Hit the High Road
Billy and his little dog Woofie prepared to leave. It was Billy’s 17th birthday and that meant it was time to go up to Level 1 and start his new life as a water miner.
After completion of their Workplace Health and Safety training, graduates were ushered out to the Central Shaft and either sent up to Level 1 or invited down to Level 6. For those going down it was a simple matter of packing a bag and reporting to the desk where they were given instructions and sent on their way. It was a little more exciting for those going up. They were given a buggy.
The night before the graduate turned 17, they were told to pack and report to the vehicle depot adjacent to the Central Shaft at 6am the next day. There they were allocated their own buggy, briefed on the finer points of working on the surface and told to load the vehicle with all their belongings as they would be living on Level 1 from that night onward. Parents were permitted to come into the depot half an hour before the graduate was scheduled to depart to say their last goodbyes. John had done this twice before, but he always had a child to go home to. This time it was different; Billy was the last and John felt sick in the stomach.
‘Goodbye son.’ He embraced Billy for the last time. ‘Take good care of yourself and do your mother and I proud,’ he said with a tear in his eye. He noticed the guitar on the back seat.
‘What’s this?’ he said, pointing to the guitar. ‘You won’t have time to play that.’
‘You never know,’ said Billy a little defensively.
‘And a yoga mat.’ John shook his head. ‘I don’t think you’ll have time for that either.’
‘She’ll be right, Dad. A yoga mat is a very handy thing; you never know when you might need one!’
John reached down to pat the little dog at his feet. ‘Goodbye Woofie.’
Woofie jumped up into his arms and licked his face.
‘Oh Woofie,’ chuckled John, ‘you’re such a charmer. You make sure you look after this boy for me, will you?’
The dog barked a reply as he landed back on the ground and turned to jump into the state-of-the-art buggy. The buggy was standard issue and Billy’s to keep as long as he turned up for work every day at the mine.
Billy flicked switches and turned dials on the control panel. ‘What will you do, Dad?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. If I haven’t heard from the older children by this afternoon, I think I’ll trade my soul in.’
‘Oh dad,’ Billy’s face paled at the thought of never seeing his father again. ‘I hope not. I hope the older kids send for you. If not, joining Mum won’t be such a bad thing.’ He placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. ‘We all have to go some time, I suppose, whichever way it goes. Thanks Dad, for everything. You’ve been the best father in the world and I’m sorry that I can’t make you prouder, but this is who I am. I will make you proud one day but not in the way you’re expecting.’ Billy saluted his father before securing the cabin to prepare to leave.
‘I love you son,’ John shouted over the noise of the revving engine.
Hardly a minute had passed when John heard his name being called over a loudspeaker to report to the gates of Level 6.
‘Thank goodness, they do love me,’ he whispered to himself, shuddering at the thought of the alternative.
‘One door closes and another one opens,’ he said to himself, as he gave the thumbs up to Billy and turned to go back into the colony to join his children and see out his old age on Level 6.
Billy could hardly concentrate. ‘My very own buggy,’ he said to Woofie. ‘Amazing!’
‘I roller skated past your window last night …’ he sang to himself as he secured the cabin, turned on the oxygen and pressed the remote to open the door of the transport lift in the Central Shaft. The lift deposited them at the first checkpoint on the surface where he presented his identity card to a robot that gave him the thumbs up and shouted, ‘Happy birthday!’
Billy smiled. He didn’t mind these mechanical rats. Some of them had personality.
The boom gate lifted, and they were on their way. For one precious moment Billy felt free. ‘This is a beautiful planet,’ he said, looking around, remembering what it looked like before the big dry. ‘How did it get so stuffed up?’
‘Well, you know my take on that one,’ said Woofie. ‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Blame your parents. Instead of leaving the planet in better shape than they found it, in a single generation they’ve managed to destroy everything.’
‘You’re pretty smart for a dog, and I agree wholeheartedly, but if I may change the subject, where do you think we’ll be going today?’ He flashed his identity card at the second checkpoint where he was given his final instructions.
‘Proceed to Solomon’s mine,’ ordered the robot.
‘Looks like we’ve been picked to join the big boys. Solomon’s … um … I’ve heard it’s a crater as big as the sun itself and full of water. I guess being 17, young and healthy, I have been sent to join the frontline digging teams. It’s common knowledge the water is owned by the zillionaire Handsome Hank who controls all food production. In exchange for our labour, digging for underground water, which is then channelled to his farms, he feeds the colony “for free!”’
At the mention of the words ‘Handsome Hank,’ an audio recording was activated on the console and the cabin was suddenly filled with sound.
‘Hank is our king, and he is a good king, as he feeds his subjects with kindness and food,’ the recording bleated.
‘Can you believe this trash, Woof? The way they carry on,’ Billy grimaced. ‘Hank is our king, and he is a good king … blah, blah, blah … What a load of rubbish.’
‘Sounds like he might have an inferiority complex,’ said Woofie. ‘But … what would I know? I’m only a dog.’
‘Hey mutt, I know you know things that no-one else knows. And I listen to you, don’t I? I believed you when you told us about the idiot who controls all the underground water reserves in your maiden speech at the secret meeting of the Society of Wannabe Dissidents. I backed you when everyone else said you were a lunatic. I remember your passion, man. When you told us how he was digging the guts out of the centre of the Earth. By geez Woofie, I listened, I believed, and …,’ he paused to turn and face the dog, ‘I care! After you first raised the subject, I did some research and learned you were right. That idiot, Handsome Hank, has single-handedly tipped the environmental balance of the world through greed and corruption, and now, here we are, working for him! It’s insane,’ he screamed while tooting the horn and flying over a small hill.
‘Dad says we’re related. Can you believe it, Woof? Related to a zillionaire who doesn’t even know I exist. Apparently, he’s married to my mother’s twin sister, Rose. Uncle Hank … now that’s a good one!’
‘Why do they call him Handsome Hank?’ asked Woofie.
‘Because he’s the opposite, silly dog. That’s how nicknames work; usually the opposite. For example, you’re called Woofie because you rarely bark. By the way, why is that?’
‘I prefer to sing, silly boy,’ and with that the little dog began to sing an old time favourite by Slim Dusty, ‘I love to have a beer with Duncan …’
‘Stop that you annoying dog. You’re giving me a headache.’
‘’Cause Duncan’s me mate!’
‘Red hair; call him Blue. Don’t talk much; call him Rowdy. Ugly; Handsome.’
‘Got it,’ said Woofie as he drank from the little dish of water Billy had put out for him on the floor.
‘Apparently, when he was a young man, he was handsome but lost his good looks when, drunk at a dance, he fell onto broken glass and disfigured his face horribly. The name stuck, and the rest is history.’ Billy turned his attention to the road ahead as the buggy bounced along the rocky terrain.
Suddenly, all the lights on the control panel began to flicker erratically.
Billy fumbled with the panel. ‘What?’ What’s going on here?’ and in answer a strange voice came through the radio.
‘This is Handsome Hank here, you little ratbag. I heard you talking about me and now I’m here to tell you you’re out, gone, finished, kaput; you’re on your own, kid. I’m kicking you out of the colony,’ The buggy suddenly lost all power and shut down.
All Billy and Woofie could do was to sit and wait until the sun went down. Billy could hardly remember the last time he’d spent a night on the surface as he was only young when they had gone to live underground.
He soon found out it was bitterly cold. But as Daisy was the daughter of the child from the moon and Billy was at one with Daisy, the moon came out to keep them warm as they cautiously emerged from the cabin expecting to be snap frozen. Instead, they saw a little fire and some sleeping bags set up behind the buggy. A tin can was on the fire with boiling water, two mugs for a cup of tea and a camp oven sitting in the coals filled with bubbling stew.
Billy looked up at the moon. ‘This has got to be Heaven,’ he said.
They ate with gusto then climbed into their sleeping bags to look up at the stars and talk well into the night.
The moon set its alarm clock to wake them before dawn and watched over them as they slept.
But not everyone was sleeping.
Woofie had risen during the night to put more wood on the fire and do his business and was confronted with the sight of a blue snake curled up in the spot where Billy had been sitting a few hours before.
‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said the blue snake. ‘I mean you no harm.’
Woofie trembled. ‘You better not.’
‘I come from another land and another time, and I need your help,’ the snake said.
‘Why should I help you?’ Woofie asked.
‘By helping me you will help your master. Billy is the son of Daisy, the daughter of the cherub from the moon. Why do you think you have all this?’ He indicated the fire, sleeping bags, pot of stew and cups of tea. ‘Billy is special, and you are too,’ he said, then muttered under his breath, ‘by association.’
Woofie cocked his ears. ‘Go on.’
The snake slithered a little closer. ‘I need you to carry my spirit in your form.’
‘What!’ Woofie jumped back.
‘Settle down, I’m not going to force you to do anything. Let me present my case and you can make up your own mind. You have a choice; there’s no problem, just hear me out.’
‘Why me?’ said Woofie, rolling his eyes. ‘I’m just a dog.’
‘I’ve chosen you because you are Billy’s best friend. You are with him all the time and he trusts you completely. If I were to live in you, nothing would change. I would just guide you on this journey which will end on the opal fields three stops away in a place where his destiny lies.’
‘And what’s in it for me?’
‘If you care about Billy, you’ll consider it at least. But really, do you have a better plan? I mean, tomorrow morning when you wake up, you will find yourself living on borrowed time. No plan, no place to go, no hope for the future, no water, no food, no chance you’ll survive even an hour, but hey, I’m not forcing you to do anything. It’s your choice, take my offer or leave it, I don’t mind either way.’
Woofie decided to do the altruistic thing and let him enter his form. He loved Billy so much that he didn’t mind taking a risk for him, especially if it was for the betterment of mankind.
‘Ok, I’ll do it,’ said Woofie, ‘but just give me a minute.’
He went back to the buggy to find the letters, returning to the fireplace and placing them on the ground in front of him.
‘Do these have anything to do with you?’ he asked.
‘Indeed,’ came the reply.
‘I am Time and as Billy is the son of Daisy, he carries the spirit of Opali within. He must return to the place where his mother lies and finish the task she almost completed. You are the only one who can help me, and I need you to carry me back to the place where the heart lies. Tomorrow morning the moon will waken you before dawn. You will get into your buggy and Billy will use his knowledge of mechanics to get it started. If Billy puts things right by returning the heart to its rightful place, the balance will be restored. The environment will heal, and Hank will lose all his power. His businesses will be destroyed when Nature resumes her place. Surely you can see it’s in Hank’s interests to keep things the way they are. Do you understand what I’m saying? We, all of us, have to do our bit to put things right.’
‘Yes sir, I’m with you. Never did like that megalomaniac Handsome Hank.’
‘When you get the buggy going tomorrow, a green dove will appear as you approach the Doomed Forest. You are to follow the dove for as long as it flies in front of you. It will disappear when you get to the outer boundary of this territory and a wedgetail eagle will take its place. The wedgetail will act as your guardian as you move towards your destiny. Once I am inside you, I will not appear again – unless it’s absolutely necessary – until the task is complete, so you must trust me and use your intuition. You are charged with saving the world, dog; are you up to it?’
Woofie saluted. ‘Yes sir! Enter me and I will do as you wish.’
The dog toddled off to do his business in the bush, wondering if he had gone mad seeing things and talking to himself. But when he returned to the camp, he saw the bundle of letters in the dirt by the fire and realised it had all been true. He shuddered and tried to find a feeling inside that was different, but he still felt the same. He gathered up the letters, put them back into the buggy, and climbed back into his sleeping bag.