Ayers Rock, By God
by Tony Noland
The skiff bumped against the dock, like the firm kiss of an overly fond aunt. The deck master was already hauling in the sails, his motors humming and the fabric slapping as the wind was set free of the boat, taking its strong salt tang off across the landscape, up into the rising western hills and to the wasteland beyond.
Bala shaded out the harsh sun with a hand over his eyes. Glare from the white cliffs ahead told him everything he needed to know. There was life here, once. Twisted, stunted life, but life nonetheless. The gleaming sterility on the horizon was something he didn't need to go touch and taste in order to write his report, but that was irrelevant. All of this was irrelevant. Three and a half billion years in the making, and it was all irrelevant.
The thick accent only served to underline the contempt in the voice. Bala turned to face down at the dock. "Yes," he said, "I'm Dr. Bala. Are you Mr. Frederick?"
"Shit by God, no, I'm not Fred. Are you blind? I come to get you, that's all. Mr. Fred is waiting. Get moving, now, he's a busy man."
The man stood amid the sailors making fast the boat, some of whom growled and cursed at him to get out of the way as they worked the lines and did whatever else it was that sailors did when a ship went from being a free creature to being a captive, a night moth pinned to the board of a grimy, salty cargo port. Bala considered sticking to his original intent of waiting until the men had finished before trying to depart, but it was clear that the man would be more disruptive the longer he stood amid the sailors.
And all of the blame will be put on me, Bala thought, because I am who I am, and I am who I work for.
He climbed down the rope ladder and walked among the sailors. Politely, he gave instructions to the cargo manager as to which hotel to send his baggage. The man grunted in return, but Bala knew his effects would be handled properly. These men understood who their masters were.
Bala looked for Mr. Frederick's representative, saw him striding down the causeway toward the inland parking lot. Without trying to catch up, Bala walked in the same direction, the sweat spreading under his arms and across his chest. It was hot here, he thought, hotter even than back home. There was a joke the locals used to tell about the temperature being more bearable because it was a dry heat.
They didn't tell that joke anymore. He assumed that it was something else they held against him, the loss of a reason to laugh. So few people laughed these days.
He arrived at a battered old Range Rover, converted to run on either hydrogen or polyazide gas. There had once been a label on the big tank bolted on the back of the truck, but it was illegible. He wondered where the driver filled up his vehicle that such things were tolerated.
"Took you bloody long enough."
"It's a warm day," Bala said. "Are we going out to the works to see Mr. Frederick?"
"Nope, we're going straight to Ayers Rock."
"Don't you mean Uluru?"
"No, you little shit, I mean Ayers Rock."
They didn't say another word to each other for the next three hours. When they stopped for fuel, the man took care of it without speaking. Bala bought a package of crisps, a large bag of dried, pepper-and-garlic flavored rabbit meat and three apples. He also bought a case of water, six jugs of four liters each. When he brought them to the truck, the driver rolled his eyes and made noises of disgust, but said nothing.
They drove on in silence, Bala ate his food and drank his water in silence, they both urinated by the side of the deserted road in silence and when they arrived at the monitoring station, the man pointed at the biggest building, then walked away in silence.
Uluru gleamed and glared, like an iceberg trapped in a frozen sea, like the sarcophagus of a dead god propped up as a tourist attraction. The ground crunched under Bala's boots as he walked, encrustations of salt shattering and blowing on the ever-present wind. He'd been here before and knew to close his eyes to slits, but the air still stung. He opened the door without knocking.
"Dr. Bala! How wonderful to see you, man! You're looking good, like a second bride!" The station manager's booming voice shouted across the room in madras bashai, the colloquy that the bosses back home affected to show their common-man roots and to exclude outsiders from their conversation. The bosses did it, so every minor company functionary across the world used it, too.
Bala despised it and everything it implied, but what could he do? What could anyone do?
After the preliminaries - offers of restroom facilities, water, tea, food - they went into a small conference room. The oversized window faced Uluru, framing it and the whitened landscape all around in the highest quality plexiglas.
The manager faced the window and said, "Magnificent, isn't it? All of the company's finest accomplishments, hell, our nation's greatest triumph, all rolled into one beautiful picture. It's quite a rock, that's for sure."
India conquering Australia in only two years was a triumph of economic and military might. Using hydrogen bombs to dig the Great Inner Sea was an engineering accomplishment without parallel. Fine-tuning the evaporative cooling of the sea water to mitigate the severity of the monsoons back home was the most successful geosculpting effort man had ever mounted to counter the effects of runaway global warming. A thousand million of his countrymen lived and prospered because of what had been done here.
But this, Bala thought, this? Beautiful? Even if the salt from the evaporated seawater made this land a pristine, gleaming, crystalline white, even if it helped to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight away, even if fewer than a million people had been displaced and fewer than a thousand species had been poisoned to extinction, this was still an abomination.
It was an abomination.
"Yes," Bala said, looking at Uluru. "It's beautiful."
===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.
Like it? Tweet it! Tweet