November 20, 2008

Elephant Wood

Elephant.jpgAs a rule, dog owners – myself included – have a notoriously cavalier disregard for externally imposed rules. Throughout the Park, there are “Responsible Dog Use” signs that stipulate when and where dogs must be “leaded” but, if these are ever observed, then it’s just a happy by-product of whatever the individual owners deem appropriate for their beloved canine companions. Inevitably, it’s meant that these companions roam free throughout much of the Park, even in those sensitive pond edge areas where enraged black cob swans form the sole bulwark against serious doggy damage.

There is, however, one area where no owner in their right mind would allow their dog to roam free – Elephant Wood.

This heavily wooded area in the southwest of the Park has been fenced off ever since the incident that gave it its name, but the high razor-wire topped barrier that’s meant to keep people and animals out is riddled with large archway-shaped holes rimmed by molten chain-link metal. Considering the strange nature of these breaches, its always tempting to investigate them, but no one who has ventured through into the forest beyond has ever returned.

So far five people have done this. Two of them were part of a well-publicised “rescue mission”; the others were unfortunate members of the public who wandered where they shouldn’t. We know exactly how many there are from the number of voices that can be heard screaming from the depths of the woods. In addition to the five identified voices, there is another that requires no identification – the high, keening cry of a child whose wails are accompanied by the sound of something large and slow grinding against rocks and tree trunks…

The story that ends with these voices began with a proposal that should have been sent straight to the Park Authority office shredder. A little more than a year after the Great Lithgow Panther Fiasco, a consortium representing four, prominent nano-tech firms approached the Authority with the proposal, which had as its centerpiece yet another animated replica of a large beast. Instead of plundering the annals of crypto-zoology, this one plucked a forgotten real-life creature from Sydney’s past. The name of that creature was Alice the Elephant.

In her original form, Alice had been a resident of Wonderland City, an amusement park that overran the foreshore of Tamarama in the first decade of the 20th Century. Like other seaside parks of the time, Wonderland City went out of its way to lure visitors with showy high-tech attractions such as its steam-powered roller coaster and airship cable car. Its biggest draw card though was Alice. Every day, hundreds would queue for the chance to climb atop her gaudily caparisoned back and parade around the foreshore like local-franchise sahibs or memsahibs. This continued for five long years before finally coming to an end when evidence of mistreatment came to light…

The Consortium sought to honour Alice’s memory not by retro-fitting a robot elephant that would “lumber through [the Park] like some awkward intruder” but by creating “an environmentally sensitive entity that would represent a truly harmonious presence by virtue of being drawn from the very substance of the Park itself”. As an added incentive, the Consortium promised to cover all costs involved in installing Alice in the Park, and even foot the bill for marketing.

Despite the Authority’s recent experiences and the fact that no one had the foggiest idea what “harmonious presence… drawn from the very substance of the Park” meant, the promise of a fully-funded cash-cow was hard to pass up. Unlike the Panther, there would be no scouring eBay for shabby cut-price animatronic big cats, and, if anything went wrong, there would be someone to cross-sue. And, if all went well (and even a fraction of the projected revenue was forthcoming) then this New Alice would wipe out all Panther-related debts and give the cloned mammoths at Homebush a serious run for their money. In light of these considerations, the Board’s assent was a foregone conclusion and the proposal was rushed through Planning.

A week later, with the ink barely dry on the contract, the Consortium set up camp at the edge of the wooded precinct still known as Blackmun’s Parcel. Regular morning visitors to this precinct arrived to find the field on its verge swallowed up by a massive semi-cylindrical tent; tall as the nearby trees and large enough to house a basketball court and decent-sized crowd. At first sight, it might’ve looked like the circus had come to town but, if it was a circus, then they were engaging in some seriously dark, scientific arts.

At one end of the presumptive big-top was an extended annex that ended in an arch of black plastic tubing studded with nozzles. From time to time, workers in yellow hazmat suits would emerge from the annex and stand beneath the arch. They were then sprayed with a fine pink mist that instantly adhered to the suits in colour-leaching splotches and spread out until the whole outfit was a pristine luminous white.

This ritual naturally intrigued and troubled many of the morning visitors but any attempt to approach the tent and make enquiries was quickly cut off by formidably armed private security.

It was a similar story for the first wave of journalists who came to do profiles on this enigmatic new presence in the Park, and the Authority’s PR division was forced into damage control much sooner that it would’ve liked. A press conference was hastily convened and the division’s new deputy head, a former schools’ liaison officer named Ron Warren, was sent out to placate the press. A nervous man who was really unsuited to this sort of work, Warren stammered his way through assurances that there was no threat to public safety from either the tent’s contents or the automatic rifles of the security personnel; that the high level of secrecy was necessitated by the sensitive IP involved in the project; and that if they would just wait till the launch date in two months, all questions would answered and all would be revealed.

By any measure it was a complete fob-off, but for some reason, the assembled reporters decided to take pity on this hapless talking head and hold off on any public burning till after the launch. Few probing questions were asked and as soon as he sensed a lull, Warren quickly gathered up his notes and made his getaway.

Later, when the photographers looked back over their shots, they noticed something strange; standing to the right of Warren throughout the press conference, was a man in a high-end designer suit and frameless glasses, who none of them could remember seeing at the time. Eventually, someone figured that it must’ve been a representative from the Consortium but why no one had bothered to direct any questions to him remained a mystery…

Two months later, the scheduled launch date arrived with what seemed like a positive omen. A downpour that had lashed the park for the previous three days suddenly abated and the sun rose into an almost cloudless sky. At the appointed time, Park officials, reporters, representatives of Citizens Who Just Want To Walk Their Dogs, and a whole host of unaffiliated members of the public with nothing better to do gathered at Blackmun’s Parcel to find something unexpected and somewhat comical. Gone was the high security big top and in its place a set of airport runway stairs. On the top step was a mike stand and jutting out from that was a narrow platform that held two gaudily decorated seats surrounded by a railing.

Snickers and quips about the secrecy being necessitated by the atrocious tackiness of the “state of the art” lookout rippled around the crowd, but the Park officials were not amused. Anxious questions were addressed to the small contingent of security guards and Consortium employees in hazmat mufti (no masks and exposed hands) who stood around a black van that was parked nearby. In response, the officials received only non-commital shrugs or directions to ask other employees who in turn provided the same brand of non-commital shruggring.

The confusion continued for half an hour until an immaculately-attired man from the Consortium (the “initially unnoticed attendant” at the Warren press conference) appeared out of nowhere. He climbed the stairs to the microphone and delivered the speech that everyone had been waiting for.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please, allow me to apologise for my late arrival and for any misgivings you may have over the apparent fruits of our labours. Let me assure you that we have worked tirelessly over the past nine weeks to fashion an installation that is truly worthy of this historic public space and, when it is revealed in its entirety, I guarantee that you will be utterly amazed.

Before I do that, though, I must extend my thanks to Park Authority whose vision and commitment have provided us with the opportunity to accomplish something truly special here; a form of public entertainment without precedent or parallel. One that references the past but is firmly grounded in the technological possibilities of the present. One that draws from, rather than detracts from its environment. One that will be a source of wonder and pleasure for children and adults alike for decades to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you Alice…”

With this, the man from the Consortium gestured towards a large rock nestled between two trees on the edge of the wood, and it began to tremble and rise as if it were being pushed up from beneath. As it rose, the surrounding earth rose up to join it, forming a protrusion of stone, soil and grass that expanded until in it was enveloping the surrounding trees. With a series of sickening cracks, the trees were bent in half, uprooted and absorbed into the evergrowing mass. Then, when the mass had grown as high and wide as half a double decker bus, everything stopped.

After the longest thirty seconds that anyone could remember, a violent spasm shook the mass; sending its outer layers of loose soil and grass crashing to the ground and revealing its final form – an elephant of stone, dirt, wood and foliage.

Although seriously bleeding-edge technology must have been called on to pluck this beast from the earth, the end result was surprisingly crude. It was as if some giant child had ripped up clumps of the Park and mashed them together to make his version of a heffalump. The body was fashioned from three large boulders embedded in sparsely turfed topsoil and girded by a ribcage of saplings whose roots dangled in the space beneath the underbelly. Another bulbously lobed boulder formed the head and flat foot-long stones serves as hips and shoulder blades. The legs, predictably enough, were tree trunks; broken at the knees and rejointed with gravel and moss. Instead of ears, there were fans of bark, and instead of a trunk, there were tightly wound vines and branches. The most startling feature of this patchwork pachyderm, however, were its eyes; which were actual eyes – as limpidly brown and inscrutably intelligent as those of any real-life elephant.

Few in the crowd noticed them at first, and if they did, they were quickly distracted by the spectacle of Alice tipping back her head and producing the most achingly beautiful sound that anyone had ever heard. (As would later be revealed, this sound was the work of a crack team of designers and psycho-acousticians who had been commissioned to create a tonal composite that would evoke the feeling of making love in the surf on a balmy summer’s evening while cradling a freshly-weaned kitten.)

With everyone still reveling in their pleasant but troubling visions of sex on the beach with kittens, Alice began lurching across Blackmun’s Field; occasionally stopping to trumpet about snowboarding down Mt Erebus to a waiting Macau-bound Gulfstream G700. When she reached the runway stairs, hidden machinery gently lowered the platform on to her back. As it did, the saplings in her rib cage sent out branches that threaded themselves through metal loops on the platform and fastened it tight. Once this was done, the man from the Consortium leaned back into the microphone.

“So… Who wants to take the first ride?”

Obviously, this was a rhetorical question. Alice’s first passenger had been hand-picked weeks before and, on cue, he raised his hand and started excitedly crying, “Pick me! Pick me!” As per the script, the man from the Consortium motioned in his direction and he raced up to the stairs.

Seeing as Alice was meant to be “safe” and “family friendly”, it was decided that Passenger Zero should be a primary school-aged minor. The minor who was chosen was the eight year old son of the Consortium’s Chief Financial Officer, a precocious child actor who’d already appeared in numerous TVCs and even had speaking parts in kids’ sci-fi serials.

When he reached the man from the Consortium, the kid stopped to pivot and wave at the areas of the crowd with the greatest camera density. With all the right notes of well-rehearsed cuteness, he informed the crowd that his name was Lachlan, that he was “eight and a half”, and that he thought that Alice was “totally cool”. Without further ado, he climbed onto the platform on Alice’s back. The man from the Consortium then pulled down on a lever that unhooked the links mooring the platform to the stairs and Alice headed out into the field.

The route for Alice’s first fully laden “walk in the park” was a simple beeline to the far end of Blackmun’s Field then back to the runway stairs dais – something which all projections predicted she would comfortably take in her stride. What these projections failed to take into account though was that the field was shallow mound and, after a good downpour, its outer limits became a virtual marsh.

As Alice headed into this muddy perimeter, something curious and very troubling began happening to her feet… With each heavy step, they not only sank into the waterlogged soil, but the soil itself began infiltrating them - sending ever-thickening tendrils of mud snaking up into the wood-and-stone of the ankles.

By the time she reached the edge of the field, her lower legs had been reduced to spongy pillars of sludge and her progress had slowed to a tottering crawl. Then, all of a sudden, she came to a complete stop with all four feet mired in mud.

An uneasy silence gripped the crowd and Alice’s passenger rushed to the edge of the platform and peered over with a look of panic in his eyes. After thirty interminably long seconds, Alice began tugging methodically at one of her fixed front legs until she finally tore it free from its mud infested foot and ankle. After tottering briefly, she toppled forward violently and planted her new stump firmly in the ground…

As shocking as this seemed at the time, it was all still supposedly “within expected operational parameters”. (Or, at least, that’s what was claimed at the subsequent Royal Commission.) What happened next, though, was not “expected”…

The shock of Alice’s sudden lunge forward threw her passenger out of the platform and onto her head. As he struggled to cling on, his foot slid down into one of Alice’s eye sockets, taking out the eye. Alice immediately let out a shriek that sent her pain deep into the heads of all within earshot. Those closest to her collapsed to their knees and even those on the other side of the crowd felt like a grenade had exploded behind their eyes.

As a result, there are virtually no accurate eyewitness accounts of the moments immediately after the accidental gouging-out of Alice’s eye. When those present finally regained control of their senses, many remembered looking up and seeing a strange new protuberance on the top of Alice's head – a protuberance that screamed. It was a few moments more before anyone realised what it was – the boy in the process of being absorbed into the elephant.

It was as if the stone of Alice's head had turned into a viscous liquid that Lachan's limbs and lower body sank into. As they did, the surface of Alice's body convulsed and fine red filaments spread out across it; and whatever agony Lachlan was experiencing also seemed to pass into her. Alice flailed her head wildly and continued shrieking, but the shrieks had lost their power to debilitate and increasingly sounded like those of a child in pain.

By this time, most of the crowd were clambering over one another to flee the scene. Back at the runway stairs, the representative from the Consortium barked orders into a walkie-talkie, and the hazmat-clad ground crew retrieved a seven-foot long cylinder with a fire hose attached to it from the black van. With three of them cradling the cylinder and one brandishing the nozzle at the end the hose, the crew threaded its way through the fleeing crowd towards Alice.

When they got to about twelve feet from the raging pachyderm, the crew member at the end of the hose slammed open a valve on the nozzle and fired a cloud of pink mist into Alice's facing flank. The mist adhered to her body and immediately began eating away at it like acid. Alice responded by throwing back her head and emitting her last brain-searing shriek. The crew from the Consortium were unaffected, but one nearby member of the crowd, who had been too stricken by Alice's shrieks to flee, was driven completely mad and tried to tear the nozzle from the lead crew member's grasp.

In the ensuing struggle, clouds of the mist blew back over the crew from the Consortium, burning any areas of exposed flesh. The crew fell to the ground in pain and Alice counterattacked; wheeling around, seizing the head crew member with her trunk, and slamming him hard into her mist-burnt side. The leader of the Consortium crew was absorbed into her body even faster than the boy. In seconds, he had been reduced to a flesh poultice covered in hazmat plastic and an almost totally consumed face that could do little more than gurgle its pain.

With two minds in agony fused to her own and the external threat of a foe who knew how to hurt her, Alice responded in the way that animals under siege have always done – she headed for cover; charging across the field and into the woods of Blackmun's Parcel. As she approached the woods, the Consortium's security guards produced semi-automatic weapons and pounded her with high-calibre rounds. As she soaked up the incoming blobs of lead, she slowed and toppled slightly, but this did little to halt her progress.

When she finally reached the trees, her body softened and narrowed, allowing her to slide effortlessly between the trunks and disappear into the heart of this small urban forest.

And that was the last that anyone saw of Alice the Elephant...

In the weeks that followed, an ill-fated assault mission was sent in to “flush out the monster” and a slightly more successful Royal Commission was convened to punish the Consortium and the Park Authority. Outraged media outlets and members of the public called for the nuking and/or napalming of the wooded precinct, but local property owners quietly objected. (They'd already taken a hit from having a “public menace” on their doorstep; they didn't want prospective buyers being turned away by lingering radio-chemical fallout.)

These narrow, self-interested pleas weren't enough to silence the more hawkish elements of local councils, but they were enough to delay action and keep that delay going, even after a couple of out-of-towners had unsuspectingly wandered to their dooms. And, by the time we got to the next round of State and council elections, everyone was too busy “confronting” the threat of domestic robot hooliganism to waste time on a shape-shifting beast in some part of a public park that no-one went to anyway. So, the policy of unobtrusive containment remained in force; ensuring that Elephant Wood would stay as it was and be simply fenced-off for the “foreseeable future”.

Meanwhile, Alice's cargo of tortured souls would drag her out of the woods and up to the fence once every couple of weeks. Then, when she felt the many points of contact with the chain-link suck dollops of metal into her body, she would be reminded of her enemies with their searing nano-acids and their flying metal pellets, and eventually she would return to her arboreal realm. The holes in the fence might remain for a week or so, but then Park Authority sub-contractors would repair them. And the whole perfectly manageable cycle would start all over again.

Posted by Warren at 08:08 PM | Comments (0)