At the Focus

Sean McMullen & Paul Collins

Harry Cundiah pulls his big Kawasaki trailbike up a ridge and cuts the motor. The last rumbles of the engine echo through the gorge for a moment, then die. The silence is welcome, and he wipes the dust from his face. He is not wearing a helmet, for there are no traffic rules in such a remote part of the MacDonnel Ranges.
The gorge is lurid red sandstone against a luminous blue sky reflected in utterly still water. Ghost gums and ironwoods grow near the water's edge, and further up the slopes are Cypress Pines and ancient cycads.
Something ethereal yet tangible, something Harry Cundiah does not understand but accepts, has called him here. The White Man has gradually eroded the life his people enjoyed, but not that part of his ancestry that still resides within him. That can never wear away. Though he dresses in faded James Brown jeans and check Country Wear shirts, Harry still sings the old chants at the ancient sacred places.
Sitting astride the Kawasaki, he listens to the faint clicks and clanks as the motor cools. His blood is pure aboriginal, his name means 'to walk about' in his ancestral tongue. Travelling as a White Man, dressed as a White Man, well educated by the White Man's standards, Harry is still very close to the land.
Suddenly impatient with the bike, he dismounts and collects his backpack and guitar. He walks slowly, stiff and clumsy after the long ride. His boots kick up small powder-fine puffs of red dust as he leaves the ridge and makes his way down to the water. He brushes past green, poisonous cycads that are older than the White Man's rule.
The gorge is scarred by time, dotted by huge boulders, and paved with sand and frost-shattered rocks. The place is remote, pure . . . but for how long? He must be there, dream there, while he can. He discards his backpack, and his hand brushes restlessly against the Yamaha acoustic guitar slung over his back. At the water's edge he stops. Its chill is like magic in this hot, arid place.
Harry knows that his ancestors once danced the roles of rock wallabies. He can visualise the dancing, the seeking of that most special and sacred of places: the Focus. And he, too, dances through the lines of force, dances until he stumbles into the Focus. Until now he has been softly humming snatches of the old chants, but now something sucks the breath from him, and he falls silent.
He is within the Focus itself. It is a short stretch of fine sand between two massive, rounded boulders. He hunkers down and pulls a small packet from his leather pouch. Inside are pituri leaves, an aboriginal narcotic. Mechanically he begins to chew on a leaf, grinding it to mulch, then sits in the soft sand and unslings his guitar. He begins again, humming an old aboriginal chant, and through a slight mist brought on by the pituri, sees animals that lived here long ago, Dreamtime animals. Wombats the size of cattle lumber past a wide lake where green crocodiles swim languidly, and kangaroos as tall as a White Man's house graze leaves from the trees. Harry smiles. He knows that the Focus will give these visions if one plucks at its force fields with an appropriate chant.
He rests his right arm on the body of his guitar, plucks a few harmonics as he adjusts the tuning keys. After several staccato notes he strums an ancient chord containing every harmonic that is needed. He cannot know that he is producing standing waves in spacetime among the boulders of this sacred place.
He begins to play a tune heard months before as he stood outside a hamburger shop in a now-forgotten country town. A tourist had driven up and left the car's cassette deck playing haunting music that at once enveloped and caressed Harry. He memorised it. Over the following weeks he adapted it for his guitar, created variations, decorated it until he could play around the tune for hours.
This was no modern pop-tune of the White Man. This ballade was written by a king as he languished, imprisoned, in an enemy's castle. Nearly eight hundred years before, Richard Coeur-de-Lion wrote Je Nuns Hons Pris in what White Men think of as their own Dreamtime.
Harry plays this tune now, utilising several chords that add richness to it. At the Focus, the standing wave materialises. To play this music, with a guitar, at the Focus, is like powering his motorcycle with an engine from the Space Shuttle. It has far too much power, it is totally inappropriate. Harry cannot possibly know.
The Focus is part of a great machine of rock. Rocks arranged in special patterns, rocks whose internal crystals have been set to a tolerance of billionths of an inch, rocks arranged to tap the mighty gravitational field of the Earth itself, to transmute and Focus the force lines like a transistor controls an electric current. The Focus was a joke. The Focus was a wager between unimaginable beings. The Focus is very old, but it still works.
For two minutes, Harry plays his tune. Gradually his vision blurs to a grey mist. He knows nothing of causality violation, of mass-energy conversion and projection in the standing wave set up by his music. The biggest computers in the universities of the coastal cities could not begin to analyse the workings of this clumsy spiral of scattered rocks.
When Harry stops, the mist clears, but it is very dark for morning. The chill on the air sends shivers through his body. This is not some pituri effect. The sky is definitely dark, heavily overcast. A sudden storm? Perhaps the pituri leaf lulled him into a sleep that has extended for many hours. Harry becomes troubled only when he discovers the rocks are covered with sooty frost - a frost which, in places, glows slightly with the bright lights of a distant city.
Genuinely puzzled - this is not part of his dream! - Harry walks to where he dumped his back-pack. If there is to be a storm, he should set up his tent. The pack is a shadowy lump. Foraging, he discovers rusty cans and lumps of oxide, crumbling tatters of cloth. He shivers, straightens. With fear an inspiration, he runs to his bike, but it too had been reduced to skeletal components. Black powder rims circles of whitish oxide, and the once impressive frame crumbles at his touch. Only the glass of the headlight has kept its shape.
At the Focus a standing wave in spacetime has compressed four centuries into only minutes of his subjective time. He knows nothing of the physics, but understands that something involving time has happened in this sacred place. He considers what he knows, and his White Man's education begins to shape the facts into a logical order.
Fact: when chants are hummed at it, the Focus gives visions from other times. Fact: he had played music very alien to that which his ancestors had used. Fact: his trailbike and backpack have aged, perhaps by centuries. Conclusion: rather than just giving him realistic visions, a mixing of the White Man's music with his own people's ceremony has flung him bodily through time.
His arms piston out and he throws the guitar from him. It skids across several rocks like a flat stone skimming on water. Drained by realization, he slumps by his ruined bike, collapses against remains that crumble under his weight.
He sits there, wearily considering more facts. His backpack and trailbike were left as he had last seen them. Fact: though remote, tourists did come to this place at least several times a month. Conclusion: nobody has come to this place for centuries, not since his arrival here. Fact: the climate has changed. Fact: the frost on the rocks is glowing and the trees have dies and withered to stumps. Conclusion: there was a nuclear war very soon after he had been snatched away. Now everything around him is radioactive, fallout from a strike on Pine Gap, perhaps. A nuclear winter still grips a barren world.
Harry unfolds from the ground. He strokes his wiry beard and looks out over the land with deep set eyes. The land is eternal, more lasting than the radioactive fire, or even this nuclear-induced ice age. He knows he will die soon, become one with the land and join his ancestors. He knows also that the land has been returned to his people's Dreamtime. The land will endure the poison and live again.
Harry turns and walks slowly back to the rocks at the Focus. It still exerts a force he can feel. He could sit at the Focus again, play the tune . . . The guitar! It lies among the rocks, scratched and battered. He stumbles over to it, grasps it like a shipwrecked sailor finding a life buoy. The top E-string is broken and two of the tuning pegs are bent, but there is no major damage. Silently, he begs the guitar for clemency. He ties the broken string with slack from the tuning peg, finds himself faint from relief as the knot stretches clear of the fretboard. He can escape.
He plays for a long time now, playing all his variations of Richard Coeur-de-Lion's ballade. Complex echoes among the rocks build the tune into full orchestral splendour, yet he plays alone.
Before Harry's eyes is a grey haze, as thousands of days pass with each bar of music. Five of his own hours pass. His hands ache and two strings of the guitar need tuning. In mid-bar, he stops.
It is night. The frost and the deadly glow are gone. In a clear sky, the once-familiar Pointers and the Southern Cross have been distorted by the millenia.
Harry plucks at the strings and turns the creaking pegs. Nearby, something begins to howl. It is a deep, hollow sound. Something big. No animals larger than rats would have survived the war. Rats! Rats could survive amid wreckage, away from the worst radiation. Harry knows something of ecology, enough to know what animals will adapt to fill an ecological niche. Could rats evolve and grow so much? There is another, more throaty howl, closer now. The opening bars turn the creature to dust as the tune awakens the mechanism of the Focus again, taking him to safety.
By living five hours in fifty-two thousand years Harry Cundiah is entering a new Dreamtime. More hours pass now, and lingering radiation from the war mutates surviving species rapidly. A seemingly unpromising species develops thoughts, dreams, sentience. Driven by fear, Harry plays for twice as long as before, yet he must stop eventually . . . whether for the pain in his hands or for sheer curiosity. He slow the tune, seeking night.
There is moonlight this time, and he notices that the climate is much warmer. There is also a flickering light, somewhere beyond the rocks. A sound, too, like tuning into telemetry on a short-wave radio. A chittering, high-pitched parody of a soprano. The singers are approaching, the flickering light is becoming brighter by the minute. Perhaps . . . a corroboree? Some sacred, ceremonial dance of the distant future?
Elation burns white in his heart as he stands. He has reached a new Dreamtime. The White Man has gone, his memory blown away and lost like a campfire's ash.
Harry takes two steps, stops. His head is throbbing. His ears have not adapted with the millenia, they cannot cope with the sounds of this new age. He sees shadows on the rock, shadows thrown by torchlight of the approaching dancers. Pear-shaped shadows, all backside and squatting on stumpy legs - bulging heads with long snouts. Frantic with fear and nausea, Harry lopes back to the Focus.
He plays, but there is no change. No grey mist before his eyes. Nothing! He realises that he is not in the 'driver's seat'. He shifts and plays again. Nothing. He shifts, plays, nothing. Shifts, plays - the chittering cuts abruptly. The welcome grey blur returns.
Harry is too frightened to shift now, and his stops are at one hour intervals, for rest only. Sometimes he stops during daylight, and there are pinkish, misshapen things nearby, carrying spears and squealing at the sight of him. The beings see Harry and, unknown to him, he becomes a very important spirit-devil in the new Dreamtime.
He has spent a full day playing at the Focus now, and his hands are stiff and swollen. There is a more pronounced flicker in the background too, because the rocks of the machine are eroding with the ages, and the flow of energy at the Focus is weaker.
Age is Harry's enemy. The machine that powers the Focus is older than the aboriginal occupation of the land. Harry is living in the standing wave, but the machine exists in normal time. It is still capable of matter duplication-projection effects, but the temporal standing wave is more ragged, and spacetime is precessing around it more slowly. The increasing flicker frightens Harry, as do the Dreamtime's aboriginals.
To the north he notices a glow outlining the horizon. It is galah-pink, foreboding for all its warm colour. At his next stop the glow has become more substantial. It is accompanied by a dull rumble. Traffic! A large city! He has arrived in a new age of machinery. Among nomads he might have been speared as a devil, but now there would be scientists who would want to study him, learn his language, ask him questions . . . keep him alive. He would be their unique link to the remote past.
Harry estimates the city to be at least ten kilometres away. He tries to stand, but his legs, cramped from sitting, fail to respond. He massages them, and like rusted machinery aided by oil, they finally start working. He has an idea. Perhaps a few more bars of the ballade would be enough to send a hundred years or so past and put this site within the expanding city's outer suburbs.
He plays. Abruptly the greyness is gone, and choking dust swirls over him. There is a smell of burning meat in the air, and a deep, fading rumble in the distance. Harry shifts slightly, plays a dozen times, but the grey of the standing wave does not return. The machine of the rocks is broken.
The machine is big, extending above and below ground for fifty kilometres around the Focus. It could absorb some small disruptions as the creatures of the planet over-worked the land, but not the thermonuclear might of this distant future's apocalypse.
Afraid, angry, then utterly demoralised, Harry finds himself amid the charred corpses of what must have been a tourist party. He sees that the site is now a park. There is a statue, long ago disfigured, bearing a strong resemblance to him. In the distance, he sees rubble and smashed buildings. Trees are ablaze, the smoke forming a veil that soon washes the city's ruins from his view.
His face is a mask of despair as the full implications of his actions crush him down. He has escaped a nuclear war, but for the sake of avoiding a ten kilometre walk, he has reached another. The sky above is opalescent with smoke and dirt. Very soon there will be fallout again.
Harry Cundiah is older than cities, than races, than the new Dreamtime, and with age comes realisation. With swollen hands he gropes for his heavy bush knife, grinning at his foolishness. This is his land, it has been waiting so very long to welcome the dust of his body back into the sand, yet he has fled through aeons . . . for what? To live in exile? He smiles, raises the knife . . . his body chars in searing light as the second-strike missile detonates. His dust is at one with the land again.

This story first appeared under the title "Time! Sang Fate" in Issue 2 of Aphelion magazine in a substantially different form.

Originally appeared pp. 27-33, Eidolon 3,December 1990.
Copyright © 1990 Sean McMullen and Paul Collins. All rights reserved.

Eidolon Publications 1995-2005

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