Short Fiction: Desert Tsunami

Last year I was invited to submit a piece of short fiction to IBM’s in-house design magazine, Variable. I was asked to write a story that imagined what virtual twinning for farms might look like fifty years from now. When I began working on this piece, I had no idea that this would be my last piece of writing for IBM.

Because many of you never had a chance to read this (because it was published in-house), I thought I’d share it here on my website. Not only that, but I had to cut 150 words from the original submission at the last minute to allow for layout constraints, so the published version lost a little colour and texture. So this is my chance to share the uncut version; my director’s cut, so to speak. 

Desert Tsunami

By John Anthony James

I could tell that Pru was going to tease me again by the way the lines at the edge of her eyes crinkled slightly beneath the rim of her battered old bush hat.

“Hot enough for ya, Ravi?” she asked in that dry laconic manner of hers.

The air on my face reminded me of when you open an oven door; much drier and hotter than the thick humidity of my native Mumbai. And the flies were incorrigible. They found places to enter and irritate no matter how many times I practised the great Aussie salute that Pru had quickly taught me.

I shifted awkwardly on the back of the horse I was riding. It had been years since I had ridden one, and even then, it had only been a small, docile pony at the horse club my parents sent me to as a child.

“Why couldn’t we use the four-wheel-drive?” I complained. “It’s got air-con.”

“The chooks don’t like it,” Pru countered. “Makes them nervous. Horses are better.”

But I couldn’t help but feel she had made me ride a horse just for her own amusement.

Pru gave a high-pierced whistle. Bluey, her faithful cattle dog, changed tack and yelped at the legs of the large birds we were herding.

“Why do they still call them cattle dogs?” I wondered out loud, not really expecting Pru to answer.

“Chook dogs sounds stupid.” 

She whistled again, and the dog obeyed her instructions, rushing to cut off one of the birds that had separated from the herd. It almost felt like Pru and the dog had a psychic connection.

“My Nan used to farm cattle,” she continued. “And her dad, and his dad before him. Bluey, here, is descended from the same dogs they owned. They were cattle dogs, so why shouldn’t bluey be one?”

I couldn’t argue with that. And yet, it still felt strange for a cattle dog to be herding a bunch of flightless birds instead of the now almost extinct cattle that used to dominate Australia’s parched inland.

“So, why do you call them chooks and not emus?”

“Eem-yous,” she replied, correcting my pronunciation. “And we call them chooks because that’s what Aussies call chickens.”

“Another one of your Aussie jokes?” I ventured.

She nodded. “You’re learning, Ravi.”

“They’re much larger than chickens,” I pointed out.

“Yep. But then end up at the same place.”

I raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“On my dinner plate,” she finally explained.

I smiled. “And how long have you been herding emus? I mean, chooks.” 

“About fifteen years. It was Dad who decided to switch. That was the first time we used the twin.”

“But that was still UI based back then?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So, what makes emus better than cattle?” 

“You have to understand, they’re not wild emus. Easier to herd cats than wild emus. But this lot? They’re genetically altered to be larger and easier to manage. More like cattle than birds, but more suited to the landscape than cattle. A bit like camels; they can go for days without drinking, then guzzle down bucket loads of water when they find some. And they fart less than cattle, so they’re better for the environment. The Government subsidised their introduction to help meet its carbon targets.”

“I thought cattle belched methane more than, umm, pass wind,” I suggested sagely, happy that I finally knew something Pru didn’t.

Pru shrugged. “Burping. Farting. It’s all the same.”

I glanced around at the spinifex and dried grass that populated the landscape. It was difficult to imagine that anything could be farmed out here.

“If we’re looking for some high ground to keep the stock away from some floodwaters, then where’s the rain?” I asked.

Pru smiled wryly. “It hardly ever rains out here, mate. What you’ve got to understand is that the outback is one huge drainage system. All the rains from the monsoon and cyclones up north? They flood across the outback all the way down to the Darling and Murray Rivers. The floodwaters come slowly, and they go slowly, but they run pretty fast. It isn’t safe for the stock. Less so for chooks than cattle.”

“And you’ve done this before?”

She nodded. “Once, when I was in me teens. Family secret. We’ve been bringing the stock here for over a hundred years when we know the waters are coming. We call it the hump.”

“It looks like the same flat ground we’ve been riding over for the past hour or so.”

“Yeah, but it’s subtly higher. Just enough the stay above the flood peak.”

I nodded, then waved my hand to bring up some flood statistics into my field of view.

“So, the biggest flood was back in 1974?”

“Yep. My Nan said that the water came up to the cattle’s hocks, even here on the hump. Almost lost the herd that year.”

“Well,” I said. “Let’s see what happens this time.”

I waved my hand once more and brought up a new menu before selecting the latest dataset we had been working on back in the lab.

That’s when we heard the rumble.

“Is that normal?” I asked.

“Nuh,” she replied frowning. She then squinted and focussed on the horizon. “Can you see that?”

I followed her gaze. I couldn’t see what she saw at first, but as the noise grew, I began to make out a frothy brown line approaching us at speed.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was witnessing. “It looks like a tsunami in the desert.”

Pru’s expression became grim. “This won’t be good. I’ve seen a flash flood like this once before when I visited a property down on the Darling Downs. The chooks won’t survive this.”

We watched intently as the waters approached until there was no doubt about what was going to happen. Ahead of us, a few of the birds had already been toppled by the fast-approaching waters. The rest of the herd had begun to panic and were running away from us. There was nothing that Pru or bluey could do to stop the stampede. 

“Do we have to actually drown too?” asked Pru as we vainly tried to outrun the floodwaters on our horses.

Despite our predicament, I managed to give Pru a sheepish smile. “Of course not. I just forgot where we were for a moment. Watson? End simulation.”

It took me a few moments to get my bearings. I took off my lucid-dreaming helmet and stretched my arms and shoulders for a moment. I was back in my office in Mumbai, with its air-conditioning, ergonomic furniture, and energy-efficient lighting. It had felt like hours had passed in the dream-simulation, but only minutes had passed here in my office.

I glanced up at the smart-wall of my office cubicle. Pru gazed back at me from her homestead in the outback. Behind her, I could see her old bush hat hanging on the hat-rack on the wall of her office, just like the one she wore in the dream. She took off her helmet and rubbed her eyes, like someone waking from a nap. 

“I’m still not sure about these shared dreams, Ravi. Feels a bit… intimate.”

“I assure you, at IBM we do everything to guarantee the privacy of our clients. Watson ensures that the only dreams we share are parts of the simulation.”

She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Good thing too, mate. I’ve got dreams about snakes that would scare the feathers off a kookaburra.”

I shuddered slightly. I was a little scared of Pru if truth be told; she was as tough as the landscape she had shared in our dream. I wasn’t sure if I could have coped with one of her nightmares.

I decided to get back on subject. “That simulation was worse than expected.”

Pru pursed her lips for a moment. “I was sure that the herd would be safe on the hump. I don’t think I would have believed your predictions if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”

I took a deep breath. “Well, this is an unprecedented weather pattern. The wettest monsoon on record, in fact. Maybe those old floods you mentioned are different now. Less common, but more extreme.”

She rubbed her face, worried. “Maybe. It’s been over twenty years since our last flood. But my Nan said they would normally come every five or six years or so.”

I shrugged. “There is no normal anymore. The unexpected is the new normal.”

“How long have we got? Dad’s already taken a team out to start gathering the herd together. I’ll need to tell him the hump isn’t safe anymore.”

I glanced at some figures on my smart-wall. “Maybe seventy-two hours. There’s still time to run some more simulations and find a better place to move the stock to.”

“If there is a better place,” said Pru grimly.

I tried to sound confident. “I’m sure there is. Come on. Let’s look at the latest topographic data for your farm’s twin.”

“Station,” she corrected me, and not for the first time. “It’s a station, not a farm.”

I laughed at my faux pas. “Yes. Your station’s twin.”

I put on my lucid-dreaming helmet once more and loaded the twin of Pru’s station into our shared dream. I felt the hot air on my face as I was once again transported to the outback. Sitting awkwardly on my horse as Pru and I — and bluey — herded the virtual birds to a different, and hopefully safer, part of the landscape.

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