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Up the Creek

The wall-sized poster at the club was an old one, showing Canberra's Parliament House as a green, grassy mound, free of sentry boxes, concrete barriers and barbed wire entanglements, a flag fluttering in the benign sun. It provided the only colour in an otherwise bleak cavern, silent except for the occasional cascade of coins from distant poker machines.

Robbie came rushing in, a gorilla pounding at its chest, waving a fax. "We got the contract for the water feature," he shouted across the nearly empty bar.

Emma, Kathy and Sue tried to ignore him, but he was heading straight for them.

When he got to the looming stage, Sue looked up from her coffee. "Who's we?" she said.

"Des's Diggers. It's a new franchise."

"What's the water feature?"

Robbie turned to the poster and plonked a grimy thumb over the roads circling Parliament House. "We're gunna dig them a moat. Improve security. At the moment it's ratshit. Anyone can get near the place."

"Where's all the traffic supposed to go? Are they going to run a new road beside the moat?"

"Moatside Drive? No way. They won't have a bar of it. No go area. Barbed wire and magpies. Fend off a waterborne invasion."

Sue was insistent. "So where will the traffic go?"

Robbie shrugged. "No idea." He gestured at Kathy, cradling her mineral water in a clenched fist. "The locals'll just have to build something further away. There's an old hall they use for selling carpets, and an old pub. They'll have to go."

"They're heritage listed," Emma said.

"The whole project stinks," Kathy said. "It's contrary to every long-term plan for the area. But there's nothing we can do. The Feds say it's their land and they can do what they like with it."

Robbie smirked. "It's gunna stink even more when we've finished. You should hear what the contract says." He opened the fax and began to read. "'With due regard to issues of the health of the occupants of the enclosed building, the waterway should produce a nauseous odour that will deter would-be trespassers.' We reckon we've got a good line in algae that'll do the job."

Kathy frowned. "Won't that kill everything else in the water?"

"People, yeah. Crocs and piranha, they'll thrive. But the pollies want something a bit more fancy. Real moat monsters." Robbie scratched his head. He sounded down for a moment. "Dunno where we'll find them."

Emma had been listening, intent, a scowl on her face. "Have you tried the university?" she asked, ice in her voice. "They've got a Cryptozoology Unit. They're genetically engineering what they call 'non-standard animals'."

Kathy grimaced. "Monsters," she said. "We've got enough marginalised animals already. Why do we need more?"

"Climate change," Emma said. "The claim is that if these animals lived in a different world, then they could be just what we need for the new one."

* * *

The Cryptozoology Unit occupies a disused sporting complex. Kathy had come with Robbie, "to check the place out". The Director, Martin Peng, was a big man with a limp handshake and an endless stream of explanation.

"I am sure you can help us," he was saying. "We are planning field trials for some of our new creations, and what you describe appears to be an ideal venue." He glanced around tentatively, as if he was scared of what he might find. "We are also encountering space problems. Some of our animals are very large."

He pointed down into a squash court, where a bored two-legged dragon was breathing fire on to a blackened wall.

"That's a wyvern," he said. "We're working on proper dragons, but they're harder. They need six limbs -- four legs plus two wings. Vertebrates don't have six limbs, so we've got to create a genetic blueprint from scratch. That's going to take time, but we've got to do it. We want to make a griffin -- head and wings of an eagle, body of a lion -- as a city mascot."

The wyvern stooped towards a pile of rocks, picked one up and began chewing it.

"Why's it doing that?" Kathy asked.

"It needs silicon," Dr Peng said. "It produces silane in its gut. That's the silicon version of methane. It spontaneously ignites in air. Most of what it blows out is methane, but the silane starts the flame." He gestured at the dark pattern on the walls. "Good, isn't it?"

In the next squash court, three huge humanoid figures were flaked out, snoring. "Trolls," Dr Peng said. "We are developing them as bouncers for night clubs."

In the gymnasium, a young woman in a tracksuit was petting a white horselike creature with a single straight horn in its forehead.

They went into a glassed-in viewing gallery over a swimming pool.

"I think this is more in your line," Dr Peng said.

A sea serpent caught their movement, reared its head and glared at them.

"This one was pretty straightforward," Dr Peng said. "Take a crocodile, give it a long neck and lengthen its body. Put in a few cat genes so it can arch its back, and there you are. We're very proud of it."

Robbie looked it over speculatively. "Looks like the sort of thing we need," he said. "Though maybe it's a bit placid."

"It's based on a crocodile, remember," Dr Peng said. "Not a friendly gene in sight. That's why I thought it would suit you. But it's just been fed. That's why it's not very interested."

Robbie looked the monster up and down again, and made an instant decision. "Can you do me half a dozen?"

"We've got two at the moment," Dr Peng said, "but they seem to be breeding true. There's no reason why we can't."

He led them down the gallery to a diving pool. The high board sagged from the weight of a black monster with glittering scales, thick legs ending in webbed feet hanging down on either side of the board. It raised a big head, like a dog's, on a long neck, and stared at them.

"What is it?" Kathy asked.

"A bunyip."

Robbie's face lit up. "Hey. That's great. A real Australian icon."

Kathy put her hands against the glass to see more clearly. The bunyip stood up, then dived, swamping the glass with a sheet of water.

* * *

Kathy stood on a headland where there had been a government office block, gazing down into a deep rock-walled trench crawling with excavators, bulldozers and concrete mixers. Parliament House lurked in the distance, a pimple perched on a rock pinnacle. A side trench ran towards the lake.

"Ugh," she said.

"No bridges," Sue said. "How will the pollies get in?"

Robbie straightened his hard hat. "Tunnel from the airport," he said.

Kathy scanned the trench with her binoculars. "I'm worried about its suitability as a habitat," she said. "Sea serpents need a lot of space. Bunyips like billabongs. Shallow muddy water."

"Should be big enough," Robbie said. "Bits of it are deeper than Loch Ness. And there's an island round the other side. Lodge Island. Nice and boggy. The Prof's checked it out and he's happy."

* * *

From the Capital Morning Telegraph

MOAT MONSTERS
SPREAD TERROR

The planned deployment of sea serpents and bunyips in the new parliamentary moat has city residents quaking in their shoes.

"These monsters are vicious," says retail consultant Primula Marsh. "If they escape, they'll eat people."

The monsters are an essential feature of the security reforms at Parliament House says house spokesperson Naseem Choudhary. "These are part of a world-wide trend," he said. "We cannot afford to encourage terrorists." He dismissed any concerns by pointing to the sheer cliffs bordering the moat. "Anybody who is worried should see this area as being like a zoo. The monsters are fully contained and can be viewed in complete safety."

Dr Martin Peng, Director of the University's Cryptozoology Unit dismisses any thought of potential dangers. "These animals have been bred for the service of humanity," he said. "Provided that they are properly looked after, they will be happy and will pose no threat."

* * *

The moat was full now. An evil grey expanse broken only by the occasional ripple, by patches of floating algae, and by the odd potato peel.

Kathy looked over it with distaste. "Looks pretty sterile," she said. "What do the monsters eat? Are there any fish?"

"Only carp," Robbie said. "They don't like them any more than we do." He pointed to a truck backing towards the edge of the moat. "It's feeding time now." The tray tipped, and a cascade of festering scraps hurtled down. "Leftovers from the Parliamentary Dining room. Gourmet catering." The water boiled as eager monsters converged.

Robbie chuckled. "They also get the odd MP that gets on the wrong side of their faction." He paused. "Or so they tell me."

* * *

It was parliamentary recess, and all was quiet in the house on the hill. Until all across town there was an enormous bellowing and booming, echoing between the high-rise buildings and drowning out car radios.

Kathy's phone rang. Robbie. "Problem with the moat monsters. I've lined up the prof. Can you meet me at the airport?"

A long queue of cars was waiting at the guard post at the tunnel mouth. Robbie waved to the guards and drove straight through.

The tunnel from the airport to Parliament House is no ordinary road tunnel. It is a processional way, lined with murals of voters queuing, detention centres and prison camps, boatloads of refugees drowning as a grey warship hovers in the distance, workers under the lash supervised by fat men in expensive suits.

Robbie's car made it in record time. They piled out, straight into a huge room lined with TV screens.

A guard in a blue uniform eyed them up and down.

"What seems to be the trouble?" Dr Peng asked.

"Monsters are restless. Carrying on like there's no tomorrow."

"That's the noise they make when they're hungry," Dr Peng said. "When were they fed last?"

"Dunno. That's not my patch."

"Whose patch is it?"

"Try the Parliamentary Dining room."

A second guard was hovering behind them. "They're off this week," he said. "Parliamentary recess, remember."

"Staff canteen then."

"Can you ask them?" Dr Peng said.

The guard hesitated for a moment, then picked up a phone and muttered into it. He looked up. "The guy that does the recycling's on holiday."

"So nobody's fed the monsters?"

"Doesn't look like it."

Peng's voice took a hard edge. "Then somebody had better. Right now."

The guard muttered again.

"They reckon they've only got enough food for the rostered staff."

"Then the staff'd better starve."

"And they'd better do it soon," Kathy said, "or you'll all be food."

The guard's eyes had been constantly flicking across the screens on the wall. Suddenly, he started playing with the switches on his console, zooming in on a black figure scaling the cliff, its webbed feet feeling for handholds, the sun glinting on its scales.

"We got trouble here. That one's never done that before."

"He's being proactive," Dr Peng said. "Looking for food."

"Not here, he's not."

The black shape pulled itself over the edge of the cliff and into the forecourt. Below it the sea serpents watched expectantly.

The guard reached forward, turned a key and pressed a big red button. The Whoop! Whoop! drowned out the bellowing of the monsters. Instantly, armed police in full riot gear appeared in the forecourt, guns at the ready. An officious figure resplendent with gold braid appeared and started ordering them about.

"Oh shit," the guard said. "That's the Police Commissioner. What's he doing here? He's an idiot."

"We've got to get up there," Kathy said. "Urgently."

They ran for the lifts.

It was a standoff. The police in a semicircle. The bunyip looking at them, puzzled. To one side the Police Commissioner, waving his arms like a football coach.

"That animal is dangerous," he was shouting.

"He just wants to be fed," Kathy said. "We're arranging it."

"We can't afford to wait."

He glanced at his men.

The bunyip sat up, front paws limp, begging.

The police opened fire. A stuttering, whanging cacophony of noise as bullets ricocheted in all directions. The bunyip staggered a little, but remained standing. Kathy, Robbie and Dr Peng ducked behind a fountain. The Police Commissioner fell.

The bunyip stepped forward, grabbed the nearest two police by the scruff of the neck and hurled them over the cliff. The sea serpents reared up, grabbed them in mid-air, and swallowed them in one gulp. The remaining police fled.

A loading bay door to one side of the forecourt ground open, and a truck carrying food scraps backed out. The bunyip swooped on it, stuffing handfuls into his mouth. Then it turned, and dived into the moat. The truck continued backing, then tipped its load into the moat. The driver got out, quaking.

"Didn't know it was there," he said. "Not till it started in on the food."

Silence fell, punctuated only by the chattering of the paramedics who appeared from nowhere and swarmed around the dead Police Commissioner.

"Looks like you're going to need to rescue your monsters," Kathy said to Dr Peng. "Quickly."

Robbie shook his head in disagreement. "Naah. They'll be right. They're supposed to be vicious. That's why they're there." He glared at Dr Peng. "You didn't tell me bunyips could climb."

"I didn't know it could climb that well," Dr Peng said. "It's an interesting discovery."

"Looks like there's going to have to be a bit of cliff smoothing," Robbie said, rubbing his hands in anticipation of another fat contract. "Get rid of the footholds."

"If the pollies cut up rough about the monsters getting out, we can sue them for neglect," Kathy said. "They wouldn't forget to feed themselves."

"The security staff actually like the monsters," Robbie said, "so it wasn't their fault, not feeding them. The monsters do most of their work for them."

Kathy frowned. "It was lucky, though. The bullets bouncing off the bunyip like that."

Dr Peng shook his head. "No. We designed him that way," he said. "Armour plated scales. We have no idea how authentic it is, but we've all watched enough SF movies to know there's always a Monsters vs Authority scene, where the idiots don't stop to think and open fire. We saw it as our job to level the playing field a bit."

 

Copyright D.W. Walker, 2009


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