The rumble in his stomach was the loudest sound despite the gravel tapping his head and shoulders. Kano raised his hands to protect his face.
Where was he? He wasn’t near the black rock. Not far away. The split of the gorge was visible in the otherwise dune-like ridges in the landscape, but only the eastern front of the rock. He sat upright and opened his eyes as much as the gunk in the corners allowed. Stared at the edge of a stretch of yellow sand with his feet lower than his butt. A depression.
That meant water.
He moved away from the overhang and scrabbled on hands and feet to the deepest section of the depression.
Dry lips, cracked, a taste of metal in his mouth. Vague physical sensations. He checked his pulse. An unsteady beat. He checked his neck. Looked at his hands. Torn and bleeding, that was why he couldn’t get a clear reading. Alive, but barely. And not for long.
Water. Number one rule of Outback survival — find water.
Hot, so hot. His body burned worse than when he tipped the kettle on himself as a kid. These blisters and redness were only sunburn, exposure.
Another pain dug at his insides. A burning sensation that came from his bones or his core. Nothing he knew of dehydration resulted in that effect. What else could it be?
Hunger? Possible. He’d lost all his supplies. His pack. He patted the lump of his wallet. Yes, he’d checked that before, hadn’t he?
All he had to do was dig. Did he do that before? Maybe he planned to. His hands were sore, but he’d crawled so far the knees in his jeans were torn and ripped.
The flood. He remembered that. Laziness. Stupidity. The choice between camping on a sandy creek bed or in the surrounding rocks and prickly expanse of spinifex. The fear of scorpions getting into his sleeping bag. The dry flood roared through the blackest part of the night and swept him away.
If he hadn’t been so obsessed with that bush-map and checking the GPS, he might have noticed the warning grumble in the ground. But there were always strange sounds out here. Bull camels. Wild dogs. Feral pigs. Other things. He’d hunched in closer to the fire and ignored the streak of yellow that cramped his back.
When the water roared through the campsite, he lost the map. The most important piece of kit, and he let go of it the first time a lump of tree hit him in the chest.
Kano had a good memory. The rough squiggles and lines of the bush map aligned closely with this landscape. The details scrawled on that scrap of leather lay before him as reality.
The lakeside entrance to the gorge, the overhang, even the rock with the graffiti. He was in the right place.
Casi had thought it was a gold map, that a con-man suckered him into handing over money for the myth of Lasseter’s Reef.
It wasn’t. His objective wasn’t gold. The nyomium and tantalum deposits had more value for his research. If he’d had them, the lab may not have exploded because he’d used a substitute.
Pain pounded into his skull. Not a normal headache. Even the word migraine couldn’t encompass being torn open like this. Agony gripped his cranium, built up until the only way to end it was with an eruption of his living soul, torn apart at a molecular level.
This must be death. Did his father experience this pain? His mother? Or was theirs worse, knowing who caused it? Death should be painless. It should give a warning, time to say goodbye.
The last words Casi yelled at him would haunt him beyond the next horizon if he couldn’t explain, show her how it was supposed to work.
His sister tried to stop him, used all the tactics he’d taught her. Used reason and logic and emotional blackmail. She said the map wasn’t an answer. She’d even said his research was a waste of time. Like so many doubters.
Kano had showed her the map, the geological surveys with the background Aeolian strata that would lead to a discovery beyond belief. Yes, others had found it, but they didn’t know how to extract or combine in the right order, using the right pressures at the right stage to achieve the state of flexion. He tried to tell her what it was about, how the value of rare-Earth minerals would lead to something more valuable than all the gold in Australia.
A fake, she said; saw him coming, she said; a fool and his money, she said. That the guilt he felt wasn’t a good enough reason to chase impossible wisps of smoke to make up for what he’d done. That it was a stupid, irrational expedition to chase a fool’s desperate dream.
Maybe she was right, but unless it was a mirage, that overhang was the exact shape and colour and context for the map. Casi said he could die. She was right. He’d die if he didn’t find water, followed by food and shelter.
But he was at the map coordinates. A smile cracked his face, followed by a fresh ooze of blood. After he found water, he’d mark the area, peg it with his ID and tags. Then find a way to get back to the city to lodge the claim.
All he needed was time. And to live long enough to prove his theory.
A tang of rusty water tempted his dry nostrils. Water! He sniffed, cleared his nose and sniffed again. It was close. A distinct flavour, mineralised, with a bite at the back of his throat.
He spread his hands, and turned them palm-up. They were in bad shape, but if there was any possibility of water, any hope of life, Kano wanted it. He’d dig with his teeth if he had to, dig until his last breath. They wouldn’t find his body stuffed in the back of a cave like Lasseter. He’d be out in the open, fighting. Kano rolled his eyes.
What an idiot. Why worry about what they’d think or do when they found him? If he was dead, he wouldn’t know, would he?
Fool. He propped his knees slightly apart, knelt. He scooped the soft surface sand to the side so it left a wide, shallow basin. The sting and burn of the unimportant bites and scratches and scrapes were fuel to dig deeper. Skin would heal if the body survived.
He dug his fingers into the centre. The fingernail snapped backward and tore off, blood flowed, flesh tore, pain scorched his body like a high voltage stab of electricity.
Aaaaargh! Kano pulled the hand to his chest, groaned, and fell on his side. He lay there, waited until the cognisance of the acute pain faded. He rolled onto his back and glared at the changing hue of the sky.
A new day. Clear skies. Heat. People died out here.
He had something the world needed. Steel as flexible as rubber, self-annealing. Soft enough to shape easily, to mould to requirements, setting to a hard outer containment surface. It could be used for personal armour, other military uses. Buildings that resisted earthquakes, survived tsunamis. Externally solid steel, but if it cracked, the inner section refilled the crack. Hardened. Self-curing stresses in steel. Non-brittle.
It was too important for so many purposes. Being dead wasn’t an option. He didn’t have the luxury to forget the purpose of his life. Not now. Not when the personal cost of his experiments was so high.
A razor’s edge between death and destiny. Let go, don’t worry, die. The end was so close.
It felt like death was real, that it snuck up and tempted and teased his mind and body, offered hope in minuscule threads and then laughed at the dreams of fools. Kano fought the possibility that he’d die. He had a debt to pay. An obligation.
It wasn’t his time, not yet. He had to prove he was right, that the research had value, that it could be done. Would be, once he restarted the process with this find. And a new lab, with appropriate exclusion zones.
He ripped off one sleeve and wrapped it around his hand. The blood flow was slow and thick, not a good sign. The scooping motion moved small mounds, the pace of progress an agonising stretch of time measured by gasps of air down his sandpaper throat.
The smell of water hit the back of his throat and he gasped with it. He bent down until his nose touched the surface. Sniffed. It smelled like water. His mouth craved the taste of it.
But it was sandstone, too hard to dig into. The water was close, so close. A soak into the artesian basin. Not accessible.
No water on the surface.
“I could assist your task.”
The bass voice lifted the hairs on Kano’s arms. He leapt up and spun around, fists raised. His sight filled with sparkling geometric patterns, flashed colours and lights until he didn’t know if what he saw was real or imagined. The horizon hazed and wavered, the trees swayed and leaned. If a person was nearby, Kano couldn’t see them, or smell them. Did he really hear a voice?
“Who’s there?” he croaked.
“I am not there,” the voice said. “I am here.”
Dizziness struck Kano, sucked at his thoughts like an undertow, added the cruel sensation of lava, hot and crushing as his mind slowed to sludge. He slid to the ground and curled up.
“That is not an answer.”
It was in his head.
“Of course I’m in your head. You offered your services in exchange for life, and I have met the conditions you set.”
“You don’t need to speak. I hear every thought.”
“Who are you?” Kano was dead, or near enough. Hallucinating. A near death experience.
“You’re not dead.”
“I’m imagining this?” He reached deep within to his safe place, the steel centre he’d created to say sane at school, when all the kids beat him up and bullied him.
“I’m not your imagination. You’re not mad, and you can’t hide in there.”
Not a dream. That left dead.
“What did I just say?”
Pain screamed through Kano like a fire-geyser, built up inside his head until it reached a peak of flaming torture. He wrapped both hands around his head. It didn’t stop the blast of concussion, of heat and noise through the feeble barrier of sanity and bony flesh. His hands stung with it.
Bile burned his throat and tongue.
“Who are you?” Kano huffed the words out, barely able to breathe in again.
“I saved your life, and now you pay for my service.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you serve your purpose, you never will.”
The steel at Kano’s centre shrank to the size of a marble. He curled up inside it and hid the fear that this might be real.
“When I am strong, you won’t think anything.”
Hard laughter rolled through the ground and into Kano’s limbs.
“You are no more than a vessel for a greater undertaking.”
Underlying the words was a picture worse than the most horrendous of Kano’s childhood nightmares. He blanked his consciousness, separated himself from the other thing that held his physical form like a prisoner.
“Please,” Kano begged. “Let me go. Please.”
The Diaballein shoved the body upright, held it firm, straightened the limbs, shook them out, and ran Kano’s body like a wind-up toy down the middle of the rough track that led away from the shade of the trees surrounding the clearing. The lake, wide and shiny and steely blue reflections of the early morning, lay before him. The rumble returned, louder, more insistent. It wasn’t Kano’s stomach.
The constant cycle of words it used, a singsong chant of sounds and measures, terrified Kano. He didn’t want to know, but it was like being a kid all over again. Helpless, weak, unable to save himself.
His adoptive parents rescued him from the orphanage, no one to save him now.
The only way to defeat the enemy was to know how they thought, what they wanted. It worked at school. He needed to do it again. What was important? The shape and sound of the words were rhythmic, a form of chant. He memorised them, sang along with them, gave them weight and solidity by syllable and tone, separated by pauses and breaks.
Three words recurred more often: Akhlys, cognomen, Valki. The first two had no meaning. Valki, though, meant something. He didn’t know what it meant in this circumstance. Not yet.
Underlying the words was a more urgent need.
To eat. It wanted blood. Fresh blood.
Whatever controlled Kano’s body was ravenous beyond greed.
This is the end of the tease for this novella. If you want to see how a possessed man — or is he a dead man? — and a crazy lady defeat the Diaballein — or can they? — read the book. Share your experience of it, and I will … who knows? Maybe you should find out.