Using imagery, metaphor and symbolism to explore wider themes.
Robert had two thoughts within thirty seconds of appearing. First: It was warm. Second: Fuck. I am never getting down from here. This has gone wrong and I am going to die here.
And he was right on both counts.
He was standing on an area of red rock less than a metre in diameter – a hoodoo tower, very tall, in the middle of the Colorado Plateau. All around him were similar needles, orangey-red, hoisted up from the ground, roughly the same height, some a little larger in diameter, some even smaller than his own. The plateau was so dense with these rock towers that if one were to lay down – which Robert couldn’t – it looked as though one might be able to hop across them, springing confidently towards the land mass off in the distance. In fact they were at least twenty to thirty metres apart: lofty, private sentinels of wind-deposited sand – layers of limestone, mudslip, sandstone and shale.
Robert stepped carefully towards the edge. A crack appeared beneath his shoe and part of the platform broke away, sending pieces of rock bouncing down into the valley below. He stepped back and found himself close to the opposite side. A larger piece of rock rent itself and tumbled down. Robert felt his balance go, but righted himself and moved in to the centre. His standing space was now about eighty centimetres across, a little over the width of his own body.
Very slowly he half knelt down, then fully, sitting on the backs of his legs. His knees touched one edge of the platform and the tips of his feet hung over the opposite edge. A light wind blew across him, not strong enough to concern him, and it was warm. He craned his neck, tentatively, and looked over the edge. Down, straight down. He broke off a loose piece of rock from the edge – about the size of a tennis ball – and tossed it. He could see it for one… two… three… four seconds… and then it disappeared, no sound as it hit the ground below. He couldn’t afford to throw anything bigger.
OK, he thought. I need to think. But what is there to think about? Not panicking. He started breathing heavily through his nose and out his mouth. He focused on the permanence of the far landscape. That’s no good. Something more practical. Have a really good look around, Robert. What can you see? More of these things. Dramatic and yet quite dull. It might have been an impressive landscape if he had been driving past in his car, someplace far off. For a moment, he might have said ‘Wow, look at those things, kids. You sure wouldn’t want to be stuck on top of one of those. There’s no way down, unless you can leap great distances or maybe fly, or some big bird would come down and pick you right up and place you safely on a soft, grassy plain.’
Nothing was even close to him. He was half a mile up, on a tiny platform and the nearest hoodoo was about thirty metres away. His ankles began to ache from the pressure of kneeling back on them. He tried to move, but there was nowhere to go. He might have to try and stand up soon.
He had been told that the evacuation would place you on solid ground. He didn’t know about these things. He was a doctor, not an engineer or a tech. But something had gone wrong. The computer, or whatever it was, had got it wrong. Maybe it saw this plateau from space and couldn’t see the gaps between the needles. Maybe it had done some kind of surface scan and stupidly joined them all into one safe land mass. Maybe it had the word ‘plateau’ in its database, and it believed it.
There was a scream. Robert looked over and saw a woman who had appeared on a hoodoo about eighty metres away, on what looked like an even smaller area than his. She was about thirty, dark hair, slim. She screamed again, and dropped to one knee, but her leg slipped from the surface. It looked like her hoodoo was not actually flat on top, more of a point. She tried to grab parts of the rock, but within a few seconds she toppled and fell, screaming some more, and went out of sight behind a closer intervening hoodoo.
Others then began to appear, quite rapidly. Robert knew why there had been a gap. He’d been sent down first to be ready for others, in case someone needed medical attention. Now they were all coming down. Men, women, teenagers, old, young. Some landed and then just fell straight off. Some screamed or shouted and crouched down, looking around. Husbands called to wives. Wives cried at husbands. Children called for mums and dads. Apart from those carrying babies, everyone landed alone on a separate hoodoo. One man held the hand of a toddler and carried a baby, but the toddler escaped his father’s grasp and fell. The father sobbed and called and called. And then he wrapped the baby in his coat, and jumped.
Robert called out. ‘I am Doctor Robert Brown,’ he shouted. ‘Try to stay calm. We’re going to get down from here.’
‘Doctor, help me,’ called an elderly woman, who lay face down on her platform, her arms grabbing the side of the platform below her. She looked comical; a weird position to be in. Old people usually stooped, or sat or laid down. She looked liked she’d just failed a somersault.
‘I’m doing what I can,’ called Robert, which sounded utterly ridiculous. ‘I – I’ll think of something.’
About fifty metres from Robert, a really big guy stood on his platform, shaking. He must have been 280 pounds, thought Robert. He was kind of braced for something, his feet planted a shoulder width apart, his arms outstretched in front of him. He was looking dead ahead, blowing out of his mouth rapidly in short bursts. Panic stricken. He could barely fit on the platform, and small pieces of rock slid away under his big feet.
It was late dusk. The sinking sun bathed the red rock in a slow goodnight kiss as it began to depart from the scene. It seemed like, on witnessing the arrivals and predicament, it had decided to back away gently from the situation and see what was going on elsewhere, where it could be involved in something a little less tragic, a little more sunny.
Things settled down a little. The arrivals had stopped and those who hadn’t fallen had now each found some purchase. Even the 280-pounder seemed to be hanging in there; a physical feat way beyond his apparent fitness level. Children continued to cry and people called names from time to time. Sometimes they were answered, usually not. One man kept calling ‘Sandy’. A faint reply came back. A man with a beard, wearing overalls and carrying a toolbox, called to Sandy’s husband: ‘There’s a woman saying she’s a little way beyond her. She can hear her. What do you want me to say?’ ‘Tell her I love her and I’m going to be with her real soon,’ he asked. ‘He says he loves you and he’s going to be with you soon.’ ‘Real soon,’ said Sandy’s husband. ‘Real soon,’ repeated the engineer. No reply came back. ‘My woman says she’s not saying anything,’ said the engineer. ‘Say it again,’ said Sandy’s husband. ‘She says she can’t see her now,’ said the engineer. ‘I’m sorry. She can’t see her.’ Sandy’s husband sat heavily on the floor, looking dazed.
It got dark. It got really dark. When you’re driving down a country lane where there are no road lights, and the moon is clouded over, and you look in your mirror and it’s pitch black. That’s how dark it got.
Robert could hear people continuing to call. He heard a ‘fuck this’ and then a shout that descended down and disappeared.
Someone started singing. A woman’s voice:
For there exist ten invitations, crying out for exploitation,
so for the good of church and nation,
go south young man, go south.
They’ve got fruit and coffee beans, and rubber trees galore.
All the riches of the Indies right at our back door.
And native boys so brown and strong,
who never –.
Robert had been dozing, his head bent. When the singing stopped he sat up.
‘No,’ he said quietly. He called: ‘Don’t jump… Please. Please keep singing.’
There was silence.
But then the singing began again. She finished the song, and sang some more.
The night dragged on. People fell. Conversations were struck up, mostly attempts to make sense, with varying degree of conviction. The ship had malfunctioned. It was deliberate. They were a test run, a calibration procedure. Their database was a million years out. They needed to thin the numbers. Survival of the fittest. They’d be working on a plan now. No they wouldn’t. They’ve gone. Yes, they’d fill the canyon with water from the reservoirs. We can swim to safety. They’ll pick us up and move us. This rock is soft, we can dig layer upon layer away until we reach the canyon. I tried that. It’s too dangerous, it just crumbles. You’d be sitting on a point. And then you’d fall. We’ll work something out tomorrow. Maybe we can rig something up. Who has tools or things we could use?
Hope rose and was quickly abandoned, save for the notion that tomorrow might be different.
In the morning, the darkness lifted and the landscape took shape once again. Robert saw straight away that the big guy was gone. There were no new ideas.
The sun returned from its night out and made its way to the highest point in the sky. Then it glared at them, angrily. Still here? You useless buggers.
And it glared at Robert for twelve hours.
He started to feel sick, and his skin burnt. His throat was dry, and it hurt when he swallowed. He’d been here the longest. He really needed to get down now. He vomited over the side, lurching his head sideways to puke. He pulled one foot up into a kneeling position, and immediately felt painful paraesthesia – pins and needles – as his nerves were freed up. It woke him up a little, but he drifted again, his head on his knee. The sun beat down on his exposed neck.
He stopped thinking. Occasionally he would lean over a little too far, and almost fall, and then reflexively right himself again. There didn’t appear to be others now. He couldn’t hear properly.
He groaned. Quite loudly apparently, because he heard a faint voice, asking if he was OK. It was man, he thought. A big fat guy. What was a big fat guy doing on a hoodoo. Poor fucking hoodoo, that’s what I say.
And then there was a man beside him, leaning out of the basket of an old balloon.
He saw his hand reaching out to help Robert, but the man was saying ‘Don’t do it. Don’t jump.’
‘Well, make your fucking mind up you fat fuck,’ said Robert.
But the balloon was moving away, so Robert had to get on. He had to get on.
But the man, who was smiling and beckoning to him, just kept saying ‘Doc. You hang on right there. If you jump you’re going to die for sure. They’ve got a plan. Hang on.’ But the man was beckoning furiously at the same time. He was smiling encouragingly but saying all this stupid stuff like ‘stay right there’ and ‘they’re going to be here soon.’
He stood up. It was quite easy. He was definitely swaying but it felt safe to do so. ‘You’re not making any sense,’ shouted Robert. ‘I am a doctor. You’re not making any sense.’ ‘And I’m an engineer,’ said the man. ‘I know they’re going to be here soon. Don’t move.’
‘We got an idea,’ continued the man. He had a top hat on and long grey hair, and he wore old clothes. And he was thin. Robert could have sworn he was fat. ‘But we need your help, Doc.’ And the man indicated enthusiastically for him to get in the basket.
We can go pick up the others, thought Robert.
And so Robert jumped across to the basket.