On Assignment in Birdsville, QLD
A Cryptozoologist Story
By Emma Louise Gill
Read Caddo Lake, the story that inspired the Cryptozoologist Trilogy here.
The old folks in the hotel laugh. “You ought to go to Boulia,” they say. Bloody tourists, they also mutter. But I’m not of a mind to travel hundreds of kilometres, and I’m darn well not a tourist. I’m a cryptozoologist, a journalist. I’ve 200k subscribers and a job to do. I leave them to their stubbies and their hat wall and take off into channel country. Satellite and high-res equipment are small company, but my sponsor and viewers are watching on the other end, as always. I’ve also my intuition: that burn on the back of my neck, that sour-salt taste on my tongue that says I am close to my goal.
I camp beneath the stars, heaven unrolling a display to dazzle the senses, pull the soul on lunar strings up into the great open sky. But I set my fire, toast her beauty, and turn my back to her lure. Drinking thermos coffee, I sit close as I dare to the yellow crackle of flame. The outback presses upon me. This land is wild and ancient; its spirit throbs in my bones; its long history weighs down the wind on the grasslands. When time and the long road hither takes its toll, I curl into my swag. Disappointment from my viewers, but there is time to find what I have come for.
Uneasy sleep filters the slip-slither of night creatures, the yearning of a distant call. The land questions my presence. At one point I wake with a start, sure that I hear a woman’s scream. It never comes again. But my dreams are restless after that, and I have to turn off the comments on my feed, the speculation.
Day arrives with little fanfare, spreading pale rays across the landscape. Out here it’s arid, with patches of wetland in better years, and deep scars across the red-orange dirt where water sometimes flows. The wind is up. I let it drive me, as sun bakes the earth into meagre low-twenties. An occasional raptor keeps pace. Skinks bathe on warm outcrops, dark dewdrop eyes wary of my truck. They disappear in an instant. In the distance, cattle graze on spinifex clumps, looking so much like an optical illusion from my childhood that I question where in the world I am. Some things have to be experienced to be believed, like this pasture in a place I’d consider desert. Or the paranormal sightings dotting its history.
I set up for the evening by a cliff edge, facing back towards that distant town. After sunset all the world stills, as if listening, as if in wait. Even my feed goes quiet. The hair on my arms rises and I choke on my suddenly salt-sour coffee. A chill runs through me. In the hush, two orbs appear. Yellow, no larger than my fist, their distance impossible to tell. I stand; they move concurrently. I take a step forward. They… blink.
“Where’s your flashlight?” my sponsor whispers in my earpiece. He’s watching, always watching, and he’s right to ask because the firelight forever plays tricks on me—I should have learnt by now. I break out the torch, and of course it reveals a wandering cow which I shoo with a shout, tearing into the silence in frustration at my own gullibility, heart racing with adrenaline from that moment of uncertainty—
I turn back to my fire, and the yellow orbs are there again. Larger, even. As I watch, their colour pulses to green, blue, orange.
I am motionless, the lights blinking, hovering. A shriek grows inside me, a tightness in my skull, and when finally I can force my arm to move, my flashlight reveals naught else. I am trembling, I am insect food.
I have found the min min lights. Or perhaps, they have found me.
The two globes shift, floating in a strange, erratic dance as if the absent wind drives them. For how long I stand and watch, I do not know. My mouth is dry, pulse a steady hammer in my ears.
“Closer,” my viewers urge.
I am drawn forward, pulled by magnetism, encouraged by reason—or lack of. Step by step, whilst the lights dance impossibly. I cannot divine their distance: it could be five metres or fifty. Tussocks catch my feet, soft sand gives way to hard. Eventually, the two lights come together, conjoining into a pale blue-white orb that sinks out of sight.
“Follow it!” my sponsor says. “Don’t let it go.”
I obey—and almost overstep the crumbling cliff’s precipice, halting with a start and a tumble to the rough and unforgiving ground. The orb bounces up from the abyss, as if watching me. The urge to shriek wells up once more.
Then I do hear it, the scream, only it is not from my own voice box. The woman from last night? I toss my head about to determine her direction, but once again am foiled, only feeling a faint wind overhead, a rustle as if from a giant bat’s passing. When I turn back for the min min light, it has disappeared. My campfire is too bright, too ferocious in its roar. Yet I crawl to its guarded circle, huddle in my swag, and wait for day to come.
There are no more visits under these stars.
My sponsor determines my evidence too vague, too inconclusive. No matter that in the morning I check the ravine down which I nearly fell, finding at its base a slew of bones, cattle among them. Had the lost creature been following the lights before I scared it off? The life of one bovine seems little compensation for my efforts.
The old folks at the hotel laugh once more: that I survived. They offer for me to stay a while. Like I’ve passed some sort of test. I decline.
Boulia is a little over six hours away, a trip I now think I must take. The back of my neck burns.
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 Curiouser Magazine, AntipodeanSF, Piker Press, and others.