‘Such heat!’ said the Commander, fanning himself with his hat. The two uniformed men at the front of the bus made a panicked show of fiddling with the air-conditioning levels and redirecting the fan grills. ‘I’d forgotten how searing the heart of this country is. Positively Hadean. What can we do about this heat, Dickie?’
Dickie put down his pen, twisted the top off a bottle of sparkling water, and handed it to the Commander.
‘No, no. I mean this,’ the Commander said, and tapped on the window. ‘The dying trees, if you can call them trees. The red dirt. I say, it is little wonder that so few of our citizens care to venture this far inland when the whole place burns like a kiln. They say they used to come in droves, by the millions, to tramp around an unadorned slab of rock, and eat flies by the dozen. Spend their own monies to do so! And now the railway line we built from the capital lays dormant and warping under the sun. How much did it cost to build?’ Dickie opened his mouth but the Commander held up his hand. ‘Never mind. Don’t remind me.’
To the left, a rump of browns, purples, oranges and reds rose above the horizon. Above it, strips of cloud slid southwards. The chattering ceased, and everyone on the bus rose from their seats.
‘Did you hear General Aziz harping on about his own rock? What is that pebble he calls a monolith called again?’
‘Ben Amera, sir.’
‘He’s clearly as mad as they say. He spouts such idiocies to spite our family name. He only wishes that he’d had a revolution as successful as ours!’
‘In terms of size, Ben Amera is inferior, sir.’
‘You said it, Dickie. And so is that tinpot despot and his entire country.’
‘You wait until he sees what we have in store. We’ll make him eat his beret.’
The bus turned into a road and passengers resumed their seats, the view having moved behind them.
‘I hope it’s as good as you say, Dickie,’ the Commander said.
‘I believe it will exceed your expectations, sir.’
‘And what about the…’ The Commander tapped his nose.
‘The design matches those you approved, sir.’
‘Very good. And you know what? I have seen the blueprints and photographs naturally, but it’s another thing to stand there and behold something in real life. It’s much more exciting that way, don’t you think?’
‘Of course, sir,’ Dickie said, his pen back in his hands and ticking off numbers on a piece of paper.
‘Did you arrange everything with the locals?’
‘Yes, as we discussed.’
‘And there were no problems.’
‘None that we couldn’t deal with.’
‘Good. That would have be last thing we needed. Someone leaking more nonsense to the international press about the oppression of the poor natives. But this time I think they’ll understand. It’s different, isn’t it. Oh, they’ll label it a vanity project or something or other. But this… I truly believe they’ll recognise what a momentous feat in our country’s history this is. What a gift we’re giving to the people. Positively momentous. Two awesome forces of nature combined into one, the taming, no, the gilding of the Leviathan! Do know how much coverage we’re going to get? It’ll really raise my profile, cement my reputation as a man of action. Bring in foreign investment. Oh, I can’t wait to read what they make of it, Dickie. What they’ll say about me. He who constructed the foundation for eternal success. What do you think? A monument of eternal glory! Don’t you hear?’
‘Your head is always buried in that book.’
Dickie clicked his pen, placed it into the middle of the notebook, and closed the pages.
‘I didn’t mean for you to stop your scribbling, man. Only it baffles me that you don’t use one of those personal electronic organisers like the rest of the team. They’re all the rage in America. I’ll have one shipped over for you.’
‘Your excellency has a far deeper understanding of new technology. I prefer to use what is natural to me. If permitted of course.’
‘It is permitted, yes, yes. I’m just saying, just because we rule the people doesn’t mean we have be one of them.’
‘Would you like to stop at the gates, your excellency?’ The driver spoke through the intercom.
‘No,’ said the Commander. ‘Don’t stop. I’d like to soak my legs a while before the ceremony. I always soak my legs after flying.’
The bus accelerated, and as it and the twelve trucks accompanying it passed under the first of the welcoming archways, two guards burst from the booths on either side of the road. They straightened their caps and legs in an attentive pose, their lips and eyes pressed shut to the swirling clouds of red dust.
At the resort square the vehicles opened their doors, and the guards, assistants, and authorised state media journalists stepped out one after the other, remarking each in their own way about the temperature. A group of painted men stood in a line in front of a smouldering fire pit while an old woman fanned the smoke with a branch. The Commander, flanked by eight guards, walked up the path towards the fire. Dickie followed, consulting his notepad and making sure the camera crew was well positioned.
The Commander removed his hat, and bowed to let the woman shake the branch around him while the painted men stamped their feet on the concrete. When she was done, the Commander took a glass from a nearby tray and raised it. ‘To our country.’ He drained the contents of the glass, and put on his hat.
As he passed through the automatic glass doors into the resort complex, he said, ‘That sort of business with the dancing and smoke. It gives me nightmares, Dickie. I don’t want to ever see it again.’
The transport trailers arrived at midday, and for the next three hours the guards led hundreds of people from windowless carriages into the arrivals hall. The Commander stood by the window of the top floor office shielding the high afternoon sun from his face. Beside him, a woman on a stepladder wiped cream from his cheeks with cotton balls.
‘Is it true what they say, Dickie?’
‘What do they say, sir?’
‘That I have my father’s nose.’
‘Your father cut a distinguished figure, sir. Our currency still bears the mark of his noble profile.’
‘That is your way of saying yes.’ The Commander held a hand mirror to his face. ‘I think I shall have it seen to.’
‘Several of the newly arrived are waiting for an audience, sir,’ Dickie said.
‘Who are they again?’
‘Scholarship recipients, members of various professions, two war widows.’
‘They are the worst.’
‘Shall I send them in?’
The Commander waved a hand at the woman, and she climbed down the stairs and left the room. ‘Photos and handshakes.’
‘Photos and handshakes,’ replied Dickie.
The doors opened, and they entered in single file, heads low, suits and dresses clean and creased. After they’d bowed and pledged eternal fealty, Dickie handed them each a bottle of water.
The Commander stood behind a deep, wooden desk, smiling. ‘Thank you for your attendance,’ he said. ‘I trust your journey from the coast was comfortable.’
The man at the end was the first to nod. ‘Yes, your excellency. The days flew by like minutes. I thank you for the opportunity to attend this historic event in our nation’s history, and for the chance to visit this famous site.’
The others all murmured agreement All but one. The Commander looked at Dickie, then at the war widow, whose gaze was fixed on the portrait hanging behind him. He moved aside, and regarded the picture. It was of a serious man dressed in military regalia. ‘Father used to come here regularly… after the revolution,’ he said. ‘He loved the peace and quiet. He always said that the nature of it all reflected his own.’ He turned to the widow and held out his hand. ‘Blessed be our dear departed, Missus…’
The war widow took the Commander’s hand but did not say anything. The Commander looked at Dickie, who wrote down something in his notepad.
‘And you, young man,’ the Commander shook the hand of the next person, a man with a neat moustache. ‘You are studying at one of our great universities? What is your field?’
‘Yes, your excellency. Thanks to your great generosity I am enrolled in the study of medicine.’
‘This is David MacArthur, sir,’ Dickie said. ‘Son of Doctor MacArthur.’
The Commander cocked his head.
‘Alan MacArthur. Of your excellency’s hospital in the capital. The head surgeon.’
‘Ah, so it is,’ said the Commander, still holding the boy’s hand in his own. ‘Well, why didn’t you say so? How is your father? Is he here?’
‘Sadly, he was not among the honoured who were selected for the journey.’
‘Ah, what a pity. Still, it is nothing next to the daily honour of his work, wouldn’t you say? I hope you choose to follow in his footsteps. We need more hard-working, loyal men like your father. Not more do-nothing recalcitrants. We have nation-building to do!’
‘Yes, your excellency.’
The Commander greeted each of the visitors, then went to wash his hands at the basin. After a few moments of silence, Dickie instructed the guards to arrange the visitors in a line behind the Commander’s desk, then the Commander came and sat in his chair, and smiled for the camera.
‘My word, Dickie,’ the Commander said after the people had left. ‘Did you see the way that old crone was staring at me? Positively evil. My father would have never tolerated such insolence. You took down her name I take it.’
‘Well? What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?’
‘Sir, if I may. For now, as we discussed, it might be best if we demonstrate some restraint before the opening ceremony.’
‘Yes, yes. And that student, the doctor’s boy. Why was here? Was that moustache some sort of joke?’
‘The selection was random as you instructed, sir.’
‘There’s random, and there’s random, Dickie. You’ve been around long enough to know that. I think some sort of containment is in order.’
‘God, man. No, I mean just place him up the front, beside one of the generals. Keep him away from the riffraff. If he’s going to get drunk and mouth off I want someone there to relieve him of his tongue.’
‘I’ll see to it, sir.’ Dickie clicked his pen and wrote down a note.
‘When are we leaving?’
‘The ceremony is due to start in twenty-five minutes, sir.’
‘No, you, dolt. How long must we remain in this awful place?’
Dickie consulted his notebook. ‘The schedule was to remain until the ceremony concludes, sir. No longer. However should–‘
‘No, no. We came all this way to unveil this thing, so let’s get it unveiled. Listen, Dickie, look at me. Am I perspiring?’
‘I’m nervous. I’m never nervous. I suppose that’s a good thing, isn’t it?’
‘Nerves concentrate the mind, sir.’
‘Do they then? In that case, let’s be off.’
The Commander, Dickie and the guards left the office, leaving a line of unopened bottles of water on the floor.
A fierce wind blew in from the south, and there was much discussion and waving of weapons before the pilot finally agreed to take off. The Commander sat in the front. Dickie and two guards sat in the rear.
‘Here are your speech notes, sir,’ Dickie said and passed a sheet of paper to the Commander.
‘I don’t want them. Let’s leave at least one thing unscripted, shall we?’
They saw the rock as soon as the helicopter reached altitude, a mountain in the middle of red nothingness, at once bulging and motionless. Two helicopters were already on the summit.
‘My word,’ the Commander said into his headset microphone. ‘Is it big, isn’t it?’
Dickie’s reply was crackled and unintelligible. ‘…, sir.’
‘It really looks like a monster!’
The helicopter cut a zigzagging path across the sky. Shadows grew larger, edges sharper. To the north-east, a great, black curtain hung from a towering frame of scaffolding, which was bolted to the face of the rock. In front of the curtain stood a mini-grandstand encircled by high fences. Guards stood outside and in. The grandstand was filled to capacity. The Commander turned to Dickie and gave the thumbs up.
It took several attempts to land. On the fifth attempt, the guards scurried over to secure the helicopter’s landing skids with chains, and guide them down onto the helipad.
A man wearing a yellow hard hat opened the door on the Commander’s side. ‘Your excellency,’ he shouted over the wind and the rotor blades. ‘Everything is prepared. Though in these conditions I would advise you to secure yourself until we reach the balcony.’ The man handed the Commander a belt, which was attached by way of a thin, metal rope to a metal pole.
The engineer escorted the Commander and two of his guards along the thirty metres between the helipad and the balcony. Dickie and the pilot followed them. Whenever a cross-wind came in they dropped to their knees and held onto the rope.
The balcony was a long, narrow suite of glass and metal, bolted into the rock some fifty metres above the towering scaffolding. Two hundred metres below that was the ground.
The Commander stood while an attendant undid the work of the wind to his hair and face, then took a seat in the raised chair at the centre of the room. The sun streamed in at an angle, burning reds to crimson and elongating shadows.
A man came and checked the settings of a camera. ‘You excellency, we will start broadcasting in approximately three minutes, after which the national anthem will start. Just as we rehearsed. When the music stops, that is your excellency’s queue.’
Dickie approached the Commander and handed him a drink. ‘May I inquire, sir, of your intentions in relation to your speech.’
‘Relax, Dickie. It will be just as we wrote it, with a few, minor amendments.’
Dickie brushed a patch of red dust from his sleeve.
‘Will you stop it?’
‘I know exactly what you’re thinking. The way you look you’d think I was going to start World War Four. I know you don’t approve of this project. It’s fine, you can admit it.’
‘My father,’ the Commander said, his finger raised, ‘is dead. I have changed things for the better, and I don’t care if you or anyone else disagrees. I ask you, would a painter refuse to sign his masterpiece?’
A red light flashed. Down in the grandstand the crowds rose to their feet. Those on the balcony performed last-minute checks of the cameras and audio equipment. Over the radio, the chief of ground staff announced that everything was ready. The Commander stood and nodded. Trumpets echoed from giant speakers attached to the scaffolding, and soon everyone in attendance was singing the hymn of the revolution.
When the music stopped the Commander took his position at the podium in front of the cameras. ‘My fellow countrymen and countrywomen,’ he said into the microphone. ‘It is a great privilege for me to be here today with all of you, and for me to be speaking to our country and to the world. Today I unveil a gift. This rock has stood for millions of years, long before our great revolution. It will stand for millions more. It is a thing of stability, dependability, strength and power. And of beauty. These are the qualities to which our society must aspire if we are to last as long as this mighty rock.’ Following a long applause, the Commander continued. ‘Just as this is the world’s greatest monolith, so too are we the greatest nation. We are made great not only by our leaders, but by you, the people. And I say to those who are watching from other nations, look not to us as a threat, don’t believe your government’s’ propaganda or those who seek to distract you from their own wicked crimes by inventing accusations against us. We are your brothers and sisters, we are human, just as you are. All we ask is that you look at our faces, look into our eyes, and you will understand that we strive for peace and justice just as you do. You will see that good and evil do not exist, but are mere words that chain our minds and souls.’ At these words the Commander turned to Dickie, and gave him the thumbs up.
Dickie went to a desk and picked up the radio. ‘Open the curtain. Repeat. Open the curtain.’ Notes of violins floated from the speakers.
‘And I speak to you,’ the Commander continued. ‘Those that wish to know the face of our great country, to understand us, I ask you to do it now!’
Chains rattled, cogs turned and slowly the black curtain parted. Dickie went to a monitor to watch the view from the ground. At the first sight of the smooth stone behind the curtain the crowds leapt from their seats and rushed to the front barriers. When they saw the nose and eyes they shouted. By the time the sun lit up the complete visage in a marbled shroud of light they were throwing their arms in the air and crying tears.
Dickie looked at the Commander.
‘Just as we rehearsed,’ the Commander said and winked. He ran a hand over his chin and jaw. ‘What do you think, Dickie, my old boy? I think it came out rather well. A flattering likeness, wouldn’t you say? Even the old order are up on their feet. Generals weeping like children! For their lives, most likely. I can’t wait to do a fly by.’
Dickie opened his mouth to reply, but his words were cut short by a piercing whistle.
The entire balcony shuddered.
‘The winds,’ the engineer cried. ‘Time to leave.’
The glass walls vibrated as the Commander and his guards were ushered out to the helipads. Iron screeched as it ground on rock.
Before leaving, Dickie cast a glance at the swaying scaffolding. The black curtains furled and flapped. ‘We should evacuate the crowd, sir,’ Dickie said once the helicopter managed to lift itself from the surface of the rock.
‘Before we make a fly by? No one is leaving before I have the opportunity to take in my own creation. Pilot, make a pass.’
The helicopter sunk from the coursing wind, and banked around towards the grandstand. The crowds had withdrawn from the front barrier and the scaffolding, which was now trembling and shedding bolts and rods.
The stone face peered out from behind the metal frame, its eyes now glowing in the setting sun.
‘Look at that will you? It’s bigger than I had dreamed. Positively gargantuan!’
Dickie leaned forward. ‘Command the evacuation, sir’.
One of the scaffolding towers bent forward, tearing a twenty-metre shard from the rock. The crowd swarmed to the rear of the grandstand as orange and black tranches of stone began toppling to the ground, mountains from the mountain.
The Commander’s mouth was open but no sound came through the audio channel. When the helicopter finally pointed towards the resort, those that were watching saw a nose, as long as a bus, fall to the earth and splinter in a tremendous explosion.
A nurse entered the room. Beside the bed there was a small vase, which she placed on the floor before stepping onto the table and demounting the wall clock. ‘Is there something you came to tell me?’
The nurse dropped the clock and it fell to the floor. ‘Your excellency,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t aware that you had woken. I was just changing the batteries. The clock, it stopped.’
‘Carry on, then,’ said the Commander. ‘No, wait. Go and see what’s taking Dickie so long. Tell them if he’s not here in the next two minutes, he’ll be looking for a new job in the spiritual world. Run along now.’
The nurse left, and returned a second later. She bowed her head. ‘Forgive me. I am told there is no one of that name to attend you. Might there be another for whom I could call?’
‘What? Oh no, not the old Dickie, I meant the new Dickie. Roger, or Ronald, or whatever his name is. Stop blubbering and go fetch him.’
A moment later a man entered. Panting, he held up a small electronic device. ‘I just received your message, sir,’ he said. ‘I came as quickly as I could.’
‘I’ve just woken to learn a curious fact, Ronald. Would you like to know what it is?’
‘Sir, with permission, Richard,’ said Richard. ‘How are you healing?’
‘My nose is starting to itch. And I can’t feel my face for all these bandages.’ The Commander held his phone in the air. ‘And I’ve just learned that Aziz has finally received his wish. He’s claiming now that his rock, his bloody rock, is the biggest and the best. And as the final insult he has gone and carved his stringy face and despicable moustache into his biggest and best rock in the world.’
‘Our rock remains stable, sir. And I’m assured that it is still the largest–‘
‘It doesn’t matter what it is. It matter what it looks like. It’s what they say about it. Don’t you understand a single thing?’
‘Sir, with respect, it was only the north-eastern face that collapsed. I have spoken with our engineers, and what you once hoped to achieve can still be done, the sculpture was not completely destroyed. They have reassessed the former team’s calculations. In light of the new, uh, parameters–‘
‘Not now! Not ever. Did you not listen, man? Aziz beat me to it!’
‘A mere vanity project, sir.’
The Commander sat up in his bed. ‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing, sir. Pay no attention to the man. He is a common leader for a common people.’
‘It’s positively grotesque. I am ruined.’
‘When do you expect your stay to be over, sir? Your advisors are anxious to hear from you.’
‘Advisors? They’re all buried under ten thousand tons of rubble. The only ones anxious to hear from me are those asking about the mass grave in the middle of the desert next to what is now known as the world’s second largest monolith!’ The Commander sighed. ‘You know, I think I was wrong to let Dickie go like that. He let me down, and he was old-fashioned, but he was never coy.’
‘What are your orders, sir?’
‘I want this nightmare erased. I want that rock dug up and smashed to powder.’
‘I will speak to the engineers, sir.’ Richard bowed. ‘Or maybe the army.’ He tapped something into his device, then stepped backwards towards the door.
‘Good. Do that. And I want those redacting teams working night and day.’
‘Sir, I almost forgot.’ Richard went to the Commander’s bedside. ‘Your surgeon asked me to inform you that he has had to take a leave of absence.’
‘What? His scalpel has barely left my face!’
‘It was to attend his son’s funeral.’
‘Who approved that?’
‘I’m sorry, sir. But with you indisposed, without your leadership I mean, other priorities have arisen. But the Doctor didn’t forget to order the day’s paper for you.’
‘Paper? What are you talking about?’
‘Forgive me, sir. Doctor MacArthur said you would understand.’ Richard pulled a newspaper from his coat and laid it on the Commander’s lap with the front page facing up.
The Commander took the paper. ‘This isn’t one of our rags! Where are you going?’
Richard pointed to his device and then hurried from the room.
The Commander brought the newspaper to his eyes. On the front page someone had circled a black and white photo of the broken rock. Though the picture was grainy, the smooth forehead was clear to see, as was the bright patch where the right eye once was, and the giant fissure that, when the Commander squinted, looked like a long, black nose. The Commander threw the paper onto the floor. He got out of bed, and went to the window just as the ring of the first gunshot cleaved the day.