Cassandra Barnett (Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga) lives with her son in Te Whanganui-a-Tara on the banks of a fast-rising stream called Korimako. She has words in Cordite, Tupuranga, Te Whē, Pantograph Punch, Huia Short Stories, Black Marks on the White Page (Penguin Random House), Landfall, a forthcoming climate change anthology (AUP), many art publications and her chapbook How|Hao. Cassandra is working (stormily) on a fiction-non-fiction book.
In real life
Jara’s burning thighs summoned her back to the work at hand. Her hour-long shift on the bike-generator, so the others could stay in the game. But her mind kept pulling away again. Was it the same fix for all of them in the end? Or did Caveland: Te ReingaTM have different vibes depending on the player? Flick was on the discover-and conquer kick, straight up. Like her but with less of a reason. Just crazed – fuckin unhinged tbh. Poor Flick. As for Ziggy. Always acting like he was humouring them. Saying he didn’t care for this kinda conquest – was just killing time cos sooo booored. But he was still in it for something. Had to be.
The kickass underworld visuals that never stop unfolding, kaleidoscopic earth? He was a designer in the old life after all. A billion glorious shades of brown, so different from the outside’s acid orange and acid green. Or physical pleasure, sensual pleasure – however mediated? All the micro-climaxes of tunnel crawling? Surge, hold, surge, hold... Nothing to do with conquest at all. She smiled but felt her lip splitting and clamped her mouth shut. Fuck, too dry. Getting a bit bloody cold out here on the side of the hill. But at least her heart was starting to rev at last, her head clearing a bit with the irl exercise of it. Temples throbbing and throat wheezing in that strained, slimy way. It was weird, feeling so sick and so fit at the same time. Don’t feel don’t feel don’t feel. Go back in. Hold the dream!
She’d really progressed on that last round. Might’ve even finally bumped up a level. God knows she was bored with The Tunnel to Rarohenga. What the fuck came after Taranga? Bloody blackout, killing it right there at the edge before she managed to see the score, let alone check the map. That was some virgin territory though. Found a bottleneck crevice she’d never been through before – none of the boys had mentioned it either. Sure of it. Had to pull off a really pro torque of her avatar body to pass through that one. Good ten minutes of console torture to nail it but she was committed. It was that or die in a rock sandwich. She wasn’t dying – no way.
Maybe it was all about whakapapa. If she could use that term. Which she reckoned she could, at this point in time. Lineage didn’t have the right ring. The Dexters were her tūpuna and the underearth was in her whakapapa. Right? Her Pākehā whakapapa. Just don’t say it to Ziggy. Forever policing the territories with his DNA and his bones. Like they weren’t just losties counting the days in hell together... Yeah. She was still pissed about yesterday.
‘In real life caves aren’t white, Jar.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Well...’ he gave her an odd look. Half scorn, half pity. Blinds half shut.
‘You really want to go down there?’
‘Put it this way’, he said, blinds opening slightly, offering some light. ‘It wouldn’t be a game anymore.’ Even now with his beard all raggedy and wild he radiated that warm dad mellow vibe.
She shrugged, risking it. ‘Ha. Wasn’t a game for my Dad either, working ten hour shifts for three decades. Or my Uncle. They weren’t scared of the underground!’
The blinds dropped shut. ‘Nah, guess they weren’t. But only cos it was all a game to them. All in their heads, even when they were down there. Or sticking their coward machinery down there. Blinded by make-you-soft protective gear and the right to extraction – or recreation, in your uncle’s case. Even down in Papatūānuku’s puku he and his cronies couldn’t drop their game. Couldn’t feel real mauri if they tripped over it. Let alone notice her warnings about her own damn limits. Just pissed all over it, over everything.... Like fucken gods. And now look at us.
Quarantine forever. Ah, forget it.’
So there it was. All this was their fault – her fault. He’d come out and said it now. Well fuck him and his superstition.
‘You’d be long dead, Zigz. The game’s the only thing keeping you alive. As for the rest – even if fracking did cause the big one, can’t blame us Dexters for the sickness... Blame your gods if you need to, but it won’t help. And you’re wrong about my uncle. I reckon he was onto something... something true.’ She could play him still. ‘Anyway, since this is us, stuck here... Take me! Show me what we missed. Maybe I can learn.’ Jara held his gaze then, daring him. Ignoring the twist in her gut.
Ziggy said nothing. Just let out a slow breath and turned back to making his knife marks on the table. Blinds on blackout.
Jara pedalled harder as the stink wind rushed up the valley with its rot. That rust colour settling on the bush regrowth. Be time to go in soon and her lungs starting to collapse too. Don’t feel.
Okay, it was screwy. But something about fulfilling the Dexter destiny before human life blinked out was a total rush. Mastering the netherworld. Still hitting new zones. Even now. Even now! It was fucking incredible, if you thought about it. A race against some cosmic timer she couldn’t quite see. Total shutdown in five years flat – though she didn’t know what was up in other countries, to be fair, and she supposed geological time would limp on without them. But still. To think Uncle M had made this for them. Left it behind – his key to the afterlife.
Like that bottleneck. Straight after it – holy shit. The cathedral that had opened out when she burst through to the other side. The rendering was majestic. Light streaming down in ribbons. Like open air, like there was a direct channel to the sky – only that was impossible, this far under. Wasn’t it? Crumbling ochres. Chalky blues. Blues! And that soundtrack of tinkling drips like rain hiƫng a glockenspiel. What a place. Kind you play for. Kind you want to inhale till your nose hairs stand on end. Kind you want to go off-script for.
And she will. Of course she’s bloody going back there for a looky loo next time round. But for now she’d kept running, keen to see how much further she could open the way before time was up. So rare to have running space. To run! Down there, unencumbered by the masks and packs and shit of outside life. She ran the long corridor, free as a breeze – until sure enough after two more corners the ceiling lowered abruptly, making her stoop and slow down. Just as well, because then came the drop –
She knew. She knew she was being reckless, going for too much speed on the bends, even at a crouch. And she knew her sudden pull-back wasn’t enough. Saw the cave tilt down and the black hole loom up as she sailed over... Premonition of cybersickness. Then the blackout. Flick cutting his shift short again. Asshole.
Jara had no idea yet if the game had registered her final defeat. Was it going to throw her back a level, or not? Please no. Please somewhere new to explore. Damn, even a bit of precipice vertigo was better than same old same old. This was their glue – or their shackle – the desperation to push on. When Ziggy was slouching next to her on his beanbag, stabbing like mad at his console while she stabbed at hers, it was a kind of passion. Or how Flick would leap up to punch the air and yodel when he spotted something good, a cave wētā in the corner of his screen, or a puddle glistening with pale green dots of glowworm light after a long spell of driness... She’d crack up then, and Flick would follow suit. They’d throw it all away and hoot till they cried, and remember Ziggy still outside pedaling and laugh some more, till they coughed and hurt and had to get serious and start fossicking for pills and rainbuckets to make water. Sometimes they lamented not being able to all play at once. Sometimes she and Zig let Flick pedal his full hour outside while they never even touched the consoles.
Maybe Zig was right and it should’ve been a team-player game rather than the one up-manship. But damn. She was still gonna give her uncle the benefit of the doubt. Screw Zig and his rigid moral highground. Screw the way he cursed when a cute little mokomoko crossed his path in a tunnel, like Uncle M had just reached out and given him some bad luck. He wasn’t the last warrior ffs. And screw Flick with his addled brain and conveniently timed conk-outs.
Jara breathed deep into her cycling thighs and went inwards, holding on. Reliving that moment once more. The mistake that sent her hovering over the abyss. She felt like an underworld Roadrunner, sprinting out into midair, double-taking, turning, running back. But there was no running back. Just legs scampering on, over nothing. She laughed. Looking down into the soft bottomless dark. On the soundtrack, a glockenspiel plinking in double time.
The stubbly greenery sprouting down in the hills was taking on the rust-orange tinge of all the dusks these days. The same iron-oxide dust smudged the sky and powdered their rubble yard too. Actually, though she coughed more at rust hour, she liked this shift. Reminded her of collecting Dad from the Pegasus frack yard after school and footy. Way back when. Those orange floodlights at the yard always screaming hazard over the fence and out to the rocks edging the sea. Higher up the valley, the curly tops of the mid-story were interrupted with angular little shingled peaks and pyramids here and there. They’d be completely overtaken soon. Strange ruin. No visible ground, no sign of the cracks. Just those ravenous exotics shrouding everything – the natives, the built and the missing people. Consuming the fruits of everyone’s labour.
Jara’s back hurt. It was getting cold, she was slowing. Revenge thoughts were sneaking up on her though she mostly still held to her principles – small stabilities in the storm of loss. As her feet lagged, an aggressive thump came from inside the container wall. The unit rattled and rang out, scaring the spiders, who drift skitishly across their bits of web before coming to a standstill again. Alright. She leaned in once more.
Jara had visited Uncle M only once as a teenager. It was after a long night out in the city, drinking with mates. That time of seasick innocence. She’d slept in a windy autumn park for a few hours before dawn, then woken up on her side, squinting across the road to the Chinese Takeout where they’d all bought chips at 1am. The lettering reminded her of something, something her Dad wouldn’t talk about, and she got up and jumped on the first bus to Karori.
Uncle M looked just the same as she remembered, slippered and slouched, with piercing dark eyes magnified through his glasses. He’d also gone to bed late and was slow moving, but not grumpy. He gave her instant coffee and said, when she asked about her great granddad, ‘His name was Lee. He gave up pretty quick on gold, but became quite the amateur geologist’. Jara remembered her head throbbing when she nodded at this. Remembered not understanding.
Then before she left he’d given her the memory stick. She hoped it might have a family tree or something. But it was the game. Just as she’d heard – his entire life’s journey, the whole itinerary. Every New Zealand cave or tunnel he’d ever been in and the ones he’d seen mapped or heard about but never been through. No telling which was which.
In fact, she didn’t know how far down he went in real life. Just knew he spent years creating the game after his airways were wrecked for real caving. Auntie Lis despairing. Dad shaking his head and every other year offering Mark a real job at the mine. But no. Uncle M had stuck at it, right up till the quakes when everyone was leaving... or quarantining hard. Or perishing.
The night stench was charging her now. The cold stabbing at her ears said go indoors. And right on cue the stop alarm buzzed. So she did.
Flick got on her case straight away. ‘See you got a raise... How was it? What happened? Where’d you get? What’d you see?’
She went to the tincan pyramid, prised some creamed corn away from its dry bed of quake putty. Grabbed the opener. Damn Flick and his pointy beak. But fuck yeah! She’d gone up in the world – or down, rather. Yusss! She couldn’t wait to see the map, learn the new zone’s name, its characters.
‘You’d like it, Flick. Spinny as, real dizzy making.’ She grinned. Could see him lapping it up behind the blonde stoner-daze of container life. He was pulling on his ragged pipe again, some toxic mānuka-kawakawa combo by the smell of it. In their first year here he’d cultivated purple morning glory for its trippy seeds. Had to give that up after they
turfed him out for a full week, but now it was creeping over most trees in the valley anyway. ‘I’ll show you the way in if I can find it again... You can practise there for a bit, then maybe I’ll take you down with me when I go!’ She eyeballed Ziggy. Couldn’t help herself.
What her Dad didn’t know was that Uncle M had started using the Māui stories and changing the cave names. He would’ve been disgusted. ‘What you got to put all those unpronouncable names in there for? What’s wrong with English?’
Her Mum did know and also hated it, in her own way. Quietly, with an air of guilt. ‘Oh, those old stories. Dead and gone. Pointless. Besides, Mark doesn’t have a clue. Just making more trouble,’ she’d muttered. ‘Though they are nicer names.’ Turning back to her phone.
But to Jara it was magic. The old stories sealed the deal on the last frontier. Hooked the underworld to something even vaster. Like, she too was a trickster in time, changing the world as she went. Something about being down there, doing something while the world outside festered, made the stories pop like they never did in school. Made her head explode. As if she’d unlocked a cosmic secret she hadn’t realised she was missing.
She had her own ideas too. Like what if they were actually crawling back inside the goddess of death now, but this time they were gonna get away with it? What if they were on a path to immortality? Uncle M’s gift to the future Dexters – to her, Jara, five years in quarantine and counting. Redemption before death! If she could just get to the end of the game. Or better yet, follow the map in real life. What was waiting down there? What did Uncle M know?
Or maybe she had it all wrong, like Ziggy said. Maybe this after-life wasn’t enlightening her like she once dreamed it might. Maybe she was beginning to flake out, like Flick. But either way. Not much to lose.
Question was, would she have the guts to go down to the real caves and not just the game caves? The irl underground wonderland, the dirty chalky crumbly pitchblack claustrophobic one? She wanted to smell the unlit rodents and insects, taste the dripping walls, see if her imagination came even close. Wanted badly to get some cave dust on her tongue. Scrabble at real dirt, twist her spine till it hurt, break off bits of silvery stalactite to bring back as proof. Of what? Knowing her destiny with her whole actual messed up body. But it wasn’t just for her, for the Dexter line, for winning. There was more to it than that.
Ziggy, still on his beanbag, stretched back one lazy hand and wrapped it around Jara’s ankle. The hand was warm and sure. He must’ve forgiven her. ‘Come on now, all for one aye team. And one for all. Aye Flick. Aye Jara.’ He was taking the piss, doing his old-school-professional voice. Even when joking, his voice was rumbly and bearish. ‘He waka eke noa. We’re all in this boat together!’
The hand felt nice. Jara stood still, counting seconds, relaxing. Let him knead her lower calf with his fingers. She looked down at Ziggy’s hair, thinning a bit at the crown now, but it was a nice crown. And no matter how she barbed him back, he never caved. Always stoic yet gentle. He made her feel safe even when his words were making her feel wrong. It was bloody irresistable. He really would be the perfect underworld buddy, if he’d just let her show him the ropes. Minimum freak outs, maximum kickarse adventure. As deep as they could go. Till they were Māui and Mahuika... or whoevs. Rediscovering fire! Immortal! Starting over! A perfect ending.
But she was tired of him being the boss. Tired of just surviving. Tired even of clinging to her stories. She yanked her foot away and sank onto her mattress. Pulled her beanie off and rubbed it over her neck and buzzcut, wiping the sweat away. Flick would come. She knew it. He was nosy enough and hated being left alone.
‘So how’d you go today, Flick?’ she asked.
‘Nah, I got stuck in a bend. Too damn narrow. Dunno, maybe my console needs tuning. I’ll take a look later... Or maybe it’s unpassable. Your uncle and his deadends!’
‘Ha!’ Jara’s stomach butterflied with the knowing.
But Ziggy was right there. ‘Or maybe it’s a rua kōiwi and uncle knew better than to let you in there, Flicko boy.’ Waggling his finger at Flick, who was turning his console over and over in his hands.
He looked at Jara then, with a flash of sudden care. ‘Don’t worry Jah. It’s only the game – we’re safe! Condition stable, if not improving...’ He shook his head. ‘It’s our ancestors I’m worried about. Shame we can’t send them down a karakia. Or maybe we can... Does this thing work both ways?’
Her heart thumped, but he lifted one eyebrow and a laugh cracked out of her instead. It was hard to stop the laugh so she glared at him and lay down, looking up at the corroded container ceiling. She’d offered once to learn some of his prayers. After she’d realised it was something tapu, some kind of haunting that held him back. Thought that could be the way through. His refusal had been so stinging that she’d never asked again.
She had to decide, so she decided. She wouldn’t wait anymore for Ziggy’s view, Ziggy’s say-so. Uncle M had let her in. If it was a bone place, he’d led her right there.
‘Well, I’m worried about my ancestors too,’ she said to the ceiling. Turned her head sideways on her mattress towards him. From that angle his profile looked like a flowing, bumpy horizon. Just right. She smiled.
Tūpuna – ancestors
whakapapa – lineage
Pākehā – white New Zealander
kōiwi – bones
mauri – life force
Papatūānuku – atua (god) of the earth, ‘earth mother’
puku – stomach
wētā – large native New Zealand insect
mokomoko – native New Zealand lizards
mānuka – native plant with medicinal uses
kawakawa – native plant with medicinal uses
Māui – trickster figure in Māori pūrākau stories
He waka eke noa – a whakatauki/proverb, loosely equivalent to We’re riding in this boat together.