Orbs of Madjourneys

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  • #6373

      An immersive AI-assisted novel with links & AI-generated images

      (no flood – quality content & limit of 4-5 pics per comment)

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    • #6489

      It was a pleasant 25 degrees as Zara stepped off the plane. The flat red land stretched as far as the eye could see, and although she prefered a more undulating terrain there was something awe inspiring about this vast landscape. It was quite a contrast from the past few hours spent inside mine tunnels.

      Bert, a weatherbeaten man of indeterminate advanced age, was there to meet her as arranged and led her to the car, a battered old four wheel drive.  Although clearly getting on in years, he was tall and spry and dressed in practical working clothes.

      “Welcome to Alice,” he said, taking her bag and putting in on the back seat.  “I expect you’ll be wanting to know a bit about the place.”

      “How long have you lived here?” Zara asked, as Bert settled into the creaky drivers seat and started the car.

      Bert gave her a funny look and replied “Longer than a ducks ass.”  Zara had never heard that expression before; she assumed it meant a long time but didn’t like to pursue the question.

      “All this land belongs to the Arrernte,” he said, pronouncing it Arrunda.  “The local aboriginals.  1862 when we got here. Well,” Bert turned to give Zara a lopsided smile, “Not me personally, I aint quite that old.”

      Zara chuckled politely as Bert continued, “It got kinda busy around these parts round 1887 with the gold.”

      “Oh, are there mines near here?”  Zara asked with some excitement.

      Bert gave her a sharp look. “Oh there’s mines alright. Abandoned now though, and dangerous. Dangerous places, old mines.  You’ll be more interested in the hiking trails than those old mines, some real nice hiking and rock gorges, and it’s a nice temperature this time of year.”

      Bert lapsed into silence for a few minutes, frowning.

      “If you’da been arriving back then, you’da been on a camel train, that’s how they did it back then. Camel trains.   They do camel tours for tourists nowadays.”

      “Do you get many tourists?”

      “Too dang many tourists if you ask me, Alice is full of them, and Ayers Rock’s crawling with ’em these days. We don’t get many out our way though.” Bert snorted, reminding Zara of Yasmin. “Our visitors like an off the beaten track kind of holiday, know what I mean?” Bert gave Zara another sideways lopsided smile.  “I reckon you’ll like it at The Flying Fish Inn.  Down to earth, know what I mean? Down to earth and off the wall.”  He laughed heartily at that and Zara wasn’t quite sure what to say, so she laughed too.

      “Sounds great.”

      “Family run, see, makes a difference.  No fancy airs and graces, no traffic ~ well, not much of anything really, just beautiful scenery and peace and quiet.  Aunt Idle thinks she’s in charge but me and old Mater do most of it, well Finly does most of it to be honest, and you dropped lucky coming now, the twins have just decorated the bedrooms. Real nice they look now, they fancied doing some dreamtime murials on the walls.  The twins are Idle’s neices, Clove and Corrie, turned out nice girls, despite everything.”

      “Despite ….?”

      “What? Oh, living in the outback. Youngsters usually leave and head for the cities.  Prune’s the youngest gal, she’s a real imp, that one, a real character.  And Devan calls by regular to see Mater, he works at the gas station.”

      “Are they all Idle’s neices and nephews? Where are their parents?”  Perhaps she shouldn’t have asked, Zara thought when she saw Bert’s face.

      “Long gone, mate, long since gone from round here.  We’ve taken good care of ’em.”  Bert turned off the road onto a dirt road.  “Only another five minutes now.  We’re outside the town a bit, but there aint much in town anyway. Population 79, our town. About right for a decent sized town if you ask me.”

      Bert rounded a bend in a eucalyptus grove and announced, “Here we are, then, the Flying Fish Inn.”  He parked the car and retrieved Zara’s bag from the back seat.  “Take a seat on the verandah and I’ll find Idle to show you to your room and get you a drink.  Oh, and don’t be put off by Idle’s appearance, she’s a sweetheart really.”

      Flying Fish Inn


      Aunt Idle was nowhere to be found though, having decided to go for a walk on impulse, quite forgetting the arrival of the first guest.    She saw Bert’s car approaching the hotel from her vantage point on a low hill, which reminded her she should be getting back.  It was a lovely evening and she didn’t rush.

      Aunt Idle walk


      Bert found Mater in the dining room gazing out of the window.  “Where the bloody hell is Idle? The guest’s outside on the verandah.”

      “She’s taken herself off for a walk, can you believe it?” sighed Mater.

      “Yep” Bert replied, “I can.  Which room’s she in? Can you show her to her room?”

      “Yes of course, Bert. Perhaps you’d see to getting a drink for her.”

      Mater dining room


      Youssef gave his passport and ticket to the woman at gate 11. He was followed closely by Kyle and other members of the team. The flight attendant looked at him and gave him his passport and ticket back without scanning them with her machine.

      “I’m sorry, you’re at the wrong gate. Your flight is at gate 8,” she said.

      “But I’m going to Boston. My ticket says gate 11.”

      Youssef showed his ticket to the hostess, and she pointed the destination and the gate to him. She was right.

      “Your ticket is for flight AL357 to Sydney. It’s currently boarding at gate 8. Next person please.”

      Kyle patted him on the shoulder.

      “You should have double checked your ticket, he said.”

      “What’s wrong? asked Miss Tartiflate. Why are you going to Australia?”

      “I’m not.”

      “Well, it says you are,” she said pointing at the ticket. He didn’t understand the dark intensity of her gaze and her clenched fist, until he remembered that Botty Banworth lived there.

      “I’m not… I mean…”

      “You better not. If I hear you were in with that…”

      The words got lost as they broadcasted a call for flight AL357 to Sydney at Gate 8.

      “You’d better get that f…ing BLOG running during your little vacation or you can stay there and forget about your job,” she said before bumping into the border of the gate.

      Youssef moved on the side and looked at his ticket to Sydney, puzzled. When he passed security his ticket was to Boston. He recalled a message from Zara saying she would meet them in Australia soon. But how could she have managed to change his ticket without his knowing.

      Sure there was that moment when he had left his passport with his ticket on the table at the Starmoose when going back to the counter pick his second slice of cinnamon apple tart. But he was looking away only for a few seconds.

      “This is the last call for flight AL357 to Sydney. Youssef Ali is requested at Gate 8 before we close the gate.”

      Let’s just hope whomever made the change thought about transferring my luggage to the right plane,” he said as he started walking to Gate 8 with his bag.


      With a determined glint in his eye, Xavier set his sights on the slot machines. He scanned the rows of blinking lights and flashing screens until one caught his attention. He approached the machine and inserted a coin, feeling a rush of excitement as he pulled the lever.

      With a satisfying whir, the reels began to spin, and before he knew it, the golden banana appeared on the screen, lining up perfectly. The machine erupted in flashing lights and loud noises, and a ticket spilled out onto the floor.

      🎰 · 💰

      Xavier picked it up, reading aloud the inscriptions on the ticket, “Congratulations on completing your quest. You may enjoy your trip until the next stage of your journey. Look for the cook on the pirate boat, she will give you directions to regroup with your friends. And don’t forget to confirm your bookings.”

      Glimmer let out a whoop of trepidation, “Let’s go find that cook, Xav! I can’t wait to see what’s next in store for us!”

      But Xavier, feeling a bit worn out, replied with a smile, “Hold on a minute, love. All I need at the moment is just some R&R after all that brouhaha.”

      Glimmer nodded in understanding and they both made their way to the deck, taking in the fresh air and the breathtaking scenery as the boat sailed towards its next destination.

      As the boat continued its journey, sailing and gliding on the river in the air filled with moist, they could start to see across the mist opening like a heavy curtain a colourful floating market in the distance, and the sounds of haggling and laughter filled the air.

      They couldn’t wait to explore and see what treasures and surprises awaited them. The journey was far from over, but for now, they were content to simply enjoy the ride.


      Xavier closed his laptop while his friends were still sending messages on the chatroom. He’d had long days of work before leaving to take his flights to Australia, during which he hoped he could rest enough during the flights.

      Most of the flights he’d checked had a minimum of 3 layovers, and a unbelievably long durations (not to count the astronomic amount of carbon emissions). Against all common sense, he’d taken one of the longest flight duration. It was 57h, but only 3 layovers. From Berlin, to Stockholm, then Dubai and Sydney. He could probably catch up with Youssef there as apparently he sent a message before boarding. They could go to Alice Spring and the Frying Mush Inn together. He’d try to find the reviews, but they were only listed on boutiquehotelsdownunder.com and didn’t have the rave reviews of the prestigious Kookynie Grand Hotel franchise. God knows what Zara had in mind while booking this place, it’d better be good. Reminded him of the time they all went to that improbably ghastly hotel in Spain (at the time Yasmin was still volunteering in a mission and couldn’t join) for a seminar with other game loonies and cosplayers. Those were the early days of the game, and the technology frankly left a lot to be desired at the time. They’d ended up eating raspberry jam with disposable toothbrushes, and get drunk on laughter.

      When Brytta had seen the time it took to go there, she’d reconsidered coming. She couldn’t afford taking that much time off, and spending the equivalent of 4 full days of her hard-won vacation as a nurse into a plane simply for the round-trip —there was simply no way.
      Xavier had proposed to shorten his stay, but she’d laughed and said, “you go there, I’ll enjoy some girl time with my friends, and I’ll work on my painting” —it was more convenient when he was gone for business trips, she would be able to put all the materials out, and not care to keep the apartment neat and tidy.

      The backpack was ready with the essentials; Xavier liked to travel light.


      “Welcome to the Flying Fish, do come in and I’ll show you to your room. Good flight, I hope? I bet you’d like a drink. Bert? Would you mind?”

      Zara smiled and nodded to the charming old lady, standing up to follow Mater inside. “Gin and tonic, please, Bert.”

      “They have dry laws in Alice you know,” Mater paused in the entrance hall.  “Not allowed to drink on this day or that day, I don’t know what the world’s coming to.”  After a moments consideration she added,  “Our Idle could do with moving to Alice,” forgetting herself for a moment.

      “The twins have just decorated all the bedrooms, quite amazing I must say, they did a wonderful job. I hope you can sleep alright, I’m not sure I’d be able to.   They call it dreamtime but it’d keep me awake all night I reckon. If you’d like to change rooms, room 8 hasn’t been decorated. But let us know, because it hasn’t been cleaned, either.”

      Zara found Mater’s candid manner endearing.

      “I’ll show you the four rooms for you and your friends, and you can choose which one you’d like.  Here we are,” Mater opened the door to room 7.

      room 7 FFI

      “Wow!” Zara hadn’t been expecting something so, well, dimensional looking.  “Can I see the other rooms?”

      Mater opened the door to room 3, on the opposite side of the corridor.

      room 3, FFI

      and room 5

      room 5, FFI

      and finally room 2:

      room 2, FFI


      “I’d like room 3, please,” Zara told Mater.  “What fabulous rooms!”

      “Well, let me know how you get on, dear. Now then, is that Idle back? She popped out to pick some fresh wild herbs for the supper. Now, come and relax on the vernadah and watch the sun go down, Bert’s bringing your drink.  I’ll go and see what Idle’s up to in the kitchen.”


      Although not one to remember dreams very often, Zara awoke the next morning with vivid and colourful dream recall.  She wondered if it was something to do with the dreamtime mural on the wall of her room.  If this turned out to be the case, she considered painting some murals on her bedroom wall back at the Bungwalley Valley animal rescue centre when she got home.

      Zara and Idle had hit it off immediately, chatting and laughing on the verandah after supper.   Idle told her a bit about the local area and the mines.  Despite Bert’s warnings, she wanted to see them. They were only an hour away from the inn.

      When she retired to her room for the night, she looked on the internet for more information. The more she read online about the mines, the more intrigued she became.

      “Interestingly there are no actual houses left from the original township. The common explanation is that a rumour spread that there was gold hidden in the walls of the houses and consequently they were knocked down by people believing there was ‘gold in them there walls”. Of course it was only a rumour. No gold was found.”

      “Miners attracted to the area originally by the garnets, found alluvial and reef gold at Arltunga…”

      Garnets!  Zara recalled the story her friend had told her about finding a cursed garnet near a fort in St Augustine in Florida.  Apparently there were a number of mines that one could visit:

      “the MacDonnell Range Reef Mine, the Christmas Reef Mine, the Golden Chance Mine, the Joker Mine and the Great Western Mine all of which are worth a visit.”

      Zara imagined Xavier making a crack about the Joker Mine, and wondered why it had been named that.

      “The whole area is preserved as though the inhabitants simply walked away from it only yesterday. The curious visitor who walks just a little way off the paths will see signs of previous habitation. Old pieces of meat safes, pieces of rusted wire, rusted cans, and pieces of broken glass litter the ground. There is nothing of great importance but each little shard is reminder of the people who once lived and worked here.”

      I wonder if Bert will take me there, Zara wondered. If not, maybe one of the others can pick up a hire car when they arrive at Alice.   Might even be best not to tell anyone at the inn where they were going.  Funny coincidence the nearest town was called Alice ~ it was already beginning to seem like some kind of rabbit hole she was falling into.

      Undecided whether to play some more of the game which had ended abruptly upon encountering the blue robed vendor, Zara decided not to and picked up the book on Dreamtime that was on the bedside table.

      “Some of the ancestors or spirit beings inhabiting the Dreamtime become one with parts of the landscape, such as rocks or trees…”  Flicking through the book, she read random excerpts.   “A mythic map of Australia would show thousands of characters, varying in their importance, but all in some way connected with the land. Some emerged at their specific sites and stayed spiritually in that vicinity. Others came from somewhere else and went somewhere else. Many were shape changing, transformed from or into human beings or natural species, or into natural features such as rocks but all left something of their spiritual essence at the places noted in their stories….”

      Thousands of characters. Zara smiled sleepily, recalling the many stories she and her friends had written together over the years.

      “People come and go but the Land, and stories about the Land, stay. This is a wisdom that takes lifetimes of listening, observing and experiencing … There is a deep understanding of human nature and the environment… sites hold ‘feelings’ which cannot be described in physical terms… subtle feelings that resonate through the bodies of these people… It is only when talking and being with these people that these ‘feelings’ can truly be appreciated. This is… the intangible reality of these people…..”

      With such strong ancestral connections to the land, Zara couldn’t help but wonder what the aboriginal people felt about all the mines.   If one of their ancestors had shape changed into rocks, and then some foreignors came along and hacked and blasted their way through, what would they think of that?

      “….many Aboriginal groups widely distributed across the Australian continent all appeared to share variations of a single (common) myth telling of an unusually powerful, often creative, often dangerous snake or serpent of sometimes enormous size closely associated with the rainbows, rain, rivers, and deep waterholes…..”

      She drifted off to sleep thinking of water holes in red rocky gorges, the book laying open in her hand.

      When she awoke the next morning with the slatted morning sun shining through the venetian blinds,  the dream image of the water hole was bright and clear in her minds eye.  But what was that strange character from the game doing in her dream?

      Osnas dreamtime waterhole


      She closed her eyes, remembering more of the strange dream.  Deeply orange red boulders and rocky outcrops, shivering gum trees, and green pools ~ it was coming back to her now, that creature in the blue robes had appeared more than once.  In one scene he appeared with a blue diamond lantern with what looked like a compass inside.

      Osnas lantern compass

      I’ll ask about the hiking trails today, Zara decided, and go for a walk in that gorge I read about yesterday. Bert said there were good hiking trails.   You came here early so you could play the game, she reminded herself.

      “It’s all a game,” she heard the parrot outside her window.

      “I’d forgotten about the bloody parrot!” Zara said under her breath. “Pretty Girl!” she said, opening the blinds. “We’re going out for a walk today.”


      The plane trip stretched on forever. Xavier had the time to rewatch a few blockbusters, and catch up on light novels – in particular a roadtrip of 3 elderly Ukrainians —a story that didn’t seem to have much to say, but did put a smile on his face.

      The plane has wifi, and he could have connected to the game, but he was trying his capacity to be weaned of the adrenaline rush that came with the adventures. Glimmer and the pirate ship would have to wait. He’d put his avatar on autopilot, and usually that helped propel the plot forward without investing too much time in going through relatively mundane adventures (those were needed to provide background balance and contrast against the rush of the occasional action). He hoped Glimmer wouldn’t abuse of it, and send them both to some crazy place looking for Flove knows what.

      There was the occasional temptation to catch a hold of the news and his friends, but relying on the old ways of daydreaming and imagination, he could feel they were doing fine.

      He could well picture Zara off to explore in and out of the game, that much was a given. As for Youssef he should be able to catch up in Alice Springs, since he wasn’t anywhere in Sydney when he landed. He was probably squeezed right now on an economy seat in between a sweaty tourist, an annoying expat, and a chatty woman. Xavier chuckled to himself thinking of the large frame of his friend in the tiny space.
      He hoped all was right with Yasmin. He hadn’t be able to connect before the flight, but she was resourceful and given her competitive spirit, there was actually a good chance she had a shortcut to be there before any of them.

      Alice Springs was close by now. The plane prepared for landing.

      Xavier remembered he’d have to get the black notebook that was part of the last assignment. They surely would have something like that in the duty free area.


      Bert dropped Zara off after breakfast at the start of the Yeperenye trail.  He suggested that she phone him when she wanted him to pick her up, and asked if she was sure she had enough water and reminded her, not for the first time, not to wander off the trail.   Of course not, she replied blithely, as if she’d never wandered off before.

      “It’s a beautiful gorge, you’ll like it,” he called through the open window, “You’ll need the bug spray when you get to the water holes.”  Zara smiled and waved as the car roared off in a cloud of dust.

      On the short drive to the start of the trail, Bert had told her that the trail was named after the Yeperenye dreamtime, also known as ‘Caterpillar Dreaming’  and that it was a significant dreamtime story in Aboriginal mythology. Be sure to look at the aboriginal rock art, he’d said.   He mentioned several varieties of birds but Zara quickly forgot the names of them.

      It felt good to be outside, completely alone in the vast landscape with the bone warming sun. To her surprise, she hadn’t seen the parrot again after the encounter at the bedroom window, although she had heard a squalky laugh coming from a room upstairs as she passed the staircase on her way to the dining room.

      But it was nice to be on her own. She walked slowly, appreciating the silence and the scenery. Acacia and eucalyptus trees were dotted about and long grasses whispered in the occasional gentle breezes.  Birds twittered and screeched and she heard a few rustlings in the undergrowth from time to time as she strolled along.

      After a while the rocky outcrops towered above her on each side of the path and the gorge narrowed, the trail winding through stands of trees and open grassland. Zara was glad of the shade as the sun rose higher.

      Zara water hole


      The first water hole she came to took Zara by surprise. She expected it to be pretty and scenic, like the photos she’d seen, but the spectacular beauty of the setting and shimmering light somehow seemed timeless and otherwordly.  It was a moment or two before she realized she wasn’t alone.

      It was time to stop for a drink and the sandwich that one of the twins had made for her, and this was the perfect spot, but she wondered if the man would find it intrusive of her to plonk herself down and picnic at the same place as him.  Had he come here for the solitude and would he resent her appearance?

      It is a public trail, she reminded herself not to be silly, but still, she felt uneasy.  The man hadn’t even glanced up as far as Zara could tell. Had he noticed her?

      She found a smooth rock to sit on under a tree and unwrapped her lunch, glancing up from time to time ready to give a cheery wave and shout hi, if he looked up from what he was doing.  But he didn’t look up, and what exactly was he doing? It was hard to say, he was pacing around on the opposite side of the pool, looking intently at the ground.

      When Zara finished her drink, she went behind a bush for a pee, making sure she would not be seen if the man glanced up. When she emerged, the man was gone.  Zara walked slowly around the water hole, taking photos, and keeping an eye out for the man, but he was nowhere to be seen.  When she reached the place where he’d been pacing looking at the ground, she paused and retraced his steps.  Something small and shiny glinted in the sun catching her eye. It was a compass, a gold compass, and quite an unusual one.

      Zara didn’t know what to do, had the man been looking for it?  Should she return it to him?  But who was he and where did he go?  She decided there was no point in leaving it here, so she put it in her pocket. Perhaps she could ask at the inn if there was a lost and found place or something.

      Refreshed from the break, Zara continued her walk. She took the compass out and looked at it, wondering not for the first time how on earth anyone used one to find their way.  She fiddled with it, and the needle kept pointing in the same direction.   What good is it knowing which way north is, if you don’t know where you are anyway? she wondered.

      With a squalk and a beating of wings, Pretty Girl appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.  “It’s not that kind of compass. You’re supposed to follow the pointer.”

      “Am I?  But it’s pointing off the trail, and Bert said don’t go off the trail.”

      “That’s because Bert doesn’t want you to find it,” replied the parrot.

      Intrigued, Zara set off in the direction the compass was pointing towards.


      To Youssef’s standards, a plane was never big and Flight AL357 was even smaller. When he found his seat, he had to ask a sweaty Chinese man and a snorting woman in a suit with a bowl cut and pink almond shaped glasses to move out so he could squeeze himself in the small space allotted to economy class passengers. On his right, an old lady looked at the size of his arms and almost lost her teeth. She snapped her mouth shut just in time and returned quickly to her magazine. Her hands were trembling and Youssef couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or something else.

      The pilote announced they were ready to leave and Youssef sighed with relief. Which was short lived when he got the first bump on the back of his seat. He looked back, apologising to the woman with the bowl cut on his left. Behind him was a kid wearing a false moustache and chewing like a cow. He was swinging his tiny legs, hitting the back of Youssef’s seat with the regularity of a metronome. The kid blew his gum until the bubble exploded. The mother looked ready to open fire if Youssef started to complain. He turned back again and tried to imagine he was getting a massage in one of those Japanese shiatsu chairs you find in some airports.

      The woman in front of him had thrown her very blond hair atop her seat and it was all over his screen. The old lady looked at him and offered him a gum. He wondered how she could chew gums with her false teeth, and kindly declined. The woman with the bowl cut and pink glasses started to talk to her sweaty neighbour in Chinese. The man looked at Youssef as if he had been caught by a tiger and was going to get eaten alive. His eyes were begging for help.

      As the plane started to move, the old woman started to talk.

      « Hi, I’m Gladys. I am afraid of flying, she said. Can I hold your hand during take off ? »

      After another bump on his back, Youssef sighed. It was going to be a long flight for everyone.

      As soon as they had gained altitude, Youssef let go of the old woman’s hand. She hadn’t stopped talking about her daughter and how she was going to be happy to see her again. The flight attendant passed by with a trolley and offered them a drink and a bag of peanuts. The old woman took a glass of red wine. Youssef was tempted to take a coke and dip the hair of the woman in front of him in it. He had seen a video on LooTube recently with a girl in a similar situation. She had stuck gum and lollypops in the hair of her nemesis, dipped a few strands in her soda and clipped strands randomly with her nail cutter. He could ask the old woman one of her gums, but thought that if a girl could do it, it would certainly not go well for him if he tried.

      Instead he asked the flight attendant if there was wifi on board. Sadly there was none. He had hoped at least the could play the game and catch up with his friends during that long flight to Sydney.


      When the doors opened, Youssef thought he was free of them all. He was tired, his back hurt, and he couldn’t sleep because the kid behind him kept crying and kicking, the food looked like it had been regurgitated twice by a yak, and the old chatty woman had drained his batteries. She said she wouldn’t sleep on a plane because she had to put her dentures in a glass for hygiene reasons and feared someone would steal them while she had her eyes closed.

      He walked with long strides in the corridors up to the custom counters and picked a line, eager to put as much distance between him and the other passengers. Xavier had sent him a message saying he was arriving in Sydney in a few hours. Youssef thought it would be nice to change his flight so that they could go together to Alice Spring. He could do some time with a friend for a change.

      His bushy hair stood on end when he heard the voice of the old woman just behind him. He wondered how she had managed to catch up so fast. He saw a small cart driving away.

      « I wanted to tell, Gladys said, it was such a nice flight in your company. How long have you before your flight to Alice? We can have a coffee together. »

      Youssef mentally said sorry to his friend. He couldn’t wait for the next flight.


      After Youssef retrieved his luggage in Alice Springs, he was swarmed with freelance tour guides trying to sell him trips. You would buy a ticket out of any one of them just to get rid of the others, he thought. With a few hungry growls, he managed to frighten most of them, with a touch of indifference he lost the rest. Except one. A short Indian looking man wearing a red cap and a moustache. He seemed to have an infinite talkative energy at his disposal, able to erode the strongest wills. The temperature was hotter than Youssef had expected, here it was the end of summer, and he was hungry. The man started to get on his nerves.

      The list of tours was endless. Uluru, scenic bushwalking trails, beautiful gardens, a historical tour, a costumed historical tour, a few national parks, and even his cousins’ restaurant. He reminded Youssef of his own father, always offering guests (and especially his visiting kids) another fruit, a pastry, some coffee, chocolate ? You sure you don’t want any chocolate? If the man was tenacious, Youssef had had training with his father. But this man seemed to mistake silence and indifference for agreement. Did he really think Youssef was going to buy one of his tours ?

      “The ghost town! You have to see Arltunga, said the man. An old mining ghost town, certainly an American like you like ghost towns. And buried treasure. Arltunga has buried treasure somewhere. You can find it. I know where to find a map.”

      Youssef wondered if it was another one of the game’s fluke that his quest was apparently bleeding into his real life again. And if there was a map, why hasn’t the treasure been found already? He checked at the back of his mind for the presence of that crazy old lady. Nope, not there. He decided to refuse the call this time. He just wanted to get to that F…ing Fish Inn in Crowshollow and meet with his friends.

      “NO, he growled, frightening a group of tourists passing by, but not the tour operator. No ghost town! We have plenty in America.” Thinking of the game and his last challenge for the previous quest, he said in desperation : “I just want to find a red scarf!” and he knew inside himself and many years attempting to resist his old man, that the short Indian man had won.

      “If you want to find a red scarf, you go to Silk Road, said the man bobbing his head. My cousin’s shop, you find everything there only.”

      Youssef sighed. He thought there were only two ways to take it. The first one was that he had fallen into a trap and try to find a way to get out of it. But it might be sticky and uncomfortable for everyone. So he decided it was the other way around and that it was part of the game. Why wouldn’t he use this as an opportunity for adventure. Wasn’t that what Xavier always said about roads less traveled ?

      “Where is your cousin’s shop? he asked. And where’s that restaurant of your cousin’s? I’m starving.”

      The little man smiled broadly.

      “Same place. Two brothers. Shop next to restaurant in Todd Mall. You’re lucky! Follow me.”


      Xavier had been drowsing in the rental car for a while, waiting for a message from Youssef. He’d stopped the aircon despite the suffocating heat, as he was starting to feel cold. And he’d started to nose dive in dreaming.

      The buzzing of his phone made him snap back to consciousness from the weirdest dream, he had to take a few seconds to adjust. The phone went into silent mode to voicemail before he got the chance to pick it up.

      Weirdest dream ever. Few hours ago, he’d been going round and round the place, trying to find a library to buy a black book, but surprisingly, even when he’d managed to find a small bookstore, there were none to sell. None with a black cover…

      He’d wondered —sometimes these quests are made to be difficult, but come on, how difficult could it be. Even a plain black-covered notebook would have been enough, but nothing!

      That’s when he’d decided to drop the search, that he dozed off in the car.

      Few images came back from the dream. First, the insane search, and books coming up in all shapes and forms, any color but black… or black but with black-and-white photos on the covers he didn’t want.

      And then, there was one. He started to open it, and all the pages were blank. As he was browsing them, looking for a clue, like a pop-out book, something came up from the middle of the pages. And it was himself, smiling back at him. The shock snapped him right back to the rather quiet street of Alice Springs.











      He turned the ignition back on as well as the aircon. Checked his message.

      • 📨 [Quirk Land] NEW QUEST OPENED
      • 1 voicemail from ❣️🐝Brytta🐝❣️
      • 💬 Youssef typing…

      Rajkumar had named his car JUMPY because he said it reminded him of his mother country. He drove like they were in the chaotic streets of an Indian city. Youssef’s fist was clenched on the door handle, his knuckles white. He needed to hold on to something just as much as he was afraid of loosing the door.

      He had never been so happy as when Rajkumar stopped in front of his cousin’s shop and restaurant.

      “Just in time for the best butter chicken in all Alice Springs!” said Rajkumar, pointing to the restaurant on the left.

      Smells of greasy sauce, meat and spices floated in the air. Despite his legendary hunger, Youssef’s stomach started to protest from the recent treatment on the road. If he had had any doubt, he was sure now that he wouldn’t go on a trip in Jumpy with Rajkumar.

      “Maybe I’ll go for the scarf first,” he said.

      Rajkumar noded and pointed to the right, to a stout man squating in front of a pile of scarves.

      “This is cousin Ashish. You can’t find a better shop in town for scarves,” said Rajkumar. He high fived his cousin who looked like a giant in comparison with the short guide. They talked for a long time in what Youssef assumed to be some Indian dialect. At some point, his guide pointed a finger at him and said : “This big man is looking for a red scarf. I told him you had the best quality in town. Hand made, right from India. Ashish buys and sells the best to the best only. I have to go park the car and tell my other cousin to prepare you a meal. Best Indian food in Alice.”

      After he left, cousin Ashish showed Youssef in. At the entrance incense burned at the feet of a couple of colourful Hindu gods. The intoxicating smell reminded him of a stop at a temple during his last trip with the documentary team. The face of Miss Tartiflate jumped into his mind. He would have to take care of THE BLOG at some point, but for now, he was looking for a red scarf. The inside of the shop was as messy as a Mongolian bazaar. Clothes upon clothes, and piles of scarves everywhere.

      “Red scarves are over there, said Ashish. Follow me.”

      He was less talkative than his cousin, which was a welcome relief. He led Youssef to the back of the shop. On the wall, the portrait in black and white of an old Indian man was watching over their shoulder.

      Ashish took one long red scarf and put it around his neck.

      “You can touch, he said. Very good quality. Very light. Like you wear nothing.”

      Youssef took the end of the fabric in his hand. It felt very silky and light to the touch.

      “That’s perfect, I’ll take it”, he said.

      His phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and checked his messages.

      • 📨 [Quirk Land] NEW QUEST OPENED

      Looking at the time, it was already noon. Xavier must have landed in Alice already. He started to type a message to his friend :

      💬 Meet me for lunch at Todd Mall. Patel indian restaurant next to fabric shop


      The package in her hands was from Fred and, now she was at the airport, Yasmin was seriously contemplating whether to chuck it in the nearest bin. She hadn’t wanted to take the damn thing in the first place. It was hard to say no to Sister Aliti.

      Fred asked could you please take it to the Fish Inn, or something like that.” Sister Aliti had beamed at her. She was holding out a thin parcel wrapped in brown paper and securely fastened with a whole lot of masking tape.

      “But how did he know I was going there?” Yasmin had sounded more sharp than she’d intended but she hadn’t really warmed to Fred. He made her nervous.

      “You didn’t tell him?” Sister Aliti shrugged. “I didn’t tell him. Perhaps it was Sister Finli … She took the van with him yesterday.” She’d looked intently at Yasmin. “Oh dear, was it private?”

      Yasmin felt foolish. “Oh, no, of course it wasn’t and it doesn’t matter ….  I was just surprised.” She’d peered at the red biro scrawled on the paper wrapping. “I wonder who is … Mater?”

      “He said it was a distant relation! Isn’t it just so wonderful he can reconnect through you! God works in mysterious ways indeed!”

      Of course it had been Sister Finli who had told Fred. Prying busybody. Yasmin had caught her in her room a couple of days ago. Sister Finli had her back to the door and was bent over Yasmin’s desk.  She’d jumped and swung round at Yasmin’s, “Hello?”

      “It’s a pig sty in here,” she’d hissed, jabbing a sharp finger towards Yasmin. Then her mouth curled into a smile. “I just came in to tell you you are needed in the recreation room to look after the children but was distracted by this …” She’d slid her eyes around the room and shuddered. Yasmin followed her gaze. She’d left a few items of clothing in neat piles on the bed because she was packing but everything else looked in order. After Sister Finli had flounced out of the room, Yasmin noticed her itinerary was lying open on the desk.

      But why tell Fred?

      She’d messaged Zara. Do you think I should I open the package? And couldn’t he just post it? 

      LOL, Zara messaged back. Yes open it! It’s drugs. Obv. Oh and more to the point, you are way behind the rest of us in the game. So use your flight time wisely! 


      Youssef hadn’t changed a bit since they last met in real life. He definitely brought the bear in the bear hug he gave Xavier after Xavier had entered the soft sandal wood scented atmosphere of the Indian restaurant.

      It was like there’d seen each other the day before, and conversation naturally flew without a thought on the few years’ hiatus between their last trip.

      As they inquired about each other’s lives and events on the trip to get to Alice Springs, they ordered cheese nan, salted and mango lassi, a fish biryani and chicken tikka masala and a side thali for Youssef who was again ravenous after the jumpy ride. Soon after, the discussion turned to the road ahead.

      “How long to the hostel?” asked Youssef, his mouth full of buns.

      Xavier looked at his connected watch “It’s about 1 and half hour drive apparently. I called the number to check when to arrive, they told me to arrive before sunset… which I guess gives us 2-3 hours to visit around… I mean,” he looked at his friend “… we can also go straight there.”

      Youssef nodded. He seemed to have had already enough of interactions in the past day.

      Xavier continued “so it’s settled, we leave after we finish here. According to the landlady, it looks like Zara went off trekking, she didn’t seem too sure about Zara’s whereabouts. That would explain why we heard so little from her.”

      Youssef laughed “If they don’t know Zara, I can bet they’ll be running around searching for her in the middle of the night.”

      Xavier looked though the large window facing the street pensively. “I’m not sure I would want to get lost away from the beaten tracks here. There’s something so alien to the scale of it, and the dryness. Have you noticed we’re next to a river? I tried to have a look when I arrived, but it’s mostly dried up. And it’s supposed to be the wet season…”

      Youssef didn’t reply, and turned to the leftovers of the biryani.

      Despite the offering to top it off with gulab jamun and rose ice cream, it didn’t take too long to finish the healthy meal at the Indian restaurant. Youssef and Xavier went for the car.

      “Here, catch!” Xavier threw the keys to Youssef. He knew his friend would have liked to drive; meanwhile he’d be able to catch on some emails and work stuff. After all, he was supposed to remote work for some days.


      When Sergio dropped her back at the Flying Fish Inn it was later than Zara realized.  The verandah and reception lights were on but everyone had gone to bed, everyone except Idle who was poring over a pile of old notebooks at a dining room table. “Good day out?” she looked up over the top of her reading glasses and smiled at Zara.

      Zara returned the smile. “It was great, thanks!  I’d love one”,  she added when Idle asked her if she fancied a glass of wine.

      “Grab a glass off the sideboard there and come and sit down,” Idle said. “Are you hungry or did you grab a bite in Alice?”

      “Yeah, I did, thanks,” replied Zara, trying hard not to pull a face at the first sip of the Australian wine.  “Nice label,” she said, “Yellow Trail. I should be used to seeing kangaroos on wine bottles by now” she laughed.

      “A place called Monte’s Lounge,” she replied when Idle asked where she’d eaten, “A cabaret meets circus theme, not what I was expecting out here.  I met a guy on the trail…”

      “The plot thickens,” Idle grinned, “Comedy and romance.”

      Zara laughed, warming to her genial host.   Accepting a second glass of wine, she told Idle all about Sergio.  He was a Spanish archaeologist who had come over to see his daughter in Townsville on the east coast, and had booked a few side trips to see some of the indigenous rock art.  When Zara walked off the trail after she found the compass (and the damn parrot vanished, leaving her alone) she had found herself in a small clearing with high rocky sides. Sergio had his back to her and was photographing the rock wall.

      “Well, long story short, we got on like a house on fire,” Idle smiled encouragingly as Zara continued. “It’s been absolutely ages you know, ever since I left Rupert, nobody’s really taken my fancy.  Anyway he invited me for dinner and said he didn’t mind bringing me back here later in the hire car.”

      Zara had another sip of wine, thinking about Rupert.  What a prize twat he’d turned out to be.  Still, the divorce settlement had been good.  He’d seemed so adventurous and just the ticket at first, lots of holidays in unusual places. Bit of a Hooray Henry and a Champagne Charlie, but it had been fun at first. And a tad too much charlie, too. She had been blissfully unaware of politics and conspiracy theories at the time, but it wasn’t long before his views came between them and she could no longer stomach his idiotic and, to her mind, dangerously cretinous beliefs.

      “My parents are both archaeologists,” Zara told Idle, “I learned a lot from them and always been interested in it, but didn’t fancy all the years of studying, and I really wanted to work with animals.  There aren’t many good paying jobs working with animals though, not the kind of animals that need helping.  Anyway, it worked out ok in the end, thanks to Rupert’s money.”

      “You must have had a lot in common to talk about with Sergio, then, him being an archaeologist,” Idle remarked and Zara felt herself blush, much to her astonishment.  She couldn’t recall blushing in years.

      “Yes we did do some talking,” they both laughed and Zara said “I better get off to bed. Thanks for the wine.”

      Zara had completely forgotten about her friends arriving, or the game she’d intended to play until they arrived. She collapsed on the bed without brushing her teeth and was asleep within minutes.


      The road was stretching endlessly and monotonously, a straight line disappearing into a nothingness of dry landscapes that sounded a bit depressing. At regular speed, the car barely seemed to progress, and Youssef was rather serious at the wheel. Soon Xavier was left depleted of jokes to tell (even the bad ones which tended to come off easily with sleep deprivation), so he tried to catch some of the patchy network signal to reconnect where he’d left off on the game. There wasn’t much network, and all he could download in the car, even with the game in lo-fi mode, was a measly text message with the starter for his new challenge.

      Your quest takes place in the ghost town of Midnight, where time seems to have stood still. The townspeople are all frozen in time, stuck in their daily routines and unable to move on. Your mission is to find the missing piece of continuity, a small hourglass that will set time back in motion and allow the townspeople to move forward.

      A ghost town seemed apt indeed.

      The welcome signs at the entrance of the town for their hostel were rather uninviting, but a festive banner mentioning the local “Lager and Carts festival” caught his attention. He counted the days. It would be next week-end; there was a good chance they’d still be there, the four of them. At least some action to look forward to!

      When he and Youssef arrived at the Inn after that rather uneventful and terribly long drive, all they wanted was to get a shower and some sleep. Zara wasn’t back yet from her trip, but they both figured out they’d meet at breakfast in the morning.

      The old lady with the sharp tongue had shown them their rooms rather unceremoniously; she was too busy ranting about an idle person not taking their *one job* seriously to care about details. Xavier almost asked for a wifi, but then thought better and decided to hold his question until he found someone to ask who was born in his century.
      Xavier took room 7, and Youssef room 5.

      The rooms were quite nicely decorated. It reminded him of something he’d read in the plane from a commentary of the Bardo Thodöl:

      In Tibetan the word for body is , which means “something you leave behind,” like baggage. Each time we say “lü,” it reminds us that we are only travelers, taking temporary refuge in this life and this body. So in Tibet people did not distract themselves by spending all their time trying to make their external circumstances more comfortable. They were satisfied if they had enough to eat, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads. Going on as we do, obsessively trying to improve our conditions, can become an end in itself and a pointless distraction. Would anyone in their right mind think of fastidiously redecorating their hotel room every time they booked into one? 

      The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

      At least, he wasn’t feeling compelled to redecorate this room; it was perfect. The shared sanitaries, the boiler and the piping were another story, but that was probably coming from the same era as the owner, nice as she was.

      After having unpacked his few belongings, and taken a hot shower, he laid on the bed looking at the ceiling, which was blank and made a nice contrast to the ornate walls full of colorful dots.

      Luckily, searching through the signals available, he could see there was mostly one, and without any password. With the next neighbour a few miles away, no wonder nobody bothered with security.

      He connected to AL to check a few parameters — there seemed to be some degenerescence in the programme output that wasn’t satisfactory, and he was wondering if some self-repair or training reinforcement mechanisms were missing. At the moment, nothing too pressing, but he would keep an eye on them.

      Still no words from Yasmin he thought drifting to sleep… I half expected her to be there already…


      Despite the late night and the abundance of wine, Zara awoke just after 6am as the sun was rising. It was too early to get up, but she desperately wanted a coffee. There was no sign of room service being available so she made her way quietly to the kitchen, hoping that someone would be up.

      The strange child called Prune was sitting at the kitchen table eating rice crispies.

      “Your friends are here,” she said, “But they went to bed before you came back. Late, weren’t you?  Bert was cussing about you, you know, not letting him know.”

      “Oh, terribly sorry,” Zara thought the child a tad impertinent.  And was it really Bert’s place to be cussing about her, she was a guest after all.  “Any chance of a cup of coffee?  I’ll make it myself if you tell me where the things are.”

      Aunt Idle wasn’t bothered though,” Prune said, wiping some milk that had dribbled down her chin with the back of her hand.   “But Bert said he didn’t want you to find it.”

      “Find what?”  The parrot had said the same thing.

      “OBVIOUSLY I can’t tell you, can I? It’s a secret,” and with that Prune scraped her chair back, leaving her breakfast things on the table, and sauntered out of the kitchen in what could only be described as a cocky manner.  Zara found what she needed to make coffee and made two cups and took them both back to her room.  She had a couple of hours to play the game before breakfast and the reunion with her friends.


      The road was stretching endlessly and monotonously, a straight line disappearing into a nothingness of dry landscapes that reminded Youssef of the Gobi desert where he had been driving not too long ago. At regular speed, the car barely seemed to progress.

      > O Time suspend thy flight!

      Eternity. Something only nature could procure him. He loved the feeling, and compared to the more usual sand of Gobi, the red sands of Australia gave him the impression he had shifted into another reality. That and the fifteen hours flight listening to Gladys made it difficult to respond to Xavier’s loquacious self and funny jokes. After some time, his friend stopped talking and tried catching some signal to play the Game, brandishing his phone in different directions as if he was hunting ghosts with a strange device.

      It reminded him he had to accept his next quest in a ghost town. That’s all he remembered. He could do that at the Inn, when they could rest in their rooms.

      Youssef wondered if the welcome sign at the entrance of the town had seen better days. The wood the fish was made of seemed eaten by termites, but someone had painted it with silver and blue to give it a fresher look. Youssef snorted at the shocked expression on his friend’s face.

      “It looked like it died of boredom. Let’s just hope the Innside doesn’t look like a gutted fish,” Xavier said.

      An old lady showed them their rooms. She didn’t seem the talkative type, which made Youssef love her immediately with her sharp tongue and red cardigan. He rather admired her braided silver hair as it reminded him of his mother who would let him brush her hair when they lived in Norway. It was in another reality. He smiled. She saw him looking at her and her eyes narrowed like a pair of arrowslits. She seemed ready to fire. Instead she kept on ranting about an idle person not doing her only job properly. They each went to their rooms, Xavier took number 7 and Youssef picked number 5, his lucky number.

      He was glad to be able to enjoy his own room after the trip of the last few weeks. It had been for work, so it was different. But usually he liked travelling the world on his own and meet people on his way and learn from their stories. Traveling with people always meant some compromise that would always frustrate him because he wanted to go faster, or explore more tricky paths.

      The room was nicely decorated, and the scent of fresh paint made it clear it was recent. A strange black stone, which Youssef recognized as a black obsidian, has been put on a pile of paper full of doodles, beside two notebooks and pencils. The notebooks’ pages were blank, he thought of giving them to Xavier. He took the stone. It was cold to the touch and his reflection on the surface looked back at him, all wavy. The doodles on the paper looked like a map and hard to read annotations. One stood out, though which looked like a wifi password. That made him think of the Game. He entered it on his phone and that was it. Maybe it was time to go back in. But he wanted to take a shower first.

      He put his backpack and his bag on the bed and unpacked it. Amongst a pile of dirty clothes, he managed to find a t-shirt that didn’t smell too bad and a pair of shorts. He would have to use the laundry service of the hotel.

      He had missed hot showers. Once refreshed, he moved his bags on the floor and jumped on his bed and launched the Game.

      Youssef finds himself in a small ghost town in what looks like the middle of the Australian outback. The town was once thriving but now only a few stragglers remain, living in old, decrepit buildings. He’s standing in the town square, surrounded by an old post office, a saloon, and a few other ramshackle buildings.

      A message appeared on the screen.

      Quest: Your task is to find the source of the magnetic pull that attracts talkative people to you. You must find the reason behind it and break the spell, so you can continue your journey in peace.

      Youssef started to move his avatar towards the saloon when someone knocked on the door.


      On her way back to her room Zara picked up a leaflet off the hall table about the upcoming lager and cart race. Before starting the game she had a look through it.

      The leaflet also mentioned the competition  held annually each January in Port Lincoln. The Tunarama Festival was a competition to determine just how far a person could chuck a frozen tuna. A full-fledged celebration was centered around the event, complete with a wide array of arts and cultural displays, other participation events, local market stalls, and some of the freshest seafood in the world.

      There was unlikely to be any fresh seafood at the local lager and cart races, but judging from the photos of previous events, it looked colourful and well worth sticking around for, just for the photo opportunities.

      cart race 1


      Apparently the lager and cart races had started during the early days of the settler mining, and most of the carts used were relics from that era.  Competitors dressed up in costumes and colourful wigs, many of which were found in the abandoned houses of the local area.

      “The miners were a strange breed of men, but not all cut from the same cloth ~ they were daring outsiders, game for anything, adventurous rule breakers and outlaws with a penchant for extreme experience. Thus, outlandish and adventurous women ~ and men who were not interested in mining for gold in the usual sense ~ were magnetically drawn to the isolated outpost.  After a long dark day of restriction and confinement in the mines, the evenings were a time of colour and wild abandon; bright, garish, bizarre Burlesque events were popular. Strange though it may seem, the town had one of the most extensive wig and corset emporiums in the country, although it was discretely tucked away in the barn behind a mundane haberdashery shop.”

      The idea was to fill as many different receptacles with lager as possible, piling them onto the gaily decorated carts pulled by the costume clad participants.  As the carts were raced along the track, onlookers ran alongside to catch any jars or bottles that fell off the carts before they hit the ground. Many crashed to the ground and were broken, but if anyone caught one, they were obliged to drink the contents there and then before running after the carts to catch another one.

      Members of the public were encouraged to attend in fancy dress costumes and wigs.  There were plenty of stationary food vendors carts at the lager and cart races as well, and stalls and tents set up to sell trinkets.


      Made it through customs with the parcel. Should be at the hotel early this evening. 

      Finally a message from Yasmin. Zara replied:  Finally, a message, wondered where you’d got to!

      With an affectionate smile Yasmin pretended to roll her eyes.

      :yahoo_rolling_eyes:   I’ve got something very odd to tell you when I see you.  Gotta go, talk later

      Bloody typical! Zara thought, rolling her eyes.


      “Have you been drinking?” blurted out Yasmin. Immediately she regretted her careless question. Zara had  never  been one to worry overly about appearances and Yasmin, who worried overly about everything, admired her carefree attitude. But she’d been a little taken aback by her friend’s unkempt hair and the smell of stale alcohol on her breath.  “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I was just joking …obviously.”

      “What? You’ve just arrived and already you’re insulting me! Sheesh!”

      “Oh well, no doubt I’ll turn into a lush too after a few days in the outback!” Yasmin snort laughed nervously, hoping to smooth things over. “You look well! And I really appreciate you picking me up.”

      It seemed to do the trick as Zara relaxed and smiled.  “You should. I’ve gone out of my way.” She gestured to Yasmin’s bag. “Have you just got the one? Shall we get going? I’ve got so much to tell you.”

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