Cry of the Bunyips
Part One - Blood Sport
Chapter 1 - The Honey Smugglers
The snow-capped mountains glistened under dawn’s first light as the sun, bigger and brighter than yesterday, crept over the horizon. Roaring streams, fed by melting ice, cascaded into hidden valleys before disappearing beneath the rainforest canopy of what had just a few months earlier been a frozen wasteland.
To the north, fluffy white clouds, their bellies painted pink in the early light, foretold of the storms to come later in the day, bringing short relief from the oppressive heat and humidity.
The nervous young man in a grey business suit jumped to the ear-piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk as it answered the call of its mate further up the valley.
“Flaming bloody birds!” he yelled, pulling out a large white handkerchief and mopping his brow. “How much further do we have to go in this retched jungle?”
“Not far now, no sir, we’re almost there.” Their guide, a short wiry man who looked as if he’d be just as much at home in Frizian’s forty year winter as he was in its short steamy summer, quickened his pace.
Grey Suit dabbed at his brow again, while Clem and Russell followed a discreet distance behind, stooping to balance the earthenware pots strapped to their backs. Soon the smothering rainforest canopy blocked off all sight of the mountains and the rising sun.
Clem heard the sonorous hum of the Frizian honey wasps long before they reached the clearing. The tree before him, a giant amongst giants in this ancient forest, would have been impressive enough in its own right, but it was the dozens of conical nests hanging from its branches, the source of the humming he felt more than heard, that had captured his gaze. Each one, at least a metre across at the top, seemed to quiver and dance hypnotically in time with the noise, and he felt himself pulled towards them, drawn up to join the humming denizens in their never-ending song.
“Put this on.” Clem was vaguely aware of their guide speaking, and forced himself to turn away from the cones. Grey Suit took the yellow plastic suit and face mask from the guide, who showed him how to secure all the zips and tabs before pulling his own protective garment from his pack and sliding into it with practised ease.
“What about us?” Clem asked. Russell gave him a frightened glance.
“Did you hear something?” Grey Suit asked the guide.
“Don’t worry,” the guide said to Clem. “The sting of a honey wasp is a most pleasant death. First there is beautiful music, then the sweet smell of honey, a golden light, the gentle caress of a dozen young virgins, and before you know it, you’re dead.”
“Porters are expendable,” Grey Suit said. “Don’t waste your time talking to them.”
“As you wish, good sir.” The guide pulled a canister and rubber hose from his pack. “Would you be so kind as to hold this for me?”
Grey Suit took the canister from him while the guide pointed the hose towards the nearest cone. “Open the valve please.”
A thick white smoke enveloped the hive while the droning intensified tenfold. Hundreds of orange specks flittered through the cloud before dropping to the ground.
“Are they dead?” Clem asked the guide.
“No, only stunned. Quickly now, bring your pot over here, and try not to step on them if you can. They can still sting even while unconscious.”
Clem inched his way forward, carefully brushing away the tiny wasps with the sides of his feet to clear a path for himself.
“Teach you to wear shoes next time, won’t it,” Grey Suit said. “Now hold it under the hive, just there.”
The guide pulled a long serrated knife from his belt, using it to cut a small hole in the base of the hive. Clem adjusted his grip on the pot as a viscous golden syrup oozed into it, quickly weighing it down until he thought it might slip out of his hands.
“Right, you’re done,” the guide said, plugging the hole with a wad of cloth. “Watch those wasps on your way out.”
Clem moved clear of the hive as Russell eased his way in to replace him. “Keep a firm hold,” he said as his friend shuffled forward with his pot. “It gets heavy very quickly.”
The guide removed the wad of cloth and began filling the second pot as soon as it was in position. Russell shifted his feet slightly to keep its increasing weight balanced, but as he did so, one of the stunned wasps began to flutter, bouncing along the ground next to his foot as it tried to become airborne.
“Russell, look out!” Clem yelled. Without thinking, Russell lifted his foot, but the liquid in his now almost-full pot shifted, throwing him off balance. For a moment he wavered on one foot in defiance of gravity, but as he began to fall he had no choice but to plant his other foot back down, right on top of the wasp.
Grey Suit, realising what was happening, grabbed the pot as it started to tip, but its weight was more than he’d bargained for. As Russell slumped to the ground with a look of puzzled bliss on his face, Grey Suit staggered backwards, the pot of honey held at arm’s length as he tried to regain his balance. He may have done so had a tree root not caught the heel of his shoe, and as he fell the pot dropped onto his chest, winding him before rolling over and cracking open on a rock, its precious contents oozing out across the ground.
“Do something!” he tried to yell, but little more than a wheezy whisper came out.
Clem, ignoring him, dashed to Russell’s side, pulling something from his pocket as he knelt and checked his vital signs.
“You’re wasting your time,” the guide said, also ignoring Grey Suit’s plight, but Clem began resuscitation nonetheless.
“Damn you!” Grey Suit said to no-one in particular. “Damn you all!”
The guide turned towards him to inspect the damage. “I’m afraid that pot is beyond redemption.”
“You’ll be beyond redemption if you don’t shut it! How am I going to explain coming back with only half our quota?”
“It’s better than having none at all.”
“All right, you can tell the boss then. Now help me up!”
By now the wasps were beginning to regain consciousness, the smell of spilt honey perhaps arousing them.
“Leave him before you get stung yourself,” Grey Suit said to Clem as he saw him still working on Russell. Clem turned towards him, a look of utter contempt on his face.
“Do as he says,” the guide said, stepping over and placing a hand on Clem’s shoulder. “Your friend’s in a better place now.”
Clem placed his fingers on Russell’s neck, checking vainly for any sign of life, before shaking his head and standing.
“Mind the wasps,” the guide said as Clem made his way back to his pot and began strapping it onto his back.
* * *
The town of Karmetz bustled with sweaty people as Grey Suit, Clem and their guide approached the Exotaroma Bar and Grill. Itinerant workers from all over the galaxy had been arriving for the start of the spice harvest, and for the business owners in the many small towns scattered across the planet, it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn their investments into profit. With the high prices Frizian spices fetched on the open market, those profits more than made up for the forty lean years in between.
“You sure took your time, didn’t you?” the tall no-nonsense woman said as she strode out of the bar to meet them. “I was about to send out a search party.”
Grey Suit glanced at the guide, who shrugged.
“Where’s the other pot? There were supposed to be two.”
“That stupid Cornipean got himself stung and broke it,” Grey Suit said.
“What do you mean, broke?”
“It cracked open and spilt. There was nothing I could do.”
She turned to Clem. “You, bring your pot over here.”
She removed its stopper and inserted a glass pipette.
“It has a good colour. We can water it down and no-one will notice.” She looked up at Clem. “Would you like a taste?”
Clem shook his head.
“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly harmless to humans, but the taste, well, it makes you wonder what bunyips see in it.”
She placed a drop on the tip of her finger and brushed it across Clem’s lips. Reluctantly, he dabbed at it with his tongue, but immediately turned his head and spat into the bushes.
“Remember that taste. It may save your life some day.”
Clem turned back to her, his expression as bitter as the honey.
“The porter who died, was he a friend of yours, a close friend perhaps?”
She stepped over to her vehicle, rummaging around in the back for a moment before pulling out a shovel and handing it to him.
“Go and give him a proper burial before the carrion birds take him.”
Clem glared at her, but took the shovel.
He turned, pausing for a moment as if tempted to challenge her, before lowering his head and walking back in the direction of the forest.
“Who is he?” she said to Grey Suit once Clem was out of earshot.
“A former Delphinidae scholar I believe, now unemployed since the dolphins jumped ship. There are lots of them here looking for work.”
“Well I don’t trust him. There’s something about his eyes, don’t you think?”
“They looked Elvish enough to me. Do you want me to pay him out?”
“Either that or kill him; it’s your choice.”
Grey Suit smiled. “When’s the big event?”
“Tuesday week, but keep it quiet.”
“My lips are sealed.”
* * *
Russell opened his eyes as something tickled the side of his face, the bright sunlight causing his headache to flare. He closed them again as he eased himself up onto his elbow. All around him droned the humming of the honey wasps, while a couple of metres away a small furry animal sniffed at a patch of spilt honey.
“No, don’t,” he said, pushing himself up into a sitting position. “Come away from that.”
The bunyip looked up at him, a sad and puzzled expression on its face.
“That’s bad poison; you don’t want to go touching any of it.”
The bunyip looked back down at the honey, sniffing it again before trotting over and climbing onto his lap.
“Good boy,” Russell said, scratching it behind the ears and grimacing a little as the smell of bunyip pheromones wafted into the air.
The bunyip suddenly tensed. Russell looked around to see a shadowy figure emerging from beneath the forest canopy.
“I guess I won’t be needing this after all,” Clem said, smiling as he leaned on the shovel he was carrying. “Who’s your friend?”
“I caught him sniffing around some spilt honey. What happened?”
“You were stung.”
“Ah, that explains it then.”
“It looks like this antidote really works,” Clem said, pulling the small phial from his pocket and twirling it between his fingers.
“Pip will be pleased. What’s with the shovel?”
“I was supposed to bury you with it.”
“You’d better start digging, then; make it look like someone really is buried here.”
“It’s your grave,” Clem said, handing him the shovel. “You dig it.”
Clem picked up the bunyip as Russell began attacking the hard-packed ground. “I think you’d better come with us, little fellow.”
“Did you get a date for the meet?” Russell asked as they ambled back down through the forest.
“No, she sent me off with the shovel before I could hear too much. I don’t think she trusts me.”
“I don’t think she trusts anyone.”
“It must be soon, though, as the honey doesn’t keep too well in storage.”
“I can do a bit more snooping around the bars if you like.”
“No, it’s too big a risk now you’re supposed to be dead. You’d better go back to Huntress, and take your little friend with you.”
The bunyip lifted its head, giving Clem a questioning look, while Russell scratched it behind the ears again.
They emerged from beneath the canopy into a clearing alongside a shimmering lake. On the water’s edge stood two small tents, while further back sat a shuttle craft hiding beneath camouflage netting. Russell stepped over to it, pulling the netting away before opening the hatch. “What about you?”
“I’ll hang around for a few more days. It’d look suspicious if I disappeared without getting paid.”
“Be careful; they’d just as soon shoot you as pay you.”
Clem helped Russell dismantle his tent while the bunyip looked on in satisfied amusement.
* * *
“What are you drinking?” the guide asked as he sat himself down alongside Clem at the bar.
“Two schooners of Goldwater!” he called to the bartender after catching his attention.
“Look, I’m sorry about your friend,” he continued to Clem. “If it were up to me I’d make sure you porters had protective suits as well, but –”
“Don’t worry about it.” Clem raised his glass. “To Russell.”
“Yeah, to Russell, may he rest in eternal bliss.”
“Is it, um, is it true what you said about the wasp sting being a pleasant death?”
“I really have no idea, but that’s the story I was told as a youngster doing the portering. He did look happy in death though, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, he did.” Clem fell silent.
“I was looking for you ’cause the boss wants a bit more honey, only half a pot this time. Would you be interested in porting again?”
“I, um, I really don’t –”
“She said she’d pay you double, on account of what happened.”
“You people really are heartless.”
“It’s business, Clem, and being sentimental never put food in your belly.”
“I, I guess so.”
“Grey Suit won’t be coming; it’ll just be you and me, okay?”
“Great!” He stood, slapping Clem across the shoulders. “Meet me out the front at dawn.”
* * *
“So what do they do with the honey?” Clem asked the guide as they ambled into the forest.
“Surely you’re not that naďve, are you?”
“Well I know it’s used for bunyip-baiting, but, um, I don’t know much about it, that’s all.”
“It changes the placid little bunyips into mad and mean fighting machines. They go at each other tooth and claw until only one’s left alive.”
“And people bet on the outcome?”
“That’s the whole idea, lad. There’s big money riding on them bunyips, real big money.”
“How, um, how do they go about picking a winner?”
“That’s the tricky bit now, isn’t it? Some reckon they can train their bunyips beforehand, like, but it ain’t easy, you know? A sober bunyip has a mind of its own and they don’t take kindly to training.”
“You’re right there,” Clem chuckled. “A friend of mine has one as a pet and, well, it reckons it’s the master of the house.”
“Damn clever little beasts, that’s for sure. Frizian honey’s their weakness, though; a couple of mouthfuls and they’re gone. Fresh honey’s the best, that’s why there’s so much interest now, but they can use synthetic stuff when it’s out of season.”
“So, um, when’s the next meet, do you know? I wouldn’t mind having a look.”
The guide glanced around through the thick bushes surrounding them, as if making sure they weren’t being overheard. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be one for blood sports, what with being an ex-Delphinidae and all.”
“I’m not, not really, I suppose, but all the same I’d be curious to see what goes on.”
“Those that run the meets don’t want all and sundry knowing about them, so you’d have to swear never to tell another soul.”
“I swear, I promise.”
The guide again glanced around. “They hold them on Cornipus, at Longville in southern Benzania. Do you know where that is?”
“Yeah, I’ve been there a few times.”
“There’s an old warehouse down by the river, used to be Macadam and Sons. The next meet’s Tuesday week.”
“How do I get in?”
“Well that’s the tricky bit. They won’t let you in wearing just your Delphinidae shorts, that’s for sure. Get yourself a dinner suit, put some shoes on your feet and cut your hair short. Dye it brown, if you can, and your eyebrows too; it’ll make you look less Elvish. Give the doorman fifty bucks and try not to draw attention to yourself.”
They’d reached the clearing and the wasps’ nests. The guide readied his smoke canister while Clem unstrapped the pot, setting it gently down as he stared at the mound of disturbed soil. The guide stepped over to him, placing his hand on his shoulder.
“You did the right thing, Clem. Many a time they just leave them to the birds.”
“How, how many get stung?”
“Too many, way too many. That’s why they always use two porters.”
Clem nodded. “Porters are expendable.”
“Those that die don’t have to be paid.”
“Yeah, business; nasty business.”
“Let’s get this over with before I lose my nerve entirely.”
The guide checked the smoke canister, slipped into his protective garment and began cutting into the nearest hive.
* * *
“Wait here a moment,” the guide said as they approached the edge of the forest on the outskirts of town. “Give me your pot.”
“Just give me your pot.”
After unstrapping it and placing it on the ground between them, Clem turned back to the guide, only to find himself looking down the barrel of a handgun.
“The boss wants you dead.”
“She doesn’t trust you, and with good reason I suspect. Who are you, Clem?”
“I was a Delphinidae scholar until –”
“Don’t lie to me!”
Clem looked down at the pot. He’d known from the outset there was always a chance this would happen. “You’re right, I’m not a Delphinidae, but I can’t say any more than that.”
The guide raised the gun slightly, centring it on Clem’s forehead.
Clem closed his eyes, his thoughts turning to his family and friends back on Huntress, of all they’d achieved and all that lay ahead of them; of Russell and the bunyip too, now safely back there he hoped. The thought of bunyips brought him back to the reason he was here in the first place; the terrible cruelty inflicted on them, the only creatures in the whole galaxy susceptible to the neurotoxin in Frizian honey. A quirk of nature, he’d been told, but he wondered how that could be, given that bunyips were native to Cornipus and Frizian honey wasps were, well, Frizian. Surely the wasps couldn’t have – he almost chuckled out loud as he realised he was having an internal debate about biology while a gun was pointed at his head.
Why was he still alive?
He cautiously opened his eyes again. The guide still stood before him, staring at him, but the gun had disappeared.
“You’re a very brave man, Clem, far braver than I ever was.”
The guide ran his hands over his face, sighing and shaking his head.
“Long ago, the last time it was summer here, a young lad like yourself did some portering and became involved in this terrible trade, too involved to ever get out again. I don’t know who you are, Clem, and to be honest I really don’t care, but if what you’re doing will bring an end to this business, well you won’t find me standing in your way.”
Clem chanced a smile but remained silent.
“I’ll tell the boss that when you saw the wasps again you got cold feet and bolted, and I suggest you get yourself off world as quick as you can.”
“I will, and thank you.”
Clem was about to walk away when the guide called him back.
“One more thing; if you go to the meet, make sure you wear tinted glasses or contact lenses. Your eyes are a dead giveaway.”
Clem nodded and waved as the guide hoisted the honey pot onto his back and moved off down the path.