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They’re born slate with a million orange eyes and long white fangs with their legs reaching out wide so can they clamber about with ease in their dark cavernous habitat. And they make for wonderful weapons when unfortunate men have wet work to do with discretion. They’re not cheap and negotiating to acquire one is a subtle endeavour that takes weeks and raises questions in all the wrong places but when these unfortunate men are otherwise hapless and hard to notice — part of their misfortune, one might suppose — they can slink through the red tape. And so they’d done and they had their hands on it in a mahogany box as they slipped through the night towards their target’s small home.
When they arrive they park between street lights, the black car grey in the soft uneven white, and they step quietly up the grass to the unlit part of the house and slide in down the side where the man that cleans the target’s bins has opened a window for them to empty the spider from its velvet cage and into the house. The spider wanders forward a moment, curious and unafraid, as the unfortunate men close the window behind it with a click before heading back to the car.
Gem spiders cannot shrug. Their natural total darkness precludes almost all visual communication and, as such, the gem spiders do not make for more reliable weapons because they speak to one another in percussion with the diamond-hard tips on the ends of their legs against the rock. Or against the vinyl benchtop in the laundry, or the tiles throughout the house until the bedrooms, or the concrete of a garage. But after dark they are highly effective. Simple home security means they are still a surprise weapon, sneaking in generally only through mundane breaches. They can also hunt out life. But they do not fare well in the daylight.
A light flicks on in the kitchen ahead and the spider freezes and retreats gently to the pipes behind the washing machine. Footsteps. A fridge door slicking open. Water. Quiet moments pass as the spider peers out over the machine, its eyes struggling to see through the blinding white in the passageway ahead of it. Gem spiders can blink and this one did as it ducked back down to await the trespass before proceeding. Living weapons with an instinct. Less decisive, maybe, then knives and guns but far less mess left behind.
The light off and the spider saved from the searing agony of light off its sparkling feet. Footsteps back to the bedroom. The gem spider clambers up and out and then down to the edge of the floor. Veers to the right across the cabinets and balances itself on the skirting before climbing down to the tiles. Gem spiders are reluctant to spin their webs when they’re on the job. Like how you don’t paint or exercise during work hours because some things are personal affairs. Besides, the soft pearl they leave behind is a dead giveaway in the event of an unsuccessful affair.
But the spider crawls through the depths of the house unhindered even as its feet tickle the tiles and sing a sweet death song. The poor man about to meet God isn’t snoring because he’s just had half a glass of water that he poured the rest of down the sink but he’s still half-awake and the spider isn’t concerned because it won’t sing on the hard carpet and on the bedding. It might tear at the threads a little but so shallow and so sharp no one will notice until forensics and by then there’ll be far more substantial evidence. And it all plays out that way as the gem spider reaches the mark’s arm and rests three feet on his skin but the mark squirms. The spider darts back. The arm rises, up, uncertain, and the mark rolls over onto his side and folds his arm over him, safe and square with his body. But the gem spider’s quiet reputation as an instrument means targets like these get lazy and reveal arteries like those in the neck. The blanket drawn up only to his chest.
So the spider makes its way across the bed without incident and climbs fast up on the men’s neck before he can respond and its fangs sink into a vein and it feeds. The gem spider has its name not because of the stones scattered about its native lairs but because it is the spiders that make those stones. The blood turning hard in the mark as the spider feasts and it comes on faster than you’d expect and it’s not uncommon for compound fractures to pierce through and solidify faster than stains can spill to the sheets. A man made bright red ruby.
And now the spider casts its rich web across the room and out, away, through the house and up through the rafters where it will find some hole and perhaps something else to eat but usually the death song keeps the others away. Once it’s out — and it will get out — it will make its way back to the car and climb up along the wheel and in through the dashboard and return to its box before that killing light hits.
That red light is on in the corner of the dash and the gauge is right on the bottom line and you’re just going trying not to stop without letting her know because she’s got the dog on one leg and he’s got a smile as the rain starts to fall and roar across the top of the car.
The wipers go and the rain drives harder as the road widens to the left for small turning lane up the hill that’s always empty and the light ahead wavers from green to orange to red in the wiped away wet and you slow behind a truck and, idling, you can’t help but look at that small red light. You can’t even remember what you talked about.
As the light goes green you ease the car up to speed and get across and over to the top of the soft dip and you ease down it with your feet off the pedals and the car under its own weight just for a moment to save on what you imagine are just fumes before the dip pulls back up into a slow climb and you make your way up towards where your cousin’s place still hasn’t started the build to your knowledge.
You wonder if you’ll have to give that as a landmark. At least your phone is charged. The car battery alive. And, to your surprise, the rain ended. Not an easing out but a hard stop, the unusual way that happens when you find somehow that you’re moving faster than the clouds even as you drive for safety not speed.
The wipers come off. Moonlight through drops pushed about by wind across the hood. The climb levels out to a straight with a smooth curve and you find yourself by the golf course but you can’t look out at though the sport’s been on your mind again and all you can see is the hint of the service station in the distance, neon fizzing over a concrete expanse, but between you and there is another set of lights and U-turn and some more conversation.
Naturally the lights go orange then red as you approach and so you linger and you reinforce in your mind your preference for roundabouts over traffic lights in almost all situations, not just because where you are is busy for only 78 minutes a day and quiet the other 1,362 but also because this light turns so slowly that even she turns to you and says, ‘I hope this changes.’
You’ve spoken a lot, the two of you, about staying calm when the light is on. How you’ve always got plenty of time. But you drove out to the bayside for the walk on a red light that came on on the way home the last time you took the car out and now you’re nearly back and you figure that 50 kilometre buffer is about out. But the light does turn.
And you turn and pull up onto the open concrete and you pop the petrol cap and come alongside the bowser and get out and refuel, the dog barking at you through the window like you’re never coming back. As you unscrew the cap the tank wheezes as if for breath and you pour the fuel in and count to $30 and you remember when this was below a dollar a litre. Inside then out, easy, like you’ve done a thousand times, and when you return the rain has caught up.
Like mist as it bounces off the grey with the neon catching as it falls, so loud you can’t think, so strong you feel the spray as you walk undercover back to the car and climb in, the dog happy and clambering over the centre console to sit with you as you put the car into gear and turn the wipers on in the dry to prepare.
The car kicks as you start it this time, like the difference between the hungry and the well-fed as they go to start some new venture. This reminds you you’re not eating well. Just pushing yourself to red lights and beyond.
It was a clean compound fracture right where the leg becomes the foot, and you wonder if it was the 4WD you saw on your way back into the street. You only saw it because you’d made a spare room into a makeshift office and through the back-facing window you saw it by the shed sitting in the sun which is unusual in the heat. What got you focused was its shaking, its visible nerves.
You went out through the laundry to it to see if it was okay because you saw a limb at an odd angle before it rolled over and you knew when you got too close that something was wrong even before it growled and hopped away on one strong leg around the corner of the shed. Not far but far enough to see the foot bounce as it hopped like a ragdoll.
There’s a hotline for that sort of thing so you call the Society and they say they treat these as emergencies but they’ll still be a few hours so you keep an eye on its slow, difficult movements. In the wait it just eats the grass and shakes as it lies on its broken side. Uncertain, you’re sure, what else to do.
They arrive like they said — a few hours later. But it hasn’t moved far so you show them where it’s lying down beside the shed and you tell them they can flank it by coming around the other side of the house but that it also hasn’t moved far since you saw it if they do need to get closer.
“We’ll use the dart gun,” Mary says in her uniform. “So we’ll need to be close but not too close. We’ll come around soon.”
And you wonder where they go but it’s to the kind of place that reminds you there must be reasons for everything because you suppose it does make sense to have to make up animal barbiturates rather than to have them synthesised already. But return they do with the rifle and a long dart with a fluffy pink tassel and the other guy, whose name you never learn though his shirt just says, ‘Crew,’ stands around the side of the shed as spotter.
Mary takes a reading through binoculars then takes aim then kneels, the target low in the lengthening grass encouraged by the persistent rain, and aims again. A silent moment passes. The wallaby doesn’t move. Watched by other wallabies all about. Those that congregated in the waiting. Curious but unable to help. Suspicious of a funny black stick and the five people watching on.
“It dropped short.”
The wallaby still. All you saw was nothing. Not even the dart. Mary sighs and returns to the van to make some more and she comes back after a time, in which you hang some of the clothes that are fresh from the dryer after they’ve been accumulated for too bloody long, with another dart with another tassel and the same rifle and she stands in the same spot and takes another reading and then another aim and fires again. And misses again.
This is not to say you could do a better job. Well, maybe you could. I couldn’t. But this one breaks your heart as the wallaby realises this is all for it and that its friends — maybe its family — have run from the people congregating with their strange thwipping device and so it gets up and it runs up the property across the length of the house towards the neighbour’s fence.
The injury so clear as it does. Old mate Crew following after it to see if it slows and stops while Mary makes up a third dose but it does not and instead it pushes on between breaks. Half jumping half crawling on a good left leg and two good front legs. You watch from the bedroom window facing out as he does. Unsure even now as you write how to contrast so mundane a thing as fixing pants to coat hangers with clips while the wallaby runs in the only way it knows how.
You cannot help but feel the pain innate to life — the fear of death so lucid but misunderstood in that the wallaby will push on for an escape that will leave it to sit and steep and never heal in the wilderness. But you equally cannot escape knowing that this dart, when it lands, will just be the first. One for a simple sleep, one for a longer rest.
When Mary returns and steps under the fence to follow the wallaby and catch up to her Crew she takes another reading and a familiar stance and there’s a familiar moment in which she aims and then fires and then misses but this one’s an inch away and the wallaby recoils and moves and its movements now are desperate but not stable. Crawling on its paws as it clambers.
I will save you the despair of the fourth shot missing too — your despair and Mary’s and the Crew’s and the family’s as they watch on — but what follows is the wallaby crossing the fence line again to get back onto the bitumen towards the vacant property across the road so overgrown that she’d be lost in a moment.
You are asking, like a prayer out loud, for it to stop moving as Mary makes up the dose for the fifth dart and you leave the house and circle around to besides the van to look up the road where you can see it resting as a grey-brown mass amongst the short green before it climbs high beyond the thin, electric wires. You cannot help but feel you hadn’t called.
You cannot see Mary this time as she disappears behind the clump of trees at the top of the drive in the corner of the neighbour’s property where the fences meet but the Crew has a blanket in hand and you don’t hear the shot this time but you don’t see the tassle hit anything even as the wallaby bounces. You recall its growl as you approached before you called and you wonder if it made a similar noise as it looked for the source of the sting before it slows, stops, and lays itself to the earth.
Mary crosses the road with the rifle under her arm and she gets up close to the poor thing and she looks it over and then stands and the Crew comes over with the blanket.
“It’s a she,” Mary said, correcting the way you’d called it a ‘he’ when she arrived and you pointed it out. “No joeys yet. That’s good.”
Her Crew slid the sleeping creature onto the cream blanket and checked the wound and wrapped it up and hoisted it into the air held by his shoulders and he’s not large and you realise how small she was. Is.
They pass you at the van and you take a step back and retreat inside to get some water while they do whatever it is they must do immediately afterwards. Mary shuts the back doors. The Crew has the blanket in the side door behind the driver’s seat, the poor thing asleep now in a cage with her eyes open but safe in the cloth.
He shows you the wound. Two bones broken clean off and puncturing the skin at what you imagine is the knee. “A car for sure.”
“This is her pouch,” Mary says and she puts two fingers in the small hole and they only reach a knuckle deep. “No joeys. That’s what I was worried about.”
You’re not sure what to say.
“Would you like to say goodbye? She’s asleep. Can’t feel anything.”
“Yes,” you say.
So they leave you for a moment. And all you can think to say is that you’re sorry. One hand on your water and another on her fur, soft and warm and smelling strong like the bush. She’s beautiful and already gone in a way and you’re sorry. It’s not your fault but you’re not sure. Acreage not quite the wilderness.
The van doors shut and you say thank you and Mary apologises for how long it took but you tell you couldn’t have done any better. That we’ve done all we can. That at some point the urge for life takes over nonetheless. They know.
And they leave with her asleep in that cage and as you step by the side of the house, up the slope to the top of the grass level with the patio, there’s another one picking at what’s left of the feed you left out for them all yesterday. You wonder what its name is. What her name is. A silly thing to call wallabies when you want to be cute. Swapping syllables.
You wave to this new one, just a bit smaller, as you head inside and it follows you towards the patio and chews at the grass in the absence of pellets.
“She’s just trying to meet you halfway, you know, which is gonna take both of you meeting — hang on.”
The rumble came on through the bitumen harder and closer and one of them kept by the crumbling edge while the other jumped out further into almost the middle and the car came by and the chassis passed them over and continued.
“I hate when you do that,” said the one on the dirt and the one on the road said, “But it’s always fine, see?”
“For you,” the dirtside one conceded and the one on the road hopped closer so it didn’t have to yell.
“Yea,” the one on the road as he settled into a warm spot where the sun had baked the bitumen all day. “What was I saying?”
The roar of the car disappeared around the corner and they listened for a soft noise through the wind through the trees but didn’t hear it even though they’d expected it for ages.
“I keep thinking they’ll get Bill,” the one off the road said, “because he sits in that dumb spot. Right where the tyres go.”
“The tread warms fast and it feels good in the evening. And he’s been fine so far.”
“One day though.”
“Aren’t you cold over there?”
“Nah, mate. Just fine.”
“Try it some time,” the one on the road said. “Coming out here during the day. It’s safer than at night. They see us better now.”
“What are you talking about?”
They could feel the traffic pass by at the end of the road before it snaked off around the bend behind the trees and they knew without having to look — even though they still looked because safety first is a universal principle — that another car was coming.
Our roadbound toad just waited. His eyes dry. He blinked sideways. The driver couldn’t tell.
“C’mon, man,” the dirtside one pleaded to no avail as the car raced by without that sound that seems soft inside the vehicle but is hard, mean, heavy outside of it. No rubber meeting lumpy skin.
But the dirtside toad was still convinced. Amphibians made for the rains and the edges of the dams that watered the horses and the wallabies and the rabbits when they weren’t poisoned then claimed by the weeds. Not the road.
But he hopped out anyway. The sun still high overhead for now.
“That’s it,” his friend said. “We’ll come back in at sunset. Promise.”
“Alright,” he said. “Alright.” And he hopped over feeling the warm road beneath his thick skin energising his cold blood like caffeine.
“Yea.” Artifice holding the heat more than the natural, the trees and the dirt and the water stifling rather than preserving but the peak of summer still to come in which it would appreciate the shade. The arriving spring spoiling the reliable cool gift.
“Just enjoy it.”
“And the cars?”
“Move when they come.”
“Is that all?”
“And what if they swerve to hit us?”
“They don’t do it that often. But if they do, predict it.”
On cue: A car turned left onto their road. The formerly dirtside toad could not stop its nervous tongue flicking out and up and over to wipe the gel off its eyes and dry them out to see in detail the roaring treads approach.
“Relax,” said the toad from the road. But the dirtside toad did not. He started hopping left. Eyed the car and suspected a chase. Hopped right. The roadward toad said: “They’re drawn to that. Like moths to…”
“I get it.”
So the dirtside toad, with warm, twitching toes and the sun high over his back running strength up his soft spine, paused and held still as the roaring of the car came up through all of him.
And it passed right by. The tyres separating the two toads from each other by sight. Life kept on.
“… I get it.”
So there they stayed for a time. The noise of the cars faded as the rush hour did and the cicadas filled the air again as flies and mosquitos returned to the air and the toads looked about for food in the twilight of the sun as it began to fall.
He was in one of those travel stores named for mountains and the attendant had walked him over to the ice pick range where he perused them without a word as they hung on long horizontal hooks supported by thick plastic heads around the sharp ends of the picks.
“Can I help you with anything else, sir?” The attendant asked and the shopper replied with a polite, “No, thank you,” and everyone was left again to their own devices.
The attendant had asked him what they were for as they were coming over and he’d said, “For a trip soon,” and the attendant had asked, “Where?” and the shopper had said, “I’m not sure.” There were policies in place to prevent the purchases intended for violence and the attendant kept that note in mind and, when he retreated away from the shopper to let him browse, kept him not far enough away that anything would be a surprise.
To skip ahead and spoil perhaps some tension, this does not come to violence.
Instead the shopper simply scanned the aisle and took laps up and down it as he wondered whether he would want a premium pick or a mid-range pick or a cheap pick but he was concerned quickly that the cheap pick would break somehow and cause quite a mess so he only looped the middle and higher ends of the aisles.
He examined one that was lean and reinforced at the head, one whose steel had a glint even in the dull halogen retail light. He wondered for a moment if he could see himself in it and so he put it back, unwilling to be perceived by the instrument. That kind of thinking had driven him here. He thought that himself - it is not just illustration offered by a narrator. Nevertheless.
He took another pick off its hook, with some trouble, the thick plastic catching on the yellowed price tag, and the attendant appeared at the end of the aisle to check in at the crackling sounds of getting it off.
“Are you all alright?”
The shopper had his pick freed. The attendant proceeded to do a false lap to keep an eye on his only customer.
This pick had a blue weave that ran through the middle of the sharp end across the head and down the haft that promised, according to the cardboard trapped in the packaging like amber, to ensure visibility and stability in the cold white. A description complete with a picture. Our shopper unconvinced. Suspected he would lose it in the event of its intended use but he did not really plan on doing much of that afterwards.
He placed it back with care and without summoning the attendant and he browsed for a moment longer, caught somehow on the range available, and then his eyes caught on one emblazoned with a red and white sticker with black felt across that read, “Recommended by the team,” with a thumb up from a doughy, too-round hand.
He took that one without much thinking about how it was a bit more thin than the others but that might be better in the end though it could because it held within some tensile strength that would hold and hold and hold and as both his hands clenched tight around its neck he wondered if he would hold and hold and hold.
The attendant met him again at the counter and scanned the pick and asked some questions that aren’t important and our shopper caught, in that moment when the reverse-facing screen came to white life with the price and the list of item(s), himself in the black that faded away.
That moment lingered and our shopper paid mindlessly as he kept looking to his own brief ghost, looking at the soft pink spots in the corner of his eyes, wondering whether this would all fade with the rest if he did it just right.
We’ve all bought into the idea that it’s not true, forgetting that regular repetition is what settles — culturally, at least — truth. There is gold at the end of some rainbows but what’s been so well hidden in the endless sarcasm is that sometimes it’s only bauxite or copper. We know much more now and the hard light cutting through the wet earth when it rains isn’t at useful as it used to be but such is the way the Dumnonians were drawn south and east into the parts of Cornwall they turned into tin mines.
At the end of the rainbow, rather than the gold we’ve been mockingly promised, there is instead an intense heat. The edges sharp and flat like ultraviolet steel as they slice through the sodden ground with the strength of the refraction that’s made its way down through the overwrought clouds above. This was how we moved as an old species, chasing rainbows further and further from our African cradle until we found ourselves both going forth and getting busy.
Not that we were always there at the landfall of each arc. They were easy to chase by day but not so much by night though their usefulness at unearthing what we came to know through evolving language as minerals meant we followed them nonetheless. We would stop, camp, eat, sleep, then proceed again in the same general direction. And there — not always but often enough — we would find the caretakers who would become legends.
Their reputations as shoemakers came second to their reputations for being ahead of the curve. Small enough to live in the same places the ends of the rainbows liked. Amongst the rocks and in the cover of escarpments and overhung outcrops. The first to stake the claims they fast learned to sell before retreating, over eons, to a wet green island from which they also seemed to disappear. Some say they retreated to the cold north of Scandinavia to follow the aurora to wait for it make landfall in the thousands of years they saw themselves having in old stories. So far, they’ve only been correct on one count.
Modern technologies have, of course, made chasing rainbows in this fashion less useful than it once was but even in the resources sector there remains a respect for the old ways. We continue to discover, for example and with politics far aside, swathes of northwestern Australia rich in the mineral assets that will keep us rich for centuries and they’re found with charts and spreadsheets and drones. But every so often, when the rains strike the depths of the Outback and the leafy dust turns sodden and lightning glasses the sand, there come rainbows like snakes that lead the way to deposits rich beyond most of our wildest dreams. Light stretching left to right across the sky with wealth at both ends.
From what we found underneath the septecoloured beams we built tools, homes, cities, life. Structures and stability. A reprieve from the storms that summoned them in the first place. A trick of the light guiding us always. The few leprechauns that remain believe our contemporary troubles stem from misunderstanding the value of an illusion.
Perhaps the cobblers’ lesson is that always moving is best. Always chasing. The vanguard those who know better who are ready to move on.
He knew as soon as he got into the box that he shouldn’t have but he was in the line of work that knew how small a million dollars can be when the notes are in large denominations. You’ll not find yourself in a similar situation unless you follow your rights broker onto a strange plane from Daru across the Torres Strait. When the box fell from the cargo hold, maybe nudged or maybe not, that rights broker was somewhere else on the plane. Maybe.
It wasn’t even a love of money or those ones they warn you against. More like curiosity, like the other one they say. Not that he had nine lives or anything. Just one. The wind whistled past through the small holes in the frame of the box and the million dollars fast lost its sheen. He felt like he was wearing the plastic notes thin as he tried to think of some Icarian way to bind them together even now and strap them to his back and glide off.
That would have been a good one. Hard to believe, that’s true. He imagined retelling it at the pub. Hoping it just held him steady until he splashed down, keeping some of the bills to buy a few things back on the mainland whenever he arrived. He’d have to sleep somewhere overnight in the rainforests. Cross the Daintree somehow to get back to Cairns. He didn’t suspect the money would be that handy in the wild. Not even a chunky enough block to feed to a crocodile for safe passage for a moment, a night, a trip down a shallow-seeming stream. He’d done it before. But he’d had better leverage than a million bucks then.
What he had now a people problem. Time traded for other people’s time. But here, alone, it wasn’t much good. Would it be much good again? Would it be — no. Never mind. What would come? Whistling and rattling. A bill slipping loose. Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand and whatever or something.
The long list of ways to spend it changed as the salt air smell came stronger. Maybe he’d try the wing thing after all. He kicked at one of the wooden panels and it came loose and it struggled against the quiet sky. He regretted pretty quickly looking out through it. He couldn’t hear his own reaction. That feeling deep in your gut on the edge through all of him.
But not for much longer.
They’d left the doors open as they came to and from the car with a duvet and an air mattress that it didn’t know was the loud angry air that had kept it and everything else alert two nights ago but it must have been the lingering smell of salt and vinegar chips and an apple and a mango that hadn’t quite aired out of the car that drew it in.
Tricked as many things are by the wide transparent glass across the windscreen, the fly caught itself in curiosity atop the dashboard when they both returned and they waved goodbye and there was a rumble and the fly felt it through its feet like it had never felt anything else. It could not help but buzz up and catch itself against the glass again as the car reversed and then turned and the fly held itself as steady as it could.
It is rare for flies to travel at triple digit speed but so it did and the world flew by in fast, splintered vision across its many eyes and its ears heard what could best be described as secrets as the driver and the passenger spoke to pass the time without service before they played the music with which they’d grown up and which the fly would now grow up quickly and in the rapid way that they do.
The fly tried to chime in, mostly unseen, mostly wedged safely with the wing vibrations that made subsonic speech in transient harmonies but the driver and the passenger did not seem to hear. All the fly was asking was that they slowed down so it could move again, take more in, sit higher up from the shoulders of one of the chairs. Perhaps the passenger’s because she moved about less, was more comfortable slouched down in the seat with her feet upon the dash away from which the fly felt it had to move — as pleasantly odious as the appendages were.
When they did, after hours, after much of the fly’s life truly passing by in the ways that they joke about dogs’ lives or goldfish’s memories, stop for coffee the fly was too slow. Too struck by the sudden still of the engine. Plastic quaking through the dashboard just cutting out so fast and the doors open then closed then fifteen minutes later doing the same. Other people stood nearby the car as the driver and the passenger left for the roadside café but the fly did not know who was who by features alone. It could smell nothing through the closed windows.
All it could see and understand was a wide open sky above into which it could not fly. The windscreen smattered with the colours of things that used to be other bugs. It is a good thing the fly could not understand.
Did you know that flies can draw caffeine from the scent of a strong black coffee through the air in an enclosed space like a car? It might not be true but it might be because the fly was more energetic for the rest of the drive back, less than a third left, after the driver and the passenger returned with their drinks. That open blue sky with scattered clouds giving way to overhead toll gates and wide road signs that spread across the motorways.
What the fly learned after a four hour drive is the strange compulsion humans have to run from one place to another over such vast distances to chase what it considered to be such little benefit. It learned, this time wise as the doors opened and stayed open as they shepherded the same belongings from earlier back inside the house, quite quickly the differences between there and here, the strange ways in which being closer to higher densities of people — even thin densities out here, still acreage, down a barely sealed road — made everything more competitive, more difficult, more dangerous for so small a creature.
As it flew out into the strange new air it would have wondered, if it could, how many things for which this held true.
She had the pleasure and the privilege of being the first awake and the whole ship felt empty beneath her cabin atop the vessel even as the engines hummed away, pushing them closer and closer. When she looked back, she couldn’t see home. Not even a sense of where it might be from here. The computer would tell her but she didn’t want to know just yet. Instead, she awoke the rest of the crew.
As they rose she looked for the first time upon the mission itself: orange and angry and afire with the conditions for life, reaching out from her molten surface like tentacles. Deep black spots upon her. The glass polarised enough to the captain’s eyes from burning.
Her terminal beeped and she knew the crew was awake and she knew they knew what to do next. Her job was to maintain morale, to ensure that if anything did go wrong there was someone to blame, and she was here at the bridge now waiting like everyone else back home. Long, thick arms pushed the hectare panels at the ship’s helm forward as a small team managed the manual retraction of the tarp, larger than farms, that was now peppered with holes that threatened to punch through to the panels. But barring superficial scratches and pockmarks of broken glass, the panels were ready and reaching out towards the sun. They had one job: to power everything.
The captain watched as the panels progressed towards the unbelievable star. Any possible view of Earth through the rear window lost in the glare, vital as she was to get the crew out and distant and operational on her most expensive infrastructure investment yet. As if solving it all for everyone. At least, that’s how they’d gotten everyone on board. A project paid for mostly by those who could afford and supplemented by materiel and time by those who could not quite match capital. As the panels arrived at the end of their tethers, the captain thought of a small old house on a long quiet street in a part of the world she hadn’t been for a long time. Stabilisers on the backs of the panels fired as the arms began a slow retraction.
An alarm sounded as she knew it would and the ship, now small without her payload, retreated from the panels’ berth and the captain watched as the engine in the panels’ rear began to spin. She had seen the simulations, the proofs, the tests at scale but she was still nervous in the moment of truth. One misaligned cable, one frayed wire, one warped tailfin would be enough to risk a crew member needing to manually, fatally, repair the error. The crew member had been decided long ago. The captain wondered what they were thinking. The engine would only fire once and would stay firing if they’d done it all right.
When the engine fired, the stress of the journey back faded away. Excepting that the eggheads might have gotten lazy in the tail half of the mission — an idea she’d rather not entertain — they’d worked it all out.
Solar power bore down upon the panels and the engine spun as catalyzed light and heat into electricity that sparked to white life and crawled across the Bermuda-sized relay before striking the engine which warped it into a beam of energy that arced across the cosmos on its way to another panel, millions of miles away, floating above the Pacific. She had wondered aloud in the control room about what would happen if the bolt missed that panel but she’d been told not to worry about it. That was beyond her remit.
And with that vibrant beam cutting through the stars she could see Earth, if only as the tiniest of dots at which the light ended. It burned almost as bright as its source. She considered checking the temperature sensors out of curiosity but the thought faded as the numeric magnificence of the arc fell away to its power for those at home. Those whose lights would flicker back on with the same energy that spurred us from the oceans so long ago.
It would all last, she’d been told, until the panels gave out. After that, the hope was that we would be far, far away. Until then, the beam would strike the depot array above Earth and charge huge batteries arranged beneath the panels like a dead spider’s legs, coiled until they primed. When they were charged they would launch themselves, with the help of a rotating skeleton crew — the best of whom were with her now — down upon the surface towards subnational plants that powered states and countries. Batteries like rain refueling us all and returning themselves to the conduit above the peaceful ocean.
And if they failed they would just splash down, sink like more detritus to the bottom of the ocean as ships have always down, and we would just make another one. This was all she could think. Perhaps in another far away place, in a time further away again, there would be another standing where she stood, at the helm of a sunship before a different star, siphoning life straight from that most raw of sources. Less a thought than a premonition. A keen knowledge, clear as day, for a single moment in the future. She wished to speak to them through time. So she made a note to herself to write this all down.
As the beam held there came after a time a notice back through the void of space to her console. Mission accomplished. Lights on at home. She could not help but feel in that moment that her purpose was fulfilled and then, in the instant afterwards, gone by. All that seemed to lie ahead now was the rest of her life. She wondered who else among the crew felt the same way.
So she set about, with the operation now running itself, turning the ship around and debriefing the crew and giving orders to those without first shifts at the watch to go back to sleep. She looked forward to her dreams and she wondered if once they landed it would all feel more or less real than before she left.
It is a common misconception that buses are manufactured by automobiliers. They are, in fact, grown in the wilds of France and Germany.
They begin life, as with many other animals, much smaller than their ticketed parents. A single headlight and only two side wheels. Their square bodies often capsize on the green hills of western Europe. Bus farmers spend their mornings righting the poor things. In winter they clean off the mud. They are, in the words of tourists whose memories are signed away by disclosure agreements, ‘adorable.’
The growth of the first passenger seats is an odd natural phenomenon captured only on video for scientific purposes. It is grotesque to witness. The buses often choose to hide themselves away in the early mornings as their bodies grow and harden. They are not as conscious of the noise they make. The leather and chrome of their motorcylical childhood remains but here begins to grow the familiar patterned fabric. Metal stretching back. Rubber developing into a small back wheel. A rectangular tripedal creature. Spacious enough for one ticket holder. They are expensive to feed now.
The evolution into a sedan is no more pleasant. They just do it with less noise. Three wheels become four. Engines can begin to roar. They consume and consume and consume but with five doors come four seats. At this stage, lineage begins to show. Shapes and sizes and colours though the colours can easily be changed. Unfortunately, not all young adult buses survive as genetic disease begins to take hold. The first coupe was a mutated bus that has been overencouraged by slim, unplanned streets through cities too old to properly adapt.
Those promising automobiles that are not siphoned off and groomed too young continue to graze. Their tyres begin biting into the grass. They are provided thousands of kilometers of test roads. Housed in garages to protect them from the sun and the rain and the weather. How human. This shift from turf to tarmac is the mark of the adulthood of a young bus. Their fresh rubber screams against the bitumen as they race, day and night, to feel that vibration of life through their chassis.
And then the Germans come. They pay a fine price for their champions and continue to raise them fine and fast. They are renowned for the quality of their stock.
The Japanese raise similar stock in small pockets of secret Chinese land they never gave back.
The French do not compete for the sedans so much. They are much better bus producers.
Between the sedans and the full passenger buses come four-wheel drives. This was originally considered to be a bizarre stage of maturation in which the grilles never look quite right and the creatures were too expensive to productively feed without a long-term view to auctioning them off as buses. Not one of us in the industry see the value but consumers, in their wisdom, somehow do. An SUV’s sense of self must be difficult to discover in Europe.
Now comes the patience as the five seats have become eight and the eight must become eighty. Small tourist operators tend to purchase the weaker of the full-grown animals, the twelve-seaters, the twenty-seaters. Even the fifty-seaters are considered acceptable but not desirable.
Municipalities tend to take the mid-range and upwards buses. Fifty seats and upwards. The smaller the bus the smaller the population density of the serviced region; the bigger the bigger. The buses are then trimmed, dressed, and presented. The buses come to full maturation when that number first comes to life on the front. Somewhere to be, something to do. A sense of direction for all involved.
It is also a little known secret that the buses take a small commission off each ticket. It is no secret that London buses are the greediest. Perhaps they have the most effective trade union. Long growth times. Two stories. Their backs scratched by overhung branches. Cool English air. And some sense of a life abroad across the Channel.