Skies of SKA
In the end, Ellie said that she could be contacted if required. She decided to fulfil her promise to take a break with Palmer and conclude some unfinished business; so they travelled to the West Australian Pilbara.
Palmer wanted to visit some of the Aboriginal Communities. Since writing his book, ‘Losing Faith – The Search for Meaning in The Age of Reason’ he felt the need to provide balance. Ellie had teased him and had codenamed his new book ‘Finding Faith – The Search for Inspiration in the Age of Enlightenment’. He liked it so much he was using it as a codename. No doubt the editors would want a more controversial title.
He had been researching cases where he could see a unification of humanity.
Ellie wanted to have a look at the SKA and stars. She had to get away from all this ‘inner space’ for a while.
Having landed in Western Australia International airport they resembled a couple of European backpackers and stood at the taxi rank with their backpacks, a tripod bag and a road case. Their stay in Perth was to be minimal and they had a schedule to get to Jandakot Airport for their chartered Cessna 172. Palmer had obtained his license and pictured himself as a hybrid spiritual anthropologist. He wanted to invert the notion of missionary and attempt to delve out similarities in spiritual foundations; to learn, not teach; to be changed rather than bring change.
They had to detour past a supermarket where they gathered supplies. With several cooler bags loaded with various perishables stowed away in the back of the plane, they were relieved to be finally under way. Palmer taxied; performed all of the intricate manoeuvres; concluded the Air traffic control dialogue, and set up navigation. Once they were safely in the air and on course Palmer visibly relaxed and spoke.
“Did I tell you that I had to fly a pregnant woman to Broome once?”
“No, how did that pan out?”
“Well she decided that need for the flight meant that her child, a girl, was meant to be a part of Brolga Dreaming. She’s since become a nurse for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Did you know; rumour has it that Brolga’s can carry their young in flight?”
Palmer stops talking for a full minute. He adjusts the trim and altitude to take advantage of a tail wind. He continued his story.
“Well they are storks I suppose. She’s now been midwife to five babies. They’re also a part of Brolga dreaming. Two girls! and she’s ‘mother’ to them all of course.”
Palmer glanced across at Ellie and continued: “She keeps in touch and recently emailed me saying: ‘maybe they’ll grow up to be nurses too’.”
“So this is good isn’t it? More nurses in the outback?” Ellie quizzed.
“Well yes, except the women are now all holding off and contriving ways to make sure they give birth in the aircraft!”
Palmer laughed. Ellie puffed out her cheeks and went cross eyed in imitation. They both laughed and Ellie related a few stories of mischief during the long nights of observation. Suddenly, Ellie laughed out loud.
“Do you know there was one time when Willie had to do some maintenance on one of the parametric amplifiers. He had dismantled it and went to get a cup of coffee. I put an extra screw in his dish. He disassembled it twice before we let him off the hook.”
Palmer laughed. “I’m in a plane with the devil incarnate,” he paused as if recalling something. “Was it you that added AC-DC to my ‘good night sleep’ playlist?”
They both laughed.
“Sorry, said Ellie. It was soo.. saccharine. I couldn’t stand it!”
“Actually I’m a fan now.”
The flight continued. The landscape changed…
Again Palmer’s voice crackled through the aircraft intercom. “You said we had to maintain radio silence around the SKA, that’s actually not an issue. The normal protocol is to just ‘knock on the door’.”
“Huh?” quizzes Ellie.
“Watch,” offered Palmer as he descended to the township.
Palmer did two circuits of the town. Towards the end of the second circuit a Land Cruiser started up and created a trail of dust as it drove out towards the airfield. Palmer banked over to land. On the ground, as he taxied to the parking area, the Land Cruiser pulled up.
“How much gear do you have?” called the Superintendent, a man called Macka.
“I’ll take this case thanks Macka, but there’s those 2 bags, that guitar case, the cooler bags and this long case here,” supplied Ellie.
They’re taken to a corrugated iron house. The construction is new. A porch surrounds the homestead and provided relief from the searing, dessicating heat. Several old and mismatched, but comfortable looking, furniture pieces are arrayed around the porch. Flyscreens cover all the windows, which are slats and hinged open. Air flows through the house and brought the dust in to settle.
“Did the Avgas fuel drop happen Macka?” asked Palmer as they settled in.
“Nope, the Fuel Carter ‘s missus ran off, and he went after her.”
Palmer stopped his unpacking and looked up. Macka continued.
“I heard he’s got her back though. He had to promise her a shopping trip in Perth. It’ll be here next week.”
Palmer looked at Ellie. “I could do a flight down to Mt Magnet to get some fuel.”
“Let’s relax a bit first, unless you have to be somewhere.”
From this response Palmer assumed Ellie was not in a rush to move on just yet. There was no telling how long it would be before her projects would need attention. The weather patterns looked stable, the charter fees were loosely related to the aircraft flight hours. The Cessna could stay parked a while. He would now be able to make the best of the available time.
Palmer had a vague plan. He knew that someone he had studied with at the seminary was now working at one of the remote Catholic bush schools. He had been given an invitation to drop in, and the locals apparently knew some special places that the tourists didn’t.
First Ellie would want to set up the contents of the road case and tripod.
He walked into the kitchen and peered out the window to find her setting up her telescope as the last rays of the day began to redden the sky.
Palmer and Macka opened a few cans of beans and got the grated cheese and bread out of the freezer. Palmer pulled out the mushrooms they had acquired earlier that day. They wouldn’t last in the heat so he put them in the fridge. They both wistfully commented on how a cold beer would be superb with the baked beans, if only it wasn’t a dry zone.
Macka asked about the mushrooms. He said they were very important.
“Why is that?” Asked Palmer.
“Well it is a dry zone, although we are allowed to cook using whatever ingredients are required.”
“Yes…” Palmer didn’t yet know where this was going.
“Well I have a recipe for mushrooms and white wine cream sauce that requires a particular ingredient that I have in reserve. Just for a special occasion like this,” Macka smiled a mischievous smile. “Of course we only require a small amount of the wine for the mushrooms.”
“Seems a bit of a waste. I suppose we could simply let the extra wine turn to vinegar,” mused Palmer.
Just then Ellie walked in smiling beatifically. “I believe we are obliged to periodically test the quality of the vinegar.”
The next day Ellie and Macka headed out to look at some of the arrays. Macka insisted that he needed some photos for the publicity engine. Palmer again laughed at her antics as she did a number of ‘Vogue’ poses. They did some brief work checking signal to noise ratios, and looked at the data quality.
When they returned they encountered a man with a bushy black beard and a mass of long curly black hair. A pair of smiling eyes peered out from under eyebrows that were indistinguishable from the massive head of hair. Palmer introduced his friend Jacques from his seminary days. It was then that the guitar revealed its purpose. Palmer presented this to Jacques, and that night Jacques played some of his repertoire. This included Daddy Cool, AC/DC, The Eagles, Pink Floyd and Neil Young. They scoured the internet for lyrics and gathered around the computer monitor to sing from them. No-one for 200km was there to hear. Perhaps it was just as well.
The next day they met up with an Aboriginal Elder to visit a remote waterhole. They were glad of the guide since there was no way they could find their return path, let alone the waterhole. After several hours of lounging, and watching children chase Goanna meat, Palmer swam over to a waterfall. The red rock was gently sloped so the cascade bore a closer resemblance to a series of interconnected pools. As each pool was sampled Palmer came to realise that the higher pools were warmed progressively less by the sun. In the Pilbara heat he was enticed upwards by the greater appeal of the higher pools.
As Palmer moved over the crest he found that the next pool was undisturbed and as limpid as glass. He hesitated as he contemplated the barrier between the air and water. In the end he could no longer resist, and he carefully lowered himself into the pool. The cool water inexorably engulfed him until all but his head was submerged. He reached to the bottom and touched the felt of the green growth of the water plants. He walked his hands upstream until he had to clamber over another gentle inflow that had its ingres softened by surrounding plants.
The next was even more glorious. He submerged and this time swam gently up the stream. He was careful not to disturb the clarity of the water. He hyperventilated, took a deep breath, and swam down. In a deeper part of the pool he pinched his nose and rotated around to look up.
Through the water and with the blurred optics of his terran eyes he could see the sky; a tree; a rock wall on the right, and what appeared to be a finger of rock to the left with a figure standing upon it.
His lungs reminded him to breath. When he surfaced he saw that Ellie had materialised there. He caught his breath. She stood with one hand on her hip, and holding her bathers aloft in her other hand. She dropped them on the rock and threw herself into the water with an almighty bomb dive.
He soon joined her native state and they showed each other all the stupid dives they knew as children.
Before long he held her in an embrace. He quizzed:
“So evidently I wasn’t stealthy enough to escape?”
“Well I had no idea where you had gone until I saw a whole barrage of water come over the top of the falls. It could only have been you. Jacques winked and pointed me to a shortcut.”
“This has been easier than I thought,” smiled Palmer.
“Palmer Joss, I’m not that kind of girl,” she splashed him.
“No I mean getting you away from the new project. You haven’t said much about it.”
“Well it’s kind of … embryonic. There’s not a lot I can say because it’s only a spark.” She paused. There were lots of ways this conversation could go. Strangely there was only one that she wanted. ”Shall I see if I can get you instated as the moral compass for the team?”
“No I’d like you to guide me. You have come a different way to get your spiritual balance. Almost diametrically opposite to mine. I want you to enlighten me.”
“Well it’s all about outsides and insides. I believed that the answer was out there, and you believed that the answer is inside us all.” She swam slowly up and looked into Palmer’s eyes. “Now I can see that the answer is inside, and you might be seeing that the answers are out here. Right now I feel inside out. And I just want you inside me.”
Palmer Joss took sympathy on her predicament.
They stole time to roam between several of the remote communities. Ellie helped by blending the spare parts from various computer labs into workable units. At night they would talk of the stars to some of the Elders. She took notes of the local names for the constellations and the stories that surrounded them.
Some weeks later, on the return to Macka’s place, they sang to the music of the car CD. The dusty outback rose in a cloud behind them, it diminished as another cloud of dust appeared, also diminishing. The two vehicles negotiated their greeting with reciprocated headlight flashes. Taking care for their precious windscreens the one hundred octillion atoms constituting a subworld of melody, laughter and four sentient lives waved congenially as another one hundred octillion atoms in a subworld of country music and VHF transmission nodded back. The two worlds continued along their way, their dust clouds mingled and settled gently in brownian motion towards the 10 quindecillion atoms that anchored the objects, and provided the meagre cloud chamber substrate that supported this ineffable near miss event of classical atom colliders.
Once they had returned, settled and rinsed off the dust Ellie walked into the spare room. She drew back the sheet she had draped over the telescope and carried it out to its place in the yard. The legs of the tripod were positioned on the markers; bricks with indentations she had half embedded in the dirt.
She made some minor adjustments and then pulled out her log book. Not so much because she expected findings of any scientific value but because it connected her. As she made her date entry she realised that they had spent four weeks in the outback and she had not felt inclined to check her email, nor had she had mobile reception or messages. Palmer had truly isolated her. She wondered if he had done this deliberately.
Now, with the wet season approaching, heralding her return to civilisation she felt she should reconnect. She had a few more nights and the time difference would mean she could wait another day. A small group of Aborigines had come to know her, and held the telescope in high regard. They loved to be shown the rings of Saturn and Jupiter and the Orion Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula was their limit though, it was a jittery blur.
And here in the middle of nowhere in a desert with no light pollution and clear arid skies she could see the Nebulas, the moons, the rings and the hints of distant objects that the Hubble telescope had placed in glorious detail on the internet.
For Ellie this was the second time she had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.
On this night Betelgeuse uttered its last gasp.
A magnificent gasp.
Ellie connected her camera to the telescope. Many others would already know. She could indulge, but tomorrow would be a big day.