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SOJOURN





HUW MERLIN

Copyright © 2018 HUW MERLIN

All rights reserved.


DEDICATION



For all those striving to achieve a goal.







SOJOURN meaning

FORMAL

NOUN

1: a temporary stay

VERB

1: stay somewhere temporarily







ONE

 

 

Late January 1983, Central Australia, what really happened.

 

A red cloud of fine bull dust billowed and snaked back through the desert, following the course of its creator. The blue vehicle was intermittently hidden by the profuse mulga which had appeared during the recent wet season.

The whirling red dust suddenly disappeared as the Range Rover burst out of the scrub onto the poorly sealed bitumen highway.

The Range Rover’s Super Oscar driving lights mounted on the bull bar which encircled grill were splattered with bugs. Their mashed bodies had mixed with the clinging dust to form a crusty red and yellow surface covering. That second skin extended back, from the lights over the bonnet to the windscreen, which was smeared from the near futile efforts of the wipers to give the driver a clear field of vision. The blue of the Range Rover was barely recognizable under the proliferation of dirt which had accumulated during the last two weeks. During that time, the vehicle was home for its three occupants who were searching for filming locations.

The driver of the dirt encased, bug spattered Range Rover was Quin Tradwell, he was tall and good looking, a man who liked to think of himself as Australia’s answer to Francis Ford Coppola or Stephen Spielberg. He was hailed among his peers as a genius. He directed his first picture at twenty-three. The picture was called “The Fix’, and was proclaimed a masterpiece by critics. It made a killing at the Box Office, and was screened at Cannes, to the great pleasure of the critical viewing audience. The Fix, as the name would suggest, was about the drug culture and explored the Golden Triangle and Australia’s part in it.

That movie opened doors for him – notably financial ones.

His next picture, he produced as well as directed. That one was presented to the public on his twenty-sixth birthday. The next night and morning were spent celebrating not only his birthday, but also the rave reviews “Flight” had received. It was about the flight from the law of a struggling young couple who accidently stumbled across information about corrupt officials in the government and the police. The movie going public proclaimed it a brutally honest presentation of society, and of course, a work of art.

At that stage, Quin’s ego started to run out of control. Some suggested his ego had developed an ego – which many thought was to be expected. His friends were not in favour of the change his personality had undergone, and moved swiftly to counter it with a massive cold shoulder. Much to their displeasure, this did not faze him – though it did change him. It made him aware of his own personality, and its shortcomings. He proceeded to correct his faults as best he could, but he did not go back to those other people, who, he felt, were really only hangers-on. Instead, he vowed never to get involved with their type again.

It was that experience which prompted him to write his third motion picture – “Numero Uno”. This was a highly autobiographical work, but only he and his wife, Billie, were aware of this. Quin intended to present his central characters in a background of isolation – hence the search for locations in the desert – to accentuate the conflicts of personalities....with each other, and with the environment.

With Quin and Billie Tradwell was Chelsea King. She was Quin’s secretary, a job which was previously held by Billie, until a year earlier, when she vacated the position to marry Quin. He insisted that married life be kept separate from career life. Billie disagreed at first. Thinking this was unnecessary, but after a week of discussion and Quin hammering his point home, the logic behind Quin’s thinking, still eluded her. Never the less, love one out and she agreed (no matter what she really thought).

Now after two weeks in the desert, the trio was looking forward to the second half of the preproduction location scouting. They were heading for a medium sized town known as Gibbons. Quin looked at Chelsea in his rear vision mirror. She was lounging across the back seat, watching what she called “the monotonous scenery”, and fanning herself with a copy of Cosmopolitan. The Range Rover was air conditioned, but the system was showing its inability to cope with the scorching Central Australian sun.

Quin slid his glasses down his nose and wiped the accumulated sweat from his forehead and eyes, then slid them back. His green eyes weren’t in desperate need of correction, but he was slightly short-sighted, and found it more comfortable to leave his glasses on. He glanced at his wife. She was staring down the long, narrow, black tarmac strip along which they were now travelling. She was as bored as it was possible to be. She had read their full supply of magazines and books and was at a loss to know what else to do.

Quin recognized the trouble with both his passengers. He reached over and squeezed Billie’s hand and smiled, ‘Pretty hot?’

Chelsea stopped fanning herself and leaned forward. ‘No,’ she commented then leaned back ‘kidding’ and recommenced her fanning.

‘In any case,’ Quin said, shrugging off the lack of response from his wife, and the inference from his secretary that it wasn’t that comfortable, ‘we should be at Gibbons soon.’

‘Good,’ Billie muttered.

 

A police Constable stopped at the edge of the footpath which bordered Gibbons’ main road La Fayette. He glanced up and down the street, but as usual, activity was minimal. A few people strolled in and out of shops.

‘Hmmm.’ There wasn’t much here for him, except a form of power of sorts, which wouldn’t be available to him in the City.

The sun was high and fierce. Constable Doug Corley removed his wide brimmed brown hat – his uniform was tan – and wiped the sweat from the band. God, the temperature must be cracking the ton. Business was usually bad during the middle portion of the day in late January, early February. The badge on his hat caught the sun and flashed, cutting at his eyes like razor blades. ‘Fuck!’ Corley pushed his hat on. He had forgotten his sunglasses. He stepped off the footpath onto the road, grumbling about leaving his sunglasses behind in the station, and strolled casually across the street, quite aware of the old Dodge pickup that was barrelling down on him. He raised his left hand without looking.

The driver of the old Dodge couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the constable step in his path, hand raised. The old man, who bore a vague resemblance to his truck, jumped with both feet on the brake pedal, bringing the dirty old Dodge to a shuddering, tire-screaming halt.

Corley grinned, patted his beer belly, and continued up onto the footpath.

The old man in the Dodge sat watching him, his jaw hanging down as he gulped air and clutched at his chest.

Corley stopped at the main entrance to one of Gibbons’ two pubs and turned back towards the road. He frowned when he saw the old man still there, staring at him. ‘Move it!’ he shouted, and pointed down the main street. The old man jerked, restarted his truck and kangarooed it off. The constable grinned again, satisfied with his display of authority, spun back to the door, and entered the public bar.

He went over to the long ornate bar and sat himself down on one of the many vacant stools. The public bar had a strong, familiar to the constable, smell of hops. The odour of old beer hung heavily in the air, despite the rigorous cleaning that it was given each night. There were five people in the bar. Four of them stood around one of the three pool tables, watching intently as the fifth man lined up his shot. Corley took off his hat and began fanning himself with it, as he strained to see how the balls sat on the pool table.

The young man shooting was in his mid twenties and agitated.

‘Cummmon, Streaker. You can do it.’

Streaker (a nickname he gained when he ran naked down the main street one New Year’s Eve) growled an obscenity, and kicked back with his right foot – knocking over the table and two chairs behind him.

His audience frowned momentarily at this, then after glancing at each other, roared with laughter.

‘Calm down, Streak, old son,’ his partner, Curly urged again with a laugh.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ Streaker hissed.

There were three balls on the table, the red two – the ball he had to sink – the striped blue ten, sitting against it over the left corner pocket – which was where the other four men were standing – and the black eight ball over the left middle pocket.

Streaker Mullone squinted at his target. The cue ball was over the right corner pocket at his end, the opposite end to the other balls. He straightened and rested his cue over his right shoulder and re-examined the table.

‘Shoot, damn it,’ the man who looked like a cowboy snarled.

Curly Denning, or Shirl as he was alternately known, walked around the table and whispered to Streaker, ‘What’s the trouble, Streak? You need a drink or something?’

Streaker looked at him and smiled. He took his glass of beer from the edge of the table and gulped it dry.

The two men, Streaker and Curly were playing, were the driver and his offsider, of the road train being loaded at the stock yard. They had never seen the two locals before, and had begun to wish they never had. They were playing to a plan and were a little concerned at the sight of the Constable and his familiarity with Streaker and Curly.

Streaker handed Curly his empty glass and lined up his shot with a new sense of purpose.

‘Thank God.’ The cowboy muttered.

Streaker struck the white cue ball hard. The crack resounded through the near empty bar. The ball shot down the table. Looks good, he thought over and over, until at last, the ball missed by millimetres. ‘Whaaa thu fuck?’

The truckies began to snigger as the white ball bounced hard off the bottom cushion and careened back up the table where it bounced off the top cushion.

Streaker’s eyes widened. ‘Oh fuck no!’

The cue ball scraped past the eight ball. It teetered on the edge of the pocket, then, just when they thought it was safe, the eight ball fell in.

Curly stared at the pocket for a moment, then turned slowly to Streaker, his jaw hanging limp, ‘Sorry.’ Streaker shrugged, which started Curly shaking his golden curly locks in disbelief.

The cowboy and his offsider collected the four ten dollar bills from the shelf near their glasses of beer, which they drained.

‘Thanks for the game,’ the cowboy said as he passed. His offsider was flapping the bills as they quickly walked out.

‘I’ll have my usual,’ Constable Corley said to the man who had been part of Streaker’s audience.

The Barman walked around the end of the bar and pulled on his full front apron. He took a pint glass from the rack under the bar and filled it with beer, then placed the brimming glass in front of the constable. The cold glass condensed the warm air into droplets of moisture, which ran down the glass and created a pool around its base.

‘Bangers and mash?’ queried the potbellied bartender and publican, Redfield Smith.

Corley nodded.

Smith and his apron – BARTENDER emblazoned strategically across it so the word made a crescent over his gut – disappeared through a swinging door behind the bar.

Curly and Streaker strolled over from the pool table and sat on stools to Corley’s right. They sat silently, staring at their images in the mirror behind the bottles of spirits on the other side of the bar. Curly Denning’s long blonde locks were contrast by Streaker Mullone’s short – almost crew cut – black hair. Their clothes varied little, jeans, T-shirts, the only difference being the amount of dirt and wear, and that was barely discernible.

Their eyes drifted toward each other. Curly shook his head, then turned to Corley, who was waiting with slight impatience for his lunch. ‘Do you know what this fucking turd did?’ he said ‘Huh, huh? Do you know?’ He was drunk, and making little sense.

The Constable turned slowly towards him.

‘Sorry,’ Streaker offered apologetically.

Corley’s eyes flashed to him, then back to Curly. ‘No,’

‘Streaker here,’ Curly sighed and shook his head again. ‘Beat shit out of those two fuckers first up – with his arsy playing. We beat them in the next game as well.’

I think we were set up.’ Streaker was heading towards a beer depression.

Curly ignored him and continued, ‘So then, we decided to play some shots for well… ah ... money. Starting small, we worked UP to forty bucks. Then dead shit here, says he’s going to try and sink the ..,’

Constable Corley interrupted, ‘I saw the set up. A blind man could have sunk the red, then the eight, then back to the blue with one shot.’ No he couldn’t – there’s no way Corley could’ve even come close.

‘Look, I missed. All right? How about, we just drop it.’

Just then, Redfield Smith reappeared with a plate of four enormous sausages and two helpings of mashed potatoes swimming in dark brown gravy. He put the plate in front of Corley and laid a knife and fork on either side. He reached under the bar and brought out a salt and a pepper shaker, and placed them in front of the Constable.

As Corley salted his food, Smith glanced towards the other two men. They nodded in unison. The publican took two pint glasses from the rack under the bar and holding one under the tap, he pulled the long wooden handle down releasing a torrent of amber fluid.

Streaker leaned forward and looked around Curly to see Corley ‘Those two guys were saying that back east they’re chucking a stink over the Base.’

‘Apparently, the politicians are screaming that it’s going to make the country a target during war,’ Curly offered.

‘Bull shit!’ Corley mumbled through a mouthful of sausages and potatoes.

Much to Streaker Mullone’s relief, the conversation had turned away from the pool table.

  

The old cream Dodge carried its passenger twenty kilometres out of town along the southern highway, though it was really no more than a dirt road, which began after the five kilometres of Gibbons’ tarred roads. The town itself was built on the north, south, east, and west crossroads.

The driver of the twenty-five years old pickup was “Old” Sigfrid Wyser. He was at least three times the age of his vehicle, but no one knew for sure exactly how old he was. At times, even Wyser himself wasn’t sure.

He swung the old utility to the left off the main strip and onto a narrower dirt track, where the rutted soil was an orangey transition colour, between red and yellow. The rusty soil crept up the sides of the Dodge hiding much of the decay which had made its way into the once gleaming new panels of the truck. The vehicle continued along the road deeper into the undergrowth, billowing clouds of choking, smoky dust behind it. Wyser swung his Dodge to the right as if by instinct, arrowing it through an almost invisible gap in the foliage, which was the gate to his property. The old truck bumped up the track to his run down old cottage.

Wyser parked his Dodge in front of the veranda and climbed out. He stood for a moment catching his breath, then leaned back into the cab and removed a small carton containing two boxes of assorted biscuits, a bottle of milk, a loaf of bread and some cheese. He hobbled around the truck and up the front steps, where he paused, then after a moment of recuperation, he awkwardly swung the old screen door open, kicked the door behind it open and almost toppled over in the process. He stumbled around, then regaining his balance, but fell forward, one foot in front of the other. His forward momentum carried him through the hall with its dingy musty atmosphere to the back room which was his kitchen.

He loaded his few supplies in the decrepit fridge which stood, rattling its loneliness, in its solitary wall position. He stood staring at his meagre supply of food, as he considered how to pay back the Constable. But there was no way, he knew. He slammed the fridge door shut and marched to his living room.

Resting against the wall behind the open door was a double barrelled shot gun. Wyser took the gun and a handful of shells from the box on the writing table further along the wall. He was almost out of the room when he remembered. He shrugged and hobbled to the mantel piece above the fireplace on the other side of the room. He took the lone bottle of cheap port and went back to the front veranda where he let himself fall back into his rocking chair.

Sigfrid Wyser had become a part of Gibbons’ history, not because of any great achievement, but because of his sheer obstinacy in surviving in his present location. The land previously belonged to his parents. They came from Germany when Wyser was no more than five, and poured their savings into the land.

They had moderate success for a period, when water was plentiful, but when the true nature of the land made itself known to them, their hearts were broken. Drought after drought, ate into their meagre savings and finally drove Sigfrid Senior, to seek employment in the stock yards. He was there from his thirtieth birthday till his death at fifty, from unnatural causes. By that stage he was receiving his comfort from the bottle.

Sigfrid Senior took to spending his nights on the narrow cat walk that ran above the cattle pens. His bottle of cheap whisky was almost permanently attached to his lips and tilted at sixty degrees. On the night of his death, he was reclining on the rough wooden planks of the walkway, his vision blurred and his senses reeling after draining his second bottle of an obscure brand of whisky – he had often suspected the publican of the day of making it himself.

The pitiful old man raised the empty glass receptacle for a moment, then in disgust at its inability to supply any more of his much needed fluid, tossed it down amongst the cattle. It struck a particularly ornery bull, which spread a wave of unrest through his tightly packed companions.

Wyser staggered to his feet abusing the bulls in the yard below in German and spitting at them. This didn’t seem to help, so he settled himself down by opening another bottle, his third, and unfortunately, his last bottle. As he raised the full bottle to his lips, he lost his balance and staggered back against the wooden railing, which gave way sending him hurtling into the drumming, jostling hooves below. His wife died soon after.

Sigfrid Wyser Junior – now “Old Sigfrid” – took over from his father – the stockyards and the bottle, but as Wyser’s life and home went into decline, so did the town. The wells which encircled the town dried up. Well, most of them had. The well on the Wyser property, literally gushed artesian water. The Town Council fended off attempts by the State Government to remove Wyser and take control of the water. The council fought and won control of the water, then out of courtesy or pity, placed Wyser in a caretaker position of looking after the pump which fed water to the town of Gibbons, thus giving Sigfrid Wyser a new existence and the town a rebirth (of sorts).

Once the chair’s rocking had calmed Wyser, he laid the shot gun across his lap. He dangled the bottle – he couldn’t afford a flagon when he purchased it – beside the chair in his left hand.

The remuneration he received was piddling, but he wasn’t complaining. The money fed him, gave him alcohol, and occasionally supplied comforts. Even though the town found it hard to respect him – in fact, he was so much a part of the scenery that they hardly noticed him – he was filled with self importance.

Now, with the chugging of the pump next to his veranda ringing in his ears, he was going to wait. If and when the Constable – “that fucking fat shit” – came, he would be ready. Wyser was sure he could get away with shooting a trespasser. He took the top from his bottle of port and swigged a healthy amount. As he lowered the bottle, a smile crept across his craggy thin face.

 

The blue Range Rover hummed along the narrow black strip of bitumen towards Gibbons. The smaller shanty type houses which surrounded the town were visible above the intermittent scrub which was running back the way they had come like green blurs of fur. Quin’s right foot grew heavy on the accelerator as the first structure of Gibbons, a deserted service station, materialized on the side of the road, then disappeared back into the green blur of plants.

Quin eased up as the steaming behemoth of a road train, rose above the heat haze which pooled like a lake in a dip in the road. The giant red prime mover which led its two trailers towards the insectile Range Rover roared, its air horns trumpeting defiance of the road and those others who dared use it. The fuming red blur flashed its four eyes, and Quin knew. He swung his blue vehicle off the black strip and into the red dust.

 

‘That was kind of him,’ the cowboy muttered under his breath as he sounded the monster’s air horns again.

‘Huh? Oh, yeah.’ His offsider’s train of thought had been momentarily derailed. He scratched his scrawny neck, then was back on the track. ‘Do you believe those guys back there? Pissed as farts and trying to show off.’

 

The enormous roaring diesel of the semi-trailer sent a tremble through the ground as its thunderous wheels passed the crawling Range Rover.

 

Quin wheeled the blue car back on the road towards Gibbons. Before long they had attained what he considered a comfortable cruising speed – one hundred and twenty kilometres an hour – and were passing the small buildings they had seen not long before reaching above the heat haze, like drowning men trying to keep their heads above water.

The residential district of Gibbons was only about three blocks deep now, and consisted of mainly not dissimilar weatherboard or fibro cottages. There was a noticeable lack of television aerials, and an even greater lack of colour. Most of the houses were a powdery white. Some had rich green lawns, but the majority had brown and dusty front yards which were consistent with the desert which they had once been.

Quin dropped the speed of their vehicle to a respectable sixty kays at the first sign of civilization, namely the outer rim of houses, which, as they entered the more prosperous business district, began to seem like an unsightly brown stain. There were a few small shops clustered around the intersection of the east-west highway on which they were travelling, and the north-south highway which formed the main street of Gibbons. Quin brought the Rover to a halt at the intersection so they could make a quick inspection.

‘Looks good,’ Billie remarked.

‘Hmm,’ Quin nodded. ‘What do you think, Chelsea?’

‘It’s a bit hard to tell but, hmmm, it could suit your script.’

‘Thanks for those words of encouragement,’ Quin frowned as he glanced at his wife. She made an expression of...0h well! At which point he smiled, and checked the fuel gauge.

 

Across the street on the corner was a B.P. service station. Quin put the Rover in gear, glanced left and right – there was no traffic on the wide main street – then satisfied it was safe, drove across the road into the garage. He parked next to a petrol pump marked: SUPER. They all climbed out into the oppressive heat.



As they shook life back into their limbs, watching from the first floor window second from the left at the front of the Gibbons Civic Centre, was Dora Framp. Misses Framp was in the front office of the Mayor pouring herself a cup of tea from the pot she kept on the book case in front of that window. She was momentarily fascinated by the new arrivals. What were they? Tourists? Hardly. They hadn’t had tourists in Gibbons for the hundred years of the town’s existence. Maybe they were just passing through, or maybe they were there on business. No, probably just stopped for petrol.

With that thought, Misses Framp turned away from the window and returned to her desk, which, like the room she was in, reeked of mediocrity. The walls were a brownie yellow – they were originally white, before dirt and age took over. The eighty-five year old woman eased herself down in her chair and swivelled to face the desk which she took great pains to keep tidy, even though she hardly ever had anything more on it than a blotter and a few pencils.

To her left was a door marked: MAYOR. Behind that door, two men – the Mayor, Dewey Ruppelt and Police Sergeant Edwin Stevens – were in discussion.

Ruppelt, a greying rotund man, who lacked the demeanour of his position, was speaking, ‘ – is being torn in two by you and your Constable.’

Stevens was sitting, legs crossed, on the other side of Ruppelt‘s wide desk. He was unconcerned by what the Mayor was saying. His wide brimmed hat was sitting on his knee, and with his pilot style sunglasses on, he presented an ominous figure to the Mayor, who found his radiating strength oppressive.

‘Bullshit!’ he said.

‘It’s not.’ Ruppelt, whether or not he liked to think so, sounded like a spoilt child who wasn’t being believed. He cleared his throat as if to wipe away what he had just said and began again, ‘With your favouritism for the patrons of The Grail’ – the name of the pub where the Constable was at that moment eating – ‘and victimizing of others, what are you doing then?’

 The Sergeant removed his hat from his knee and sat forward. Ruppelt could feel his eyes glaring at him through the dark lenses of the sunglasses. ‘And who is it that alleges that I’m victimizing them ... Mayor?’

The Mayor squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, then leaned over to the fan on the right side of his desk and stopped it oscillating when it was pointing directly at him. He breathed deeply of the warmed air that was being blown in his face. Sweat poured freely from his forehead and dripped on his blotter. He noticed and sat back. ‘I have nothing more to say.’ He spun his large chair so he faced away from the Sergeant.

Stevens pondered the Mayor’s defiance for a moment. It was certainly out of character for a man who had previously spent most of his time grovelling. It seemed to him that he may have missed something. He slid his pilot style sunglasses down his nose and stared at Ruppelt’s profile. He could see that the Mayor was feeling the effect of his steel grey eyes, but he could also see that the Mayor was determined to hold his ground in not relinquishing the complainants’ names. Still, where there was a will there was a way.

As the Sergeant stood, Ruppelt glanced briefly at him out of the corner of his eye. Those eyes were still on him.

‘Mayor!’ Stevens slid his glasses back up his nose and hitched up his holster. He was a heavy framed man of two metres. His uniforms always looked brand new. ‘In future, any business you have with me – will be in my office.’ He turned, put on his hat, and strode out the door to his left, which led straight into the corridor.

Ruppelt turned his chair back so he faced his desk and sighed. He had decided that the matter which had just been voiced was no concern of his, and as such, he would take it no further. No matter what.

 

The attendant of the B.P. service station handed Quin his change through the car window. The Rover’s windscreen was clear of dirt and insects and the tank was full.

‘What’s the best place to stay around here?’ Quin asked.

The young man in his tattered, B.P. uniform glanced at the occupants of the Range Rover, tilted his head from side to side as he thought.

Then he offered, ‘We’ve got two pubs in town – The Grail and The Arms. Ahmm ... I’d say The Arms would be the best. Turn round and head down La Fayette.’ The young man smiled when they mouthed the name of the main street disbelievingly. ‘Anyway, both pubs are opposite each other. You can’t miss them. One’s clean, one’s dirty. Just head south.’ He straightened and slapped the roof of the Rover.

Thanks.’ Tradwell fired up the V8, slid the gear stick into first, and crawled the blue vehicle out onto La Fayette. They were cruising through the intersection when he said, ‘He wasn’t wrong when he said you couldn’t miss them.’ He was looking at two of the three largest buildings in Gibbons. The Civic Centre was the third and that was once a hotel not unlike The Arms or The Grail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 







TWO

 

 



 

Sergeant Stevens appeared on the footpath in front of the Gibbons Civic Centre as Quin brought the Range Rover to a halt outside the Grail. The large policeman checked right, then left, then began to walk across the road to his Police Station. He froze mid stride. Wait a minute! He did a double take of the southern end of La Fayette. His gaze lingered on the dirty blue Range Rover, and its disembarking passengers. I wonder what they’re here for. He frowned and began walking again.

 

Chelsea lifted the Rover’s tailgate open and began to rummage through the gear they had stowed in the back. Billie was standing on the footpath watching her. Quin was leaning on the side of vehicle and was admiring the Hotel across the street. ‘Strange. I wonder why the two pubs were built directly opposite each other.’ He felt his stomach rumble. After patting his mid section, he checked his watch. The digital numbers seemed to flicker in the strong sunlight.

‘That’s the way things are done in Australia, you know that.’ Billie offered, ‘Being an old cattle town, I’m surprised there aren’t more.’

‘Maybe there were once.’ Chelsea called from the back of the Rover.

He pushed himself off the side of the Rover, and walked round to Chelsea. She had finally found their portable video equipment, and was busy hooking up cables and straps.

‘Hold it,’ he said.

She stopped and looked at him. Her expression was defensive. ‘Why?’

‘It’s one. We may as well grab a bight.’

Chelsea promptly replaced the video equipment in its shiny alloy case and closed the tailgate, ‘Okay,’ she smiled. ‘Where do we eat?’

They began to glance about trying to spot somewhere. Billie walked over. ‘What about in there?’ She pointed to a small blackboard which rested against the wall on the left side of the main entrance of The Grail, written on it in big chalk capital letters was:

COUNTER LUNCH 12 – 2.

‘Well,’ he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb at The Arms, ‘That’s the pub the pump jockey recommended, but I guess it can’t hurt to check this one out.’

He and Chelsea walked over to Billie, ‘Shall we?’ Cradling the small of their backs, Billie on his right and his secretary on his left, he ushered them towards the entrance.

As soon as they set foot in the bar, the boisterous discussion silenced and all four heads turned towards them. They stopped for a moment to take in the scene.

The bar was long and ornate. Oak, Tradwell thought, but it could have been any dark extremely aged wood. To the side of them was a mass of stools arranged in a semblance of a row. On three of the stools at approximately the centre of the bar were three men – an out of shape policeman, and two locals, who, by testimony of their bright red eyes, had been drinking for some time. The walls were a bland green which blended with the tiled green floor. There were a few small round tables almost against the right wall between them and three tattered pool tables.

Redfield Smith cleared his throat loudly to draw the three men’s attention from the new arrivals. Their eyes lingered a moment longer as Tradwell and the two women returned the glassy stare they were being given. Smith turned and adjusted the positioning of several liquor bottles before the mirrored wall behind the bar.

When the publican turned back, Tradwell was directing his two companions to a table near the wall. The constable and his friends watched them sit, and then lost interest. They turned back towards Smith and slid easily back into their conversation. Corley loaded his fork with the remains on his plate and delivered it to his mouth.

Quin found out what Billie and Chelsea wished to drink and headed for the bar. He leaned on the counter next to Curly and waited for the rotund bartender to decide to serve him.

‘What’ll it be?’ Smith finally turned towards him; his fat jowls were awash with movement when he spoke.

‘Huh? What?’ Quin had been concentrating on the mirror behind the bar. In it was the reflection of the street outside, as viewed through the window in the far wall above the table where Billie and Chelsea were sitting. Dust was being collected in wisps by a passing breeze, then, swirled into small tornadoes which carried scraps of paper spiralling into the air.

“What’ll it be’?’ Smith repeated.

‘A gin and tonic, Tia Maria and milk, and ahh...I’ll have a beer… Are you still doing lunch?’

Smith turned to the liquor bottles on the glass shelves in front of the mirror.

The constable spoke, ‘Been in town long?’

‘Just got here.’

‘Holidays?’

‘No work,’

‘What kinda work?’ Streaker asked.

‘I make films,’ Quin smiled. He was showing off, just a little. But, what the hell.

‘Films?’ Curly echoed.

‘Yuh making a documentary or somethin’?’ Corley enquired, almost as an afterthought.

‘No I’m …’

‘I know. You’re makin’ a porn movie.’ Streaker spun away from the bar and staggered a few paces towards the women, pointing. He stopped and began swaying. ‘Oohh,’ he slurred, then stumbled back, clutching for something solid to support him.

Billie and Chelsea turned around and were watching with mild amusement. Tradwell frowned at them and they turned back. He was feeling like an insect under a microscope, or considering the presence of the constable, an innocent man being grilled for information.

‘Yeah, that’s it. A porno flick.’ Curly leaned towards Quin and let him sample the intensity of his breath. Quin edged back. ‘Those two are gonna be in it, aren’t they?’

‘No, don’t do pornos!’ Quin said a little too loudly. He was offended and could barely control himself. ‘I’m not making any fucking porn shit! All right? I’m....’

Corley leaned forward on the bar so he could see him. He said coolly, ‘It’s a documentary about that base out there. That so-called Communications thing the Americans have built.’

Look, gentlemen,’ Quin began rationally – he was not going to argue with drunks, even though he had started to engage – ‘I’m not here to make any kind of ...’

Curly shouted him down. ‘That’s it. A bloody porn.’

His eyes were rolling. He was finding it impossible to hold them immobile.

I’m not here to make any kind of …’ Streaker opened his mouth to say something, but Tradwell raised his voice and forged ahead. ‘Any kind of movie. We are here to see if your town would be suitable to use. Nothing more.’

Smith placed his drinks in front of him. He paid, received his change, grumbled to himself about, ‘Fucking drunks.’ as he collected the drinks and returned to Billie and Chelsea. He was sitting down before he realized.

‘What is it?’ Billie asked. ‘Those guys?’

Concern had suddenly made its presence felt in his face. In fact, it was like instant ache. His expression drooped, and he slapped his forehead. ‘Oh no. I just made a colossal blue. That’ll teach me.’

‘How do you mean?’

I shouldn’t have engaged.’ Both women gave him a disapproving look. ‘Shit. Basically, I may have succeeded in putting the law in this town offside. At least I think I have. But maybe I haven’t. Who knows? Look, I think we should leave.’

Chelsea sneaked a look at the three men at the bar. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it. They don’t seem bothered. By the way, what about the food?’

Corley and his cohorts were completely ignoring them. Their conversation had boomeranged back to the American base. ‘Yeah, strange business this, huh.’ Corley was pointing into the mirror, northwest.

‘No stranger than anyone else from the City,’ Smith said, completely missing the point of the constable’s indicating finger.

‘No,’ Streaker corrected. ‘He means the Americans.’

Quin leaned forward on their wobbly round table and whispered, ‘I don’t think it’s such a good idea to eat here.’

‘Yuh know – it is mighty strange,’ Curly said, through a suppressed slur. ‘I mean, what’re they here for, or it, for that matter?’

Corley pushed his plate away, took a mouthful of his beer and swivelled a fraction to the right on his stool. ‘They’re a communications base. Somethin’ to do with all those satellites they’ve got flyin’ round up there.’

‘That’s not what those truckies were saying.’ Curly’s red eyes looked outraged by his indifference to the physical abuse he was dealing to them with alcohol.

‘Yeah,’ Streaker jumped in enthusiastically. ‘They reckon the eastern States are in an uproar, that that base will make us – the country – a target during war.’

‘Bullshit! It’s just a relay station for satellites,’ Corley said again.

‘So they tell us,’ Curly mumbled, then almost shouting, ‘They say that it’s there to target misssillss....missiles.’

‘I.C.B.M.s,’ Smith offered from his position on the other side of the bar.

Corley looked away.

‘Hey, let’s go. I don’t want to eat here,’ Billie said, saving her husband from the need to say it again.

‘Yeah, good idea.’ Chelsea was already on her feet.

‘… and why so secretive? If that base is just a relay station for satellites, why don’t they have any Australians working there?’ Smith was talking, his voice raised in an attempt to command the constable’s attention. ‘You know they brought people out from America to build that place, and judging by what those truckies were saying, the US, Government won’t tell our Government what goes on there.’

‘Bloody Yanks!’ Curly interjected. He was staring at Chelsea’s thin blue singlet and white shorts. His leering red eyes examined every sensuous flowing curve of her body, from her long brown legs to her prominent nipples, which shone through the top as though it wasn’t there. He didn’t notice her pretty face, sparkling blue eyes or short cropped blonde hair. ‘Hey, beautiful!’ he called drunkenly. ‘What do yuh think?’

Tradwell felt his flesh crawl. Trouble! Still, they were almost out.

Chelsea looked sideways – a reflex action. Curly was staggering towards her, slobbering. The conversation stopped and she was preparing herself to sidestep him.

Go for it,’ Streaker called.

Quin cringed and stopped just inside the door. ‘Wait at the car.’ He pushed Billie across the threshold, then turned back to see what was happening.

His secretary shuffled to the right to avoid the lunging drunk. Curly’s hand flayed the air, but still managed to reach her right breast. His laugh was that of slobbering mindlessness. He dragged the struggling woman off balance and spun her round cupping his other hand over her left breast. His friends were cheering and howling with laughter.

Tradwell was darting towards the couple.

‘Yuh want it, doncha, hey bitch,’ Curly squeezed her breast till the firm flesh was distorted.

‘Let go of me, yuh fucking red neck hick,’ Chelsea shouted as she tried to kick him in the crotch backwards. Tears were streaming down her cheeks from the pain of his burrowing fingers.

Tradwell grabbed Curly’s left arm and wrenched it free. Chelsea spun out of the other and dashed for the door. She passed through as Quin’s right fist collided with Curly’s jaw. The young drunk stumbled back, his balance robbed from him. He fell atop one of the round tables, his head lolling from side to side.

Quin looked at the advancing Constable. He was shaking his stinging fist, when Corley took a handful of his red T-shirt and dragged his face close to his own. Quin was realizing his physical disadvantage – he was a slim one-eighty centimetres, whereas Corley was at least fifteen centimetres taller and half as heavy again – when the Constable’s face seemed to undergo a change – from snarling avenger to blank passive enlightenment. But enlightenment about what? Quin had no idea.

‘I’ll see you again,’ Corley said quietly, then pushed him out the door.

‘Are you all right?’ Billie ran to meet him. ‘Chelsea told me what happened.’

Quin took hold of her elbow and rushed her towards the Rover. ‘How is she?’

Chelsea was sitting in the front seat, wiping her face.

‘Fine. Upset, as you would expect, but apart from that, she’s intact.’

‘Now I see why that guy recommended the other place.’ Chelsea’s voice was crackling and strained.

‘Hmm.’ Quin was looking off to the northwest in the approximate direction the Constable had pointed. An idea was forming. Billie almost spoke, but stopped herself when she saw the faraway look on his face. He’d forgotten about Chelsea.

Chelsea hadn’t known him long enough to know the meanings of his expressions. She cleared her throat, ‘Shall we try the other one?’

‘No.’

Chelsea looked at Billie, who shook her head disapprovingly at her. ‘Oh fine!’ She slumped back in her seat.

Then, as if on cue, Quin’s face lit up and he snapped his fingers. ‘I’m going to make a few script changes.’ He paused for a moment, glanced about the town, then continued, ‘But first, it’ll call for a bit of research.’ He paused again, and then said, in the tone of employer to employees, ‘If it’s all right with you girls, we’ll do it now.’

Chelsea had no choice. She climbed out of the Rover, leaned the seat forward, and climbed in the back. Billie had no choice, but for a different reason, she wasn’t about to argue. She knew that when Quin latched on to an idea, he was unstoppable. She pushed the seat back into position, and climbed in.

Tradwell circled the front of the car and sat in behind the wheel. They all clicked in their seat belts. He fired up the motor and sat waiting. A Ford F100 roared past them heading out of town. It was burnt orange with chromed side pipes, mag wheels, and big wide tyres. Quin slid his metal rimmed glasses back on the ridge of his nose where they belonged, raised his eyebrows in exclamation, flicked on his right turn indicator, then swung the blue Range Rover out into the street in a U turn and headed in the opposite direction to the Ford. At the crossroads in the centre of town, he turned left.

  

The Police Station, besides looking like a house, was a house. The actual offices and public areas of the building occupied only the front half of the house. In the rear was the living area for the officer in charge, in this case, Sergeant Edwin Stevens. He lived there with his wife, Maria, who also acted as his secretary and radio operator, and his daughter, Amanda, who worked part time in Mario’s Pizzeria. Mario was her uncle on Maria’s side of the family.

‘Where’s Amanda?’ Stevens ranted as he stomped into the station from the veranda. He had been standing surveying his town, thinking about what the Mayor had said to him, when he saw Jack Shane’s burnt orange F100 roaring down the street. Lately Jack had been taking Amanda out. Her father was less than pleased about this, and spent a great deal of his time, trying to keep the pair apart. He had reluctantly drawn the line at harassment.

‘Where is she?’ he ranted again, but still received no answer from his wife. Of course he could stretch a point. He considered the possibility of arresting young Shane, and having him shipped to a city prison before his father, Peter Shane – the publican of The Arms and Sergeant Stevens’ main opponent in Gibbons – could get him out, but he couldn’t pursue this course of action unless he could figure out how to do it in a short enough time to prevent his father from intervening.

‘Did you say something?’ Maria asked. ‘I’ve been out the back in the kitchen.’

‘Amanda?’ he asked slowly and deliberately, as if suffering his wife’s stupidity.

‘I haven’t seen her since…’ She was interrupted by the phone. Being the nearest to it, she lifted the receiver. ‘Hallo, Gibbons Police Station.’ She listened to the voice for a moment, then cupped her hand over the mouth piece. ‘It’s an American. He wants to speak to you.’

‘Does this American have a name?’

‘Oh.’ Maria removed her hand from the mouthpiece. ‘Excuse me. Did you say your name?’ There was a pause as the American sighed and repeated his name. ‘Hu huh.’ She looked at her husband and raised her eyebrows at the tone of the person on the phone.

Stevens leaned on the counter and was drumming his fingers impatiently. She covered the mouthpiece again. ‘It’s Michael Adams.’

The Sergeant straightened, frowned, ‘I’ll take it in my office. Switch it through.’ He stomped past the counter into his office, slamming the door behind him.

 

 

 



THREE







The infinite void of black was barely broken by the occasional twinkling of the few distant stars which exist beyond the galaxy of the Milky Way. At least that was the case. Twin specks of light suddenly appeared on the edge of the spiralling stars. They were a mere million kilometres apart and converging rapidly across the rim of the frozen catherine-wheel of glowing coloured dots of light.

‘Commander, I’m picking up another ship on the sensors.’ There was an edge of excitement to Hale’s voice. She started making adjustments to her instruments, checking her readings.

Zion the Commander of the star ship, was standing behind her He was a tall slim man dressed like the others white overall type uniform... He didn’t say anything, but leaned over her shoulder and peered at her screen. His golden yellow eyes widened. ‘When did you first notice ...?’

Orm the male Communications Officer interrupted him, ‘Commander, a coded message is being transmitted to us.’

Zion straightened, without removing his large basically nocturnal pupils from the screen in front of the Science Officer. ‘Run a scan.’

‘Affirmative.’ Hale looked up at him, her brow furrowed. He glanced at her and smiled, then went to his chair.

The Command Cabin of their star ship was crammed with instruments designed for the most extensive investigation of the galaxy ever undertaken by their world. They had been searching for intelligent life for one hundred years Maurier time, and in that time, they had suffered failure upon failure. Now Commander Zion could envisage success, but not only the Commander was pleased by their discovery. The other seven members of the crew could feel that they were closer than they had ever been. The presence of another craft was proof of that.

‘Commander.’ Orm’s voice was dejected. He twisted in his seat to look his leader in the face. The blue light on the bridge hid the disappointment in his own. ‘It’s one of ours.’

‘One of ours? Out here?’ Zion’s voice was filled with disbelief. ‘Hale, you didn’t say when you first noticed it.’

‘They came through the dimensional shift from hyper space at the exact time we did.’

Orm spoke again, ‘The Commander of that ship wishes to speak with you.’

‘Give me a channel,’ Zion felt the excitement which had begun to build within him, drain from his body. A light flashed on his console as his First Officer, Hanni, exited the elevator from the lower deck. She was coming from the living quarters.

‘What’s happening?’ she asked as she walked over and took her seat, which was next to the Commander’s.

‘We’ve stumbled across another one of our ships out here.’ Mex the senior engineer said. His console was situated next to Orm’s Communications console.

‘Oh,’ Hanni replied quietly, as she switched her instruments back to her own console from Zion’s.

Zion finished talking to the Commander of the other ship. ‘We’re going to dock with them.’ He said solemnly. ‘Nav, get a lock on the beacon they are transmitting.’

‘Affirmative.’

Hanni looked at him. ‘What are they doing out here?’

He looked at her as he sighed, ‘It’s a mining ship.’

‘The industrialists are in power?’ she was incredulous.

‘They won. LIM One and Two were the only exploration ships ever sent.’

The image on the large curved screen on the front wall of the cabin began to change as they lined up with the other ship. It was massive.

‘It’s a mining ship?’ She repeated in disbelief.

‘Mining ship?’ Trion queried. She had just come from the hatch in the aft wall of the cabin, which led to the access tube to the engineering section. She went and took her position at her console which was next to Mex.

‘They call it a Planet Devastator.’ Zion added irritably.

Shan had the computer accept the docking instructions and follow the beam.

The LIM fired its engines and began to accelerate toward the Planetoid sized Planet Devastator. The LIM was several hundred metres long. It consisted of an egg shaped crew section surrounded by supply pods, a long shaft which had also carried pods before they were exhausted and subsequently jettisoned. Then at the very back, the engineering section. In it were, fore and aft pointing engines and the power supply as well as all the most dangerous parts of the ship.

Zion pressed a button on his console and changed the three screens immediately in front of him to the course Shan had just locked them into. On the main screen the Devastator was growing incredibly quickly.

LIM One moved up quickly and silently on the giant craft. It’s forward facing engine ports glowed and the LIM stopped dead. Attitude jets fired and the LIM pivoted on its axis and rolled so the hatch faced the docking tube.

The attitude jets fired again pushing the craft against the tube.

In the control cabin, there was a muffled thud and a mechanical noise as the docking clamps expanded and made a seal.

The exterior hull of the Devastator barely looked any different with the LIM attached. It had become just another shape on the artificial planetoid.

The LIM crew stood in front of the hatch in the connecting tube. On it was written, MINERAL RESOURCES RETRIEVAL MISSION TWENTY THREE. MRRM 23 was the official Maurian title for the Planet Devastator. There was an almost imperceptible hum floating through the alloy of the hatch.

Suddenly, silence!

The crew looked at each other. Their large yellow eyes, reflecting the minimal amount of light in the tube.

‘Taking their time.’ Shan said impatiently.

The hatch slid open. On the other side were Drell, the MRRM 23 commander and Trean, his exec. The two men stood looking at the LIM crew who were dressed in white uniforms with minimal insignias. The MRRM offices on the other hand, were in grey jump suits, emblazoned with various badges and rank insignia. The Maurians had extremely pale skin, and large feline eyes. Their hair varied little between grey and sandy grey. Both groups felt a barely suppressible elation at seeing someone other than their familiar crew members.

The Commanders were staid, formal and wary of each other. Their expressions were rock hard indifference, which masked an underlying distrust on both sides.

The two Execs on the other hand, had singled each other out. They each glanced at the Commanders and then their faces widened into large grins. They moved toward each other, Trean had his hand extended, but Hanni brushed it aside and hugged him tightly.

‘Fancy running into you out here.’ She laughed.

The others in the LIM crew moved around them and began shaking Trean’s hand and hugging him. Zion and Drell looked at them and realized the stupidity of their behaviour so far from Maurier.

‘Old dogs,’ Drell smiled, holding out his hand.

Zion’s face was still impassive. He shook Drell’s hand formally.

Drell was puzzled by his behaviour, ‘This is no place for politics.’ He frowned, then a smile crept across his lips, ‘Come on, let’s go up to the Rec Room.’

The LIM Commander rocked his head from side to side as though he weren’t sure, then glanced at his crew. They were bombarding Trean with questions about their world. He smiled and said, ‘Our pleasure.’

‘Good. This way.’ Drell led them through the air lock, then on through the lower corridors of the enormous craft, most of the corridors were narrow and dingy, some were thick with dust, others were damp, but none of them were well lit.

They came to an elevator, inside of which was clean and white. It carried them up to the crew quarters.

Drell and Trean explained a few points about the MRRM on the way. One was that for all the enormity of the craft, the crew consisted of only four people, and the quarters seemed to be the last thing considered by the designers, whether they had been people or computers. Another was that the mission was almost complete.

When the lift arrived, the crew found that the corridor they exited to was better lit. Their eyes were initially stung by the sudden increase in light intensity, but as their large black pupils dilated to thin vertical lines, the going became easier.

‘We’re here,’ Drell said, coming to a stop outside an unmarked door. He touched the sensor on the jamb and the door slide open. They entered a fairly small Rec Room, obviously designed for no more than four people, and extremely white. Everything – table, chairs, food dispensers – all were white.

‘Sit anywhere you can,’ Trean said.

Zion sat in the small alcove in the wall opposite the door. Drell went over and sat on the bench facing him. ‘What’s the trouble, Zion?’

‘Basically it’s this. We’re diametrically opposed politically. And Well …’

‘Look, I see what you’re getting at,’ Drell interrupted. ‘But we don’t commit wholesale slaughter just for a few minerals. Life we discover is recorded, and left alone. If we don’t do this, Maurier dies. It’s become a fact of life’

Trean gave each of them a protein drink, then served the others.

‘As much of the life investigation project has been retained as possible. It’s just that it’s a case of chance with us. Whereas it was’ Zion’s eyes narrowed. ‘Sorry, IS your principle objective.’

‘Apart from mapping’ Shan added as he sat beside Zion.

‘Yes mapping as well.’ Drell said.

‘So, where are your other two crew members?’ Hanni asked Trean. The others were gathered around them.

‘Someone has to be on the bridge at all times.’ Trean smiled, ‘How long are you going to continue searching?’

Zion heard and looked across at Hanni, then back at Drell, ‘Have you encountered any life?’

‘No, have you?’ Drell raised his eyebrows prompting a response.

Zion considered for a moment, trying to save face, but in the end, thought better of it, ‘No, no luck with intelligent life. We have found the beginnings of life.’

‘Arh … Amoebas, basic cellular life. That’s good then.’

‘Yes, it’s a start. But disappointing that higher forms of life seem to be so rare.’

‘So how much longer …’

‘I’d like to say, “as long as it takes”, but we’ve been out for ten ship years. Our supplies will only last another five. So we’ll be forced to return soon. We’ll plot a route back to Maurier via unmapped systems and hope we stumble across something on the way.’

Trean was saying, ‘… Its fifty years at current estimates. We should be back home in a year, ship time.’

‘Have you been on a deep space mission before?’ Trion asked.

‘This is my second.’

‘What’s it like when you get back?’

‘Is this your first?’

She nodded.

‘I found it was like going through a one way time machine. In the last one, the mission was away for four years ship time. Which was like, twenty five, thirty years back home. Absolutely everything, buildings and people had changed. It becomes a case of living for these missions and nothing else. As you would have been told, having a family or a lover is really out of the question.’

‘Yes,’ Trion said sullenly. She knew everything that Trean was saying and more before they left Maurier, but the realization of her commitment had only dawned on her in the past few years. Now sitting with Trean, it was hitting home. ‘How did you find society when you returned home?’

‘All right I guess.’ He was reluctant to enlarge further.


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