The winds blow pretty regular across the dried-up lake. Traction’s good — when luck’s on your side you can reach three hundred KPH or faster. Harper watches the hot rods race on thick white salt so pure and bright the satellites use it for colour calibration.
Harper doesn’t care about souped-up hot rods. Throwdowns, throwbacks, who can go the longest, fastest, hardest. But there’s not much else to do in Terina Flat. She used to want to be a journalist, back when such professions still existed. Back when the paper that employed you didn’t own you. Back when paper still meant paper. Back before the world clocked up past three degrees and warming. Back when everybody clamoured for Aussie coal and wheat and sheep. The sheep all died when the topsoil blew away in a dust cloud stretching almost five hundred ks. Ships still come for the uranium. Other countries bring their own land with them. Embassies, fenced off and private, no one in or out without a pass. Cross the wire and they get to shoot you dead.
Harper thinks about her boyfriend Lachie Groom as the racers pick up speed. The future plans they’ve made between them. How they’re gonna get the hell out of Terina, score work permits for Sydney or Melbourne. They say white maids and pool boys are in high demand in the walled suburban enclaves. Only Lachie couldn’t wait. Said they needed the money now, not later.
The racers purpose-build their dry lake cars from whatever they can scavenge. Racers used to care about the look, these days it’s all about the speed. There’s nothing new, no paint to tart things up. No juice to run on except for home-strained bio-D. You need the real stuff for start up and shut down. The racers pool their meagre cash, score black market diesel from a guy who hauls it in by camel train.
She can hear them coming before she sees them, kicking up thick clouds of salty dust. The pitch drops dramatically as they pass; she takes a good long look as the cars smudge the horizon. Hot rods, classics and jalopies, streamliners and old belly tankers, all the side windows and gaps taped firm against the salt. It gets into everything: your clothes, your hair, your skin. Nothing lives or grows upon it. No plants, no insects, not a single blade of grass.
The short racecourse is five k long, the long one near to twelve. King of the short run is Cracker Jack, Lachie’s cousin — plain Cracker to his mates. Obsessed with Dodges. Today’s pride and joy is a 1968 Dodge Charger, automatic, gauges still intact. Purpose built for the super speedway, veteran of Daytona and Darlington.
He loves those cars like nothing else alive. Spends everything he has on keeping them moving. Harper has come to envy the racing regulars: Bing Reh, Lucas Clayton, Scarlett Ottico. Others. There’s enough on the salt flats to keep them focused. Enough to get them out of bed in the morning.
Cracker nods at Harper; she throws him half a smile. Checks out his sweat-slicked, salt-encrusted arms. “I’ll take you out there,” he says, wiping his forehead. No need to specify where out there. She knows he’s talking about the American Base — and Lachie.
She doesn’t say no but he gauges her expression. “After sundown. The others don’t have to know.”
Unfortunately, in towns like Terina Flat, everyone knows everybody else’s business.
“Was a stupid plan,” she tells him. “We never should have . . .”
Cracker dusts salt flecks off his arms. “It was a fucken’ awesome plan. ‘Bout time we got a look behind that wire. Found out what all the bullshit is about.”
She shrugs. Her and Lachie’s “plan” had sounded simple. Just two people trying to keep in touch. Inching around a Base commandment that seems much harsher than it ought to be.
Cracker tried to talk Lachie out of taking the job at all. Too late. By then, Base medics had tested his blood, piss, and spit. He’d signed away his rights on the dotted line.
Lachie’s been gone almost a week — the full week if you’re counting Sunday, which Harper is because she’s counting days, hours, minutes, seconds. Segregating Sundays is for the churchy folks. Whole town’s riddled with true believers since the heavens clammed and the good soil blew away.
“S’no trouble,” says Cracker.
Harper shakes her head. Her eyes are focused on the middle distance. On Janny Christofides and that beat up 1968 Ford Mk 2 Cortina she loves more than most girls love their boyfriends. Janny’s boyfriend’s been on Base six months. She never wins a race, but she keeps on trying.
Lachie’s not so far away, just over the wire on newly foreign soil — American, although it could just as easily have been China or India or Russia.
Once past that wire, you don’t come back until your contract’s through. Money comes out, sometimes with a message. Stuff like I miss you honey and I love you and tell grandma not to worry and it’s okay in here, the food is pretty good.
The whole town knows about that food. They watch it trucking in by convoy, trucks long enough to fit houses in them. Refrigerated, loaded up with ice cream. Bananas from the Philippines, prime beef barely off the hoof. They stand there salivating in the hot red dust. Whole town’s been on starvation rations since before the last town council meeting proper, the one where Mr. Bryce got shot in the leg.
Crude jokes about Lachie circulate, not quite out of earshot. Somehow everyone found out about their ribbon secret. Voices carping on about how he’s probably too distracted. Too busy shagging those hot chick Growler pilots. Boeing EA-18Gs — sleek and fast — have been burning across the blanched blue sky all week.
She ignores them, watches as a flecked and rusted 1936 Plymouth sedan tailgates a ’58 Chevrolet Apache that once used to be red, apple rosy.
Cracker tries to shift the subject. Says those 18Gs were manufactured in Missouri — what’s left of it. Mumbles something about future threats across the electromagnetic spectrum.
Harper recalls peculiar ads on free-to-air: The smiling lady saying shit like Stealth is perishable; only a Growler provides full spectrum protection. Making stealth sound like a brand of sunscreen. What use could there be for stealth in Terina Flat? Nothing but more sky than anyone can handle laced with impotent wisps of cloud.
The racers pass, wave, whoop and holler, some of the vehicles disintegrating in motion, belching smoke and farting acrid fumes. People used to think that only topless roadsters could hit top speeds. Back when Lake Gairdner was the only lake to race on. Back before the Bases and the droughts. Back before a lot of things that changed this country into someplace you’d barely recognise.
Harper turns her back on them all and starts walking toward home.
Cracker runs to catch up with her. “Those guys don’t mean nothing by it. Half of ’em’s gonna be taking Base contracts themselves.”
She keeps walking.
“You really gonna hoof it all the way?”
She nods. Walking gives her time to think. Time to run through all the reasons she’s not going back to the Base. Not tonight — or any other night. Not even with Cracker, who she trusts more than she’s ever trusted anyone aside from Lachie.
Eventually the salty crunch gives way to russet dirt. Her boots disturb the road’s powdery dust. No salt here, just brown on brown. Crooked fence posts, barbed wire curling in the sun.
Not everything is dead or dying. She admires the millet, still holding its own, but the sorghum fields have seen far better days. There used to be rice, but rice needs irrigation and for irrigation you need rain. No decent rainfall three years running, which is how come council got desperate enough to call in a priest-of-the-air. Prayer vigils week in, week out, have altered nothing.
Apparently a flying priest worked miracles in Trundle, scoring them forty millimetres three days in a row. Not just hearsay, plenty of Terina locals were present when the heavens opened. Plastic buckets clutched against their chests, praising Jesus and the man in the yellow Cessna.
When the downpour ceased, a flock of black and white banded birds descended. Whole sky was thick with them. Stilts, reportedly confused, as if they had been expecting something other than Trundle mud at the end of their epic journey.
A year on now and prayer vigils have all dried up. Terina passed the hat around, everybody kicking in what they can scrounge.
Harper’s toes are blistered and her shirt is soaked with sweat. Things come in threes — or so folks say. Three days of rain for Trundle, in a row. Three nights was how long Lachie managed to tie a bit of ribbon to the fence. Low so the Hellfighter spotlights wouldn’t catch it. Nothing fancy. No messages attached. But from the fourth night onwards there was no ribbon. Nothing.
Lachie is as close to family as she has. Dad’s long gone, there’s only her and Mum. Mum was all for him taking that contract job.
Dusk is falling by time she makes it back. Still hot, but tempered by gentle breaths of wind. A warm glow pulsing from the big revival tent. She knows her mother will be in there alongside all the other mothers. She knows she ought to go inside and grab a bite to eat, if nothing else.
• • • •
Beyond the fraying canvas flap lies a warm enveloping glow; a mix of lantern light and tallow candle. Town still has plenty of functioning generators, but they make a lot of smoke and noise.
The overpowering tang of sweat mixed in with cloying, cheap perfume. Still hot long after the sun’s gone down, women fanning their necks with outdated mail order catalogues. Out of their farming duds and all frocked up, like Sunday church, not plain old Thursday evening. Scones and sticky Anzac biscuits piled high on trestle tables. Offerings. Harper’s stomach grumbles at the sight.
Reg Clayton has the microphone. He’s telling some story she’s sure she’s heard before about nitrogen and ploughing rotted legumes.
Her mother claps and cheers from second row. Dry dirt has got inside her head. Made her barking mad as all the others. Farmers with their fallow stony fields, rusted up tractors and heat-split butyl tires. All for praying for the rains to come. They really believe that praying makes a difference.
The big tent puts some hope back in the air — Harper gives it that much credit, even if she doesn’t buy their Jesus bullshit. Jesus isn’t coming and he isn’t bringing rain. Jesus and his pantheon of angels have snubbed their town before moving on to bigger, better things.
She lets the tent flap fall again before anyone catches sight of her. Not everyone in the tent is old but most of them are. Old enough to believe in miracles. To believe that flying in some Jesus freak from Parkes might make it rain.
When the singing starts, it’s sudden as a thunderclap.
When peace like a river,
attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll . . .
Three years have passed since any of them clapped eyes on the dirty trickle that was once the proud Kilara river. Sea billows — whatever the hell they are — seem more than a million miles from Terina Flat.
Harper jumps when a firm hand presses upon her shoulder. It’s only Cracker and he jumps back in response.
“Didn’t mean to startle ya. Coming out to Base with me or what?”
She shies away from the tent flap, away from the candied light. He lopes after her like a giant puppy.
“Not going back out there again,” she stops and says at last. “What would be the point of it? There’s nothing to see but wire and towers — and what if we get caught? You know what they say happens to trespassers. Those two guys from Griffith that — ”
“Those two bastards buggered off to Sydney.”
“Cracker, nobody knows what happened to those guys.”
The swell of hymns gets louder, the voices enunciating clearly.
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft, refreshing rain.
Cracker grunts at the mention of snow. “Not bloody lately he doesn’t.”
Harper almost smiles.
The two of them bolt when the tent flap flies open, taking cover behind the shadowy row of trucks and cars that reek of sour corn pulp and rancid vegetable oil. Cracker barely spares the cars a glance. He has no interest in vehicles whose sole purpose is to ferry occupants from A to B.
“Yer mum in with that lot?” he asks.
She nods. All the mums and dads are in the tent, banging tambourines and clapping hands. All the folks who yell at the younger ones for frittering their time and cash on hot rods.
They wait until the coast is clear, then climb the tufty knob of ground that offers a clear view across the dried up river. All the way to the American Base. Harper can’t see that river bed without picturing Lachie, boasting about the time he and his brother dug a rust red 1936 Ford Model 48 up out of the silt. How they had to scrape out twenty-six inches of dirt from firewall to tailpan.
The Base has a glow to it, a greeny-ochre luminescence. The kind of colour mostly seen in long-exposure borealis photos.
Behind that wire and the machine gun-guarded towers lies a big rectangular grid: a forty-eight-element high frequency antenna array. Beyond it stands a power generation building, Imaging Riometer, and a flat-roofed operations centre built of cinder blocks. They all know this; it’s no kind of secret. Base PR admits to investigating the potential for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance. It supports a cluster of ELF wave transmitters slamming 3.6 million watts up at the ionosphere. There have been whispers of other things such as successful moon bounce experiments — whatever that means. New kinds of weapons for new kinds of war, still in experimental phases. What weapons and what war are never specified.
The tent hymns fade, absorbed by other forms of background noise. Cracker stuffs his hands into his pockets, closes his eyes, feels the warm breeze on his face. When he opens them, Harper’s staring at the Base and pointing.
Above it, the sky has shifted burgundy, like dried blood. Lightning bolts, ramrod straight — not jagged — strike the ground, then thicken, changing colour, and slowly fade.
“What the . . .”
“Did you just see that?”
She’s fidgeting, running her thumb along the friendship bracelet knotted on her right wrist. Three blue ribbons tightly braided. Three wishes for bringing her Lachie safe back home.
• • • •
The plane appears like a lonesome dove, winging its way to Terina Flat, bringing with it salvation in the form of a priest decked out like Elvis Presley. Elvises aren’t unusual in these parts, what with Terina being so close to Parkes and its famous Elvis festival. Back in January, fifty thousand tourists flooded in to celebrate the King’s hundredth birthday.
Harper has never seen one of them up close. The Elvis who lands on the blistered tarmac is dusty and kind of faded. Paunchy, but not in the proper Elvis way. A golden cross hangs around his neck. A knife tucked into his boot if he’s smart. A pistol hooked through his belt if he’s even smarter.
Town folks skip right past the rhinestones and move straight to calling him Father. Press around him like bleating sheep. Harper doesn’t plan on making contact. She cringes as the shrivelled biddies primp and fuss and preen. Flirting with the sly old dog, promising him pumpkin scones and carrot cake — all chokos with artificial flavour added if truth be known, although you won’t catch any of them admitting such a thing. Lamingtons run soft and gooey from the broiling sun. Local pissweak beer to wash it down with.
The Elvis plane though, that’s something else. An ancient Beech A60 Duke, knocked up and turbo charged — Cracker was mouthing off about that plane before the sunlight hit its yellow sides, planes being the one thing capable of distracting him from Dodges.
Harper waits until the fuss dies down. Elvis shoos his flock away from the landing strip towards the revival tent. Promises to be joining them just as soon as he’s checked his luggage. Once the parents and grandparents have moved off, small children run to place their grubby palms on the fuselage.
“Piss off, you little buggers,” spits Darryl Quiggen, charged with checking the battered old bird over, hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his pinched white lips. Used to be some kind of expert once. The tang of avgas hangs in the air — the good stuff, not the crap distilled from corn.
Quiggen pays Harper no attention. He’s never had much luck with women, finds it preferable to pretend they don’t exist. She makes sure she’s out of his line of sight, inching as close as she can get away with to examine the peculiar assortment of religious symbols painted across the plane’s canary yellow casing.
Jesus — rendered clear as day, hands pressed together in prayer. Surrounding his head, a thick halo of icons: an egg with a cross, a flaming heart with barbed wire wrapped across its middle. A snake and an anchor. Some poorly rendered birds. A hand with an eye set into its palm. A star made of two triangles. A crescent moon and a tiny little star. Some writing that looks like it might be Hindu — not that she’d know a Hindu from a Sikh.
There’s something strange underneath the wings. Bulging clusters of attachments reminiscent of wasps’ nests. She steps up closer, but she isn’t game to touch. Up closer still, she can see the welds and other bodged repairs beneath paint blisters. Paint costs a fortune. There must be something well worth hiding under there.
She peers in through the grimy windows until Quiggin shoos her off. The rear cabin’s stuffed with all kinds of junk. Looks like maybe Elvis sleeps in it.
The plane serves well as a distraction. She’s trying not to think about the Base’s empty wire, the thick red lightning and the sickly green light rippling over everything the night before. The Base is locked down, nothing unauthorised in or out — not even bits of ribbon tied to wire. Earn good money was what they said, money they were all in need of. They were desperate or curious, all the ones that took up contract offers. Three months on. No worries. She’ll be all right. But how often three months extended into six or twelve. How often, at the end of it, they climbed into one of those Blackhawks and disappeared.
She’s sheltering beneath the concrete shade of what remains of a Shell service station. Hard to believe people used to drive right up and pump petrol into their tanks.
Dusty Elvis saunters over, his jaw working over a wad of gum. “Like the look of my equipment now, do ya? Give you a private tour if you come back later.” He winks.
Harper straightens up and inches back. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself,” she says. “These people don’t have much to spare. Drought’s taken everything the wheat rust missed the first time through.”
“Mind your own goddamned business,” he spits, forcing her back with the bulk of his rhinestoned, jumpsuited bulk, fiddling with a bunch of keys attached to his belt. Reaches into his pocket for mirror shades, the kind with wire frames. He somehow looks bigger — meaner — with them on. He leans his shoulder against the crumbling concrete wall, looks her up and down until she itches. Tugs a packet of cigarettes from another pocket. Tailor-mades — they cost a bloody fortune. Sticks one on his lower lip, lights it with a scratched and battered zippo.
“Girl like you oughta be thinking of her future,” he says. Rhinestones sparkle in the stark midmorning light. The scent of tobacco curls inside her nose. “I was you, I’d be fucking my way up and out of this dustbowl shithouse.” He jams the cigarette between fat lips and smiles.
“Lucky you’re not me then,” she says drily. Waiting. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction. He keeps on smoking, smiling, leering, his B.O. permeating the plumes of tobacco smoke. She turns on her heel and walks away, angry, but keeping it bottled up like she’s learned to do with guys who stare at her like hungry dogs.
“Don’t wait too long,” he calls after her. “Yer not that far off yer use-by date, you know.”
Harper avoids the revival tent and its excited, anticipatory believers. She heads for the crowd amassing in Whitlam Park, which still boasts two functioning wooden picnic tables not too warped and cracked from years of exposure. Young people cluster around a battered laptop, taking turns to log on through the Base’s webpage portal.
Janny looks up when she sees Harper coming. “There’s one for you,” she calls across their heads.
Harper almost doesn’t want to read it. She already fears what it isn’t going to say. Four simple words: Pet Cooper for me. There isn’t any dog called Cooper. Lachie created the imaginary pooch when he filled in his application form. Cooper is their private code meaning everything’s okay. No mention of Cooper means everything isn’t.
The message on screen supposedly from Lachie is bland and cold. Words that could have been written from anybody to anybody.
“They still eating like kings in there?” calls someone from behind.
She nods in silence and hits the delete key.
• • • •
By sundown, everyone is drunk. Rain is the only topic of conversation. Anecdotes stretching from Lightning Ridge all the way down to the Eden coast.
Outside the tent it’s hard to tell at what point prayer vigil descends into full bore hootenanny. Night wears on and the music gets louder. Clapping and shouting and stomping for rain, fuelled by Ray Clayton’s palm heart toddy, what they drink when they’re out of everything else. Songs for Jesus, dancing for him, too, work boots and sun-cracked plastic sandals thumping hard on the warped and weathered dance boards.
With a blast of laughter, a couple of Country Women’s Association stalwarts burst their way out through the tent flaps. “Just as hot out here as ’tis inside,” says one, fanning her bright pink face — frowning when she notices Harper, a look that screams Girl, you oughta be throwing your lot in with the righteous.
Because everyone who’s anyone in Terina Flat is stomping and shrieking and hollering, both inside and outside the revival tent — social niceties be damned. Priest-Elvis has prepared his song list well: “Kentucky Rain” for openers, following on with “How Great Thou Art.” Short verse speeches in between, paving the way to “I Shall Not Be Moved.”
In the pauses between numbers, conversational buzz drones like the chittering of cicadas. A few stray blasts of it swim towards Harper through the heat. Nothing she doesn’t already know: that entrance to the revival tent is by gold-coin donation; that the way-past-their-bedtimes children scampering underfoot have been encouraged to write to God on precious scraps of multicoloured paper (the remaining dregs of the school’s once vibrant art department). At the crack of dawn tomorrow, smoke-lipped Elvis is going to hit the skies. Fly up high as close as he dares to deliver God their messages, extra personal.
As “It’s Now or Never” starts up, Harper’s surprised to catch old Doc Chilby slipping out through the tent flap. The women exchange suspicious glances. Doc Chilby nods, so Harper returns the favour. Doc Chilby delivered her into this world. She deserves respect even if she’s thrown her lot in with the Bible thumpers.
Up on the knoll, the racers admire the Base lit up like Christmas squared, same as every other night, but this night there’s something extra in the air. The town itself emits barely a glow. Night skies dark enough to drown the Milky Way in all its glory.
There’s talk of cars and trade in missing parts. Who needs what and what they’re going to barter for it. How the camel guy is late again. How someone’s cousin’s investigating other sources.
Janny Christofides saunters over sipping on a can of something warm and flat. “Saw you checking out that Jesus plane. A cloud seeder for sure.”
“Didya get a look at it up close?” says Harper.
Janny shakes her head. “Didn’t have to.”
Harper continues. “It’s got these bulges under the wings like wasp nests.”
Janny nods, enthusiasm causing her to spill a couple of splashes from her can. “Dispensers holding fifty-two units apiece. Flares built into the wings themselves. Avoids resistance. As little drag as possible.” Her eyes are shining.
“How’d ya know all this?”
“Old man used to do crop dusting, don’t forget.”
“But dusting’s different. Seeding’s illegal — ”
“Dusting’s illegal — there’s nothing left to dust. Everything’s illegal, unless you’re frackers or big foreign money or those massive fuckoff land barges dumping toxic shit deep into cracks.”
“We oughta report him,” Harper says bitterly, remembering Elvis grinding his cigarette butt into Terina dirt.
“Like anybody’s gonna give two shits.” Janny cocks her head back in the direction of the revival tent. The singing has long since become incoherent. Songs mashing in to one another, Presley numbers indistinguishable from hymns. “How much you reckon we’re paying that — ”
She doesn’t get to finish her sentence. Somebody calls out “Lightning!”
Janny looks up, startled, points to the empty airspace above the Base. Racers stand there frozen, jam jars of fermented melon hooch clutched in their hands.
“I don’t see any — ”
“Wait — there it is again!”
This time they see and hear it, too, a cracking split. Like thunder but not. Thick spikes stabbing at the fallow dirt. Aftershocks of colour, green and red.
There’s a scrabble for phones as a volley of sharp, thick beams shoot upwards from the Base. High-pitched whining that fades, then swells, then fades. A sonic boom followed by overbearing silence. The town dogs start barking and howling all at once. Nothing to see now. No more laser lights. The racers stuff their phones into pockets and head for their cars.
Cracker’s already seated behind the wheel of his precious Dodge Charger. Harper runs up to cadge a lift.
“Stay here,” he warns as he’s revving up his engine.
“Are you shitting me?”
But he’s got this serious look on his face and he’s not going to give her a ride. No matter. She waits till he takes off, then climbs in beside Bing Reh in his 1951 Ford Five-Star pickup. The racers are heading to the salt, their vehicles overloaded. Everyone’s in a hurry to get out there.
The Base has fallen still and silent. No more lasers. No more lightshow. No Blackhawks either, which seems odd, considering.
There’s more light than there ought to be, all coming from a suspicious patch of sky above the salt.
More lightning strikes drown out the growl of engines.
“Looks dangerous!” says Harper. Bing nods, eyes on the road. Half drunk or not, they have to go check it out.
Her heart pounds; thinking Lachie, please stay under cover, whatever you do, stay away from that chain link fence.
Things are not as they had seemed when viewed from the edge of town. The lightning’s localised, not spread across the sky — they got that right, but it isn’t striking anywhere close to Base. The salt flats are soaking up the brunt of it. Singed salt particles fling themselves at Harper’s nose. She sneezes, half expecting blood. Too dark to tell what she wipes across her jeans.
There’s no stopping Cracker. He aims his Dodge straight out into the thick of it. Looks like he’s deciding to play chicken with the lightning. Bing slows down. Harper knows what that means; he’s giving her the opportunity to get out. And she should get out, because not doing so is crazy, but instead she nods and the pickup’s engine roars and surges.
She can smell that smell no one ever smells anymore, that heady, moody tang just before a thunderhead lets rip. Plant oil sucked from dry rocks and soil mixed up with ozone and spores. Chemical explanations half remembered from biology class, never dreaming back then how rare the experience of rain would become in future times.
They gather, staring at the crazy lights.
“Red Sprite lightning,” says Bing, “Or something like it.”
Nobody argues. They’ve all seen strange stuff above and around the Base. Clouds that didn’t look like clouds when no clouds hung in any other patch of sky. Lenticular shapes like UFOs, only insubstantial. Ephemeral, like ghost residue of clouds. Not made of metal like anything you’d expect.
“Check it out!”
Sharp intakes of breath all round as a thick red lightning bolt travels horizontally from one cloud to another. Hits the second hard, like there’s something solid at its core, shatters into separate fragments, which coagulate into orbs.
Balls of cracking light drift down, hover, pause, pink neon glow emanating from their centre mass. Pulsing. Like the crackling orbs are breathing.
“Man, I don’t like the — ”
More crackling, louder, like automatic weapons fire. They cover their ears and duck, only it’s not ammo. It’s coming from the glowing orbs, close to the ground now, pulsing with red and light. A high-to-low-pitched whistle, almost musical.
A blood red, cloudshape jellyfish emerges, dangles tentacles of pure blue light. Drags across the surface of the salt. Almost moves like a living, breathing creature.
The air hangs thick with acrid ozone stench. Some of those lightning stabs are getting close.
Beneath the cloudshape, thick swirling coils writhe like a nest of snakes. Pale clouds forming angry faces, elongated skulls, animals with jagged teeth.
Somehow, some way, they lose track of time. Dawn is so insipid by comparison, they almost miss it when it finally arrives. Their eyes are dazed from the flash and flare. Colours dancing across their inner vision.
• • • •
Harper isn’t the one who first spots Lachie. She’s staring in the opposite direction. Up into a pink and orange sky at the dark gnat wobbling across its luminescent swathe. Elvis in his patched-up plane, heaven bound with a hangover, she hopes, of Biblical proportions. A plane packed tight with cigarette-size sticks of silver iodide if Janny’s right. Cold rain. Pyrotechnic flares. At best it’s alchemy, at worst, yet another hick town scam. Perhaps he will coax moisture from the wispy cirrus. Not enough to make a difference. Just enough to make sure he gets paid.
Cracker’s voice. She turns around as, dazed and moaning, three figures stagger across the salt. Somebody’s got binoculars. They shout the names out: Lachie, Danno, Jason. Staggering like zombies, only this isn’t some kind of joke. They get back in their vehicles and race out to intercept the scarecrow men. Clothing torn up, singed and smoking. Eyes wide and shit-scared sightless.
Harper’s screaming Lachie Lachie Lachie when she comprehends the state he’s in. He doesn’t react. Doesn’t even look at her. Doesn’t stare at anything. Just ahead.
All three are hurt bad. Jason is the worst.
Everybody’s shouting at everybody else. Eventually Lachie cocks his head at the sound of Harper’s voice. She goes to fling her arms around his neck but Janny grabs her wrist and holds on tight. “Needs Doc Chilby,” she says grimly. Harper slaps her hand away, but she doesn’t dare touch Lachie, because Janny’s right.
“Base’s got a hospital,” says Lucas Clayton, son of Reg. “State of the art.”
Nobody else says anything, but everybody’s thinking it. If they take the injured boys back to the Base, they’ll never be seen again. That lightning was not the natural kind. Whatever just happened here is Base-related.
A siren wails in the far off distance. The sound makes everybody jump.
“Doc Chilby will know what to do,” says Bing.
Lachie and Danno get loaded into the back of Bing’s pickup. Harper spreads down a blanket first, a ratty old thing balled up and wedged beside the tool kit. She tries not to wince at the sight of those burns. Keeps saying, “Everything’s gonna be okay,” although it isn’t.
The third guy, Jason, is laid gently across the back seats of a Holden Torana. Softly moaning like an animal, he seems the most out of it of the three.
They don’t notice the Blackhawks until too late. The cars split up — a reflex action — fanning in all directions, two vehicles heading for Doc Chilby’s by different routes, the others planning to drive decoy all over until they’re apprehended or run out of juice.
Harper presses her back against the cabin, crouches, hanging on with one hand to the pickup’s battered side. The ride is reasonably smooth until they reach the limits of the salt. Each bump and pothole sets the injured men off moaning.
By time they reach the town’s outskirts, Lachie is delirious and screaming. Impossible to keep the salt out of their wounds. He tries to sit up, but the passage is too ragged. Harper holds her breath, heart thumping painfully against her ribs. Hang on, Lachie. Hang on till we get there.
The sky is streaked with morning glow, the Jesus plane now the size of a lonely bird. A few clouds scudding, clumping stickily together. More than usual.
Any minute now the pickup will get intercepted by soldiers in full combat gear. Or a HAZMAT team in an unmarked van — they’ve all seen that in movies on TV.
But the streets are empty. Everyone’s still clustered around the revival tent or passed out on the ground. All necks are craned, all eyes on the Jesus plane looping and threading its way through a puff of clouds like a drunken gnat. Rosaries muttered, beads looped tightly around arms and wrists. Clutched in hands, pressed against hearts and lips. Holy Mary Mother of — Jesus, is that rain?
Thick, fat drops smack the dusty ground.
Proper rain for the first time in three long years. Rain coaxed from clouds not even in sight when the plane began its journey.
Looks like Elvis is no charlatan after all. Elvis is the real deal. Elvis can talk to Jesus and make it pour.
And then they’re dancing, arms flung into the air. Laughing and shrieking and praising the heavenly host. “Ave Maria” as bloated splats drill down upon their heads, soaking their shirts and floral print dresses, muddying up the packed dirt hospital car park. Mud splattered boots and trouser legs.
There’ll be time for Jesus later. Harper stays by Lachie’s side as the injured men are unloaded off the pickup. Straight through to Emergency, lucky such an option still exists. Terina Community Hospital once boasted fifty beds; now only ten of them are still in operation. The place was supposed to have closed a year ago. They’re all supposed to drive to Parkes if an accident takes place. Supposed to use the Base if it’s life or death.
One of the racers must have thought to phone ahead. Two nurses stand tentatively inside the sterile operating theatre. Waiting for Doc Chilby to scrub up. Waiting for something. Harper doesn’t find out what — she’s hustled into another room and made to fill out forms. Their Medicare numbers — how the fuck is she supposed to know? Didn’t they have their wallets in their pants?
“Don’t call the Base,” she says but it’s too late. That helicopter stopped chasing them for a reason — there’s only one place in town they can go for help.
An hour of waiting before a nurse brings her a cup of tea. Two biscuits wrapped in cellophane and a magazine with blonde models on the cover. The magazine’s two years old, its recipes ripped roughly out of the back.
“Is Lachie gonna be okay?” she asks.
The nurse is about her age or maybe a few years older. Nobody Harper knows or went to school with. The hospital has trouble keeping staff. They rotate young ones from the bigger towns but they never stay for more than a couple of months.
“That other boy died,” the nurse says eventually. “I’m not supposed to tell you.”
Harper knows the nurse means Jason even though she didn’t say his name. He’d been in the worst shape of all three.
“Were they all from the Base?”
“Yeah, reckon.” The nurse doesn’t seem to think anything of the fact. Definitely not a local, then. To her, the Base is nothing more than it seems.
The nurse chews on her bottom lip. “Never seen anything like it. Multiple lightning strikes, each one, poor things. Left its mark on them, it did. Tattoos like blood red trees.” She points to the base of her own neck by way of demonstration. “What were they doing out there on the salt in the middle of the night?”
Harper doesn’t have an answer. The nurse is not expecting one, not even wild speculation. She wanders over to the window and lifts the faded blue and purple blind. “Still raining, I see. Least that’s something.”
Still raining. Words that take a while to sink in. Harper unfolds her legs from underneath her, heaves up out of the sagging beige settee.
The nurse’s heels clip-clop against linoleum as she leaves.
The opened blind reveals a world awash with mud and gloom. Water surges along the gutters like a river. Slow-moving cars plough through, their wheels three-quarters covered. More water than Harper has seen in a long, long time.
“When can I see Lachie?” she calls after the nurse. Too late. The corridor is empty.
Harper slips the crinkly biscuit packet into her pocket, hops down the fire escape two steps at a time.
The water in the car park is brown and up to her knees already. A couple of men in anoraks wade out in an attempt to rescue their cars.
• • • •
The rain keeps falling, too hard, too fast. Main Street is barely recognisable. Whole families clamber up onto roofs, clinging to spindly umbrella stems — and each other. Half-drenched dogs bark up a storm. Nobody’s singing songs of praise to Jesus.
She pictures the revival tent swept away in a tsunami of soggy scones and lammingtons, trampled as panic sets in, random and furious as the rain itself.
The deluge is too much, too quick for the ground to cope with. Hard baked far too many months to soak it up. There’s nowhere for the surge to slosh but up and down the streets. Vehicles bob along like corks and bottles.
She doesn’t want to think about the cattle in the fields. Dogs chained up in unattended backyards. Children caught in playgrounds.
She’s wading, waist-deep in filthy swell when a wave breaks over her head. A wave on Main Street, of all unlikely things. Next thing she knows, she’s going under, mouth full of mud and silt. Scrabbling for a slippery purchase, bangs her shins on something hard, unseen. This can’t be happening. The rain keeps falling, mushing everything to brown and grey.
Her leg hurts but she keeps on moving, half swimming, half wading, crawling her way to higher ground. To the knoll. She doesn’t recognise it at first. Not until she stands and checks the view. A line of lights snaking out from the Base and heading in her direction.
She’s shaking, either from the cold or shock. Bit by bit, the sky is clearing; bright blue peering through grey rents and tears. Clouds the colour of dirty cotton wool break up. Voices shout from rooftop to rooftop. A sound that might be a car backfiring — or a gunshot.
She wipes grit from her eyes with the heel of her palm. Hugs her shoulders, slick hair plastered against her face.
It’s Janny. She glances down at red rivulets streaking her muddy calf.
“Can you walk?”
“Better get you up to the hospital then.”
Steam rises from the rapidly warming sludge. A cloying smell like rotting leaves and sewage. Damp human shapes mill about, disorganised. Unanchored.
She watches three men in anoraks attempt to right a car. Others stand staring stupidly at the mess. Like they don’t know where to start or what to do.
She limps back up to the hospital with Janny by her side. Only two army trucks are parked out the front of it. Doc Chilby stands her ground in a sodden coat, arms folded across her chest. Four soldiers briskly unload boxes, stacking them up on the veranda out of the mud.
Doc Chilby argues with another soldier. “We didn’t ask for anything. You’re not taking anyone out of here — that’s final.”
The soldier has his back to Harper; she can’t hear what he’s saying. Only that the doc is getting flustered, flinching every time a Blackhawk thunders close. She repeats herself, but the soldier isn’t listening.
The nurse who told Harper that Jason had died stands smoking on the veranda.
Loud voices emanate from inside the building, then a sudden surge of soldiers swarm. That nurse starts shouting, Doc Chilby too. Three stretchers are borne swiftly down wooden stairs. Weapons raised. Threats issued. The steady thrum of Blackhawk blades drowning out all attempts at negotiation.
The Base has come for its wounded contract workers. Wounded doing what, exactly? Harper has been watching without comprehending. Now wide awake, she adds her own voice to the shouting. Ignores the nurse signalling frantically from the veranda, the ache in her leg, and the Blackhawk’s thudding blades. She runs after one of the trucks — too late, it’s out of reach. Picks up a rock and throws it. The rock bounces harmlessly off the taut khaki canvas. She almost trips as she reaches for something else to throw. The road’s sticky and slippery from rain.
The convoy lumbers like a herd of beasts. A minute later and she’s standing helpless in the middle of the road, a chunk of rock gripped tightly in her hand.
Her bleeding leg gets sprayed with mud as a car pulls up beside her. Cracker in a rattling old army Dodge from his collection. The M37 convertible minted 1953. Same colour as the green-grey mud. Dented. Spotted with rust and a couple of bullet holes. Thick treads built to handle difficult terrain.
Neither of them says anything. The crazed glint in his eyes fills her with hope. She climbs into the passenger seat. He floors it, following close behind the trucks at first, then lagging. The old Dodge putters and chokes, but it holds its own.
A bright new day. Sun and daylight are banishing the nighttime landscape’s sinister cast. Red-and-blue jellyfish lightning seems like another world ago.
Cracker races, slams his palm down on the horn. The convoy of army trucks ignores him. He keeps his foot pressed to the accelerator. Harper keeps her gaze fixed on the Base.
They can’t get in. They’ll be turned back at the front gate. Threatened with whatever trespassers get threatened with. Whatever happens, she’s ready for it. So is Cracker.
The Base’s electronic gates do not slide open. The truck convoy halts. Cracker stops too, but keeps the engine purring. Just in case.
A soldier gets out of the truck ahead and slams the cabin door. He’s armed but he hasn’t drawn his weapon. She’s still gripping that rock chunk in her hand.
“Get out of the vehicle,” booms a megaphone voice.
“Not fucken’ likely,” says Cracker.
“I repeat: Get out of the vehicle.”
Nothing happens. Nobody moves. The Dodge keeps grunting and grumbling like a big old dog.
Harper turns the door handle, slides out of the passenger seat. “You can’t just do whatever you like,” she shouts. She’s shaking hard and she knows she’d better drop the rock, not give them any reason. She’s waiting for that soldier to draw his gun. “You’ve got no right,” she repeats, softer this time.
He approaches, one arm raised. “Ma’am, this country is at war.” The walkie-talkie on his shoulder crackles but he doesn’t touch it.
“Which country?” she says, squinting through harsh sunlight. “Which war?”
He gives her a half-arsed smirk but doesn’t answer. Mumbles into the electronic device. Turns his back, gets back in the truck.
She lets the rock fall to the dusty road. Dusty. It appears the rain didn’t reach this far. Not the strangest thing she’s seen in recent times. “Lachie,” she says, but it’s too late. Too late for Lachie, too late for her and Cracker. The gates slide open with electronic precision. Trucks pass through, one by one. Cracker’s Dodge amongst them — too late for turning back. A voice behind commands her to keep moving. Not to turn. Not to pick up any rocks. Not to make any sudden movements.
She looks up just in time to catch a speck in the wide blue sky. A wedge-tailed eagle, coasting on the updraft, its diamond-shaped tail unmistakable. Those birds partner up for life — something else she learned in school. They fly together, perform acrobatics, but she cannot spot the other one, its mate. When she cranes her neck and shades her eyes, a soldier twists her arm behind her back. Pushes her forwards through the steel Base gates. Metal grates as they snap and lock behind her.