Edition 1: Nullus by Mitchell Edgeworth
Traversing the Nullarbor can make you think you’re alone in the world. But this time, it’s not just a feeling. An Australian twist on apocalyptic fiction that’s sure to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. SY
You didn’t think you’d have bad weather in summer, yet here are grey skies lying sulky over the Nullarbor in the middle of February. Nothing you can do about it. You take the tent down and stow it in the panniers before straddling the Kawasaki and continuing east. With luck, you might hit Ceduna before nightfall.
At Balladonia an Irish backpacker serves you coffee and a sandwich, and looks wistfully out the window at your bike parked by the petrol bowsers, the clutter of occy-strapped luggage teetering on the rear of the seat. “You take carr on dat boike, all right? Just take it easy.”
Ravens flutter and croak in the spindly trees at the edge of the road. The flat and barren landscape is broken only by the occasional road sign or ruined farmstead. You gear down every time a road-train approaches, lowering your head so the whoosh of displaced air doesn’t pick you up off the bike. At 120 kilometres an hour, the buzz of the engine levels out as a steady drone. The frigid wind picks out the exposed bits of skin between helmet and jacket. Still, the weather holds out.
Your eyes are locked on the east. 3,000 kilometres to Sydney.
You refuel at Caiguna, and take a quick lunch at Madura after crossing over the pass. The view from the top reminds you of Ngorongo Crater in Kenya, low trees dotted across the veldt. The eastern horizon is flickering with lightning. What will happen if you ride a metal bike across a flat plain during a thunderstorm?
You buy a Coke at Mundrabilla and seek the opinion of the grizzled storeowner. “You’ll be right, won’tcha? Got rubber tyres. Electricity can’t go through rubber. Better off on the bike than off it.”
You’re not sure of this but neither do you want to hang about in the Nullarbor any longer than you have to, so you mount the bike again and ride into the brewing storm.
Twenty minutes later the first fat raindrop spatters onto your visor and you barely have time to swear before the deluge comes down. Visibility shot, you drop down to fifty ks an hour. A car’s headlights loom through the maelstrom and swoop past you in the other lane. You decide to pull over. Cars coming up behind you might not see you turtling along before they rear-end you.
So you crouch in the mud at the side of the road, huddled by the dying warmth of the engine, rain lashing down across your shivering, saturated body. No more cars pass in either direction, which leaves you cursing your safety sense for nearly half an hour before the storm peters out, vanishing into the west.
A bedraggled landscape is left in its wake, and you cruise along the soaked asphalt at a safe and steady 80 kilometres an hour. Eucla is only twenty minutes away. Soaked to the bone, you’re craving a coffee and hot chips. You urge the bike on up the steep pass, pull off the highway into the sheltered car park, and push the kickstand down.
Waves of cold sweep over your body as your wet clothes shift about. You unzip your jacket and hang it over the frame of the bike, the gloves in the pockets, the helmet over the throttle. The car park is deserted and silent; not even a bird is stirring. The sky overhead has returned to a dormant slate grey, the darker rainclouds having shifted west. You stride across the puddles towards the roadhouse, your boots crunching in the gravel.
Pushing open the doors, you find the building empty. A colourful chalkboard menu adorns the wall behind the counter, and the refrigerator is grumbling away. Napkins are folded neatly beside each pre-set plate in the restaurant. Through the windows you catch a glimpse of the distant, pallid sea.
You look in the other direction, out across the wet car park to where your Kawasaki is patiently parked, helmet and jacket dangling from it.
You are about to call out, but something deeper inside you clamps down on it.
You walk back outside the roadhouse and stand just outside the door, listening carefully. There are no distant voices, no rumble of trucks on the highway, no wind ruffling the leaves. Just the steady tap of rainwater dripping from the gutters.
You walk over to the petrol station, glancing over your shoulder a few times. Inside you find it also deserted, the walls festooned with nets and fishing lines, a stack of receipts impaled on a spike by the cash register. For a moment you see a sickeningly tall man standing in the shadows at the back of the shop, before realising it’s a wetsuit hanging from a hook.
You walk behind the counter, partly to use the phone and partly so your back isn’t turned to the door. A handwritten list of numbers is taped to the wall; all the stations along the Eyre, plus police, tow trucks and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. You pick up the phone, but haven’t even decided who to call before finding the line is dead.
You step quietly back outside. Your breathing seems intolerably loud now. You walk quickly across the silent car park to the row of phone booths emblazoned with the familiar orange Telstra logo.
They’re all dead too, and that’s all it takes for you to get back on your bike, fumbling with the helmet clasp, not bothering with the gloves, skidding out on the gravel at the shoulder of the highway in your mad scramble to get away.
By the time you reach the bottom of the pass the skies are clearing slightly, and sunlight is peering out from behind the clouds. You pull over a few kilometres to the west—some urge prevented you from fleeing east, in the direction you’d been heading—and look back up at the town, an ugly cluster of grey buildings squatting at the edge of the cliffs.
For a moment you feel silly, running away from an empty town, and feel certain there must be some rational explanation. But the thought of going back there fills you with dread. You can’t even face going on to Border Village, just eleven short kilometres east of Eucla. A mental image of what you will find there swims into your mind: a deserted roadhouse and petrol station, wind turbines spinning quietly, reflected in glassy puddles. Desolate and empty.
You turn back towards the west, back to Mundrabilla, back to the chatty storeowner who allayed your fears about lightning with his fuzzy logic. There you can report what’s happened. Something that happens all the time, maybe. Something with an explanation. You begin to feel better.
Halfway back to Mundrabilla you swoop past the tyre imprints in the mud where you stopped to wait out the storm, and it suddenly occurs to you that this was the last time you saw another vehicle—or any sign of life at all.
Mundrabilla is deserted. A single road-train is parked by the diesel pumps and a few sedans by the roadhouse, in contrast to Eucla’s sterile carpark, but they’re all empty. You walk through the roadhouse and mechanic’s workshop, enveloped in silence.
“Hello!” you shout. “Who’s there?”
Another mental image forces itself upon you: the entire city of Sydney, streets derelict, newspapers rustling in the breeze, the harbour devoid of ferries and sailboats, the freeways bare.
Impossible. Whatever is happening here is happening here. But when you play it out in your mind, you easily see yourself returning west, coming across deserted town after deserted town, only the towns are becoming bigger every time, until suddenly you’re riding down the freeway through an abandoned Perth, empty skyscrapers standing stark against the clouds. Your parents’ house…
You think of Shibuya Crossing and Times Square and Piccadilly Circus.
The phones here are dead too, and the clocks have stopped. Had they stopped at Eucla? If they had, you didn’t notice.
The sun is shining quite brightly now, high in the sky, and it’s getting hot. You leave your jacket draped across the bike again and begin a thorough search of Mundrabilla, combing the buildings and vehicles, your keys wedged between your right hand’s fingers as a crude pair of knuckledusters. Protection against what? You aren’t sure.
In the petrol station you find a display of postcards knocked over, spilling glossy images of the Nullarbor across the floor. This is the only sign of any disturbance you have seen here or in Eucla, and somehow it makes you feel better, hinting as it does at something tangible and real rather than a Mary Celeste disappearance. But that’s all. Everything else is still and orderly. Yet the clocks, and the telephones…And the power is still running. What stops clocks and cuts out phone lines but keeps the power running?
In the cab of the road-train you find a working CB radio, and send distress calls over all 40 channels. Some of them have a strange whirling and clicking sound, but you aren’t sure if that’s what normal static is supposed to sound like. You receive no replies.
In the roadhouse is a television set in a metal grille in the corner of the ceiling. You find the remote under the counter and turn it on, but every channel is roaring snow.
As you search you keep glancing up at the highway, looking to the east, feeling in the back of your mind as though something is coming from Eucla, chasing after you. But the highway is empty.
It feels as though you have been searching the buildings for hours, yet the sun is still lounging at its zenith. You stumble back out across the car park onto your motorbike, dragging the jacket zips up, forcing your helmet on. You are frightened of riding west, frightened of finding more terrifyingly empty townships, but you are even more frightened of staying here.
The road stretches back and forth, swallowed by perspective, straining for the horizons. The sun is directly above and you cast no shadow. The eternal landscape of scrubby plains creeps past.
It’s 116 kilometres between Mundrabilla and Madura. According to the odometer you’ve done 80. You should be seeing the escarpment rising ahead of you. Instead there is just the plain, and the road, sweeping ahead of your front mudguard into eternity.
At 120 kilometres you stop the bike and switch off the engine. You dismount, and remove your helmet, and walk out into the middle of the road. To the east and west, it stretches to the edge of your sight. To the north and south is nothing but studded saltbush. Nothing mars this empty vista, not trees nor ruins nor even roadkill. You realise you haven’t seen any wildlife since the storm. Not even birds. Heatwaves shimmer over the asphalt, blurring the horizon. The only sound is the soft pinging of the bike’s cooling engine.
You haven’t seen any road signs since leaving Mundrabilla.
You remount the bike and turn back east towards Mundrabilla. The odometer keeps ticking over—120, 140, 160. Nothing but cloud and desert. The enormous blue dome above seems to be closing in on you.
240. You should be back at Mundrabilla. But you aren’t.
At 256 kilometres the engine cuts out, the fuel tank empty. You pull the clutch in and glide to a halt. There seems little point in pulling over, and you put the kickstand down on the dotted white line.
You pull the helmet off, hang it over the throttle, and sit in the bike for a moment breathing heavily. The road stretches away in front of you to a pinprick, the two edges meeting in the centre. Perfect visual perspective.
You get off the bike, leaving the keys in the ignition, and begin to walk.
It’s hot. You struggle out of your bulky, waterproof pants, down to your jeans, and leave them lying in the road. Your gloves are next to go, and then your jacket. The backpack, with its road atlas and spare clothes and camera, seems dead weight, and you leave it lying at the head of the trail with the rest of your gear, barely breaking your stride as you shrug it off.
A few hundred paces on you pause and look over your shoulder. The trail of clothing you left strung across the road has disappeared. The Kawasaki is gone. The highway behind you is immaculate and clean, a solid line of asphalt vanishing beyond the western horizon. Ahead of you is a mirror image.
You keep walking into the east.
Mitchell Edgeworth is a 23-year-old writer living in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. He holds a fairly useless degree in Professional Writing and Creative Writing from Curtin University, which at least secured him a cushy job with a media company. He has also been published in The Battered Suitcase and Theaker’s Quarterly. More of his writing can be found online at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com, and he tweets as @mitchedgeworth.
Also by Mitchell Edgeworth in SQ Mag #14: Keep The Water Out