Terra Australis

Excerpt from Of Teak and Eucalyptus
First published in The Never Never Land anthology, October 2015​

The wind tells me things, most of which I don’t want to know.

I’m dreaming: Valamae and I are speaking Bahasa Mataram. As I stand to leave the room, a westerly wind rattles the windows and something comes down so hard that what is authentic and what isn’t twists. I shiver and collapse, waking in a sweat on the floorboards, with the slow-moving ceiling fan sweeping hot air across me. The floor isn’t comfortable, but I sleep here sometimes, to confuse would-be intruders. I’ll take any advantage.

All manner of shit goes down when the anin-mundewudda, a fragmented nor-westerly, circles like this. Everyone feels it differently. When it visited me in Melbourne I knew I had to go north; when it visited Valamae in Majapahit, she came south. I left Spencer Street near midnight. We’re meeting in Atam’bua tomorrow.

I move to the window and open the curtains just enough to observe and stay hidden. The Dry Creek Road motel is a crumbling two-storey, a converted Customs House hiding in Alice’s southern fringe. I can endure crap and afford overpriced, but hate paying for both. Still, her elevation provides a full view of the street below and of the desert plain.

I scan for signs of vehicles coming in from the desert: red dust clouds, glinting sunlight, birds startled into flight. I’m relieved to see none. Out of habit, I search the heat shimmers. A CSIRO study way back proved the Ancestors use the Earth’s frequencies to travel. I probably won’t see any today, Indig or Indo, but I can’t help searching. They say it starts with an unseen double awareness like a two-in-one picture. Right before an Ancestor appears, the air smells like it does before rain. I see and hear shit like that all the time. I was a CSIRO UPS investigator: Unexplained Phenomena Sighting.

Below, the street is filling: people, carts, buffalo, motorbikes, rickshaws and microlets: 12-seat minibuses that, mostly, scuttle around Alice’s streets picking up passengers. There’s even the odd Ambassador car, but they’re few and far; India doesn’t make them anymore. I let the curtains fall. Each day this desert moves in a little tighter.

North of here the Austral–Indo border bisects the continent’s western deserts, dividing Australia’s north from Indonesia’s most southern province, Java Nusa Agung: JNA. Mirror cities, Alice and Atam’bua have stared at each other across the frontier for centuries, each waiting for the other to flinch.

I shave and shower, and despite the drought, I linger; these last weeks feel like years. I’m in Alice two months and haven’t slept properly since. I dry myself, dress and head downstairs.

The empty lobby has the same decrepit feel as the rest of the place. Nothing a coat of paint won’t fix, the owner said, signing me in and pointing out the autographed photos of dignitaries who stayed in the hotel, like Ali Alatas and Gareth Evans on the walls. Shysters, the lot of them. I paid two months in advance, and he couldn’t help glancing at my single bag, but to his credit didn’t ask any questions, so, on my way out, I leave a reasonable tip.

The prospect of another scorcher has drawn people out early. Yet, a smidge of moisture still manages to sweeten the morning air. I glance back at the Dry Creek’s run-down beauty one last time. Nostalgia? Sadness? Nothing so simple. As witness to centuries of taut red-heart history, she was grand — Alice and Atam’bua have seen better days, too — but right now she aches for that station.

I wave down a bright green microlet. They come in all colours, and I’m told they follow designated routes, but I’ve never been able to figure it out. The only regular ones seem to be the border shuttles, which leave for Atam’bua from the Ghan Transit Centre. To pick me up this one slows down and I jog alongside and then jump up onto the footboard. It’s not far to the GTC, so I don’t bother sitting inside. Instead I tap the roof twice to let the driver know he can go, and then hold on tight as we navigate roundabouts, carts, animals, pedestrians and vehicles. Leichhardt Terrace follows the Todd River north, towards the GTC and some local riverside food stalls. Breakfast wasn’t included at the Dry Creek.

When I see the stalls, side by side in the sand on the bank, I bang once on the roof. The driver pulls over onto the narrow shoulder and slows. I pass the fare in through the front window, jump down and cross the road.

The stalls are UNHCR tarpaulins stretched over bamboo-pole frames, and they sell pisang goreng, idli, katuupa, coffee and chai. Each stall has a small drumfire, with corn roasting in the embers, or ayam: chicken, and ikan: fish, cooking on skewers. The smell arrests me. Blue-and-white eskys cool cans of beer: Bintang, Tsing Tao, VB and Tooheys. The beauty of the stalls is that they never change.

The GTC is tall and casts a shadow so wide and long that is shades most of Alice’s central markets: Pasar Alice. It’s in the city’s oldest kampong, Batavia Lama. Kampong is an old word for village, but has come to mean neighbourhood in many cities. Over the years the pasar has evolved to occupy all the surrounding streets and alleys.

I sit at an end stall. All around, women in sarongs shoo flies with palm leaves, serve customers, clear dishes. Men tend fires, cook food, smoke and drink. Kids play, run and yell. Everything looks normal. I’m not sure if this should calm me or make me more paranoid. I order coffee and idli from the pedagang: seller, who looks old, but could be any age over twenty-five. Her sarong is that vibrant Indo style.

Nearby, under a Bloodwood, a kelapa pedagang: coconut hawker, stands next to his rickety pushcart and sings: ‘Kelapa, kelapa, kelapa!’ The first word is elongated; the second, chopped; the third, rises up at the end.

I go over and choose a kelapa from the pile in his cart. As he takes his golok: machete, from its holster and grabs the kelapa I’m pointing at, he smiles and tells me it’s a good choice. They all look the same to me, but he has the patter of a veteran salesman, probably all of sixteen years old. He places the kelapa on the wooden block mounted to his cart. Then, effortless, he imbues poetry into each hew until the brown husk is removed to reveal the green skin — some of which he’ll use to sculpt a spoon. Then he flattens the bottom, carves the top to a point, and lops it off to create a neat hole. I pay him and take it back to the table.

The kelapa air: coconut water, tastes less sweet and more earthy than the tinned shit from the supermarket. A band of silver cloud sits above the horizon, sandwiched above and below by bright blue sky. When I finish, I lob the nut to him. In one movement he catches it on the golok blade; turns; thumps it down on the wooden block and halves it. The two halves come back to me with the spoon he made.

After I scrape out and eat every ounce of kelapa flesh the other pedagang brings me my coffee and idli. She even takes the empty shell and throws it in the fire drum. Her husband turns the corn, ayam and ikan. His eyes are red from years of smoke.

It’s the windy time, between Dry and Wet, which brings sickness and constriction. The tarp corners flap tight and quick, beating an agitated rhythm. I eat and drink quickly, and ignore whatever restless and incessant message the anin-mundewudda is trying to send. It carries lies and dust.

Having finished, I head towards the GTC, and to try and ensure no one follows, I zigzag through Pasar Alice. The narrow streets resonate with Arrernte, Indo, English, Javanese, Chinese and Tamil; perfumes, foods, chemicals and spices. The air inside the pasar smells of rotting vegetables, eucalyptus and dirt. Everything is traded here. From hot dogs and pies, to black-market buffalo and camel meat; from brand-name knock offs, to pirate DVDs and CDs; and currencies, fake passports and drugs. I can smell something frying in coconut oil and hear Gamelan music jangling from a radio. And like so many other central markets around the world — Melbourne’s Queen Vic and Paris’s Les Halles — Pasar Alice is built over a cemetery. As if the continent doesn’t already have enough ghosts.

At a crowded stall selling brightly coloured ground spices heaped in baskets, the pedagang pours scooped powders into small plastic bags. Her sarong is pristine. If that were me, all the turmeric and paprika would stain me from head to foot. She spits betel. I search for an exit.

Then a play of bright light twists what is authentic and what isn’t, and there are two geographies in one, overlapping as traces of each other. I can’t see properly. I used to wake up sometimes in the morning, as a kid, and the room would be spinning so fast I couldn’t walk or call out, so I’d crawl up the hall to the kitchen and my parents. The glare hurt my eyes back then as it does now. It would mean trips to the doctor and weeks off school. Then a Kedasih flies in and lands as a man in front of me. I stumble. Behind us both, the pasar is merely landscape. The people there see without seeing and flow around us.

‘Friend.’ He nods in greeting. ‘Bonelya Balpi. I wish to speak with you about Penyu Biru.’

The power feels old, but it’s not his. This is beyond anything I’ve seen.

‘Say,’ I insult him by using slang. Bonelya Balpi and Penyu Biru are house names. They are affectionate and personal.

‘Friend,’ he says again, despite my offence, ‘I wish to speak with you. I’m here to help.’

‘How do you know those names?’ My mother called me Bonelya Balpi, little bat, because I would climb and hide. Valamae’s is her house colour and grandmother’s totem animal: blue turtle.

‘This is important,’ he says. ‘Where is Penyu Biru?’

‘Your jurisdiction is across the Timor and Java seas,’ I say.

‘No,’ he says. ‘Indo; Indig; the archipelago; the continent — we all draw power and influence from the same Ancestors. I have the authority to bring you into Wayangbaroo Kulityarrak.’

If I’m in Wayangbaroo Kulityarrak: shadowskin fighting, then I’m in-between light and dark. No wonder I feel so ill. ‘I don’t have the Status to be here,’ I say. ‘Your transgression has brought me against my will.’

‘We don’t have time to argue.’ He’s beside me and grabs my arm.

My skin bristles where his hand touches me. I thought only Delicate Elegance could be used here. It’s hard enough to remember to breathe, let alone protect myself, so I brace for the pain that I’ve heard about when DE is used to jemmy open a mind. It’s an ancient weapon sung into existence using a projected shadow of light. But he doesn’t get a chance. A currawong flies in and lands as a woman. She gets between us. A wash of nausea as I’m released.

They oppose each other. I’m not sure of time. My understanding is, that deaths occur where the person invokes the avatar, not where the avatar is. Wayangbaroo Kulityarrak is deadly, but not physical.

Then the Kedasih man falls and we’re out.

She turns from him to me. ‘We have to go.’

It’s the woman from the spice stall. My mind’s racing.

She helps me up. ‘Are you injured?’

I shake my head. ‘Where to?’

We leave the Kedasih man lying on the ground dead. No one sees him. Again, there are overlapping trace geographies where people instinctively avoid some unseen thing. We follow an alley that runs down the back of some stalls and exit the pasar near a culvert. She leads me through a crosshatch of intricate narrow streets, thin buildings and shallow canals where kangkung: water spinach, grows in the water. There are no street signs. This is so government forces can’t just come in and take people. It’s only a short way to the GTC, but it’s so hot and I’m so wrecked from what just happened, that by the time we get there, if it wasn’t for this woman, I’d fall over.

The GTC is state of the art, and its design mimics a termite mound. Solar power and water recycling. The top levels are Japanese capsule hotels, colloquially: ‘coffins’; the mid-levels house bars, casinos, brothels, restaurants — the Tekka restaurant’s fish-head curry, my favourite, is world famous; and the basement levels house the Port Authority, which transfers all vehicles, including Charvolants: the desert ships; which I’ve only seen from a distance.

‘How’d you find me?’ I ask as we hurry down the stairs into the Port Authority.

‘I’ve been watching you since you arrived,’ she says. She starts chewing more betel as we run down an escalator. ‘They’re coming for us.’ She glances over her shoulder. ‘You figured that already.’

‘They were powerful,’ I say. ‘I could hardly stand.’

She laughs.

‘What?’ I say.

‘Kedasih usually carry out petty crime. Whoever sent them thought you’d be alone, and that your first Transition would make you easy pickings.’

‘It nearly did,’ I say. I’m not following every word fully because she’s interchanging Tamil, Indonesian and Mataram.

‘You did well,’ she says. ‘Had they known you weren’t alone they would’ve sent proper assassins, stronger avatars.’

‘Why assassinate me?’ I say. We follow the ‘shuttle bay’ signs through a warren of platforms and escalators.

‘It’s not just about you. I have to get you to Indo,’ she says.

‘Is she alright?’ I ask.

‘Hang on.’ She looks back and listens.

‘Is sh—’

‘Shhh.’ She holds up her hand, pauses and listens. Then she pushes me forward. ‘Quickly.’

My skin tingles underneath her hand, just as it did with the Kedasih man before.

‘Ita-nia familia diak ka lae?’ she says.

It takes me a second to place the language. It’s Valamae’s local language. She taught me the basics years ago. It’s only spoken in her mother’s village. The use is the code, not the actual words. My guts churn. We only use this language when things really go to shit.

‘Ita-nia familia diak ka lae?’ she repeats, slowly.

We chose it because it’s so difficult to eavesdrop on. We have nine emergency locations. She’ll ask questions and we’ll pretend to have a conversation. When she asks if I have children, that’s the number of the location I go to. She just asked how my family is. I answer that everyone is well: ‘Ema hotu-hotu diak.’

‘Ita husi nabe’e?’ she asks.

She asked: Where are you from? I answer, ‘Northcote.’ I ask where she is from. She answers, Betugaude.

‘Ita kaben nain?’ she asks.

Are you married? I answer not yet: ‘Seidauk.’ It’s coming back. I’m remembering more words. I ask how her husband is. She answers, fine.

‘Ita iha maun-alin ka bin-alin nain hira?’ she asks.

Do you have any brothers or sisters? I answer two sisters: ‘Bin-alin dua.’

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Ita gosta hasai ferais iha ne’e ka?’ she asks.

Are you enjoying… something; I’m not sure of the word but it doesn’t matter. I answer yes: ‘Sin.’ I ask how her work is going (at least I think I do). She answers, well.

‘Ita iha labarik, ka lae?’ she asks.

There it is. Do you have any children? The sixth question. I answer not yet: ‘Seidauk.’ Location six is in Majapahit. I’ll go from here to Atam’bua as planned, then jump a Majapahit train.

There’s a shuttle is waiting, still red with dust from its last run, when we reach the basement car park.

‘Go,’ she says in Indo at the bottom of the escalator. ‘Go.’

She tracks back the way we came as I run to the microlet, jump in and sit next to a woman wearing a light-blue sari. Her sandalwood smile reminds me of Valamae. By the time we leave there’s more than twelve people crammed in here and there’s no escaping the musty smell.

No microlet I’ve ever been in has had suspension, so every bump along the 40km stretch to the border drills my back, and I can’t express my relief when the ride ends. I don’t wait. I clamber out and race inside. An Australian flag hangs off a stunted flagpole above the door and the building looks like a bunker. An east–west barbed-wire fence runs to the horizon and there’s a heavy gate across the road.

Inside, Security Officers check my passport and visa; my bag is X-rayed; my clothes, shoes and bag are swabbed; then I’m led through metal detectors into the Customs area, where I join a slow-moving queue. I tell myself to relax, but this is efficient in the way hospitals are clean. I count eight soldiers, including the two guarding the entrance outside. I expected more.

At the counter — finally — the Customs Officer scans my right hand, retina, passport and visa. ‘Sorry for the wait,’ she says; ‘network’s slow.’ They’re all wearing those blue gloves.

‘I know what you mean,’ I say. She’s cute, but she’s lying. Right now shitloads of government databases are cross-checking me. I smile in the hope of hiding my anxiety, but the longer this takes, the more likely they’ll find something on me. I could only cover my tracks so much. The computer beeps; I can never tell if it’s a good or bad sound. She compares my face, passport photo and digital image. I never know where to look when Officers stare like this. Satisfied, she stamps my documents and moves me on through and I join another slow-moving queue.

Next, I undergo a full body scan. The Officer is big enough to play front row forward. I stand inside the machine and put my hands above my head. The scanner swings around and over, but it takes forever, and my arms are aching by the time he tells me to step out. Next, my belt, shoes and bag go through another X-ray. I try to relax. Then, he runs a metal detector over me and swabs me again. Then, we go to another counter where he double checks everything. Finally, he returns my documents, I collect my things and I can go.

The heat’s like a wall as I step out onto Terra Incognita, no country, a flat 3km exclusion zone separating the Indo and Australian checkpoints. The old arterial has fallen into disrepair and is no more than a crumbling goat track being repossessed by the red dirt. Remote reconnaissance drones about the size of dinner plates patrol, like insects over a garden. I keep my face hidden.

In no time the anin-mundewudda’s at my heels, unnerving and twisting everything to curdling. It’s unknowable, accruing names in many languages. When it’s still, I get anxious; when it gusts, I get aggravated; and when it goads and beckons me like this, like the Min Min, with never a chance of catching it, all I want to do is kick it.

About half way I stop for water. The horizon shimmers. We’re in the Simpson, Gibson or Tanami, I can never remember which, but the desert’s hum relaxes me. Cities force the resonances underground, but they resurface out here. Burying them must do something: storms, floods, droughts? I look into the heat shimmers, then a drone hovers over me, so I hide my face and start walking again.

From a distance the Indo checkpoint looks a mish-mash, but the structures, while fortified, are in manca lima: an old village design using trees, gardens and in this case five two-storey offices, to circle a central thatch-roof courtyard. Manca lima’s spiritual, it promotes safety and creates good luck. I enter from between two buildings, a frangipani, bougainvillea and some palms. I’m always taken by how JNA looks like Australia but feels like Indo.

The air in the courtyard’s cool, but the energy’s chaotic. Travellers jostle in front of the Visa Office; pedagangs tout counterfeit brand-names, street food and rupiah; and to my right, twelve TNI: Indo Regular Army, sit under a Desert Oak, chewing betel and smoking kretek: clove cigarettes. Now, I don’t trust TNI at the best of times, but this group gives off a dirty vibe; so, when the commander sees me and stands and the others follow as one, I move back. TNI aren’t that disciplined.

‘Stay there, olanda!’ the commander yells in crude Indo, and waves in a languid overhead motion. A lit kretek dangles from his mouth.

Olanda means foreigner, and while I’d like to say I stand my ground, truth is my legs freeze.

‘Where you from, hey?’ he says as they surround me.

They’re all my height or taller, and armed. I look past them, at the other travellers. They’re all avoiding looking this way.

‘Well…’ he says and unclips his pistol, then speaks to the others. ‘Maybe this olanda can’t speak simple Bahasa.’ They laugh.

‘Melbourne,’ I say. ‘Where are you from?’ I hope showing I can discern accents might wrest some control. ‘You’re not JNA.’ For a moment his expression changes; I’ve impressed him. Then it’s gone.

He scratches the side of his head with the back of the pistol. ‘Melbourne?’ he scoffs, speaking as if to a child. ‘You are assam.’ He laughs. They all laugh.

The slur is centuries old. Rawit is chilli; assam is tamarind. Tamarind is cold climate. Rawit people are deemed warm-blooded, thus reputable, while assam people are seen as cold. It’s baseless.

‘I am Flores.’ He laughs. ‘Rawit.’ The others crowd in and mock my accent.

The Atam’bua border crossing’s an arse-end posting, so if this isn’t about money, I don’t know what he wants. My only leverage is face, so I risk challenging his power.

‘Commander,’ I say, scared shitless. ‘Did it take you a slow time to reach your rank, coming from an outer island, as you do.’ A few subordinates chuckle. That’s what I wanted.

This has to work. It’s another old-time insult. During Indo’s revolution, communications were so erratic that outer regions often reacted to events late. Frustrated, Javanese leaders publicly called their outer-island allies slow and stupid. The stigma remains. I hold his stare; only just.

He finishes his kretek in one drag. That’s tough; those cigarettes are harsh. Then, without one word, his glare silences the others.

My challenge isn’t going to work. Shit.

He grabs my upper arm and shoves the pistol into my ribs.

‘Hang on.’ I struggle, but they all grab me and take me to a building. My calls for help are muffled by hands and fists and jabs as they shove me inside. I try to fight back and kick out, but they are too many. I’m fucked.

They drag me through room after room, down flights of stairs, through heavy doors and along corridors. I can’t see properly in the dull light. They stand me in front of a plain wooden door in a narrow corridor and form two lines against the corridor walls and stand to attention.

‘What are you doing?’ I’m breathless and sound more panicked than I’d like.

The commander tightens his grip on my arm. ‘If I had my way. Your type would all stay south of the border. Open it.’ He shoves me. ‘Go.’

I reach for the door handle, and his look suggests I’m lucky he doesn’t pistol whip me.

‘We’re not stupid,’ he says.

I may have misjudged him personally, but there’s no way any of these guys are TNI.

I open the door, imagining a dank room, metal chairs and a harsh, uncovered light — that sort of cliché; instead the air-conditioned room smells of breakfast. I’m thrown.

The door closes behind me. There’s a dining table topped with food. Two tall men carrying computer tablets enter through a door opposite — Bakin or D88, I’m guessing. Both are in stylish suits, and confidence exudes from their inaudible movements. Bakin is Indo’s intelligence organisation, and D88 is counter terrorism.

‘Please,’ the first man says. ‘Mr Smith, is it?’ He indicates the table. ‘Sit. Eat, as our guest. Please.’

I sit, but had I seen the floral centrepiece I wouldn’t have. Now I’m bound by a tradition that’s been around since the Tamil Kingdoms stretched from the subcontinent, across SE Asia and the Indies, to the north of Terra Australis; a time when envoys were routinely poisoned.

To show respect and build trust we must eat the same food together before discussing business. It can take hours. I don’t have hours.

‘My name is Setyo Emanuel Atmosumarto,’ he says as they sit; ‘and my colleague’s name is Arjuna Kafa Kapur.’

They bow their heads in greeting. I do the same.

‘Kopi Luak?’ He smiles and places his tablet on the table. ‘Sumatran coffee. The best in Indonesia.’ They each light a kretek. Setyo looks at me; Arjuna, at his tablet.

I can’t pick Setyo’s accent, but agents are trained to mask regional differences. ‘Please.’ I nod. Kopi Luak is Civet coffee, so I’m not going to refuse. ‘The flowers are elegant,’ I say, indicating I wish to begin negotiations.

This particular arrangement uses JNA’s floral emblem: eucalyptus urophylla, Indo’s National Flower, the Flower of Charm and the Rare Flower. It’s displayed in a replica buluh perindu: a mythical Indo flute similar to a didgeridoo.

Setyo pours three coffees. ‘Let’s not lean on ceremony,’ he says. ‘We’re all friends. What’s CSIRO’s business in JNA?’

So much for custom.

‘Who’s asking?’ I say. He looks to be considering an answer. Yes, I am ex-CSIRO, but I covered my tracks, so how did they ID me so fast? Indo doesn’t want a UPS because it takes years to untangle all the patents, copyright and ceremonial sanctions. I don’t want it either. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here for Valamae. But they don’t know that.

‘Let us say we are from the Department of Science, Technology and Infrastructure,’ Setyo answers. Then, as if reading my thoughts, adds: ‘One of our drones identified you.’ He smiles. ‘Please, what is CSIRO’s business in JNA?’

‘I’m not with CSIRO,’ I say. I can’t sense anyone reading my mind, but there is tech that scans seamlessly now. Just in case, I re-focus on guarding my thoughts. ‘I’m holidaying in the mountains,’ I say. Arjuna works on his tablet. ‘I like mountains.’ I didn’t think drones had facial recognition. ‘I’m spending one night in Atam’bua.’ If this were regular shit I could bribe my way out, but I’m not even going to try.

Setyo shakes his head. ‘Please, without an explanation, I am sorry, but the Indonesian Government will arrest you.’ He looks at Arjuna and nods towards the door. Arjuna leaves the room without so much as glancing at me again.

‘What’s happening?’ I ask.

Setyo smokes. ‘We’ll see what you say next.’

I can’t hide my anxiety. There’s a small part of me that hopes Valamae walks through that door and all this goes away. Only a small part, though, because none of this is good. None.

Arjuna re-enters the room with the spice woman. Setyo stands in greeting. She’s dressed stylishly, her sarong has been discarded, and her movements are also inaudible. The only thing out of place are her betel-stained red lips.

‘What’s this?’ I say. Before, when the TNI had me I thought I was fucked, but now I’m really fucked. Setyo sits again, and the others stand behind him.

He shakes his head. ‘Tsk, tsk. Mr Rebbie,’ he says in Indonesian. ‘Our tech is scanning you, but I wouldn’t use the word “fucked” to describe your current situation, myself. Not yet.’

I think about nothing. About making a dash for it.

‘It locked automatically behind you,’ he says, ‘and the TNI are still there. Your passport.’

‘Who are you?’ I ask.

‘We wish to find Penyu Biru.’

‘Where is she?’ I say. ‘You must have her. What have you done?’

‘Please, your papers.’ He holds out his hand.

‘CSIRO knows I’m here,’ I say. ‘Operatives work all over the continent.’

‘You covered your tracks adequately,’ Arjuna speaks for the first time, ‘but when our system flagged you, our experts traced your digital fingerprints and erased you. No one knows you’re here.’

‘You must have Valamae, then. How’d she know our code?’ I point at the woman.

‘Tech,’ Setyo says. ‘She was speaking Indo all along.’

‘Fuck off,’ I say.

He turns to her. ‘Show him.’

She walks over to me and takes a Taser-like device from her pocket.

I lean back in the chair and protect my face and head. ‘What the fuck.’

‘It’s like a phone,’ Setyo says. ‘It’s localised.’

I concede, but I still don’t like the look of it.

She counts to five in English, and I hear English. Then she turns the machine on, points it at me and counts to five.

I see her say, one, two three, four, five, again, but I hear ida, rua tolu, ha’at, lima. ‘I don’t believe…’ I say. ‘You forced Valamae to talk. You have her somewhere. Where is she?’

Setyo shrugs. ‘Help us; don’t help us. But we’ll find her.’

‘If you don’t help, you’ll never get out,’ Arjuna says.

Setyo nods. ‘The punishment for the UPS espionage charges we’ve concocted is life. If you cooperate I can maybe see you are in house arrest somewhere like pulau Boeroe, or pulau Atauro; rather than in Lembaga Pemasyarakatan Kerobokan.’ He leans forward. ‘I can be your best friend — it’s up to you.’

We stare across the table. I can’t read him, play him, or understand him. He smiles, like he’s waiting for me to flinch. If he really means to do this, then I have no choice. Either way I’m fucked.

‘This time, yes, Mr Rebbie, I would use the word “fucked” to describe your situation.’