Flying High

by KB

Regular Cast:
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney

Guest Stars:
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Rebecca Gibney as Lauren Taylor
Andrew Clarke as Bill Taylor
Judith McGraw as Peta Taylor
Brett Climo as Steve Taylor
William McInnes as Mark Taylor
Mandaway Yunupingu as Pete Tingay
Nikki Coghill as Susie
Matt Day as Joel
Gary Sweet as Bruce
Ben Tari as Dave Faraday
Nikki Webster as Henrietta Faraday
Ernie Dingo as John
Andrew McKaige as Man on Plane
David Wenham as Barman
Aaron Jeffery as Paul


Prologue

September 25, 2001
The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Sydney walked slowly into his office, placing the notes he had written of his most recent session with each of the Seraphim caretakers on the desk. He hated what he was doing now, knowing that Jarod was only a few floors away, yet far beyond his reach. But then, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had allowed him in. The Jarod in that room wasn’t the man he had worked with and been proud of for so long.

Aurora had taken care of that.

Sitting down in the chair, the psychiatrist sank his head into his hands with a groan, briefly closing his eyes, trying to force from his mind the images that he had seen on the DSA that he had made the mistake of asking Broots to retrieve for him. Opening his eyes again Sydney stared at the fine wood grain of the desk, running his hand over the smooth surface.

Then he saw the note pushed under his blotter, only one corner of which was visible.

He looked around carefully before pulling it out. There were no surveillance cameras in his office, or so Miss Parker had assured him. But now he had to wonder, too, if Miss Parker was the same person he had thought she was for so long. Regardless, he pulled out the slip of paper and read through the sentences it contained, lowering the paper again to stare blankly at the surface of his desk once more.

Glancing at his watch, Sydney knew that he could consider himself finished for the day, and so, clearly, did the person who had left him the note. Standing, he pushed the paper into his pocket and then collected his things. Getting into the elevator, he resolutely put a finger on the button for SL-14.

His visit to the chemistry labs went unchallenged and took only a matter of minutes. It would take a lot longer to get to the post box in Maryland, but he did have all night.

Sydney found himself staring blankly at the steering wheel when he eventually got in the car. This action should have galvanized him with a sense of purpose. The items he had gathered and was going to leave at the post box identified by the spare key that had been taped onto the back of the note would at least be a start to help with the withdrawal.

There was just one small problem to be overcome first. Jarod's father had to trust him again. That was potentially risky enough in itself.

According to the note, Ethan had already made contact with Jarod's father and the clone whom he understood they had named Jordan. That probably meant they would be ready for what they needed to do, whenever Jarod got out of the Centre.

Always assuming that the Major would trust Ethan, and that was a problem in itself. But, as long as he did, they would be ready when Jarod was out.

And then there was another problem that Sydney hadn’t reckoned on during his initial calculations -- the problem that Jarod wouldn’t be willing to leave when the time came anyway.

Two comparatively small problems and one huge one.

Eyeing the glass test tubes for a moment, Sydney turned back to the road. He reached the phone booth specified on the note and went into it, still clutching the scrap of paper. For a few moments he stared at the mechanism before lifting the receiver, inserting the coins and dialing the number.

* * * * * * * * *

Present Day
International Departures Hall, John F. Kennedy Airport
New York, NY, USA

“Have you got everything you need, Jarod?”

“I think so.” Jarod looked at the bag he carried and shrugged. “If not, I’ll just have to do without, I guess.”

“You can buy things there.” There was a glint of amusement in his father’s eye. “It’s not that much of a backwater.”

“Hey, I know nothing about it.” Jarod's tone was resentful. “I’m only being sent there, remember?”

“Well, I bought this for you, so that you could do a little research on the plane.” Charles pushed a book into his son’s hand. “It’s great -- but I don’t know how much you should believe.”

Jarod glanced at the book. “Bill Bryson. Down Under.” He looked up and tried to smile. “Thanks, Dad.”

Jordan eyed the information board and then Jarod. “Your flight’s just started to board.”

He nodded. “I should go.”

Major Charles gave him a slip of paper. “That’s the cell-phone number of the person who’s meant to meet you in Melbourne and the other number is her parents if she doesn’t answer.” He hugged his son. “Call us any time, okay?”

“I will, Dad.” Jarod hugged Jordan. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Back before you know it.”

“Take your time. Enjoy the break.”

“Look after yourselves.”

“We will, son.”

Jarod picked up the bag, looked once more at his family and walked through the doors.

* * * * * * * * *

Over the Pacific Ocean

It was dark on the airplane when Jarod opened his eyes, glancing around at the other passengers drowsily for a few moments before rousing fully and turning to lift the small plastic window shade beside him. Being night outside, it didn’t make a lot of difference but provided enough illumination for him to consult his watch and learn that he’d only had two hours’ sleep. Aurora had given him a chance to get some of the best sleep that he could remember; Jarod knew it would take time before his body could readjust to his earlier sleeping patterns. Particularly, he thought wryly, since it was supposed to be mid-day, rather than three o’clock in the morning as it was at his destination. Knowing that more sleep was impossible, regardless of how tired he felt, he put a hand into his bag and took out the book his father had given him. Examining the cover, he eyed each of the objects on it, able to recognize some but staring in complete bewilderment at others. The big, red thing that sat in the middle was the most puzzling.

“It’s Uluru.”

Jarod turned to the man in the seat next to him who had noticed the confused expression on his face. “And that is?”

“Oh, you’re a Yank.” The man grinned. “Know anything about geology?”

“Bits and pieces.”

“It’s the world’s biggest monolith.” The stranger gave a proud smile that spoke volumes for his patriotism. “Also the world’s most photographed.”

“Why would anyone photograph a rock?”

He shrugged, grinning. “Because it’s there, I guess. Been Down Under before?”

“Uh, where?”

“Down Under. It’s another name for Australia, you know, where the plane’s intending to land.” He laughed. “If you were aiming for a different destination, it’s a little late for you to change your mind now, but you could go and ask the captain.”

Jarod managed a faint grin in reply. “No, that’s where I’m headed.”

“Probably lucky. It’s a long way to swim back. So what will you be doing?”

“Just taking a break,” he answered cautiously. “Several people were worrying that I was working too hard.”

“I know the feeling,” the other man replied. “Well, you’ve certainly picked the best place on earth for it. You’ll leave there a changed man.”

“That,” Jarod responded solemnly, “is most definitely the plan.”

* * * * * * * * *

Lincoln Grove
Delaware, USA

The door of the car opened and the man slid into the passenger seat, glancing over at the man who sat behind the wheel. The second figure spoke softly.

“Well?”

“He got away okay. He wasn’t too happy about it, but it’s important to get him out of here, at least for the next few weeks.”

Sydney nodded. “What did he take with him?”

“Enough of that drug to help him with the withdrawal symptoms for the next two weeks. If he stays longer, she knows the composition and she said that someone can make more up for her.”

“And Jordan?”

“He’s getting over it. It wasn’t easy for him and he had some bad hours while Jarod was initially recovering, but that’s eased. He’s been better since the plane took off.”

The psychiatrist looked somewhat amused. “No matter how great the distance between them is, the connection they have won’t be affected.”

“Except in his mind,” Major Charles reminded the other man. “And that makes a big difference.”

“Granted.” Sydney stared thoughtfully through the windshield for a few moments and then turned to the other man. “You will let me know how he gets on?”

“Don’t you think he’ll contact you?”

“Not yet.” Sydney's fingers drummed the steering wheel impatiently. “Jarod won’t want to get in touch with anyone from the Centre for the next week or two. The pull of Aurora is still too strong. You’re a much safer option. He knows you helped him to get over it.”

“And you were the one who supplied the necessary medication, or at least made it available for collection at the post box when we needed it.”

“It was Angelo’s suggestion and Jarod doesn’t know I did it,” the psychiatrist reminded him. “Did he…?”

“He never asked and, as you suggested, I never offered the information.” Charles’ eyes softened. “Don’t you think he ought to be told? He needs to know that you played a part in this too - a very important part.”

For a moment Sydney was tempted, but then old habits reasserted themselves and he shook his head. “No, it’s more important that he knows what you did, what all three of you did. We had our chance. It’s time for him to build a future with his family. I can’t teach him who he is. Not anymore. It’s your turn now.”


Act I

International Arrivals Hall, Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

Slowly coming out through the doors he walked stiffly, his legs still not working properly as he had sat for almost the entire long flight.

“Jarod?”

The sound of his name made him start before looking around to see a woman standing a short distance away. Coming over to her, he nodded.

“How did you know it was me?”

She smiled, dimples appearing in her cheeks, as her green eyes looked him up and down.

“Well, at a guess, because nobody else is wearing layers of black in the middle of a hot-spell and nobody else looks as white as a sheet.” She produced a picture of him and grinned, her tanned skin providing a startling comparison to her white teeth. “Oh yes, and because your dad sent me a photo.”

She reached out a hand to take his bag but he shook his head and, as they began to walk toward the building’s exit, she returned the photograph to the pocket of her dress.

“Did you check any luggage in for the flight?”

“No. I travel light.”

The woman nodded and suddenly stopped. “I just realized that I didn’t introduce myself.” She turned and stuck out her right hand. “I’m…”

“Lauren Taylor. Dad told me about you.”

She grinned again. “Nothing bad, I hope.”

When he stayed silent, Lauren glanced at him without speaking as they continued to walk toward the exit of the airport, surrounded on every side by the sound of passengers arriving and leaving. Lauren’s professional gaze noticed him flinch occasionally as a particularly loud or piercing noise made itself heard above the general racket.

“By some miracle I managed to get a park near the entrance so we’ll soon be out of this.”

The doors opened and they stepped out of the air-conditioned building into air so hot that Jarod gasped.

“Bit warm, isn’t it?”

She grinned as they entered the passage that divided the terminal from the car park. As they got to a machine that stood at the end, Lauren fed in the ticket and coins, taking the slip of paper as the machine spat it out, before leading the way to a cream-colored Land Rover parked nearby.

“Luckily my air-conditioner’s good, but this summer looks like being a hot one. Again.”

Jarod thankfully put down the bag and took off his coat, waiting beside the car for her to unlock it.

“Hey, who’s driving here? You or me?”

Jarod looked up to meet her amused gaze and then down to find that he was standing next to the driver’s door. With his face reddening slightly from a combination of heat and embarrassment, he walked around to the other side as Lauren unlocked the car and got in behind the wheel. Tossing his things into the back seat, Jarod climbed in beside her.

Gradually she eased out of the car park into the line of cars that were stopped at the traffic lights before glancing at him. “It’ll be a longish drive so I’d suggest you either take out a book or try to catch up on the sleep you probably missed during the flight.” She reached into the back seat and retrieved a plastic bag, giving it to him. “If you’re hungry, there’s fruit and soft-drink in this, as well as water.”

Pushing aside the feelings of nausea that even the mere mention of food caused him, Jarod put the bag down at his feet and then looked at her with mild curiosity.

“How long is ‘longish?’”

“Even if we were just going to Melbourne, an hour. Thanks to the nightmare that the government is pleased to call a highway, it’s better than it was, but you made the mistake of catching a flight that landed in peak hour on Monday morning so it’ll be a bit lengthy.”

“If? I thought we were going to Melbourne.” Jarod saw the grin on her face and the expression of vague curiosity returned to his eyes. “What?”

“I just love the way you say it. Your accent - they’ll die at the pub!”

“Hey, I’m not the one with the accent,” he objected faintly.

“Oh, you are. On this side of the world, you most definitely are.” She laughed and merged into the traffic, accelerating.

“So, what did you mean by ‘if?’”

“I got a call from Dad after brekkie to say that Mum took a tumble and he wanted me to come and take a gander. I thought I’d show you a typical Victorian country town and review your credentials at the same time.”

Jarod thought through the parts of the sentences that had made no sense to him, which, he was forced to admit, had been most of it, and decided for the moment that it would be best to ignore them. “So where are we going?”

“Yarragon.”

His face was blank.

“Gippsland.” Lauren paused. “Eastern part of the state. Victoria.” She laughed when there was no change to his expression. “Jarod, do have a clue where you are?”

“Australia?”

“Good start.”

* * * * * * * * *

City Link, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

Lauren glanced over to see that the motion of the car as well as the long flight had had an effect and he was asleep. With a sympathetic smile on her face, she turned on the radio, keeping the volume low and listening as the sports commentator began to get worked up about the match. At the same time she thought through the final conversation she had had with Sydney, almost half an hour before Jarod's plane had landed.

“It would still be better if he wasn’t told you know about the Centre, or if you can’t avoid revealing the fact, exactly how much you do know. His desire for Aurora might mean he’d physically force you to call them and tell them where he was.”

Lauren lifted an eyebrow as she looked around the airport café, finally fixing her eyes on the flight information board. “Do you really think he’d go to such extremes, Sydney? I’d had the idea Aurora would be making him more pliable, rather than more inflexible and demanding, or even potentially dangerous.”

“While he was under its influence, I’d have agreed with that,” the man replied in almost anguished tones. “But the drug itself is completely out of his system. It’s the cravings that control him now, and you know how strong cravings in an addict are.”

Nodding slowly, Lauren could hear the pain in his voice as Sydney was forced to use the word ‘addict.’

“Fine, I’ll do my best to keep it a secret. But he’ll have to know I know something or he’ll wonder why he’s being sent to someone so incompetent.”

“He’s staying with you because you’re a friend of his father’s and the Major trusts you,” he stated evenly. “He doesn’t need to be told more than that, unless you think it’s wise. It’ll take time before he’s back to his usual wariness of people who might have some connection to the Centre, largely because of what such people can offer him.”

“From what I heard, it was a struggle just to get him on the plane.”

“He’s scared, Lauren,” the psychiatrist admitted. “And fear isn’t a thing Jarod is used to feeling. He won’t know how to deal with it, at least for the first few days, and that means he won’t know how to deal with you or anything else any new situations present him with. Then he’ll think back to how he felt under the influence of Aurora and it’ll all be even worse for him.”

Sydney's voice was so full of a tender, affectionate pain as he finished speaking that Lauren was forced to swallow a lump in her throat before she replied.

“Sydney, I’m going to take care of him. I can’t promise to send him back cured - we both know it may never be possible for that to happen - but if he isn’t back to the Jarod you knew, he’ll be as close to it as I can get him. I promise.”

Lauren glanced over at the sleeping man once or twice, knowing that the exhaustion was the only thing that had finally made his eyelids close. Jarod's sleep would be spasmodic and last for short periods, at least for the next few days, and so she made as little noise as possible to give him the rest he needed. Approaching a low bridge, Lauren glared at the white item tucked up behind the review mirror, knowing what would happen as they drove under it. A sudden, shrill beep made the man jump in his seat as he awoke, the panic evident in his eyes.

“What was that?”

“The E-Tag.” She reached up with one hand, pulling an item out of a clip on windshield and giving it to him. “It’s the way the group in charge of this stretch of road makes sure we aren’t all getting freebies.”

Jarod turned the small gray and white object over in his hand. “This reminds me of the things they use on the New York Thruway.”

Lauren grinned. “And I thought Aussies were the only people with so little taste anywhere except in their mouths that they could come up with something this weird.”

She took it back, replacing it in time for it to emit another loud beep as they passed under another low bridge. Lauren turned off the slow-moving highway onto another, speeding up significantly, and put a hand out to increase the air-conditioner. Jarod watched her in silence for a few minutes before eventually deciding that, as long as he had to be here, he might as well know a little about what was planned for him.

“So, want to tell me more about where we’re going?”

“Now or when we get back from visiting my parents?”

“Both.”

Her hand reached down, about to turn off the radio, when Lauren hesitated. Jarod's voice was full of impatience.

“What?”

“Shh.”

The commentator’s voice was loud in the car. “It’s in the air. If Brett Lee moves, he could - Yes! Yes, he’s out! What a marvelous catch! That was just so special! With superb bowling by Shane Warne, Darren Ganga’s been caught out on 99! You really just can’t help but feel a little sorry for the poor guy…”

“Oh, yes, you can!” A grin on her face, she turned down the volume. “Sorry, just had to hear that.”

“And ‘that’ was?”

“A test match.” His face was blank again. “Cricket?”

Jarod shook his head and she laughed again. “I guess you’ve got even more to learn about us than you thought.”

* * * * * * * * *

Nepean Highway, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

“It’ll take us about an hour and a half to get to Yarragon and then another twenty minutes or so before we get home.”

“Do you live in Melbourne?”

Lauren rolled her eyes. “Some of the time. I’m divided between Katherine and the RFDS office in Melbourne, which is where I’ve been for the past two months. Then, whenever I have a spare five seconds, I go home to visit my parents. It doesn’t happen too often, by the way, so be ready for a reenactment of the fond reunion scene.”

“And…when did your dad call?”

“After brekkie - breakfast,” she clarified, grinning at him. “You’ve got a whole new vocabulary to learn here as well.”

“But I thought you people spoke English,” Jarod protested mildly.

“Would it matter if we didn’t?” She cast a sly look at him. “I’d ask how many languages you speak, but I don’t think I want to know.”

With a laugh, she looked back at the road as she explained.

“We write, and for the most part speak, British English because Australia was a colony of England until the first year of the twentieth century. But over time we’ve created our own slang vocabulary that a lot of people, especially in country areas, use. You’ll need to get the drift of at least some of it. Hope you like a challenge.”

He leaned back against the seat, stretching and smiling slightly. “Sounds good.”

“And, at the end of your time here, we’ll send you back to your dad fitter than - “ Lauren stopped abruptly. “You may want to call him to let him know you got here safely and that I didn’t forget to pick you up.”

She disconnected the phone from the car charger and gave it to him. Showing his eagerness for contact with somebody he knew, Jarod quickly dialed the number, his fingers rapping impatiently on his knee until it was answered.

“Jarod? Is that you?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“You got there okay?”

“Fine. You were right about the flight. It was long and unbelievably boring. The in-flight movies were awful. And I won’t even start on the food.”

“And how’s the weather?”

“Hot.”

Charles laughed. “It can only be good for you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Did you meet Lauren?”

“Yeah. She was waiting at the airport.”

“Can I talk to her?”

Jarod held out the phone and she put her ear against it, keeping both her hands on the wheel. “I’d love to chat, Major, but I’m driving right now. I’ll call you when we get there.”

He made an appalling attempt to imitate the Australian accent. “No worries.”

“Hey!” She laughed. “That’s my line.”

“Just look after my son for me, okay?”

“I will. We’ll talk soon. Bye.”

* * * * * * * * *

South Gippsland Highway
Victoria, Australia

They had remained silent since the end of the phone call, Lauren having seen the emotion on her visitor’s face as Jarod watched the scenery fly by outside the car. Finally, however, she spoke.

“That’s one relieved dad you’ve got there.”

“He’s been worrying about me.”

“I know. I could hear it in his voice.”

Jarod remained silent for a moment as he wondered how much she really did know, but decided to change the subject rather than ask her.

“So, how are we getting to Katherine? Driving?”

Lauren stared at him for a second in stunned silence and then broke into peals of laughter, only stopping as she saw the hurt look on his face. “I’m sorry, Jarod, but I’d love to see my dad’s face if I said we were going to just drive to Katherine.” She tried not to laugh again.

“Why?”

“We’d be on the road for days!”

He nodded skeptically. “Uh huh.”

“You don’t believe me? Okay,” Lauren tried to recall the information she had looked up earlier that morning. “You’re asking me if we’re going to drive from the equivalent of somewhere in Florida - Tallahassee, say - to Harlem.”

His eyes widened. “New York?”

“Montana.”

Jarod choked. “Montana?”

“Mmm hmm.” Her eyes twinkled. “So how long, Jarod? How long would it take to drive there over roads that make you feel like you’re sitting in a blender?”

“Okay, I get your point.”

Lauren grinned. “If you think that’s impressive wait until you see my office and, for the time being, yours too. It’s the stuff dreams are made of!”

He folded his arms and leaned back against his seat, looking over at her with an eyebrow raised. “You’re not raising my expectations unnecessarily, are you?”

She smiled. “Not unless your expectations are way higher than I’ve been led to believe.”

Jarod stared through the windshield for several moments before turning to her again.

“Do you know about…what happened? Why I’m here?”

Lauren phrased her response carefully, Sydney's warnings ringing in her ears and unable to help casting a wary look at the large and still-powerful hands that lay idle in Jarod's lap.

“Your dad filled me in on some of it. He mentioned the Centre in passing, but said he didn’t want to go into details. I’m not sure I want to know any more than I do already.”

“How did the two of you meet?”

She smiled, relieved at the ease with which they had got through it.

“My brother. You’ll meet him when we get to Yarragon. Steve went to the States for his last year of university and loved it so much that he stayed for another three. His main obsession’s always been flying and your dad was his instructor for a few months. I came to visit Steve and met your father just before he found you and then lost you again. The Major told me about that.”

“Does your brother still fly?”

“Constantly. And if the rest of his body isn’t up in the air, his head is. Steve runs a flight school out near Mum and Dad and hires out planes for crop dusting.”

As she finished speaking, there was a loud roar overhead. A plane appeared from behind a bank of trees and flew slightly ahead of them as they drove down the highway. Jarod followed it with his eyes as Lauren laughed.

“That’s probably him now.”

She pulled the car into the emergency lane on the left and turned off the ignition. Immediately the plane raced ahead, only to turn and head back towards them. Lauren reached over and picked up the receiver that was attached to the two-way radio in her car.

“Alpha Romeo to Victor Charlie. Steve, what are you playing at?”

“Hey, Loz! I thought it was you.”

“Yeah, a whole lot of Land Rovers around here have great big black letters A and R whacked on their tops.” She laughed. “Did you want something?”

“Dad asked me to find out how far away you were, so I thought I’d do a fly-over. Is the Yank there too?”

“What did you think I’d do - abandon him at Tulla?” Lauren laughed. “So what does Dad want?”

“Asked you to do some shopping before you arrived. They’re out of milk.”

She snorted. “Oh, you’re funny, Steve. Regular laugh riot.”

“Okay, okay. He said for you to buy the things the two of you want before you arrived so that you won’t have to go out again tonight. I think he wants a hand while Mum’s out of action.”

“And I guess you’re slacking off, as usual.”

“Hey, I’m busy!”

“Like I’m not.” She laughed. “Okay, we’ll see you whenever you actually decide to show your face at home - but be warned. I might pick up fish and chips later.”

“That’s blackmail!”

“I know.” Lauren laughed. “Thanks, Victor Charlie. Over and out.”

As she restarted the car Lauren looked over at Jarod. “In case you didn’t pick up on it, my brother landed you with a nickname. Get used to it.”

“The Yank?”

“Yup. Sorry.”

“And what did he call you?”

“Loz. Short for Lauren. That’s what most people call me. You can too, if you want. There aren’t many people around here who don’t get their names cut down somehow, although my Mum still calls people by their full name.”

“And how did you know that he was kidding about why your dad called?”

Lauren chuckled. “My parents live on a dairy farm, Jarod. They can get all the milk they want by stepping outside the back door and grabbing a cow. Gippsland - the area we’re driving through now - is one of the major dairy producing areas in Victoria.” She grinned. “I hope you’re ready to help with the milking. Mum’s really out of action, by the sounds of things.”

“You don’t know?”

“All that my Dad said was that it wasn’t too serious, but he wanted me to take a gander - I mean, look at it. I don’t even know what she’s done, apart from falling off her horse.”

Suddenly she laughed.

“Oh God, I’m really bad at this - I haven’t even told you my parent’s names yet. Mum’s name is Peta and my Dad’s Bill. They’ll be highly offended if you call them anything else, especially Mr. and Mrs. Taylor.”

“And we have to go shopping first?”

“Yup. We’ll go to the supermarket at Warragul. Although, if you want, I can go in and leave you to sleep a bit more.”

“How much longer until we get there?”

She glanced down at the clock. “Add in shopping time, about half an hour.”

“I can wait.”

Thinking over the things she had said on the radio, he glanced at her again, feeling curious in spite of himself.

“Why does your car have letters on the roof?”

“Safety. If anything happened and we got lost or broke down - in the bush or anywhere else - it’d be easier to see black letters in greenery or dirt than just white that reflects the light back into the eyes of the person who’s searching.”

He nodded in agreement. “Is that such a big problem? Getting lost, I mean.”

“It depends. If the driver is the kind of moron who heads off without planning it properly or telling anyone where he’s going, it’s a real necessity.”

“And…what’s ‘Tulla’?”

“Tullamarine Airport - where you landed.” She grinned. “Were the movies really so bad on board or were you just upholding the cliché to your dad?”

“I don’t know,” Jarod replied honestly. “I didn’t see them.”

“Asleep?”

He stared out through the windscreen at the green landscape. “Yeah, something like that.”

She looked at him sharply, glimpsing the shadows under his eyes and the lines around his mouth as well as the beads of sweat glistening on his face despite the air-conditioning and finally noting that his hands had also started to tremble, although he was fighting to control them. Lauren’s lips thinned slightly as she turned back to concentrate on the road.

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

Lauren shut the door of the four wheel drive and put up one hand to protect herself from the two small dogs that were leaping up to lick her face.

“Patterson, Banjo, get down! Down!” She grabbed one by the scruff of the neck and held it in front of her face, where it licked her nose. “Bad dog. You know better than that.” With a gentle shake, she put the Australian terrier down and, as she wiped her nose with a laugh, he, along with the other, ran around to sniff Jarod's feet. “Don’t worry, they’re harmless, unless you let them lick you to death.”

“Loz, is that you?”

“Sure is, Dad.” She was caught up in the embrace of a man who had come out of a nearby shed and groaned as he squeezed her tightly. “One day, I promise, those ribs will snap!”

“Not while I live and breathe.”

“You won’t be the one having problems.” She walked around to the passenger side of the car and he followed. “Dad, this is Major Charles’ son. Jarod, this is my Dad.”

“The name’s Bill, the Yank. It’s great to finally meet you. My son hasn’t been able to stop talking about your father since he got back from the States.”

As Jarod somewhat limply returned the handshake, Lauren opened the back of the car to take out the plastic shopping bags, but her father stopped her.

“I’ll get those. You go and say hi to your mother.”

“What’s she done?” The doctor reached into the back of her car and took out a large, flat case.

“At best guess, badly sprained wrist and ankle.”

“You mean you didn’t even take her in to Warragul to have it x-rayed?”

“What do we need to hang around that hole for when we have you? Why else did we pay to put you through so many years of uni? Besides, it’s Monday and with a weekend of no x-rays it would be a nightmare around there this morning.”

She rolled her eyes and then turned to the visitor. “Jarod, come with me. I’ll show you your room and introduce you to my mother all at one go.”

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod was glad to feel the dramatic drop in temperature as they walked into the house, seeing the large air-conditioner on the wall. Sitting in a chair underneath it, one foot up on a footstool and her left arm resting in a sling, was an older woman dressed in denim slacks and a blue shirt. Lauren went over and kissed her cheek.

“Can’t stay out of trouble, can you Mum?”

“Hi sweetie. Hey, any excuse to get you here that gets you here…”

“Even if it has to be painful?” Kneeling down, Lauren eased off her mother’s shoe and felt the joint before looking up and trying not to grin. “Oops.”

“I should hope so.” The woman looked up at the stranger. “This must be Jarod. My name’s Peta, Jarod, and I have the misfortune to be the mother of this rude creature.”

“Hi, Peta. It’s nice to meet you.” He shook the uninjured hand that she cheerfully held out to him.

“Glad to have you here. Steve’s been thrilled at the thought of meeting the son of the man that he looks up to so much, and it’s always great to have a new face around the place. Not to mention a new accent.”

“And let’s not forget the new doctor,” Lauren added. “The service can do with it even if it is just for a while. And speaking of which,” she looked up at him. “I know you’re pretty jet-lagged but want to make a snap diagnosis?”

Her mother looked up, trying to conceal a smile. “I could think of more a appropriate word under the circumstances, Lauren.”

“Oh, I don’t know. ‘Snap’ might fit pretty well.” She laughed and looked down. “Well?”

Jarod glanced up from where he had reluctantly knelt beside the footstool, waiting until the doctor lifted an eyebrow at his hesitation before slowly replying. “I agree with your dad. Sprained.”

Lauren nodded. “I agree on the ankle.” She picked up her mother’s hand and gently felt it. “Okay, diagnosis upheld. That’s your first test come through with ‘flying’ colors.” She grinned. “No pun intended.”

Jarod looked bemused as Peta groaned. “They just get worse, don’t they?”

Lauren laughed. “Now it’s obvious how long it’s been since you were in a room with Paul.”

“Well, whose fault’s that? I wouldn’t mind seeing him occasionally too, you know.”

“Okay, okay.” Lauren rolled her eyes. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Peta grinned and then glanced over at the silent man. “Make sure you do. But for now, take Jarod up to his room before he falls asleep at your feet, will you?”


Act II

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

“What do you really think, Lauren?”

She walked to the window and looked out over the green fields, the phone pressed to her ear and the other hand absent-mindedly twirling one of the dark blond curls that hung around her face.

“Major, I haven’t examined your son and I had no intention to. I’ll see what he needs as a result of the addictive nature of Aurora as Sydney described it to me and treat it the best I can. Otherwise there’s not a lot I can do for him. Time and a break from the new pursuit is the best I can offer and probably the best thing overall right now.”

“I can see your difficulty…”

“And I can see yours. But you’ve told me Jarod doesn’t know he’s here as my patient and I don’t somehow think that he’d be thrilled to find out. As far as he knows, he’s here to get away from the usual stresses, maybe get some color and that’s it.”

“And…you think you can help?”

“I can promise to send Jarod home a darn sight better that he was when he left, but he’s been on an emotional and physical roller coaster ride since he found out about having a son. Being at the Centre, no matter what they were giving him, wouldn’t have helped much either. But with all the information I’ve received from you and Sydney about Aurora, I’ve at least got a starting point and we’ll work from there.”

“Okay.” There was a moment of silence. “Just… just please take care of my son for me, Lauren.”

“I will, Major. You know I will.”

As she disconnected the call a hand tapped her on one shoulder. Spinning around, Lauren found herself facing with a tall man whose blue eyes twinkled with fun. Giving a delighted shriek, Lauren threw her arms around her brother’s neck and hugged him. The room was suddenly full of sound as another man walked in and began a conversation with his father and mother.

The loud voices in the formerly quiet house woke Jarod from his light sleep and he stared blankly around the room for a few seconds before remembering where he was. Stifling a yawn, he sat up, feeling a headache start at the same instant as he saw a glass of liquid on his bedside table. The piece of paper under the glass caught his eye and, somewhat curious, Jarod picked it up.

‘You’re probably dehydrated. This is pure, Aussie tap water. Two litres every day will help get rid of the headaches. Loz.’

With a small smile, he picked up the glass and drank the contents, filling it again from a bottle that stood beside it and swallowing that as well. The headache faded to a bearable pain and he stood up, pulling on his shoes before making his way down the stairs. One of the newcomers looked up to see him standing silently in the doorway and grinned, dimples appearing in both cheeks.

“Hey, Loz, I think we’re making a bit too much noise.”

Lauren looked up to see her visitor in the doorway and laughed. “Jarod, come on in and join the party.” She pulled forward a man who had his arm around her shoulders. “This is my big brother. Mark, this is Jarod. He’s here to do a stint with the RFDS.”

“Hi, the Yank. Good to see you here.”

She grabbed the sleeve of the man who had alerted her to Jarod's presence, pulling him forward. “This is my baby brother, Steve. The one you heard me talking to on the radio.”

“Great to finally meet you, the Yank.”

Jarod smiled faintly. “Nice to meet you too, Steve. Dad told me about you.”

Mark walked over to the fridge and opened it. “Anyone want a beer? Dad?”

“Wouldn’t say no.”

“Steve?”

“Kill for one.”

“Jarod?”

He shrugged, not wanting to cause any problems but slightly concerned at the thought of the way alcohol might affect his system. Before he could respond, however, Lauren jumped in.

“Give him water, Mark. Alcohol won’t help with dehydration and, after eighteen hours of recycled air on planes…” She trailed off, seeing an expression of relief in Jarod's eyes. “But I’ll have one.”

“What, my baby sister drinking a beer?” Mark tried to look horrified as he gave out the cans and kept one for himself. “You’ll have a nice, refined, ladylike glass of lemonade.”

“You’ll get a ‘nice, refined, ladylike glass of lemonade’ all over your great noggin if you’re not a bit more careful.” She took the can out of his hand and laughed at the expression on his face as she sat on the sofa. “Thanks.”

* * * * * * * * *

Austin, Texas, USA

Charles taxied the plane inside the hangar and got up to unlock the door so the men could begin unloading the cargo. Then he went back to the cockpit and looked at where Jordan slept in the co-pilot’s seat. Charles was unable to stop himself from comparing the face of this boy with both that of the man he had watched walk through the doors at JFK airport and also that of the boy on the DSA he had seen almost two and a half years earlier. After a moment he put out a hand and gently shook the teenager.

“Jordan? We’re here.”

Blearily the boy opened his eyes and looked up before undoing his seatbelt and groggily rising to his feet. Picking up his bag, the man put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, walking with him off the plane and into the small room that had been promised for them at the airport.

“Are you hungry?”

“Not really.” The boy shrugged drowsily. “Just kinda tired.”

Charles nodded at one of the two beds. “Have a nap, son. It’s been a long few days.”

Nodding, Jordan stumbled over to the bed and stretched out on it with a yawn. The man pulled a blanket gently over him, watching as the boy curled up underneath it before he relaxed into sleep. He’s getting better, the man thought to himself as he stood beside the bed and eyed the fading shadows under Jordan’s eyes. By the time Jarod gets home from Australia, he should be almost back to normal.

With a satisfied nod, Charles left the room to help with the unloading, quietly shutting the door behind him.

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

Jarod ran a trembling hand through his short-cropped hair, once more at the length he had worn it for so many years. He pulled up the sleeves of his t-shirt, eyeing the track marks on his hands and arms where the needles containing Aurora and the anesthesia and withdrawal drugs had gone in. The thought of the days of sleep and withdrawal made his brow fold into a glare directed at the floor of the room.

The days before leaving America had been particularly unpleasant, the first of which primarily passed with him sleeping off the anesthetic under the supervision of Jordan and his father. By the following day he had the strength to protest at being fed. Following that he had become engaged in another argument between himself and his father, this time about the trip. He could remember the difficulty he had had in simply being able to get worked up enough to argue in the first place. Although Aurora had been purged from his system during the hours of enforced rest in Maryland, the flat emotional state it had brought him to was now almost a habit, as was the fact that during his weeks back at the Centre, he had allowed or been forced to allow others to make decisions for him. Ironically, it was this that had caused the argument with his father in the first place, filling him with resentment at the way that decisions had been made without either his consent or input. And it wasn’t only the detoxification that he’d been objecting to. The trip was another sore point and this umbrage, as well as his own marked lack of interest, had made him unwilling to do any investigation into his destination.

He couldn’t help regretting that a little now.

Jarod found himself hating the very thought of the two weeks.

His gaze traveled to the needle lying on the flat surface in front of him filled with the substance - his own creation - to help reduce the withdrawal symptoms he was suffering. For a few moments he thought through the time when, in 1968, he had created it. He could still remember the instant of realization when he knew what he needed and the decision that had made him get a sweeper to escort him to the lab where, in the early hours of one morning, he had sat down and made it.

With a feeling of faint amusement Jarod also recalled the expression on Sydney's face when the older man had burst into the laboratory, understandably angry and also concerned at his seeming disappearance from his room. Even the psychiatrist’s interest in the project hadn’t been sufficient to conceal the worry he had felt, and it had taken three days before their working relationship had returned to normal.

Jarod wondered vaguely if Sydney even knew that he was no longer at the Centre.

His mind coming back to the present, Jarod eyed the needle again, this time with a feeling akin to loathing. Knowing it didn’t contain the one substance he would happily inject until every vein in his body collapsed, he had no real incentive to use this. But understanding how vulnerable the shaking and nausea made him feel, he reluctantly picked up the syringe. Finding a viable vein proved difficult after so many weeks but eventually Jarod managed. After clearing the syringe of air bubbles and twisting around, he awkwardly slid the sharp point into a vein at the back of his knee and carefully pressed the plunger.

Lauren put the last form into the fax machine and sent it off before standing and walking down the hall to the room where her visitor was sleeping. Waiting in the doorway, she watched him silently for a minute before speaking.

“Can you ride?”

Jarod looked up as he screwed the lid onto the sharps container that he had brought with him and into which he’d dropped the empty syringe. “Ride what?”

“Elephants, Jarod.” She rolled her eyes and grinned. “Horses, of course.”

He considered for a moment. “Probably not the way you’re thinking of.”

“What did you do, a stint at a rodeo or something?” She laughed at her own joke and then came in, opening the cupboard. Taking out a plaid shirt, she held it out to him. “You’re going to need to wear something other than black or you’ll bake in this heat.”

“Whose…?”

“It’s Mark’s. He said you can wear whatever of his you want, and I hope you do ‘want’ because I certainly don’t want to work with an American undertaker under the guise of a doctor. You’ll get the uniform, of course - white shirt and dark blue trousers and jacket - but you’ll need some off-duty clothes too.”

Jarod peeled off the t-shirt he’d been wearing since his arrival and put on the sleeveless red shirt. Lauren glanced from the needle marks on his upper arms and the faint scar on his lower left arm to the shoes lying the floor beside his bed and then pulled out a pair of boots.

“You’ll need Blundstones, too. You can’t ride in those.”

He pulled them on, the elastic sides allowing his feet to slip easily into the boots, and followed her downstairs. At the door, she took a floppy, broad-brimmed Akubra hat off a hook and put it on his head, placing a similar one on her own.

“We’ll pass on the sunstroke quite this early in your visit, thanks.”

The heat settled on them like a blanket as they walked out of the house.

“Will it get cooler?”

“Tonight, probably not much. It’s only 28 degrees right now, though. It was a lot hotter when you arrived.”

She caught sight of his expression and laughed. “I forgot, you’re such a strange mob over there that you still calculate temperature in Fahrenheit. You’ll have to do the conversions yourself, I’m afraid. My maths was never that good. From memory, Celsius is five ninths of Fahrenheit minus thirty two.”

He thought quickly, a little astonished that he hadn’t even thought about the fact that this place used a different system, something that he was actually well aware of.

“Eight-three? At seven thirty in the evening in mid-October?”

She shrugged nonchalantly. “I guess. We are going through a bit of warm spell right now. It’ll be worse at work, though. Much worse.” Looking at him, she laughed as she saw the confusion on his face. “Jarod, you do remember that summer’s coming on this side of the world, don’t you?”

As they approached a gate, saddles over their arms, Lauren clicked her tongue and immediately the ears of two horses pricked up and they trotted over.

“Hey, beautiful.” She stroked the nose of one, slipped the bit into its mouth and fastened a buckle, leading it over to him. “This is Dad’s horse, Billabong. He said you could ride him. Do you want to saddle him?”

He hesitated. “You do it.”

Nodding understandingly, she gave him the reins, placing the blanket onto the horse’s broad back after she had checked that there was nothing underneath it that could cause an irritation and then did up the saddle straps. Jarod got up, a little awkwardly, into the seat and settled himself as Lauren flipped up the reins and lengthened the stirrups so that they were the right length. As she did this, the second horse approached and impatiently nuzzled her, almost pushing her to the ground.

“Okay, okay.” She turned and laughed, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a carrot. “You are so spoilt, Matilda.”

It only took a few moments for her to saddle the horse and swing up expertly as a voice could be heard calling from the doorway of the house.

“Where are you going, Loz?”

“To get dinner,” she called back. “But we’ll be quite a while, Steve. I’ll show Jarod the surrounding countryside at the same time. Back in about two hours. Maybe three.”

“Okay, have fun.”

The figure disappeared back inside the house and the two wheeled their horses around, Lauren slowly leading the way towards the gate.

“All right?”

“I guess.”

Lauren looked over to find Jarod looking somewhat helplessly down at his hands and she looped her reins over her arm before reaching over to position his fingers properly. Jarod's face suddenly reddened with embarrassment as the feelings of the reins in his fingers became all too familiar, recalling previous times when he was on the back of a horse. Jarod couldn’t help wondering if her question about the rodeo had been intended or just off-the-cuff. Spotting the change on his face but ignoring it, Lauren spoke quietly.

“We won’t go too fast at the start, but you’ll need to be more used to it by the time we come back. It’s seven kay’s - kilometers - from here to the shop and if dinner’s cold, we’ll be cursed.”

His stomach twisted again at the thought of food but as he’d done before, Jarod pushed aside the feelings, concentrating instead on what he was doing as they rode down the drive of the property and out on the road. A touch of her heels prompted Matilda to a trot and, as Jarod's horse did the same, Lauren looked at him and was forced to hide a smile.

“Grip with your knees.”

“I’m trying!”

She laughed and slowed the horse down. “Okay, we’ll walk until you get used to it. I’m guessing you haven’t ridden a lot, or at least not for a long time.”

“And I’m guessing you have.”

“Since I could walk. With the property being the size it is, we’ve all had to learn.”

Jarod listened as Lauren gave him a few instructions and adjusted his style accordingly, instantly feeling more comfortable as well as irritated that he hadn’t been able to work it out himself.

“You’ll have to get used to riding. It’s a bit of a necessity, especially in our work.”

“And what is that, exactly? You still haven’t told me yet. All I’ve heard so far are a whole bunch of initials.”

She looked up. “I’ll tell you but first I need to ask you a few things.”

“Shoot.”

Lauren quickly decided on the best way to pose the question, already knowing the answer but still feeling it wiser not to reveal that. “First, can you be convincing as a doctor even though you aren’t one?”

He straightened up in the saddle, feeling the sun warm his back. “I can be whatever you want me to be.”

She nodded. “Second, can you fly?”

Jarod raised an eyebrow. “Not without wings and maybe an engine.”

Lauren groaned. “Oh, you are just so not funny! Only my brothers are worse than that! Seriously, have you flown planes? Small ones I mean, not 747s.”

“I can fly both - and helicopters.”

“A chopper pilot too?” She beamed. “You’re custom-made!”

“For?”

“The RFDS, which stands for Royal Flying Doctor Service. They’re the people I, now we, work for.”

Lauren leaned back slightly in the saddle.

“It was started in 1917. The Reverend John Flynn was trying to find away to care for people living impossible distances from medical aid and set up a system of radio communication. When people need help, they call our base. Every homeowner receives a medical kit stocked with medication, and the doctor at the base will instruct the patient what to take for what illness. If necessary, we treat them at home or bring them to a hospital for surgery. Katherine isn’t an official base, though. If the main office in Alice Springs gets a call that’s too far for them, or they’re too busy, we take it.”

Jarod nodded thoughtfully. “Sounds like a good idea. The whole thing, I mean. Not just your base in Katherine.”

“It is, and it runs on an absolute shoestring. Our treatment is free and we’re funded by donations, contributions and government grants.”

He glanced over to see the satisfied smile on her face. “You love your work, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. And once you’ve met a few of the mad creatures that we help and done a bit of helping yourself, I guarantee you’ll love it too.”

“So what kind of people will we be helping?”

“Everyone - old people, farmers, kids.”

“Kids?” He looked at her curiously. “How do kids get an education in the middle of nowhere?”

“School of the Air.”

“What’s School of the Air?”

“Very much what it sounds like. It’s an offshoot of the RFDS meaning that they use the same idea and equipment, but wasn’t it started until 1951. The main base is in Alice Springs. The students - more than 1,200 at last count - have a half-hour lesson with a teacher each day by radio.”

“And it’s widespread?”

Lauren laughed. “Everything in Australia is widespread, Jarod. But yes it’s a big thing. A decade ago, it was worked out that more than a dozen schools service a area of about 1.5 million square kilometers.”

She watched, a twinkle in her eye, as he did the conversion, staring at her in shock. “580,000 square miles?!”

”At last count, yes. It’s probably grown by now.”

He paused. “And you work alone?”

“Never.” She shook her head definitively. “It’s far too dangerous. I have a regular partner but he’s in Broken Hill now, at the hospital there. The director’s sick and Paul volunteered to substitute for him. That’s one of the reasons you’re here. We’ll be working together, flying around from place to place and treating people. That’s why I needed to know that you could be a convincing doctor.”

“So you know all about me?”

She shrugged. “Maybe not all. But your dad told me a lot.”

* * * * * * * * *

Mouth Worth National Park
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

Lauren could feel Matilda getting twitchy and shot a sly glance at the American. Seeing that there was only a little more emotion in Jarod's eyes than when she had picked him up from the airport, she turned to him, her own eyes gleaming in fun.

“Feeling more comfortable?”

Jarod nodded and she steered her horse off the road and onto a track that led into scrubland, her guest’s horse following. Grinning over her shoulder, Lauren clapped her heels to Matilda’s flanks and the animal took off, first at a fast canter and then at a flat gallop. A hand clasping her hat, she leaned forward over the animal’s neck as it began to pick up speed. When Billabong did the same thing, the man on the horse’s back could do nothing but hold on in a similar manner. After almost ten minutes of flying along the winding trail, Lauren slowed Matilda to a trot and waited until Jarod came close behind. Instantly she turned her horse in to a clearing and grinned as he stared at her with wide eyes, his mouth hanging slightly open.

“What was that for?”

The shock of it had rendered Jarod almost breathless but his companion sat calmly watching him.

“Just wondering how good you really are. And to have stayed on through that is pretty impressive, Jarod.”

“You mean…that was for fun?”

There was a note of disbelief in his voice and she laughed.

“You didn’t enjoy it? Not even the tiniest little smidgen?”

He looked up at her, a small smile appearing on his face. “Now that I think about it, maybe I did.”

“More?”

Jarod shrugged, affecting nonchalance but thinking to himself that he had found it fun, despite his earlier determination that, while, he might be being forced to be here, it didn’t mean he had to like anything that wasn’t American.

“Sure. Why not?”

The two horses made their way along the winding trail, occasionally beside one another but more often behind each other. Finally they reached the top of the hill, coming out into an open area with picnic tables. Dismounting, Lauren tied up the horses before she and Jarod sat on one of the big tables, watching the sky turn from blue to pink and finally to a brilliant red, as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. After it had vanished, however, there was still enough visibility in the twilight. Jarod turned to Lauren, about to ask a question, when he heard barking and two familiar-looking dogs ran across the picnic area. Instantly Lauren looked over her shoulder.

“Mark, where are you?”

He appeared, also on horseback, and grinned. “I knew those two’d give me away. Where are you headed?”

“To the shop for dinner in a bit. Is the milking done?”

He nodded. “Finished half an hour ago, but you two will have to help tomorrow. I have to go back to work.”

“Already?” There was a note of disappointment in her voice.

“Time waits for no man, Lozenge.”

“I know,” she grumbled. “I’d just like the chance to see my big brother once in a blue moon, that’s all.”

Mark and the two dogs had already left when Jarod and Lauren started to ride back. She nodded her head in the direction that the last hints of red were fading from the sky and grinned. “Not bad, huh?”

He smiled, shadows of dimples appearing on his cheeks. “I love sunsets.”

“Well, you haven’t seen any until you’ve seen them in the Top End and at Uluru.”

“Somebody mentioned that to me. It’s pretty good?”

“It’s spectacular. I can never get sick of the sight and I’ve flown over it, walked around it, climbed it and slept beside it.”

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

Jarod lay on the bed without bothering to turn it back. He had the feeling that he wouldn’t be able to sleep a lot, if at all, so there didn’t seem much point in going to the effort. With a rueful sigh, he stared at the ceiling, feeling that he was a long way from everything he knew, in a country he had no chance of understanding.

Once, he thought bitterly to himself, this would have been an incentive, a challenge to be enjoyed, but now it felt like an insurmountable difficulty. It was, he realized, not only that he felt a long way from all the things he knew, but also what he’d been before going back to the Centre. He seemed to have such a long way to go to get back to that point, to the point where he was able continue to help other people, his family and himself. Right now he had to wonder whether it was really worth the effort.

And there were the physical things he felt. He’d mentally made up a tentative withdrawal program and knew he’d be over almost everything when he went back to the States but there was the next two weeks or so to get through first, at least in as far as the physical side of things went. He knew the other parts - the mental ones - would be more difficult to overcome. And those mostly had to do with the things about Aurora that he found himself missing. The peaceful sleep was just one of a number of benefits, the best of which was the total lack of concern he’d felt every time the drug had been administered.

Suddenly he wanted to feel it again, just once more, right now, so he could have one final night of peaceful, solid sleep to prepare him for whatever was going to happen next. His empty stomach twisted painfully inside him and Jarod sat up, filling the glass and gulping down the water. Staring out of the windows over the grazing land, dotted with big, blurry, white shapes that, in the daylight hours, would reveal themselves as cows, Jarod knew water, at this time, was really the only thing that his stomach was able to cope with. But he also knew that, no matter how uncomfortable it made him feel, the fact that his body could recognize it should be hungry was a positive sign. He knew, too, that that would fade in a few days, and then for a couple of days after that, the sight of food would make him feel just as bad as the mention of it did now.

At the sound of a gentle tapping on his door, Jarod looked up sharply. “Come in.”

“I hope I didn’t wake you.” Lauren closed the door behind her and sat in a chair opposite him as he shook his head.

“I’ve never been a big sleeper.”

“These might help.” She held out a box of tablets. “There’s a sheet with the ingredients included so you can decide if you want to take them or not.”

He warily took them, putting them next to the empty glass. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” She noted the condition of the bed. “If you at least try to sleep at the correct times, you’ll get over jet-lag quicker.”

He nodded silently and she eyed him before speaking again.

“Jarod, you’ve got a few options with all this. Three, to be exact.”

“And they are?”

“First, you can be my pilot, meaning that the only real contact you’ll have with any of the patients will be lifting them in and out of the plane. Second, you can be my assistant. But I need to know if you think you’re up to that. It’s not easy, as you know, and there’s a lot of pressure. You need to work out if you can cope with all of that or not.”

“And the third option?”

“You can stay here in Yarragon for the fortnight - two weeks,” she corrected hurriedly as she saw the look of confusion in his eyes. “I have to be up in Katherine in a few days, but I can always get someone from one of the other offices as my pilot and you can stay here. Mum and Dad are quite happy to have you.”

Jarod stared at his hands for a couple of seconds before looking up at her again. “Do I have to tell you right now?”

“Not at all. I’ve got a few days before I have to report - Thursday to be exact - so provided you tell me before Wednesday night, that’s fine.”

“What did you have planned for tomorrow?”

Lauren smiled. “Well, after as much sleep as you want - and as much as I do - I thought we’d go and give one of our neighbors a hand with the shearing.”

He nodded without really understanding, but didn’t have enough energy to bother asking exactly what she meant. “Will that take all day?”

“Probably not. If it’s still hot, we’ll go for a dip in the creek in the evening. Otherwise I’d guess that some time not doing much will probably be the best thing for both of us.” Lauren hid a yawn. “I’ve been working flat-out for the past few months and I’m looking forward to a lazy couple of days. I’m probably going to be a pretty unexciting hostess.”

“I think I can cope.” He smiled faintly. “Dad would probably say it’s good for me.”

She eyed his pale face. “He might be right.”

* * * * * * * * *

Austin, Texas, USA

Charles filled his mug from the kettle on the stove and sat down, sipping as the hot coffee as the door of the kitchen opened.

“Morning, Da.”

“How’re you feeling, son?”

“Better.” The boy smiled as he got himself a bowl of cereal, adding milk from the jug on the table. After he’d eaten several mouthfuls, Jordan looked up at the man. “What are we doing today?”

“Well, the next load won’t be ready until tomorrow so we’ve got the whole day free.” He grinned at the boy, knowing how popular his suggestion would be. “How about another flying lesson?”

“Sure.” Jordan eagerly scooped up the last of the cereal before picking up an apple from a bowl on the table and biting into it. “And could we go shopping somewhere? I’m out of PEZ.”

Charles laughed. “It being such an emergency, maybe we should do that first.”

The boy grinned as he followed the man from the room. Shrugging on his jacket, Jordan pulled on a helmet and climbed onto the motorbike that stood outside the door, holding on around the older man’s waist as they roared away from the hangar.


Act III

Smith Family Property
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

“Hey, Loz!”

As the two arrived on horseback, they saw a small boy of about four years of age run out of the house, dancing excitedly around them as they dismounted.

“Hi, Shorty.” She hugged the boy. “Where’s your dad?”

“Top paddock. He was hoping you’d come because he wants help rounding up the second flock. Can you go up there now?”

“No worries.” Lauren swung back into the saddle, waiting until Jarod did the same, and pulled the boy up in front of her. “Ready?”

“Sure.”

Wheeling the horse around, she urged it into a gallop, glancing over her shoulder to be sure that Jarod was managing and grinning as she saw how comfortable he was. As they came close to a moving mass on the hillside she waited until he came alongside before handing the boy to him.

“This is always fun. Just sit back and enjoy the show.”

Nodding, Jarod reined in the horse and watched Lauren gallop over to where a number of people were keeping the sheep in a group and constantly moving down to where he could faintly spot a collection of buildings. The boy scrambled off the horse to stand on the fencepost, a wide grin on his face as he yelled encouraging things to those doing the rounding up. Keeping an eye on their actions, Jarod very quickly realized how much skill it took just to keep the sheep under control.

“It looks great, doesn’t it?”

He turned to find the boy watching him and nodded. “It sure does.”

“It’s even more fun in the shearing shed - all the noise and wool flying all over the place and the sheep crying because they’re cold…”

Jarod raised an eyebrow at the last point and the boy laughed. “That’s what Dad told me it was; after the wool’s taken off the sheep, they’re cold and they cry ‘cause they want it back.”

“So that’s shearing, huh?”

“Yup. But they have to get them down there first, and sheep are dumb, so, if they get the leaders moving in the right direction, the others do too.” He nodded at the animals that were beginning to pass them, heading downhill. “You’ll see the leaders. They’re the ones that try to go against what Dad and the others want them to do.”

A perfect metaphor for the Centre, Jarod couldn’t help thinking. It might provide me with a useful present for Cox when I get back, if I can be bothered with that game again.

Keeping an eye on the sheep it was quickly obvious that the boy had been right. Suddenly one of the animals broke away from the others, running towards them. Without stopping to consider, he let Billabong break into a fast canter, directing the horse as he had seen the others do, and headed off the panic-stricken animal before it could get away. Lauren was quickly beside him and they forced the animal to join the rest of the flock.

“Good work, the Yank,” a voice called out from among the other riders and Jarod looked over to see Steve grinning at him. “Your dad never mentioned that you’d done this sort of work before."

“I’m a fast learner,” Jarod smiled. “And I never liked sitting on the sidelines that much.”

“So it would seem.” Lauren looked at him out of the corner of her eye, pleased to see the livelier expression on his face. “As you’re such an expert, maybe we can leave the whole lot to you and be down there waiting.”

“You could be waiting a while,” Mark put in from her other side as they moved the animals further downhill. “And he is only a beginner. Let’s cut the poor Yank some slack, at least for now.”

Laughing, the group continued to direct the animals down towards the shed from where, as they approached, Jarod could hear the sounds of which the boy had given him such an enthusiastic description. Driving the flock into a waiting paddock and firmly closing the gate behind them, the group dismounted and leaned on the fence to watch the animals run around in confusion. Hearing the sounds of panting, they all turned to see the boy running up to them.

“You left me there,” he said accusingly to Jarod and the others burst into loud laughter.

“He was helping, Shorty,” Steve teased, picking up the boy and scrubbing his hair with a fist. “If you’re going to be mean to our Yank, we’ll suggest they shear you as well as the sheep.”

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

“Feeling up to a walk?”

“Sure.” Jarod got up from his seat on the veranda. “This morning wasn’t that bad.”

She grinned. “You know, it must be kind of nice to be able to just watch people work and then just do it all so expertly.”

“In a way, it is.” He shrugged. “But at the same time there are down sides.”

“As there are in everything,” she reminded him. “As much as I love my job, I do still find parts of it that I don’t like.”

“I guess that’s true,” he commented. “But I haven’t really been thinking about that lately.”

“No, I can imagine.” She looked at him curiously. “Why do you help people the way you do?”

Jarod shrugged. “It was just something I always enjoyed doing.”

Lauren’s eyebrows rose into her bangs at the use of the past tense but as her eyes were fixed on the ground they were coving, Jarod didn’t notice and continued.

“I liked the way it felt when I could look at a situation and know that, because of a part I played, it was that much better.”

“Do you honestly expect that to change?” The question was softly put. “Should the things you’ve recently gone through make any difference?”

“I’m… not sure,” he replied hesitantly. “I’d like to think they won’t, but right now I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to that point again.”

For a moment Lauren considered not asking the next obvious question, but felt it too important to ignore. “Have you changed as a person, Jarod, or is it Aurora that’s done all the changing?”

He stopped in his tracks and stared at her. “How did you…?”

“I told you I know some of what you went through. How else,” Lauren asked, her lips curling into a smile, “would I have known what to offer last night?”

Jarod accepted this with a nod and thought over what she’d said. “You may be right about Aurora doing the changing. I don’t think I’ve changed, not all that much anyway.”

“So there’s no reason for you not to get back to that stage.”

“No,” he agreed with a small smile. “I guess there isn’t.”

* * * * * * * * *

Moorabbin Airport, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

Lauren fired the engines and glanced at her co-pilot, the pre-dawn dark outside giving no hint of coming daylight “Ready to go?”

“Sure.”

She nodded and the plane began to move along the runway. Once airborne and level, she turned to him.

“Want to fly?”

He smiled faintly. “If you can trust me with your life.”

Her voice became serious. “I know you were only kidding, Jarod, but I’ll make this point now so you can understand what you’re getting yourself into. This country is the harshest in the world. Australia has the most venomous creepy-crawlies anywhere and out where we’ll be working the days are baking hot while the nights drop below zero regularly. If, in a worst-case scenario, we had to make a crash-landing in those conditions then you’d be trusting me with your life and I’d be trusting you with mine.”

Jarod remained silent as the enormity of what he was undertaking struck him. Looking at Lauren, he saw that she was watching him.

“I know that it’s kind of overwhelming, but out there, it’s the difference between not knowing and knowing that could save your life.”

Jarod nodded. “I understand.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Well, I’m glad you think you do, but I think you should wait and see it before making sweeping generalizations like that.”

* * * * * * * * *

Over Mataranka
Northern Territory, Australia

Many hours later, with the sky shimmering around them and giving a promise of the heat outside, she reluctantly shook him.

“Jarod, wake up. We’re going to be landing soon.”

He muttered inaudibly, turning his head away, and Lauren couldn’t help grinning as she leaned over.

“Hey, Pretender!”

As the words were yelled in his ear, Jarod jumped, his eyelids flying open and his heart pounding as he straightened in his seat.

“Okay, all right, I’m awake. Geez.”

“Just checking.” She laughed and handed him the headphones that had slipped off when he fell asleep. “You might want to listen in. This is fun.”

Jarod placed the black objects over his ears and settled back into his seat, staring out through the windshield.

“Station Victor Tango 81, to confirm. You want five kilos of coffee, eight kilos of sugar and a new part for your gas stove.”

An elderly voice came through. ”I haven’t had a cup of coffee in two weeks.”

Jarod raised an eyebrow, looking over at Lauren. “This isn’t the RFDS channel, surely?”

“No, it’s not. A few years ago, a company got the idea that it’d be good if they offered a shopping service in a similar way to the medical service. It’s kind of like shopping on the net, except that it’s more secure.”

He could hear the crackle of static as the channel was changed and then a more mundane sound of planes being directed for landing and take-off.

“That’s the channel if we’re ever flying and need to land at the airport instead of the base. It does happen sometimes but I’ll let you know if it’s necessary.”

Again the channel changed so he could hear familiar medical terms being discussed. He glanced down at the radio and saw a red cover on one of the preprogrammed buttons before looking up at her.

“So pushing that will get me onto RFDS?”

“Correct.” Lauren grinned at him and waved a hand towards the endless blue expanse in front of them. “So, what do you think of the office, Jarod?”

He looked up, his eyes taking in the view. “Amazing. Just amazing.”

When there was a pause in communication, she activated the radio.

“Tango Lima Foxtrot to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.”

“Loz!” There was no mistaking the enthusiasm in the voice. “How’s life in the big city? Over.”

“Tell you everything when I get in, Joel. Can I get clearance please? Over.”

“Sure thing. You’re right to land. Over.”

“Thanks, Katherine. Over and out.”

Jarod smiled. “You’re popular.”

She laughed. “Joel was on holiday when I left the base for Melbourne and he loves all the gossip from that office.”

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Lauren brought the plane in to land and taxied into position, a short distance from where the white building with a big red cross painted on the roof gleamed in the sunshine.

“You can leave your things with Susie - the receptionist - and we’ll go to the flat - uh, apartment - later.”

“I was wondering about accommodation.”

“I’ve got a spare room that I’m offering you. Normally Paul uses it but, like I said earlier, he’s off in Broken Hill right now and it’s not exactly convenient for him to commute there every day.”

“Why? Jarod glanced at her. “How far is it?”

“In ideal conditions, about six or seven hours flying time.”

His jaw dropped. “No way.”

“Oh yes. And that’s not very far at all, around here.”

She opened the door and they walked into the substantially cooler building.

“Hi, Suze!”

“Loz!” The petite woman ran around from the other side of the desk, her honey-colored hair flying around her face, and hugged the doctor. “I was starting to think you’d bolted with the plane.”

“Yeah, right. As if I would.” Lauren turned. “This is…”

“The Yank.”

Lauren grinned. “Correct.”

“Hi, Jarod. My name’s Susie.”

“It is not. It’s Susannah,” a male voice corrected.

As the secretary laughingly pulled a face at this revelation, Jarod noticed a man standing in the doorway with a broad smile on his black face. Lauren walked over and hugged him. “Hi, Pete. How’s life?”

“Better now my girl’s back.” He turned to the American and held out one hand. “You must be Dr. Shepherd. I’m Pete Tingay.” His grin widened and dark eyes twinkled. “I’m your boss.”

“Glad to meet you.”

“And this is Joel.”

Jarod looked down at the young man who had come out of another office and offered his hand. “Jarod.”

“The Yank.”

Rolling his eyes, Jarod nodded and Lauren laughed. “I said you’d get stuck with it. Blame Steve. He called here a few days ago, after it was decided you were coming, and told everybody.”

“Are you guys going to go straight to the flat or do you want to hang around here for a few more hours until the shift changes?”

“I want to check on a couple of things here, if Jarod doesn’t mind.”

Jarod shrugged. “Not at all.”

He looked up as Susie came over and reached out to take his bag. “Want me to look after it for you?”

“That’d be good. Thanks.”

Pete came over also. “Let me do the honors of the base, Jarod. You might as well know where you’re going.”

* * * * * * * * *

Lauren's Apartment, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Coming out of her bedroom after unpacking the things she’d brought up from Melbourne, Lauren saw Jarod asleep on the sofa in front of the television. For a few moments she stood, looking at him, as her mind replayed a videoconference from almost a week earlier.

“I got the email, Sydney, but I’m not familiar with some of the drug components.”

The psychiatrist looked serious. “But you understand possible implications of combining some of them.”

“Some, yes. But just by looking at the chemical compounds, I can’t fully appreciate the effect that it will have had on him.”

The man sat back in his chair, looking thoughtfully at the screen as the moonlight illuminated his living room. “How much can I trust you, Lauren?”

“Implicitly, Sydney.” The second man spoke softly, his face wearing a worried expression. “I trust her. I know you can too.”

Sydney nodded and leaned forward, activating something on his computer, before sitting back in his chair. “Lauren, I’ve just sent you a file I had Broots retrieve for me. That will show you some of the impact that Aurora’s had.”

Lauren started up the file to see a dark-haired man moving around a room and passively obeying the orders he was given as a woman stood behind him. As she saw the man struck by a heavy-set man in a black suit, the blow sending him to his knees, she flinched, but he stayed there until a second directive had him once more on his feet. She looked back at the two men.

“I understand that he’ll have had a period of detox by the time he arrives.”

Charles nodded, glancing over his shoulder before looking back at the screen. “Yes, he’s going through that now.”

“But, with some of the components, we would still expect withdrawal symptoms to continue after his arrival. Is that correct?”

“Without a doubt, due to the amounts that he was being given,” Sydney told her.

She nodded thoughtfully. “But you think those items on the list you sent me will be sufficient to combat those?”

“Hopefully.”

Lauren raised an eyebrow. “Hopefully?” She leaned in closer. “Please, Sydney. I want to help Jarod, and to help you help him. What else aren’t you telling me?”

Looking down, Lauren saw that Jarod's face was beaded with sweat, in spite of the air conditioner above his head, and that the muscles of his face were taut. For a moment, she watched his eyes flicker under closed lids before he began to shiver violently, rolling onto his side with a soft groan and curling up in such a way that it appeared he would fall off the sofa.

Softly she walked over to the other side of the room and opened a cupboard, pulling out a blanket that she put over him. In the bathroom, Lauren moistened a cloth and returned to the living room to wipe Jarod’s face with it, stroking the side of his head. As he gradually relaxed, without waking, Lauren stood up and returned the cloth to the bathroom before going into the kitchen.

She looked up ten minutes later from a salad she was mixing to see him standing in the doorway. “Hungry?”

“Not really.” He shrugged. “Must be the heat.”

Lauren nodded sympathetically. “It can get a bit much. I’ve sometimes felt that way just coming up from Melbourne and it was awful coming home from the States in December. Very cold winter to baking hot summer. Ugh.” She shuddered with a grin and then looked up at the clock. “Do you feel up to doing anything tonight or do you just want to crash?”

He raised an eyebrow. “To…what?”

She laughed. “To go to bed. You can if you want. Just the flight up here’s enough to wipe you out completely if you’re already a little tired.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all. I’ll leave some of this in the fridge if you feel hungry later on. There’s cold meat and cheese as well. Just help yourself.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“No worries.” She smiled. “Sleep well.”

Jarod lay in bed, his hands tucked in behind his head, staring at the ceiling and hating the thought that he’d lied to her but not willing to admit the truth of how he was feeling. He knew that he could tell her what was wrong and she’d probably be able to provide something that would help him, but he wasn’t used to asking for help and a part of him rebelled against doing it now, even though he knew that it was probably necessary.

He wiped the perspiration off his face with his hand, feeling that the skin was tender to touch, and got up, looking at himself in the mirror. Well, he wasn’t white anymore. In fact, he thought ruefully, but at the same time with slight amusement, a greater contrast between his former blanched look and the roasted appearance he now displayed probably wouldn’t exist anywhere. Glancing down as he turned to go back to bed Jarod saw a tube of cream on the table and picked it up, unfolding the note that had been held around it with an elastic band.

‘Hurts, doesn’t it? I suggest that tomorrow you put on sunscreen more regularly. In the meantime, this will help it fade to a less painful brown in a few days. Ingredients inside. Loz.’

Smothering the urge to laugh, he pulled out the sheet of paper and quickly read through it before undoing the cap on the tube and applying a liberal amount of the cream to his face. A smile still on his face, Jarod got back into bed and rolled onto his side, closing his eyes.

An hour later Lauren opened the door of his room to find him lying in a similar position to the one he had occupied on the sofa. Quietly walking over, she put a bottle of water and another package of tablets on his bedside table, having seen that he had finished the earlier ones, before going to her own room and booting up her laptop. She emptied her glass and refilled it from the jug of iced tea beside her bed before the video call was finally answered.

“Hi, Major.”

“Lauren?” The man yawned and looked at his watch. “Do you want me to tell you what time it is here?”

“I don’t even want you to tell me where you are.” She laughed. “Can you get Sydney online for me too so I can talk to you both at once?”

“I’ll do my best.”

There was a pause of several moments before a second window opened on her computer.

“Good morning, Sydney.”

“Yes, it is.” He tried to hide a yawn.

Lauren’s eyes twinkled with suppressed amusement. “Good or morning?”

“Morning. I don’t know how anything this early could possibly be considered ‘good.'”

Major Charles laughed softly before becoming serious. “How is he, Lauren?”

The woman’s lips thinned. “It seems that he’s getting over the insomnia but, as we knew it would, that’s leading to more problems.”

Sydney looked concerned. “Such as?”

“Tremors, cramps, nausea, loss of appetite; a standard list for withdrawal but with the addition of the nightmares and his desire for Aurora, particularly as there’s nothing to take the edge of those cravings, such as a drug similar to Methadone -- not to mention his emotionally ‘flat’ state, although that is gradually improving. It’s all exacerbated somewhat, of course.”

“So what are you doing about it?”

“Giving him the medication we came up with, but there's not a lot more that can be done. I do know he’s using the drug he created in 1968 as well.” Lauren leaned back with a sigh. “But apart from that there’s nothing. As we know, the only cure for this is time. Hard work, distraction, and time.”

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Jarod came out into the hangar to find Lauren checking over the machine in which they’d arrived the day before. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Just the person I want. Come and learn about the parts of the plane.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that a little necessary before a person can fly?”

“Not unless you’ve always flown air ambulances,” Lauren retorted with a grin.

“Okay, good point.”

Climbing the three stairs, Jarod stared around at the altered interior. “Where was it all before?”

“Here at the base. We don’t fly around with thousands of dollars worth of equipment when we’re not working in case the plane gets stolen or crashes or something.”

Nodding, he looked around more closely. “It looks like a large ambulance.”

“That’s a pretty accurate description, although most ambulances don’t have kitchens in the back.” She opened a door to reveal a space containing an urn and a tiny electric hotplate. “Sometimes being able to provide coffee to a frantic parent is as important as providing medicine to an injured patient.”

“How many can you carry at once?”

“Maximum four patients and no passengers, two patients and four passengers, one patient and up to six passengers, or a neonatal unit and three passengers. But I have got away with more, although they were nearly all kids.” She jumped out of the plane and he followed.

“More patients or passengers?”

“Both. I was carrying four injured children, three uninjured and two teachers.”

Jarod’s eyes widened with curiosity. “What happened?”

“Fire at a school. It was a little crazy. Fun, though.”

“I’ll bet.” He leaned against the plane wall, his arms folded. “What does Joel do? Is he a doctor as well?”

Lauren looked up from filling the fuel tank. ”Yes he is, but he stays here and does all of the radio communication. It’s tough for a guy in a wheelchair to fly around.”

“And what happened to him?”

She grinned. “He had polio.”

“Polio?” He stared. “Here?”

“Australia’s had a terrible time with polio and a lot of other diseases, particularly for the people out here who couldn’t get medical attention so easily.”

He nodded. “I’m beginning to realize that.”

“I thought you would - and also that it would take some time.” She looked up as a figure could be seen at the window, waving at them. “Well, let’s find out where we’re headed.”

* * * * * * * * *

Over Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Jarod eyed Lauren as the plane leveled. “So where are we going, exactly? And don’t tell me the name again. It doesn’t help. Describe the directions.”

She grinned at his sharp tones. “We’re going to a small cattle station a few hours north of here.”

“What’s small?”

“Roughly two hundred head.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t count that as small.”

“For most people around here, that’s a hobby farm. A number in the thousands is more common, especially when you’ve got a station the size of a country like, say, France.”

She grinned, watching Jarod choke on the water he had just started to drink.

“Hey, no dying on me. You’ve got a job to do here, remember.”

He laughed. “And the patient?”

She handed him a clipboard, to which was attached several sheets of paper. “It’s an old patient of mine, and I mean that literally. He lives with his daughter on their station and occasionally tries to do too much. The drugs he sometimes needs aren’t in the RFDS kit. On the unlikely chance that we bring him with us, I’ll get you to fly back.”

“No problem.”

She grinned at him. “Even without the accent, it’s obvious you aren’t Australian.”

“Why?”

“Most people here say ‘no worries’ and not ‘no problem.'”

“What’s the difference?”

“‘No problem’ means there isn’t and it’ll get done, guaranteed. ‘No worries’ means that it might get done whenever the person can find time and inclination.”

He grinned. “I’ll stick with what I know. Thanks anyway.”

* * * * * * * * *

Near Burrundie
Northern Territory, Australia

“Is it my imagination or is it hotter than it was when we arrived?” Jarod wiped the sweat from his face and then replaced his hat, swinging up into the saddle of his horse.

Lauren laughed. “No, it should actually be a little cooler. Evening’s coming.” The doctor mounted her horse. “Thirsty?”

“I feel like there’s a drought in my throat.”

She unclipped the water bottle from her waist, tossing it to him. “Sip it. If you gulp it, your thirst will only increase.”

Jarod raised one eyebrow but did as he was told. “The things you learn when you’re thousands of miles from what you know.”

She caught the bottle as he threw it back, replacing it on her hip. “Ready?”

“Yup.”

They urged the horses into a canter and, almost half an hour later, returned to the small airfield at which the plane was waiting. When they were back in the air, Jarod turned to her.

“I’m starting to see why you like it so much.”

She nodded with a smile. “And it only gets better.”

“Tango Lima Foxtrot, come in. Over.”

Lauren activated the radio. “This is Tango Lima Foxtrot. What’s up Joel? Over.”

“Are you currently carrying a patient? Over.”

“Negative, Katherine. He was stable when we left. Over.”

“Good. Do you have fuel to get to Batchelor and then on to Darwin? Over.”

Lauren glanced at the fuel gauge and then at a list on the wall. “Affirmative, Katherine. Over.”

“Good. You’re wanted on station Charlie Delta 42. Over.”

“Joel… is it Henri? Over.”

There was a moment of silence. “Yes, Loz. Her dad just called. Over.”

“Okay, Katherine. We’re on the way. Over and out.”


Act IV

Near Burrundie
Northern Territory, Australia

“Damn!” She stared out of the windshield in front of them for a moment. “Handing over.”

“Taking over,” Jarod responded automatically and placed both his hands on the yoke, his eyes running over the instruments as Lauren rose from her seat and walked to the back of the plane. Despite the closed door he could hear her take several deep breaths before she came back to her seat.

“I’m sorry, Jarod. It’s just that sometimes this job bloody well stinks.”

“It’s okay,” he replied softly, not looking at her. “I know the feeling.”

“Taking over.”

“Handing over.” He removed his hands from the yoke. “I hate to have to ask, but could you fill me in?”

Lauren sighed deeply. “We’re going to see a little girl called Henrietta Faraday. She’s got juvenile diabetes. And if we’re being called in then she’s a very sick girl indeed.”

“You know her well?”

“Yes, I know both she and her dad very well. She’s a gorgeous kid - you’ll love her. And as we’re taking her to Darwin you’ll get plenty of time to get to know her, provided she’s conscious.”

* * * * * * * * *

Station CD42
Northern Territory, Australia

“Hi, Dave.” Lauren jumped out of the plane without lowering the stairs and Jarod did the same. “How is she?”

“Bad, Dr. Taylor. You know that.” The man looked up. “Who’s this?”

“Jarod Shepherd. He’s filling in while Paul works at a hospital near Broken Hill.”

“I’m glad to meet you, Dr. Shepherd.”

Jarod returned the greeting, seeing the sadness in the man’s eyes and feeling immediately sorry for him. The three walked towards the house, in front of which Lauren had parked the plane. As they entered, a small girl on a sofa slowly raised her head, red curls lying limply on the pillow and pain evident on her face. Jarod glanced around the room and saw the official RFDS bag open on the floor.

“Hi, Dr. Taylor.”

Her voice was almost inaudible but Lauren forced a smile, walking over to kneel beside the child and reaching into the bag with practiced ease, pulling out the thermometer.

“Couldn’t go another month without seeing me, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, sweetie. Just relax and keep that under your tongue for me.”

She picked up the girl’s wrist and rapidly timed her pulse before glancing up at Jarod and Dave. A small nod and the girl’s father left the room. She took the instrument from the girl’s mouth, looked at it, got up and walked over to her partner.

“Get the bed ready in the plane, will you? We’re definitely taking her with us today.”

She held up the thermometer so he could read it and as Jarod's mind instantly did the conversion his lips pursed into a soundless whistle. 42.7 degrees Celsius - 109 degrees Fahrenheit. This was indeed a very sick little girl.

* * * * * * * * *

Over Kakadu National Park
Northern Territory, Australia

“Jarod, are you okay up here?”

He glanced over his shoulder as she opened the door to the cockpit. “Fine.”

“How much longer?”

“ETA, twenty minutes.”

Lauren slipped into the seat beside him and he looked over as she put on the headphones and activated the radio.

“Tango Lima Foxtrot to Darwin Base Hospital. Can you read me Darwin? Over.”

“Loud and clear, Tango Lima Foxtrot. What’s up, Lauren? Over.”

“I’ve got Henrietta Faraday on board. Request an ambulance to meet us at the runway in ETA twenty minutes. Over.”

“Received, Tango Lima Foxtrot. Will do. Over and out.”

She looked over at him and half-removed the headphones. “If you don’t mind, I’ll land. Can you go back there and keep an eye on her?”

“Sure thing. Handing over.”

“Taking over.” She glanced up. “Thanks, Jarod.”

He smiled and went through the doorway, softly shutting the door behind him.

* * * * * * * * *

Darwin Airport
Northern Territory, Australia

They watched the ambulance pull away from beside the plane, lights and sirens alerting people to their hurry, and then Lauren sighed, turning to Jarod.

“I don’t know about you, but I could do with a drink. A big one. And we’ve still got some time while they refuel.”

“Sounds good.”

The two of them walked slowly toward the collection of buildings that made up Darwin Airport and Lauren led the way into the bar.

“Well, if it isn’t the Cough-Drop Deserter. What brings you into town?”

Lauren sat down on a stool at the bar, grinning. “You reckon, if I gave you a go, you might be able to guess for yourself, you great nong?”

The barman grinned back at her and began pulling the beer. “And you’ve even got yourself a new partner. Foreigner, too.”

Jarod stared. “How did you know?”

“The skin, the hair and the accent, mate. You work it out.”

He laughed and put two brimming glasses on the bar in front of them, shooting the woman a look of mock-hurt as she pretended to offer him money, before going to the far end of the bar where a group of men were discussing the cricket that was being shown on a television in the corner.

“Who’s winning?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions, Cough-Drop, you drongo. We are, of course.”

She laughed and continued to drink her beer.

He sipped at the lager, waiting for the same tastelessness he had experienced over the last few weeks every time he ate or drank something. Jarod was stunned, as the first mouthful of icy-cold beer slid down his throat, to find that he was actually getting the full flavor of the drink. Staring at the glass incredulously he enthusiastically took another sip, delighted to find that it wasn’t a one-time thing. His action meant that he missed the look Lauren shot in his direction and the smile on her face as she realized what was happening. Eventually Jarod turned to her, another part of his mind still being exercised by what he’d heard.

“You going to explain that to me?”

“What, you couldn’t work it all out for yourself? And I gave you such an extensive lesson in Strine, too. Oh that’s right, you fell asleep in the middle of it.” She grinned and drank a mouthful of the foaming ale.

“In what?” Over the rim of his glass, he stared at her.

“Strine. Short for Australian Slang.”

“And what did he call you?”

“The Cough-Drop Deserter. My nickname being Loz, that’s easily lengthened to Lozenge, which is what both Mark and Paul call me. It’s not a very big step from lozenge to cough drop. And, as you know, I haven’t been around here for nearly two months, hence ‘deserter.’” She grinned. “As for you being foreign, despite the fact that you’ve been here for nearly a week, you’re still pretty pale, at least by Top End standards.”

Jarod glanced around the bar at the darkly tanned, dusty patrons and was forced to agree with her.

“And what’s a… nong?”

Lauren tried not to laugh and nearly choked. “I love the way you say that! A nong is an idiot, a complete fool. One of our politicians said it in Parliament a few years ago and a lot of people picked it up. And a drongo’s the same.” She looked from her nearly empty glass to his half-one. “Get a move on. We want to get home before dark.”

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

“Hey, Loz, you nearly missed the snake man!”

“What?!” She jumped down from the plane as Susie ran up. “Bruce is here again?”

“Yup. Get a wriggle on. We told him you were coming.” She turned and ran back to the building through the increasingly darkness as Lauren looked up.

“Hurry up, Jarod. This is one person you have to see.”

Raising an eyebrow, he jumped down after her. “Did Susie say ‘snake man?'”

“She did,” Lauren called over her shoulder. “Bruce is a lunatic - but a lot of fun!”

He hurried behind her into the building, stopping short as he saw a man standing in the foyer with a snake’s body, the diameter of which Jarod mentally calculated had to be at least five times the size of his wrist, draped around his neck.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Loz.”

“I should hope you would.”

Jarod noticed that both spoke softly and he saw that Lauren was cradling a long snake’s body in both hands as its head quietly began to investigate the inside of her shirt.

“Hey, stop it, Beauty. That tickles.” She looked over at Jarod, the hint of a smile on her face. “Can you give me a hand?”

“Applause, yeah. But I’m not putting so much as a finger anywhere near…”

“Oh, come on, Jarod. It’s a python. It won’t bite you.”

Not at all reassured, Jarod edged nervously closer, holding out both arms, onto which she slid the body of the fifteen-foot python before running her hand down its neck to retrieve the snake’s head from almost under her arm.

“Thanks.”

She took it back and let the python drape itself over her shoulders in the same way that the larger snake was around Bruce as Jarod looked on, wide-eyed.

“Does the Yank want to hold one?”

“It’s fine.” He raised both hands and took a step back. “I’ll just watch.”

“No, you won’t,” Lauren told him firmly. “Your Dad told me to immerse you in the local culture and this is good immersion.” She looked over at the other man. “Bruce, give him the diamond python.”

As the snake was draped over his arms, Jarod realized he had been too busy watching Lauren to properly feel the other reptile in his arms. He ran one hand along its body and was amazed to find that it was both cool and smooth, despite the scaly appearance of the skin. He now felt his earlier nervousness slowly being replaced by more familiar fascination at this new experience.

The snake man stood in front of him. “Don’t let it wrap itself completely around you or you could find yourself being a little too lovingly embraced, but otherwise just let it explore.”

Jarod nodded, feeling as the snake ran its forked tongue over his hand and grinning at the ticklish sensation, still trying to relax as the body of the reptile moved around him. As he kept one eye on the direction in which the snake’s head was traveling, Jarod recalled all of the information he had ever learned about this particular animal. As he became more used to the feel of the snake around him, Jarod looked up at the man who stood watching him.

“Have you been doing this long?”

“Twenty-three years. I breed them to farm the venom that can be made into antivenin so doctors like you can help people who are either stupid or unlucky enough to get bitten.”

“And have you ever been bitten?”

“By pythons, a lot. That usually isn’t a problem because their preferred method of killing their prey isn’t to inject it with enough toxin deadly enough to kill several fully-grown men. They far prefer to squeeze it to death. Not that it doesn’t hurt like buggery if they sink their teeth into you - you just know that you won’t die as a result of it. Usually.”

Bruce grinned in a way that Jarod couldn’t help thinking was more than a little foolhardy.

“I once got bitten by a western brown snake. Nasty little blighter. Hurt like the very devil, that one. Luckily I had a snakebite kit and a good friend handy.”

He eyed the American somewhat severely.

“And that’s a good piece of advice. Those two things in that order are what will save your life if you’re foolish enough to play with them.”

* * * * * * * * *

Lauren's Apartment, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

“You have weird friends.”

Lauren grinned from her seat opposite as they sat enjoying their midday break in the coolness of her apartment the following day.

“Bruce? I guess he is a little eccentric, but without him and other people like him, we’d never have managed to develop the wide range of antivenins that we’ve got in Australia today. If it weren’t for that, hundreds more people would have died of snakebite. Since the mid-eighties, though, when antivenins first became available, not many have.”

“But how can you… do that?” He gave a mock shudder and she grinned.

“The snakes we handled were ones he’s had since they hatched. They’re used to being touched, not that they don’t get a little nasty sometimes. But Bruce brings them to schools and places like that to teach the kids about them.”

“And the parents don’t mind?”

“Of course not. Out here, the kids have been living around snakes for their whole entire lives and a bit of knowledge can go a long way. About two years ago, one of my patients was a boy who’d been bitten by a death adder. He’d have been dead by the time we arrived, except that he and his friend knew what to do about bandaging the site and keeping calm. Both boys told me that Bruce had shown them when he visited their school.” Lauren gave a shrug, reaching over to pick up her glass “As I said, a little knowledge is a useful thing to have.”

“But… they wouldn’t eat people?”

Lauren grinned. “Well, a python is able to eventually consume an object of up to 68 kilos - 150 pounds.” She saw the alarm in his eyes and laughed. “But they don’t do it too often because of the energy required to swallow and digest something so large. Besides,” Lauren looked him up and down, a teasing light in her eyes. “You have got to weigh more than 68 kilos.”

* * * * * * * * *

Lauren put the plate down in front of him and took her seat opposite, watching Jarod eye the food that she had prepared for lunch.

“At least have a bit.”

“I… I’m not all that hungry.”

“Just try it.” Lauren picked up the salad servers to put some of the leafy green vegetables on her plate. “You don’t have to have much, but you’ve got to eat something.”

“Yes, Doctor,” he muttered and she laughed.

“If I hadn’t detected the faintest notes of sarcasm in there, I’d be pleased how easily persuadable you are.”

Smiling faintly, he cut off a piece of cold roast chicken and put it into his mouth. His eyes widened slightly as, the way it had in the bar, the full flavor seemed to hit him, and his next mouthful was a lot more enthusiastic. Looking up, he saw Lauren watching him with a small smile on her face and the grin widened.

“You knew, huh?”

“It was just a guess.”

“Uh huh.” He nodded skeptically and she laughed.

“If you don’t believe me, why ask?”

Without answering, he took up the salad servers and pointed to the crisp, green leaves.

“What’s this?”

“Lettuce.”

“Well, ‘let us’ try some then.”

She groaned, rolling her eyes. “I thought I escaped from puns like that when Paul went to Broken Hill.” Lauren watched him serve himself some of the salad and place several pieces of cheese on his plate. “At least there’s nothing you can say about that.”

Jarod eyed the package from which squares of cheese had been cut, attempting to suppress his amusement. “Gouda-ness me, I don’t know,” he replied as, his eyes twinkling, he glanced at her. “Maybe I can come up with something.”

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

“Hey, Loz, you and the Yank coming to the barbie this evening?”

“Only if you’re not cooking, Joel,” Lauren teased from her desk as she wrote a report. “I like snags, not sticks of charcoal.”

“Oh, thanks,” he remarked, trying to sound offended. “Just because we had to think about calling the fire brigade last time…”

“We’ll both be there and I’ll take over if it seems like they’re flaming a little bit too enthusiastically.”

“I’ll bring the fire extinguisher,” Susie joked from the doorway.

“And I’ll hook up the pump from the pool,” Pete put in with a laugh. “Just to be on the safe side of course.”

“Are we swimming?”

“No, Loz, we’re walking on the water,” Joel commented drily. “It’s a skill we’ve all been working on while you were down south.”

“Just checking.” She glanced at Jarod. “You did bring bathers, right?”

He raised an eyebrow questioningly and she quickly amended her sentence.

“Swimming trunks of some description.”

“Yeah.”

“Good.” She scribbled the last word on the report, pushing it aside. “What time are we gathering there?”

“Six. Beer and snags provided. BYO everything else.”

* * * * * * * * *

Pete Tingay's house, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Jarod could smell the cooking meat as they neared the house and looked over at Lauren. “So that’s a ‘barbie’, huh?”

“That’s right.” She laughed. “I should have bought you a Strine-American dictionary.”

“Oh, I’m managing.” He eyed the bags they were carrying. “Is this sort of thing usual?”

“Very. A backyard barbie - barbeque - is a great Aussie tradition.”

Jarod glanced at his watch. “So if we were meeting at six, why is it now seven and we’re still not there?”

“Another Australian tradition,” she laughed. “Being fashionably late. And I bet we won’t be the last people to arrive either.”

“I’m still curious - what’s a ‘snag?'”

“Another name for a sausage,” she told him with a grin. “And that, wrapped in a bit of white bread and slathered with tomato sauce is probably as close as we get to a national dish in Australia.”

“Seems like a funny sort of dish.”

“We’re a funny sort of country,” she told him laughingly. “But no funnier than you mob over there.”

“Thanks!” He tried to look offended but eventually grinned. “I guess that every country has its own quirks.”

She looked at him in mock-surprise. “How very deep and meaningful. Maybe you don’t deserve to be pushed into the pool, the way we were planning to, after all.”

Walking into the back garden, Jarod saw his boss standing in front of a large brick structure with a black metal sheet, on which were cooking sausages and hamburger patties. A large red bottle of what he assumed was ketchup stood to one side, as well as several bags of bread. Lauren led the way over to him.

“Where should I stick the drinks?”

“In the Esky.”

Pete nodded at a brightly colored plastic box and Jarod watched Lauren open the lid to put in the bottles among the ice cubes and water. As she finished, Susie looked over from where she sat at the table among a group of people that Jarod had been introduced to the day before.

“Hey Loz, we’ve got the possible list of starters for the big one in November. Will you give us your deeply considered and presumably painfully accurate opinion on the winner for this year?”

As the woman laughed and went to join them, Jarod walked over to where Joel sat by the edge of the pool and pulled up a seat beside the wheelchair.

“What’s that about?” He nodded over to where the group was pointing at a list on a sheet of paper and the younger man laughed, his brown eyes twinkling.

“Ever heard of the Melbourne Cup?”

Jarod half-smiled. “Would it surprise you if I said ‘no?'”

“No.” Joel grinned. “It’s a horse-race held every first Tuesday in November, down south.”

“In Melbourne?”

“How did you guess?” The man laughed. “Exactly. If you’re still around then, I’m sure Loz’ll take you.”

“I’ll see,” he commented noncommittally. “So you’ve got a list of horses already?”

“Not officially, but the Spring Racing Carnival started a couple of weeks ago and people generally work out who’ll be running on the big day from that.”

“And why should Lauren know?”

Joel laughed. “Three years ago, they were doing that and she wandered over, put a finger on one of the names and said ‘that’s going to win.' Everybody just fell about laughing and then two weeks later…”

“It did.”

“Exactly. She’s done it every year. It’s freaky.”

“Maybe she’s psychic,” Jarod suggested with a smile.

“Only about horses,” Lauren remarked, coming up behind them and sitting down in front of Jarod so that her bare legs dangled in the water. “Or maybe just that race.”

About half an hour later, hearing a sudden shriek, Jarod turned from a discussion he was having with Susie about Australian versus American culture to see Lauren picked up from where she sat beside the pool. Grinning, he watched Pete pull off the woman’s sarong and, ignoring her shrieks and wriggling, he and the three others tossed her into the pool. The amusement in his eyes didn’t go unnoticed by the woman sitting beside him.

“This is a little different from what you’re used to, huh?”

“It certainly seems more casual,” Jarod responded carefully. “I can’t imagine anybody I’ve worked for in the States inviting their workers to their house for dinner and tossing them in the pool.”

“Jarod!”

He turned at the sound of his name to see Lauren with her arms resting on the terracotta tiles that surrounded the pool as water streamed from her hair. “Are you coming in, or will you just sit there like a bump on a log?”

“Sure.”

He slipped off the footwear Lauren had lent him - bizarrely called ‘thongs’ - and, peeling off his t-shirt, neatly dived over her head into the clear water. As he swam with powerful strokes along the bottom of the pool, Jarod couldn’t help enjoying the feeling of quick, smooth motion.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Joel pronounced loudly as Jarod broke the surface at the other end. “We have an expert.”

“We still beat the living daylights out of them in general though,” Susie commented from her seat, “even if they do have a few good swimmers.”

“And so we should,” Joel responded. “ I mean, any nation where the football players have to wear helmets…” He rolled his eyes and shook his head as if to suggest that the sentence wasn’t even worth finishing and Jarod glanced at Lauren questioningly as she swam up beside him.

“When we get back to Melbourne,” she promised, “I’ll take you to a footy game.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Should I be scared or grateful?”

“It’s contained mayhem,” Pete remarked from his seat on the edge of the pool. “And it’s more fun if you don’t understand the rules than if you do.”

“Just because you’ve never tried to,” Lauren responded quickly, her eyes full of laughter as she saw the group of men sneaking up behind the Aborigine. With a quick move, she grabbed Jarod's hand and pulled him away as, amid gales of laughter, their boss was pushed into the deep, blue water.


Act V

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

“Katherine RFDS to Darwin Base Hospital. Come in Darwin. Over.”

Jarod leaned against the doorframe of the office, his arms folded, as Lauren spoke on the radio.

“Go ahead, Katherine. Over.”

“This is Dr. Taylor. I wanted to know the condition of patient Henrietta Faraday. Over.”

“Just a moment, Katherine. Over.”

Lauren leaned forward, her fingers tapping impatiently on the table in front of her.

“Are you there, Katherine? Over.”

“Yes, Darwin. Go ahead. Over.”

“Hi, Loz. It’s Ruth. Henri had a good night’s sleep and is improving by leaps and bounds, the way she generally does. We’ll be sending her home soon, within a few days anyway. Over.”

Lauren grinned and sighed with relief. “Thanks, Ruth. I really appreciate it. Over.”

“Hey, we appreciate everything you do for that kid, too. Now stop clogging up our radio. Over and out.”

Lauren put down the radio with a laugh. “Well, I guess I’ve been told.” She turned to Joel as he entered. “Did you hear that?”

“I sure did.” He grinned as he took his usual place at the desk. “And it’s not many people who can tell you off!”

“It’s so nice to have friends.” She picked up a piece of paper from the desk. “Is this from the folks at the Weather Bureau?”

“Yup. Latest forecast from 0800 this morning.”

She scanned the words and symbols, her lips pursed. “We’d better hope that front keeps going. I don’t want to have to try flying through it.”

In her office, she sat in the chair behind her desk, her eyes fixed blankly on a point about Jarod's head. He waved a hand and she blinked, laughing.

“Sorry, miles away.”

He smiled. “Why do you calculate distance in kilometers but have a figure of speech in a non-metric calculation?”

“Do you know,” she looked up at him in astonishment. “I have no idea. Just one of those things, I guess. But now that you mention it, it is kind of weird.” Her eyes brightened and she looked at her watch. “What say we see if your Dad’s available?”

“What, now?”

“Why not? It’s ten now, so depending on exactly where they are, it’s should be about four o’clock in the afternoon yesterday there. He might be online.” She booted up her laptop, ensuring that the camera was firmly attached, and then got out of her seat so that Jarod could sit in it. Rapidly the program started and just as quickly a familiar figure appeared on the screen.

“Jarod?”

“Hey, Dad.” He grinned. “How’s life?”

“Better now.” The father looked anxiously at his son. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Stop worrying about me.” Jarod pushed back the hat that like everyone else he was now used to wearing indoors and allowed his father a glimpse of his tanned face. “See? Told you.”

The man nodded. “Jordan wants to say hi.”

Jarod waited until the boy appeared on screen and grinned at him. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m good but I’m jealous.”

“Oh?” Jarod raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“You look so… relaxed!”

“Hey,” the pretender protested, laughing. “I’m working!”

“Doing what?”

“Flying all day over one of the nicest places on earth.” He glanced at Lauren out of the corner of his eye and watched her grin.

“That’s not fair!”

Jarod heard the sound of his father’s laughter in the background. “That’s why I didn’t tell you what he was going to be doing, Jordan.” Charles reappeared on the screen. “Is Lauren there?”

“Hi, Major.” She moved into shot behind Jarod. “It’s good to see you again. And Jordan, it’s good to meet you. Jarod's told me a lot about you.”

Jarod looked up. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee. Want one?”

“Commit murder for one. Strong, black and no sugar.”

He shuddered, a look of disgust on his face. “You’re the boss.”

Lauren looked down at the screen as he left the room. “Just a sec.”

Major Charles nodded and she got up to shut the door. Coming back, she could see the look of concern in his eyes and hastened to ease it.

“Sir, your son really is getting better!”

“Have there been any further problems with the withdrawal?”

“A few, but nothing huge - some tremors and a little nausea, but only when he’s tired, as we both are at the end of the day. I’m keeping a close eye on it, but I really think he’d got over the worst by the first night up here, as I told you before. He’s also giving himself the drug you used during the detox session and it appears to be counteracting the withdrawal well.”

He nodded slowly and she leaned forward.

“Major, I’m not going to keep secrets from you. Like I said a couple of days ago, lots of hard work and distraction are the best things for him right now. The work we’re doing, and the fact that only normal pressures are involved in it instead of his old trick of trying to bring someone to justice, are helping more than any magic pill or potion that I can make for him. You know as well as I do that most of the problem, once he got out of that place, was as much mental as physical. Hard work, fresh air and interaction with some of the crazier members of the Aussie population are the most likely things to heal that mind.”

The tension began to leave Major Charles’ face. She continued.

“When Jarod first arrived he was twitchy as a two-day-old lamb, and silent to boot. Now while he’s still a little quieter than I imagine he may have been before, he’s able to join in conversations and jokes as well as perform well the work he’s here to do. Oh yes, and then,” she added as she saw the door opening, “there’s that little habit of snake-handling he’s picked up.”

“He - what?!”

Jarod came back into shot and placed the coffee in front of Lauren who got up so that he could sit in front of the screen again with a laugh.

“It’s okay, Dad. That was just the one time. Looking back, though, it was kind of fun."

“Lauren, I thought you were taking care of him for me!”

“They were only pythons, Major. And there were four doctors with kits chock full of antivenin, just in case.”

“Well, that makes me feel a lot better!”

Laughing, Lauren swallowed the last of her coffee, looking up as Susie appeared in the doorway. She took the folder and glanced at Jarod who nodded before turning back to his father. “Sorry, gotta go. Duty calls.”

Major Charles smiled. “Enjoy yourself, son.”

“I will, Dad. Thanks!”

* * * * * * * * *

Near Birdum
Northern Territory, Australia

Lauren flipped through the pages in front of her, then reached down to pick up a map, unfolding it.

“Jarod?”

He glanced over and she placed a finger on the map. “Here’s our destination. Newcastle Waters. You’ll get to see the effects of snakebite at close range.” She shook her head, a look of disbelief on her face. “God, some people are stupid.”

“And then?”

“Tennant Creek. It’s the nearest hospital. We’ll refuel there and head back to Katherine.”

She reached into the pocket behind his seat for two white kits. Opening the first, Lauren showed him that it held a number of small bottles, a few pipettes and a syringe. With a laugh she took out a small bundle that unfolded into a large sheet covered in small print.

“Instructions for finding out what type of snake sank its fangs into you. Want to try and read it first time around in a panic?”

Jarod grinned. “Is it all necessary?”

“Vital. Luckily I know it all already and I’ll teach you as we go along - unless you feel like speed-reading it now!”

As he laughed and shook his head, she did up the first case and slipped it into her pocket. Pulling out the second, she flipped it open it to reveal a number of glass vials and several syringes.

“This is a standard pack of antivenin. There’s doses here for every snake in Australia.”

“Surely some snakes are only located in certain areas.”

“That’s true. But, we never know where we’ll get called to and, as you don’t want to have to make state-specific kits, it’s easier to do this. Besides, the buggers do migrate.”

He nodded and, half an hour later, the chopper began to make its descent.

* * * * * * * * *

Over Tennant Creek
Northern Territory, Australia

“Okay, now I get why knowing is such a good idea.”

Lauren grinned as the helicopter took off. “I bet you do.” She snorted. “‘We only wanted to make sure that it was dead’. Great. Well, I’m glad that they were able to be so easily convinced that it wasn’t.”

Jarod laughed. “And will he be okay?”

“In a few days, yes. If we’d been another 30 minutes he might have had some difficulties, but we weren’t. He won’t be very comfortable for the next couple of hours, but that’s his own stupid fault.”

After a silence of several minutes, she reached forward and picked up the radio handset.

“Tango Charlie Delta to the Bureau of Meteorology. Come in. Over.”

“Go ahead, Tango Charlie Delta. Over.”

“I just wanted to check on the condition of that front you notified Katherine RFDS of, at 0800 this morning. Over.”

“It’s moved 100k’s south, Tango Charlie Delta. But…”

There was a burst of static and Lauren raised her eyebrows.

“Darwin, can you repeat that? Over.”

The static continued.

“Darwin, we’ve lost you. Can you still hear us? Over.”

After another few minutes of static, she reached forward, pressing the red button. “Tango Charlie Delta to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.”

There was nothing but more static and Jarod looked over at her.

“What is it?”

“At a guess, bad weather between us and there. We can set down and wait until it passes or keep going and try to get closer.” She glanced through the window to the red-brown earth that seemed to stretch out endlessly below them.

“How long could that last?”

“It could be anything from a few hours to a day or more especially at this time of year, coming into the rainy season.”

“And what do you want to do?”

Lauren reached forward and tried several other combinations on the radio but heard nothing and then glanced at the dial showing the level in the fuel tank. “We’ve got enough fuel to get us closer but I was trying to fly straight back so we won’t go over any towns between here and Katherine.”

“Stations?”

“We can hope, but I doubt it.”

Jarod watched out of the corner of his eye as she pulled out the map again and started to study it earnestly.

“Nope, nothing. Nearest house is more than three hours away. We’ll head for it and hope to get a shelter of sorts there. If we set down here and now, we could be in all sorts of trouble.”

Having handed over to Lauren, Jarod watched as the wind began to pick up strength. As a funnel of wind developed on the ground away to their right, he looked at the pilot.

“What’s that?”

“Willy-willy. Miniature tornado.”

She steered the helicopter away from it, keeping a firm eye on the direction they were flying. The sky had been clear and blue only moments earlier but was now amassing clouds to the west and that, Jarod noticed with a feeling of disquiet, was almost exactly the direction in which they were flying. A violent gust of wind swung the helicopter’s tail around so they were suddenly facing a different direction altogether, and he watched Lauren fight to control the machine that was now bucking as the wind strengthened.

“Are you going to land?”

“Too dangerous,” she replied shortly.

“What?” He looked around. “How can it be?”

“There’s lots of hot up-draughts coming up from the ground due to the hot weather. With the cool down-draughts pushing us towards earth, we’d get caught in-between when we tried to land and probably crash.”

“So we keep flying?”

She focused her eyes on the ground, ignoring the compass as it spun in circles while the machine was tossed first one way and then another.

“I’m hoping to find a nice, soft ridge where there might be enough protection to enable us to put down.”

Jarod raised an eyebrow. “A ‘nice, soft’ ridge? Out here?” He looked through the windscreen.

She glanced at him out the corner of her eye and grinned. “Start praying, Jarod.”

* * * * * * * * *

Over Somewhere
Northern Territory, Australia

“This,” Lauren remarked between gritted teeth, “was not exactly what your Dad had in mind when he suggested a vacation.”

Her eyes picked out a spot of shadow on the ground with a natural windbreak of trees and, in her mind, Lauren calculated their chance of survival. Not great, but better than if they’d had to land on open ground, as far as landing fairly safely went anyway. She decided to worry about what they’d do after that had happened once it had.

“We’re going to land there.” She pointed and he looked down. “I hope you don’t get seasick.”

“There’s a first time for everything.”

The helicopter began a slow descent, swinging like a pendulum from side to side as it was caught in an up-draught and then a down-draught. Jarod put up a hand, hanging on to the handle above the door, checking that his seatbelt was secure. As they sank lower in the direction of the ground the swinging increased until there were times that the machine was almost on its side.

“Hold on. Nearly there.”

Jarod glanced over in time to see her left arm torn from the jerking yoke and slam into the wall of the helicopter, blood beginning to pour from it immediately.

“Lauren?”

“Not now.”

He realized that in the tension of the moment, she probably hadn’t even felt it and looked down to see the ground only a short distance below them. As they had nearly reached it, a gust picked up the machine, lifted it twenty feet in the air and dumped it onto the red soil. There was a second of silence before she spoke and Lauren’s voice was calm.

“Get out.”

“What?” Jarod stared at her in disbelief.

“Get out now.”

Without looking at him, she reached forward and began to flick the switches, undoing her seatbelt with her injured arm and ignoring the blood that was quickly reddening the floor of the helicopter.

“But…”

Her voice was sharp but she still didn’t look at him. “Jarod, as your superior I order you out of this helicopter and at least fifty metres away from it. Now.”

Although one part of him wanted to protest, another, larger part still appeared to be in the habit of instant obedience to which Aurora had brought him. Despite the anxiety he felt, Jarod undid his seatbelt, jumped out and, ducking to avoid the still-spinning rotors, ran a short distance away. He turned at once, his eyes fixed on the ruined machine.

“Come on, come on.”

He muttered the words under his breath and then sighed in relief as he saw her, clutching several packages under her arm, jump from the helicopter and run in his direction.

“Are you okay, Jarod?”

“Fine.”

He pressed a hand on the cut, trying to stem the flow of blood. She handed him one of the cases she had been carrying and raised her arm into the air, supporting it with the other and ignoring the blood that instantly reddened the sleeve of her shirt.

“There’s bandages in that.”

Jarod flipped open the flat case and pulled out a roll of bandage that she took and pressed on the wound.

“There’s another roll in there. We’ll need it too, but it should be fine without stitches.”

Lauren glanced over her shoulder towards the mangled helicopter lying silently on the hot ground behind them, the rotors spinning lazily, and Jarod noticed the movement. He eyed her curiously.

“What? What is it?”

She turned to face him, a faint grin on her face. “Jarod, I sure hope that you weren’t expecting to be home in time for dinner tonight.”

* * * * * * * * *

Somewhere
Northern Territory, Australia

Seeing Jarod take a sudden step back, Lauren looked up from trying to bandage her arm to see him staring past her to something that was obviously only visible over her shoulder. She turned quickly and then straightened up, smiling.

“John!”

“Lauren!”

The Aborigine put down the spear and boomerang that had caused Jarod’s momentary feeling of concern and slipped out from between the towering eucalypts, reaching up to tear a branch off a nearby tree. He quickly stripped the leaves, crushing them between his hands, saying something in a language Jarod couldn’t understand. Lauren nodded, gently easing off the wad of bandage, and allowed him to spread the green pulp over the injury. John then held it as she wound another broad strip of bandage around her arm, after which the Aboriginal, wearing a worried expression, nodded his head in Jarod's direction. Lauren responded in English.

“It’s all right, John. He’s a doctor with the service.”

Nodding, the man fixed his eyes firmly on Jarod for a couple of seconds, his gaze intense. Finally he turned back, nodding again, before Lauren looked at her white companion.

“It’s okay, Jarod. This is definitely a friend. And he understands English so you’ll be able to talk to him.”

“What language did he speak?”

Lauren laughed. “You mean you didn’t understand it?” She saw the look of frustration on his face at her teasing and became serious. “It’s his tribal dialect. He can speak English, but not much.”

“And you can speak it?”

“Yes. His mother was very ill for months and I was her primary doctor for that time. It was easier to learn it.”

“And… is he going to help us?”

“He sure is.” She turned and said something to the man, who nodded. “John says he’ll help us for as long as we need it.”

She looked up to see the clouds increase and darken overhead. Her voice was quiet.

“And I know that we do.”

Jarod looked at her curiously. “His name isn’t really John, is it?”

She smiled, settling her arm into a sling that Jarod gently put around her neck.

“No, not by birth. But a lot of these people believe it’s bad luck, even a curse, for a white man to use or even know their tribal names. I don’t think he’s ever told me what it is.”

The two of them began to walk slowly towards the helicopter and Jarod glanced at her.

“What were you worried about, before?”

“That the petrol tank would go up and take us with it. But that danger should be over by this time.” Lauren reached in through the open door and grabbed the radio receiver “Mayday, mayday. This is Tango Charlie Delta of RFDS Katherine. Can anyone hear me? Over.”

There was silence from the radio and she glared at it, picking up a small, hand-held device from under the seat. Static was all they could hear and, as she glanced at the clouds, Lauren frowned.

“Well, we won’t get help until all that clears, if then. The disturbance caused by the storm must be blocking the waves. This isn’t very powerful and that,” she nodded at the larger radio, “must have been damaged in the crash. You can have a look at it if you want, but I doubt it’ll help. If there’s a lot of electricity in the air - and I think there will be - then this,” she waved the small radio, “will be virtually useless. But we’re taking it with us, just in case.”

“So where are we?”

She glanced around, hiding a smile. “Australia.”

Jarod raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Great.”

“Still in the Top End, if that helps at all.”

“Not really.” He became more serious. “You mean you don’t know?”

“How could I, Jarod? We must have been blown a long way off course. But at a guess, I’d say we might be somewhere near the Barkly Tablelands, and that’s a long way from where we’re meant to be.” She pulled herself into the helicopter. “We’ll need to get supplies for the next few days.”

Lauren took her jacket from the back of the pilot’s seat and slid her uninjured arm into the sleeve, pulling it around her shoulders, before collecting various items from the back of the helicopter and putting them into a backpack.

Jarod took the bag from her. “What are we going to do, Lauren?”

She grinned at him. “Well, you’re about to get the chance to see one of the most beautiful things in this country - an outback storm.”

“What - here?”

“Of course. John’s making us a temporary shelter in case it rains and we’ll sit in that until it blows over. Then we’ll start walking.”

His eyes widened. “Walking?!”

“Uh huh.”

Lauren eyed the slight incline that had given them sufficient protection to land and then the trees surrounding them.

“They’d fly over us all day and never see the chopper. That’s the problem with landing where we did. We’re alive - but if John hadn’t come along we probably wouldn’t have been for long.”

* * * * * * * * *

The forks and sheets of white lightening illuminated great expanses of ground on all sides as the thunder growled and, despite knowing how much danger they were in, Jarod agreed with Lauren. It was an amazingly beautiful sight, made more so by the absence of rain that allowed him to see it all perfectly clearly. He looked over to find her watching him, a smile on her face.

“Been in a situation like this before?”

“Kind of. I was in a plane crash in Yellowstone, a few years back.”

“Good, so you know what to expect.”

He thought over that time, looking around at the sky and feeling the heat coming from the ground, as a small smile curled his lips. “I suspect this could be a little different.”

“Well, maybe.” She stretched out on the ground, trying to find a comfortable place to put her arm.

“You okay?”

“I’ll live.”

Jarod shook his head incredulously. “Is every Australian as bad at understatement as you? ‘I’ll live’ when you’ve got a great hole in your arm, ‘It’s a bit warm, isn’t it?’ when even the buildings are wilting…”

Lauren shrugged and tried not to grin. “Probably.”

“And what did John put on the aforementioned ‘hole?'”

The Aboriginal, who had been listening silently to the conversation, turned and picked up a leaf from a pile beside him, holding it out and saying something Jarod couldn’t follow. The American took it and lifted it up to his nose, cautiously smelling it before glancing at Lauren.

“What is it?”

“A native version of an olive leaf. It’s good for healing wounds and helping blood to clot faster.”

He nodded and handed it back to the man who replaced it on the pile and turned to stoke the fire in front of them.

“You may as well try to sleep, Jarod. We’ll have to start walking early.”

“Why?”

“Because assuming that the storm clears up tonight the way John thinks it will, we’ll have another scorcher of a day tomorrow and we need to start before it gets too hot.”

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

Bill hung up the phone and turned to the other three people in the living room, the color gone from his face. His wife looked at him in concern.

“What is it?”

“They’ve disappeared. Loz and Jarod went out to a call mid-afternoon and they never returned to Katherine.”

Steve looked up sharply. “What have they got organized?”

“The search parties went out an hour ago.” The man swallowed hard. “They had to come back in to base thirty minutes ago because of bad weather. A storm’s crossing the Territory.”

Mark looked at his brother. “I’m going up there. Steve, will you fly me in to Melbourne? It’s quicker than driving. I’ll catch the first plane to Darwin and go on from there.”

Peta looked at her son. “I’m coming with you.”

“You can’t, Mum.” He eyed her ankle. “You aren’t able to get around quickly enough and we both know how fast things can change in a search. I know you’re worried, but try to be reasonable.”

Without waiting for an answer he left the room followed by his brother, both returning in under ten minutes, Mark carrying a small bag. Bill stopped his son before he could leave the room.

“Do you want us to call Jarod's dad?”

“No.” Mark shook his head. “Wait until I get up there and I’ll call you. When we know more about what’s going on, then we can make that decision.” His eyes traveled from his mother to his father, his voice suddenly quiet. “If the weather’s still as bad as it has been, there may not be any point.”


Act VI

Somewhere Else
Northern Territory, Australia

In the gathering darkness, John pointed to a group of trees ahead of them and said something to Lauren, who nodded and turned to Jarod.

“That’s where we’re making camp for tonight.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

She grinned. “What, you mean you didn’t enjoy your first day of hiking across the broad, brown land Down Under?”

“You sound like a travel brochure.” He took off his hat and waved it in front of his face, trying to stir the hot air enough to produce something like a breeze.

“Well, the next time you talk to your dad, you’ll definitely be as tanned as a real Aussie.”

He rolled his eyes and spoke mockingly. “Wow! My ambition in life fulfilled!”

“Easy life you must have,” she laughed.

Jarod didn’t comment but sat down, watching John gather a small pile of wood. The American felt a tremor go through him, watching his hands begin to shake although he struggled hard to control them and cursing inwardly that he didn’t have any of the necessary medication with him to stop it. He looked up to meet the concerned eyes of the native, who turned to Lauren and spoke in tones that were obviously questioning. Pulling a nearly full box of matches from her pocket and handing it to him, she replied in soft tones, not looking at her white companion. Jarod leaned forward.

“What did he say?”

“He wanted to know if you were sick.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“That it was a reaction to an earlier sickness. I didn’t have words to try and explain what it’s really all about.”

When the fire was burning brightly, John got to his feet and walked off through the trees, quickly disappearing.

“Where’s…?”

“He’ll come back. Don’t worry.” Lauren opened the bag that she had been carrying on her back all day, pulling out an apple and tossing it over to him.

“Here. Dinner.”

Jarod rolled his eyes. “Just like dinner yesterday and breakfast and lunch today.”

“Hey, be thankful.” Her voice became serious as she produced a third green item, placing it near the fire. “These are the last.”

He looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. “It doesn’t seem like we had much food.”

“Oh, we had plenty providing we were careful. But I know how skilled John is so I didn’t bother to ration. He’ll get something for us. Luckily we’ve got enough water and, as we aren’t in the middle of the Simpson Desert, we’ll be able to get more when we need it. But we won’t be that long.”

He looked up at her. “How long, exactly?”

“John says that it should take about three days to get to the last house he saw, so that’s a third gone already with the walking we’ve done today.”

“And why is he alone? I mean, isn’t that a little dangerous?”

“Walkabout.”

Lauren grinned at the mystified expression on his face and she bit into her apple, waiting until she finished the bite before speaking and trying not to laugh at the obvious impatience on his face as Jarod waited for more details.

“It’s something a few of them do occasionally. They go off into the bush or the desert for anything from a few days to several weeks at a time and live off the land the way they used to. I was going to suggest that you go on one when you arrived, but we went to visit Mum and Dad instead.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Seems like I was destined to anyway.”

“It does seem a little like it, yes.”

She looked around at the dying light of day and felt as the temperature began to plummet. Pulling her jacket closely around her, Lauren reached into her bag and produced the survival blanket, handing it to him.

John reappeared in the circle of light cast by the fire and dropped a pile of leaves onto the ground before sitting cross-legged in front of them. When he asked for something, Lauren untied a metal container from her bag and gave it to him. John filled it with water from her bottle and then put the lid on, using a forked stick driven hard into the ground to hang it over the fire. He gave a handful of others to Jarod, who took them a little nervously.

“What’s this?”

Lauren smiled. “Smell it.”

He did and looked up at her skeptically. “Peppermint?”

“Something like that.” She lay down, watching him. “Eat them.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Jarod, trust me.”

He cautiously put one into his mouth, chewing tentatively, and then swallowed it before looking up at her and grinning. “Well, I’m not dead.”

She laughed. “And nor will you be. Your dad would never have sent you here if he’d thought I was going to kill you. That will help you a lot, as will the tea that John’s making.”

Jarod glanced over, eyebrows raised. “And how will it help?”

Lauren grinned slyly across the fire at him. “Peppermint’s very good for tremors, nausea, cramps, and various other aches and pains. And that’s a pretty accurate short-list of your symptoms if we add loss of appetite, sweating and drowsiness. It won’t do much for the insomnia but that seems to have gone away on its own, at least as much as it supposedly does with you.”

He eyed her sharply. “Who have you been talking to?”

She couldn’t help smirking slightly. “Your dad. And Sydney.”

Eyes narrowed, he leaned back. “Sydney too, huh? That gives me the hint of an idea that maybe this is more that just a vacation.” Jarod paused.” So how much do you really know about me - Doc?”

Lauren laughed. “You didn’t honestly think that I happened to have those tablets I gave you just by chance, did you?”

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

“What’s the situation, son?”

“It… it’s not too good, Dad.” Bill could hear the tension in his son’s voice. “They called the weather bureau but the contact dropped out before they could warn them about a second storm front that was approaching. If they couldn’t find somewhere to land before it hit…”

In the silence that followed, the man exchanged glances with his wife, gently squeezing her hand as tears filled her eyes.

“They’ve got everyone out looking,” Mark continued. “But so far there’s no sign and it’s been like an oven up here today. Last night got to almost zero and they expect it to go even lower tonight. Pete said their chopper was stocked for emergencies and Lauren had checked it just before they took off, but we don’t even know if we’re looking in the right areas…”

The younger man’s voice broke and there was another long moment of silence before he spoke again.

“I think you need to call the States.”

* * * * * * * * *

Same Place As Before
Northern Territory, Australia

Jarod looked up to see Lauren lying with her eyes closed, shivering slightly, her jacket insufficient to keep out the freezing night air. Getting up, he picked up the blanket that had, at her insistence, been around him, and was about to put it over her when John stopped him. Without speaking, the Aborigine placed one hand flat on Jarod's chest and pointed to the spot on the ground beside her, taking the blanket from him. For a second Jarod hesitated, until the other man repeated the action with more vehemence, and then he nodded. Lying down beside her, his head on one arm and his other arm wrapping itself naturally around her, Jarod felt the blanket gently placed over them and raised his head to see the Aborigine go back to his seat beside the fire. Looking down, Jarod saw that, although Lauren hadn’t moved, he could feel, as he lowered his head and shut his eyes, that the shivering had stopped.

* * * * * * * * *

Several hours later Jarod opened his eyes to see the pink-flecked blue sky, signaling that the sun was only a short time from rising. Looking down, he saw that Lauren was still asleep and carefully lifted his arm, replacing the blanket as he stood up. The Aboriginal looked up from his seat beside the ashes and offered the billycan to him. With little more than a raised eyebrow Jarod took it and drank the leftover tea from the night before. The disgust on his face as Jarod extracted the bits of leaf from his mouth made John break into loud laughter and the sound woke Lauren, who sat up, taking a sip from her water bottle.

“Ugh, cold billy tea.”

Jarod grinned as he put the can down on the ground. “I’ve had worse.”

She glanced down at a pile of things that John was watching to make sure that they didn’t crawl away and grinned.

“Depending what you consider bad, you might be about to do so again.”

Jarod's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What are you talking about?”

Lauren bent over to pick up one of the insects and, with a wicked grin on her face, she held it out to him. As it wriggled in her grip, Jarod saw that it was white, six inches long and about five times as round as his thumb.

“Say g’day to brekkie.”

His jaw dropped. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope. Witchetty grubs. Nature’s multi-vitamin pill.” She bit the head off the insect and sucked out the insides, chewing and swallowing, her eyes dancing with laughter. Jarod stared at her, a mix of horror and disgust on his face

“That was still alive!”

“Of course.” She licked her lips. “Tastes like chicken.”

John picked up one and, also grinning, offered it to Jarod, who quickly moved back half a dozen paces, raising his hands in refusal. “No thanks.”

“You don’t have any choice,” Lauren told him firmly. “I’m not having you collapse on me between here and wherever we find help. Eat it, Jarod. Doctor’s orders.”

Tentatively he took one, closed his eyes and bit into it, the look of disgust slowly leaving his face. “You’re right. It does taste like chicken. Very uncooked chicken.”

“Couldn’t be worse than barbequed grasshoppers.”

He looked sharply at her but she was eating another and Jarod felt it was easier to take a second wriggling insect and, eyes firmly closed, bite into it, than ask her how she knew.

* * * * * * * * *

Somewhere Else Again
Northern Territory, Australia

“John says we’ll definitely find that house he remembers tomorrow, probably some time in the late arvo - afternoon, that is. A few hours before sunset, anyway.”

“So we’ll back in civilization tomorrow night.”

Lauren grinned. “If you call hospital ‘civilization.'”

Jarod looked startled. “Hospital?”

“For observation, yes. Believe me, it’ll happen. We’ll have been exposed to the elements of three scorching days and freezing nights by then, as well as having not much food.” She looked over to see John pick up a stick and prod the strips of meat that were hanging over the fire. “Well, not as much as normal.”

“You know, weird as this may sound, I only wanted to see your native animals, not eat them.”

“Oh, come on. You’ve only had Witchetty grubs, kangaroo and now snake. Besides, you cuddled the koala. You didn’t take a bite out of it.”

He couldn’t help laughing. “I still want to know how John caught that snake.”

“Don’t ask. You might be tempted to try it and although I did bring the snakebite kit with us, I don’t want to have to use it. Not on you, at least.”

“Okay, so what’s for breakfast tomorrow?”

“Would m’sieur like to place his order now? What do you fancy, Jarod? Roast possum’s tail? Emu wing? Maybe that nice, tender koala steak I suggested when you were holding it? Or the greatest delicacy of all that tastes so bad even I won’t eat it - Bogong Moth?”

Jarod laughed. “I’ll wait and see what John manages to catch.”

“Actually,” Lauren grinned, “going by the way you’ve eaten things so far, you’ll be a lot more likely to wait and not see what John manages to catch.”

* * * * * * * * *

As the darkness increased, Jarod stared up into the sky, his back to the flames so he could look at the stars. Lauren sat beside him, gazing also.

“It’s kind of weird to realize that I can’t even see the constellations I know.”

“Just shows how far you are from home.” She smiled faintly. “Do you know the names of any on this side of the Equator?”

“Nope. Never learned them.” Jarod grinned. “The Centre never thought I’d see them.” He suddenly laughed. “Neither did I.”

Lauren pointed out the ones she could see and then lay down, one hand behind her head and the other still tucked into the sling.

“I really hope nobody told your dad. He’d have fifty fits if he knew about this, despite the fact that it’s done you good.”

He glanced down at her in slight surprise. “I guess it has, hasn’t it?”

She smiled. “Nothing like walking all day in peaceful surroundings to soothe a stressed mind, not to mention that fresh air and natural remedies are doing wonders for your withdrawal, even more than the things you brought with you.”

Jarod smiled. “I think I’ll miss it when we go back.”

“I know. I do, too. Sometimes, after visiting patients, Paul and I land somewhere, just for the heck of it, spending a night out in the open. Of course,” she laughed, “we usually plan ahead and have enough food with us. Tell you what, Jarod.” She looked at him with a smile. “We’ll do that before we leave the Top End. Deal?”

“Deal. I’m looking forward to it already.” Jarod grinned, teeth shining white in his tanned face, and lay beside her, both brown hands tucked behind his head. John said something too fast for Jarod to catch the words, in the dialect that he was already making stringent efforts to learn, and Lauren laughed. The eyes he turned on her demanded an explanation.

“What?”

“We’ve got a surprise for you tomorrow.”

“Really?” He rolled over onto his side and looked at her eagerly. “What?”

She rolled her eyes. “If I told you then it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it, you great nong?”

* * * * * * * * *

Washington Avenue,
Blue Cove, DE, USA

Sydney walked into his house and turned on the light in the living room to see a note lying on the table. Reading the few words it contained, he looked around.

“Major? It’s safe.”

The man walked out of the kitchen and Sydney was horrified by his appearance. “What? What is it? What’s happened?”

“Jarod and Lauren have disappeared.”

Charles finally looked up to meet the eye of the psychiatrist as Sydney took a step backward, the father’s face set in an effort to keep the emotion he felt from rising up and overwhelming him.

“It’s been forty-eight hours and no sign. The days are all above 110 degrees and both nights were below thirty-five. Steve said the rescue teams will give them another two days before they change the search and rescue to a search and retrieval.” He swallowed hard. “To bring back the bodies.”

* * * * * * * * *

Same Place As Before
Northern Territory, Australia

He could hear from her breathing that Lauren was asleep and Jarod rose to his feet, covering her with the survival blanket before doing up the zipper of his jacket as he walked thoughtfully out of the temporary campsite, several embers still glowing red in the makeshift fireplace. After checking the ground for anything venomous as John and Lauren had shown him, Jarod lay on his back and stared into the sky. Despite being hours since the sun had gone down, the hard, rocky ground still felt warm and Jarod closed his eyes momentarily, appreciating the peace and quiet.

He suddenly realized that he was enjoying the situation, not only at that moment but also the long days of walking that were behind them and the day still to come. A thought had occurred to him in the early hours of the day before and returned to his mind now that the trembling he had hated so much during his early days of the withdrawal had basically all but disappeared as had most of his other symptoms. Even being awake now wasn’t due to insomnia but rather the fact that he had a lot of things to think about. Gazing at the stars, he saw the shadow appear beside him and sat up.

“Scared.”

Jarod had had enough conversations with the man who sat down beside him, in both languages, to understand his short, almost Pidgin English and knew what he meant.

“I’m sorry, John. I never meant to scare you.”

“Thinking.”

“Precisely.”

“What?” The Aboriginal turned towards him, curiosity in his eyes. “Miss family?”

“Not exactly, although I am looking forward to seeing them again.” Jarod smiled. “I was actually thinking how much things can change in such a short time.”

“Good or bad?”

“Oh, good,” he assured the man before hesitating. “At least it is now. But I guess it got bad pretty fast too.”

“Looking forward to…” The man paused, struggling for the word he wanted and which didn’t exist in either his language or his English vocabulary. “To time after sun comes up again?”

“To the future? Yes, I think so.” Jarod smiled. “I wasn’t when I first arrived in Australia, but now I am.”

A short distance away, Lauren lay with her eyes closed, listening to the conversation that carried easily on the still, chilly air. She couldn’t prevent a satisfied smile from appearing on her face as she pulled the blanket closer around her and tried to go back to sleep.

* * * * * * * * *

Somewhere near water
Northern Territory, Australia

He looked into the blue water that constituted his surprise as they arrived at the billabong where they would wait through the hottest part of the day.

“Is it safe?”

Lauren looked up at him in admiration. “I’m impressed. You’ve actually got to the point where you ask before jumping in. But John says it is safe. No crocs, no water snakes, nothing.”

Jarod hesitated for a moment, raising an eyebrow. ”Uh, water snakes?”

“Well, swimming snakes then. Poisonous little buggers.” She unwrapped the bandage and placed it on the ground beside her dark blue trousers.

“You’re going in like that?”

“Yup.” She glanced down at her white shirt. “It’ll dry in no time flat.” Lauren waded into the water and ducked under the surface. Jarod quickly followed, glancing over his shoulder as John dived in neatly after them.

“Don’t do too much swimming, Jarod. We’ve still got several hours to walk before we get to help and I’m not carrying you.”

He glanced at her. “I keep forgetting we’re even lost.”

She grinned. “To tell you the truth so do I but we are, despite having John to look after us.” She made several careful strokes over to a rock that sat on the edge of the body of water and gently eased herself up onto it, looking through the trees that protected them from the sun to the clear blue sky above.

* * * * * * * * *

Station BZ 23
Northern Territory, Australia

“Station Bravo Zulu 23 to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.”

“This is Katherine. Go ahead Bravo Zulu 23. Over.”

“Aw, gee, Joel. I didn’t know we’d been gone for so long that you’d forgotten my voice already. Over.”

There was a moment of silence and the man’s voice was almost a whisper as he replied.

“Lauren? Is that you?”

“Sure is. Over.”

“Are you both okay? Over.”

“We’re fine - nothing that a good meal, a night’s sleep in a real bed and a few bandages won’t fix. Over.”

“Who’s injured, Loz? Over.”

She handed the radio over to Jarod with a grin as they both heard the loud chatter of voices in the background that made Joel’s words almost inaudible. “Go ahead.”

“Lauren is, Joel, but it’s just a cut. Nothing life-threatening. Take your time getting here. Over.”

“Tango Lima Foxtrot’s on the way, Jarod. So where the heck’ve you two been anyway? Over.”

“Walkabout, Joel.” Jarod grinned, winking at Lauren. “Lauren was introducing me to a new aspect of Aussie life. Over and out.”

* * * * * * * * *

He watched a cloud sail overhead before looking over at Lauren, who was sitting in a chair on the veranda with her eyes closed.

“Hey, you awake?”

“Uh huh.” She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“Why didn’t John hang around?”

She looked down at the ground in front of the house before raising her eyes to his. “Some people around here don’t like Aboriginals and he thought, if he came with us, that the people here might have refused to help. FYI, it’s another four days walk from here to the next homestead. I looked at the map.”

“That seems pretty rough. The attitude, I mean, not the distance.”

“In a way, it is. But you need to understand that prejudice against ‘blackfellas’ is a huge problem across the entire country. For most people in the larger cities, like Melbourne or Sydney - and I mean the place not the person, so you don’t get confused - they aren’t an issue because people can ignore them. But for people out here, the most common contact they have with them is when they have too much to drink and smash shop-front windows or lie unconscious in the gutter. Lots of things white man done to the ‘black’ society has helped to break it down including the ‘Stolen Generation’ that you read about in the book your dad gave you.”

She sighed heavily.

“Most of those affected that way who didn’t commit suicide now drink alcohol and some reason it has greater effect on Aboriginals than on a white man. Lots of them have children and don’t look after them properly because their money goes on drink and then the parents can’t take care of them. This denies the kids a decent education and a future because, in one example, the School of the Air will only allow kids to participate if they have somebody to correct their work and most Aboriginal kids don’t.”

“Doesn’t that just make a vicious circle?”

“A very bad one, particularly when you consider that although some people have tried to break it, a popular view is that Aborigines bring the problems on themselves and don’t deserve anything. Of course, you can’t come outright and say it in this day and age, but the lack of assistance that any charities connected with the Aboriginal people get speaks for itself.”

She sighed again and shifted slightly, wincing as her arm began to throb. “But that’s only one of a number of problems in Australia, all of which urgently need help and most of which won’t get it.”

“Like what?”

“You name it. Drug addiction, alcoholism, youth suicide, crime rate, unemployment, lack of good education. And that’s where the problem of distance comes in. It’s very easy for people to ignore what isn’t directly on their doorstep and when the problem’s several days’ travel away that makes it very, very easy to ignore.”

“So what can you do?”

“Work in my own little part of the world and hope that one day I may make enough of a difference to prompt someone else to do the same.” Lauren sighed again, waving away a few flies and fixing her eyes on a silver dot that was approaching the house through the bright blue sky.

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Plane Over Station BZ 23
Northern Territory, Australia

“Lozenge, half of the planes of the RFDS have been out hunting for the pair of you over the past four days, not to mention the Westpac choppers and Search and Rescue.”

She glanced at Mark who sat beside her and tried to smile, slipping the hand of her good arm into his. “Did they find the chopper yet?”

“Still looking, although I’d expect them to locate it soon, now that we’ve got a smaller area to look in.”

As he spoke, Pete peeled away the bandage to reveal the leaves that had been secured over the wound after the swim before glancing up at her.

“You two had help?”

She grinned. “We did. Your son was very obliging, Pete.”

Jarod stared at her, mouth open, and a tube of cream that he had been applying to his arms lying forgotten on his knee. “That was his son?”

“Oh, I forgot to mention that?” Her grin became a little wicked. “Oops.”

Pete laughed as he began to clean the wound. “No, Jarod. He isn’t really my son. John’s dad died a couple of years ago and, as I was helping Lauren to look after his mother, I kind of adopted him. He comes by when he’s in the area.” The man looked up. “How was he?”

“Great. He looked really well.” Lauren inhaled sharply as the wound began to bleed. “He said he’d drop in some time during the next week for a visit.”

“Well, you won’t see him.” Mark told his sister firmly. “You two are coming back to Melbourne for some R and R.”

“No, we aren’t.” Lauren spoke equally firmly. “We’ll come back when we said we would and not before.”

“But, Loz…”

“But nothing, Mark. I’m not giving Pete more of an organizational nightmare than I have already. Paul will be back permanently from Broken Hill on Monday,” Lauren cast a grin at the man who was flying the plane as he smiled at her, “and I was meant to have a holiday from then anyway.” She eyed her older brother. “So you can go back home and tell Mum and Dad that I’m safe and I’ll see them soon.”

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Lauren put on the headphones and grinned at Jarod. “You ready?”

“Yup.”

“Hey, Loz?” The voice came clearly through the headphones.

“What’s up, Pete?”

“I wanted to ask - this week, could you avoid crashing my chopper, smearing it with blood, going missing for four days and making half the country hunt for the two of you?”

She laughed. “We’ll see what we can do, Mr. Boss, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear it. See you in a few weeks. Say hi to the Melbournites for me. Goodbye, Jarod. Thanks again for all your help.”

“No worries, Pete. Bye.”

He grinned at Lauren as the plane rose into the clear blue sky and she laughed.

“Not a bad accent and all.”

Not replying to that, Jarod glanced at the two backpacks in the rear of the empty plane. “So where are we going?”

“We’ll land at the airstrip, get the horses they’re keeping for us and head out to Uluru for a couple of nights. Then we’ll go on to Melbourne.”

“On horseback?” He grinned and the dimples appeared in his cheeks.

“Tell you what.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, laughing. “You go on horseback. I’ll fly. When, several weeks or months later, you finally get in to Melbourne, drop by my house. I’ll be waiting.”

“I bet you will.” He settled back into his seat, the yoke firmly in his hands and a grin on his face. “I just bet you will.”

* * * * * * * * *

Lauren's Apartment, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

Jarod looked from the pile of shirts and jeans on his bed to the black clothes he was about to put into the bag. Taking off the last tartan shirt, Jarod slipped on the black t-shirt that was lying at his right hand. He casually folded the garment and added it to the pile, placing his Akubra on top. With a regretful sigh, he packed his few belongings into the bag and did it up, putting it on the floor at his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, Jarod saw something whizzing through the air towards him and it was only instinct that allowed him to grab it.

“Good catch.”

He looked from Lauren in the doorway to the new Akubra in his hand. “What… is this for me?”

“Why else would I be throwing it at you, drongo?” Lauren grinned as she walked into the room. “I thought you might like a souvenir to take home.”

“Thanks.” He put it on immediately. “I’ll have to break it in.”

“Well, if you wear it like the one you’ve been wearing here, that shouldn’t take too long at all,” she responded, laughing. “Although it might make you stand out a bit.”

“Oh, and my tan isn’t going to do that either?” He grinned. “I’m going back to winter there, if you’ll remember, not summer.”

“That’s your choice. I’ve invited you to stay and the service would love to have you.”

“Tempting though the idea is, there’s a lot I have to do back there.”

“Well, maybe one day you can make your home here or something.”

“We’ll see.” He smiled. “There’s a few small things that have to be done first.”

She laughed. “You can always come back for a visit, you or any members of your family. Open door policy, you know.”

“Thanks.” He bent down to pick up his bag. “But, as I am going, it’s probably time for us to head off to the airport, huh?”

Lauren eyed him. “To catch what?”

“The aeroplane,” he recited obediently, grinning, with deliberate emphasis on the middle syllable.

“Very good,” she applauded, leading the way to the car. “I knew you could learn proper English if you tried.”


Epilogue

Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

“I wasn’t kidding about looking like a new man, was I?”

Jarod turned at the sound of the vaguely familiar voice as a man sat down in the seat next to him and laughed.

“No, you weren’t. And I agree with everything else you said that day as well.”

“Glad to hear it.” The man eyed his face. “Where were you to get a tan like that?”

“Your favorite monolith,” Jarod laughed. “Among other places. But I spent the last couple of nights up there.”

“And did my ‘favorite monolith,’” the man replied with a grin, “get yet another photo taken of it?”

“Oh, of course. Several in fact.”

“Glad to hear it.” The man looked at him closely. “You know, I could almost believe I’ve seen your photo in the papers up that way recently?”

The American smiled. ”It wouldn’t have been about the two doctors who crashed out in the middle of nowhere, would it?”

Reaching into his bag, the man pulled out a copy of the paper and unfolded it. He looked from the photo of the man on the front page to the grinning person in the seat next to him before laughing.

“I doubt that sort of thing was what the people who were worried about you would have picked as an ideal ‘break,’ would they?”

“I’m hoping they didn’t find out about it,” Jarod replied honestly. “Not until it was over, anyway.”

“Want a picture of yourself in the paper to make your family proud?”

Jarod thought of the articles in the red notebook that was stowed in his bag and shook his head, laughing. “Thanks, it’s fine. I already got a copy.”

* * * * * * * * *

International Arrivals Hall, John F. Kennedy Airport
New York, N.Y. USA

Jarod leaned against the wall with his arms folded, his face covered by the Akubra, and watched his father examining the people disembarking from the plane. Finally, as the last of them passed and not having seen his son among them, the man was about to turn away.

“G’day.”

Major Charles turned to stare at the man whose dark eyes twinkled out of an equally dark face.

“She sent the wrong person back!”

Jarod laughed and hugged him. “Something like that, Dad.”

He looked up to see Jordan standing a short distance away and could see the hesitation in his eyes. Walking over, Jarod removed the Akubra from his head, placing it on that of his younger counterpart and slipping an arm around his shoulders as they began to walk towards the exit.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who’s improved in the past two weeks.”

Jordan tilted up the hat so that he could eye the man but remained silent. As well as the concern he had originally felt at Jarod’s possible condition upon his return, the awkwardness of not really understanding what he actually felt about this man was quickly reasserting itself. Jarod glanced at him as if surprised at not receiving a reply and his father filled the gap.

“I wasn’t that wrong before. She did send a different person home.”

Jarod grinned. “Just a little different. But it’s enough.”

“So what now, son?”

“Give me some time to adjust to being back!” the pretender protested as they reached the car.

“And you’ve ‘adjusted’ fast enough to drive us?” his father laughed and Jarod looked down to see that he was, once again, standing at the driver’s door.

“Like I said,” he commented with a grin, firmly thrusting his hands into the pockets of his long coat to keep out the cold as he walked around to the passenger side. “I need some time to adjust.”

* * * * * * * * *

25 Washington Avenue
Blue Cove, DE, USA

Sydney lifted the kettle from the stove and carefully poured the water into the mug, his eyes fixed on his watch. Jarod’s father had promised to call once they got back from the airport and let him know how things had gone; whether the trip had had the desired result. To say that he had been waiting impatiently for the call all evening was, Sydney thought to himself with a wry smile as he carried the mug into the living room, probably an understatement.

Lifting the mug to his lips, he had just tasted the first mouthful when the cell-phone on his coffee table rang. The exchange of objects in his hand took him less time that he had believed humanly possible.

“This is Sydney.”

“Miss me?”

There was a second of silence before the psychiatrist could actually respond.

“Jarod?”

“No, Sydney, it’s a Bunyip,” the voice responded dryly. “Who else would be calling you at four in the morning?”

“Well, according to your internal clock it should be six in the evening, shouldn’t it? After all, that is the local time in Melbourne, Australia.”

“That’s very impressive,” Jarod retorted. “I had to wonder if you even knew I was out.”

“Can you doubt it?” the man replied quickly. “Who do you think’s been put on the hunt for you yet again?”

“Some things never change.” There was a moment’s pause. “And some do. Sydney, I didn’t just call to let you know I was okay. I was also wondering, how are…?”

“…the children?” the psychiatrist prompted gently as the other man stopped abruptly. “Not bad. But according to what I was told, they’re missing you, Jarod.”

“They miss what I was, what Aurora made me,” the pretender snapped. “Not what I am now.”

“Aurora changed part of you,” the older man chided gently. “But not the real person you are, and at least one child knows that.”

There was a long silence on the other end but he could hear a sound of irregular breathing, as if the pretender was fighting for emotional control.

“It’s good to hear you sounding so well,” Sydney finally commented quietly.

“Well, knowing that I’d have to keep ahead of the game again,” Jarod responded, forcing a lighter note into his voice. “I thought I should wait until I was back to my fittest before I resurfaced.”

“After all those days in the Australian Outback, I’m impressed that you’re even able to walk again, let alone run,” Sydney smiled. “But as for the ‘game,’ I think the rules may have changed a little.”

“You know,” Jarod mused thoughtfully. “Somehow that’s not a surprise.”

“I sent you a little something,” the psychiatrist told him before the other man could hang up. “Consider it a ‘welcome home’ present.”

* * * * * * * * *

New York City, NY. USA

Hearing the dial tone in his ear, Jarod disconnected the call, staring up into the stars that shone, clear and cold, in the sky, before wrapping his coat more firmly around him and going back inside the tall apartment building. Softly entering the room, he glanced at the boy who lay asleep on one of the twin beds and then sat down at the table, starting up his laptop.

Activating the attachment on the email he found in his inbox, Jarod stared at the picture that was slowly revealed. He was unable to prevent the tears that filled his eyes as he looked down at the image of the small boy, the large, brown eyes that he had inherited from his father staring up into the camera and a wide smile on his baby face.

Sydney was right.

The rules had definitely changed.

End of Episode
Flying High

*With thanks to Mandy for the original idea

* The Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air are genuine, non-profit organizations that operate all over Australia to assist those living great distances from standard medical and/or educational assistance. Several of the small details were fudged slightly to fit the story. For more or accurate information about the RFDS, please check out their website: http://www.rfds.org.au/