over. Two years with her and I hadn't realized. She was from the Project.

I didn't care. I was past caring.

No longer sure of my ability to fly a 'giro, I hired a pilot and left Darwin, searching for the sphere, the patch of red desert in the middle of the sub-tropical jungle. I searched for weeks. I asked the tribal aborigines if they knew of it, knew of Kundullajapininni.

They knew of neither.

Now living back in Darwin, I feel disassociated from the images that run through my mind. They seem as vague, blurred and unreal as a half-remembered dream. But when my plastic and aluminum prosthetic foot takes the weight of my body and I feel the echoes of pain, I see fiery eclipses, fractured landscapes, helixes and spheres, skeletal giants and the slow-beating wings of a crow.

Delusions, says the doctor. But what delusions?

Of being the sole survivor of the Mars Project? Fantasies of being a crocodile hunter? An imagined aboriginal friend? An illusory relationship with a dream girl?

A car accident, they say. Injury, exposure, shock.

Trauma. A common enough occurrence, they say. But I hear them whispering about personality reconstruction and genetic fluctuation and remember it from before. Confusion. Fantasy. Therapy.

I turn the small, lined rock in my hands and study the dark specks on my fingertips, and I realize the truth, the connection. From the wardroom's window I watch the aborigines smile at each other with a confidence and knowledge that runs as deep, as ancient, as alien, and as strong as their genes.

Steven Thorn (thorn@macconn.mpx.com.au) was born in Sydney, Australia in the mid-'60s, and grew up on the outskirts of New South Wales country towns, in industrial cities between sea and desert, on the streets of Sydney, and on many roads in between.

InterText stories written by Steven Thorn: "21st Century Dreamtime" (v5n2), "The Farm Story" (v5n4).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Steven Thorn.