Hearing the crack of a rifle shot, the messenger came to a sudden standstill. There were small noises in the wandoo trees near him, maybe birds on the alert in their nests or possums holding still like him. The eucalyptus forest was dark now that the moon had set, and the stars glittered hard and cold like diamonds. The random density of trees gave good cover for a hidden marksman, but the uneven glimmer of light made his flesh crawl.
He could feel the moisture of leaf-litter and fungus soft beneath his cold boot. He dared not move or change his weight. His breath in his ears sounded like a wind soughing through the trees giving away his position.
A twig cracked behind. He turned slowly towards the sound, his hand raising his pistol. The darkness was so deep it seemed to move, shadow on shadow. ‘Hold it together!’ he commanded himself silently. He could smell his own fear, sour sweat on his back and chest.
The original gun shot, he estimated, had come from about 200 metres away over near the open paddock. The messenger remembered that the wheat has been harvested and the stubble was tinder dry. As he stared into the darkness, he could make out the space between the trees. He reached over his left shoulder and pulled the weapon from its long cylindrical mount. ‘Range 150. Elevation about 40 degrees.’
He squeezed gently on the trigger, hoping that the pop of release would not give away his position. Two seconds later, the flame-thrower had ignited the stubble, orange flames lacerating the darkness. In the ghastly glow, he saw two figures running in the flames and then fall. Their screams were easily audible over the roar of the flames. He pressed the microphone open. ‘Two enemy down. Unknown numbers in area.’ He waited for an acknowledgement in his ear, and wondered for the tenth time if the mission was worth it.
The data stick was taped under his triceps. He knew the value of this information for the minority government. He knew altogether too much about the mission. He had become not a dumb messenger but a player. He was pressured all the more not to be caught.
The flames had now died away, and the advantage of the distraction nearly gone. The pretext for civil war had been so slight: the Gillard camp really believed that forces loyal to Abbott had attempted to assassinate the PM on New Year’s Day. If he could get to Abbott in Sydney without being caught, the data stick would prove that Clive Palmer was planning to drill under Lake Burley Griffin and Parliament House and extract coal by fracking. Palmer’s first aim was to move government to Brisbane. If coal-mining failed to undermine the Parliament, Bob Katter’s Australia Party was determined to nuke Canberra.
They had promised him a helicopter on the edge of this bush, so he pushed forward stealthily. He smelled the avgas first, then saw the bug-like silhouette of the helicopter. He pressed his comms mike again. ‘Approaching from north. Arrival in 20 seconds.’ He began to run, his lungs bursting from fear and exertion. The heavy pack pulled him down. He fell.
An arc light sliced on lighting up the bush and the Blackhawk. ‘Cut!’ called an amplified voice thick with frustration. ‘Charlie, why do you have to act? You’d think all this was real. Do it again from the middle of the bush, and this time, chill!’
Ted Witham 15 March 2012