I acknowledge the traditional owners of Australia, the Aboriginal people, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
This book contains references to social, political and racial attitudes and events that were once common, but never acceptable.
“ The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic.”
-Ornithologist Dominic Serventy
Campion, WA, November 8, 1932...
Major Meredith mused on the fickle nature of notoriety. A week ago, he had been on track to becoming a Colonel, perhaps even a General. Now, he was destined to become a nation-wide joke, at best. His only consolation at his assured place in the History Books was that Minister Pearce would share that fate.
It was meant to be an easy mission, a cull of the emu population that saw the newly-cultivated farmland as an easy food source, and destroyed the fences intended to keep out rabbits and foxes. The veteran farmers had laughed when he had lead 20 men under two Sergeants, two Lewis machine guns and ten thousand rounds. Overkill, they said, and Meredith had agreed. Machine guns had proven effective in the Great War, killing thousands of the most highly-evolved species on the planet. A bunch of oversized birds would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
Or so they had thought.
It was meant to be an easy mission, an easy victory, that turned out to be anything but. Perhaps they should have paid more attention when the bloody Bongs they hired as trackers had laughed at the plan. But who paid attention to the Blacks, anyway, unless they were getting in the way?
The birds had been organised. Even to himself, an eye-witness to the horrors the Emu Army had perpetuated, it sounded absurd. The reality, however, was the furthest thing from laughable.
A runner approached his position at a sprint, caring less for subtlety than for the urgency of his message. “Sir! They have reinforcements!”
The Major paled, “How? We’ve been fighting every emu this side of the continent for the past week!”
The runner, doubled over and panting for breath, shook his head, “Not emus, sir. They - down!”
Major Meredith instinctively hit the ground before the runner could tackle him. Instinct had him rolling into the relative shelter of the base of the nearest machine gun. It probably saved his life.
Lethal, velociraptor-like talons closed inches from his face as the red eyes of a cassowary glared down at him, readying for another kick. The runner screamed as he was lifted into the air by a squad of four wedge-tailed eagles (female, by their size) working in tandem. Around him, similar scenarios were repeated, those who managed to get under shelter pinned down and forced to watch helplessly as their comrades were carried off.
A horrible screeching filled the air, before black feathers and a red beak clouded his vision. The sound of a sickening crack registered just before the blinding pain of a broken limb. Swans. Even the bloody state mascot had turned on them.
Wonderful. Now the Emus had shock troops and an airforce. Major Meredith could only pray that they didn’t come up with a Navy equivalent consisting of Albatross and Penguins, too...
87 Years Later...
Parliment House, Canberra, ACT
Being a political aide was a thankless task. Being a political aide deemed expendable enough to deliver bad news to the Prime Minister was even worse. Luckily, Fatima was a Millennial; thankless jobs and being a convenient scapegoat came with the age bracket.
She kept well away from the theoretically-bird-proof windows, wondering for the millionth time why the Government insisted on keeping the full-length frames. Scanning her pass, she entered the office. “Bad news, sir. Scouts say that we’ve lost Ivanhoe and Wilandra.”
They were far western towns, not quite on the border, but still a good eleven or twelve hours by car. A man with the stars of a General looked grim. “Then we must assume that South Australia has fallen or surrendered. Most of the Territory was in league with the bloody birds anyway.”
That made Fatima's next bit of news even worse. “The latest reports claim that the goats in the rural areas were holding the line, but the Wedge-Tails started to weigh in a few days ago, and it’s turned to a fighting retreat.” She checked her notes, “We haven't heard from Tenterfield or Kyogle in over a week, either, not since Queensland stopped responding. Byron Bay says they’re holding out, but besieged on all sides.”
Byron Bay had stopped being a tourist paradise back in the early 70’s, along with most other costal towns, when a Maritine Avian assault resulted in a massacre of beachgoers. The attack having come in the wake of a large oil spills near Newcastle, Australian Environmental laws got a lot tougher, and the fines very nearly paid for the new army/naval bases that sprung up as a result.
Another General scowled, “Albury-Wodonga report similar sieges. They’re closing in on us. The pidgeons and seagulls are still on our side and protecting the cities proper, but they won’t move out of suburban areas, and their demands are increasing.”
Of course they were. Both species bred at ridiculous rates, which was great for keeping up numbers in the Urban Avian Defence Force. Unfortunately, it also meant greater competition for food, which meant more relying on humans for feeding. If they lost the agricultural areas, even that might be at risk.
The Prime Minister noticed that Fatima had yet to depart, despite the glares being aimed in her direction by One Nation. (How they remained in power at all was honestly baffling. How bad did home have to be for someone to attempt coming to a land that was losing a war against the wildlife? Immigration by the desperate - and other countries imposing environmental refugee travel restrictions - was the only reason Australia maintained the much-reduced population size it had.)
The “Prime Minister of Marketing”, as many of the younger generations called him, gestured impatiently. “Unless you have more news to tell us, I’m sure you’ve got better places to be.”
Fatima bit back the first several responses that came to mind, most of which would get her fired with prejudice, trying to maintain a calm expression. She’d been hoping that some other poor sap could be stuck presenting the news that was already raging like last month’s bushfires through the Parlimentary Break Rooms. “It seems that the... situation has spread, sir.”
For a moment, Fatima almost thought she was about to see the leader of a nation abandon dignity enough to bang his head on the table. Not that dignity had been in high supply, with the last three Prime Ministers. Unfortunately, the Senior Politician colloqually known as Mr Potato Head everywhere that he wasn’t within earshot intervened. “How so?”
Fatima was spared from attempting to explain details she didn't have by another General, who had apparently just received the memo. “The last allied troop manuvers, where we pulled in help from the United States and Old Mum... well, reports are that some sea-birds might have made it back home with them and spread the word.”
The Prime Minister’s expression cleared, before dropping abrubtly. “Oh, that must be what the Posh Bugger and the Grand High Tangerine were banging on about over the phone yesterday! I don’t remember either of those countries having much to worry about by way of birds.”
The Opposition Leader, the latest in a string of fairly unremarkable older white men, offered a half-shrug. “Probaby more upset about it happening at all. We’ve had jokes about the wildlife trying to kill us since the continent was discovered, but people will laugh a lot harder at America and the UK, if they end up in the same predicament.”
The Prime Minister glared across the central table - a comfortable return to normality in the midst of chaos. “He was blathering on about turkeys gone mad! It was all I could do not to tell him that he had to narrow it down if he wanted me to know which member of his inner circle he was talking about!”
Fatima couldn’t wait to share that during the next smoke break. Bagging out Leaders who richly deserved it didn’t count as exposing political secrets when every other country in the world was doing the same thing. (Adekunbo, from the Moroccan Embassy, had some beautiful nicknames, few of which translated into English) “An easy mistake to make, Mr Prime Minister.”
The Prime Minister glared across the table at the Leader of the Opposition, who leaned back in his chair with the relaxed smugness that had been aimed at the Opposition for so many years, the last time they were in power. It was the calm assurance of a man facing a crisis and knowing that he won’t be taking the fall for it. The Prime Minister lost the battle of wills and returned to his rant, “The bald eagle is a glorified seagull, and they don't have anything on the emu scale. I don’t know what they’re complaining about.”
The first General from earlier glanced up from his tablet, where he’d either received a far more detailed memo, or taken advantage of the dick-measuring contest to do a quick Google search. “The USA has the turkey and trumpeter swan, ranked at 8 and 14 in terms of size, and their bald eagle. Numerous but not very aggressive, I imagine turkey dinners are about to become either very rare, or a lot more popular.”
Someone from the Independant section sniggered, but on the whole they were somewhat better at not acting like a session of Parliment was a high school Drama Club. The General regally ignored the interruption. “The UK has a few varieties of eagle, but on the small side, and not many of them. Their biggest problem is likely to be the geese.”
The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, third in command of the Labour party and proof that some people cared more about whether you could do the job than what colour your skin was, raised a sarcastic eyebrow. "Literally or figuratively?"
One of the Tasmanian Independants, who usually swung wildly between badly expressing a valid point and spouting a controversial opinion only loosely based in fact, took the question at face value. "Both, I expect. Vicious buggers, and far too numerous for anyone's taste even when they weren't in active rebellion.”
It would have been interesting to stick around for the debate on how to deal with the matter, but someone needed to kick the latest Nepotism Hire out of the break room and remind him that he still had actual work to do, and Fatima her a lot more messages to run. One of which was to hint to the catering staff that tempers were likely to be short, and to expect at least one Member to take their bad mood out on the tea lady.
Doubtless she'd hear about it in Question Time or on social media before the day was out, anyway.
* * *
The humans were losing.
If Warrant Officer 1st Class Pryce was honest with himself, they had been losing since the first skirmish with the wretched birds. He glanced at the Australian Coat of Arms proudly blazoned on his shoulder; the imposing kangaroo across from the vaguely absurd and decidedly not-to-scale platypus.
It had been an emu across from the ‘roo, once, according to the history books, before a referendum was held in 1935, two years after the emus declared war, to choose a replacement. In the true Larrikin spirit, Australians had voted en masse for the most ridiculous possibility. In his quiet moments, Warrant Officer Pryce liked to imagine the frustrated swearing that must have echoed through Government House when the results came through. Regardless, someone up on Capitol Hill had decided that it would serve them right to be stuck with Nature's idea of a practical joke on every official backdrop and government letterhead for the rest of time (or until the bigwigs got around to doing something about it), and there they were.
A tell-tale caw offered a split-second of warning. Two centuries of evolutionary survival instinct kicked in, and Officer Pryce ducked. There was a distinctive rasping sound as claws raked across his helmet, and the magpie shot him a malevolent stare as it spiralled up for another round.
Officer Pryce did his best to keep the bird in his peripheral vision as he scanned the sky for more of the flying demons. Reports had that they’d started travelling in flocks recently, and it was better to determine whether there was cause for concern before he raised the alarm. No-one wanted to go on lockdown and cause a nationwide panic for a single magpie.
Legend had it that, once upon a time, the winged menaces had only attacked if they thought their nests were threatened. That one, Officer Pryce wasn’t sure he believed; the wretched things took far too much pleasure in dive-bombing everything that moved. It had reached the point that no-one didn't know several people who had lost at least one eye to a magpie assault, and partial blindness no longer qualified for a Disability pension.
His sister claimed that it was a step forward for Accessibility in the Public Forum, and for Disability rights in general. Officer Pryce thought that the Government had taken a look at the numbers and decided to save themselves a few million a year.
His scanning pattern reached the treeline, and his heart skipped a beat. A black mass hovered at the horizon, and the underbrush rustled in a way that no amount of wind could explain. He fumbled for his whistle, blowing as hard as he could.
At the other guard-points, the same shrill noise echoed, over and over. A stampede of pounding feet indicated the arrival of backup, and he dropped the whistle in favour of his rifle. Two privates scrambled into flanking position beside and slightly behind him, one taking over whistle duty and the other sliding into a firing stance. The birds weren’t in range yet, but it wouldn’t be long.
* * *
Fatima hadn’t heard this much screaming in Parliment House since the last time the Greens tried to introduce a bill reducing Parlimentary Pensions to something more in line with what the average Australian received, and only applicable to ex-politicians of actual retirement age.
Outside, the thrum of thousands of wings mingled with the cacophany that was human voices shouting and a dozen different species of birds shrieking back, the rat-tat-tat of rapid gun-fire just barely audible over the rest of the noise. She sprinted down a hallway with a gaggle of other Aides and Administrative Staff, tucking a stray lock of hair back under her headscarf. Wearing her actual hijab generally wasn’t worth being interrogated every time she got within shouting distance of One Nation, but if this was to be her last day on earth, Fatima wished she had worn it, and told anyone who objected to go choke.
There was another loud thump as another magpie dove at the windows, claws first. That had been going on at every window in the building, each bird hitting the same spot. The glass stood up to bullets, but even the most defensive measures could only take so much.
A crack appeared in the glass; no bigger than a twig, but a fatal weakness. Another dive, and the crack spread in a lightning pattern, Natures fury in feathered form. A cawing chorus of triumph rose above the din, and the humans ran faster.
The saferoom was only a few minutes away. Surely they wouldn't close it until Parliment House was actually breached.
Hopefully the non-combatants inside had heard the alert over the collective tantrum that passed as most sessions of Parliment these days; they couldn't spare anyone to run in and tell them personally.
* * *
Fatima didn't swear, as a general rule. To react to such insults was to give in to ill-will. Right now, ‘ill-will’ was the very least of what she was feeling.
They had arrived at the saferoom to find half of Parliment - the Opposition, Greens and Independant half - gathered outside the closed door to the saferoom, a few muffled but very familiar voices shouting from within that they’d open the door when the birds were gone.
One of the Greens Senators, usually noted for her composture, was pounding on the door and swearing up a storm. Fatima didn’t blame her, and might have joined in, if helpless rage hadn’t rendered her breathless and speechless.
The gunfire had almost stopped, and for a moment she thought they might be safe. Then the sound of shattering glass echoed through the halls like a bell tolling the death-knell, and the cries of birds grew closer. A One Nation aide reached for Fatima’s hand, political and humanitarian differences forgotten in the face of impending death. She squeezed it gently, offering a prayer to Allah and the Prophet.
Not for her life - she wasn’t sure even they could grant that - but for at least a painless death.
A few soldiers staggered through the door, slamming it behind them. They were bleeding heavily from a slash wounds, but still tried to drag some of the furniture over as a barricade. One of them, a Warrant Officer if Fatima remembered her ranking symbols correctly, glanced around in confusion. “What are you all doing still out here?”
The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate gestured in wordless frustration at the locked door, and Fatima clarified. “Brings a new meaning to pulling the ladder up behind you, doesn’t it?”
The Warrant Officer didn't share Fatima's aversion to curse words, and indulged fit to turn the air blue. In a slightly more level frame of mind, he glanced around. “Right, our options are limited. We don’t know how the entire Avian Armed Forces got so close so fast, but they have, and they're not leaving. We can surrender and hope for mercy, or we can keep fighting and repeat the Massacre of Ma Ma Creek.”
Fatima winced; photos of the small town outside of Brisbane, wiped off the map last year along with it’s 150-odd residents, had haunted her nightmares for weeks.
Last month’s Nepotism Hire, who Fatima remembered mostly for his tendency to pin the blame for his failures on anyone and everyone else spoke up, a totally unreasonable note of indignant outrage colouring his protest. “And what about the ones who fought and died for us?”
The Warrant Officer’s expression clearly questioned what the hell he’d know about personal sacrifice. “They’re dead; they don’t get a say.”
One of the newer Premiers piped up, aiming a glare at the locked door of the saferoom, “Face it, we’ve been in a fighting retreat for decades. We lost all of Western Australia within a year, and all attempts at an emu-proof fence to match the rabbit-proof one have been temporary at best, and abject failures at worst!”
She wasn’t wrong, and Fatima cast a speculative look at the proof that their leaders didn’t care about anyone except themselves. “Do you think the emus would accept the symbolic sacrifice of offering up our leaders?”
The voices from inside the saferoom faltered, before the shouting resumed at a very increased volume. Most of the room ignored them. The Warrent Officer shrugged. “No idea, but if you can look me in the eye and claim that you believe that we’ll be worse off under the birds than we are now under those gutless cowards, then I’ll conceed the point and die on my feet.”
A few of the Ruling Party’s aides, abandoned to luck and Fate, tried. They really did. Fatima sympathised, to an extent. Humans should be governed by humans, not by birds who still remembered being dinosaurs.
But in the end, they couldn't.
Fatima sighed. “Well, I for one, welcome our new Avian Overlords. Now, how do we get the message across to birds who don’t speak English.”
The Officer grimaced. “They’ve developed a very primitive writing system. I’ll translate.
* * *
A year later...
The semi-peaceful transition of power had gone smoothly, and an uneasy sort of co-operation had resulted once the emus and their army admitted that some things were a lot easier with opposable thumbs.
The mass re-working of the Social Contract and the Political System had been... complicated, to say the least, but eased by the fact that other parts of the world were also battling their own natural inhabitants who decided that they couldn’t muck things up any worse than the humans had. Native minorities were enjoying unprecedented power in the conquered territories, most of them having a long history of working with Nature, rather than attempting to subject it. There was a bitter irony in that somewhere, but not one that anyone cared to examine too closely.
Perhaps the Australian Conflict would re-start, one day, with the same or different results. But for now, there was peace.
The true spirit of any Australian story is to start with the truth, and see how long it takes for baffled foreigners to yell Bullsh*t.
Yes, The Australian Army went to war against the wildlife. Yes, we lost (The Wikipedia page on the Great Emu War is a thing of beauty), though not quite as badly as this. Mentioning the Great Emu War in front of foreigners, particularly Americans, leads to immediate disbelief and declarations that they are never travelling Down Under.
The longer version, featuring an extra 7000 words and several more chapters of alternate Australian History, can be found on Amazon at the link above.