Extract from CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT
The Settlement, forest near Pemberton,
South West Western Australia
The group were getting ready to go on a Wrecking when Arika’s Changing started.
Narrah heard the strangled choke in Arika’s throat and spun around. Arika was lying on the wooden floor of the hut, her limbs tense. Her green eyes turned up in her head and then closed. Narrah gulped. His mouth was dry and his heart was racing as he watched his twin sister turn pale and shiver like rippling water. Her little face looked very fragile under her black shoulder-length hair. The water lily drawn in dots of white clay paint that curved around her left eye from forehead to cheekbone twisted and jumped. Narrah had painted the lily on his sister’s face with his fingers just yesterday. How long ago that seemed now.
‘It’s started,’ Manya, the twin’s foster-mother said. ‘It is time.’
Manya had taken care of the twins ever since they had become orphans at five years old. Was Arika leaving him now? Narrah never wanted to feel alone like he had when their parents died. It had been raining that day and the forest was dark. He could still smell the strong eucalyptus scent rising off the huge karri trees that stood like crying gods dripping tears on the little lost humans far below. He and Arika used to think of the giant trees as forest deities. It was impossible not to, having grown up underneath their trunks, squinting into the sun every day to try and see their waving tops tickling the sky. But if they were gods, Narrah thought, then they were just as cruel and indifferent as any others he had heard about in Manya’s stories and in the Settlement’s few books she had used to teach the twins to read.
Narrah glanced at Manya’s wrinkled face and then back at Arika. Yes, it was time, he knew. Arika was thirteen.
‘Soon, it will be your turn,’ Manya said to him, ‘but not yet.’
Narrah stared down at Arika’s face, normally so like his own but now a set mask twisted by occasional spasms. Each time the nerves under Arika’s skin flickered, Narrah felt a chill run through him. Arika shuddered a little and Narrah jumped. Was she in pain? What was she feeling? Did she know he was there?
Up until a few moments before, Arika had been standing normally and Narrah had been in touch with her feelings, as he always had. The twins had shared their lives like that, from a distance, for as long as they could remember. They called it the Path. It was like a road that linked them. They could walk along it, meet and then sense each other’s precise thoughts as if they were standing together. They used the Path for their most secret and personal things.
Now the Changing had separated them. Since the Great Madness, it had happened to everyone they knew who reached their teens. It seemed to wait inside them until then. The twins had desperately wanted to understand the Changing and find the truth about the Great Madness before their time ran out. And now it had.
For months the twins had talked about it, and Narrah had sensed Arika’s fear while she had sensed his. They had known that girls entered the Changing earlier than boys, and that meant they couldn’t experience it together. Now Narrah could feel nothing of what Arika was going through. The Path had not given any warning that Arika was about to go into her Changing right at that moment, and now the Path was closed. That separation scared Narrah more than he could have expected. The simple wooden hut and the life the twins had always known seemed very small.
A kookaburra’s cackling laugh broke out nearby. Narrah glanced out the window. The chunky brown bird was sitting out there somewhere among the endless trees. The kookaburra always sounded jolly, and Arika used to love watching the family building its nest and the chicks growing up. But the kookaburra laughed just as loudly while it broke the backs of the snakes it ate.
Narrah looked at Arika and shivered as her skin flickered again. ‘Arika? Can you hear me?’
‘It’s no good, Narrah. She’s passing through the Changeland. There’s nothing anyone can do until she comes out of it.’
Narrah shook as another spasm went through Arika’s body and sweat broke out on her forehead. It hurt him to see her like this.
‘Let’s move her to the bed,’ Manya said.
Narrah realised that he had been too shocked by the start of her Changing to think of helping Arika before. They carried Arika to her bed in the other room and laid her down.
‘Now leave her. I know it is hard for you, Narrah, but I will take care of her. No other young one should watch the Changing take place. It scares and upsets them too much.’
I’m not scared for myself. I’m scared for Arika. Where is she now? What’s she going through in the Changeland?
A thick white cloud surrounded Arika. She turned around, looking, but there was nothing apart from the cloud. This must be the Changeland. Arika had the sensation of standing on the ground, but she couldn’t see it.
She took some deep breaths and reached out to Narrah with her mind, but the Path was closed. A stab of panic ran through her. Arika had lived her whole life in contact with Narrah, and now the Changeland had separated them.
The white cloud grew thinner in front of Arika’s eyes. She looked down. She could see her own body clearly now and the same short pants, green shirt and rope sandals she had been wearing. Arika had helped fine-spin the wool for these clothes and prepare the dyes for the colours last year. She put a hand to her throat. Her string necklace with the painted wooden gecko was still there. So, she was dressed exactly the same as she had been back in the Settlement. But where was she?
In front of her, the cloud grew still thinner. Arika saw huge gleaming structures that towered up way above her head. People were going in and out of them. Buildings. She had never seen any so tall. How could people live in such high places like birds?
The whole scene was silent. The metal and plastic shone brightly, but the sky had a dirty grey tinge and the air made her cough. It tasted of smoke, metal and oil. So different from the world she knew, where buildings and machines were old and run-down, but the air was clean and the sky was clear.
As Arika watched, further details became apparent. Between the tall structures ran a wide grey road on which shiny cars raced up and down. Arika made to jump out of the way of them. How fast they were! She had only known cars as rusting heaps of metal.
What is this place? Arika looked around her. Then she saw a sign on a tall metal pole. It said City of Perth.
Perth? The youngest ones from the Settlement were forbidden to go there. Manya said it was a place of collapsed, burnt-out buildings overgrown with plants. The City People lived there, surrounded by the ghosts of those who died in the Great Madness. And the ghosts of all the machines they used to have back then. Arika wasn’t sure what those machines were, but how could they have ghosts? Narrah was intrigued by these stories and wanted to find out if they were true. Arika found it all very creepy. Still, the Perth she had heard about was nothing like this. Here, everything was new and shiny. If only Narrah were here.
Arika walked on, the roaring sound of the cars and the constant hum of the city getting louder with each step. Arika covered her ears as the noise grew and grew. After a while, she took her hands away from her ears, but the noise was so loud that she wanted to cover them again. She resisted and soon got used to the snarl of the cars. Arika saw the people on the streets walk by as if they didn’t notice it. Did they really live like this? And how clean and new their clothes looked. Their hair. Their skin. In the Settlement, survival was everything. Here it looked as if survival was so easy that everyone could concentrate on their appearance.
These people passing her on the street couldn’t see her, Arika realised. They paid a lot of attention to their computers and phones, though. Talking, tapping on them, staring at them. These objects were not allowed in the Settlement. The Wreckers smashed them wherever they were found.
Here in the Changeland, she was somehow seeing the city as it was in the past, before she was born. There had been no Great Madness in this place. Not yet. How can that be?
And all these huge buildings that surrounded her, taller than the great trees in the forest around the Settlement! Arika stretched her neck back to try and see the top of the tallest building. The sun beat down from the wide blue sky and gleamed on the shiny sides of the towering structures. Her eyes watered due to the sunlight and she lowered her head, blinking. She brushed her eyes with the back of her hand. When she looked up again, a big white car was heading straight for her. Arika jumped quickly to one side and the car flashed past.
Arika tried to tell herself that all this was inside her mind. Her body was lying in a coma in the hut at the Settlement. Then another part of her said that the sound of these cars was very loud and real-sounding. And this hard grey ground was very solid under her feet. Her racing heartbeat and breathing were very real.
Arika saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She turned and then jumped in surprise. At the street corner stood an echidna. She saw its rounded back covered with spikes, its pointed snout and stubby legs. A spiny anteater here? She was used to seeing echidnas near the Settlement, but what was this one doing in the city? She watched as it moved around the corner and disappeared. This was a creature from her world, Arika told herself. Maybe it would guide her out of here. She ran to the end of the street, dodging the people.
The echidna was gone. Arika caught her breath and looked around quickly. She saw the echidna’s snout poking out from behind the building on the opposite corner. It was watching her and waiting. Arika dashed across the road, narrowly avoiding the cars.
The echidna was far ahead now. How it could move so fast, Arika wondered as she ran towards it. They were normally very slow. She noticed that the sky was getting dark, as if twilight were approaching. The echidna turned left at the end of the block. Arika ran on. The number of people on the streets was smaller all the time, until she was alone.
The light in the sky was close to the dusk of evening. There were no lights in the buildings and the street lamps were dead. Waste paper and other rubbish lay all over the pavement. A sheet of newspaper blew past her, rattling in the wind. Arika looked behind her. Just the same back there. Everything had changed. The city that had been so alive before was now dead. A cold shiver ran through her. What to do now? The echidna had vanished, but she could still try to head in the direction it had been following. Arika walked on. The twilight and the silence closed in around her.
At the next intersection, Arika saw lights off to the right. There was some noise as well. She walked that way, feeling a glow of excitement. Perhaps she wasn’t completely alone here after all.
Tall buildings lined the street all the way along, not new and shiny as before, but dirty and stained with bird droppings. Many of the windows were broken. Some doors hung on their hinges, as if they had been smashed open. These were the same kind of buildings as before, but now there were no people, and everything was run-down. The new, perfect city of Perth no longer existed. Not here.
Arika turned around. Everything behind her was just the same now. Dirt, rubbish, decay. A flock of small birds flashed into view and her heart jumped. Arika walked on and took the first turning she found. Dogs were barking in the distance. A pack of them chasing something, Arika thought. She went on more quickly.
Eventually, the street opened into a wide square. A horrible smell leapt at her. Various fires were burning in metal drums all over the square. There were people standing around the fires, their outlines flickering like shadows.
In the dim light, Arika could see that the buildings and cars were all broken and filthy. And that smell! A man moved away from one of the fires and came towards her. He was carrying something in one hand. The shadows swallowed him for a few seconds. Arika waited, her heart pounding. Who was he and what did he want? When the man stepped into the light of another fire, Arika screamed. His face was twisted with madness and hate and stained with blood around the mouth. A Feral. The man lifted up his other hand and Arika screamed again. He was holding a human foot, dripping blood. Now she could see other Ferals, male and female, lumbering around by the fires, cooking bits of human bodies. Arika wanted to run, but she felt frozen to the spot.
The Feral stepped closer. Arika forced herself to turn and then ran back the way she had come. More Ferals. She turned down another street, crashing into a lamppost with her knee. Pain shot down her leg but she ran on. The Ferals chasing her were slower than she was, but more of them appeared from a side street. Arika kept racing through the twilight, not knowing where she was going, but just away from that horror.
The sound of pounding feet behind her grew fainter and Arika slowed to a walk. Her breath was coming in gasps and her eyes stung. She realised that she must have been screaming and crying while she ran.
She felt her feet slide on the ground and saw orange dust rise up. Arika looked down. The ground was no longer the hard grey stuff of the city streets but this dirt. She saw some tall shapes in the fading light. Arika had never seen anything like them. They were twice her height, reddish colour and wedge-shaped. There were no more city buildings, either. Only those wedge-like structures and scraggly trees as far as she could see.
Arika looked back. The shapes were behind her as well. How had she got past without noticing them? It was all so strange. And where was the city now? This is the Changeland. Probably nothing makes sense here. Or maybe it does, but with its own rules. She felt cold panic creep over her but fought to stay calm. I just need to learn the rules. Like what are these tall shapes? There must be some reason why they are here in the Changeland.
Arika walked up to one of the towers. It was not regular and smooth but rough, and tapering at the top. She put out her hand. It was made of tightly packed earth. She could feel the grittiness.
New towers seemed to spring up out of the ground. When she moved around one, there was always another. Like they were blocking her in. There was no way through them. Arika placed her hands against one and pushed as hard as she could, trying to break through, gasping with the effort until her body ached, but it was no good. She collapsed on the ground, exhausted, sobbing again. She wished that Narrah could sense her thoughts, but she was totally alone. Arika tried to get her breath back and think clearly. She stopped sobbing and sat up.
Arika heard a scratching sound, like an animal digging with its claws. She shivered and looked around. For a moment, she saw the echidna again, and then it disappeared.
Damn echidna! It’s your fault I’m in this mess. Her mind raced as she tried to understand all that she had just seen. Somehow, the echidna had led her into another time period. Out of the shiny city of the past and into the time of the Great Madness. And now it had brought her into a completely different place. I just have to get out of here.
‘You can’t leave, Arika,’ a man’s voice said. ‘You followed me in here.’
Arika jumped up.
‘Who are you? How do you know my name?’
She couldn’t see anyone. He must be hiding behind one of these towers. It was getting dark now and difficult to see.
‘Where am I?’ Arika asked, unable to keep her voice from trembling.
‘In your Changeland.’ The voice came from a different place. ‘Trapped in my memories of just before and after the Great Madness.’
‘That was before I was born. It was like that?’
Arika’s mind ran ahead. So, everything I have seen in here is someone else’s memories. And I am walking through them. She shuddered.
‘I enjoyed the days of the Madness. Nowadays, fresh human flesh is very hard to find,’ the voice said. ‘A shame.’
Arika choked with disgust and horror, thinking of the Ferals she had just seen. She ran to the nearest tower and hammered on it in desperation, trying to find a way out, while the voice laughed.
‘Don’t be afraid, Arika. You’re quite safe here. Until the sun sets completely.’
She flashed a glance at the dimming light on the horizon.
‘Until the sun sets?’ she said.
‘Then you’ll stay here with me.’
‘You won’t have any choice. You followed me into my world. So, sit still. Until sunset.’
Arika tried to think. This mysterious being knew her name. His voice seemed to come from a different direction every time he spoke. And why couldn’t he do anything to her until the sun set? Time was different in the Changeland, it seemed, but the amount of time she stayed in this creature’s world must be important somehow. The longer she stayed, the more dangerous for her. The setting sun was a measure of the Changeland time that had passed. But what could really happen to her in there? All this was just in her own mind. Wasn’t it?
‘Feel that bruise on your knee, Arika.’
Can he read my thoughts?
‘What bruise?’ she said.
‘You know the one I mean.’
Arika tested with her fingers. The pain in her knee had almost completely gone, but when she touched the sore point, it shot out like a burning needle. She gasped.
‘You see? Pain hurts in the Changeland.’
‘You mean I can be injured or die in here?’
‘Just wait until the sun sets.’
Icy sweat broke out all over Arika’s body. ‘What are you? Who are you?’
‘Is that your name?’
Arika could hear the tremor in her voice. She tried hard not to panic.
‘That is my name in here. It has a meaning. Just like your name, Arika, means “water lily”. And your twin brother Narrah’s means “sea”.’
Arika shivered. The voice was not loud, but it made her skin crawl. She decided to try and keep him talking. A chance might come to escape somehow.
‘But are you a human being, or what are you?’
She thought of the echidna and all the other odd things she had seen.
‘Ah—curiosity. Here in the Changeland, I live among these towers. Termite mounds—full of millions of flying ants. Thousands of little packets of life consumed to keep the one life of the anteater going. Wherever they hide, he gets them. Thousands of deaths for one life. That creature that feeds on life is me. The Anteater.’
A long slurping sound came from behind the tower next to her. Arika shuddered and wanted to scream but tried to hold her fear down. Something told her she was safer if she did not show fear. She glanced at the sun. Eventually it would set completely. And then…
‘You’ve gone quiet, Arika.’
Arika gulped. Panic was rising inside her, throttling her breath, her thoughts. Her stomach lurched and terror lanced through her. She forced herself to think. The sun dipped below the horizon. Its soft red light remained, but not for long, she knew.
‘It’s almost time, Arika. I’ve enjoyed talking to you, helping you to know me. Most of the time, I never get to know the ants.’
Arika heard her voice sound tiny and choked with fear.
‘Ants give out a particular smell when they die. Other ants can sense it and keep away from the smell of death. The Anteater is too clever, though. Whenever he eats an ant, he lifts his head out of the way. The ants don’t smell the death. They never even know the Anteater is there.’
‘But I do now.’
‘Yes, you do.’
Arika concentrated her mind. Somewhere she could feel Narrah’s presence. Was he in the Changeland as well now? She called out to him with her mind. Narrah!
Narrah, where are you?
Narrah stood looking down at Arika lying on the thin mattress. Her body convulsed every few seconds now and her shirt was stained with sweat. A bruise broke out on her knee. What is happening to her?
Manya had evidently forgotten about him while taking care of Arika, so he had stayed where he was. Arika was in the Changeland, he thought again. But what did that mean, exactly? No Changer had ever been able to say, or maybe they didn’t want to say. Where was Arika’s mind wandering to? Narrah looked around the hut and out of the window to where the sun shone brightly. He could see some other huts of the Settlement and heard the sheep, cows and pigs. A baby was crying somewhere. The windmill was clanking as it turned in the gentle breeze that rustled the leaves of the giant trees. Somewhere out there the Settlement people would be working in the fields to grow the wheat, fruit and vegetables, and looking after the animals. The twins had seen those things every day of their lives under the shade of the great forest.
Is Arika seeing all this in the Changeland, or something completely different? There was no way of knowing.
They said no one ever died from the Changing, but only a few people from the Settlement had ever been through it. Only three that he could recall since the Changings had begun to happen a few years before. Narrah remembered them well, especially the twins’ best friends Toura and Wirrin.
Toura’s Changing was very early. She emerged from her coma after two days, tense and silent. She had brought back from the Changeland the ability to see the future and to know the meaning of dreams. She haunted the Settlement like a ghost, as if she were still mostly living in the Changeland. Who knew what that silence really hid? She might be a Sleeper Feral and suddenly start killing everyone. Sometimes, it happened long after the Changing. You could never tell which Changer might really be a Feral. When they were all younger, Toura had been Arika’s friend and had often joined in the twins’ games and explorations. Playing hide-and-seek among the trunks of the forest giants. Swimming in the creek. Back then, Toura had been a lively girl who never seemed to stop talking and loved interpreting dreams. Now she hardly ever said a word, and when she did, there was something scary about it.
Then Wirrin, Narrah’s best friend, had woken up after just one day of coma with the deepest feeling for the weather and for animals. He had known exactly where the wind would blow from, when the rain would come and where to look for animals. His instinct was uncanny. But the Settlement had kept Wirrin for only a short time after his Changing. The City People had captured him as a slave and taken him away. Narrah still missed him. Now no one knew where he was or what had happened to him.
Then there had been the one that no one ever talked about. A boy who had thrashed about in agony for a week in his coma. When he finally awoke, he was a Feral. He screamed and tried to kill everyone he saw. It had taken most of the Settlement to chase him out. Now he probably wandered around like all the other Ferals.
These had all been young people about his age, Narrah thought, born after the Great Madness. Now Arika was going through her own Changing. He shuddered at the thought that she might come back from the Changeland damaged somehow. But that couldn’t happen to Arika, he tried to tell himself. Not her. He would do anything he could to help her.
Manya finished adjusting the pillow under Arika’s head and looked up at him.
‘Still here, Narrah? Take him away.’
Narrah felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He knew without looking that it was Dural, headman of the Settlement. Narrah hadn’t heard him enter the hut. Now that Wirrin, his own son, was gone, he was very concerned about Narrah and Arika and more obsessed with the Wreckings. Dural had originally started the Wreckings to remove all traces of the old way of life that had caused the Great Madness. A way of life based on machines, completely different to that of the Settlement—but which the City People wanted to revive. There was more to it now, though, Manya said. Dural blamed himself for Wirrin’s kidnapping. The Wreckings had become a way of hitting back at the City People who had taken him. Narrah felt that Manya was right.
‘Come on, Narrah,’ Dural said. ‘You know you mustn’t stay here now.’
Yes, he knew. But Narrah couldn’t take his eyes off Arika.
‘Go, Narrah,’ Manya said. ‘You’ll know all about the Changing when it’s your turn—you won’t have long to wait.’
Dural gently pulled him away. Narrah felt a strange sensation growing inside him. A sort of tingling over his whole body. Was this the first sign of his own Changing that would soon arrive? He didn’t know. Maybe. The sensation grew stronger. Then, like when sunlight shone through the door of the hut, changing the darkness into brightness, something became clear in his mind. Someone was calling him, somewhere far away. Not a voice outside his head, but inside it. Arika! Yes, it was Arika, he thought, but somehow different. She must still be in the Changeland, or he would feel her presence as he normally did. This was not the same as the usual Path. Arika was in danger or suffering in the Changeland! He was growing closer to the Changing himself, so his contact with Arika had returned, he thought. She was calling to him for help. She needed him.
‘Manya—Dural! I can feel that Arika’s in danger,’ Narrah said. ‘I think I can reach her inside the Changeland. Let me stay just for a while.’
Narrah stared at Arika’s foot. Without thinking about it, he found himself focusing on her big toe. Then he realised that the toe was shaking, flickering. The shudder spread to her foot, then to her leg, until her feet were thrashing up and down. Narrah glanced at Arika’s face. It was trembling. The shaking reached her arms and upper body. Narrah rushed over to try and hold her down. Lines of pain and anguish were running all over Arika’s face and her teeth chattered. Narrah knelt and held on tightly to her heaving body and then realised that he was yelling in distress.
Narrah felt himself drifting away from whatever was happening inside the hut. He knew that Manya was saying something, but her voice was coming from very far off. The way leading towards Arika in the Changeland opened and he found himself in complete darkness.
Narrah stood and listened. Nothing. The air around him was totally still, neither cold nor warm. As if there were nothing at all. He could feel the sweat trickling down his face and the thumping of his heart. At least I’m really here, even if nothing else is.
‘Arika!’ he called.
The emptiness soaked up his voice and Narrah felt very alone. He had expected to find Arika in here. At least then they would have been together. Could he still sense her? Yes. But where exactly was she? He had no sense of direction in this place.
Narrah held his arms in front of him and started to walk forward. There was nothing. He felt something under his feet when he walked, but was it really there? He heard a distant noise and spun around, trying to locate it. Then the sound came again. Like a kind of distant murmuring. Narrah turned around and around, hearing the noise get slightly louder. Then he saw a patch of white. It was impossible to say how far away. He walked towards it. The murmuring became gradually louder.
Now he saw that the patch of white was a thick cloud. Narrah could not see anything through the cloud, but the murmuring came from the other side of it. He gulped and realised that his hands were damp with sweat. He wiped them on his trousers and it hurt. Of course! The blisters he had got from using the shovel in the garden the day before. So, in here his body was exactly the same as it had been outside at the moment he came in. But where was he? Was this white cloud the Changeland?
Narrah walked into the cloud until it surrounded him. The cloud looked thick enough to touch, but he felt nothing. The murmuring continued and Narrah went towards it. Dim shapes appeared through the fog ahead of him.
The only reply was the murmuring. It got louder and the shapes grew darker and more clearly defined. Narrah went on. The air smelt stale and old. As the fog fell away on all sides, Narrah found that he was walking in a long tunnel. The roof was high and ten people could have walked on either side of him. The tunnel was well lit by strips of plastic on the roof from which a pale, cold light came. The floor was made of hard grey stuff.
Narrah stopped and turned to look behind him. There was the thick, white cloud that he had passed through. He looked down at himself. He was wearing the same brown trousers, the same rope sandals, the same white wool belt knotted in front, the same shirt. He raised his hand and felt the waves that Arika had painted in white dots around his right eye yesterday. So, he was the same as before. But where is Arika?
Narrah looked down the tunnel. The murmuring echoed along the tiled walls like a sad, low wind. The closer he got to the sound, the more his skin crawled. But surely, the only way to find Arika was to follow this tunnel. He could still feel her presence, but as if she were locked inside a box.
Narrah followed the tunnel around a curve and then stopped, his heart thudding. A dead body lay sprawled across his path. A man. The arms and legs were twisted in strange directions and the face was contorted in agony. Narrah thought back to when he had seen something like this before. The image jumped into his mind of a dead Feral the Settlement people had found one day lying in a road. The face and body had been exactly like this. Narrah saw that the body’s fingernails were caked with white stuff. He looked up and saw scratch marks on the wall. The man must have clawed at the walls in his death frenzy. Narrah shuddered and walked on.
Up ahead, the tunnel was in semidarkness. The white plastic strips on the roof in this section were either dead and black or flickering on and off with a sputtering sound. The close smell was getting stronger. Narrah went forward, looking carefully at where he put his feet. Even so, he nearly tripped over the next dead body. This was a young woman, lying face-up with her limbs twisted like the earlier victim. The woman’s cheeks were streaked with blood. Narrah saw that her nails were stained red. She must have scratched herself savagely in her fit.
Narrah stepped over the body and went on. The dead were closely packed together here. He saw men, women, children and old people all lying in a tangle. Most of them seemed to have died in the same kind of frenzy. Many had claw marks and other wounds that looked to have been caused by other victims or by the people themselves. Some had bullet wounds and lay in pools of dried blood. The guns that made the wounds were lying among the bodies. Food and water containers were scattered all over the place. Narrah choked back his disgust. He could feel the bitter vomit stinging his throat but fought it down.
Narrah picked his way through the bodies and went on. The murmuring was louder now. He reached a section of the tunnel that was well lit and breathed a sigh of relief. Here, there were some bodies, but less than before. But where was Arika? The only way to find her was to go on. Up ahead was another flickering light. Crouched under it with her back against the wall was a woman, murmuring in a low voice. This was the source of the sound he had been hearing. Narrah stopped, his heart thumping. The woman turned and looked at him. The eyes in her thin, wasted face were like deep, muddy wells.
‘The sea, the sea, mother of life. The sea, the sea.’
Narrah watched the woman’s thin dry lips as she repeated the same words over and over again. He was shocked at seeing a living person. He was here to find Arika, but this strange woman fascinated him and held him captive with her empty stare and those words.
‘The sea, the sea, giver of life. The sea, the sea.’
The woman would have been about Dural’s age, Narrah thought. She was very thin and her clothes were dirty. He could see the bones jutting under them. The broken white light flickered constantly overhead.
‘The sea, the sea, restorer of life. The sea, the sea.’
She was out of her head, Narrah thought.
‘The sea, the sea, holder of life. The sea, the sea.’
Narrah walked towards the woman, watching her closely. The woman’s eyes were fixed on his.
‘You are named after the sea, Narrah. Here you have seen a lot of death. Life was created in the sea. Mankind’s creations brought death and madness. The sea made life. It made the air you breathe. Worship the sea, Narrah.’
‘In our Settlement, we try to live as simply as we can.’ Narrah tried to keep his voice steady. ‘To live with nature, not against it.’
‘I know how your Settlement lives. But you don’t worship nature as you should. Nature is the only divine thing. The sea is its workshop, where life is made and sustained.’
‘How do you know me? Is this the Changeland?’
‘Yes. These are my memories you have walked through.’
‘Who are you?’
‘Zerah. After the outbreak of the Madness in Perth, a group of survivors tried to hide in an underground road tunnel away from the disease and the Ferals that had taken control of the city. The survivors took food and guns. Anyone who showed signs of becoming dangerous was shot. But the Madness attacked the guards as well as everyone else.’
‘You were there?’
‘Yes. These horrible things made me realise a lot about the world. About life and nature. A few others came to think as I did. But now you must go and find your sister, Narrah. It is important.’
It is important. It was vital to Narrah to find Arika, but he sensed there was something more behind what Zerah had said. There was no time to try and find out what it was now, though. Arika was in danger. He could still feel that.
‘Follow the tunnel, Narrah, then turn left and go up the stairs. Then open the door.’
‘That’s where Arika is?’
‘Remember this is not your Changing—you will have little time in here.’
He wanted to thank her and ask more questions, but there was no time. Zerah’s gaze had drifted away again and he wondered if she could hear him now.
‘The sea, the sea, goddess of life. The sea, the sea.’
Narrah stood up and looked both ways down the tunnel. There was nothing else moving. Up ahead, the light was clearer and he could see only a few bodies. He walked on quickly.
The farther away he got from Zerah, the more he could feel Arika’s presence. She was in danger. She needed him.
He stepped over a body that was sprawled across a bloodstained axe in the tunnel. Narrah shuddered and went on. The air seemed a little fresher here, Narrah thought. Did that mean there was a way out of this place? He came to a passage leading off to the left. Up ahead, the tunnel continued and veered off to the right. Narrah turned left into a passageway similar to the main tunnel but narrower. Up ahead he could see a flight of steps. That must be what Zerah had meant.
The steps were wide and flat and made of some kind of stone. The metal railing running alongside was bright and shiny. Narrah ran his hand along it, feeling how smooth it was. He had hardly ever seen metal that was not rusted. He went quickly up the steps. At the top was a square space about ten paces each way. There was no passage leading forward or to either side, just black stone walls and a door in front. Narrah walked up to the door. It was made of metal and plastic and had a seam running down the middle from top to bottom.
This had to be the way forward, Narrah thought. Or was this a trap? Perhaps, but he had no better idea of where to search for Arika. And something told him that Arika was behind that door. He should be hearing her voice in his head loudly by now, Narrah told himself, but there was some other influence blocking it.
Narrah tried to insert his fingers into the gap in the door and pull it apart. It was no good. The ends of his fingers came away white and sore and the door didn’t move at all. He hammered on it with the palms of his hands. He was surer than ever that Arika was behind this door and in danger. Narrah’s mind raced. He had to get the door open. He thought of everything he’d seen in this place, all these memories of Zerah the survivor. She knew about him and about Arika. She knew where Arika was. Somewhere here must be the answer to how to get the door open.
Then it came to him. The bloodstained axe lying under the body back in the tunnel. Narrah ran down the stairs, his breath coming in gasps. He turned right into the main tunnel and raced back to where he had seen the axe. There it was, the blade and part of the long handle sticking out from under a dead body. Narrah stopped with the axe under his feet and looked down the tunnel towards Zerah. Was she still there? He saw the flickering light that she had been sitting under but couldn’t see her outline anymore.
Narrah felt a cruel grip on his ankle and quickly looked down. The body he thought was dead was still alive and had grabbed him with a strong, hairy hand. The face that looked up at him was that of a young man but twisted with madness. The eyes were red and deep-set and saliva dribbled from the man’s mouth. A Feral. Narrah gasped in shock and his heart leapt. He tried to free his leg but the grip was too strong. The Feral slowly raised himself to his knees.
Narrah lashed out with his foot, trying to shove the Feral away, but lost his balance and fell on his back. The hard surface hurt his hip. The Feral raised himself up. Narrah saw that the axe was now free of the Feral’s body. He scrabbled for it with his fingers while the grip on his ankle grew so strong that he could have screamed. Narrah felt the cool, smooth metal blade of the axe and drew it to him. He gripped the blade in both hands and shoved the axe handle as hard as he could into the Feral’s chest. The Feral grunted and fell backwards. Narrah jumped to his feet and ran for the passage. His ankle was burning, but he gritted his teeth and went on as best he could.
Narrah raced up the stairs. He didn’t know if the Feral was following and didn’t look back. He reached the door and stopped for a moment to get his breath. He was gasping in great whoops. Then he slotted the axe blade into the seam in the door and twisted it to the right. His ankle and hip were sore and the blisters on his hands stung, but he twisted harder.
* * *
‘See that, Arika? The sunlight is getting weaker all the time. It’s like a life winding down slowly.’
Arika sat, unable to speak. Her throat was too locked up with fear and with swallowed tears.
‘Sometimes, a life is snuffed out in an instant,’ the voice went on. ‘But what a joy instead to watch it slowly melt away. But you’re not talking to me anymore, Arika. Don’t waste the little time we have left to talk. So little.’
Arika wanted to scream, to jump up and try to smash the dirt towers with her bare hands, but she fought to stay calm. She stood up and moved towards one of the towers. When the Anteater came to get her, perhaps she could ram his head against the tower. Or grab on to it with her hands and lash out with her feet.
The sunlight was almost gone now. Arika stood still. Let him come and find her. She listened for his footsteps or any kind of movement. Nothing. Arika’s whole body was trembling. Her heartbeat, the pulse in her wrists, the blood flowing through the veins in her neck, all sounded like thunder to her. Where was he?
The voice came from a different place, very close by. Arika shivered and braced herself, ready to kick with both legs.
The tower behind her sprang open in two parts and bright light flooded in. She whirled around to look.
Narrah stood outside, holding an axe.
Arika ran through the door.
‘Close it!’ she yelled.
She grabbed one side of the door and wrenched it towards the centre while Narrah did the same with the other side. The two halves snapped shut. Arika flung herself on Narrah and let the tears come. Narrah stroked her hair.
‘It’s all right now,’ he said. ‘I’m here.’
She wanted to speak, to try and say what she had been through, but the words wouldn’t come.
A hammering came from the other side of the door, like clenched fists pounding against the metal. Arika sobbed harder and tried to pull Narrah away by the sleeve.
‘He shouldn’t be here, Arika,’ said the Anteater’s voice from behind the door. ‘But I’ll meet him again. Sooner or later.’
‘No!’ Arika screamed.
‘What is it?’ Narrah said.
‘I didn’t hear any voice.’
Arika glanced down at her knee. There was the bruise she had got. It was a sick-looking yellowish-grey colour and soon it would be blue-black. Would it still be there when she got back to the outside world? If she got back.
The furious thundering of fists on the door came again. Arika looked around and saw a door she hadn’t noticed before.
‘We have to get away from here,’ she said. ‘Shall we try through there?’
‘Looks like there’s nothing else we can do. Going back down the tunnel would be too dangerous. I met a Feral there.’
Arika felt her heart race. They might have very little time. She stepped up to the door. There was nothing unusual about it. Arika reached out for the handle and turned it. She pushed open the door and stepped through. A dirt track lined by trees led away into the distance. She had never seen these kinds of trees before. Many had broad green leaves and thick, smooth trunks. On both sides of the path as far as she could see stood many other kinds that were new to Arika, each one different from the one before. The sun was shining somewhere above, but there were no shadows anywhere on the ground.
She stood holding on to the door handle, watching. Narrah came up and stood next to her. There was no movement at all, no sound or smell and not a breath of wind. It was as if the entire scene were waiting for something. She didn’t dare speak.
I have to close the door. If I’m sure of going on. And am I? I’ve already made my decision. She looked at Narrah. He nodded. Arika stepped through. Now there was no going back. There had been no real choice, Arika knew. They had to go on, and quickly. Narrah followed and closed the door gently behind them.
Instantly, Arika could smell the leafy odour of the trees and hear the soft rustle of the leaves. The shadows of the trees stretched out on the ground, waving softly. It was early afternoon, judging by the length of the shadows, Arika thought. But what did that mean in here?
She walked forward and Narrah went alongside her. The trees were always different, one from the other. Even though Narrah was there, a cold loneliness crept over Arika. How long would they have to wander around before finding the way out?
They reached a crossroads. Arika stood in the middle of it, wondering which path to take. North, south, east, west? There was no way of knowing. The air grew colder and Arika hugged herself to stay warm. The sun seemed lower in the sky and the shadows longer. She looked at the four paths again in turn. Left, right, back, front. They all seemed the same.
‘I don’t know which one to take,’ Narrah said.
‘Neither do I.’
Their voices sounded tiny. The only other sound was the wind in the leaves. Arika felt herself losing hope. She told herself that they had to go forward, to fight, to survive, and that was what she was going to do.
Something tickled her foot and she looked down. An ant. And another. Hundreds of them passing by in a long column. She jumped out of the way and watched them as they headed down the left-hand path. Ants and other insects had never really bothered her. Just as well, Arika thought, as the Settlement and the surrounding forest were full of them.
Arika watched the ants more closely. They were coming from the path behind her, all carrying something. She spun around to look back to where they came from. The ants were running from something, she thought. The Anteater! She shivered. So, the path behind was definitely out; there was no going back. But which of the other three paths to take?
She looked closely at the ants again. Now they were bunched together in large groups to carry dead insects. She saw beetles, wasps and butterflies brought past by thousands of ants, a long funeral procession trailing away to the left. Sometimes, the load seemed too heavy for the ants, but they struggled and worked together and kept it moving. The ants must know the way out of here.
Arika took a step towards the left-hand path, then stopped to check the ants again. There were huge clumps of them now, dragging bigger and bigger loads. She bent down to see what they were carrying. Something round and white. An eye. A human eye. Arika’s throat choked with disgust.
She screamed and ran down the right-hand path with Narrah following. She rushed on, trying to get as far away as possible, still screaming. Her head was spinning and her heart seemed about to burst.
The ground exploded in front of the twins, sending up a spray of sand and dust. Arika stopped and covered her eyes with her hand. When she looked again, huge claws were breaking through the earth. A long snout appeared and then a forest of spikes. Something was emerging from under the ground. The echidna. Arika froze. It was enormous and its spines jutted upwards like stalks of wheat. The echidna dug its claws into the dirt and pulled itself out of the tunnel.
‘The Anteater!’ she yelled.
The echidna’s long tongue shot out, trying to grab the twins. Arika dived to her right, pushing Narrah down with her. The tongue flashed over them. Arika jumped up and ran to the left. She could hear Narrah’s feet and breath just behind her. She looked back. The echidna was only just lumbering around the corner. At least they could outrun him, she thought. Arika slowed down. Her chest was burning.
Arika looked back. The echidna was curling himself into a giant defensive ball with all his spines facing outwards. She stopped. What was it doing?
As Arika watched, the echidna pressed his powerful back legs on the ground and shoved off. He started rolling towards them, picking up speed. With every turn, his hind legs thrust against the ground, adding momentum.
‘He’s rolling!’ Arika shouted.
She ran again with Narrah behind her. There were no side paths they could turn on to, but they could still outrun the echidna. On flat ground like this, there was a limit to how fast he could roll.
Arika felt the path slope down under her feet. She looked back. There was no doubt. They were running downhill now and the echidna was rolling faster and faster. The Anteater was changing the slope of the ground. It had to be him.
The echidna gained steadily on them. They couldn’t outrun him downhill like this. Finally, a turning appeared up ahead. Arika and Narrah swung left. She looked back. The echidna rolled into one of the trees opposite the turning, pressed his legs against the trunk and pushed off. He seemed to be rolling even faster.
Arika’s legs and lungs were on fire. Narrah took her hand, but she could tell that he was very tired as well. She glanced back. The echidna got closer with every roll. Now his spikes were thrusting out every time they were free of the ground. He was going to stab them with those spines. Fear gripped Arika, slowing her legs down even more. She fought against it, but the echidna and his spikes got closer all the time. She was sure that the downward slope of the ground was increasing.
She was exhausted and the echidna was right behind them and getting closer. What chance did they have against the Anteater when he could change this place to suit him whenever he liked? No. I won’t give up. Narrah and I are going to get out of here.
She slowed down. The whirr of the echidna’s spikes was right behind her. Arika dived to one side and Narrah went the other way. The spikes flashed past. At the last instant, Arika saw the long, sharp spurs on the echidna’s back legs lash out at her as he went by. She ducked her head and the spurs whizzed past.
Arika stood up, gasping for breath. The echidna had stopped and was using his back legs to turn around. She looked at Narrah. He was exhausted as well. The echidna seemed tireless. He would chase them in and out of these paths until he ran them down eventually. An idea flashed through the mist of fatigue. They had been running downhill before. If they went back the way they came, the slope would be uphill this time and the echidna couldn’t roll. She looked at the path behind them. It was downhill. How could that be? The Anteater. He was always changing the rules.
She looked back. Narrah was leaning, chest heaving, against a tree on the right-hand side of the path. The echidna unrolled and pointed its snout at Arika.
‘Are you tired of running, little ants?’ a voice said inside her head.
The Anteater’s voice.
‘You!’ she said. ‘You’re the echidna! Is that what you really look like?’
‘In here, yes.’ The tongue flickered. ‘I’m going to enjoy licking you up, Arika.’
She turned to run again. Always downhill. But what else could they do? Arika saw Narrah standing still. The echidna curled into a spiked ball again and turned to face Narrah.
‘Narrah!’ she screamed. ‘Run!’
Narrah remained standing where he was. The echidna was ready to push off with his back legs. She could see the long, cruel spurs gleaming. Narrah must be paralyzed with fright, she thought. Arika ran towards him.
‘Stay back!’ Narrah shouted.
‘I can’t leave you here!’
‘Stay away from me!’
It wasn’t like Narrah to give up like this, she thought. The echidna rolled towards Narrah, who didn’t move.
‘No!’ she yelled, and started towards him.
Arika realised that she wouldn’t make it. She was too tired and the echidna was rolling too fast. Ten paces still separated her from Narrah when the echidna’s spikes thrust out for the last time, like a deadly flower opening. The echidna shoved off with his back legs and launched himself, spines first. Narrah leapt aside just in time and the spines slammed into the tree, digging into the trunk and sticking there. The echidna was trapped.
Narrah came up to her. She hugged him while they both gasped for breath.
‘You did it, Narrah,’ she said.
A loud slurping noise came from the tree.
‘I’ll still suck you up,’ the Anteater said. ‘Both of you.’
Arika realised that they had to get away. They had escaped from the echidna, but both she and Narrah still needed to find a way out of the Changeland.
She turned to face the slope. The ground was flat again.
‘It’s over,’ Narrah said.
‘That part is. But what do we do now?’
‘Walk this way, I guess.’
Arika went down the path, catching her breath. Her pounding heart slowed.
‘I didn’t think we were going to make it for a while there,’ she said.
‘What was that thing? A giant echidna! I would never even have dreamed something like that.’
‘From what I’ve seen so far, the Changeland can go way beyond dreams. Or nightmares.’
‘But where did that echidna come from? It seems you’ve met it before.’
‘It’s the Anteater.’
‘Anteater? Who’s that?’
‘When you first got here and opened those doors, you saved me from him. It will take me a long time to tell you about him, but believe me, he’s tricky and vicious.’
‘So I saw.’
‘The Changeland must give us a chance to get out of here sometime. Maybe it has more dangers for us still to come, though.’
‘I think it has. Look.’
Arika glanced back over her shoulder. All the shadows of the trees on the left-hand path had gathered together to form one giant heap of blackness that blotted out everything behind it. The great shadow was advancing. Arika took a deep breath and ran as fast as she could with Narrah next to her. The trees passed in a constant blur. She looked back again. The shadow was coming after them, faster and faster.
She looked back in front of her and ran on, her breath coming in gasps. Narrah took her hand. Fear was chewing up her strength, Arika knew, and she tried to control it. But there was no way out of this place. The path just went on and on past this endless line of trees. She looked back again. The shadow was getting closer all the time, outrunning them.
They slid to a stop, panting, and glanced back. The shadow was close behind now, swallowing everything, as if it were making them go where it wanted.
The twins ran on. Arika’s chest was heaving and her legs felt like they were on fire. She looked back. The shadow was very close now. If she tripped and fell, she was finished, Arika told herself. She pushed that thought aside.
She heard a kookaburra laugh and spun around. The bird was sitting on a branch farther ahead. It laughed again. The cackling sound echoed through the rows of trees. It was the sound of home. The kookaburra flew off with a flap of wings and headed to the right. Arika thought of how the echidna had led her into a trap before. Could she trust this bird? She glanced back. The shadow was just behind.
‘This way!’ she yelled, and ran after the kookaburra.
Arika skidded round the corner and heard Narrah sliding behind her. The kookaburra turned left and the twins followed.
Arika saw some gum trees up ahead. Her heart lifted. At last, some trees that she knew. It felt like the way back to the outside world. Arika ran on. All the trees she was passing now were familiar to the twins. As if the forest of Pemberton were calling them home.
Arika looked back. The shadow was moving still faster, almost touching their feet like a heavy wash of night.
Sweat was running into Arika’s eyes and her heart was pounding as if it were about to burst. She raced down the path. Arika looked back again. The sun was in front of her so that her shadow was thrown behind. The darkness that was chasing her seized the head of her shadow and tugged on it, dragging her back. It was like running while pulling a heavy weight. Arika could feel the strength draining out of her legs. She looked back. The great darkness had swallowed up half her shadow, as if it were climbing a black rope to get her. She was stuck to her shadow and couldn’t get away. Once the blackness had consumed her entire shadow, it would reach her. She gritted her teeth and wrenched every bit of strength she could out of her body. She could tell by the weight behind her that her shadow was almost completely swallowed up by the blackness. She could feel the deathly chill of the blackness start to fill her body even though it hadn’t touched her yet. She forced herself to run on.
The kookaburra laughed away to the right. Arika turned that way and ran past the bird sitting on a branch. The white cloud was just ahead. They were nearly out of here. But she had to warn Narrah.
‘Narrah! Be careful,’ she said, gasping, as they ran on. ‘The Anteater—he’s waiting for you.’
‘The Anteater. He said he’ll meet you.’
Narrah plunged into the cloud and Arika went in straight after him. The trees, the kookaburra, the sun and the pursuing blackness all vanished.
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