Tim is a digital producer, a tv producer, playwright and comedy writer. This is his first foray into short stories though he has written some well received shopping lists.
THE DUST CLOUD
By Tim Bosanquet
Like a blackened, aching thumb that had been severed from the hand and roughly shoved into a pot of dirt, the fort stood out. It squatted defiantly in the middle of the vast, pounding desert. Ungainly. Not a thing of beauty.
The Colonel lifted her eyeglasses to the reddened horizon. As usual there was nothing to see. A shimmering of light. Flickers of dust. The sun’s biting rays, sashaying, dueling politely, then dissipating over the desert.
It was a taunting will-o-the-wisp. It was a maddening swirl of – nothing!
The Colonel had been there two years on the remote border. A baby. Yet other more decorated veterans had not coped with the empty, shifting red sands.
It was said that one former garrison leader had taken her gun and charged out into the desert, screaming and firing wildly into the desultory emptiness. She was never seen again. Her gun was found, steaming, near a split red rock. All the ammunition had been shot away. Days later her key ring was found, by a search party. It was splayed open, obscenely, on the cracked red ground.
The Colonel had learned to expect nothing from the desert.
She turned to Vashti. Vashti was her second in command. Difficult. A drinker. A bad, sloppy drinker living in a fort full of drinkers. She was squinting as she tried to focus her eyes. The Colonel could see the careful, painful thought going into each phrase before it was uttered. Trying to fight the thickness of tongue, carefully stepping around her own well laid traps. Pausing, not slurring. The magic trick of the drunkard: “look at me, I can speak”.
“Anything to report?”
Vashti focused. It was one of her better hangovers.
Then Vashti swallowed and licked her lips.
And the heat! No one had ever warned the Colonel about the heat. And why would they? Oppressive, relentless, like a desperate thief pushing a cushion over the face of a surprised homeowner. It was hard and dry, with all the last drops of water squeezed out eons ago. It blasted the rocks and blasted the soul. It did not stop, this heat. And you could see it sizzle slowly over the horizon, deflating the clouds, the hills. Everything sagged as the heat advanced. The dunes lay like drained teats. Dull of purpose. Exhausted.
The fort sat right on the border. There was nothing to distinguish the border. No wall, no fence nor menacing signs with bullet holes. Just sloping sand dunes and miles of unrelenting red haze. But everyone knew. They all knew where the invisible line was.
If you stepped over the line, some said, you’d feel a kind of electrical spark. The oxygen would be thinner. The spirits would fly. Then a thousand screaming alarms. A carnival of lights. Howling sirens. Then the inevitable, sullen smack as a bullet ploughed the brain. Could there be sensor motion detectors hidden under the sand?
The fort was always reminded – always –that some day the enemy will advance. But, for as long as anyone could remember, the enemy had been very quiet. No planes flying over. No spies. Not even a neighbourly missile strike. No festive gunfire over the border during holidays. No radio. No messengers. Just – nothing.
“Did you send out the drones?” the Colonel asked Vashti.
Vashti gave a shrug that was half weary and half contemptuous. She smiled at the Colonel, “Well, you know”. But her eyes flashed a grinding anger.
“So you did not send out the drones?”
Vashti leaned slightly toward the Colonel when she said this. Eyebrows, querulous, mocking. For the first time in a long time, she had a spark.
Such defiance! This was the moment to reprimand her deputy. This clash had been coming. Slowly and ponderously like everything else out on the border. But here at last was a challenge. The Colonel looked grimly at Vashti. Vashti stared back at her defiantly, hopefully.
The Colonel was about to speak.
Then – a deep, pulsating throbbing on the Colonel’s radio. Something urgent that required attention.
If you stood on the top of the tallest battlement of the fort and with a high powered looking device, squinted deep into the horizon you could see far into enemy territory. Granted, all you would ever see was more of the same. Wispy, dancing sand and the dazzling blue sky trying to crush and flatten it.
Border veterans called it The Battlement Of Broken Dreams. Where you sent newbies to discover just how much their mind could play tricks on them.
The Colonel joined Margarite, one of the radio operators. Margarite: small, dark, surprisingly competent (in the Colonel’s division any degree of competency was a pleasant surprise).
Margarite, also had a lithe energy to her – different from the sprawling, sullen, squad she had to deal with. She was quick, almost.
Together they stood on the battlement, looking out to the unending desert.
“When did you first see it?” asked the Colonel.
“Thirteen minutes ago, Colonel” said Margarite.
“And you only call me now?”
“I wanted to be sure.”
That was understandable.
“Eyeglasses,” said the Colonel.
Margarite handed her the small, high powered glasses. The Colonel took them and flicked her gloved fingers over the tiny dials.
“To the northwest Colonel”
The Colonel scanned the horizon.
At last she could see it. In the deep distance the desert and wind were toying with each other, the sand flinging itself gaily like wedding rice. But in the deep red sands, there was something else stirring. It had form and shape. A dust cloud. It was moving forward with purpose.
The Colonel put the eyeglasses down.
“Must be 30 kilometres away.”
“I think so, Colonel.”
“And did it have the same shape when you saw it?”
The Colonel’s predecessor had left her a litany of notes. Her predecessor had been gently derided as a pedantic demon for writing – the “Rapunzel of Red Tape”. But the biggest note she left the Colonel was the most important. She scrawled it in thick black texta on the desk, so there was no avoiding it.
It read: BEWARE OF THINGS THAT ARE NOT THERE. She would know. Too many false reports had cost her predecessor, her own job.
The Colonel proceeded with caution. Unlike the others she did not drink, she did not see things. She did twice daily yoga. She was finely attuned to her senses. She liked to describe herself as “microscopically self aware”. Like the huge machines that gouged out the earth. Their rattling drills and probing pincers which dug and harried constantly under the surface – always exploring, always hungry. At night when the desert storms settled, you could hear them humming. Sometimes spitting and crunching out rock. They were methodical but determined. That was how the Colonel wanted to be.
The Colonel ordered a few drones to be sent up.
They came back within minutes. Nothing conclusive: there was a large dust cloud rapidly approaching. Unlike other dust clouds, this had a definite spherical shape. It was very large – about 60 meters in diameter.
“Long enough for an army to hide in?” asked the Colonel.
“Yes,” said the technician.
It was moving, more or less, in a straight direction. The direction was towards the fort.
“Could it be weather?”
They’d checked and it wasn’t a normal weather pattern, even in this age where there was no usual.
“I mean, it could be a dust storm,” said the technician. “But, gee, the way it moves. In a straight line? And keeping such a tight shape? Well, that’s a little outside the realms of probability.”
The dust cloud was now 28 kilometers away. Its speed had picked up. So had its density. It seemed to grow as it moved. Like an mischievous snowball it picked up dirt and sand and rocks. It whirled and billowed, but kept its spherical shape.
The Colonel could not yet send planes or troops. The dust cloud was still on the other side of the border. Did she dare alert her superiors? Was she jumping at dusty shadows?
To be certain, she sent out more drones. These were equipped with audio recording devices. They pirouetted and swooped over the thundering red cloud, coming in dangerously close, at times almost being engulfed. They did this for a full minute and then came back.
Listening to the audio all that the Colonel and her technician could hear was a monster roaring of wind and sand.
When the dust cloud crossed the border, the Colonel was ready.
She’d set up three of her toughest, more obedient scouts in jeeps. They were all poised with guns and radios and sat on the tops of the highest sand dunes, waiting carefully.
The Colonel and some of her troops watched closely on the monitors. Even the usually inebriated and numb midday soldiers gathered around the screens in the courtyard, bewildered but vaguely interested.
The dust cloud passed the border like a fiery tumbleweed. There was no pause. It simply ploughed on. And then, with a quiet, powerful whoosh, there it was.
The Colonel gave a nod of her head. Laura, her comms officer, sent through the orders.
And, high on the sand dunes, the scouts roared their jeeps into life and spurted down the slopes.
It was like watching small determined ants attack a swirling feather pillow. The vast billowing dust cloud, was now as high as a three storey house and as wide as two football fields. The jeeps harried round the edges of the cloud, wheeling and watching, prodding and poking.
The dust cloud continued its whirling, loping trajectory across the beaten sands. Meanwhile, the jeeps buzzed around it, the drivers chattering into their comms.
“The scouts can’t see into the cloud,” reported Laura. “And there’s no sound but rattling winds.”
Suddenly, without warning, one of the jeeps swiftly darted right toward the cloud. It disappeared into the shimmering haze. It was swallowed up instantly.
At the monitors, the watchers held their breaths. They waited a minute. There was still no sign of the errant jeep.
Far too late the Colonel realized what would happen. She yelled out an order to Laura but it was no good.
Guns firing, the three remaining jeeps, full of hot anger, all charged, blazing bullets, into the flecked red dust cloud. They disappeared into the iridescent fog. Instantly their radio contact ceased. There was simply nothing except sporadic crackles into the void. They too had been swallowed up.
The Colonel spoke with quiet urgency to her captains gathered on the surveillance tower.
“Once the planes have bombed the dust cloud, we’ll fire horizontal shells into it from the ground. I don’t want the planes to get too close. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
“And should we alert Central HQ?” asked one captain.
“Vashti will do that,” said the Colonel.
She looked around but Vashti wasn’t there. Probably laid up in her second home – the sick room. “Alright, the Comms Officer.”
A better choice anyway, she thought. Laura would report calmly and factually. Vashti was a storyteller.
“And troops on the ground, Colonel?” asked Jennifer, one of the captains.
“Yes,” said the Colonel. “Every unit is on standby. Prepare for war.”
Despite the situation, she had a small thrill just saying those words. Finally.
The dust cloud was now less than a few miles from the fort. As it grew closer, it brought with it high-pitched screaming winds and a darkening sky. It looked like a badly drawn, dirty banshee, pounding and whirling. A wrathful spirit in search of a body.
Not far above the planes majestically unleashed their bombs onto the dust cloud. With a precise and gentle drop they hit their target. Twenty pound mortar bombs with a deadly kick. A heavy thump as they landed into the cloud. A low crack of flame as they burst inside. Nothing. No damage. The swirling dust grew. The cloud was bigger. It continued its singular trajectory directly toward the fort.
By now the cloud was the size of a six storey building. It was easily the same size as the fort. With its furious, swirling winds, it had also picked up pace. It had heft. It was formidable.
The Colonel’s small garrison were now throwing everything they had at the dust cloud. Ground mortars were firing off devastating rounds into the cloud. Snipers from the battlements sprayed bullets at it intermittently. A few remaining jeeps circled shooting wildly. The dust cloud did not waver or flinch as it advanced.
Inside the fort, the Colonel watched the advance on her monitor. The door squeaked open and Laura entered. The Colonel turned to her urgently.
“Did you message Central HQ?”
Laura shook her head. Behind her, stood Vashti, with a toothy grin and a hefty machine gun pointed at her back. The Colonel could glimpse other soldiers outside the door.
“Vashti! What the hell is this?”
Vashti took her time answering. Savouring the moment. Her hand on the gun.
“Many of us no longer have any faith in your leadership. This failed, abject, cowardly leadership of yours has taken us to this!”
She was reciting a well-prepared speech the Colonel thought. She cut it off.
“Vashti! We’re under attack! The dust cloud!”
The gleaming madness in Vashti’s eyes, that she now realised had always been there, didn’t flicker.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Vashti said flatly.
“We can at least try spraying the cloud with vats of water!” the Colonel cried. “It’s my last hope. Let me give the orders.”
“Our precious drinking water?” Vashti said calmly. “Drench it on the cloud? Not good judgment.”
From outside the fort there was a low, deep rumble. The sound of millions and billions of beating grains of sand, churned around till they’d become hardened and angry. A whipping wind to stir them to more fury. A potent recipe of chaos. The dust cloud was very near.
The Colonel could hear screams and gunfire in the distance.
“Vashti!” she shrieked. “Let me go!”
Vashti kept the gun firmly pointed at the Colonel. Her voice was calm like a lapping pool.
“I’ve spoken to the other side. Actually, I’ve been in talks.”
“In talks?” The Colonel was incredulous. “No one has communicated with the enemy ever.”
“I hear them,” said Vashti in a slightly sing-song voice, “I talk to them. And you know what, Colonel? I feel them.”
Then there was an almighty shudder. And a slight, imperceptible pause. Like when the last of the air has been sucked from a room. The last small gasp of a head bobbing up just before a mighty wave crashes. That sudden, fleeting flash of all knowingness, that you only have before total and utter devastation.
Vashti and the Colonel looked at each other.
And now it was upon them.
Like busy, fidgety smoke, the red spinning dust enveloped them completely.
The dust cloud, so loud and scabrous and rattling from the outside, was quiet and methodical inside. It hummed and throbbed like a hornets’ nest. It was a dedicated cocoon rattling through the desert. The cloud was thick and choking. A blizzard of whirling red. There would be no escape from it ever.
It was the bosomy smothering of an apron. It was the warm rush of an early morning shower.
The Colonel raised up her hands. Sands whipped up her nose and her mouth. In the rushing, probing storm she was quiet. She smiled. Then at last she disappeared.