The Komatsu Wombat and the Fantastical Anticlimax
It'd happen whatever we did. Arunta couldn't get over it.
Buried alive with the rest of the world, locked away forever. Born to a bad time and a bad place, so close to the end. The scheduled date even got treated like something to look forward to, giant red signs scattered through the CBD counting down the days.
To the second, Arunta Williams knew how many years of sky he had left to him. Reckon the inevitability scared him more than the rest of the apocalypse. One morning he woke up and couldn't stand the shit taste of fear. He conscripted to the Pit, aged 20.
After he conscripted, Arunta ginned about Perth for a week before he had to head out. What with the drug tests, he behaved himself right up to the last day, which is when the panic took him and he did what new diggers did and pissed his fortnightly advance up on a wall. Clear as catastrophe he was a digger, even without him drunk and telling everyone who didn't care.
'So go on,' said the someone pissing beside him, 'tell me about your hole, if you ain't gonna shut it.'
'Wouldn't believe the fucking posters they had on the wall, mate. Panorama don't justify the name. A big boy's bloody sandpit, full of massive trucks and shovels. Come on in and muck about!' Because Runt was Runt, and probably because he was holding his cock, he decided it'd be a good time to add, 'Seeing as I'm a digger, and I'm going to save your life, the least you could do is suck me. I'll even shake first, how about it?'
Runt arrived at the Pit, hung over, with a pearler of a black eye to boot.
I've a reputation as a talker, but Runt was something else. I swear he talked the ears off emus. His first day, he pulled a 12-hour operational getting his Komatsu Wombat from Perth to Kalgoorlie, then he leaned on the back of my chair, rubbing red road dust more into his sweat than off his arms, and yakked the whole 40-minute drive to the Pit.
Not the bloke I would've expected to faint on his second day. even if the thermostat read 53 degrees Celsius.
Don't bloody ask about the relative humidity.
Arunta's first day, which came before his second day, he got the usual hand-holding from his section supervisor, lucky me. Ah, he was all right, our Runt. At our pissbreak was the closest he got to complaining, when he said, 'Fuck me, it's hot down here.'
'Sure, sweetheart. Bend over, suck in, make it easy for us.'
Runt was still trying to work out the quickest way out of his suit. He stopped, one leg outside and his shorts, even the hair on his legs sweat-soaked to the skin, and he grinned as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.
On Runt's other side, Daz said, 'Katashi's mother kicked him out of town on account of that so called sense of humour.'
Arunta kept grinning. 'Nice of her to share. A generous woman.'
'You saying my mother spreads it round, Arunta Williams?'
'Nah, Tash, nah. Wouldn't say a word against your mother. She's lovely. Accommodating lady.'
Daz snorted at his tiles, while I shoved Runt over by the shoulder as he laughed. Imagine: six foot four of lanky muscle, and he giggled at his own jokes.
I held out my hand and hauled him up, then showed him how to get out of his suit.
Working the snap-lock buckles, I told Arunta the only place on earth hotter than Kalgoorie's SuperPit was Coober Pedy, where the caves went down to the depth of the magma strata, cooler than the outside. 'At least in Kal, get up to the surface and you can still piss where you want. In Coober Pedy it turns to steam before you can get to the first A in Australasia.'
'Reckon that's bullshit.' Arunta wasn't paying any attention at all my demonstration of the thermoseals, looking down at me, his face close to mine. His eyelashes were long.
'Yeah. I like saying magma. You try it. Mag-ma.'
'Don't never believe anything Katashi says,' Daz added. 'Shit talks like a shittalker. Ain't no A in Oz, for starters.'
Runt leapt away from me when Daz spoke, and lurched to the urinal. I took up station beside him, looked over to glare at Daz. '"xcept for you, arsehole.'
Runt hemmed and hawed, hips rocking forward. 'Bet I could put the P in Australasia Pacific.'
'Jesus, Williams, that's the biggest cock I've ever seen.'
Of course I looked.
At which point Daz crowed, 'Made you look.'
Bloody Daz, bloody suits, bloody need to keep near-naked beneath them. 'Holy shit, that is the biggest thing this side of Sydney.'
Daz took his peek.
Quick as you please, Runt backhanded him across the face. 'Made you look. 5 bucks, or I do a 20 dollar special.'
'I wet myself now, you wankers!'
'That's the 30 dollar special.' Runt wriggled his sticky shorts upwards, climbed back into his suit, zipped up, set on his mask on last, in half the time to get out of the ensemble. 'It's been fun, supe. Let's get naked again soon.'
'Well on your way to 2IC, mate.'
'Better get back to it.' Arunta threw me his biggest, brightest grin, then winked at Daz, and grabbed his own crotch. 'No hard feelings, hey, mate?'
6 hours later Daz helped me pour 8 liters of beer over Arunta's head in the mess, trying to cool the new kid down and getting more than a bit in Arunta's big mouth.
Must've been fun, working his second day with a double hangover.
When Runt fainted, I grabbed him, threw my shoulder under his arm and hauled him towards the nearest lift.
Talking to me 1 minute, gloves off, mask tucked in by his elbow, the next minute he collapsed, his rolled-back eyes bright white against the dirt. I'd seen it before, usually I'd let the buggers fall and buzz a medic, or if I liked them, I'd make sure they didn't crack their skulls on the way down.
Except there I was, carrying a mightily heat exhausted Sleeping Beauty up to the surface without any of the other diggers knowing he'd fainted. As if 2.10 meters of ruck rover with a black eye could ever be called a princess, any more than the SuperPit could be called super. Not like our Pit was out saving babies from runaway trains.
If they'd seen Runt lose it only 48 hours into the piece we would have ribbed the merry fuck out of him. No idea what I was doing, keeping his little swooning fit between him and me.
Well, I liked him, didn't I?
Then again, Arunta was always off, reckless and edgy like his grins, rising from somewhere beyond the intense stare to surprise the fuck out of whoever amused him most. Not the kind of person you'd take out on a pub crawl in case he glassed someone for a laugh. So we liked ribbing each other down the Pit, made the day go quicker, but provoking Arunta always felt like jumping on a rope bridge trying to make it snap.
Yeah, except more fun.
Safety was a big deal those days. Felt bloody good to forget about it.
Ignoring the signs and drills, the OHS posters, the memorisation tests, this was my basic procedure for surface visits in those lovely sunny days before the storms:
1. Remove $3.4M worth of Komatsu Wombat interface, otherwise known as 'a mask'
2. Whack on $40 worth of goggles, to keep out the Alien's glare
3. Make sure said hung-over and unconscious mate's goggles are on, and check his water bottle
4. Hope you didn't forget your sunscreen that morning
5. Swear yourself blind at the Alien's glare.
After the storms started no one came back up, not for a long while. Me and Runt took every chance we got.
I poured half of his water on Runt's face, in a thin stream until he came out of his swoon, puckering up like a dying fish, floundering about.
'Shit, K-Katashi, get your fist out of my face! Why am I wet?' He licked his lips. 'This isn't beer. Did you piss on me?'
'You wish, sweetheart, it's water. You alright now?'
'Aw, man! Why does no one I like ever piss on me?'
So Runt didn't deserve the black eye he wore so well, but someone probably thought he did.
'Uh, wanna get out of my way for a sec, supe?'
As soon as I moved, Arunta curled up and puked his liver out. He wiped his mouth, made wet sounds, and mistimed the upchuck so it came out his nose.
'That is so much better out here than down there. I've been holding all morning, fuck!'
I congratulated him on his willpower, and asked him if he was ready to go back under. 'In your own time, mind, not like we're saving the world out here or anything.'
'Katashi,' Arunta said, goggles full of hopefully water, 'Daz was right, your mother's a bloody saint, and you are a fucking failed comedian.'
Funny thing about Daz. I found out years later he'd wanted me to speak for him at his funeral. He died at 75, a good run for his generation, trying to save his granddaughter from the fires that took down half the city, back during the riots.
I would've gone to his funeral, probably would've given the speech like he'd wanted, but by then I was trapped with 300 people on one side of a cave-in, 2 499 700 people on the other.
I started work on the Pit 5 years before Runt did. When Arunta conscripted, only 2 of us diggers were left from my first days: me and Melanie.
The diggers lived in Kalgoorlie, and trail-biked to the Pit through carpets of wildflowers, which grew on the tiniest layer of red dirt like the dust gathered on a windowsill. They needed less than flyspit to sprout. We didn't need goggles, either.
About 2 years after I started digging, the Alien's early warning fragments hit, which put something chemical into the air that mucked with what was left of the ozone, and made the glare damned rude on the old eyeballs.
Too much for the wildflowers, hardy as they were. Kalgoorlie lasted for a while before they did what most settlements were doing, shifting operational hours to night. The diggers moved into the Pit not long after, to spare ourselves the gauntlet of the long drive.
Which was a pity, because I'd gotten used to Kalgoorlie. Nothing like blue cop lights flashing through the curtains to soothe a bloke to sleep.
Thinking about Melanie now makes me feel old. Melanie Sunshine signed to the Pit the same year I did, aged 15. At least Daz was old before I'd known him, and died before I got there.
After the storms started Melanie shacked up with a lad and raised 2 kids underground. She died not long ago in her bed in New Port, which was a bloody original name for our first post-storm beachside settlement.
I visited her once. She lived in a big old house with the world as a yard, the kind you'd only see in storybooks if you were born in the Pit. Sitting on her porch step, grandkids playing fetch with a half-wild puppy in the mud. Those kids weren't letting the dog do the work, they were running after the ball as well, which sort of defeated the purpose of throwing it if they hadn't been enjoying themselves so much.
Melanie offered me a cigarette. 'How do you reckon the dogs survived?'
'Same way we did. Found a bloody big hole, ate cockroaches, maybe each other, and waited it out.'
'And here they were, waiting for us for 30 years. 30 years, Katashi, of a dog-eat-dog world,' Melanie Sunshine said. 'You and Runt missed the worst, on the other side of that cave-in.'
'Yeah, I know. I count my fortunes every day.'
Before the Alien came along, the Pit used to be a gold mine. Except gold meant less than piss with the Alien coming. What we dug out of that Pit was space and survival. The old gold-digging machines, sifters and sorters and whatnot, sat around rusting until we needed the metal for a replacement part.
In the shade of one of those rusting Mitsubishis Arunta Williams, 2 days into his contract, told me how he'd gotten the black eye.
'I deserved it,' Arunta said, pensive. 'I'm not normally that rude.'
'Usually wipe, do you?'
'I usually say please. And you?'
'You really don't want to go back under.'
'Am I that obvious?'
'Well, yeah, but not about that. It's all right, you know. Big damned adjustment, living down under. You're doing fine.'
'Daz reckoned you started at 15.'
'Don't know how you could.'
'Didn't have a choice, mate. Daz was right, my mum conscripted me off the bat.'
Runt pulled his legs to his chest, wrapped his arms around suited knees, and said, 'So how about you tell me about your hole.'
'It's 6 point 6 kilometres wide.'
'And slippery when wet?'
'There's another 6 kay of tunnels radiating off in all directions. Pack half a civilisation into there.'
'As long as they mind their heads. No shoving.'
'It's half a kay deep. You'd spit and never see it land.'
'Depends on whether you're at the top or the bottom, I suppose.'
'Yeah. Good point. Smartarse.'
Something else I learned about Arunta: he'd brave any weather to get his fill of sky, heat, glare, acid storms and what, he didn't care. He had hungry eyes, and I was the only one fool enough to keep him company.
After a bit of quiet, he said, 'Can I take my goggles off?'
'Not for long.'
'Fuck!' He put them back on quick-smart. 'Ow. You bastard.'
'Told you not for long.'
'I've never been out of Perth. Lots of red. Not half bad out here.'
I patted the cracked earth beside me. 'Not half bad, you hear?'
'You gormy cheesehole,' Arunta said, laughing. 'When's the cover coming?'
'The work crews come in about 3 years. They're doing the foundations now. Ask HQ, they'd know more.'
'As long as I'm here to see it go up.'
'Making sure it's done right, are you?'
Arunta shrugged. 'Something to tell the grandkids.'
Which is what I'm doing now, so to speak.
Continue to Chapter 2 →
send a review
You won't be able to submit unless all required fields are completed.