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ELEPHANT

A traveller’s companion

by

Steven Mark Kristofferson

With illustrations by Brad Jones

Cover design: The labyrinth at Knossos.


Copyright © Steven Kristofferson 2005
All rights reserved.

Copyright for illustrations © Brad Jones 2005

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“Come and see the works of God”
- Psalms 66.5

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CONTENTS
Prologue (including The forsaken)
1. Fellow Passengers
2. Passing the Time
3. The Last Word on Elephants
4. A Question of Priorities
5. An Imperative Debate
6. A Night in the Cells (including Fish)
7. Bon Voyage
8. A Saga
9. Something New
10. A Fine Time for Philosophy
11. When Friends Part (including Nomads)
Key to Argument

PLATES
1. Title Page 4
2. Moral principle Page 146
3. Bailed up Page 168
4 Tricky waters Page 385
5. An old friend Page 391
6. Farewell Page 549

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Elephant: Prologue

His passage through the bustling streets of Lacutta to the humble


office of the ‘Great Northern Trucking Company’ was as
fascinating to Erasmus as it was perilous, for he was very nearly
clean bowled by a rather large bus, much to the sporting delight of
those who clung daringly to its extremities.
Nor did his troubles end with the crossing of this great road, for no
sooner had his feet found the footpath than Erasmus found himself
besieged by all manner of merchants, both sitting and erect; and
his pockets petitioned by some of the most unfortunate people he
had ever seen; people who, by dint of circumstance, depended
upon the generosity of others for the basic ingredients of life. And,
whether more because of a generosity of inclination or a naivety of
judgement, these latter unfortunates presented the greatest hazard
of all to young Erasmus; who was only prevented from reducing
himself to similar necessitous circumstances by the prudence of
his Antipodean companion, Tangles, whom he had met at the
airport on the previous evening. It was a match that, if not made in
heaven, was at least convenient, and, between his innocence and
her common sense, the two travellers managed good without
bankruptcy, arriving together as planned.
But the experience of this short trip, the mere beginning of the
great excursion to come, had permanently changed him. For
within the space of an hour, Erasmus had found himself
challenged by more humanity than he had ever previously
encountered. And I have it on his assurance that it excited such a
stirring of his mind, that even as an old man he can still recall in
detail the wonderful scene of that morning’s adventure in all its
duskiness, as though he were seated alone in a cinema and the
countless characters of that distant past suddenly sprang to life
about him.
One can therefore appreciate his oft repeated remark that, had it
not been for the journey that began in earnest on that particular
day, his life would have taken a very different course, ending
perhaps in bitter prejudice and greater ignorance. The latter point
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is, perhaps, the salient one here. For though he does not reckon
himself wiser than many who have walked the streets of life, he is
confident that he is at least wiser than he was, and has therefore
agreed to my to narration of the whole journey that helped to make
him so.
But before we begin in earnest, I should explain that, since many
travellers find their journey enriched by books that befriend them
along their way, I have inserted into the account below a few
works that influenced young Erasmus at that time; stories retrieved
and reproduced from the dishevelled shelves of his eclectic
collection, having survived the ravages of forgetful borrowers and
relentless time.
And, if you will bear with me, dear reader, I begin that practice
now with a novel, gifted to him by Tangles on their journey’s eve,
which served to fill the hours of insomnia that later attend travel
by those cheaters of time that soar across God’s sky.
It was the first book he read in the exotic clime of Nidia and, he
informs me, influenced his restless mind in ways both subtle and
strange.

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The Forsaken

Desolate was the landscape. And desolate was his heart.

‘I recommend it to the charity of all good people to look back and


reflect duly upon the terrors of the time, and whoever does so will
see that it is not an ordinary strength that could support it. It was
not like appearing in the head of an army or charging a body of
horse in the field, but it was charging Death itself on his pale
horse; to stay was indeed to die...’

- Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

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CONTENTS
1. Fair Payment
2. Risky Business
3. Discouraging Signs
4. The Promised Land
5. Advance Payment
6. The Stray
7. Boots
8. Discoveries
9. Pantomime
10. Ritual
11. Making Plans
12. A Troubled Aspect
13. Fires
14. The Verdict Of The Stars
15. Promise Unfulfilled
16. Heading South
17. A Pretty Fair Team
18. Pursuit
19. Billy Green Takes No Offence
20. The Desolate Heart
21. So Far So Good

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22. A Resolution
23. Straight Talk and Smiles
24. A Grim Guardian
25. A Price To Be Paid
26. An Odd Remark
27. Sitting On A Secret
28. A Disquieting Sign
29. Ultimate Sacrifice
Epilogue

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Forsaken One: Fair Payment

Jack gazed indifferently at the grey ribbon of decaying road which


stretched out before him under the midday sun. Mature eucalypts
flanked an uncertain avenue of crumbling concrete, penetrated
here and there by saplings and flowering wattle vying for water
and light. He loved the gentle flower of the wattle and allowed
himself to suppose, in his almost idle walk, that the clean blue sky
of spring had been created just to expose the glory of the wattle’s
yellow shower. It was a thought as clear and perfect as its subject
and it buoyed him temporarily above the weight of his despair.
But though his mind could rise above his predicament, his feet
could not. For Jack’s feet knew the underlying reality of life, and
the lines about his eyes tracked the trouble of the times, the
weariness of the times; a weariness that beat against enduring
souls, mocking their confused demands that surely life should
offer something better.
Not that he entertained much in the way of hope these days. A
traveller more by force of circumstance than choice, Jack had
nowhere to go and no reason to stay. For him, hope lay forever on
the next horizon and his wanderings formed no pattern nor
followed any conscious plan. Not a plan of his making, anyway.
True, he never went back by the way that he came, but that was
more a fact of the past than a rule. It’s just that nothing he had
seen had the power to draw him back or stay his feet for long. On
the contrary, the world as he saw it was a place to put behind you
and the best thing on offer was a destination unknown,
somewhere, perhaps, further down the track.
And so Jack walked idly on, his mind surfacing only occasionally
from reflections and musings of its own to gaze upon the slowly
changing landscape about the road. Just as it did so now; not
routinely but in response to something unusual that had caught his
roaming eye. Something, not far distant, which beckoned to his
mind like a novelty to an inquisitive child.
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It wasn’t a sight that was significant of itself but rather appeared
strange within its context. Of course, there was a lot about the
world that didn’t sit right any more: like this highway of another
age. But they were anachronisms, bits of the past that took time to
go away. This oddness, however, was of the current age.
Something from the present that didn’t quite fit. It lay by the
roadside up ahead. Nothing spectacular, just a mound of clay and
soil dug out by a human hand.
Like an open grave. And that, he soon discovered, is what it was.
Standing by the grave’s edge, Jack took off his old felt hat and
cursed the hovering flies as he wiped his brown creased brow. An
old man lay at the bottom of the shady damp hole; his arms were
folded, his eyes were closed, and pinned to his old flannel shirt
was a simple grubby note. ‘Bury me’, it said.
Jack squatted by the grave and swallowed his drying spit. He had
seen too much death to be shocked by the sight of a single corpse
and, although he had never heard of anyone burying themselves
before, it made good sense the way things were. Something you
might even expect of someone not panicked by the end.
The old man had probably died like the rest. Everything pointed to
it. He had had the strength to dig so he must have seen death
coming before it had got a grip on him. He must have recognised
the signs. You had to hand it to a bloke like that, whoever he once
was.
Yes, it must have been the sickness that carried him off. It wasn’t
so commonplace now. You might even say it was rare, by
comparison, but some still fell, like soldiers on the eve of
armistice. Poor bastard. Poor luckless bastard.
Pausing at the end of a line of thought that could progress no
further on the limited facts at hand, Jack’s mind began to take a
selfish turn. Maybe some good could come of it, at least for him.
You get to be realistic about death when you grow up with the
smell of it in the air. Jack was a survivor, after all, and, in
surviving, he had also learnt that opportunity sometimes lurks in
the corners surrounding odd events in life; as though oddity was a

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clue for the alert that an intended prize sat quietly nearby.
He looked about him. Where had the old man come from? There
wasn’t a farm gate within sight; but still it might be worth the
effort of following up. Farms weren’t easy to come by. Maybe this
was it, his chance in the lottery of life. Then again, you’d think a
farmer would dig beside his gate, along the shortest route to the
road. Why go further? No, he sighed, the old man was probably
just another traveller like himself and some other human parasite
had had the luck to get the benefit of his death; had got there first
and made off with his blanket and sack of belongings, whatever
they had been. But not the spade. They hadn’t stooped to that.
Jack didn’t bother with words or a prayer after covering in the
corpse. Who was he to care? The old man’s death hadn’t exactly
made his day. All he had got out of it was the spade. Well, it was
handy and strong. Useful as a weapon if it came to that. And
maybe he could trade it for better boots. Yes, he had been paid in
full for his labour. Not a lucky find - but no complaints.
As it happened, Jack was right about the farm, there wasn’t a gate.
He had come to abandoned forest country instead. The road before
him was now lined by undisciplined pines deserted by companies
that nobody owned anymore; a graveyard for aggressive
machinery that rusted and sank a little bit deeper into the mud
each year, like the skeletal remains of trapped beasts.
Jack had no love of pines. Nothing lived in them, it seemed to
him. Not in this country where they didn’t belong. Still, it was
easy to make a bed in the shadows of their midst and be well and
truly out of sight. Jack never liked to camp where he could be seen
from the road. There were some bastards out there, alright. People
who make their own luck in life; at your expense.
He decided to spoil himself with a small fire and a mug or two of
tea. You could still get tea, it kept well and was easily grown.
Flour could also be had but tonight, like most nights, he chose not
to eat. Breakfast was his meal when food was short, and weariness
would do to bring on sleep.
Staring into the glowing embers of his modest fire, Jack Robert
Larson, a no-hoper in a no hope world, pulled up his blanket,
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thought about an old man he never knew, and called it another
day.

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Forsaken Two: Risky Business

He met her at a creek crossing early the next morning. Jack had
arrived first. Encounters on the road had an element of danger that
he often preferred to avoid. But it was usually safer to meet
someone richer rather than poorer than yourself and, aware that he
possessed nothing worth killing for, he made no attempt to hide as
the laden wagon approached noiselessly on pneumatic tyres and
axles lubricated with animal grease.
They shared the water indifferently: her horses and his feet.
Naturally, she kept her distance and showed no interest beyond
that deliberate display of disregard that tells strangers to keep
away.
She was old beyond her days and old in years as well. But a
hardiness of spirit and the vigour of her dog made up for her
greying shell’s decline. He doubted that someone more sinister
than himself would find her to be easy prey.
The watchful blue cattle dog stayed by her rig and Jack stayed
safely by the creek. The old woman made a discrete show of the
gun but not in her hands, allowing it instead to rest upon the seat
like a sleeping snake in the shade. Then, out of the blue, she
smiled.
Jack showed less surprise than he felt at her unlikely invitation. At
least it seemed like one: she didn’t strike him as the sort to smile
nervously from unease. No, she had finished checking him out and
now wanted him to speak. The smile was quite intentional;
business like, in fact.
‘You a trader?’ he asked.
She sized up her client. A voice reveals a lot and he had spoken
first. She had, of course, arranged it that way. ‘Only when it suits
me,’ she said.
Jack took the half smart remark in his stride. Nothing much
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impressed him now. Pride was a burden he had tossed off long ago
and he endured the games of others with absolute indifference.
‘And does it suit you now?’
‘That depends on what you’ve got to offer,’ she replied.
Jack held up the spade.
She took no time to study it. It was a modest commodity but worth
the flour that travellers usually seek. ‘What is it you need?’
‘Shoes.’
She laughed.
‘Flour, then?’
‘Throw me your sack,’ she obliged.
Jack pulled out the brown cotton sack from his make shift pack
and walked slowly towards her wagon with his head more or less
bowed down. The dog’s snarl defined the limits of his approach.
He folded up the sack and tossed it to her catch, holding firmly
onto the spade for now. Not that he didn’t trust her but any
departure from the established etiquette of exchange might cause
unwarranted concern. It was best to follow the few social rules
that remained, particularly the protocols of dealing on the road.
‘Put down the spade and step back,’ she grinned showing him no
fear.
He did as she asked, and she filled the sack as he wanted.
Replacing the flour for the tool, she returned unhurriedly to the
wagon and stepped up.
Jack examined the flour. It was good.
‘Going south?’ she asked.
‘For the moment,’ he acknowledged, with undisguised apathy.
‘You won’t find much joy in Melbourne town,’ she said.

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‘No,’ Jack quietly agreed.
She nodded. A man with his expectations needed no advice. ‘You
dig that grave back there?’ she enquired.
‘Not really. I just finished the job.’
She seemed puzzled.
‘He started the funeral himself,’ Jack explained.
‘Fair enough’. Nothing much surprised her either. ‘Know him?’
Jack shook his head slowly. ‘He was dead at the bottom when I
arrived.’
It seemed plausible enough. These days murderers don’t bury
deep, if they bother at all. Only friends will do that, if there are
any. And Samaritans, perhaps. It rang true to her and he did too.
‘Want a lift?’ she invited, with no ambivalence in her voice.
Jack reeled at the generosity of her offer. He hadn’t even asked her
for a ride. And the rich don’t help travellers much these days, if
they ever did, which he doubted. ‘You’re taking a bit of a risk,
aren’t you, with the likes of someone like me?’
‘It’s a risky business, brother,’ she shrugged straight faced, ‘but
I’ve got a knack of making things pay off in the end. At least, so
far I have.’
Jack wasn’t entirely sure of what she meant by that but, under the
circumstances, he was content to let it pass and climbed aboard;
up front beside her and the dog.
‘Emma,’ she said, smiling and offering her hand.
‘Jack,’ he replied in kind. ‘Thanks.’

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Forsaken Three: Discouraging Signs

Unfortunately, the day did not live up to the morning’s promise


and rain dogged them in the afternoon. The transition was sudden:
grey laden clouds rolled in rapidly from the west, blanking out the
blue sky, shading the glory of the wattle and silencing the
songbirds in the boughs.
It was difficult to talk in the constant drizzle and neither driver nor
rider felt so inclined. Each withdrew into a world no larger than
the perimeter of their dripping hats, and rode the weather out.
It was still raining when they came to the fork. Jack studied the
discouraging sign that stood like a sentry at a forbidding entrance.
Providing no clue to the destination of that way, it was more of a
barrier than an aid. ‘No Travellers,’ it said.
‘Topia,’ offered Emma, nodding to the East as the wind driven
drops slid slowly down her wrinkled face, falling onto the oil
soaked canvas she wore about her shoulders like a shawl.
Jack could see that she meant to turn, but he would have preferred
her to have kept right on, passing quietly by yet another turn-off to
nowhere. But not this one, apparently; not this most unwelcoming
one.
Jack had learnt that signs like this were not to be taken lightly. But
who was he to point the way? Emma was driver and navigator too.
She knew the lay of things that were quite unknown to him. So he
simply allowed her to see the reluctance in his eyes and let it go at
that, deferring his will to hers.
‘You’ll be right,’ she said, dismissing the sign.
Jack raised an eyebrow that made her grin and resigned himself to
his fate. Sure, he’d be right. She seemed confident and that was
good enough to him. True, he wouldn’t have made the detour on
his own, but somehow he felt safe with Emma and it was, after all,
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a chance to leave the beaten track.
‘Strange sort of place, though,’ she remarked, sparking fresh
concern as she pulled the team hard to the left.
‘Topia?’ he obliged.
Emma nodded. ‘Still pretty much intact. Untouched, you might
even say.’
Jack squinted, trying to make out with his eyes what he did not
quite see with his mind. Untouched? He’d never heard of any
place, no matter how isolated, that fell into that category now.
Most had the spirit knocked out of them in the first wave. Some,
it’s true, were not hit hard by the second wave but that was
because only a few isolated stragglers were left: hard targets with
some resistance but wounded in other ways. And with the people
weakened by disease, the elements took their toll on the neglected
structures around them. So towns came to reflect the fate of their
former inhabitants; broken and rotting by the roadside, like the
carcass of an animal that travellers hurriedly pass by.
‘About five hours,’ advised Emma, leaving her eyes on the road.
Five hours? By Jack’s reckoning, that would put it somewhere
near the mountains; a long way from nowhere. Great.
But in the next few miles, he began to view things more
optimistically. For the rain had stopped and underneath the
sagging clouds stretched a long lush valley. Timbered overlapping
hills cradled a vigorous swollen river snaking its way along the
green valley floor and a road, their road, meandered beside its
willow lined banks. It was a beautiful sight; and good farming
country too. Country that might again be parted by the plough.
And sown. And reaped. He began to feel differently about their
destination. Topia, untouched Topia, seemed to beckon to his
weary soul as their silent wheeled wagon rolled steadily onwards.
It was a little before sunset when they encountered the first
evidence of the town. An old weatherboard church squatted upon a
rise at the outskirts of the town. Bushland, mainly intruding
saplings and neglected grass, encroached upon its weary walls.
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Jack thought it a strange object to behold so near a town. Churches
usually stand proudly where people still dwelled, but this one’s
rusting roof, peeling paint and wasting woodwork, gave it more
the appearance of a poor kneeling sinner, pleading with a crucifix
to God.
‘Untouched?’ doubted Jack, nodding towards the derelict
construct.
Emma could see his point. ‘Odd they should have let it go,’ she
agreed. ‘But they’ve kept up the rest just the same,’ she said.
‘Usually the other way round these days,’ replied Jack.
‘So I’ve found,’ said Emma, hastening the team as if anxious to
escape. ‘But Topia is an odd sort of Town.’
Jack mused upon the ruins. It was odd alright. Religion had picked
up since the sickness, not declined. He remembered how, as a
small boy, he had watched his own parents turn to prayer almost,
it seemed to him, madly. Not that it did them any good. Not in this
world. Although he had been spared. And maybe that was all that
his parents had asked. Hardly worth the effort in his view. But the
point is, they did pray. Some prayed in fear and some in gratitude.
But no one prays in Topia, by the looks of it, while almost
everyone elsewhere did.
Then again, it might make sense that they didn’t. If Topia had
been untouched, there may have been no fear. Perhaps life had just
rolled on as usual for its good citizens, with them passing the time
busily in pleasant isolation. But why, if you’ve got a church, and
you haven’t been cursed by the breath of death, why let the place
go? Why risk the wrath of God by maintaining your material
world and neglecting this one small token of faith?
Perhaps Emma was exaggerating about the condition of the rest of
the town. Most things were run down these days. The whole
country, if not the whole world had gone to the pack. Topia
couldn’t have been altogether untouched. Maybe it was just
sinking slowly and the church, on the outskirts, had gone first.
But it wasn’t long before Jack could see that Emma had been
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right. For, as they rounded the next bend, there in the valley
below, nesting amongst picturesque farmlets and manicured
orchards, stood a neat and ordered town carved from the
surrounding forest.
Not a large town, but a prosperous one. Prominent brown timber
buildings marked its centre and adjacent to its heart gushed the
foaming waters of an arterial stream; a stream that was spanned by
a bridge and flanked on the town side by a mill, whose great wheel
articulated with every revolution a sense of industry Jack had not
seen since boyhood.
He was amazed by Topia’s apparent vitality. The town seemed
like a determined ticking clock in an otherwise dying world.
‘Behold Topia,’ announced Emma with a smile. ‘A land of milk
and honey.’
‘And apples by the look of it.’
‘Yes, Jack. Ripe for trade. Fresh and processed.’
‘Juice?’ surmised Jack.
‘Fermented juice,’ replied Emma.
Jack raised an eyebrow and felt his mouth moisten.
‘Fancy a drink?’ grinned Emma, as she hastened the horses home.

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Forsaken Four: The Promised Land

Although the rain had passed on, mud and dampness was its
legacy. Then followed wind, rippling the surface of puddles and
biting hard at Jack and Emma’s hunched backs as it drove them
towards the town. The downhill run was slippery and proved a test
for the tired team which struggled to brace itself against the
wagon’s weight. But, before long, they were on level ground and
following a well drained road that was firm under hoof.
There were quite a few houses on the outskirts, old but in good
repair, most standing on well maintained small orchard blocks;
parade grounds for apple trees standing in disciplined lines.
Further in they came to the commercial strip, comprising a dozen
or so timber shops that were on the newer side of time. Each
establishment shared a wall with its neighbour and appropriated a
section of the long narrow awning which stretched out over the
walkways of the street on neat supporting posts. The timber walls
of these shops were preserved and stained brown by oil and their
roofs were fabricated from sheets of iron that showed signs of a
previous life. Each unit appeared to serve as both a home and
workshop for its tenants who advertised a range of practical
services for prospective clients including: saddlery; blacksmithing;
carpentry; and, the hospitality of a tavern.
The principal structure in Topia was, however, the Co-op on the
far side of town, facing the mill across the main street that had led
them in. The Co-op was basically a large free standing warehouse,
about the same age as the shops, and they made straight for it.
Emma pulled up the team by a great door in its side.
‘Check in time,’ she said, hauling on the brake and turning round
to speak to her passenger. ‘You’re my new offsider, Jack, as far as
they’re concerned. Alright?’
Recalling the town’s unwelcoming attitude to travellers, Jack
nodded knowingly and jumped down. He was grateful for the
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cloak of deception she had proffered. Topia’s prosperity made him
feel like a stranger in a foreign land. It looked a place where local
customs marked a social boundary and he was not within it.
Unlike the so called towns he had seen and soon forgotten along
life’s way, everything in Topia seemed organised, exact. Like a
jigsaw, everything about this place contributed to an integrated
pattern and he doubted that there was a place reserved for the likes
of him. Not the real him. But presumably they did tolerate the
intrusion of traders, as necessary and profitable links to a hungrier
world than theirs.
Emma led the way into the Co-op, she obviously knew her way
around. As they passed through the gape of the open sliding side
door she was quickly greeted by a man of similar age. Certainly
not younger than herself and, if anything, his deep lined leathery
skin would place him older. He made the most of his medium
height by standing tall, straight as a die, and his clouding eyes, set
below the base of an unforgiving brow, did not wander from the
subject of their focus.
‘Emma,’ he said in an impassive tone that conveyed an
undercurrent of discipline and strength.
‘Jordan,’ she replied, civilly but without warmth.
He turned his gaze to her companion.
‘This is Jack,’ she interceded. ‘My new offsider.’
Jordan studied Jack closely, making no attempt to conceal his head
to toe evaluation of someone he judged to be unworthy of his
society.
As if confirming the insult, Jack stood uneasily in Jordan’s
uncompromising gaze, and grew increasingly conscious of the sad
state of his boots.
‘Looks more like a traveller to me,’ was Jordan’s summation.
‘Well, he was when I found him, but he isn’t one now,’ she
replied.
Jordan was not convinced. ‘Travellers aren’t welcome here,’ he
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said to Jack.
Jack made no reply, holding his ground silently but not
aggressively, like one not sure the argument around him is over
yet.
‘Jack’s with me,’ insisted Emma. ‘I’m getting older, Jordan. In
case you haven’t noticed. We all are: you, me, that dodgy road
outside. And outside is a world that grows wilder by the day.’
Jordan’s hardness yielded some ground to her reason. He needed
Emma and she needed help.
Sensing Emma’s victory, Jack decided it was time to assert
himself and offered Jordan an equal’s hand. ‘G’day,’ he said.
Taken by surprise, Jordan winced at Jack’s presumption and
silently declined. Then, filling his lungs quickly, he shouted to one
side, ‘Tom!’ It was the call of a master, not a friend.
Jack withdrew the offer. He was not offended though. Jordan’s
insult troubled him no more than did the rest of the world, which
wasn’t much. People like Jordan are their own worst enemies in
the end. There was no shame in offering to shake. The shame was
in not accepting. Jordan had let pride get the better of him and had
come off worst. And from the way he had reacted, he seemed to
know it. Jack actually put that to Jordan’s credit. Clearly Jordan
wasn’t like those who think the progress you appear to make in
this world is the progress you have really made. No, Jordan knew
better than that, knew that he had just gone backwards in life a
little. And that, perversely, was something you had to respect,
though not necessarily befriend.
The approach of a young man in an apron from the shadows put an
end to Jack’s speculation.
‘G’day Emma,’ greeted the stranger, in as friendly a manner as he
judged circumstances would allow.
‘Hello, Tom,’ she smiled back. ‘Got a few things outside that you
might be interested in.’

24
Tom glanced at the wagon. ‘Spirit?’ he asked.
‘A little,’ she replied. ‘And canvas too. Also came by some tools
you might like to pick over behind the seat.’
Tom nodded agreeably.
‘I’ll be in the tavern when you’ve worked out a price. If it’s
satisfactory, we’ll take three quarters in barrelled cider and the rest
in credits, alright?’
‘More credits? Geez, you must own half the Co-op already,
Emma,’ he remarked, endeavouring to shift more stock.
‘Well you can’t complain about that, Tom. If I croak it on the
road, you’ll be that much richer for the debt.’
Tom laughed good naturedly. ‘Fat chance of that. You’ll outlive
the lot of us, Emma, and you know it, too.’
Emma grinned. ‘Well, throw in some boots then, since you’re so
keen. Jack’ll call on Walter for a fitting, he can sort out the cost
with you direct. Okay?’
‘Sure. Buy what you like. That’s what credits are for.’
‘We might drink some, too.’
‘You’re more than welcome to that, Emma. You both look like
you could do with one now.’
Jack saw an opportunity to introduce himself. ‘Jack,’ he said.
Tom nodded and smiled back. ‘Why don’t you two go on to the
tavern? I’ll see to Reuben and the team.’
‘Thanks, Tom,’ replied Emma. ‘We’ll take you up on that. Reuben
too. Don’t be off put if he growls, though. His bite is worse than
his bark.’
‘Sure. Don’t worry, Emma, I’ve got a way with dogs. It’s called
food.’
Emma smiled. ‘That might be how he sees you.’
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Tom laughed again. ‘No, we’re old friends, he and I. Aren’t we
boy? Now, go on, on your way, I’ll bring the terms to the tavern
when I’ve checked things out.’
‘Not till I’ve seen them first,’ objected Jordan.
Emma shook her head. Only Jordan could manage to upset both
his helper and his custom at the same time. ‘Tomorrow will be
fine, Tom. I’m in no rush to leave town. C’mon Jack,’ she said.
‘Let’s have that drink I promised us.’
There were no farewells for Jordan, but Jack tipped his hat to
Tom, and then followed in the footsteps of his friend. For so she
had become, and a welcome one, risking her trade for him. Not to
mention the boots, which he hadn’t but she did.
‘Still think this is the promised land, Jack?’ she asked, as they
emerged into the soft sunset light.
‘Must be,’ replied Jack, smiling, ‘with new boots on offer.
Besides, I have a feeling that we just crossed Jordan.’
Emma laughed conspiratorially, within earshot of the man himself.
‘Yes, Jack,’ she said, glancing overtly back. ‘I guess we did, at
that.’

26
Forsaken Five: Advance Payment

Jack savoured the cider filled dankness of the dim tavern as they
passed through its doorway. The unpolished timber floor, furniture
and walls smelled like they’d been soaking up the sweet fermented
fumes from day one, probably since he was a kid. They had been
dry years for him, too dry; but not for others, it seemed. He felt an
instant affinity for both the establishment and its offering. He
could easily pass some easy time here, celebrating the end of a
personal drought.
A short woman, about the same age as Emma but on the plumper
side, smiled at them as they paused and looked around for a place
to settle. ‘Can’t keep away from the place, Emma?’ she said with
professional humour, ignoring her current client who was
slouched across the bar in suspended conversation.
Emma did not quite warm to her commercial charm. ‘Jack, this is
Nora. Make sure she serves a full measure.’
Taking his cue from Emma, Jack acknowledged his hostess with a
polite nod and a tight lipped smile. Clearly, Nora was not destined
to be a friend. Was any one in this town? Tom, perhaps, was one.
‘Now you look like a man who needs a drink,’ she suggested.
Emma answered for the both of them. ‘We’ll share a jug thanks,’
she said, unbuttoning her coat. ‘And we’ll take another with
dinner when you can manage it,’ she added, ambling towards a
table at the back.
Jack joined his now crusty friend on an opposite bench. His was
the corner seat with a view of both Emma and the bar, where the
solitary client avoiding his gaze had obviously been watching and
listening all along. But now the probe of Jack’s cool eyes had
caused him to retire awkwardly, like a crab denied a convenient
crevice to hide within a shrinking pool.

27
Having assured their privacy, Jack rested his arms on the table and
wondered whether he should speak first. Things were still not easy
between him and Emma. If he had been on equal terms with her,
he would have had any number opening conversational options
but, although he liked her and felt that she liked him, he knew very
well that Emma was no equal, either in means or local knowledge.
She was his benefactor and a cut above him in life. It was an
uncomfortable situation for him on the whole, and he decided to
play it cautiously. Thanks were owed but not subservient chatter.
A little self respect was the only thing he’d managed to hold onto
over the years and he wasn’t about to surrender it now. Maybe
then she’d respect him too, despite his needs. His need for boots.
His need for drink. His need for a friend. And he didn’t think he
could hang around someone who failed to appreciate something of
the private stand he had taken – such as it was.
But that was no argument against gratitude. ‘I owe you for the
boots,’ he said, ‘not to mention all this. You’ve been good to me,
Emma, I appreciate that. But no more, alright?’
Emma nodded. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘it isn’t charity, Jack.’
‘No?’ He knew what she was implying but he wanted it said.
‘No. Let’s call it an advance,’ she suggested. There was a note of
confidence in her voice. She knew she was on solid ground. He
would jump at the chance, of course. And in the same spot, so
would she.
As he did. He had half suspected the offer would come when she
mentioned the boots to Tom. He didn’t really understand her
motives but her intentions had become increasingly clear. He
wasn’t just along for the ride and somehow they both knew that.
They had each gone too far out of their way. Call it destiny. ‘I
hope you’re a good judge of character,’ he said, promising
nothing.
‘So do I,’ she replied, making the key employment condition clear.
Nora delivered the jug which was about as full as you’d expect
given Emma’s earlier pre-emptive remark: full to the brim. Jack
left it to Emma to pour, it was hers to give away after all. His
28
eyes were drawn towards it though. Obviously so. It would be a
good half litre each, he reckoned, and he hoped the draught was
strong.
Emma smiled at his restraint of his thirst and quickly filled their
waiting mugs. She placed his before him and raised her own in a
silent toast.
Glad to be on wages, Jack drank deeply. It had been many years
since he had savoured alcohol that had satisfied both his tongue
and his brain. Some rough brews and spirits mostly made from
fermented sugar water could be had in the cities, but flavour didn’t
come into it. Life was pretty basic in the outside world, by and
large. But not in Topia it seemed, and thanks to that.
A couple more swallows and he was feeling quite relaxed. Emma
stretched sideways, turning half about to scan the room as she
rested one leg upon the bench. Jack felt easier about talking now.
‘You don’t seem to really like it, here?’ he quizzed.
Emma was taken aback. ‘Where’d you get that idea?’ not from
her, surely.
‘Well,’ he drawled, ‘you don’t seem to have made many friends.’
Emma shrugged. ‘I’ve got a few. You just haven’t met them yet.’
‘If you say so,’ he said, returning to his drink.
Emma put hers down on the table. It was time to explain a few
things. ‘Now, Jack, don’t judge Topia by Jordan and Nora here.
Sure, there are others like them about but that’s the world for you,
isn’t it? You can’t expect anything else these days. Besides,
friends, Jack, as you well know, are always few and far between.
How many have you got to boast about?’
Jack wasn’t disturbed by her rhetorical jibe. ‘But then I haven’t
found a town I much like, either. Not yet,’ he said.
‘Well, maybe this is it,’ she suggested.
‘Maybe. It beats the others, anyway,’ he conceded with reluctance.
29
Jack was a little surprised by his attitude. He wasn’t really sure
why he wasn’t sounding more positive. It probably wasn’t easy to
change after all these years; to be less sceptical. Or perhaps he just
naturally reacted negatively to hard sells.
Emma pressed home her point. ‘Topia’s a good town, Jack. It
works. ‘Struth, they’ve even got their own money.’
‘The credits?’
Emma nodded. ‘That’s why I’m going to retire here one day.
Without money, you can’t retire, because you can never get
ahead.’
Jack thought over what she said. She was right, of course. But it
was odd to hear someone talk like that. The word retirement had
lost any of that familiar meaning it may have once had. These days
it was only used by dreamers close to death. But Emma was no
dreamer. ‘Hence all the credits you’ve saved?’
Emma nodded. ‘And hence you, Jack. As you can see, I’m getting
on. And as I told Jordan, the risks of the road increase with every
year. Maybe I’ll get sick or stranded one day and scavengers will
pick my bones. Or maybe I’ll just get too lax in a trade and
Reuben won’t be enough.’
Jack nodded, but didn’t altogether agree. She was sharper than her
declining years suggested.
‘And before then I need to make plans, Jack, while I’m still on the
right side of time. It seems to me that I’ll need a strong hand.
Someone I can trust. Maybe as a partner down the line.’
Someone she could trust. A partner! It was staggering to think she
was actually referring to him. He knew from experience that the
world could undo you in a day but he never really expected that it
could just as suddenly turn good.
‘Not straight away though, Jack. There’s a lot to learn first: let’s
see how you go on the road.’ If she couldn’t fully trust him before,
she knew that she could now. She had given him an incentive to
tow the line; to make him reliable. ‘Well?’ she asked.

30
Jack tried to take it all in. The cider didn’t help, but as far as he
could see in the fog, the message was go from all ‘round.
Everything was for it and nothing was against.
And why? Because he had buried a stranger and she had found
out. It all came from that: from a spade a dead man had left him to
finish a job alone. A small relatively unselfish act. That must be it:
the reason why out of all the hungry travellers on the long hard
road she had put her trust in him. ‘You’re on, Emma,’ he said,
extending his hand.
Emma smiled as they shook on the deal.
‘Nora?’ she called, swivelling her torso around, ‘we’ll need a
couple of beds for the night. ‘
‘You got ‘em,’ replied their host, looking up from the bar.
‘What’s on for dinner?’ asked Emma.
‘Corned beef and damper.’
‘And pickles on the side?’
‘And pickles on the side.’
And pickles on the side. Jack took another drink, savouring the
fresh flavour of the draught. It was good alright.
The meal lived up to its promise too. He hadn’t eaten so well in
his entire life, he reckoned. Not that he could remember, anyway.
Sure, he’d had a good feed now and then, but never without
concern for the next. This time he had eaten expansively, and
drunk without a care or woe.
Yes, he reflected, replete in food, drink and hope, the best thing he
had ever done was to bury that traveller by the road.
Maybe that traveller was him.

31
Forsaken Six: The Stray

Jack stirred slowly from the pleasure of his sleep, rolling his head
towards the source of the unwelcome disturbance as he reluctantly
opened his eyes.
It wasn’t morning.
Silhouetted against the window with the moonlight to her back
was Emma, sitting on the edge of her bed and pulling on her boots.
It was too dark to discern her face but some outer strands of her
hair were stunningly clear, unruly silver filaments lit by the moon,
and their motion alone communicated concern as Reuben barked
anxiously in the distance.
Emma saw Jack awake. ‘Bloody dog,’ she said to him, explaining
her midnight rise.
Jack did not respond to Emma’s oblique remark which was
intended, he knew, to deflect but not to wholly deny a possible
underlying and worrying truth.
He threw aside the blanket and sat up, momentarily hugging
himself in the cold. Then, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he
surfaced from the grog that washed over his mind. Time to start
earning his keep.
Emma, roughly attired from boots to battered hat, was first out the
door but Jack wasn’t far behind, fumbling with buttons as he
strode to catch up. He regretted not grabbing his coat as the cool
night air penetrated the legs of his trousers and his well worn shirt,
assaulting his surprised skin as they emerged into the empty street.
There was a light on in the Co-op: they could only guess why.
Jack could hear Tom’s voice as they approached the shed and their
steps softened and slowed. Both had seen enough of trouble to
know that it is something best reconnoitred first. Jack’s eyes
momentarily winced in the yellow kerosene light, the soft
illumination was nevertheless quite harsh to eyes accustomed to
32
night.
Reuben’s aggressiveness increased with the arrival of his mistress
whose presence he now betrayed. A growl erupted into barking
once again. The intruders slowly entered.
Beyond Emma’s wagon in the loading bay stood a dishevelled and
frightened boy, pinned against the wall by both Reuben and the
threat of a shotgun levelled by the hands of Tom. Tom’s grip on
the gun was precarious, like one not used to its power, and that
threat worried them the most. He was plainly indecisive, hovering
dangerously between panic and impotency. The risk was that the
boy on the other end might think the latter and induce the former
by attempting to escape.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Emma calmly, calling Reuben to heel.
Tom brushed the hair from his forehead as if trying to resume
control. ‘Caught him on your wagon,’ he said. ‘One of the mob
from the forest. I think he was looking for this,’ he added,
referring to the gun. ‘But I’d taken it with me to bed.’
Jack studied the frightened boy. He was about twelve or thirteen,
dark haired and dirty. His clothes were rags at best and his feet
were bare: hard bare, like they had known nothing else.
‘What’s your name, son?’ she asked.
The boy swallowed and looked her way. ‘Jim,’ he said, glad of her
interest.
Emma smiled disarmingly, glancing at Tom who relaxed his grip
upon the gun. ‘Were you after that, Jim?’ she asked. It was an
obvious question and one she regretted straight away. Her mistake
immediately shook off the last sleepy gown from her mind and she
began to hope that, if necessary, the boy would lie.
But in the embrace of her trust he nodded.
Emma sighed. Her gun may have been the object of his crime but
his fate would rest with others not with her or Jack.
‘He’s only a kid,’ she said to Tom, in a tone that discounted any
33
significance to the event. ‘Let him go,’ she added, half in plea and
half commandingly.
Tom shifted his weight onto the other foot, growing nervous once
again. But he couldn’t quite back down. Though his hand held the
gun, his will was in the grip of another, someone whose
determination even Emma could not match. ‘Sorry, Emma. I can’t.
You know I can’t.’
‘It was my gun, Tom,’ she said. ‘It’s not for you to decide.’
Tom shook his head. ‘The gun might have been yours, Emma, But
it wouldn’t have been used on you.’
‘Tom, he’s only a kid!’
‘I’m not arguing with you, Emma. It’s not my call. You’ll have to
speak to Jordan.’
Jack didn’t interfere. He felt hobbled by his ignorance. There was
more to this than met the eye. But how much more he didn’t
know.
‘Will somebody get Jordan!’ demanded Tom, impatiently.
Emma could see there was no hope. A guest in Topia, she could
only go so far and still engage in trade. But she wasn’t going to
help Tom do the deed, either. She wasn’t obliged to do that.
‘Sorry, Tom. I won’t help you in this. And neither, I suspect, will
Jack.’
Tom turned his eyes from the boy to her. He had no right to insist
and he knew it. He wasn’t a hypocrite. He would have liked to
have been in her position too. ‘Fair enough,’ he said, brushing
back his hair again and resolving upon a course. ‘You’ll have to
get down, on your knees,’ he said to the boy. ‘I can’t take the risk
of your running away out there. I don’t want to have to use this,
understand? You’ll have to crawl out instead.’
The boy did as he was asked.
Tom turned to Emma and raised the gun. ‘I’ll have to hang on to
34
this for a bit though, Emma. Until things are resolved.’
Jack looked away from the boy to study Emma’s face, trying to
make sense of it all. He couldn’t see that anyone was very right.
Maybe he didn’t know enough, yet. Maybe it was just one of those
ugly things you come across now and then in a world that was far
from ideal.
Emma bent down to calm Reuben with a pat. The dog had done
his job well. Too well. Reuben swallowed and greeted her with his
eyes. Even he seemed confused.
Watching Emma, it seemed to Jack that, whatever else it was, it
was no business of theirs. Which isn’t to say that he liked it. But
whatever was going to happen, would happen without him.
The best they felt able to do was to stand aside, while Tom drove
his captive like a straying lamb into the indifferent night.

35
Forsaken Seven: Boots

Like ants whose track had been broken by an invasive line gouged
along the surface of their world, Jack and Emma had momentarily
lost their bearings. They had returned to their beds but not to their
former selves and calm sleep had eluded them; restive thoughts
had displaced restful dreams.
Breakfast was a good excuse to leave the troubles of the previous
night behind but, in the event, their appetites were as wanting as
conversation. Their meal was an uncomfortably quiet affair. It was
difficult for either party to discuss what preoccupied the both of
them. The facts themselves were painful and any comment would
introduce the peril of engagement: to comment would be to judge
and judgement might oblige them to act. But what right had they
to interfere in a place that was not really theirs? A moral right,
perhaps, but not a civil one; they had no authority to bring about a
change, no right recognised by others, certainly not by Jordan.
And no matter how obliged they might feel, the reality was that
they were powerless in the town. They were guests in Topia,
guests who enjoyed the rights of hospitality and no more; guests
who might speak but not too loudly, and they had spoken already
to no avail.
It seemed better not to dwell upon it; not to entertain thoughts that
led inevitably to no good. But, nevertheless, Jack wanted to know
what would happen to the boy?
Emma tried to dismiss his concerns. ‘A whipping, I suppose,’ she
said, between long sips of bitter tea.
A whipping. Yes, that made sense to Jack. Prisons were, of course,
a thing of the past, even in Topia.
‘I can’t see Jordan letting him off,’ she continued.
Jack nodded, almost imperceptibly. ‘No,’ he agreed. Still, a
whipping didn’t seem unfair these days; up to a point.
36
‘Have to see about those boots,’ remarked Emma on a lighter note,
smiling as best she could.
Jack smiled back. It was a tight smile, without much joy in it,
although he could feel the cold air biting at the soles of his feet in
places where his boots no longer were.
‘Well, drink up and I’ll introduce you to Walter. He’s probably
open by now and it’s time I said hello. He’s one of the friends I
talked about. You’ll like him. At least, I hope you will.’
Jack gulped down the last of his tea and followed Emma to the
door.
It was a fine morning. No sign of rain. The wind blew from the
north, warm drying air, and the sun was unclouded in the sky.
As they headed down the street, he could feel the weathered
verandah floor timbers reaching up to greet the exposed sole of his
foot and he contemplated the pleasure of the promised
improvement. Since the prospect of new boots had emerged, he
had become increasingly indifferent to the fate of the old pair: his
former valued partners on the road. Now that something better
offered, his commitment to them had slackened and he began to
view them less as vital accoutrements than as necessary
discomforts. He would be glad to see the back of them. And what
better than new boots for a new road and a new life?
‘Morning, Walter,’ greeted Emma, with a sunny face.
Jack was surprised at the warm undertones in her voice. There was
more than simple friendship working here.
‘Emma!’ returned Walter, with enthusiastic soft grey eyes that
peered beneath his silver brows.
Jack was still taking it all in when she introduced him.
‘This is Jack,’ she said, with minimal ceremony.
Walter nodded. ‘Yes, I heard. Jack,’ he returned, offering a hand
that Jack accepted casually. ‘Tom said you would be calling. And
I can see why,’ he added, lowering his gaze to the floor.
37
Jack smiled and raised a foot to show the boot maker how bad
things really were.
Emma watched as her old friend stooped to study the offending
pair. ‘Look after him, will you Walter?’ she interrupted. ‘A lame
offsider would be more of a burden than a help.’
Jack was glad to hear her practical excuse, it made him feel less
obliged on a personal plane. Working boots for a worker, that
seemed fair enough to him, and to anyone else who might ask. The
opinion of others is not something that would normally have
bothered him but things were different now. He had never been
this close to the scrutiny of a town. In the past he had never gone
back and the towns were no better than the travellers anyway. But
Topia could look down on you, and he felt that it had looked down
on him.
‘Don’t worry, Emma, I’ll do my best for him, just like I would for
you.’
‘Hopefully more than that!’ she joked, evasively.
Walter looked mortified. ‘Emma!’ he chastised.
‘It’s alright Walter, you’re a great help, I know.’
‘Well, that’s alright then,’ he smiled. ‘But, as for this bloke,
Emma, it’ll take a few days to do the job well.’
‘No rush, Walter. I could do with a break before the next run. How
about you, Jack?’
Jack would not have quarrelled even if he didn’t agree. Not out of
gratitude, but because there was obviously something good
between Emma and Walter that he had no wish to jeopardise. And
good isn’t something you come across everyday. ‘Fine,’ he said,
closing the circle.
‘Well then, gentlemen, I’ll leave you two to your business while I
attend to mine. Time I saw how Tom’s getting on,’ her voice
dropped a little at the end.
‘Will I catch up with you there?’ asked Jack, who would
38
otherwise be in Topia alone.
‘No. We won’t be loading anything today. Why don’t you check
out the town instead? People know you’re with me now so you
shouldn’t have any problems walking about.’
‘That would make a change.’
Emma smiled. ‘When you’re hungry, just eat at the tavern and
they’ll put it on the slate. Next trip you’ll earn wages but
meanwhile you’re on keep.’
‘I’ll make it up to you.’
‘I know you will,’ she replied, before turning to depart.
Walter’s gaze followed Emma as she left, less with interest than
affection, or so it seemed to Jack. So much so, that he was
reluctant to draw Walter’s attention to the important matter in
hand.
But like the good shopkeeper that he was, Walter was not long
away. ‘Boots, isn’t it?’ he grinned.
‘Please,’ returned Emma’s other friend.
‘Well, sir, step right this way and I’ll show you what we can do
for you in that line of things.’
‘These are your options,’ he explained, waiving towards a shelf
with one hand. ‘You can have brown or brown, full length, half or
shoe.’
‘All I want is a good sole,’ replied Jack, showing what was
lacking on his, ‘and some ankle support would be good. I do a lot
of walking. Or at least I used too, and you never know.’
‘Half then. I’ll beef up the sole, no extra charge. Okay?’
‘Great.’
‘Well, let’s get on with it then. Just take a seat on that stool Jack
and I’ll measure you up in no time flat.’

39
Jack smiled at the rhyme, pulled up the stool and took off his
boots. Walter fetched a measure from the counter, draping it
around his shoulders and neck.
‘No socks?’
Jack saw no need to reply.
‘I’ll throw in a free pair and allow for it in the measure.’
‘My feet aren’t going to believe this.’
‘Looks like you owe them,’ said Walter, bending down to work,
pausing now and then in the process to skillfully lob a question in
Jack’s way. ‘How’d you meet Emma?’ he asked first, as though
making casual conversation.
Jack could see what he was getting at. He prefaced his reply by
nodding gently to one side and pursing his lips, lending his
response a character of reassuring ordinariness. ‘We did some
trading, on the road.’
‘Oh yes?’ acknowledged Walter, listening with as much
indifference as he could feign.
‘Then she gave me a lift.’
‘Looks like you needed it?’
‘Then we talked things over on the way to Topia and she offered
me a job.’
‘Yes, a job,’ repeated Walter, obliquely. He had wanted to say
‘Just a job,’ but that would have been going too far. He was too
civilised to stoop to that.
‘I guess the boots clinched the deal,’ added Jack.
‘I guess they would.’
‘She’s a good boss.’
‘And friend?’

40
Jack trod gingerly on this ground. ‘Well, I wouldn’t exactly put it
like that. But she has been good to me. And I’m grateful for that.’
‘Yes,’ nodded Walter, more warmly. ‘And a friend is hard to find
these days, on the road. She must trust you, Jack,’ he paused, ‘so I
guess I can too,’ he concluded, making a question of it with his
eyes.
Jack was happy to reassure him. ‘I hope so,’ he replied. And now,
perhaps, he had another friend too.
Walter seemed satisfied with Jack’s answers and paid more
attention to the work in hand. ‘Bad business about the boy,’ he
remarked, this time more openly.
‘You heard we were there?’
Walter nodded. ‘From Tom.’
Jack didn’t quite know what to say, which was eloquent in its own
quiet way.
Walter stood up, the measuring work was done. ‘Well, that’s it for
now, Jack. Next step for you is a fitting.’
‘A fitting?’ This was service.
‘Of course,’ replied Walter with mock pride. ‘We’re in no rush are
we, Jack?’ he winked. ‘I mean as far as Emma is concerned. No
rush to get back out on the road?’
Jack was a little embarrassed at Walter’s frank disclosure.
Perhaps, he thought, this declaration of his hand was Walter’s way
of making a conspirator out of a rival. And that was the
embarrassing bit. He had no intentions with Emma on that score
but it did seem a little disloyal to assist Walter nonetheless. But
then again, it hardly seemed sinister and as Emma was far from
being a babe in the woods, he could see no reason not to oblige his
anxious new friend. ‘Whatever you say,’ he said.
‘Your the customer,’ smiled Walter, pleased at the outcome.
Jack began to pull his boots back on, a little sorry for the delay
41
implied by Walter’s little scheme. But it was a small price to pay
for boots. And their quality wouldn’t exactly suffer for it.
However, these thoughts were mere side-shows to the main event
before his mind and, in the pause that followed, he began to think
about more serious things.
‘What do you think they’ll do to the boy?’ he asked.
Walter’s mood quietened. ‘Could be bad,’ he said. ‘Not easy to
pick. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.’
‘He’s only a kid, though.’
‘That’s what Tom said.’
So Tom wasn’t altogether happy either. ‘But there’s more to it
than that, isn’t there?’
Walter looked Jack in the eye. ‘I’m afraid so, Jack. More than you
know about. More than Emma knows about, I expect. I can’t say
any more than that. I shouldn’t have said even that, frankly. But I
guess we’re sharing more than one confidence today, aren’t we,
Jack?’
Jack wasn’t sure whether he should make further enquiries or just
let things lie. If Emma hadn’t questioned things, why should a
newcomer like him?
He could see why Emma liked Walter. He got the feeling that
Walter didn’t exactly approve of the state of things in Topia either.
That he was no Jordan lackey or friend.
But now Jack was more worried than ever about the boy. He
didn’t really know why. Maybe because he remembered how
things were for him at that age. ‘A whipping?’ he posed again.
‘It’s out of our hands, Jack.’
‘All up to Jordan, eh?’
‘That’s the way it is.’
‘So what Jordan says, goes?’

42
‘It’s not that the others disagree, Jack.’
Jack nodded. ‘Jordan’s their man, eh?’
‘No, Jack. More like Topia’s his town.’
Jack’s impressions of Topia were beginning to grey. Still, Topia
had a lot going for it that was hard to ignore. And, if the town was
behind Jordan, then he must have had a lot to do with its success.
And Jordan would know like Moses that you can’t get along in the
wilderness without justice. Hard justice, maybe. Swift justice, too.
But justice to suit the town and the times.
Sometimes, you have to take the good with the bad.

43
Forsaken Eight: Discoveries

Jack felt oddly uncomfortable as he left Walter’s shop; he was


both free and out of place at the same time. Moreover, because he
hadn’t given much thought to what he would do outside, he had no
purpose to direct his feet. Check out Topia, she had said; but as he
turned into the wind of an unwelcoming streetscape he quickly
stalled, losing momentum before his journey had even begun. The
best he could manage was to put his hands in his pockets listlessly
and survey the town.
The sides of Topia’s main street stretched out before him like the
left and right files of a teasing enemy daring him to make a
gauntlet run; and he felt as good as naked in their eyes. He knew
that in their view he wasn’t really civilised and imagined critical
gazes and gossip tracking him step by step. Perversely, though,
that thought egged him on.
With hands in pockets and bowed down head, Jack meandered
down the valley of the town, nodding g’day to the friendlier faces
he encountered and pretending not to notice the less polite probes
of strangers peering from a distance. He wanted to look like he
had nothing to be ashamed of, to feel like he had nothing to be
ashamed of, but he knew that, in any comparison of their
circumstances and his, he wouldn’t come up trumps. Despite a
recent turn for the better, Jack understood that he was still just
another traveller from a third rate world. His boots said it, his
clothes said it and his face said it. Self esteem is a relative thing,
on the road he was better than most but he had no status here.
The street turned to the right beyond the mill, falling down
towards the river, and he let himself be guided by its descent. Like
tracks under a horse drawn tram, the motion came from his legs
but the direction came from the road, leaving his mind free to
traverse its own terrain. Had things really taken a turn for the
better, he wondered, or was he about to pay for his sins? And was
Topia any better than the rest of the world, underneath its civilised

44
skin?
Before long, he found himself down at the river, crossing the
town’s handsome wooden bridge. His footsteps thudded hollowly
over the tightly fastened planks, interrupting the train of his doubts
and musings.
He paused halfway and leaned over the side rail looking upstream
at the back end of town. The river was still fairly swollen and
muddy, foaming at the unyielding piers supporting the bridge
beneath his feet. The piers, he reflected, must be bedded deeply to
resist this river’s powerful push. They reminded him of Jordan: a
will defiant of a current incessant.
And, as battles are not quiet, this intrusion of human artifice into
the natural stream was not without its own disquieting noise. The
parting of water around the piers and the churning of the mill’s
water wheel made a commotion that was as upsetting to a neutral
bystander as the rumble of distant artillery between neighbours
waring close at hand.
He studied the construct of the bridge. There was something
unusual about it. A long log was strapped to the side rail, pinned at
its centre by a large bolt that looked more like an axle than a
fastening. Unstrapped, the log would rotate around the axle, the
heaviest end dipping into the stream. At one extremity of the
horizontal log, a small platform extended out from the bridge, as
though it had been built with the log in mind, to provide an access
to its ends. It made no sense to him. He puzzled over it for
sometime, soaking in the sun from above and, by virtue of its
watery reflection, from below. Finally, lacking any real
conviction, his curiosity faded and his mind moved tangentially
from now into the past: to other bridges on other days; to fellow
travellers and speculative conversations; to shared hopes and
grand plans that were never quite credible afterwards.
Suddenly, a voice intruded from behind. ‘A penny for your
thoughts,’ she said.
Jack started at the sound. ‘G’day,’ he replied, feeling a little
embarrassed as he turned around, not just for being surprised but

45
for doubting as well.
She smiled. ‘Thought I’d take Reuben for a walk,’ she said.
Jack nodded and smiled back.
‘Why don’t you come along? I’ll show you something.’
Why not? He was fast exhausting other options anyway. ‘Back in
town?’ he asked, not keen to re-visit the source of his uneasiness.
‘No,’ she smiled, at his almost boyish reluctance. ‘It’s up this way
a bit,’ she added, raising her chin towards the countryside as she
spoke.
‘After you,’ he replied, casually falling in beside Reuben as they
strolled along the bridge.
Emma usually set a pretty decent pace in the stroll stakes,
particularly with Reuben, but today she accommodated Jack’s
obviously subdued mood. It became a lazy sort of walk,
punctuated only by her occasional observations of houses and their
occupants: who was friendly and who wasn’t worth knowing and
what they grew or did about the town. Jack was impressed by the
breadth of her knowledge about the citizens of Topia, both good
and bad, and wondered that much more about what it was that she
didn’t know, about what had been kept from her by Walter and the
rest.
‘How long have you been coming here, Emma?’ he asked, at
length.
Emma took in a short, pausing, breath. ‘Quite a while,’ she
replied, glad of the exchange. ‘Ten years or so, I guess.’
‘How’d you find out about it?’ He pursued. ‘I mean, it’s not as if
the road is welcoming or would take you somewhere else.’
‘No. It isn’t. Although in summer you used to be able to cut
through here to the coast, before the mountains reclaimed the
alpine tracks. Not much reason to come this way now, unless you
knew what was here.’

46
That made sense. ‘So how’d you find Topia?’
Emma looked up at Jack, engaging him more intimately. ‘Well,
actually, the same way you did, Jack. Someone showed me. He
was a trader too. A trader they trusted. He used to work the ranges,
including the old dairy towns along the coast. This town was a real
eye opener. I couldn’t believe Topia, even then. It wasn’t quite as
substantial as it is now but there was a lot of building going on, a
lot of everything going on. Elsewhere, everything seemed to be
dying... the towns, children, hope. But everything here was new
and in its place. There was a sense of purpose in Topia. Its not as
shiny now but it’s more solid than ever. Topia’s matured a lot
since then. Softened around the edges too... I took over the run
when he died.’
Jack wondered about the ‘he’, and what the man had meant to her.
‘He was your man, then, this trader?’
Emma nodded. ‘For a while, for more years than it seems, looking
back.’
‘He died?’
‘He died... Buried him by the road,’ she said, looking directly at
Jack, who now understood. ‘Hard stony ground it was too. Not
like this place. We were too far away for me to bring him back
here. I don’t go that far any more. Haven’t seen his grave in
years.’
‘Maybe you should. I’ll go with you, if you like.’ It wasn’t that
was sentimental himself but he would do a lot for her.
Emma shook her head. ‘Thanks, but that’s history, Jack. You’ve
got to put these things behind you.’
Jack nodded. He knew about history alright. And why it should be
left alone. When the past is a better place you don’t dwell on it.
Not if you want to be content with the present. And when the past
is worse, you try forget it as fast as you can. As much as you can.
If you can.
‘But I promised to show you something,’ she said. ‘It’s just up

47
ahead.’
Jack raised his eyebrows, intrigued by the mystery in her voice.
What was the surprise? What was so special out here on the
outskirts of town? He was to find out soon enough...
‘This is it,’ she said, stretching out her arm towards a property on
their left.
Jack looked bemused.
‘It’s mine, Jack. All mine. Just mine. Lock stock and barrel, for as
long as I draw breath.’
Jack surveyed the small holding that undulated gently from the
road down to a creek. A path, dividing an orchard, led straight as a
die to the verandah of a small timbered cottage in need of a few
repairs. A cow grazed near the house and a small flock of sheep
stared at them stupidly. ‘It’s great,’ he said, pleased for his friend.
She was still smiling. ‘Finalised things in town this morning,’ she
said. ‘Traded a life time lease for eighty per cent of what the Co-
op owes me. It isn’t easy to get a place around here, Jack. Had to
wait till somebody passed on.’
The irony of her success coming fast upon the heels of his own
failure in the abandoned farm stakes did not escape him and he
tried not to show it on his face. ‘Someone you knew?’
She slowly shook her head. ‘Not really. Quiet old bugger. Kept to
himself.’
Jack began to consider the implications of her news. And he
started to feel a little uneasy about it too. Things were happening
pretty quickly and he began to fear for his job. Not that he had a
right to it in the first place. ‘Giving up the road, then?’ he asked,
cautiously, without asserting any claim.
She smiled again. ‘Don’t worry, Jack. I’m still in business and the
Co-op is too. That was one of the unstated terms. They need us
Jack. And I need you.’
Jack was clearly relieved.
48
‘But the road half of the business will be your responsibility.
We’ll do one trip together and then you’re on your own. I’ll get
someone to watch the place while we’re away. Then I’ll take over
the farm and you and Reuben can manage the team yourselves.’
It was a shock to Jack but it sounded good too. Her prosperity
would be his security. She had a place and he would have a job.
‘I’m glad for you, Emma. And I won’t let you down.’
‘I’m sure you won’t, Jack. I’m sure you won’t. Come on, I’ll show
you inside. And if you help me clean up a bit, you might find a
feed and a bed.’
‘Sounds better by the minute,’ he said.

49
Forsaken Nine: Pantomime

Jack was slow in waking, revelling in the warm sunlight which,


pouring through the open window, slowly dissolved the memory
of easy dreams. His bed was comfortable in the way that the
roadside had never been. It’s ageing layers of hide and straw gave
it a firm softness that his body welcomed. And it was warm. How
pleasant it was to be so comfortable that one did not want to rise.
He took stock of his surroundings and felt glad. This was his
room. A personal dry space where his anxious soul could expand
and his weather beaten body could find shelter. Unfurnished but
for the bed, it was everything he could have hoped for. A place to
return to. A home of his own.
He knew that Emma was up already. He could hear her stirring in
the central room that would be their common ground and quietly
reprimanded himself for rising late. So far he had only received
from Emma. Taken would be too strong a word but he had not yet
given. Maybe he could make a start today. Throwing aside the old
patchwork quilt with more resolution than his body preferred, he
slipped into his trousers, shirt and boots and shyly opened the
door.
A warm fire in the stone hearth invited his presence but, before he
could accept, Emma stepped through the doorway bearing a
bucket of warm milk, still frothing at the brim. ‘Fresh eggs, too,’
she beamed. ‘But the wood situation’s a bit grim.’
Jack took the hint gladly and nodded. ‘I’ll look into it,’ he replied,
edging past her to the door.
The wood-shed was around the back, empty but for scattered
kindling littering the earthen floor and, propped against the far
corner of the shed, stood an axe that like him had seen better days.
He scoured the paddock below for fallen trees but saw none. He
would need to forage further a field for fuel. And that solution
50
contained the kernel of another problem that he would need to
solve: bringing the firewood back. Life was getting complicated,
he thought with a smile. Living easy as he had done till now, he
had rarely needed to solve compound problems to meet his ends.
As a scavenger, like the rest of the country, he usually took what
he found or didn’t bother with it. But now he was in a different
world. A constructive one. Now he would have to find wood, cut it
up and bring it home. There was that word again: home. It all
came down to that. Life would be different from now on he
reflected, heading towards the ragged timber line facing the farm
across the creek.
The transportation problem was not insurmountable but it was big
enough to prevent his solving it completely straight away. He
would just get enough wood to keep them out of trouble for now
and work on a longer term solution during the day. Short of
making a career out of it, they would need a horse to drag up a
decent lot and that raised other problems like harnesses and slings:
the wagon shouldn’t be risked on the ground ahead. Maybe there
was a more accessible supply somewhere else and the wagon
could be of use. Emma would know about that. They could bring
back the team today if there was. Probably should anyway. No
doubt the Co-op charged for stabling them. But shanks pony
would suffice this time round.
Worn stepping stones across the creek and a well trod path beyond
directed him to the timber that others before him had exploited.
There were some pretty decent trees in the wood, old ones with
branches that reached out and twisted wide about the sky. It
looked like it had never been cleared. A lot of the forests these
days were comprised of introduced species, reafforested fields that
didn’t quite look right; not even now. But this was native forest,
spared perhaps because of the uneven hilly ground upon which it
stood.
On a more practical note, there was a lot of debris about the place
but most of it had rotted on the ground or was just too green to
use. One piece, however, caught his eye: a massive eucalyptus
bough whose writhing torso had raised it above the ground
throughout most of its length, keeping it sufficiently dry to both

51
preserve it and permit burning without delay. Eureka.
After spooking a flock of sulphur crested cockatoos whose
uninhibited squawking sounded more like protest than alarm, he
began to hack off the bough’s smaller nuisance limbs.
The unnatural thud of the axe and the crack of parting branches
quietened the surrounding forest, heightening the contrast between
it and him. As weak as humanity had become, the world still stood
in fear of it. People were apart, he thought. They had always been
apart. Native or sophisticated, country and town, human beings
were alien to the natural world. That’s why they were always
changing it. The world doesn’t suit them. The hunter burns the
land to bring in game. Later, the farmer knocks down trees to raise
up crops. Even our bodies aren’t suited: flesh must be covered
with skins or cloth.
And when you’ve made things suit as far as your technology will
allow, you can pretend you exist in harmony with the world. That
there’s a natural place for you and you’ve found it. But there isn’t.
Things have to be changed and they will be again. Sometimes
slowly, imperceptibly, sometimes fast. But they have to be
changed because people don’t belong. Look at Topia. Who
wouldn’t want to live in such a town? A place that doesn’t belong;
an unnatural place both now and in the making; a place with a
future.
No, we don’t belong and that’s why life is hard. And why it is so
much harder now on the downside of history. Even here. And why
boots matter. People will give a lot for comfort, especially, he
reflected, tangentially, if, like this bush, it isn’t theirs to begin
with. And that’s our biggest sin. A recurring sin. An original sin,
he remembered, as his mother used to say.
After a few minutes, Jack reckoned he had stripped away enough
of the rubbish to make the bough manageable, which is to say
dragable, and, hitching the axe in his belt, he quit the forest and
struggled back with the heavy length over the creek and up
towards the house.
Emma greeted him in the shed.

52
‘Well, it’s a start,’ she jibed, as Jack wiped the sweat from his
forehead and took a seat on his solid trophy.
‘We could make good use of the team,’ he said between breaths,
plucking the odd splinter from his raw palms.
‘Hardly seems necessary,’ she joked, observing the trail gouged by
the heavy bough as it had been dragged up the paddock.
Jack shot her an incredulous look.
‘We’ll pick up the wagon after breakfast,’ she reassured him.
‘Come on, I’ll shout you scrambled eggs.’
Scrambled eggs! Now that sounded good. ‘You’re on’ he replied,
standing up to unhitch the axe. ‘As soon as I finish up here.’
The firebox stocked, Jack made for breakfast like he’d never had
one before. It would be a welcome meal and one that he had
earned. And the event did not disappoint him. He ate heartily with
a pace. Not that his haste was all down to hunger either. He had
made a good start to the morning and he was determined to make
the day pay. To get on with it. To earn his keep.
Emma sensed his mood and made no attempt to keep him back:
not for the selfish reasons a boss might have but because it suited
her temperament too. So, no sooner had they polished off their
plates than they were off, retracing the steps of the day before.
This time they spoke little of the countryside, walking rather than
strolling along their way. And there were no surprises to interrupt
the rhythm of their progress either, until they had neared the end.
They had been walking for about thirty minutes and had just
crested the hill on the south end of town when Topia’s bridge
entered their field of view.
A crowd of people were loosely gathered on the bridge and the
adjacent banks. It was an unusual sight, out of character with the
routine of daily life. Jordan seemed to be at the centre of things,
reading or preaching or something, one arm raised and the other
clutching a book.
‘It’s the boy,’ gasped Emma, who appeared to know what was
53
happening.
Turning in bemusement from Emma to the scene, Jack raised a
cupped hand to shade his eyes, straining hard to see. It was a little
like watching a pantomime, motions without sound. But not as
harmless as that. Emma’s remark and Jordan’s presence convinced
him that something sinister was going on.
He focused upon a perpendicular post, poised high above the side
of the bridge, with the trailing half underneath like the twelve
thirty hands of a clock. It was the log that he had studied
yesterday, fixed by an axle to the bridge but now hauled vertically
by a rope fastened to the high end. And on that end looked to be
the boy, strapped fast with his hands to his side, suspended
helplessly above the bridge as the tow rope slackened in the cool
morning breeze.
Then, suddenly, the high end fell under the helpless boy’s own
weight, gathering pace as it did so, plunging him into the surging
waters below; where he remained - too long; too long to survive.
For the hungry river held him, affixed to the trembling log,
consuming Topia’s offering in its white foaming mouth.
And so, as a condemned boy drowned for his crime in the chill
current of a swollen stream, two distant figures, unable to act,
unable to turn, stood on the road like a pair of speechless statues,
on the outskirts of a foreign town.

54
Forsaken Ten: Ritual

The crowd lingered, reluctant to disperse before some sign had


been given that everything was over. But there was no sign, only
an increasing mood of laden greyness repressing the collective
spirit of the gathering, like the blanket of cloud that was closing in
on Topia from the south.
So the assembly dissolved gradually. Some, mainly those who had
come last because their interest had been least, and who were
largely scattered about the rim, did not linger long, evaporating in
small groups after the boy could reasonably have been expected to
have drowned. But the spine of the crowd did not follow them,
keeping instead to its place along the span of the bridge, staying
on beyond the main event to witness the concluding act: recovery
of the corpse.
Jack grew restless in the prolonging silence. ‘We should move
on,’ he said, pulling at the grass and avoiding Emma’s eye. It was
not that he didn’t care but rather that he cared too much, too much
for him. He wanted to put it behind him like the dying towns in the
wake of his treks, and the childhood memories that he chose to
forsake. When you can’t change something you can’t live with,
you have to cut it from your heart and move on. Maybe you won’t
be the same person any more but maybe you were never meant to
be either.
But Emma thought otherwise. It would be wrong to let it pass like
that. She didn’t know what to do but she couldn’t agree with Jack.
‘Not while the boy’s there,’ she replied, firmly.
Jack turned his back on the scene and rubbed his forehead with his
hand.
‘It won’t be long now,’ said Emma. ‘It’s almost over.’
Jack was surprised by her remark. ‘You’ve seen this before?’

55
Emma shook her head. ‘No. But I’ve heard about it. An
uncommon method, isn’t it?’ she said bitterly.
Jack shrugged. ‘I’ve seen worse.’
Emma nodded. ‘Yes, there are worse methods. But it’s not the
cruelty of it, exactly, that strikes you. Not the physical cruelty. It’s
not so much savage, as cold. It’s so... impersonal. No-one actually
does it, the killing. They just fall, don’t they? Abandoned to the
river below. And no-one really sees either. It’s the river that takes
the life.’
Jack nodded. She seemed to want something from him. But he had
nothing else to give. ‘Drowning’s probably not so bad,’ he said, ‘if
it comes to that. I met a woman once who nearly drowned. Like a
peaceful surrendering she said.’
Emma looked into his eyes. ‘Take a look down there Jack. Take a
look and see. It’s a ceremony, Jack. A cool ritual killing. You need
ritual for this sort of thing. Makes it seem alright.’
Jack made no reply. Nothing he could say would change things or
make them easier to take. And the same was true for Emma.
So they watched. But not like the rest, for they watched the crowd.
The spectators were their spectacle now, and she and Jack were
witnesses to the wrong.
Suddenly, a dray emerged from the town, carrying what looked
like a coffin in the back. At first it seemed odd to Jack that they
would go to so much trouble for the husk of a life they cherished
so little. But then, it was a ritual; Emma was right about that. In a
civilised town you have to do things right. Maybe it’s a guilt thing.
Maybe it has to do with standards and justice. But one thing was
certain, the boy would be buried well. Yes, orderly Topia had all
the hallmarks of latent greatness. At this rate, it would be a major
city one day. The capital of some proud nation. Maybe greater
than the last one. And it too would learn to forsake.
‘They’ll pull him out now,’ remarked Emma, as the post began to
swing. ‘There won’t be a mark on him, either,’ she added, rising to
her feet.
56
The drama concluded efficiently. They wasted no time in
removing him and shrouding the wet corpse, clothes and all. And
no sooner had the dray left than the remainder of the crowd did to.
But Jack and Emma had still to wait. The cemetery was on their
side of the river and the dray would pass by them en route. They
had no wish to share the road with it.
Carrying three men on board and the coffin in the back, the dray
made slow progress up the hill. Jordan was one of the three.
Emma was not surprised by that. Not because Jordan had some
sadistic streak or wanted to see the job done but because she knew
Jordan would live with the consequences of his decision. He might
be hard and he may be wrong but Jordan knew the meaning of
responsibility. That’s why the town respected him and why his
shadow was so long.
He acknowledged them with his eyes as the massive dray moved
past, its great wheels crushing the ground beneath as its pokes
revolved slowly around their axle, fixed firmly at the centre.
‘We can cross over now,’ she said.

57
Forsaken Eleven: Making Plans

‘You know,’ said Emma, as Jack placed another log on the


splitting block, ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about this place lately.’
Jack could see hard work written in her words. ‘Oh yes?’ he said,
picking back up the axe and looking her way with a grin.
‘Got a few ideas to make it pay.’
Jack’s worst fears were confirmed. ‘I’m all ears,’ he said, pausing
momentarily before raising the axe above his broad bare shoulders
and launching it at the log.
Emma watched approvingly as the axe cleaved the wood cleanly
down the middle. ‘Well, for starters, I was thinking that flat area
by the stream would make an ideal veggie patch,’ she explained.
‘Vegies, eh?’ replied Jack, filling his lungs once again.
‘We could dig a canal up stream to bring the water down, and
maybe control the flow with a sluice.’
Jack thought it over. ‘It’s a sizeable patch of ground,’ he winced.
Emma got the message. ‘We could hitch the team up to a plough.’
Somewhat relieved, Jack studied the terrain. ‘Yeah. It could
work,’ he said, mulling it over. ‘Plenty of sun there too. What
timing did you have in mind?’ It wasn’t that he was opposed to the
farming life, not as such, but the traveller in him was beginning to
doubt whether he’d ever get back on the road.
‘It wouldn’t take long,’ she assured him. ‘And they could get a go
on while we’re away.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, again. ‘I suppose they could, if someone would
see to the water now and then. And if we’re not gone too long.’
‘Walter might help us out there. We’d only be gone a few
58
weeks. We could do a Melbourne run easy in that.’
Jack straightened his back and winced. Melbourne? He hadn’t
counted on that. ‘I thought you worked the back towns, west of
here.’
Emma replied cautiously. ‘I have been, in the main. But there’s
not a lot left out there Jack. Not now. What hasn’t spoiled or been
looted has almost been traded out. There’s plenty of wheat but if
you want cloth or steel these days, you’ve got to deal with the
warehouses. And that means Melbourne.’
Jack wasn’t immediately convinced. ‘You could pay a heavy price
for it though.’
Emma nodded. ‘I know the risks, Jack.’
‘You’ve been down there before then?’ he asked.
‘Once. In the early days... But I haven’t been back on my own.
I’m not that crazy. How about you?’
Jack nodded. ‘I’ve been there, alone, but not with a load of grog.’
‘There’d be two of us.’
‘Yeah.’
‘And Reuben.’
‘Yeah.’
‘And the gun.’
The gun conjured up other events. Forbidding recollections not
long past. He had a bad feeling about it that he could not shake.
‘It’s Okay with you then?’ she pressed.
Jack shook his head in a way that was unenthusiastic but didn’t
offer fight. Resistance, yes, but not fight. ‘I don’t understand you,
Emma. Why take a risk like that when you’ve got all this? Now’s
not the time to play the odds, is it? So why go looking for strife?’

59
Emma could see she was winning; all that was wanting was a
reason and that she would give him now. ‘You forget, Jack. I’m
retiring now. I need the credits to set this place up. We need things
if we’re going to make it. It’ll be hard yakka if we don’t. There are
risks here too, you know: drought, blights, fire…’
‘Things’, she had said. Acquiring things still seemed a little
foreign to Jack. He had never had much in that line. His needs
used to be simpler than that; but he could see her position all right.
And he owed her, of course. If she went he would go too. Nothing
comes easy, even in Topia. Besides, if Emma hadn’t had any go in
her, he’d probably still be on the track, stalled for want of this
trader, a friend that providence had thrown up. ‘OK,’ he relented.
‘You’re the boss, Emma. I’ll go. But just the once, alright? I’m not
one to take chances with my life. I’d sooner go without. That’s
how I’ve played it till now and have fared better than many.’
Emma rewarded his loyalty with a smile. ‘Don’t worry, Jack. It’ll
be Okay. Just the one run. Then we’ll be right. And it won’t take
long. I know a warehouse more or less on the outskirts.’
‘More or less?’
‘We’ll be in and out before you know it. You’ll see,’ she smiled
again.
Jack looked her in the eye. ‘Whatever you reckon, Emma.
Whatever you say goes.’
After she had gone back in the house, Jack looked down at the
stream and at the site of the proposed vegetable patch. Now even
ploughing looked good.

60
Forsaken Twelve: A Troubled Aspect

Today, as Emma put it, was town day. For her, it meant supplies
and ordering trading cargo for the Melbourne run. For Jack, it
meant boots. But first there was a river to cross and a brooding
memory with it.
As the unladen wagon rolled across the thick pine planks of
Topia’s bridge, Jack stole a glance at the pivoting log pinned to its
side and the small adjacent platform whose purpose he now
understood. He remembered the day that he had not. A day so long
ago, a time of innocence that the realist in him spurned but which
silently pained him too.
‘I’ll drop you at Walter’s,’ said Emma, like someone resorting to
the ordinary to displace another concern, as one might whistle in
the dark to ward off evil in the night. ‘If I finish first I’ll catch up
with you there and vice versa. Okay?’
Jack was caught a little off guard. His thoughts had not expected
conversation which is partly why it came. ‘Fine,’ he replied, trying
to smile.
Emma slowed up the team just past the mill and Jack jumped off
on the move, saluting like a grateful hitchhiker as she again got
under way. He could see Walter watching from the shop across the
street, as no doubt Emma had too.
Walter waved him in and the boot maker’s greeting lit up Jack’s
thoughts like a ray of sunshine on a lugubrious morn.
‘G’day,’ said Jack, taking off his hat as he passed through the
door.
‘Yes it is,’ replied Walter, smiling as though he meant it. ‘I’ve got
something for you to look at,’ he replied. ‘Take a seat.’
Jack nodded eagerly. Walter’s words had been long awaited and

61
Jack now savoured the anticipated pleasure of new boots on old
feet. He felt good, more self assured than on his first visit to the
shop and, accepting Walter’s invitation, proceeded to remove what
was left of his current footwear. He was looking forward to this
fitting.
Walter paraded his wares as he approached. ‘Here you go,’ he
said.
Jack wasn’t disappointed. ‘They look great,’ he replied, admiring
the scent and colour of the deep brown boots as he turned them
over in his hands. ‘How’d you know my initials?’ he asked, as he
studied the fancy embossing, running his fingers over the work.
‘Trade secret,’ winked Walter, clearly pleased at Jack’s response.
The appreciation of his new friend warmed him.
It was pretty obvious to Jack that Walter’s handiwork was a cut
above the price, not that he knew what it was, and, of course, he
suspected that it may not have been all done for him. But some of
it was, no doubt, and as for the rest, well, he was just lucky to be
the beneficiary and was content to leave things at that.
‘You’d better try them on, don’t you think?’ suggested Walter,
removing a pair of woollen socks from the apron’s pocket on his
lap.
Jack was quick to comply and gratefully accepted the offering.
The socks were thick and clean. Now the boots. They were stiff in
their newness and took some getting on but once there they felt
right.
‘Walk around a bit. Put some weight on them,’ urged his friend.
Jack obliged. He had forgotten how it felt to walk on solid heels
and soles and he had to place his feet consciously with each
careful step. ‘They’re good, Walter,’ he pronounced. ‘Very good.’
‘You’re sure? No tight spots? I can stretch them if there are.’
‘No, Walter. They’re fine. Really. Just the way they are. Why take
risks with something this good?’

62
‘Well,’ replied Walter, doubtfully, ‘you’re the customer, Jack.’
He sounded almost disappointed at letting them go without further
improvement and Jack began to fear that he had failed him in
some way; but the truth was that they did fit and that was that.
‘They’ll need some wearing in, of course. You could be in for a
blister in the first week or two; until the soles begin to flex.’
‘No problems. My feet are tougher than most.’
Walter nodded. ‘And I can see why,’ he said, staring at the
discarded pair. ‘Tell you what, leave them with me then and I’ll
patch them up for you when I get the chance. They’ll do for rough
work round the farm.’
Jack hesitated.
‘Gratis,’ added his friend.
‘You don’t have to do that, Walter.’
‘All part of the service,’ he winked.
Jack was beginning to feel lucky again. A two pair man? He never
thought he’d amount to that. Not the way things had been going
before Emma. ‘You sure, Walter?’
‘Give them here. It’s no real trouble. The uppers won’t need
much. Not bad boots in their day.’
‘In their day.’ Jack handed him the old pair happily.
‘Emma meeting you back here?’ Walter enquired, as he took the
boots into the work room behind.
‘If she gets through first,’ said Jack, raising his voice as Walter
disappeared from sight.
‘Well, how about a cuppa then, just to make sure of it? I’ll put the
kettle on, come round the back.’
Jack felt a little compromised. By rights he was meant to join
Emma, but he didn’t think she would mind.
63
The first cup was appreciated and the second was running its
course when Emma broke up the party, as one of her gathered
friends had planned.
‘It’s alright for some,’ she rebuked, bringing Jack and Walter to
their feet.
‘Morning Emma,’ said Walter sheepishly, not that he was aware
of any wrong. Although he did look like a recalcitrant school boy
whose teacher had cut short his fun. ‘He’s all yours now,’ he
added quickly, passing the buck to Jack.
‘Well, if he has finished here,’ she continued dryly, in a way
calculated to add to the guilt. Not that this pair would mind.
‘Sure. Thanks again, Walter,’ smiled Jack. ‘I’ll take good care of
them.’
‘Bring them back if there’s any trouble. And I’ll have the others
for you next week.’
‘Others?’ questioned Emma.
‘My old pair,’ explained Jack. ‘Walter’s fixing them up.’
‘No extra charge, Emma. They’ll do for around the farm. No point
ruining those.’
Emma looked reassured but, to Walter’s disappointment, not much
was said after that. Emma declined a cup and, with their business
done, they headed back to her farm, though for Jack it had been
more pleasure than enterprise.
‘You and Walter enjoy your little chat?’ asked Emma at the reins,
the dappled shadows softening her face in the noon spring light.
Jack rolled his tongue along the inside of his right cheek. ‘He’s a
good man, Emma,’ he said, recovering the initiative by changing
tack.
But Emma didn’t rise to his lure. ‘Good for what, Jack?’
‘For whatever you have in mind, Emma,’ he replied, cheekily.

64
But Emma was reluctant to be drawn. ‘There’s nothing on my
mind, Jack. And I suggest that you leave it at that.’
‘Sure, Emma,’ he agreed. ‘I didn’t mean to stir things up.’
‘We’re just good friends, that’s all. There’s nothing more to it than
that.’
‘If you say so, Emma.’
Emma let the conversation pause till curiosity at last unloosened
her tongue. ‘Why, what’s he been saying, then?’
‘Nothing.’
‘Nothing?’
‘Not in so many words.’
‘Well we’re just good friends, Jack, alright? And,’ she repeated,
‘let’s just leave it at that.’
‘Sure,’ he said, straight faced.
But Emma wasn’t entirely satisfied and looked about the country
to relax. Jack was amused by her discomfort and made a point of
not looking her way. Not directly that is but sideways, now and
then, with a smile.
Suddenly, however, Emma’s face took on a troubled aspect. But it
was worry not embarrassment that stalled her and she pulled back
upon the reins sharply.
‘What is it?’ asked Jack.
‘That’s odd,’ she said quietly, directing his gaze to their left where
the cemetery lay.
The graveyard was perched on a gentle hill below them and a new
grave lay open to the day.
‘The boy’s?’
Emma nodded. ‘Must be. Let’s take a look,’ she said.
65
A track led the way. The clay had dried considerably in the dry
northerly wind of recent days and it was pretty easy going for the
team.
There was no sign of any one else about as they pulled up to walk
between the graves: all were in pretty good repair. The boy’s spot
was in a far corner, with no others sharing the nearby ground. The
child had been put to bed in a cold quarter, alone.
Jack’s eyes fell upon the wooden crosses flanking the avenue of
graves. There was something odd about the place: there were no
old markers, no stone markers from the past that could afford
them, only the wooden ones of today. Faded crosses, yes. Some on
their way to anonymity after a decade or two. But nothing beyond
that. This was a new cemetery. Just like the town. It wasn’t
something he’d come across before. Topia was probably the only
town in the country with a new place for the dead. Maybe that was
it. Prosperity at work again. The old one was full and a new one
had taken its place. Maybe.
They paused by the boy’s grave. The earth had been hurriedly
removed from the grave and the body was not there.
‘Didn’t notice this on the way in, did you Jack?’
Jack shook his head. ‘Didn’t really look this way.’
‘No. Me either. They probably did it last night.’
‘They?’
‘Friends or family, or both.’
Jack hesitated. ‘But why bother to re-bury the dead?’
‘Perhaps they cared more for him than this,’ she said looking
about.
Perhaps. It wouldn’t be hard. But it still didn’t seem reasonable to
Jack. ‘I thought they were too wild for this sort of thing? Just
outsiders scavenging what they can?’
‘Wild? In some ways, yes. Always been a bit of a problem
66
hereabouts. Taking stock when they’re hungry, other food when
no one’s about. But more than that who knows? Who knows what
they feel and think? I certainly don’t, but then, there’s a lot that I
don’t know. They’re not the only outsiders, Jack.’
Jack understood; understood that she was aware that she didn’t
know and understood why she had never found out. ‘Ever seen
them? Besides the boy I mean.’
Emma shook her head. ‘I don’t think there are many about, in fact.
Just a few stragglers, trying to survive. Like the rest of us. Didn’t
think they would bother with a thing like this either. And you’re
right there, Jack. It doesn’t seem to fit.’
‘Maybe they’re not going to take it lying down.’
‘Maybe,’ she conceded. ‘They must be feeling something deep to
take back his body. Makes you think a bit more of them,’ she said,
scouring the hills beyond. ‘And more about them,’ she added,
glancing at Jack.
Jack peered towards the west. The dusky ranges crouched
defensively under the afternoon sun, hiding in their shadows the
native animals that would come down later to graze, and the feral
ones that would follow in their tracks; perhaps gazing even now
with predatory eyes at the prosperous valley below.

67
Forsaken Thirteen: Fires

Jill stared ponderingly into the flickering coals, wincing at the


flying sparks that suddenly shot towards her as Martin carelessly
tossed on another log. It was typical of Martin’s disregard for
consequences and others that he should disturb both the fire and
her thoughts so coarsely. It wasn’t selfishness that made him so,
for he was as apt to injure himself as he was others by such acts.
No, his inconsideration was the result of a bitter indifference to a
world that seemed indifferent to him. Uncared for in his youth, he
took no care himself and had allies more than friends to stick
beside. Not that allies were not more valued by him than are
friends to most; he would die for them if it came to that. And Jill
would too. She was a lot like him and she knew it.
And that she did know it was the difference that marked them off.
For awareness of what the world had done to Martin and the
others had taught her the full meaning of injustice, seen and felt;
and a hatred of injustice made her just. So, instead of disregard she
had learned by hate to care, and that is why the others listened to
what she said. They knew she did not love but equally they knew
how much she cared. And they knew that self regard was not
behind the judgements of her mind. So long as she was upright,
they followed and she led.
Thus had common forces forged different products from different
metals in the fires of the past; but all of a kind and bound.
Jill’s thoughts settled with the flames that now licked hungrily at
the new log like a dog gnawing at a bone. The bright light from
the fire’s yellow tongues illuminated the sharp features of Jill’s
strong young face and flashed brilliantly in the green eyes that
seemed to burn like the fire they reflected. She felt herself being
drawn into the coals as if her soul sought some searing ember to
cauterise the pain that cried within her breast, a pain that burned
coldly within her and which, amplified and focused by internal
reflection, was directed by her eyes towards the world, the
68
wronging world. Hers was an active gaze, objects were less seen
than looked upon and the emanations that gave rise to vision for
her came less from without than within.
Others might have wept but weeping was not her way. Not for her
the luxury of lament even for a beloved brother, as she regarded
him to be, before unjust death had come to him.
Justice cried for vengeance and vengeance was what she would
have. The vengeance of a knife, of blood, of kind. Hard justice,
punishment equal to the deed.
The fire had been burning all day; consuming the shell that
foreigners had fashioned for the empty corpse of her brother. Now
the box was all but gone, the flesh it housed inside all but
consumed and the charred remaining bones blanketed in a felt of
soft and fine pure ash. But the real fire burned on within his living
sister’s heart.
Funeral fires burn longest in the hearts of those denied. For them,
revenge cries quietly for its day.

69
Forsaken Fourteen: The Verdict Of The Stars

The tavern was always well frequented on the eve of a Sabbath,


when the week’s work was behind and done. Jordan rarely
indulged in celebrations of that kind but Tom and others, mainly
male and young, were among the core of regular patrons eager to
submerse themselves in drink. Tomorrow, fit for little else after
their excesses of the previous night, they would rest.
Although the bar had no official closing time, Nora knew her job,
including just how far to let them go. She had the will and robust
manner to call things quits if matters got out of hand or if some
sodden loner lingered beyond a decent hour. And previous
demonstrations of that willingness and ability gave her decision
considerable authority with her youthful custom, cutting even
through the dimness of insobriety in most. Besides, she could also
count on the assistance of others in the bar: premature closure of
the tavern posed quite a threat to young rams enjoying their once a
week treat.
And so when Tom encroached upon the bounds of safe carousal,
his friends were keen to calm his spirits down. Not that he was
violent, though some bitterness under ran his grins, and his loud
jibes were not exactly funny any more. Certainly, his uncle Jordan
would not have smiled. So the signs of fast appearing trouble were
clearly there. The week had been something of a strain all round,
first the ugly drowning of the boy and then the disturbing
disappearance of his corpse.
Everyone who knew Tom knew that Tom would take it hard, and
he did. After all, he had been at the centre of events, an essential
link in the chain of cause and effect that took the boy early to his
grave; and out again.
Nora was more observant of such things than most. The town’s
troubles usually came to the tavern and she had learnt to watch for
unfolding telltale signs. She was, in many ways, above the town,
like the priests of yesterday’s towns, separate from the rest and
70
yet amongst them still. What the town suffered, she saw, and
sometimes cushioned with advice. She knew that, after Jordan, she
was perhaps the most important person in Topia and that the
tavern played a useful role in venting pressures in the young. So
tonight she let things go for longer than was the norm, giving Tom
more slack than others had previously enjoyed. Besides, Tom was
not exactly riffraff in Topia; well connected and liked, he would
run the Co-op himself one day, when Jordan stepped aside. And
everything depended on the Co-op, the hub of Topia’s economic
wheels; wheels that moved Topia forward as they revolved, taking
some, perhaps, a little further than the rest. Taking Nora in
particular where she wanted to go.
So Tom, generally well behaved, got rather drunker on that night
than perhaps he ought and would otherwise have been allowed.
And he said some things that otherwise would not have passed his
lips, which is where Nora thought it prudent to finally draw the
line.
Friends saw him out the tavern door and pointed him towards his
house.
The eviction was partially sobering for young Tom in more ways
than one. First, he had never suffered that indignity before and,
secondly, the chill air outside pricked his face and helped to focus
what little reason he could bring to bear on the problem of getting
home. Throwing off his friends who were only too glad to
exchange the street for the comfort of the bar, he set off down the
road with as much discipline in his stagger as the grog he had
imbibed would permit.
The events of the week swirled in his foggy mind. He could still
see the boy, squatting against the Co-op wall, innocent in his guilt;
could still see the body as it fell helplessly into the river; and could
still imagine the screams of the drowning soul which had become
that much louder for being unheard. And, although he hadn’t
stayed to see the boy cut free and carted off, he’d seen it once
before: the limp blue flesh and the still lifeless eyes. So, in his
mind, he could picture the dead boy now, stretched out before him
on the lonely road.

71
It is doubtful that he understood or felt much for very long, it all
happened so fast: only, perhaps, the burning shock of the narrow
blade that pierced his heart. They let him slide, lifeless, against the
wall of the alley that they had quickly dragged him down.
It was easy done and quietly too. Easier and less violent than she
had thought. But more blood than she had expected; on the knife,
on her hand, and on herself. She smeared some from the blade
onto her cheeks and turned to face the moon.
Jill was glad the moon had witnessed her revenge. From the
distance of the moon the deed must, she believed, have seemed
right. To understand the wrong that made the murder right, you
had to see it from afar and she did not fear the verdict of the stars.

72
Forsaken Fifteen: Promise Unfulfilled

The grey dawn, penetrated here and there by orange streaks too
dull to warm the cheerless hearts of assembled mourners, presided
over Topia’s landscape: an empty town; a cold river; and a
graveyard gathering.
Jordan stood at the head of the damp clay sided hole that would
soon receive the lifeless body of his adopted son. The good book
rested limply in the old man’s wrinkled hand.
‘Call no man happy until he is dead,’ he said in a slow and
wavering monotone, with red glazed eyes that looked beyond
those standing near or far. For who can say of a life that it was
good or bad until the final chapter has been wrote.
‘But can that judgement be made now for Tom? Should this be the
final chapter, a body interred unavenged in an early grave? No.
The final chapter of this life has not been wrote, is not now being
written by some disinterested hand, and won’t be written until his
murder is atoned.
‘Only then can Tom’s life be rightfully reckoned, and reckoned to
his credit. For this boy’s body points not to his enemies but to
ours; enemies that we have neglected too long and for which we
have paid this price. It has cost us a life to realise our mistake.
That is Tom’s legacy to us. He has reminded us of our failings.
And for that we thank him now, thank him for his sacrifice.
‘Topia is a promise to the future that we have not yet fulfilled, just
as Tom’s body is a promise unfulfilled. If we do not fulfil those
promises, that will be our sin.
‘We bury our past weakness today with the body of a friend, a
nephew, a son and a needed man. The line of his parents has ended
but Topia, survives as their grateful heir.
‘And so we remember and thank Tom’s parents too in this prayer,

73
as we lay their son beside them. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ replied the assembly.
‘Let the cross read: here lies a blameless man,’ added Jordan,
before lowering his head. ‘Amen.’
‘Amen,’ was again the reply, whereupon the young pall-bearers,
who had drunk and joked so often with their friend, lowered
Tom’s coffin into the welcoming grave.
And, as Jordan again read from the book, townsfolk new and old
passed by sombrely, reaching for handfuls of clay that fell like
drumbeats slowly upon the lid:
‘Long ago I prepared it.
From days of old I planned it.
And now I have brought it to pass.’
When the last had paraded by, Jordan re-opened the book and,
with new vigour, read alone and aloud:
‘Fearful shall they come, at the counting up of their sins, and their
lawless deeds shall convict them to their face.
Then shall the just one with great assurance confront his
oppressors who set at nought his labours.
Seeing this, they shall be shaken with dreadful fear...’
Emma touched Jack’s arm as they filed out of the cemetery gate,
slowing him so she could turn to study Jordan as he read. His
words disturbed her deeply and his determined stand, book in
hand, and mouth unstilled, filled her with foreboding.
Jack looked at her quizzically and then at the subject of her gaze.
Suddenly, even as Jack looked, Jordan raised his head and
returned their gaze; returned their anxious stare with the
unblinking coolness of a determined soul, warning interferers
away.
‘Let’s go,’ said Emma, her eyes still fixed upon Jordan.

74
And that was just fine by Jack. Outsiders should not intrude.
Yes, it was time to leave, alright. Time to leave the farm behind
them to Walter’s occasional care, time to pack up and go. Topia
should be left to its wounds. For all that had happened, they still
did not belong where they lived. No shame in that. They were
traders and traders belonged on the road.
And so he longed for the road again now, longed as he never had
before. For as hard as the road had been had it not also been his
friend?

75
Forsaken Sixteen: Heading South

Their wagon loaded the previous day, Emma and Jack made a start
with the sun, sharing, like all willing travellers, in the untroubled
pleasure of setting out. Today was a new chapter in their lives, like
the first day on the farm had been, only somehow closer to their
real and common inclinations. Theirs was a kindred joy; in the
beginning, everything is pregnant with prospect in a traveller’s
heart.
But there was no avoiding Topia on their way and their spirits
ceased to drink freely from their well of optimism as they
traversed the bridge and rolled on through the main street of the
town. Together, they breathed an inner sigh of relief as they
passed through the outskirts and ventured at last upon the
outbound road.
To a soul accustomed to bushscape, the yellow wattle and the
thick green scrub alive with bird song made a pleasant change
from the cultivated paddocks of Topia. Yes, Jack was glad to see
the back of the place; at least for a while. But, unlike the past, this
time he knew he would return. And that was an important
difference. Despite recent events, Topia had provided him with
comforts that he had never expected would come his way. He
wasn’t sure that his links with the town would ever be permanent
but he knew that he would be giving it another go. He had to get
out for now, had to cleanse himself inside, but the town had been
good to him too. It had put fat beneath his skin and leather under
his feet. And this time on the road he was no mean traveller
drifting hopelessly down the track but a man with a purpose,
riding high on a wagon above the dust, in the company of a friend.
It was the ideal job for someone like him: he could benefit from
the town and get away from it to; enjoy its prosperity but not
shoulder its sins. Things were beginning to look good again.
He stroked Reuben with his left hand, nursing the old shotgun on
his lap with his right. They weren’t far from Topia but there was

76
danger about nonetheless. Danger enough for the gun. Trouble
seemed to be brewing in the forest and the fewer the risks they
took the better.
Emma was glad of Jack’s caution. Ordinarily, she felt a little
reluctant to make pace when travelling this outward leg, the leg of
least concern, but now she was keen to put as much distance
between herself and Topia as possible, short of over doing it with
the team. It worried her that Jordan had let slip the dogs of war,
and she was frightened of what they might flush out; what
sleeping menace in the hills might wander from its nest.
But as the miles passed, so did her cares. Soon even the decrepit
church was behind them and the town was far from her thoughts.
The snaking river too passed eventually into the wake of time, and
the late afternoon sun, bursting softly from a clearing sky, found
them near the highway once again, where Emma turned the team
to the south.
The first day’s leg was approaching an end and soon it would be
time to make camp. Emma knew where, of course. She had
marked her favourites spots indelibly on the road map she had
sketched in her mind over the many years: the sites that would do
in a storm and the ones that hid her from the road and from what
the road might bring. Tonight’s proposed camp was just half a
mile down the track. A stream marked the turn off the road onto a
solid flat bank where the horses could graze round a bend and
where a modest fire would be masked by trees. No weary straggler
with nothing worth stealing would bother wandering so far
upstream, not when soft camps were to be had near the road. That
was the theory, anyway.
It was almost sunset when they arrived.
‘Tomorrow, you can drive,’ she said to Jack, carefully stepping
down and brushing the dust from her jeans.
‘You’re on,’ he accepted keenly, uncradling the gun and
descending to help with the team. He had next to no experience
handling horses and it was a skill he would fast need to acquire.
After the team had been unhitched and watered by the creek,
77
Jack put on their hobbles and left them to graze along the bank.
Meanwhile, Emma had set about establishing their dry weather
camp. ‘Give us a hand, Jack,’ she said, unfolding the tarpaulin she
had freed from all but one side of the wagon.
Jack accepted the offered corner and, following her action with
eye and hand, helped to stretch the tarp from the wagon to the
ground where it was fixed by a peg into the soft river sand. Shelter
from the dew, the easy way; the way you wanted it to be after a
long day done and before a quick start at dawn. And, rough as it
was, it was a good overnight camp by any standard, at least of his
standard, and warmer than he had previously slept under the
familiar Southern Cross, the only constellation that he knew.
He looked momentarily up at the myriad of stars which sparkled
brilliantly before his eyes, the way they do when cold unclouded
night air bites at naked skin.
‘Catch,’ said Emma, tossing Jack the flint box in a bid to have him
strike up a cooking fire. She had already seen to a fireplace, years
ago as it turned out, using a dozen good size rocks then laying
about. So all Jack had to do was to fill the well placed ring with
dry grass and twigs and then get the flame to start. A few breaths
and not a little coaxing later, the flames finally took heart and
before long they were licking voraciously at a log.
Thereafter, the two travellers took their ease on nearby blankets,
soaking up the camp-fire’s warmth and cheer. It was about as
pleasant as it gets on a journey, waiting quietly for the billy to boil
and savouring the promise of dinner cooking in the cast iron camp
oven covered in soft glowing coals. Emma had brought fresh meat
for their first meal and a stew with carrots was on the menu. Stews
were her favourite travelling repast, she found them warming and
easy to manage; spoon and bowl tucker that slips down well.
They kept their thoughts pretty much to themselves as the fire
crackled, its flickering flames reflecting from their inner eyes.
Each was lost to the wider world, until, that is, the wider world at
length discovered them.
‘Hello in the camp!’ hailed the stranger’s voice, intruding
irreverently from the shadows. Jack and Emma turned with a
78
start and Reuben growled and barked.
Rising to his feet, Jack eased towards the wagon and the gun,
while Emma held Reuben at bay, just.
The stranger was in the firelight now. He had a disarming look
about his friendly face and relaxed gait that took some of the
tension out of his surprise calling from the dark. But the disarming
ones were the most dangerous in Emma’s book of life.
‘Nice fire,’ he observed, sociably. It was not taken as a trivial
remark on a road where not everyone had the means to ignite the
fuel laying everywhere about.
‘Travelling alone?’ asked Emma, still holding Reuben as Jack
scanned for others in the moonlight.
‘Not if I can help it,’ he replied.
Fair enough, these days. ‘And tonight?’ pursued Emma.
‘Just me,’ he replied, unperturbed, glancing hungrily at the flames.
‘Saw your tracks down river.’
Yes, the tracks were always a worry, in the twilight time of night.
The main thing was that he said he was alone and she believed
him, on that score at least; and felt more relaxed about him being
there. If he knew about them then it was best that they knew about
him, and made him a friend for the night. For Emma understood
that in these times hospitality was a precaution of the exposed and
that it could pay to play the host to uninvited guests. ‘Help
yourself,’ she said, releasing Reuben when the stranger sat down.
Jack caught Emma’s eye. ‘Might go for a wander,’ he said.
Emma nodded her approval. Reuben would be enough protection
for her, and it would be comforting to confirm the newcomer’s
assertion that he was indeed alone.
She studied the stranger’s face unabashedly as Jack faded into the
night. He looked part Asian, she decided, with something darker in
his features besides: Aboriginal perhaps. His nose had been
broken more than once and there were small scars above his
79
eyes where the ridge of the sockets meets the skin. He had taken
more than one good hiding in his life. And that made him
something of an enigma. On the one hand, he seemed harmless but
on the other, he bore the signs of fighting on his face.
‘Rudd,’ he said, nodding. ‘Rudd Lee.’
Emma smiled and introduced herself.
‘Heading south?’ he asked.
‘Melbourne,’ she said. ‘You?’
‘Melbourne,’ he replied, alike.
‘Calling on friends?’
‘Friends?’ he hesitated. ‘Yeah, something like that.’
‘But not friends?’
‘Other fighters,’ he expanded, pointing to his scars. ‘Morgan
Templeton’s Boxing Show.’
‘Templeton’s?’ she had heard of them. Pugs playing the
warehouses for a few credits and a feed. One of the few
entertainments still to be had. Hard, perhaps, but no harder than
life generally was these days.
‘Three rounds with the mugs, that’s me. Till I had a gut full.
Checked out last winter. Thought I’d see what sunny Sydney had
to offer, eh.’
‘No luck?’
‘Well, it was sunny.’
‘But no action?’
‘Bit of security work, if you follow me.’
Emma had a fair idea. The haves against the have nots. The haves
keeping what they had by whatever means could be obtained. ‘So,
back to Melbourne, then?’
80
‘That’s right. If they’ll have me back.’
‘And if not?’
Rudd sighed. ‘See what comes up, I reckon.’
Emma nodded. End of story. She was satisfied that he was telling
the truth. Rudd had been pretty frank and the scars certainly bore
him out. ‘I could stretch the stew if you’re interested?’ she invited.
Hunger would not make him their friend but a modest plate might.
‘Lady, you just hit the nail on the head.’
‘Emma,’ she reminded him, engaging his eyes.
‘Emma,’ he followed suit. ‘If there’s something I can do, just let
me know. To earn my keep, I mean.’
Emma smiled. ‘You can repay me with information, about what
we might find up ahead.’
‘In Melbourne?’
‘And the warehouses down that way.’
Rudd knew about the warehouses, alright. They were the patrons
and venues of his trade. ‘Well, I’m no expert, Emma, but I s’pose I
know more about that side of Melbourne life than most, and I’ve
got no secrets to hold.’
Jack was not long coming back but by then the decision had been
made. Rudd would be riding along too.

81
Forsaken Seventeen: A Pretty Fair Team

Jack was awake by dawn’s eve and gave some thought to getting
up. He knew there would be enough life in the morning coals to
get a fire going without too much trouble and it was a pleasure that
he thought was worth rising early to enjoy. He liked the smell of
camp-fire smoke, the spectacle of fresh flames devouring twigs
that he fed them periodically, and the unnatural heat, for that time
of day, that warmed the chill skin on both his face and hands while
his mind ranged over memories and plans, at will. And he had a
lot to think about. There was a long road ahead and who knows
what problems waiting for them at the other end; not to mention
the stranger sleeping under their tarp.
A good twenty minutes must have passed before a currawong’s
chatty conversation from a nearby ragged gum finally awakened
him to his social responsibilities, leading him to wander down
towards the creek to fill the blackened billy for their morning
brew.
Rudd was next to rise and was quick to appreciate the fruit of
Jack’s early morning labours, before Jack returned from the creek.
Squatting down, he bathed his hands pleasurably in the invisible
ball of radiance surrounding the now mature fire.
Emma chose to linger in the warmth of her bedding instead. Not
that she was lazy, but she could see advantages in letting the men
sort themselves out a bit first and, on the strength of that, savoured
her little lie in. She knew that Jack was less comfortable than she
was about letting Rudd tag along and that he might not have
appreciated being excluded from the decision. But she was also
confident that things would work themselves out, given half a
chance, and, with that in mind, she tucked in that much more
snugly, free from any pricking of guilt.
Rudd greeted Jack with a smile upon the latter’s return, carefully
bearing a billy full of nature’s own. However, the best that Jack
82
could manage was a lukewarm ‘G’day.’ It wasn’t that he didn’t
respect the man but what business had this stranger with them?
Sure, someone like Rudd could be useful in a difficult spot and he
seemed to know his way around the major warehouses alright. But
maybe that was the problem. Maybe he was too close to them.
Maybe Rudd would sell he and Emma out to get back in with the
warehouse bosses. And then again, maybe he was just a little
jealous of the bloke. Maybe he was really worried that Rudd
would come between him and Emma. And that thought, the
realisation that he was small enough to entertain it, and the
knowledge that he knew that Rudd could see that he entertained it,
irked him.
Nor could his anxiety be easily set aside. Emma had been
generous to him, maybe she would be generous to Rudd too. And
Rudd didn’t strike him as a man who would settle for second
fiddle if Emma did take him on, long term that is.
But that wasn’t Rudd’s aim, and Rudd tried to show it, sipping on
tea and enjoying the fire in the background, while Emma, now
risen and chirpy by choice, made a point of putting Jack first.
Jack began to relax. It seemed like everyone was bending
overboard for him so how could he complain? Then breakfast with
eggs went down smoothly all round and hearts lightened up with
the day.
So by the time they had cleaned up and packed, Emma reckoned
that they were shaping up to be a pretty fair team, and like them
she was anxious to get under way.
Jack accepted that it was Emma’s show but was glad to be holding
the reins. And that’s the way Emma felt too. Things were working
out well it seemed; no lonely trip this one. And she saw Rudd as a
definite advantage for their risky Melbourne run. He had already
contributed knowledge about which traders were to be trusted and
who dealt in what. So between Rudd, Reuben and Jack, a fighter a
dog and a gun, they were looking pretty solid now, she thought.
But if there was a risk, it was with Rudd, alright. Could he really
be taken at face value? On the whole she thought so. He lived by a
hard won trade and he possessed the sort of pride that usually
83
ran with honesty. The pride of someone who fights by the rules.
He was no thug and he wasn’t sly either. Yes, she thought, Rudd
would earn his keep without much doubt.
For his part, Rudd was just glad of the ride. His stomach was full,
his feet were up, the sun was shining and he was in good
company. He lived his life by the day and today life looked good.
This round was going well.
It was a fine start to what would be a fine journey; blessed by blue
sky days and star lit nights. The obstacles that came were not
unexpected and were well within their grasp. A wind felled tree
stalled them at Holbrook and a broken bridge across the Murray
got them wet. But as is often the way with a journey, the easy
miles made up for the hard ones and their efforts made them
friends along the way.

84
Forsaken Eighteen: Pursuit

Jill paused by a cleft rock near the summit and turned to watch her
pursuers below. Her green eyes were filled with bitter and hostile
contempt for the diminutive subjects of her focus. She recognised
some of the men who were scurrying along on her trail like
rodents but regretted that Jordan was not amongst them. She knew
there was no danger of her being captured. The dogs were on to
her scent downwind but it was a steep climb and she had a
winning lead. It was easy sport for her. Soon they would be on the
plateau in the dry scrub lands and her job would be all but done.
Martin and the others were relieved to see her in the woods. She
passed them by without acknowledgment, heading straight for the
ready fire that was stocked with thin logs lined radially, their
points converging in the flaming centre like spokes in a wheel.
With a slow but determined motion, she retrieved one of the logs
from the flames and, holding the blazing torch high in her hand,
turned to face the gathering crowd. Speech was unnecessary, her
action was eloquence enough. It was now time for others to act, in
step with her, and they willingly joined the dance.
Martin advanced first, then the other women and men followed,
each plucking a child from the breasts of the mother fire.
A smile blended of hate and pleasure hardened upon Jill’s face as
she nodded and put her torch to a leafy nearby branch. The oils in
the eucalyptus exploded in flame and the unleashed fire was quick
to consume as it rose towards the sky like a vengeful prayer.
Taking their lead from her, the others fanned out into a line and
did likewise. The blaze burst upwards from branch to branch,
sweeping forward hungrily in the fresh warm winds of the hot dry
afternoon as it reached for the scrubland.
At the first sign of smoke, the pursuers turned in retreat. Dogs and
men ran in a panic back the way they had come, desperately
fleeing the racing conflagration. But the wind outran their legs, the
flames leaping anarchically from bush to bush, skipping
85
intervening ground in its advance but wasting everything in its
wake.
Jordan looked up from his porch and saw the line of rising smoke.
The napping town was not itself directly threatened but he knew
that his men were up there and felt their fear. Running straight for
the mill house, he sprang for the suspended rusty steel rim that
served for Topia’s alarm, striking it furiously with the iron bar that
hung ready from a rope, pounding the rim from the inside round
and round with such force that each blow shocked the worn joints
in his hand.
The town responded to his call. A rescue party formed from the
confusion of action and sound, assembling on the move from those
about who could quickly find a mount, whether theirs or not being
of no importance or account. A few urging shouts and directing
gestures comprised as much organisation as time would allow
before they rushed to the scene, time passing painfully slow in the
gallop to men who would be there now.
The anxious riders first encountered the party’s dogs, making
madly for town and whining like pigs in a panic. But, closer to
their destination, their horses suddenly halted. There was no going
further. The flames and heat could not be traversed, the rescuers
had to wait. And luck had been kind to them for that; ten minutes
earlier and they would have been mourned along with the rest. But
it was a sickening luck just the same. All they could do was sit in
their saddles and watch as the inferno swept before them on its
way, jumping the road without hesitation and driving the roos
from the shadows, as it thirsted like the desperate animals for the
cool river below.
Afterwards, though the flames had long passed by, their horses
were still troubled by smoke, so they left their mounts behind
them as they entered the smouldering bush. They searched with
speed but with reluctant spirits too, more in hope than expectation,
fearful of what they would eventually find amongst the ashes.
It was easy to find their way, too easy. There was no scrub or leaf
on saplings to impede their progress or view. The hill was stripped
of cover like ant scavenged bones.
86
Jordan discovered the first remnant of the party he had sent out,
but he had no idea who it was. He touched the blackened head
with both hands. The smell of cracked flesh sickened him, and a
wildness welled within, a craving wildness that fed upon both this
moment and the past. In part he blamed himself but mostly he
blamed others: enemies who would surely pay for what they now
had done.
So the dead were found and the dead were mourned. And the dead
were remembered too.

87
Forsaken Nineteen: Billy Green Takes No Offence

The outskirts of Melbourne, deserted of permanent residents, were


no more than a border zone between a dying heart and an
encroaching bush. Broken only by the cold sea to the south and by
careless creeks and rivers, the suburbs formed a strangling ring
around the city’s putrefying core. Depopulation had turned
housing estates into wasteland and the survivors had either drifted
into the countryside scavenging for food, or gravitated to the city’s
concrete centre where attachment to an emerging commercial
power provided some means of sustenance. Apart from temporary
squatters and vagabonds occupying occasional intact dwellings
along the major routes, the suburbs were as lifeless as the limbs of
a long dead eucalypt.
But some traffic still trickled through the arterial roads, where
lingering no-hopers looked to feed upon passing traders or private
travellers wealthy enough to tempt fate. Security did not extend
this far out, making the routes dangerous to inexperienced
merchants who did not know how to safely pick their way through
the skeletal streets. Although the bosses kept order within their
own interest zones, their responsibilities were strictly parochial.
The only force with any inter-zonal authority in Melbourne was
the Brigade, which had saved the city from fires more than once
and which kept the water flowing from the dams.
The Brigade did not govern, the Bosses individually did that, but it
was the only city wide service that had yet to be partitioned
between the commercial powers. In fact, its functions had grown,
this enhanced utility offsetting the growing tensions between it
and the provincial Bosses. But it was a delicate balance. For the
present, each force needed the other and they were content to
leave it at that. Accordingly, it was understood that the Brigade
would not interfere in the Bosses’ squabbles and that the Bosses
would pay the Brigade its fair due for services rendered: failure to
do so was tantamount to letting an insurance policy lapse and the
risks were too great for that.
88
But unlike the Bosses, the Brigade had an ethos; its members
regarded themselves as being above the rest. Municipal and State
servants who had never left their post established it and selective
recruitment kept it going without falter or lapse. They weren’t all
fire-fighters to begin with; but fire had been the first challenge that
could be met. Unlike the killing disease, fires could be put out. All
that was required was will and water. Then the needs of public
health built naturally upon that. Thus water and drains became the
Brigade’s stock and trade, its business and its duty. Fire-fighters,
police, clerks, soldiers, nurses and engineers were all represented
in its ranks, as were doctors, who found that self employment was
not much of an option in a world without money. You had to be
part of a team to be fed reliably these days.
In a sense, the Brigade was the city, it was the only common
denominator. Its elected Commissioner was the central public
figure, drawing her influence and supplies from the needs and
wealth of the warehouse Bosses. They needed her and she needed
them, at least that’s how it had been until now. But even the
Commissioner’s authority stopped short of the outer suburbs.
Although the Brigade’s warrant gave it unrestricted freedom to
wander the streets day and night, it did not venture into the
crumbling brick backyard of Melbourne town, except along the
water routes.
Which is why Emma, who held the reins so that Jack could look
more threatening with the gun, kept them on the move. The empty
suburbs were no place to take a break. Knowing this, she had
planned their last camp to bring them within earshot of the
outskirts, so they could make it to the warehouses in a day; one
long and worrying day.
Jack cradled the gun like a veteran and Rudd sat defiantly at the
rear, presenting his pugnacious face to inquisitive eyes, dangling
his legs cheekily over the back. While Reuben, sensing the anxiety
of the others, was never still, jumping nervously back and forth
over the covered load, eager to snap at any approaching hands.
Their destination, on Rudd’s advice, was one of the great
warehouses in the city’s west. Westdep had been a military stores
complex until the Corporal had staked his claim. Like the other
89
Bosses, he had been ruthless in his rise, gradually supplementing
military stores with civilian supplies obtained at first by raids and
later by trade. Survival rations and arms had seen Westdep
through the chaos of those early days and the aged Corporal was
said to still be very much in control.
They had decided on the Corporal because Rudd considered him
to be fair and because Westdep lay within a day’s radius of a rural
camp on their route. Inside Westdep’s compound, according to
Rudd, they would be safe; but not before then though.
Certainly not now, thought Jack, as his eyes picked out the most
menacing man in view: standing tall and shabbily over a desperate
looking group huddled by a kerbside fire in the distance. He hailed
the traders brazenly as they neared. ‘Nice day for it,’ he beamed,
like a smiling spider.
Jack tightened his grip on the gun.
Emma kept her eyes on the road.
‘First time in town?’ the man pressed, his long legs carrying his
strong frame at a walking pace that equalled an average man’s run.
Emma decided against speeding up the team. Why should they
show fear? She continued to ignore him, as did the others.
‘Perhaps I can be of some assistance, then?’ he presumed.
Reuben growled as the vagabond temporarily ventured nearer.
‘Allow me to introduce myself’,’ he bowed flamboyantly,
‘William Green, Billy to my friends, the best guide to be had in
Melbourne town.’
This time Emma did reply. ‘We know our way, thanks just the
same.’
He focused now on her. ‘No doubt you do, Ma’am, a map will tell
you how to manage that. But I know the hazards and traps. I can
steer you to clean water and snug boarding for yourselves and
your team. And all for the price of a ride. What could be fairer
than that?’
90
Emma’s eyes remained fixed upon the road ahead. ‘Sorry, we’re
full,’ she replied.
‘Full, eh?’ said Billy. ‘Well that’s very unfortunate, is it not?’
‘Not for us, Mr Green.’
‘Now, now, you can’t be sure of that.’
Emma threw him a hard gaze. ‘I trust that’s not a threat,
Mr Green.’
Billy raised his hands in a show of submission. ‘Threat, now how
could anyone think that? Just look at you, with your guns and
dogs. And take a look at me. I’m as harmless as a new born babe
by comparison.
‘But I understand your predicament and Billy Green takes no
offence. These are terrible times for travellers, I know. You can’t
trust a soul, not even your friends. And no one needs more
enemies than they’ve got already for sure; not you and not me. So,
just to show you there’s no hard feelings, I’ll walk along with your
wagon anyway and keep an eye out for trouble, and I won’t expect
anything for the service, either. Not even thanks, Ma’am, not even
that; for the satisfaction of doing a good turn in a troubled world
should be satisfaction enough for any man still livin’ today.’
Weary of the man’s cheeky company, Jack levelled the gun
directly at Billy Green’s chest.
‘Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all,’ said the giant,
with a smile. ‘You don’t seem to be in the mood for company and
I’ve no wish not to outlive my welcome, if you follow my drift.’
‘We quite understand, Mr Green,’ said Emma with a tight lipped
smile, as the wagon pulled steadily away.
‘Until we meet again!’ cried Billy after them, saluting with his hat.
‘And take care, now,’ he added, meaningfully, ‘the suburbs are no
place to relax.’
Rudd’s eyes were full of caution, as he watched the big man
recede into the distance, out of shotgun range, but no further.
91
For the hitch-hiker had become a stalker, following doggedly in
their tracks.
Emma expressed the uneasiness of the group. ‘What do you
suppose is his game?’ she asked.
Jack shrugged. ‘Want’s to know where we’re going, I guess,’ he
replied.
‘What do you think, Rudd?’
Rudd hesitated before replying. ‘He look’s like a scout to me.’
‘A scout?’ asked Emma, unfamiliar with the local import of the
term.
‘Freelancing for raiders; for whoever will give him a cut. He’ll
probably follow us all the way if he can, then come back and pass
on the news to others. So they can get us on the outward leg. It’s
easier than raiding the Bosses and they can trade back what they
get to someone else.’
Emma was puzzled. It had been a long time since she had been in
town. Things seemed more organised now. ‘Why not just set up
road-blocks and get everyone coming in and out?’
‘The warehouses wouldn’t stand for it. They’d have security
people there in a flash. Might even send the Brigade. They depend
on country traders like you. All the warehouses really do is trade
old city goods for rural produce. And the Brigade feeds from the
same trough.’
‘It’s a loser’s game in the long run,’ observed Jack.
Rudd agreed. ‘But there’s a lot of stuff still left for now. I
wouldn’t like to be around when things get scarce, though. There’s
only one way you’ll be able to keep your warehouse stocked when
everyone else is running out.’
Emma smiled. ‘Don’t worry, Jack. Melbourne prices will go
through the roof well before then. Won’t be worth trading here
when they do.’

92
Jack wasn’t much reassured. He began to wonder whether this
really would be the final Melbourne run. It didn’t sound like it. ‘I
hope not,’ he said.
And that was the end of the conversation for a while. Rudd had
given them plenty to think about as it was. Jack realised now that
there was definitely no future in the city. He never really felt that
there was but now the reasons were crystal clear. He used to think
that maybe the warehouses were the beginning of something but
he could see that Rudd was right. The warehouses were merely a
passing, terminal stage in urban life. The city was dying and the
temporary new order would ultimately culminate in war. And the
winner, too, would inevitably fail when there was nothing left to
trade. Nothing in demand. Yes, it was a loser’s game in the city, as
things stood.
The only real future was in the country and nothing he had seen
there rivalled Topia, for all its faults. But it wouldn’t be easy for
the infant town, either. Topia needed the world outside too, that’s
why they were on the Melbourne run. Would it fall back into
darkness when the iron goods ran out? On the whole, he thought
not. Topia had the means and will to make it. People like Emma
and himself were just smoothing the way. Time would be on the
town’s side. For a nail can last a century, and an axe a few,
perhaps.
And, if so, it seemed that he too could have a part to play in
bringing the future to pass. But did he really want to? Did he want
anything more than a job. How much did he value civilisation?
How much did he need a home? How many more Melbourne runs
would he risk?
Then, looking back at the lone wolf stalking behind them, Jack’s
mind took a different tack. There were more immediate problems
to face up to; bigger threats confronting them now. Freshening his
grip on the gun, he tossed tomorrow’s concerns from his back.
There’s a limit to how much of the future you should fret about,
how big a load you should bear. Yes, the cares of the day are
sufficient, if not for Topia, at least for him.

93
Forsaken Twenty: The Desolate Heart

The vestige of Jordan’s humanity was now dying within him.


Although his flesh lived on of its own accord, the fires that had
consumed the others now fed slowly upon him, upon his dry
withering soul and the raked charcoal of a bitter past that he would
not willingly recall.
Nevertheless, though he had no taste for life he was not without a
purpose, a dark singular purpose shadowing his heavily lined
brow. His once strong heart was no longer capable of building,
only of striking out. Life had been an embittering experience for
him, and he resisted the call of older memories that subsequent
events had turned sour. There had been too much pain, even for
him, and Jordan knew it, was cognisant more than others of his
spiritual decline, of the progressive hardening of his heart.
But though Jordan spurned the past, the past enfolded him,
holding him firmly in its grasp. Not that he was aware of it. In
Jordan’s mind, he was the active agent in a hostile landscape,
bringing planned events to pass; each success along the way
launching a contemplative smile upon his face. As was the case
now, his unconscious mind reaching for revenge as he consciously
strove for the future of the town. In this way, the future served as a
pretext for darker forces that moved within him.
And each success also increased his stake in his envisioned plan,
increasing the size of the sunk investment that must ultimately be
justified by result: Topia must bear fruit.
No one now opposed the progress of his plan, Jordan had no fear
of that. His will, which had always commanded respect, now held
unprecedented sway. The death of the others had heightened his
authority; and in his people’s eyes his hardness had been
vindicated.
And now he drew particular satisfaction in finding a solution in a
cause. Fire had been used against him and fire would be set
94
upon them.
He began, prudently, by having the town cleared of any
encroaching scrub. Most of the surrounding farms were clear
already but, over the years, complacency and aesthetics had
allowed the natural bush, always pressing at the limit, to intrude
like wandering wicks into Topia’s heart.
Then Jordan looked to the winds, looked to the winds with patient
pleasure. The air was dry and prevailing from the north so the
southern hills were the first to be put to the match. The fire burned
on a wide front, day after day destroying indifferently life of
chlorophyll and blood. Only a change in the wind’s direction
extinguished the hungry flames, driving them back upon their own
black domain.
Then, when the winds shifted, Jordan set fire to the north, making
it a bitter image of the south.
The east and west alone were inhabitable to those outside;
comprising components of a shrinking trap. If the outsiders had
homes elsewhere they were not there now. If they had lived
elsewhere they lived not there now: to die or flee would have been
his enemies’ only options. He hoped that they had not died yet; not
all, not yet.
Topia and its farms were, of course, untouched. Together, they
comprised a green oasis standing at the centre of a charcoal desert
that stretched in quadrants north and south as far as the eye could
see.
Jordan sat quietly on the verandah of his empty house, basking in
the unnaturally red glow of a sunset he had helped to make,
waiting for God to fan the freshening breeze from the east.
He gazed with satisfaction upon the northern hills. Desolate was
the landscape. And desolate was his heart.

95
Forsaken Twenty One: So Far So Good

Westdep squatted snugly into its surrounding urban landscape like


the torso of a crouching tiger within a perimeter of claws. Jack,
like Emma, had never seen it with his own eyes and it was not
what he had expected to find. The acreage occupied by Westdep
was immense in city terms and only the tips of distant warehouses
could be seen above its walls. Denied a view of the interior, Jack
studied its external defences.
The Corporal’s compound was certainly well protected. The first
line comprised a barb topped wire fence that was high enough to
expose and delay any would be intruders. On the inner side of the
wire, steel pikes fixed into the ground thrust upwardly and
outwards, making the prospect of jumping unappealing at best.
Beyond lay fifty metres of barren ground that would expose any
advancing raiders to fire from the ramparts of a wooden and stone
wall that marked the compound’s inner boundary. According to
Rudd there were ditches too, covered and waiting for the naive
and game. Not surprisingly, there was only one way in and one
way out.
Perhaps it wasn’t impregnable, but Jack couldn’t see himself
making the attempt, not for any price. Only desperate times would
breed the kind needed to launch such a desperate attack. Times,
however, that may not be far away.
Things must be pretty quiet on the war front now though, thought
Jack, because a gate through the wire perimeter was left open and
unattended. Inwards traffic was checked, nevertheless, at the
compound wall.
Emma pulled up the team and smiled disarmingly at the bored
man in blue who guarded the boom. The soldier, who seemed
more concerned about Reuben than his duty, cursorily inspected
their load. Upon Rudd’s advice, Jack had previously stowed away
the shotgun as a precaution against its seizure and so, to the guard,
the two men seemed harmless enough. He had clearly seen too
96
many traders come and go in his many uneventful guarding days
to get over excited about this lot and he casually signalled the
boom keeper to open up the way.
As the wagon rolled across the tarmac floor of the compound, Jack
drew breath at the scale of the interior. A great matrix of
gargantuan buildings filled the landscape like a school of
leviathans in the open sea. They were not tall but each was vast. If
only half of the buildings were half full, the wealth they held
would stagger a king.
A sign directed all traders to building ‘I’ and arrows painted on the
old bitumen pointed the way. Guards, workers, wagons and horses
went about their business with an air of measured purpose,
reassuring the new arrivals that, despite the strange landscape,
they were on safe ground there.
Building I seemed the largest warehouse of all. They felt dwarfed
by the great gaping door which seemed to swallow them whole as
they passed into the shade of its cavernous interior. A raised
platform about a metre high extended like a spine down the middle
of the warehouse throughout its full length, giving it the
appearance of a railway station which, bar the rails, is pretty much
what it was. On one side of the platform, goods were in the
process of being off loaded from wagons queued up ahead, only to
be loaded again, after sorting, into carts on the other side.
A uniformed woman with sergeant stripes waved them to the end
of the line.
Emma alighted briskly onto the platform, making her position as
trader clear.
Cursorily acknowledging Emma, the sergeant examined the load.
‘First time?’ she asked, obliquely, walking around the back.
‘Yes,’ replied Emma. ‘We don’t ordinarily stray this far from
home.’
The sergeant smiled. ‘Bloody big, eh?’ she said. ‘Don’t worry,
we’ll treat you right. What’s in the barrels, they look a fair
weight?’
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‘Cider?’
‘Cider?’ she beamed.
‘The best in the country,’ replied Emma, confidently. ‘Certainly
the best I’ve ever seen, or tasted if it comes to that, and for your
sake I hope you will.’
‘A real saleswoman, aren’t yer?’
‘That’s why we’re here. It’ll cost you though.’
The sergeant paused momentarily. ‘Hang on a tick. I’ll be right
back.’
‘Better take this with you, then,’ said Emma offering her a flask.
‘It’s from the same batch.’
The sergeant sniffed from the open flask. ‘What do you want for
it?’
Emma folded her arms. ‘Hardware, premium stuff: bolts, nails,
hinges; and some canvas too. Maybe some roofing sheets, if
they’re in good nick.’
The sergeant nodded. ‘I’ll see what we can do.’
They watched as she disappeared into the office, and waited
patiently for her return. It was cold in the shaded warehouse and a
draft kept cheer at bay.
Emma was a little nervous. ‘What do you think?’ she asked Rudd.
‘I think you’ll do alright,’ he replied, soberly. ‘You’ll get
everything you need, if I’m any judge.’
Emma looked at Jack, almost gloatingly. She knew Rudd was
right and wanted her partner to see that she was right too, to agree
that it was all worth the risk.
Jack wasn’t falling into that one. He could see that another
Melbourne run was on the cards despite what she had said earlier.
Not wanting to be a spoil sport, he nodded but not enthusiastically.
They weren’t even out of town yet and ambition could be a
98
costly sin.
Emma, however, wasn’t as foolish as she might appear from her
victory grin. Sure they would do well but things didn’t usually
come on a platter either. She had learnt that much from life. She
still had to complete the deal. It was up to her to drive a hard
bargain, now that the value of her load was known. But not too
hard, they knew she had to deal with someone in Melbourne and
that she was new in town. That gave them an advantage. Then
again, on the other hand, they might be generous first time, to
encourage another run. She didn’t mind waiting while they sorted
it out. Her sample would speak for itself. They would find as
others did that it was a quality drop. Topia’s cider had the kind of
freshness that Melbourne lacked; that the whole country lacked.
That the times lacked. It could make you drunk and put you in the
right mood too. What more could be asked of grog? Only that
more could be had and she could deliver it, perhaps.
As it happened, they didn’t have long to wait before the sergeant
returned in the company of a man. They could see by the
sergeant’s subservient stride that the stocky grey man with her was
clearly her superior in rank, but only Rudd knew just how superior
that was.
‘G’day,’ said the stranger to Emma in a straight, up and down
way.
Emma nodded and smiled in reply. No need to look desperate, but
she knew the value of charm.
‘Is it all like this?’ he asked, returning the flask to her hand.
‘Same batch,’ she replied, honestly. ‘And every batch is good.’
His eyes seemed satisfied with her reply and he was glad to hear
there was more. ‘What’s your source?’
Emma thought it wise to be sly. ‘A small town in a cold clime run
by people who need materials more than they need this.’
Fair enough. The old man respected Emma’s desire to keep hold
of her trade. Nevertheless, he tried to garner more. ‘Not from

99
around here, then?’
‘No, not here. Further north; halfway to Sydney.’ It wouldn’t hurt
to mention a rival town.
He thought it over. Up north. Probably in the western foothills of
the great divide. That was apple country alright. He decided to
leave it at that. He had no current plans to expand into travelling
trade. Not that far away anyway. Plenty of people came to him; for
now. But he made a mental note of it. ‘Can you guarantee re-
supply?’
Emma chose to be coy. ‘Depending on the price.’
The old man nodded. ‘The price’ll be right,’ he said. ‘You’ll find
me on the generous side, don’t you worry about that. Hardware is
it? Hardware’s what you want?’
‘That’s the game.’
‘Hardware it is, then.’ He nodded, turning to his sergeant. ‘Give
her what she wants and can reasonably carry. And see that it’s
good stock too.’
‘Corp,’ she nodded. ‘And the inwards freight?’
He knew what she meant. He could still taste it now. ‘One third
for the Sergeant’s Mess, a third for the Officer’s and put the rest
aside for me. Tell the Catering Officer he can double this week’s
spirit allowance for the Other Ranks. This’ll be a good week all
round.’
‘Corporal.’
‘Better post a general order as well - anyone found drunk on duty
is to be paraded before me. Just so things don’t get out of hand.’
He turned to say goodbye. ‘Pleased to do business with you - ?’
‘Emma,’ she advised.
‘Emma,’ he smiled with his eyes. ‘Corporal’s what they call me,
both friend and foe.’

100
‘Corporal,’ she replied, offering a hand that he was happy to
accept. ‘Is now a good time to ask a favour?’ She knew, of course,
that it was.
‘Sure. I’m in the palm of your hand.’
There was no doubting his charm; the charm of an agreeable man.
‘Well,’ she began, in earnest, ‘we attracted some interest on the
way in.’
‘Raiders?’
She looked at Rudd. ‘A scout, we think. Anyway, we’d rather not
travel back in the dark.’
The Corporal understood. ‘No problem. You can bunk down here
wherever you like. I recommend the sergeant’s mess, though.
Somehow,’ he said, looking at his subordinate, ‘they seem to get
the best of everything: food, cooks and beds too. One day, I’m
going to sew on another stripe.’
Emma had no doubt it was true. The closer you are to the action
the more scope for seeing yourself right. ‘Thanks. We’ll take your
advice.’
‘Very wise, Emma. Jenny will look after you now.’ The sergeant
nodded. ‘But why don’t you join me for dinner,’ he continued.
‘We can try some of this cargo out. I’ve got stronger drink, too, if
you’re game and some wine if you’ve got a taste for it, but the
good stuff is long gone I’m afraid.’
‘You’re on,’ accepted Emma, keen to advance her trade.
‘Fine. I’ll look forward to seeing you then. Drop round when you
settle in. I’m heading back to my quarters now. Don’t worry about
your wagon or the animals, apart from the dog perhaps. Jenny’ll
look after the rest. The troops will gather up what you want this
afternoon and you can check it out and load in the morning, as
early as you like.’
‘What more could we ask?’
‘My pleasure, Emma,’ he said, nodding to Jack and Rudd
101
before turning his back.
Emma was understandably pleased at the way things had gone.
‘So far, so good,’ she said smugly to Jack.

102
Forsaken Twenty Two: A Resolution

Jill surveyed the motley gathering of men, women and children


who were spread about the ashen floor of the pine forest, resting
and ready to listen. The world about her was black, the faces and
clothing of her people, the ground beneath her callused feet and
the denuded trunks of trees leaning absurdly this way and that like
so many upright corpses, waiting patiently to topple in the next
obliging wind.
Oddly though, everyone seemed calm and relaxed. Jill understood
why. It wasn’t that they were possessed of that comforting ease
which is born of certain success but rather, as she knew, because
they had instead been visited by that grey indifference which
accompanies frequent defeat. Although they were not the sort to
admit it, she could see it in their eyes. Jill was partly disheartened
by her observation but she was also somehow proud of what she
saw. She respected them: respected their quiet endurance. And she
wondered what made them so? Not hardship nor material poverty
alone, she thought. Nor did lineage explain their common
character. No, the flames had to be sustained and blue to temper
souls like this; and nothing burns so intensely as injustice suffered
long.
She looked at the young, who, as yet, did not understand. They
were learning to be strong but did not have the knowledge to see
the full injustice, yet. Life wasn’t so bad for them. Nature was
their silent sibling. The mystery of the moon, the eagle’s hover,
the rabbit’s run, the natural world provides a generous bounty for
a child’s thoughts and play. And yet, Jill could see that they knew
something of it though; could sense what their parents repressed,
an obscure unpleasant truth about their lives. And this observation
worried her, lingering like a shadowy stranger in a quiet corner of
her mind. What would the future hold for them? Did they know
enough to seek amends? Or would they simply be disquieted by an
unmentioned past, growing like twisted trees in elements they did

103
not question? Perhaps that had been the plan; Jordan’s plan.
Until that thought, until that image of the persecuting hand, Jill
had been undecided about the course she would recommend. Until
then, she had been almost as indifferent as the rest. But now she
knew and was determined to act. If it must be done, it must be
done now, within living memory, the memory of the parent’s pain,
not the children’s suffering. Yes, she must drive them on, must fill
them with the resolve they needed to resist and fight, before time
drove a wedge between the wrong that was done and the right that
should be.
As she spoke, her will ignited theirs. Her words struck like a chisel
exposing the truth from underlying facts, the emerging image
stirring her people’s tired hearts. Yes, they had been driven out,
but that did not make them beaten, only wronged. Yes, they had
lost what little they had, but what had been lost could be regained.
The wilderness life itself was but a passing until they were ready
and strong, something to be discarded with all its acquired trinkets
when the time for their restoration came.
And in the meantime, though the wild animals had died or fled,
their enemy’s flocks still grazed fat nearby, within a few hour’s
walk on a clouded night.
But if instead they fled the valley now, they would be a beaten
people. Once gone they would be gone forever; to lose sight of
home was to lose the will to return. And only by staying, could
they, one day, settle the uneven score. Though a secure future
could not be promised now, it could be lost.
But now they must look to survive, must try to hang on in the
dwindling harbour of bush about the town. It was clear they would
have to move further out but they must always be looking in. One
day the wind would betray them and Jordan would be quick with
the torch. But they need not retreat so far now as to be entirely
gone. The river pointed to their new home. There was safety
upstream by its waters, safety from the flames, safety from patrols.
The river banks were clear if needed and there was cover in the
adjacent hills. That would be their home.
From there they could, despite the longer trek, take livestock
104
in the dark and return the next day. The farmers would not follow
that far. And eventually their enemies would grow wearisome and
slack, accepting what they could not defeat. Things would settle
down as before. And, in time, they would grow strong, stronger
than in the past. And wiser with it as well.
There were no other voices to follow after hers. When she had
spoken, enough had been said. And no sooner had she finished
than people began to move, taking their direction like a resultant
from the forces at large in the land; from the avenging hand of
Jordan and the vengeful voice of Jill. Driven as surely as was the
river to the waiting sea.

105
Forsaken Twenty Three: Straight Talk and Smiles

As Emma graciously accepted the evening welcome of their host,


Jack contemplated the setting of their hospitality. Lit by a soft
warming fire, the modest room was decorated simply and in good
taste. The walls were white, trimmed high and low in cedar wood,
and the starkness of the room, together with the dark quality of its
wooden trim, lent it an aesthetic air that was complemented by a
small statue of an unblinking woman standing serenely on an
otherwise empty mantelpiece. The one concession to colourful
decoration was an Arabian silk rug whose geometric pattern
brought a sense of civilisation to one wall. If the rooms of the rich
reflect their personalities, thought Jack, the Corporal’s appetite’s
appeared to have been first disciplined and subsequently veneered,
if only thinly, by an acquired quantum of good taste. He was, in
the eyes of Jack, just as he appeared, a self made soldier king.
After polite exchanges, the guests and their host took their ease on
large cushions that were spread about a round teak table
generously littered with the sweet and spicy offerings of their
meal.
Not much was said until appetites had largely been sated, but then
conversation began naturally to fill the gaps between occasionally
supplementary morsels.
‘You know, Rudd?’ began the Corporal, looking his subject’s
way, ‘I can’t help feeling that I’ve seen you before somewhere.’
Rudd affected no surprise at the remark. ‘It’s possible,’ he replied,
soberly, despite the volume of alcohol that had been consumed.
There was almost a hint of disdain or arrogance in his voice, as
though he were saying, underneath the uttered words, that big
shots did not matter, at least, to him.
But the Corporal was not easily dismissed. ‘You were a fighter,
weren’t you?’ he pursued, putting down his mug a little clumsily
on the table and leaning slightly towards his guest.
106
Rudd nodded, almost imperceptibly, imperceptibly uncomfortable.
He thought it prudent to add no more to any insult he may already
have given and which the Corporal had evidently over looked or
forgiven.
‘Yes,’ continued his assailant. ‘With a face like that, you’d have to
be. I saw you fight here, didn’t I? You knocked the hell out of that
mug from ringside. Upset your manager no end. Didn’t get any
takers from the stalls after that, did you, son?’
Rudd shrugged as if to say, ‘maybe not, but no regrets’.
‘Sure. I remember that one alright. It got personal, between you
and the other bloke, didn’t it? What was it he said? Something
about never meeting a chink he couldn’t thrash?’
Rudd was not bothered by the recollection of that particular
episode in his life. He looked at the Corporal with the untroubled
eyes of someone whose revenge had long been satisfied. No, he
didn’t really mind the Corporal’s bringing it up. It wasn’t such a
bad memory. One of life’s little victories, though it had cost him
dearly in the end. And then again, it had been a good excuse to get
on with the next chapter in his life. No, he had no regrets.
‘Certainly got the crowd going, though, didn’t it?’ expanded his
host. ‘Nothing like a grudge fight for the fans. But not a good way
to lure mugs into the ring, eh? And you need them, too. Guess he
fired you for that?’
Rudd rose a little to the bait. ‘I left,’ he corrected, calmly.
‘Of course,’ noted the Corporal, taking another drink. ‘Of course
you did,’ he repeated, eyeing Emma as he quaffed. ‘Handy bloke
to have around. Where’d you pick him up?’
Emma comprehended his tack. His interest in Rudd was not idle
curiosity. ‘Well, I guess Rudd sort of found us,’ she replied,
smiling as she did. ‘Just a few days ago, on the road.’
The Corporal raised his mug and drank a full measure. ‘So he’s
just along for the ride?’ he enquired, like one bargaining over a
horse or a mule.

107
Emma put down her mug, like a sign that she would talk frankly.
‘If you mean is he available for the right offer?’ she replied,
matching wits but on Rudd’s behalf, ‘that’s something you might
best put to him. I’ve got no prior claim, have I Rudd?’
‘Just along for the ride,’ he confirmed.
The Corporal smiled. ‘Good. That’s what I figured, Emma. But I
didn’t want to encroach. There’s no future in my upsetting traders,
not in this line of work.’
‘Nor have you,’ said Emma, with a smile that was also intended to
facilitate future business.
The Corporal, smiled back then turned again to Rudd. ‘So,’ he
began once more, ‘how about it, son?’
Rudd was a little bemused. ‘How about what?’ he asked.
‘How about working for me? I need an instructor for what you do
well. You’d have Sergeant’s rank and a free hand. Are you game?’
Rudd stroked his upper lip with his thumb, as if he were in two
minds about what to say. On the one hand, he didn’t like the
Bosses: big shots who lorded it over others. But what was the
alternative? Getting knocked around year after year for rations and
a bed? No future in that. Besides, he thought more of the Corporal
than of most of that kind. Not that he liked him, exactly. But he
had considerable admiration for the Corporal’s abilities and for his
straight forward business style. The Corporal was clearly a fighter,
too. He might even fight by the rules, provided his opponent did
likewise. ‘I’d have a free hand?’ he repeated, making a point. ‘I
don’t want a monkey on my back?’
‘Of course,’ replied the Corporal. ‘There’d be no one between you
and me, and I’m too busy trading to get involved at that level,
beyond keeping an eye on things. So long as you stay on the rails,
it’d be your show.’
Rudd nodded. ‘Fair enough,’ he said, agreeing to the deal.
‘Shake on it?’ asked the Corporal, proffering his hand.

108
‘Done,’ accepted Rudd, with a fighter’s grip. Things were looking
up, he grinned.
A smirk swept briefly across Jack’s face. The Corporal had won
Rudd over with a lie. Or so it seemed to Jack You can’t be one of
the Boss’ men and free too.
But Jack Larson was still his own man; no strings on him. Not that
he was in great demand. He respected the Corporal, though. The
man lived up to his real rank. He was a general, alright. He could
size things up and he knew how to deal. A bit like Emma. Born
bosses, the both of them. But respect for him was as far as it went.
Straight talk and smiles didn’t count for much in Jack’s book of
friends. No one in their right mind could warm to someone who
existed only for themselves, seeking a profit at every turn. No, the
Corporal was a spider. And he suspected that the spider knew he
had been recognised too.
Nevertheless, Jack emptied his mug with a gratifying swallow. He
was feeling pretty good now, even glad. Glad for Rudd and glad
for himself. With Rudd around, his own role had been unclear.
Life had been ambiguous, the way it was before. Before Emma.
Before his job. But now he looked forward to a road that he had
previously feared, to completing the trip that had gone so well, so
far. Maybe he had been worrying too much about the future.
Maybe he should just take it as it comes.
Yes. Things were still working out for him and that’s all that
mattered for now. And this in itself augured well for the morrow,
so why entertain doubts? Things would be alright, so long as he,
too, stayed upon the rails. He had a strange but comforting feeling
about his life now that almost amounted to faith. Almost.

109
Forsaken Twenty Four: A Grim Guardian

The day seemed to have as much trouble shrugging off the grey
veil that hid the sky as had the Corporal’s guests of unclouding
their minds after the draught of deep sleep they had enjoyed within
the Corporal’s compound. It had been a welcome sojourn,
hospitable and secure. Westdep had been like an oasis to thirsty
travellers; a caravanserai to traders accustomed to elements that
cared little for them, day or night. But now, after breakfast and
farewells to Rudd, it was time for Emma and Jack to take their
cargo on the road.
The Sergeant had seen to the Corporal’s word. Their wagon was
laden to capacity with goods conforming to their request and the
horses had been watered, hitched and fed.
Emma, Jack and Reuben were once again on their own but even
Jack conceded, if only to himself, that he missed the contribution
of Rudd’s quiet strength.
Never go back by the way you have come, especially not in
Melbourne town. And that, using a map supplied by the Corporal,
is how they set their course, running the gauntlet of the city’s
streets.
First, they followed the old railway line east towards the city
centre on Sunshine Rd. Not that there was much of it, nor of traffic
either. The few wagons that served the city trade took instead the
old freeway into the central zone, and the only sign of trade they
saw along the way was an overloaded coal wagon ambling into
Footscray, whose cheerless driver had clearly seen too much of
modern life to smile or wave their way. Later they parted a flock
of sheep, or rather Reuben’s barking did. Other than that, and the
odd hitch-hiker they declined to carry, they saw little else on the
move in the early hours of that bleak dawn day.
Navigating by a line marked on the Corporal’s map, Emma turned
north at Footscray station, an abandoned relic, like most of the
110
infrastructure of the past apart from the roads, and drove past the
city abattoir. Livestock grazed on the race-course fields opposite,
within radius of the slaughterhouse stench. It wasn’t exactly the
scenic route but this grizzly business nevertheless made them feel
secure because business needs order, and order needs law.
Travelling now within the palm of that law, Jack felt sufficiently
relaxed to let the shotgun rest easily on his lap while he took in the
sights and learned. Most of the old city skyscrapers marking the
central zone were still standing, but eerily so. Dispirited hollow
shells, they looked like the petrified remains of giants, a regiment
of defeated monsters slain in some brutal battle by other Goliaths
of concrete and steel who had since retired victoriously from the
field. Most had been gutted by the years of fires that had,
ironically, saved the Brigade. Others had floors that were mostly
too far above the streets and water to be much use to the meagre
population that remained.
Jack wondered what it must have been like in the early years? He
had seen photographs of that other time, the clean time, when
automobiles sparkled like the glass of the town. But now the glass
was broken, and the cars were rusting hulks whose motive secrets
were fast disappearing with them. And the once frequented
footpaths were like river banks after a flood, caked with decaying
debris dumped by subsiding weary waters, and littered with the
wire skeletons of mattresses and couches that had been put to light
to warm the souls of the damned. What once comprised a great
civilisation were now no more than its discarded shards.
The smell was there too: rising from the dark piles of organic mud
from decomposing urban life washed by the rain into the streets
and drains. Jack was glad the day was cool. These old areas were
the worst in summer. The outer suburbs, long short on life, were
fresh by comparison. It took people to ripen up the rot of a town’s
remains. One day others might pick amongst the clean concrete
ruins and praise the builders of Babel’s toppled towers but Jack
didn’t see it that way now. From where he sat, his inheritance had
a disagreeable stink to it and he would be the last one to raise a
glass to days gone by.
Sydney, of course, was no better and, if it wasn’t for Emma, that’s
111
where he’d probably end up. If things didn’t work out, that would
still be an option but not by the highway road. Sticking to the
coast was the go now. Skirt ‘round Wollongong to Kembla and try
for a boat ride in. The squalls took their toll on the old vessels, and
new traders were always on the look-out for more crew. He liked
the sea. Its unfathomed beauty called to his eyes, pure blue and
pure deep. Sure, it’s a risky life but, on the road or the ocean,
anything can happen at any time. Life he had discovered is a
waiting game: it’s only a matter of when before you cop it hard.
Maybe drowning wasn’t so bad. At least it would be clean. And
does anyone die early in the end? You die when its time to die,
when your time has come. There is no scale short or long with a
range of optional ends, only the end of the line you are travelling
along. The line that has already been drawn, like the road that lay
before them now.
And the safe portion of that road gave out just ahead. The web of
warehouse security zones that had protected them until now
extended only as far as Pentridge, the old and enduring gaol whose
early notoriety had been revived in later years. From that point
until the country proper, there would be little reason to relax.
At least, reflected Jack, there were no more prisons like this, not in
use. But people still remember what they were like: death houses
is how they are usually recalled. Their last service to civilisation
had been the panic eradication of desperate humans caught by
others desperately holding on to what they had left. Summary
punishment was still, of course, the norm but the scale and the
bloodlust involved had diminished with the population.
Jack glanced anxiously at his partner and friend. In all this time
they had not spoken. Neither had been inclined to conversation,
but not for the same reason. His silence had personal origins but
Emma was responding to him. Sensing the dark influence the city
exerted upon the mood of her new friend, she did what she thought
best: kept driving. The sooner they were out of here, the better, all
round. And the more she saw of Melbourne, the more she longed
for home.
But Melbourne was to offer one more memorable experience for
its departing guests: the perimeter of civilisation, they soon
112
discovered, was marked by more than the blunt architecture of an
abandoned institution. For, outside, underneath an old light pole,
hung a grim and familiar guardian, motionless in the morning air.
It was the corpse of Billy Green, probably brought to account by
the Brigade and posted as a warning to others entering the
civilised zone. To Emma and Jack, it was both a shock and
explanation: one reason, perhaps, for their hitherto uneventful
return through Melbourne town.
It was hard to feel that grateful, though, looking at him, and, after
Pentridge, Emma increased the pace.

113
Forsaken Twenty Five: A Price To Be Paid

The spectre of sharp justice was well behind them when the next
risk raised its head.
‘Riders,’ said Jack, gripping the gun, as he raised his chin by way
of pointing.
Emma looked up from the road and peered into the distance.
‘You’ve got good eyes,’ she said, as her own picked out the shape
of two mounted horsemen lingering in the shade of a gum tree
about 500 metres ahead.
The shadowy figures were on the left of the road, seemingly
waiting, for them? It was dangerous country: they were in the far
outskirts of the suburbs where no honest industry survived. ‘What
do you think?’ she said, hoping for a view less worrying than hers.
‘We’ll soon find out,’ he replied.
Emma agreed. There was no point trying to avoid them now. If
they were friendly, avoiding them would cost time. And if they
were up to no good they would follow them, anyway.
With no change in pace, the distance between the wagon and the
riders ahead closed more quickly than the traders preferred and, as
they neared, one of the horsemen drifted onto the road before them
and raised his hand. He was relatively young and lean, with
unkempt fair hair and a straggly beard. The smile he paraded on
his face did little to diminish the threat of the rifle he rested across
the saddle, ready to hand.
‘G’day,’ he said, as Reuben growled and the other similarly armed
man, a more swarthy specimen, drifted to the wagon’s rear.
Emma nodded, cautiously.
‘Got a load on there,’ he continued.

114
‘And a long journey ahead,’ replied Emma, signalling her desire to
move on.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘After clearance.’
Emma looked at Jack who swivelled the gun towards the stranger.
The man was unshaken. ‘That won’t help matters,’ he said. ‘Your
business is with Sally, not me. We’re just here to show you the
way. There’s others who’ll come, if needed.’
As Emma engaged the lead man, Jack kept an eye on the one
behind. ‘You’ll need to say more than that,’ she said. ‘And calling
your mate back would be a good place to start.’
The man smiled. A subtle movement of his head summoned his
accomplice. ‘Sally controls this road now,’ he said.
Emma was beginning to understand their game but was in no rush
to comply. ‘Had no trouble coming in?’ she said, doubting Sally’s
authority.
‘We don’t stop inwards traffic,’ he explained. ‘The city wouldn’t
like that, taking what was coming their way. But Sally gets a toll
on those heading out – like you.’
A smirk swept across Jack’s cynical face.
‘Toll?’ she resisted.
The man nodded. ‘A fifth of your load, as we reckon it.’
Emma grinned. ‘You suppose you’re up to taking it from us,’ she
said, patting Reuben.
The man hesitated. ‘Not me,’ he replied. ‘Like I said, I’m just an
escort. There’s others on the highway at Craigieburn, just up
ahead. You’ll meet them soon enough but it’ll be a bloody sight
safer if we’re with you when you do.’
Emma turned to Jack. They both knew there was little alternative.
Might as well keep heading on their way. If they do encounter
others, the game will be up. If not, well, they would cross that

115
bridge when they came to it.
‘Keep in front,’ she said to the men, flicking the reigns on the
rumps of the team to start them off.
It was no surprise to discover that the scouts were telling the truth;
not from some innate sense of honesty, of course, but because they
could afford to: they spoke from a position of strength.
Several relaxed men waved to the riders as they led Emma and
Jack into the old Note Printing works that had once been a pillar of
a thriving capitalist economy, pumping out cash to feed its growth.
No one needed it services now, though, Jack reflected. Its product
was only as good as the standing of the government that had
owned it. And no one had that much standing now; except in
Topia. Funny, he’d always thought that gold would make a come
back, but it never really had. Not yet. Sure, some people sat on
little hoards of precious metal and jewellery. But it wasn’t traded.
People wanted things they could use, the dwindling stock of a
vanished world.
But now the printing works had another purpose. Standing solid
like a Bastille, it made a cosy home for parasites intent on sucking
the blood out of this stretch of highway.
Sally was there too, they soon found, standing in a loading dock
poised to receive what wasn’t hers by rights. She seemed to take a
close interest in things, a hands on sort of person, it seemed to
Jack. She was only a slip of a thing, with Asian features, and just
on the young side of middle age.
‘G’day,’ she beamed to the traders, as they sat on the wagon
awaiting their fate.
‘It was,’ said Emma, less happily.
Sally nodded. ‘Don’t worry, we won’t keep you long. Just a fifth,
you understand. Used to take a quarter so you’ve come at a good
time. A quarter wasn’t much more really but sounded a fair bit
worse, eh? I was starting to get a bad name.’
Emma wasn’t impressed. ‘It’s still a fifth of what’s mine. And it’s

116
still theft.’
Sally waved her finger. ‘No. Not theft. I’m the government here
and government always costs. This is just a little taxation. Very
lawful and quite civilised.’
Emma scoffed. ‘It’s robbery and you know it.’
Sally was not upset. She had dealt with less cooperative customers
than this pair. ‘Look on the bright side, you got a long climb ahead
– it will be easier now. Your team will be much happier.’ And
with a nod of her head, she summoned the unloading crew.
Emma called Reuben to heel as he growled. This was no time to
fight.
The men worked quickly, sorting the load into groups on the
ground and then selecting Sally’s share. As they began to load the
tolled portion onto the dock, Jack moved to get down and re-load
what remained. Sally, however, halted him with a gesture. ‘No
need for that,’ she said. ‘We will attend to everything.’
Jack was not displeased by this turn but he did not imagine it to be
a kindness. Sally had no doubt found it safer to keep her customers
away from her helpers – less chance of interaction. Standard
operating procedure, no doubt.
They waited in silence as Sally’s men attended to their load.
‘You’re going to kill the trade, you know,’ said Emma, by way of
ending on a sour note. ‘Traders won’t put up with this for long;
nor will the Brigade and the bosses.’
‘I don’t think so,’ smiled, Sally. ‘One fifth is not so much. And the
Brigade does not venture out here.’
‘Maybe your levy won’t by itself – but others will catch on too.
It’ll be a nightmare.’
Sally smiled. ‘Perhaps, but I have, as they say the advantage of the
incumbent. It won’t be easy to for others to set up. And I have a
great vision. Soon I will protect the East and West roads. I have a
foothold,’ she said, extending her arms, ‘and am growing with
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the trade.’
‘With the trade?’ scoffed Emma. ‘I wouldn’t expect much in the
way of growth there.’
‘Then we will both suffer,’ remarked Sally, philosophically.
‘And if others start ‘taxing’ us further out?’
Emma shrugged. ‘I may have to cut margins. I will cross that
bridge when I come to it. But you mustn’t worry about such
things. Life is good, soon you will be back on the road with a full
wagon and headed for home. And where is that, I wonder?’
The question seemed a thinly disguised threat. Sally was still
smiling but perhaps growing weary of Emma’s argument.
‘What about you,’ she said to Jack. ‘Cat got your tongue?’
Jack made no response.
‘You remind me of someone,’ she said. ‘He was either a man of
great hope or of little expectation. I never knew for sure. Are you a
man like that?’
Jack smiled. She had him pegged alright. ‘I’ve learnt to take things
as they come,’ he replied.
Sally nodded knowingly. ‘Like me,’ she grinned, waving her arm
at the day’s pickings stowed in her dock.
Emma had had enough. ‘You finished?’ she asked, staring into
Sally’s eyes and conveying as much hostility as she could.
Sally coolly returned her gaze. ‘Yeah, we are finished now.
Thanks. I would ask you to stay overnight but I sense that you are
keen to get moving. Happy trails,’ she grinned, before turning
about.

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Forsaken Twenty Six: An Odd Remark

The living fire roared through the bush, exploding along the
canopy and consuming the flowering underbrush in its wake. Jill
knew that this threat was real; there wouldn’t be much time before
the distant flames, licking at the belly of the sky, swept over their
forest refuge. But at least they were prepared for it now. Everyone
understood what to do. Families and belongings were gathered and
made ready to move in an instant.
No one was officially in charge of the escape but everyone looked
to her, including Martin, who could see by her face that the time
had come to evacuate their camp once again. Perhaps they all
knew but, standing silently with nervous stomachs and anxious
hearts, they waited for her direction nevertheless. And now her
direction came, in the form of an action, not a word was said.
Throwing her hide sack over her shoulder, Jill took the first
resolute step into yet another future, with Martin trailing by her
side. And after them, less resolutely than their leaders, came the
others. More faithful than determined, they walked cradling their
fears in silence and dragging their hopes in their hearts.

You could see the smoke long before you could smell it and
Emma noticed it first. From the highway, a giant plume spread out
in the north-west. Soon they would be heading the wagon east,
perhaps into the flames, perhaps not. It was difficult to tell from
this distance.
They made the eastern turn and confronted the smoke head on; the
fire was closing fast and not because of them. Now it took on a
new perspective, a different silhouette. No longer drawn long and
distant, it assumed an ominous shape: large and looming, with a
dreadful face.
Their safest bet, thought Emma, if worst came to worst, would be
somewhere down by the river, on the flood bank of gravel and
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sand. She pictured a likely place in her mind, where the team had
been watered before. And it wasn’t that far away, if the flames
didn’t beat them first.
It would be a race. And as a fast race makes a mount seem slow,
urging the jockey to press that much harder, so Emma drove on
the team. The horses pulled strongly but were weighed by the load
and the ruts made the going rough. But there was no time to
lighten their burden, no option but to press on.
Jack was with her all the way. Sometimes, you have to stick with
your decision and pray that things work out. It was everything or
nothing as far as he was concerned too. They were all in it
together, crew, cargo, harness and horse, like one great racing
beast, one will and one destination.
The animals, already half panicked by the scent of smoke, could
feel the heat on their faces now.
Martin spotted them first, charging desperately down the sloping
bank against the backdrop of a flaming sky, like souls fleeing the
inferno in a wake of spark and ash.
The beast was bucking and rocking wildly, gripped by panic and
driven by fear as the flames roared behind it, down the blazing
corridor of the road; but behind it now. Over running necessity,
the beast pressed on regardless, pulling hard through the slowing
sand until it came with a splash to the river, downstream from
where Jill stood. And there, it halted, lowered its head and drank.
Embittered by the work of Jordan’s hand, Jill looked coldly upon
her enemies below and wondered. Would Jordan turn the flames
on a friend? Only if he did not know. But why would these friends
be coming from the west, if indeed they belonged to the town?
Topians don’t travel beyond the valley, they live in fear of the
road, of what it might bring, of what it might discover. No, these
two must be traders, travelling with a heavy load, travelling
through to Topia. And that was what worried her. Although the
traders posed no direct threat to them, she would have preferred
not to have been spotted; not to have been seen to have lived...
The presence of outsiders upstream came as no surprise to
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Jack and Emma, who had seen them from their earlier vantage of
the road. At first they had hoped to pass them by, but the flames
soon flushed them out. And that was that. Nothing to do but play it
by ear and pray for the best.
As the outsiders approached, Emma decided against a showing of
the gun. Reuben and diplomacy would see them through, or,
rather, nothing would, bar that. The wagon was under no threat
from the current in the sandy shallows where it sat, so they settled
for remaining settled, as the horses quietly drank.
Feigning innocent unawareness, neither Jack nor Emma paid much
notice to the approaching strangers, until they had come quite
near. Jack busied himself about the horses, checking harness and
hooves, as Emma quietly sat onboard with her dog.
The young woman at the mob’s lead had a striking appearance but
was not as menacing up close as she had looked to them further
back. There were about a score of people behind her, mostly men,
variously armed with spears and knives poised to stab. The other
women and children had remained upstream, their heads fixed
upon the unfolding scene below.
Emma spoke first, smiling as she greeted them, but Jill was slow
to respond. She nodded calmly, with undisguised indifference at
the old woman’s babbling, while Martin examined their load.
‘Hardware,’ explained Emma, ‘Mainly nails and the like. Don’t
think I’ve got much you could use.’
It wasn’t intended as an insult and no insult was taken by Jill. ‘For
Jordan?’ she asked.
‘For Topia,’ corrected Emma. It wouldn’t pay to be Jordan’s
friend.
‘To build more houses,’ added Jill, almost in contempt.
‘You make it sound like a crime.’
‘That’s because it is,’ she replied. ‘At least it’s part of one, when
you look at it wide.’

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Emma chose not to get further involved. It was a dangerous line to
take and the young woman wasn’t getting friendlier for their chat.
‘You’re not from Topia?’
Emma shook her head. ‘No. I come from the road.’ It was a small
lie, true in one sense and prudent, above all.
‘They like to build, the good people of Topia,’ said Jill, gesturing
with a tilt of her head towards the town. But not on the past.’
Jack looked up in surprise, taking more interest in her words. It
was an odd remark that set him thinking again. In the short pause
that followed as Martin and Jill conferred beyond earshot, his
mind roamed over the bits and pieces he had never satisfactorily
resolved. ‘But not upon the past,’ she had said. Yes, Topia was
like that. Only the old abandoned church really had a past, a past
that you could see. The farms on the outskirts were older it’s true,
but not the town itself. Even the cemetery had an odd newness
about it. He had put it down to progress; affluence had raised
Topia’s shops and mill, and bridged the river with sturdy fresh
planks. But the image of the old church had always troubled him,
tugged uneasily at his thoughts. The church had not been replaced
but forsaken, left on the outskirts of town. Left to rot in time. Was
the past why it wasn’t wanted, so the present could forget?
Emma stroked Reuben as she anxiously waited for the trouble to
pass. It was the horses that she worried most about. They might
take them to eat if nothing else and that would hurt her hard. They
were needed for trade and the farm. They were essential to her
life. Luckily they had not found the gun. She would make a
present of it, if it came to that, but not the spare ammunition as
well: that would be hardest to replace. But she would rather not
part with it either, she was afraid of what they might use it on
next. And she was haunted by the boy.
Conversation over. Jill returned to examine the wagon again.
Martin was never really thorough at things like that. He was to
indifferent to life. She soon found what she wanted and all the
shells that were wrapped and hidden as well.
‘You can go now,’ she said to Emma, presenting the old
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woman with her back.
Jack shuddered as he watched her leave. There was something
about her, he reflected, that chilled you down to the bone. She was
like a story in motion, one that had not yet been fully told, one
whose ending you feared. Her life seemed somehow pregnant with
a wider future and nurtured by a wider past; the past Topia would
have you forget. In that respect, she reminded him of Jordan. He
was a story too, whose ending you also worried about.
Jack and Emma watched separately as Jill and her people slowly
moved south east, towards Topia. It was an odd direction for a
beaten mob but presumably they would soon change tack.
They decided not to follow them but to instead make camp on the
bank. Best let the fires die out.

123
Forsaken Twenty Seven: Sitting On A Secret

From the vantage of the hill which bore upon its back the old
abandoned church, Topia appeared as a pool of green at the centre
of a blackened land: blue sky, charcoal hills, green valley.
Emma had never paused here before but this time her wagon did
not pass by. Recent events had aroused her interest, persuading her
to acquiesce to Jack’s curiosity about the former house of God.
Jack was surprised to find pews still lined up inside, like rigid
ranks of fossilised Christian soldiers, their neatly engraved brass
plaques identifying family names. And, under foot, the hardwood
flooring was still good and solid somewhere below the fouling of
birds and possums who had alone sought refuge inside, one still
fluttering in a far high place to escape the intruders.
Outside, behind the church, there were graves, overgrown and
neglected too. Some were very old, their sandstone faces
smoothed by time, respectfully fading slower than the grief of
relatives who were now, perhaps, also interred there. Several
prominent families were in evidence here, their lineage mapped
out plot by plot, but there were quite a few ringers as well, who
may have visited Topia and stayed. The most recent grave he
could find was a little more than thirty years old, though a patch of
anonymous graves, perhaps once marked by the fragile wooden
crosses of the poor, might have been more recent than that.
Presumably, then, the cemetery on the other side of town was
about as young.
Emma soon returned to the wagon. In view of their recent
encounter it seemed a sensible precaution, so Jack did not linger
long in the grounds.
‘Find what you were looking for?’ she asked, with genuine
interest.
Jack shrugged and smiled. ‘It’s an unusual spot, alright,’ he
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replied, climbing back up and taking the reins in hand. ‘The
cemetery isn’t exactly full.’
Emma raised an eyebrow momentarily as if to indicate that she
shared his questions and doubts. But beyond that, she had nothing
more to add, and the two fell into silence as the team got under
way again. However, their subdued mood did not endure for long,
for neither she nor Jack could let these reservations override their
sense of accomplishment for a job that was now done. And as the
wagon rolled slowly into town, they knew that they had achieved
something: completed a Melbourne run. Enriched, despite the
unexpected toll, and tired, they had made it back; had arrived at
journey’s end.
But Topia was not the industrious looking town they had left only
a few weeks ago. To their surprise, the Co-op was locked up and
the streets were disturbingly quiet. Jack and Emma had hoped to
find some answers but they found only more questions instead.
They had come wondering about the fires that had burnt out the
countryside but which had strangely left the township intact. But
now they wondered, why was Topia so dead?
Walter beamed almost theatrically through the window of his shop
as they stepped towards his door.
‘Welcome back,’ he said, with a big grin but agitated hands.
Emma had never seen him in an anxious light before. It unsettled
her. ‘Well, it’s good to see someone’s home,’ she said boldly,
taking off her hat and casting a sideways glance at Jack.
‘Come round the back,’ said Walter. ‘I’ll put the kettle on and fill
you in.’ His faltering voice was not as reassuring as his
invitation.
They followed him patiently through the store and took a seat by
the stove. It wasn’t a particularly cold day but there was
something comforting about the fire anyway. It drove something
from the air, making the room a secure refuge from unknown
forces without.
Emma watched as her host prepared the brew. ‘What’s going on,
125
Walter?’ she asked directly, giving the truth no place to hide.
Walter turned to face her and, hesitating to speak, shook his head
before offering a reply. ‘It’s a bad business, Emma,’ he said. ‘A
bad business all round.’
She had no doubts about the subject of his reference. ‘What’s
Jordan done now?’ she asked.
Walter was glad she had broached it head on and quickly updated
her on the deaths of the town’s men and the fires Jordan had set in
retaliation. Emma had not known the victims very well but it was
a sobering account, just the same.
‘So where’s everyone gone?’ she asked earnestly, half fearful of
the untold.
‘Searching for the outsiders, Emma, hunting down any stragglers.
I don’t like it. Jordan said the last fire would finally flush them
out, if they’re still around. He’s got every man, and some of the
women too, stretched out in a line following the front of the
flames.’
Emma nodded knowingly. ‘When did they leave?’ she asked,
thinking of Jill.
‘They’ve been out since dawn. You must have just missed them
coming in. He’s crazy, Emma. Everyone else is crazy too, they
must be to follow him. But Jordan’s madness is at the core. It’s
like his fever has inflamed them. Everyone is possessed by a
demon in Jordan’s head.’
Emma looked calmly into the eyes of her friend. ‘Well, clearly not
everyone, Walter,’ she approved with a calming stroke.
Jack tried to make sense of the strife. Why had Jordan been so
obsessed with the outsiders, even before Tom had died? It didn’t
really start with the drowning of the boy? No, it was older than
that. The drowning was just a pointer to the past. There was more
to this whole thing, a long chain of cause and effect reaching
forward from the fog of the past. He decided that it was time to
press Walter for the truth, for the whole of it. Time, because

126
Walter would now tell, and time because he now wanted to know.
‘What’s driving Jordan, Walter? What’s behind it all? When did
all this begin?’
Walter looked to Emma. ‘He doesn’t know about Mary?’
‘It never came up,’ she said.
‘Mary?’
‘Jordan’s wife,’ replied Walter. ‘Don’t s’pose you noticed, at
Tom’s funeral, the other grave on his right?’
Jack shook his head.
‘It was Mary’s, and, in a way, her daughter’s grave as well.’
Jack frowned. ‘Jordan had a daughter? What happened to them?’
‘Killed by the outsiders, Jack. Many years ago. Jordan had always
been a hard man but never, they say, bitter till then.’
Jack let the facts sink in and thought about what it must have been
like. ‘Well, that explains a few things,’ he said, in a way that
nevertheless sought more.
‘They found Mary washed up in the river, dress all torn away,
drowned. And a bit further down, one of Penny’s shoes. The river
never did give her up.’
‘How long ago was all this?’ Jack was a little sceptical. They
didn’t seem like killers to him. Even the fires seemed like self
defence.
‘In Jordan’s mind, it was just yesterday. But it was more like
twenty years in point of fact.’
The answers were beginning to dovetail. ‘But why’d they do
something like that?’ asked Jack, of Walter and Emma both. ‘They
weren’t savage to us. Why kill a woman and child?’
Emma shrugged. She had never asked too many questions before.
It didn’t sit well with her trade. Maybe she should have though.

127
Jack turned to Walter for the truth.
‘This town’s been sitting on a secret, Jack. Everyone hopes it will
just go away. But a secret like that is slow to die. Still, they try. No
one talks about it and the kids don’t know. Tom didn’t know. Not
the real truth, anyway.’
‘But you do?’
Walter nodded. ‘Sooner or later you meet everyone in this trade.
And some people talk. There’s still guilt in this town. You see the
killings didn’t begin with Mary.
‘It was all before my time, just after the second wave that hit the
cities so hard. Lots of people took to the roads: the ones who had
strength and hope. They’d seen what the first wave did and they
were all half starved by then. At first there was still food for the
city, with people coming from the country to trade, down the
rivers and the roads. But soon they caught it too, that’s probably
how it spread, into the surrounding towns.
‘So the country closed its doors. Half starved wanderers were shut
out. Most of them, as you know, died from exposure, on the roads
and in the woods. Towns like Topia put up barricades or killed
them without mercy on sight. They were dying in droves anyway,
so shooting them probably didn’t seem so bad. Not if it meant that
you and your family could live. You’re too young to know, Jack,
but I’ve seen it and Emma has too.
‘I don’t know what happened in Topia exactly but it wouldn’t
have been any better. And that’s why Jordan is hard and why the
others follow him.’
‘So the outsiders had to stay outside?’
Walter breathed deeply and sighed. ‘No, Jack. That’s not why
they’re called outsiders. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
They’re called outsiders because that’s what they became.’
Jack let the truth settle.
‘But in fact we’re the real outsiders here, Jack. The barricades
weren’t strong enough to keep us out. This town was taken,
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then rebuilt. Not that there would have been much here before. But
now it had to stand without the support of the city.’
Jack could see it was all true. Everything fell into place. This was
a new town after all. And the past had been forsaken.
‘It was before my time, Emma. I wandered in like you. Had a
travelling repair rig and lived by my wits on the road. People still
had things to trade but I could see it was drying up. Then I
stumbled into this place. They needed me and I was more than
impressed. New buildings going up left, right, and centre: the mill,
the Co-op. Really organised and growing. It was quite something
at the time.’
‘It’s quite something now,’ agreed Emma. ‘At least it was until
events of late. You could have told me though, Walter. You could
have trusted me with that.’ She looked straight at him.
Walter let out a sigh. ‘I don’t know why really, I wanted to
sometimes, but then… Didn’t want to spoil it for you, either. Or
for us. Things have been pretty quiet until now.’
‘So it’s the outsiders who really belong to this place,’ said Jack.
‘Once, Jack. Not to this place exactly but to an earlier one, yes.
Maybe we all belong now. That’s what I think. Topia has a secret
but it would have had one the other way too. There was no
compromise at the time. The trouble is, the past doesn’t easily
die.’
‘You mean the outsiders don’t.’
‘So it would seem, Jack. Yes. I guess most of them were just kids
then. Their parents probably died in the fighting. Most of them.
But now they’ve grown up and want more. They want their town
back, I guess.’
‘Can’t see Jordan giving them that,’ said Jack.
Walter nodded. ‘Jordan won’t budge an inch. Not after what the
fighting has cost him. He’s harder than he ever was.’
Jack tried putting together the pieces, everything finally made
129
sense. The abandoned church was not of this town, after all. It and
its graves belonged to the past. Topia, the new town, was part of
another present. The new town had supplanted the old.
But what did the future hold?

130
Forsaken Twenty Eight: A Disquieting Sign

Jordan walked across the cold bed of the rock ringed campfire,
crushing the embers beneath his feet and idly poking under the
larger unconsumed coals for any identifying signs. The charred
bones of sheep confirmed what he already knew. This had been
the home of his enemy. It was much further out than he had
supposed, which is why he had not discovered it before. As it was,
they had been lucky to find it now, for the line of searchers
radiating from the town had thinned the further they had got from
Topia, the apex of the fanning destruction. But because it had been
the last unburnt quadrant, save for a few pockets that were easily
patrolled, they had travelled much longer than they otherwise
would have, reasoning that, if the enemy were not located here,
they must already have gone. And this hope motivated their efforts
in what was to be the final search.
The campsite had been well chosen by his foes. Squatting in a
huge crater like depression, the light from their evening fire would
have been obscured and the surrounding ridge above them would
have provided good ground for guards. An observer positioned on
the rim commanded a good view of the valley and he doubted that
he would ever have been able to surprise them in their camp.
But now they were gone, forever, he thought. Having retreated this
far from Topia already, and given the extent of damage beyond, he
considered that they were no longer a threat or nuisance to the
town. Blood had been spilt on both sides but in the end he had
won. He felt less bitter now. The deaths of the men had recently
opened old wounds in him but hate is difficult to sustain in
triumph and dismissive contempt was quick to fill its place in his
heart. The outsiders had retreated and good riddance; if they
returned they could only expect more of the same. Destiny had
delivered Topia and the future into his hands; by his hands.
Nestled in the green valley of a black but fertile land, the seed of
Topia would burgeon into a tree of civilisation, unhindered.

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Posterity would be his judge and heir.
He looked up at the high summer sun. They had been searching
since dawn and the town was a good fifteen miles away. It was
time to head for home. They would return by the road. The going
would be easier and scorched earth was no place for a stroll: the
dead and dying animals even unsettled Jordan and neither he nor
his company had a desire to linger there for long.
However, not far into their homeward trek, they stumbled upon
other recent sign: deep wagon tracks by the river and footprints in
the sand.
The wheel tracks surprised Jordan at first but he soon understood
why they were there, saw in his mind how the laden wagon had
ploughed down the bank from the road to escape the flames, and
where it had moved on later in less of a hurry. However, the
numerous footprints clouded a conclusion to this reconstruction of
events. Because they surrounded the wagon he knew they were
contemporaneous, that his enemies and the wagon had met. What
had then happened, though, he could not fathom, not from the
evidence by the river. Perhaps it was not a bad sign but it certainly
wasn’t good. He decided to keep his thoughts to himself. Not that
his silence made much of a difference.
The others did not fail to notice these things either. It was the
direction of the footprints that concerned them most. Maybe the
outsiders had back-tracked for a while, looking for a refuge closer
in. If so, they wouldn’t find one. The whole country was burnt out.
And when they realised the truth of that fact, they would surely
know that they must leave, that there was no place for them in the
valley. They must see that.
Still, whatever these signs meant, the searchers believed they had
beaten their enemy. No one could continue to live amid this
scorched landscape. Jordan had stripped the outsiders of any
possible refuge and the town could now relax. Tonight they would
all sleep easy, or so they argued with every step; and home
beckoned stronger than their fears. Yes, the search was over, the
battle was over, and victory had been given to them.
But it was a disquieting sign to the whole company
132
nonetheless, and no one spoke much of it aloud.

133
Forsaken Twenty Nine: Ultimate Sacrifice

By the time the first members of Jordan’s party had returned to


town it was evening; a dark dusty evening cloaked by haze from
the fire that had done its work and abated.
Emma and Jack dined with Walter at the inn; they could have
gone on home to the farm in daylight but Emma was keen to off
load the wagon first. It had been a risky run and she wished to
bring the business to an end. There was a considerable sum
involved and she was anxious to secure her credits as soon as
possible, as soon as Jordan returned to the shop. They had not
expected to wait so long, however, and were relieved when at last
the inn door opened to a group of weary and blackened young men
glad to be finally home.
Emma pushed back her chair to rise and stretched her limbs on
standing. She would waste no more time. The wagon was at the
Co-op where she guessed Jordan was too by now and, leaving
Jack and Walter to finish their drinks, she set off to sort out the
business side of things; no sense them hanging around the Co-op
longer than was necessary to do the heavy work, and she wanted
to first strike a good price. With Jack there ready to off load, it
might look like they would take whatever was going but, despite
her desire to close a deal quickly, the truth was she wouldn’t sell
cheaply. After all, hardware isn’t perishable and, now that she had
settled into Topia, she could always barter at leisure on the side,
should worst came to worst. There was no law against it, yet. In
fact, the possibility of setting up shop herself had crossed her mind
more than once, though she thought it might be wiser to put down
a few more roots in Topia beforehand. Jordan would have more
trouble tossing her then.
Outside, the air was thick with heat and smoke. It was almost like
fog only less comfortable on the skin. She could see a light on
inside the Co-op as she made for the open door. Jordan was
moving around in there all right, shadows betrayed his presence.
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She patted Reuben reassuringly on the head as she passed by the
wagon and strolled casually into the warehouse to trade.
‘Evening, Jordan,’ she said, coolly.
Jordan slowly turned around to meet his protagonist squarely on. It
had been a long day and it showed on him in more ways than one.
Age had let weariness remove some of the determined stiffness of
his posture, although the ash of his own making had grubbied his
face in a way which did not, despite the dim light, soften his
features. Tired as he was, Emma still thought he looked to be as
hard as the nails she wanted to trade.
‘I see you’ve hit the jackpot this time, Emma,’ he remarked,
without emotion.
‘If the price is agreeable,’ she returned, just as stoically.
Jordan’s grey eyes did not blink. ‘We’ve never cheated you
before, Emma, have we?’ he asked, as though she was not yet part
of the town.
Emma paused defiantly. ‘No, Jordan,’ she said. ‘No one has ever
cheated me.’
Jordan’s face almost permitted a smile. ‘Well, I suppose we better
take a closer look then,’ he said, unhooking the oil lamp on the
way.
Emma lowered the rear tray and pulled back the canvas to expose
the full measure of her goods. They were mostly new and their
newness glistened in the light, like treasure before hungry eyes.
Jordan peered into the open boxes inside. ‘You’ve travelled a fair
way to get this,’ he remarked.
‘Melbourne,’ she replied.
Jordan raised an eyebrow. ‘Must have been quite a trip,’ he
approved, playing cat and mouse.
‘It had its moments.’
‘I dare say, Emma. I dare say. In fact, I’m sure it did. Didn’t
135
have a little trouble by the river, for example?’ he asked, following
up his earlier discovery.
Emma nodded as she moved from surprise at his remark to insight.
‘We had to make a detour, yes. Someone had been playing with
fire. But as you can see, we made it through anyway.’
Jordan disliked her implied reproach. ‘It was necessary, you
understand.’
‘Yes, Jordan. I understand. At least, more than I used to. Trouble
like that makes you think and helps you see what’s right.’
Jordan winced. ‘You had some company, too?’
‘Did I?’
‘They left their tracks.’
Emma held her ground. ‘Yes, we did. They took our gun,’ she
said, in part to worry him. ‘But they let us go after that.’
Jordan ran some canvas over his fingers. It was good quality.
‘Strange they should let this slip by.’
‘Guess, they were in a hurry. Can’t imagine why.’
‘You gave them the gun, you say.’
‘No. I said they took it.’
Jordan stepped back to size up the load. ‘Pity. Still, can’t be
helped, can it?’ He was obviously not too worried; now that his
enemies were banished. ‘Come into the office, Emma, and we’ll
do some sums. You’ve done well for yourself here. And for Topia
too. We need traders like you.’
There he went, excluding her again. But she was impressed by his
coolness nonetheless. It was as though he was always looking
ahead, even in his obsession. Whether building for the future or
destroying the past, there was method in his madness. Trouble is,
his calculations were not quite human and logic can let you down.
The past had misshapen him, and his plans ran the risk of turning
sour. Personally, she wanted nothing to do with either him or
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his goals. But you don’t pick and chose customers when you trade.
It was strictly business.
Jack and Walter were loathe to remain at the inn, although Emma
had not long gone. The idea of relaxing while she worked was too
close to bludging for Jack, and, of course, Walter preferred
Emma’s company to his. That’s mainly why Walter had offered to
help and, yes, to curry a little favour too. So when the one drained
his mug the other was quick to do the same and rise from his chair.
They approached the Co-op casually, cider and dinner had relaxed
their mood and they were concerned not to interfere with Emma’s
negotiations. They could hear talking inside and decided to soften
their step. But the nearer they approached the more hesitant they
became for the voices were unfamiliar to them.
Jack sensed more trouble in the mutual exchange than did Walter
and, holding his friend back with one arm, he eavesdropped by the
door. As he watched and listened, small beads of sweat began to
form over the grime that had settled onto his face in the thick
Smokey air.
It was a young woman’s voice, Jack could just make out her form
amongst the shadows. He wasn’t sure if she was alone but he
could see that she pointed a gun, their gun, towards Emma and
Jordan who held the light. On her instructions, Jordan sat the lamp
on the floor and carefully stepped back.
Jack whispered gently to Walter, urging him to get help and, as the
latter left, he returned his eye to the scene. All he could do for the
moment was observe. The woman emerged from the darkness
towards the lamp, it was the woman they had run into by the river,
and another man, her offsider, followed behind her with a knife.
Jordan seemed strangely shaken by his assailants, he said
something falteringly and began to move forward. Emma pulled
vainly at his arm but he kept on coming regardless, slowly
approaching the threatening gun. The woman was clearly
unnerved by his determined advance: she shouted and tightened
her grip.
Neither Jack nor Emma moved. It was as if there were just two
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people involved: Jordan and the woman. Everyone else was a
bystander, looking helplessly on.
Suddenly, Jordan cried out as he thrust forth his arm and, in that
same instant, as if innocent cause and great consequence were
linked immediately by some invisible thread, the gun flashed and
bellowed in reply, repelling his body violently backwards until it
fell with a lifeless thud onto the hard earthen floor.
Momentarily stunned, Emma then sought redemption for her
inaction by rushing to Jordan’s aid. But there was clearly nothing
to be gained from such efforts and, as the woman lowered the gun,
Jack slowly slid back the door. It was all over, for now. Jordan
was dead. Killed by his owns hands and hers. Killed, perhaps, by
the past.
Martin alerted Jill to Jack’s entrance but she was slow at first to
react. She hadn’t meant to kill Jordan. Not like that. That hadn’t
been the plan at all. Kidnap not murder had been their aim. For
one thing, they didn’t know how many other Jordans were ready
to take his place. But maybe this was necessary somehow. Maybe
it would change things too. She wasn’t sure. Her head was reeling
from the explosion not just of the gun but of time. The continuity
of her world had been disrupted by a single instant and a singular
event. Should it have happened, she wondered? Did she really
have control? She couldn’t work it out. She wasn’t regretful or
sad, but it shook her and filled her with doubt.
Martin tugged anxiously at her arm. Yes, they had to escape. She
turned the gun vaguely upon Jack who made no gesture of threat.
And, while he calmly moved towards Emma, Martin hurried to the
door, closing it in fear like a child instinctively hiding some
wrong, shutting the world without until he could bring Jill to
leave; to escape.
The mood inside was oddly relaxed. Somehow it all seemed to
have ended there upon the floor, as if the menace had died with
Jordan and was soaking into the ground with his blood.
Jack looked down at his boss. ‘Why did he do it?’ he asked.
Emma shook her head. ‘He called her Mary,’ she said.
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Mary? Jack looked at the woman and remembered that there was a
girl; a girl who had not been found. So that was it. The unfinished
stories were each linked as well: Jordan’s with hers. But why call
her Mary? Mary was the mother, not the child. Then he
understood. Of course, Jordan hadn’t recognised his daughter, but
Mary lived on in her daughter’s face. ‘He was your father,’ he said
to Jill, asserting it with doubtless conviction, certain that Jordan
had been right. Sometimes fate leaves no questions, things just fit
quietly into place. No further proof is required: context is enough.
It makes you wonder whether you’re really as free as you’re
supposed to be. The forces outside you connect with those within.
Jill struggled to make sense of it. Jordan’s death had unnerved her
in a way she had never anticipated. He had called her by a name
she didn’t know but it had touched her nonetheless. Made her skin
grow cold. But Jack’s words were not to be trusted, he was an
enemy too. Or was he? She didn’t know or really care anymore.
Martin pulled at her arm again. ‘Let’s go,’ he insisted, opening up
the door. But not as discretely as he would have liked. For almost
as soon as he had done so, Reuben’s bark confirmed the alarm.
And someone was coming, fast.
Jill looked outside, the sound of the shot had emptied the tavern
and people were massing near, converging on the Co-op shed. She
put another shell into the chamber of the gun and fired above their
heads.
The crowd stopped in their tracks. No one wanted to die.
Her composure thus regained, Jill grabbed Martin by the hand.
The fear left him then. He was glad she was in control again as
they edged into the alley and the night. With backs to the wall,
they eased into the darkness, using the gun to keep the crowd at
bay.
Walter now rushed inside to see Emma, who was pleased to have
him there. Jordan’s death had unsettled her too; she felt as if her
feet had been frozen to the earth.
But Jack walked into the night, mixing with the crowd. He was
drawn somehow to the drama; felt a part of it as he watched it
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performed. It was as though his witness, unlike the witness of the
others, was somehow integral to it all; he understood it as no one
else could. And he knew that it wasn’t over yet and maybe, just
maybe, there was something he should do.
Although no one rushed the intruders, they all followed slowly
behind, close behind, like a predator. Jill was loathe to run, the
gun held the crowd back like a spell that she didn’t want to break.
Neither did Jack break from the ranks. He wanted to say
something, though: to tell the crowd that it didn’t matter. But it
didn’t seem right that he should; no one would have listened and
his intrusion would have been absurd. He was as alien to them as
Jill. It was no business of his, in their book, and he knew it. The
real outsider was him. Perhaps that’s why he had been allowed to
witness, you can only change some things from within and he
mightn’t be meant to change this, after all.
Jill and Martin were surrounded now on every side but one, and
the river took care of that. Jill was no longer afraid for herself, it
was Martin she feared for now. He had always stood behind her
and now he might die for her too; because of her mistake. Why
had she fired the gun? Perhaps she never really believed in its
power. It had surprised her as much as anyone when it erupted in
her hands. But the one thought that haunted her now was Mary, he
had hurt her with the last word he had said.
And now they had nowhere to go. Their last backward step had
brought them to the edge, to the edge of the raging river, from
which the crowd would allow no escape.
Jack pushed through to the front. The outsiders stood before him
on the grassy bank. You couldn’t hear anything above the torrent.
Not that anything was said. But you could hear the water calling,
alright. The current that reluctantly powered the mill, was roaring
through the bridge upstream, like a chained animal impatient to be
fed.
Suddenly, Jill cried out to the crowd, ‘I’m the killer not him!... I’m
the killer not him!’ That’s all she said. And then she jumped,
jumped into the river, taking the gun with her but leaving Martin
alone on the bank.
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She made no attempt to swim, or so it seemed to Jack. The
foaming river tossed and turned her body over like a playing
tongue, then pulled her below out of sight.
Martin dropped the knife as he watched her, and Jack walked
calmly to his side. There was no hint of danger for Martin. She
had seen to that. The crowd had been struck dumb by her sacrifice
and was as harmless as the moonlit willows standing beside them.
Jack stared into the river. Now it was done. He had seen it all
unfold. And somehow, he understood.

141
Forsaken Epilogue

In the end Walter was right. The river never did give her back. Not
Penny. Not Jill.
But as for Martin’s fate, well, the town was in two minds about it.
Some wanted him punished like the boy; wanted him to also pay
for the past. But there wasn’t enough hate left in the town for that,
not without Jordan at their head. Topia had had enough.
Walter seemed to speak for most people now. He even emerged as
a kind of leader; a voice of reason in the wake of madness. Part of
his popularity was down to his personality but mostly they liked
what Walter said. You only had to look at the charred hills to see
the appeal of his approach.
And so it began: reconciliation. Something that could not have
begun before; before the forces from the past would allow. It was
as though the deaths of Jordan and Jill had opened up the gate so
that two sides could get together, could talk.
Martin had no wish to destroy Topia. Not that he or any of the
others had much fondness for the place. The past embittered them
too much for that. But you can’t eat vengeance and it’s a poor
mother to a child. Nor did they really want to take over the town.
Topia was not their creation, or their parents in fact. Theirs had
been a different town in a different time. What they wanted now
was to live in quiet enjoyment like everyone else, not as good
citizens of Topia but as neighbours; secure in their own right.
And the outsiders needed to live there fairly, with a bit of ground
to call their own and enough stock to get them started.
The way Jack saw it, the solution was pretty much inevitable. Just
like the troubles. Everyone had been kind of swept up in
something much bigger than them. Take the sickness for a start. A
lot of the good died early. The others were either inclined or
learned to fight for what they had, or to get what they needed.
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It was the same everywhere you looked, country and city alike.
But standing against all this struggle and suffering is a basic desire
to get on and the truth that it’s God’s sky, not ours. Eventually,
humanity and logic wins through. But not without putting things
on a more even footing first, or it just goes on.
Topia looked pretty good to Jack as he pulled up the team near the
old church and looked back. You could see where they were
making a start on the school, another first for Topia. And the mill
was still turning around in the current of the river. Only now it
somehow seemed more natural, as if it really did fit after all. Topia
had joined the mainstream of life again; the new life.
You could make out the cemetery too, where Jordan and Mary lay,
and where their daughter had been mourned before her time.
He looked then at the decaying church that had first made him
wonder. Maybe they’d fix it up now. And then again, maybe not.
Sometimes you can have too much of the past, it can keep the
future on hold. Topia had a future now; its hills would soon be
green. But only if its people got on.
A bark from Reuben distracted him, bringing his mind back to the
job. Yes, a long road lay stretched before them. But, thankfully,
not a Melbourne run. Things were looking good all round.
His boots felt comfortable now.

143
Elephant One: Fellow Passengers

‘This’ll be ours,’ said Tangles, referring to the colourful old lorry


parked outside the office door. ‘It’s a Morris. Not a bad bus, in its
day. S’pose it’ll get us there alright though. What do you think,
Razzy?’
Erasmus stared incredulously at the bright red, yellow and green
truck which awaited them, marveling at the mysterious writing on
its doors and at the strange pictures of Hindu deities adorning its
bonnet and wooden side rails. ‘It’s perfect,’ he said, beaming a
smile that would lose him an easy fortune in a poker game. And,
without further ado, he tossed his haversack into the back in order
to secure his hopes against any rival claims.
‘Excuse me Miss,’ said an elderly man whose benign smile
revealed a fair appreciation of life’s absurdities. ‘Is it your
intention to travel in this lorry?’
‘You the driver?’ enquired Tangles, in a manner that sought more
than was asked.
‘Dear me no,’ he replied. ‘Merely a prospective fellow traveller
making a clumsy attempt at introducing himself. I am Doctor
Rama,’ he said, warmly.
‘Tangles. G’day,’ she replied in kind. ‘And this is...’
‘Erasmus, Doctor, Erasmus P. Truthseeker,’ interrupted our hero
claiming the right to his own introduction. ‘A traveller to whom
the past, however recent, is of less consequence than the now.’
‘Ah travel,’ rejoined the Doctor, with an inflection that indicated
more was to come, ‘one of the greatest faculties in the university
of life,’ he declared and catching the eye of another with a monkey
on his head, asked ‘won’t you meet our new companions, Patrick,
to add pleasure to our ride?’

144
‘Oh yes thank you, Doctor,’ grinned the other, nodding his head
slightly from side to side.
‘Then let us no longer delay this important ceremony.
Miss Tangles and Mr Erasmus P. Truthseeker, may I present
Mr Patrick O’Rourke who, to satisfy your aroused curiosity, is in
part descended from an Irish soldier in the British army no less.’
And, let us, dear reader, also ‘no longer delay’ on matters of little
relevance to our account. In short, after the fares were paid, our
passengers settled comfortably amongst the general cargo behind
the cab and the lorry set off honking and bouncing its way through
the busy streets of Lacutta with more speed than one would have
expected and the odd bicyclist would have preferred.
‘It appears,’ said Erasmus, ‘that we are in the hands of a captain
whose respect for other road users is directly proportional to their
size.’
‘Yes,’ replied Doctor Rama with a smile. ‘A large lorry, a loud
horn and a courageous driver; is there no limit to our good
fortune?’

145
146
Elephant Two: Passing The Time

To the great relief of its intrepid passengers, the colourful old


Morris finally emerged from the frantic urban traffic of Lacutta
and began to snake its way through the paddy fields and coconut
groves of the surrounding countryside.
‘How very relaxing,’ remarked Doctor Rama as he stretched his
arms along the wooden rails behind him and gazed upwards at the
clear blue sky. ‘But I fear that what is pleasant now may soon
become tedious,’ he added with a sigh.
‘It is said that conversation shortens a journey,’ observed Erasmus,
unwittingly taking the Doctor’s bait.
‘And so it does Mr Truthseeker, and so it does,’ replied the Doctor
as he pulled in the line. ‘However, it is a long journey and I
suspect there may be too many bumps and not enough people for
mere conversation to sustain us throughout.’
‘Why don’t you stop beating around the bush, Doctor,’ said
Tangles, more frankly than rudely, ‘and tell us what you’ve got in
mind?’
The Doctor hesitated to comply. ‘I suppose,’ he said, as though
giving the matter a great deal of thought, ‘that we could each take
a turn to entertain the rest.’
‘Entertain?’ feared Erasmus, whose stage experience had been
limited to a brief appearance as an inanimate object; and, though
his teacher afterwards commended him on his performance, he
had always dimly suspected that her praise somewhat exaggerated
his merit.
‘Nothing too theatrical, Mr Truthseeker,’ assured the Doctor,
‘simply, say, by telling a tale, reciting a rhyme or singing a little
song for our mutual diversion.’
It was, of course, a suggestion that ordinarily would not
147
succeed; people being what they are. But, whether because of the
cunning of the Doctor, the intoxicating effect of that balmy day or
the mischievous influence of Mr O’Rourke’s monkey, the
company consented to Doctor Rama’s proposal, on condition that
he go first.
‘Agreed,’ said the Doctor with a smile. ‘I shall tell a tale.’

148
The Tale of the Perfect Song
‘Long ago,’ he began, ‘in a remote mountain village of a distant
land lived a poor musician called Li, whose home was the streets
and whose only possessions were the clothes on her back and an
old lute which had belonged to her father.
Each day Li would sit in the market place to sing and strum her
lute for the benefit of anyone who cared to listen. And sometimes
passers-by would show their appreciation by throwing her a small
coin as she played; such was her trade.
All the craftsmen and shopkeepers in the market liked to listen to
Li’s cheerful young voice as it rose above the pure notes of the
ancient lute; all except Wang, the usurer, who would drive Li
away from his door claiming that she was bad for business.
For her part, Li thought the only sound which appealed to old
Wang was the jingle of silver in his locked purse, and that the only
reason her music upset him was that he wanted to remain as mean
and niggardly as was humanly possible.
Usually Li earned enough money in the market to fill her empty
stomach but this year the harvest had been poor and not many
people had enough for themselves let alone for Li.
One evening, after a particularly bad day, Li was full of despair.
‘How am I to eat?’ she thought. ‘I haven’t even enough money to
buy a bowl of rice! Perhaps I’ll have to sell my lute but then what
would I do? I can’t sing without it and there’s no other work to be
found. And what would life be worth if I can’t play the music that
I love so much?’
And so Li sat on the steps of the temple thinking about her
dilemma, until the blanket of night descended upon her and sleep
overtook her restive mind.
But, as trouble and hunger are the food of dreams, before long Li
found herself tumbling into the deep nether world of her inner self,
an indefinite void wherein the possible and impossible can no
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longer be discerned...
‘Li!’ called the soft voice of the moon to the sleeping musician.
‘Attend to the motions of the midnight clouds as they perform the
dance of joy while the soft summer breeze sings the song of hope.
Watch and listen, for your eyes only are privileged tonight.’ And
as it spoke, the clouds began to dance so enchantingly, and the
wind began to sing so sweetly, that she almost surrendered her
soul.
But beauty is transitory; beautiful dreams the more so; and with
the first kiss of the dawn breeze upon the stony lips of the temple,
the troubled musician awoke from her dreams, rubbed the sleep
from her eyes and, looking up, she wondered where the moon had
gone and what the night had said. For although she knew that she
had dreamt of beauty, no matter how hard she tried, she could
recall neither the dance of the clouds nor the enchanting song of
hope. Finally, disappointed, she picked up her father’s old lute and
plucked aimlessly at the strings, endeavouring thereby to forget
her hunger and the dilemma of yesterday’s woes.
But what is happening! ‘I’ve never played like this before!’ she
thought, as her hands danced upon the strings almost as nimbly as
the clouds had danced upon the sky in her dream. ‘Now I
remember!’ she exclaimed and began to sing a song so joyous that
it filled her heart with hope and brightened her face with a kind of
happiness she had never previously known.
On she sang, through the morning and into the afternoon while, in
the square below, a crowd of people transfixed by the most perfect
music they had ever heard, gradually assembled. ‘It is a miracle!’
they praised. ‘She plays the music of the heavens!’
Throughout that day, reports of Li’s music spread from the town
to the nearby countryside and, by nightfall, the square below her
was overflowing with people enchanted by the song of hope.
Li played for as long as she was able, but at last fatigue compelled
her to put down her lute. However, though the song had ended, her
audience remained, afraid that their new found joy would vanish if
they left.

150
Then the mayor of the village suggested that those who had wine
and food to spare should fetch it at once so that all might celebrate
the good fortune they had shared that day. And such was the
lingering effect that Li’s music had produced in the hearts of those
who had heard it, that the rich gave liberally of the best in their
cellars and all including Li feasted as they had never done before.
But after the people had eaten their fill and quenched their thirst
with wine, they were still reluctant to return to their homes and,
sensing a growing restlessness, the mayor prevailed upon Li to
address the crowd herself.
‘My good neighbours,’ she said, summoning her voice with a will,
‘the song of hope is indeed a great gift but we must not allow the
happiness it has brought us to be spoiled by folly. I beg you
therefore to go to your beds and tomorrow at sunset I will return to
the temple steps to sing once again the beautiful song that brings
joy to our days and tranquillity to our nights. Go now, I implore
you.’
Reassured by her promise and persuaded by her good sense, the
crowd soon dispersed as everyone left for their homes, where
indeed they did sleep tranquilly, and on the next day found the
burden of their lives lessened by the joy they had shared on
hearing the song of hope.
Nor was their joy behind them, for Li’s performances continued,
sustaining them like a sparkling fountain over many weeks to
come. Refreshed by Li’s music in the evening, everyone slept
peacefully in the night and more easily endured the day. Everyone,
that is, except Wang, who refused to leave his silver to listen to a
young upstart whose music was bad for business. And bad for his
business it was, for the principle of mutual good had replaced
more selfish aims and the services of Wang the money lender were
not needed any more.
Wang thought that the town had succumbed to madness. And,
seeing how rich and poor shared alike, he began to fear for his
own hoard of silver; a possibility which tormented him more than
that death itself.
‘I am the only sane person in the whole village,’ he thought,
151
‘but what can I do alone? I shall see the Empress,’ he resolved at
last. ‘Surely when she hears what is happening within the borders
of her land she’ll take swift action to correct things, and perhaps
even favour me with some small reward.’
The Empress Koomingtang was regarded, on the whole, as a
benevolent despot. She was not one to indulge in costly conquests;
her expenditure was no more lavish than that of her predecessors;
and in court she had the sagacity to clearly distinguish between
matters of jurisprudence and matters of political prudence.
But like all despots she was well aware of the subtle difference
between her subject’s interests and her own, which she guarded
very jealously, and so was not only surprised but greatly alarmed
by what Wang had to say.
‘If what you relate is true,’ she said, ‘and the rich impoverish
themselves for the sake of a song then the Empire is at risk and
you shall be handsomely rewarded. But if you are wasting my
time with malicious accusations you shall surely forfeit your
head!’
Anxious to address a problem before it became a crisis, the
Empress despatched a squadron of her elite cavalry without delay.
The task of commanding them fell upon Genja, her most reliable
officer. Genja’s instructions were simple: to escort Wang back to
the village; to investigate his complaint; and, if necessary, to arrest
the culprit and restore order.
Genja did not know what to make of his assignment. ‘Lies or
superstition or both,’ he thought as they rode through the
countryside at a fast trot; and, by the time he had arrived at the
village, he favoured the former explanation.
‘There is no anarchy here,’ he thought as he observed the smiles
on the faces of the villagers working in the fields and the laughter
of the children at play. ‘If anything distinguishes this petty village
from others in the district, it is only its prosperity.’
Believing that he had been sent on a wild goose chase, Genja
turned to Wang and admonished him sharply. ‘You have lied to
the Empress!’ he boomed. ‘There is nothing amiss here. I
152
should cut you down now and be done with it!’
But Wang only insisted that things were not as they appeared and
politely suggested that it would be in his interest to interrogate the
Mayor before drawing any conclusions.
‘Very well,’ said Genja. ‘But if things are not as you say, I will
feed your bones to the village dogs even though, by all
appearances, I shall have to starve them first!’
Genja commandeered the inn on behalf of the Empress and,
without troubling himself to offer a reason, as is the way of those
who consider themselves masters of the rest, he sent the innkeeper
to fetch the Mayor.
Now when the Mayor arrived and saw Wang standing next to
Genja he was very apprehensive, for he knew that Wang hated the
song of hope. ‘How may I serve the Empress?’ he asked, as
humbly as he could.
‘By answering my questions truthfully,’ replied Genja, as
authoritatively as he could.
‘That I shall gladly do my lord, as is no less than my duty.’
‘Tell me then, without embroidery, all that you know of this song
of hope.’
It was a question the Mayor had been expecting. ’The song of
hope, my Lord Commander, is a great gift to the people of our
village. It raises our spirits in these hard times and helps us to
endure without complaint the vicissitudes of our lives. Before
hearing it we were like a people in the dark who had never seen
the sun. It was revealed in a dream to a poor musician called Li,
who alone can bring the song to life.’
Genja was amused and intrigued by the Mayor’s infatuation with
this so called song of hope. Yet he could see no wrong in the
reply. Further questions would be required.
‘How is it,’ the commander continued, ‘that there is no apparent
poverty here as there is elsewhere in this province? Is the soil so

153
much richer, Mayor?’
‘No, my Lord Commander.’
‘Have the rains favoured you then?’
‘No, my Lord Commander.’
‘Well perhaps you have greater stocks to fall back upon in this
time of general famine?’
‘No, Lord Commander, not greater.’
‘Then, Mr Mayor, how do you account for your prosperity?’
‘It is not that the sum of our wealth is greater,’ explained the
mayor, ‘but rather, Lord Commander, that we have used it more
wisely.’
Genja grew suspicious. ‘How so?’ he prompted cautiously. ‘Do
the rich lend grain to the poor?’
‘No, Lord Commander, for debt would only increase our misery,’
he said, casting a disapproving glance at Wang.
‘Then by what ingenious method do your people avoid famine?’
Genja asked losing patience.
‘Our method is simple, Lord Commander. It is to share what we
have and to take joy from our mutual well being, such as it is.’
‘Are you saying,’ pursued Genja, ‘that those who are rich
willingly share with those who are poor?’
‘That is the gist of it my Lord Commander; only now there are no
poor.’
‘And no rich either!’ added Wang.
‘What! No rich in this prosperous village!’ exclaimed the
incredulous Genja.
‘As you say, Lord Commander, there are no rich either.’ He had
wanted to say ‘except for Wang’ but prudently refrained. ‘No
154
rich,’ he said, ‘if wealth is measured by grain but if our standard is
human happiness then we are all of us prosperous here.’
Wang smiled to see the bemused expression on Genja’s face as the
witness verified his account of the prevailing madness and, after
the commander had dismissed the mayor, he couldn’t resist the
temptation to point out that he had been right.
‘You see, Lord Commander, how things are not as they seem. This
magician Li has enchanted the entire village with her evil music.’
But Genja ignored the remark.
Li did not attempt to escape when she saw the soldiers march into
the square below, for the song of hope was still fresh in her heart
and hope is the seed of courage.
‘Where are you taking me?’ she asked the stern faced young
captain as the guards seized her by the arms.
But the discharge of the captain’s duty admitted no debate. Cold
silence was her only answer and so, with bound hands but a free
spirit, Li was brought before the commander.
‘Are you Li the musician who sings the song of hope?’ asked
Genja coolly.
‘What is my crime, Commander, that my hands are bound and my
lute is taken from me?’
‘Answer the question!’ interrupted Wang.
‘Silence!’ chastised Genja, restoring authority to the makeshift
court.
‘I am she who sings the song of hope,’ said Li, ‘and would gladly
sing it for your pleasure now if your Lordship would only return
my father’s lute to me.’
Genja was curious to hear this so called song of hope that had
turned the heads of these simple peasants and he was on the verge
of consenting to Li’s request when Wang interrupted again.

155
‘My Lord Commander, may I humbly offer some advice?’
‘Speak but be brief!’ replied the commander with annoyance.
‘You pay me great honour,’ said the obsequious Wang. ‘I only
wish to remind my Lord of the power this magician’s song has
exercised over the minds of all who have heard it. In your case the
risk of her trickery succeeding must, of course, be considered
small but need we incur any risk at all?’
‘Are you finished?’ Genja did not like advice.
‘Yes, Lord Commander.’
‘Take her away,’ he ordered, showing no interest in her fate.
Li felt her heart sink as the two guards forcibly removed her from
the inn and confined her to the stables at the rear. ‘What can this
mean?’ she thought as she sat upon the dirty floor of her dark and
lonely prison.
But the meaning was clear enough. Early the following morning,
Genja divided his force placing one group under the command of
the captain, to remain and restore order, while he returned with the
other, towing their bemused prisoner behind.
On the way home, Genja reflected upon the strangeness of his
assignment and upon the destiny of his captive. In his own way, he
pitied the musician who had meant no harm and, indeed, as far as
the peasants were concerned, had done only good. But Genja
regarded the common people as mere sheep. Only people of
substance really matter in this world. People like the Empress,
people like himself. The song of hope was a threat to the empire
and the song resided in Li. He had no doubt that Koomingtang
would see it that way too.
As they passed through the city gates, Li looked up at the marble
arch that towered above her like the roof of a mighty dragon’s
mouth; and at the lower edge of the raised iron portcullis which
seemed like a row of teeth poised to crush the life from her
innocent body. And, as she looked, she felt the last faded memory
of the song of hope desert her frightened soul and was filled with

156
horror.
She began to pull desperately at the ropes that bound her to her
fate until the blood began to run from her wrists. Closing her eyes,
she screamed out her innocence to a deaf universe, while the
guards laughed like hunters at the struggling rabbit secure in their
trap...
And then, suddenly, cold and wet from the night sweat of terror,
the terrified musician awoke from her dreams, rubbed the sleep
from her eyes, and, looking up, she wondered where the moon had
gone and what the night had said.’

Doctor Rama sat back, put his finger to his chin, and smiled.
‘Thus, to our surprise and her relief,’ he said, ‘the sleeping
musician found even worse torments in the night than confronted
her during the day.’
Erasmus was not amused. ‘You have tricked us, Doctor,’ he
accused.
‘I reckon we tricked ourselves Razzy,’ observed Tangles by his
side.
‘It is difficult to see beyond our expectations,’ said the Doctor.
‘You mean our hopes,’ offered Tangles.
‘Well,’ said Erasmus, ‘it’s an interesting story, I suppose. But
somehow I doubt, had it not been a dream, that the guiding hand
of Providence would have allowed such an end.’
‘Perhaps you are right, Mr Truthseeker. There is no necessary
connection between our dreams and reality,’ replied the Doctor, in
a tone Erasmus would have found completely reassuring but for
the vexing Cheshire grin which afterwards lingered on the
Doctor’s face.
The good Doctor having fulfilled his commitment, albeit not to the
satisfaction of everyone, discussion turned to the order in which
the remainder of the company should present their respective
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contributions. It was decided to settle the matter by drawing straws
which the Doctor fashioned long, medium and short, from some
toothpicks he always carried about him. The shortest lot fell to Mr
O’Rourke, who apparently did not have the luck of the Irish on
this occasion, the next shortest to Tangles, and to Erasmus fell the
honour of the finale.
‘With your permission, I will sing a song,’ said Patrick, ‘and while
I sing, my clever little friend will amuse you with a dance.’
‘Not the song of hope and the dance of joy.’
‘Nothing quite so perilous, Miss Tangles. It is only a song about a
monkey that, I must apologise, is usually performed for the eyes
and ears of a younger assembly than ours.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about that, Patrick,’ said Tangles with a smile.
‘When you come right down to it we’re all kids at heart and a song
will cheer things up.’
Encouraged by these words, Patrick opened up his large metal
trunk, removed an old button accordion of the type once used by
sailors, and began to sing, as happy as a lark, the song whose
lyrics are printed below. Unfortunately the melody has not come
down to us but, by all accounts, it was sung very merrily and at a
good pace. As for the monkey’s dance, it greatly complemented
Patrick’s song, mimicking the principal actions of particular lines
as it jigged in time with the music. But here, without further ado,
is the song with which Mr Patrick O’Rourke entertained the
company.

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The Monkey Song
A monkey sat with his eyes shut tight
To hide all the evil from his sight
So he couldn’t see the hunter come
And shoot down his friends with a triple barrel gun.
He thought it would be dangerous to help them out
And if he didn’t see then he wouldn’t have to shout
Not even to warn old Joe the cockatoo
Who was captured in a net and taken to the zoo.
But one day when the monkey was fast asleep
The hunter came and took away his feet
(to make ten-toe gravy for his meat)
So now he cannot climb up his favourite trees
To savour the juiciest fruit and leaves.
‘It was so unfair,’ he used to say
‘For the hunter to take my feet away.
And why didn’t anybody help me out?’
Because there was nobody left to shout...

‘Bravo!’ laughed Erasmus as the others clapped and cheered.


‘That’s the best song and dance act I’ve seen in monkey’s years’
congratulated Tangles. ‘And what’s more, the lyrics make a
bloody sight more sense than most I’ve heard of late.’
‘Thank you, Miss Tangles, it’s very kind of you to say so,’ replied
Patrick modestly as he rewarded his small friend with some nuts
that were tucked in the pocket of his jacket.
‘A very practical song indeed, Patrick,’ complimented the Doctor,
‘and a lesson in co-operation that is all too often forgotten even by
the best of us,’ a comment which met with no dissension.
‘Well,’ said Tangles, with an air of resignation, ‘I reckon it’s my
go now.’

159
‘I don’t mind going next,’ offered the chivalrous Erasmus, ‘if
you’d like more time.’
‘Thanks, Razzy, but I’m no shirker and, as a matter of fact, I
happen to know a little story which should fit in very nicely at this
point. You could call it the story of an innocent people.’
‘Excellent,’ approved the Doctor as he leaned back and crossed his
legs. ‘I’m sure it will prove most interesting.’

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The Story of an Innocent People
‘A little more than a century ago, on an isolated island located
somewhere in the South Pacific, lived a prosperous Polynesian
community that loved peace. In fact, young Kali’s people had
lived in a state of perfect peace for hundreds of years, ever since
her warrior ancestors had landed on the island, weary of the blood
letting that had driven them from their former home.
On that great day, to the immense relief of everyone present, all
their men swore a sacred oath to never again resolve disputes by
violence or to deliberately draw another’s blood; and this oath had
been renewed ever afterwards by every boy who came of age.
Protected from the cost and lament of war by this single
resolution, Kali’s people came to enjoy a level of prosperity which
provided sound health, freedom from want and the leisure to
develop a rich culture. In fact, so happy were they that, had the
outside world the slightest inkling of their circumstances, they
would have been the envy of every so called civilised land.
One morning Kali decided to rise early in order to gather flowers
from a special place on the far side of the island while they were
still moist with evening dew. The red sun had not yet quite risen
from the still, grey sea and a chill dawn breeze greeted her smooth
young cheeks as she approached the cliff’s edge above the Bay of
Shells.
It was a walk she had undertaken many times without either fear
or surprise, until now. For, as she rounded a bend in the path, she
saw in the cove below two great outrigger canoes lying on the
beach surrounded by a large number of strange men sleeping on
the sand.
Her excitement at this sight was mixed with considerable wonder
as she had never seen such enormous canoes before; canoes which
had been built to cross an ocean not a bay. Nor had she ever
contemplated the existence of people other than her own.
Concealing herself behind a rock at the cliff’s edge, she counted
161
the number of men slumbering below. ‘Ninety! In two canoes!’
Leaving her basket where it lay, Kali turned her head from the
scene and ran just as fast as she could back to the village to report
what she had seen.
‘Mother!’ she exclaimed, as she burst upon a group of women and
children who were sharing the morning meal. ‘Ninety men have
come in two great canoes!’
Most of the women who heard Kali’s animated report to Maleca
dismissed it as some fantastic invention but such was Maleca’s
confidence in her daughter that she considered it more likely that
Kali was telling the truth than that their island had not been visited
by uninvited strangers. ‘Come Kali,’ she said, as she took her
child by the hand.
At the sight of Kali and her mother running towards them with
several other women close at heel, the men rose to their feet.
Kytanga broke from the circle to greet his wife. ‘What is it
Maleca?’ he asked, while his mind attempted to guess at the
reason.
‘Kali has seen ninety men land in the Bay of Shells in two large
canoes,’ she replied.
Kytanga paused in reflection before turning to his daughter.
‘They must be very large canoes to hold so many?’ he probed.
‘Yes, father. Very large,’ she affirmed.
By now, some of the women who had followed Maleca had
repeated Kali’s claim to the other men present and there was not a
little commotion amongst the group. Eventually it was agreed that
Kytanga and another man should go to the bay immediately to
confirm the child’s report while others alerted the remainder of the
village.
As he crept towards the edge of the cliff, Kytanga knew that his
eyes would verify his daughter’s words and, of course, he was
right. There, on the beach below, were the two large outriggers
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Kali had described and also the many men who had sailed them.
Only now they were not asleep.
Kytanga glanced at his companion who replied with closed lips
and raised eyebrows.
Transfixed by this extraordinary sight, they continued their watch
from the cliff top, closely observing the actions of the strangers
below, for as long as the bright morning sun shone upon their
backs. Then, cautiously, they withdrew from the edge and ran
back to the village.
As they neared their homes, Kytanga began to wonder why they
had not encountered anyone else along the way. After all, they had
been gone for some time and Kali’s report must have aroused a
great deal of interest. It wasn’t until he had reached the outskirts of
the village that he received an answer to his question, that he was
told of the murder of the two young brothers.
A wave of anxiety flowed through the assembly as Kytanga
advanced towards the old man who stood in the clearing at the
centre. Kali watched patiently from her mother’s side as her father
briefed Egi on what he had seen and was himself informed of the
tragedy that had befallen his friends. A drumbeat signalled to the
gathering that Egi was about to speak.
‘Sisters and brothers,’ he said in an aged but steady voice, ‘today
we mourn the deaths of two sons; two brothers. And in the Bay of
Shells ninety men have come in four great canoes who, even as I
speak, build huts upon our island. That these men killed Ito and
Teki there is no doubt, for they were seen fleeing the lifeless
bodies of their victims. That is what we know. Let anyone who
has a mind to, speak now and we will listen.’
Thereupon Egi walked to the perimeter of the clearing and sat
amongst his people. A moment later, a young man arose and
ventured towards the centre.
‘Brothers and sisters,’ he began, ‘I saw the murderers flee from the
bloody bodies of my cousins. And before they ran, I saw the evil
in their eyes. It was not guilt but fear that drove them from me.
They are not like us. They are like sharks accustomed to blood
163
and what they did this morning they will do again from habit and
greed. It is not wrong to kill an animal from necessity. We should
hunt them as we would a shark that has tasted human blood; not
for revenge but because we must strike or die.’
The crowd began to murmur as the young man resumed his place.
An old woman stood up and approached the centre.
‘Calila has lost two sons this morning. How much greater is the
grief of a woman,’ she said as she glanced at the young man. ‘It is
easy for sons to speak of war. Let us share Calila’s grief but not
add to the loss.’
The next person to rise was an old man whose opinion was much
respected by the entire village.
‘My people,’ he implored. ‘We cannot believe the lie that these are
not men. Nor can we put our sacred oath aside today and take it up
again tomorrow as if nothing in the meantime had changed. We
have sworn an oath. Are our words so empty then?’
Silence then fell upon the crowd, for the old man’s question filled
their ears and closed their mouths.
Kali watched in bewilderment as her father stood up and stared
into her mother’s eyes, as if he were fearful but not frightened of
something he was incapable of preventing.
‘Come Kali,’ said Maleca, calmly extending her hand to her
daughter.
And with their departure, Kali’s people also turned towards their
homes, hopeful that with the deaths of the two brothers their
sacrifice would end.
For many weeks afterwards, Kali’s people lived quite peacefully
alongside the newcomers but kept their distance, endeavouring
thereby both to demonstrate tolerance and prevent the further shed
of blood. Nevertheless, they took the precaution of observing their
neighbours from the safety of canoes, taking care not to venture
too close to the shore.
One morning, more ocean canoes were seen heading for the
164
bay but this time they carried not only men but women and
children as well.
The arrival of more strangers naturally caused considerable
consternation in Kali’s village. On the one hand, they were
dismayed to see the number of newcomers swell but, on the other
hand, they knew their island could easily support everyone and
somehow the arrival of women and children allayed the worst of
their fears. They decided to continue living apart, until, in an
atmosphere of mutual security, some opportunity might arise for
establishing peaceful contact.
But how little did they then understand the intentions of the
invaders, a people who had lost their land to others stronger than
themselves, and who now mistook tolerance for weakness.
One warm summer evening a few days later, as Kali watched the
red swollen sun return into the sea and listened to the innocent
laughter of young women and men as they drew their canoes onto
the beach, an army of warriors swarmed across the island
determined to conquer what had already been given.
At first they killed silently, allowing no one to escape the closing
net. Then, in a frenzy, they fell upon the village itself and with
furious blows from their solid wooden clubs, slaughtered men,
women and children alike, with neither hesitation nor mercy.
Kali stood petrified with fear as the man who had killed her father
turned upon her screaming mother with his club, splattering blood
and pieces of bone across the yellow sand. Suddenly, driven by a
will she had never known before, Kali ran. And ran. And ran. Past
the flames which eagerly engulfed her people’s homes; around the
battered corpses that lay scattered along the beach like so much
driftwood discarded by a receding tide; beyond the piercing
screams she could not shut out; until, at last, she found herself
deep within the heart of a great primeval forest and was enveloped
by a night so thick with darkness that even the stars could not be
seen...’

A solemn silence, like that which prevails in a sympathetic


165
court after a witness has concluded some bitter testimony, now
pervaded the company.
‘But your story is not yet finished,’ intruded Erasmus, somewhat
insensibly. ‘Pray, what became of Kali?’
‘Kali,’ replied Tangles, ‘was my great grandmother...’
‘I thought your story had the ring of truth about it,’ remarked the
Doctor, after a pause. ‘But I suppose that, even if it were not true,
the mere possibility of its being so would be sufficient to preserve
its didactic value.’
‘Yes, such dedication to moral principle is an inspiration to us all,’
added Erasmus, lecturing with his hand.
‘You think then, Mr Truthseeker,’ said the Doctor, before Tangles
could reply, ‘that the old man was right in holding them to their
oath even if he knew what would happen as a result?’
‘As to whether the consequences were known to be inevitable,’
replied Erasmus, ‘I cannot say. But assuming that they were, why,
that only increases the moral value of their decision. For to stick
rigidly to principle in the face of certain death is a thing worthy of
the highest acclaim in anyone.’
‘In anyone, perhaps,’ acknowledged Tangles. ‘But in everyone? I
doubt it.’
‘While I can understand the cynicism of a descendant of this
tragedy,’ replied Erasmus, ‘I nevertheless feel obliged to applaud
the moral heroism of your ancestors, in not deviating one iota
from their sworn principles.’
The image of genocidal destruction still fresh in her mind, Tangles
could not forbear correcting a righteous streak in her friend.
‘I should have thought the purpose of morality was to preserve
rather than to destroy society,’ she said, with an air of patronising
tolerance that would have put anyone but Erasmus in their place.
‘And yet,’ persisted Erasmus, ‘history affords us many examples
of individuals who are honoured for their ultimate sacrifice to
166
duty.’
‘So what?’ replied Tangles, as though Erasmus had been as thick
as two planks.
‘I think, Mr Truthseeker,’ said the Doctor, joining in, ‘that what
Miss Tangles is asserting is that, from the perspective of society’s
needs, the sacrifice of an individual to moral principle makes
perfect sense, whereas the needless destruction of society itself,
does not. For, viewed from the perspective of the whole, there is
no dilemma in the worthwhile sacrifice of a part.’
‘Then perhaps she could explain why an individual ought to make
such sacrifices,’ posed Erasmus, confident that he had raised an
insurmountable objection.
‘Well, Razzy,’ she replied, ‘I reckon that problem belong you.’
Outraged at what he considered to be an unwarranted
proclamation of victory, no less than by the inadequacy of his own
powers of reason, Erasmus reached into the murky depths of his
mind for an appropriate insult.
Fortunately, however, for the refined sensibilities of both reader
and author alike, somewhere twixt thought crystallisation and oral
action intruded an extraordinary event, which is no less than the
subject of the next chapter.

167
168
Elephant Three: The Last Word On Elephants

At that precise instant formerly described, just after the truck had
successfully negotiated a hairpin corner on a perilous mountain
pass, just when everything seemed peaches and cream, suddenly
the magnificent Morris slid and ground itself to an abrupt halt
amid a cloud of dust and gravel that afterwards settled
ungraciously upon its topsy-turvy passengers in the rear.
‘Struth!’ exclaimed Tangles as she tumbled to the floor.
‘Screech!’ went the monkey as it landed in her lap.
‘Aiee!’ cried poor Patrick on finding Erasmus half in his.
‘My word!’ remarked the Doctor who had landed on his head.
And the driver rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
‘You will all please disembark,’ ordered an armed man perched
atop an enormous elephant barring their way. ‘Or suffer the
punitive consequences!’
‘Who is it, Patrick?’ enquired Doctor Rama, as he brushed the
brown dust from his spectacles.
‘If I am not mistaken, Doctor,’ replied Patrick, ‘we are being
addressed by no less than Diva, the notorious elephant bandit,
himself!’
‘I shan’t pay you the courtesy of a second invitation,’ warned the
bandit as he cocked an antique carbine and levelled it at the driver.
And I’m sure it will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that
this simple gesture of menace succeeded so admirably in its
purpose that, within a matter of seconds, the driver’s stunned
passengers had fallen into file alongside of the lorry, like so many
reluctant conscripts facing their first parade.

169
‘I should not wish to trouble you to place your hands above your
heads in this noon day heat,’ allowed the bandit with uncommon
magnanimity, ‘or to otherwise further restrict your freedom unless
compelled to do so by some precipitous action upon your part.’
Neither expecting nor receiving a reply, the bandit summoned
forth his two accomplices with a flourishing wave, whereupon one
proceeded to rifle pockets while the other rummaged the truck. Of
the two assignments, the former proved the less enviable, for, on
relieving Erasmus of his wallet, the hapless villain was knocked
clean to the ground, still clutching the booty but minus a tooth or
two.
‘Hold!’ commanded the bandit as he turned his aim towards the
source of the rebellion.
‘You have no right to what is mine!’ defied Erasmus, to the
consternation of his companions. ‘Put aside that gun and dismount
to face me man to man,’ he challenged, ‘or hereafter be called a
coward by all who witness here.’
‘Speak for yourself, Razzy,’ said Tangles, who could see no good
would come of it.
‘As for witnesses,’ replied the bandit, unperturbed, ‘none need
survive, my friend.’
Erasmus held his tongue following Tangle’s reprimand, but his
eyes burned with malice.
Puzzled at the reckless outburst of his captive, the bandit called for
the hard won wallet, hoping its contents might shed some light on
the troublesome phenomenon who stood before him.
‘Erasmus P. Truthseeker,’ he read aloud to the great amusement of
his men. ‘Pray tell us what is signified by your initial,
Mr Truthseeker, if you are not too ashamed to reveal it?’
‘No shame attaches to my name,’ boasted Erasmus boldly. ‘And
have no doubt that one day you will regret having heard of it. My
name is Erasmus Perseverance Truthseeker!’ he proudly
proclaimed.

170
‘Perseverance!’ mocked the bandit, to the amusement of his men.
‘A pity it was not prudence. For I will be interested to discover
whether your relatives esteem your name as highly as do you,’ he
added, instructing his accomplices by means of a gesture to bind
Erasmus’ hands.
Then, as the bandit kept Erasmus in his sights, it occurred to his
calculating mind that the overheads in kidnapping three people
would be not much more than for one, whereas the return on this
investment could be some two hundred percent greater, assuming
them to be of equivalent ransom value, which was a reasonable
assumption at this stage. And so was led by force of reason and
desire to order similar treatment for Tangles and Doctor Rama,
both of whom he considered had more potential for profit than
poor Patrick or their driver.
Under the circumstances, resistance was slight and, returning his
carbine to its scabbard, the bandit drafted his demands upon a
piece of paper, which he then entrusted to the driver’s hands.
The morning’s business thus satisfactorily concluded, he bid
Patrick and the driver farewell, turned the elephant about, and rode
off with his three hostages close in tow, two of whom could scarce
believe the folly of the third.

171
Elephant Four: A Question Of Priorities

Recall, if you will, dear reader, how wretched was the condition of
our three friends at the conclusion of the last chapter; friends who
in one brief and irretrievable instant were deprived of all that
freedom, comfort and security they had formerly enjoyed and
never expected to lose. And now consider how much more
wretched they became when, not far from the scene of the crime,
the bandits took the precaution, as any competent kidnappers
would, of blindfolding their captives so as to reduce to the
absolute minimum the risk of their escape. Oh what a pathetic
sight they must have then seemed: trailing along one after the
other on a rope strung from the saddle of an indifferent elephant.
Now and then, as they groped through the darkness with Erasmus
in the lead, the one would stumble, fall and be dragged along in
the dust, until, with the clumsy assistance of a sightless friend,
they were able to stagger back to their feet to continue the
drudgery of their enforced trek.
But, mercifully, unlike those poor souls in their final predicament,
the torment of our friends at least came to an end. For, as a cool
evening breeze gently caressed their dispirited brows, our sorry
companions felt the tow ropes slacken and had their blindfolds
removed; rightly concluding, as we now know was the case, that
they had arrived at that peculiar abode of bandits popularly
referred to as the hide-out.
‘Welcome!’ said the bandit as he leapt athletically to the ground.
‘My house is your house, for the duration of your visit. Please do
not hesitate to avail yourselves of whatever simple pleasures are to
be had, for you may be sure that ample allowance has already been
included in the bill.’
‘Just what we need,’ remarked Tangles, massaging her raw wrists,
‘a wise-guy.’
‘Do not suppose, you cowardly blackguard,’ said Erasmus,
172
unrelentingly, ‘that fine words excuse your despicable crime, nor
that we shall pardon you the callous treatment we have
experienced at your hands.’
But the bandit was unmoved. ‘I shall endeavour to overlook your
unkind remarks, Mr Truthseeker,’ he said. ‘And, though they
wound me deeply, I shall attribute them to the arduousness of your
journey; for travel can be as wearisome as it is enlightening. In
fact, I am of the opinion that few journeys are fully appreciated
before their associated privations are forgotten. Perhaps, my
friend, your demeanour will improve when your appetites have
been sated with a toothsome curry and when your thirst has been
quenched with some of the finest wine that fortune has cast my
way.’
‘I’ll not sup with thieves,’ replied Erasmus unyieldingly. ‘Nor
sleep a wink until I see you punished for your crimes!’
‘Speak for yourself, Razzy,’ said Tangles once again. ‘I can’t see
how starving will improve things much.’
‘No indeed,’ agreed the Doctor, anxious that he should not again
pay for someone else’s folly. ‘By all means let us eat,
Mr Truthseeker, for starvation only weakens the mind and saps the
body of its strength. It is simply a question of priorities.’
‘You are fortunate to have such sensible friends, Mr Truthseeker,’
said the bandit, prompted by a commercial instinct to preserve his
assets from perishing of their own accord. ‘Your courage has been
convincingly demonstrated on a previous occasion but it is said
that wisdom is the greatest virtue and that wisdom listens to good
advice.’
‘I defer to your good judgement, Doctor,’ relented Erasmus,
ignoring the bandit’s smile. ‘Not only for those reasons you
advance but because I should not want to bring upon my friends
even greater misfortune than they already suffer.’
‘Splendid!’ said the bandit. ‘Let us then make the best of our
predicament and enjoy what society we can.’
And, with an elegant gesture of his left hand, still clutching the
173
carbine in his right, he motioned them towards a nearby spring
where they were able to wash their dusty faces and soothe their
aching feet.
This done, he invited the company to settle upon a large cashmere
rug, an offer which was readily accepted even by Erasmus whose
tired legs would certainly have mutinied against his will if the
issue had been tested.
Before joining his guests, the bandit took the trouble to hand the
symbol and instrument of his authority, meaning, of course, the
carbine, to an associate whose face was disfigured by a large scar
extending from the corner of his left eye to the base of his chin,
giving him the look of one who was not to be taken lightly. Then
said the bandit, ‘Two, four, six, eight, let’s all tuck in before it’s
too late!’
And that, dear reader, is exactly what they did in a manner that I
will leave to your imagination if not experience.
‘I must congratulate your cook,’ praised Doctor Rama as he
polished off a magnificent mango, ‘on a first class curry. I can’t
recall eating quite so well since the Vice Chancellor’s inaugural
dinner during the last great famine.’
‘That must have been long ago,’ observed the bandit, ‘for I have
no memory of widespread famine in my days at least.’
‘Indeed it was,’ replied the Doctor, ‘even before we had cast off
the last imperial yoke.’
‘How much do we take our freedom for granted,’ reflected the
bandit, upending his glass.
‘Yes indeed,’ nodded Doctor Rama as he licked the juice from his
fingers; for such was the influence of his host’s hospitality that he
had completely forgotten his present condition.
But not so had Erasmus. ‘Do not imagine, sir,’ said he, ‘that this
meal, excellent as it was, in any way excuses or moderates the
injustices you have committed. For, when all is said and done, you
are still a kidnapper and bandit of the worst sort; an amoral man at

174
best.’
‘Give it a rest, Razzy,’ muttered Tangles as she bit into a
sumptuous pear, half expecting it would be her last.
‘So you think me amoral?’ asked the bandit of our friend.
‘Why, it is too self evident to deny,’ he replied.
‘I see,’ said the bandit, slowly stroking his chin. ‘Well look here,
Mr Truthseeker, I fancy I’m a sporting man so allow me to make
you a wager which I suspect you won’t refuse.’
‘A wager?’ repeated Erasmus.
‘I’d think twice before laying bets with a crook if I was you,
Razzy,’ advised Tangles with suspicion.
‘You do me a disservice,’ said the bandit, indignantly. ‘For I can
assure you that my word is as good if not better than the next
person’s in this world. And how could I do business otherwise?
Trust, you see, is a prerequisite of all commercial transactions,
especially those involving ransom. ‘Tis true there are certain
dishonest amateurs about who seek extraordinary profit from a
single transaction with no thought for future trade but my business
is on going and my success itself is proof positive of my honesty.
In fact, I dare say I am one of the most honest businessmen in the
land.’
‘Well, I reckon that makes sense,’ she admitted, as she reclined
against a large round rock and took a second bite.
‘What kind of wager?’ enquired Erasmus who was as game as
anyone.
‘On the outcome of a contest, Mr Truthseeker. A contest of skill
for the rich prize of freedom. For if you can convince me by
objective argument that I ought to abandon my profession and take
up another more moral career, then I will personally escort you
and your companions to freedom this very night.’
‘You swear to let us go?’

175
‘Yes.’
‘And you will not resist reason with obstinacy?’
‘No, I will listen only to the merits of your argument and let
Doctor Rama, if he is willing, arbitrate but not judge in the case,
since he is trained in such matters but is not disinterested in the
result.’
‘Are you so willing, Doctor?’ asked Erasmus.
‘With great interest,’ he said.
‘Then it is agreed?’ prompted the bandit.
‘Agreed,’ accepted our friend.
And, as the two confident contestants shook hands to seal the bet,
Tangles selected the most succulent fruit upon which she could lay
her outstretched hand.

176
Elephant Five: An Imperative Debate

‘Before you take up the sword of combat, Mr Truthseeker,’ the


bandit cautioned aloud, ‘let me spare you the trouble of arguing
from the folly of banditry; for I must inform you that I am
descended from a long and distinguished line of outlaws who have
all lived much better by this calling than did lawful
contemporaries of theirs. And, while others have perished from
periodic recurrences of famine and war, or have been reduced to
abject poverty by those institutions of theft called banks,
corporations, churches and the State, my ancestors have prospered
handsomely.
‘Nor do I expect to do any worse, for this noble ancestry has given
me three great advantages over any newcomers who aspire to
compete for the profits of the road. First, you see, I have inherited
a certain boldness of spirit and cunning of mind, which qualities
are so admirably suited to my vocation. Secondly, I have been
apprenticed to experts from an early age, who, as I was of their
own cherished flesh, took great pains to instruct me in the finer
points of crime that I might survive and prosper as a result.
Thirdly, in plying my trade, I am not troubled by that phenomenon
referred to as a guilty conscience, which is the early ruin of so
many prospective rogues and cut-throats second rate.
‘Therefore, my friend, I strongly advise you to stick to moral
arguments, as I’m sure is your intention.’
‘Have no fear on that score,’ assured Erasmus, ‘for no arguments
are more telling than those of simple morality. And of these I think
the strongest is the duty you owe your Creator, whose divine
goodness is the source of all that is also good in both humanity
and the world, and which, you must admit, is a compelling
argument, provided, of course, you are not so heathen as to deny
His existence.’
‘You mean Her’s,’ corrected Tangles between bites.

177
‘It’s only an expression,’ explained Erasmus, ‘for well I know that
God is a singular being undivided by the sex of lesser life forms.’
‘Then ‘Her’ will do as well.’
‘Are you determined against reason to undermine our case?’
‘What case?’
‘I think Miss Tangles may well have a point,’ arbitrated the
Doctor. ‘May I therefore suggest…’
‘It is of no consequence,’ said the bandit, cutting him short, ‘for I
am familiar with arguments of the sort raised by Mr Truthseeker,
which any philosopher worth their salt would easily refute. As
regards the existence of God, I must admit that I neither know one
way nor the other but I am confident the answer is beside the
point. For why, after all, should we be obliged to obey our creator?
Is this duty any less doubtful than the one you say I owe to
humanity?
‘If you say I ought to obey God’s will or suffer in hell, then this
seems not a moral but a prudential argument, even if you could
establish that God has a mind to punish anyone at all, which I
doubt. And if you argue that we ought to obey God because God is
good, then I must ask you, as I believe a certain Greek did long
ago, to produce for scrutiny this independent standard of goodness
used to evaluate the goodness of your God. But, if you can do that,
why then, you need have no appeal to God at all but may instead
convince me directly by pointing straight to that definition of the
‘good’ which is at the root of things.
‘So then, Mr Truthseeker, what is the basis of the moral standard
you would employ to condemn my profession?’
Erasmus paused to ponder the bandit’s defence and, having
marshalled his thoughts, sallied forth again.
‘I should have thought the goodness of God necessarily true,’ he
said. ‘But what is clear to one by the grace of God may be as mud
to another blinded by the Devil’s pride. Therefore, I will adjust my
argument to suit my audience.

178
‘Consider then the greater sum of happiness that results when
society adheres to those moral principles which, if not derived
from God, may yet have been revealed by... Hmmm. Consider,’ he
continued, ‘how intolerable life would be if we were all a-looting
and a-lying, though you may not be guilty of that latter particular
offence. Why, no one could be trusted, nothing would be secure
and all communication would be useless, or counter-productive,
which is worse.
‘And consider, now, how happy is that society whose members
respect each other’s rights and live by a strict moral code, doing
what good we might and tolerating what does not greatly offend us
in others. Therefore, I say, the basis of morality is mutual
happiness and that is why you ought to abandon your villainous
ways.’
‘There is much truth in what you say,’ conceded the bandit, ‘but
your standard lacks the imperative it requires. I do not deny that in
giving up my profession others would, of course, benefit.
However, I see no compelling reason in that to abandon my
lucrative trade. I prefer to suit myself even if it does not suit
society and why not? Though there be some principles which, if
all adhere to, will benefit most, so what of that to the likes of me?
Unless it be that, while others abide by them and grow fatter, why
so then will the richness of the plunder; and, as every thief will
testify, it is better to rob the rich than pick the poor.’
Erasmus stared at the scoffing bandit in disbelief. That anyone
could be so audacious as to completely disregard their obligation
to society was beyond his comprehension.
‘Well then,’ he uttered in despair, ‘it is certain that you are as
thoroughly corrupt and depraved as anyone could be and I can
only hope that society punishes you accordingly.’
‘They may punish me if they can,’ replied the bandit, ‘but their
empty blame is of no more account to me than the label of sinner
or the cloak of guilt. And now, if that is the last arrow in your
quiver, pray give me leave to enquire of Doctor Rama whether he
concurs with my judgement of your defeat.’
‘Not so fast,’ checked our recovered hero, ‘for I see I have
179
another left for you to dodge.’
‘Then by all means proceed and please be quick, as I have a thirst
to quench.’
‘Prepare yourself then my bandit foe for now my aim is clear. You
call upon Greeks in your defence but I seem to remember another
of that race who argued another case. For surely, as I think he
would have said, in rejecting those virtues which lead inexorably
to right conduct, virtues which are part of the very essence of
humanity, you must be suffering from a sort of madness; a
sickness which degrades you and excludes you by definition from
the human race. For, as a good wine is one that suits the palate,
and a good saddle is one that might be long endured by rider and
beast alike, so are we at least in part defined by those qualities,
those virtues, you so obviously lack. Therefore, I say, if you would
be a human being then you must act like one, or else be regarded
as some lesser beast.’
The bandit licked at the corners of his lips.
‘As for inanimate objects, my friend, if they have a purpose it
exists only in the mind of their creator, assuming there was one,
and, lest you again invoke the authority of a supreme being, let me
add that if a saddle had the wit, once made, to irritate its rider so
that it might be used that much less and last that much longer,
what argument other than the dissatisfaction of the rider could be
used to dissuade it from that course? You might choose to no
longer call it a saddle but what are your names to it any more than
they are to me?
‘You may think me an unnatural sort, Mr Truthseeker, to have
evolved against society but so long as I prosper I care not in the
least. And if I am unnatural, why then, so are the medicines we
daily pour down our throats and the ships of the air and sea which
take us from one land to another across the oceans supposedly
reserved for fish and through the skies formerly ruled by birds.
‘Unnatural or not, as you maintain, I am, as most people are, out
for what I can get and get away with.
‘And now, good Doctor, as Mr Truthseeker appears to have
180
exhausted his stock of arguments, please tell us who in your
opinion has won the wager if not I?’
The good Doctor needed little time to mull the problem over. ‘I
fear, Mr Truthseeker,’ acknowledged the Doctor, ‘that your
opponent has not had the benefit of our moral grounding and, not
sharing our premisses, cannot be defeated by any argument
conditional upon them.’
‘Well, Doctor,’ sighed Erasmus in defeat, ‘I have heard it said that
one cannot get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ but never believed it until
now. Evil, it seems, cannot be defeated by reason alone.’

181
Elephant Six: A Night In The Cells

The debate now over to, as is the custom in such contests, the
complete satisfaction of one party and the utter dejection of the
other, the company slipped into silence, occasionally sipping at
their wine and pondering over their fortunes good or bad until, at
length, the host took it upon himself to draw the evening to a
close.
‘I think,’ said the bandit, ‘that we should now retire from the
concerns of today the better to deal with those of tomorrow. And,
as I am, by force of circumstance, a tyrant, allow me the
benevolence of escorting you to your quarters where you may
dream of that escape which reality denies.’
‘Quarters?’ echoed Erasmus, doubting the promise of that term.
‘But of course,’ replied the bandit. ‘Surely you do not think me so
irresponsible as to take hostages without adequate provision for
their..’
‘Incarceration?’ offered Erasmus.
‘Accommodation,’ preferred the bandit. ‘Now, if you will all
please follow me.’
Unable to do otherwise, the company complied with his request,
following their host, under escort of the guard, to a small cave
situated behind and above the place where they had dined.
An iron bar gate was hinged to the wall on one side of the cave’s
entrance and a bolt projecting into the rock on the other was
secured by a large padlock of the type one would expect to find on
an ancient prison door.
‘Primitive but effective,’ thought Tangles, noting the details of
their cell while, as he entered, Erasmus recalled the final scene of
the musician’s dream and braced himself for the worst.

182
‘Sweet dreams,’ said the bandit, with a deliberate twist of the key
in its lock.
‘Enjoy this small triumph while you can,’ replied Erasmus,
‘because nothing is more certain than your ultimate and crushing
defeat!’
And, as Erasmus savoured the imagined pleasure of consigning his
host to oblivion, Doctor Rama surveyed their dismal surroundings
by the light of the moon. His observations were not encouraging.
The place of their confinement was, alas, vacant of both hope and
object; no comfort, no blanket, no bed. It was a raw example of
nature distinguished only by a number of depressions in the earth,
formed, as he supposed, by the weight of previous occupants in
their slumber.
‘The ground shall be our sorry mattress,’ he said with a sigh.
‘What a pity the lodgings are not up to the cuisine.’
‘At least we aren’t in chains,’ said Tangles, looking on the brighter
side.
‘Have you any preference, Miss Tangles?’ enquired the Doctor,
referring to the depressions.
‘Suit yourself, Doc. I think I’ll just sit by the gate for a while and
keep an eye on our friends out front.’
‘What are they up to?’ asked Erasmus.
‘Feasting on leftovers by the looks of it. Lucky we didn’t drink all
the plonk.’
‘I wish I could be as generous,’ said the Doctor as he folded his
spectacles and reclined upon the floor. ‘Goodnight, my friends.’
‘Goodnight,’ returned Erasmus, making himself as comfortable as
the hard earth would allow and closing his eyelids to sleep. But,
alas, or perhaps fortunately as we shall see, so embittered was he
by the outcome of the debate, that his attempts at slumber proved
utterly unsuccessful.
And, once again, as on that first evening in Nidia, his
183
condition did not escape the attention of his companion. ‘Here,’
whispered Tangles, removing something from her back pocket and
tossing it towards him.
Erasmus picked up the object he had failed to catch and studied it
in the evening light. It was a paperback novel.
‘Guess it didn’t interest them,’ said Tangles. ‘Moon’s pretty bright
over here.’
Erasmus nodded. He hoped it was from the Antipodes, having
enjoyed the first one of that origin that had read only the night
before, though that seemed to be another era to him now.

184
Fish

Or

The Plight of Harry Penfold

The story of an ordinary person, a daemon and a fish.

Gratefully acknowledging the unknown author of the apocryphal


Book of Tobit

185
CONTENTS
1. A Common Plight
2. Bugs
3. Snakes and Ladders
4. Pick a Number
5. Nice Girls Don’t Win
6. Cut the Crap
7. Et Tu Brute
8. Peak Hour
9. Fish for Dinner
10. Eat Your Pick
11. Welcome to the Barricades
12. Just Kiddin’
13. Fish ‘n Chips
14. The Problem with Harry
15. Don’t Ask
16. The End of the Line
17. Fish Food
18. War-Paint
19. That Should Do the Trick
20. In the Shadow of the Cross
21. Afternoon Shadows

186
22. Q & A
23. Mind If I Join You?
24. Moon Flowers
25. Common Ground
26. Visitors
27. It Could Have Been Worse

187
Fish One: A Common Plight

Scruffy stirred. Scruffy scratched. Noise rippled outwardly from


Scruffy into the bedroom, inducing secondary noise ripples from
the vicinity of the cot and parental stirrings in turn. Cause and
effect. Sensing that the moment could no longer be delayed, Harry
reluctantly awoke.
He looked at the dog with disdain. It looked back with
indifference. Harry could not actually recall ever having decided
to allow Scruffy a place on the bed. It had been more of a fait
accompli, really. At some point in the distant past Scruffy had
simply taken advantage of a momentary lapse in resolve and that
was that. No point fighting it now. That’s life. Things just creep up
on you; like spiders in the night.
Babies cry. And Sarah was a fine example of her type. As Harry
slipped into his gown, Milly prepared her breasts for the morning
feed. Yawning, he plucked the infant from its cot and shuffled
along the familiar morning mind-path, towards the bed.
‘Which side?’ he asked, suppressing a second yawn before
presenting the child to its mother. Milly accepted her daughter
with a tired smile and offered it a swollen nipple.
Stumbling bleary eyed into the bathroom, Harry glimpsed himself
inadvertently in the cabinet mirror and as fast retreated in shock
from the stark image. The disconcerting thing about looking into
mirrors is the way they look back at you. Straight back. That’s
when you find out what life creep is all about.
Plunging one arm through the shower curtain, he turned on the tap
beyond. It always took a few seconds for the water to get hot and
in the meantime he could brush his teeth. Why, he wondered, did
he brush before breakfast, against the best of dental advice?
Perhaps because the toast tasted crisper and the cereal crunched
cleaner. Pausing brush in hand, half way between mouth and sink,

188
he realised that he had just been thinking like toothpaste ad.
By the time Harry got around to ironing his shirt and doing up his
fly, his thoughts began to follow a different track. How far had
Carol got with that JONAH fix? They sure were hassling him on
that one. Had he sufficiently impressed its urgency upon her?
Maybe he should have done it himself, but then, that’s not what a
manager is supposed to do, is it?
‘No point worrying about it,’ he checked himself, taking a deep
breath. ‘Ulcer food.’ But thoughts are not so easily controlled.
‘Don’t forget that user meeting,’ wormed in another.
Milly was up and the baby was changed before Harry had surfaced
into the kitchen threading the old woollen tie his mother had given
him one Christmas.
‘Any sign of the paper?’ he asked, wistfully. Well, you never
know.
A look of incredulity on the face of his spouse told him at once
that there wasn’t and reproved him for his naiveté. Motherhood:
the school of reality…
Harry took his usual position at the round breakfast table, just out
of reach of the high chair, which experience had taught him was
safest from a dry cleaning point of view. But even so, Sarah could
be deadly with a spoon.
‘Tea?’ asked Milly, raising the pot.
‘Ta,’ accepted Harry, presenting his mug. Monday. By breakfast
time the prospect of the coming week crowded close upon him and
there was no escape. Too late to ring in sick. Dressed and ready.
Turn on the oven and pop him in. Why couldn’t he be one of those
people who take sickies without qualms? Why couldn’t he be...
free? Never mind, mate, he self consoled. You get used to it. He
enjoyed the temporary triumph of a stretching yawn and
grudgingly yielded with a sigh. Some things you control and some
things you don’t.
Yes, Harry Penfold knew his place, or at least he thought he did.

189
Despite the odd eccentric outburst of his rack tormented soul, he
was no romantic lost to Quixotic adventure. On the whole, he had
taken to the harness pretty well. Thirty had long since troubled
him and the approach of forty posed no threat. Nor was his family
burdensome to him. On the whole, he liked the father’s life:
playing jolly giant to a captive audience; picnics when they could.
The office, that was the problem. It sucked the life out of you.
Work. Work. Work. Like a horse in harness, Harry Penfold was a
slave. Not physically, but psychologically. When he wasn’t at
work he was worrying about it. Not the way senior management
worried, which seemed to him not at all, but the way a supervisor
worries. Meat in the sandwich; that was him all right.
And yet, of all the jobs he’d had it was by far the best, and nothing
better offered. That was the problem. Well, no point whinging
about it. Even freedom has its limits. Besides, it wasn’t as if he
had to go down that route in the first place, was it? And if he was
boxed in a bit now, well, tough tittie. As you make your bed...
Harry Penfold looked about him on the morning bus and found
little consolation in a common plight.

190
Fish Two: Bugs

‘Morning, Warren,’ hailed Harry, as he cut a swathe through the


ranks of computer work-stations, swinging his briefcase
vigorously. Well, you had to make a good impression first up. It
helps to set the pace. What was it about programmers that
inhibited all function in the morning? Something genetic probably.
No doubt one day they would decode it and make a fix prior to
conception.
A round, mostly clean shaven face a little younger than Harry’s
lethargically rose to the call. ‘Morning, Harry,’ it replied, almost
too late.
Harry strode on towards his desk. ‘Carol,’ he greeted with a nod.
‘Harry,’ replied a lean young woman, without looking up.
He quite liked Carol. She was a professional in the way yuppie
types aren’t. She knew her stuff and she was human. She even
looked human.
Harry paused at her desk. ‘One day, Number Two, all this could
be yours,’ he sighed, surveying the dank orange carpet and grimy
air-conditioning outlets that somehow seemed to sum up the
richness of his realm. He shook his head and reflected on his lot. A
decade and a half of toil had raised Harry Penfold to a position as
modest in prestige as it was in salary. The occupant of a middle
management niche in a bureaucracy so massive, that the mere
thought of it was sufficient to stifle all initiative.
‘Rita not in?’ he asked casually, upon reaching his desk. Not that
he expected her to be or that he was the pushy type. He just liked
to be on top of things at the beginning.
Warren lifted up his eyes to the wall mounted clock in reply.
Harry understood. He plonked his brief-case on the desk and

191
glanced at the day’s saying on his flip back calendar.
‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all...’ W.S.
‘Maybe,’ he said, aloud.
Carol looked up quizzically from the computer printout which
cascaded from her lap to the floor, but the arrival of another
person intervened.
‘Morning,’ saluted Rita balancing a cup in one hand and tossing
her long black hair to one side with a flick of her head.
‘Good morning,’ returned Carol.
Warren was stunned. He doubted, but only momentarily, the
accuracy of his watch. Years of routine had given him a profound
respect for the expected; a respect bordering upon reverence.
Events such as this were not to be taken lightly. ‘Everything okay
Rita?’
‘Yes,’ she replied, ignoring his probe.
‘You realise what time it is?’ he pursued.
‘Yes, thanks,’ she said, searching the drawer in her desk.
‘I see,’ he noted, obviously dissatisfied at her response. ‘Well
wouldn’t you say you were up a bit early, or should I say a bit
late?’
‘I would say that it’s none of your business,’ she replied, keeping
him guessing.
Harry was no less surprised. What had succeeded where years of
sarcasm had failed? He let the question hover, unuttered in the
morning fog, and turned discussion to matters of work.
‘How’s JONAH going?’ he asked of Carol. ‘Managed to track it
down yet?’
‘Jonah?’ she repeated absent mindedly, absorbed in the printout at
hand.

192
Harry’s blood pressure began to rise. Why didn’t anybody do what
he asked?
‘Oh yes,’ she forestalled, without lifting her eyes, ‘I put through a
fix on Friday.’
Warren offered a translation. ‘She’s made a few random changes
and blindly hopes they’ll work.’
Carol smiled. ‘Did I sound that optimistic?’
Harry rubbed his forehead. ‘Great.’
‘Frankly,’ she continued, ‘I’d be satisfied with disguising the
problem just long enough for me to get another job.’
Harry could feel something burning in his stomach and began to
regret breakfast. ‘It’s not that bad, Carol... Is it?’
‘No,’ she smiled. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’s under control. A
wrong variable type. Just doing some tests but I’d say it’s okay.’
Harry had heard that one before. ‘Try to wrap it up before lunch,
please. I’ve got a meeting this afternoon and it’d be nice to say
something positive for a change.’
Software maintenance. Not one of the most glorious occupations
in the world. No laurel wreaths in this game. Fixing problems in
other people’s badly documented programs to a ‘now’ timetable.
If ever there was a thankless task this had to be it. Copping the
blame for some dilettante’s blunders. Still, he was good at it. You
could even say he had a knack. And it wasn’t some bullshit job
that didn’t matter. In Maintenance you earned your keep.
Harry Penfold was just beginning to feel a little better about life
when the phone rang insistently. He eyed it with suspicion.
Experience had taught him that the first call of the day could be
dangerous.
He was right. Harry was wanted upstairs.

193
Fish Three: Snakes and Ladders

Upstairs. Executives always live upstairs. Nothing like a view, for


the chosen few. A window on the world proves that you’re at the
top, and that everyone else is at the bottom. Moreover, as he
listened to the humiliating sound of his own breathlessness
echoing in the lifeless stairwell, it occurred to him that altitude
may also have some negotiation value. He imagined himself
panting at the door of his slick superior and decided to take the
elevator the rest of the way.
Out of order. The first defeat of the day. Never underestimate the
potential for misfortune. Maybe it was even deliberate. You get to
believe in conspiracy theories after a few years in this joint. He
returned to the stairwell and looked down. It was one of those
circular inner towers lined with spiral steps like ribs around the
gullet of a giant snake. He paused for a moment before the gaping
hollow and looked down. Snakes and ladders. One false move,
Harry, and you’ve had it.
He continued his ascent. Think! What does Mortimer want you
for? They never tell you in advance. Tactics. That’s what it’s all
about. Don’t worry, though. Mustn’t play into his clammy little
hands. Nothing to get alarmed about. Probably just wants a chat. A
little reassurance before some big powwow; some statistics to
make an impression. It’s just a game to them. Look good when
you can. Stick the knife in when you can get away with it. It
wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t interrupt others like him all the
time. How do they expect him to get anything done? They don’t
give a bugger about anyone but themselves. Okay, okay. You’ve
had your whinge, Harry. Take it easy. Play it cool. Wait and see.
There’s Doris, on guard by the door, as usual. Who goes there?
Don’t imagine she’s all that impressed either. Just making a living.
‘Morning, Doris,’ he greeted, conspiratorially.
‘Good morning, Mr Penfold,’ returned a well presented woman in
194
her prime.
‘He’s expecting me,’ he said, for want of a password. Doris
nodded assent as her fingers left the keyboard and began to busy
themselves with some papers marked ‘Confidential’. Probably
invites to some dinner party, he mused.
The door was open, and Mortimer had ears.
‘Come in, Harry,’ said the slightly balding middle aged man
inside.
Harry obeyed, acknowledging the invitation with a tight lipped
smile. Executive etiquette: never show your teeth unless you mean
business.
‘Take a seat, won’t you?’
Harry took the only seat on offer, directly opposite his boss. Why
are executive desks so much bigger on the visitor’s side? He kept
his mouth closed. It was by far the safest course.
Mortimer leaned back into the plushness of his seat, filling his
lungs slowly and exhaling at ease. ‘I suppose you’re wondering
what this is all about, eh?’ he said, condescendingly.
Harry let the question pass as rhetoric. You’ll have to say more
than that to catch Harry Penfold out.
Mortimer folded his plump white hands in a way which displayed
his elegant gold cuff-links to maximum advantage and began to
manoeuvre his lips around something he had obviously
contemplated at length: ‘F, i, s, h, e,’ he spelled with a rolling
tongue. ‘F.I.S.H.E.’ He studied his subordinate’s face for signs of
reaction. Nothing. With a show of easy dexterity that comes only
from regular practice, his arm, hand and forefinger glided towards
the intercom like a ballet swan. ‘Ask Ted to step in, will you
Doris?’
‘Yes, Mr. Mortimer,’ she complied.
‘She’s a gem,’ he added. ‘A vital link. Couldn’t function without
her.’ Harry was careful not to interpret this small confidence
195
as a mark of his own significance, seeing it rather as the
expression of a male primate’s dominance over a female
subordinate. Subtle chest beating. Nor was it gratuitous, exactly.
Harry was meant to notice.
That was the end of the small talk, for a while. Now they just
waited in silence. Waited for Ted. Who in hell was he, anyway?
Harry knew better than to seem unsettled. He didn’t know if
Mortimer knew how busy he was, but he was confident that his
boss didn’t care. Mortimer was exercising control. Protestation
would only weaken Harry’s position. It reminded him of the many
silent hours he had wasted as a schoolboy waiting in corridors for
a Master’s summons. He had learnt a lot from school. So had
Mortimer.
A lean young pin-stripe type poked his head into the office. Black,
clipped hair and gold wire glasses. ‘You wanted to see me,
Hilary?’
‘Ted. Come in, come in. We’ve been waiting for you,’ he added as
a barb. ‘I don’t think you two know each other, yet. This is Harry.’
‘Harry Penfold?’ guessed Ted, offering his hand.
Harry was impressed. ‘That’s right,’ he said taking his hand. Here
we go: the firm handshake routine. Harry knew these things were
important in the corporate world, so he smiled and tried to get it
right. But, as usual, somehow things didn’t quite come off and he
got his fingers tangled on the way. Oh well, maybe he’d take him
for a Mason.
‘Ted Wilkins,’ replied his new antagonist, oozing with charm, not
the discrete kind, but the selling kind. ‘I’ve been looking into your
case,’ he added, emphasising the your and waving his finger about
as though Harry had been naughty.
Mortimer smiled. ‘Ted’s a C.T.P., Harry.’ That should do it.
What’s that supposed to mean?
‘Don’t worry,’ reassured Wilkins. ‘That’s just P.R. talk for Career
Transition Planner,’ he joked. ‘I’m doing a little consultancy for

196
the F.I.S.H.E. project. A bit of CTP and a bit of something else.
We provide a total service.’
FISHE again. Harry ran a text search on all the acronym data types
in his verbal memory. F.A.I.L. ... F.E.T.C.H. ... F.I.N.D. ... F.O.G.
... But not even a trace of F.I.S.H.E.
‘Fully Integrated Software Hardware Environments,’ triumphed
Mortimer.
‘I see,’ said Harry, inserting another record into his database.
Middle management survival depended upon such habits.
‘Money,’ Mortimer expanded. ‘It all comes down to that. Fiscal
responsibility.’ His tongue rolled about like an echidna’s lick.
‘The peculiar thing about computers, Harry, is the money they
haven’t saved.’
Here we go. Harry had heard it all before. Blame it on the
technocrats. But what these self appointed experts don’t seem able
to grasp is the enormous increase in output involved. They always
look at the input side when they want to make their point. But
productivity has two sides, mate.
‘And do you know why, Harry?’
Harry remained blank. Go ahead: enlighten me.
‘Maintenance costs.’
Oh-oh.
Mortimer’s thinning grey head bobbed up and down accusingly.
‘Dollar for dollar,’ he alleged, ‘every saving we make in clerical
resources one day is swallowed up in software maintenance the
next.’ He let that sink in for a while. ‘Hard to believe, isn’t it,
Harry?’
Very.
‘But I assure you that it’s true. And I’ve got the numbers to prove
it,’ he boasted, pointing vaguely at some colourful charts pinned to
the wall. ‘This organisation is now up to its neck in programmers
197
and no-one seems able to explain why. Can you, Harry?’
Silence is the code.
‘No. And clearly the problem is not going to solve itself, we’ve
allowed ample time for that. Well now it’s up to management to
do something about it.’
Oh-oh.
‘And what, do you suppose, that will be, Harry?’
Harry watched helplessly as Mortimer’s mouth expanded wide to
form a ‘Wha..,’ like a snake dislocating it’s jaw in the presence of
a meal, ‘..t?’ it swallowed, slipping Harry down its throat. This is
it, thought Harry. The big S. Back to square one.
‘F.I.S.H.E., Harry. F.I.S.H.E.,’ continued Mortimer. ‘We’re going
to integrate you. No more little maintenance teams chewing on
their pencils. Expensive pencils. High level languages, that’s the
key. High level languages,’ he repeated. ‘Let the users do their
own computing. Now they can look after themselves, with only
limited technical assistance. Cut down on over specialised
resources--’
‘Expensive specialised resources,’ emphasised Ted.
‘Concentrated in a multifunction computer service cell,’ Mortimer
resumed. ‘Into a Fully Integrated Software Hardware
Environment, Harry. A ‘F.I.S.H.E.’’ Brilliant, isn’t it?
High level languages? High level bullshit! Response time’s slow
enough already without using that crap. Harry decided to fight
back. ‘But--’
‘I know exactly what’s on your mind,’ grinned Wilkins, cutting
him short. ‘But what about you, Harry?’ He paused. ‘That’s where
I come in. Naturally there won’t be room for everyone under the
new arrangements. That can’t be helped. But this isn’t the middle
ages is it? People count now. Management cares. I care, Harry.
Rest assured we’ll be giving all those concerned every opportunity
to find something suitable elsewhere before... Well, I’m sure it

198
won’t come to that.’ Always end with a smile.
Redundancy. At forty.
Ted beamed with all the compassion of a plastic saint on fresh
batteries. ‘Which brings us to you, Harry. Doesn’t it?’
Oh-oh.
‘Where do you see your own future, Harry?’
Harry repressed the urge to lunge murderously at his benefactor
with his biro. His expensive biro. ‘It’s a little difficult...’ he
muttered through clenched teeth.
Mortimer grinned. ‘Let’s be frank, Harry,’ he said with apparent
sincerity. ‘I don’t mind putting our cards on the table. This
organisation would be sorry to lose someone of your calibre and
experience.’
It would?
Mortimer smiled benevolently. ‘We want you to stay on, Harry.’
‘But--’
‘In a different role, of course,’ resumed Wilkins.
Wait for it.
‘You see, we think you just might be management material,
Harry,’ he said. ‘And, well, we’re willing to take the chance, if
you are.’
Management? What do you think I am now, mate?
‘But first, Harry, we want you to go on a little management
immersion course; see if we can tone up those latent management
skills, eh? And after that, well, we’d like you to come back to an
administrative position for a while to show us exactly what you
can do. Then,’
Mortimer intervened. ‘Who knows, Harry?’ he said, rationing his
promises. ‘It’s entirely up to you.’
199
Harry didn’t get it. Could this be the chance he was waiting for?
They sure know how to confuse a bloke. One minute the clouds
set in and you’re in line for the sack, and the next minute the
heavens open up before a golden sun.
Everything was a little misty for Harry after that. Somehow or
other he made it back to his own desk and sat down. Was this
really what it seemed? Were they the good guys after all? Had
fortune finally plucked him from the ranks? Well, one thing’s
certain: it could easily have turned out the other way. The luck of
the dice. Funny how things work out, in the end....
Harry Penfold was just in the process of pulling himself together
when the phone rang again.
‘Yes,’ he answered, from the fog of his thoughts.
‘One more thing, Harry,’ said Ted on the other end. ‘Not a word to
anyone about our little discussion this morning, eh? We don’t
want to cause any unnecessary panic, do we?’
Harry understood. Perfectly.

200
Fish Four: Pick a Number

Harry was not up to the rigours of a full scale dinner offensive. A


chop resisted the half hearted efforts of his knife to get at the good
bits and peas fled from his poking fork like frightened beings
before an alien invasion.
‘Little green men,’ he mumbled to himself.
Milly looked up. ‘You don’t have to eat them’ she remarked, a
little offended. There’s nothing wrong with those peas, mate:-
fresh picked from our country’s garden. It occurred to her that her
mind had just recited an ad for frozen peas.
‘Little green men,’ Harry repeated, absent-mindedly.
‘What?’
‘That’s what we are, Milly,’ he expanded. ‘Just little green men...
on the dinner plate of life.’ He shuffled three unfortunate
specimens onto his fork. ‘Then one day someone gathers you up
without so much as a second thought and,’ he swallowed, ‘slips
you down their throat.’
Alarm bells began to ring in Milly’s head. ‘Are you feeling all
right, Harry?’
Harry rested his chin upon his left hand, flourishing his fork in the
other as though he were on the brink of some profound
declaration, then thought better of it. ‘Sorry,’ he apologised,
lowering the utensil self consciously. ‘I guess I’m not making
much sense. Just tired, that’s all.’
Milly was not reassured. She had recently read a little about the
symptoms of stress induced breakdowns, and, although little green
men had not been specifically mentioned, she had no doubts as to
their significance.
‘Let’s have an early night, Harry,’ she suggested, concealing her
201
concern.
Harry agreed.
As he slipped into his pyjamas he stole a glance at Milly’s
nakedness on the other side of the bed, watching silently as she let
the nightgown fall smoothly onto her body like a second skin. He
felt desire stirring within him, but, falling wearily into the comfort
of their bed, could not summon the will to commit himself to sex.
‘Good night,’ he sighed, rolling away from her as she switched off
the light.

..
>Run ‘Success’
****Loading scenario***
ENTER NAME PLEASE.
> Harry
WELCOME TO SUCCESS, HARRY. PICK A NUMBER
BETWEEN 1 AND 200.
> 90
TOUGH LUCK, HARRY. THAT’S YOUR I.Q. NOW PICK A
NUMBER BETWEEN 1 AND 4.
>4
LIFE IS THE PITS, HARRY. YOU ARE A FOURTH CLASS
CITIZEN.
OK THIS IS THE SCENE. YOU ARE A LITTLE GREEN MAN
IN PITSVILLE. YOU CAN LIVE ON THE STREETS AT
NIGHT AND GO TO SCHOOL IN THE DAY OR BECOME A
MALE PROSTITUTE AND EARN SOME REAL CASH.
DECISION:

202
1: SCHOOL
2: PROSTITUTION
>1
THAT WAS DUMB, HARRY. YOU FORGOT ABOUT YOUR
I.Q. IT IS NOW WINTER TWO YEARS LATER. YOU HAVE
BEEN KICKED OUT OF SCHOOL, ARE TOO OLD FOR
PROSTITUTION AND HAVE A SMALL DRUG HABIT. PICK
A NUMBER BETWEEN 0 AND 2, HARRY.
>2
WHO’S A LUCKY BOY? YOU HAVE TWO FRIENDS,
HARRY. THEIR NAMES ARE ZIZI AND GRONGO. THEY
LET YOU MOVE INTO THEIR SQUAT. THINGS ARE
LOOKING UP. EVERYTHING IS FINE UNTIL ONE DAY THE
COPS CALL AND GRONGO IS ARRESTED FOR
POSSESSION. PICK A NUMBER BETWEEN 0 AND 3.
>2
GRONGO GETS TWO YEARS IN BLUNTWALL. IT’S NOT A
NICE PLACE. YOU NEVER THOUGHT THAT WOULD
HAPPEN. THE THING IS, HARRY, THEY WERE YOUR
DRUGS, WEREN’T THEY? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO
NOW, HARRY?
1: RUN AWAY WITH ZIZI
2: TELL THE COPS THEY WERE YOURS
>
IT’S YOUR MOVE, HARRY. RUN OR TELL?
>
I’M WAITING, HARRY.
>
TIME’S RUNNING OUT, HARRY!

203
>
YOU HAVE THREE SECONDS TO SELF-DESTRUCT. DO
SOMETHING!
>
TOO LATE!! YOU HAVE A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN:
TERMINAL CATALEPSY. SORRY, HARRY. YOU ARE A
FAILURE.
GAME OVER.
YOU LOSE...
1: TRY AGAIN?
2: EXIT SUCCESS
>2
WIMP!
WIMP!
WIMP!
WIMP!
EXITING NOW...

Sleep did not provide Harry with the refuge he had sought and he
woke up in the morning with a hung-over look.
Yawning through breakfast, he napped on the bus, mumbled
unintelligibly to his work mates, and took coffee in a plastic cup
from the coin hungry robot at work; something he would not
normally do. His subordinates put it down to a heavy night. Well,
he had been worrying about things a lot lately, even for him.
By ten o’clock, it was obvious that time and coffee were not
assisting his condition and he began to attract concern.
‘You okay, Harry?’ asked Warren, standing over him with a
204
pencil in his hand.
Harry massaged his forehead with his hands. ‘Didn’t sleep too
well,’ he muttered.
‘Serves you right,’ said Warren.
‘What?’ replied Harry in surprise.
‘Self inflicted,’ added Warren unsympathetically.
‘Yeah,’ acknowledged Harry. He rubbed his forehead again and
squinted in the direction of Carol’s desk. ‘Carol,’ he said to attract
her attention. She looked up from her work. ‘Would you and Rita
mind coming over here for a sec? There’s something I should
explain.’
Confession is good for the soul. And it’s not as if he promised not
to tell is it? He hadn’t really promised anything, had he?
Besides, Mortimer would never know?

205
Fish Five: Nice Girls Don’t Win

Tuesday. Harry rested his head on his hand and gazed at his desk,
lost in thought, but not about programming. Today, he was
thinking about news. Not the content of the variable, news, e.g.
‘The ozone hole is getting bigger every day,’ but thinking about
the variable ‘news’ itself. Which is to say, he was thinking about
its characteristics. And, in particular, just how it might spread.
Sometimes, he reflected, news spreads from neighbour to
neighbour following the geography of urban streets: gossip. On
the other hand, if announced in the media, it may strike whole
masses of humanity simultaneously, like a bomb. Then again, and
this was the form that worried him the most, sometimes it strikes
here and there in an unpredictable pattern spread between persons
who may be associated in any number of ways, such as friendship,
blood, or casual acquaintance.
Now it just so happened that, unbeknown to Harry, Rita had a
confidential friend with whom she could trust the most intimate
details of her life. And that that friend had a lover in whom she
confided the most intimate details of both her own and Rita’s life.
And, by a strange coincidence, that lover had a cousin who had
taken an oath shortly after birth to ‘defend to the death the
interests of the working class no matter what (even if it means not
being very nice)’, and who had subsequently devoted her life to
the members of an association referred to as the Allied Technical
And Computing Kindred.
Some insight into the psyche of this association may perhaps be
gained from the fact that it had formerly been called the Allied
Technical And Computing Union but had changed its name
because ATACK had a nice ring to it.
The cousin in question had adopted the alias of Rosa Luxemburg,
after the famous revolutionary of that name, as soon as her
antisocial tendencies had perceived the potential for their complete
206
and perfect expression in the role of social activist. The apparent
contradiction between her personality and her vocation had not
entirely escaped her notice, but Rosa Luxemburg was not one to
subjugate ideology to irony.
Harry Penfold knew of Rosa by reputation only and was wholly
content to leave things at that. Unfortunately for him, however,
Rosa wasn’t...
‘Penfold,’ said Harry, as he innocently picked up the phone.
‘G’day,’ she greeted. Always go in smiling. ‘Rosa Luxemburg
here.’
Rosa Luxemburg! The words reached into Harry’s abdomen and
seized him by the gut strings. Instinctively, he covered the
mouthpiece with his left hand. It was a meagre defence, at best a
stall, and unfortunately instinct took him no further. Frozen, he
hung there helpless on the line, gazing longingly at a brochure on
his desk picturing in rich glossy colours the facilities of the
Golden Sands Resort, venue for management course No. 32. Not
that it would be a picnic, mind you. And now!
By what chain of subterfuge had Rosa got his name? Who had
betrayed his confidence, robbed him of anonymity, uncloaked his
name? Who? Who was it, he demanded, who was it dobbed him
in?
Rosa was losing patience. ‘Hello?’ she insisted.
Harry turned his eyes to the ceiling. Please don’t let it be about
that!
‘Mr Penfold?’ No one gets off that easy.
Get a grip on yourself, Harry. Find out what she wants. Cool is the
code. He took a deep breath and removed his hand from the
mouthpiece. ‘Yes, Ms Luxemburg,’ he replied, at last.
‘We have to talk.’
‘Wha...,’ he stuttered, struggling to restrain the paranoia which
pressed at the floodgates of his mind. ‘What about?’ he asked,
207
regaining some control.
That’s more like it. ‘Good. Let’s not beat around the bush.’
Oh-oh.
‘I understand you have some information about proposed
sackings.’
She knows! Harry’s worst fears were realised. Perhaps he had
projected them into reality, made fact of fear. The floodgates to his
mind began to open wide, like the sweat glands on his forehead.
‘Sackings?’ he repeated, pathetically.
‘Sackings,’ she confirmed. ‘Look, Harry,’ sympathy mode, ‘I
appreciate that you’re in a difficult position. But I’m sure you’ll
also appreciate that there are other people involved here too.
Okay? So,’ frank mode, ‘let’s put our cards on the table, eh? Now,
we both know that you know what I’m talking about. Right? Let’s
face it, you’ve given the game away already.’ Threat mode. ‘Not
that anyone else knows. Yet.’ Reason mode. ‘Besides, the damage
has already been done, hasn’t it? All I want now is a few more
details.’
Harry searched frantically for a fib. His respiration rate rose
rapidly and his right hand began to mangle defenceless paper
clips. As rioters defied soldiers on anarchic barricades, a man with
a loaf of bread sought a quiet passage home.
‘I’m sorry, Ms Luxemburg. I don’t understand,’ he lied.
‘You don’t, eh? Well maybe I should explain things in person.’
‘I don’t-’
‘How about a drink?’ The element of surprise.
‘What?’
‘After work. Say, The Fast Lane, at six.’
‘The Fast Lane?’

208
‘You know it?’
The repartee was tempting, but he settled for silence.
Which is all that Rosa needed. ‘Then it’s a date, mate.’ Clinched.
‘Don’t let me down, Harry. And, maybe, I’ll do the same for you.’
Nice girls don’t win.

209
Fish Six: Cut the Crap

The Fast Lane was renown for its decor which was once described
in a reputable guide as ‘contemporary car’. Front and rear ends of
automobiles protruded from the inside walls as though the
establishment had been imposed by aliens upon a line of stationary
traffic. Scattered about its interior were complete car shells of
various makes and styles wherein customers took their ease and
refreshment according to mood or taste. A line of propped up
motorcycles served as bar stools and fashion accessories for the
designer leather set.
A waiter directed Harry to the discreet black saloon Rosa had
reserved for their meeting.
To say Harry had misgivings would be an understatement. He felt
like he was charting a course between jagged rocks and a
whirlpool, between Scylla and Charybdis. A whisker too much to
starboard or to port and his job was gone; his family’s job.
The front passenger door of the saloon opened mysteriously as he
approached and Harry settled quietly into the shadows with as
little fuss as possible. No point standing out.
Rosa sat business like behind the steering wheel. She wore a full
length woollen coat over tailored trousers and a shirt. A peaked
cap sat cheekily on her head. It was the sort of outfit you could
wear anywhere and be comfortable in. Dressed for business.
‘Hello, Harry. Glad you could come.’
Harry gently pulled the door shut behind him. Bugger. Didn’t
latch. ‘Ms Luxemburg, I presume?’ he answered. Should he live
with it or try again? ‘Or do you have a real name like the rest of
us?’ Bloody thing.
Rosa took a moment to size up her passenger as he struggled with
the door. ‘What’s the matter, Harry, conscience bothering you?’
210
she said, smiling as he fumbled.
Harry resolved upon a desperate course: brute force. ‘I’ll tell you
what’s the matter.’ Slam. ‘Blackmail,’ he said, relieved. ‘That’s
the matter!’
Rosa rested her arm on the wheel skewing her body sideways to
face him eye to eye. ‘You’re wrong, Harry,’ she said removing her
sun glasses and poking them towards him in the air.
‘What?’
‘That’s not the real matter. And you know it. The real matter is
that a couple of dozen unsuspecting people in your organisation
are about to get the boot with little or no compensation. That’s
what’s the real matter. Isn’t it?’
Harry heaved a sigh and looked out into the crowd. This car was
Claustrophobia, with a big ‘C’. He began to wish she had chosen a
convertible. ‘It’s not like that,’ he said.
‘No?’
‘No. They’re getting in a consultant.’
‘A consultant?’
‘A C.T.P.’ said Harry, at home with the term.
‘That figures. Do you know what a C.T.P. does, Harry?’
She knows?
‘A C.T.P. is someone hired by management to con people into
feeling good when they have every reason to feel otherwise. It’s
just bullshit. Soften the blow with a little career advice as you
sweep the poor bastards out the door.’
‘I don’t know. He seemed like a nice enough sort of bloke to me.’
‘Being nice is his trade, Harry. Probably majored in it at uni.’
‘It’s not as bad as that.’

211
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, they’re retraining people for start.’
‘Like who?’
Harry hesitated.
‘So,’ sniggered Rosa, slumping back against the door. ‘You’re all
right Jack. That it?’
Harry didn’t stoop to reply.
‘But what about the others, Harry? The ones they didn’t want you
to tell. Are they going on courses too?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Wake up, Harry. You’re a manager, they’re just workers. What
do you suppose will happen to them?’
‘Workers! Programmers?’
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Harry started in fright. Oh. He wound down the window. ‘Yes?’
‘Would Monsieur care for a drink?’
Monsieur? ‘No thanks, mate.’ He began to wind it up again.
‘Or Madame?’
Pushy bastard.
‘Bring us two beers and cut the crap,’ said Rosa, taking control.
The waiter evaporated into the traffic. Harry didn’t feel much like
resuming the conversation and Rosa decided to let him stew in
silence for a while. Well, he wasn’t going anywhere, was he? Not
yet.
The waiter returned bearing two tall slim glasses of cold liquid
amber on a platter. Moisture condensed into tiny droplets upon the
chilled clean surface of each glass and white frothy heads
212
oozed luxuriously over the top.
Harry was getting thirsty. He picked up the bill from the tray.
‘Here,’ said Rosa, handing him some cash, ‘that should be about
right.’
Harry looked at the size of her note. ‘I’ll pay for mine, he insisted.
‘I wouldn’t have it any other way,’ she replied. ‘That’s to cover
me.’
Harry studied the bill. ‘Struth! She was right. He delved into his
wallet, avoiding the grinning waiter’s gaze. Probably wants a tip,
too.
‘There you go, mate,’ he said coolly, pretending not to care. ‘Skip
the change.’ That’s how it’s done, le mate.
‘Thank you, Monsieur.’ Le sucker.
‘Tipping is a form of exploitation, Harry,’ said Rosa as the waiter
left. ‘They should pay him a decent wage.’
Now she tells me.
Rosa took a hearty drink. Unable to compete in kind, Harry took a
modest sip and stared vacantly into his glass.
‘Look,’ he resumed at last, in a more cooperative tone. ‘Supposing
what you say is true, and that some people have to go. What’s
wrong with that? What do you think this country would be like if
resources were employed inefficiently? Resources have to go
where they’re needed.’
‘We’re talking about people, Harry.’
‘You don’t employ people who aren’t needed. It’s a fact of life.’
‘Look, let’s get this in perspective, Harry, okay? We’re not talking
about grinding the economy to a halt. We’re just talking about
getting the best deal we can for the unlucky bastards who have to
pay the cost for this labour market efficiency of yours.

213
‘It’s all about negotiation, Harry. That’s why your bosses don’t
want to say anything until the last possible minute. It weakens our
position if we don’t know about it until it’s too late to do anything.
The cards are stacked their way. If they really cared about their
staff they’d give them as much notice as possible, not keep them
in the dark like mushrooms. We can’t match the power of the
bosses, Harry. All we can do is throw enough complications their
way to bring them to the table. To make sure our members get a
fair deal. Members like you, Harry. What would you want us to do
if it was you who was getting the boot, eh?’
Harry put aside his beer. She didn’t look that feeble to him. ‘Look,
Rosa, let’s just stop pretending that I have any say in this. Okay?
Now what exactly do you want from me?’
Rosa smiled victoriously. She liked to win. ‘The facts, Harry.
That’s all. Slowly and from the top.’
Harry played with his beer glass as it sat on the dash, rotating it
this way and that, calmly watching the streams of bubbles trickle
helplessly upwards from the bottom of the glass towards the
diminishing head.
He told her what he knew. Why not? Mortimer would never know,
would he?
Rosa left first. She was still smiling. Harry emerged shortly
afterwards slinking into the crowd in her tracks. As he neared the
exit, a white Cadillac convertible caught his attention on the right.
Way to go. A dark eyed woman voluptuously graced the red
upholstery of the Caddy. She winked between champagne sips as
Harry slipped blushingly by.

214
Fish Seven: Et Tu Brute

‘You wanted to see me, Hilary?’ mouthed Wilkins’ bobbing head


at the threshold of Mortimer’s office.
Mortimer raised an eyebrow in response. ‘Yes. Come in, Ted.’ His
fingers reached for the intercom. ‘Doris?’
‘Yes, Mr Mortimer?’
‘No calls till 10.00, please.’
‘Yes, Mr Mortimer.’
Wilkins sat in the chair opposite, full of questions.
‘I thought you might be interested in a call I took this morning,’
began Mortimer, circumspectly.
‘Oh yes?’
‘Rosa rang.’ What do you think of that?
‘Ms Luxemburg?’ It’s news to me.
Mortimer nodded to confirm.
‘Not about F.I.S.H.E.?’
Mortimer leaned his elbows on his desk and nodded once again.
Wilkins summoned a worried look. ‘How much does she know?’
Don’t look at me.
‘She seemed well informed.’ Cop that.
Wilkins hesitated. ‘I thought we’d have more lead time than this.
We’ve barely begun. How do you suppose she got wind of it?’ Do
I look crazy?
Mortimer’s hands opened briefly as though he were releasing
215
a prayer. Good boy. His palms closed again in a soft clap. ‘Any
number of possibilities there... It’s been fully discussed by the
Executive, so every P.A. in the place would know for a start.
They’re usually pretty good though. Not to mention office
services: photo-copyists, that sort of thing.’ There, there, Ted. It’s
all over now.
‘Should we inform security?’ Nothing at all to hide.
‘Security?’ Let’s not overdo it, Wilkie.
‘No, I suppose not. It’s not the sort of thing we should be
bothering them with, is it?’
Of course, they work for Callaghan.
‘Hardly.’ It isn’t prudent to stir up sharks. ‘I don’t care much for
witch hunts. Did you ever meet Sanderson?’
‘Wasn’t he your predecessor?’
Exactly. ‘Every knife found its mark.’
Wilkins basked in the thin rays of this shared confidence.
‘Fortunately,’ he observed, crossing the line with a grin.
Mortimer overlooked the remark. Ted straightened his face.
‘The question is,’ continued Mortimer, ‘where do we go from
here?’
Wilkins politely cleared his throat. He was glad of the return to
solid ground. ‘Did she say what they want?’
‘No. We’re still in the righteous indignation phase.’ Mortimer
flourished his right hand. ‘Breaking previous agreements, et
cetera.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘The demands come next.’
‘Exorbitant demands,’ remarked Wilkins, tagging along.

216
‘In the meantime, we need to anticipate their game and prep our
case. Any ideas?’
‘Pickets?’
‘They’ll want to put on a show; seem as strong as they can.’
‘Create as much embarrassment as they can,’ Ted embellished.
Mustn’t be left out.
‘Such a nuisance,’ sighed Mortimer. ‘Still, there is the question of
our corporate image.’ Not to mention mine.
‘Yes. There’s nothing they won’t stoop to. Nothing.’
All right Wilkie, don’t panic. ‘Intelligence is the key, of course.’
He rolled his eyes towards Ted.
‘Yes. If only we knew how strong they really were? No point
conceding more than is absolutely necessary, is there?’
Wilkins put on his thinking cap. ‘Anyone in the rank and file we
can rely on?’
‘Who would you recommend?’ asked Mortimer, as if he knew.
‘Penfold?’
Mortimer was careful not to reply.
‘He is involved,’ continued Wilkins, ‘from their point of view.
Yes, he would make an excellent choice, on the face of it. They
might just trust a junior manager. Only...’
‘Yes?’ prompted Mortimer.
‘You don’t suppose he had something to do with Rosa’s call this
morning?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘No. I suppose not. So long as he does what he’s told. He has a lot
to lose, now. And it’s not as if he will have anything else to...’
‘Leak?’ offered Mortimer, claiming the privilege to utter what
217
to others was taboo.
‘Even if he was responsible. But can we be sure he’ll do it?’
Who’s going to ask him?
Mortimer swivelled around to savour the view of the city streets
below. Revolving smoothly back, he smiled smugly at Wilkins
and skillfully pressed the left hand button of his executive com-
phone. It was 10.00 a.m. exactly.
‘Yes, Mr. Mortimer,’ acknowledged his secretary.
‘Any calls, Doris?’
Over to you, Ted.

218
Fish Eight: Peak Hour

Harry sat silently with the others in the graffiti covered concrete
shelter, waiting sleepily for the morning bus.
Why him? he thought. Did he look like the James Bond type?
Callan, maybe.
Still, it wasn’t as if he had actually agreed, was it? But, then, it
wasn’t as though he had actually disagreed, either.
A red sports car sped mockingly by, leading his half awake mind
to recollections of a misspent youth. Those were the days, alright.
Cruising the summer-night streets together, young blooded and
high headed. Andy had a Studebaker then. Watch out or you’ll
miss us baby. Of course, we never looked sideways. Image
makers. Cool fakers...
He began to wonder whether he really liked buses after all.
He had thought that he did. After all, his bus was not one of those
shabby affairs captained by stomach ulcers with a grudge. No, his
bus was usually quite tidy and never over full. You could relax on
it without feeling responsible for the day ahead. The wheels on the
bus go round and round. Might as well enjoy the ride... Like cattle
to slaughter.
Life. What had he done with his? Still, it could have been worse.
You win a few, you lose a few. No one else to blame. So, this is
what it had come to? After all this time. Time. He looked at his
wrist watch and began to fret.
‘Bit late, today,’ he said to his bench-seat neighbour typing
intensely into a computer nestled on his lap.
‘Sorry?’ replied the young man, tapping on.
How do you get through to these kids? Harry raised the level of
his voice. ‘Three five seven’s a bit late this morning,’ he
219
expanded.
The young man looked up at him in surprise. ‘Three five seven?
What do you think that was: the spaceship Enterprise?’
Shit.
Harry decided to drive. He would get there quicker anyway.
A line of near stationary cars stretched endlessly before him on the
freeway. Revenge, it had to be. The divine patron of buses had
taken offence at his ingratitude and was getting its own back.
Suddenly, as if to confirm his theory and so to underline the point,
the No. 357 to City overtook him in the bus lane. Sic transit gloria
omnibus.
He turned on the radio but couldn’t find music, only the drive time
drivel of talk back shows. No escape. Trapped. Incarcerated in a
tomb of his own making. Broken at the wheel. Those who live by
the car....
Still, he had no one to blame but himself. He should have caught
the bus. But could he have? What did that really mean? In what
sense could he have caught it? If he had been more alert, yes, in
that sense. But could he really have been more alert than he
actually was? Steady on Harry, that way madness lies.
Searching for diversion, he began to measure his progress against
the strides of a hitch-hiker who was walking in the same direction
up ahead. No competition: the hitch-hiker was winning, hands
down. Then, to Harry’s surprise, it appeared as if the gap was
closing. Probably just illusory. How does that paradox go? If you
take a bag of grain and remove half of its contents, and then half
of what remains, and so on, you will never quite succeed in
emptying it completely. There’ll always be half of something left.
A bit in the corner you can’t get out.
He decided to put it to the test. Forty metres... twenty metres... a
fast break makes it ten.... five... two and a half... The winner!
Harry: 1; Zeno: 0. Okay, so he fudged the last bit.
Harry stopped adjacent to his competitor. Why not? It’s not as if it

220
would slow things down. He leaned across the passenger seat and
opened up the door. The hitch-hiker jumped in.
‘Ta, mate,’ he smiled, closing the door behind him and settling his
shoulder bag on his lap.
Harry returned a friendly nod and, when satisfied that his
passenger was securely strapped into his seat, he accelerated to fill
the resulting traffic gap like so much matter being sucked into an
adjacent vacuum.
‘City alright?’ asked Harry, without turning his head.
‘Fine,’ replied the hitch-hiker succinctly.
Eyes front and silent, the two strangers cautiously orbited the
psychological middle ground. Harry felt no hostility towards the
relaxed denim clad young man he had stopped to pick up; he was
even clean. Perhaps his younger self identified with the stranger.
That’s one of the advantages of being on the driver’s side: you did
the picking. But what did the stranger think of him? Remarkable
eyes, quite remarkable, like blue opals. Probably not much
impressed by white collared commuter types. Probably right. The
driving dead.
‘Missed the bus,’ said Harry.
The young man smiled. ‘Not really. I usually hitch-hike. Too
many empty cars on the road as it is.’
Harry hastened to correct a clumsy start. ‘No. I mean I missed the
bus. I usually catch it but somehow I missed it today.’
‘Right.’
Right. Probably thinks I’m a real twerp now. Missed the bus. No
buses for him. Follow the sun, eh? Why not. Half your luck, mate.
‘Your office in town, then?’ enquired the stranger, keeping his end
of it up.
‘Yeah,’ replied Harry. ‘Got a cell in The Keep.’
The stranger nodded. Everyone knew The Keep. ‘Do you like
221
it there?’
‘It’s a living,’ Harry shrugged. ‘What about yourself, mate. You
working at the moment?’ Those blue eyes again.
‘Yeah. A bit of field work.’
‘In the city?’
‘For a welfare mob.’
Harry nodded. ‘Social work, eh?’
‘You could say that. They call me Raphe.’
‘Harry.’
The two men shook hands, left on left. This time it seemed to
work.
‘So, how’s it going, Harry?’ asked Raphe, like he really meant it.
Harry let out a laugh. ‘You mean ‘life, the universe and
everything?’’ he smiled.
‘Yeah,’ warmed the stranger. ‘For you, Harry. How’s life, the
universe and everything going, for you?’
‘Am I being assessed?’
‘Off the record.’
Harry frowned. ‘Could be worse, I suppose.’
‘That bad, eh?’
Harry smiled at his passenger’s observation. ‘You know how it is
at my age. Just the usual hassles. No one to blame but me.’
‘Not being too hard on yourself?’
‘Well, someone’s to blame.’
‘Maybe.’

222
‘How’s about you, Raphe?’
‘No worries, Harry. You know how it is at my age,’ he grinned.
‘Good boss?’
‘The best.’
Harry nodded.
‘You know, Harry,’ resumed Raphe, ‘you look like you could use
a holiday.’
‘You’re not wrong.’
‘Why not then?’
Why not? ‘I don’t know. Can’t seem to get away. Maybe later in
the year.’ Sure.
‘Could always take a sickie.’
In my job? ‘Thing’s have a habit of piling up when I’m not
around.’
‘Maybe the pile wouldn’t grow as fast if you were a bit fresher.’
‘Maybe.’ Harry was beginning to think the suggestion had merit.
‘Once wouldn’t hurt, would it?’
No... ‘Why do I feel like a client?’
Raphe laughed. ‘Look, Harry, the Manly exit’s comin’ up next.
Why don’t we piss this traffic off and make for the coast, eh?’
‘What, now?’
Raphe smiled. ‘Why not? It’s too good a day to waste in an office
isn’t it? I could do with a day off too. How does cocktails by the
beach sound?’
Harry’s will began to weaken. He cast a mischievous glance in his
passenger’s direction. Raphe had one of those faces that made you
want to grin, like a spring morning in bloom. A bloke like that
223
could do a lot of damage in a modern corporation.
‘Could I have one of those pink ones with dinky little umbrellas in
‘em?’ he asked.
‘I think that could be arranged.’
Harry mulled the suggestion over. And the more he thought about
it, the better he felt, as if some rejuvenating force was rising up
from within the dying embers in his core. He felt good. Sun good.
Party good. It was like making a fresh start; like nothing had really
happened; as though everything would be just fine, after all. Well,
no harm in pretending, is there?
He smiled conspiratorially at his accomplice and moved into the
turn lane. ‘I’ll ring in from the beach,’ he said.

224
Fish Nine: Fish for Dinner

The sunset was like dragon’s fire, reflected onto rolling clouds by
the bronzed sheen of a warrior’s shield. Its hues, thought Harry,
were not the hues of the earth, no base pigments of yellow or red
could so combine. No, these were colours mixed by God and
applied to a canvas of stretched sky.
Then, like the disciple of insufficient faith who sank beneath the
waves, Harry became afraid of where his thoughts had taken him.
He turned his eyes from heaven towards his ticking watch. Earth
time. It was later than he thought. Clocks. Regretting his fall from
the spiritual plane, Harry cursed time silently and with the same
breath submitted. The day was done. Time to call it quits and head
for home.
Raphe drove. Drinking didn’t seem to have much effect on him so
Harry sat back and enjoyed the ride. What was it he had read on
his calendar yesterday: ‘Hope is brightest when it dawns from
fears’. If only it were true for him. Still, might as well make the
most of things, while they last.
The traffic was light, the afternoon peak-hour had passed and the
evening’s was yet to come. Harry gave Raphe progressive
directions to his suburban home, but somehow or other they
seemed superfluous. It was as though Raphe knew where to go. He
sure knew his way around. Probably drove taxi’s on the night shift
at uni. One of those self reliant types who could turn a hand to
anything. Now he would make a good spy...
Harry started at the sound of the hand brake’s ratchet as it was
pulled abruptly on.
‘This is where I get out,’ said Raphe, as he switched off the
ignition and lights in Harry’s driveway.
Harry yawned and rubbed his eyes. ‘There’s a spare bed if you
want it, Raphe. I’m sure Milly won’t mind.’
225
Raphe smiled at his bleary passenger. ‘Thanks just the same, mate.
But not tonight.’
‘Well, at least stay for dinner. Meet the family. I can drop you
home later, when I sober up a bit.’
Raphe paused politely. ‘Thanks. But I’ll get a ride on the highway.
You never know who you’ll meet, eh?’
Harry nodded. ‘Sure. I understand. I was a bachelor once myself.’
Stay loose, stay free. ‘Maybe we can do it again sometime?’
‘Maybe,’ said Raphe, getting out the door.
‘You know where I live.’
Raphe smiled, saluting farewell with a single index finger which
seemed as much a pointing reference to the heavens as a casual
parting gesture. And then he was gone. Down the darkness of the
road, beyond the ken of light.
Suddenly, the familiar sound of the opening verandah screen door
intruded into the night, disconnecting Harry’s train of thought.
‘Harry?’
‘Coming,’ he yawned. Retrieving a carry bag from the back seat of
the car, he climbed the oft trod path leading to the front steps. ‘I
picked up something for tea,’ he said, defensively, holding up the
bag before greeting her with a kiss.
Milly smiled. ‘I was afraid you’d forget. You didn’t seem quite
yourself on the phone.’
Harry winced. ‘Phone?’
‘Yes,’ she repeated, surprised at his response.
‘When?’
‘This morning... at the office.’
Harry struggled to understand. ‘Let me get this straight,’ he said,
scratching his head. ‘Do you mean to say that you rang me at the
226
office this morning?’
‘Don’t you remember?’
‘And that you spoke to me?’
‘Is everything all right, Harry?’ she asked with concern.
‘Well did you?’
‘Yes.’
‘Are you sure it was me you spoke to?’
Milly raised her eyebrows. ‘Of course I’m sure. Don’t you
remember, Harry?’ She stared into his expressionless face.
‘No. I mean, I didn’t speak to you, Milly. It must have been
someone else.’
‘It was you, Harry.’
‘How do you know?’
Milly collected her thoughts. ‘Well what did you get for dinner
then?’ she asked.
Harry looked at his parcel. ‘Fish,’ he said, a hint of anxiety in his
voice.
‘That’s right,’ replied Milly. ‘That’s what I asked you to get.’
Goose pimples bristled under Harry’s clothes.
‘You’ve been drinking, Harry.’
‘Yes.’
‘Come on,’ she said, ushering him inside. ‘It’s cold out here.’
Harry hesitated on the threshold, then cast a backward glance
down the street. Not a trace.
Milly closed the door behind them, shutting out the night. But
some things can’t be shut out; like the night inside Harry’s head.
227
The night that came in with him, into the heart of their home....
Logic was important to Harry. It was, in a very real sense, his
livelihood; his trade. And the way he saw things, the keystone to
reason was the falseness of contradiction: the absurdity of a
proposition’s being both true and not true at the same time. Like
the absurdity of the statement that it is both raining and not
raining. Now, the absurdity of his being both at work and not at
work at the same time was perhaps not a logical contradiction but
it was surely a physical one. That matter cannot actually be in two
places at once must at the very least, he thought, be a keystone of
science. And while, perhaps, scientific laws do not present as great
a constraint on possibility as do the rules of pure reason, somehow
he was reluctant to jettison two millennia of scientific endeavour
just to explain one troublesome phenomenon. He simply wasn’t
that important. There had to be another explanation.
He examined the rational alternatives, using the fingers of his left
hand as a count index.
(i) Milly might be mistaken. But she wasn’t that sort of person.
Besides, the fish told against this hypothesis, and he had a sinking
feeling that tomorrow no one would press him for a sick leave
form.
(ii) Else, he might have been cleverly impersonated. But the
question is: why? And how had they known he would not be there,
and what about the fish again? He stared at the flounder on his
dinner plate, and began to dissect the evidence. A lot seemed to
hinge on fish.
(iii) Else, of course, Milly could be lying. She may not have rung
at all. The fish story might be pure invention on her part. He found
that even less plausible.
Nothing for it but to wait and see. Tomorrow would tell.
Milly did not expect or seek much in the way of conversation that
night. She had bundled Sarah off to bed with as little fuss as
possible, safely out of harm’s way. Harry was not well. He had
never shown signs of violence before, but tonight he was
definitely not himself. Probably the strain of that F.I.S.H.E.
228
thing he was involved with. She looked into the glazed eyes of the
specimen before her, and lost all appetite.

229
Fish Ten: Eat Your Pick

A large grey nurse swum hungrily above them, deftly dodging the
flaps of a white bellied Manta ray sinisterly gliding the other way.
Along the perimeter of the overhead tank, eels slipped in and out
of miniature cement grottos and lobsters lazily picked about algae
covered rocks.
Suddenly, the surface exploded in light and bubbles, and schools
of darting fish converged upon an intruding scuba diver armed
with a net and spear.
Behind their table, that of Harry and, to be discreet, a friend, was a
neon lit menu listing the fish of the day. ‘Eat your pick,’ exhorted
the green and orange sign.
‘I thought you said it was tasteful,’ said Harry to the voluptuous
dark eyed woman sitting opposite.
‘It’s in the eating,’ she explained.
Harry stared at her generous red lips as they slowly withdrew from
lipstick tainted teeth and were moistened by a sensuous lick from
her tongue.
He found it hard to concentrate.
‘I’m not sure about this,’ he wavered, casting another anxious
glance above.
‘You wouldn’t let a girl go hungry now, would you, Harry?’
He felt surrounded on all sides by prey of the deep. Stay calm, he
told himself. Everything’s under control. It’s just a restaurant.
Relax and enjoy the meal. No harm in that?
A waiter approached them wearing a black wet suit and yellow
flippers, goggles resting at the ready on his forehead, a snorkel
tucked securely in its straps.
230
‘Would Monsieur care to order?’ he asked, waiting briefly for a
reply. Sometimes you have to help them along. ‘I can recommend
the flounder,’ he said, of a mature specimen lying innocently on
the tank floor above.
Harry looked up at the ceiling. A diver stalked a school of
unsuspecting bream, spear gun at the ready, red flippers propelling
him torpedo like towards his victim. Appalled by the thought of
what would happen next, Harry managed to avert his gaze at the
critical instant. Get a hold of yourself, mate. Never reveal
weakness before barbarians, it only arouses their appetite. He
endeavoured to concentrate on something else. Picking up a
plastic coated menu from the table, he focused his whole being
upon its contents.
‘Pardon,’ said the waiter, turning it right side up.
‘Ta.’ Harry made a second attempt.
‘The oysters look appealing,’ suggested his companion.
‘Yes.’ Well, at least they don’t swim.
Her eyes laughed playfully in the candlelight. ‘For two,’ she
ordered.
‘As an entree, Madame?’ he enquired, writing on the small slate
slung from his suit.
‘Main,’ Harry hastened to reply.
She smiled to concur. ‘We’ll order dessert later,’ she added,
anticipating his next question.
‘As you wish, Madame,’ said the waiter, nodding respectfully
before adjusting his rubber goggles and waddling off.
Harry followed the waiter with his eyes as he trekked towards a
central stairwell spiraling up the inner circumference of a tall glass
tube. Clumsily, he climbed above them, above the water, and
stood with his back to the pool. Tumbling into the tank with a
splash, the waiter swam swiftly towards a rocky shelf at the rim.

231
Harry pretended not to notice as the diver gave their table the
thumbs up sign and began to hack away savagely at the shell fish
with his knife. But conversation was difficult.
Disassociating himself from the brutal consequences of his order,
he suddenly realised that there was something else troubling him
about his present situation; something unrelated to the restaurant,
unusual as that was. Finally, it dawned upon him.
‘By the way,’ he said casually, addressing his companion.
‘Yes,’ she stared brazenly into his eyes.
‘Look,’ he said, regretting the word as he tried to avoid her gaze,
‘forgive my asking, but, ah,’
‘Yes?’
‘Who the devil are you, anyway?’
She laughed silently. ‘Existentially speaking?’
Harry found himself watching her mouth again. She had all the
right vocabulary, and she knew how to use it. ‘No,’ he replied,
firmly. ‘I’d settle for a name.’
‘My name? Let’s see. What would you like it to be, Harry?’ she
teased.
He couldn’t help thinking that if his mother had heard his name
pronounced like that, she would have settled for ‘Ben’.
‘Stop it,’ he pleaded. ‘Please.’
She laughed again, a toying endearing laugh.
‘Look,’ said Harry, struggling to assert himself, ‘I just want to
know who I’m dining with. Okay? I mean, is that such a big thing
to ask?’
She poured herself a small glass of water and took a token sip.
‘You play such bizarre games, Harry. I’m afraid I don’t
understand them.’

232
‘I’ll bet.’ Harry went cold.
‘What do you want me to say, Harry? That I’m the girl of your
dreams?’ she taunted, resting her bosom on the table and stroking
his cheek with the back of her hand.
Harry’s skin flushed the colour a strangely familiar crimson sky.
‘Look, if you don’t tell me, I’m leaving,’ he replied.
She withdrew to the safety of her own lines. ‘Please, Harry. This is
becoming tiresome.’
‘Very.’
‘Wine list, sir?’ interrupted another waiter, somewhat more
formally dressed than his predecessor.
‘I’ll have a tankard,’ said Harry, testily.
‘A tankard, sir?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Of ale, sir?’
‘Of rum, mate. You do have rum?’
‘As in Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of--?’
‘The same.’
The waiter looked elsewhere for reason.
‘It’s been a long voyage,’ she explained.
‘Yes, Madam.’
‘The chardonnay will do nicely.’
‘Yes, Madam.’ He looked doubtfully at Harry. ‘Will that be for
two?’
She nodded reassuringly.

233
‘Thank you, Madam.’
Conversation resumed when the wine waiter had retreated beyond
earshot.
‘Now, where were we, Harry?’ she said. ‘Oh yes. You were about
to admire my dress. I bought it especially for the occasion.’
‘For tonight?’
‘Of course.’
‘What’s so special about tonight?’ You never know your luck.
‘I thought we would... celebrate.’
He had never heard it said like that before. ‘Celebrate what?’
‘Why your promotion, Harry. Mr Executive.’
‘What do you know about it?’
‘Only what a little bird told me.’
‘Well, that’s more than I know.’
‘Now, now, you mustn’t be coy tonight, Harry. We both know it’s
in the bag. Once you’ve fulfilled your little … commitment.’
‘Commitment?’ Harry was getting impatient. ‘What are you
insinuating?’
‘Now, now, Harry. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Such an
attractive word: espionage. Don’t you think?’
There she goes again. Words like that should be issued under
licence. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘you must have me mixed up with
someone else. I’m no spy. And I haven’t the faintest idea what
your talking about.’
‘No? Well, what’s that little bulge under your armpit then,
darling? A computer mouse?’
‘What?’ Harry reached under his left lapel, sliding his hand slowly
down until it encountered a hard metallic object. He withdrew
234
it from his jacket and recoiled in horror.
‘Struth!’
‘A Beretta. How nice.’
Harry couldn’t believe it.
‘Our wine,’ she cautioned, raising an eyebrow in the direction of
the approaching waiter.
He covered the pistol hastily with his menu. The wine waiter
appeared not to see it as he opened the moist bottle and proffered a
sample for approval.
Harry declined to participate in the ceremony.
Disappointed, the servant of Bacchus left.
‘What’s going on here?’ Harry demanded.
‘You tell me, Harry.’
Harry could see the futility of any further enquiry. Stay cool and
observe the play. Maybe something will happen. Something that
makes sense...
‘Madame?’ The now damp waiter with the french accent
performed his task with as much dignity as a squelching wet suit
would allow. He served Harry last, taking advantage of his
position to wink at him surreptitiously. Harry was more stunned
than embarrassed. When the waiter had quietly withdrawn, he
returned the hand-gun to its holster.
Between awkward smiles across the table, Harry prodded
suspiciously at the shell-fish with his fork. Something firm lay
under the third oyster from the left.
‘Anything the matter, Harry?’
‘No. No, just fine,’ he replied nervously. He worked his way
through the first two with hungry conviction and poised before the
third. Easy, Harry, this one might bite back. What’s this? Plastic?
He carefully folded the oyster around the object and placed it
235
in his mouth. Then, after swallowing the delicacy in which it was
wrapped, he skillfully tongued what felt like a capsule into his
serviette and palmed it to his other hand.
‘You’re right,’ he said with a smile, ‘this is a tasteful
establishment, after all.’
Suddenly, just when he began to think he was getting on top of
things, a shrill scream wrenched the crowded restaurant. All eyes
turned to the ceiling where gushing blood diffused into water amid
violent agitation. Particles of torn flesh flew from the shark’s jaws
as it ripped mercilessly into its helpless human victim. Divers
armed with spear guns rushed up the stair well and a yellow
flipper floated lifelessly to the surface.
Harry felt nauseous. The unorthodox behaviour of their waiter left
him in no doubts as to the identity of the victim. RIP, Frenchy.
But who was their waiter, really? And what was in the capsule?
And why had Frenchy passed it on to him? Why pick on Harry
Penfold? He turned his attention to his companion only to discover
that she had gone; and that her bag, coat and gloves, had likewise
disappeared.
Fearing for himself, he made his escape also, into the dark
embrace of night.

236
Fish Eleven: Welcome to the Barricades

Rosa Luxemburg had contacts; influential contacts. Comrades in a


position to exert power over the masses. And while it is true that
the United Council of Worker’s Unions (UCWU) was rarely
united these days on matters of strategic importance, nothing
rallied their latent solidarity more than the prospect of a picket.
This was the stuff of revolution; of barricades, blood and song.
Rosa’s timing was perfect. There hadn’t been a decent picket in
town since the too successful Construction Federation had
unsuccessfully fought for the right to represent its own members
against a coalition of forces comprised of capitalists, the
government, and, on behalf of rival uncompetitive unions, the
UCWU itself. Here, petitioned Rosa at a UCWU Branch meeting,
for the first time since that ‘regrettable but necessary’ incident,
was a golden opportunity to reassert the interests of the oppressed;
to strike at the heart of conservative forces; to have a picket of
their own.
It had been a long time since Council had witnessed such zeal; had
been fired by such ideals. Frankly, they were impressed. Rosa had
their full backing.
By the time Harry got to work, building workers were putting the
finishing touches to the first instalment of the UCWU’s support.
There on the footpath opposite The Keep rose a mighty matrix of
steel scaffolding and plank, complete with loud-speakers. Very
loud-speakers. Colourful banners proudly proclaiming defiance
and solidarity adorned the surface of the honeycomb structure, and
within its bowels, placards bearing equally colourful insults were
stowed until the cameras came. Floodlights at the foot of the
edifice ensured a spectacular display at night, and a stage of grand
proportions had been erected for demagogic use.
Rosa, standing shoulder to shoulder with leafleting comrades at
the entrance to The Keep, was clearly delighted.
237
‘Good morning, brother,’ she greeted Harry, in a tone of strength
and cheer. ‘You’re just in time.’
‘Just in time?’ mused Harry, wearily. ‘For what?’
Rosa clapped him heartily on the shoulder. ‘There you go,’ she
said, handing him a placard.
‘Oh, no..’ replied Harry, palms up.
A friendly hand rested on his shoulder.
‘Morning boss.’
‘Warren?’ In the overwhelmingness of the unfolding scene, Harry
hadn’t noticed that others were also present. ‘What’s all this?’ he
asked, looking at Rita.
‘Picketing,’ she replied, bemused.
He turned to Warren. ‘Picketing?’
‘That is the plan, isn’t it?’
Harry put his hand to his head and began to massage his left
temple. It was a characteristic gesture he had inherited from his
father’s side. As a child, he used to wonder why his father did it.
Now, in the after blossom of manhood, he understood, too well.
‘Sorry?’
‘You do remember?’ repeated Rita.
‘Remember?’ he replied in kind.
‘Yesterday... at tea time,’ Warren reminded him. ‘We said we’d
help.’
Yesterday again. Harry Penfold began to fear the worst. His mind
reeled. So it wasn’t just a bad dream, after all. Milly hadn’t made
it up. Yesterday. The word itself seemed to taunt him. Face it. A
Harry Penfold had been at the office?
‘To tell you the truth, Rita,’ he confessed, absent mindedly, ‘I
don’t really remember much about yesterday.’
238
All eyes were on Harry.
‘Migraine,’ he explained, under pressure.
Not a convincing performance.
‘Very convenient,’ remarked Rosa, sternly. Even cadres level
pistols at deserters from the ranks.
‘You really don’t remember, do you boss?’
Harry stared, lost, at the footpath below. He wondered what else
he had done? ‘Why don’t you just remind me?’ he replied at last.
Might as well get to the bottom of it.
‘Look, Harry,’ began Rosa, ‘we don’t have time for games. Just
tell us whose side you’re on. Okay?’
Good question. ‘Well,’ he fumbled, ‘I’m not sure I’m on anyone’s
yet. I mean, is it right for a manager to take part in this sort of
thing? What if Carol wants to come through. She might feel
intimidated.’
‘She’s with us,’ returned Rita.
‘Not quite,’ cautioned Warren.
‘Well, she’s not against us,’ confessed Rita. ‘We’re all in this
together, Harry. You agreed.’
Harry returned his hand to his temple. ‘I did?’ A tidal wave
eclipsed the Golden Sands resort. Everybody wants a piece of
Harry Penfold. ‘Is that true, Warren?’
‘Well,’ he began, ‘yes.’
Harry looked Rosa in the eye. And she looked squarely back. In
the thought crystal of his mind he saw the wall of water loom,
crest and break over management course number 32.
‘We need you, Harry.’
Rosa meant it. A manager, even a lowly one, was good PR; a
recruitment plus.
239
‘Well, if that’s what I said?’
‘Welcome to the barricades, comrade,’ she beamed victoriously.
Harry was less enthusiastic. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ he
asked.
‘Just stick with me,’ she smiled.
‘Is that necessary?’ Rosa wasn’t exactly Harry’s idea of a perfect
companion.
‘Yes.’
‘What else?’
‘That’s all.’
‘That’s all?’
Bullshit.
‘That’s right,’ for the time being.
Harry was not happy. He turned his gaze from Rosa to the crude
structure behind her. It was impressive, but no match for the mass
of concrete and glass standing opposite.
Peering upwards at The Keep, he instinctively shielded his eyes. It
was an unnecessary gesture. The building’s shear glass skin did
not glint in rays of morning light. For to those standing at the foot
of The Keep all that was evident of the blotted sun was a long
overarching shadow.
Ten floors up, Mortimer stood at the edge of the transparent wall
affixed to the skyscraper’s skeleton of steel and, with seeming
equanimity, observed the signs of peasant unrest below. ‘Rosa,
Rosa, what have you done?’
Wilkins was at his side, cocker spaniel like. ‘Quite an eyesore,
isn’t it?’
‘A cancer,’ muttered Mortimer, inaudibly, without bothering to
turn his head.
240
‘Still, what goes up must come down.’
Nothing irritated Mortimer more than fatuous remarks made in the
face of a real threat. ‘And how do you suppose we accomplish
that, Ted?’
Wilkins knew better than to reply.
‘That’s the work of the UCWU down there. There’s not a
contractor in the country who’d be foolish enough to touch it, even
if their workers would, which is even less likely.’
He decided to defend. It looks better. ‘What about the courts?’ he
suggested.
‘Ah,’ replied Mortimer, ‘that’s the beauty of it. It’s on public land.
The Crown won’t want to buy into our petty squabble. Not with
the UCWU involved.’
‘The Press? The story might be managed.’
‘Too risky. You can’t trust reporters. It’s round one to Rosa, I’m
afraid.’
‘But we will be responding?’
‘Well, it is our move. But let’s wait and see what our friend has to
tell us, shall we? He is down there with them, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ Wilkins was quick to assure. ‘I saw him talking to Rosa on
my way in. Picked up one of these,’ he handed Mortimer a folded
leaflet. ‘Just the usual propaganda one expects.’
Mortimer scanned the leaflet. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, returning it.
‘What about... ?’ asked Wilkins, gingerly, pointing to the floor
above.
‘He’ll want to be informed, of course.’ Mortimer snorted. But
thankfully the old man surrendered all responsibility for this realm
years ago. Naturally, he will want to look good, and that will be a
constraint, but as to the decisions... ‘Responsibility for this
problem rests with us, I’m afraid.’

241
Responsibility? Wilkins tried to read between the lines. He had
come to think of bureaucracies as organisations whose senior
executives are maximally insulated from the consequences of their
own inaction. It was a model which had served him well. It had, as
they say, predictive value. He was, accordingly, not surprised to
hear that King Lear, as the old man was affectionately known,
would only wish to be kept informed.
But to hear Mortimer speak additionally of responsibility was, to
say the least, mildly alarming. It simply did not fit. His own guess
would have been that Mortimer would now be desperately looking
round for a scapegoat. It was then that the significance of ‘us’
finally sank in.
‘Do you play chess?’ continued Mortimer, as the full horror of the
situation gathered within his ‘ally’.
Wilkins hesitated. He knew the rule: everything you say may be
taken down and used against you. ‘Not really my game, I’m
afraid.’
‘No...’ acknowledged Mortimer. ‘But Rosa plays. After a fashion.’

242
Fish Twelve: Just Kiddin’

The first day of industrial action had been moderately successful.


A mass meeting of a few dozen outraged employees reinforced by
as many intrigued passers-by, had unanimously endorsed the
picket that had already been imposed by Rosa, and names were
taken for a roster.
The meeting was also pleased to note Harry Penfold’s principled
stand against his employers and, in response to a motion from the
chair, appointed him Captain of the picket.
Naturally, Harry’s laudably modest protestations at his
appointment were politely ignored. As one observer was heard to
remark, ‘better him than me.’
Harry wasn’t amused. ‘I thought that all I had to do was stick with
you,’ he said to Rosa, after the meeting had adjourned.
‘The will of the workers has triumphed,’ she smiled, winding up
the microphone cord.
‘The workers? It was your motion, Rosa.’
‘Democracy at work, Harry. I’m a member too.’
Harry cursed his naivety. He should have known that Rosa would
pull something like this. Democracy? Bullshit.
‘What is a picket Captain, anyway?’
Rosa smiled. ‘It’s a very important job, Harry. A real honour.’
‘That’s what I was afraid of.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s a piece of piss. Come on, I’ll fill you in over
lunch?’
Harry looked her squarely in the eye. ‘Anything but seafood,’ he
said.
243
The Docker’s Ruin, as it was affectionately known, was a dinkum
worker’s pub. It satisfied all of the essential criteria and none of
the desirable ones. It opened early and closed late. It had a shady
verandah, clean plumbing, a television tuned permanently to the
sports channel, and hoseable tiles.
‘My shout,’ said Rosa, leaning on the bar. ‘What do you fancy?’
Harry normally didn’t drink during the day but today was
different. No one to supervise, nothing to do. Like it or not, he was
on strike. Why not have a beer then? He could sure use one.
‘Schooner,’ he muttered in reply.
‘Two schooner’s, thanks, love,’ said Rosa pointing to a tap.
The barmaid acknowledged her order with a business like nod.
Breaking off her conversation with a customer at the end of the
counter, she proceeded to pour cold lager into two large glasses
sitting on a stainless steel drip tray.
Rosa collected her change from the damp strip of towelling which
covered the counter and handed Harry his beer. Sipping at her own
glass, she turned her back to the bar and surveyed the room for a
suitable private table.
‘There’s a good posi,’ she said, pointing with her beer.
Harry nodded his approval and casually followed her to a small
metal table in the corner. He felt strangely guilty. Maybe it was
the beer. Maybe it was being on strike. He felt like he was
rendezvousing with Matahari or something and nonchalantly
looked over his surroundings, just as someone might whistle in
public to feign their innocence. ‘Who, me?’ the child blushed.
Screwed to the wall behind Rosa was a chrome framed poster
under glass. It was one of those old sporting poses: a man was
standing next to a shark lying on a wharf. The shark’s wide gaping
jaws were propped open, menacingly confronting the viewer.
Harry turned his chair side on but could not entirely evade it.
Rosa studied the blackboard above the bar.

244
‘Flounder looks good,’ she remarked, taking another drink.
Harry looked at the menu. ‘I’ll settle for a pie,’ he said.
Rosa placed the orders with the barmaid, leaving Harry an
uninterrupted view of the shark, and returned with two numbered
tickets which she placed upon the table. Harry watched the
Adam’s apple in Rosa’s stretched neck bob aggressively as she
manfully drained her glass before resuming her seat.
‘You’re draggin’ the chain a bit, Harry’ she said, displaying her
empty glass like a trophy.
Harry rose from the table without replying and ambled towards the
bar, drinking as he walked. Another beer won’t hurt. Might as well
be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
‘Same, love?’ asked the barmaid.
‘Ta,’ he replied, repressing the gas which sought upward escape
from his stomach.
The transaction concluded, Harry carefully carried the two too full
glasses back to the table, only to discover that his seat had been
usurped by a particularly untidy example of a young adult male.
The stranger, whose blue singlet made no attempt to disguise an
elaborate tattoo sprawled across his arms and shoulders, welcomed
Harry with a broken toothed smile.
‘G’day,’ he said.
Harry wasn’t sure how to react. On the one hand, he had been
dispossessed, and, on the other, the individual concerned looked
reasonably friendly. He stood there, encumbered by a glass of
dripping beer in each hand, feeling every bit as ridiculous as he
looked.
‘Scrapin’ the barrel aren’t you, Rosa?’
Rosa made no attempt to conceal her laugh.
Now he was sure.
Rosa attempted to forestall a clash of rutting deer by formally
245
introducing the adversaries. ‘Harry, Billy,’ she said, with a lazy
hand.
Billy continued to grin. ‘Don’t be shy, mate. Pull up a chair. We
don’t mind, do we love?’
That does it! Harry plonked down both glasses spilling not a little
of their contents in the process. Regaining control, he wiped his
damp hands methodically on his previously immaculate
handkerchief with all the studied coolness of a deadly gun-slinger.
Then, just as he was on the verge of asserting his manhood in no
uncertain terms, Billy stood up obligingly and ushered him to his
seat.
‘Just kiddin’, mate,’ he said, patting Harry on the back.
Honour was satisfied, more or less. Harry sat down.
Billy grabbed another chair from nearby, straddled it at their table,
and began to roll himself a ragged cigarette.
‘So, how’s tricks, Rosa?’
Rosa took another swallow. ‘Can’t complain, Billy. Yourself?’ she
returned.
‘Shithouse.’
‘And they say there’s no justice,’ she replied.
Billy turned to Harry. ‘Don’t pay any attention to me, mate. Just...’
‘Kiddin’. I know,’ said Harry.
‘Quick on the uptake, ain’t he?’
‘Sometimes,’ she smirked.
‘You want to watch her, mate. She’ll have your balls if you’re not
careful.’
‘Speaking from experience?’ said Harry.
Billy smiled. ‘No mate. Mine are still attached alright.’
246
Rosa intervened. ‘Why don’t you show him your tattoos, Billy,’
she suggested. ‘After all, they are your best feature.’
‘Apart from my hidden charms. Still, they are good though, aren’t
they, mate?’
‘Very impressive,’ admitted Harry.
‘They’re all related, you know.’
‘Same comic book?’
‘Something like that. If you behave yourself, I might even tell you
about it.’
‘Don’t trouble--’ began Harry.
‘Stop me if you’ve heard it,’ interrupted Billy, refusing to take no
for an answer.
Harry concentrated on his beer as Billy removed his singlet and,
pointing to a scene on his lower left forearm, stared meaningfully
into Harry’s eyes. ‘Recognise this bloke, Harry?’
Harry put down his glass. ‘Should I?’
‘His name’s Tobit. You know what he’s doing?’
‘At a guess, I’d say he was praying.’
‘For death, Harry. He’s praying for death.’
Harry raised his eyebrows. ‘I know how he feels,’ he said.
‘You see, life hasn’t been all that kind to him, mate. He’s a long
way from home. And not on holidays. Seems his mob have been
exiled and no one’s exactly put down the welcome mat. You know
how it is some places- ‘
‘Can’t get served?’
‘Or bury your dead. Old Tobit used to take it on himself to do it at
night. Till he went blind, that is.’

247
‘I trust this has a happy ending, Billy.’
‘As the story goes,’ said Billy, sucking on his smoke, ‘in his
younger days old Tobit had salted away a few bob with a mate in
another town. I guess he reckoned, in the event his prayers were
answered, that his son, Tobiah, should have a better start in life.
Wish I had an old man like that. Still, self made, that’s me.’
‘Impressive,’ said Harry.
‘Ta. Anyway, when Tobit’s son is old enough, he sends him after
the loot with a guide called Azariah. This is them there, setting
out. They’ve got a long way to go, Harry.’
But Harry wasn’t listening. Something on Billy’s back had caught
his eye. ‘Who’s she?’ he asked, pointing to a picture of a kneeling
woman surrounded by a red-eyed snake.
‘That,’ said Billy, picking some tobacco from his tongue, ‘is
Sarah. She’s praying for death too. She hasn’t had much luck in
the marital stakes lately and it’s beginning to get her down.’
‘Hard to believe, just looking at her,’ said Harry, sipping some
more.
‘It’s not that no one’s interested, Harry. Just that every time she
marries some poor bastard this demon snake kills him before they
can have it off. After seven hubbies, people are beginning to talk.
‘But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, mate,’ he said, taking up his
glass and swallowing a drink.
‘We haven’t even got to her yet.’
Billy pointed to a scene near his left shoulder. A large fish with
extended jaws was attacking Tobiah’s ankle as he bathed in a
river.
Harry winced.
‘After a few dusty kays,’ said Billy, ‘Tobiah and Azariah came
across a creek and decide to take a dip. Well, you can see what
happens.’
248
‘Looks like a mean one,’ said Harry with some conviction.
‘Aren’t they all, mate. Cold blooded. They don’t give a stuff about
anyone. Fish.’
Harry nodded. Billy was smarter than he looked.
‘But you’ll be glad to hear, Harry, that this one is about to meet its
match in the form of one Tobiah, who grabs it by the throat and
drags it up on the bank. ‘Seafood: just what the doctor ordered,’ he
thinks, and is just about to scale and clean the mongrel when
Azariah tells him to save its guts for later.’
‘Strange bloke this Azariah,’ observed Harry, taking a drink.
‘You’d think so, eh? But then again, Harry, who isn’t?’
Harry looked Billy in the eye and silently agreed. ‘What then?’ he
asked.
‘Then, mate, they push on, trudging through the desert sands, ‘till
they comes, at last, to a small town. The same town, as a matter of
fact, where Sarah and her dad live. Seems they were all related
too, so Tobiah and Co decide to stay over. Guess what happens
next?’
‘They have it off?’
‘He marries her,’ Billy nodded. ‘Now comes the big moment: the
weddin’ night. Naturally, Tobiah’s feeling a little anxious but
Azariah tells him no worries, just burn the fish’s heart and liver in
the bedroom, before you get down to it. This is them there,
standing back as the fish guts smoulder and fume like nobody’s
business, fillin’ the room with thick green smoke. Smoke so putrid
that the sheer stench of it drives out the demon serpent all the way
to bloody Egypt. This is him here, mate, by the pyramids.’
‘And they all live happily ever after, eh?’
‘Then they all get the money and go home,’ continued Billy. ‘This
is them, happy as Larry, number one son and Sarah hand in hand
with Azariah minding the loot. If only old Tobit could see his new
daughter, not to mention the coin, everything would be just
249
about perfect, eh?’
‘Don’t tell me: miracle time, right?’
Billy nodded, again. ‘I can see you’re getting’ the hang of this. See
Azariah tells young Tobiah to pull out the fish’s gall bladder he’d
been saving all that time and to rub it into the old man’s eyes.
Must be amazin’, to see when you’re blind.’
‘And the angels?’ asked Harry, pointing to the final scene.
‘That’s when Azariah reveals who he really is.... a bloody angel in
disguise.’
‘Gabriel?’ guessed Harry.
‘No, mate. Raphael.’

250
Fish Thirteen: Fish ‘n Chips

A cab brought Harry home from the pub and a light guided him to
the door. Locked. Bugger. After fumbling in vain for his keys, he
resorted to the bell.
Lights. Action.. Anxiety... Think. Only one way to handle it.
‘So..rrry,’ he muttered.
Milly stood outside the doorway like a shepherd by a gate,
demonstrably ignoring Harry’s pathetic attempts at apology.
‘Sorry,’ he repeated.
‘You’re drunk.’
‘I’m … on strike,’ he added, by way of explanation.
She shot a piercing look his way.
Incongruously, Harry began to laugh. The way grog and madness
laughs... to itself.
Relenting, Milly steered him by the shoulders as he stumbled into
the house. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve eaten?’ she said.
Harry muttered something about pies and lunch before propping
himself against the corridor with one arm and draping the other
over the shoulders of his navigator.
‘At least you wont choke, then,’ she replied.
So much for dinner.
‘Come on, Harry,’ she said, leading him in.
‘Sorry... Should have rung... Sorry.’
It annoyed her to see him reduced to this. ‘Stop saying you’re

251
sorry.’
She turned on the bedroom light as they entered.
‘Should have rung,’ he repeated.
‘The office did,’ she explained, abruptly.
‘Office?’ The word chipped at the glazing on his memory.
‘Someone called Wilkins.’
‘Wilkins?’
‘He left his number.’
Wilkins. Reality began to seep in through the crack. That office.
Now it was Harry’s turn to become annoyed. ‘What does he
bloody want?’ he asked.
‘Don’t swear at me.’
Harry collapsed on the bed. ‘What did he want?’
‘You can ask him yourself, tomorrow.’
‘Snake lips. He’s the last bloke I want to talk to.’
‘You’re rambling. Go to sleep, Harry’ she said, taking off his
shoes.
‘What did he say about me?’
‘Nothing,’ she removed his belt.
‘But you said that the office told you...’
‘He just said you were on strike. When you didn’t come home,
and after the other night, well, I had a fair idea what to expect.
Now roll over and for goodness sake, try not to snore. The last
thing I need is to have Sarah up too.’
Harry began to lose consciousness. He knew he was slipping fast.
At least the room wasn’t spinning. Go to sleep, Harry. It’ll all be
over in the morning... Maybe.
252
He was one of the first to get outside, to escape. The cool air
pricked at his cheeks, slapping his brain into life the way dense
cold air in the early morning rams into a carby’s venturi making
the motor run sweet and fast. He paused momentarily, waiting for
his pupils to dilate.
The car park was dark. Soon it would be filled with disturbed and
frightened clients anxious to put as much distance as possible
between themselves and the scene. But you can’t run from a
memory.
A pair of hundred watt eyes pulled out screeching from a line of
vehicles at the far end of the car-park and accelerated towards
him. It was a white Cadillac. He ducked to one side as it skidded
abruptly to a halt right where he had stood, making its intention
dangerously ambiguous.
‘Going my way?’ she smiled with allure.
Harry reflected briefly on the invitation and decided to take a
chance. He opened the passenger door, slid into the seat and
instantly felt himself slam into the plush upholstery as the
convertible’s white-wall tyres squealed under power. Harry liked
V8s. Big V8s. Torque surging tyre spinning V8s. OPEC aside,
there’s no substitute for cubes.
‘I thought you’d gone,’ he said.
Her eyes darted between the rear-view mirror, Harry, and the road.
‘I had,’ she replied, reigning the reluctant beast onto Highway 1.
The Pacific Highway. Transit city. Home to passing thousands,
temporarily without address. No one stays long and no one is
remembered. That’s the way it is and that’s the way Harry liked it.
Address: white Cadillac, and mobile.
A ghostly mist swirled around the sleek Cadillac’s racing wheels
as it slipped through the night air like a planing wing, while the
radio sang rock n’ roll in F.M. stereo...

253
Drivin’ into darkness
Cuttin’ thru the night
Hear the engin’ hummin’,
Ev’rythin’ feels tight...
And yet, below the shallow thrill skin of his being, Harry wanted
more. Wanted to know more. Who was she? Why did the scent of
murder hover vulture like above her? What dark secret lurked
within the contents of the tiny plastic capsule he fingered in his
coat? But, most of all, Harry wondered who, who if anyone, he
could trust.
She turned into the beach suburbs, past neon palms and flashing
night clubs where Coca-Cola kids in too cool sunnies spilled onto
the streets like a junkie’s vomit. A red Porsche leered by but in
Harry’s view did not rate, as the Caddy purred softly down main
street and hung a left onto Beach Boulevard. Warm moist air,
heavy with salt, breezed in from the sighing surf.
The big engine whispered down to idle in the driveway of an
expensive apartment block. Home. Sort of high rise art deco, with
an aspidistra on every private balcony.
‘We’ll be safe here,’ she said.
But Harry wasn’t so sure. It was the kind of place a Beretta could
call home. Well, he had one too, hadn’t he? He decided to go
along for the ride. The bat cave gave an electronically triggered
yawn, and, accepting their own invitation, they drove in. No
computers or flashing lights here. Starksville. Rendered walls and
a thick silent fire door. The bat cave closed behind them. Harry
gave the Beretta a soft pat and fell in line behind his slinky host.
Steps a smuggler might have nightly trod led into the ritzy lobby.
A female mosaic spread before them on the tiled floor like
something Aubrey Beardsley might have done. Salome half
dressed; half naked. She might have looked seductive upright on a
wall, but from the way she lay stretched out cold on the tiles like
that, you’d swear it wouldn’t belong before the cops came to chalk
lines around her. Homicide.
A key opened the elevator. It took them straight to the top.
254
So this is how the other half lives. Wall to wall class, cheque-book
style. He stepped out of the elevator into the expansive room,
taking his cues from her. She made a left towards an ice palace
that doubled for a bar and took out some wine glasses. You know,
like the ones modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breasts.
‘Champagne?’ she said without shame.
Every instinct counselled ‘No!’. With a capital N. But the rest of
him pleaded ‘Yes.’ And don’t forget to say please. Harry settled
on a compromise: not yet, baby. ‘Another celebration?’ He spat
out the words in a way that she would not. He enjoyed playing
opposites. It fixed him in moral space, made him, him.
‘No. I just happen to like it.’ She wasn’t begging. ‘You can’t
blame the world on the grapes, Harry.’
Fair enough. He opened the bottle. The label was French. Maybe
the booze was too. He didn’t much care either way.
‘OK, what’s all this about?’ he asked.
She slipped him one of those easy smiles she had perfected to a
work of art and took another drink.
‘You’re good, Harry. Very good. I only wish..’
‘What?’ He called her bid. This was beginning to sound too good
to be true. There had to be a catch.
‘What she means, Harry-’
And this was it.
‘-is that life has a habit of complicating relationships.’
Harry swung round to take him head on. Something the intruder
was holding stopped him in his tracks. It wasn’t big, but it didn’t
have to be. ‘Mortimer. I might have known.’
‘I believe the expression is: stick ‘em up, Harry.’
Harry bounced a glance off each member of the happy duo.

255
‘What’s all this about?’ he sneered.
‘Do as he says, darling. He means business.’ She didn’t seem too
concerned.
Was it the end of a beautiful relationship?
Harry reached for the sky. She reached for his Beretta.
Fortunately, his deodorant was still as fresh as the ocean breeze.
Harry froze. It occurred to him that he had just recited a ...
‘And now, Mr Penfold, please be so kind as to empty your
pockets.’
Harry kept a close eye on Mortimer’s finger as he spoke. It never
left the trigger. This guy plays it safe.
‘Sure.’ He decided to play safe too. Make a little conversation.
Ask a few questions. Maybe he’d learn something. ‘Here,’ said
Harry, throwing him his wallet. ‘If you take my advice, you’ll
invest it. Get yourself a new toy. That one’s a little on the small
side, ain’t it, Champagne?’
Mortimer didn’t share the joke. ‘Very funny, Harry.’ His finger
began to tighten. So did Harry’s guts.
‘Sorry. Just seeking a second opinion. I was under the impression
that it was still a free world.’
‘Where is it, Harry?’
‘Third planet out from the sun. You can’t miss it.’
‘Don’t play dumb, Harry. I haven’t much time. And you have
less.’
Maybe he’s bluffing. ‘Spare me the hourglass stuff, Mortimer. It
went out with melodrama.’
Mortimer’s thumb cocked the hammer of his gun.
Harry changed tactics. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’d like to help you,
Mortimer, I really would. But you’ll have to give me a little more

256
to go on than that.’
‘We had a deal, Harry. Remember? As far as I’m concerned, the
deal’s still on.’
Harry didn’t deny it but held out for more.
Mortimer continued. ‘I want that chip,’ he said. ‘We both know
you’ve got it, so let’s stop playing games, before things get out of
hand.’
‘Chips, is it? Now we’re getting somewhere. What sort of chips?
Crispy chips? Fish ‘n chips?’
‘Fish ‘n chips. Very amusing, agent Penfold.’
Champagne smiled. It was good to see someone putting Mortimer
in his place.
‘Well, she seems to think so,’ said Harry.
Mortimer glanced at Champagne. ‘Stop it!’
Harry grinned. ‘The voice of command.’ Not smart, but he
couldn’t help himself. The old white knight syndrome. On the
other hand, you shouldn’t let blokes like Mortimer get away with
too much. It goes to their head.
‘I said stop it.’
Champagne knew where to draw the line. ‘Sorry, darling. He kills
me.’ She poured herself another drink and kept the laughter inside.
Just.
‘I’m a little thirsty myself,’ said Harry.
Mortimer relaxed his aim. ‘All right, Harry. Let’s be civilised,
shall we?’ He changed moods by adjusting his bow tie and tried
on a smile for size. It didn’t fit. He went back to the scowl
everyone knew so well. ‘Give him what he needs.’
If only she would. Harry put down his arms again. ‘That’s better. I
was beginning to feel like Michelangelo,’ he said.

257
‘Sit down, my friend,’ said Mortimer.
You could see he meant it too. In a pig’s eye. ‘Thanks.’
‘OK Harry, we both know you’ve got the, ah, fish ‘n chips, as you
so quaintly put it. Or at least that you had them last. I’m sure that
someone as resourceful as you would have put them somewhere
safe. You want to re-negotiate. I can understand that. It shows
ambition. I like that in an agent, Harry. You’re not stupid. Now,
let’s talk turkey, shall we?’
He was beginning to sound like a menu. Harry was glad of the
drink. ‘Thanks, Champagne.’
‘Don’t mention it, darling.’ Every word was a fantasy, every move
was a sin.
‘I’m sure,’ interrupted Mortimer, ‘we can settle on, how shall I put
it, an appropriate reward for their return?’
‘Return?’ Somehow Mortimer didn’t strike Harry as the rightful
owner. Assuming there was one. Does anyone have a right to
nerve gas? Okay, take it easy. Let’s hear what the man’s got to
say. ‘Return to whom?’ asked Harry, hanging in.
Mortimer swallowed. ‘Very well, I’ll be frank.’
More bullshit.
‘Let’s just say that my client has an interest in this field.’
Harry understood. It was like saying that the mafia has an interest
in politics. It’s not quite the same as a right, is it? ‘In the restaurant
trade, is he?’
‘My client is a government, Harry.’
‘Meaning, someone else’s?’
Mortimer didn’t reply.
‘OK, the obvious question?’
‘I am not at liberty to say, Harry.’
258
‘I never met a real traitor before.’
‘Don’t be so parochial, Harry. You sound like Jet Jackson.
F.I.S.H.E. is too big for one country. The First Intelligent
Stochastic-Heuristic Environment is the property of the world. It’s
a question of international balance, Harry. Everyone must share it.
You could see philanthropist written all over his face. In dollar
signs. But at least he wasn’t boring. ‘You think it’s that big, eh?’
‘Big? Harry, try to understand the implications of this project.
This chip contains more than the artificial brain of a fish, it
provides the clue to the eventual accurate modelling of all
intelligent animal behaviour. Read that as human behaviour,
Harry. Think what that could do for security and defence. A
perfect laboratory model of human behaviour. We’re talking
psychological warfare, interrogation techniques, economic
warfare, political warfare. The potential is frightening. My client
wants a little insurance. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?’
ROM chips. So that was it. Harry was glad he’d ditched the
capsule. He still didn’t know who the good guys were but he
reckoned he knew some of the bad ones alright. Still, it sounded
like a load of cod’s ...
‘Haven’t you overlooked something, Mortimer?’
Mortimer’s eyes flashed insecurity. With a big I. ‘What?’
‘A little matter of free will, mate. You know, that trifling
characteristic that separates humanity from the rest of the animal
kingdom.’
Mortimer relaxed. ‘Free will? You surprise me, Harry. No one
believes in that sort of thing any more. An obsolete concept. Will,
yes. That can be programmed. But free will? Just superstition,
Harry. An unnecessary assumption that science can do without.’
Harry had a feeling that Mortimer specialised in doing without
unnecessary assumptions. He wondered if he was going to be next.
But what could he do? As long as Mortimer was throwing them,
Harry had to keep hitting ‘em back. ‘Aren’t we getting off the

259
track?’ he said.
His protagonist seemed to like that one. Back to business. Harry
guessed that Mortimer found it reassuring to think that Harry
thought like him. The way everyone uses themselves as a model
for every one else. Trouble is, thought Harry, Mortimer was such a
bastard.
‘I’m prepared to offer you three hundred thousand.’
Harry did some fancy sums with debits and credits and came up
luxury apartment on the Gold Coast. A guy’s entitled to dream
isn’t he? ‘Three hundred grand, eh?’
‘In cash, gold or securities.’
Anyway it comes, that’s big bickies. ‘Well, I’d have to think about
that. You see, I’m thinking of retiring and this is kind of a last
show for me.’
‘Four hundred, Harry. And I’ll throw in your life.’
‘Make it five, my life’s my own.’
Harry could see that he liked that one, too. Mortimer was grinning
ear to ear. ‘Very well, half a million. Just because I like you.’
Harry’s skin began to crawl. Being the object of a spider’s
affection wasn’t exactly a warm experience. ‘Cash on delivery.’
That should slow things down.
‘When?’
‘As soon as you can get it together.’
Mortimer gave a tight lipped nod. ‘Tomorrow. 10 a.m.’
Not as slow as Harry would have liked. ‘OK. I’ll ring with details
on the where. Just a precaution, you understand.’
‘You’re not planning any more funny business, are you, Harry?
Too much ambition can be a flaw in a man. A fatal flaw.’
Harry guessed it was Mortimer’s way of shaking on it. He held out
260
his hand to Champagne. She knew what he wanted.
Mortimer gave her the nod.
‘Give it back to him. Just to show how much I trust you, Harry.’
Harry felt guilty then. Real guilty. In a pig’s eye.

261
Fish Fourteen: The Problem with Harry

Mortimer routinely dropped some typing fodder onto his


secretary’s desk. He liked to get out of his office, now and then.
‘No rush on this one, Doris,’ he said, as she straightened the
papers and slid a clip into place.
Pausing at the corner of her desk like a dog at the end of its leash,
Mortimer put his hands on his hips, filled his lungs with air and
lazily scanned the room for some diversion. In one of those small
coincidences which suggest but do not establish inevitability,
Wilkins made the mistake of popping out of the corridor into
view. Mortimer caught him in the tractor beam of his gaze. ‘Any
news from Penfold?’ he enquired, cocking his eyebrows for effect.
‘Hilary,’ smiled Wilkins, as if he had not previously noticed him.
‘As a matter of fact, yes, there is something,’ he said, intimating
by vagueness that more could be said in private surrounds.
‘Oh?’ replied Mortimer moving into his office with Wilkins close
in tow.
‘Um, not sure how to put this, Hilary,’ he began, plotting his
course, ‘but I had a rather extraordinary conversation with Penfold
earlier on.’
‘Oh yes?’ said Mortimer with interest, but turning round to take in
the view.
‘In fact, quite extraordinary,’ continued Wilkins, speaking to
Mortimer’s back.
Mortimer decided to resume his seat, and waved Wilkins into his.
‘Go on.’
‘Well,’ said Wilkins, adjusting his glasses and wrinkling his nose
like a worried rabbit, ‘he didn’t seem to be quite himself.’

262
Mortimer winced inside. He disliked the unusual. It troubled him,
like the future and for the same reason. Prediction is difficult when
radical variables are involved. ‘In what way, Ted?’ Let’s examine
this calmly, in the cool light of reason.
Wilkins related the evidence. ‘Well,’ he hesitated imperceptibly at
repeating that word, uncomfortably conscious of his tendency to
resort to it under pressure, ‘for example, when I asked him
whether he had anything interesting for us yet, he just mumbled
something incomprehensible about… about fish and chips.’
‘Fish and chips? Are you sure?’
‘Quite. That’s what he said.’
‘Being evasive, do you think?’
‘Perhaps. I thought it might have meant something to you? Some
code, perhaps?’
What do you take me for?
Sorry. ‘Threw me completely.’
Mortimer shook his head. He did not trouble himself to fathom the
ravings of a middle aged junior executive. People like Penfold
lack something. Wendies, he called them. Apt to wander off the
track without notice. Could end up anywhere. Instead of taking
life in hand, setting and achieving goals the way he had, they
randomly wend their way as though tomorrow didn’t matter. Out
of control. Makes them unreliable. Still, it had been worth a try.
Nothing for it now but to push on without him. Maybe left to
himself he’ll come good. ‘I’m meeting Ms Luxemburg after
lunch,’ he said. ‘I think it would be a good idea if you came along
too, Ted.’
Oh oh. Wilkins didn’t like the sound of it. Why did he have to get
involved? Negotiating with unions wasn’t part of his brief.
Nothing good could come of it. ‘Of course,’ he acquiesced.
‘Two o’clock,’ said Mortimer. ‘My conference room.’
‘Two o’clock it is...’ Bugger. ‘And Penfold?’ he added.
263
‘Too late to be much good now,’ replied Mortimer. ‘Frankly, I
thought he’d got the message, but you can never really tell with
his sort. No demonstrated commitment. That’s the problem. Too -
slippery.’
‘Cut our losses?’
Mortimer was silent. Don’t bother me with details.
Wilkins made a mental note. ‘How were you thinking of
approaching this afternoon?’
‘Softly.’
Wilkins nodded. ‘Do we have a position?’
‘That rather depends on Rosa,’ replied Mortimer, circumspectly.
‘Match her opening bid, as it were?’
‘Match her opening mood.’
Red for red, blue for blue. ‘Yes, but will we be meeting her half
way?’
Mortimer waved an invisible handkerchief. ‘Any settlement will
need to go beyond the formal issues involved.’
Wilkins indulged Mortimer’s ego. ‘Beyond?’
‘Clearly the scope to accommodate any pecuniary concession is
limited in the current environment. The Minister would crucify us.
In these times, above all else, we must be… responsible. Rosa
knows that.’
‘Yes.’ I’m listening.
‘Negotiation,’ expounded Mortimer, glad of the opportunity, ‘is a
game played by people for undisclosed ends. The art is to discover
a mutually acceptable proposal for all parties involved.’
‘And specifically, for the negotiators?’
‘Specifically,’ replied Mortimer, ‘for Rosa, and for us... We’ll
264
have to give Rosa something she wants that doesn’t involve
money. Something she wants for herself.’
‘Some sort of bribe, you mean?’
‘Hardly. You don’t offer zealots gifts. Bribery offends their
sensibilities. And threatens their reputation.’
‘Then what?’
‘Oh, I imagine Rosa will tell us that herself, when the time comes.
After all, this dispute is the child of her own making. A timely
accident. She wants something all right.’
And, pondered Wilkins, in return?

The Doctor leaned backwards in his chair, twisting the lid on his
pen in as thoughtful a pose as he could muster. ‘So, you think your
husband has a bit of a problem, Mrs Penfold?’
Milly nodded, nervously.
He smiled. Poor bugger. Probably can’t get it up any more. Not
surprising. Although, with a little effort.
‘He’s not an alcoholic,’ she corrected, nursing Sarah on her lap, ‘if
that’s what you’re thinking. At least, I don’t think so. It’s
something else.’
‘Something else?’ What have we got here, eh?
‘His work...’ she said in a tremulous voice.
Working late, is he? ‘Sounds like he needs a good rest,
Mrs Penfold.’
‘If only he would. He’s on strike.’
‘I see,’ Pinko bastard, eh?
‘You’d think that would make things easier, to rest, I mean, but
265
it’s just the opposite. I’m afraid that something...’
Is that the time? ‘You think Harry is heading for a breakdown of
some sort. Is that it, Mrs Penfold?’
Milly fought to control the tears which welled within her. ‘He
needs help, Doctor.’
No hysterics, please. ‘Look, why don’t you ask him to make an
appointment?’ And stop messing me about, eh? What a day, three
colds, two malingerers, one mumps, a boil and now this.
‘He doesn’t believe in doctors.’
‘I see.’ That’s convenient. No obvious bruises on the child. ‘Well,
that does make things difficult, doesn’t it? We can’t do anything
without his cooperation. Can we now? I assume he’s not a danger
to anyone or himself?’
‘No. It’s not like that...’
‘Well then, Mrs Penfold, all I can suggest is that you try to get him
to see reason, and in the meantime give him as much support as
possible.’
‘But--’
‘Maybe things will just work themselves out. If they don’t, we can
always act on his behalf.’
‘You mean?’
‘I can arrange things if it comes to that.’ Reassuring smile. If
necessary. ‘But I’m sure it wont.’ He scrawled something on a pad
and handed it to her without further thought.
‘What’s this?’
‘A prescription.’
‘What for?’
‘Just a little sedative.’

266
‘He wont take it.’
‘It’s not for him, Mrs Penfold.’
‘What?’
‘It will help you rest.’
Milly stared into the eyes of her caring health professional. ‘You
think I’m the one who’s mad, don’t you?’
‘Not at all.’ Penny dropped has it? ‘But things must be very
stressful for you at the moment, mustn’t they? Take it. Please. It
will help you cope...’

‘It’s agreed, then?’ said Mortimer, looking round the table.


‘Subject to the approval of my members,’ qualified Rosa.
‘But you don’t anticipate any problems?’ queried Wilkins.
Rosa packed up her papers. ‘There’s bound to be some resistance.’
‘Resistance?’ he questioned.
‘Well, you’re not exactly going out of your way to help the
victims involved, are you?’
‘Come now, Rosa,’ said Mortimer, ‘aren’t you exaggerating things
just a little.’
‘Yes,’ added Wilkins, ‘it’s not as though they will have any
difficulty finding a job with their skills?’
‘It’ll take some selling. You haven’t made things very easy for me,
have you? Don’t forget that not everyone involved has tertiary
quals. They won’t find it easy outside. I can’t guarantee that it’s
all over yet.’
Wilkins was unconvinced. ‘But you will be explaining to the
others the benefits at stake? This agreement is, after all, ground
267
breaking,’ he observed pointedly.
‘I wouldn’t say that.’
‘But Rosa, it’s an industrial relations precedent. It’ll lead to the
first accord on technological change gain sharing in this industry’s
history. You’ll be famous.’
‘It won’t exactly do your reputations any harm either, will it?
Consultative management, isn’t that the new corporate style?’
Mortimer would have preferred to have left some things unsaid.
‘Are you saying you can’t deliver?’ he asked, changing the topic.
‘All I’m saying,’ said Rosa, ‘is that it would go down a lot easier
with the members as a whole if a bit more could have been done
for the ones who’ll be sacked. Not everyone will praise the union
for this result.’
‘You know our position on that, Rosa. Our hands are tied. But I
see your problem, of course. Maybe there’s another way round it.’
Rosa was listening.
‘Suppose--’
‘Yes?’
‘Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it wasn’t your fault.’
‘How do you mean?’ watch your step, Rosa, a spider is on the
move.
‘Well, for example, the union could hardly be blamed for the
outcome if it somehow got out that one of your own members had
undermined your efforts. Could it?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Spit it out, mate.
‘If someone had betrayed your position?’
This bloke’s unreal. ‘Who, for example?’
‘Oh, say, one of the very people you were fighting to help.’
268
‘Someone closely involved in the campaign?’ Rosa understood.
Perfectly.

269
Fish Fifteen: Don’t Ask

One of the principal duties of the picket Captain, as it transpired,


was to fill in those troublesome gaps between promise and action
that inevitably arise in a roster of volunteers. Consequently, what
for most participants was a modest inconvenience amounting to an
hour or two per week, was a sisyphean labour for Harry.
Nor was the weather up to scratch. A cold autumn wind shivered
down the sunless street, whistling through the scaffold edifice,
stirring litter and grit in its wake. Not that Harry really cared. As a
matter of fact, he didn’t even notice. It was as though somebody
outside had turned down the colour on both Harry and the world,
so that this was the way Harry thought things were. Bleak on
bleak. He felt like the down and out subject of a black and white
photo, a grey figure sitting face in hands in an equally grey city
streetscape. Monochrome.
And, as Harry ran his fingers through his unkempt hair, something
nagged at him like a half remembered song haunting the lonely
alleys of his mind: a question; a doubt. It was something to do
with that day, the missing day, the double day. But no matter how
hard he tried he just couldn’t quite get at it. It was as though his
past was a perspective painting and he could not see beyond the
vanishing point, beyond the point of divergence. Something had
happened suddenly, it seemed. And inexplicably. The way the
history of the universe is inexplicable at the instant of creation.
Afterwards, things can be explained. Science can take over. But at
the first instant something weird and infinitely enormous happens.
On a lesser scale, the history of his own life had also changed
suddenly and inexplicably. Suddenly there must have emerged a
second Harry Penfold. One was at the office and one was at the
beach. He could see no other explanation. And one of them, he
thought, reflecting on his own position, must have done something
bad. Had it, he wondered, sold it’s soul? No. It must have been
worth more than this. Maybe it had almost done. Maybe he had to
pay for that; serve a little time in limbo. Well, he thought as he
270
looked about him, that fits, anyway. Nothing for it but to cop it
sweet.
A constable kept him company in a custodian sort of way. ‘How’s
the cricket going?’ he asked his purgatorial guardian, now
reconciled to his fate.
The constable unhitched a walkie-talkie from his belt and
mumbled something inaudible into its microphone. A brief reply
crackled back.
‘Don’t ask.’
Harry sank deeper into his scarf. This would be a long day. He
was just beginning to wonder if anyone else would show when a
voice intruded from behind.
‘Hello,’ it said, flatly, as though stating a fact.
Harry turned around. ‘Hello,’ he greeted in return. What have we
got here, then?
‘You on too?’ said the young barefooted stranger with long black
hair as he halted a few paces from where Harry sat.
Companionship. ‘You could say that... Harry,’ he offered his hand.
‘James,’ replied the stranger, accepting it limply.
Harry unfolded a chair for his ally, as a host might oblige a guest,
then ticked off his colleague’s name in a grubby folder that he
nursed precariously upon his lap. Normally, Harry detested
administration but, in the eventlessness that spanned a dreary
picket day, he clung to trivial duty with a devotion bordering upon
ritual obsession. And now for a little conversation.
‘You a student then, James?’
James adjusted his glasses, self consciously. ‘I was,’ he replied. ‘Is
it obvious?’
‘Is what obvious?’

271
‘That I was a student.’
‘No, no,’ lied Harry. ‘Just a lucky guess...’
James gave an ‘I see’ nod.
Harry continued. ‘Decided to give it away for a while, have you?’
‘Yes.’
‘Fair enough... Any particular reason?’
‘No point in continuing really, is there?’
‘Don’t you want a good job? A little money?’
‘You sound like my father.’
Harry smiled. ‘Is it obvious?’ he said.
James disregarded the remark. ‘Why does everyone go on about
jobs as though employment was some kind of Holy Grail? I mean
it’s not as if there’s any point to it, is there?’
It sounded like one of those straight forward or rhetorical
questions with an obvious answer, like: ‘Nice beach, pity about
the outfall, eh?’ but actually wasn’t when you looked at it. It
seemed to Harry that the real intention of the question was to
prompt surprise rather than agreement. In the interests of
progressing conversation, Harry decided to play along. ‘What do
you mean?’ he asked, scratching his head and playing dumb.
‘Well,’ explained James, at the ready, ‘we’re all going to die
anyway, aren’t we?’
Now there’s a cheery thought, regretted Harry. ‘You mean one by
one or all at once?’
‘It’s no joke.’
Who said it was? Harry looked at the badge on James’s ragged
jumper. Funny thing to see these days. ‘You still think they’ll drop
it then?’

272
‘Not it, Harry,’ James corrected. ‘Them. Lots of them.’
Harry was sceptical. ‘I thought they were cutting back?’
‘Yes,’ admitted James. ‘They are, in some places. But there are
still tens of thousands of nuclear warheads about, even excluding
the tactical ones.’
‘I see.’
‘Do you, Harry? I wish you did. I mean, why are people so
complacent about it? Just because one superpower has folded
doesn’t mean the world is suddenly safe, does it? Just the opposite.
Things are so unstable now, politically. There’s less control. And
with every passing minute more and more little countries are
stockpiling in secret.’
Harry picked up a stick and began to scrawl invisible numbers on
the pavement between his feet. ‘Ten thousand, eh?’
‘More. Of course, not all of them would get through though.’
Harry looked up in surprise. ‘You’re an optimist, then?’
‘Only a few thousand or so.’
Harry crossed out the last digit and looked at it, curiously. ‘What
about us?’ he said, to keep things rolling along.
James shifted up a gear. ‘According to estimates made by the
Royal Swedish Academy, we could get as many as thirty three
megatons, overall.’
‘Out of what?’
‘Out of a total world strike of, say, ten thousand.’
Harry calculated the implied fraction. ‘That’s a relief.’
James frowned. ‘One megaton would be sufficient to completely
vaporise each capital city, so there should be more than enough for
every major town in the country.’
Harry was appalled. ‘What, even Wagga?’
273
‘Especially Wagga.’
Shit.
‘But that’s not to say that everyone would die in the blast.’
Harry nodded. That’s good. ‘There’s some hope for us then?’
James shook his head. ‘Not really. Probably about half the
population would die outright and another quarter or so would be
mortally wounded by blast and burns.’
‘Leaving twenty five percent?’
‘Most of whom would get radiation sickness to some degree.’
‘Great.’
‘Later, of course, the sublethal effects of ionising radiation would
lower the resistance of any survivors to infection and disease.’
‘Right.’ Okay. I get the picture.
‘Cholera, dysentery. After all, its not as if there would be any
sanitation any more.’
‘I see.’ Stop already.
‘And, naturally, the temperature would fall significantly.’
‘Naturally,’ agreed Harry, searching for a way to change the topic.
‘So you’d probably die of hunger. No sun, no food. Simple as that
really.’
‘Right.’ No escape.
‘I wouldn’t worry, though, Harry. You’ll probably go within the
first few seconds of conflict.’
‘That’s comforting. I was beginning to think I’d survive.’
‘It’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it.’
‘No...’ Harry sighed and put down the stick.
274
‘But to be realistic,’ said James, looking up. ‘I don’t really think
that the world will actually end in a nuclear holocaust.’
Harry smiled to see a break in the clouds. ‘You don’t eh?’
‘No. The way I see things, it’s more a case of gradual poison.’
Terrific.
‘Of course nuclear fall-out and waste contamination will play a
part. They already have. But the biggest threats are greenhouse
emissions, ozone depletion, acid rain. That kind of thing.’
‘You usually on today then, James?’
‘Usually,’ he nodded, removing his glasses and polishing them on
his jumper. ‘Last week there was another person here as well. Is
she coming today?’
‘And you discussed all this with her too?’
‘Yes.’
‘I doubt it,’ said Harry.
‘That’s a pity, I was just beginning to get through to her,’ he said,
putting his glasses back on. ‘We were discussing the effects of a
thermal vortex.’
‘Thermal vortex, eh?’
‘You’ve heard about them?’
‘No. But--’
‘A thermal vortex,’ began James, ‘is a sort of giant fireball caused
by the effects of radiation from the bomb. The fire becomes so
intense that it sucks in everything for a radius of several
kilometres... People.... Dogs.... Cats...’
‘Fish?’ He anticipated the answer with unashamed relish.
‘Certainly, fish too.’

275
‘Well at least some good would come of it.’
‘What?’
‘Nothing.’ Harry reached for the thermos by his chair. ‘Coffee?’
he asked.
James nodded in the direction of some disposable white cups lying
next to an opened cardboard milk carton, a lidless tin containing
some sugar, and a handful of grey plastic spoons spilling from a
torn packet onto the pavement. He retrieved two cups for Harry to
fill.
‘Milk?’ asked Harry.
James declined and Harry poured the brew. Upon receiving his
portion, Harry wrapped his cold hands around the cup, sucking up
its heat through his fingers. Making the most of it. As time went
on, Harry decided to take another gamble on conversation.
‘So you’re a fatalist then, James?’ he asked.
James looked up from his cup. ‘I prefer to say determinist?’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘Not much. It’s just that fatalism has acquired something of a bad
name. But if you want to know whether I think that everything that
happens is inevitable, the answer is yes. Don’t you?’
‘No. I don’t think so. Not really.’
‘That’s interesting.’
Harry took offence. Interesting is polite talk for crap. He rose to
the threat. ‘Look, if you believe you’re a determinist, what’s the
point of protesting about all this doomsday stuff. It’s going to
happen anyway, right?’
‘But I’m not a 100 percent sure it will happen. And the
consequences are so appalling that if there’s even a slight chance
of preventing it, then you should try.’
‘Chance? Aren’t you being a little contradictory there? How
276
can there be chance if everything is determined?’
‘You’re right. There’s no such thing. It’s only a convenient word
that describes our inability to predict things.’
‘But you believe that people can change things?’
‘Of course.’
‘Then how can you say you’re a determinist?’
Harry smiled in triumph. If only Plato was here.
James scratched his chin. ‘I don’t see anything wrong with that.’
‘Then you’re only fooling yourself.’
‘Perhaps. But I don’t think so,’ said James. ‘Look. See those
spoons down there? Watch.’ He reached down and put them back
into the packet.
‘Very impressive,’ said Harry, implying otherwise.
James was unperturbed. ‘You see, I just changed things, didn’t I?
The spoons were out and now they’re in. However, the fact that I
put those spoons back in the packet was inevitable given what I
am and the circumstances at the time. Part of those circumstances
was your question. And of course, your question was inevitable
too. So, you see, people can change things even though everything
is inevitable. That’s part of the inevitability of it all.’
Harry sipped his coffee. ‘But I could just as easily argue that I
asked that question of my own free will. And that you of your own
free will decided to put them back.’
‘Well then, do it,’ said James.
‘Do what?’
‘Argue it.’
‘I just did.’
‘No you didn’t, you only asserted it. You just conjured up
277
something mythical, quite unnecessarily for the purpose of
explaining things, and called it free will. But where does it come
from? What evidence do you have for it? How does it decide in
isolation of our material self?’
‘It doesn’t look like anything. It’s a concept,’ replied Harry,
‘arising from the properties of the soul, or mind, or something like
that. I know it’s there because I have it. Otherwise I wouldn’t do
things. It’s axiomatic.’
James looked at him squarely. ‘Do animals have it?’
‘Maybe.’
‘What, even single cell life forms crawling about in the primeval
slime?’
‘How do I know?’
‘Well,’ continued James, stoically, ‘since they act they must,
because according to you, you can’t act without it.’
‘Maybe they just respond. I don’t know. Maybe you need a mind
first.’
‘I see. Do cockroaches have a mind?’
‘What?’
‘Well, they have a brain. Two actually.’
Harry shrugged. He looked at James. The young man appeared
keen, like a hungry snake. He regretted his gamble.
‘You know, what the trouble is with people like you Harry?’
Harry stared as James’s jaws began to slowly dislocate.
‘When you don’t know enough to predict something you call it
free will. That’s why you think you have it; you just don’t know
yourself. And then you hang things on it. Like guilt and blame.
She stole that bread of her own free will, hang her by the neck
until dead. He--’

278
‘Bullshit.’
‘And if you decide to forgive them for it you get a few brownie
points to buy a ticket for heaven’s gate. Everyone gets what they
deserve. It’s so neat isn’t it? Like double entry book keeping. Free
enterprise morality.’
‘Well, what’s the alternative. No one is accountable. You’ve
factored out the individual. It’s the individual who has to decide
whether or not to do the right thing.’
‘Of course. But the outcome of those decisions is inevitable given
what they are. Everyone has to act, Harry. But no one can really
help what they do.’
Harry didn’t like it. He felt trapped again. ‘What if everything is
just in a state of chaos and can’t be predicted?’
‘They say that even chaos has a pattern, Harry. Because there’s no
such thing. It’s only apparent randomness, like the weather. Hard
to predict but not random. And apparent randomness can’t make
you free.’
Harry began to feel uneasy. He knew what he was and what was
right and wrong. People have to choose between good and evil.
That’s the way it is. You can’t get out of it by saying it was all
inevitable. What would the world come to if people couldn’t be
brought to account? Even Hitler would look clean. People can do
things. ‘You’re wrong,’ he said. ‘Dead wrong.’
James sensed victory. ‘Supposing, for example, I had a machine
that could copy you, blood, hormones and bones, molecule for
molecule, atom for atom?’
‘Go on.’
‘Well, don’t you think it would act exactly like you?’
Harry looked away, mulling the question over. A few blocks in the
distance a huge crane was in the process of demolishing an old
building. He watched as the giant metal sphere swung against one
of its walls, sending tons of bricks and debris tumbling to the

279
ground. ‘I don’t think so,’ he replied at last.
The young man was amazed. ‘Why not?’
Harry pointed to the crane. ‘See that,’ he said. ‘See that ball
swinging through the air.’
‘Yes’
‘If you used that machine of yours to copy it while it was moving,
say when it was at the bottom of the swing, do you think the
duplicate would be moving or stationary when it came into
being?’
James pondered the question, watching the pendulum of the ball
and chain. ‘It suppose it would be stationary,’ he replied.
‘That’s right. It would have no momentum. But the other one, the
original, would keep on swinging, wouldn’t it. It would go on its
way, on an upward arc, from the past into the future. And I think
that the copy you made of me would be just as different. It would
lack something.’
‘OK,’ conceded James. ‘So that copy was faulty. It copied things
statically; it left out some information about momentum. So let’s
improve things. Let’s have a new machine that measures the
dynamic aspects of a subject as well and transfers them into the
copy. So when we copy the ball it moves just like the original.
Likewise with people.’
‘Things are getting a bit far fetched aren’t they?’
‘It’s a thought experiment, Harry. We can do what we like. Now
suppose that we copied you the same way. Do you think the
original and the copy would act any differently now?’
‘What about my soul? You can’t copy that.’
‘You’d have the same minds. Forget the souls, they’re your idea. I
just want you to tell me whether you think, based on your
experience, your common sense, whether these two identical
beings, with the same minds, the same logic circuits, and the same
emotions, would behave in the same way.’
280
‘Maybe.’
‘For all intents and purposes, close enough to be
indistinguishable?’
‘Perhaps.’
‘Then there’s not much of a part left for free will, is there?’ James
smiled.
‘But there aren’t any such perfect twins in the world. There’s just
one you, and one me...’
‘You know, Harry,’
‘What?’ You know, Harry? You know, Harry? This guy was
beginning to sound like a broken record. Don’t they teach kids
manners any more?
‘I just hope you never mess things up. Because if you do, you’ll
have no one to blame but yourself.’
‘Thanks.’
Resolving against any further gambles, Harry leaned forwards in
his chair, the better to see the constable. ‘How’s the cricket
going?’ he enquired.
The constable looked at Harry with a stone cold face. ‘Don’t ask,’
he cautioned again.
James finished his shift before lunch and Harry was once more
alone. Alone to think. Alone to worry. No one showed in the
afternoon either. No one who stayed, that is. Someone did drop by
though, someone with not much to say; not to him.
‘You better read this, Comrade,’ she sneered, handing him a
leaflet printed in red.
‘It’s over?’ smiled Harry, looking up.
‘Not that bit,’ she said grimly. ‘It’s somewhere towards the end...’
Harry scanned the leaflet till he found the reference then looked up
281
again, bemused.
She stared at him in contempt. ‘Who do you suppose he is, mate?’

282
Fish Sixteen: The End of the Line

A clammy fog enveloped the evening air. No home hearth for


Harry tonight; no warm familiar bed; no favourite downy pillow
or tender loving touch. Home would be too dangerous.
Not that Harry feared for himself. But he couldn’t run the risk of
involving them. They were innocents. Whereas he... well, put it
this way, he didn’t feel all that clean any more. You can’t mix it
with that crowd and expect to come out squeaky, can you? And all
he could do for the time being was lay low somewhere and think
things out.
He pulled his coat collar up around his ears and walked the
gauntlet of mercury eyed Cyclops’ flanking the boulevard. A
police car glided suspiciously by. If only they knew. Maybe they
did. Everyone seemed to know, everyone but him.
A winking advertisement caught his eye:
R
O
O
M
S

-VACANCY-
Its anonymity appealed to him.
He poised momentarily on the threshold steps and looked for
predators behind. Nothing, as far as he could see. Entering
cautiously, he scanned the foyer. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
A worn red carpet wore more rouge than modesty and the dank
space was dimly lit by a chandelier that seemed content to let the
dust hide her charms. Plaster flaked from the ceiling like skin from
a dead lover’s face and a threadbare chaise longue was over
encumbered with lace.
283
The inhabitants were no better. A once young woman escorted a
client up stairs that took no notice any more and the desk attendant
was about as sleazy as you’d expect in a joint where maintenance
was a luxury they couldn’t afford. He x-rayed Harry with beady
blue eyes parked behind thick glass lenses, looking less like an
administrator than a voyeur.
Truth was not required in the register of guests and Harry followed
suit. A sign on the wall declared the fee which he paid in advance
for the night.
‘Overlooking the street,’ insisted Harry, as the clerk fingered the
grubby notes and turned away just long enough to take a key off
the hook and drop it on the counter.
Harry didn’t bother with thanks and the clerk didn’t bother with
directions. It was a fair deal.
The boards creaked here and there under foot as Harry climbed to
the third floor and followed a rasping cough to room 313. This
was it. The end of the line.
He turned the key and pushed the door open, wide open. It wasn’t
a pretty sight either. So what? He didn’t feel pretty himself. He
walked over to the window and checked out the view of the street
below. Shadow Street. Alias Alley. Returning to shut the door, he
noticed that the latch was broken, forced from the outside in some
incident he preferred not to reconstruct. He made do security wise
by jamming a rickety chair under the door handle at an angle to
the floor. It wouldn’t hold for long but, if he moved quickly, it
wouldn’t have to.
He let the too soft mattress take the weight off his feet for a while.
First things first: check the Beretta. Holding the cold nickel plated
implement in his right hand, he released its magazine into his left,
all present and correct. The magazine slid home again with a
satisfying click and he put one up the spout. You never know
when unwanted visitors might call.
And now, time to take the weight off his mind, time to slip to
sleep, to drift weightless into dream.

284
It was dark, so dark. Like the bowels of being.
‘Hello, Harry.’
Harry’s eyes blinked wide and blinked again. ‘Who is it?’
The laughter was slow and mocking. ‘It’s me, Harry. Did I…
frighten you?’
Harry was silent.
‘That’s good, Harry, you should be frightened.’
Harry sat bolt upright, ready to fight. ‘What do you want?’
A face struck suddenly forward. Harry recoiled in fright. ‘What do
you think I want?’ it asked, falling back into the night.
Harry knew what it wanted alright. ‘I haven’t got them.’
‘I know that, Harry.’
‘They’re in the Cadillac.’ He reached for the Beretta.
‘I know that too, Harry. In fact, I know everything you know
already. I’m not concerned with that.’
Harry was confused. This wasn’t the guest he had expected. ‘Who
are you?’
‘You know who I am, Harry. Shall I show myself, again?’
‘Keep back!’
The face struck forth a second time, and just as suddenly Harry
shrank from it, hid from it, ran from it.
‘Now, now, don’t be like that, Harry,’ a peal of laughter echoed
about the indefinite limits of the room.
‘Why are you here? Damn you!’
Harry’s soul cursed it bitterly, as though that would make it go.
‘Don’t feign innocence with me, Harry. I’ve come to collect. You
285
reneged on the arrangement. You crossed your partner. No one
gets away with that. Every deal like ours has a penalty clause at
the end.’
‘What deal?’
‘Our deal, Harry. You know, our little understanding.’
‘You’re mad.’
‘Yes. They might say that. When they find it.’
‘Find what?’
‘Your corpse, Harry.’
Harry levelled the pistol at the intruding face. ‘Get out! Get out or
so help me!’
‘They’ll say it’s suicide. And who’s to say they’re wrong? Go
ahead, Harry. Shoot. But before you do, take a good look. I want
you to see who your enemy is. Look.’
Harry froze. The intruder’s words pierced Harry like fangs,
paralysing him with venom. Trapped.
‘It’s time, Harry.’
The spider approached its still alert victim.
‘My hands are upon your neck now. Feel them? Cold and tight.
They’re choking you, Harry! I’d pull that trigger if I was you. Get
it over with. Quick, Harry, quick! While you still have the
chance.’
The gun fell from Harry’s trembling hands and, as it thudded
safely to the floor, the strength seemed to trickle back into his
limbs. He clawed desperately at his attacker’s hands. ‘No. You’re
not real, damn you! I’m not...!’ Suddenly, he was free, and on his
way.
‘Come back, Harry,’ cried the mocking voice. ‘You know you
can’t escape. Not really. You’re time is up.’

286
‘Like hell it is.’
‘Exactly, Harry. And hell is home, to me.’
Harry kicked free the chair, and yanked open the door.
‘You can’t run away from..’
Harry’s lungs gasped for air as he ran recklessly down the corridor
and burst into the fog of night.
‘Yourself…’

287
Fish Seventeen: Fish Food

Morning. Almost. And, as the ebbing night hid in finger straight


shadows behind the skyline of a silent city, a man coughed amid
the dewy sands of a lonely beach and, shaking in the after shivers
of his dreams, shrank also from the rising face of day.
It was the coldest hour of a cold day. The first chill breeze had
grown into an icy wind, sweeping dirt and wrappers through the
silent streets of town, gusting past the steel shells of cars
abandoned in the back lanes, and shivering the skin of party
people who had stayed, perhaps, too long; not to mention the
tramps. Not to mention Harry. With hands in pockets and bowed
down head, Harry Penfold walked not home.
Not home. But through the central business district unattended yet;
beyond the grubby remnants of the old commercial town where
bloodless ghosts of clerks with quills stared from sandstone
window sills. Down, down, to the docks.
Harry leaned over the low wall that marked the boundary between
firm land and the sea, staring into the green depths. A line of litter
lapped on waves along the harbours edge and petroleum film
danced in rainbow slicks around the legs of rotting pylons exposed
by the receding tide. Maybe he should go with it, thought Harry.
Flotsam. Maybe he already had.
The Docker’s Ruin was an early opener. The first customer of the
day began with a nip of over-proof rum which warmed its way
down the full length of his gullet and felt good. Another, if you
please. Coffee and brandy served for breakfast, which he took in
the corner with the shark. Then, more from force of habit than
good reason, Harry looked at his watch: eight o’clock, more or
less. His watch had never been particularly accurate. But it did
work. All the cogs went round together. So what if it wasn’t
digital? Just how accurate do you need to be in life? A sundial
would do him now. Yes, he was attached to the old watch. Not
because it had been a gift or anything. He remembered buying
288
it as a bachelor. Sure he had owned it a long time but it didn’t
really have sentimental value. That’s not why he liked it. And it
wasn’t linked emotionally to any one else. Perhaps one day it
would. He had had it a long time. Perhaps it would become an
object that others linked to him. Like Sarah. After he had gone. A
family heirloom. A pointer to an empty variable. ‘This belonged to
my Dad, Harry Penfold. He had it a long time.’
Light flooded briefly through a swinging door. The barmaid
smiled a welcome to an old friend.
‘Schooner, Billy?’
‘Ta.’ Propping his elbows on top of the bar, Billy shakily rolled a
fag.
‘Bit slow off the mark today,’ she remarked, placing a glass below
the tap.
Billy rubbed his forehead to clear the fog from his brain. ‘Sorry?’
Placing a beer down in front of him, she nodded in Harry’s
direction. ‘You’ll have to settle for a silver,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ smiled Billy, looking at his watch and coughing into his
hand. He put some coins on the bar.
‘Friend of yours?’ she asked, picking up the money.
‘Something like that,’ he replied, before sinking a third of his glass
on the way to where Harry sat.
‘G’day,’ greeted Billy, wiping the froth from his mouth with the
back of his hand.
A blank expression on Harry’s hoary face served for a cold reply.
‘Harry, isn’t it?’
‘You’re wasting your time,’ muttered Harry, ‘I haven’t got them.’
Billy paused to think it over. Probably something to do with Rosa.
She was into all kind’s of weirdness. ‘You’ve got me wrong,

289
mate.’
‘Billy, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah. But if it’s about Rosa or something, it’s got nothing to do
with me.’
Harry looked upon Billy with suspicion. He seemed to be telling
the truth. But you never could tell. Not in this game. ‘You don’t
know what’s happening?’
‘And I don’t want to. Fancy a beer?’
Harry began to feel more relaxed. ‘How do I look?’ he asked.
‘Like you’ve been swallowed by a whale,’ replied Billy.
‘Yeah.’ A whale. That’s a laugh, Harry chuckled quietly to
himself. Then it occurred to him that something else might have
been intended. ‘You sure you don’t mean a large fish, Billy?’
Now Billy was beginning to feel uncomfortable. ‘Large fish,
whale, whatever you like, mate. What’s the diff?’
‘What’s the diff? A bloody lot, mate. A whale’s a mammal, and a
fish is a fish. As in fish and chips. That’s the diff.’
‘Okay, okay. No need to bite my bloody head off.’
‘Well say what you mean, Billy. And stop stuffing around.’
Billy took a deep breath and tried again. ‘Look, mate, I only meant
that you look like Jonah must have looked, washed up.’ He put his
hand on Harry’s collar. ‘You’ve even got the sand. Shit. Did you
sleep on the beach last night?’
Harry didn’t stray from his course. ‘Only Jonah wasn’t swallowed
by a whale. Was he, Billy? In point of fact, he was swallowed by a
large fish; like the one on your arm, Billy, or whatever your real
name happens to be.’
‘What?’
Harry looked Billy in the eye. ‘OK now, let’s cut the crap and get
290
down to business. No more pretences. If you’ve got a message,
spit it out.’
Shit. This bloke’s a few coin’s short in anyone’s currency.
‘Well, Billy?’
‘There’s no message. My mistake,’ he said, taking refuge in his
beer and avoiding further provocation.
‘Asked you to keep an eye on me, did they?’
Billy hesitated, trying to play it safe.
‘Well didn’t they?’
Billy put his hand up, palm out. ‘Yeah, mate. Sure. That’s it.
Whatever you say.’
‘Yeah,’ Harry nodded. ‘Well, never mind, Billy. I’ll make you a
deal. I won’t tell them you’ve stuffed up if you don’t. After all, it’s
not as if it was your fault, is it? They can’t blame you.’
Billy was quick to agree. ‘No, mate. No. Thanks.’ It seemed like a
good time to go.
Harry ran his fingers through his hair. ‘I have to figure this out,’
he muttered to himself.
Billy went back to the bar. His finger drew an invisible circle next
to his temple as a caution to the barmaid. She understood.
Perfectly.
Harry thought things over. So JONAH’s involved, too. Yeah.
That’s why they were so keen to get it sorted out. But how does an
expert learning system fit into this mess.
JONAH: Job Omnivorous New Analytic Helper; the answer to a
maintenance programmer’s dream. A synthesis of the latest
principles of artificial human intelligence. It thinks like a
programmer: feeding on computer jobs that fail, diagnosing,
correcting; with the ability to learn from experience. Like people.
That’s it. It must be.

291
-One: Jonah was swallowed by a large fish.
-Two: the FISHE chip contains a behavioural model, albeit a
program to predict the behaviour of a fish.
-Three: They don’t want to model fish, they want to model people.
-Four: JONAH replaces people. JONAH learns. In time JONAH
will have a human mind.
-Ergo: they need JONAH like a program needs data. They’re
going to feed JONAH to FISHE. JONAH the program will
become JONAH the data. A human model.
Harry waited until Billy felt the call of nature, and then discretely
left.

292
Fish Eighteen: War-Paint

Fired by a sense of purpose he hadn’t felt in years, Harry spent the


day meticulously preparing for his mission. He knew what to do
and his mind readied his body for the task. Attuned himself to
purpose. War ritual.
A public facility provided showers at a modest price and with
simple soap he scrubbed away the sloth of yesterday.
Next, came breakfast. He would not eat again before tomorrow.
He would eat for stamina now but afterwards would subjugate his
appetite to will, steel himself, sharpen the blade to its finest edge
before the fall of night.
He selected one of those simple cafes in the student quarter:
felafel, political posters and coffee. A place where anarchists call
out openly to comrades tables apart, while socialists plot in
whispers somewhere towards the back.
But this was morning. Revolutions are not made in the morning
and Harry had the place to himself. The proprietor gave Harry a
nod that seemed conspiratorial and indicated a table on the left.
Harry was beginning to feel paranoid. What did this guy know?
He put his empty plate aside and reached for the small white cup
of dark bitter coffee, savouring it right down to the muddy grains
at the end. More, proprietor, if you please. And as he drank, he
thought, planned. First he fixed his mind upon JONAH, the object
of his mission. The direct object. He had two options. To smash it,
wiping out every trace that he could find, or to subtly alter various
program lines. Both had their drawbacks. The former would be
difficult. Back up copies existed in an off-site archive out of reach.
On the other hand, alterations might be detected before too much
damage had been done. Which decision branch would he take? A
lot depended on branching. The whole flow of your life could be
irremediably altered by one conditional statement. He knew that
alright. Slowly a plan began to form in the fog of his mind;
293
broadly at first, then came details and corrections as it began to
take on shape.
Having attended to his immediate physical requirements, Harry
turned his attention to the next item on the agenda: camouflage.
Not the green and brown deck out used for combat in the field, but
professional attire for the corridor’s of power. A barber brought
civilisation to his face and hair, and a department store was
pleased to dress him in a working suit. And, yes, they would, of
course, accept that card. He looked like a new man, from
underwear out and socks up. Looked like one of them. He even
felt like one of them. Except for his shoes. He decided to retain his
old pair. You have to look comfortable to be credible, but he
polished them in the park with a convenient sponge-in-can affair
purchased on the way and disposed of it afterwards.
Now he felt good. Fit good. And yet, not quite fighting good.
Something remained to be done? What? He wandered the city
streets like an out of town visitor with plenty of time to spare.
Only Harry wasn’t browsing for souvenirs or curios, he was
looking for something altogether different, something that would
make him whole. Something that would finish the job. Then it
came to him. The problem was, he was too disguised. Too much
like them. He had to differentiate himself from his enemy, from
bastards like Mortimer. What he needed was something that would
be secret from others but known to him. A uniform beneath a
uniform. Dog-tags. A letter to loved ones waiting at home...
Conscious now of the deficiency, he switched his city walkabout
into active mode, searching the shops keenly for the missing
ingredient. Then, suddenly, there it was, right before him on an
overhanging sign like a message from God:
Tony the Tattoo King!
Artist and Artisan.
-Guaranteed Results-

War-paint.
294
A grimy narrow stairway pasted with peeling advertisements on
either side led up to Tony’s establishment. ‘Open,’ said a sign on
the door. A buzzer triggered by Harry’s feet announced his entry,
and Tony came in from the back.
‘Can I help you, mate?’ Tony had seen all kinds, but not this one,
in his shop.
‘Can you do fish?’ asked Harry, bluntly.
‘What, swimming or on a plate?’

295
Fish Nineteen: That Should Do the Trick

Harry presented his identity card to the security guard in the foyer,
signing on, as he had so often done, in the after-hours log book.
Sure, when he had finished they would know who it was. Sure, he
could have snuck in earlier, hid in the lavatory until close of
business and been an anonymous caller. But Mortimer would
probably have suspected him anyway. This way there would be no
witch-hunts, no falsely accused, and, morally, you had to be
prepared to take the consequences of your own decisions.
And yet his honesty might cost his mission dearly. The greatest
risk to the success of his enterprise, was now. The big if was: had
security black listed his name?
He studied the face of the guard he didn’t recognise. They work
for a contractor and come and go. This one wasn’t far off
retirement, which Harry reckoned to his advantage. Either
someone who was too young to know or too old to care, had been
his hope. Had someone prepared his way?
The guard’s eyes were on the old side of blue and his face had
been wrinkled by weariness and frowns. The frown wrinkles
worried Harry the most. Maybe this guy was the caring kind.
He eyed Harry’s identity card suspiciously. ‘Computers, eh?’ he
queried, studying Harry closely.
‘Yes,’ replied Harry, like one who has nothing to hide. Beneath
the cool facade, however, Harry’s pulse beat fast and his sweat
glands began to open.
The guard picked up the telephone and punched in four numbers.
A local extension. His fingers played with the card as he waited
for an answer.
Harry’s armpits began to moisten. Turning away from the guard’s
gaze, he leaned back against the counter and surreptitiously
mopped his brow. He began to panic. It was a good ten metres
296
to the exit. If he ran now he’d probably make it before the guard
could put down the phone and press the remote lock button which
barred the doors. Adrenalin pumped into his veins and his muscles
began to tense, like an animal poised to spring. The guard
muttered something into the phone. Harry strained to overhear but
could not. It was now or never...
Then he heard the phone click from the other end. Too late.
Escape no longer lay within the envelope of reasonable
probabilities. He who hesitates... Trapped.
‘Maintenance-’ said the guard.
What?
‘-Lights.’
Lights? Of course. He had noticed they were off on the way in.
His blood pressure retired from the red zone and he offered thanks
in silence.
‘Economies,’ added the guard, by way of explanation.
Harry nodded. ‘I do enough work in the dark as it is,’ he joked,
heading for the stairs...
The guard wasn’t laughing. Maybe he’d heard it before. Maybe he
hadn’t. But Harry knew he was watching him. He rubbed the
exposed skin on the back of his neck and kept on walking. Steady
as she goes. He was just about there, right at the foot of the steps.
Home and hosed....
‘Wait!’ shouted the guard, in a commanding tone.
Harry stopped dead in his tracks. His mind told him to hold but his
feet told him to run.
‘You won’t escape-,’ said the guard.
Shit.
‘-without this.’

297
Harry turned around.
The guard held Harry’s card up high, like a hunter displaying the
tail of a dead fox.
It took a few seconds for the message to fully sink in. ‘Right,’
replied Harry, slapping himself on the forehead in part to disguise
his relief.
Having secured his first objective, Harry put his mistakes behind
him and made straight for the second floor. If the lights had been
out, he reasoned, no one else would be there, yet. Striding briskly
down the central corridor, he found the most secluded terminal on
the floor and logged on without delay.
Response time was fast. The commands of the only user were
answered instantly. It was a welcome surprise. One of those little
things you would have predicted if you’d thought about it but
hadn’t because bigger things were on your mind. The response
was so good it was like he and the machine had some personal
rapport; as though it had been free to follow its own inclination
and willingly conspired to complete the task. And why not? Will
is easy enough to program. You will now survive at all costs. But
could you make a computer free? Was that the flaw in Mortimer’s
mad plan? Or is freedom just a hoax after all? Maybe Harry
Penfold was the crazy one, crazy to believe in it. But one thing he
knew. He couldn’t afford to gamble on the truth. The odds he was
wrong about things might be small but the consequences of being
wrong would be great. The product of the probability of the
outcome and the magnitude of the outcome, the expected value of
the cost, was unacceptable. He had to act. He had to try and stop
them. You can’t put that kind of technology into the hands of
bastards.
>FIND NEXT ARCHIVE_DATE
> ARCHIVE_DATE NEXT = 1800 HOURS 242
Harry flipped over the leaf calendar sitting open on the desk.
Tomorrow was day 242 of the calendar year. All files would be
archived tomorrow evening. He read the saying for the day:

298
‘A mask of gold hides all deformities. -- T. Decker.’
Harry smiled, and set to work.
It took only a few seconds for the machine to retrieve the key file
and list it on the screen. He carefully scrolled through the
program, searching for a suitable niche to hide his deadly
amendment. JONAH was a massive program which had been
created at great expense. Most of the programmers in the
organisation had worked on it at one time or another. Harry had
been part of the original design team himself.
Having found a niche, he crafted his module with care. A test run
was out of the question: there wasn’t time tonight. When he had
finished, he painstakingly worked through the logic. You can
never be certain in this game, but, yes, that should do the trick.
Harry paused to reflect on the plan. Had anything been
overlooked? There was always the possibility that someone would
run it too early, discover it was corrupt, and prevent an archive
overwrite. It was imperative to ensure that the main back-up copy
in archives would be corrupted too, which would not occur until
tomorrow evening. The best he could do would be to tie up
JONAH all day tomorrow by running it on low priority himself.
He placed a commence time embargo on the job to ensure that it
did not start running until late in the morning, and submitted it to
the machine. Competition from other jobs should then keep it
ticking over most of the day. Step one: check.
Then he rummaged through the directories of current disk files for
any other back-up copies. Just three: one master of the original
version; one created automatically before each applied
amendment, like his; and one Carol had created to fool around
with. Using his wide ranging access authority Harry erased them
from disk, overwriting their space to prevent recovery of the code.
Step two: check.
Now there were only two copies. The one he had just worked on,
which would run tomorrow, and the other one in archives, off-site,
which would automatically be corrupted by the former at 1800
hours on day 242.

299
All that remained for him to attend to were hardcopy documents.
First in his own Section, Maintenance. He took one of the trolleys
which were parked next to the service elevator and piled onto it
everything relating to JONAH they possessed. Most of it was
either on his own or Carol’s desk. Then he searched the technical
library and offices of every remaining key member of the original
design team, some of whom, he knew, would have kept manuals
and notes.
Finally, when he was confident that he had seized everything of
substance relating to JONAH, Harry wheeled his trolley into the
elevator and made straight to the shredder below, determined to
leave nothing to chance.
Shielded from the darkness of the pre-dawn morn by stark
windowless walls, a bent figure laboured intently under neon in
the basement of the Keep, as madness fulfilled its mission.

300
Fish Twenty: In the Shadow of the Cross

The doors of the church of St Peter are never locked. One of the
oldest buildings in the city, it stubbornly resists the encroachment
of neo-concrete values on all sides but the east, where a modern
arterial road severs it from the city’s major park. Fortunately, St
Peter’s architect had reserved its principle feature for this eastern
aspect: a massive copper and oak cross affixed to a great rose
window of thick transparent glass. In the morning, the glancing
rays of a rising sun liken the illumined cross to an outward
thrusting shield warding off evil, while, to the comfort of any
sheltering within, the symbol of the holy cross projects its
prostrate shadow onto the church’s floor.
A touch of the arthritis did not prevent Father Thomas rising early
from the warmth of a winter bed to witness this inspiring event,
finding faith anew in each re-affirmation of the cross. It was, for
him, a moment of communion; he came to it laden and afterwards
was refreshed.
But this time when the Father came to drink he saw beneath the
holy shadow-cross, as though both protected by and stretched
upon its brace, an unconscious human form. The image struck him
deeply. Filled with Spirit, Father Thomas knelt beside Harry’s
silent body and prayed.
Afterwards, touching Harry’s pallid cheek, compassion burned
within the priest like embers resisting rain. Harry was perfectly
still, lost to the conscious world and Father Thomas felt his
charge’s pain draining into his old stiff fingers, as he watched
Harry’s eyes dart frantically under their lids.

Mortimer walked away from the phone in disgust. ‘Looks like


your boyfriend’s running late,’ he said.
Champagne looked at the fusion of pink neon tubes and circuitry
that served for a clock. Ten a.m. Somewhere deep inside her,
301
below the layers of cosmetics and sophistication with which she
had smothered the memory of her former self, she hoped it
wouldn’t ring. But, of course, it did.
She left the phone to Mortimer and poured herself some poison in
a slender glass: G & T. It may take a few years, but it’s guarantied
to work just the same. It slipped down nice and easy.
Mortimer put the phone in speaker mode and spoke down to it in
more ways than one. ‘Yes?’
Harry responded accordingly. ‘You open for business?’ he asked.
Mortimer switched styles. ‘Good morning, Harry. Right on time. I
admire punctuality in a man.’
‘Do you have the cash?’
‘And straight to the point, too. It’s all here, Harry. A beautiful
sight. How are things at your end? You have the merchandise?’
‘The merchandise is safe.’
Mortimer winced. ‘You don’t have it?’
‘Shut up and listen.’ Harry was calling the shots now. ‘This is the
deal: you bring the money, I bring an envelope with the location
details inside. Then we part.’
‘Now wait--’
‘We part.’ Harry knew he could afford to make the rules.
Mortimer wanted the chip too much.
Anger blossomed on Mortimer’s face. He didn’t like it. But there
was too much at stake to bicker. You’d think this guy didn’t want
the money. ‘We do it here, then.’
Why not? ‘OK. Give me an hour from now. And Mortimer, if I
don’t make a call soon afterwards, a friend will oblige me by
disposing of it first. Permanently.’ Only the shooter knows if the
gun is loaded. ‘Insurance.’

302
‘Eleven then, Harry. Just the three of us.’
Harry smiled. Check. ‘Tell Champagne to put one on ice.’
Mortimer gave her one of those ‘watch your step’ looks that never
really work. ‘I will,’ he said.
The parties dispensed with goodbyes. And neither one took
offence.
Harry looked at his watch. He wouldn’t have far to go from the
cafe where he rang: a fifteen minute walk at the most. He ordered
a cappuccino and sat quietly at a table by himself. Five hundred
grand is a lot of loot. Just thinking about it made you feel good.
Secure good. Independent good. The waiter interrupted his
thoughts.
‘Keep the change,’ said Harry, turning his attention to the coffee.
A hundred bucks! ‘But-?’
‘Buy yourself a drink,’ he smiled. ‘My horse just came in.’

Father Thomas knew his place. He was on a mission too. Kneeling


there faithfully on the old timber boards, he prayed in outward
silence for the soul of the lost traveller at his side. And as he
prayed, the shadow of the cross gradually moved counter to the
climbing sun, shifting from Harry’s torso and gracing in its
journey the inclined humility of Father Thomas’ wrinkled face,
before peacefully merging in the peripheral shadows of the
church.
Harry couldn’t stop thinking about the money. Why should he
always be a passenger in someone else’s V8. Why shouldn’t he
take his cut in the game of life. It isn’t often you get a hand like
this. Then he accidentally caught sight of himself in the polished
tin plate laminate of the cafe counter on his right. Not a pretty
sight, is it, Harry? That was the telling moment; the decision was
made. And no turning back.
He walked over to a revolving stand of souvenir postcards,
selected two with envelopes, and returned to his seat. Then,
303
after a moment’s reflection, he scribbled a simple message on each
card, sliding them with a smile into envelopes. He summoned the
waiter with his hand.
‘Yes?’ replied the young man whose service had been rewarded in
advance.
‘Do us a favour will you?’ asked Harry as he licked and sealed the
flaps.
Mama was right. You don’t get anything for nothing in this world.
‘What sort of favour?’
Harry smiled at the waiter’s reaction. ‘Don’t worry. I just want to
leave a message. Okay?’
The waiter relaxed. ‘Sure.’
‘Ta. I’m supposed to meet an associate here in about half an hour
but something’s come up and I can’t really wait. Just give him this
when he turns up and he’ll understand.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘You can’t miss him. He’s pushing fifty and likes to dress up.
He’ll ask for it if I’m not here.’
‘He’ll ask for it?’
‘I told him I might have to leave word.’
The young man examined the innocent looking envelope
addressed from Harry. It didn’t feel like drugs. Maybe the guy was
a ‘D’ or something. Well, it was a good excuse anyway. ‘OK,’ he
said.
‘Thanks. Now, how about some fish ‘n chips to go?’ he asked,
presenting another bill.
‘It’s on the house.’
Harry waited in his seat for the order and collected it from the
counter when called. The street was full of kids on bikes and
skateboards, taking advantage of the morning sun. Maybe it
304
was school holidays; maybe the weekend. He didn’t really know.
Better start getting your act together, Harry. You’re beginning to
lose track. After checking his watch again, he hailed a passing cab
and quickly hopped into the back.
‘Where to, mate?’ asked the driver, marking up flag fall.
Harry pulled shut the door. ‘Just cruise down to the sea and take a
left onto the Boulevard, alright?’
‘What is this?’ she asked, getting under way. ‘A treasure hunt?’
Harry smiled ‘Yeah. Something like that.’
‘OK but the first Freddo’s are mine.’
‘You drive a hard bargain.’
‘Supply and demand,’ she said.
The cab turned left at the end of the road. The Boulevard snaked
around the beach.
‘How far is this, mate? Should I give it more stick or what?’
‘Its just ahead,’ said Harry. ‘Pull up over there.’
‘Great,’ she replied, looking at the meter in disgust. ‘I always
wanted to retire early.’
A spray of surf kissed Harry’s face as he opened the taxi door.
‘Here’s fifty on deposit. Wait for me. I won’t be long.’
The driver examined the note. You don’t make money standing
still. ‘You mean tip, don’t you? We don’t work on the deposit
principle in this game.’
Everyone wants their cut. ‘My mistake. Stick around for a while
and you can give me another lesson in economics.’
‘I’ll leave the meter running.’
‘Ta.’
The big Cadillac was parked around the back, long limbed and
305
low, bathing unashamedly in the sun. He lent on the red lip of its
plushly padded door, reflecting on the good life, before getting
into the driver’s seat. All he would have to do is give Mortimer an
envelope and pick up his prize.
He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes early. Just enough
surprise. He let the Caddie’s door shut almost by itself, nice, and
strolled into the foyer. The elevator whisked him to the top.

The young priest looked at the tense expression on Harry’s


unconscious face and wondered what to do. ‘Who is he, Father?’
he asked.
Father Thomas continued in prayer.
The younger squatted down. Raising Harry’s limp wrist he
fumbled for the pulse. Harry’s heart was pumping fast.
Tachycardia. ‘He needs an ambulance,’ he said, as though the
older priest was actually listening.

Mortimer was standing by the window when the elevator burst


into the room. Champagne was being glamorous on a stool, her
back and elbows supported by the bar.
‘Hello, Harry,’ she said. ‘You’re early.’
Harry scanned the room before entering. ‘Yeah. I was afraid you’d
run dry.’
Mortimer smiled. ‘Business before pleasure, Harry.’
Champagne proffered an empty glass. ‘Shall I be mother?’
Harry waited for Mortimer to make the first move. It would be
good squeam value. The best.
‘Is that it?’ he asked, half pointing to the envelope.
Harry pulled it back. Not so fast, mate.
‘It’s alright Harry. That’s yours, over there,’ said Mortimer,

306
directing Harry’s eyes to a grey attaché case in the corner.
It was trade time: cash for card.
Mortimer was a little on the anxious side. He hastily tore open the
envelope and removed its contents. ‘Marine World?’ What is this?
‘I thought you’d like it,’ said Harry weighing a wad of notes in his
hand. ‘What you want is on the back.’
Mortimer turned over the postcard as Harry accepted a drink. This
would be the best drink in his life.
‘Ask the waiter when you get there. He has a present for you.’
‘That’s it?’ he asked suspiciously, declining an offered glass.
‘That’s it,’ replied Harry, poker faced. That’s all you’ll get from
me.
Mortimer smiled, hospitably. ‘Why don’t you two relax here and
do justice to the bottle. I’ll ring from the cafe.’
Sure. Harry shook his head and dropped the wad back in the case.
‘Sorry,’ he replied, insincerely. ‘But if you remember, someone’s
expecting a call.’
‘Help yourself,’ said Mortimer, pointing to the phone.
‘Thanks, anyway.’
Mortimer nodded. ‘Of course. Well, as you’re a little early. At
least stay and finish your drink. I’ll get out of your way.’ He
turned to champagne. ‘Keys, darling?’
She hated that darling crap. But it pays. Withdrawing the keys
from her bag on the bar, she casually tossed them over.
Mortimer smiled like a cat, making for the elevator doors.
Harry watched him go and drained the rest of his drink. ‘Well,
that’s me done,’ he said.
Champagne lapped her lips on the rim of her glass and sipped
307
cautiously at her namesake. ‘Will he find what he’s looking for,
Harry?’
‘Will any of us?’ replied Harry, enigmatically.
Champagne grinned. ‘Take me with you, Harry. I don’t want to be
here when he gets back.’
‘Why? Because you’re afraid of him?’
‘Perhaps. And because I like you.’
Maybe she was genuine. Maybe she wasn’t. Well, what the hell;
he was game. ‘Don’t forget your coat. My chauffeur is waiting out
front.’
‘Chauffeur?’
‘You’ll like her. She’s a finance guru.’
‘How practical. I’m afraid I’ve no head for figures myself.
Business bores me.’
Bullshit. ‘If you say so.’
Collecting her coat she walked towards the elevator well.
‘Ladies first,’ said Harry.
‘If you say so,’ she replied.
The cab was just where he’d left it. The meter wasn’t. Harry
followed Champagne into the back seat.
‘Seen anything of a white Cadillac?’ he enquired.
‘So that’s what it was?’
‘Moving was he?’
‘Like a bat outa hell.’
Harry grinned. Ear to ear. ‘Well, where to, Champagne?’
She looked surprised. ‘Haven’t you got a call to make first?’
308
‘You’re telling this story.’
She shook her head. ‘Remind me never to play poker with you,’
she said.
The driver was getting impatient, ‘Look, I’ve got a living to
make.’
‘King’s Cross,’ said Harry, gloating. ‘The best hotel you can find.’
The cab threw a tyre screeching U-turn, retracing the way it had
come. Reeling off Beach Boulevard, the big auto sped up the hill
past a badly parked Cadillac still purring in the shade of a cafe
awning. Harry slumped back in his seat. He’d be out in a minute,
running back to the car he was so quick to desert and turning out
the glove box like there was no tomorrow. Hope Mortimer likes
cold fish ‘n chips.

309
Fish Twenty One: Afternoon Shadows

Parklands occupies a peninsula. Its pampered lawns roll gently


down undulating slopes and splash into the broad lazy river that
almost surrounds the grounds. A casual observer might be
heartened to reflect on the humanity manifest in the selection of
such an aesthetically pleasing site for an institution of care, but, in
truth, the authorities were motivated by more practical
considerations: in the beginning, lunatics were not allowed on the
King’s highway. No boats are moored on the river side now but in
another age, boats did come, slinking ashore quietly during the
night.
The hospital has the air of a Victorian institution, with odd bits
added on here and there. Its land border is marked by a two metre
high sandstone wall with iron gates that are watched during the
day and locked by night. Inside its perimeter stand stone buildings
of one or two stories that were constructed over several
architectural epochs as the demand for Parkland’s services had
grown. Some of the oldest of these had stone walls of their own,
designed to be impregnable from within. Harry was not in one of
these. Harry Penfold was in a ward named ‘admissions’, where
patients can come and go, more or less. In Harry’s case, less. The
verandah of Ward Two faced the west, where one could bask in
the afternoon sun and stare at the shimmering river below until the
shadow from the old bell tower brought shivers to pyjama clad
flesh.
Harry was still being assessed. He was not considered dangerous,
not exactly, but the police were asking questions and that in itself
raised certain doubts. He was on chlorpromazine for starters; well,
at least he wouldn’t give any trouble, and, you never know, a little
synthetic tranquillity might just do him some good. In the evening
they threw in some sleeping pills to guarantee rest.
The nurses watched him closely during the day, reporting in
conference to his doctor who would contribute evidence and

310
insights gleaned from his own occasional in-depth interviews.
Frankly, Harry’s case had them a little confused. Incipient
schizophrenia was a possibility, based on reported episodes of
paranoia; or, perhaps, severe depression, triggered by some
stressful circumstance. Either way, Milly was sure he was in the
right hands and confident she had done the right thing.
She hoped.
Harry spent a lot of his time just thinking. He had quite a lot of
material to work on, after all. The only thing he was really sure of
was that he wasn’t at a Kings Cross Hotel. He figured he was in a
real hospital alright, that it wasn’t some elaborate set. The stage
design was just too good to be invented and the players were just
too real to be putting on an act. It’s difficult to fake some
symptoms, like the too dull or too bright look some medication
can give your eyes. This place had to be the real thing. The
question was: what was he doing there?
The only plausible explanation Harry could come up with was that
Mortimer’s mob were keeping him there under wraps till they
could get what they wanted. It was the perfect place really; all
legal and above board. Of course, the doctors, or at least one of
them, had to be in on it too. Only a doctor could keep him here,
though they might not have told him or her everything about him.
Presumably they operated on the ‘need to know’ principle. And
let’s not forget the nurses. Maybe one of them or even one of the
patients was in on it as well? A plant, someone to keep an eye on
him, someone he might take into his confidence and reveal… too
much...
On the surface of it, the scenario might sound far fetched. But not
when you consider that a foreign government, with all its
resources and agents, was involved as well. Mortimer could get all
the help he needed.
Harry had a bit more trouble explaining how he had got there,
though. Champagne had to be in on it for sure. It must have been
her. What was it Mortimer had said, something about doing justice
to the bottle? Never accept a drink from the devil. He didn’t really
blame her though. After all, it was a lot of loot. A bloody lot of
311
loot. He knew that as much as anyone. Not that he would have
kept it for himself. If only she had waited. He was going to give it
to her anyway. She didn’t need to shop him. Harry was only sorry
that Mortimer had got it back. Well, he must have? Only he could
have arranged something like this.
But then why would she cut in Mortimer, instead of doing a cash
and carry alone?
Hope Mortimer liked his fish ‘n chips. Guess that’s why they put
him in here. Imagine where he’d be if they had got what they
wanted? And there wouldn’t be a headstone, either.
But what will they do next? Or, more to the point, what should he
do next? He had to act, to take the initiative first. But how?
Behind every answer lurked a question and the only conclusion he
came to was that no one could be trusted. No one.
Especially not nurses who introduced themselves...
‘Good morning,’ said the smiling young man. He had one of those
bearded sunny faces that you knew was insincere. A ring of keys
was slung from his belt. ‘Harry, isn’t it?’
Harry took his own advice and kept his mouth shut tight.
‘You’re looking better.’
Piss off.
The nurse sat down beside him on the bench. ‘Was that your wife
and kid round earlier?’
‘What’s it to you?’
The nurse raised his hands in mock defence. ‘Nothing, mate.’ At
least he had got a reaction. ‘Just making conversation. You’re a
lucky man, if you ask me... to have a wife and daughter like that.’
Bastard! ‘You leave them out of this.’
‘If it were only that easy, Harry. But they’re involved too, aren’t

312
they?’
Harry stared his protagonist in the eye. ‘Tell Mortimer if he or his
thugs so much as go near them, he’ll never see the chip again.
Okay?’
The nurse frowned. Rule number one: never indulge a fantasy.
‘Look, Harry. I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about.
Who is this Mortimer?’
Sure. ‘Shy is he? I’ll bet he is. But you know all right.’
‘No, I don’t know, Harry. I don’t know who you think I am, but
I’m actually just a nurse. So why don’t you fill me in? Maybe I
can help.’
But Harry wasn’t the gullible type. Maybe this guy really didn’t
know Mortimer. Maybe he was just a messenger. Then again,
maybe, just maybe, this guy was on the level. He looked the nurse
hard in the eye. No way. ‘Just tell them what I said.’
The nurse shrugged in disappointment. ‘OK Harry. Have it your
own way. That’s enough for now.’ He smiled and patted Harry on
the back. ‘I’ll drop by again later,’ he said.
And so he did. As did others more than once. But Harry was
determined to fight them, and never gave an inch. Which is why
he was moved from admissions, to a ward with walls of its own.

313
Fish Twenty Two: Q & A

‘Wake up,’ said a male voice, echoing in the hollow of the room.
A firm hand on Harry’s shoulder stirred him from his sleep. It was
the bearded nurse with the key fetish. ‘Wha--’
‘You’ve got a visitor, Harry,’ explained the interloper, grinning as
he spoke.
Harry tried to shield his waking eyes from the naked light bulb
burning brightly overhead. But his efforts were in vain. There’s
not a lot you can do when your arms, legs, and torso are strapped
fast to a table like a specimen prepared for vivisection. ‘What in
hell’s going on?’ he demanded, struggling helplessly.
A grey clean shaven face leaned into view. ‘Hello, Harry,’ it said,
like a spider welcoming a meal.
Harry was momentarily stunned. Events were moving faster than
he had expected. Okay, okay. Pull yourself together. Some sort of
interrogation had to be on the cards eventually. Pity it had to be
now.
‘Hello, Mortimer. Small world,’ he said, dryly.
Mortimer’s mouth turned up at the edge. It was the next best thing
to a smile. ‘Isn’t it though. I’m glad you see it that way, Harry’ he
said. ‘It’s very important that you do. Not much room for hide-
and-seek after all, is there?’
Hide and seek. Harry had a feeling Mortimer would eat those
words before the night was out. ‘What shall we play instead then?’
Mortimer cocked his right eye. ‘How about Q & A?’ he said.
‘OK. Me first. Who was Procrustes and why isn’t that funny?’
Mortimer tackled another smile. ‘I believe the answer is me,

314
Harry.’
‘Close enough.’
‘I think you know what my question is.’
‘You can pick a new one if you like.’
‘No need.’
‘What if I don’t answer?’
‘That would be against the rules.’
‘Don’t I have a choice?’
‘Yes, you have a choice, Harry. You can answer now or you can
answer later.’
Harry grinned stupidly. ‘I’ve got another idea. How about a fish
joke?’
‘Where are they, Harry?’
‘What’s the difference between a politician and a fish? Stay with
me, you’ll like this one.’
Mortimer shook his head judiciously. ‘Do you know what this
place is, Harry?’
Harry looked around. Starksville. A white shell, small, sterile,
unfurnished except for his bed and an aluminium table next to it.
Upon the table sat a black box with wires dangling out of it. He
had a pretty fair idea, alright.
‘Of course you do,’ resumed Mortimer. ‘You’re a man of
intelligence. That’s why this shouldn’t take too long. Torture is so
much more effective on intelligent subjects, don’t you think? They
say it has something to do with the power of imagination.’
Harry looked Mortimer in the eye. ‘Give in? One’s wet and slimy
and the other’s a fish.’
Mortimer nodded to the nurse.
315
‘I like a good fish joke. How about you, Mortimer?’
The nurse applied ointment to his feet.
Harry began to sweat. ‘Say,’ he said, looking down, ‘I’m no expert
on this sort of thing, but aren’t you doing the wrong end?’
Mortimer walked to the foot of the bed. ‘No, no, Harry,’ he said.
‘You’ve got it all wrong. We’re not here to help you forget. We’re
here to help you remember.’
Well that makes sense.
The nurse grinned.
‘I think we can dispense with the anaesthetic,’ said Mortimer,
coldly.
Odd how a simple phrase can release a memory or trigger a
thought. Maybe it was Mortimer’s tone, maybe it was the word
anaesthetic. That is why she drinks, isn’t it? ‘By the way, where’s
Champagne?’ asked Harry, coolly.
Mortimer shrugged indifferently as the nurse attached the
electrodes to Harry’s toes. ‘Who knows? Rio? Monaco? She can
afford it, now.’
‘You mean she got the lot?’
‘Of course.’
‘Before or after she dobbed me in?’
‘Does it matter?’
Not much. Then again, maybe it did. If she ran off with it
afterwards, she might have betrayed him because she had to. Part
of the set up with Mortimer, and the cash was part of the deal. And
then it would have been Mortimer’s money she took. But if she
took the loot and then betrayed him, well, then it would appear
that he was just another loose end she had to tidy up on the way.
And that meant it was her plan all along.

316
‘After,’ obliged Mortimer.
After. It wasn’t much of a consolation prize. Not exactly a basis
for a long term relationship. But it was something. ‘And then she
bolted?’
Mortimer wasn’t keen to answer.
Harry filled in the blanks. ‘You mean not as agreed?’
‘It wasn’t important.’
‘Why did she ring you at all then? She could have just vanished
with the loot. I mean, was it my deodorant, after all?’
‘Don’t torture yourself, Harry,’ mocked Mortimer, ‘that’s our
department.’
Harry smiled. ‘The man tells jokes. I never knew you had a sense
of humour, Mortimer. I bet that beneath that snakeskin of yours
beats a heart that’s almost human.’
‘But this joke’s on you, Harry.’
‘Yeah... Humour me some more, Mortimer. Why did she ring you
if she was going to take the lot.’
Mortimer shrugged. ‘Self preservation. If she hadn’t rung, we
would have had to look for her as well as you, wouldn’t we? A
man has his reputation to consider. And she knew, as you have
already observed, Harry, that it’s a small world.’
‘Survival eh?’
‘Perhaps. Then again, the money could simply have been her price
for services rendered.’
‘Strictly business?’
‘A perfectly natural instinct for a professional like her. No need
for any unpleasantness. She understands these things. But, you
know, I think she actually liked you, Harry, in her own way.’
‘Sure. Pity I didn’t fit on her balance sheet.’
317
‘Never mind, Harry. There’s plenty of room on mine.’
‘Ta.’
‘And now, following that line of thought, I’m sure you will see
how reasonable it is that all I should extract my modest profit from
the deal. As you say, strictly business. That’s all there is to it,
Harry. No animosity on my side whatsoever.’
‘Nor on mine.’
‘Good. Now let’s return to the matter in hand, shall we?’
‘You mean this isn’t a social call?’
‘First, Harry, I would ask that you be honest with yourself. You
and I both know you’re going to cooperate sooner or later, don’t
we? So let’s just behave like civilised gentlemen and avoid all this
unnecessary angst.’
Sounds reasonable. ‘Let’s.’
‘Bravo. Now, you tell us where the chip is, and we’ll put you
safely back to bed.’
‘So you say.’
‘You can trust me, Harry. After all, it would seem that my word is
better than yours.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Besides, you needn’t rely on promises. You see, it would be the
neatest solution for us anyway. Why should we kill you? Such a
messy business, murder. And not without certain risks; inquests,
that sort of thing. Much simpler for you to just wake up in the
morning like any other patient, with another story that no one
believes. And, of course, if you don’t cooperate, the marks won’t
show. Not tomorrow, or the next day, or...’
Harry got the picture. The logic was good anyway. It could work
out alright. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘it’s a deal.’
‘Splendid, Harry! Now let’s take it once more from the top.
318
Where is it?’
‘Where I said it’d be.’
Mortimer flinched with annoyance. He looked askance at the
nurse in a way calculated to draw Harry’s attention and then
returned his focus to his subject. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Did you look where I said?’
‘This is getting tiresome, Harry. We’re not talking about fish and
chips any more.’
‘No,’ he grinned. ‘That’s the beauty of it.’
Mortimer sighed impatiently. ‘I think you had better explain
yourself.’
Harry began to laugh. Not a shallow laugh or a make believe one.
But a laugh that began in his guts and rocked his body
uncontrollably. ‘You threw them away, didn’t you, Mortimer?
You stupid bastard! You predictable, cynical, stupid bastard.’
Mortimer was getting furious. ‘What do you mean?’
Harry looked at him coldly. ‘It was inside. Get it? It was inside
too!’ Harry’s lungs heaved as he choked for air.
A moment of insight swept all trace of expression from
Mortimer’s ashen face.
Tears of joy washed down Harry’s cheeks as he stared at his
vanquished opponent. ‘I knew you would. You silly bastard. You
did it yourself! It’s gone,’ he laughed. ‘Don’t worry, you could
probably still find it if you look hard enough. At the dump. After
all, it’s a small world, Mortimer. Isn’t it? Hide and seek.’

Mortimer sought confirmation. ‘What do you mean, gone?’ He


became conscious of the fact that he was visibly losing his
equanimity, his public face, and it irritated him. Fortunately he
319
was at the other end of a phone.
‘Not gone so much as corrupt, Hilary. The program code is just
gibberish. It’s useless; garbage.’
‘What about the back-ups?’
‘No trace, and the off-site copy’s bad too. Someone must have
tampered with it just before the regular archive run. Guess we
should have thought of that. Whatever was in archives was
overwritten by the garbage copy. All we have is garbage. Just so
much wasted disk space. JONAH is gone.’
Mortimer resisted the truth. How in hell could something like that
happen? ‘Did you say: someone?’
‘Everything points to deliberate action; a programmer: someone
with a lot of access.’
Mortimer didn’t have to think long or hard to find a suspect. Of
course. Yes. ‘Like Penfold?’
The voice hesitated. ‘It does appear from the logs that he was the
last one to run it.’
Now things began to sink in. Deep. He cursed himself for not
terminating Harry’s clearance. It was one of those routine tasks
normally finalised on separation. But Harry had not been
dismissed, not yet. And now that cockroach threatened to ruin his
entire career. A career that had been so long in the making. No. It
wasn’t right. It wasn’t his fault. Maybe he could talk his way out
of it, or maybe the damage could be repaired. Stay calm. Think it
over.
‘Hello? Hilary?’
‘How long would it take to resurrect the code?’ He knew he was
grasping at straws.
‘From what?’ the voice on the other end left no room for doubt.
‘We can’t find any listings either. No manuals, no team notes,
nothing. It looks like a total loss. We might have to start from
scratch. Recalling some of the former team would help. If
320
they’re still around.’
Mortimer clenched his teeth. A small vein on the side of his
forehead began to pulsate visibly. ‘I want a full report by close of
business,’ he said. That was it. Finished.
‘OK. What would you like us to do with the garbage?’
‘What do you think?’ Mortimer replied, as he hung up, angrily.
Steady. Take a deep breath. Mustn’t lose control. Mini-max, that’s
it. Minimise the maximum damage. He began to reflect on the
worst consequences of Harry’s sabotage. This would be the end of
their plans. Of his plans. Without JONAH there could be no
FISHE and that meant no ‘resource’ savings. At least for a few
years. They might even need more programmers in the interim to
get JONAH back up. JONAH was too good an idea to abandon.
They’d really tip the bucket on him now. He had put so much
emphasis on its success. Someone’s head would have to roll. All
those years of sacrifice would count for nothing. Nothing. But he
wouldn’t be giving in. No way. He would play it straight. Remain
objective, aloof, and take whatever steps were necessary. Dig in.
Then do whatever he could to distance himself from the flack.
After all, it was the act of an insane person, wasn’t it? Personnel
procedures needed to be re-examined. That should defuse
Callaghan for a while; and he was the worst of them. The others
wouldn’t be so bad. But, for now, he had to cut his losses.
Mortimer reached coolly for his intercom.
‘Yes, Mr. Mortimer?’
‘Ms. Luxemburg, please, Doris.’
‘Luxemburg. Yes.’
‘And get me the Wilkins’ contract.’

321
Fish Twenty Three: Mind If I Join You?

Ward Nine, home for Harry and a dozen others besides, consisted
of a courtyard surrounded on three sides by adjoining single story
buildings and on the fourth by a sandstone wall too high to jump
and too thick to breach. Entry and exit to the ward was via
external doors in each wing that were all kept firmly locked.
The dominating, or rather, exclusive theme in Ward Nine’s design
had been security, and the result was a structure which looked in
upon itself, brooding in isolation from the world like the minds
that would be confined within.
The architectural irony of permanently housing severely ill people
in a building which is itself so utterly deranged did not escape
Harry as he sat upon a bench in the shade of a verandah, idly
watching the other patients in the courtyard as they also idly
passed the time of day. A man in an old cheap black suit strutted
anxiously back and forth along the wall opposite, puffing
incessantly on lighted tobacco rolled within newsprint he had
loosely stuck together by licking along its seam. Nearby, another
man waited keenly for the butt. A woman much younger than she
looked, talked in whispers to herself, her eyes darting furtively
about the yard, regardless of the stream of urine trickling down her
leg. A female nurse escorted her to the showers. Basic care. With
keys.
But like everyone else in Nine, Harry had his own problems to
deal with and turned his mind’s eye to them.
So Mortimer had kept his word: had let him live. Well, why not?
The damage was done wasn’t it? Mortimer had no choice but to
cut his losses and get out. Strictly business. He was right, of
course: no one would believe the account of an insane person even
if Harry was foolish enough to talk. And, from Mortimer’s point
of view, vindictiveness did not pay. After all, Mortimer was free,
and Harry was as good as in gaol. Unlike Champagne... But what
was that to Harry now? Everyone has their own destiny. Still,
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Rio would be nice this time of year. Pina coladas by the beach.
Sun, sea and sand.
Harry was just beginning to get into some very heavy regretting
when a familiar voice interrupted him.
‘Hello, Harry.’
Harry looked up abruptly, cupping his hand to his forehead to
shade his eyes from the sun. ‘Raphe?’
‘You look like someone who could use a holiday,’ said Raphe,
recalling the first time they had met.
Harry laughed, turning his head away from the sun. ‘You’re not
wrong there, mate.’ Then, something unusual caught his eye.
Forsaking his conversational obligations for a moment he
examined the ground at his feet.
‘Mind if I join you?’ asked Raphe.
Lost in wonder, Harry failed to reply.
‘Have you got room for me, Harry?’ he asked again, a little more
loudly this time.
Harry started from his thoughts. ‘Sure, sure. Pull up a seat.’ Harry
moved to one side. Something beyond his experience perplexed
him. He didn’t quite know how to respond.
‘Ta,’ replied Raphe.
The moments passed quietly, Raphe waiting for Harry to speak,
Harry absorbed in reflection, occasionally muttering to himself.
At last Raphe took the initiative. ‘What’s up, Harry? You look a
bit on the troubled side.’
Those blue eyes again. Who is this bloke? What is this bloke?
Harry decided to find out. ‘Mind if I ask you something, Raphe?’
Raphe gave an easy shrug. ‘No, mate. Go for it.’
Harry looked him squarely in the eye. ‘Are you for real, Raphe? I
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mean, are you really for real?’
Raphe smiled and let his head rest back against the wall, soaking
up the sun. ‘Sounds like this place is getting to you, Harry.’
‘That’s your answer?’
Raphe sat up again. ‘What makes you think I’m not real?’
‘Well,’ said Harry, staring down at the ground, ‘for starters,
strange things seem to happen to the laws of science whenever
you’re around. Like the day we went to the beach when everyone
reckoned I was really at work.’
Raphe folded his arms and stretched out his legs. ‘I see,’ he said.
‘Is that it?’
‘No.’
‘What else?’
‘Well,’ said Harry looking at Raphe again, ‘there’s also the little
matter of a shadow.’
Raphe seemed to know what was coming next. ‘Ah,’ he said,
succinctly, leaving the rest of the reply as understood.
‘You don’t have one, do you Raphe?’
Raphe looked down and smiled. ‘No,’ he confessed. ‘Not always.’
‘Well don’t you think that requires some kind of explanation?’
pursued Harry. ‘I mean, it is a bit on the strange side, don’t you
think?’
‘And what do you make of it all?’
Harry raised his hands in defeat and looked away. ‘I don’t know.
It’s all a bit unreal if you ask me, like a dream. Either I’m nuts,’ he
said, shaking his head, ‘or...’ he turned to face Raphe eye to eye.
‘Or?’
‘Or you’re some sort of ghost, or something.’
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Raphe grinned. ‘Or the laws of science are up the creek. Don’t
forget that one.’
‘Yeah. Or all of the above.’
‘Well, which do you think it is, Harry?’ asked Raphe, slapping his
thighs. ‘Just how are you going to decide?’
Harry cocked an eyebrow at his protagonist. ‘That could be tricky.
I suppose we could take a vote of everyone present,’ he said
looking at the nurse.
‘Yes.’
‘But I think I know how it would come out. He can’t see you, can
he, Raphe?’
Raphe paused. ‘No, Harry. I’m afraid he can’t.’
Harry smiled and shook his head. ‘Looks bad for me, doesn’t it?’
he concluded.
‘Maybe,’ said Raphe, leaning forward. ‘But I wouldn’t dwell on it,
Harry. Let’s just agree that the ‘what’ question is indeterminate
and concentrate on the ‘why’ part, okay?’
‘Why not?’ agreed Harry, throwing up his hands. ‘OK, Raphe.
Why are you here, or not here, as the case may be?’
Raphe leaned back on the seat again and stared into the distance.
‘About all I can say on that score, Harry, is that I’m here to help
you.’
Help? Harry reflected on all that had come to pass since he had
first met Raphe on the freeway that day. ‘Of course,’ he said with
a laugh. ‘That’s it. Obvious isn’t it?’
Raphe ignored the sarcasm. ‘Let’s be more specific, Harry, shall
we? How, for example, do you propose to get out of this place?’
Harry gazed at the wall opposite.
‘Forget it. Even if you made it over the top, that wouldn’t get you
home, back with Milly and Sarah. Would it? You’d just
325
become some kind of refugee.’
Milly. Memories flooded like a river of tears into Harry’s lonely
consciousness. Sarah. His eyes began to well...
‘Sorry, Harry. But I have to make a point.’
‘You bastard!’ exclaimed Harry, sniffling.
‘Go ahead, Harry. Get it out of your system. Let it go. But when
you’ve finished, think about what’s coming. It’s not over yet.
You’re not ready to go.’
That’s it. ‘Get out!’
‘Look, Harry, you’re not the hero you imagine yourself to be.
What did you think? Mission accomplished, time to go home?
Hail hero of the people? Don’t delude yourself, Harry. You’re still
on the run. Nothing has been resolved. You know that, too, deep
down inside. That’s why he’s coming for you.’
‘He doesn’t frighten me.’
‘I don’t mean Mortimer, Harry. Your enemy isn’t out there. Is
he?’
Harry didn’t reply.
‘When he comes for you again, Harry,’ continued Raphe, ‘as he
did once before, don’t run. That’s what feeds him. Face up to it.
You have to learn to accept things as they really are, and to
forgive. That’s your ticket out of here, Harry. Right through that
door.’
But Harry could only think of home, a home that seemed forever
gone. ‘You bastard!’ he screamed aloud. ‘You absolute bastard!
Can’t you see what you’ve done to me?’
Harry was losing control, and attracting attention as well. The
unwanted kind.
It took two nurses to restrain him, while another did what had to
be done. Then they took him peacefully to bed and gently laid him

326
down.
Alone.

327
Fish Twenty Four: Moon Flowers

‘Eleven o’clock,’ uttered the bearded young nurse to his


companion on the night-shift. ‘Please let it be quiet!’ he prayed,
clumsily replacing a file in a cabinet drawer.
‘What’s the matter, David, losing your nerve,’ remarked a petite
dark eyed colleague of the same generation, slouching in a corner
chair with a paperback.
David ignored the jibe, in part because it was true.
Unrelenting, his colleague peered at him from the top of her book.
‘Afraid the bogey man will get you if you don’t watch out?’
David waved his arm in the air dramatically. ‘Go ahead, mock me.
I’m an easy target.’
‘Poor Davikins.’
‘Don’t call me that.’
‘Well then act your age, mate.’
He decided to try the sympathy approach. After all, she was a
nurse. ‘Look, I can’t help it, Chris. I’ve always had this anxiety
thing. It’s not easy to cope with.’
‘It’s one thing to be anxious,’ she replied. ‘It’s another to carry on
like a two year old...’
David tried again. ‘Don’t be so simplistic.’ He slumped into the
swivel chair next to the desk. ‘You think I want to be like this?’
‘Then don’t be.’
‘It’s okay for you iron maiden types,’ he replied, seizing the
normal ground, ‘but I’m not cut out for this kind of work.’
Chris returned to her book. ‘Then why do it?’ she said with
328
indifference.
‘That’s a good question.’ And as much invitation as he needed. ‘I
thought this sort of work would be good for me. Helping others
who had problems too. You know what I mean.’
‘Yes. The blind leading the blind.’
‘I really thought I could help them, Chris. Be a real nurse. But of
course, I can’t. I can understand them. Empathise with them. I
have a talent for that. But that’s exactly why I can’t help. I’m just
too sensitive. Does that make sense?’
‘Sure it does. We should make up a file on you.’
David looked at her. ‘And you’re not sensitive enough. That’s
your weakness,’ he accused. ‘We’re opposites, you and I.’
‘Thank goodness.’
‘You should never become a mother, Chris.’
‘What?
‘Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Not
exactly.’
Chris stared at him briefly with obvious scorn. She shook her head
to emphasise her contempt, and flipped the next page of her book.
David rose from his chair and walked towards the window. ‘They
don’t tell you about nights like this in psyche school.’
Chris tried to concentrate on reading.
David resumed his soliloquy. ‘Twelve hours on the night-shift in a
ward which isn’t locked for nothing.’ He peered through the
venetian blinds into the dark corridor beyond. ‘Every time I go out
there I get a feeling that something’s going to happen.’
Here we go, bloody Hamlet again. She closed her book and stood
up. ‘You mean like you’re being stalked in the corridor and there’s
no one there.’ Her eyes opened wide as she turned on him. Her
limbs began to stiffen. ‘Like suddenly your body is chilled by
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a warm breath you know is not your own, and two huge thick arms
lunge out of nowhere, plucking you from the frail light by the
neck, as your torch falls helplessly to the ground...’
David blushed. ‘Okay, okay. So I’m a little paranoid.’
‘A little!’ she exclaimed sitting back down.
‘A little,’ he repeated, folding his arms defensively. He pushed his
wire rimmed spectacles back to the upper ridge of his nose, and
glanced up at the clock on the wall. Almost eleven. Time for
rounds. Great. Just great. Then something occurred to him. A hazy
idea at first, dimly perceived, but something which, promising
much, he carefully crafted into a plan.
‘Chris?’ he called, at last, in a supplicating tone.
‘What?’ She turned another page.
‘Why don’t we skip the eleven o’clock round this time, and have
some tea instead.’
‘David!’
‘I’ll make it,’ he bribed.
Chris shook her head. ‘What if Matron’s on the prowl? You know
what she’s like.’
‘No problem. We could set the clock forward fifteen minutes and
write something in the log. That way, if she comes in to check on
us,-’
‘It’ll look like we’ve already done it. You’re amazing, David.’
‘And, if she doesn’t come,’ he continued, ‘at twenty past we can
set it back again and no one would ever know.’
Chris shook her head in disbelief. ‘Amazing. Pathetic, but
amazing. You know what, David?’
‘What?’
‘You need medication.’
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‘Come on, Chris,’ he implored. ‘Don’t be a pain. Look,’ he sprang
towards the opposite wall and opened the glass cover of the clock.
‘See? All done. Simple as that.’
Chris sighed in disgust. ‘I need some fresh air,’ she said, rising
from her chair and picking up the torch.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked, alarmed at the prospect of being
left alone.
‘Outside, David, to be with the moon flowers. You know, they
only bloom at night.’ She turned around to face him at the door.
‘And tonight, David,’ her eyes flashed wildly in the light, ‘tonight
the moon is full.’
Shit.
And, as David’s only sane companion vanished quietly into the
cape of night, it suddenly dawned upon him that the torch went
with her too...
There were no lights on in Harry’s room. No lights and no
company. Patients don’t usually sleep on their own, but there was
no point letting him disturb the others. He’d be all right in the
morning. After a night alone in the cell.
Had anyone been with Harry, however, they may have thought
otherwise. Would have seen that sleep was not altogether kind to
him. Would have noticed signs of a growing restlessness in his
spirit.
Beginning with twitches and frowns, at length his body began to
twist and writhe like a trapped animal struggling to escape. Tiny
beads of sweat, sparkling like pearls in the moonlight wafting
through the window, formed on his troubled brow. And, as they
slowly trickled down the wet sides of his anguished face, his
tongue rolled in the dryness of his mouth.
And yet, Harry did not wake, perhaps could not wake, from the
private horror of his dreams.
Someone was there, he knew it, felt it, waiting patiently in the
shadows. A presence, unseen, unheard, odourless, but
331
definitely there. Indefinitely there. But for what? For him? Why
bother with the likes of Harry Penfold, ward of the State?
Harry’s nerves stretched in high tension. He knew that he mustn’t
give in. Mustn’t panic. Mustn’t fear. And yet he was afraid. And
sensed that it knew he was, and that it fed upon that knowledge as
a predator feeds upon flesh.
He decided to force its hand. Why play its game? Anything was
better than this.
‘What do you want from me?’ he challenged, relieved to have
acted but fearful of the response. ‘Come out! Show yourself!’
And then, like a lean tiger skulking towards its prey on soft
padded feet, it moved. Came out. Came forward from the corner
darkness into the penumbra zone.
‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ he cried. ‘Speak, damn it!’
But it did not.
‘Speak you bastard, or so help me...’
Slowly the face came clearer into light. ‘Hello, Harry,’ it grinned,
laughing as Harry turned away. ‘What’s the matter, Harry, cat got
your tongue?’
‘What do you want from me?’
‘I think you know the answer to that, Harry,’ it said, toying with
his name.
Cat and mouse.
Harry could feel its gaze burning into his spirit, making an image
there in the home of his soul, a cold hologram of itself. ‘Who are
you?’ he cried.
‘I’m the face in the mirror, Harry. Look!’ And as it laughed, the
image grew sinisterly into life. Within.
‘No!’ He yelled, raising his arm to shield his eyes.

332
But you can’t shut out what lives inside.
‘Don’t deny me now, Harry. After all, you’re the one who sent for
me.’
‘I..?’
‘Who conjured me.’
Harry faltered. He could not think. Could not fight. All he could
do was shake his bowed head and stutter. ‘I..?’
‘Yes, Harry. You’re responsible alright.’
It smiled; a lingering smile that crept into the very core of Harry’s
mind, seeking out some unknown internal hollow in which to nest.
A spider’s nest. Harry could look no more but neither could he
avoid its gaze. It glowed in an inner space. His flesh shook in
revulsion of the parasitic presence he could not escape.
He hated it, wanted desperately to destroy it, as one in panic seeks
to crush an insect found crawling in one’s bed.
‘Time to pay the ferry-man, Harry.’
Harry was now in the grip of panic. He tried to fight it, tried to
shut the beast out, but was subordinate to its will; a cowering host
shaking in fear. Obedient.
‘You see, you can’t kill me, Harry,’ it said, twisting the fibre of his
soul. ‘Unless...’ Death haunted it’s hungry eyes.
Harry struggled. And struggled. He pulled every strain of his
accessible self together and, binding it with the remnant of his
will, denied the intruder. Spurned it, until, at last, all his strength
had deserted him, and he fell, exhausted, to the bare dead floor of
his under being.
But still the intruder did not relent. Grasping him brutally by the
inner throat it demanded. And Harry listened. ‘Look at me!’ it
said.
And Harry looked.

333
‘I’m your judge and jury, Harry. And you’re as guilty as sin. You
can’t run from me. It’s a logical absurdity. You know about those,
don’t you? Sooner or later, you have to face up to it, Harry.’
And looking upon it with his mind’s wide eye Harry saw a
grotesque parody of himself. The one and only Harry Penfold.
Hero and traitor.
‘And now, it’s time to pay,’ it said, as Harry, submitting to
commands that were not his, began to twist the top sheet into rope.
‘You’ve been tried, judged and sentenced Harry. I suppose you
could have pleaded insanity. But insanity after the fact is no
excuse. Is it? You may not remember, but you did it just the same.
You sold out, Harry. Sold your friends down the drain for a
promise that no one kept. Sold your soul to the devil of your own
free will.’
Harry began to cry. He shivered uncontrollably as his body was
drawn towards the high barred window framing the pallid moon.
Suddenly, it seemed to let him go. To let him speak.
‘I...’
‘Yes, Harry?’
‘I couldn’t help it. My family...’
It shook its head. ‘Not good enough, Harry. Besides, I can’t
forgive you, can I? You thought you were some sort of hero.
Fixing Mortimer up like that. A real hero. Look at Harry, isn’t he
great? Doing what was right of his own free will.’
Harry felt it seize hold of him again. ‘What are you doing?’
‘You can’t have it both ways can you, Harry?’ it asked, tightening
its grip. ‘I mean, you have to take responsibility for the bad things
too. The logic is inescapable. That’s your speciality, isn’t it?
Logic. But you’re a good man, Harry. I know that,’ it grinned, as
Harry’s hands tugged hard on the knot. ‘As good as dead.’
Suddenly, the creature seemed to spring from his mind, offering
him a moment of synthetic freedom, releasing him to stumble
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freely from a tumbling chair into empty space.
Oblivion.
‘Bloody Hell!’ Chris ran frantically for the door to the ward and
thrust her key into the old worn lock. ‘David!’ She screamed as
she ran passed the office. ‘Penfold. Quick!’
It’s not an easy task to cut a kicking man down.

335
Fish Twenty Five: Common Ground

The significance of the attempted suicide of Harry Penfold is of


course relative, depending upon your point of view. To Harry, it
was, and would probably always be, the most important event in
his life. He had stood before the dark abyss of death; had fallen
against the scream of his own will towards the limit of that single,
final thought beyond which, he believed, lay absolutely nothing.
And Harry had learnt from it too. Had learnt the troubling truth
that life is a swift shadow that does not abide.
From the perspective of the medical and administrative staff of
Parklands, however, the event signified that the patient `Harry
Penfold,’ had become a problem. His case was reviewed, his
diagnosis was modified and his medication was changed.
As a further precaution against his premature demise within their
institution, it was decided to provide him with `special’ nursing
care: around the clock observation. When not with other patients
under group supervision, Harry was to be accompanied by a nurse.
When he sat in the sun, someone was to sit with him, and when he
slept, a nurse was to keep vigil in his room. Visitors were to be
briefed on Harry’s situation. In reality, only Milly really came. No
friends. No one except Milly and an old priest who called by now
and then. Still, that was to be expected in a place like this.
To tell the truth, Harry didn’t mind the old sky pilot dropping in
occasionally. He didn’t exactly feel young himself these days, and
the old man’s humility seemed to set the right tone for courtyard
conversation. In fact, they got to be on pretty friendly terms as the
days since the ‘incident’ grew into weeks.
Father Thomas never said very much but he was a good listener
and he didn’t seem to mind Harry’s questions either. Questions
which became more like propositions in an argument as Harry
gradually regained his strength.

336
One day, one sharp, bright, late winter morning, Harry thought he
had finally put all the jigsaw pieces together in his mind, and
resolved to project its image to his friend.
He was sitting quietly on a bench in the sun, having just finished
writing a letter when Father Thomas approached casually, saluting
the nurse as he passed.
‘Good morning, Father,’ greeted Harry, before sealing the
envelope tight.
‘Isn’t it,’ replied the priest looking up at the sky. ‘Just glorious.
I’m not interrupting anything, am I, Harry?’
‘Just finished,’ said Harry, inviting him to sit. ‘As a matter of fact,
I was hoping you’d drop by.’
The old priest smiled and took a seat, relaxing next to Harry on the
bench. He had a feeling that this was the day he’d been waiting
for, the day Harry would open up.
Harry took his time. He wasn’t much interested in small talk but
didn’t want to rush into it either. That would be unsociable.
Silence served for conversation until he was ready to speak.
‘Father,’ he began at last, with quiet caution, ‘do you think I
deserved all this?’
‘You’re not being punished, Harry. You’ve been ill. This is a
hospital.’
‘Yes. Ill. But did I bring it all on myself? Am I guilty as well as
ill?’
‘You sound like Job,’ smiled the priest.
‘Job was innocent.’
‘That’s what I mean. You think you are too, don’t you, Harry?’
‘If people don’t always get what they deserve, I might be.’
‘Certainly. You might.’

337
‘So you think that sometimes they do deserve to be punished?
That’s what you teach, isn’t it? That people can be guilty?’
The priest smiled at Harry’s advance. ‘Do you think you’re
entirely innocent, Harry? That in your whole life you haven’t
wronged?’
‘No. I’m learning to live with the knowledge that I have wronged.
Milly, everyone. But...’
‘Yes?’ prompted the old man, gently.
‘I’m not sure. It’s not like I’m running away from it any more,
from what I did or was. It’s just that I can’t help but feel things
couldn’t have been any different. Do you know what I mean?’
The old man thought it over. ‘Would you make the same decision
again, Harry?’
‘No. Not now. But somehow I feel that under the same
circumstances, the old Harry Penfold would make the same
decision. Must make it.’
‘I see.’
‘Do you?’
‘I see why you can’t feel guilty, then.’
‘But I do. I feel guilty. But, frankly, I don’t think I am. I don’t
think anyone is, really. That is, everyone is innocent when you get
right down to it. Aren’t they? We play out our lives as though
they’re ours but they’re not. Then we die. Everyone is a victim,
including me. Am I right, Father, or is it just more self-deception?’
‘What are you trying to do, Harry? Do me out of a job?’
Harry laughed. ‘Sorry.’
‘I should hope so. I spend half my day and most of my life
forgiving people and now you tell me that no one’s really to
blame.’
Harry smiled. ‘I guess it does sound ungrateful,’ he said. ‘But
338
do you think I really need forgiveness?’
The old man frowned. ‘You’re the best judge of that, Harry. I
can’t make you ask.’
Harry looked down. ‘You want me to confess. I wish I could. But
I’m not a Catholic. I would forgive myself if I could. But I can’t.
That’s the problem.’
‘You don’t have to be a Catholic to ask God’s forgiveness, my
son. I don’t think God is as narrow minded as that, even if She
wasn’t Catholic.’
Harry laughed. ‘No. I suppose not. But you would have to believe
in God. Wouldn’t you.’
‘And what do you believe in, Harry?’
Harry sank back and sighed. ‘I don’t know. Science, maybe.’
‘Science!’
‘You’re surprised?’
‘Science may be a powerful force, Harry, capable of great things,
good things. But you can’t ground anything on it. You may as well
believe in the wind as far as that goes. Omnia exeunt in
mysterium. In the end, science knows nothing, Harry. Every
branch of human enquiry when pursued to the end terminates in
mystery.’
‘That’s a rather extreme, sceptical position to take, isn’t it, Father?
We have to assume some things. But that’s no reason for science
to give up.’
‘From where I sit, Harry, you’re the sceptic. We appropriated that
word long ago.’
‘Sorry.’
‘I should think so.’
‘But you don’t agree with me?’

339
‘Look, Harry, you think you can explain things by asking "why".
But I think you will find, that if you pursue an enquiry in any
direction at all you’ll eventually run out of answers. Science is like
a blind mole searching for truth on the ground. One day, it
stumbles across an exposed root leading to the gnarled trunk of a
tree. Climbing the tree, it travels along numerous forks onto ever
smaller branches until, eventually, clinging precariously to a
slender twig, it thinks it has found the edge of the universe and
turns back.’
‘Which proves?’
‘Don’t be like the blind mole, Harry. By all means search. But do
it with a sense of humility.’
Harry nodded. ‘I suppose the mole may be blind,’ he conceded,
‘but, is it any more rational to believe in God?’
‘Logic is not my field,’ replied Father Thomas. ‘But I believe you
could say with more confidence that scientific laws are ultimately
groundless than that God does not exist. For God’s existence is at
worst unknown, whereas scientific laws, even `valid’ are no more
than notable coincidences; beneficial, perhaps, but empty of real
meaning, nonetheless.’
‘Well, supposing God does exist,’ ventured Harry, ‘does that
imply that we’re free?’
‘I’m not a Jesuit, Harry. Just one of your run-of-the mill priests.
Debating theology is not my strong point any more. Too old,’ he
smiled.
‘I thought that was your job?’
‘It used to be. I had a fire in my belly once. And a tongue for a
sword. But these days I tend to specialise in the faith and humility
side of things.’
‘And forgiveness.’
‘That follows, doesn’t it? By your logic.’
‘Not really. By my logic there’s no need.’
340
‘No, Harry, by your logic there’s no requirement but there may
still be a need. And take my word for it, there is a need.’
‘Are you taking my side?’
‘Heaven forbid, Harry. But if, as you say, no one is to blame, then
forgiveness, if sought, is almost mandatory isn’t it? We’re only
human. Aren’t we?’
‘Perhaps that was the message of Christ, eh?’
‘You could be forgiven for thinking it.’
Harry looked into the old man’s grey eyes. ‘We seem to have
found some common ground in there somewhere, Father.
Wouldn’t you say?’
‘Maybe. But as someone once said: Submit thyself unto God and
humble thy sense to faith, and the light of knowledge shall be
given thee. In such degree as shall be profitable and necessary...’
‘You mean don’t ask too many questions?’
‘I mean reason ought to follow faith, not break upon it.’
‘If you have faith to begin with. But why should you? Why
shouldn’t you have to know about God first. And how do you
know that God exists?’
Father Thomas paused before replying. ‘At first I didn’t, Harry’ he
said. ‘Not really.’
‘But you do now?’
‘Yes.’
‘Why?’
The old priest sat erect and took a deep breath. ‘Do you know how
I came to be here, Harry? Here with you, I mean.’
Harry shook his head.
‘No, of course you don’t. I never told you. Actually, Harry, you
341
came to me.’
‘What?’
‘You came to my church. If I might call it that. You entered the
house of God searching for something and I found you asleep on
the floor, your arms spread out, and the shadow of the holy cross
draped over you like a shield.
‘I knew then, without doubt, that God had sent you to me and I
prayed over your body until the shadow faded; until they took you
away.’
Harry tried to remember. But couldn’t. He believed the old man,
though. He knew it was true. And it shook him a little. So many
things had happened. So many strange things had passed.
‘And that’s how I know it is that God exists, Harry. I know
because every fibre in my being knows. I can’t not know. And I
know by the particular path that God has created for me to follow.’
Harry stared silently into the old man’s wrinkled face. ‘Yes,’ he
said at last. ‘I think I understand.’
‘I think you do, Harry. I think you do.’
Harry nodded gently. ‘You know, that was a pretty good sermon,’
he said, warmly. ‘Don’t give up your weekend job.’
‘Thanks. We all need a little encouragement, now and then.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘I’ll bet you do, my son.’ Father Thomas looked at his watch.
‘And now it’s time I made a move, Harry,’ he said, getting up
from the bench. ‘No rest for the wicked, eh?’
Harry was reluctant to let his friend go.
‘Goodbye, Harry,’ replied the priest resting a hand on Harry’s
shoulder to prevent him from rising too.
‘Goodbye, Father... Look after yourself.’

342
‘Look after yourself, Harry. Like they say "rejoice in hope, be
patient in adversity." That’s good advice.’
‘I’ll make a note of it.’
Father Thomas was almost at the courtyard door when someone
called from behind. Turning around, he saw Harry running
towards him waving something in the air.
‘Sorry, Father,’ said Harry, panting, ‘but could you do me a favour
and post this? It’s important. Something I’ve been putting off.’

Doris sorted through the mail. A minute marked ‘URGENT’


caught her eye. She deposited it in Mortimer’s tray.
Mortimer plucked it from the top when she had gone. He looked
first at the signature block. It was from Jeremy Banks, one of his
own Directors, software maintenance. A letter from Harry was
attached. The text of the minute was brief, disquietingly so.
‘Received this letter from Penfold. JONAH programs destroyed,
as instructed.’
As instructed? Alarm bells began to ring. He turned to Harry’s
letter:

‘Dear Jeremy,
Sorry about JONAH. Crazy thing to do, I know. All is not lost,
though, as you may be aware. The corrupt code is just a simple
ASCII transformation. Basically every character is now the
former’s code plus five with a modulus function for wrap around.
i.e. a->f; c->h; etc. Trivial, but I didn’t have much time. Looks
weird, though, doesn’t it? Should be easy to fix it if you haven’t
done so already. Sorry about the doco, though. Shredded the lot,
I’m afraid. But at least JONAH’s okay.
Cheers,
Harry’
The significance of the expression ‘destroyed, as instructed,’
343
is of course relative, depending upon your point of view.

344
Fish Twenty Six: Visitors

Father Thomas never came back. Harry reckoned the old man had
probably figured he’d done all he could for now and would leave
the rest up to God. If so, the old man was probably right. Harry
didn’t need him any more. Things were in the process of sorting
themselves out. Life was beginning to look up. He was sleeping
better, too: no more nightmares. Even the weather was improving.
Rejoice in hope. Wasn’t that the old priest’s advice?
And Harry’s progress hadn’t gone unnoticed by the medical staff
either. Gradually, they began to relax their protective web, began
to trust him on his own. Sometimes they allowed him the privilege
of venturing outside the ward’s walls, perhaps to help one of the
ancillary staff drop off linen to the central laundry, or to fetch the
ward’s meals from the main kitchen in large aluminium
containers.
Harry was a willing worker too. He enjoyed walking or driving
through the hospital grounds. The spring flowers were out in
abundance now. You had to hand it to the gardeners in this place.
Talk about green thumbs.
His favourite spot was the rose garden on top of the hill, which he
would go well out of his way to see, provided the nurse could be
persuaded. The roses in the centre were red, blood red. A ring of
yellow and orange ones surrounded these and, at the rim, a sea of
bright white roses formed the border to the lawn. The overall
effect, it seemed to him, was of a living, injured being. Deep
inside, the heart was still bleeding, but around this tender core,
healing was well under way, and on the outside everything looked
fine.
Today was a special day for Harry. Milly was coming to take him
out for a bit. It had all been arranged. The Doctor was satisfied
with the results of his medication, now that it had been sorted out,
and everyone took the view that an excursion would do him good.
The nursing staff seemed particularly pleased with the
345
decision, which the Doctor thought would do them a little good
too. It isn’t often someone graduates from Ward Nine.
Milly and Harry had decided on a picnic by the beach. Harry
hadn’t seen the sea for months, which was a long time for him,
and Milly thought it would be good to get out in the sun where
Sarah could run around without too much fuss. And Scruffy could
come along too.
The drive through the bustling city only took twenty minutes. No
one said very much. Sarah slept most of the way, strapped into her
seat in the back, and Scruffy just coiled up quietly on the carpeted
floor of the station-wagon’s rear compartment. Milly did the
driving, remarking occasionally upon the traffic, while Harry
stared through the passenger window at the 3-D movie outside.
They parked next to a grassy hill, just above the beach, and Milly
smiled briefly at Harry before they got out. Harry retrieved the old
travelling rug from the back. He liked that rug. It had rubber on
one side, so it didn’t pick up burrs or get wet, and the upper side
was a rich green tartan colour that he somehow associated with
picnics. They had bought it the same day they had bought the
station wagon, all set for day trips. Only there hadn’t been as
many outings as Harry would have liked. Rising affluence had
been accompanied by increasing responsibilities at work. Late
nights and weekends at the office attending to problems that were
always urgent. And then there was that re-equipment phase, what
a nightmare that had been. Well, things would be different this
time round. Priorities would change, he decided, as he spread out
the rug in the sun.
He watched the blue green sea heave into the bay, rolling powerful
waves towards the shore. Their crests sparkled brilliantly in the
sunlight as they broke and lapped upon the clean yellow sand.
You’d think it was all a game, the sea was having fun and the sand
enjoyed every lick.
A woman strolled along the beach, casually looking for shells.
Seagulls circled above the water casually looking for fish. And a
ship languished on the far horizon. It was almost as good as a
Mogadon ad.
346
Harry’s eyes followed Sarah as Milly unpacked their lunch. Sarah
looked funny as she swaggered about in her bonnet and overalls;
poking the ground with a twig, pulling out every daisy she could
find.
‘She’s grown up,’ said Harry, ‘quite the young lady now.’
‘Yes,’ replied Milly with a hint of pride.
Harry looked at the ground. ‘Has it been difficult for her, do you
think?’
Milly sat up. ‘She’s coped very well. We both have,’ she said,
placing her hand on his as if to say ‘everything will work out fine.’
Harry slowly withdrew from her contact and focused on the beach
again.
Milly thought it timely to change the subject. ‘Which reminds
me,’ she said. ‘Guess who rang yesterday?’
‘Who?’ asked Harry, quietly.
‘Warren.’
‘Did he now?’ Harry brightened. ‘And what did he have to say for
himself?’
‘Well, he said everyone sends their regards and they all hope to
see you back soon.’
‘Back? That’s a laugh. I’m surprised they coughed up with sick
leave, after-’
‘Rosa made them. Apparently she insisted on your reinstatement
too.’
‘What?’
‘The union says it was all the company’s fault for pushing its staff
too far.’
‘Good old Rosa.’ Still using me. ‘Did he say anything about
JONAH?’
347
Milly hesitated. She hadn’t wanted to tell him just yet, but she
could see that it could no longer be avoided. ‘It’s gone, Harry,’ she
said. ‘They wiped it out or something. By mistake.’
Harry shook his head. Stupid bastards. Not that it was their fault.
But...
‘Look, Milly,’ he said, turning to face her, ‘I’m not sure I could go
back.’
Milly smiled. ‘It’s all right, Harry. Whatever you say. There’s
plenty of time to decide.’
‘True,’ he sighed. ‘I’m not exactly out of the mad house yet, am
I?’ He tore out a clump of grass at his side and threw it away
restively.
Milly watched with concern. Something about his action hurt her.
She frowned.
‘You don’t blame me, do you, Harry?’
‘Blame you? For what? Locking me up?’
‘I could understand it if you did.’
‘No. Why should I? I must have seemed pretty crazy. I must have
been pretty crazy. No. I don’t blame anyone. Not even me. When
you think about it, I’m lucky they didn’t send me to prison and
throw away the key.’
Milly felt lightened. Not that the prospect of prison was anything
to smile about, but she had been relieved of a threatening doubt.
Now she knew things would be alright. ‘I’m glad you see it like
that,’ she said.
Harry looked at Sarah, running eagerly towards him.
‘What have you got there, then?’ He asked.
She held out a flower, grinning.
Harry fought back the tears welling in his eyes.

348
But an outing isn’t escape. And bureaucracies do not run. Harry
learned that lesson long ago.
Patience in adversity. The old priest’s parting words had become a
kind of rosary for him which his mind ran over and over again.
For a while they gave him comfort. But as the days of his sentence
mounted beyond expectation, he had eventually sucked the words
dry.
It was then, when Harry’s faith was almost at an ebb, when hope
was like a clouded moon, that Raphe dropped by.
‘G’day, Harry,’ he said.
Harry looked up from the bench, squinting into the sun.
‘Raphe?’ he muttered.
‘How’s it going, mate?’
Harry frowned. He looked around, furtively. A male and female
nurse were absorbed in conversation under the far verandah.
‘Leave me alone, Raphe,’ he whispered with as little fuss as he
could.
‘Fair go, Harry. I’ve come a long way,’ Raphe replied aloud.
Harry turned away, in part to evade Raphe, in part to deceive his
keepers. ‘Just go away. Please! You know I can’t talk. You’ll ruin
everything.’
‘But you can talk to visitors, Harry. In fact, it’ll look a little funny
if you don’t.’
‘Oh no. No way. I’m almost out. I’m not taking any chances,
Raphe. None.’
Raphe smiled. ‘You’ve got to have a bit more faith than that,
Harry. Hang on a tick,’ he said, before turning about and walking
towards the nurses.
Harry looked on sceptically as Raphe engaged his guardians.
349
They see him! He began to feel anxious. What was he up to? What
was he saying? Then Raphe turned around and sauntered back
towards Harry’s bench.
It couldn’t have been much, anyway.
‘I don’t understand, Raphe?’ said Harry in the shadow of his
friend.
‘I know, Harry. I know.’
Harry felt helpless. He wasn’t even curious any more. He just
wanted to stay out of trouble. ‘What do you want with me now,
Raphe?’ he asked, softly.
‘I thought we might go for a walk, Harry. It’s a fine day.’
‘And that’s what you were talking about?’ asked Harry, nodding
towards the nurses.
‘Come on,’ said Raphe.
Harry thought it over, weighing up the pros and cons. It could be a
trick. But when you looked at it, it was risky either way. If Raphe
had squared it with the nurses, not going would look bad, anti-
social. And if he hadn’t, well he’d look bloody stupid just walking
out like he owned the joint. He looked down at Raphe’s shadow
and decided to take a punt. But he would play it safe too.
Rising non-committally to his feet, he walked beside Raphe
towards the door, as one might walk alone, absent mindedly. So
far so good. Shit, they’re looking this way. He’s coming over!
This would take skill, like when you’re getting into a dinghy and
you’ve got one foot on the wharf and one foot in the boat. You
could end up pretty wet. He dropped his gaze and stared idly at the
ground.
Raphe was the first to speak. ‘G’day,’ he said.
‘G’day,’ said the nurse.
‘G’day,’ added Harry, just to be on the safe side.

350
‘Going out?’ he asked, retrieving his key.
‘Ta,’ said Raphe.
‘If it’s all right?’ mumbled Harry.
The nurse obligingly opened the courtyard door and escorted them
through. ‘Lunch is in an hour, Harry,’ he said, opening the lock to
the outside door, ‘if you intend eating in.’
Harry looked up at him. ‘Thanks,’ he replied, as the nurse closed
the door.
Out!
Raphe’s story was looking good. Still, cool is the code. No point
taking risks. Just out for a stroll.
Raphe walked on at a brisk pace. Harry dawdled behind. ‘What’s
the matter, Harry?’ he asked, turning around and waiting with his
hands on his hips. ‘My gear out of date?’
Harry looked about the grounds before hazarding a reply. He
would have to shout. ‘Where are we going?’ he asked, closing the
gap.
‘Trust me.’
They were on a bee-line for the car park. Empty but for one.
‘Shit. It’s the Caddy.’
‘That’s right, Harry. A beauty, isn’t it. Picked it up at auction. One
owner. Gone to Rio, they said. There’s no substitute for cubes. Is
there, mate?’
What could he say? So it wasn’t a dream after all? But where did
Raphe fit in? Then Harry started to worry. Was he losing touch
again? Was this the beginning of another fantasy?
‘Come on, hop in,’ said Raphe.
Harry thought it over.

351
‘There’s a spare set of sunnies in the console,’ added Raphe,
sliding into the driver’s seat. He turned on the ignition and the big
motor sparked into life. Harry did too. He opened the door and
settled back for the ride.
Raphe slipped the T bar into drive. ‘Let’s cruise,’ he said.
They cut around the centre of town in easy moving style, splicing
into beach bound traffic on the Eastern Way. The sky was blue,
the air was warm, and the music was fast and clean. Harry was
feeling good. Young good. Free good. ‘Where are we going,
Raphe?’ he asked again, more relaxed than before.
‘Wherever you want, Harry,’ replied his willing friend. ‘Your
wish is my command.’
Harry paused to reflect. Like when you’re a kid and you only get
one wish and you don’t want to blow it.
‘Well, Raphe,’ he said wistfully, ‘you know I’ve seen a lot of the
moon, but I haven’t seen much of the sun.’
‘OK, Harry,’ replied Raphe, with a warming smile.

352
Fish Twenty Seven: It Could Have Been Worse

Harry lazed in the luxury of after-sleep; awake but not awake. The
sun poured through the open curtains of the bedroom, falling
directly onto the double bed which he enjoyed alone. He rolled
onto his chest, revelling in the space, splaying his naked arms
across the full width of the mattress, basking in the warming light.
But every pleasure has its limits and every dream an ending.
‘Knock, knock!’ said a voice from behind.
Harry’s thoughts tentatively moved into the light of the conscious
stage. His central processor ran through its standard start up
routine including a full system’s check. There were some memory
problems. He massaged his forehead.
‘Good morning,’ repeated the voice.
Processors struggled to respond to the unwanted input, clicking
through functions of who and where until his mind arrived at the
most probable explanation of his present circumstances. Output...
‘Milly?’ he hazarded, with squinting eyes.
Milly shook her head reproachfully, advancing boldly with a tray
of finger toast, egg and tea.
‘Harry?’ she replied in kind.
Harry fumbled for the clock. 9.00 a.m.. It didn’t help. ‘What day is
it?’ he asked.
Milly couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Friday,’ she obliged, taking a seat
on the bed and putting down the tray. ‘Don’t worry, I rang and
told them you’d be a bit late. Not that they were surprised, after
yesterday.’
‘Yesterday?’

353
>Find?: Thursday
>Retrieve?: Events-Main thereof.
Harry’s registers began loading in data from on-line memory.
‘Yes, you know: the day before today,’ she mocked. ‘The day you
spent at the pub. At least you rang the office. Which is more than
you did for me. If it hadn’t been for your mate, you’d probably
still be there.’
Mate? ‘What mate?’
‘Your drinking mate.’
>Find?: Drinking mate
>Retrieve?: Name.
‘Did you happen to notice his eyes?’
asked Harry.
‘I certainly did.’
Raphe.
‘At least he was conscious. Quite a nice bloke really. Said
something about it all being his fault and not to blame you too
much. Then he just took off.’
‘Took off?’
‘On shank’s pony, down the street and into the night.’
Into the night. Data conflict. ‘But you didn’t meet him. He got out
first.’
‘Out of what first?’
‘The car.’
‘How would you know? He carried you in.’
‘What?’
354
‘I suppose I should have asked him inside, but, under the
circumstances..’
‘Did he say what we did?’
‘He said you went fishing. But I didn’t see any.’
Fish. ‘Yes. I brought some home.’
‘Harry,’ she said reprovingly.
‘No, I bought some. From a shop. I... Don’t you remember?’
‘You hate fish.’
True. Tick... Tick... Tick.
‘Who was he anyway?’
‘Who?’
‘Your mate.’
‘Good question.’
‘What?’
‘A hitch-hiker. Just a hitch-hiker. I picked him up on the freeway.’
Something caught Milly’s attention as Harry propped himself up
on his elbows. ‘What’s that?’ she asked, pointing to his shoulder.
He followed her eyes to the top of his right arm, rolling his biceps
muscle with his left hand to get a clearer view of it.
A tattoo!
‘Show me.’
Harry was confused. ‘It’s a fish.’ he said, stating the obvious.
‘A fish...? Is it permanent?’
Harry looked up innocently. ‘I suppose it is,’ he replied,
massaging his temple with his hand.

355
‘Well don’t you even remember, Harry? I mean it isn’t everyday
you disfigure yourself, is it? No wonder Raphe took off in such a
hurry. What else did you two get up to?’
Harry stammered. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘Nothing like that.’
‘I hope not.’
‘Its’ like a dream,’ he said, staring at the small blue fish.
Milly ran her fingers over its fins. ‘Oh well,’ she sighed,
forgivingly. ‘I suppose it could have been worse.’
‘True,’ agreed Harry, glad of the pardon. ‘It could have been a
whale.’
Milly smiled. ‘Actually. I’ve always had a thing about sailors, you
know.’
He looked into her hazel eyes. ‘Yeah?’
‘Are there any others?’ she asked referring to the specimen.
Harry hesitated. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘You don’t sound very sure, sailor. Maybe we should have a look.
Just to make sure.’

Too late to catch the morning bus. Again.


But this time things were different. Everything was different. Even
the weather. It was like spring, but Harry knew that it wasn’t.
Winter was still to come. Bit of an Indian summer this year, he
thought, as he cruised across the bridge in the mid-morning sun.
The harbour waters sparkled below. He had a funny feeling he’d
been here before. Not here as in space, which, of course, he had.
But here as in space-time. He picked up a summery tune on stereo
radio and let in the sea breeze through the driver’s side window.
Good day for it. One arm out and one arm in. Cruising.
A train overtook him on the left hand side of the bridge. Teenage
kids in school uniforms were laughing in the rear carriage. Guess
that would be Sarah one day. Wonder what she’ll think of her
356
old man? Probably not a lot. Well, there’d be someone else in her
life by then. That’s the way it was for him and Milly. Funny how
thinking about the future can take you back. Mind loops.
Magic. A vacant parking spot right in front. This was meant to be,
Harry, everything points to it. Kismet.
The elevator was in order too, for once.
‘Top floor, robot,’ said Harry, pressing a button with panache.
The lift complied immediately, whisking him straight to the top.
‘Thank you,’ it seemed to say, as its gleaming doors opened wide.
Harry walked straight ahead, more determined than proud.
Mortimer’s door was open.
‘Morning, Doris,’ he hailed, by-passing her and knocking on the
door frame of her boss’ office.
Mortimer looked up from the morning paper to see who it was. It
might be a superior.
Penfold? This isn’t like him.
‘Hilary,’ said Harry, like he was addressing an equal. He didn’t
mean to be rude. But he didn’t want to defer, either.
There are, thought Mortimer, two ways of dealing with
insubordination. His intuition counselled against the first, this
time. ‘Harry. Come in,’ he said, politely, without relinquishing
control.
Harry extended the invitation to its logical limit and helped
himself to a seat; a gesture which Mortimer did not fail to notice.
‘I rang yesterday, Harry,’ said Mortimer, as he folded up the
newspaper and tucked it neatly into a drawer, ‘but it seems you
weren’t in?’ Take that.
‘Yes,’ replied Harry, coolly.
Mortimer rose and strolled towards a cabinet. ‘Care for a
357
drink?’
‘Thanks, but it’s a little early for me.’ Never drink with the devil.
Mortimer poured some soda, drank it calmly and returned to the
relative security of his desk. ‘Well, Harry, any news?’ he asked,
digging in for the duration.
Harry withdrew an envelope from his sports coat and placed it on
Mortimer’s desk.
Mortimer’s suspicions were aroused. He let the envelope lay there,
untouched, ‘What is it?’ he asked, sniffing around it cautiously,
like a fish at bait. You never know where the hooks are.
‘My resignation,’ replied Harry, curtly.
Mortimer took a deep breath and relaxed into his chair. Well, that
explains it. ‘I see,’ he said, non-committally, returning his hands
to the desk. But he wasn’t greatly troubled by it. No one’s
resignation could possibly pose a threat to him. Everyone is
expendable in a bureaucracy. Still, Harry could be useful at the
moment. It would be better if he didn’t leave just now. Not yet.
‘How long have you been with us, Harry. Ten, fifteen years?’
‘I’m the one who told Rosa about F.I.S.H.E.’ he said.
Good. Now that’s cleared up. ‘Is that where you were yesterday?’
‘No. I was at the beach, as a matter of fact. Leave without pay.
You needn’t approve it.’
Mortimer smiled benevolently. How naive can you get. ‘You’re an
honest man, Harry.’
Bullshit.
‘You know, Harry,’ Mortimer continued, ‘it really doesn’t matter.
About Rosa, I mean. Not as far as we’re concerned. Now that
you’ve told us. That’s the main thing. Rosa was bound to find out
sooner or later anyway. In fact, I’m glad you told her.’
‘Glad?’ That threw him.

358
‘Yes. Now she trusts you.’
For a minute. A short one.
‘We’ve got the future to think about, Harry. Rosa’s up to
something. You know her type. This country means nothing to
them. But you can still help us, Harry. What will be her next
move? How much support does she have? They’re the important
issues now.’
Harry shook his head. ‘Sorry. No dice.’
‘You’re throwing a lot away, Harry.’ Mortimer picked up the
envelope. So much for that idea. ‘Not that it’s a matter for our
concern. After all,’ he smiled, ‘everyone is expendable in a
bureaucracy.’
‘Yes, Hilary,’ smiled Harry, getting up. ‘That’s true.’
Mortimer couldn’t let it go at that. He tried the honest approach.
‘You know, Harry, we’re not as bad as you think.’
‘No?’ Snakesville.
‘No. There are no villains here. Just people who, like you, are
doing their best. And some times you have to be a bit of a bastard
to get things done.’
End of conversation.
Harry paused outside the door. ‘Goodbye, Doris,’ he said,
sincerely.
‘Bye, Harry,’ she returned, looking up. ‘And,’ she added warmly,
slowing him in his tracks, ‘all the best.’
‘Thanks.’
He took the stairs on the down trip. It seemed more in keeping
with his mood. Exiting at the third floor, he headed towards his
office. One last thing to do.
‘Morning Carol,’ he greeted as he entered the room.

359
She looked at her watch. ‘What’s left of it,’ she smiled.
‘Okay, okay.’
‘How’s your head, Boss?’ asked Warren, mischievously.
‘Still there,’ replied Harry, with an embarrassed grin.
Rita’s phone began to ring and she answered it without delay.
‘Before I forget,’ said Carol, pointing her pen towards his desk,
‘Doris rang.’
Harry nodded. ‘Thanks. I’ve just come from there.’
‘And,’ she said, waving her pen in the air, ‘I think we can safely
say that JONAH is finally sorted out.’
‘Famous last words,’ Harry grinned.
Rita put down the phone. ‘Users,’ she said.
Harry cleared his throat. ‘I’ve a.. I’ve got a bit of an
announcement to make,’ he said, resting against the front of his
desk.
Then he told them. Straight. Nobody said much. Some surprise.
Some concern. Sure, he’d stay in touch, and references were
promised soon.
Afterwards, Harry just packed a few things into a box, and made a
couple of calls to friends. It was lunchtime by then, and he was on
his own. So much the better. No ragged goodbyes as he quietly
slipped away.
Outside, the sun still shone and the air was still fresh and clean.
Strange, Harry thought to himself, as he headed back to his car.
Strange how things had gone for him lately in the game life. He
didn’t blame anyone. There was nothing to blame anyone for.
And, looking backing on events, it all seemed pretty inevitable,
really. What wasn’t, when you thought about it? Not that you
should just let everything go. You can’t live like that. You have to
play the game. And on the game plane people are responsible. And

360
Mortimer is a bastard. At least, now and then.
And on the game plane you have to chose. Chose the right course
from the wrong. But you have to be humble about it, too. After all,
like the old priest said, you’re only human.
A lot of people in his shoes would be feeling pretty worried about
now, having just tossed it all in. Including, until recently, him. But
Harry wasn’t worried in the least. He had a funny feeling, deep
inside, that with a bit of effort things might just come together for
him. And that, somehow, everything would work out in the end…

‘You’re a hard bloke to wake,’ whispered Tangles as she removed


her hand from our hero’s rising shoulder.
‘What is it?’ he asked, startled.
‘Shshsh. You’re not going to believe this mate,’ she said, pointing
to the gate.
‘A miracle!’ declared Erasmus, recollecting Paul’s fortune at
Philippi.
‘Monkey business,’ explained Tangles as she explained how a
certain light fingered friend had delivered the key into her hands.
‘What are we waiting for?’ he urged, with less restraint than Paul
had shown.
‘Well, you mainly. But before you start charging out of here like a
bull at a gate, stop and think for a bit.’
‘Not again,’ muttered Erasmus who had rather hoped reality might
prove less strenuous than his thoughts.
‘What do you think they’ll do when they wake up and find out
we’re gone?’
‘Pursue us, probably.’

361
‘Catch us, more likely.’
‘What do you have in mind, then?’
‘The gun, Razzy,’ she hinted. ‘I’ll get the gun while you slug the
guard with a rock from behind.’
‘O.K.’ he agreed, once the vision of hero had seized his
imagination. ‘What about the Doctor?’ he asked, turning to where
Dr Rama had been.
‘He’s with Patrick. An old codger with his eyesight wouldn’t be
much chop for what we’ve got in mind. And if we fail, well, at
least he’ll get away.’
‘Fair enough,’ nodded a determined Erasmus. ‘After you,’ he said.
But let us, dear reader, not dwell unnecessarily upon this
distastefully violent event. Suffice it to say, that the guard was
struck and the carbine was snatched with no unintended mishap to
our friends.
‘Do you think he’s all right?’ enquired our repentant thug.
‘Sure he is,’ comforted Tangles, ‘right as rain, for a bloke whose
been bashed on the head with a rock.’
‘Oh. What now?’
‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of here.’
‘What about the bandit?’
‘Forget the bandit. The cops’ll catch him in the end. Come on,’
she urged, before leading the way in their moonlight escape. And,
not fifteen minutes later, somewhere in the cover of the
surrounding forest, Erasmus and Tangles were hailed by the sound
of a screeching monkey and happily reunited with their two
waiting friends.
‘What a great pleasure it is to see you!’ greeted Doctor Rama.
‘Same here, Doc.’

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‘Thanks, Patrick,’ said Erasmus with genuine gratitude in his
voice.
‘The credit is not mine,’ added Patrick, pointing to the monkey
sitting on his shoulder who, by clapping its hands at that very
moment, caused the whole company to laugh as they had never
laughed before, and with good reason to be sure.
Now their immediate escape effected, our travellers felt
sufficiently safe to debate whether they should press on in haste
and risk losing their way or hold up nearby until dawn. Out of
consideration for two of their number who had not slept since the
previous night, and for the seniority of another who had already
endured without complaint more than he was accustomed to, they
decided to opt for the latter. And, as luck would have it, Patrick
believed he had seen a likely spot on a rocky outcrop up ahead,
which they found just as he had said.
‘You have the eye of a soldier, Mr O’Rourke,’ said Doctor Rama,
speaking on behalf of the others who were, alike, as pleased with
the location.
‘Thank you, Doctor. As a matter of fact, I once was just that.’
‘Well I reckon that’s improved our chances no end,’ remarked
Tangles. ‘Here you go Patrick,’ she added, handing him the
carbine. ‘You must be pretty familiar with the likes of this, then.’
‘Oh yes,’ he acknowledged, examining the weapon with obviously
experienced hands.
‘Well, I guess it’s time to hit the sack,’ said Tangles, ‘in shifts,
that is.’
‘As I have already had the benefit of sleep, allow me to stand
guard for the remainder of the night,’ offered Erasmus. ‘If Patrick
will instruct me in the use that device.’
‘Of course. It is quite simple,’ said Patrick, handing him the gun.
Which it proved to be. And, this done, Erasmus sat himself in the
niche of a rock affording good vantage, while the others made the
best of their alfresco camp, which was somewhat less
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sheltered than the cave but, understandably, much preferred.
And here, dear reader, may I now suggest, would be a good
opportunity to take our rest too; the more so if you are, as I am,
habituated to reading from the snugness of your bed. But, if not,
and you have the vigour to continue, then by all means do so, for
in books at least we are the captains of our progress.
‘But have mercy upon us, good author, and bring this chapter to an
end, before you make dreamers of those who are now alert, and
insomniacs of the rest.’

364
Elephant Seven: Bon Voyage

I am pleased to report to those who may have, like our travellers,


rested from the exertions of the journey, that nothing untoward has
occurred in that interval; the peeping sun finding Erasmus still
vigilant, with one bleary eye musing on the peaceful slumber of
those entrusted to his safekeeping and the other one peeled for
danger.
Embracing his knees as he sat huddled against the first chill breeze
of dawn, Erasmus pondered whether to interrupt the golden
dreams of his companions and their odd snore or two. He
concluded, at length, that had they been able to make the decision
for themselves they would certainly wake up now but was spared
the unenviable task of implementing that decision by the screech
of an impatient monkey who could not suffer its master to sleep
longer than itself.
Startled by its shrill cries, soon all were up and about, or at least
all those who were able. For you were not to know, dear reader,
any more than the others, that the stoic Doctor had earlier twisted
his ankle and that it had now become so swollen that he could not
stand upon it without aid.
‘Do not let my clumsiness handicap your escape,’ he advised. ‘I
will make myself at home here for as long as my fate requires,
while you go on ahead.’
To their credit, however, his friends would not abandon the Doctor
to shift for himself in such dire circumstances, though they had the
right to, and might well have done, had they been a shade less
human and an ounce more judicial.
So, after binding his ankle as best they could using material torn
from the lining of his own coat, they set off together, on the road
to freedom, with Tangles in the lead sporting the carbine and
jockeyed by the monkey, while Doctor Rama followed close
behind, supported by the right and left shoulders of Erasmus
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and Patrick respectively.
In this way, they pushed on for an hour or so at a pretty decent
pace for a group thus encumbered, until they came to the banks of
a substantial river, where the thankful Doctor bathed his ankle in
its cool flowing waters, while Tangles ventured into the scrub.
‘You’re not going to believe this!’ she cried to a captive audience
upon her return. ‘I’ve found us a boat.’
‘A boat?’ repeated Erasmus as he was wont to do when excited.
‘That’s right, Razzy, a boat.’
‘Do you suppose its owners are in the vicinity?’ asked Erasmus.
‘Doubt it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it belongs to our
former host,’ she replied, as if to quell his scruples.
‘And surely no reasonable person would deny it to us under the
circumstances,’ added the Doctor as he moved his foot from side
to side to draw attention to their plight.
‘No, I suppose not,’ said Erasmus. ‘Where is it?’
‘Not far. Come on, I’ll need a hand.’
Erasmus eagerly removed the bushes that had served to hide the
hull and, with some difficulty, for it was solidly constructed, the
two managed to launch it into the river where they rowed round
the bend towards the others.
‘What a splendid vessel!’ exclaimed Patrick as they pulled in to
shore.
‘I trust it is seaworthy?’ hesitated the Doctor who was very much
the landlubber type.
‘Seaworthy? Why I’d say it’s bloody near unsinkable!’ replied
Tangles, to give him heart.
But the Doctor was not wholly convinced. ‘I seem to recall the
application of that same adjective to a vessel much larger than
this,’ he rejoined, ‘but let us not tempt our fate by recalling
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its.’
‘That’s the spirit, Doc. Well, all aboard who’s coming aboard!’
she announced.
And with little more ado, the good ship Providence, as Erasmus
had commissioned it, floated down stream with a crew as
confident as it was able; which is a good deal safer than one more
confident than able, but not quite as safe as the converse.

367
Elephant Eight: A Saga

‘What a pleasant voyage,’ expressed Doctor Rama who had got


the better of his pessimism and who now reclined with his back to
the bow and his brow to the sun, while Erasmus and Patrick rowed
amidships and Tangles stood guard astern. ‘Would this not be the
ideal opportunity, Mr Truthseeker, for you to divert us with your
chosen contribution. For though the highway has become a river
we are travellers none the less.’
Erasmus completed his gentle stroke. ‘Yes, if you like, Doctor.
For I’ve not forgotten my obligation and this easy exercise should
not inhibit my tongue in the least. Mine shall be a saga. An
Icelandic saga, that is.’
‘Sounds appropriate, Razzy,’ said Tangles, anticipating a nautical
theme.
‘Yes, indeed,’ concurred Doctor Rama. ‘I believe a saga would be
ideal.’
And, thus encouraged, Erasmus calmly composed his thoughts
before reciting a story he had been taught many years ago and
which, until recently, he had forgotten that he knew.

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Leif’s Saga

1. Leif Is Told His Destiny


There was a man called Einar, a trader who was married to a
woman called Freya, and one day he sailed from their home in
Iceland for Greenland and never returned. No one knew what fate
befell him or his crew and his ship was never seen again.
Widow Freya was left with a son called Leif Einarson, a boy who
had much promise. That winter, however, disease spread
throughout Iceland and Freya fell ill. Now Freya had a fiend called
Krossa, a monk who knew her from childhood, and he was with
her and the boy Leif when she died.
The next morning Krossa said to Leif that they should make a
coffin, and so they left the house just as they thought Freya’s soul
had done.
Leif and Krossa had not been outside long when they heard a
voice call to them from inside the house, which made them afraid.
But Krossa said that Christians should not be frightened of
corpses, so they took courage and returned together into the room
where Freya lay.
There they saw Freya’s body sitting up in her bed.
‘Will Leif answer his mother?’
But Leif and Krossa were frozen by fear and could not speak.
‘Will my son answer his mother?’ she asked again.
This Time Krossa told the boy to reply.
‘I am here, mother. What do you wish of me?’
‘And our friend who walks with God?’
‘Your friend is here too, Freya, to bury you with prayer.’
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‘Hear me then, good Krossa, before I go to a better place. My son
is young and has no parent or kin to care for him. Therefore, I
entrust him to your safekeeping. He has a great destiny. He will
discover new lands where the winter days are longer than the
nights, and reach the end of the sea where dwells the Faraway who
will share a secret to his profit. My son will become prosperous
and live a worthwhile life. Teach him all that you know and he
will build a great church for a bishop of God.’
‘I will do as you ask, Freya. Now repose in peace and leave us to
this mortal world where you no longer belong.’
Then the corpse of Freya lay down to quiet rest. And the wood
from her bed was made into planks for her coffin.

2. Leif Sails For Greenland


The monk taught Leif all that he knew, and by the time the boy
was old enough to fend for himself he was known as Leif the
Learned. Krossa also looked after the boy’s inheritance so that
Leif was not poor, and when he was of age he decided to buy a
ship and become a trader, as his father was.
Leif first appointed an overseer to run the farm and then, one fine
morning that filled his lungs with hope, he sailed out of the
harbour for Greenland with a cargo of timber, iron, and cloth.
Amongst the crew of twenty there was a man called Olaf, who was
broad like an ox. He was a man of great spirit and well was he
liked but he had to leave Iceland where he had killed a rich man’s
son. Leif took Olaf with him on the voyage because he had long
been his friend and because he was sure that Olaf would prove
useful. There was also a woman called Ingrid, of noble blood,
whose sister had married a settler in Greenland and had asked her
to come.
For three days they sailed before a west wind without event, but
then a storm came down from the north. The wind was great and
blew for many days, so they became full of fear, and when it
passed they found themselves far to the south where the days were
much shorter and where the nights were long. Still the wind
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blew from the north and they began to lose hope of ever returning
to their homes. And there was trouble on their ship.
Olaf rebuked the others for their weakness of heart but they
replied that it was only because he had no home himself that he
was now so bold. But Leif knew men. He told them it was his
destiny to find new lands and prosper and that they would prosper
also if they would only followed him, so they were quiet again.
The next day the wind blew from the west and Leif said they
should take their direction from the breath of God and sail before
it.
Then, a few days later, Ingrid sighted a reef and urged Leif to sail
towards it as she could hear the cries of a man. No one else could
hear them but they agreed to sail closer to make sure, and found a
man just as she had said. And for this she became known as Ingrid
the Gifted.
The man had skin as dark as night and spoke a tongue unknown to
them, but his clothes were of fine cloth and he wore rings of gold,
so they took him for a Prince and treated him well. After he had
eaten, he made a sign to them that they should continue to sail
before the wind till they came upon his land, where they would be
given food and drink and be rewarded.
That day they sighted clouds in the east and on the next day landed
on a beach of yellow sand.
Leif left Olaf to watch their ship and, with Ingrid and ten men,
followed the Prince to a great city of stone. There they met the
grateful King and made signs that they wished to trade; but when
Leif showed his sample of iron and wood the Prince laughed and
pointed to a mountain thick with forest and to an army dressed in
iron. Then the Prince took the bar of iron from Leif’s disappointed
hand and in return gave him as much weight in gold, meaning that
he would fill his ship with as much as it would carry in reward for
saving his life.
After this the Prince turned to Ingrid and to her he gave a box of
ivory, inlaid with precious stones, containing a parchment written
in the language of the church, which was unknown to the
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people of this land. And this was considered a great reward, more
valuable than gold.
Leif gladly read to her the words written on her gift.

3. The Testament of Marcus


I Marcus, wearied by age and reduced to wretchedness, come to
bitter death too early. Having acquired nothing in this world, I
leave nothing behind save this secret which I here bequeath.
From the libraries of Alexandria to the tombs of the desert have I
searched in vain for the prize of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh the King.
Gilgamesh the sword. Gilgamesh who crossed the burning
wilderness and descended the pass of lions. Gilgamesh who
entered the black mountains and crossed the waters of death.
Gilgamesh who found the Faraway and clutched at last the sweet
weed of eternal youth, only to lose it finally to the serpent by the
well. So have I also searched in vain. For now, on the threshold of
discovery, my strength fails, and so do I.
Only youth may find youth. Follow the setting sun. In two transits
of the moon you will reach the waters of death. But do not be
discouraged there. ‘Tis but a short voyage thereafter. Take this
stone to find your way when the sun and the stars desert you. The
Faraway lives where two sweet rivers are born from one.
Such is my testament.
Marcus.

4. They Voyage To The Waters of Death


Ingrid heard the story with open eyes, but Leif said, ‘Do not seem
too pleased if you want to keep this gift, for its true worth is
known only to us.’
‘You will take me to the Faraway?’
‘We will go there together, Ingrid, to discover new lands and
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to obtain the secret of the Faraway, as is my destiny too.’
When they returned to the ship they found it well provisioned and
all the iron exchanged for gold. Leif removed also the timber, for
though it was not wanted they had profit enough already and a
difficult voyage lay ahead.
They sailed on a morning breeze to where the sun would set.
For many days they made good progress and Leif learned the
secret of the stone which pointed always to the north. Then a great
cloud covered the sun and the sky, so that day became night, and
Leif and Ingrid knew that they had reached the waters of death.
Leif ordered that a fire be lit to strengthen their hearts but soon a
cold mist settled on the boat and put the fire out. The air was black
and thick and no face could see another. Still they kept their
course to the place where the sun sets, though many now thought
they had travelled beyond the sun and would never return again.
On the fourth day of darkness the food was found rotten with
worms, and the crew was divided in spirit and in word. Some
imagined that worse would come, that soon worms would devour
their ship and that they would perish in this place that even God
forsake. But Olaf raised his great sword and challenged them.
‘Let those who are afraid of the night come forward. They are
great warriors who are frightened of worms, and bold spirits who
imagine evils to torment them. Stand firm or come forward. My
sword is with Leif.’
And they were ashamed of their cowardice and kept to their
course.
On the next day they heard a deafening roar come from the mist,
as if the surging sea and the fixed land were hard locked in battle.
A loud voice cried from the sea saying ‘Go back! Go back!’ But,
recalling the words of Marcus, they did not. Then they heard the
sound of a great splash, as though a giant had thrown down a
boulder into the sea, and their spirits failed them. Suddenly, a
powerful current gripped the ship and threw it round and round in
the water like a pebble in a sling, so that the sea rushed about them
and they feared that they would drown. Like raging bulls they
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pulled with their oars but no good did it do them. Then Leif
ordered that everything be thrown overboard, even the gold, which
they did with urgent haste; and, afterwards, slowly, their oars
began to pull hard against the current. Thus narrowly did they
make their escape from the whirlpool in the waters of death.
Now the mist began to thin, and the cloud above begin to break,
and they felt the warm sun again and saw each other’s faces and
were glad. A seagull roosted on the mast and on the next day they
sighted land.

5. The Land Of The Faraway


There was sand the colour of the sun, and mountains thick with
trees and vines. A wide river flowed into the sea and they
anchored in its mouth. Some set about catching fish and some
fetching water, while Leif and Ingrid explored the river in search
of the Faraway.
There were many strange birds of wild colours, singing enchanting
songs, and unipeds which fast fled before them as if in fright.
Eventually, they came upon a bright pool of water which was clear
and sweet to taste, and there they cleansed themselves. Then they
followed the river further until they came to the place where it
joined with another, just as Marcus had said, and there they
searched for the Faraway. But nowhere could he be found.
In all this time the sun remained high above them so they knew
there would be no night. But even so, weariness overtook them
and they fell asleep by the riverside.

6. They Tell Of Their Dreams


‘I have had a strange dream,’ said Leif, waking last.
‘As also have I,’ she replied. ‘I dreamt the Faraway came to us by
the pool of light. He asked why we had come, and I told him. Then
he said it was not the lot of mortals to live forever but there was a
weed that would keep us young until sickness or injury took
374
its mortal toll. I pleaded to know more.
‘Very well,’ said the Faraway. ‘I will tell you where to find the
weed that gives eternal youth; but know that to benefit from its
power you must eat it every hour of the day and night, neither
doing nor thinking of anything else. To stay young and to defy the
death that age brings naturally, you must spend your life grazing
like cattle in the fields. Hour upon the hour.’
‘But what kind of life is that,’ I said, ‘empty of joy and hope?
Why it would be doubly without meaning to have no pleasure and
no purpose in our lives.’
Then the Faraway smiled and walked away, even as I awoke.’
‘My dream was the same,’ said Leif, ‘except it was I the Faraway
spoke to and who rejected those same terms. For it is better to pay
the price of death than to live for nothing like mere chattel.
Wherefore I fear, Ingrid, that it was not a dream and that now our
search is over.’

7. Ingrid and Leif Marry


After that they left the island and found fair winds to Iceland’s
shore. It happened that Olaf had hidden some of the gold that
should have been thrown away, so at the end of the voyage,
although they were not rich, they were not without profit either,
and there was sufficient for a wedding feast.
Leif prospered as a trader and lived a long and happy life; for,
with the help of Ingrid’s magic stone, his ships always returned
him safely to their home.
And one day, with some of their wealth, Leif built a cathedral on a
mountain for God and the Bishop Krossa, just as Freya had
foretold….

‘Trust you for a happy ending, Razzy,’ said Tangles with a grin.

375
‘Yes,’ agreed the Doctor, ‘and not without interest too. For I can
understand how, in this extreme case, one might prefer adventure
to immortality, but I wonder whether, Mr Truthseeker, in the
ordinary course of events one might nevertheless prefer comfort to
risk.’
‘Never,’ replied Erasmus, forgetful of recent events. ‘Life
demands purpose and purpose requires action, which, in an
uncertain world, implies exposing oneself to risk.’
‘But surely one may find meaning in a pastime, and is sport
necessarily the better for danger?’
‘You surprise me, Doctor. Can a game justify life? Surely not, I
think. For a game is action without real purpose. On the game
plane, goals only have a seemingness and the game is all there is.
But there exists a broader plane of being with underlying purpose
and hope is the mortal virtue that binds the faithful to it.’
Continuing in this way, our philosophical crew wiled away the
voyage so wisely that they could well have been mistaken for
counsellors to a royal court. Little wonder then, so occupied were
they in navigating the ship of the world, that they neglected the
trifling matter of the course their own small vessel had taken in the
meantime.
‘Look!’ cried Tangles as their boat passed rapidly by a partially
submerged log.
‘That was close,’ sighed Erasmus with relief.
‘Yes, but that’s not what I meant.’
‘Well what do you mean?’ replied Erasmus smugly.
‘Don’t you think we’re going a bit on the fast side?’ she hinted.
‘Well I’m hardly to blame for that,’ said Erasmus, missing the
point entirely. ‘For I’ve scarcely rowed a stroke since I began the
saga.’
‘Miss Tangles is right!’ urged Patrick with alarm.

376
‘Oh my!’ exclaimed the Doctor as the boat rounded a bend.
‘Look!’
‘Hang on lads,’ cried Tangles as she resolutely gripped the tiller.
‘We’re going for a ride!’
And what a ride it was! All about them surging waters foamed and
bubbled like fast boiling soup while, on either side, jutting jagged
rocks threatened to capsize and wreck their tiny helpless craft.
‘Get those oars up!’ she yelled, as the merciless current sucked
them into the narrow funnelling straits of... but alas the warning
came too late. With a crack, a woosh and a cry! the snagged oar
snapped in two, hoisting poor Erasmus from the tenuous security
of his seat in Providence and, without so much as a by-your-leave,
casting him into the cold depths of nature’s tricky waters which
everywhere raged about him.
For poor Erasmus, any struggle in that merciless torrent was not so
much futile as impossible and, as the chill river invaded his lungs,
the frantic panic which had first seized him gradually yielded to a
feeling of transcending detachment.
Then, he became aware of a small but brilliant light far in the
distance, which he began to move towards like a fascinated child.
And, as the radiance enveloped his soul, he began to experience a
sensation of indescribable contentment until, suddenly, he heard
someone calling his name in a strangely familiar voice.
It was the unmistakable voice of his own dead father.
‘Erasmus, Erasmus, how did you come to this?’
‘Father! I thought you were dead.’
‘Quite.’
‘Then what..?’
‘How did it happen son? Not that I’m at all surprised. I always
knew you were a bit of a risk. “That lad hasn’t got a grain of
common sense,” I used to tell your mum. “He’ll come to a
premature end, mark my words!” Not that she ever believed
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me. Well, at least you’ve proved me right. That’s something, I
suppose. Tell me son, just to satisfy an old man’s curiosity, how
did you finally come unstuck? What was it got you in the end?
Drugs?’
‘No father.’
‘Motorcycles?’
‘No father.’
‘Do yourself in then did you?’
‘No, not quite.’
‘You surprise me boy. I’d have bet good money it was one of
them. Well then? Out with it lad, how did it happen, eh?’
‘Well,’ stalled Erasmus as he tried to come to grips with things, ‘if
I’m really dead, then I guess I must have drowned.’
‘What!’
‘Drowned, father.’
‘Drowned, is it? Why you ungrateful little sod! Have you any
notion of how much time and effort your mother and I invested in
teaching you to swim?’
‘I’m sure it was worthwhile.’
‘Are you now. And how in blazes do you arrive at that
conclusion?’
‘Well, I suppose I might have drowned much earlier otherwise.
It’s just that this time it wasn’t my fault.’
‘It never is, is it, son?’
‘Father?’
‘Do you recall the time you broke your leg?’
‘Yes. I slipped on a wet tile when I was playing.’

378
‘So you did. So you did. A simple accident that might have
happened to any child...’
‘Yes,’ he brightened.
‘who was playing on the roof of a three story building..’
‘Two stories,’ corrected Erasmus, holding up as many fingers.
‘in the rain!’
‘Drizzle.’ Erasmus began to suspect that he was losing ground.
‘And now you’ve drowned.’
‘Yes, father.’
‘To the great distress of your mother and friends.’
‘Sorry.’
‘Sorry? You think that’s good enough? A simple apology and
that’s that?’
‘Well, I really don’t see what else I can do under the
circumstances. Do you?’
‘Don’t be impertinent, son. I may be dead but I’m still your dad.’
‘Yes, father. Sorry, father.’
‘That’s better. Now pull yourself together and tell me whether
you’ve noticed an increasing feeling of anxiety over the past few
minutes?’
‘Well, now that you mention it.’
‘Good. Listen to me carefully. It’s just possible that someone is
trying to revive you.’
‘What?’
‘Don’t say ‘what’, boy, it shows bad breeding. Just be grateful that
you’re in with a second chance.’

379
‘Third,’ muttered Erasmus, holding up three fingers’
‘What?’
‘Nothing, father. Go ahead. I’m all ears.’ Erasmus could always
tell when he was about to receive good advice.
‘Try not to interrupt me, Erasmus, there isn’t much time.’ Erasmus
pinned his hopes on an early revival. ‘First,’ said his father,
‘assuming that your wretched body is in fact salvaged from what
ought to have been a watery grave, and that someone considers
your resuscitation is worth the effort, just what do you intend to do
with the remainder of your pathetic life?’
‘Do, father?’
‘Haven’t you got any ambitions, lad?’
Erasmus shrugged his shoulders. ‘Not exactly,’ he replied.
‘Not exactly, eh? I take it that you have some broad notion then?’
Erasmus shuffled his feet. ‘Not so much a broad notion either.
More of a hunch. Yes, that’s it, a hunch.’
The ghost was not impressed. ‘What sort of hunch?’
‘That, somehow, everything will turn out for the best,’ he replied,
avoiding his father’s gaze.
‘I see.’
‘Do you?’
‘Yes. You haven’t got a clue, have you boy?’
‘No, father.’
The ghost put his arm around Erasmus’ shoulder. ‘Look, son, what
do you suppose life is all about?’
‘Life?’ echoed Erasmus, scratching his head. ‘Actually, I’m still
sort of grappling with morality.’

380
‘Morality?’
‘Yes, you know, why we ought...’
‘I know what morality is thank you son, and, frankly, I’m
surprised to hear you don’t. Didn’t your mother and I teach you to
do the right thing?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then what’s the overwhelming problem, lad?’
Erasmus decided to come clean. ‘It’s just that I don’t really quite
understand why I should do it,’ he said, half flinching as though
expecting to receive a corrective clip about the ears.
‘What! Why do you suppose your mother and I took such pains
over your moral instruction then?’
‘Because you believed in doing the right thing?’ ventured
Erasmus.
‘Because if we hadn’t, you’d be an even bigger pain than you are
now.’
‘I see.’
‘Do you, son? I wonder. Look, Erasmus, why do you suppose we
taught you to be honest, for example.’
‘Honest?’
‘Yes, you know, not to nick marbles from your friends even when
you thought you could get away with it.’
‘Because you considered it wrong to steal?’
‘No, Erasmus.’
‘Then, why?’
‘For many reasons, mostly to do with your happiness. So you
wouldn’t be friendless or end up in gaol. So you wouldn’t bring
disgrace upon yourself, and upon us. So you could retain some
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sense of integrity. In short, because we thought you’d like being
with other people just like we do. And to help ensure some
measure of success in your life. Am I getting through to you,
Erasmus?’
‘I think so.’
‘And now look at you. Drowned!’
‘Sorry... May I ask a question, dad?’
‘What sort of question?’
‘What if I could be dishonest and still be happy?’
‘The question doesn’t arise.’
‘But it is possible, isn’t it? Because I met someone like that only
the other day.’
‘And you think he was happy do you?’
‘He seemed to be.’
‘Sound’s like a cock and bull story to me. You must have been
dreaming again. People aren’t like that. Take my word for it.’
‘But...’
‘Don’t interrupt me, son. We’ve got other things to discuss.’
‘What things?’
‘You were about to make some decisions about your life.’
‘Was I?’
‘Yes. Let’s start with your career.’
‘Career?’
‘That’s right. Surely you have some ideas?’
‘Well, I was thinking about social work.’

382
‘Social work?’
‘Yes, you know: doing something useful. To make amends...’
The ghost slowly shook its head from side to side. ‘No, son, I
don’t think that’s a good idea.’
‘Why not?’
‘For the same reason I wouldn’t recommend you as a swimming
coach.’
‘That’s not fair!’
‘It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to do you some good.’
Erasmus restrained his indignation. ‘Well, what do you
recommend then?’
‘You’re old enough to make up your own mind, but not social
work.’
‘There’s something to be said for medicine. ‘Doctor Truthseeker’,
yes, that sounds right.’
‘Have you considered a career in government, Erasmus?’
‘You mean politics?’
‘I was thinking more along clerical lines.’
‘Father!’
‘Only a suggestion. You could do a lot worse. In any case, there’s
more to life than a job.’
‘You mean family life?’
‘Yes, perhaps. Also sport, study...’
‘The options seem unlimited.’
‘Not quite, son, you’re only human. Give it some thought eh?’
‘Sure.’
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‘But not too much.’
‘No, father, not to excess.’
‘Wouldn’t want to get brain fag, would we?’
‘No, dad.’
‘Well, I sense it’s time for me to go now, boy. So, goodbye, and,
son,’ he cautioned, ‘let’s have no more of these accidental
drownings eh?’
‘I’ll do my best, dad. Goodbye.’
Erasmus felt a cold shiver pass through his body.
‘It’s beating!’ exclaimed Doctor Rama, excitedly.
‘Thank goodness for that!’ said Tangles as she wiped the sweat
from her forehead.
‘Hello,’ said Erasmus as he blinked open his eyes.
‘Hello,’ greeted Tangles with an uncharacteristically warm smile.
‘Welcome back to the land of the living.’

384
385
Elephant Nine: Something New

Had Erasmus been at the end rather than the beginning of his
potential lifespan, it is unlikely he would have recuperated as
rapidly as he did, assuming he had succeeded in cheating the grave
at all. But fortunately, our tendency to folly is greatest at the very
age that our stamina is at its peak, and within a few hours he was
able to sup with the rest on some fruit that the resourceful
Mr O’Rourke had foraged from the woods nearby.
Few words were exchanged between our grateful friends
throughout that night as they sat quietly within the soft glow of a
modest fire and stared soberly into its red flickering coals; until,
with the final abdication by Patrick and the Doctor to sleep’s quiet
call, Erasmus chose to confide in Tangles his experience in the
spiritual nether world, albeit not without that modicum of dramatic
embellishment which naturally accompanies every ghostly
account.
‘I wouldn’t put too much stock in it Razzy,’ dismissed his friend,
‘it was probably just a dream.’
‘No,’ he protested, ‘it seemed so real.’
‘I don’t doubt that,’ she conceded, ‘but a lot of things that seem
real turn out not to be,’ she added, settling beside the dying fire
and closing her weary eyes.
Nor was Erasmus far behind, which proved a good thing too. For a
sound night’s sleep was all that he needed to ensure a complete
recovery, and at the crack of dawn he was up with the rest, none
the worse for the previous day’s misadventure.
And a survey of the good vessel Providence proved that it was
also strong, as Tangles had first reckoned, having survived the
rapids with no more evidence of its ordeal than a few scratches,
scrapes and gouges along its hull and these Erasmus thought a
definite improvement. For, though some might regard them as
386
unsightly blemishes, to him they were the scars of tested courage
and he rated them more highly than a dozen coats of the best
enamel that money could buy.
As for the broken oar, one piece had remained on board, the other
had been retrieved, and the two were lashed together using a belt
Erasmus wore more as a concession to fashion than for sartorial
security. True the repair was far from perfect but the oar was
certainly up to light duties and Tangles considered that it ‘should
do the trick.’
Thus all that was wanting for a second voyage was a willing and
able crew and it just so happened that one was available; meaning,
of course, those same intrepid sailors who had so narrowly
escaped nautical disaster the day before.
So, aided by a favourable breeze, a gentle current and some hard
won experience, they set forth with determination once again,
down stream to they knew not where.
Now, not long after casting off on what promised to be a
particularly fine day, it occurred to them that all that was wanting
to cap off the morning was a little light entertainment. But, as you
may recall, their former agreement to each tell a tale, recite a
rhyme or sing a song had been fulfilled by the saga, and they had
no mind to repeat their contract for fear of making burdensome
what once was novel.
‘I know!’ exclaimed Erasmus, struck by the brilliance of his own
idea. ‘Why don’t we make up a song which, if Patrick will
accompany us, we can sing as we row?’
‘Oh yes, Mr Truthseeker, I would enjoy that very much,’ accepted
Patrick and, with nods and smiles all round, the suggestion was
adopted without debate.
To simplify the task of composition while affording maximum
scope for individual creativity, it was decided, on Patrick’s advice,
to construct the song from eight couplets, each composer
contributing two. By way of example and to define the theme, he
composed the first, but who wrote which of the rest is a matter of
much conjecture to this day. One thing, however, is
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universally agreed: the measure of fun they had in the process.
And here, for your amusement also, is the song they wrote and
sang together, though to what spontaneous melody is nowhere
remembered or known.

Jungle Night
It gets dark in the jungle when the lights go out.
And when you cannot see your heart must be stout.
For the jungle night belongs to things that crawl and creep
From slimy silent creatures to monsters that go ‘BREEP!’
To bunyips which emerge from murky billabongs
And following close behind you, snatch you from your thongs!
To slick talking tigers with designs upon your throat
And red eyed hungry crocodiles that lurk beneath your boat.
To the ghostly Min Min light that chases you about
And won’t go away, not even if you SHOUT!
To great black spiders with outstretched legs
Waiting in the middle of their fresh sticky webs.
No the jungle’s not for everyone in the thick of night
And if you choose to go there then be ready for a FRIGHT!
But if you’re not afraid then you just might be alright
For there’s worse things in your head than you will find in a jungle
night.

‘Now that’s what I call a song!’ applauded Erasmus with a grin.


‘Something new for your repertoire, Patrick!’
‘And for yours, Miss Tangles,’ he replied.
‘Showbiz, here I come!’ she laughed, as did the rest.
But, as fate would have it, no sooner had they finished
congratulating themselves on a job well done when an event
transpired which, I freely admit, may tax the credibility of this
meticulous account. By way of explanation, I can only add that it
is a peculiar quality of this history that seldom does something not
happen to one or the other of it’s heroes; and, otherwise, I ask,
388
would it really be worth the telling? Fact, they say, is stranger than
fiction and the reason in this case may, perhaps, be ascribed to the
operation of that principle so often abused by writers of another
sort: that action provides for opportunity. Which I do not doubt is
some kind of natural law, as true as ‘every effect has a cause’, but
perhaps not for the same reason.
Be that as it may, the truth is that, very soon into their second
voyage, our crew chanced upon the very person from whom they
had been escaping. Only this time fortune had so arranged matters
that the shoe was on the other foot: the surprise being more his
than theirs and the advantage more theirs than his; or so they
thought.
Imagine the expression on the bandit’s face when, caught
midstream, he heard himself addressed in the imperative mood
thus:
‘Raise your hands!’ cried Erasmus as he cocked the deadly carbine
while Patrick steadied the boat with the oar.
‘Ah, Mr Truthseeker!’ replied the bandit, as if he had been pleased
to encounter an old friend. ‘Pray drop your sights my good fellow
for, though I am flattered by this evidence of the efficacy of my
argument, I fear that piracy does not become you.’
‘Skip the backchat,’ checked Tangles, ‘and give us back our
stuff!’
‘With pleasure,’ accommodated the bandit as he unhooked a bag
from his saddle and tossed it towards the boat. ‘Well caught,
Miss Tangles. Have you ever contemplated a career in cricket?’
‘Have you ever contemplated a career in prison?’ snarled
Erasmus.
‘I’m afraid, Mr Truthseeker, that honour precludes acceptance of
your kind invitation.’
‘Oh yes. And what honour is that?’ sneered our hero with
contempt.
‘Why the honour of thieves, sir, which could not suffer arrest
389
without injury.’
‘As you wish,’ rejoined Erasmus with as much threat as he could
muster.
But the bandit stood his ground.
‘Come now, Mr Truthseeker,’ he replied, ‘you have no reason to
harm me now that all has been restored. Surely you are not so
mean spirited as to steal a life for petty vengeance sake?’
‘Try me!’ dared Erasmus.
‘I suspect I know you better, sir, than you know yourself.
Therefore I bid you good morning and good luck,’ he farewelled,
adding ‘I trust our paths will not cross again,’ as he rode on
regardless, tall in the saddle and with his back to the rifle, like a
mocking target.
‘He’s right,’ confessed Erasmus. ‘I can’t do it. May God punish
your transgressions!’ he shouted as an afterthought.
‘And may God forgive your vindictive blasphemy,’ laughed the
bandit, as he disappeared into the forest.
‘Clever bastard,’ muttered Erasmus in dismay.
‘Too clever for us amigo,’ consoled Tangles as she took the
carbine from his limp hands. ‘C’mon mate, we’ve got more
important things to worry about.’
‘Yes, let us please press on,’ urged the doctor, as Patrick allowed
the current to gain a grip on the hull and carry them on their way.
But not for long in silence. For, but a few hundred metres further
on in their voyage, the Doctor observed that Erasmus had more or
less recovered his composure and so decided that the time was
right to once more indulge in his favourite sport of fishing.
‘Do you really suppose, Mr Truthseeker,’ he asked in apparent
earnest, ‘that God will punish our friend for his wicked crimes.’
‘Perhaps not in this world,’ replied Erasmus, ‘but in the other, I

390
have no doubt.’

391
Hooked.
‘And yet,’ differed the Doctor, ‘eternal damnation seems a rather
harsh recourse for a benevolent God, does it not?’
‘The Commandments are not open to transgression,’ replied
Erasmus. ‘The severe punishment of some may well be necessary
to ensure the wider salvation of the world.’
‘Yes,’ nodded the Doctor, ‘so I have heard it said. But still, I
wonder if we would approve of parents who applied a capital
punishment to correct their child?’
‘And you’d think he would punish them in the open,’ added
Tangles, ‘rather than after they’re dead and gone.’
‘Perhaps, then,’ returned our hero, ‘God’s penalty is not for
correction but for divine justice sake.’
‘Divine justice!’ scoffed Tangles. ‘I can’t say I know what that is,
Razzy, but if it’s anything like human justice, well, I reckon it’s
got more to do with expediency than divinity.’
‘What do you mean?’ flared Erasmus, by way of challenge.
‘Well, try to think about it like this,’ she elaborated to his
annoyance. ‘You say people deserve to be punished for their
wrongs, but do you really think anyone can help the way they are?
And do you really believe that if you were born the same as that
bandit and raised exactly the same way that you would act any
differently to him?’
‘I can’t see that that proves anything,’ denied Erasmus who by
now felt surrounded on all fronts. ‘For it says nothing more than if
I were he I would be as he.’
‘You mean, nothing less, I think,’ noted Tangles.
‘You can’t put God on trial,’ he retreated.
‘No, indeed,’ soothed the Doctor, ‘but our idea of God, that seems
rather different. However, let us not quarrel needlessly when there
is so much enjoyment to be shared at such little cost on so pleasant
392
a day.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Erasmus, looking up at the azure sky, ‘it is certainly
that.’
And, as the company fell once more into silence, Erasmus made
himself as comfortable as he could in the stern of the boat, while
the waves lapped gently by; being as sure a road to dreaming as
any that I could devise.

‘Name please?’ asked the officious looking clerk from behind the
counter marked ‘Registration’.
‘Sorry? Are you addressing me?’
The clerk cast a searching gaze around the otherwise empty room
before again settling her scornful eyes upon the bemused client
standing uncomfortably before her.
‘Erasmus,’ he replied meekly. ‘Erasmus P. Truthseeker.’
‘Truthseeker eh?’ she asked rhetorically, flipping through a
register labelled ‘Today’s Reckonings’.
‘Perseverance?’ she queried, as though there had been some
mistake.
‘That is correct,’ he affirmed with a hint of over compensating
aggression. ‘Erasmus P. Truthseeker.’
The clerk reached below the counter and retrieved a crisp blue
form.
‘Here you go, Razzy. Fill this in over there, make sure you sign it,
and when you’ve finished bring it back to the counter. Alright?’
‘What is it?’
‘What’s it look like?’
‘A form, I suppose.’

393
‘Spot on, Razzy. I can see this’ll be a push over for a bright bloke
like you.’
‘But, why?’
‘Statistics.’
Erasmus perceived the futility of any further enquiry along these
lines. Before departing, he briefly studied the two part form. Part
A headed, ‘Record of Sins’, seemed self explanatory, but the
heading of Part B,’ Attitude to T.O.O.O.O.’, was puzzling indeed.
‘Who or what is T.O.O.O.O.?’ he pondered aloud.
‘Definitions,’ assisted the clerk with disdain, ‘at the top.’
Fearful of further rebuke, he decided to read them to himself.
‘T.O.O.O.O.: The Omniscient Omnipotent Omnipresent One.’
Erasmus grew suspicious.
‘I don’t understand. If T.O.O.O.O. is omniscient, why do I have to
complete this?’
‘Because, mate, T.O.O.O.O. isn’t processing it.’
‘Then who is?’
‘We are: Purgatory Division.’
‘Who?’
‘Look,’ she said with a patience that was clearly wearing thin,
‘you know how when you look up at this office block it rises right
up into the sky and keeps on going until it disappears into an
infinitesimally small point at the top?’
‘Yes.’
‘Well, everything below that point but above the ground is
Purgatory Division. We process all applicants.’
‘I see,’ he marvelled. ‘And who’s at the very top then?’
‘T.O.O.O.O., of course, and the heavenly executive. They reckon
the view’s impressive.’
394
‘And what do they do?’ he pursued.
‘Who knows,’ she shrugged. ‘Wander round in a state of
beatitude, I guess.’
‘I see,’ said Erasmus, struggling to understand. ‘And what’s
below?’
‘Archives.’
‘Archives? That must be an interesting place.’
The clerk shook her head from side to side. ‘You wouldn’t like it
down there,’ she said solemnly.
‘What makes you think that? As a matter of fact, I’ve always been
rather interested in history. I’ll bet they’ve got some fascinating
material on file.’
‘Believe me, Razzy, it’s not nice.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Well, for one thing, it’s gloomy. And for another...’
‘Yes?’
‘Put it this way, Razzy, the elevators going to Archives don’t have
up buttons.’
‘Oh, he acknowledged in a comprehending tone before taking the
form to a bench by the wall.
As expected, Erasmus found that Part A proved to be fairly
straight forward, until, that is, he came to question 10(ii)(a): ‘Hast
thou coveted thy neighbours wife?’, which reminded him of a
certain indiscretion many years ago. He glanced again at the bold
print at the top of the form: ‘Penalty for false or misleading
information - Eternal Oblivion.’ He decided to make a clean breast
of it. ‘Yes,’ he scribbled, in small illegible letters.
‘Well, at least that’s over with,’ he thought, as he turned to
10(ii)(b): ‘How much? (delete whichever is not applicable)...Just a
bit/ Enough to cause embarrassment if it ever got out/ With a
395
raw and unquenchable lust/ Sold the film rights for a mint.’ He
began to regret his answer to 10(ii)(a).
Part B went more smoothly, now that he had read the definitions,
for though he was still not quite sure what TOOOO was, he was
nevertheless certain that he had always maintained a very positive
attitude towards Him, or was it Her? throughout his admittedly
shaky life.
Near the bottom of the form was a section labelled: ‘For office use
only’, which had but one ominous item: ‘Record of Judgement...’
and at the very bottom was a place reserved for the applicant’s
signature, adjacent to which was a reminder of the penalty for
false or misleading information. Erasmus double checked all of his
answers above.
‘Ta,’ said the clerk as she accepted the form and checked it for
completeness. ‘They all say that,’ she chuckled.
‘It’s the truth! It was really quite platonic.’
‘Let’s hope so, Razzy. We all know the penalty for fibbing, don’t
we?’
Erasmus hesitated between affirmation and apology. ‘Perhaps I’d
better go over things again,’ he said, taking back the form and
amending some answer or other.
‘That’s more like it,’ approved the clerk as she studied the change.
‘What now? How long before my case comes up?’
Ignoring his query, the clerk proceeded to stamp and initial the
front of the form before coolly pressing a button on her counter.
Erasmus jumped at the sound of steel elevator doors opening
efficiently behind him.
‘You’d better take this,’ she said, handing him a sealed brown
envelope containing his processed form.
‘Thanks.’ He shrank towards the elevator.
‘No worries,’ she returned with a cold smile that bore him little
396
comfort.
Erasmus studied the elevator carefully before taking the plunge.
Inside was a row of eleven buttons. Ten of the buttons were
numerals but the eleventh was simply marked ‘T’.
‘T?’
The clerk looked up from her counter and slowly nodded her head.
Erasmus’ finger tentatively reached for and touched the
appropriate button; whereupon the doors suddenly shut fast behind
him and the elevator sped upwards so rapidly, that he had hardly
begun to ponder the relationship between cause and effect implied
by this innocent gesture, before the doors opened onto a large
carpeted room. Inside it sat a well dressed young man behind a
large polished desk.
‘Ah, Mr Truthseeker,’ he beckoned, as if he had been pleased to
encounter an old friend.
‘Hello,’ Erasmus replied timidly. ‘I believe this is for you?’
Erasmus handed his insignificant looking brown envelope to the
still seated young man, who looked to be every inch the successful
male executive.
‘Please be seated, this won’t take long.’
Erasmus sat quietly opposite and watched as the immaculate
executive studied the pathetic details on his form.
‘Yes, this seems in order,’ he smiled, briefly exposing a set of
gleaming white teeth that induced Erasmus to withdraw his neck
into his shirt.
The young man swivelled his chair through forty five degrees to
the left and began to tap data into a computer on his desk.
Erasmus searched for an impressive question in a vain endeavour
to assert himself.
‘Is it IBM compatible?’ he asked at last, rather pleased at his own
cleverness.

397
‘TOOOO,’ explained the executive without turning around, ‘is
unique.’
Erasmus started in surprise. ‘You mean I’m being judged by a
computer?’
‘And why not? The judgement algorithm is elementary. All that is
required is a complete data base, which is no problem for
TOOOO’s total knowledge data base system, an appropriate
penalty table, and a little logic to compare the files. Child’s play.
Technology, that’s the key.’
‘Oh,’ sighed Erasmus, who had rather hoped for more
compassionate treatment. ‘Will it take very long?’
‘You forget, Mr Truthseeker, that TOOOO is omnipotent.
Judgement is literally instantaneous. It’s already on the screen.’
‘Really?’
‘Yes, really.’
‘Is it, good?’
‘That’s something I must leave to your judgement,
Mr Truthseeker. Not my field,’ he grinned.
‘Purgatorial Division?’ guessed Erasmus with resignation.
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Not...’ he shivered.
‘I’m sure you’ll get used to it, eventually. They say the first
millennium is the hardest.’
‘But it’s gloomy down there.’
‘A little gloomy, yes.’
‘And the elevators don’t have up buttons!’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Look, there’s been some mistake! It was only a little lust.
398
Nothing happened, really!’
‘A pity,’ replied the executive, ‘at least you would have had
something interesting to remember. Not that 10(ii)(a) was the
problem.’
‘What?’
‘No. A small matter of unreported vindictive blasphemy,’ he
explained, turning to the screen.
‘Oh, is that all!’ breathed a relieved Erasmus. ‘Look, I just forgot
about it, honest. Anyway, I didn’t think anyone was listening.’
‘Ah, but you forget, Mr Truthseeker, that TOOOO is also
omnipresent. Otherwise the data base would be incomplete,
wouldn’t it?’
‘Yes, of course, I see that now, but, I mean, surely I can appeal or
something.’
‘There is no higher court, my friend.’
‘Repent, then. Yes, that’s it. Surely I can repent, now that I know
the problem. Throw myself upon the mercy of the court.’
The executive wavered. ‘Very well. I’ll try. But don’t get your
hopes up, there’s a good man.’ He turned again to face the
console. ‘No, I’m sorry. It’s no use.’
‘Why not?’ Erasmus was flabbergasted.
‘Because it is not possible to process Repentance after Judgement.
I should have known, it’s in the manual. Here we are, Section
1.1.2. ‘Trial Protocol’.
‘But I forgot, that’s all. I’m only human.’
‘Archives,’ replied the executive, ‘is full of poor souls like you
who are only human. Goodbye, Mr Truthseeker,’ he added as he
pressed the button on his desk. And, no sooner had he completed
his tender valediction, than Erasmus heard the familiar sound of
elevator doors opening behind him.

399
‘No!’ he refused. ‘I’m not going. There’s something fishy going
on around here and I’m going to get to the bottom of it!’
‘What a witty chap you are, Mr Truthseeker,’ said the smiling
executive. ‘You’ll need that sense of humour where you’re going.’
And, as he clapped his hands, two burly officials grabbed
Erasmus, still protesting his innocence, and cast him beyond the
gleaming elevator doors which afterwards snapped tight around
him, like the hungry jaws of a ...
‘Better wake him up before he sinks us,’ advised Tangles
anxiously from the bow.
‘Wake up! Wake up, Mr Truthseeker!’ said Patrick, shaking him
lightly by the shoulders. ‘You are capsizing us!’
‘Patrick!’ cried Erasmus as he opened his eyes. ‘Good Patrick!
You’ve no idea how pleased I am to see you!’
And so it was, dear reader, that Erasmus found to his inestimable
delight, that he was not in fact alone in an elevator bound for the
depths of hell, but amongst friends in a dinghy, drifting calmly
down a gentle river, under a cloudless sky.

400
Elephant Ten: A Fine Time for Philosophy

How often, dear reader, have we heard tell of some poor digger
who, dressed in the garb of the enemy to effect an escape, crossed
the line to freedom only to be cut down unwittingly by comrades
conditioned to shoot first and ask questions later?
Consider then how easy it was for our crew to be similarly
mistaken by a keen young constable who had espied them in a
location known to be frequented by outlaws and in a boat
resembling one which had recently been reported as stolen. What a
rascal bunch they must have then seemed to be!
‘Crack!’ went the gun and ‘whiz!’ went the bullet as it parted the
air from the tip of the Doctor’s nose, plonking into the water
behind him.
‘My word!’ cried the Doctor, touching his proboscis.
‘Struth!’ exclaimed Tangles, turning to face the attack.
‘Screech!’ went the monkey, jumping up and down.
While the other two rowed frantically, straight for the nearest
shore.
‘Crack!’ went a second shot, thudding into the bank.
‘Come on, Doctor!’ pressed Erasmus, as they helped him onto dry
land and over a fallen log which they then crouched behind.
‘Who in blazes..?’ swore Tangles in disbelief.
‘At least there’s a river between us,’ said Erasmus, taking stock.
‘Fat lot of good that is, with no cover behind us for a good fifty
metres.’
‘Surely not our friend again?’ said the Doctor.

401
‘He knows where we are, the scoundrel, but somehow it does
seem unlikely,’ observed Erasmus.
‘Well, I reckon there’s only one way to find out.’
‘Cover me!’ ordered Erasmus pre-emptively, raising his head just
high enough to tempt Fate.
‘Get down, Razzy!’ screamed Tangles, as a third shot sent
splinters flying past his skull and, just as suddenly, Patrick sprang
to his feet and ran for the border of the woods.
‘Go, Patrick!’ cheered Tangles, as the others grit their teeth and
the determined sniper chambered another deadly round.
‘Crack!’ went the fourth shot, narrowly missing its mark.
‘He’s home and hosed!’ declared a jubilant Tangles. ‘Whacko!’
‘Indeed he is,’ said the Doctor, pleased at this new turn of events.
‘And now..’ began Erasmus.
‘We wait,’ concluded Tangles.
And that is what they did.
Erasmus sighed and inclined his face towards the sky. ‘Must be
noon,’ he said, after a few long and silent minutes had elapsed.
‘A little after one,’ replied the Doctor, examining the silver fob
watch the bandit had returned.
‘Five hours to sunset,’ remarked Tangles. ‘I hope we have some
news before then.’
‘At least we’re still armed,’ said Erasmus, ‘and with an agent in
the field.’
‘True, it could be worse.’
‘Check,’ added the Doctor, making himself more comfortable, ‘is
not mate.’
Nor was it. But stalemate, on the other hand, seemed a real
402
possibility as, with no target presenting on either side, the two
opposing forces patiently dug in for the duration, each awaiting
the other’s next move. Soon, a quiet snore from the recumbent
Doctor was all that could be heard above the peaceful whisper of a
gentle afternoon breeze.
Erasmus pulled up a dry stalk of weed and placed its tip into his
mouth.
‘Tangles? You remember what you were saying about how people
can’t help what they are?’
‘Yes,’ she replied, surprised.
‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it, you know, about whether or not
our will is free, and I was wondering, I mean, if no one really is
free and people come to know it, well, what’s to stop everyone
turning into crooks.’
‘It’s a fine time for philosophy, Razzy,’ she said, relaxing her grip
on the carbine.
‘But if people can’t be blamed,’ he continued.
‘I wouldn’t worry too much about that side of things, Razzy.
People didn’t start falling off the earth when they discovered it
was round, did they?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, knowing the big picture doesn’t necessarily change the
ground rules.’
‘No,’ agreed Erasmus, ‘I suppose not. But...’
‘Shshsh.’
‘What is it?’
‘Sounds like someone’s having a blue.’
‘It’s Mr O’Rourke!’ announced the now alert Doctor, pricking up
his ears.

403
‘What’s he saying?’ asked Erasmus, who knew nothing of Nidia’s
tongues.
The Doctor cupped his right hand to his ear and listened
attentively.
‘My friends,’ he said at last with a smile, ‘I am pleased to inform
you that we have been rescued by the police.’
‘You mean we’ve been hiding from the cops?’
‘Precisely,’ smiled the Doctor.
‘Well I’ll be...’
‘Is it safe to stand, Doctor,?’ asked Erasmus eagerly.
‘Yes, I believe so. But may I first suggest the precaution of a white
flag?’
‘Off with your shirt, Razzy.’
‘With pleasure.’
And, dear reader, I think it no exaggeration to claim, that never in
the history of human conflict was surrender offered so willingly as
on that day.
But now let us step back a little to explain the background to their
relief, which is simply that, upon hearing the sound of his
constable’s first errant shots, the commander of the small
detachment of police despatched to give succour to those who, at
that point in time, might have preferred otherwise, had rallied his
forces to the scene.
Observing now the white flag and having previously been pacified
by Patrick’s unrestrained reprobation, they made their way
upstream towards our jubilant crew, as did their friend and
deliverer, Mr Patrick O’Rourke, who was warmly received and
justly so. In fact, had it still been customary to offer up three
cheers, I dare say none would have denied him the honour of an
enthusiastic volley of Hip, Hip and Hooray. As it was, Erasmus
deemed it a privilege to shake his hand, the Doctor complimented
404
him on both his unfettered initiative and fleetness of foot, while
Tangles simply offered her sincere thanks. All of which I’m told
he bore with commendable humility and good grace.
To complete their rescue, however, it remained for them to cross
the river; a simple enough matter for such veteran mariners as
they, and soon executed by means of Providence which,
throughout it all, had remained steadfast to its mooring like an
obedient steed accustomed to the clamour of battle. Upon
approaching the bank, they were then assisted to shore by two
constables who had been ordered into the water by an embarrassed
commander anxious to redeem his honour.
‘I am Sergeant Vanu of the Nidian police,’ he saluted. ‘Welcome,
Miss...’
‘Tangles, g’day.’
‘And Mr Truthseeker, Doctor Rama and Mr O’Rourke, I believe.
Please forgive the stupidity of my constable in mistaking the
victims for the culprits. You may be sure that he will be
disciplined,’ said the commander, casting a disapproving look at
the penitent young offender.
‘All’s well that ends well,’ forgave Tangles. ‘We’re just glad it
turned out to be you guys.’
‘Yes indeed,’ added the Doctor. ‘It would be manifestly ungrateful
of us to criticise an agent of...Providence?’ he suggested, looking
our hero’s way.
‘As to whether or not it was Providence, I do not know,’ replied
Erasmus, circumspectly. ‘But it was certainly a lucky thing that he
was such a bad shot!’ At which everyone laughed loud and well,
except, that is, for the unfortunate constable, who blushed with
renewed shame at this additional slight.
‘A vehicle will be here shortly,’ said the sergeant, ‘to convey you
to the station and from there to your original destination. In the
meantime, please make yourselves comfortable and tell me
anything that might prove helpful in bringing the real rascals to
justice.’
405
Which was, of course, agreed. And, after a constable had spread a
blanket in the shade for their use, they acquainted the commander
with the salient facts.
On hearing how our hero had passed up the chance of a clean shot
at the villain, the sergeant opined that he ought not to be ashamed
of any weakness, since it was a natural and human thing not to
shoot a defenceless person in the back, and, just as surely, a sign
of the bandit’s wantonness that he should exploit the existence of
such qualities in others. As an officer of the law, however, he
added that he would have been obliged to enforce it to the
maximum extent, ‘provided adequate warning had been given.’
To this Erasmus replied that he was sure the bandit would have
made reasonable allowance and so would have submitted to arrest,
‘provided no other stratagem occurred to his cunning mind.’
‘He is as clever as a tiger,’ expounded the sergeant. ‘And I have
no doubt that he has changed course more than once since the last
time you encountered him. He knows these mountains better than
a taxi driver knows the labyrinths of Lacutta, so that even the bulk
of his elephant is no handicap. And he has had the shrewdness to
make many friends hereabouts, whom he not only protects by not
robbing them himself but whom he also rewards with a portion of
what he steals from others. But we will catch him in the end, if it
takes a thousand of our number, for society cannot afford to
tolerate his crimes.’
‘I am pleased to hear it,’ replied Erasmus. ‘But I fear that his
criminal abilities cannot be overestimated.’
‘No one is infallible, Mr Truthseeker. And time is on our side.’
Their report delivered and there being nothing intervening to
supply their thoughts, our weary travellers began to grow
impatient for the arrival of the promised vehicle. But it is our good
fortune that we need not share in that eventless interval. Be
assured that it passed quickly enough, as all things do in the end,
and soon they had news by radio that it had arrived at the
designated place, just over the hill to their rear.
‘You may surrender your carbine at the station,’ instructed the
406
sergeant. ‘You will have no further need of it in this law abiding
land, despite what you may think at the moment. One of my
constables will accompany you,’ he added, before bidding our
friends adieu and setting off in search of he who had been the
source of so much strife and mischief in those parts.
Now the constable left behind as their escort turned out to be none
other than he who had earlier ill used them for target practice, not
that he didn’t need it, a failing which had already made him the
butt of several unkind jests from colleagues. And now, it seemed,
he was to endure the additional indignity of repatriation before
their mission had run its course, with no opportunity for
redemption. It was for him the nadir of a hitherto undistinguished
career and, as they climbed the hill, he began to wonder whether
he ought to have followed his mother’s advice and joined the
railways after all.
Seeing how down in the mouth was their new companion, the
generous Patrick slapped him on the back and cheered him up as
best he could by recalling some embarrassment he had also
suffered in his time.
‘Besides,’ said the Doctor, ‘your first shot came within a hair’s
breadth of my nose and, but for the wind, I dare say would have
sliced it cleanly off!’
It was a remark that did much to restore the constable’s morale
and cemented good relations within the expanded group. So much
so, that upon reaching the truck the constable begged permission
to ride with them in the back, forgoing the opportunity of a more
comfortable seat up front.
Naturally, his request was not refused and to Patrick instead went
the privilege of riding with the driver, carbine at hand in the event
they should meet with any further trouble.
But there was no expectation of danger in the rear of the truck and,
after they had proceeded a little way, the inscrutable Doctor turned
to face the constable with that disarming smile he used to such
good effect, if not kind purpose, and asked why it was that the
young man had taken upon himself the thankless task of enforcing

407
the laws of their land.
Erasmus felt greatly relieved to see that the Doctor had chosen
someone else as the foil for his enquiries, for he had begun to
suspect that it was cause and not coincidence which connected his
uneasy dreams with the troublesome discussions that invariably
preceded them.
‘Yes, Constable,’ added Erasmus, anxious lest his proxy should
escape. ‘I was wondering that myself.’
Thus cornered, the constable saw no way out. ‘Well, sir, as you
know, careers are not easy to come by in the country,’ he began,
‘and the task of enforcing our laws is surely a worthwhile
occupation. Is it not?’
‘Indeed it is,’ smiled the Doctor. ‘Indeed it is. I’m sure we all
concur on that.’
‘Of course.’ Erasmus was quick to agree.
‘But forgive me for suspecting,’ continued the Doctor, ‘that you
have another vocation in mind?’
The constable was taken aback. ‘Why yes, sir’ he confessed, ‘as it
happens your suspicions are correct. I suppose it is a measure of
my incompetence in this career that you should assume I have
hopes for another.’
‘Not at all,’ grinned Doctor Rama. ‘But you are the only constable
I know whose pen is more valuable than his carbine.’
The constable clutched at his pocket. ‘Ah,’ he sighed, ‘you are
right again. But I hope you do not think me extravagant, Doctor.
For it was the prize of a competition. You see,’ he hesitated,
looking round, ‘I aspire to be a writer.’
‘How splendid!’ The Doctor was chuffed.
‘Just what the Doctor ordered,’ smiled Tangles, who could see
what was coming next.
And, of course, she was right. For the Doctor, having outlined to
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the constable the policy of their party, and reminding him perhaps
unfairly of the part he had played in their rescue, placed the young
man under a double obligation.
‘Very well, Doctor,’ he acquiesced, removing some folded sheets
of paper from his pocket. ‘In any case, it is the vanity of writers
that they wish to be read, even if only by their friends…’

409
The Last Survivor

It was eerie how light escaping from the greenhouse walls


penetrated, but did not conquer, the surrounding darkness; leaving
unfathomed perimeters to brood unto themselves...
Suddenly, the flat screen burst into life and buttons of red and
green on panels throughout the ship blinked on; just as did the
eyelids of the craft’s suspended life. Major Chandra stood by the
transparent capsule which entombed his colleague and looked
upon her still torso with bemusement.
‘Come along, Commander, get a move on!’ he said with
annoyance. But as the moments of his waiting piled into minutes,
mere annoyance grew to alarm.
Her eyes responded to the motion of his hand, but only
mechanically. He stared into their blankness, dimly recalling the
metaphor that eyes are windows of the soul.
Major Chandra was above all a rational being. Repressing his
fears, he initiated a medical examination via the controls at the
head of her capsule. A summary of vital data indicated that her
respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems were functioning
satisfactorily. He ordered a brain scan.
The commander had haemorrhages to both her right and left lobes.
Consequently, her verbal and spatial memories were massively
damaged and, however one might define intelligence, she had
nothing useful remaining.
‘That’s all I need. What are the odds? Two percent? Three?
Thanks.’ The Major was understandably astounded. Life
suspension was not without risk, but it wasn’t exactly an
experimental process either. He had every reason to suppose that
he would not be working alone. And now...
The ‘Doctor’ presented an option, ‘Terminate life process?’ There
410
wasn’t much choice. She was a burden to the mission. No good to
anyone, even herself. The decision was his exclusively. Why put it
off? He accepted the default, and a few seconds later the
commander was unceremoniously jettisoned into the ocean of
space.
And Major Chandra was alone.
‘I need a drink,’ he said.
Postponing the irksome routine of check-lists that had been drilled
mindlessly into his behaviour pattern, he slouched before the
flatscreen, drinking solace from a cup. But as he was about to
compose what would have been his first report, a flashing message
on the screen finally captured his attention.
‘PRIORITY ONE MESSAGE ON FILE 34,’ it read.
‘Priority one, is it? Well wait till you get mine, Controller,’ he
remarked, before dutifully calling up the inwards file.
‘OPEN… STAR REF 627 - REPEAT SIX TWO SEVEN-
CONTRACTING RAPIDLY. SUPERNOVA TYPE I
PREDICTED 15 - REPEAT FIFTEEN- EARTH HOURS FROM
THIS MESSAGEDATE. PROGNOSIS FOR EARTH AND
COLONIES IS 0 -REPEAT ZERO-SURVIVAL ALL LIFE.
EVENT PROBABILITY CERTAIN. SAFE LIMIT YOUR
VECTOR 5 -REPEAT FIVE- PARSECS. PHOENIX- 2 IN LOW
RISK RADIUS. CONTINUOUS TIME TRANSMISSION ON
COMS1. MESSAGE FROM WORLD PRESIDENT
FOLLOWS… CLOSE.’
Major Chandra listened to the President’s synthesised voice with
emotional anaesthesia, and did not believe. He searched for other
messages, other words, some howsoever flimsy evidence to the
contrary, and found none. Then, on the Coms1 frequency, he
found the time signal of a world which had been dead for half a
century and it hit him. For the second time since his revival
Major Chandra felt alone.
The last human being, the last animal in the known universe,
walked limply into the greenhouse, and fell asleep.
411
Commander Lin and Major Chandra had a mission; had a mission.
For Major Chandra, the last survivor, return to home was now out
of the question, and further exploration was absurd. But the very
reason he had been sent to explore the planet Kroda, its life
support potential, provided another possibility: settlement. And so
Phoenix-2 continued on its way, captained by Major Chandra, as
though nothing untoward had happened at all.
But something untoward had happened. Not even Phoenix-2 had
escaped the stellar holocaust without injury. Major Chandra
studied the scrolling damage report and found an explanation for
the Commander’s fate. Further use of the life suspension facility
was out of the question. And power supplies had dwindled
alarmingly. Like a dying body, the ship had withdrawn its life
force from all peripheral areas to protect its vital core.
Major Chandra piloted his ship to Kroda with the same heavy
inevitability that returns a drowned corpse to a beach in the sweep
of an incoming tide...
As expected, the planet Kroda was not inhospitable. There was
enough free oxygen to permit respiration and enough light and
carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. Streams cut through its silicon
and potassium enriched outer crust, filling its cratered volcanic
floors with seas; and Kroda’s gravity was only ten percent greater
than had been Earth’s.
However, Kroda had its own peculiarities. Its two suns, the large
mother sun and its smaller more distant, sister, annually danced
across the sky, causing extreme seasonal variations not only in the
length of a Krodan day, but in both its atmospheric and marine
tides as well. In ‘summer’, for example, when its suns were in
opposition, there was no night.
And the planet was dead.
It was summer when, having surveyed his new world in detail
from close orbit, Major Chandra stepped out of his ship and onto
the alluvial plains he had chosen for his home.
The weight of the flat horizon pulled him down; made even
standing a psychological struggle. He looked up at the sky and
412
saw, not far from the sun, the brilliant light of an exploding star
and remembered...
He spent the first weeks fashioning implements and ploughing the
hard baked land. Then he diverted a stream for irrigation and made
everything ready to sow.
And afterwards he waited... through the winter months.
Night time was the hardest time to bare. Sometimes he would
walk the whole night through, a lone torch bearing figure on a
pointless mission in an empty world; a singular being illuminating
a speck before him somewhere in the vastness of the void. And
sometimes he would make the ship blaze in electric glory, filling
the night with light but leaving the corners untouched.
Finally the spring came, and with it some signs of life. But the
failure rate was high. Some came too soon and perished in frost.
Some came late and withered in the sun. However, a few survived,
and these yielded seed for the next year’s crop.
Major Chandra ate sparingly, making the most of the ship’s failing
garden, supplemented with whatever remained from the Krodan
crop after seed had been reserved. In the third winter, the ship’s
power failed and with it the greenhouse as well. Thereafter the
nights were cold and dark.
The third crop survived but was still a meagre one; meagre for a
summer’s supply let alone for a year. And it was then that the
major’s hunger became a fetter to the accumulation of seed.
By the fifth summer Major Chandra was starving and his
diminishing crop was poor. He ate each plant as it grew, before
they had matured, until, in the end, there remained only a solitary
cabbage-like vegetable in an otherwise desolate field.
Lying in the shade of Phoenix-2’s hulk, his mind wandered
alternately between dreams and consciousness, before, at last, the
skin clad skeleton dressed in rags that was him, raised itself
resolutely from the sand and stepped into the sun. He looked upon
the last living fruit of his labour with desperate hunger, and
wondered whether, if allowed, it would seed.
413
Then, turning his back upon the field, Major Chandra took the first
step in a straight line to nowhere, in the expanding silence of the
plain...

Having concluded his story, the shy constable dropped his head.
‘What a satisfactory trip this has turned out to be,’ remarked the
Doctor, as he polished the lenses of his spectacles and returned
them to his nose. ‘But I fear it is not done yet.’
Whereupon the young constable rose and peered out the back of
the canvas covered truck.
‘But we are almost there,’ he announced.
For so they were. And, in less time than it takes to say ‘Jack
Robinson’, or, more truthfully, not much more, the small lorry
slowed to a halt.
Its occupants awaited no invitation to disembark. And, though
travel weary they smiled nonetheless, inhaling as it were, for the
first time in three trying days, the sweet and refreshing air of
untroubled liberty.
‘May I show you to your quarters?’ volunteered a waiting
attendant, somewhat more sincerely than had their previous host.
Which invitation was not declined and, farewelling the constable,
they made their way to the bungalows set aside for their use, the
good Doctor hobbling along as best he could, with a little help
from his friends.

414
Elephant Eleven: When Friends Part

On the next morning our rested travellers arose to discover that the
weather had taken a turn for the worse; not that a little rain was
much of a match for their sunny optimism and, far from
depressing their spirits, it only made their breakfast together that
much more cosy and enjoyable.
‘Ah,’ expressed the Doctor between sips of strong hot tea, ‘there is
nothing quite so genial or conducive to the pleasures of society
than the sound of light drizzle without and the crackle of a warm
fire within.’
Which was about as much conversation as their appetites would
allow. Guessing as much, the young constable waited a decent
interval before intruding upon them, brandishing a wad of forms in
one hand and assorted pens in the other, and wishing only to spare
them the weather by bringing the station to them.
By mid morning the paperwork was universally complete,
Erasmus having taken special care to thoroughly check each and
every detail on his form, to the delay of his patient friends. And no
sooner had they fulfilled their obligation to him than the constable
undertook to satisfy his, so that our friends soon found themselves
on the road again, bound at last for their journey’s end but ready
from the first for the worst.
For his part, Erasmus considered it highly unlikely that anything
extraordinary would befall them on the final leg. Not because, as
we might reason, the remainder of the journey was relatively short
but rather because their new vehicle seemed so lacking in that
indefinable quality that he had identified with the promise of
adventure. And, laugh as we may at his eccentric logic, the truth is
that his conclusion at least was perfectly correct, for soon they
were arrived at...
‘But this is mere coincidence,’ you may remark, as if the most
established laws of science amount to anything more! And, as
415
Erasmus would no doubt argue, he was as good as any scientist in
his own approach, taking each observed coincidence as evidence
for his view. Nay, even better, for at least he dared contemplate
the whole, whereas those who labour in the name of science may
never form a view larger than the fragments they investigate.
But your pardon please, dear reader, for it is neither my wish nor
purpose here to wound good science by noble philosophy, but
rather simply to relate, as I had earlier begun, that we have come
to that saddest of all occasions, when friends must part.
First, with their most recent friend and sometime enemy, the
constable, who, after an exchange of well wishing and thanks,
dutifully returned to the station.
Then with Patrick and his little companion, the latter seemingly as
reluctant as the former. Oh how it tore at their hearts to see Patrick
stroll slowly down the road, the monkey perched upon his
shoulder and watching them all the while with sorrowful eyes, as
if it could not endure to lose the sight of them.
The good Doctor likewise was in no mind to part with his two
young friends, nor they with him, and, while Tangles popped into
the post office to ‘ring up Aunty,’ he and Erasmus reminisced
about the experiences they had shared, both good and bad, which I
have already narrated to the best of my ability.
‘Hello Aunty, it’s me!...Yes, I’m at the post office with some
friends. We only just got in... Well, we had a bit of strife along the
way but it’s alright now...I’ll fill you in later...Fine, really. There is
one thing, though...I was wondering if you could put one of them
up for a while. He’s not a bad sort of bloke when you get to know
him...Great... Erasmus, Erasmus P. Truthseeker...That’s what I
thought... Just one, a Doctor of something. He’s very nice...O.K.
I’ll ask him. But how do we get there?... You’re sure it’s no
trouble?... That’s great. Ta...Ten minutes, right. See you shortly
then... Bye.’
Erasmus and the Doctor stopped at the sound of Tangles bounding
down the post office steps.
‘Well, Doc,’ she said, ‘My Aunt invites you to lunch. How
416
about it?’
‘That would be very pleasant,’ he beamed.
‘Good, she’s sending the car for us. Should be here in a jiffy.
You’re right too, Razzy, for as long as you like.’
‘Really? That’s great. Thanks’
‘It is most kind of your aunt to send her car,’ remarked the Doctor.
‘Yeah, she’s like that: considerate. They don’t make ‘em like her
any more. You two should get on like a house on fire.’
The Doctor smiled at this oblique reference to his age. Not that he
was all that old, mind you, but he was no youngster either by any
means; nor did he want to be, ever again.
Fortunately for the Doctor’s ankle, he did not have long to wait,
for it was only a jiffy or two later, according to Tangles’ measure
and prediction, that the car despatched by her aunt pulled up
beside our trio.
‘G’day,’ hailed Tangles.
‘Good morning, Miss,’ returned the driver. ‘Is this your luggage
here?’
‘That’s it, the lot. Like a hand?’
‘No thank you, Miss,’ he replied and, as the driver strapped it to
the boot rack, Erasmus circumnavigated his car.
‘It’s perfect!’ he exclaimed, admiring the wooden spoked wheels,
the chrome decked running boards and the plush soft leather
upholstery. ‘And a convertible too!’
‘Yes, it’s in good nick, alright. It was Uncle’s pride and joy. He
bought it new sixty years ago. Used to say it would last a life time.
Well, it certainly outlived him. Regular servicing, that’s the key.’
‘It looks very comfortable,’ noted the Doctor, thinking of his back.
‘Suspensions a bit on the primitive side but it works pretty well at
417
the speeds it was designed for,’ said Tangles. ‘Like most things, I
guess. Well, I s’pose we better get a move on, eh? All aboard
that’s coming aboard,’ she smiled, recalling their previous voyage
together as the driver took his seat. Whereupon, with a chug from
the engine, a bang from the exhaust and a toot from the shiny
horn, off they went...
‘There’s Aunty!’ cried Tangles waving to a woman standing at the
entrance to greet them.
‘I didn’t know your aunt kept elephants,’ said Erasmus, pointing
to a rather large specimen he saw drinking from a pond.
‘Neither did I,’ replied Tangles as the car pulled up in the drive.
‘G’day Aunty,’ greeted Tangles, kissing her on the cheek.
‘My dear Verity, how wonderful to see you.’
‘Verity?’
‘Tangles, to you,’ she warned with a look that threatened malice.
‘As you wish, Tangles, but, if you ask me, it’s as good a name as
my own without a doubt.’
‘This, poor excuse for a wit, Aunty, is the ‘friend’ I told you
about, Erasmus Perseverance Truthseeker, probably with a
hyphen.’
‘No hyphen,’ he said, mustering as much modesty as he could.
‘And this, Aunt Felicity, is Doctor Rama, who did his ankle in
along the way.’
‘Oh dear, is there anything I can do to help, Doctor?’
‘No thank you, Madam. The police have kindly attended to it,’ he
said, showing off a neat cotton bandage. ‘In any case, it is much
improved.’
‘You’ll need a walking stick,’ suggested the aunt, suppressing her
curiosity. ‘Rodney had something of a small collection and he’s in
no position to make use of them now. I’ll get you one after lunch.’

418
‘That would be splendid,’ thanked the Doctor pleased at finding a
trace of humour in their hostess. ‘I’m afraid I have been something
of a burden to my friends.’
‘Not at all,’ denied Erasmus. ‘You may call upon the services of
my shoulder at any time.’
‘Well, I’m sure you must all be very hungry after your trip. Lunch
is waiting in the garden.’
‘Sounds good, Aunty. It’d be a waste to eat inside on a day like
this.’
‘Hasn’t it turned out beautifully,’ replied the aunt as they made
their way round to the rear of the house. ‘So much better than this
morning. Though that small drop of rain was just what the garden
needed to freshen things up a bit. Here we are. It’s just a simple
buffet, I’m afraid, with some fruit from the garden.’
‘It looks wonderful,’ approved Tangles at the sight of a
magnificently spread table set in an old gazebo amid a stand of
leafy trees and shrubs. ‘You’ve outdone yourself.’
‘It isn’t often one has guests,’ replied her aunt, showing them to
their seats.
And may I here suggest, dear reader, that we leave them to their
well deserved lunch in peace and, perhaps, eat a little snack
ourselves; for the thought of others tucking into such a sumptuous
repast is apt to make the strongest of us hunger also, and hunger is
a great distraction for the mind.

‘As pleasing to the palate as it was to the eye,’ said the Doctor
who had something of a flair for flattery.
‘Why thank you Doctor, I’m glad you liked it. But now, my dear
Verity, I’m afraid that I cannot contain my curiosity any longer.’
‘It’s a long story, Aunty.’
‘Long or short, dear, I’d like to hear it.’
419
‘O.K., if it’ll put your mind at rest. I guess you could say,’ she
began, ‘that we were kidnapped.’
‘Kidnapped!’
‘That’s right, by a bandit on an elephant. Then we escaped with
the help of another friend with a monkey and wandered about in
the bush for a while until the cops found us.’
‘My dear Verity, I had no idea!’
‘Don’t worry, Aunty. Nothing really happened. Well, almost
nothing.’
‘Almost nothing?’ quizzed her worried aunt.
‘Except for Razzy getting himself drowned in some rapids. But
he’s right as rain now, aren’t you mate?’ she added with a wink he
answered with a smile. ‘And a copper took a few pot shots at us by
mistake but, as you can see, he missed.’
By this time her unprepared aunt had taken on the expression of,
as her niece would later describe it, a ‘stunned mullet’, so that they
began to be concerned for her state of health and endeavoured to
change the topic of conversation.
‘Is that your elephant we saw on the way in, Aunty?’ she asked,
plucking a large firm apple from a bowl at the centre of the table.
‘Elephant, dear?’ replied her Aunt, as if awoken from a trance.
‘Oh, you mean Matilda. Why yes, as of this morning she is. You
know how I love elephants, dear, and I just couldn’t resist I’m
afraid.’
‘Where do you buy elephants?’ asked Erasmus, intrigued by the
thought.
‘Actually, I don’t really know. I suppose that must sound strange
but you see this rather nice young chap just knocked on my door.’
‘Out of the blue, you mean?’
‘Yes. He said he’d heard of my interest in elephants and, well,
asked would I care to buy his. It’s all above board. I have a
420
Bill of Sale inside.’
‘Polite bloke was he, with a posh accent?’
‘Why yes, dear, and quite charming too. I’m sure he’ll do very
well in his new line of work.’
‘You mean he’s changing careers?’ asked Erasmus who had
twigged to the salesman’s identity.
‘Yes. That’s why he was selling the elephant. Something about
growing weary of the outdoors life and taking the opportunity to
enter the used motor trade. In fact, he offered to accept the car as a
trade but I couldn’t part with it after all these years. Rodney would
haunt me if I did. Do you know him, dear?’
‘You could say that, Aunty. I reckon we all do, in fact.’
‘Oh dear!’ her aunt gasped putting her hand to her mouth. ‘You
don’t mean to say...’
‘It’s alright, Aunty. You weren’t to know and I’m sure he didn’t
cheat you either. He’s very honest, in his own way.’
‘That’s true,’ agreed Erasmus. ‘Quite honest in fact. So he’s
decided to abandon his criminal ways. That’s interesting. I wonder
if I convinced him after all?’
‘Somehow I doubt it, Razzy. You heard what the sergeant said.
His days were numbered in that game. I reckon he’s just thought it
timely to make a change. No doubt his principles will serve him
well in the motor trade.’
‘No doubt,’ agreed the Doctor. ‘The dividing line between
complex commerce and simple larceny can be a fine one at times.’
‘Well I’m sure he’ll prosper in trade,’ conceded Erasmus, ‘but I
don’t think I shall ever deal with the likes of him, should my very
life depend upon it.’
‘That’s easy to say when you’re lunching in a garden, Razzy, but
you’ll find things are different outside. Beyond be dragons, mate.’
‘Perhaps,’ he acknowledged, ‘but for the moment I could wish
421
for no better place than this.’
‘On that I concur completely,’ said the Doctor. ‘How much like
this must Eden have been.’
‘Why thank you, Doctor. It’s good to know one’s efforts are
appreciated.’
‘Indeed they are, Madam,’ he warmed. ‘Indeed they are.’
‘Yes, it is beautiful,’ intruded Erasmus. ‘It must have taken a great
deal of thought.’
‘And work,’ chided the aunt.
‘Certainly, that too.’ Erasmus had not had much experience of that
side of life. ‘But what I meant was, that is, how does one go about
creating a garden like this?’
‘I didn’t know you were interested in gardening, Razzy.’
‘Not as such, but, I confess that this garden interests me very
much.’
‘One should always take the opportunity to enquire into
exceptional phenomena,’ complimented the Doctor. ‘Who knows
where such investigations might lead?’
‘Goodness me, Doctor. I’ve never thought of my garden as an
exceptional phenomenon before.’
‘But it is!’ insisted Erasmus. ‘It’s the quintessence of the ideal
garden. Here shady trees abound with pleasing fruits, their solid
beauty balanced by all manner of fragrant flowers bursting bright,
while the excited mind is almost simultaneously pacified by the
reflection of the whole on the calm waters of the central pond.
Clearly this effect is not the result of an arbitrary arrangement but
the product of a deliberate and carefully conceived plan.’
‘Gracious me, Mr Truthseeker, how you do go on! Of course,
you’re correct in so far as it isn’t an arbitrary arrangement but as
to whether it’s ideal, why, I can only say that it suits my taste and,
happily, that of my guests as well. No, it isn’t arbitrary but neither
422
is it the quintessence of some ideal garden either; which strikes me
as a queer sort of notion, like a palace in the sky. My garden
merely suits my purpose and to the extent that it pleases you, I
suppose, we must have that much in common.’
‘Yes, I’m beginning to understand,’ muttered Erasmus, looking
about him. ‘We are what we are and we should live as befits.’
‘And you’d be a mug not to, Razzy and that’s the truth.’
‘Certainly,’ said the Doctor, ‘it is hard to imagine anyone not
liking this. I wonder, Madam, whether you would consider it rude
of one of your guests to stroll about it for a while before taking his
leave?’
‘By all means, Doctor,’ she replied, ‘and if that guest doesn’t
object, the hostess will come too.’
‘That would be splendid.’
‘Mind if I chaperone, Aunty?’
‘Of course, Verity. And what about your friend?’
Erasmus hesitated. ‘Actually, is that a library you can see through
the window?’ he hinted.
‘Why, yes it is.’
‘Do you suppose –’
‘Of course. By all means have a browse. I’m sure it will appreciate
some interest. There’s a science fiction shelf that might appeal to a
young man like you, on the left, just as you enter.’
‘Thank you. That’s, great. In fact, I’ve recently developed a taste
for Sci Fi so I’ll be sure to have a look.’

423
Nomads

An encounter in space

424
CONTENTS
The Exploration Ethic: Abridged
Prologue
1. Contact
2. Executive Action
3. Alternative Plans
4. Face to Face
5. Aftershocks
6. Conspirators
7. Guessing Games
8. Opportunity Knocks
9. Tocsin
10. Preparations
11. A Warm Welcome
12. Queenside Castle
13. Melee
14. Cell Mates
15. Communiqué
16. A Chill in the air
17. Simply Irresistible
18. The Handyman
19. Rumblings
20. Restoration

425
Epilogue

426
The Exploration Ethic: Abridged

1. The best way to honour the past is to serve the future.


2. Humanity may explore the heavens but it is Life that claims
them.
3. Life is legacy and promise.
4. We are the map of our own virtues, to read it is to be guided by
destiny.
5. Everyone is governed by cause and effect but the wise are
advised by it.
6. Action provides for opportunity.
7. Pleasure defers to purpose.
8. Morals are the clothes of humanity. If they did not on the
whole fit, they would not on the whole be worn.
9. When the mind decides what is right for us, it knows what is
right for others.
10. Navigators have always looked to the heavens.
11. To appreciate a picture you must stand back; to appreciate the
universe you must be God.
12. The more we look to the next life, the less we achieve in this
one.
13. A harmonious house stands upon just foundations.
14. Good laws may drive out better values.
15. New ideas need new generations to think them.
16. When failure is encountered, persevere. When patience is

427
exhausted, endure.
17. Ambition may discover that destiny has its own schedule.
18. There are two ways to waste time: unnecessary delay and
unnecessary haste.
19. The principal difference between command and leadership is
respect.
20. To gain respect one must give it.
21. One sin may cloud a thousand triumphs.
22. Triumph, but not over others.
23. Name one thing that you have brought forth and you will have
named one thing that you did not bring forth alone.
24. Everything is derivative: every agent of the future is a client
of the past.
25. Understanding is less about how well you think than what you
think about.
26. The world surprises first and makes sense afterwards.
27. Though the mind seeks novelty, it desires order.
28. If you wish to make a fresh discovery, fold up your map and
look about.

428
Nomads: Prologue

‘I wish it was me, Charlie’, said Zeb, as he passed a shot glass of


fine scotch to his younger colleague. There was a hint of bitterness
in his voice that he made no attempt to disguise but it was largely
redeemed by the regard for his guest that it also conveyed.
‘That’s understandable, Secretary,’ replied Charlie, to the lean
greying man standing before her. She spoke respectfully, even a
little sympathetically, but without any feigned regret for her own
success. Her reward may have been at another’s expense but it
was also the climax of considerable personal effort and so required
no apology. ‘This has been your program from the beginning.’
Zeb dismissed his colleague’s drilled deference. ‘Let’s drop the
Secretary stuff, Charlie,’ he said, with a small wave. ‘After all,
we’ll officially be equals soon. You’re appointment only awaits
announcement, which, as you know, is imminent. And, while I
appreciate your respectful comments, the fact is that, as Secretary
of Pod 1, the program is in your hands now. I’m yesterday’s man.
You should see what they’ve done to my budget,’ he grinned,
turning to face the window of his office and staring at the red and
rocky view below. It was a view that had always appealed to him
in a way that sentiment did not; the hard lifeless landscape seemed
to find an affinity with the landscape of his heart.
‘ No,’ he resumed, looking back at Charlie with eyes that betrayed
the underlying enthusiasm he still felt for his mission, ‘I may be
the architect of Pod 1, even the source of the original vision, but
you,’ he said with burning eyes, ‘will be seen as its Columbus. It
is you whom history will remember, not me.
‘You,’ he repeated, confronting Charlie with another penetrating
stare, ‘will be perceived as the parent of our program’s enduring
posterity. Unsupported by us on Mars, using energy harvested
only from the galaxy you yourself explore, your pod will produce
the first generation of offspring, themselves pregnant with future
429
lines, in a perpetual process that will see the Milky Way
penetrated by the branches of a vast galactic tree. A magnificent
tree, formed of and by human intelligence, increasingly producing
order amidst the chaos of the stars. And you, Charlie,’ he pressed,
‘will be the ancestor of them all, both their Adam and their Eve,
rolled into one.’
Charlie resisted the proud emotions that Zeb’s words seemed
calculated to induce within her. She had experienced the old man’s
persuasive powers before; powers that packed ordinary words with
compelling conviction and delivered them at close range. And she
knew it wasn’t mere flattery either, it was meant to spur her on, to
benefit the mission and to test her humility. So silence would not
do now, she must accept the offered baton with gratitude and
grace, giving the old man his due. ‘Perhaps the first generation of
Pod 1 will be remembered,’ she replied, with as little vanity as she
could. ‘But only until the scale of history places us, too, beyond its
vanishing point. After all, everyone is forgotten but by God. And,
to the extent that my crew are remembered as original ancestors,
you, here on Mars, will be recalled as the angels of Eden.’
Zeb smiled at his subject’s artful escape from the snare he had set
for her ego. You will do, he thought, approvingly. If not me, then
you.
‘Besides,’ Charlie continued, ‘aren’t we told that everything is
derivative: that every agent of the future is a client of the past.’
Zeb nodded. ‘So you’ve mastered the Ethic, then,’ he said, almost
contemptuously, before shifting ground. ‘Which, I suppose, is all
well and good.’
Charlie studied Zeb’s expression. ‘You don’t think much of it,
then?’ she quizzed.
Zeb’s gaze fell away, evasively. ‘It has its place in the program, I
suppose,’ he conceded. ‘As you know, it wasn’t my idea. And I
don’t necessarily agree with everything it says. But pod societies
will need something to live by, to have some principles in
common, I guess. And the Ethic should serve well enough for that.
However,’ he said, looking again at Charlie, ‘as for personal
guidance, I have my own ideals. Let’s just leave it that,’ he
430
concluded and, moving on from a point of potentially
uncomfortable difference, raised his glass in a prelude to a formal
toast. ‘To Fibonacci,’ he said.
‘Fibonacci,’ repeated Charlie, a little puzzled, as she obligingly
raised her glass and drank. She understood the reference, of
course, but its significance was more obscure. Yes, she reflected,
the descendants of Pod 1 would soon grow greatly in number in
accordance with the series that the medieval mathematician had
expounded. Like the two dimensional tree that Zeb had described,
it would spread through the plane of the galactic disk, each pod
light years away from the next, communicating along the tree’s
branches to the trunk and, through it, eventually, with Mars itself;
receiving and cataloguing messages that were increasingly like
ghostly whispers from long gone pasts, yet still signifying that no
pod was entirely alone. All this assuming, of course, that
everything went according to plan, and there were plenty of risks
ahead. That’s when the significance of the toast to Fibonacci hit
her. Zeb was wishing Pod 1, and its projected posterity, well.
Zeb detected the instant of this insight in the subtly changing
features of his clever guest’s face. ‘And now, Secretary,’ he said,
refilling their empty shots, ‘it’s your toast, I think.’
Charlie hesitated. It was time for her to reveal something of her
own vision of what lay ahead. ‘To nomads,’ she said.

431
Nomads One: Contact

Briel began the working day as she always did: surveying the
message index on her holographic display. Sorting and copying
incoming mail to relevant officers was an important part of her
job and she found that the mixture of routine and novelty involved
was a good way to fire up her neurons in the morning - especially
if a cup of coffee was at hand.
Some of these messages were regular status reports from the logs
of other pods and Mars Ops that she used to update the mission
data base. Any unusual status changes were, of course, notified to
the Secretary but most were merely filed under their default
history directories. The oldest of this daily mail always included
news from Mars, reflecting its circumstances a century Before
Now. There was simply no way of knowing what was happening
there these days.
The most recent messages, from new generation pods, originated
only a few years B.N. These were the most useful, from a
technical point of view, sometimes communicating cutting edge
discoveries made by Pod 1’s descendants that was often relevant
to its own research and development. The principle addressee for
this mail was, of course, the Academy.
What most interested her, however, were those R & D messages
that related to her own information technology field, and the new
product messages that she would copy to the Transmutation
Engineer. The fact that Pod 1’s latest consumer craze was usually
based upon a curious commodity or fashion accessory from
Earth’s history did not detract, and, indeed, seemed to add to the
interest of such fads. And Briel got a real kick out of anticipating
their local infusion into Pod 1’s society, privately sharing her
advance intelligence with a small circle of friends over drinks at
the bar. It was a perk, and perhaps the only one, of her junior but
privileged information position.
However, these were not the interesting feature of today’s
432
message index. No, what struck her about this morning’s mail was
a single unclassified mail message addressed to the Secretary. She
was the addressee of much routine traffic so that in itself was not
unusual. But this particular message caught Briel’s eye because it
was different to any message she had previously received in one
simple respect: its despatch date was two days B.N.
No one, but no one, should be that close to Pod 1.

Indira was casually consulting her diary when Kristina gingerly


entered. Her assistant’s expression indicated to the Secretary that a
problem was about to intrude upon the peace of her morning and
her mind readied itself accordingly. Experience had taught her that
the preferred way to engage such threats was to adopt a defensive
mental stance from the outset; to assume an attitude of calm
control, not merely for her assistant’s benefit but for her own. ‘Yes
Kristina?’ she asked, in a friendly and unfussed tone.
Kristina hesitated. ‘There’s an important message for you,
Secretary; from another pod.’
‘Oh?’ Indira smiled, as she began to scroll through her mail.
But Kristina had not yet concluded her alert. ‘It’s two days old,’
she said.

Fyodor resisted the thrust of the day’s lesson. Although he


respected the Ethicist’s erudition, he was not always convinced
that the old man was right. For sometimes, though compelled by
reason and the force of his master’s personality to concede an
argument in the light of day, he would become increasingly
uncomfortable by night. So now he was more inclined to challenge
his master’s logic at the outset.
‘But Argus,’ he objected, ‘if, as the Ethic maintains, all events
originate from prior causes, forming links in a chain that extends
back to the very beginning of time, how is it that we can and do
make free choices? How is it that our minds can serve as a source

433
of original cause in this way if the only original cause in the
universe was at the beginning of time? Surely to admit both
propositions would be contradictory? And if people are free to
make decisions, are able to inject an original cause into the
universe, how is it that we could be said to have a destiny, as the
Ethic asserts?’
Argus stroked his trim silvery beard slowly as he contemplated the
basis of his apprentice’s position. He was, of course, familiar with
such arguments but his apprentice had put them well. Fyodor was
young yet, but smart and, what was more important, he had a
questioning mind; a vital attribute for his future job. He would
never truly grasp the truth of the Ethic if he did not question it.
And if he did not truly grasp it, he could never help others to
appreciate it and could never stand in his master’s shoes. That is
why, of all those in his generation on Pod 1, he had been selected
for this uniquely noble and humble calling.
His reply was prefaced with a knowing gaze from experienced
grey eyes. ‘It is certainly harder to see that we are not free,
Fyodor, than to suppose that we are,’ he said. ‘For to see the
underlying truth we must go beyond mere appearances.’
Fyodor obediently awaited the next instalment of his education.
‘To that end,’ resumed Argus, putting his finger to his chin, ‘let us
consider a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that science has
advanced to the stage where, God forbid, the Transmutation
Engineer could produce an exact replica of someone, cell by cell,
atom by atom; a possibility that unfortunately does not seem far
distant given current achievements in synthesising technology.
‘Now surely, Fyodor, at the instant of this double’s creation, both
entities, the original and the copy, would have the same brain,
would they not?’ he posed, raising one brow socratically.
Fyodor thought this proposition reasonable. ‘By definition, yes,’
he replied, against his better instincts.
‘Then,’ continued Argus, as if seizing an opportunity before it
vanished, ‘they would have the same mental attributes, as well,
wouldn’t they?’ he tempted. ‘They would have the same
434
knowledge, the same tastes, the same desires, values, and so on?’
Fyodor sniffed at the web. He was well acquainted with the
ambush method employed by some philosophers but, alas, saw no
way of avoiding it now. ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ he agreed, cautiously
studying the sticky strands.
‘Well, then,’ smiled Argus, ‘as that does appear to be the case, as
they are, by virtue of the experiment, one and the same at that
instant, presumably, if they were then confronted by the same
‘choices’, then they would make the same decisions too? Surely
that is a reasonable corollary?’
Fyodor let the question hover, rhetorically, over his head. The
spider was contemplating its motionless meal.
‘Now imagine yourself in this position, Fyodor. Suppose that, at
the instant of your replica’s creation, both it and you were asked to
vote for some political candidate, for example, or, more happily,
to make a selection from a breakfast menu. Do you really suppose
that the two brains would differ in their choice?’
Fyodor thought it over. The trend of the discussion pointed to
another restless night.
‘If not,’ Argus concluded, ‘if they would always make the same
choice, then how could their will be free? For has not their
material form and the circumstance of the choice put to them
determined their decision? Won’t both, being the same, behave the
same? And are not their material forms but a legacy of the past,
created and shaped by complex chains of cause and effect?’
Fyodor nodded but only tentatively. He still had reservations and
would not surrender them hastily. ‘That’s an intriguing thought
experiment, Argus. I can see what you are saying and, perhaps, the
Ethic does have a point. But I’ll give it some more thought. My
first reaction, though, would be to suggest that we may be
confusing predictability with inevitability?’
Argus smiled again, disconcertingly. ‘But surely, Fyodor, if we
repeat the thought experiment infinitely we will always get the
same result. Which means that, not only is the outcome
435
predictable, but there is no scope for any explanatory variable
called ‘freedom’; no scope for a truly original cause in their
decisions. Their common choice is thus inescapably determined by
the common nature of the two identical beasts involved; a nature
which follows,’ he said, with an increasingly firmer tone, ‘from an
identical brain and mind.’
Fyodor reeled a little at this fresh assault but was resolved to stand
his ground. Thinking of predictability, he decided to invert his
prior argument. ‘But Argus,’ he sallied, ‘if everything is
determined, even our choices, surely everything would be
predictable too, which plainly it isn’t, or science wouldn’t speak in
terms of probabilities.
‘The uncertainty of human behaviour, to take but one example,’ he
continued, ‘points to the influence of a new cause not arising from
the past but from our mind: something that is unpredictable.’
Fyodor stopped, his eyes drawn to an intruder standing in the
doorway.
Argus stayed Kristina with a halting gesture from his hand.
‘There is some validity in your proposition, Fyodor,’ he replied,
disarmingly. ‘Despite our best efforts, our ability to predict
outcomes in the real world is imperfect. And our knowledge of
some circumstances is even, as physics has taught us, necessarily
imperfect. It is not just that we do not know some things but that
we, as opposed to God, can never know them.
‘And, yes, our imperfect understanding is why we speak of
probabilities and chance. But these mathematical inventions are
simply confessions of our ignorance, not assertions that mystical
forces of randomness exist. So we can’t ground notions of
freedom on them. Creation, we have discovered, is complex,
dynamic and poised in critical states - but it is not free. The
processes of chaos are deterministic even if we cannot determine
what the outcome will be. The web of cause and effect is therefore
not simple. It is indeed wonderful - as are we,’ he smiled.
‘And that is the difference between the practical mathematical
problem of determinacy that so occupies our esteemed professor at
the Academy and the profound philosophical issue of
436
determinism that currently occupies you and I.’
Fyodor sensed finality and was glad.
Kristina also saw, from the Ethicist’s smile, that the lesson was at
an end. ‘The Secretary requests your presence, urgently, Argus,’
she said. ‘The Board is convening an extraordinary meeting
immediately.’
Argus was more surprised by this message than he allowed his
expression to reveal. Extraordinary meetings were very rare.
‘Speaking of the unpredictable,’ mocked Fyodor.
Argus ignored the feeble jibe. ‘Thank you, Kristina,’ he said. ‘I
will be there directly. Meanwhile, Fyodor,’ he said, returning his
gaze to his apprentice, ‘you might wish to prepare yourself for our
next discussion, concerning the challenge that destiny poses for
human motivation. To that end, the theme will be: though
everything in life be inevitable, inevitably, the lazy athlete did not
win.’

437
Nomads Two: Executive Action

Indira welcomed the Ethicist to the meeting with a collegiate smile


and Argus, smiling in return, quietly took his usual seat at the oval
table to her left but one. Separating them sat Kristina, who as
Assistant to the Secretary, was the official note taker. Although
Kristina did not have a voice in proceedings, hers was an
important position for a Board which, in the interests of
encouraging participation, eschewed detailed recordings of
everything that is said but, perhaps, should not have been.
To Indira’s right sat Garcia, the middle aged Purser whose
Hispanic origins were sufficiently reflected in his features to bring
honour or otherwise to his origins. The Purser’s role on the Board
was crucial to its function because Pod 1’s limited ability to
harvest the primary resource of stellar energy gave rise to a budget
constraint and the budget was his domain. Garcia’s budget and
economic reports, which were standing agenda items, were one of
the Board’s principal policy tools for addressing the classic
economic problem of how to manage demand and supply in order
to maximise the satisfaction of potentially unlimited wants.
In the micro-economy of Pod 1, this problem was addressed
through traditional mechanisms of a monetary system, budgetary
controls, and free trading within regulated limits. Accordingly,
based on the Pursers reports, the Secretary, in consultation with
the Board, would allocate funds between the competing categories
of consumption and investment; the main investment sinks being
the Academy and the pod reproduction fund. Such mundane
allocation decisions were of profound short and long term
importance, largely determining both the morale level of the pod’s
citizens and their mission’s rate of progress.
Garcia worked more closely with the Secretary, who appointed
both him and Kristina, than with the Board more generally. But
despite their relationship, sometimes, when defending his
independence against inquiries that probed too deeply into his

438
domain, he used words calculated to confuse everyone, thereby
ensuring that his technical skills remained indispensable.
Upon Garcia’s right, and opposite Argus, sat Penelope, the Chief
Medical Officer of the mission. Penelope, whose dark Greek eyes
and silver tinged black hair had an immediate calming influence
on all those she engaged, was responsible for the psychological
and physical health of Pod 1’s citizens. Moreover, her disposition
and intelligence were such that her advice was often sought on
many other policy issues as well.
Between Penelope and Argus, and opposite Indira in the second
power seat at the Board’s table, sat Pod 1’s Navigator. Kane was
responsible for all the ship’s systems, including information and
production. Like Penelope and Argus, he was answerable to the
Board as a whole, rather than to the Secretary primarily, except on
budgetary matters, and his influence reflected the important
technological character of Pod 1 and its mission.
Although the Secretary’s popular election and budget powers
marked her as mission leader, she understood that the margin of
power she exercised over the Navigator was narrow. Nor was this
phenomenon a peculiarity of the existing personalities involved.
There had always been tensions between Secretaries and
Navigators on Pod 1 as these positions attracted people with
similar degrees of ambition but with quite different backgrounds
and perspectives. Typically, for example, Kane preferred the
intellectual authority of a competent engineer to the
accommodating civility of a skilled politician, and, although his
arrogance had been tempered by years, he did not easily suffer
fools.
But, of all the Executive, it was Argus who enjoyed the greatest
degree of independence because, although he was also appointed
by the Board as a whole, he was the only member whose term
was not fixed. Unless convicted by the Court of a criminal
offence, the Ethicist could only be retired by general plebiscite.
Thus protected from management ire, the pod’s Ethicist was free
to publicly criticise a Board which strayed too far from his advice.
And, as the elected Indira well understood, the mood of a society
that numbered, between pod reproductions, only several hundred
439
persons, could easily be turned by a critical bulletin from a
respected Ethicist like Argus.
The power of the Secretary was therefore far from absolute,
resting more upon skill than authority. And it was Indira’s astute
appreciation of the constraining landscape of ego and power
confronting her that formed the real basis of her command and
leadership.
‘Thank you for attending this extraordinary meeting,’ she began,
assuming control. ‘ Most of you,’ she said, with a passing and
inquisitive glance at Kane, ‘will be wondering what issue has
brought us together, so I won’t keep you in suspense. We are
assembled to discuss a message: a message sent by a nearby Pod.
The message appears on the screen before you now. You will find
that its dispatch date is of particular interest.’
The message from the Secretary of Pod 1.7.1.3 did not take long to
read and was easily digested:
‘Salutations to the Executive and citizens of the great ancestral
pod, from the citizens of one of your progeny.
While this message may come as a surprise to you, the intersection
of our courses has long been anticipated by us and we confess to
adjusting our vector to realise that possibility. Such an encounter
was bound to happen eventually, so please do not feel disturbed by
our arrival now.
In approximately 10 days, if you are amenable, history will record
the first meeting between the exploration program’s primal parent
and one its numerous posterity.
We hope that this momentous event will be similarly welcomed by
you and, accordingly, invite representatives of your Executive to a
ceremony that will officially mark and celebrate this august
occasion.
If you are agreeable, we also propose that a protocol be
established for the exchange of information between officials
afterwards.

440
Please forgive this late advice but we saw no benefit in alerting
you sooner.
Be assured that we are your friends and eagerly look forward to
your response.
Your colleague
Marcus
Secretary
1.7.1.3’

Once the initial shock of this communiqué had settled, the Board’s
reaction, evident on the faces of most of those around the table,
was one of quiet bemusement. It was Penelope who broke that
silence by voicing the question lingering upon all their lips. ‘But is
this possible?’ she asked. ‘Could an ancient branch really intercept
the pinnacle of the exploration tree?’
Indira’s expression conveyed agreement with the Doctor’s doubts.
This was not unusual as she and Penelope enjoyed a mutually
supportive relationship that marked them off from the males at the
table, but her agreement with Indira on this occasion was quite
genuine. ‘I wouldn’t have thought so,’ she said, turning her eyes
towards Kane, who could usually be relied upon for an opinion
too.
Kane willingly accepted the opportunity to provide technical
input. ‘Nor I,’ he agreed. ‘Even if the vessel concerned had
diverged from its original assigned course, as Marcus
acknowledges he has done, interception would not be feasible
unless it had also achieved significantly higher velocities than
have we.’
Argus had doubts of a different kind. ‘And, in any case, shouldn’t
we have previously heard, through line communications, of this
event?’ he asked.
Kane’s answered him circumspectly. ‘Depending upon 7.1.3’s
441
achieved velocity, it is possible that it could reach us more quickly
than a message routed through the formal focused communication
chain to our rear. But it could, as Marcus concedes, have sent us a
bilateral communiqué, directed ahead of its course.’
‘And chose not too,’ noted Garcia with a knowing grin. ‘That line
of his about seeing no benefit in alerting us seemed a bit wet to
me.’
‘It is also surprising,’ Kane continued, ‘that the advanced
technology needed to achieve these velocities could have been
developed without our knowing something of the work.’
‘Unless it had been progressed secretly?’ inferred Penelope.
Kane let silence confirm her suspicions. ‘But these are not the
main problems raised by their message,’ he added, indicating that
he was privy to further detail unknown to his colleagues.
‘Oh,’ enquired Indira, genuinely surprised. She knew that Kane
would also have been briefed by Briel, as the previous discussion
had revealed. After all, the ambit of his authority included
information systems. But he appeared to know more than Briel
had discussed with her, which was odd because she and Briel had
always been on very good terms. Perhaps, in the few hours that
elapsed since their conversation, something else had been
uncovered?
‘The main problem,’ said Kane, ‘is that 7.1.3 does not and could
not exist’. He let the comment sit suspensefully for a few moments
before offering more. ‘Because a search of our logs has confirmed
that its parent, 7.1, was aborted before it could reproduce.’
Pleased with his delivery, the Navigator settled back in his chair to
study its effect.
Garcia expressed the confusion experienced by some others at the
table. ‘But why choose an identity that’s so easily exposed?’
Argus stroked his beard. ‘Unless it wasn’t aware of that fact
itself?’ he suggested.
Kane nodded, approving of what he had in fact anticipated. Things

442
were going well. ‘It’s at least possible that this impostor actually
originated from a pod that was even more distant from 7.1 than
were we. In that case, we would have heard about the aborted
mission before it did. And, depending upon its vector, it still may
not have discovered its mistake. That seems most likely to me.’
Penelope was increasingly uncomfortable with the implications of
Kane’s conclusions. ‘But if its origin, wherever that might be, was
even more remote, wouldn’t that imply even higher velocities
again for it to be able to intercept us?’ she asked, reviving her
earlier concerns.
‘Yes,’ confirmed Kane, directly, like a man unafraid of the truth.
‘Presumably, their technology has enabled them to achieve very
high inertia velocities’.
Indira listened to more than was being said. She was unhappy with
the way Kane was exerting control over the meeting by regulating
and then trumping the information flow. She wanted him to show
his cards, to reveal all that he knew about it. ‘What’s your take on
all this, Kane? I’m sure we’d all like to hear it.’
Kane paused, as though he had been attempting to avoid
dominating the discussion. ‘Well,’ he said, leaning forward to
oblige her request, ‘putting these observations together, I think
7.1.3 is an impostor that has chosen a name which allows us to
believe that its intercept would be achievable by a ship with only
moderately improved technology. However, in reality, it has a
later origin, has taken a rogue course, and has considerably
superior propulsion technology to us. Furthermore, I think we can
infer from this disguise of its prowess that it is hostile.’
More bad news, but everyone was ready for now.
‘It may be hostile,’ conceded Argus, ‘but it is clearly not intent on
our destruction or we would not be here now.’
Indira nodded. ‘And its real intent?’ she posed.
‘To capture Pod 1,’ said Kane, seizing control again.
Another moment of calm interrupted discourse as the Navigator’s

443
sinister inference was considered.
Penelope was the first to break ranks. ‘But why us?’ she asked. ‘If
they’re so advanced, why would they be interested in the likes of
us?’
Kane acknowledged the comment with a quick nod, indicating that
her point had also occurred to him. ‘The answer to that is not yet
clear to me,’ he said, ominously.
But Argus hazarded an explanation. ‘Well, we do influence the
future of exploration,’ he said. ‘And a change in our course, would
impact on the spread of future populations, at least in the medium
term.’
‘And if we were in its hands,’ added Kane, happy with this
contribution, ‘it could send messages authenticated as originating
from us.’
‘Yes, that would be another way of exerting influence,’ conceded
Argus, ‘appropriating our reputation as it were.’
‘But to what end?’ asked Penelope.
Indira could see that explanations based on the limited information
at hand had reached their limit. ‘Well,’ she said, looking about the
table. ‘Though our knowledge of their motive is imperfect, I think
it is agreed that there could be a threat involved and that we must
not be without a plan. So, having considered the facts, it is for the
Board to next consider how we should react. Any suggestions?’
The Navigator decided to again seize the initiative. ‘On the basis
of the facts, we must assume that it is hostile,’ he said, firmly.
‘And on the assumption of hostility, we must plan our own
offensive.’
His proposition met with silence.
‘A pre-emptive attack, you mean?’ asked Argus, seeking
clarification.
‘Of course,’ replied Kane. ‘And quickly. It may sound extreme but
we have a duty to the entire program.’ He regretted the word
444
extreme almost as soon as he had uttered it.
‘To defend ourselves, yes,’ said Penelope. ‘But aggression does
seem premature, doesn’t it?’
Argus was with her. ‘Only one thing is clear,’ he asserted, ‘for the
moment, and perhaps for as long as we can manage it, we must
feign ignorance of their deception.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Garcia, ‘let’s not give the game away: just prepare
ourselves and play along; at least for now.’
Kane became impatient with his procrastinating colleagues. ‘Of
course we mustn’t reveal what we know. That’s obvious. You
don’t disclose your intelligence. And, yes, we should prepare to
defend the pod. But we should also,’ he repeated, with conviction,
‘prepare a plan of attack. It’s not a rash course of action, it’s the
most prudent course based on the facts before us and the
importance of our position in the greater program.’
It was a good sell under the circumstances but no one was buying
it just now. Kane was out on a limb and like everyone else, he
knew it.
‘Kristina,’ said the Secretary in an aside, ‘these minutes are not
for release. Mark them are for our eyes only, please.’
Kristina looked up from her notes and nodded.
Kane could see his proposal vanishing in the Minutes; if not in the
edits, then in their future distribution. It was another sign of his
defeat.
‘And as for outcomes,’ continued Indira, speaking to the meeting,
‘I propose that, consistent with the majority agreed position, I will
draft an acceptance response to Marcus and release it today,
together with their initial message, disclosing none of our
concerns, in the interests of security.’ She surveyed the
expressions on the faces of the other members of the Board and
discerned no challenge to this approach.
‘Agreement beyond that course seems unlikely for the present, and
in my view would also be precipitous,’ she continued,
445
glancing at Kane. ‘I think we need to consider some more
developed options first; options for both defence and for offence.
The Navigator seems best suited to that task?’
Kane nodded, soberly, accepting the baton. But it was not the
decisive outcome he had wanted and he was not confident that, in
the end, good sense would prevail. ‘I will, of course, need to
involve Chen,’ he replied, compliantly, biding his time.

446
Nomads Three: Alternative Plans

Chen adjusted the tone of her living room to match her nocturnal
mood, advancing through the ambiguity of early evening into the
depths of night, so that now the green jungle holograms that
surrounded her were lit only by softly filtered moonlight. It was a
time for cats to prowl and she wished to set herself free.
Today had been especially stressful for her and tomorrow would
be unlikely to provide relief. As Systems Engineer, she had been
in the middle of Briel’s morning discovery and had then provided
Kane’s pre-Board briefing, which was drama enough, but more
worrying was the act that she still did not know the outcome of the
Executive’s deliberations. She sensed danger in the quiet of the
meeting’s aftermath; a danger perhaps not limited to the intruding
pod alone.
The cry of a virtual bird drew her attention to the screen by the
entrance of her rooms. Why had Kane waited until now? She had
stayed long enough at the office for him to see her there if he had
wanted, long after the Board had dispersed. And this was not a
trite concern. It was unusual for him to treat her with indifference
and she knew that unusual behaviour in times of trouble did not
augur well. But he had not forgotten her altogether and, whatever
the reason for the delay, she was glad he had come now and
eagerly admitted him.
Kane smiled at his hostess on entering, not entirely from
politeness. Her oriental charm had always attracted him and the
moonlight in her scented quarters heightened his feelings of
affection for her. But that is not why he had come. This was no
time for pleasure: he came because he needed help. Because he
could not manage it alone. And because he knew that she trusted
him.
Chen offered him a drink, which he readily accepted. Cool and
wet with the sweetness of lime, it slaked his dry end-of-day thirst.

447
‘How did it go?’ she said, overlooking his tardiness and getting
straight to the point, as she eased herself into one corner of her
comfortable couch.
Kane placed his empty glass on the table before joining her at the
other end. ‘Not as I’d hoped,’ he replied, a little reservedly.
Chen was silent. He would soon say more soon.
‘The Board is not suited to resolving crises,’ he said, searching for
assistance with his eyes. ‘It has evolved to deal with the routine;
with problems more than threats.’
Chen nodded knowingly. She had sometimes attended Board
meetings in his stead and suspected that his judgement of it was
pretty close to the truth, as his observations often seemed to be.
That was one of the things she admired in him; the other was his
determination. And, pleasingly, she was well aware of his regard
for her.
‘That’s why I’ll need your help,’ he said. ‘As systems engineer
and as a friend.’

It had been a difficult day for Briel as well. Luckily she had seen
and remembered that archived file on 7.1; a bit late to alert the
Secretary, but Kane should have told her by now, she thought;
probably without crediting her for the discovery though. Not to
worry, that was par for the course and was already history. Now it
was time for a well earned drink and the Academy bar, known
affectionately as the ‘Cad’ by its clients, was the next and final
item on her agenda.
The Cad was not the only bar on offer but it was her kind of haunt:
informal without being gross. And, given the odd post grad and
staffer who frequented it, she was still young enough not to feel
too out of place. Besides, tonight was happy hour: happy and
cheap. She may be earning real money these days but a credit is a
still a credit and another drink is a another drink.
The bar was decked out for sunset when she entered; streaks of

448
pink contrasted nicely with drifting light grey clouds and music
that screamed cocktails and don’t spare the rum. A cheering wave
enticed her to a table occupied by three of her friends who had
clearly made a head start. She waved back at them, thumbing
towards the bar where she would first collect a drink. Then,
suitably armed, she made for the party.
She sat between the two men. On her left, the side she favoured
while drinking, sat Iain, a lanky untidy doctoral student in
information science, whose thesis was beginning to look like him:
overdue. Iain was an old friend and, on the basis of his sexual
preference, that’s where the relationship would remain. On her
right were Fyodor, who was alright for a humanities type, and
Jenna, an honours year maths student who was Fyodor’s friend -
or more vice versa, she was inclined to think. Whatever, it was a
good table to down a drink.
Iain gave Briel a greeting wink. ‘You’ve been busy,’ he said.
Briel looked puzzled. ‘What?’
‘It’s been broadcast,’ explained Fyodor, pointing to the
holographic screen displaying the Secretary’s response.
Briel read the message: a simple acceptance of 1.3’s invitation,
making no mention of her doubts. ‘That’s funny,’ she said.
Iain looked surprised. ‘You mean you didn’t know?’ he asked with
probing eyes.
Briel waved her hand dismissively as she sipped. ‘About 1.7.1.3,
yeah. Of course. But I hadn’t seen our response.’
‘Well, I think it’s amazing,’ said Jenna, resting her hand on
Fyodor’s lap and slumping back in her chair. ‘Don’t you think
so?’
Briel tossed her head. ‘Very,’ she said, a little cryptically.
Iain’s eyes widened a little as he processed her response,
narrowing again as he touched his chin and switched to question
mode. ‘And what do you mean by that?’ he quizzed, demanding as

449
much from her as he judged that his friendship might fetch.
But Briel was slow to bite.
‘Come on, Briel, you can’t leave it at that,’ he urged.
Briel knew that she had made a mistake, but wasn’t much troubled
by her slip. It had been a worrying day generally and she had no
more worry reserves left. Besides, she was in a mood to confide.
And Kane was not exactly someone who inspired loyalty in her:
given the Board’s announcement, she wasn’t even sure that he had
informed them of the problem for that matter, let alone mentioned
her in the process. No, something queer was going on and she
didn’t feel like carrying it alone. In a gesture of reluctance, she let
her tongue lick the inside of her cheek.
Iain sensed an impending confession. ‘Come on. Don’t hold out
on us. It’s about the message, isn’t it?’
Briel’s eyes roamed furtively about the keen faces of her young
audience before she put down her glass and surrendered. ‘It’s what
the message doesn’t say,’ she said, with a look that promised to
tell more if they would but quietly listen.

450
Nomads Four: Face to Face

The hop to 1.7.1.3 was itself a novel experience for Indira, as it


was for most of the other members of the Board. Pod policy did
not encourage recreational excursions beyond the hull but Pod 1
was equipped with a squadron of teknos that were usually used by
engineers for maintenance and construction work, and one of these
served as their ferry now. That teknos could not accommodate
many passengers was one reason that face to face interaction
between the two pod cities on this great occasion was limited to
the Executive, not unlike ancient naval exchanges between the
officers of great vessels separated by an unfriendly sea. However,
this time the visits, though not the business discussions
themselves, could and would be broadcast to those left behind.
After the tekno’s launch, its passengers were free to mingle on the
top deck, which offered a stunning direct view of the half ‘sky’
above and an image of the sky below. For the Navigator, whose
duties included oversight of pod re-production, such travel was
routine and he took advantage of this opportunity to acquaint the
Board with progress on the construction of the next pod’s
emerging frame. Viewed from their tekno’s window, the
incomplete new vessel currently resembled a cup shaped skeleton
attached to the side of the mother vessel, giving the latter the
appearance of a giant metallic octopus.
Argus and Penelope took a keen interest in the Navigator’s
presentation but Garcia, who had been critical of the project’s
budget overruns, was less than enthusiastic. In his experience, it
did not pay a finance manager to indulge the ego of engineers,
unless it was in response to an episode of responsible pecuniary
restraint, which was sadly rare. Indira, of course, displayed a regal
interest in the work but prudently stopped short of inflating Kane’s
already robust self esteem.
But the local show was only temporary for, as their own pod
receded into the distance, their attention turned to the historic
451
scene of the looming visitor’s pod. Naturally, its external form
bore a close resemblance to Pod 1, since they were both metallic
spheres. But 7.1.3 differed in one key respect: it was significantly
smaller. To those accustomed only to an internal view of a pod it
was still an impressively vast object, but Indira thought it smaller
in diameter to theirs by, perhaps, a third. If so, she reckoned, its
volume would be smaller by around two thirds, a reduction in
living space that amazed her.
It was Garcia, however, who expressed the company’s surprise. ‘A
modest vessel,’ he said approvingly, with light in his eyes.
‘Too small to satisfy the optimum social population, ‘ replied
Kane, in defence of his grander design.
‘Cheaper, though, and faster, I’ll bet,’ taunted Garcia.
Kane shook his head. Ignoring the first point he savaged the
second. ‘Not really,’ he grunted, dismissively. ‘With less mass it
could, of course, achieve higher acceleration and reach terminal
limits more quickly but - ‘
‘More quickly, yes,’ interrupted Garcia, who would not be talked
down.
Argus was inclined to agree with the Purser. ‘Inertia is our
enemy,’ he chanted, with a smile.
Kane recalled the classroom physics rule in which he too had been
drilled. ‘But in the limit, there is not much in it,’ he insisted.
‘And I’m not reducing my office,’ said Indira, putting an end to
their bickering.
Kane understood the need for her interjection and apologetically
exchanged a knowing glance. Yes, he reflected, it was important
to keep the lid on dissension; the Executive must appear united
before their unknown hostile hosts and they may as well get it
right now.
After this remark, not much was said for the remainder of the hop
and, as the mystery pod eclipsed the stars before them, each
traveller returned to their seat and retreated to their thoughts.
452
Naturally, everyone was a little anxious about the encounter. Their
part would have been demanding enough had this historic meeting
been what it seemed, but almost certainly it was not. And this
troubled everyone to a degree and in a form consistent with their
particular personality. One feared more for others at home, and
another thought more of ambitions unfulfilled. One suppressed the
hostility welling from within, another was resigned to
circumstance. But all, to some extent, struggled to deny the
concerns that one part of the mind attempted to present to the
other.
And it was indeed a case of so far so good, as the tekno glided into
the air lock and safely entered the docks. There was an almost
audible collective sigh of relief when, guided by an illumined
floor, their craft settled easily onto a vacant pad in the belly of
their host ship. But their relief lived no longer than that passing
thought. For they soon realised that, though undamaged, their pod
was now well and truly at the mercy of a probable enemy.
The Secretary rose quickly when the pilot gave the all clear,
preparing to lead the others to the exit, gathering them like sheep
in a handling area.
‘Here we go,’ said Indira, with a curt smile as the opening door
exposed them to the foreign atmosphere. The air smelled a little
different to their customary blend and Indira was once more
surprised by what she saw; by the fact that their own party
outnumbered that of their hosts, who also appeared to be
unaccompanied by any guard. It was a pleasing gesture, she
thought, but the risks were still with the visiting side so it was
more gesture than substance at this stage. And what better way to
lure them further in?
The subsequent formalities were also superficially genial. As the
leader of the welcoming party, Secretary Marcus informally
introduced himself and his two colleagues: Navigator Li and
Bacchante, their Ethicist.
Indira skillfully returned his greeting and introductions using the
full extent of both her practised and natural warmth, while
studying the appearance and manner of her hosts as she spoke.
453
Marcus was a relatively short, middle aged man, clean shaven
with thinning fair hair and soft blue eyes. Though of average build
for his height, he looked reasonably fit and, on the whole, there
was a gentleness about his person that betrayed an uncommon
humility. Perhaps he had always been so, but Indira thought him
softened by his years.
Of Asian decent, Li was a relatively young and attractive woman
and Indira was impressed by her natural and disarming charm. Yet
she suspected that Li’s polite veil also served as an obstacle to any
penetrating observations of her thoughts.
Bacchante, however, was altogether different. Lean and tall, he
had piercing blue eyes and a knowing smile which, combined with
his angular face, betrayed a confident sagacity and a coolness of
mind. He spoke less than the others but, somehow, she thought he
would ultimately say the most.
‘And now, Indira,’ said Marcus, rounding off formalities with a
smile, ‘rather than overwhelm you at this stage with more faces
and with names that you could not be expected to recall, we
thought we might begin with lunch in the boardroom, where we
might at least try to digest the food as we discuss our agenda?’
‘I’m sure it can’t be as bad as all that, Marcus.’
Marcus smiled. ‘Clearly your executive is more respected at home
than are we over here,’ he jested, with some support from his
team.
‘Just us?’ asked Kane, alluding to the guest list.
‘Well, we thought that would be best,’ replied Marcus. ‘That way
we may talk more freely.’
‘We are in your hands, Marcus,’ said Indira, hinting at a deeper
anxiety and concerned that a boardroom might easily become a
pen.
Marcus smiled awkwardly at her remark, whose meaning he found
plain enough. ‘Then let me show the way,’ he said, gesturing with
his right hand and nodding in the same direction.

454
Following his indicated line, Indira led the party to the nearby exit
and into the interior of the ship. The experience of this last
expedition was perhaps the least impressive of their journey: a
utilitarian dimly lit corridor, flanked by closed doors, wound like a
gut though the vessel, providing no places of view or interest. To
the reluctant visitors, Pod 1.7.1.3 was quite unlike their own home.
Their host’s habitat seemed more like a labyrinth; criss-crossed by
narrow corridors which fed a series of rooms whose secrets were
undisclosed. Comparatively, Pod 1 was an open and liberating
environment, with walkways that provided views onto a grand
central plaza, the hub of a healthy social life.
‘As you have probably observed,’ said Marcus, pausing before an
open door, ‘space is more of a luxury here than it is on Pod 1. Our
population is smaller, though, so it’s not too bad. And it serves our
mission.’
Argus could not resist the opportunity. ‘Inertia is our enemy,’ he
said, in a mock didactic tone, to the mirth of all but one.
Marcus was bemused by the effect the Ethicist’s observation
produced upon his fellow visitors.
‘It’s an echo of an earlier conversation,’ explained Indira, touching
his shoulder as she and the others filed in. It was a simple and
friendly gesture but one that also asserted a degree of authority
that Marcus found surprising under the circumstances.
Like the rest of the host ship, the luncheon room was small and
Spartan, its sober décor relieved only by a few etchings on
exploration themes, and in the centre sat a round plastic table just
large enough to seat them all. Pleasingly, however, they saw
scattered about the table a variety of colourful and interesting
dishes with some encouraging refreshments in carafes.
‘I thought we might mix it up around the table,’ suggested Marcus,
‘try to break up the groups.’
His words produced their intended affect, each diner looking good
naturedly for partners in the opposing team. Indira, made sure of
sitting next to Bacchante, to avoid the penetrating power of his
stare. That, she would leave to Argus or Kane. And Marcus sat
455
opposite her to facilitate dialogue on both verbal and other levels.
Lunch proved as pleasant as its promise, but the discussion that
accompanied it was quite unremarkable, to the relief of hosts and
guests alike. A notable exception to the banality of this intercourse
was an exchange between the two ethicists about the Ethic.
Argus, privately mindful of the deceit practiced by their hosts,
quizzed Bacchante on their common code, hoping, as it were, to
catch him out. For it seemed to Argus that, to be comfortable in
their grand deception, his colleague must either be lacking in
ethical commitment or committed to a different ethic, and he
resolved to find out which.
Bacchante, he soon discovered, was surprisingly open about his
personal views. ‘The ethic has served our mission well,’ he
conceded with a thin smile, ‘but that’s not to say there isn’t scope
for improvement in one or two areas.’
Argus pressed on. ‘Oh yes?’ he said with genuine interest. ‘And
what areas might they be? And would you have something
changed, added or deleted?’
Bacchante glanced round the group before taking up the challenge.
‘Well, principally,’ he began, pressing a serviette to his lips, ‘I was
thinking of proposition two.’
Argus looked up in a display of recollection. ‘Humanity may
explore the heavens but it is Life that claims them?’ he recited, for
the benefit of the table, pausing then to reflect. ‘I see nothing
wrong with it myself. You think it too humble, perhaps? That
humanity itself should be the rightful claimant, being the
culmination of all known life, as it were?’
Bacchante pursed his lips. ‘On the contrary,’ he replied. ‘the
maxim is not humble enough. For the apex and culmination of life,
it seems to me, may not be the chemical process that we call life,
at all.’
Argus was intrigued, as were the other guests, but not taken aback
by his opponent’s statement: that was not how he had been
trained. It is true that Bacchante’s view sounded like a
contradiction in terms, but Argus did not suppose that it really
456
was. Things need not necessarily culminate in a form that is like
themselves. Metamorphosis, providing but one example to his
mind. No, a consequent need not be like an antecedent. ‘What then
do you see as this culmination,’ he pressed.
Bacchante paused for effect. ‘Think about it,’ he urged, a little
cheekily. ‘What singular feature best expresses the climax of
evolution to date?’
‘Ah,’ said Argus, raising a finger, ‘you mean intelligence?’
Bacchante nodded with a smile. ‘Exactly, he confirmed, leaning
back a little. ‘What else if not our intelligence? For,’ he continued,
leaning forward on his wrists, ‘what have our bodies become but
vessels to support our brain. Feeding, protecting and reproducing
it? Initially in the development of life, it is the crude brain that
serves the purposes of the body but, eventually, the reverse
becomes true.
Argus, grinned. ‘Well, certainly I have heard it said that in the
matter of brain transplants, it is better to give than receive,’ he
beamed, relieving some of the group’s tension.
Garcia raised an eyebrow in doubt. ‘There are other organs too
that I would not be without,’ he added, with sufficient innuendo to
sustain their humour.
‘Indeed,’ conceded Bacchante, looking his way, ‘but I suspect that
your brain would top the list. For there, also, is the seat of
pleasure.’
Argus nodded. ‘How then would you revise this maxim,
Bacchante?’ he asked. ‘How would you promote this new star?’
Bacchante relaxed in his chair. He did not wish to seem to
aggressive on the issue. ‘Well, I would change but one word,
Argus,’ he said, staring like a marksman at a target. ‘I would have
it read: Humanity may explore the heavens but it is intelligence
that claims them.’
Argus gave the suggestion some thought. ‘I can appreciate your
position,’ he said, with equanimity. ‘Really, I can. But it would

457
not be without practical consequences. For one thing, humanity,
which is financing our respective missions, may not exactly
welcome its redundancy.’
Bacchante nodded. ‘Indeed,’ he said, loading as much meaning as
he could into the word. ‘But welcome or not, its future
participation may not be necessary,’ he said with an
accompanying cadaverous look that somehow brought discussion
of the issue to an end.
Indira wasn’t quite sure what to make of the exchange but she was
happy to see the end of it. Taking a refreshing breath, she turned to
Marcus for agreement to move on to other matters. ‘Perhaps this
would be an opportune time to address our agenda?’ she
suggested.
Marcus nodded in approval. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I had intended
to begin after coffee but let’s make a start now and take it
afterwards as a reward.’
‘Excellent,’ she said smiling, and restoring in the process some
congeniality to the group. ‘The first item, concerning information
exchange, is naturally of great interest to us,’ she said, with a
steady gaze. ‘The speed of your ship suggests that you have made
a quantum leap in motive technology relative to us.’
Kane recognised the key phrase in her last sentence from a
briefing he had prepared for her. It was a trivial issue, he knew,
but it nevertheless annoyed him to hear her deliver his words as
her own.
‘Hardly quantum,’ denied Marcus, ‘but, building upon the work of
our parent, we have made some significant advances which, of
course, we fully intend to share with you. It was to be our way of
honouring the past,’ he added, simultaneously demonstrating
allegiance to both the Ethic and Pod 1. ‘And perhaps you will be
able to teach us a thing or two, in return?’
‘I’m sure,’ interjected Kane, eager to make a contribution to the
discourse, and signalling that this item was more in his line of
business. ‘In that regard,’ he said, getting straight to the point, ‘our
preference would be to directly link information systems. It
458
will be much quicker that way, and we shall have plenty of time to
study the material when you have moved on.’ He hoped that he
had made that last point especially clear.
Marcus lifted his hands in a gesture of agreement. ‘Of course. ‘ he
said. ‘We should neither of us have anything to hide from the
other. And we have no desire to overstay our welcome.’
Kane’s smiled. It was more than he had expected and just as he
had hoped. Direct access was the best way to learn more about
their host and he had simultaneously affirmed the independence of
Pod 1. Moreover, he could see no downside in the arrangement as
there would be little that 7.1.3 could likely learn from them.
Indira was pleased too but thought Kane’s approach had been a
little heavy handed. He had, she thought, betrayed more anxiety
than was prudent under the circumstances. ‘Well, I think we’ve
earned our coffee, or tea, which I see has also been provided,’ she
said, sealing the deal with a popular suggestion.
And, as each participant poured and passed on to another their
preferred refreshment, Li picked up the trail bilaterally, touching
Kane on the arm as she spoke. ‘If you would like to contact me
tomorrow, we could perhaps establish access protocols?’
‘Of course,’ agreed Kane, with genuine satisfaction.

The Navigator rose from his chair and ushered Chen inside. The
door closed behind her with an efficient sounding whisper. ‘Very
successful,’ he said, anticipating her first question. ‘Access can
start tomorrow and they’ve accepted an invitation to come here.’
Chen’s brow darkened a little. Kane seemed flushed with success
but, much as she respected him, she was afraid of what might
come next.
‘Timing will be critical,’ he said.

459
Nomads Five: Aftershocks

Briel studied the database report closely. On the surface, the


download seemed to be going well. She had encountered no access
denials and statistics on the volume and range of accessible data
were within expected limits.
But one summary statistic derived from data retrieved so far was
less convincing. A significant number of holes appeared to be
showing up in the new information mass: references to concepts
not yet retrieved. Some knowledge gaps were to be expected
because about a third of the information was yet to come but, even
allowing for this, the results raised doubts. And her awareness of
the visiting pod’s false identity elevated those doubts into
concerns. She decided to seek advice from an expert, someone she
thought she could trust, and called Iain.
Iain answered from a study room at the Academy. ‘Yo, B.’ he
said, in a mock western drawl as his slightly unkempt visage
flashed onto her screen.
‘Yo yourself,’ she replied, with a smile. Mr funny, as usual.
‘What is that, some kind of innuendo?’ he grinned.
Briel shook her headed disapprovingly. ‘You worry me, Iain. You
look like a night out, afterwards. But at least you’re working, I
suppose.’
Iain held up the cover of a magazine.
‘My mistake,’ she replied.
‘So,’ said Iain, guessing at the reason for her call, ‘how’s the
information swap going?’
Briel let her face convey her reservations. ‘Are you as alone as it
seems?’

460
He raised his hands and looked about.
‘Well..’ she started.
Iain smiled, knowingly. ‘They’re holding back, eh?’ It pleased
him to have his cynical instincts confirmed by events in the lives
of those around him.
Briel nodded. Bloody anarchist. ‘I can’t be sure, but there’s
something odd about it. Superficially, things seems okay in terms
of process but I’ve run a completeness check and I’m getting a
qualified result.’
Iain sat back in his chair and moved to professional mode. ‘Have
you tried Dawson’s test? It can throw some light on integrity
issues.’
‘No, I haven’t tried anything else yet. That’s why I rang. You’ve
been looking into that area for your thesis, haven’t you?’ she said,
with an inflexion that sought more material assistance.
‘Sure. Yeah. I am looking into those issues’ he said. ‘How about I
come over? Sounds like it could be fun.’
‘We have to be careful though?’
Iain understood. ‘Sure B. Sure,’ he grinned, unreassuringly.

Argus had been brooding in his comfortable corner chair all


morning, surrounded by his cherished books. He liked to sit
amongst them, these tangible vessels of knowledge. Amassed in
shelves, they seemed to emit a force of their own, like some sort of
intellectual field that promoted reflection in anyone nearby.
Fyodor had passed his mentor’s office several times in the
previous two hours, wondering whether he should intrude. A mix
of curiosity and concern lured him in but something worrying held
him back. At length, a victor emerged from the struggle and he
decided to enter.
‘Good morning,’ he offered, tentatively.
461
Argus turned his eyes slowly towards the intruder, gradually
bringing him into his mind’s focus. ‘Fyodor,’ he finally
acknowledged, sounding almost surprised.
The apprentice stood awkwardly, just within the limits of the
room, unsure how to proceed.
Argus spared him further embarrassment. ‘Forgive me, Fyodor,’
he said. ‘Please, sit down,’ he invited, pointing to the nearest
chair.
Fyodor smiled in acceptance.
‘I’m glad you’ve come,’ said Argus, sounding more upbeat. ‘I’ve
been reading something rather interesting,’ he added, raising his
left eyebrow.
Fyodor recognised the comment as one of his master’s ways of
drawing him in and was not quick to bite.
‘Something Bacchante has sent across,’ continued Argus, as he
passed Fyodor a paper that had been resting upon his lap. ‘It’s an
essay on that issue he and I discussed at lunch the other day. You
remember, I mentioned it to you afterwards?’
Fyodor nodded. ‘On the redundancy of humanity?’ he offered,
dutifully.
‘On the primacy of intelligence,’ corrected Argus. ‘Although it is
interesting that you should remember it that way.’
‘Well that’s what it implies,’ said Fyodor.
Argus grinned at the young man’s cynicism. ‘I suppose it could,
from the perspective of a species. But from a broader view,
primacy does seem a more relevant issue. It’s worth a read, quite
seriously.’
Fyodor frowned but chose not to prolong the disagreement with
his boss. Frankly, he was a little disturbed by his master’s
comments. It sounded to him like Argus was coming around to
Bacchante’s point of view and that was something Fyodor could
not accept. It was humanity’s mission to explore the heavens,
462
surely that was right? Either by destiny or by free election,
humans were there and their presence was multiplying daily. They
were the observers, the active intelligence. Exploration was a true
drama, a drama of life; not a task for some form of disembodied
mind. No, however helpful artificial intelligence might be, it
could not be our true progeny.
Argus sensed the angst of his acolyte. Fyodor was, perhaps, not
ready for so large a leap as this. But the attempt would do him
good. ‘Look it over,’ he suggested again, almost casually. ‘And let
me know what you think?’ If a horse resists offered water, solicit
its opinion on the taste.

463
Nomads Six: Conspirators

It was unusual for them to meet in Chen’s suite; in part because of


a cultural taboo on and executive policy against any blurring of the
line between work and personal life. Rules of this kind were
important for the psychological well being of their confined
society. But the Systems Engineer had explained that these were
exceptional times requiring 24 hour commitment, so Briel had no
real qualms about attending.
She was, however, both surprised and a little embarrassed to find
on her arrival that the Navigator was there as well. Surprise
because his presence signalled greater significance for the meeting
than she had supposed, and embarrassed because she had long
suspected that her two superiors enjoyed a private relationship of
some kind and now feared she might in some way become privy to
it.
Kane politely rose to his feet as she entered the room, while Chen,
sensing her subordinate’s discomfort, smiled warmly. ‘I asked the
Navigator to come along too,’ she explained, intoning that his
presence that evening was strictly business. Briel rolled her tongue
in her cheek characteristically as she nodded in response.
‘Would anyone like tea?’ asked Chen, placing an equal social
distance between herself and each of her guests.
Briel accepted the invitation with a makeshift smile and Kane
nodded affirmatively, prompting Chen to retire to her kitchen
corner.
Briel stood awkwardly, surveying the room.
‘Please,’ said Kane, pointing to the chair opposite while
simultaneously exercising the privilege of seniority by returning to
his seat first.
‘Chen has interesting tastes,’ he said, with a wink as he raised his
arms a little in reference to the room. The scene tonight was
464
Egyptian; not in a classical but rather in a romantic theme. The
soft lit café they alone occupied overlooked the eternal waters of
the Nile and a moon cradled star was suspended in a soft blue sky.
Briel nodded, as she took in the view. Nor was it a token
agreement. Her own apartment was Spartan by comparison and
not artfully Spartan at that. More like a clothes strewn office suite
with an unmade bed in it. Although attaching little priority to style
in her own life, she nonetheless appreciated encountering others
who took the requisite trouble in that area. But function remained
for her far preferable to form.
Having allowing sufficient time for Kane to establish some rapport
but not so long as to produce awkwardness, Chen returned with
the paraphernalia for their refreshment and, after serving, sat in the
third and only available chair at the coffee table that marked
middle ground.
It was for the Navigator to speak first. ‘Well, Briel, how are things
progressing?’ he inquired innocently, putting down his cup on the
turquoise table with a manly but clumsy clunk. He would not
pretend to have Chen’s grace and did not like such displays in
men. Life was about getting things done, and the less delay
involved, the better.
Briel knew and understood the ways of her inquisitor. She was not
unlike him but did have a little more patience, she thought.
Glancing at Chen before replying, she gleaned as much
information as she could about her mood as well before breaking
the news. ‘Well, I’m not sure,’ she began, prudently. Don’t shoot
the messenger.
Kane cocked his head slightly to the left and intensified his gaze.
His eyes glistened a little, like those of the boy he had once been
but no longer was. ‘Not sure?’ he prompted, on cue.
Sticking to her plan, Briel proceeded slowly with her explanation.
‘The data is transferring well, but..’
‘But?’ urged Kane, looking more impatient.
Time to tell. ‘But there are signs that it may not be as complete as
465
we would like it to be.’
The Navigator eased back in his chair and sighed like someone
whose suspicions had been confirmed. He looked knowingly at
Chen, who returned his interest almost theatrically, before turning
again to Briel.
‘In what way?’ asked the Systems Engineer.
Briel happily obliged with more detail. ‘Well, Dawson’s test
suggests that there are probably some integrity flaws in the data.’
‘Dawson’s test?’ repeated Kane, whose engineering background
did not extend to information management.
‘Yes. It’s a relatively new test.’ Showtime. ‘At least as far as
we’re concerned. An archival tool sent by Mars to help missions
identify problems in data holdings: a bit like the old completeness
tests but more subtle and comprehensive. And it can be used
progressively, to pick up problems during large transfers.’
‘A consistency test?’ Offered Chen.
‘Yes,’ obliged the subordinate. ‘One of the things it does is to
track references to related concepts across files in any holding and
then compares the result to a statistical model. It’s pretty
sophisticated, really,’ she said, taking advantage of a rare
opportunity to parade her knowledge. ‘But not perfect.’
Kane stroked his chin. ‘And this test implies that our visitors are
probably keeping some things back?’ probed Kane.
‘Yes, probably. I’m not really confident with that conclusion yet.
But we’ll be able to make some fairly firm content inferences
when the download is finished.’
Kane let his head rest on the back of his chair and looked at the
ceiling momentarily before addressing Chen. ‘It’s as we thought,
then,’ he said. Lucky for us. Never underestimate the role of
fortune in war.
Chen nodded faintly, in a show of agreement. Now, down to
business.
466
‘The question is, what do we do about it?’ said the Navigator,
rhetorically. ‘How can we find out what we need to know about
and from our visitors?’
Briel winced. Hello hello. What does he want from me now?
‘Chen, do you think Briel’s work could help us here?’
Oh oh.
Chen took up the chase. ‘Perhaps. Do you suppose, Briel, that you
could also access their command protocols?’
Penny drops. So that’s what it’s all about. That’s why this
clandestine meeting with the odd couple. She had walked into a
trap. They want her to help them take control of 7.1.3. Okay but
who else is in on this? Dare she even ask? Maybe she should just
play soldiers for awhile: she as the obedient trooper and they as
the officers in command. That didn’t seem obviously wrong, for
starters anyway. Not comfortable, but at least defensible.
‘During the download,’ added Kane, noticing that Briel had
stalled. His stare was like a tractor beam now.
The pressure was on alright but she was determined not squirm.
She would stick to her plan of defensive obedience and rely on the
helps of reason afterwards. ‘Well,’ she said, looking a little
bemused but not defiant. ‘If you want me too, I suppose I could
try?’
Kane smiled. Good girl. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘We can’t ask more
than that, can we Chen?’
Chen nodded obediently.
‘But if I’m any judge of people,’ said the Navigator, flattering his
prey, ‘we won’t be disappointed.’
His co-conspirator returned his smile. Kane had won, as usual.
Task one: completed. But it was early days yet and she was still
troubled by his plan. Soon it would be her own turn to play; and
the stakes would be higher then.

467
Nomads Seven: Guessing Games

Another day another credit; if only things were that mundane,


thought Briel, now on a mission to unwind.
It was barracuda night at the Cad; the theme was marine and the
drinks had some extra bite to them. It was a Goldilocks scenario:
just right. And just the sort of event that would appeal to friends
with an income that favoured low cost living and cheap thrills.
Happily, her prediction proved right, for there, seated at their usual
table, were Jenna, Fyodor and Iain. She wasted no time joining
them, equipped with a primer to kick off the night.
‘Welcome aboard,’ mocked Iain, with a suave salute and a hailing
smile. ‘We were beginning to worry. The tide has turned, you
know?’ he said, rhetorically, glancing at his watch for effect.
‘Well and truly,’ added Jenna, with a shake of her long dark hair.
‘This boat is definitely afloat. Or at least I am.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ said Fyodor, accompanying his partner with as
little wit as the company was accustomed to hear.
Briel sipped her drink. ‘It’s turned alright,’ she agreed, thinking of
more than the condition of her friends.
Invisible antenna sprouted from Iain’s head; his mind was not as
dull as his demeanour made it seem. ‘Sounds omnibus,’ he said,
taking a drink and casting a tempting look her way.
‘I think you mean omnivorous,’ corrected Jenna, with a pedantic
tone.
Iain waved his index finger from side to side, ‘No. I definitely
mean synonymous,’ he said with conviction. ‘Officer Briel,
explain yourself,’ he commanded, theatrically.
Briel smiled. ‘Yeah, right,’ she said, contemptuously, taking
468
another sip. ‘As if.’
Iain feigned offence. ‘Now, now,’ he chided, ‘you mustn’t take
that tone with us, my dear. After all,’ he said, imploringly, ‘we are
your dearest and closest friends.’ A statement which the others
were quick to confirm with sincere and nodding heads.
‘You poor things,’ she sympathised. ‘Anyhow, all I meant is that
when the tide turns, it turns for all,’ she said, a little obscurely.
Iain had no fondness for mysteries. ‘Come on, you can trust us,
Briel. What’s worrying you?’ he pressed, in a more sober tone.
Briel looked him over like a punter assessing a horse at the track.
Then she glanced at the other beings she also called friends. It was
a sorry sight. Still, she thought she could trust them, up to a point.
Certainly she had more regard for this motley lot than for those
she was with last night. It was a funny business that’s for sure, and
she knew that she still didn’t want to shoulder the burden alone.
‘Okay,’ she succumbed, ‘you asked for it. But you might regret it
when you’ve heard me out.’
Iain, put down his glass and sat a little closer. ‘We’re in,’ he said,
conspiratorially.
‘It goes no further?’
Jenna and Iain nodded but Fyodor made no sign that might
indicate interest. It was one thing to overhear what was said but
quite another to solicit secrets.
‘It’s about the download,’ she began. ‘You know there were some
gaps in what they gave us?’ she said to Iain, not troubling to
provide more background for the others. ‘Well, of course, that was
no real surprise under the circumstances. But the thing is, Kane
wants something from their system beyond what was really
agreed. He’s asked me to get their command protocol too.’
‘You can get that?’ quizzed Iain, injecting sufficient surprise to
elicit further information.
‘I’ve got it,’ she boasted, taking another sip. ‘It wasn’t as hard as
you’d think. I mean, the circumstances of the download were
469
pretty helpful, general access and so on. It just took a little
cunning, that’s all.’
Ian pursed his lips. ‘Clever girl,’ he said, sitting back and
contemplating the possibilities.
‘But are they going to use it?’ asked Jenna, still bemused but
learning fast.
Briel nodded.
Fyodor was astounded. ‘You mean we’re going to take over their
pod?’
‘Of course they are,’ interjected Iain, dissociating himself from the
plot. ‘That’s just what Kane would do. Isn’t it? And it does make
some strategic sense if it can be managed. But what, I wonder,
does the Secretary think?’
Briel shrugged. ‘I don’t think she knows,’ she said, meaningfully.
It was a comment that quietened the table, as everyone considered
the implications.
Iain beat the others to the punch. ‘You know what this means?’ he
said, introducing his hypothesis. ‘Kane’s going to take over this
ship too.’
Briel looked at him with motionless eyes that signalled something
was going on behind them. Yes, she could see it now. Of course,
that is what it meant. Kane would have to prevent any interference
to his plan. And he could justify his mutiny to everyone later
based on 7.1.3’s threat.
‘A coup!’ exclaimed Fyodor, reflecting on the significance of his
late conclusion. A coup was unheard of in exploration history. But
was it a breach of the ethic? That would depend. Certainly,
though, it was a dangerous turn.
‘That’s probably the term he’d prefer,’ said Jenna with a sneer.
‘But it’s mutiny if you ask me. And deep space is suddenly getting
a little scarier.’

470
Iain ignored at her terminological concern. His mind was looking
for solutions not labels.
‘We can’t just sit on this,’ urged Jenna. ‘I know we’ve agreed but,
I mean, the idea of Kane being in charge. It’s appalling. We need
to do something, don’t we?’
‘Softly, softly,’ cautioned Iain. ‘We have to go carefully here.
That’s clear. But I agree that we shouldn’t be the only ones to
know. We can’t do much on our own, can we Briel?’
Now that she understood the full implications, she saw the sense
in releasing the others from their vow. ‘No,’ she said.
‘What about Argus?’ asked Iain of Fyodor.
The young ethicist was a more willing conspirator now, but he
was quick to reject that suggestion. ‘He worries me lately,’ he
said, closing his lips tightly and shaking his head ‘Bacchante and
he are getting very friendly; ideologically, I mean. I don’t think we
should trust him.’
A shadow descended upon Iain’s brow. ‘This is getting
complicated,’ he said. ‘Is anyone here on good terms with an
authority we can trust?’
‘What about Comenius?’ suggested, Jenna.
The response was not enthusiastic.
‘No, listen,’ she persevered. ‘I actually get on well with him. And
he isn’t on the Board, so he probably isn’t a party to any of this.
Why would he be?’
‘That’s true,’ conceded Iain. ‘And the Secretary would at least
listen to him.’
‘He isn’t close to Argus, either,’ said Fyodor. ‘So there’s no risk
there.’
Iain was now quite attracted to the suggestion. But he realised that
he was not the one who was most at risk if their secret fell into the
wrong hands. ‘What do you think, Briel?’
471
Briel could also see the sense in it. ‘Okay,’ she acquiesced. ‘But I
don’t want to be seen near his office. That would look suss. You
speak to him,’ she said to Jenna. ‘He can call me, after hours, if he
wants to confirm anything. Okay?’
‘Right, said Iain. ‘Attempting to close the deal.’
But Jenna wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going alone. ‘It
would make more of an impression if I wasn’t alone,’ she said.
Iain could see her position. ‘But no more than two,’ he said,
‘looking at Fyodor. We don’t want to attract too much attention.’
Fyodor squirmed a little at the thought of confronting Comenius.
‘Why me?’ he asked. ‘We’re not exactly friends, you know.’
Iain stood firm. ‘Because he’ll need to know about Argus,’ he
said, coolly.
Fyodor began to regret revealing his concerns about Argus to his
friends. That was bad enough. But before Comenius, it would be -
betrayal.

472
Nomads Eight: Opportunity Knocks

Comenius stirred from his great wooden desk, peered over his
antique wire rimmed spectacles and, with a modest wave of his
large plump hand, invited the visitors to enter.
‘Please, sit down. Jenna, and ah Fyodor, isn’t it?’ he said wincing
at the young man. Comenius preferred to use names when he
could, but not as a sign of respect.
Fyodor nodded and smiled submissively. It was not his intended
disposition for this occasion but nerves betrayed him in the event.
In part this was due to the flooding memories of his student days
and, in part, because he had been surprised to hear himself, a mere
student of the humanities, remembered by name. Perhaps, he
feared, it was because the Professor had heard it in connection
with Argus, whom he resented for occupying a seat on the board, a
team that Comenius considered should also include himself.
But the main problem for Fyodor was the former one. He had
always felt intimidated by the academic giant who sat on the other
side of the desk. Comenius was an old school mathematician,
specialising in predictive statistics, who tolerated but did not
exactly encourage ‘soft’ humanities.
Under the Professor’s stewardship, it was the science and
mathematics schools that blossomed in the Academy. Not that he
was a philistine, exactly, for though he discounted the value of the
humanities, he admired the arts, in all their forms, and was fond of
remarking on cultural occasions that art was ‘a lever for the mind
upon the fulcrum of he senses’. But art, he thought, was the work
of inspired loners, not of academics, and so was not the proper
province of an academy; not of his academy anyway.
‘How is that thesis of yours coming along?’ he asked Jenna,
opening up a friendly dialogue with a prodigy of his favourite
faculty.

473
Jenna felt nothing of Fyodor’s uneasiness. ‘It’s a challenge,’ she
replied, beaming at her patron. ‘But I’m getting somewhere, I
think.’
‘Good. Glad to hear it,’ chuffed Comenius. ‘It’s not an easy field,’
he remarked, glancing critically at Fyodor. ‘But I assume, from
your company, that is not why you are here. So what can I do for
you, Jenna?’ he asked, with inquiring eyes.
Jenna looked at Fyodor for tacit acceptance as she assumed the
speaker’s role, but his eyes were not upon her so she ran with the
ball that Comenius had given her. ‘Well, Professor, we don’t
really know the answer to that.’
‘Oh?’ he said, seeking more.
‘I mean that’s what we’ve come to talk to you about.’
Comenius squinted. ‘I see. But you do know what the problem is?’
he asked, peering downwards through the lenses of his spectacle.
Jenna nodded. ‘Yes.’
At this juncture, Fyodor’s anxieties surfaced as impatience.
‘There’s going to be a coup,’ he blurted, asserting himself in the
process of getting to the point.
Jenna sighed. So much for intimacy.
Comenius was amused by Fyodor’s petulance and the
accompanying allegation. ‘A coup, eh?’ he smirked.
Fyodor blocked his adversary’s mockery with a straight faced
reply. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘A coup, here on Pod 1.’ His words were
now more slowly and deliberately expressed.
Jenna intervened between the two combatants, endeavouring to
inject some credibility into the discussion. ‘It’s true, Professor,’
she said, respectfully. ‘Navigator Kane is planning to take over
both 7.1.3 and Pod 1.’
Of the two events, the second seemed least probable to Comenius.
‘Pod 1?’ he repeated, presenting his chief reservation first.
474
Jenna raised her brows, responding to his doubting look with wide
unflinching eyes. ‘Yes. So Secretary Indira can’t interfere with his
plans to take over 7.1.3.’
The Professor considered her theory. Although not yet convinced,
he decided to continue the discussion on the strength of Jenna’s
sincerity. ‘And why should he do that?’ he asked. What did Kane
know about the visitors that he did not?
‘Because the Board believes that 7.1.3. is an impostor,’ she
explained.
Comenius paused again, this time to emotionally process the insult
of being excluded from this important secret. He closed his lips
and rolled his tongue against the roof of his mouth. ‘I’m listening,’
he invited, noncommittally.
‘Well, although the Board doesn’t know what 7.1.3 really wants, it
presumably won’t let Kane do anything that radical.’
Now it was Comenius who furled his brow, grazing over their
story in his mind. It was a consistent account; not only a logically
consistent series of facts but consistent also with what one might
expect from the personalities involved. This made it a plausible
but not yet quite credible story. ‘And why do they believe that
7.1.3 is an impostor, Jenna?’ he probed.
Jenna felt more relaxed, pleased at the tone of his response and
comfortable with his question. ‘Because there is no Pod 7.1.’ she
said. ‘It was aborted before it could reproduce.’
Comenius absorbed the shock of this naked fact. It was the key to
evaluating their theory. He looked at his visitors in the broad. It
was a fantastic scenario, not easy to invent, and they did not shrink
from it. But one should not too easily embrace extreme
propositions. ‘And how did you come to know all this?’ he asked.
‘From a friend,’ said Fyodor, trying to protect Briel.
‘A friend?’ Anonymity would not do for a matter as great as this.
Jenna saw the vanity of Fyodor’s chivalrous position. ‘From the
Information Officer,’ she explained. ‘She’s the one who knew
475
about 7.1 being aborted.’
‘And who also knows what Kane is planning’ said Fyodor, re-
entering the discussion. ‘He’s secretly ordered her to steal 7.1.3’s
command protocol. That’s why we think there’ll be a coup. He’s
not working with Board so they will be in his way.’
Comenius was now almost convinced, at least in respect of Kane’s
intentions regarding 7.1.3. The position of Information Officer
was not a senior appointment but it was an office of substance and
responsibility. And, although he could not recall the officer’s
name just at the moment, he remembered her as being quite a
bright student.
‘You can understand why we thought we should tell someone with
authority,’ said Jenna, appealing to his ego. ‘And I suggested you.’
That would do her prospects no harm.
Comenius appreciated her logic. ‘Can I confirm this directly with,
ah..’
‘Briel? Yes,’ affirmed Jenna. ‘She’s in a difficult position though.
We have to be careful.’
‘Yes, yes,’ dismissed Comenius. ‘Of course. But when? It would
need to be soon.’
‘She said you could call her tonight,’ replied Jenna, smartly, by
way of making amends.
Comenius put a finger to his forehead as he summed up the case
they had presented. ‘There is an original dramatic quality to your
account, Jenna, that invites further inquiry. You may tell your
friend, Briel, that I will call her tonight.’
Jenna looked gleefully at Fyodor. Success.
‘If, having spoken with her,’ he continued, soberly, ‘I am
convinced that there is a problem I will, backed by Briel’s
testimony, raise the matter with the Secretary in private,’ he said.
‘Because her authority must be respected, that is the natural course
of action in my view.’

476
His audience signalled their acceptance of the terms.
‘Meanwhile, I suggest that you say and do nothing.’
The relief produced by the Professor’s words showed clearly in
Jenna’s face. ‘Thank you,’ she said, sincerely.
But Fyodor was less gratefully inclined. As he saw it, the
Professor was doing no more than his duty, just like them, and
they were in no way beholden to him for that.

The room was cramped but, because the dull narrow light
emanating from above the table did not illuminate the surrounding
walls, it was not claustrophobic. Around the rim of falling light,
within the indefinite limits of its focus, sat Bacchante, Li and
Marcus, reviewing the work at hand.
‘And the download,’ asked Bacchante, turning to Li?
‘Complete,’ she replied. ‘They have the control module now, as
well.’
Marcus nodded, but seemed unmoved. He shifted his gaze to
Bacchante. ‘And Argus?’ he asked.
A tight smile emerged from the ethicist’s thin lips. ‘He has a good
mind,’ he observed.
Another nod signalled the Secretary’s understanding. There was
no need for elaboration. ‘Then there is nothing to do until
tomorrow,’ he said. ‘When it is we who will be in their hands.’

477
Nomads Nine: Tocsin

‘I am sorry to trouble you at this hour, Secretary, but I believe you


will agree that there is good reason for it,’ said Comenius, passing
his guest a glass of rich red port. ‘I hope this meets with your
approval,’ he added, speaking more intimately. ‘It’s my own
formula. I’m rather proud of it.’
Indira sipped modestly and rewarded her host’s hospitality with an
approving upward glance. ‘Were my visit a trouble it would
already be justified,’ she replied, graciously.
Comenius basked in her approval. ‘Tank you, Secretary.’
Indira could see that the Professor was in his element, hosting a
civilised get together with an important personage: the learned one
entertaining the politician with power. Her position was, she
knew, her most endearing predicate as far as he was concerned.
But, evidently, he had something that would be useful to her and
that was what she found most appealing in him. Something
valuable was within his gift. Something that, knowing Comenius,
would possibly be as much a service to her as a disservice to his
rivals.
‘Please,’ said Comenius, inviting his guest to sit.
The Secretary sank into a couch, resting her port bearing hand on
its firm textiled arm. In taking her ease, however, she remained on
guard. His rather mysterious call had, of course, worried her and,
though things seemed more relaxed and even sanguine now, she
attributed that to the Professor’s style rather than to any change in
circumstance. ‘It’s not often that we speak, Comenius. Certainly,
not often enough. I regret that other pressures distract me more
than I would prefer. I am conscious of that but, on the other hand,
I know that the Academy is in good hands.’
The Professor acknowledged her compliment with a nod and took
a seat opposite. ‘Thank you, Indira,’ he said again, taking as his
reward, another moment of familiarity. ‘Unfortunately,
478
however, I must advise you that the pressing matter occasioning
this meeting is not a happy one.’
His guest’s silence begged more from him.
‘And its urgency requires that I come quickly to the point. The nub
of the matter, Secretary, is that I have discovered that your
position and, indeed, that of the Board itself, is not secure.’
Pausing momentarily, he leaned forward to repeated the warning
with more emphasis. ‘That is to say, your position is under
imminent threat, Secretary, possibly violently.’
Indira froze briefly and fixed her eyes upon him. Her first thoughts
were of the fraudulent visitors. Had Comenius learned of their
deceit? ‘From whom?’ she asked, to verify her suspicion.
Comenius took a seat beside her. ‘From those near to you, ma’am.
From those whom you should be able to trust.’
It was not what she had expected to hear and she found the
reference to those close to her bemusing. ‘I’m sorry, Professor,
you will need to be more specific.’
‘Specifically, ma’am,’ now for the clincher, ‘from Navigator
Kane.’
Indira flinched. Then, folding her arms, sought to back track a
little. ‘Well, naturally the Navigator would like my job. That fact
is fairly well known. But that is not quite what you are saying, is
it, Professor?’
Comenius pursed his lips and nodded his head slowly from side to
side. ‘No, Secretary. This is a more sinister matter. Nor am I am
referring to any threat from the visitors. Yes, I know about them:
that they are not what they seem. But it does involve them as
well.’
Indira shook her head and raised her hands in protest. ‘Really,
Comenius, what are you driving at?’
Comenius drew breath. ‘What I am saying is that the Navigator
intends to take over the visiting pod, but only after removing any

479
risks at home.’
Indira mulled over his words. ‘And by risks I suppose you mean
me?’
‘Yes, Secretary, and presumably the Board,’ he said, with a
continuing hint of allegiance to the institution of his desire. ‘The
facts are in no doubt and the motive, I assume, is because you
would not approve of his intentions concerning them?’
‘The Board has not considered them,’ she replied, evasively. Then,
discerning signs of disappointment upon her benefactor’s face,
decided to say more. ‘Though it is doubtful they would agree to
pre-emptive action. That’s true. But what evidence, Comenius, do
have you for all this?’
The Professor was pleased to oblige. ‘The principal source is
Information Officer Briel. They have used her to secure the
command protocol for the visitor’s systems and she, sensing the
illegality of his initiative, has confided in some close academy
friends. Naturally, they, in turn, also did not want to bear this
sinister secret alone and have confided in me.’
Indira threw him a doubting look. ‘And you believe them?’
The professor did not flinch. ‘I have confirmed the facts with Briel
herself this night. She does not seem to be a rash or whimsical
person and I found her account very credible. It’s all true, I am
quite sure of it.’
‘I didn’t think you believed in certainty,’ she quipped, wryly.
‘Highly probable, then,’ he grinned.
But the situation was not conducive to further humour and Indira’s
smile soon faded as she considered the allegation. On the whole,
she found the Professor’s theory believable. Yes, Kane would be
inclined to act unilaterally and certainly she was an impediment
and rival to him. And the fact that it was based upon a report by
someone whom she trusted, increased its persuasiveness. Both
logic and her intuition advised her it was true. But what should be
done? Clearly the situation would require swift action. The current

480
state of affairs in Pod 1 was unstable, both externally and
internally. She pondered the strengths of her opponent, weighing
his chances against her own. Kane had the advantages of: time to
plan; control of systems; and authority over the only armed force
on Pod 1, the marines, who reported directly to him. But, on the
other hand, there were only a few of them and she was not without
friends and allies, like Comenius. Moreover Kane was not aware
that she knew of his intentions. That was a definite advantage. ‘It
is, of course, vital that Briel and the others keep silent about this,’
she said.
‘I have impressed that imperative upon them. They have acted
prudently so far and I think we can rely upon them to remain
quiet.’
Satisfied on that point, Indira rose to her feet, took a few paces
forward, deep in thought, and turned to seek more advice from her
ally.
‘You have had a little more time than I to consider this, Professor.
What course of action would you suggest?’
Comenius was, of course, prepared. ‘Well, Secretary, I have been
thinking about that, including how I might help, and it occurs to
me that you could and should move the seat of your administration
to here. The independence of the Academy offers a number of
advantages in that regard: our systems can be separated from those
controlled by Kane; we have all the essential resources including
food and accommodation; and we can provide a measure of
security.’
‘Security? You mean Eugene?’
‘Yes, he is a very able and disciplined man. And I’m sure the staff
and student body will also be loyal to you. Kane does not enjoy as
much popularity as yourself over here.’
‘Nor elsewhere, I suspect. However, he doubtless intends to justify
his actions by claiming that decisive action was necessary - to
address the perceived threat and so on. He’ll portray himself to the
public as the man of the hour. Good grief. It might even work.’

481
The Professor nodded. ‘And how you might counter that
misrepresentation is unclear to me. But surely you must first
secure the authority of the Board by protecting it, especially the
position you occupy, that of elected Secretary, or our democracy
could come to an end. And once ended, we could not be sure of its
revival.’
Indira evaluated his plan. ‘It’s a defensive approach but, yes, that
is probably the best course at this stage. I don’t think we can stop
Kane, if things are as you have outlined. He will already have
things in hand. And perhaps, though I doubt it, his plans in relation
to the visitors are even appropriate. At least that is what others
may think. Certainly, our visitors are impostors and if we are seen
to give them aid by opposing Kane, he could paint us badly.’
‘Quite possibly. If we oppose him ineffectually and without
popular support, we will lose. And we would have great difficulty
in exposing his plans now without also revealing our other
suspicions to our visitors.’
‘Yes. What a mess…’
‘So it would seem that preserving the institution of government
may be all that we should concentrate on for the present. The
degree of instability involved prevents us from planning too far
ahead. Then, having secured the Board, if we cannot prevent him
from carrying out his plan in relation to the outsiders, either he
will remove the external threat and hence the need for his
authority or he will be unsuccessful and…’
Indira nodded. The latter prospect was too dark to contemplate.
‘So, first to survive and then to either stop Kane or hope that he is
successful. And if we do stop him, to come up with a defence
against Marcus. Assuming nothing else happens! You’re right
Comenius, we should take this one step at a time. And I will need,
of course, to first confirm these facts at their source?’
Comenius had nothing to conceal. Just the opposite in fact. ‘She is
waiting for your call,’ he said, obligingly, as she reached for the
communicator in her jacket. ‘But Secretary, there is one more
thing that I should also alert you to.’

482
‘Yes?’ What else did the old boy know?
‘You should be wary of Argus, as well,’ he said.
Indira was taken aback. ‘Argus? Surely he’s not with them?’
‘No, not with them. I don’t think that. But possibly sympathetic.
Apparently, Argus and Bacchante have become, well, friends.’
‘You mean associates?’
‘I’m afraid that is distinct possibility, Secretary.’
Indira was genuinely troubled by this fresh allegation. She was
fond of Argus and held him in high esteem. But ethicists, she
knew, were independently minded. Loyalty to the Secretary was
not really part of their brief. ‘You are remarkably well informed,’
she said. ‘Who told you this?’
‘Fyodor,’ replied Comenius, flatly. ‘He is one of that circle of
friends I spoke of who have confided in me. ‘He believes that
Argus is beginning to see things from Bacchante’s point of view.’
Indira shook her head. If Argus was against her, who could she
rely on? Kristina, without a doubt. And Garcia, who was certainly
not a friend of Kane’s. Penelope, too, could do nothing underhand.
And, of course, Comenius, who had proved himself this evening.
So, it wasn’t hopeless. ‘We will need to act quickly, Professor. But
not obviously so,’ she said. ‘I think I should still greet Marcus and
co when they arrive tomorrow. Maintaining this pretence will give
us more time to arrange things. Besides, if I am not present at that
event, the broadcast will show Kane as being in command.’
The Professor appreciated her logic. She was a consummate
politician and a game one at that. ‘It is risky,’ he warned,
displaying prudence. ‘But, yes, it might be best.’

Briel was poised for her call.

483
Nomads Ten: Preparations

Kane spoke from the shadows, partially reclining in his executive


chair. On the opposite side of his clean desk sat Chen, her features
softy illumined by the yellow light emanating from his desk lamp.
Kane could see her just well enough to read the expressions on her
face.
‘Then you don’t envisage any difficulties interconnecting?’ he
asked. It was a vital question. This task, her task, was on the
critical path of his plan. Moreover, it marked the point of no
return. If there were significant reservations, it would be folly to
continue; perhaps fatally so.
‘No,’ she said, coolly. ‘Although, naturally, our systems are not
exactly congruent.’
‘No,’ echoed Kane, acknowledging the technological superiority
of his foes. ‘But that isn’t going to be a problem for us?’ He
couldn’t help leading her towards an obliging response.
‘No, it shouldn’t be,’ she reassured him. ‘We’re only interfacing at
the highest level and their command module has a number of
important legacy features in common with ours. Fortunately, it is
also very well self documented. It’s actually relatively easy for a
third person to understand; certainly easier than ours.’
Kane was satisfied and nodded, almost imperceptibly. ‘Then it’s
settled,’ he said, rising from his chair and reaching for the whisky
decanter that occupied a tray on the corner of his desk.
‘Tomorrow, in the boardroom, I’ll wait for your message
confirming interconnection before proceeding. After that, we’ll
have more control and the main risks will be behind us.’ He
passed Chen a glass of golden liquid. ‘It’ll all be over in a matter
of minutes,’ he said, with a face filled with resolve.