“You never take them at their word, Marsha,” Al cautioned his wife. “When you shake hands with these guys, you count your rings when you get your hand back.”
“Oh Al, that’s rather melodramatic?” She accused.
“I’ve been dealing with them for a decade. It’s not at all dramatic. They justify any contravention of ethics or morals with an out-group bias.”
“Out-group bias?” She frowned.
“If you’re not in their group, you’re out of it, and therefore beyond any moral or ethical code they need to uphold. You’re either in lockstep with their specific worldview, or they consider you an enemy. They project that you’re trying to bring them down, and that’s how they justify bringing you down with any dirty trick they can.”
“Come on Al… you’ve been doing this too long. They’re not as bad as you make out.”
“I’m not saying they’re intrinsically bad people…. I’m saying that their outlook allows them to justify unscrupulous behavior.”
“Hmmmm,” she bit her lower lip and rolled it between her teeth. She always did that when she was thinking. “And how does this manifest?”
“Well… There’s something that just doesn’t feel right here. Three weeks ago, after a debate put on by the Revelations Institute that this Broad character is tied in with, I got into discussions about your work here, and one of those hicks said some very strange stuff…. That I’d ‘be s’priiised at how th’ territ’ry’s gonna change’. I didn’t think much of it then, because that type are always making wild predictions. I don’t want to create a false memory for myself here, but there was something in the way he said it that had a knowing to it.”
“Now you’re psychic,” she challenged with irony.
“No… it’s just loose ends falling into place. I shouldn’t even be here—only because of Dara I am—it’s suspiciously convenient that we get a call out of the blue challenging us to debate the Evangelists, just after the local preacher has announced a debate.”
She cocked her head. “What’s going on then? What am I missing?”
“Maybe I’m imagining it, but everything seems to be falling into place too neatly.”
“You seem to think it’s sinister?” She asked. “You suggesting they knew Dara would… would be attacked to get you here? It seems far fetched.”
“No—that’s ridiculous, obviously. The coincidences are just… odd…”
“You met Broad before?”
“No—not personally, but I know about him; I’ve debated his colleagues; I know the type. I know he’s got fingers in more pies than you can imagine, Marsh. Extreme right-wing, uber-Republican… pro-oil, pro-coal—anti-renewable, anti-conservation, anti-anything that he can’t exploit.”
“If he’s such a man of God, why’s he like that?”
“Why, ever…? It comes from his and their philosophy.”
“Mom, I’ve been telling you this for an age,” Dara had come into the kitchen with Sonja and caught the tail end, “… she’s so gullible, dad. So innocent. Just refuses to believe anything can be sinister.”
Marsha did not admonish or challenge her son, she knew he was right. She was innocent, she actively wanted to remain innocent and un-jaded; she wanted to always give the benefit of doubt.
“Everything in their philosophy is about death—‘things will be better when we’re dead, we’ll go to a better place. We’ll sit at the side of our Father, we’ll judge the wicked’… that’s why.”
“Earth is Satan’s place, it is flawed.” Dara jumped in. “Heaven is perfect, mum, so the sooner this all ends the better.”
“You two a tag team?” Marsha challenged.
“He’s right, Marsh, those are their mantras. Dangerous, sick, anti-life obsessions,” Al paraphrased them, rolling off the list of standard fundamentalist dogmas.
“Think about it, mum; every time a natural disaster strikes, they celebrate because it confirms their perception of negativity. They speak in grandiose terms about love, fellowship and charity, but their obsession with humans bringing natural disasters on themselves through their behavior just erodes their humanity and numbs them to real suffering.”
“It’s a death cult,” Al amplified it. “It’s all about celebrating death.”
“I told you, mum.”
“You’re just repeating what your father keeps teaching you,” Marsha challenged.
“No, Marsha. Listen to him. He’s got his own mind,” Al pointed out. “Fault him on the merit of his argument if you can. Why can he see it and you can’t?”
“I don’t want to,” Marsha admitted. “It’s bleak to think that way. I don’t want to believe that there are still people like that.”
“But it’s reality, Marsha. They’re barking mad… worse than that, they’re in charge because democracy hands the power to politicians who appeal to the lowest common denominator. If you don’t recognize it, you don’t take action to oppose it. You become complacent,” he paused, “…as you are.”
“Oh, I-am-not… you should’ve seen me on the podium… my Kardashev talk... But I don’t dwell on it. I want to see the best in people.”
“Oh… Phahhhh, Marsha… Don’t give me that. That’s a cop-out. You’re too smart to claim that defense.”
She didn’t argue, he was right.
“And, as to your moral integrity—they’ll attack it from every angle. I can almost guarantee that in the debate they’ll try to spin on it that you’re… satanic.”
“Oh, Al, you’re such a cynic.”
“I’m telling you because that is the flavor and tone they’ll try to set.”
“How can I be satanic? Satanism’s a superstition… an aspect of religion. I reject superstition, it’s illogical to even suggest it.”
“But they will. Their world is dominated by the superstition you reject.”
“There’s only black-and-white in their minds, mum. If you’re not sailing under the flag of their version of God, they’ll insist that you’re duped by some sinister force.”
“You can’t argue logic to persuade someone out of a dogmatic position; if they applied logic they wouldn’t hold the opinions in the first place.”
“You both sound jaded… Why accept this challenge if it’s all such a lost cause, Al?” She came directly to the point as she always did.
“You’re right… I’ve been at this too long…” he paced. “We can’t back out… the media’s already invited… there’s a PR machine in overdrive, very coordinated. If we’re not in the debate, they win by default.” Al could see that Marsha was very uncomfortable, “I know you’re not keen on the podium, but you’re a natural talker. Look, after the presentation at the school, how long did it take us to leave. People practically wanted your autograph.”
“Long enough to have our tires slashed,” Marsha said bitterly.
They’d gone out to the parking lot to find her car standing on its four-rims. She’d had to borrow a car for four days while new special-order tires were brought up from Cape Town.
Frustratingly the CCTV footage was mysteriously not available. It took more effort than she had time available to pursue a follow up.
Fortunately, the owners of the other two cars who’d engaged them in discussion after the event, people who were openly supportive of their opinions, were fighting vigorously to uncover the perpetrators of the violation to their own vehicles; and the police were being cooperative but hitting headwind.
“What else have they got left?” Al asserted. “They lost the argument and bombastic attitudes and intimidation is their last bastion. It’s how they got to dominate in the first place, through fear, threat, torture… Those old habits die-hard. Ostracization doesn’t work anymore.”
“Oh, before I forget,” Marsha suddenly changed tack, “JJ called and is coming directly over with some ‘very surprising’ updates. Says he may have to fly out on short notice. Whatever it is, he says, it can’t wait.”
Sonja briefly smiled at the mention of her brother. She’d been predictably glum under the circumstances—the shock and the funeral.
JJ and Sonja had stayed over with Marsha at the compound for several nights since flying in. Neither of them felt comfortable to stay in the family house where their father had so recently died. The compound was bright and new, and held more distraction with the cosmopolitan mix of foreigners and families, than all the reminders of their sudden and shocking loss that staying with friends in the region would trigger.
They’d opted against staying at a guesthouse, which, in the small town, amounted to the same thing as staying with friends.
This decision to live with the outsiders had set tongues to wagging across the village and beyond. And, some of what was being whispered was true, Sonja and Dara had formed a warm bond; it was fuel to skandaal.
Johanna, their mother, was staying with Andre’s mother, helping the devastated old lady cope with the loss of her son. Much as she wished to be with her mother in this trying period, the aged grandmother’s cottage was too dark, cluttered and depressing for Sonja to contemplate.
JJ arrived a few minutes later and filled them all in on what he had just learned from Bruce, the pilot.
“Is this confidential?” Marsha wanted to know.
“He really didn’t want to tell me… agonized over it. I could see him trying to hold back, but eventually, well… I guess its’ been eating at him… said he had to tell someone,” JJ grimaced. “It’s a bit of a burden now though. I don’t want to compromise him, betray his confidence, but this is a crossroads. Let me start with my personal feelings; What I don’t want are the real lunatics getting a hold here in this country or my town. Their goofy ideas are very infectious, particularly to the youth. But I think the shakeup of what Broad and that Andy Selbourne are up to will be good for the old guard, they’ve had their way so long they think they’re invincible.”
“I knew there was more to it than met the eye,” Al crowed gleefully. “Marsha… I told you! I’ve just been telling her,” he turned to JJ, “I foresaw this.”
“He’s been having a lot of psychic insights today,” Marsha teased.
“It’s not psychic, my darling. This conservative old Calvinist church is a little like the Church of England—it’s fat and happy and doesn’t go looking for a fight. From the moment I heard there was trouble here I could smell the whiff of the evangelic big-business churches. It’s their style.”
“You two can squabble about that later… I’ve got more pressing news, and it turns everything we’re thinking on its head; it’s the real interesting part of what I learned with the pilot… let’s call it a speculation at this stage,” JJ said. “The German withdrawal of funds and support for the SKA project…. Bruce tells me it’s his man, Broad, and his people behind it.”
“Reeeally…?” Al’s voice sang with intrigue and triumph at the claim.
“Now, come on... that’s nonsense!” Marsha retorted.
Al gave her a smug ‘I told you so,’ expression of victory.
“No… There’s just no-way… Impossible…” Marsha said categorically, “Their withdrawal’s for financial circumstances. Al’s going to argue it’s all some hidden hand.”
“Officially?” Al quizzed, “financial issues are the official stance, Marsh?”
“Yes,” Marsha replied. “Now I know you’re going to immediately discredit official statements, but I mean… how…? How and why would an American evangelist have influence to get Germany out? That makes no sense.”
“It does if you know how deeply he is entrenched in oil…” JJ left the unmentioned accusation hang there, and it even caught Al by surprise, but Marsha beat him to the question.
“Oil? What’s that got to do with the SKA? It’s a bit of a leap…” she challenged.
“Okay… not literally oil, but fracking…?” JJ posed it as a thesis in a single word; in a question. In truth it was a statement. “You do know that the big oil companies are circling like sharks, wanting to get into production in the Karoo.”
“Uh-Huh…!” There was a hint of triumph in Al’s exclamation.
“They’re building the SKA here, also in the Karoo, and…?” JJ begged somebody to finish the sentence.
“And you’re saying that powerful interests wanting to frack for natural gas don’t want the SKA getting in the way of their operations?” Al volunteered.
“You… you’re saying that fracking will put a spoke in the wheel of the SKA?” skepticism fleeing from her face ahead of real concern.
“Fracking requires construction, infrastructure, communications and disruptions that are fundamentally at odds with the SKA’s needs,” JJ posed, “…you can’t put them side-by-side—one must go, that’s what’s at stake. They could still pull the plug here and curtail the project.”
“They’ll never allow that,” Marsha asserted.
“Germany just backed out… America never came in,” JJ challenged. “And… I’m curious why key figures in government are buying up huge tracts of otherwise worthless land?”
“It makes sense, Marsha,” Al added. “Science will always come second to profit.”
“So spell out what you’re claiming,” Marsha came to the point.
“I’m not claiming… I’m not claiming anything… yet. I’m repeating what was suggested to me, and I’m guessing we should be circumspect in repeating it, but it is something to keep track of. This Broad character evidently whispered in the right ears in Germany that the politicians down here are probably on the make and will push legislation to allow fracking to happen, no matter what. That in turn is going to put the SKA in some jeopardy. With a flea in their ear, the Germans are stepping back. They’re not saying they’re out, they’ve just cut funding and everyone has put a brave face on saying it doesn’t really matter. But with them gone, who is left?”
“Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, and of course the United Kingdom,” Marsha listed them.
“And the USA?” JJ challenged, “You’d expect them in that list, right? Maybe France, maybe Russia or Japan? All the big ones, but they’re absent.”
“Your Bruce says that this Broad and his merry men got to them?” Al asked.
“He only mentioned the US consortium. I think we can take it as read that he had the kind of influence there to sow doubt and keep them from ever getting fully involved.”
“It just sounds so fantastically conspiratorial,” Marsha didn’t want to believe it.
“It does, I agree. But I mean, all of the wealthiest countries are citing lack of funds to participate…? In this, the greatest scientific cosmological implementation in history? Come on… Does it make sense to you? I battle to make sense of it. The US spends more on sweets for a single Halloween night than the whole SKA will cost over ten years to build and run…. I know that’s a simplification, but it does give some perspective to think about… over the decade you build this machine, with its untold spin-off benefits into commerce and wellbeing, the investment into ten nights of chocolate binges and tooth decay… in one single country… could pay for ten of these initiatives. It’s just ludicrous.”
“Okay, fine, I just don’t see that happening.”
“Marsha,” Al stepped in. “You’re approaching it from the point of view that the SKA ‘has to happen’—in your mind it’s too fantastic not to. But business and politics come at it from the other direction—they want immediacy. If there is profit under the ground, then whatever you want to build on top of it will have to wait until it can be exploited.”
“Have you not followed the media on this? There are laws to stop the two coming into contact,” Marsha played her ace.
“And, of course, big oil always fastidiously obeys the laws,” Al retorted.
“There are going to be buffer zones around the astronomy facilities. And, wise guy, the 2007 Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act for protection… Go look it up.”
“I’m sure aaaaall the assurances are there as they always are… but oilmen have delivered countries into war for less. Just wait till they find a mother lode where you want your radio silence,” Al was relentless, “we’ll see an amendment to your 2007 Act pretty quick.”
On impulse, cornered, Marsha stuck her tongue out at him.
“You know what happens to naughty girls who do that,” Al rubbed his hands gleefully.
“You two can get a room… and there are kids here… Seriously, this is pretty heavy,” JJ pointed out.
“He’s just so irritating sometimes,” Marsha admitted. “And I don’t really have the coping skills to deal with this. I studied astrophysics for God’s sake; precisely because I didn’t want to deal with all the bull of humans and their political maneuvering.”
“And… yes, I’ve read media reports on this issue… all the assurances, and one thing strikes me—it’s always the SKA spokesman saying things like, ‘we’re always mindful that there might be instances where we will collide’ and ‘we will seek to co-exist peacefully with the frackers’… all very hat-in-hand. I’m yet to hear a statement from the other side, not that I’d have faith in it if I did.”
“So, you’re telling me that at this late stage these guys are still hopeful of stopping the project in order to get at the natural gas in this region?” She asked.
“I’m telling you that politicians play to their bank balance first and only… to get support they simply tell the public that if they don’t immediately allow the natural resources to be tapped, fuel will double in cost and the currency will halve in value.” Al stated. “You and I get it that this is a short-sighted view… we understand that, to permanently get away from fossil fuels we need a breakthrough… like figuring out anti-gravity technologies, and that we’ll only achieve this by digging into the fundamentals of cosmology and particle physics through the SKA and CERN…. But the general public aren’t sophisticated enough to make that leap… and the average voter in the street, battling on with their mundane and difficult lives carry the votes.”
They were silent a moment, absorbing the thought.
“So Bruce is claiming that by getting Germany—and before that the States—out of the project, the project stumbles and the headwind disappears for him and his cronies to get their hands on the gas reserves,” JJ summarized it.
“That’s what it sounds like.”
“If you’re a cynic,” Marsha added.
“As a businessman, it’s actually a master stroke,” JJ changed the spin on the matter. “What he’s done is use a smoke screen to get his way. He got the old pastor to do his bidding, to keep it secret from his superiors and set himself up for failure when the news breaks and the church fathers come down on him. When they do, his man with the new Evangelic church sweeps in and cleans up so that he has a beachhead in the region. He can easily launder money through his own church to keep opposition to the SKA going, while he secretly cozies up to politicians and they survey the ground together for oil explorations. Brilliant…!”
“It’s also speculation,” Marsha added.
“That it is,” JJ admitted. “I’m not telling you this is even what I believe yet, I’m still brainstorming to test if it’s feasible. That the local church is getting shafted is now clear and obvious to me; and that the oil-man posing as a religious leader is up to his neck in it—and probably instigated it—also seems pretty clear.” He hesitated a moment, weighing the ethic of disclosing more. “…I’ve been going through that video recording of the meeting with the inner circle of the local church. They’re trying to mount a land claim using the Bushmen as a front.”
“Oh, come on…?!” Marsha was aghast, “That is ridiculous.”
“It seems like it, I have the video and their plans are advanced. I’ve been out to see the old clan leader and he confirms that they’re in discussions,”
“Dawie’s grandfather?” Dara ventured. The two youngsters had been silent and almost forgotten by the adults. “Dawie told me the lawyers were out there two days ago.”
“Why didn’t you mention it?” Al challenged.
“I didn’t know what it was about. Dawie got out of there when they arrived, he thought that it may be to do with him…”
“Poor bloody kid,” Marsha said. “I think he could do with some help… some post traumatic therapy. He’s been forgotten with all that’s gone on.”
“I’ll see to it,” JJ assured, “I’m in contact with him and helping where I can. I think he’d do better out of this town… his grandfather agrees.”
“And his parents?”
“They’re… well… they’re not really parents to him. Alcohol.”
“Shame… I had no idea.”
“It’s a plague.”
“And his friends?”
“I'm his friend,” Dara volunteered and the adults smiled at him.
“It’s complicated, Dara,” Marsha pointed out. “Even if it’s not ideal… impoverished, he’s got a community here.”
“He says he wants to go,” Dara made it sound so simple.
“He does,” JJ confirmed. “I’ve talked with him… chatted with Karel… the grandfather. Even Fiske at the school says he’s not a fit here; has too much potential… could lose a year and still be better off.”
“Well?” Alok posed in the long pause as they each contemplated it.
“Well, it’s something to explore,” JJ suggested.
“We’ve veered a bit off track with so many topics on the table,” Marsha tamed the conversation. “The Land Claim… what’s that about?”
“I also heard them talking about it,” Sonja ventured—the first meaningful participation in open conversation she’d offered since the shock of her father’s death, and glances about the room told the story of relief that she was emerging from her dungeon of grief.
Not wanting to make too much of this sign of recovery, JJ went smoothly on as if there had been no concern for his sister’s wellbeing all along;
“I’m using Land Claim too loosely—technically, it’s a Cultural Heritage Claim. The townsfolk… the Dominee and his cronies are trying to find a way to keep the land ownership but have the indigenous Bushmen get it declared out of bounds for any development that might interfere with their traditions and ancestor grounds.”
“Could that fly?” First the speculation about fossil fuel prospecting and now this prospect of Heritage rights slammed Marsha from the opposite direction. She was seeing the hopes of her life’s work circling the drain in a game she was ill equipped to play.
“If they get money behind it for a legal battle, they could probably put a moratorium on construction for a while; maybe stir up trouble through the unions of workers who’ll build it. It depends on how big the claim is and how deep pockets go,” JJ speculated. “It would not be as catastrophic to the project in its entirety as Doominee imagines it might be. Then again, their concerns are only for the local territory anyway. They just got riled up about it being in their back yard.”
“But such a land-claim does fly in the face of the fracking theory you’ve proposed,” Marsha challenged.
“It does… it absolutely does.” JJ agreed. “And I’ll wager that the local guys who don’t understand the game here are doing it renegade—without the Americans knowing about it. They think they’ve hit on a foolproof way to come out winning. What happens next will tell us how close our speculations today are to the truth.”
“And why would the Heritage Claim stop the SKA but not stop the fracking?” Sonja took another step toward proving her recovery was happening before their eyes.
“Unfortunately,” Al stepped in, “I’ve seen this kind of thing happen the world over, it’s called realpolitik.... The reality, even in a democracy like this, is that money talks louder than any rights or sentiments. If your brother is right, you won’t hear another word about this Heritage Claim if it is going to get in the way of big oil and politicians. It will all just go silent.”
“So, do we tell them?” Marsha asked, “The preacher… Gert?” she pronounced it badly. “Do you take it to him? Suggest he’s being a puppet?”
“Yes, Gert,” JJ amended the pronunciation. “I don’t know. I think we must, but I’m not really on talking terms with him. You saw how he looked right through me at the funeral. I went afterward to thank him and he wouldn’t shake my hand.”