Once upon a time I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Port Hedland. It’s an… interesting place. This story was the result of that trip. It’s a prequel of sorts to Liesmith and Stormbringer, though I think it reads okay as a standalone.
I’m late for the meeting.
This isn’t by design, not this time. Not when, five hours ago, Melbourne was living up to its reputation as a miserable, cold, storm-wracked shithole, and not all the money in the fucking world can buy a ticket out past the weather.
That was Melbourne, this is Perth.
“Welcome, Mr. Hale. Come through, please.”
There’s no sign on the door, no arrows dangling from the ceiling to point weary travelers into this particular airport lounge. People who need to be here know the door, the most exclusive airline club you never really wanted to join.
I don’t even need a card, the woman at the desk knows me when I walk in. The perks of being famous.
I’m already late, so figure a detour past the bar isn’t going to kill anyone. Pick myself up a too-full glass of red, a GSM from the Hunter that isn’t half bad, if only for the way it feels like a lifeline back to the east. Back to home.
Travelling’s not really my thing, not any more. If I can make the red-eye out tonight I won’t be complaining.
There’s only one other person in the lounge, the woman I’m here to meet. She watches me as I approach, picking olives off a tiny plate, sucking the flesh and spitting the pits back out with tlick, tlick, tlick sounds I can hear across the room.
When I sit down across from her, she doesn’t smile.
Her name is Marianna Makri, and she’s the country’s richest woman. Richest resident second only to yours truly, and from a similar sort of background. Both Old Gods, fitting in the cracks of this Brave New World the mortals cobble together from oil and sand and copper.
There are only so many cracks to go around, so Makri and I make it work by staying out of each other’s way. She does mining and the west coast, I do technology and the east. She has some treaties for coal in Victoria and New South Wales, mostly of my own divested interests, back when I moved my holdings out from the ground and into the wire. In return, I’m her sole supplier for IT hardware. It’s a good arrangement, a real old-fashioned dance between the ocean and the sky. If she’s called me all the way out here to break it, I’m not going to be leaving with a smile.
Turns out, she’s not interested in the treaties. Not those ones, anyway.
“What’s this?” I’m looking at a dossier, big glossy color photos of something that looks a hell of a lot like a tangled red roller coaster.
“An iron ore plant,” Makri says. “In Port Hedland.” She’s done with the olives, is now sitting ramrod straight in her chair, peering at me with eyes like her deep-sea namesake. Makri is five-three and vanishes when she turns sideways. That, and the fact she looks all of thirty, means everyone from the media to her own executives underestimate her. But she’s ruthless, and ancient. A calm veneer above five thousand fathoms of void, nothing but monsters lurking down below.
“Cool,” I say, tossing the dossier back down on the table. “Why do I care? I haven’t been in the mining game since the 70s.”
“And now you’re back in it,” Makri says. “For a few days, at least.”
“The mortals own the plant,” she continues, ignoring my protests. “You’re going to do me favor, and close it down.”
“Really? And why is that?”
I’m not really hoping for an answer, which is convenient, because I don’t get one. Instead, Makri reaches into her oversized handbag, and pulls out a jar.
There’s nothing inside. To mortal eyes, at least.
“A meme?” I can smell it, all empty echoes that scratch behind my brain. White noise on eternal repeat.
“A pure meme,” Makri says. “And your payment, once you’ve done my little job.”
Pure memes—as-of-yet untarnished by content—aren’t easy things to grow. Rare and valuable, to the right sort of collector. The sort with a whisper they want trending on Twitter within the hour.
“A little fishy told me you’ve got a product in the works,” Makri says. “Very hush-hush, some sort of… tablet computer.”
That’s my power, or most of it. Pyre Computers, the world’s largest manufacturer of consumer-grade electronics. We’ve been doing desktops and laptops and consoles for decades. In ’07, we destroyed the mobile phone market with the launch of the Flame, the smartphone to end all motherfucking smartphones. Now, three years later, we’ve got a new trick up our sleeves, and the wolves in the tech press howling at our doors. They’re predicting failure. Tablets are a stagnant market, our competitors have been releasing them for years and the public’s been rejecting them just as long. But our engineers are better, and ours won’t fail.
Still. A nice, memetic social media campaign extolling our virtues wouldn’t go astray, either.
“No,” I say. “No deal.” Our engineers aren’t just better, they’re the best. I don’t need tricks. Not any more.
Makri sighs, slipping the caged meme back into her purse. “Oh, Travis,” she says. “I like you, you know that. You remind me of my poor, dear husband.”
I clench my teeth. Once upon a time, when Marianna Makri had a different name, her husband stole fire from the gods. Said gods weren’t exactly pleased by his self-starter, can-do attitude.
“But my husband is still captive,” Makri continues, “and you, my friend, are not. Despite your… similar circumstances. I’m sure there are quite a few people who would be very interested to know just what you’ve been up to these last few decades.”
“Fuck you. I’m leaving.”
But I’m not, and Makri knows it. “What happened to you, Travis? Once upon a time you would’ve reveled in the chance for a little fire and mayhem. Mortal life’s made you soft.”
“Yeah, well. I found a better calling. So did you.” This isn’t the Bronze Age any more. Change or die, and all that.
“Mm,” Makri says, nodding. “But you can never truly leave the old life behind, can you? And little jobs for little trinkets… that’s what you do, isn’t it?” She stands up. “I’ve taken the liberty of booking you on the next flight north. The ticket’s under the name ‘Alex Lain’. Come find me when you get back.”
Then she’s gone.
Travis Cameron Hale, CEO of Lokabrenna, Inc., walks into a Qantas flight lounge. He drinks a glass of wine, then calls over a steward and asks for the departure time of the next flight to Port Hedland. He has another glass of wine, and eats a plate of olives.
Then he goes to take a piss. In the disabled toilet, because what a jackass, amirite?
Except it’s not Hale who walks out, five minutes later. It’s a woman. She has red hair, and green eyes, and when she goes to pick up her boarding passes from the desk, she says her name is Alex Lain.
Twenty minutes later, she’s gone. She won’t be back.
The tickets are economy. Not that business class means much on such a tiny shitbox plane, but it’s the principle of the thing. Insult to injury, et cetera.
I’m also, currently, the only woman on the flight. Every other seat is filled by men in rough blue shirts and steel-cap boots, who leave smears of red dust over everything they touch.
It’s a two hour flight. Ten minutes in, the guy in the seat next to me tries to strike up conversation by asking where I’m staying.
“Fyrirgefðu,” I say, faking my best nervous laugh. “Ég tala ekki ensku.”
He repeats the question, louder and slower. Then again with hand gestures. Then again with, “You don’t understand a fucking word, do you, you dumb bitch?”
I put my headphones in, and wonder about the safety hazards of setting fire to the plane, forty thousand feet up in the air.
Stepping out onto the tarmac is like stepping out into a hot bath, if baths were filled with salt and red dust.
It’s forty degrees in the shade and ten thousand percent humidity at least. Not a cloud in the sky and not a thing on the horizon, just an endless slash of red as far as the eye can see.
The taxi takes twenty minutes to show up.
“Where to, lady?” asks the driver.
“Tell me you have a hotel in this hellhole.”
The driver laughs, bright white teeth against dark skin. “More than one, even,” he says, pulling the car away from the curb. “First time in the Pilbara?”
“Dust’s not caked in yet. Give it a week.”
I don’t plan on giving it a day, but don’t say as much.
The driver’s name is Ray, from the local Kariyarra people. “Family’s been here for forty thousand fucking years,” he tells me. ‘The iron and the salt’s in our blood. Until your mob came and started ripping it all out.”
As we drive, the ocean stays adamantly on the western side of the vehicle. The sight is disconcerting, but not nearly as disconcerting as what lies inland: an enormous white mountain, stained pink around the edges, tiny dump trucks moving around on top.
“That’s the salt pile,” Ray says. “Port’s biggest local attraction.”
“It’s all salt?”
“All salt. Salt and dust.” He gestures to the field around us. Weird, flat little ponds. Like rice paddies, perhaps, except barren and red. “They let the tide in. Flood the fields. The sun evaporates the water, they come in and skim the salt off what’s left.”
Ray laughs at the tone of my voice. “Some of it. Enough to put you off the stuff for life, hey?”
As we drive, we pass signs, warning people away from the ponds. “Who owns the salt—”I struggle for a word, settle on“—farm?”—and instantly wish I hadn’t.
Makri’s company, of course.
“And the iron ore plant?”
“That one’s BHP.”
The mortals. Right.
“The two get along?”
Another laugh. “Nah. They go at it like dingos on a baby. Oceanid wants the iron ore plant, has done for years. BHP won’t sell the fucking thing. Too much cash coming in, shipping off our land to the Chinese.”
“It won’t last.” Hence the reason I got out of the sector myself. There’s only so much shit you can dig up out of the ground.
“And when they’ve raped every last piece of rock,” Ray says, “maybe they’ll finally fuck off. Leave the rest of us here with the holes.”
Somehow, I doubt it’ll be that easy.
The hotel is not, all things considered, that awful. There’s money in the Pilbara, at least for anyone suckling at industry’s red-stained teat, and money buys luxury. Or at least some sort of approximation thereof.
There’s no carpet in my room when I check in, just large, hard tiles. A misspelt notice in Comic Sans beneath the AC unit tells me not to turn it off, on pain of mould. A tiny, pink-skinned lizard winks at me from above the wardrobe.
“Now the fuck what?” I ask it.
It doesn’t reply.
Outside, the setting sun stains the sky the color of the ground.
I have no luggage, just a Flame and a wallet full of credit cards that don’t match my current gender. Plus a few hundred in cash, which is more than enough to buy me a steak from the hotel restaurant.
The steak is too big, too flat, too tough, and too drowned in gravy masquerading as peppercorn jus. I wonder what crime the chef committed to get stuck out here in No Man’s Land, cooking bad food for the sort of people who believe “meat and two veg” is one veg too adventurous. I order a Shiraz to mask the taste, which works, if only by virtue of being similar in drinking character to the bottom of a barrel of rotting sawdust. It occurs to me this might be more of a beer sort of town.
I fucking hate beer.
Sometime after six, men in red-caked steel caps begin to file in and congregate around the bar. Twenty minutes later, I decide it’s time for “Alex” to do her job, and saunter over to join them.
It’s not hard. Not wearing cutoffs and a low-cut sundress, not with a red braid that cascades down over my shoulder in a messy wave. Not with a cute nose painted with dark freckles.
I find a likely target. In his twenties, fresh-faced, right logo on his red-stained hi-vis work shirt. All it takes is a few glances his way—a few jeering elbows from his mates—and he’s mine.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. New?”
I smile, big and self-deprecating. “You know, you’re the second person to ask me that today. That obvious, huh?”
The rube returns the smile, relaxes a little against the bar. “It’s the dust,” he says. “And how you don’t have enough of it. You’re American?”
“I guess that’s obvious too,” I say.
“What brings you to the hot, red arse of the world, then?”
I look him up and down, appraising. He’s wearing a wedding ring, but I can work with that. He came over, after all.
“Buy me a drink,” I say, “and I’ll tell you.”
His name is Jon. A recent engineering graduate, fresh out of Wollongong University, dragged out west with the promise of a six figure salary and an early retirement.
“Lawyer,” I say, sipping my beer and trying not to wince.
“Why Port Hedland? Is your husband—“
“Dead,” I say. “In the war.” It’s not quite a lie. Not quite.
Jon can’t meet my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, fingers fidgeting on his wedding band.
I shrug. “A dead spouse and a tanking economy, and BHP gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Why would I stay in the States?”
Jon nods. “Makes sense,” he says, with all the sagacity of office gossip. “They’re going nuts for accountants and lawyers right now.”
“Something about the abo— uh, the indigenous population,” he says. “Land rights or something? I’ve heard they get paid a share of the mining profits.”
“Buying off the natives,” I say. “How… quaint. If they’re on a hiring binge, that mean there’s been trouble recently?” I scan my eyes around the room. Sure enough, it’s whiter than the fucking salt pile in here.
There’s money in the Pilbara. For some.
“Well…” Jon laughs, and it’s a nervous sort of sound. “Man. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this on your first day in Port.”
I turn to him, catch his eyes with my own and give him my most cock-raising smile. “Aw, c’mon. You can’t start a story like that and not finish it.”
It works. “Well, uh. Some of the guys? They reckon the plant’s been cursed.”
“Right, well… um. It’s stupid, really. But the guys reckon they hear screaming sometimes. Down beneath the car dumpers.”
“Hah!” Another sip of beer and another glimpse of cleavage, and Jon warms to his story. “Bruce over there,” he points to one of his colleagues, a weathered old bastard with bad teeth, “reckons he was out at the Newman mine once, right? They were doing some excavations. Like, dynamite and stuff. Anyway, there was this one bit that wouldn’t shift. They kept blasting and blasting, but nothing, barely a few scratches on the surface. Until it started oozing.”
Jon shakes his head. “No. Not like water. Like blood.”
I make a suitably disgusted face.
“It healed up, after a few days,” Jon says. “But they stopped excavating that direction. Closed off the area and the men won’t go near it now.” He shrugs, takes another swig of beer. “Like I said. Word from the guys is we’ve been cursed by the natives.”
Urban legends. Or whatever the equivalent phrase is out here in Australia’s armpit. Desert gossip, maybe.
“Creepy story,” I say. “But I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s not like curses are real or anything.”
It’s a lie. But perhaps not in this particular instance.
Two hours and three beers later, Jon takes me back to his place. A one-room apartment, about a five minute drive away from the hotel. It’s dark outside, now, but no less humid, and the aircon in the building is a relief. So is letting Jon pull off my dress and fumble with my bra.
Girls have needs, and all that.
Afterwards, lying stiff and side-by-side on the sheets of his too-starched bed, Jon holds his left hand in front of his face. “Jesus,” he says, not to me. “What the fuck am I doing? I have a kid.”
There are no photos in the room, not of the kid, not of whomever’s on the other end of that wedding ring. Nothing personal at all, in fact, bar a hard hat and a pair of red-caked steel caps, leaving smears across the tiles.
Fly-in, fly-out. What happens in the Pilbara, stays in the Pilbara.
“You… you should go.”
“Yeah,” I say, standing. “Sure.”
He doesn’t watch me as I dress, just lies like a dead man, hand across his face. Somewhere underneath, he has iron in his gut and salt burning in his eyes.
When I open the door, I pause. “If she means something to you,” I say, “then tell her.”
I shrug, and do.
The Maps app in my Flame gets me back to the hotel. Mostly. When I can get signal.
All around, cheap, squat sharehouses lurk in the gloom like the teeth of some great beast. Inside, a thousand lonely men lie in drunken stupor, waiting for the dawn. For another day of wading through the haze, of pulling iron from the ground and combing salt out of the sea. Two years, three years, five. Rough work but the pay is six figures, and no-one stays out here for long. Get in, get the cash, get out. Back to Perth to the wife and kids, assuming two strangers can still make it work after a marriage built on visits once a month.
Port Hedland isn’t a town. It’s the waiting room of the nouveau riche, a purgatory for the working class. Of sixteen hour shifts, because what the hell else is there to do on a Thursday night but work and drink and sleep? Then do it all again, five hours later.
Rinse, repeat. On and on and on.
Closer to the ocean, out of the suburbs, and packs of drunken men emerge from the shadows to stumble down the road.
I don’t let them see me. I can do without the cat-calls, not when the salt stings my skin and all I taste is dust. Not when my feet ache like I’ve been walking for fucking days.
It’s not far back to the hotel. I’m just not used to heels.
I don’t sleep.
Instead, I stand out on the shore, smoking half a pack and watching the stars turn above the flat and endless ocean.
Nothing up above. But something down below.
Next morning, just a little after dawn, I get to work, changing cutoffs for jeans, sundress for a hi-vis vest, heels for steel caps. Safety glasses and hard-hat swinging in my hand. I didn’t bring luggage, or a change of clothes. But there’s still some magic left to fill the gaps.
By the time I leave, the heat has already settled in like it intends to stay. It makes the walk out to the plant unpleasant, to say the least.
Getting in isn’t difficult. There’s a guard manning the gate, and I duck past him with a smile and a wave, lifting my hard-hat and glasses. “Found them!” I say. “Thanks!”
The guard blinks at me, watching a single drop of sweat vanish down beneath the unbuttoned collar of my shirt. “No worries,” he tells me, waving me past. Tonight, when he sleeps, he’ll dream of a girl with long red hair, and freckles dusting across the pale V of skin beneath the hollow of her throat.
The iron ore plant is an amusement park painted entirely desert red. Battered white utes crawl along its roads, beneath the low and senseless roller coaster that twines around the buildings like piles of rusted old spaghetti. I can’t imagine what it’s used for.
I find what I’m looking for, eventually. A squat, red building set across the looping tracks. The door isn’t locked when I turn the handle, because why would it be, all the way out here?
Outside is hot and humid. Inside, it’s worse, fogging my glasses and sending rivulets of sweat running between my beasts and down my back.
Hell on earth, with iron ore instead of flames.
Inside the room, a single metal staircase winds down into the dark.
Hell, Hades, Tartarus. Sheol, Naraka, Múspell. Underground realms of darkness and heat and fire and toil aren’t exactly new.
Mortals write the stories, and mortals tell them, and they believe. Maybe hell was a real place, once. Until it became a legend, until it took on the character of whatever new location it was given: a mine, a factory, a prison, a school. Places where reality grows thin, where the myths the mortals make seep through into the world. Places where the rest of us—those not-quite-mortal—can take a single step and move between the realms.
They’re not portals, nothing so gauche as that. No flashing lights and swelling music. Just one place that slowly bleeds into another.
And, as I take step after careful step down a set of salt-slick, rusted stairs, I know why Marianna Makri wants the Pilbara.
Makri had a husband once, when she had a different name. He stole fire from the gods and was punished for it, chained to a rock with an eagle, pecking out his liver.
You’ve probably heard of the guy, most people have: Prometheus. He’s not here. His rock is on a mountain, not buried underground. But Prometheus wasn’t a god, and he had a family. The Titans, cast into the abyss by none other than Zeus himself.
It’s the family that’s buried here. Waiting beneath the earth.
The sea is Makri’s in, but what she really wants is down. Into the Tartarus Bleed, the place where the screaming of the tortured echoes on the edge of hearing, beneath the clatter of the ore trains. Where a rock wall isn’t rock at all, but the skin of some great and sleeping beast.
There are a thousand entrances to this place. This is one of them. And not a well-guarded one, out here in the arse end of the world. The old gods of the desert don’t give two shits about some hole dug down into white man’s land. They’ll barely hold treaties with us, the immigrant gods, let alone with tourists. Let Olympus deal with its own problems.
Except Olympus isn’t looking. Prometheus is locked up screaming in the Caucasus, Zeus is yachting in the Aegean, and no one at all remembers dear little Hesione. Not with a new name and a tailored suit and hair bleached as white blonde as the sands of Cottesloe Beach.
I don’t know if she wants revenge, or freedom, or control. Honestly, I don’t really care.
I’m just the hired help.
Yesterday, Alex Lain flew into Port Hedland, jammed into a tiny plane reeking of sweat and dust. Today, Travis Hale flies out. His plane is chartered, and smells like champagne and strawberries. It’s an improvement.
Eight hours later, someone different again is standing outside the wrought iron gates of Perth’s most ostentatious house. The thing is five stories high and looks like someone mated a McMansion with the Parthenon. It’s lit up with enough floodlights to host a cricket match. I assume the only reason the neighbors don’t complain is fear.
This is Makri’s home. And tonight, I’m breaking in.
Makri’s out, wining and dining with the Perth elite. It’s not hard to get into her home; this is Australia, not Cheyenne Mountain, and security fences and rent-a-cop guards were invented as protection against mortals, not people like yours truly.
Besides, I’ve been here before. I know the layout. Know which window leads to Makri’s bedroom.
There’s a safe, inside the walk-in, and a glass jar sitting on the bedside table, atop of a pile of discarded pearl necklaces and a too-thumbed copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
I take the jar, leave the pearls, and try not to think about the book at all.
I book the red-eye back east, then loiter in the flight lounge. I’m still the only person here, and I wonder if the staff resent my presence. I wonder what they do when they’re alone, locked up in the most exclusive traveller’s lounge in all the country. Eat the olives, maybe.
I get my own plate, take a seat, then fish my phone out of my pocket. There’s red dust caked around the edges of the screen.
I open Twitter, and run a search: pilbara native title. I find what I’m looking for twelve tweets down, buried under a pile of bland copy-paste press releases masquerading as news reports. I don’t want bland right now. I want vitriol.
I get it, in a hundred and forty characters or less, written by the user @RedDustRay.
I put down my plate of olives, and pick up my stolen empty jar.
Then I open the lid, and free the meme.
When the last flight lands—when I step back out onto familiar tarmac—I turn my phone on. The poor thing shakes itself for a good five minutes from all the messages. Phone calls, SMS, emails. Most of them from Makri. The first one says, going 2 njoy watching u thrown back in ur hole u worthless piece of heathen trash!!!!! The last is, why??????
That’s the thing about the internet. Memes spread even while a city sleeps. Someone’s always awake somewhere, ready to reblog. To find a cause, to write a post, to roll the slacktivist juggernaut down the slope of any new injustice. At least until the bottom.
In the limo, heading home, Radio National runs the story. A grassroots protest, sprung up overnight on Twitter and on Facebook, bringing international attention to the issue of mining profits and native title. Interviews with CEOs and elders, throwing around a lot of words like “fairness” and “off-shore tax haven” and “biggest indigenous employer” and “running at a loss”. Talk of the slow beast of government, rumbling legislation in the distance. Of the courts, adjusting their wigs and gowns.
It’ll all blow over within a week, nationally. The internet will have moved on within a day, some new fancy catching its attention, the hundred thousand notes on Tumblr buried deep beneath the porn and gifs of cats.
Port Hedland won’t forget. The blockade runs outside the plant for months, spilling over into nearby mines. Bad blood spoils any talk of money. There are fist-fights in the town, salt and iron running red.
The stock price takes a dive. I sell out before it does.
Six months later, things still look grim, and Oceanid picks up the pieces. Not whole sites, but enough of a share to get a foothold. Enough to rebrand the signposts, to drain bad blood and worse PR.
Enough to stand on the threshold of Tartarus, and stare into the red heat of the void below.
Makri still tries to message me, every now and then. Her last one reads, what do u get out of this?
I don’t bother trying to give an answer.
Instead, I stand up on a stage and launch Pyre’s new tablet computer, the Flash. Bigger than a phone, smaller than a laptop. We get excoriated by the press, who never could resist a pun (PYRE’S NEW FLASH, IN THE PAN? being indicative of the genre).
Sales figures are through the roof.
We’re headline news for a week, all over the nation. The Pilbara gets buried back into the business section, when it gets reported it all. @RedDustRay has his ten seconds in the spotlight, then vanishes. His last tweet reads: Same shit, different day. What does it matter who rips the rocks out? Neither’s gonna put them back after they’re gone.
Meanwhile, the world turns, the Titans sleep, and Zeus is yachting in the Aegean.