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The Big Spill

The shopping mall was a compromise between a gothic cathedral and a mediaeval castle, its great hall soaring like the cathedral nave, the buttresses hiding outside walkways and the side aisles, vestry and chapels the shops, but with castellations and an onion dome. A footbridge from the car park reached out across the blue-green waters of the artificial lake. A crisp breeze brought the smells of gum leaves, noodles and rotting fish.

Emma lumbered from the dark recesses of the carpark at the speed of a stampeding elephant. She reached the bridge at the same time as Kathy and Sue.

"I thought I was going to be late," she gasped.

"You are," Sue said, "but so are we."

She looked at Emma’s maroon executive suit, with the shoulder pads that would sleep at least two cats, the white silk blouse, the bright scarf tucked into her collar. "Meetings with the heavies?" she asked.

Emma nodded. "I’m running just about the whole department," she said, "since the spill."

Sue frowned. "The spill?"

"Remember the environmental hazards investigation where the department insisted that the oil tankers continue going as close as possible to the Great Barrier Reef — on economy grounds, of course?"

"It didn’t seem very bright of them," Kathy said.

"They assume it’ll never happen. Like floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, asteroids hitting the earth ..."

"So two days later, one hit," Kathy said.

"Three," Emma said. "So now all of the senior executives, and most of the transport economics division are up there scrubbing oil off skin divers and glass-bottomed boats. It gives them a chance to rub shoulders with the oil company executives and the shipping magnate, of course, so no doubt they’ll claim it as a conference."

"How did you get out of it?" Sue asked.

"I’d made sure my dissent was recorded in the minutes."

"Isn’t there some kick up about human rights?" Kathy asked.

Emma nodded. "They’re not allowed to use their mobile phones while they’re working."

As they walked across the bridge, the smell of rotting fish grew stronger. Sue looked down at the evil blue-green scum dotted with the corpses of carp. "They could do with an oil spill here," she said.

Kathy shook her head. "Not allowed," she said. "It’s a Defence Department biological weapons incubation ground."

"Shouldn’t it be somewhere a bit more secret?" Emma asked.

"If they did, the U.N. arms control inspectors would find it. As it is, they’ve got a cover. A nice, incompetent local government to blame. And if they need it, a quick scoop of thriving blue-green algae, a quick dunk in the Danube or the Congo or wherever, and Radovan or Sitiveni or whoever’s your late uncle." She slapped her hands together in a rubbing motion. "Neat. If you’ve got the hide."

As the glass doors slid closed behind them, the smell of fish was replaced by perfume, disinfectant and stale popcorn.

A voice echoed from the fake plastic vaulting far above. "Naah. Gave it away. Got sick of getting shot at."

They froze. Emma moved behind a pillar, dragging Kathy and Sue behind her.

"Got a job in pest control now," the voice went on. "Real environmental. Feral humans. Got to get rid of them, or there’ll be nothing left. No air. Nothing. Breed like rabbits, some of them."

"It’s Robbie," Emma said. "See if you can see him."

They peered around the pillar. Then Kathy pointed to a table outside a cafe, half way down the mall. Robbie, hunched forward like a thwarted orang-utan; Des, twisting uncomfortably in his chair, trying to remember a sales conquest to cap the extermination of the human race; Petra, leaning forward, eyes wide, lips apart, neckline gaping, drinking it in.

"It’s good sport, I’ll tell you that. Like when we told half the duck shooters the best hide was a duck disguise, and the other half that duckus giganticus was a protected species, but sort of forgot to tell them that they were armed. There’s not many coming back next year, and that’s a fact."

"We’ve got to rescue Petra," Emma said.

"How?" Kathy said.

"Blue-green algae in his coffee?" Sue suggested.

Kathy pointed to a mass of half-height figures in blue uniforms. "What about a stampede?"

Emma was eyeing off a fire alarm.

Sue pointed towards two brown-uniformed security guards bending over the table next to Robbie’s. The woman at the table was gesturing towards Robbie. The guards moved towards Robbie.

"I think we may be all right," Sue said quietly.

A moment later the mall exploded in a ball of bodies, chairs and china.

* * *

In the Lakeside Bar, the green waters slop limpidly under glass floors to the piped sound of surf and smell of salt air. Drift nets hang in folds like gauze from the ceiling.

Petra, Sue and Kathy sat waiting, at a table near the door.

"He’s joined the Environmental Vigilantes," Petra said. She sounded washed out. "They do things like chopping loggers off at the knees with their own chainsaws and asking them how long it’ll take for their legs to regrow. And trapping graziers that overstock on their own propeties so that they starve. And they kill three hundred randomly selected Japanese a year for research into the effect of whale meat on the human metabolism."

"Doesn’t sound much different from ethnic cleansing, or whatever it was he was doing before," Kathy said. "They claim that that’s in a good cause, too."

"But why did he attack the guards?" Sue asked.

"He’s been up north, protecting aboriginal paintings. The idea seemed to be, if a tourist went to touch one, you shot them." She frowned, then said sadly. "I think he must have been a sniper somewhere." She paused. "I think he thought the security guards were park rangers."

It was nearly dark when Emma joined them. The scarf was not so bright, and the shoulder pads seemed smaller. She swallowed a double whisky and looked around for another.

"Where is he?" Petra asked.

"They’ve sent him to Queensland," Emma said. "Community service. Help clean up the spill. We thought we’d show the oil company executives that we’ve got our quota of thugs, too. And ours don’t need mobile phones."


Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1993

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