Excerpt for Earth's Guardians: Fork in the Road by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Fork in the Road


This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.



Written by J.L. Higgs

First edition February 14th, 2018.

Copyright © 2018 J.L. Higgs.

Published by Nairda Holdings, 2018

Cover selected by Mark Schultz

http://www.wordrefiner.com



OTHER BOOKS BY J.L. HIGGS


EARTH’S GUARDIANS:

A Life Redrawn


UNITED EARTH CHARITY:

Dark Charity

Escape from Darkness


FAIRYTALE STEPMOTHERS:

Ella: A Stepmum’s Tale

FairyTale Revenge


MAP OF

SUBTERRAN



One

Bill

I watch as a small fishing craft slowly idles its way towards the boat ramp and nudges against the sand. The motor chugs softly then stops. The single occupant sits dazed, unsure of what to do next. It’s not that he hasn’t gone fishing millions of times. No, and his confusion has nothing to do with his ability to handle a boat. This young man knows a lot about both areas but nothing of what he has just experienced. The problem that his brain is having trouble accepting is the disappearance of his two friends on a bright day and in a calm sea.

He shakes his head as I walk closer to where the boat has stopped. It’s hard to imagine that two healthy eighteen-year-old youths could disappear off the deck without as much as a splash, and kilometres away from shore. It's hard to accept, even though I knew it was going to happen one day. It was only a matter of when they would take the plunge.

“Are you okay, Dave?” I call out as I remove my shoes and wade into the water. I need to secure the boat before the tide decides to take it out again. He doesn’t look like he would notice until it was too late. I glance at the two eskies next to him, overflowing with fish fillets. They must have been having a great time before ‘it’ happened.

“Looks like you had a good catch out there. Those fillets are going to go off in this heat if you don’t bring them ashore soon.”

“They’re gone, Detective Dailey,” Dave whispers, looking up at me with his brown face smeared with tears.

The extreme sadness in his eyes tears at my heart. He loved those two like his siblings. They had discovered Subterran together, and it bonded them in a way nothing else can. They shared a sacred secret, but not anymore.

“Taylor and Hannah. Them gone. I been look everywhere.”

I don’t reply as I grab a rope and pull the boat closer to the ramp. Dave has returned to using the Aboriginal version of Pidgin English. He must be suffering intensely.

“Yeah, I know,” I finally respond, tying the rope to a pole on the trailer.

Before he left to go on this fishing trip, Taylor asked if I would bring the boat trailer here. I suspected something was going to happen, but it’s still a shock.

Dave is sitting in the back of the small cabin cruiser, unwilling to get out. I guess he feels that leaving makes their disappearance final. All he has to do now is to pick up his belongings and go to his car, parked further along the beach in the public carpark. He needs to forget what has happened and to get on with his life. I wish he would hurry. I have a million things to do so I can finish this ordeal.

“No, I mean it. Taylor and Hannah are dead, drowned when they went overboard. A freak wave hit us while I was getting another esky and more wrap for the fillets. The boat. It nearly tipped right over. When I came up, they were gone. Maybe a croc hit us when it jumped for them. I dunno, but they disappeared, Mr D. I been lookin’ everywhere. Several hours. I hated to leave them, but the fuel was getting low. Ran out just now.”

I look at the troubled young man for a moment and sigh. How do I explain to him that the whole purpose of Taylor and Hannah going on this fishing trip was to die? They had discussed going fishing near the Bathurst and Tiwi Islands before they made the final decision to leave. Then they tried to talk him out of joining them, but he refused to listen. The temptation was too powerful to hear their reasoning. I bet he wishes he had changed his mind now.

Finally, Dave picks up his backpack, jumps out of the boat and walks towards his car. He is going to be troubled for some time. I won't be surprised to hear that he has gone on Walkabout. That is when an Aboriginal walks away from society and lives in the bush, getting in touch with their native roots again. They can be gone days, weeks, months or even years and have no contact with the outside world during this time. At first, it may sound like heaven, but I would miss the daily challenges.

"Do you want some fillets?" I call out.

He raises his hand to acknowledge me but doesn't stop walking away.

"Nah, you keep 'em. D’em fish bad luck. Don't want 'em near me."

I use the cable to winch the boat onto the trailer and get into the vehicle, again sighing with sadness. Gone. Taylor and Hannah have gone and done it.

No more annoying Taylor to compete with for the bathroom each morning. No more shy, peaceful Hannah to feel like wrapping my arms around and reassuring her that life will get better. She had some hard knocks, that poor kid, but I was still surprised she decided to turn her back on living here and leap into the unknown. I knew something was up ever since they got back from Jabiru. They both had a far-away look in their eyes. It was apparent to those knowing what they were going through that they were not staying.

What should I put as the cause of death? Crocodile attack? Drowning?


That boating trip is over four weeks ago now, and I have been making regular trips to the beach to look out over the ocean ever since. Those passing by the bench where I sit must think I am mourning the loss of my nephew and his friend from school. That is partly true, but mostly I come here as I love the view.

The smell of the sea-breeze lifts my spirits, revealing a glimpse of something that is hidden in the past but just refuses to be exposed. Somewhere in those dark recesses of my mind sits a memory securely locked away, waiting for the right time to spring out of hiding and jolt my consciousness.

A sudden burning sensation strikes my stomach like a branding iron, causing me to double over in pain. I dig into my pockets and take out a tablet, gulping it down with water from a bottle I always carry with me. I have an ulcer that has started to play up recently. I need to get out of this profession and back to….. something else.

All the condolences are finally over.

It has been a tough time, made worse by the doubt creeping into my head. Maybe those two adorable kids did fall overboard. I know what they had planned to do, but what if it didn’t happen in the end? I shake my head.

My thoughts seem to be jumping around more than ever before. I have times when I have a firm conviction that they are alive, and then doubts scuttle it until I am not sure of anything.

Further up the beach, a movement catches my eye, so I turn to watch two young men walking towards me. One is Mitch Hancock, Taylor’s best friend from school. Those two boys were inseparable until Taylor met Hannah. I chuckle to myself as they keep coming closer. It sounds like a ‘Boy Meets Girl’ story, but it was far from that. Taylor and Hannah were bound together from birth, but just didn’t know it until recently.

The drawings that appeared on Charlie Brown's desk changed everything. I knew what they meant as soon as I saw them. Things moved very quickly after that, and now, only six months since the first drawing appeared, Taylor and Hannah are gone.

Uh oh. The boys are getting closer and have taken the path leading to the bench where I am sitting. This is not an accidental meeting. There is something on their mind that they need to say and, since there are two of them to support each other, they know I may not like it. I had better put on a good performance.

“Mr Dailey!” Mitch shouts as he waves to me. “Mr Dailey, can we talk with you for a minute?”

"Of course," I call back in response.

“Remember me? I’m Mitch, Taylor’s friend from school,” he says.

“Of course, I remember you, Mitch. How are you?” I ask, shaking my head sadly, putting on my best grieving expression. "I can’t get my head around what happened. It’s still a shock."

“This is Vince Paspaley,” Mitch adds, gesturing towards the young man with him.

I know the Paspaley family’s history well although I haven’t met many of them personally. They have been linked to Darwin for a long time. His family came from Greece to Australia as refugees during World War 2 and have developed one of the oldest and best pearling businesses in Darwin and all of Northern Australia. They know a lot about the sea and tidal movements.

I am curious now. Why is he here? Has he found something that doesn't add up? Is the story about to unravel?

“Detective Dailey, I’m shocked by what happened. I just can’t believe it. When we saw you sitting here….. well, I thought we should offer our condolences.”

Vince has always been a good boy. The town could use more kids like him.

“Thanks, boys,” I reply sadly. "It’s hard to believe it has been over a month already."

“That is why we want to talk to you. You see, we don’t believe it, Detective Dailey. We don’t think they are dead,” Vince says confidently. “Mitch and I feel that there is something else going on here that no-one has investigated. This drowning thing doesn't make any sense. It would be easier to believe that they have been kidnapped than to drown that quickly.”

“Why do you say that?” I ask cautiously, with a slight sinking feeling in my gut.

“We were on the same camping trip with them when one of our classmates disappeared. I know Taylor went looking for her and things got strange after that. He clammed up completely, wouldn’t say what he was up to nor answer any of my phone calls. Vince tried to call too, but it was the same for him. Something was going on, and I think he was too scared to tell us. I believe they may have found her and tried to rescue her, but then he got kidnapped by the same people,” Mitch replies, looking around nervously. His voice progressively drops in volume as he explains his reasoning.

He must feel that weird sensation of someone watching him. I struggle to keep from laughing at the distress on his face. If he only knew just how accurate that feeling is then he would have a real reason to worry. He is being watched alright. We all are.

“Sit for a while, boys,” I tell them, motioning to the seat next to me. I move along on the bench so they can join me in the shade. It can get hot very quickly when sitting in the tropical sun. “What is worrying you about what happened? I want to hear your theories.”

Mitch looks around nervously again, then he leans forward to whisper.

“Taylor showed me a picture on his phone about the time Karly disappeared. It was a drawing of her tied up in a cell. He said he showed it to Hannah. After that, he kept going over to Charlie’s house every day. Then he wouldn’t answer my calls. I mean, fair enough, as he must have been getting interested in Hannah, but even that was odd as he never looked at her before then. She wasn’t his type, and then suddenly they were inseparable. It’s like he became obsessed or that she had some strange hold over him. Then he dropped out of school in the last semester! I know he would never have done that by choice. He was not the same after he came back from his trip to Jabiru. Something happened out there.”

Vince joins in, whispering and leaning closer to me. There is no one around, but he must have the same ‘someone watching’ feeling as Mitch.

“That’s not all, Mr Dailey. I have been fishing with Taylor a lot. There is no way he would have drowned as the account says. If they did hit a freak wave and he fell overboard, he could easily have climbed right back on the boat. He is a good swimmer, and there are too many fish in that area for the crocodiles to worry about humans as quickly as that. They would have been safe for a couple of hours at least, even if they both fell in and knocked themselves unconscious, which is highly unlikely. It just doesn't make sense. Both of them?”

“Have you spoken to anyone else about this?” I ask hesitantly. All it would take for the whole exercise to implode is one comment in the wrong set of ears. I’m relieved Monica has accepted Hannah’s disappearance as well as she has. She was upset immediately afterwards, but so far she hasn’t voiced the questions Vince and Mitch are asking now. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Hannah had prepared her subconsciously in some way.

“No,” they both reply quickly, shaking their heads. “We don’t know who to talk to about it. That is why we wanted to discuss our ideas with you. Surely you have had your doubts too. What do you think? What should we do?”

“You want my opinion?” I ask, looking at them both for a full minute before continuing. “Keep it to yourself. Voicing your concerns like this just makes it harder to accept the facts. Honestly, I have asked these same questions repeatedly. Yes, they were both good swimmers. How could they drown so quickly? What if they are alive somewhere? The facts don’t change, though. If either of them had managed to swim to one of the islands, they would have been found by the air search. People have been combing the beaches everywhere, but there has been nothing. Dave said the tide was changing so they could have been swept out into the Timor Sea. Could a crocodile have taken them? Who knows? Maybe a ravenous shark was passing by at that particular time. I ask myself all kinds of questions, just like you are doing now, even silly ones like, 'What if they staged their deaths'. Unfortunately, each time I come back to the question of ‘Why’. Why would they do that? They had everything going for them. You are right. Taylor could have done anything he wanted. He had applied to study Medicine at Melbourne University. Why did he drop out in the middle of his last year of high school to join the Police Force? There is no way to answer those questions, but there is one thing that I do know. Taylor and Hannah are not coming back. You may as well accept it even though it’s tough, but that’s the way it is.”

“So, you believe he’s dead?”

Vince is still sceptical. He doesn't accept the line I just fed him, so I need to try another tack.

“No, I keep expecting Taylor to come jogging home any day now, saying he just had a great holiday in Bali with Hannah and, oops, sorry he forgot to tell me.”

They laugh just as I had hoped. That’s something Taylor would have done pre-Hannah days. Meeting her has changed him more than these two boys could ever imagine. She will continue to turn his life inside out and upside down in ways that I don’t care to surmise. Does she have a hold over him as Mitch thinks? Probably, but he’s not trying to break free. In fact, he wants more. Poor bloke.

Silently, they get up and shake my hand. I watch as they continue walking further up the beach. I can see they are disappointed. They had wanted a different answer than the one I gave them, but refusing to accept something doesn’t change the reality.

Taylor and Hannah are dead.

Two

The Darwin Police Headquarters is always busy with lively chatter and ringing telephones. There is a good team here but I’m struggling to concentrate on anything today. The conversation with Taylor’s two friends keeps going around and around in my head. No, I don’t think they’re dead. The reason is quite simple. I know they aren’t. Taylor and Hannah are further from being dead now than when they disappeared six months ago.

Six months? Where has time gone?

I shut the door to my small office before taking a photograph out of the top drawer. Memories come flooding back as I look at the smiling Taylor standing next to a much older man, one I remember very clearly despite the years since I have had any contact with him. His laugh and smile, each line on his face, and the way he nods while listening to whatever hair-brained idea is being presented to him as if it’s the next significant discovery. All these small things make him a giant in the minds of those around him. They know when he gives his advice that it’s in their best interest, whether they agree with it or not. What I admire most is that he never forced his view on others even when the tribe was breaking apart.

Joshua has been a good friend of mine through some very tough times. When individual members felt they needed to leave to protect their offspring, Joshua agreed even though I know he privately suspected it would lead to disaster. When I suggested that I go to help look after them, I was sure that he would say no. Why put my life in such a dangerous situation without a substantial reason? But he didn’t. He said it was my choice, and it’s one I am beginning to regret. It has taken a while, but finally, yes, I am starting to wish I hadn’t made that decision nearly twenty years ago.

Behind the two men is a machine I called the Jam Doughnut, a flying craft I had been working on along with my father, Frank. After Dad died due to an infection caused by someone refusing to stay long enough in the disinfection chamber, I couldn’t continue with it any longer. The picture shows a different story. Someone else has finished it, sending a twinge of jealousy surging through me.

The Doughnut is a result of the incredible intelligence that the Nairda tribe possesses, along with some amazing technology that this world will never see. It couldn't cope with this kind of genius.

It’s strange how some memories come back crystal clear, but others are like a faint mist. The smell of the sea breeze puzzles me. Why does it cause a longing deep within my soul?

I put the picture of the spaceship in the box next to my chair. I must finish packing my desk today. It’s my last day at work and this time is final. I know it’s the end of my working life. My health is beginning to deteriorate faster now, with the twitch in my hands getting worse each day.

I need to decide if I want to go back to that underground hole and live isolated from the rest of the world for the next one hundred years. Maybe even another two hundred. Free from sickness and money worries. Sounds like a paradise but everything has its downsides.

Sandy knocks on the door just as I finish putting the last of my things in the box. I smile at him sadly.

“There are a couple of young men here to speak with you, Bill. They say they are friends of Taylor. Are you okay for them to come in?”

“What are their names?”

“Mitch and Vince.”

So, the boys still can’t let it go. I glance at the picture sitting on top of the box and smile. I wonder how they would take the truth? Maybe I should give them the information they think they want. Yes, they have to wake up to the realities of life someday. They need to accept they have to keep out of certain things that are too dangerous for them to know. This case is one of them.

“Send them in,” I reply, sitting back down in the chair.

Mitch and Vince stop just inside the door to stand nervously, not saying a word. Something has happened to get them excited but very scared. Silently, Mitch hands me a sheet of paper with a pencil drawing on it.

“I found this in a pile of books that Taylor gave me the week before he left… I mean, before he died,” Mitch mutters. “We…I want to know what is going on.”

"Very interesting. I can see why you are so concerned," I reply as I pretend to have never seen it before.

Taylor is shown tied up in an underground storeroom with the skeleton of Albert Hinkler next to him. Without this picture, Taylor would have died undiscovered. It’s the one that confirmed to both Taylor and Hannah that they could trust the information being given to them by some unknown source. It was a turning point for them both.

I pass it back to Mitch. What am I going to say? Nothing? Taylor should have taken it with him. Big mistake.

“Interesting.”

“Interesting? Is that all you can say?” Vince asks incredulously. “I told you he is in trouble. Why aren't you out there searching for him?”

“Calm down, Vince. Alright, I’ll admit I have seen that picture before. In fact, I gave it to Taylor to keep as a memento as it saved his life.”

“So, this isn’t new?” Mitch asks, sighing with relief. “I was worried he is there now.”

“No, there is nothing sinister going on. I arranged for them to be agents for the school holidays and it was at the end when this incident happened. Afterwards, they decided to quit school and join the Police Force.”

“Detective Dailey, I can tell that you are hiding something. I am struggling with this,” Mitch replies. “I am convinced Taylor is not dead and I want to find him. If this drawing saved his life, then there might be more to show where he is now.”

I look at their concerned faces and sigh deeply.

“If you think you can handle the truth of what went on during those months, then you need to go talk to Charlie Brown. The drawings are his. I can’t help you any further than that. I’m sorry.”

I watch them weave through the desks, enter the hallway and then exit the building. They are going to see Charlie right now. Then they will dig up what needs to be left buried, and I don’t mean bodies. I had better warn Charlie to be prepared and to get his story straight. He only lasted a month as a profiler and is struggling to cope without Taylor and Hannah. He should have gone too.

Maybe I should take these two boys with me when I go back to Subterran. After the devastating disease and power struggle, the gene pool of healthy young men has become substantially depleted.

I chuckle to myself. Did I just think 'when I return'? Is that what I want to do, or what I know I should do?

Three

Mitch

Walking out of that office is one of the hardest things I have had to do in a long time. I feel like reaching over and grabbing the old man by the collar of his business shirt and demanding he tell me where my friend has gone. Of course, that would have been a disaster on more than one front. I would have been arrested instantly.

“He knows they aren’t dead,” Vince says, echoing my thoughts. “He doesn’t think we can handle the truth.”

“Yeah, I think so too, but he is not going to tell us anything. Sending us to see Charlie is just a way to get rid of us. What is there about the last six months that we can’t handle?”

“Let’s go anyway. We might learn something that will spark the day up a bit. Science isn’t much fun without debating with Taylor.”

“I agree. Even if he had decided to go South to study Medicine, which I doubt, we would have been able to share notes,” I reply, grimacing at the thought of picking up the Biology textbook sitting on my desk at home. “He always insisted we were going to come here together.”

“Let’s show this picture to Charlie and see what he says. It’s well-drawn, nearly 3D,” Vince adds, looking at the drawing closer. “It’s weird seeing Taylor like this.”

“When I saw it, I was sure it was a message of some kind. I didn’t stop to think how he could have given it to me along with the books,” I say, chuckling. “I don’t remember him being all that good at drawing.”

“Maybe Taylor knew what he was planning to do was so dangerous that there was a likelihood of not coming back. Maybe it’s a clue.”

"This event has already happened, according to Bill."

We lapse into silence as I drive to Charlie's unit. Deep inside, I am convinced Bill is hiding the truth from me. There is something going on and I will not stop until I find out what it is.

Charlie peeks through the security peephole before reluctantly opening the door.

“I…I..I didn’t expect visitors today,” he says as we walk inside. “Hi…Hi…Hi, Mitch...Mitch. V…Vince.”

The small flat is a mess. Sheets of paper are scattered all over the floor, with clothes and dirty dishes on every flat surface. This isn’t like the meticulous Charlie I thought I knew.

As I walk up to one of the boxes, Charlie rushes over and moves it away, securing the lid.

“Don’t…. Don’t look at those,” he stammers. “They are private. I….I have to pack them away.”

Alarm bells are clanging inside my head. Something is wrong here.

“What is going on, Charlie?” I ask. “You never stammer. What has happened to you?”

“Nothing....Nothing,” he replies unconvincingly. “It has nothing to do with Taylor and Hannah disappearing in a flying saucer.”

Vince and I look at each other in surprise, before clearing a couple of chairs so we can sit down. What on earth is he talking about? A flying saucer? Bill didn't tell us about this. Maybe he doesn't know the whole story.

“So, what do you know about Taylor and Hannah? They disappeared, didn't they? They are not dead, are they? Are you sure?”

“Yes….Yes, of course. Taylor and Hannah aren’t dead,” Charlie laughs as if the idea is ridiculous. “They asked me to go with them, but I wasn't ready. It…It was all planned, but no…no one is to know how they got there, not even Bill.”

“This is such a relief,” I reply, letting out a deep sigh. “It must be driving you crazy knowing what happened, but not being allowed to tell anyone. That's not fair.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Charlie says, sheepishly. “Bill called…called a few minutes ago to remind me not…not to say anything about where they are now. Just forget everything.”

Quickly, he heads for the kitchen to make us a cup of tea. His hands are shaking so badly that the cups clatter against each other, and he nearly drops them. I am surprised anything is left when he sets them in front of us. Poor Charlie. He is about to have a nervous breakdown from the stress he has been under.

“Charlie, you know us. We don't believe Taylor and Hannah are dead, but we want to know if they are okay. That’s all,” Vince says softly. "It isn't fair to expect you to keep it from others who care about them as much as you do."

“I guess you are right. It isn’t fair,” Charlie replies after looking at us doubtfully for a moment. Finally, he sighs. “But if I tell you, you have to keep it a secret. Promise?”

“Of course. We won’t tell anyone.”

Right now, I would promise anything. I won't tell anyone other than the Missing Persons Bureau, the Federal Police, Interpol and as many other people as it takes to track my friends down. What he says next wipes that thought out of my head. No, I won't tell anyone about this!

“They were picked up by a flying saucer to join Karly and her parents inside the main Kakadu plateau,” Charlie says firmly. “They are alive and well.”

"Karly? Did they find her? Are you sure?"

I am struggling to hide my surprise. My heart is pounding as excitement surges through me. Maybe my theory is right after all.

“Here, I’ll prove it to you,” Charlie replies, going to his desk.

After a moment of shuffling through a box of papers, he pulls out a folder and hands it to me. It contains hundreds of sheets of drawings by the same artist as the one I found.

“This is where they are and how they got there.”

Vince sits next to me on the couch so we can look through each sheet at the same time. Just as well we are sitting down because my knees turn to water after the first couple of pictures.

“So…..” I start to speak, but the shock is making it difficult to think straight.

Vince is the first one to get his thoughts together.

“They have joined Karly and her parents and a tribe of people who live in an underground city. Why?” he asks. “How did they get so advanced that they have taken on the role of Earth’s Guardians?”

“I don’t know,” Charlie says, flopping like a deflated balloon into the chair next to his drawing desk. “They invited me to go with them as my father is there too. It’s weird. He disappeared when I was only young. Apparently, he was nearly dead and had to leave quickly, but he never came back. Why would he abandon me like that? How can I trust such a group? Taylor was so keen to be reunited with his Mum and Dad that nothing would stop him from going.”

“Taylor’s parents are there too?” I ask. “Why didn’t he tell me? Why just disappear like this?”

This story sounds as believable as those fairy tales with happy-ever-afters and fairy godmothers. Several lives have been completely redrawn with vastly different endings, with a wave of a magic wand… or in this case, pencil.

“Look, I shouldn’t have said anything,” Charlie mumbles as he takes the folder out of my hands and puts it back in the box.

“No, but I am glad you did. I want to find where this tribe is hiding.”

“Me, too,” Vince adds. "It would be great to talk to Taylor and find out why they did this?"

“But they are supposed to have died! You can’t just waltz out into the bush and say ‘here I am. I want to talk to you’. It doesn’t work that way.”

“How does it work then?” I ask. “How can I let them know I want to join this tribe? Maybe I want to live in this underground city too.”

“Are you for real?” Charlie looks at me stunned. “Why? Why would you want to leave everything you know to live with a bunch of strangers?”

“Are you going to help me or not?”

I don't want to discuss my reasons for making this crazy, life-changing decision just yet. The delicate seed of an idea is germinating and starting to put down roots. It needs a bit more nurturing before it gets exposed to any scorching criticism.

“How? How can I help you contact them?” Charlie seems too bewildered to think clearly.

“I don't know. Didn't you draw a motorcycle for your character Z? Maybe the pictures can go both ways. Draw one of me outside the cave.”

“And me!” declares Vince. "I love the idea of joining them.”

I am surprised he is interested in this kind of adventure as he has strong family ties. It would be great to do this together, though. It would help keep me from thinking that I must be crazy, especially if things don't turn out as we hope.

“Are you guys out of your mind?” Charlie asks, shaking his head in disbelief. “You have family here. Won’t they miss you?”

“No. All I have to say is that I am moving down South and won’t be able to contact them for a while. They won’t worry for a couple of years,” I reply, shrugging my shoulders.

“We are talking about more than just a couple of years,” Charlie says seriously. “You can’t come back.”

“My family is more concerned with making money at the mines than caring about what I am doing. They will probably be relieved to have me out of the way. We argue all the time, so I stay in my room if I am not going out. I need to move out of the house, but rents are too high here. I hate the way things are in this system. The environment is a mess. Society is collapsing. If what you say is true about there being a tribe that acts as Earth's Guardians, then the question should be ‘why stay here?’”

Charlie leans back in his chair and thinks for a moment.

“Okay. I am willing to have a go. Nothing has appeared since they confirmed Taylor and Hannah are okay. I'll draw a picture of you and Vince outside the cave and leave it on the desk.”

Charlie does a quick sketch to shows us his idea. I hope they can recognise it's Vince and me. He isn’t nearly as good as the artist who produced the original drawings.

Four

Early the next morning, I hurry over to Charlie’s unit with a detour to pick up Vince. The more I think about the whole idea, the more I love it.

I am putting many hours of work into studying Biology and for what purpose? To report on things the Professors already know? What is the sense of carrying out in-depth Scientific Research if the results are prejudiced? Once I graduate in four years-time and somehow manage to get a grant, then I can carry out private research. I will be able to discover the undiscovered, explore the unexplored, or create the politically-correct cure for some environmental disease caused by humanity and its greed. But what if it isn’t politically correct? What if I find something that challenges the status quo? I wouldn’t dare risk publishing it if I have any desire to work in a Science field on any professional level. Yes, I can see why Taylor would choose to rebel against the way things are and join the Earth’s Guardians. I just wish he had told me about it before he left.

Charlie lets us in and then carefully locks the door behind us. His shoulders are slumping forward and he looks like he is about to cry.

“What happened?” Vince asks.

“Nothing,” he replies sadly. “Absolutely nothing. I was so sure there would be something here this morning. Maybe they don’t want to be in contact with me anymore. I can’t help feeling that my dad has abandoned me again.”

Disappointment floods over me as I pick up the picture he left for them. I had hoped there would be something new waiting for us. Something to show us entering the city through the cave or getting picked up by a spacecraft. How cool would that be!

“You are the one who chose not to return, so they may not expect you to get in touch. Maybe they haven’t checked their inbox yet,” I suggest, trying to reassure Charlie. He manages to smile at the idea. “I still want to go to Jabiru and hike to that waterfall. There has to be another way to get in without being invited. Maybe there is a door I can knock on.”

“Mitch, you can’t get in unless they invite you. There is no other way inside,” Charlie protests. Does he realise his voice is a whine?

“Maybe they just need to know we’re serious,” Vince adds. “I think you need to keep putting pictures on the desk while we travel there. When they see the effort we are making, then maybe they will respond.”

Charlie shrugs his shoulders.

“I don’t know if you should go without some sort of indication that they will let you in. Dave was with Taylor and Hannah when they went the first time. He said they were being watched by the Guardians the whole time.”

“Send another picture. Maybe Taylor didn’t get the last message,” I insist as I pace the room. “As Vince says, maybe they don’t realise we are serious about wanting to talk to them.”

“Or maybe Taylor didn't make it,” Vince says softly, pulling me up with the sudden change of heart. “Face it, Mitch. Should we trust these drawings enough to change our lives completely like this? It’s not going to be easy for me to leave my family. At the funeral, Dave was adamant they had died when a freak wave hit their boat, and they fell overboard. They didn’t have life jackets on and might have hit their heads.”

“Vince, can’t you see that Dave is in on the conspiracy? He wants us to believe they are dead. It’s all a big scam to hide the tribe for some reason.”

“Taylor was going back to something,” Charlie agrees. “Something is there.”

“OK,” I state firmly. “I’ll go to Jabiru on my own. I’ll hike to the plateau and the waterfall, and see what happens. When they see how much effort I have gone to, then they will have to let me in. I can check it out, then come back and let you know what it’s like.”

“When do you plan to go?” Charlie asks.

“Next week,” I reply. “The mid-term holidays start then. It should only take two weeks to go and find them, and once I do, then we can decide what action to take next.”

“Fair enough,” Charlie says. “I will put a picture on the desk each night until you leave. I’ll call you if there is any response.”

The drive home feels final. The doubt Charlie and Vince have expressed has affected me more than I let on. I will never tell them that there is another reason to track Taylor and Hannah down.

Karly and I had developed a special connection. I may have even fallen in love for the very first time on the night before she disappeared. She stole my heart, and I see her long blonde hair and sweet smile everywhere I go. I will never be free to love again unless I find her. I have to try at least once. The last year without her has been unbearable.

The next week flies by as I arrange for the hiking trip. Dad has already flown off for another stint at the mines, while Mum is planning a shopping trip to Bali with a couple of girlfriends. I’ve checked my phone every hour of every day, waiting for Charlie to call.

The night before I leave for Jabiru, Charlie finally calls me, babbling with excitement.

“It's happened. It finally happened,” Charlie shouts. It’s amazing how his stuttering has cleared up now he has been able to talk about this. “There is a change to one of the drawings I left last night.”

“What is it showing?” I ask cautiously. I hope it’s something positive to reassure me I am on the right track.

“I drew you and Vince inside the cave entrance with the doors closing.”

“Yes! It must mean I can get in.”

I punch the air in excitement. Yes! I will be able to find my girlfriend again.

“Mitch, there is only one problem,” Charlie says, interrupting my celebrations. “They added something to it. It shows you holding your Batchelor of Science. You won’t get that for three years. They want you to wait until it's finished before joining them.”

“Maybe, but I am going to try anyway. At least they know I am coming.”


The four-hour drive to Jabiru in my old Toyota 4x4 pickup truck seems to take longer than ever before. I have repeated that phrase “I am going to try anyway” a million times before I reach the boundary to the National Park. I have been to Jabiru several times on the way to some of the best fishing spots around, especially Shady Camp, the barramundi fishing haven with one tree, a million crocodiles and zillions of mosquitoes. I’m going to miss that.

Vince changed his mind several times but finally decided not to join me, and Charlie tried to talk me out of going at all. They have only succeeded in placing seeds of doubts, but I refuse to let them grow. I don’t have to disappear on this trip, do I? Can’t I decide after I have seen what it’s like there? Am I doing the right thing?

Yes, I decide. My best mate and my girlfriend are out here. I can feel it. I have to try to make contact with them.

Pulling up outside the Jabiru police station makes this whole expedition seem surreal. There is no turning back once I walk inside and meet Dave Stockman. He is waiting for me in a small office to the left side of the entrance.

“Hi, Mitch,” he says, shaking my hand.

Tribal Aborigines tend to be shy, reluctant to make eye contact or approach an outsider first. It’s reassuring Dave isn’t like that. The land I have to cross belongs to his people. I am going to need all the confidence he has to get me there and to keep moving forward with my plan.

“I have arranged what we need to take with us,” he continues. “We’ll drive the ute as far as possible, then motor a dinghy upriver to a base camp. From there, we have to hike for a couple of days over some rough terrain.”

“What?” I laugh. “No helicopter? No parachuting in and abseiling down the cliff? That would have been fun.”

“No,” Dave replies firmly. “There is no way I could convince any of the pilots to take us over that area. A lot of strange things have been happening out there recently, and the stories of Alien encounters are circulating again. Still, this will give you an idea of what you are up against. I hope you won’t be too disappointed when you don’t find what you are looking for.”

“You believe they are dead, don’t you?” I ask softly. “The tribe is there, but you think Taylor and Hannah didn’t make it back.”

We are sitting in his office with the door open, and a group of tourists have come in to inquire about camping permits. Dave gets up and closes the door. We do not need anyone trying to join in on our adventure. This trip will be the toughest hike of my life in many ways.

“Yes, I do. I know I promised to take you where the cave is so you can see it for yourself. It’s a long way off the beaten track, and odd things have been going on in that area for as long as I can remember. Scary stuff like compasses spinning around, time standing still, and big trees shrinking to the size of bushes, lots of things. No one has been out that way in a long time, so it should be just as we left it.”

“Are you OK to leave in the morning before daylight? I am keen for an early start.”

“I have arranged for you to stay here at the station for the night. If you do get taken in by the Guardians, you don’t need hotel records showing you were here in Jabiru. Have you ever slept in a jail cell before?” he asks. A big smile is covering his face. “You don’t even have to be arrested for this privilege.”


The trip upriver in the small aluminium boat is slow, but it’s better than walking. At night, we pitch our tents away from the river bank so the crocodiles don’t come looking for a midnight snack. They have been known to check out a camp and try to remove any occupants or pets.

Then we start the hike over the foothills, or rather foot-mountains. We stay close to the tops and weave through an incredibly rugged country, full of stringy bark trees and large grey rocks. As we climb higher, the rocks turn red, and the trees become stunted. Off in the distance, I can see the open floodplains between the plateau and the Gulf of Carpentaria. It would have been a lot easier to hike across them, but the final climb up the cliff face would be impossible.

“We have to go down this range now,” Dave tells me one night. “It will be a tough final climb to the falls. Be careful not to slip. I won't be able to help.”

He didn’t overstate the difficulty. As we approach, the slopes seem to be getting steeper, and the climb is becoming more difficult. After what Charlie told me about the solar trees and the way they can be retracted, I am beginning to think they can raise and lower the mountains as well. It did not look this hard when we mapped out the route.

It’s winter here in Tropical Australia, but the temperature and humidity are still high. Sweat pours off me during the day and the nights cool down enough to use a swag.

On the fifth day since leaving Jabiru, we reach the base of Wycliffe Falls. It’s awe-inspiring. Two rivers leap over the top of an incredibly high cliff and join half way along to form a large 'Y' before they plunge into an abyss-like lake which eventually feeds the rivers downstream.

We start the final climb early the next morning, but it still takes the most of the day to get to the cave level. Next time, I am going to insist on getting a helicopter to drop us off or parachuting in as they did.

Finally, we are on the ledge with a trail leading behind the waterfall to the cave. As we stop to catch our breath and admire the beauty of the Outback from this high vantage point, I turn to look up towards the top of the cliff.

“I would love to see the solar trees.”

“You know about them?” Dave asks, surprised.

“Charlie showed me the pictures. Look, Dave, I haven’t told you everything,” I confess. “Charlie has been in touch with the Earth’s Guardians about our trip.”

“In touch? How?”

“They responded to a picture of me and Vince here at the cave,” I reply.

I pull it out of my backpack. He looks at the drawing for a moment then passes it back.

“Vince? He isn’t here, though. Whatever is in the picture won’t be fulfilled this time. It has to be the same.”

“Vince didn’t want to come with me just yet. I am hoping to change the Guardians’ mind about coming earlier, or at least check the place out so I can let him know what we will face.”

Dave shrugs his shoulders as he leads the way along the narrow, slippery path to the cave behind the waterfall. I suddenly feel very insignificant in the scheme of life. No one would know if we got swept away by the pounding force of the water. Would Vince think I had joined the tribe without him?

Finally, I am standing in the cave that links the outside world to where my friends are in an underground city. I examine the walls and floor carefully but there is nothing to indicate it’s anything except a natural cave.

“Are you sure this is the right one?” I ask suspiciously. "Is this the one that leads to the Earth's Guardians and the city of Subterran?"

“Yes.”

I sigh with frustration. Nothing is happening as I had hoped. I’d expected to find something more than a hole in the mountain about 10 metres in depth and width. Where are the cave paintings or grooves where the door slides? What about an Emergency Exit sign or a doorbell with an intercom button?

There is only one thing left for me to do.


Five

Hannah

I still can’t believe my eyes, ears or heart. I was so sure they were dead, but now my parents are sitting in front of me, asking me to forgive them for leaving me behind. I have tried to answer them positively, but something has changed inside me. Yes, I can forgive them but can I ever trust them again? That may take a bit longer.

“I know we have hurt you, Hannah. We made some terrible mistakes in our time in Upper Earth. We got overly involved in the station and lost our focus. When we knew we had to return here, we arranged for the money to go into a trust you would have received when you turn twenty-one. We didn’t think it was right to bring you back here until we knew it was safe. Didn’t Monica do a good job looking after you?”

“But you came here and left me behind,” I protest. “At least Karly’s parents didn’t abandon her. You never even told me about Subterran.”

We have had this discussion many times already, and it never ends well. This one is heading the same direction, but before they can make up another feeble excuse, an alarm sounds through our quarters, followed by an announcement.

“All Council members are to report to the meeting room immediately.”

Dad grabs a folder sitting on the sideboard and hurries out. I hope I just imagine that look of relief on his face.

"Saved by the bell," I murmur to myself before turning to Mum and asking, “What is that about?”

“I have no idea,” she answers hesitantly.

I raise my eyebrows as I look at her. She can see I don’t believe her.

“It’s not going to work, is it?” she asks sadly. “You don’t trust us anymore.”

“You have a bad track record,” I reply, getting up and heading for the door. “I need to go for a walk.”

I can’t live like this. I was led to believe that I was vital to the tribes’ survival but all I do is wander around, twiddling my thumbs and it’s driving me crazy. I need a place of my own and something to do. A job of some kind to fill my mind.

Elaine and Robert Townsend, my parents, have a lovely apartment in the Secondary Quarters of the Royal Chambers. It has everything I need, but nothing at the same time. I guess I became more independent in those last three years than I realised, especially the last six months. Something has changed deep inside of me ever since my bedside globe changed directions and I saw the galaxies twirl. I became part of a much bigger purpose. I just don’t know what that is yet, and it’s making life frustrating.

Maybe Karly and I can move into a chamber together. I should look for her and ask before this situation gets any harder to handle.

Karly is in the Community Room reading a tablet on plants. It’s a large area to one side of the Welcoming Cavern, where many Nairda come to visit the extensive library. She’s changed a lot since disappearing during the school camp. Now she is the one who is like a fish out of water when it used to be me.

“I was never any good at Biology,” she complains. “I need to find an area to work in, so I have something to do. But everywhere seems to involve study, especially science.”

“What did you dream of doing for a career before you came here?”

“I wanted to get married, have a couple of kids and a beautiful house in the suburbs,” she replies, sighing deeply. “I guess that will never happen now.”

“Why not?” I ask, but I know the answer.

The young men here have a lot better choices than what Karly has to offer. She is pretty but the other girls are beautiful, and their IQ’s are off the charts in comparison. They are also encouraged to marry within their work lines. Any outsider is at a distinct disadvantage.

"Except for living in the suburbs, the other things could still happen."

“I never had the chance to tell you, but I fell in love while we were on that school camp,” she whispers. “Do you remember Mitch Hancock?”

“Of course. He is Taylor’s friend,” I reply.

“Well, the night before Mum and Dad came for me, we kissed next to the waterfall. It was very romantic.” She sighs again. “He is the only one I miss from my life outside, especially now you’re here.”

“I don’t know what to say, but now it makes sense why he came with Taylor when I first went looking for you,” I say, shaking my head. I have never had a crush on any boy so I can’t say I understand her feelings.

“What about you and Taylor?” she asks. "What’s happening between you two?"

“What about us? Nothing’s going on.”

“I heard you two are supposed to get married and keep the Royal lineage going,” she giggles. “It sounds like you are going to have to let yourself fall in love eventually.”

“I can fall in love if I want to, but so far, I don’t see the need. I have kept a secret from you as well. Ever since we started looking for you, Taylor and I have developed a funny attachment, and I get a weird feeling when we are together that I can’t understand. It’s like a magnetic attraction that makes me want to kiss him passionately, but at the same time, I know I don’t love him like that.” I shake my head in frustration. “Yes, he is a good friend, but it would be like kissing my brother if I had one. That would be too gross!”

Karly laughs as I screw up my face.

“It’s called having a crush,” she jokes. “Is it like a part of you is with them even if they are not present?”

“No, it is more like the emotional attachment of a twin. It isn’t romantic. Did you know I can hear Taylor's thoughts as clearly as my own? We talk without words.”

“Do you mean like in 'mental telepathy'?”

“Yes, exactly but it’s different in a way. We have to think as if we are speaking it. It isn’t just mental rambling. It was scary at first, but now it's great. We have become close especially since having this bond between us.”

“That would be fun. You could cheat in exams if we had them here,” she laughs.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think he is a really cool guy and I could love him if I allowed myself to dwell on the idea. But there are a few things that bother me about that royal lineage marriage thing. His parents said it’s important for us to marry to carry on the Royal line, but Joshua said I could marry anyone who is of pure Royal Nairda blood. It doesn’t have to be Taylor. I'm worried he is getting pressured into marrying me for some reason, and not because he loves me. Does that make sense?”

“Why the two different versions? Do you think his parents are matchmaking?” Karly asks.

“I don’t know, and neither do I care at the moment,” I reply firmly, trying to convince myself at the same time. “I am happy the way things are between us for now. I need to learn how this whole place operates if I am to be useful as the Chairperson sometime in the distant future. Come on. Let’s go for a walk and see what happens on each level. Doing nothing is driving me crazy.”

Taylor comes in as soon as we stand up to leave. Secretly, I groan inside. He asked me if I would consider getting married when we returned here. I know he likes me but does he love me? What does he see in me?

He is handsome, smart and easy to get along with, but the only thing I have going for me is my lineage. I know I should be falling at his feet but being told I’m supposed to is the quickest way to turn me against the idea. I probably would succumb to the vibes he is sending off, but there is something else stopping me. Something a lot stronger has put a hold on our relationship, but I haven’t worked out what it is yet.

“Where are you girls heading?” he asks.


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