He raised his bloodied face from the fresh kill, the antelope forgotten as the voices filled his head. They called to him, a siren's song, stroking every cell and fibre of his brain. Picking up his spear, he rose onto his knees, listening. He anxiously fingered the black stone hanging around his neck, its angled facets catching the light in a rainbow of colours. Fear twitched thick, knotted muscles as he aimed his mind toward the message he knew he must listen to and obey. He could hear Umbra, his grown son, in the next valley, and the other men of his tribe. They all froze, joining their thoughts to his, listening to the distant message.
Garagh, my father, do you hear? The 'Others' call again, Umbra's thoughts connected with Garagh's mind, which now filled with images alien to memory.
Yes, I hear, my son. It is stronger this time. We must answer, as we have been taught to do. Call the men. We must go--now.
No resistance was possible, or offered, as he rose onto trembling, muscular legs. Slinging the kill around his thick neck, Garagh scanned the horizon for the other hunters of the tribe, his dark, penetrating eyes protected from the fierce sun by a thick brow. He could hear their thoughts and feel their reactions, and he knew they were aware of his inner workings as well.
Come, my brothers. We go to the cave. We must ready our people for the journey. It is time... at last.
Aiming his resolute face toward the south, he took his first step into a journey that would last 40,000 years and change the fate of humankind.
The tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland is lush and close, the tangle of thickets, vines and that particularly nasty prostrate palm, Calamus, with its rows of wicked barbs along its petioles, makes progress through parts of the forest difficult and sweaty.
Rick Jennings decided the easiest way to penetrate the jungle around Mount Thornton, north of the Daintree River, was along the streams. This fitted in with his plans anyway, as he was up there on a two week research trip looking at the endangered frog fauna of the area. He was a PhD student at James Cook University in Townsville, and this would be one of his last trips to Mount Thornton before he settled down to write his dissertation. The results in his files were depressing, showing a steady decline in numbers and health among the commoner species, and the possible local extinction of at least three of the rarer ones. The Sharp-snouted Day frog and the Armored Mist frog had been totally missing from his survey, but he still had hopes of finding the Northern Tinker frog.
There had been a severe lightning storm the previous night as he waded through the shallow streams armed with a torch looking for frogs. Curiously, there had been no accompanying noise of thunder, indicating the storm was further away than he supposed, so he was able to hear frog calls. One of the ones he thought he had heard had been the distinctive soft metallic tapping sound of Taudactylus rheophilus, the Northern Tinker or Tinkling frog. The calls had originated from a stretch of Bell's Creek on the flanks of Mount Thornton and he started to investigate until the lightning display above the treetops gave him pause. He could feel the electricity in the air, with the hairs on his forearms standing up in waves as the lights rolled above the canopy. Realising he was standing in water with possibly several million amps of current fifty metres above him, he decided it was prudent to withdraw.
Rick returned the next morning with his digital camera determined to search the stream for any signs of the elusive frog. His search was slow and methodical, probing into cracks between boulders, turning over stones but being careful not to create too much of a disturbance as he waded up the splashing torrent. So absorbed was he in his search that it was not until he felt the sun hot on his back that he realised he had left the forest cover. He stood and stared about him in growing disbelief at a circular scar in the landscape, the tiny torrent stream of Bell's Creek cutting across it like a silver ribbon.
The scar was a hundred metres across, an area totally devoid of plant growth. Rick looked closer, his forehead wrinkling in wonder at the total lack of anything organic on the soil surface. It was as if it had been wiped clean, leaving just soil and rock. Every vestige of plant life, even down to mosses and lichens, had vanished, along with leaf litter and every animal trace. Not a single footprint or stray leaf marred the pristine earth and nothing scuttled across its surface or flew through the vacant air above it.
Rick stepped out of the stream onto a flat rock, half wondering if it was safe. "What the hell has happened here?" he muttered. He rapidly thought of and as quickly dismissed a handful of possible explanations, ranging from a localised fire--no ashes--to logging--they'd only take trees--to a toxic spill--there's nothing dead, it's just gone--to...to...
He remembered the curiously silent electrical storm of the previous night, and his mind slipped unwillingly to stories he had heard of crop circles and UFOs. "Bloody nonsense, the lot of it," he growled, annoyed for even thinking it. "There's got to be a rational explanation." Remembering his digital camera, he switched it on, raised it... and jumped. There was a dark figure standing in the middle of the circle, looking at him.
Rick stifled a cry and lowered the camera, staring back and quickly saw it was not a figure--why did I think it was?--only a black post or a rock. He raised the camera again and took a picture before walking slowly across to the object. The closer he got, the more mystified he became. It was definitely a rock, or rather a shiny black mineral, so black it almost seemed to suck light out of the air. No, that's wrong, he thought. It's shiny, so it reflects light--just not very well. About a metre and a half in height and about half a metre across, it would have come up to Rick's chest if he had stood beside it. He stared at it in distaste, the thought of getting that close to it making him uncomfortable.
Something moved within the blackness and Rick stifled a scream, leaping back. Staring at it from several metres away, he decided it was only his imagination. He took another picture then moved closer again, edging forward. When the movement came again, he trembled but stayed where he was, examining the black obelisk intently. Rick laughed suddenly, feeling relief flood through him. The smooth surface of the stone was carved into forms, human and animal, in low relief. As he moved, the light reflected off the curves, slipping and sliding and giving the impression of movement. He squatted down and took a series of pictures, though the effect of black carvings on a black surface produced poor images. Maybe I can clean them up a bit on my computer.
Rick realised he had to tell someone and took out his cell-phone to call his supervisor, Ross Everington, at JCU. The phone just crackled and hissed, before suddenly winking off as if the battery was drained. He cursed, looked at his watch and cursed again. It had stopped too. Raising the digital camera to take some more photos, he found a blank screen. "Shit! I changed those batteries this morning," he shouted in frustration. He turned and stamped back across to the familiar territory of Bell's Creek and down the stream to his camp. Camera and cell-phone worked perfectly there and Rick called his supervisor while he waited for his pictures to download onto his laptop.
"Ross? Rick...yes, I'm fine...no, I had a bad storm last night but no rain...no, nothing much there...yes, I think I heard a Tinker last night...Mount Thornton...look, Ross, I found something...no, not a Tinker, a black rock...yes, a rock, an obelisk in a bare circle of...no...shit, you won't believe me until you see it...I'll send you an email. The pics are uploading now...okay...talk to you later...cheers."
Rick disconnected the camera from his computer and deleted the pictures on his memory card. Then he sent an email to his supervisor, attaching all his photos of the black rock, plus the location using a map reference. He sent the message, then carefully deleted all traces of the images, and emptied the trashcan before packing up his computer. An hour later he found himself sitting in front of his tent staring idly at the burbling stream. Several mosquito bites itched fiercely on his arms. He stared upstream, trying to think what it was he had meant to do that morning, but the thought eluded him. Well, there's nothing here. I think I might pack up and try Mossman gorge before I head home.
* * *
The torrent stream on the flanks of Mount Thornton rushed and tumbled past the little flat glade where Rick's tent had been pitched. As evening fell, a metallic 'tink-tink-tink' sound could be heard above the sound of the water, but the sound went uninvestigated. A little further north, a shiny black obelisk sat silently in a circle of lifeless earth, waiting. The call had gone out; the wait would not be long.