Shaman of Centraxis 6
The morning mist dissolves around two strangely garbed figures standing at the edge of the highway. The slightly older young man squints into the distance through thick lenses that distort his stormy blue eyes. A long grey greatcoat is buttoned to the neck beneath his dark unkempt beard, and a slim hand rolled cigarette droops from his hair-shrouded lips.
His young companion wears an exceptionally wide-sleeved green velvet tunic that covers a paisley patterned shirt, and a black felt beret that barely restrains the escapee strands of his long chestnut hair.
The travelers’ heads still buzz from their preceding night’s startling series of psychedelic adventures - in the younger man’s case, a literally death-defying sojourn - and a mantle of scintillating colours fringes each blade of grass and every piece of stunningly unique gravel lying at their feet. Swarms of extraordinarily beautiful metallic blue insects rise and ebb in the intermittent breeze thrown up by the wakes of passing cars, as the hippie hitchhikers stand on the grassy edge of the winding southern highway. “It’s a beautiful world,” the younger man tells the clouds.
Fifty vehicles stream past, and then a hundred, every driver studiously ignoring their upraised thumbs. The hitchhikers stand in plain sight beside a broad flat verge – a carefully chosen spot with a wide enough space for any vehicle to easily pull over, visible from a great distance – after riding a ramshackle ‘red rattler’ locomotive out to the edge of the Emerald City. They detrained at the last station on the fringe of the suburban rail network and lugged their heavy packs along the potholed two-lane national highway to the place where the streetlights came to an abrupt end.
As the heat of the brilliant late morning sun beats down on the young hippies they stand only a hop, skip and a jump south of the
“Gonna be a hot one,” the Cold Wanderer observes, removing his ankle-length army surplus East German officer’s coat. He folds and packs the heavy garment into his sturdy metal-framed canvas rucksack and scans the horizon for clouds; the sweltering humidity already threatens an afternoon summer storm. Ram’yana removes his velvet tunic while a convoy of oblivious trucks lumbers past. He unpacks a paper bag of dried fruits and nuts and repositions his backpack on the roadside, transforming it into a serviceable seat. Then the teenage shaman tucks wayward strands of hair into his black beret and faces the intermittent traffic on his precarious perch, sharing the bag of munchies with his fellow tribe member.
Waves of heat form shimmering mirages on the highway; distant shapes emerge from the shifting haze, floating and coruscating above an illusory lake before solidifying into the outlines of vehicles emerging from the delusory waters. A line of sedans and utes approaches along the hot tarmac and rumbles past, the dreamy gazes of their hypnotised occupants fixed on the ephemeral heat-hazed horizon.
As the younger hitcher watches the aura of the planet shift and sway, he examines his motives for making this relaxed journey to
“Are yer still thinking of makin’ another movie soon?” Wanderer asks his technologically adept companion while he rolls another slim cigarette. “Or are yer getting bored with film-making?” He continues in his northern American drawl without waiting for a reply. “If yer are, Loren tells me she’s interested.”
The younger man drops his thumb to his side and faces his friend. “Well… I’m still a member of the Filmmaker’s Co-op – we had a joint in the projection booth last weekend, did we not? - and this is my first holiday from the film group at Stanley Palmer’s.” He kicks a piece of quartz with the toe of his calf-high boot. “The
He glares at his friend impatiently while the older Centraxian extends his arm and stares into the highway-bisected horizon. “Loren’s interested in what?” Ram’yana asks, failing to catch the Cold Wanderer’s eye. The Canadian continues his spiel while surveying the traffic for likely lifts.
“Loren has a few friends at Uni who are interested, too,” he replies opaquely. The bearded anarchist lights his slim rollie, shielding a green-tipped waterproof match from the intermittent slipstreams. “Don’t yer think it’s time yer made some money out of all that film equipment?” Their eyes meet through Wanderer’s thick lenses. “We can stay with Loren when we get to the city,” he continues obliquely. “She always has a spare bed or two – or a free lounge.”
Ram’yana mimes spitting on the roadside and smiles; he has a good idea of what Wanderer has in mind. “Money can’t pay the price demanded by true Art,” the teenage Centraxian shaman announces, “and priceless things must needs be shared or given away.”
“All very well, Ram’yana – or should I call yer ‘Tripitaka’? - but we have a tribe to think of. Our skills may be priceless but they’re also useful.” His words are all but drowned out by the blaring air horn of a contemptuous semi-trailer and its storm-front wash of wind.
“‘Trip taker’, if ye must.” Ram waves to a passing car of elderly white-hatted bowls players, who fly pass the Centraxians with sternly disapproving glances. “What do… does Loren – have in mind?” The young magician studies his companion’s face for clues to his intent or feelings - a course unlikely to meet with success in the case of the secretive tribal logician.
“Yer know there’s only one quick way to make money out of films.” Wanderer’s tightly sealed lips smile, catlike. “Loren and her friends are feminists, yer know, but they want to make something a little… well… she says she knows they can easily sell something if it’s raunchy. And creative. ‘Erotica in good taste’ is what she said on the phone.” He turns his lenses toward the magician. “And she said she wants yer in front of the camera as well as behind it. Anyway, Loren wants to talk to us about it – she’s interested in yer camera equipment too. And some lights, and the Miller tripod.”
Ram’yana watches Wanderer gauge his reaction as a carfull of young redneck hoons races by in a hotted-up Olden, screaming abuse at the itinerant hippies. He wonders whether Wanderer can be serious about Loren’s interest, knowing his friend’s strong feelings toward the young anarcho-feminist. The slim, tall, dark haired student is a couple of years older than the teenage shaman and a year or two younger than the Cold Wanderer. “Oh c’mon,” the Canadian laughs. “Don’cha wanna let it all hang out?”
While the young magician considers his reply a squealing metal behemoth glides to a halt at the side of the road, spraying the young men with dust and gravel. The surprised hitchhikers grab their bags and sprint for the truck as the passenger door swings open a disquieting height above their heads. “C’mon you guys, time’s a’wastin’.” The unseen driver’s voice is slightly slurred but reassuringly jocular. Wanderer shoulders his pack and thrusts the well-stuffed bag ahead of him as he climbs the stepladder into the cluttered boozy interior of the cabin, followed quickly by Ram’yana.
Two rides and half a day later they kneel beside the burning roadside, shading their eyes against the blinding midday brilliance. “Yer don’t have to decide right away. Just think about it - Loren’s not in any hurry. See what she has to say.” Wanderer continues their earlier conversation as if the last few hundred miles have been a momentary interlude, and it takes a second or two for Ram’yana to understand what his blood brother is referring to.
They’ve had hours of inconsequential chat with the drivers who picked them up – the truckie, a local long-haired real estate agent with time on his hands to share a joint, and a brickie’s labourer in a ute covered with concrete dust – and the teenage shaman has other things on his mind. Random bees buzz around inside his felt bonnet; he’s still coming down from the previous eternal night’s life altering death-trip and he hasn’t slept a wink.
“Besides,” Wanderer continues, “Loren wants to shoot it up north on some farm – not in the city.”
“Loren’s mentioned a few ideas in the past – but yer better ask her in person.” Wanderer is studying an army survey map, meticulously lining up the large pastel contour sheet with a sturdy metal compass propped up on the uneven ground. “There, that’s about right – allowing for the shift in magnetic north, plus or minus.” Wanderer points to a precipitous range of atmospherically blue-shifted mountains lining the western horizon. “That’s what they call ‘Pigeon House’.”
A high volcanic peak shoulders its sharply pointed summit well above the surrounding ridges - a basalt outlier of the continent-spanning
“Right next to it is ‘The Castle’ – see that squarish formation? That’s the walk we need to do with the rest of the tribe. Starting here.” Wanderer points a tobacco-stained finger at a position on the second large sheet unfolded on the ground beside them - a meticulously hand-drawn large scale printed map, bearing more detailed illustrations and descriptions of the higher ridges and escarpments. Dotted lines show relatively safe, well-known walking tracks that meander through the remote and difficult terrain. “Past The Castle it’s supposed to be a full-on trek to and through the Valley of the Gods; we can go right across the Budawangs.”
The primeval volcanic peaks appear relatively tame on paper, but the ancient stony volcanic ridges on the blue horizon paint a rather different picture. The mountains are jagged, ancient, strangely compelling; Ram’yana finds his mind drifting into the dreaming peaks as he stares into the continental Great Dividing Range and the westering yellow Sun. “A great walk to keep everyone together and in shape,” Wanderer concludes as he climbs to his feet.
“Methinks a few of the clan may see things differently.” Ram’yana laughs, tilting the hand-drawn map to examine it more closely. “On paper it looks easy. Are these tracks really there - is this a recent drawing?” He compares the diagram with the rugged reality spreading before them on the horizon, all too aware of the maddening inadequacy of most maps that purport to accurately display landforms in such densely forested terrain.
“They are – I checked with the guy at Paddy Palin’s and a friend who’s done the walk; a war gamer mate of Ace’s. It’s a fairly well-trod trail, if yer follow the walking track. Otherwise… it ain’t. Once we’re on the escarpment the trail’s easy to follow – not many trees up there.”
Wanderer rolls himself a smoke and leaves the maps in Ram’s hands as he stands with arm outstretched before an approaching stream of traffic. He sticks out his thumb and shades his eyes to stare at the mountains, and lights another rollie when the cars have gone by without slowing. “Sure - it’s a good idea to stick to the trails up there. It’s pretty high, and yer don’t want to be caught out if the weather changes. We’ll be taking the tent, of course…”
“Not much climbing, it seems – not according to the map. Except at the beginning, at Pigeon House itself.” A trio of magpies alights on a nearby gum tree, eyeing the travelers suspiciously as the younger man bends to more closely examine the unfolded paper sheets. “‘Shrouded
Wanderer cuts him off. “The way I want to go it’s only fifty or eighty miles, depending on the route we take.” The uninhabited wilderness extends far beyond their vision, crossed only by animal tracks and a handful of known walking trails. “There’s a slightly quicker way too, if we need to get out for any reason. If we can get a lift to Pigeon House we can shave more’n ten miles off that, easy.”
Small islets of ‘civilisation’ dot the dreaming continent’s fringe, completely surrounded by a vast, convoluted and largely unexplored landscape. Primordial virgin forests protect the terrain from prying aerial eyes, and the ongoing destructive incursions of primary producers – loggers, miners and meat growers – are curtailed only by the unpredictable climate, the ruggedness of the landform and the miraculous ability it has to defend itself from meatheads.
The well-respected ‘resource extractors and land developers’ destroy an irreplaceable strand of the planetary ecosystem with each element and species they remove, as they take the living paradise gifted to all for themselves alone. These insensitive killer-ape rapists of Mother Nature operate freely and legally with no more moral justification than a burglar in an unguarded orphanage; a despoiling thief and cowardly destroyer of innocents. They pay legal bribes to short-sighted greedy authorities, who turn a blind eye to the unsupervised exploitation of the living planet. ‘That’s progress’, the rednecks and townies say with uncomprehending shrugs when anyone tells them their cousins and brothers are killing the planet.
As the loggers often point out (in a morally deficient expedient defense of their own activities), the cattle farmers are the worst land rapists of all - they destroy ancient forests and don’t allow the soil, forests or rivers to regenerate at all. The meat harvesters’ hard-hoofed horned beasts trample the sensitive soils of the Great Southland to compacted dry desert, covered only by a thin rind of grassy bum-fluff.
They cram as many poison-dipped, vermicide-injected, herbicide-eating, hormone-pumped livestock into as small a holding as possible and compound their fundamental ecological errors with primitive slash-and-burn techniques and poisonous chemicals, as they ‘clear’ and burn ever more trees for their overstocked soil-grubbing herds. They drive the cattle into supposedly protected sensitive forests to fatten them with ‘free’ feed, and wreak savage destruction on unique fragile rainforest ecosystems as their horned beasts instinctively create more grassland for themselves.
When people actually eat this necrotic ‘produce’ they consume the apogee of death itself, feeding on the feedback cycle of pointless terror and mass extinction. They become directly and intimately responsible for destroying their own future, and for cutting off the branch of the Tree of Life on which they depend.
The ‘hardy men and women of the land’ frankly know no better, emulating the massacres and mistakes of their pioneer grandfathers and grandmothers who migrated to the southern hemisphere from the already decimated Old and New Worlds. They recapitulate their ancestor’s mistakes in this distant, well-protected ‘separate Creation’ – and face the same inevitable consequences their families thought they’d managed to escape, in their search for more trees and soil to turn to rocks and sand.
In the quiet aftermath of most ancient civilizations, wherever the cities of the ancestors bustled and hustled, barely a tree now remains on the scarred face of the earth. Many centres of ancient metropolitan Humanity are now remote untrod wastelands, alternately concealed and revealed by the shifting sands of vast deserts that roam at the whim of an unceasing wind. The signs and lessons are everywhere to be seen, but people with memories even shorter than their lifespans never learn anything of consequence or consequences.
Anywhere else in the ‘developed world’ (except perhaps Amerika), domesticated primates are finally comprehending the magnitude of their mistakes. The way landholders in Oz abuse soil, air, rivers and lifeforms is recognised by other, partially enlightened societies for what it is – a selfish, unsustainable slash-and-burn aggro-culture, whose scorched-earth policy’s profits only last until the exposed soil blows away and washes into the once pristine fresh waterways.
The rivers and creeks are already choked with mud and sediment that silts up the swimming holes, fish breeding areas and impassable river mouths, ruining the ecosystems and economies of inland ghost towns and once-thriving coastal ports and trashing the decimated fisheries. Not many streams are safe to drink, and a large number are even unsafe to swim in. Soils that were created by the patient action of a hundred thousand years of slow organic processes have drained away into the abyssal ooze of the ocean depths in a single century or less.
Most of the riverine life is gone, many streams are unusably acidic or poisonous and the wetlands have been dried out and trampled, destroying the breeding grounds of vast flocks of insect-eating birds - which once ate the pests that now predate and feast on the farmers’ crops and kept them under control. ‘That’s progress’, as the multinational chemical and feed marketers and their political honchos teach the serfs to say – but there isn’t any progression; just more looting, destruction, extinction and mental regression. The Great Southland of Oz is an Idiocracy, trapped in the racist, romantic colonial dreams of an empire that crumbled a lifetime before and ruled by remote wizards behind impenetrable curtains of corporate misdirection.
As they relax on the edge of the continent-spanning ribbon of road, young Prince Ram’yana and the Cold Wanderer nibble dried fruit and nuts and drain their army surplus water bottles in the sweltering unshaded heat. The nearest trees are far away on distant hillsides, where the untamably steep slopes make slaughtering the renascent forests and the creatures that live in them uneconomical – for now. The Centraxians inhale the clotted rural stenches of fecund manure, freshly mown pastures, powdery pesticides and a rotting bovine carcass left lying in a nearby field.
The only intermittent breeze is generated by the throng passing by in their mobile metal cages, staring blankly at the young hitchhikers and the whole wide world through thick windscreens and dark sunglasses. “Here’s the Valley of the Monuments,” Wanderer indicates on the map, “and see – there’s plenty of water along the way.” They study the topography for a while, taking turns to stand with arms outstretched in optimistic entreaty to the passing cars.
“It’s always harder to hitch with two instead of one – if you’re both male.” Ram’yana waves to a longhaired couple in a Kombi van as it hurtles past. “Not even the hippies are stopping.” A flock of kookaburras laughs in synchronous cacophony from a nearby gum tree.
“But it’s safer,” Wanderer insists. “Just keep yer arm out - they like to see you sweat. It’s even harder getting a ride with a beard, believe me,” he grumbles. “Besides, this stretch doesn’t have a great rep for easy lifts. It’s all a redneck wasteland and tourist trap – nothing but local utes and bright flashy cars.” New cars are usually the last to stop for hitchhikers. “It has a bad rep for other reasons, too…”
The young shaman remembers the slip of paper in his breast pocket and his hand automatically reaches for it. He checks to ensure that the diagram he drew in the candlelight of early morning – a sketched view of the vision he had in his deathless fugue state - is still there. He pulls the sheet from his pocket and unfolds it before passing it to the Canadian. “What do you think of this?” His companion turns the drawing around a couple of times, trying to make sense of the scrawled notes that surround the central image. “What’s it supposed to be?”
“What does it look like?”
“A torus or a tornado?” Wanderer squints into the afternoon sunlight, his blue-grey eyes glaring impatiently at the shaman prince. Ram’yana smiles at his impatient fellow tribesman as he replies; “Something I saw last night.” He sweeps his arm in a graceful arc that fails to elicit any reaction from the obdurate driver of a recycled troop carrier. The teenager faces into the spinning slipstream and savours the breeze generated by the brick-like four wheel drive’s non-existent streamlining. He misses the shade provided by his long thick mane, but keeps his hair rolled up inside the felt beret - a wise course if he wants to get a lift from a passing straight or redneck; Wanderer’s long hair and beard is handicap enough. “It’s a pretty rough sketch.”
Ram’yana turns toward the highway to keep his smile hidden from his companion. “It’s what the universe looks like from the outside.” Sure enough, Wanderer takes the bait. “Outside where? Outside what?” He pounces on the nub of the issue. “You can’t be outside the universe. It’s folded around itself – the inside is the outside.” The Cold Wanderer scowls and hands the piece of paper back to the tribal magician.
“Exactly.” Ram’yana agrees, folding the sheet carefully along its creases before slipping it back into his pocket, while the other man does the same with the large scale map. “And when you’re outside time you’re outside space.” The Cold Wanderer studiously ignores what he obviously considers to be pointless ramblings. He resumes rereading a dog-eared copy of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers while the hitchhikers wait for their next ride to materialise.
Daylight reddens and a welcome wind rises, heralding the sun’s immanent departure over the mountainous forested horizon. The Centraxians watch billowing clouds form above the peaks, enjoying the timely pause in their trek along the narrow fertile strip of land squeezed between the Great Divide and the even greater Pacific. Lack of sleep, Wanderer’s incessant reading and the amazingly beautiful end of the long hot day conspire to silence the young men’s conversation. As an uncountable assembly of wheeling white waterfowl circles overhead in the reddening light the young men grow lackadaisical, barely rising in time to stand with upthrust thumbs when a potential lift approaches.
“Maybe we’d better set up camp for the night in the forest,” Wanderer muses aloud, eyeing a nearby copse of sheltering brush that grows beneath a sparse stand of tall gum trees. Instant refutation of the idea arrives in the form of a battered white utility that screeches to a halt a considerate fifty paces down the road, throwing up the mandatory billowing cloud of dust and gravel.
The driver is another sun-bronzed concrete-dusted brickie, on his way home from a very long day. He whistles to the piebald sheepdog prowling the tray of the miniaturised pickup truck and the dog leaps to the ground, eyeing and sniffing the strangers suspiciously while circling them at a safe distance. Satisfied, it leaps through the open passenger window without another glance. “Climb in the back,” the builder yells.
Wanderer catches the younger man’s eye as he’s about to unload his burden. “Don’t throw your pack in first.” The more experienced and cynical traveler pushes past and climbs in before Ram’yana; he levers himself into a sitting position on the edge of the tray with his pack on his back, and winks at the teenager before dropping backward into the ute, like a parachutist exiting a light plane. An overblown sigh explodes from Wanderer’s pursed cheeks as Ram’yana follows suit, falling into the back of the messy work vehicle fully encumbered.
He hasn’t even landed on his lumpy steel-framed backpack when the utility roars off, hurling them both to the rear of the aluminium tray. “One day they’ll make riding in the back illegal,” the young shaman prophesies to his blood brother as the Centraxians slip the heavy packs from their backs and roll to their knees, bouncing and jostling above the poorly-sprung rear wheels.
“How far ya goin’?” The driver calls out through the window when they reach cruising speed.
“All the way!” Wanderer yells back, bracing himself against a heavy rolled tarpaulin that still reeks of wet dog even in the seventy mile per hour slipstream; speed limits have only recently been imposed on the open highways of eastern Oz and many Munchkins still don’t pay much attention to such restrictions. As Ram’yana twists around to seat himself more securely the wind tears at his thin cotton shirt and rips the carefully hoarded slip of paper from his breast pocket. The sheet flies away, unfurling into the Venturi vortices funneling out behind the dashing vehicle - and disappears into the picturesque sunset.
The stunned shaman stares aghast into the fading light, re-burning the image sketched on the lost page – the carefully etched drawing of the universe’s universal vortex - into his mind’s retina. The only way to truly keep it, he sighs resignedly, staring down the unscrolling black road as it swallows the flapping paper in a tenebrous time tunnel of entropic decay.
Ram’s mind fixes on the oft-remembered image of Winston’s Smith’s photographic ‘proof’ of a universally denied fact, when the rebellious bureaucrat tried to defend his passionate actions while being tortured by the Ministry of Truth. He recalls Smith’s hoarded piece of irreplaceable newsprint disappearing into O’Brian’s Big Brother furnace. Orwell’s widely transmitted vision flashes through the young magician’s awareness and he redoubles his effort to memorise the ineffable shape of the cosmos itself - as seen by an observer impossibly outside the cosmic system of systems.
The driver yells something about only going another fifty miles while the sky turns a bloody scarlet and Winston Smith’s terrible realisation of the impossibility of proof resonates in Ram’s mind. Still a few years before 1984, he reminds himself as he hunkers down out of the wind. “Lose something?” Wanderer asks, not taking his eyes from his Heinlein in the waning light.
“Nothing important after all,” the shaman replies. Little escapes the notice of the Cold Wanderer, who rolls a cigarette inside his folded coat with one hand as he turns another page. “Nothing at all.”
“No more moon in another hour.” Wanderer waves in the direction of the thin amber crescent following the sun over the rim of the world. He finishes his one-paper rollie and slips the slim tube behind his ear before wrapping the huge German greatcoat around his boney frame. The nomad lights the fag inside the woolen coat’s voluminous folds with the first strike of a match, shielding the fleeting flare of flame from the seventy-knot wind.
Ram’yana holds onto his beret while he pulls a poncho from his pack and secures its straps and buckles. As he watches the rolling rangelands become more hilly forested country, the teenage shaman drapes the cape over his head and waits for a break in Wanderer’s reading, before he begins to tell his companion about yesterday’s extra-planar adventure.
Half an hour later the Centraxians peer after the ute’s retreating tail lights and settle their backpacks onto a narrow strip of tall, sticky, shadowy weeds. They stand in the humid evening heat, confined between the sun-warmed roadway and a large herd of dangerous looking long-horned cattle, barely restrained by three strands of rusted barbed wire. The horned beasts glare and snort at the young men while a bull chases a small group of young steers away from the heifers in twilight’s last gloaming.
No tree is left in the once ancient forest land and the desiccating paddocks fade into starlit pools of regularly spaced rectangular darkness, separated by dim dusty strips of dead-end roads. Traffic on the highway has thinned beyond a trickle, an intermittent drip of unrequited hope for the pair of hitchhikers enfolded in the velvet cloak of a moonless night. Kookaburras cackle their Last Post and the cattle respond with a deafening, mournful lowing. “It’s easy to see why the ancients warned that new moon isn’t the best time for traveling,” Ram’yana observes.
“Spare me yer astrological musings. No place to crash out here, and not much room to pull over.” The Cold Wanderer’s face is garishly illumined from beneath by flaring matchlight. The sulphurous phosphorous reek is joined by the odour of his wine-mulled tobacco, competing with the rustic fug of manure and slashed pasture.
“’Tis a matter of light, if naught else,” the young princeling avers with ill-concealed annoyance. A slight breeze rises when the Sky Goddess rustles one of Her tenebrous wings, as she peers down at the flashing red and white lights of a passenger plane bisecting the unmistakable constellation of Canis major. Ram’yana stares at the shimmering blue brilliance of the Dog Star while the little blinking lights fade into the distant haze, trailed by the fading clatter and roar of a battery of propellers.
As Ram’yana rolls a joint in the darkness, a fine netting of invisible sticky strands rides down out of the silent sky and begins to shroud the Centraxians in a surprising mantle of finely shimmering gossamer. Festooning their hair, clothes, baggage and faces with a fey glistening sheath, the strands are tantalisingly insubstantial in the light of the overarching Milky Way. The hair-like substance wafts in long festive streamers from overhead power lines and the endless barbed wire fence.
Wanderer throws a dark hooded cloak over his heavy coat and brushes the webbing from his face and beard while Ram’yana sweeps up a handful of the tenacious fragile stuff and rolls it into a small ball of silvery faerie floss in his palms. “Spider webs,” he announces, marveling at the unheralded sight as night-shifted rainbows appear all around them. Eldritch colours are refracted through innumerable constellations of clumping strands, waving like an ethereal seascape in the waxing illumination of approaching headlights. “Riding the sky to find a home. Thousands of them.”
The Cold Wanderer’s tone is uncharacteristically whimsical. “Millions, actually; who knows? The answer is blowing in the wind.” The point of his rollie extends toward the organic rainbow streamers waving in the approaching light. “These must be the Spiders from Mars - and here comes
“He’s working late,” the Canadian gasps, fending off Ram’s impending ‘bless you’ with the outstretched silhouette of his hand. “So - what’s this I hear about yer planning on expanding yer duties - the court Hierophant taking on the role of Magus as well? Aren’t the duties associated with two Trumps a little onerous, even for an upcoming prince such as yerself?” Wanderer’s sarcastic feline grin flares redly as he sucks on his smoke. An elaborate strategist and cautious tactician, the Cold Wanderer keeps the glowing cigarette shielded within his cupped inverted hand - always alert for potential snipers. “Typical Libran – can’t ever make a choice,” he snorts. “You want an each-way bet.”
Ram’yana squats on his haunches and lights a more fragrant smoke of his own. The bright-eyed rampant eagles tooled into his knee-length leather boots glow in the match light; he scrapes the arachnid floss onto their leather soles while he considers his reply; How can I be effective as tribal shaman unless I’m a trained magician? And surely he’s aware of the rising level of psychic attack we’ve been experiencing…
“So y’are thinking of joining the Group,” Wanderer deduces from his silence. “Some of us wonder where yer allegiance will lie if yer join the magic circle club.” He pauses as Ram’yana bites back a hot response that burns between his teeth; despite the darkness, the sensitive anarchist is aware of the prince’s struggle to respond to his blood brother’s insinuation of dishonour with a measured reply.
Ram’yana takes a deep toke on the joint before answering the charge, lighting its twisted fuse on Wanderer’s rollie. His words come out in a rush as he exhales smoke into the fading zephyrs of the highway. “Nathan tells me that although the Group will accept me now, it’s against his notion of ancient magical traditions to initiate me before my majority.
“His reasoning may be clear when applied to most, and applied within the old Piscean age - but certain cultures would already consider me a late bloomer and others a precocious overachiever. These things are culturally variable and the Marcon’s certainly not correct as far as I’m concerned. Not this time.”
The Cold Wanderer’s response comes right on the heels of Ram’s reasoned declamation. “So the tribal Judge’s judgment doesn’t suit, eh? Well – yer are the tribe’s Shaman and a dutifully devoted squire to His Majesty…” The anarchist employs the inappropriate title for Lord Kha-Aan sarcastically, using the sneering tone he reserves for all mentions of monarchy and pointless honourifics. “…and yer loyalty is beyond doubt, if more than a little embarrassingly naïve. But no-one else can decide for yer. Just one question - does the Group know yer real age?” Wanderer waits in the dark for a reply, but none is forthcoming.
“I thought not – and Nathan is the Judge, after all. No-one objected to him assuming the Trump of Justice when he joined the court. I warned Kha-Aan – and yerself – at the time, about such a dangerous interpretation of the Lore. Now maybe yer see what I meant,” the tribal logician concludes triumphantly. “It’s bad enough that y’all go on and on with this medieval horseshit and feudal claptrap…”
“Aye, I know,” Ram’yana interrupts him before the anarchist repeats his well rehearsed anti-nobility refrain. “It appears to be against all democratic and Centraxian principles to leave ultimate decisions to a single being, not the court itself; ’tis a suitable role for the Marcon, and he balances the rash judgments of certain others in the court – but he’s not the judge in all things, surely?
“I put it to him that with what we’ve already faced - and we’re very likely to be dealing with more attacks, psychic and otherwise, in the near future - we need all the knowledge and skills we can muster.” He presses the point while Kha-Aan’s General considers the logic of his retort. “It isn’t just Centraxis - you know that the Group’s last
“And?” Wanderer prompts. “That makes further association between our two groups more desirable?” He continues before the magician can respond. “What was Nathan’s final judgment?”
Ram’yana finally passes Wanderer the joint and rolls another ball of floss in his hands as he speaks. “He told me to decide for myself. Of course it’s a dilemma. Of course it’s on my mind all the time. So speak to me not of fealty, brother. Those who suggest divided loyalties project their own worst desires and fears. All fealty within the Centrax is based on liberty, equality and the bonds of the tribal family – all we are is built on foundations of friendship and honour.
“And ’tis not as if magicians of the Dawn of Ra aren’t already members of Centraxis – fellow members of the court that we trust intimately.”
Wanderer’s ready reply is aborted by the sudden appearance of a low streaking meteorite that trails sparkling flames across the heavens, tumbling and burning beneath the firmament. “‘The time it takes for falling bodies to catch light…’” Ram’yana mumbles on the edge of coherence before clearing his throat. “Make a wish…”
“You see there?” The arcng ember of Wanderer’s cigarette marks a decan of sky. “That’s Alcyone, in that stellar cluster.”
“The Pleiades? She’s one of those?”
“The Seven Sisters they call them, though one’s gone missing since the time of the Greeks. Can yer count seven? Never mind – there’re thousands of stars in that cluster. Most of them are a little young – but it’d be a great place for life to expand. Lots of nearby suns in easy reach and plenty of interstellar fuel…”
“A little beyond the local StarForce megahex map, though.”
“A lot further than twenty light years,” Wanderer agrees. “Five hundred, I believe.” He stubs out his cigarette. “The spiders have stopped doing their thing.”
“Is that bright one Alcyone – or Maia?” Ram’yana peers into the night as triple beams of light approach over the breast of a distant hill, ruining the men’s emerging night vision. The dazzling rays twist through wisps of mist that condense and coalesce out of the silent airy ocean, while the Centraxian wayfarers stand upon its spacious seafloor and climb to their feet.
The angelic spider hair flows like transparent seaweed in the breezy currents, glowing eerily as it streams from the interminable barbed fence and electric wires. Nocturnal rainbows flare through the flimsy film, receding to dark infinity beyond the blinding high beams and roof-mounted spotlight of a battered beige station wagon that slides to a screeching halt beside the hitchhikers.
“Get inna back,” a voice growls from within the dark interior. “How far’r ya goin’?” The rear door springs open and the overhead light reveals two hirsute faces turned toward them above the stained flannel shirts of two rural workers slouching in the front seat of the car.
“All the way,” Wanderer replies as he pushes Ram’yana across the wide bench seat in the rear of the wagon. He barely closes the door in time when the driver floors the accelerator and the men in the front begin to laugh uproariously. The dusty vehicle is rank with the smell of tobacco and whiskey, and Ram’yana is pressed back into the seat by the unexpectedly powerful acceleration of the battered-looking car. He looks over his shoulder to see if there’s room for his pack in the back, but the dimly lit space is filled with greasy tool boxes, wide-bladed axes and a large chainsaw that rocks around on a filthy mattress as the station wagon screams along the highway.
“All the way! Too right! So are we!” The bearded passenger in the front seat turns and produces a gap-toothed wet grin and a half-drained bottle of Bourbon. “All th’ fuckin’ way! Wanna fuckin’ drink?” The strong oak-tinted odour fills the vehicle, almost overwhelming the stench of the man’s rancid breath.
“Wouldn’t mind a swig,” Wanderer replies as he gamely accepts the bottle. He swallows a mouthful and catches Ram’s eye, his brow furrowing in semi-concealed concern when the gap-toothed man turns away. Ram’s foot slides across another bottle rolling on the floor when the wagon fishtails round a bend, barely missing a couple of six-foot tall ‘roos that miraculously leap from their path at the last conceivable instant. The kangaroos are instantly swallowed into formless darkness and the mustachioed driver’s snickering laugh booms forth again. “Lucky fuckin’ bastards! Jus’ missed bein’ fuckin’ supper!”
Ram’yana searches for a seatbelt in the darkness but the station wagon doesn’t seem to be equipped with any; the men in the front are similarly unrestrained. His sixth and seventh senses tingle as he braces himself against the door and stares out the window. The highway is completely bereft of other traffic and the station wagon swerves wildly through a rolling plain of misty darkness. Except for the narrow winding white lines outlined by the actinic beams of the speeding, rollicking wagon the entire world is invisibly absent, a swirling void.
Occasional dim yellow lights mark out distant isolated homesteads, but these fog-smeared signs of lonely outposts disappear as they enter a tall eucalypt forest, where dimly perceived ghostly branches twist together overhead to form a titanic arching tunnel. The living corridor pours past as the car careens along the narrowing road and their rapid flight through the curving tube ensures that Ram’yana slips into a semi-hypnotised reverie, unavoidably reminded of his all-too-recent brush with immortality.
The exhausted teenager’s eyes close as he relives and recapitulates the endless falling flight down the twisting tunnel of light that waits at the end and beginning of all life’s journeys. He mourns – not for the loss of his mortal innocence, but over the loss of his hand-drawn sketch; an utterly inadequate drawing of the multidimensional landscape revealed to him in the epiphany of his shamanic death, but a nonetheless palpably genuine souvenir of his self-initiation.
Ram’s emerald eyes open onto the ‘real’ here and now of the endless tunnel of human experience and he sighs in surrender to the inevitable. Life goes on. Then the thought that will haunt him for years returns for the second time since his brief death; Or does it? What if this is all just a dream, and my body’s lying somewhere under a shroud, waiting to be placed in a coffin? And… how can I possibly know?
The driver grabs the bottle from the swaying drunken arm of his friend and takes a long pull, handing it back to the hitchhikers with a loud burp. Wanderer’s concern shows in his dash-lit face as he catches Ram’s eye. The half-entranced teenager leans forward to accept the whiskey and notices the shotgun propped upright between the front passenger’s knees.
His heart jumps, leapfrogging him out of his slumberous languor onto a plane of frightened and heightened awareness. His widening eyes sidle toward Wanderer; he nods surreptitiously and slides his gaze toward the gun as he leans back and passes the bottle to his companion.
Wanderer pretends to swallow a gulp, leans forward and freezes imperceptibly as he passes the whisky to the shotgun’s owner. The vehicle weaves from one side of the highway to the other as it suddenly slows and the Centraxian shaman automatically glances into the bright weaving tunnel beyond the chipped windscreen.
The men in the front exchange a besotted and nakedly conspiratorial glance as the car swerves alarmingly, and the rustic strangers’ ill intent glows as brightly as a neon danger sign, in the smiles that curl their predatory grins and the shared quasi-sexual intensity glittering in their rheumy, bloodshot eyes. Wanderer jams his pack against the door and makes sure the shaman sees him grip the glittering metal handle beneath the cover of its bulk. Ram braces himself and follows suit as Wanderer’s free hand unbuckles the side pouch of his pack and wraps around the broad hilt of his long-bladed
The driver spins the wheel and the station wagon fishtails alarmingly as he turns abruptly from the highway, sliding around a corner that flares out of the brightly lit tunnel in the bouncing rays of the headlights. The primitive swaybar suspension barely keeps the brick-like vehicle on track when they slide off the highway and begin to spin out on the non-existent shoulder of a tree-lined forest road. The car barely misses the bloated bole of a massive gum that expands alarmingly in the headlights and slips past at the last moment.
“Don’ worry!” the driver yells. “We jus’ need t’pick summing up!” The wagon accelerates to shoot through a narrow one-lane track cutting through thick woodland regrowth, and shrubs slap at the sides of the wagon as it sways from side to side. “Yeah!” his partner agrees, “no wuckin’ furries!” He turns and shows them his broken teeth before fixing his attention on the driver. The Centraxians nod to each other as time stretches into slow motion and turns to treacle, every tiny detail illumined and engraved in the instant of their suddenly expanded awareness.
The driver swears and pumps the brakes as he spins the steering wheel, momentarily slowing their insanely swerving plunge into the forest as the car slides around a sharp bend. Before he can regain control and accelerate again the young men open the back doors and roll from the car in a simultaneous harmony of motion, pushing their packs before them to cushion the unavoidable impact with the dirt road.
It all happens very slowly. Ram’yana lands on his pack, bounces once and executes a perfect Aikido roll in a gritty cloud of dust. Time catches up with him when his virtually uncontrollable roll comes to a halt between a tree trunk and a jagged stump, and he comes up in a crouch next to a thicket of blackberries; his battered backpack bounces to a halt within arm’s reach, barely missing him. He grabs his baggage in the flaring red brake lights of the dust-enveloped wagon, which crunches to a sliding halt a scant thirty paces along the road.
The escapees - both hurled to the same side of the road as the car spun around the bend – face each other in stunned shock, their eyes glittering in the shifting light. Wanderer stands in the lee of a massive gum tree, frozen in the dust-shrouded darkness only a few paces from his young friend. The Centraxians stare at each other for a stunned moment and then sprint into the forest without word or signal. Shadows wheel about them as the station wagon attempts to turn around on the narrow track while they lug their baggage into deeper darkness. The night swallows the fleeing men and they use all their remaining senses to avoid the worst of myriad obstacles and snags while the car reverses blindly through its thick aura of choking dust and backs into a tree with a resounding crunch.
An incoherently shouted curse is followed by the blinding flare of the vehicle’s spotlight. Shadows wheel madly, disorienting the fugitives as a roof-mounted ’roo-light pans jerkily through the forest. A pair of startled fluorescing orange eyes gleams brightly on a low branch as Ram hurls himself flat in the tangling brush, vines and leaf-litter, a fleet instant before the dancing beam intersects his fleeing path.
A True Story
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