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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Beyond the Wires
by Miles Hitchcock

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The fences have stopped. At least the ones that are keeping sheep in. The wheat paddocks shrunk to just a few green scallops of red earth, the crop sparser and shorter, and now they’re gone completely, just the glitter of rocks around distant ridges and the grey-green scrub. And the sky. A clear blue baking lid. High, high cirrus streaks, whisperings of jet streams. A continental sky.

He pulls into a P, crunch of wheels on windscreen glass, stops next to an overflowing bin, a scatter of fallen tinnies, and kills the engine. Nothing but the sound of the sun. They get outside, not exchanging any words. The trees are as still as photographs, limbs as hard as concrete, leaves everywhere clumping and drooping. A million ants on the ground, tiny birds flitting.

"We’re here," Ian says, looking down the red asphalt road, a vanishing point to the interior. Sarah puts on her sunglasses, pastel pink is suddenly an unnatural colour, she thinks, glances at Ian and adds, "Somehow your clothes look strange."

Ian strips off his t-shirt, swings it on his forefinger. Sara laughs. "Hang on! Photo!" Runs to the car.

"Too true..." Ian kicks off slippy thongs and digs in the tray for boots. He inspects the jerry and water cans, walks around the ute. When the engine blurs again the panels shudder, engine parts buzz - a loud, fragile sound.

Piles of vomit from the beaten earth, white-green-blue slag inside cyclone fence reservations, drills and dozers next to railroad tracks looping across the ochre, bringing the rocks into the mainstreet where the mine began, a town driven in and out on trucks, prefab houses with bulky aircons in every window, men walking round in khaki shorts and akuza hats, wondering if they’re gonna move the town tomorrow, or move the mine, and around the horizon rocky piles of half mountains, the occasional clear sky thunder of blasts.

Ian and Sarah cross the highway, patterned clothes and beach hats turning bleary eyes from a few people sprawled on the old pub veranda as they scrunch past. Behind the pub they buy beer through a grilled window, ice from a battered white refrigerator in the gravel carpark. In the service station Sarah drains and restocks the eskies, the ice glittering and running in the sunlight; Ian flips the hood and stares at the dusty twists of metal, drops it shut, gets in and sets off.

There’s an old aboriginal guy standing in the middle of the highway, staring as if Ian had just insulted him. White smoky beard, limbs as bony as a bird’s, long trousers and bare feet, with one arm raised he leans forward... a truck approaching blares and he’s still until eclipsed by a blur of wheels and trailers.

The eagles hop around the carcass tearing at tendons, fluttering out their wings for balance. The car pulls up, Ian and Sarah stare:

"Wow this is primeval!"

"Car defers to bird."

"Rock beats scissors."

"Dinosaur crushes machine."

In the middle of nowhere, Ian refills for the first time, feels almost dangerous getting out of the car, tilts the jerry can over the funnel and watches the fumes billow and the spill strip red dust from metal. Sarah screams. A huge shadow crosses over them, he jerks, diesel spills instantly cold on his legs, the bird circles his head like a boomerang, wingspan easily the length of the car.

"FUCK! Fuckfuckfuck!" Each time he clicks the key, the engine wheezes, fires and dies, wheezes, fires and dies, its like blowing up a balloon with a hole in the end.

"Shit this is NOT happening," Sarah exclaims, staring out the window at the nickel-plated air, the tiny breast-shaped mountains, the smoky wisps of mulga like a carpet to the horizon.

"Yes it is." Ian explains, forehead on steering wheel, trying to force from this brilliant piece of reality analysis the reassurance of practicality. He pulls the hood release lever again and pushes open the door, which grunts and lets in crimson dust and flies. Outside anything not shaded - arms, the rock-tiled ground, engine parts - seems irradiated. His hat feels like essential equipment, the leather around his forehead tight with sweat. The engine. He looks at the engine. He has already checked the spark plug cables and fan belt, figures if it fires it must be a fuel problem, grabs a screwdriver and looks for the distributor. There isn’t one. "Shit!" he says, frozen. The fucking distributor is missing?

"Hey Sarah!" he shouts. Yes? "Pump on the accelerator frasec willya?" She shifts in the car, then a lever moves with a squeak in the engine, pushing into the back of the engine housing, secrets locked inside hot dusty seals. Complicated copper tubes emerge from several places and connect near the sparkplugs. He looks for a fuel filter, on his car at home just a little plastic canister, but there isn’t one of those either. He’s staring with his screwdriver in his hand, realising this engine is speaking a language he doesn’t understand.

He gets back in the car. "So?" Sarah asks. "Let’s try again," he grumbles, and the engine roars into life. He’s flabbergasted, Sarah slaps him on the shoulder. "You bewdy Ian!" The engine grins and purrs under his foot. "Well fuck me," he says, putting it in gear, and they jostle over the corrugations. After about 25 seconds in top gear the engine sucks, lurches and stalls. Red lights come on across the dash. They coast in silence to a dead halt.

"I think it’s the fuel filter," says Ian. A shrivelled guy appears and nods under his grey hat. "Could be. Push it to the shed."

"You wouldn’t have a spare woodja?"

"Not out here mate." Even so, Ian is relieved to hear there actually is a fuel filter inside the engine. There’s a full workshop in the corrugated iron shed behind the house. Now he’ll find out where it is. Flies buzz around the back of a ute where three white bodies lie in dark stains. The house is a patchwork of smooth mudbricks, paint-flaking fibro and flywire - antique colonial meets chicken shed - half-shaded by a circle of droopy gums. A couple of dogs lounge around in the dust, beating it half-heartedly with tails when the car stops. Grease and shadows and heat. Behind the settlement looms the smooth curve of a high ridge, green with spinifex, red with rock. The man’s face is a deep crease, eyes squint and glittering grey, he pauses with wrench in hand before the engine, for a moment, a fixed-eye bow before an opponent, and he leans in, his shoulders shrug, and he’s holding a blue cylinder in his grease-smeared hands.

"Whatja do ahdea?" Ian asks casually, as if such a conjuring act were passe.

"Goats," the guy says. Shooting is obviously a redundant verb, out here. He kneels down, smooths a piece of newspaper in the oil-spotted dust, grabs a castoff piece of wood and starts hitting it with the cylinder. Sarah has wandered out of the shed and is squatting in the shade of one of the trees. The helplessness of limping together in 2km jumps through the sweeping scenery has taken its toll: they’ve swallowed harsh words into resentful silence since sunrise. The stationhand stops banging, finds a battered icecream bucket, throws it at Ian’s feet. "Put some juice in there willya mate." Ian does so. Then he swills the filter in the pink liquid, which turns black, starts banging it again. Ian thinks he should pull up a pew, roll the guy a cigarette, discuss engines or livestock, knows how ridiculous this would be, so as the guy starts screwing the filter back onto the engine, he says, "One thing I do have is a cold beer. Can I offer ya one?"

"She’s right mate. The boongs’re comin round lader. They’ll have plenty."

He shakes the exertion of wrenching the filter off his back and grabs a towel. "Turner over." The engine idles with a throaty diesel chug. "Any luck she’ll getcha to the Junction."

"Really appreciate the help mate."

"Yeah thanks!" Sarah chimes in.

"Sure there’s nuthin can I do forya?" Ian asks. The guy shrugs, squints at the couple with a toothgap grin.

"Carn use ya. ‘Preciate the company but..." he widens his grin. "Watch out for the blacks, don’t leddem scare yas," and waves his hat as they roll away.

The car is now a miniature Tonka Toy in the sun, with a plastic Sarah sitting under a tiny umbrella. The rest of the landscape has remained unaltered, the same bushes open their hard flowers to the sky, the same ridge humped and curved like an stony underground snake rears overhead, the same flat glittering stones crunch underfoot. Like a trick of the light she gets up and walks behind the car. He and Sarah have decided to just get out of the car, camp for a day, accept their fate, try to enjoy the wildness and the crazy slap-in-your-face stuckness of it. Ian squats down halfway up the ridgeline to wipe sweat, drink, puff; he stares down into the dry gorge, can still see on its rock face a giant faded ochre spiral - the universal tribal sign for water - as recognisable across the continent as the luminescent M's above its nomadic highways. His shadow seems deep and hard in the sun’s searing UV - nothing around him casts such a real shadow, just twigs and bones, except that cave down there, a black mouth in the red rock, and he feels nauseous. Doesn’t it feel like something looming there watching him? A predator: two creased eyes inside an ancient face, waiting like a predator waits, wanting to rob his bones. He shakes a little voice out of his head and looks around himself, notices for the first time bones scattered on the flat rock, two femurs and a few knucklebones, dingo dines on kangaroo, and a little pile of brown hair. Funny, the bones are yellow old, the hair is fresh as yesterday... and weird it’s not stirring in the light breeze, just floating there, and come to think of it don’t the bones look arranged in a pattern? And do kangaroos really have such long hair? Ian jumps to his feet and backs off, realising the body pieces are human.

From the top of the ridge the desert plain looks like a dirty copper plate, scoured by storm water, dotted with acacia trees like spots of mould. Ian looks down on the wings of an eagle twisting over a patch of scrub. The land is asleep, breathing occasional sighs of wind, the eye-flicker squeal of a kite, the dream of an animal bouncing across a hardpan. Ian watches this now - some kangaroos, kilometres away, skipping in a line, dots moving between dots, the sky above stretching out into space, and like the impact of a rock hitting him in the temple Ian realises this is space, he is now in space, that flat-topped mountain stump over there is just another sharp crag in the universe, has twin sisters on Neptune, and the planets are just bigger crags spinning head over heels in space, just like this twiggy struggling bush here, making seeds for the ants, and those kangaroos, looking back with tear-stained thirst-drained faces to check if the mob is going somewhere, anywhere, nowhere, up there above the eagles and the Magellan cloud, and this fragile gas he is breathing is leaking away, rolling like an ocean against the rocky ridges, and everything is alone and lost on a little rock in a desert in a cascade of stars, and no-one has a clue what to do next... the awful freefalling truth that we are dangling upside-down over the cliff edge of the universe... being tough or brave or wise is just a sham because that incomprehensible nothing is gonna rob us of our bones one day. Ian grasps secrets and is astonished. He squats for half an hour, staring at the trees buckling and the mesas moving across the vast plain.

Then he notices the white car next to the ute. A couple of people walking around there under broad hats, maybe one of them Sarah; he’s sure he can see black limbs, immediately recalls what the stationhand said, sees a dented car full of aboriginals snaking and sliding along the gravel road, empty stubbies dropping from its windows, a gun barrel or two pointing out, bandanna'd men looking for kicks, like someone that's driven in from the city and broken down, fuck they could do anything to her... Ian skids on the rocks.

"Are you OK?" he gasps, next to the car, hands on his knees panting. His shins are covered in spiderwebs and little scratches from dodging the mulga. Sarah is lying on her belly in some shade.

"Yeah sure."

"Where are they?"

"Oh you missed them... that was really interesting. Some aboriginal women came by. And Ian, they’re gonna help us later, they’re coming back to get the car going!"

Ian is puffing and listening. "Really? I saw a car from the top of that ridge. Thought I better come back..."

"Yeah these women, an old mother and her daughter, were wondering what the hell we were doing here," Sarah laughs.

Ian grunts, finds a bottle of sunheated water, gulps, asks "...And what were they doing here?"

"Well, guess what? They said this place, that ridge you climbed up, is magic, you know... a sacred site! They said there’s a man’s place up there, where they do initiations? Told me I shouldn’t walk around here. Weird huh? They saw the car and knew we were campers, actually they said we shouldn’ sleep here, reckon its dangerous."


"You know, spirits..."

"They ordered us out?"

"Well not really," Sarah flicks an ant from her leg, smiling. "They were so sweet! Kinda laughing at us I suppose. They were here only ten minutes or so. But they said some men would be back to help."

"Wow. That’s really interesting shit." Ian flops down next to Sarah, his limbs weak and jumpy after the run, he can’t quite prop himself on a bent elbow, so he holds himself in a strange primate position.

"Ian what’s wrong?"

"Nothing nothing. I found a weird place up there. There were bones and hair and shit. Fuck it musta been...!" He shifts, falls on his back, starts to stare at the planets again, flaming balls of rock, "Ian are you OK? You look scared."

"You wouldn’t believe... some strange... listen, that initiation site maybe... I got all those weird thoughts out there..."

"Ye-e-es..?" She’s staring at him with a pinched face, he can sense Sarah’s body distorting into kangaroo limbs, her face pulsing in the shadows...

"You know, fuck, we are in space Sarah, these are the burning wastes of the universe you know, and we’re lost here, everyone is..."

"Ia-a-an?" she’s staring closely into his eyes. "You’re not tripping are you!" She jumps back. "You bastard!" She looks down at him like a scolding mother.

"No! No way, that’s what’s so weird..." he slaps his head. "Listen, those women were right... you know this whole leadership thing, fathers, superiors, fuhrers, bosses, fuck, it's all bullshit! You know! it’s a sham, a trick to keep everyone stupid, no not stupid, just childish, controllable... these people tell us they know where we’re going, that they are the guides, so we follow them, do what they want like... slaves, thats it! They keep us like children so we are slaves! The whole population is kept in a childlike state of mind by the, you know, the fucking patriarchy! Yet these goons have no idea about the future! No-one does or ever has! Fuck! That’s why there’s no initiation anymore in society! To keep these few idiots in power! Because initiation wasn’t about making tough warrior men out of boys... it was about scaring tough adolescents with the truth; the elders knew they were all just fools in the face of death and the universe, powerless, clueless, and while childhood was about obedience to elders, adulthood is about equality with them, equality of ignorance, because they need help, these leaders, because if you’ve found your own bones lying in the dust, and seen the horizon falling into a black hole, you run, scarred and scared, back to your tribe, and do your best to just look out for each other..."

Lights across miles of flat earth, touching the hillsides, glaring under crests, disappearing for minutes then illuminating rocks and dust and the bonsai gnarls of sleeping trees.

Spotlights criss-cross through the trees - sudden shadows leap out of Ian and Sarah, cross their firelight blanket and into the car - sounds - no hellos necessary as shadows climb onto the ground and approach.

"Hey fella. Ya bus buggered then?"

"Ian can’t see, says "Hi..." anyway, peers.

"I’m Jimmy. These me mates. You Sarah? Old woam told me you stuck here widdis poor sucker." A whoop of laughter from the lights.

"Yeah. I was hoping you guys’d come," Sarah calls out. "Siddown nav a drink."

There’s a general movement across the rocks. "Sure sista! Do just that!" Ian walks up to Jimmy and sticks out his hand. "Ian. Sorry, yeah, ah... thanks! Fucken great! Hadda problem for days." Jimmy’s stomach is too big for his black and red tanktop, his legs plunge out of shorts to crush a thin pair of thongs. He shakes Ian’s hand. "Checked the lines yet?"


"Geddunder the truck wid rag and torch. Lookinfa leaks in the fuel line. ‘Fyagot some cold ones me an boys’ll keep ya missus company."

The hot desert stars necklace the trees, the dust motes hanging in the spotlights, a freshly-opened cold beer beads silently on top of the battery, Ian gasping reaches the pressure limit of his spanner, then a giant black hand reaches into the engine and gives a 20k twist. "OK kick it in the guts now."

It roars to life. Jimmy spins it down 5ks of the track, double-clutching and spraying gravel, airborne over the humps. Whoops from the campsite on return, Sarah on someone’s knee and waving her arms, the black ridge behind them rising like a wave into the universe.

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