by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 15


In the prison wagon, Fidel, whose face registered total confusion, turned to Hylas and shook his head in astonishment. 'Who the fuck was that woman? Did you know her?'

Hylas's astonishment was genuine and covered the nanosecond it took him to reply. 'Never seen the stupid cow before,' he snapped angrily. 'I thought you must know her when she called you over. What was it all about?'

'She'd left her husband and needed money, so tried to sell me that crappy thing she was wearing round her neck.'

'It looked like junk to me.'

'Yeah, it was. When I said I didn't want it she said I could have it for nothing if I'd pretend to be with her, so Protectors wouldn't pick her up for not being with a man.'

'She's too old and ugly to be a prostitute—surely she didn't think you'd be attracted to her?'

'Seems like it. Then when I refused she started screaming we were bombers.'

'Do I look like one?'

'Not to me. And the Protectors won't think so either. They're not stupid. They'll realise she was just a vicious cow. Hey, we're here—wherever here is. I hope they don't keep us too long.'

Arnold, Bart and Robert watched in horror as their friends were driven away. A local shopkeeper gave them directions to the nearest Protector Station and Watch house, so they drove to the vicinity, parked, then wandered around in the forlorn hope of seeing or learning something. The woman's accusations had been loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear, so they didn't want to go in and ask questions in case someone put three and two together and guessed they were the other Brisbane bombers. And it would certainly be noticed if someone remained outside the prison all the time. As they'd be no use if they were also locked up, they determined to keep themselves safe and ready for a phone call. Impotence and ignorance of what was happening to Fidel and Hylas annihilated the precarious feelings of security built so carefully, replacing it with a deep, cold fear that clawed at their guts.

Inside the Watch house, Fidel and Hylas were stripped and searched, personal details taken, and the contents of their knapsacks inspected, noted and replaced. Then, despite no charges being laid, they were thrust into separate, bare concrete cells with no possibility of communication. Fidel's contained eight other men in a similar state of nervous apprehension and despair. After walking up and down for an hour, he helped himself to water using a metal mug chained to the wall above a small sink with a cold tap, then copied the others, squatting with his back to a wall. It was hard, cold and very uncomfortable.

The afternoon wore away. No one would talk to him because of surveillance cameras that peered into every crevice. A bucket near the entrance grill was full of urine and faeces long before someone came to empty it.

The light faded from the single barred window. Traffic noises decreased. No food arrived. Eventually, numb, cold, painful and terrified, they fell asleep, most hoping they'd never wake.

But they did, scarcely able to move from cramp, cold and hunger.

The odours of lunch had long since dissipated before Fidel was taken by an armed Protector to stand in a wood-panelled room before two men in dark suits, sitting behind a large desk. The JECHIS crest decorated the wall behind them. Faint with hunger, cold and shivering, he could scarcely stand.

'Who is the woman you accosted yesterday?'

'I'd never seen her before.'

'What did she want?'

Fidel repeated the spiel he'd prepared on the way to the lock-up with Hylas.

'What is you relationship with the other man?'

'We're friends.'

'Why are you in Townsville?'

'We're travelling north looking for work.'

'You have plenty of money in your bank account; why work?'

'I like to keep active and feel useful.'

'Are you the bomber we are seeking?'

'I'm not any sort of bomber. I know nothing about bombs. I'd like to be a commercial artist. I like drawing and designing, but there aren't any jobs.'

'Why didn't you assist the woman?'

Fidel's disgust was real and therefore convincing. 'She was alone in public having left her husband! I thought she was a whore and I was about to report her to the Protectors when she yelled out those lies.'

'She says she's your mother and that you and the other fellow are brothers.'

'She isn't and we aren't.'

'Why would she say that?'

'Perhaps she hoped you'd believe her so she wouldn't be punished for being in public without a male relative.'

'But why say you're the bomber?'

'Good question. I imagine she wanted to hurt me because I refused to do as she wanted. And that would make her insane—what mother would accuse her son of a crime that attracts capital punishment?'

'Quite a few, in my experience. Women don't have much respect for men in general; sons not excepted.'

'Do you resent being locked up?' It was the first time the other man had spoken.

Fidel looked surprised at the question. 'I don't like it, but I don't resent it. Protectors have to take the maintenance of public order seriously, otherwise we'll be back where we were and that wouldn't be good. I feel safer now than before.'

The inquisitor's smile was cynical. 'A man with no guilty conscience eh?' He turned to a Protector. 'Bring in the woman.'

Fidel's mother shuffled in, ankles in irons, wrists cuffed. A loose, grey, hooded garment covered her from top to toe. Her face looked ill, terrified, and as exhausted as Fidel felt. On seeing her son she snarled, 'What's he here for?'

Ignoring her, the inquisitor looked deep into Fidel's eyes. 'Is this woman your mother?'


Turning to the woman. 'Mrs. Luckliss, do you still insist this young man is your son?'

She took a deep breath and stood proudly upright. 'Yes.'

'Do you hate him?'


'Then why did you ask him to accompany you?'

'So your goons wouldn't charge me with being on the street alone.'

'Why were you?'

'Like a suddenly punctured balloon, her body seemed to crumble. Tears streamed unheeded. She sniffed them away. 'Because my husband kicked me out.'


'Because he hates me.'


She stared around the room, cringing like a trapped animal, then literally howled, sending chills down the spines of her audience. 'Because I'm horrible! Everyone hates me! I want to die!'

'Do you stand by your accusation that this young man is your son and a bomber?'

She looked at Fidel, slowly shook her head and sank to the floor. 'No.' The voice a whisper. 'No. I'm sorry. I'm sure he's a good man.'

A Protector was instructed to bring in the other young man.

Hylas looked exhausted, but calmly resigned. He bowed slightly to the inquisitor, nodded at Fidel, then stood beside him.

When the mother was again asked if they were her sons and the bombers, she denied both, in a voice from which all life had evaporated.

Mrs. Luckliss, your confession allows me to grant you a merciful sentence. You will die in private this afternoon. Your husband will be informed and you will have time to speak to him beforehand.'

'Thank you.' A mere whisper.

'Take her away and prepare her.' Turning to the young men the inquisitor relaxed his expression slightly. 'Do you feel sorry for the woman?'

'No. She deserves her punishment.'

'I'm pleased you understand that, and because the basis of our policy is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you two, being the victims, will be the executioners.'

Their hearts stopped beating. Alarm apparent on their faces. 'What about her husband?'

'He will be present and may choose to assist.'


'How what?'

'How will we execute her?'

'Guillotine. It's quick and neat. Merely an instant of confusion.'

Fidel and Hylas looked at each other, swallowed, gained strength and nodded seriously. 'Thank you, sir. It will be an honour.'

'It will also be satisfying, I hope. Now, you've half an hour to shower, retrieve your belongings and have a snack in the mess room.' He nodded to a Protector. 'Go with them.'

Accompanied by the silent Protector they felt watched and vulnerable while retrieving their belongings, and decided not to phone Arnold. The less the Protectors knew about them and their friends the better. Also, the call would certainly be monitored. They'd wait till they were well away from the cop shop. After a much needed shower they replaced shorts, T-shirts and sandals, assuaged their anguished stomachs with soggy pizza, chips, a banana and tea in the visitors' cafeteria, then followed their guardian to a small walled courtyard to the east of the compound.

The guillotine looked practical rather than theatrical. A two-metre stainless steel shelf with a neat gantry straddling the end, and a cowling protruding about forty centimetres beyond that. The victim would lie face down on the shelf with her head sticking out over the end, concealed by the cowling. An electric winch would raise the angled blade between two slotted supports in the gantry, and a ratchet would hold it until released. Then a powerful spring would send the blade forcefully down, ensuring a clean cut. The head would drop, then roll down a sloping metal trough between shiny steel panels that enclosed the structure from the shelf to the ground, their purpose, like the cowling around the head, being to prevent blood spurting over walls and pavers. Two people were required to press the release buttons, which were too far apart for one person to manage, thus ensuring there were always at least two witnesses to an execution. The trough could hold up to ten heads, saving time during mass executions, according to their guide.

Ten minutes after they'd practised raising and releasing the blade, the inquisitor appeared together with four other men in suits, one of whom he introduced as Mr. Lukliss, the husband of the woman about to be decapitated. Two casually dressed men were dismissively referred to as 'the Press.'

Fidel and Hylas's hearts thumped in their throats. They knew Mr. Lukliss. He was their mother's old boss. When introduced, he offered a sweaty hand and profusely nervous apologies for his wife's behaviour. To their astonished relief it seemed he hadn't recognised them. When offered the chance to be one of the button pushers, he declined, saying the honour should go to the two men whose lives his wife had attempted to destroy by falsely accusing them of dreadful deeds.

Seats were brought, the observers sat, the husband nervously joined them, carefully avoiding looking at the guillotine. Fidel and Hylas moved to their positions and two Protectors arrived supporting the woman between them. Her head drooped and she appeared drugged rather than reluctant. They stopped in front of the two executioners and pulled her head up so they could see her face clearly.

'Is this the woman who accused you?' the inquisitor asked. They said it was. He asked her if she wished to say anything, but she shook her head, eyes closed. The Protectors picked her up and placed her face down on the shelf, head hanging over the end, invisible to the audience because of the cowling. Fidel and Hylas pressed the buttons. The blade dropped and their mother's head fell with a slight thud into the trough below. After three spasms the body lay still and the observers left the scene. Hylas and Fidel remained at the guillotine, unable to look at each other. Not daring to think about what they'd done.

The inquisitor wandered up, stared at the headless corpse, muttered, 'Not much blood,' nodded at the two young men and with a bleak smile asked if they fancied a permanent job as executioners. They declined respectfully.

'Come and I'll sign you out,' he said brusquely.

They followed him through several corridors to an office where Mr. Lukliss was signing documents. After countersigning their release papers, which included a statement ensuring whoever was interested that they had been very well treated while in custody, the inquisitor indicated the way to the exit, then turned on his heel and disappeared.

Certain it was a trick and they'd be grabbed as soon as they left the building and be brought back to have their own heads removed, they walked on trembling legs to the exit, down the steps to the pavement where Mr. Lukliss was waiting.

'Can I give you young men a lift?' he asked with a nervous intensity that invited acceptance.

Relieved at not having to trust their wobbly legs to take them away, they nodded. Fidel got in front and Hylas behind, ready to strangle the driver if he turned dangerous.

Lukliss touched his lips lightly to warn against speaking, then said he'd drop them in the centre of town. They thanked him, curiosity mounting. After a few blocks he pulled over beside a small park.

'I'll just pop over the road to buy a newspaper. Won't be a tick.' He got out and signed them to silently follow. They retreated a few metres into the park where he pretended to show them some diseased leaves on a sick looking plant. 'That was brave,' he said softly. 'You did your mother a favour but you were too plausible. Too obliging. Not frightened enough. I don't know. Anyway, the inquisitor's certain you're the bombers. I overheard him talking to one of the observers. He's bugged your phones, noted your contacts, and probably put tracking devices in your knapsack, on your clothes…' he shrugged, 'so you'll lead him to your mates. You can get new phones around that corner.' He drew their father's amulet from his top pocket. 'I spoke to your mother. She wanted you to have this, Fidel. Take care, and good luck.' He returned to his car and drove away without further acknowledgement.

Before terror took all their strength, they removed all important documents and hung them in a small zippered bag around their necks for security, then were about to dump the phones minus sim cards and the knapsack in a bin when they realised it would seem strange if someone was monitoring the tracking devices, for them to remain in the park for so long. So they shouldered them and raced to the electronics shop, catching the owner just as he was closing the door.

Fifteen minutes later they were squatting behind a hedge in front of an apparently empty house on a quiet street in deepening dusk; knapsacks and clothes in a heap behind them.

Arnold answered at the first ring.

After what seemed an age, but was quite a bit less, Arnold pulled up in front of the house for a brief minute to check a map with the aid of a torch, then drove away, apparently unaware of two naked young men on the floor behind his seat. An hour and a half after that, he turned west into an unsealed side road, and ten minutes later parked beside a similar all-terrain vehicle concealed among trees near an abandoned quarry in a narrow valley, seventy-two kilometres north of the city.

Exhausted from worry and lack of sleep, everyone agreed not to broach serious topics until they were rested and fed, so there'd be no danger of irritability causing someone to say things they'd regret later. Now, when yawns were replacing idle chatter it was safe to talk.

They were sitting on rocks around a few glowing embers, feeling better than they had for two days, after a meal of roasted sweet potato, bananas, taro, and freshly killed rats, a delicacy provided by Fidel who discovered the nest in a rusty old drum and had the presence of mind to block the only exit. They were fat and healthy, having been feeding on sorghum in a nearby field. After being grilled to perfection they were tastier than the rabbits they'd caught previously.

'Don't ever do anything so risky again,' Robert said, failing to conceal his annoyance. 'We were going insane with worry. Arnold was on the point of charging into the cop shop, guns blazing.'

'You're right and I'm really sorry. It was crazy to approach Mum. I feel sick thinking about how I nearly got us caught.' Fidel shuddered and dropped his head into his hands. 'The public example they'd make of us doesn't bear thinking about.'

'And I'm really sorry too,' Hylas added contritely. 'Fidel's right about what they'll do if they catch us, so we ought to have a plan in case we're ever caught. I read that secret agents had a hollow tooth full of prussic acid so they could kill themselves and avoid torture if caught. We should have something similar.'

Arnold was nodding. 'I agree with Hylas. Bart, you're the expert on drugs, couldn't you…?

'Recreational drugs, Arnold. But I don't mind looking into it. If we make friends with a vet he'll be able to help with the stuff they put down animals with.'

'Or we could each have a pistol.'

'Can't buy them without a license, and our fake IDs aren't that good.'

'I honestly thought I'd never see you guys again,.' Hylas said with an emotional intensity that sent shudders through his listeners. 'We were just so lucky that Lukliss took pity on us. I hope he didn't get caught. Mum must have run him ragged, poor bugger. You could see he was relieved to be shot of her.'

'Yeah, if he hadn't warned us about bugging the phones and our gear… it doesn't bear thinking about.' Fidel looked up sharply. 'You really have dumped your phones?'

'Of course, immediately after Arnold rang and told us.'

'And I dumped mine immediately after finishing the call to Bart. If your bag and clothes were bugged as well, they're going to be very, very annoyed.

Fidel sighed. 'You're right. I feel sick.'

'I can imagine. Try to look on it as a valuable learning experience. We're much better informed now and will never underestimate the enemy. I must say I'm surprised at your mother's change of heart at the end. She must have had a crisis of conscience to give you the amulet. Lets have a look at it.'

They passed around a greenish bone disc about two centimetres in diameter, with an odd shape carved lightly onto one surface.

What do you reckon it is?'

'A tower.'

'A tree.'

'A lighthouse standing on rocks.'

'You guys are so innocent. It's a phallus.'

'Of course! It's advertising your great fat cock, Fidel. Are you going to wear it?'

'Not till Mum's aura's been exorcised. I can't believe I risked our lives for this thing.'

'What I can't get over,' Hylas said, shaking his shoulders as if to dislodge something unpleasant, 'is how convincing the inquisitor was. I really believed we weren't under suspicion. I can't stop thinking about what would have happened if Lukliss hadn't told us!'

Bart looked at Hylas intently. 'Are you sure you're Ok?'

'You mean do I need counselling?'

'That sort of thing.'

'Of course I'm Ok,' Hylas said more sharply than intended because he was trying not to have hysterics. 'Nothing happened to me. It's happening to every woman, girl, family with a woman in it. They're the ones who need counselling. But they're not going to get it, are they? This horror is going to go on and on and on until we're back in the dark ages with inquisitions, slaves, lords, kings and despots who own everything including all the humans who aren't part of their gang. Already they do as they like. I mean there was no trial of Mum! She was out in public alone so she had to die. No excuses. No justice.'

'Justice is what the rulers say it is, Hylas,' Arnold said forcefully, 'and you shouldn't be surprised. All Australian State Governments abandoned fair trials and the right of judges to consider mitigating circumstances years ago when they introduced mandatory sentencing. No one complained then because it mainly affected Aborigines. So we've no right to complain now simply because it affects the rest of us.'

'We're in a sorry mess,' Bart agreed thoughtfully, 'caused by believing that elected governments act honourably in the interests of citizens. They don't, and they never have. They always do what the most powerful people want them to do.'

'We've been heading back to the dark ages for years now,' Robert added, 'Unions deregistered and wages negotiated instead of regulated, safety nets dismantled, tax systems rigged to favour the wealthy… the list is long and the trajectory clear. No one complained much because the wealthy own the media and never told the rest of us the truth about the changes.'

'Well, there's nothing we can do about that,' Arnold said tersely. 'All we're going to do is give ourselves nightmares about being impotent. What I want to know is, what was the worst part for you?'

'Worrying that I'd say something different from Fidel and get him punished.'

'Worrying that Hylas and I would say something different from each other and give ourselves away.'

'You were so clever to tell me what to say in the wagon on the way to the lockup.'

'Was it terrible having to press those buttons?'

'At first I thought I wouldn't be able to, even though most of my life I've wished her dead. Then I realised she was a goner anyway and if we didn't do it she might have to suffer torture like those poor people at the showground. And as she was obviously drugged, and we'd been told it was so quick she'd feel nothing, it seemed the kindest thing to do.'

'Do you really think you'd feel nothing having your head sliced off?'

'Guys who've had lumps of flesh torn out of them by sharks say they only felt a thump. It was later when they realised they weren't going to die that the pain kicked in.'

'The blade's incredibly sharp, it sliced through instantly and the head just dropped into the trough. I read once that there's a second or two of consciousness till the brain runs out of blood and oxygen, and that's why the inquisitor said she'd experience a moment of surprise, or something like that. But how would you find out? I don't think anyone's had their head sewn back on to tell us.'

'Not yet, but I'll bet there's a surgeon somewhere dying to try it.'

'So if you're going to be executed, ask for the guillotine?'

'I'm pleased she's gone,' Hylas said defensively. 'She was a horrible woman from beginning to the end. I've always hated her and finally I can stop thinking about her.'

'But now you have another problem,' Robert said thoughtfully.'


'They know your bank account number and that your names and identities are false. You daren't access your money or use your new identities. You're both dependent paupers now.'

Fidel's face lost colour.

'Come on, Robert,' Bart frowned, 'they've had a hard time, don't make them sweat.'

'Yeah, sorry. JECHIS won't touch your money until they've got you, so I've got time to shift it back to the anonymous holding account, then dump it into Arnold's. You'll lose about ten percent on charges. And if you get a duplicate card you can access the cash using his P.I.N.'

'Thanks, Robert that'll be great. But you're right, from now on we daren't be seen, or do anything in case we're asked for our papers.'

'Fidel, you underestimate yourself. We'll get a good photo editing program and a printer and you'll easily be able to create new documents that'll stand up to casual scrutiny.'

'It's a shame we can't go back to see Jeff.'

'Yes. And my parents. But lets not talk about it. I get sad. And when I'm sad I'm horrible—aren't I Bart?'

'Utterly horrid.' They grinned at each other and lightly kissed the gloom away.

Fidel woke just before dawn the following morning with a sore throat and hacking cough. He clambered out and discovered they were surrounded by acrid smoke. He roused everyone and they ran back to the road they'd driven up the night before. They were in a narrow valley higher up the hills than they'd realised, and gazed down in consternation. A low wall of smoke and flames was advancing towards them, fanned by a southeasterly breeze. The front seemed to stretch right across the valley.

'It must have started down beside the highway. Probably some idiot's cigarette.'

'It's been so dry.'

'We passed a couple of houses a few kilometres back, I hope they escaped.'

'The fire front will be here in about half an hour at this rate, we'll have to move.'

'But where? We can't go back down, the whole valley's alight, we'd explode. We'll have to retreat up the hill and hope for a side track.'

By the time they were packed and on their way the fire was close enough to feel the heat. They turned left onto a track that soon deteriorated into little more than a riverbed, slowing them down. As they climbed higher, grassy grazing land gave way to low scrub.

'This stuff will burn even faster than the grass.'

'And hotter.'

Occasional bandicoots, kangaroos, wallabies, snakes and other small animals were also fleeing the encroaching holocaust.

The wind picked up and the fire began gaining on them. They needed to get off the track and out of the valley which was acting like a chimney, funnelling flames, smoke and blackened cinders, twigs and leaves. Visibility was down to about twenty metres. They needed to go south, over the ridge away from the valley and hope the southeasterly wind would push the fire north and bypass them.

'There's a track on the left!' Hylas shouted.

They followed the almost invisible ruts of other vehicles over a low ridge, down into another gully, then up the other side where they could see they'd not been lucky. The wind had changed and they were still in the path of the fire, which was gathering speed and intensity along with the wind. Down into another, deeper gully. Tall eucalypts shaded a small stony creek. They couldn't see what was happening with the fire, but loud crackling and roaring and a sharp increase in the temperature of the wind, accompanied by a constant rain of cinders told them enough.

Arnold slammed on the brakes and got out, followed by the others.

'What's up?' Robert called as their vehicle pulled up beside them.

'The track ends here. Look.' He pointed across the stream. The far side of the gully rose almost vertically to another rocky ridge.

'We've been following a cattle track to this water hole. It goes nowhere.' Bart said nervously. 'What now?'

'If the wind picks up there's a chance the flames will jump over us,' Arnold said with a positive nod. 'Park in the stream behind me.' He swung his vehicle round and parked in the middle of the streambed with the engine facing away from the fire front. Robert parked their wagon close behind.

Obeying Arnold unquestioningly, they dragged out sleeping bags and everything else that could soak up water, then draped them over the vehicles, sloshing water over them as the sky darkened, reddened, and ash and charred leaves and twigs rained down, some starting spot fires that they stamped out. Then with an ear-splitting roar everything turned red.

'Fuck, Arnold! The whole world's on fire!'

Crowns of trees were exploding into great torches of billowing flames and smoke, accompanied by roaring, crashing and chest thumping booms as pockets of resin detonated, hurling lighted debris everywhere.

Feeling as if they too were about to explode, the young men wrapped wet material round their heads and bodies, soaked themselves in water and crawled beneath Arnold's vehicle, huddling tightly together as far from the sides as possible.

The roaring, crashing and hissing continued for endless minutes as they lay partially submerged, fingers crossed that the wind would keep up, because a fast fire burns superficially and moves on, whereas a slow fire settles in and consumes everything as it meanders across the land.

Groans of expanding metal, glass shattering, the screaming roar of wind and flames while branches crashed around and on top of their flimsy shelter, annihilated thought. They lay, unthinking, seared by blistering gusts, lungs burning, noses and throats raw from smoke and heat.

Then as quickly as it had arrived, the monster passed over. They crawled out and noticed the wind was stronger. The fire had made do with the tops of trees and was now charging up the hill as if in search of fodder. They gazed around in shock. They were alive, but would only remain so if they managed to put out burning leaves and branches, some of which were draped over their vehicles. A glowing cinder could start a serious fire in the tinder dry undergrowth.

Desolation clothed the slopes on either side. Smouldering twigs, bare black branches oozing smoke into the suddenly clear, blue sky. Glowing embers still floating down, grass tufts smoking, and little whirlwinds that whipped up ash, cinders and smoke as if to deliberately blind and suffocate them.

After rolling in the water to quench the smouldering cinders on their clothes, they dragged off the partially burnt sleeping bags, dismayed at the blackened, peeling paint and shattered glass.

'The tyres look fine,' Arnold said cheerfully after hurling buckets of water over them. 'For a while at least.' He attempted to raise the bonnet. 'Fuck it's bloody hot.'

After putting out as many spot fires as they could they lay in the shallow water again, checked for burns, held wet cloths against them, and surveyed the surroundings. The stench of burned hair and flesh only added to the horror.

'Some animal's been burned,' Hylas said. 'The poor thing, we should…'

Fidel raced into the blackened forest, ignoring Hylas's warnings about burns, and returned with a small kangaroo, still alive. Eyes melted, most of its hair scorched, paws burned. Placing the suffering beast on the ground he picked up a large rock and brought it crashing down, putting it out of its misery.

'I feel sick when I think of how much pain and suffering there is after these fires.'

'Yeah. It's as bad as what happens to innocent civilians during the endless wars Australia wages along with our allies.'

Two hours later after temporary repairs to the insulation on some of the exposed wiring, to their astonishment both engines started and sounded as good as ever. The vehicle bodies though, were not pretty. Blackened paint, cracked headlights and windscreens and buckled panels. They celebrated with a meal of kangaroo and potatoes, cooked on a smouldering stump.

'Tastes even better than rat,' was Bart's assessment.

All the stuff used to protect the vehicles from the fire was now useless, so they bundled it up and drove back the way they'd come to dispose of it properly.

The valley was still smouldering; the road barely passable as they made their way past their campsite in the old quarry and down to the two houses, which were totally burned out. When they stopped to look Robert saw a notice pinned to what used to be the front door. He sprinted across, read it and returned looking ill.

'Now I know why there were no fire brigades or water bombing planes.' He said through clenched teeth. 'The notice says this is God's punishment for worshipping other gods. Signed JECHIS. I peered through the door and saw at least three blackened corpses on the floor. It was hard to tell, but I think they'd been tied up.'

'Fuck! Lets get away. The last thing we need is a bloody Protector to arrive and ask why we're here.'

The town of Ingham boasted two panel beaters, one at each end of the business centre, so there was little likelihood of the two vehicles and their owners being connected in anyone's mind—at least until they left town. As all they wanted was a quick respray and cracked glass and a few wires replaced, they were assured two days would be plenty. No one asked questions about how they got burned, where they came from or where they were going. Nor was there any reaction when asked about JECHIS, except to state positively that everything was fine and life had never been better, while looking furtively around before silently continuing with their work.

Ingham was flat, dull, as devoid of fantasy as every other country town, and very quiet. More than half the shops in the main street were boarded up. Only one service station was open and the price of fuel had more than doubled since they last bought any. A sullen shrug was the answer when they asked why. There were no children playing in the park. Few pedestrians anywhere. And the few shoppers they saw were men in utility trucks who'd park, get out, buy what they wanted and drive away. As in every town in the state, the only food shops were the two supermarkets, but their shelves seemed sparsely filled.

In the two days they were there the only women they saw were buying food, attended by their children and an impatient man. The pub was full at night, but the male-only clientele looked at them with suspicion, and no one would talk to them. The cinema was closed. Guests at the only restaurant they saw, arrived in expensive cars; the men in dinner suits and the women in long cloaks with hoods, probably to conceal jewellery and makeup.

Bart and Robert stayed in a different motel from the others, using their phones to avoid being seen together. During the day Fidel bought a photo-editing program and printed some convincing new documents. They all replaced their phones. Robert went to an Internet café and sent the contents of Fidel and Hylas's bank accounts around the planet a couple of times, passing through half a dozen institutions that kept no records but took a hefty percentage, before arriving in Arnold's account. Bart spent his time in the library, catching up on the latest JECHIS decrees. The local newspaper mentioned the fire that had nearly incinerated them, and declared it was God's retribution on a secret coven of dissenters who got what they deserved. The price of sugar had plummeted. Crime statistics showed a decline, and there would be a public flogging and an execution next weekend in front of the town hall. Robert and Arnold each kept a watch on the resurrection of their vehicles, which was completed within the two days, and paid for in cash, to the relief of the panel beater, who confided he was having trouble getting his loan renewed now JECHIS had taken over all the banks.

Hylas had spent the day buying replacements for the damaged gear, storing it in the motel. While passing the town hall he noticed a small sign that said simply, State Protector Enrolment Office. Curious, he went in and asked the lean and unsmiling, black-clad man with heavy eyebrows and short-cropped black hair, what it took become a Protector. The Protector eyed him up and down, wandered across, took Hylas's chin in his large calloused hand, squeezed firmly but not painfully, and gazed silently down into the young man's eyes. Hylas gazed up into hazel eyes with flecks of green. The lips were firmly shut and the nostrils clean and hairless. His shaved chin had the greenish tinge of a heavy dark beard. As the silence and scrutiny continued, Hylas was pleased to discover he wasn't frightened, but concerned that he had an erection. Concern became fear when the Protector's spare hand discovered that fact, and the handsome face kissed him on the lips, holding it for several seconds before releasing him, moving to the window and gazing out over a small lawn. 'There are brochures on that shelf.' The hand that had groped, indicated a shelf on the far side of the room. 'Help yourself.' He turned to face Hylas. 'You're on the small side, but fit and healthy. You didn't run screaming just now, so you've a stable temperament. Have you a girl friend?'


'Do you want one?' The question was devoid of inflection, but Hylas wasn't going to be fooled that easily.

'Not at the moment.'

'If you become a Protector you must give up all social and sexual intercourse with females. You will enter a totally male society, sharing everything with other men. Would that worry you?'


'Protectors are soldier monks, wedded to god and the true faith, proud and respectful of their masculinity. It's physically demanding, so there's daily exercise to keep you in top form. These uniforms aren't fakes, the bodies underneath are as fine as they look.'

Hylas glanced at the codpiece.

The Protector smiled for the first time. 'That's mostly padding for protection. We wear nothing underneath.' With a flourish he unzipped the front of his uniform from neck to groin, exposing a smoothly shaven body that drew a gasp of genuine admiration.

'You're like superman! But… shouldn't we close the door?'


'People might come in and see and…'

'If you haven't realised by now that protectors are the law, and what they do is always lawful, and that people who criticise them die, then you've a few screws missing!' The voice was hard and before Hylas could react, his neck was hooked by a large hand that thrust him to his knees so a respectable erection could be popped into his mouth. It was clean and didn't smell, and not unattractive, so Hylas was neither shocked nor repelled. But he was annoyed at not being asked. However, now was clearly not the time to complain so he did his skilful best, which sped things up and it wasn't long before he was surreptitiously spitting out a mouthful of cum while the Protector washed himself in a sink before zipping himself back into his suit.

Turning back to his guest as if nothing odd had occurred, he frowned in concentration. 'Where were we? Ah yes, how to become a Protector. Everyone undergoes psychological conditioning teaching them to obey orders without question, including torturing and killing people who are a danger to JECHIS.' He picked up the brochures and handed them to Hylas. 'Take these and think about it. Although personally I think you're not tough enough. Whatever… if you've any questions, come and see me.'

'Yes, sir, thank you sir.'

Hylas turned to go but was once more surprised by the Protector's snake-like rapidity. Before he had taken a step he was spun around and wrapped in black-clad arms that felt soft yet strong. He considered slumping to his knees, sliding out of the embrace and racing for the door, but by then his shorts were around his ankles and his cock in the capacious mouth of his Protector. Wisely, he again went with the flow, this time stoically enduring a mind-boggling orgasm.

Towards evening, the five men met by accident in a park, where Hylas related his afternoon adventure.

'Are you insane? Entering the monster's den? What if he'd demanded your ID and checked it?'

'I was curious not insane. We know so little about the protectors this was a chance to find out. Also, I checked his face before entering and I just knew he wasn't dangerous. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts.'

'But what if…?'

'He's right, Arnold,' Fidel interrupted. 'When I first came to Brisbane, a middle-aged man approached. I was penniless, but I instinctively knew he wouldn't harm me, so went with him. But what about your ID?'

'I left it locked in the motel so I could have the excuse to go and get it, and then disappear.'

'Well I suppose it's worth knowing more about our noble protectors, and you make it sound as if it was more pleasure than pain,' Bart said wryly. 'What do you guys think?' he asked Fidel and Arnold.

'That he's a bit of a slut.'

'That I'm jealous—if the fellow was as much of a stud as Hylas reckons.'

'Actually,' Robert said thoughtfully, 'I'm seriously considering joining up.' He grinned and patted Hylas on the back. 'You're a total idiot, Hylas. Broke our rule about going it alone, but I'm glad you're safe. Can't imagine what use this new knowledge will be, but I suppose no information is ever completely useless.'

That evening the motel owners apologetically asked for their documents; JECHIS now required records of all visitors to the town—names, addresses and contact details. Fidel and Hylas's new documents attracted no more attention than those of the others.

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