Blackwood Valley Guardian
A Cryptozoologist Story
By Emma Louise Gill
Read Caddo Lake, the story that inspired the Cryptozoologist Trilogy here.
Read part one, On Assignment in Birdsville, Qld, here
I place the fresh-dead wallaby strategically. It is dusk, and mosquitoes wish to feast upon my blood as much as the bait’s. But I’ve warded off the Hexham Greys before, insects that drill through skin in hobnailed boots (which I, alas, could not prove yet felt for certain), and I am no longer affected by a mediocre bite. I give an Aussie wave nonetheless, swatting them aside. The movement knocks my headset.
“Where’s your sound?” My sponsor’s voice is tinny, accusing from its sudden bed of forest leaves.
I pick up and adjust it; check the settings. “Good now?”
“Yes. Hurry up, though.”
I roll my eyes, unable to express my needs through words—Lina was always better at that. But I forgot my new optical lenses, and a laugh emoji pings my feed. It seems the connected audience supports me. I smile, though the optics itch. Then another series of emojis come through: a clock; sunset; red, angry face; tiger; sleeping face.
“That’s another hundred logged out. You’re losing us potential funds.”
I try to ignore the voice in my ear and move forward, careful to the end. “Last trap in place.”
The Nannup forest towers around me as I retreat. Smooth, mottled karri trees, guardians of this place, stretch for the emerging stars. A kookaburra glides through their limbs, settling down to watch. The creature I have come to find is extinct, but the forest cares naught for science. Mysteries hide within, I’m sure of it. I am here as witness.
Never one to offer bait other than myself, tonight’s entrapment grates against my soul. Whether creature or ghost lies in wait, victory here will taste inevitably lesser. I tried to tell my sponsor this. But the poor reception of my last assignment lurks like a dark storm, and he made it clear this is my final chance. No matter that the paranormal isn’t my strong point: I’d had to take that last job or risk his subscribers leaving. And so it’s his way now. The bait is set.
I sigh, remembering the days of Lina and I in the Florida Keys, or the Texan Sasquatch, her awestruck gasp. Those were simpler times. Searching for secrets, uncovering the hidden in our world, a way to expand the universe and feel somehow more alive. My sponsor had only just shown interest then, his payments and direction minimal. Not for long. Lina saw it, I know that now. But I had to bow to him, or stay with her.
I wonder if she’s watching tonight.
Purple-orange light fades to red and blue, grey shadows creeping across the canopy and bush. I’ve rented a cabin in the forest, made friends with the spiders and the so-called hoop snakes. The renter laughed when he told me of the latter, and I kept a mostly sceptical lookout, but the striped brown serpent rolling past in last eve’s rain belied him. Sadly, I’d forgone my optics at that point, not wanting viewers to see me drink (I’m on a contract after all), thus my evidence once again ‘lacked substance’. Tonight I’ve kept the lenses in; we’ll review the footage live. Thylacine hunters across Australia use camera traps; none have found acceptable proof. But I have roadkill and my sponsor’s high-tech gear, the sour headache telling me I’m close, the tingling on my tongue which has never yet led me astray.
I return to the cabin, lay my head on my hands, and wait.
Alarm in one ear, my sponsor shouts angrily in the other. I blink and come to full alert, swipe my screen from black to active. I frown. No motion on the cameras. Nothing in the past half hour. All looks normal. And yet, the chime… I turn it off. My feed is full of crap, of comments from the creeps who come in while I sleep. I wait for Lina to say something, to joke or somehow shut them up, and then I remember she isn’t here.
I sigh and turn away. “I’m awake, what’s going on?”
“You tell me. Camera Five is down. Sort it out.”
Rubbing my forehead, I see he’s right: Five has a frozen timestamp. Refreshing does not solve the issue, and I’m about to tell him that when I realise he must already be accessing the tech from his end. Not very trusting, my sponsor. My chest tightens at the slight. I have five papers to my name, I’m respected in my field… Fists clenching, my mind whirls with thoughts as dark as the night outside. My work is turning into a farce, with his social media and scripted videos, his insistence for control as though he is the master and my cryptozoology credentials mean nothing. He made me choose between my job and Lina, and the last six months I’ve felt her loss like a missing limb. I know I was excited, perhaps even obsessed with the opportunities he offered, but all he does is push. If he wants me to fix his tech he ought to be a helluva lot nicer.
I clamp my teeth. “If it’s down, it’s not my fault,” I say. Then I turn his volume low and head out nonetheless.
Because I still have to prove that this is worth it.
Because I know it is the hunt that draws me on: the sour-salt taste in my mouth as I search for every impossible goal. The quest to venture further, delve deeper. It is my gift, my drive, my suffering. I do not think I can ever stop.
The feed is running with a few hundred viewers. Some are speculating on the fault. Could it be foxes, dingoes, chewed cables? Satellite interference, poor positioning? The only resolution is to see for myself. I swing the red-light torch from side to side and crunch through midnight bush. Camera Five was closest to the cabin; the other four won’t be disturbed by my noise, I hope.
The dog-head wolf, the Thylacine, should be extinct. Once pursued to death, vilified, I’m here to prove it remains extant. My pulse beats faster at the tense, humming air as I turn the camera off and on again and reset it in its place. I cannot see what caused the issue. The back of my neck prickles like thunderclouds building, like static ready to spark. I walk a circle, then back towards the safety of four walls.
A creature stands in dappled shadow off the path. Striped and round-bodied in the back, its bright eyes pierce the gloom with reflected moonlight. At first I think it is a trick, my stressed mind playing games and giving fireflies a form. But no: it growls low. A rumble, a dark and hungry sound, a warning. My breath is sharp and hot and my nerves run the same. It is hiding in the undergrowth before the cabin. Larger than a fox, more ungainly. A creature out of time, out of place in the civilised boundaries of a National Park.
Or perhaps it is I who don’t belong. The karris rustle sternly, the Thylacine growls, and the shiver down my spine reminds me this is stolen land. This is not my territory. I am transported to an era of hunting dogs and dingoes, of marsupial predators and their stumbling prey. Eucalyptus and smoke are on the wind. There are no people here, only fragments of memory, only incorporeal data waves. I am pinned by silvered eyes, my heart in my throat, and even as I admire the camouflaged beauty I am thinking how easy it would be for it to leap the distance between us.
I startle at the voice in my ear. My feed is going off, my sponsor’s irate tone erased by something akin to greed. This evidence is his prize, the promise to his cash-ready viewers. The colonisers are here, I realise. The circus. This proof will bring them all.
Do they even care about wonder?
I stare at the Thylacine and it stares right back.
It is not afraid.
I close my eyes because I am.
About the Author:
Emma Louise Gill is a British-Australian speculative fiction writer and consumer of vast amounts of coffee. Brought up on a diet of grey-clouded English lit, she rebelled and now writes sci-fi and fantasy stories in beachside cafes.
Her words appear or are forthcoming in Etherea Magazine, Curiouser Magazine, AntipodeanSF, Piker Press, and others.