Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Beautiful Error

by Stuart Cormie




Toba sensed the flash behind and to his left, and as he turned towards its source, he saw the spirit rise like a mighty red fist punching out from the centre of the world.

Moments later the scrub beneath his bare feet shook and he could not stand. Throwing his spear aside, he settled to his knees as at first the gods’ hostile roar and then their angry breath of dust swept all around him.

But Toba was wrong to assume their displeasure. As the flurry settled over the parched plain before him, and the fist on its strong arm slowly drifted upwards and narrowed, he could see the carcasses of kangeroos -- the very beasts he’d set out earlier to kill -- spotting the ground in the distance.

Toba did not know yet what the spirit of the gods had come to tell him, but it was enough for now to know that its gift of easy hunting meant they would eat better tonight than they ever had done before.


*****



Ash pulled the Toyota camper across the pitted road and stopped. Next to him, Rich read out the words at the top of the sign in front of them:

FORMER MARALINGA NUCLEAR TEST SITE


“Shit, did you know about this, Ash?”

Ash shrugged. “There was something about it one of the guide books but I didn’t pay much attention. What’s the problem? I don’t see a fence or anything.”

Rich continued reading. “‘This land is part of the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands. Access requires the consent of Maralinga Tjarutja.’ See, there’s a phone number, we’re supposed to tell someone first!”

“Ah, sod that, mate,” said Ash, fishing a cellphone out from the door pocket. “Look, no signal out here anyway,” he said triumphantly, holding out the display towards his companion.

Across the Nullarbor Plain to their left, another glorious Outback sunset was beginning to develop. “It’s going to be dark soon, Rich. We need to push on and find a place to stop while there’s still light. None of these Abos are going to be out checking now, are they?”


*****



Further along, well into the bush two miles off the road, they made camp in the shade of an ancient, tenticular myall tree. Rich set a fire in the orange-red dirt and put potatoes in tinfoil in its embers.

“No sound,” said Ash, sipping on a lukewarm bottle of a brew called West End that they’d brought with them from Adelaide.

"Eh?"

“So quiet. Apart from the fire. Not even insects. My word, this is piss!” he snarled, grimacing as he took a swig of the beer. “Speaking of which, I’m going for one!”

Rich chuckled as Ash disappeared behind the converted Land Cruiser.

Away from the trees and the implied boundary of firelight, Ash was suddenly unnerved. He hurried to the task. Something about this night sky discombobulated him. Not that he’d seen too many starry nights back in England, the skies over north Kent being almost permanently washed out with sodium glare, but he’d seen enough to know that here on the other side of the planet, these stars were all in the wrong places.

Without pausing to zip up, he turned back towards the camp and --

-- The Aborigine blocked his path. Frazzled greying hair was just visible in the gloom. Ash swore and stumbled back. “Oh, wow, sorry, I didn’t see you there!” He laughed nervously. “Where the hell did you come from?!”

It was only when she spoke, softly, that Ash realised the figure before him was female.

“Do you have permission to be here?” she asked gently.

“What? Er, no! Our phone doesn’t work. We did see the sign --”

sh brushed past her quickly and didn’t catch what she then said. Back at the fire, Rich looked up. “I thought I heard voices!”

“Rich, this is, er --”

“Noora,” said the lady, moving towards the fire.

“She was just out there. In the bush!”

Noora spotted Ash’s bottle of West End in the dirt. “I’ll have one of these if you’ve got a spare.”

Ash and Rich exchanged glances before Ash moved to the cooler box to get one out for her.

Noora sat down cross-legged by the fire. They could now see she wore a floral dress, a thick black anorak, unopened, and was barefoot. She swigged the West End.

Rich piped up, “How did you get here? We didn’t hear another vehicle.”

“I don’t have one,” said Noora. “I live … hereabouts. I heard you. Where you boys headed?”

“We’re sort of making our way to Alice Springs,” said Ash. “We started out from Adelaide last week.”

“Sort of? ‘Sort of’ can get you into a lot of trouble out here. You’re Poms, right? You sound like it.”

“Yeah, bloody tourists,” said Ash, smirking.

Turning to both of them, Noora said, “And you have not been given permission to enter our land.”

“Are you like a warden or something?” said Rich. “I mean, couldn’t we get this sorted now, between us?”

After an eternity, Noora said, “No, not really.”

The Aborigine shuffled on the sandy floor. “So, nobody knows that you’re here. And you’ve seen the sign back there, you know what this place is, or was rather. Doesn’t that scare ya?”

“We don’t know anything about this site, to be honest,” said Ash.

“You really don’t know what happened here? Wow. Well let me tell you, you Brits came along and fucked it all right up here.”


*****



Noora outlined the nuclear weapons testing programme carried out at the Maralinga range in the 1950s and 1960s by the UK government with the tacit support of the Australian authorities. Seven atomic bombs had been detonated in 1956 and 1957 alone, irrevocably contaminating the land. Half-hearted cleanup attempts in the decades that followed had officially made most of the site fit for humans to visit again --

“-- But we know it isn’t really,” spat Noora, “despite what they say. People can only come for short times; they cannot live here. The grass doesn’t grow right, even the roos and the birds avoid the place. And there’s still one area in the middle all fenced off, no one allowed to go in there. Don’t reckon they’ll ever get that fixed.”

She took a long glug of the West End. “Some of my people were still in the area when they set the first bomb off.”

“Oh …! What happened to them?” said Rich.

“Well, they survived … for a while anyway, until the cancers got ‘em. But their kids, the ones who came afterwards, they’re the ones who really suffered.”

After an uncomfortable silence, Rich offered Noora one of the baked potatoes, laden with beans, but she would not take it. “Think about the wood you used for this fire, and how long it’s been here,” was all she would say.

Eventually, the Aborigine groaned to her feet. Finishing her West End, she started to move backwards into the silent, starlit bush, and said quietly, “Be careful now, boys. Beware the Burribota.”

She was gone before they’d even had chance to ask her what she meant.

“What was that all about?” said Rich.

“Dunno mate, sounds like some tribal bollocks.”


*****



First light saw the Toyota racing through the bush, Ash at the wheel. Behind them, what they took to be a tornado a good mile wide was viciously catching up with their vehicle.

Yet, the sky was cloudless.

“Let me, drive, Ash, you’ve had too much booze!” said Rich from the floor in the rear. He yelped as the camper lurched over yet another large rock in their path. More of their stuff flew out of the open, clanging side door.

Then they were flying into the gully before Ash was even aware. The camper, nose heavy, pitched into the gnarly bed, sending Ash through the windscreen. The Toyota pivoted over it onto its roof and slid a short way before coming to rest in its own cloud of dust.

Rich crawled, battered, through the door and slumped in the dirt. He watched as the swirling duststorm they’d been trying to evade tacked north, parallel to the gully.

The camper’s engine started to creak as it cooled. Soon it was the only sound.

A shadow moved over Rich. He looked up to see Noora was stood beside him.

“Ash!”, said Rich, gesturing to the wreckage.

Noora nodded. “Too late for that boy I think.”

“Was that that Burra-thing you said about?” gasped Rich, trying to sit up.

“You know, our kids who came after the bombs really did get the worst of it. Bits missing, or added, or put in places where they just shouldn’t have been. Most of them didn’t last long even if they did get born. The Burribota was one of the unlucky ones, ‘cos it survived.”

"It...?"

"Well, it was hardly a he or a she."

"And it's still alive?"

“It lives … in a manner. The baby was born just a few miles from where the first bomb went off, maybe six months after. The father knew straight away the child could not be. He took the baby out into the desert and left it there for the land to take its course. But nature had another plan.”

“So it survived?” asked Rich, coughing. “How?”

Rich thought that Noora smiled then. “We Anangu have been around for a very long time, young man. Before your time, even, you White Men. We and the earth are as one. We know to survive here, together. The Burribota found purpose in its new form; it exists now to remind those who need to be reminded this is not their land. And it never will be.”

Noora moved to sit beside him. “Most … changes … like this are bad of course,” she told him softly. “But maybe, just once in many millions of times, the difference can be for the better.”


*****



The bodies of Ashley Freeman and Richard Harding were never recovered, their rented vehicle never retrieved. It was as if the red soil of Maralinga had swallowed them whole.


THE END


2017 Stuart Cormie

Bio: Stuart Cormie currently resides in Blackpool, England's "Vegas of the North" and is a freelance technical author and training developer. He has previously appeared in Aphelion with his short story Remotion. His article on the science fiction of Jack Kerouac was recently reprinted in Beat Scene magazine.

E-mail: Stuart Cormie

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