“What did they want with it?” murmured Jarrah Barambah, “They know how to set fire to things.” Jarrah’s hair was white. He thought he was sixty-seven years old, but he may have lost track at some point. The Australian recruiters had laughed when he had tried to enlist, so he just concentrated on the white men for a while and then followed their songline in his sleep, waking up in a strange green land, like the northern coast, but cool. That was when he had met a man named for a fox, a creature like a dingo, but playful and small. That man had given him a chance to help take back things that had been stolen from his people.
“The closest thing they have to the First Fire is white phosphorus,” Hana reminded him. “They probably want to find a way to make weapons like the First Fire. Do you know how it works?”
“It came from the sky people. They know how it was made. They brought it so we could learn to make our own fires. But not like it.”
“Yes, our fires burn out in time, unattended.”
“Which is a good thing, most of the time. Still. Properly guarded, it is safe and useful. And if the sky people ever come back, I want us to show them we have kept it properly.”
“Of course. You ever think about modern uses for that? Like fueling a power plant?”
“If we did that, the local whites would steal it from us.” A touch of anger broke through the stoic expression he usually wore. “It was a local man who stole it this time and sold it to the Germans. My tribe found him, and learned from him who bought it. I think the whites would say we saved the government the price of a rope.”
“Do you ever wonder how Australia and New Zealand can be so close and yet still be so far apart? I mean, our peoples never found each other, and then when the colonists come, we end up with different results.”
The Aborigine shrugged. In that one motion was a wealth of unspoken commentary about the cultural differences between them, and as well between the groups of whites who started new societies on their shores. Quirks of geography and history had made their experiences too dissimilar for fair comparison. And yet, here they were, so far away from home and they could find in each other something familiar.
The tattoos the Maori wore were imbued with magic. Hei Tiki was a figure representing wisdom, insight, and it communicated information to Hana Parata. That sort of thing was helpful, but, as much as white New Zealanders had accepted much of Maori culture into their own, wanting to haka before a battle, for instance-- the idea that the tattoos could serve as a sort of spell or resource didn’t make sense to them at all. He’d learned not to talk about it until there was an urgent message he couldn’t ignore, and a name to tell it to; Sir Lynn Fox. That had gotten him a chance to help guard his old unit against an upcoming attack and a reassignment to W.I.T.C.H. Hunters.
“I can scout ahead,” Private Parata suggested. He was still in uniform and ANZAC enlistees were as likely as any other Allies to have a few men placed to help in joint enterprises. If nothing else, they’d talk to him, as he was wearing the right uniform and quite obviously not German. But few people resisted a pair of willing hands when there was plenty of work to be done.
“No. They will be done soon enough, and I can wait better with company. When they are gone, we go in like the swan gliding by at night, unheard and unseen.”
“Here the swans are white,” Parata reminded him. “But since we are not, you are correct.”
While they waited, they sat in the shade of a building and talked quietly. Parata asked about what Barambah’s people had done with the fire and learned they’d used it it cultivate the land, clearing spaces amid the trees to grow their favorite plants, creating other, grassy spaces to give the kangaroo places to eat that weren’t their gardens, and then replacing their cropland with new trees and starting again elsewhere.
“And the thing about using the First Fire to start it,” Barambah said, “is the damn hawks can’t take that heat. It’s just enough that they don’t go start burns of their own.”
“Your hawks start fires?”
“It helps them hunt.”
“Our parrots can kill sheep,” Parata countered with. Then he added, “We lost our land ownership, so they aren’t our sheep. Frankly, some of us have taken lambs and left feathers.” They laughed together.
Then they heard engines starting, and watched the occupation trucks pull away. But there was one Jeep left. Parata shifted. “We could probably get past anyone left.”
Barambah looked up at him and shook his head. “You’re young. All young men cannot wait. Which is silly, because you have so much more time coming than I do. Wait a little longer. We will see what happens.”
The last four men came to the door. An American major came out, along with a lieutenant with several small boxes under one arm. They were escorted by two enlisted MPs. The MPs took up stations at the door and the officers got into the Jeep and drove off.
Parata thought he could take the remaining guards, but before he rose to his feet again, he saw a lizard scurry by his feet. That didn’t seem odd, even in this climate. Every bombed city seemed to have small animals that sought the shelter easily provided by rubble. But both men watched it run around the remnants of a wall and followed. For Parata, there were legends of spirits using lizards to communicate to people. Barambah was reminded of Alinga the Lizard Man trying to get at a great boomerang under Uluru and wondered idly if this lizard also wanted to get at something hidden. Accordingly, both men followed the lizard out of curiosity and saw it disappear into a hole in a trap door.
“We should follow it,” both men said together.
The trap door, when raised, revealed a set of stairs. Hana Parata pulled an electric torch from his kit and shined the light ahead of them. “I think this might go to a bunker under the compound.” For people who started so many wars, the German military seemed fearful of the consequences.
What they found as they went forward, however, didn’t seem to be any kind of air raid shelter. The stone-lined passage they walked down eventually opened onto alcoves. In the first one, a stone head was displayed. In place of hair, it had snakes carved into it. But it was not displayed facing out toward the passage. Instead, it faced a cloudy mirror behind it and her startled face could only be seen in the reflection.
This time it was Parata who stopped his older companion from getting into trouble. As Jarrah reached forward, Hana stayed his hand and said, “No good will come of playing with it. It was set that way for safety.”
The next alcove had a sword of Japanese design, sitting on a stand with the blade facing upward. Moving on, they saw another sword, carefully encased in a leather sheath.
“This is more like a museum than an air raid shelter,” Jarrah said. “I like museums, when I can get in. They tell you what people think are important. Of course, weapons are important in a time of war, but why these? They must have stories.”
“I am sure they do,” said Hana. “We will tell Fox about this. He will know more about how to handle these things than we do. Let’s stick to our business. Your First Fire. It might even be down here.”
“No. There are stones in the walls to keep the dirt from crumbling, but the bracers are wood. You cannot have the First Fire here. What is that by your foot?”
The private looked down. There was a strip of something, cloth he thought at first, but rather, more like very thin leather. It led deeper into the passage and he turned the light to follow it. As far as he could see, it didn’t end, but at one point, turned around a bend or into another alcove. Impulsively, he followed it, not studying the other alcoves.
His urgency may have come from a hint of sound he thought he heard from the same place, a murmur that may have been nothing. The Australian followed but stopped shortly. “There are numbers on one section.”
“It leads here,” Hana said, as he stopped at another alcove. “Oh, no,” he moaned, staring at what was there.