by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 16


The next morning's sky was a heavy, dull yellow.

'Looks threatening.' Hylas remarked.

'Looks like a typhoon.'

'We don't have them.'

'We do, but we call them tropical storms and cyclones.'

'What's in a name?'

'Not much if you're in the path of one.'

'Speaking of things to avoid, after two nights here I reckon motels and other such establishments belong on that list.'

'Agreed. I hate sleeping in a bed someone else has slept in. What mites might inhabit the mattress and pillow? Who knows what dread disease infested their fingers when they opened the drawers and doors. I always feel I can smell their residue.'

'I simply don't like or trust most humans.' Fidel looked up with a slight frown. 'Does that make me paranoid?'

'Oh no, not you.'

'But if you are, it's the only safe state of mind to be in.'

Their refurbished transport worked as well as ever and the landscape was as dull as ever—flat land, sugar-cane-bordered straight roads with an occasional view to the west of low mountains. Then they entered a patch of forest and the road began to climb higher until a few kilometres later the view opened out onto a spectacular panorama across the Hinchinbrook channel to the island. Several hours of monotonous motoring later, they crossed the swollen South Johnstone River.

'At last! This is the first place I've seen that actually looks tropical,' Fidel laughed as the sun squeezed a couple of rays between heavy blue-black clouds. On the far side of the river, groves of coconut and other palms, flocks of cockatoos flitting among other tropical vegetation added to the exotic feel of very tropical heat and humidity. As the first humdrum suburban houses came into view the sun disappeared behind gravid clouds that looked more than ready to release their burden.

'Uh-oh! Protectors.'

Half a dozen men in black were stopping all incoming traffic.

Hylas rolled down the window and nodded an unsmiling but pleasant greeting. Overt friendliness and confidence are suspicious, Bart had impressed on them.

'City Centre's closed,' the young officer announced curtly. 'Cyclone due to hit in the next hour. Take the ring road ahead on the left and head for the hills. Find a sheltered spot and hunker down.' He waved them on with one hand, while signalling the next car to stop with the other.

'That's a shame,' Arnold said sadly. 'I wanted you to see where this river meets the main Johnstone River; it's impressive and there's an attractive park.'

'Next time.'

They followed the directions and headed inland, bypassing the town. A couple of kilometres later the road ascended sharply towards the tablelands. After twenty minutes of winding roads Arnold pointed at an almost invisible track on the right that looked as if it might lead into the rainforest. They stopped to wait for the others. The view back to the coast was both alarming and impressive. A solid, dark and forbidding wall of clouds was made even more ominous by a silvery sliver of sea. The bits of the town visible in the distance looked makeshift and fragile.

'I'm very glad I'm not down there.'

'Me too.'

Bart and Robert arrived a few minutes later and agreed the place looked promising—as long as a tree didn't fall on them. They bounced and skidded down into the forest, then along a track overhung by giant trees to a slightly sloping clearing.

Arnold approved. 'We'll park at the top of the slope so we won't be carried away if there's a flash flood. And we're far enough from the trees, so if they fall it'll only be the tops that'll hit us.'

They parked facing into what they imagined would be the wind direction and ate a hurried meal. The wind was picking up and minutes later the trees a hundred metres away across the clearing were obliterated by sheeting rain driving almost horizontally, hurled along by a screaming gale that rocked their vehicles alarmingly. Swirling leaves and small branches pounded them, stuck to windows and turned an already dark afternoon to night. The noise was more than deafening. It shocked to the core. They felt punched, pounded, assaulted both aurally and physically. Roaring, screaming, tearing and constant battering by debris flying at speeds fast enough to kill. They clung to the rocking seats in mute terror for over an hour before it appeared to lessen slightly.

'I think it's getting less strong,' Hylas shouted.'

It was. And then it became a brisk wind. And then it stopped. Abruptly. Shockingly. And the world was quiet once more and each man discovered the others were also sitting white faced, tense, knuckles showing. Too battered mentally to do anything except breath deeply and try to relax. And then like other stunned animals they crawled out from their shelter to inspect the damage.

At first glance, only a few dents. A large one on Bart's roof where a substantial branch remained. The forest, though, hadn't fared so well. All around them the canopy was almost bare, stripped of leaves and small branches that were piled in great heaps, including around their vehicles. Not a birdcall, but lots of other sounds, creaking, snuffling, and an occasional crash as a loosened branch fell. And rushing water. Two large trees at the bottom of the clearing had been uprooted and were lying across the open ground at the edge of a fast moving river that hadn't been there when they arrived. They'd been sensible to park on the higher ground.

With enough food for a few days, they weren't troubled. Apart from the mosquitoes it was a pleasant spot with excellent swimming, despite the leeches. Bart saw a platypus. Fidel and Hylas caught several small edible fish in a dam they constructed to trap them as the waters fell. And so it was with some regret that three days later the need for food sent them on their way back to Innisfail, hoping to see the confluence of the two rivers that so impressed Arnold.

Half a kilometre before the junction with the main north-south highway, however, a large barrier decorated with flashing lights and a couple of Protectors prevented further progress. The road was under water.

Around them, cheap houses of the outer suburbs had suffered a direct hit from the winds. It looked as if a giant in a tantrum had waded through, kicking and smashing everything in his path. Few places had roofs. Few trees remained standing. Power lines were down. Dejected people carried sodden goods outside into the sunlight or simply stood helplessly as if waiting for someone to do something for them.

As they watched, a helicopter chattered in and dropped a net full of something that broke apart on impact, causing people to race and grab whatever they could. The Protectors looked on as if it had nothing to do with them. A vile stench drifted from somewhere. Even if they could have driven through the flooded roads in front of them, the rest of the coast road was impassable due to washed out bridges.

They drove back up the hill to the Tablelands, replenished increasingly expensive fuel from the solitary service station still operating at Millaa Millaa, and stocked up on food from the sparse offerings of the supermarket in Malanda. The town was littered with dazed and drifting refugees from the coastal plain, unprepared for whatever had happened to them.

On the way out of town Hylas called 'Stop'. A swiftly flowing river passed under the roadway and emerged on the other side as white water cascades tumbling about ten metres into what looked from the road like a huge pool surrounded by dense rainforest.

'Let's go down.'


They pulled to the side to wait for the others, who arrived minutes later and followed them down a steeply sloping access ramp to a neat car park with changing facilities on one side. A score of wide stone steps led down to a stone walkway surrounding the crystal clear water. Dozens of men and boys were diving, swimming, laughing, chasing each other or relaxing on massive stone terraces—but only on the far side. The equally attractive area next to the car park was devoid of humanity.

'Lets go for a swim!'

An instinctive determination to remain as inconspicuous as possible, caused them to park behind the ablutions block out of sight. Impatiently, they locked the vehicles and raced to the top of the steps.

'So close to a town and yet so natural.'

'Like most of the swimmers.'

'What do you mean?'

'They're naked.'

'So they are. I wonder…'

A discreet sign declared the pool was for men only. Any woman approaching within five hundred metres would be severely punished. The pool was too inviting to resist any longer so they raced down the steps, stripped, tucked their gear between rocks in case the wind came up, and dived in. It was cold and very refreshing. The swimmers on the far side took not the slightest notice, keeping in small groups with their backs to Fidel and friends. After a few strenuous lengths across their end of the man-made lake, they warmed themselves on the rocks beside their clothes, concealed from above by the terraces.

Bart went to check their vehicles and visit the toilet block.

While he was away, an official JECHIS bus arrived and disgorged twenty-five black-clad Protectors.

Fidel peered over the edge of the terrace. 'Don't look now, but we're no longer alone. The cops have arrived. Please tell me it's not to arrest us for skinny dipping.'

'It isn't,' Hylas whispered. 'Look!'

The Protectors, who looked between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, lined up at the top of the steps in military order and remained at attention until their leader gave an order. Then as one, they stripped, folded their uniforms neatly, and ran in single file down to the pool, dived in without splashing and began swimming from one end to the other. Their commander, who was a few years older, watched for a minute then also stripped, folded his uniform neatly and followed them in. Also an excellent swimmer.

'They're bloody fit—every one of them.'

'Not an ounce of useless fat in the whole busload.'

'But a shitload of muscles. And here I thought their sexy uniform was fake, designed to impress.'

'I told you the other day, they're all fitness freaks,' Hylas laughed.

'Although the codpiece does exaggerate a fair bit.'

'I explained that—it's reinforced for protection.'

'Well, if your guy was anything like these blokes, your dalliance is understandable and forgivable.'

'Actually, he was much better looking. These guys all look a bit dumb.'

'Yeah, they wouldn't win beauty contests.'

'Isn't it character that counts?'

'Character shows in your face. Good character makes plain people handsome, and vice versa.'

'There's not much wrong with their faces, it's something else. I'd say most of them have been brutalised. I'm very pleased I'm not part of their group.'

'Me too. I don't think they'd like us much either. We're too nice.'

Bart, who had been nervously watching the arrival of the Protectors from the ablutions block, took a careful look at the uniform of the leader as he returned to the pool.

'The man in charge is Captain Jack Trent. They're from a training school in Atherton.'

'How do you know?'

'It's stamped in gold on his uniform collar. I took a look as I came back.'

'Oops. He's looking at us. Somehow I don't think he's pleased. You don't think there's a reason no one was using this side of the pool, do you?'

'We're about to find out.'

'You guys keep your mouths shut,' Bart said tersely. 'I don't think this is a joke to him, so leave all the talking to me, no matter what. Ok?'

They muttered agreement as the godlike captain heaved himself out of the pool and approached, droplets of water cascading from lightly bronzed shoulders and chest. Like Hylas's acquaintance of the previous day, his body was shaved smooth.

'This side of the pool is permanently reserved for Protectors.' His tone was brusque to the point of rudeness. 'You are trespassing and will be punished.'

'We apologise and will move to the other side of the pool.'

'Too late. All my men have seen you and if I don't enforce the law they'll lose their respect for it.'

'I suggest it is for you they will lose respect, Captain Trent, because you failed to have the area checked for strangers before ordering them into the water. We could have been terrorists waiting to mow you all down.'

The captain's eyes popped. 'How do you know my name?'

'It was told to me this morning.'

'Who by?'

'The officer in charge of scheduling surprise inspections.'

'But…but why wasn't I told?'

'Because it wouldn't be a surprise.' Bart's voice was razor sharp, his eyes slits and his tone impatient.

The captain quailed visibly, rallied, then nodded respectfully; waiting like the well-trained soldier he was for orders from a superior.

'You will appreciate, Captain Trent, that it would be foolish of me to allow an excellent instructor such as yourself to lose his recruits' respect over such a minor infringement, so I want you to return to the water to complete the planned schedule, then assemble your men on the flat area by the bus, where you will explain our presence as if you knew we would be already here. I'll leave it to you whether to suggest they were lacking in care not to have informed you, then introduce me and I'll give a little pep talk and that will be that.'

'How do you want to be introduced?'

'We're official observers monitoring standards. That should suffice.' Bart gave a terse nod and the captain saluted before returning to the water where he joined his men.

'I am shitting myself,' Arnold whispered. 'What the fuck will we do?'

'You will act as if you are inspection officers, silent and menacing. Just sit and gaze at them to make Trent nervous.'

After fifteen minutes of diving and swimming exercises The Captain stood on the edge of the pool, gave an invisible signal and seconds later twenty-four glistening young men were standing in a close semicircle beside the bus, apparently unaffected by twenty minutes of strenuous exercise and a sprint up the steps. The captain explained the presence of the strangers, then stepped back to stand beside Bart. Robert and the others stood at ease in line behind them, admiringly unnerved by the respectful, attentive attitude of the young men.

Bart gazed critically at each in turn, then allowed himself a satisfied nod. 'I am impressed with your discipline, fitness, agility, strength and appearance.' His voice was calm, clear and warm with approval. 'I congratulate Captain Trent on moulding such an admirable group of individuals into a coherent team.' He paused to let the praise penetrate. 'As you probably realise, Protectors are the temporal rock on which our society stands. Your job is one of the most physically and mentally difficult in the land, and without constant attention to the three pillars of wellbeing—discipline, fitness and mental health, life for Protectors can become an intolerable burden.'

The young men were standing rigidly at attention so Bart smiled slightly and ordered them to stand easy.

'We have become concerned at the number of Protectors showing signs of depression due to the strains of such a responsible job. Inspections such as this have shown that most recruits are, like you, in excellent physical health, and well disciplined. What is not clear is their mental health. What are the essentials for good mental health?'

A hand shot up.



'Definitely. Friendship, companionship, feeling part of a group. What else?'


'What, apart from food and sleep, is the most basic need of healthy young men?' Bart gazed benignly around before supplying the answer. 'Sex.'

The slightest of nods from his listeners, whose attention was now firmly fixed on this naked inspector who seemed human. Every other official they'd met wore a suit, looked unfit and acted as if he was God.

'I imagine you are all getting plenty of sex. The question though, is what sort of sex? The "wham, bam, thankyou man" variety when all you do is thrust your erection into someone's bum, mouth or hand followed by a quick orgasm, will do little except temporarily relieve the pressure. There will be little positive effect on your mental health. Even if you shove your cock up every arsehole in the barracks you will remain unsatisfied. That's because men require more from sexual activity among friends, than a quick orgasm.' He paused then asked. 'Any ideas?'

Slight frowns and head shakes.

'Men, real men that is, have an instinctive need to involve their sexual partner through enjoyable, mutual foreplay. If sex isn't an actively shared experience between equals, it's worse than wanking because it treats your lovers as objects instead of valued friends.'

A tentative hand fluttered.


'Won't that make us like women?'

'It will make you the opposite!' Bart snapped. 'During intercourse a woman is passive while the man actively arouses, stimulates and involves his partner. That is the male role! So if a man passively accepts penetration or masturbation without foreplay with his partner, then he's acting like a woman. However, when two men both kiss, caress and arouse each other for the pleasure and bonding it provides, then they briefly become two halves of the perfect man, joined for a few minutes of bliss.' Bart stopped talking, tilted his head and raised his eyebrows as if asking for comment. 'Is that clear?' he asked.

Without raising his hand the same young man as before said, 'If we do…'

'Don't speak without permission!' Bart snapped, then nodded permission for the chastened lad to continue.

'I apologise, sir.'

'Accepted. Continue.'

'Sir, if we do those things, doesn't that mean we're queer?'

'Perhaps the most stupid thing humans do is put labels on other humans, as if everyone has only one side to his character. But we are more complicated than that. You are all very well disciplined, yet inside your heads you remain exceptional individuals. We are all sexual creatures. That's as far as it is sensible to define us. Sex is sex no matter who or what you do it with. To say you may only have it with one sort of person is as silly as to say you may only eat bread and nothing else. Heterosexual, homosexual, queer are meaningless terms only used by those who want to control you. Just think of yourself as a sexual animal and enjoy yourself!'

Captain Trent coughed softly. 'We have to be in Atherton soon. Will another five minutes be enough?'

'Plenty.' Bart gazed thoughtfully at his class, as he was beginning to think of them. 'There's one last thing I'd like you to consider. Imagine that your fitness training was only done in private; you'd start to think it was something strange and possibly dirty. What would you think if you were only taught your duties as protectors one at a time in private? You'd start to wonder what the others were doing and learning. You'd begin to think there was something wrong, perhaps evil about what you were taught. Well it's the same with friendship, love and sex. If kissing, stroking, fucking and other pleasures are kept hidden, only done behind closed doors, people start to imagine there's something wrong with them. They're dirty. Sinful. So be open and public about your friendships, loves, sexual desires and activities and you will feel light, happy, unafraid and whole. Sit watching TV with your lover and hold hands, cuddle and kiss if you feel like it. It's fun, healthy, and keeps you sane. Secrets are death to sanity. Of course, you will sometimes want to be totally private, but that's normal too. That's my whole point. Nothing real men do is not normal, and as long as you have fun before you cum, you will be satisfied and remain sane—for a while anyway.' Bart grinned and gave a slightly self-mocking bow.

His audience clapped politely and a new hand was tentatively raised. Bart nodded permission.

'Do you have a lover and is that the sort of sex you have?'

The captain stepped forward. 'You can't…'

'It's a fair question, Captain,' Bart said calmly. 'We should always be prepared to put our money where our mouths are.' He turned back to the questioner. 'I have always enjoyed the sort of sex I described.' He grinned boyishly. 'That's how I've remained so sane in this crazy world. And yes, I have a lover.' He stepped back and turned to the captain with a friendly smile. 'They're all yours, Jack.'

Trent's chest swelled with pride at the use of his first name. 'Thank you, sir.' He turned to address the recruits. 'We leave in three minutes.'

While they were donning their uniforms he drew Bart slightly aside. 'You've said exactly what I've been wanting to say but didn't know how.'

'I understand. These things can only be said by strangers; otherwise the recruits might think you wanted to seduce them, which I imagine you do? They're a handsome lot.'

'Would it be terrible if I did?'

'If the young man desires it as much as you, then it would be excellent. Especially if you didn't hide away in your room as if it was a dirty secret.' Bart grinned. 'Are you going back naked?'

Red-faced, Captain Trent pulled on his uniform while Bart continued talking quietly so as not to be overheard.

'Jack, you are a fine man and the boys like you. But you should have demanded my papers. You were far too trusting. Never again speak to a fellow JECHIS officer as honestly as you have to me, and don't report this incident. There's no one else back in the office like me!' He paused to let that sink in. 'I will keep our secret because we need more people like you, especially with the changes that are coming.' He held out his hand to the captain who shook it gratefully before joining his recruits on the bus, which drove softly up the ramp and away.

The five friends immediately grabbed their clothes, leaped into their vehicles and ten minutes later were kilometres away on a side road, heading for a small lake that looked secluded—on the map at least. Robert was driving their vehicle. Bart had the shakes.

The main road to Cairns and the coast ran along the north shore of the lake. It was beautiful, but not secluded. A short access road led to a parking area filled with tourist busses and cars. Scores of sightseers were crowding a small jetty, the sandy beach, and also the water.

'Not our scene,' Hylas declared. 'Let's carry on to Cairns.'

A kilometre further on they noticed a gate and track leading into the forest on the same side as the lake. Both clearly hadn't been used for some time, so they risked being persecuted for trespassing and after three more gates and two cattle stops the track curved towards the lake and ended at a small patch of solid ground on the edge of the water, concealed from the tourist strip by a rocky arm jutting into the water.

Arnold sighed contentedly. 'This is exactly what I'd imagined.' They stood gazing across to the heavily forested far side, listening to the peaceful lapping of water, then stripped and lay in the shallow pellucid waters, still too charged to relax.

'What's that black thing on your neck?' Robert asked Hylas, trying to brush it off. 'Inspect yourselves for bloodsuckers, he laughed. 'Hylas has a necklace of the delightful creatures. I'm going for scissors.'

When he returned the others had lined up to have their leeches removed. It was a wonderful sight to see the blood gush from a tightly swollen black bag of blood as it was cut in two, and a pleasure to see it shrink to a rag and drop off.

'It's amazing that we don't feel them,' Fidel said. 'I know they anaesthetise and add an anticoagulant, but even so…'

'They wouldn't live long if they hurt their donors, unlike mosquitoes they take quite a long time to fill up.'

They returned briefly to the water to wash off the blood.

'Ain't nature grand,' Bart said wearily. 'When I'm utterly stuffed from a morning's excitement something comes along and sucks out my life-blood.' He dropped melodramatically onto the sand and lay still as if overcome. The others joined him.

'You're right, Bart, I'm not recovered from that and I did nothing. I really thought we were done for.'

'Yeah. I was sure we were about to be arrested and tortured to death.'

'We would have been if Bart hadn't done the impossible.'

'How on earth did you come up with all that stuff on the spur of the moment, Bart?'

'Yeah. It was brilliant. My mind froze.'

'Daring to pretend you were an inspector! You never cease to amaze me.'

'It wasn't so clever, just a rehash of what I've been telling confused gays for years. I'd been thinking about Protectors ever since Hylas told us about their training. The poor kids don't realise they've signed away their lives to become militarised monks, imprisoned in an all male environment, dedicating their lives to fitness, obedience and belief in the rightness of persecution. It stands to reason they'll get sexually frustrated, and that explains their willingness to inflict cruelty on the people they've pledged to protect. I figured that if they could clear their heads of religious anti queer crap and learn to enjoy sex with each other, it might help solve the aggression problem. Jack seemed to think so too.'

'You're amazing. I was literally petrified.'

'Me too. I thought this is it! We're for the chop.'

'When an action is forced on you, it isn't bravery. You were surprised by them, but I was watching when they arrived and saw how Jack looked at the guys when they stripped. He patted a blond kid on the bum. I got a feeling about Captain Trent similar to what Hylas felt about the Protector in Ingham. Then when Jack checked out my cods before telling us off, I knew it was worth a gamble.'

'You should buy a lottery ticket.'

'Can't. JECHIS banned them.'

'It'd make a great video! Bart, cock and balls swinging officially, advises a score of testosterone-filled naked young Protectors and their randy chief that if they want to stay sane they have to have lots of touchy feely kissing and sex with each other—in public.'

'The amazing thing is, they lapped it up. I got the feeling it's exactly what they've been wanting to do but didn't dare.'

'That's for sure. Jack admitted he's been dying to dally with some of them but didn't dare in case they thought he was queer.'

'Do you reckon they'll do it?'

'It's very possible. Unless there's a homophobic fuckwit with a higher rank than Captain Trent in Atherton.'

'Thank goodness we parked behind the changing sheds. At least if he discovers you're not what you said you were, he has no idea what vehicles we're driving.'

'If you recall, I didn't say what I was. I let him think what he chose.'

They decided to stay at the lake for a couple of days, but mosquitoes and more leeches the following morning convinced them to leave. After admiring the vertiginous views during breakfast at a lookout situated at the edge of the escarpment, they took the steep road that wound from the tablelands down to the coast, the temperature rising appreciably as they descended.

Cairns looked a little the worse for wear. The cyclone that had washed out Innisfail caused a storm surge in Trinity Bay and parts of the business area were still ankle deep in murky, stinking seawater that had apparently flushed out the sewers. All the big tourist hotels and backpacker places on the esplanade had closed and the few remaining tourists had become so desperate waiting for the hole in the runway of the international airport to be filled that they were queuing for busses and cars to take them south to Townsville, where planes were still flying. International and inter-state tourism was now dead. Holidaying men weren't keen on being castrated or decapitated or imprisoned for accidentally offending an imaginary god, and females who'd planned on wearing little more than a slip of fabric on tropical beaches, learned they'd receive a public whipping or worse if they did.

Trinity Wharf was open, but almost empty. The aquatic centre was also open, but only for men. They wandered in and noticed a few men swimming and sunbathing. It didn't smell very clean, so they returned to their vehicles. They needed a bank, but where to find one? They approached an old man sitting on the wall overlooking the mudflats. He had no idea where they'd find a bank, but reckoned that despite the smell Cairns hadn't been so pleasant since the fifties when the wild tropical outpost was a haven for misfits and escapees from modernism. Many other older residents were delighted by the demise of tourism, despite the current rigorous religious rectitude, which they assumed would soon pass.

The five renegades agreed with him and wished him well, then sat on the wall a bit further along and also gazed out over the mudflats.

'What're we doing here?'

'No idea.'

'It's funny, isn't it. We set off from Brisbane with one aim in our heads; keep safe and head for Cairns. I didn't think any further than that. And here we are. We've arrived and I've no idea what to do next.'

'Console yourself with the thought that most people are like that, only thinking about the next thing they want. They get into debt buying a boat without realising they will never have the time to use the bloody thing—they'll be so busy working to pay it off. Advertisements tell them they absolutely must have this or that gimmick, so they get it and never use it because they didn't actually need it.'

'Mum's like that,' Arnold said shaking his head. 'She'll say, if I can have that; then I'll be happy. She nags Dad till she gets it and then starts muttering about the next thing she needs to complete her happiness. Nothing ever makes her happy. While I was at home anyway.'

'Do you miss them?'

'No. They've always been like strangers. I was sure I'd been adopted or stolen at birth. Couldn't believe these people were my parents. When everyone else was making New Year resolutions, mine was a silent pledge not to become as dull and stupid as my parents.'

'More kids feel like that than you'd guess. But they hide it for fear of being alone some day with no family to call on.'

'We're just about out of cash,' Robert interrupted, 'so let's find a bank, then do what we always do, see what happens.'

'You're right,' Hylas said sombrely. 'It's the only way to live when there's so much upheaval. When you're never sure what tomorrow will bring, it's best to be rootless and ready for anything.'

'I'm sure I saw you and Fidel rooting last night,' Arnold laughed.

Hylas aimed a punch and missed.

'May as well head for the hills and hope to find a suburb with a bank,' Bart said wearily. 'I don't know what's worse, the destruction of society or the environment.'

'That's a no-brainer,' Fidel responded irritably. 'We need the environment. We don't need civilization. As soon as humans get together and build something permanent they destroy what's already there. They're incapable of sharing anything. I don't like them.'

'Well, I'm going to find some money so we can buy things and destroy more of the environment,' Robert grumbled.

They followed him back to the vehicles and drove into the western suburbs looking for a shopping centre; no longer concerned about travelling in tandem as there were so many similar four-wheel drive vehicles no one could possibly think them noteworthy. They parked at a slightly run down complex of shops. A stuccoed arch led into a paved area with a children's playground in the centre, enclosed by a low concrete wall. The shops were arranged around the edges of this hollow square. Half the premises were empty. Peeling stucco and shabby paint added to the sense of decay. The courtyard was roofed with shade-cloth that kept off the direct rays of the sun while trapping the heat. It was an airless, breezeless sweatbox that had seen better days. In the playground, animal sculptures squatted among plastic trees and shrubs. Sandy paths criss-crossed the area and in a tree-hut nestling in a plastic mango tree, two little boys were noisily attempting to shove each other off the deck. As it was only half a metre above the ground no one was perturbed. Several other shirtless boys were chasing each other. Three girls in long frocks that also covered their arms were sitting disconsolately in a sand pit, muttering together as if concocting spells. Five women, presumably the mothers as their eyes were constantly on the prowl, were sitting on the ground leaning against the low concrete barrier that surrounded the playground. It provided a bit of shade, supported their backs and gave a modicum of privacy.

The five friends, not realising the women were there, sat on the wall facing the shops. The bank they needed was diagonally across from them, and a painted finger pointed the way to a supermarket. After a careful survey revealed no hidden dangers such as ID checks or ambushing Protectors, Robert and Arnold crossed to the bank while Bart and Hylas took an abandoned trolley to the supermarket. Fidel was deputed to keep watch.

It wasn't romantic being wanted men, he decided. Surely they could find somewhere to relax and live without being constantly on their guard; always looking over their shoulders?

A few minutes after Robert and Arnold entered the bank, a lean, dark and fit young man in joggers and flimsy shorts with a satchel draped over his shoulder, wandered across to the wall about five metres from Fidel, dropped the satchel on the ground and placed one foot on the wall to tighten his shoelaces.

'Look at him!' one of the women on the ground behind Fidel hissed, startling him out of his reverie. 'That guy's practically naked. It's so unfair; we have to cover ourselves from neck to ankle and he can wear what he likes. If men were decent they'd be sticking up for us, but they don't care. I hate them!'

The other women looked around nervously, not daring to agree, although it was clear they did.

'You might recall, madam,' Fidel said sharply, making them turn and glare up at him, 'that until a couple of years ago, women wore even less in public than that bloke. They could go anywhere with bare shoulders, deep cleavages, bare arms, legs and feet, while men were forced to cover everything except hands and faces no matter how hot the day, having to wear shoes and socks, long trousers, long sleeved shirts. Even necks were unwelcome in places that demanded ties. Did you stick up for the right of men to be comfortable and wear what they liked?'

She responded with a snort of disgust and a muttered, 'Men.'

The shirtless young man had been listening to the exchange without looking up. A slight smile played at his lips as he raised his other foot to adjust the laces. At that moment a woman in a pale grey shift with a hood ran past, shoved him roughly forward so he fell across the wall, grabbed his satchel and took off.

Without pausing to think, Fidel raced after her. She was very fast and disappeared around the corner into a narrow alley between two buildings. Fidel put on a spurt but when he arrived she was gone. The only sign of life was a skinny youth in torn jeans and T-shirt, sitting on a pile of sacks.

Fidel ran up. 'Have you seen a woman in grey?'

'The boy, for he was no more than fourteen, shook his head. Fidel was about to turn away when he wondered why the kid was panting. He took another look at the pile of sacks then grabbed the kid by the neck, digging his fingers in hard. The boy whimpered, but kept absolutely still to minimise the pain while Fidel picked up the sack. Underneath it, the grey dress. Shoving the boy against the wall, he said calmly, 'Give me one good reason why I shouldn't hand you to the Protectors.'

The boy's eyes widened. 'They'll cut off my hand.'

'If you knew that, why did you steal?'

'I'm fucking starving. Can't get a job. Dad kicked me out—said I'm old enough to look after myself. What the fuck am I supposed to do?'

'Beg. Try harder to find work—any work. Go through rubbish bins at the back of restaurants and fast food places. Carry people's parcels to their car for a few cents. They'll offer more if they think you're not greedy. Anything rather than getting into the clutches of the Protectors. If you don't want to die, then get it into your thick head that the most precious thing you have is your independence. Once you've lost that you're no longer a man. No longer worth anything to anyone except slavedrivers. As Patrick Henry, a wise man once said, give me liberty or give me death. Wise words you'd be wise to adopt.'

The boy's eyes flicked to the side and he gasped, 'There's a Protector coming this way. Please, please don't…'

Fidel slid his hand down till it was resting on the boy's shoulder.

'Are you having problems, sir?' The voice was harsh and the hulking beast in his superman costume clearly hoped Fidel was being harassed. 'I've see this young prick hanging around, obviously up to no good.'

'Quite the opposite, sir,' Fidel replied brightly. 'I need someone to carry a few things for me and he's agreed for a much more reasonable fee than the other young fellow I asked. But thanks for asking. You're certainly on the ball.'

With a surly, disappointed nod the Protector stomped past—a predator in search of a victim.

'Come on then,' Fidel said brightly and loudly, it'll only take a couple of hours.

After picking up the satchel and screwing the grey shift into a tight ball, they jogged back to the entrance to the alleyway and stopped.

'Thanks, sir.' The lad was fighting back tears. 'I'll never do it again.'

'Good. To prove it, come and give the satchel back to the guy you stole it from.'

'I couldn't.' He began to tremble.

'Yes you can. It's the first step in your new life of honest toil. If you're not strong enough to do that, you'll never be strong enough to avoid stealing a tempting bag in future.'

'But he'll want to dob me in.'

'I doubt it. You'd be amazed at the effect of honest contrition on decent men. Come on or I'll frog march you and that would be really embarrassing. But first, a rubbish bin for this rag.'

When they returned to the wall the other four were waiting, chatting to the young man who was looking hopefully in the direction Fidel had run.

'Thank goodness you're Ok.' Hylas said nervously. 'This guy told us you'd taken off after the thief. What happened, and who's this? And what's he holding?'

Fidel glanced down at the women sitting silently behind the wall, eyes and ears open for gossip. 'This young man helped me to catch the thief. We handed her over to the Protectors. But I don't think these lovely ladies are interested in boring men's talk, so let's go over there.' He indicated an empty seat against the wall of the supermarket.

The six men sat and the youth stood nervously facing them. 'I'm really sorry,' he said in a shaking voice, sniffing back tears while offering the satchel to its owner. 'I promise I'll never steal again. I want to be like P… P…'

'Patrick Henry,' Fidel said softly.

'Yeah, him and have liberty. Can you forgive me?'

The owner of the satchel took it and frowned. 'Those women said it was a young woman who stole it.'

'Yes… but… I was…'

'Do you know what happens to men who dress up as women?'

A timorous, 'No.'

'They are stoned to death.'

The boy looked on the point of fainting. He staggered, became very pale and Robert quickly made him sit down.

'It seems to me,' the owner of the satchel said thoughtfully to the world in general, 'that the boy who returned the bag to me is no longer the girl/boy who took it, so that means he deserves a reward.' He opened the satchel, took out a wallet, extracted two green notes and handed them to the lad, who shrank back in fear.'

'That's two hundred dollars! I couldn't!'

'You're right, you'd be accused of stealing them.' He fished in the bag and extracted two wads of ten-dollar notes, held together with elastic bands.'

'No, sir. I…'

'Not enough?' He took another hundred-dollar wad from the satchel. 'Have another. But don't tell anyone or they'll take them off you. Remember this; a secret life is a safe one.' He stuffed the money into the boy's pockets. 'Take them; it makes me feel virtuous. Now, off you go and if you can't be good, at least be careful.'

Miraculously recovered, the kid shook his benefactor's hand then ran for his life.

'That was very nice of you,' Hylas said, shaking his head in disbelief. 'In fact it's one of the nicest things I've ever seen anyone do.'

'Not really. I can afford it and he looks as if he's starving.'

'I know who you are!' Fidel whispered, eyes wide, mouth in a huge grin. 'Your hair's shorter, and you're slightly older, but you're the guy I fell in love with a few years ago in Brisbane.'

'I think I'd remember if someone as handsome as you was in love with me.'

'Oh you didn't see me. You were stripping in a gay nightclub, the most amazing strip I've ever seen or could imagine, and at the end you faced us and with the same smile you've got on your face right now, you jerked off and sprayed right out over the edge of the stage. Then you disappeared. I raced out to tell you I loved you, but you'd gone. I felt as if I was dead for days.'

'It's true,' Bart said laughing. 'We had a terrible time with him for a while.' He looked at the object of Fidel's desire with a grin. 'And from the sphinx-like smile on your face, it was indeed you.' He held out his hand. 'I'm Bart and this well-built fan who ran to rescue your lucre from a fake female felon, is Fidel. This is my boyfriend, Robert, and these two are Arnold and Hylas—Fidel's lovers.'

'I'm Mortaumal.' He shook hands with everyone. 'But I only answer to Mort. Firstly, thanks Fidel for your compliments and brave act in defence of my cash, and secondly, What are five fit and handsome men doing in this run down neck of the woods?' Mort's smile was too bright, his eyes open too wide, his forehead unusually furrowed and he shook his head slightly, staring at Hylas until he reacted.

'Just passing through,' Hylas said with a sad shrug, echoed by his friends. 'Hoping to get to the end of Cape York before the rainy season.' He checked his watch. 'Hell, we should be on our way. Thanks for the directions and information. Our wheels are over there.' He gave a slight flick of the head, caught Mort's eye and nodded imperceptibly.

'Well, that's it then,' Mort said brightly. 'Nice meeting you. Take care.'

Left alone, Mort stood quietly and checked a shopping list for a few seconds, then apparently decided he had bought everything he needed and strolled off to the car park, arriving in time to see two all-terrain vehicles heading towards the exit, where they paused to look at maps, obviously wondering which way to go. A minute later, Mort's beat up Land Rover passed them, apparently without realising who they were, turned right and drove towards the hills. Hylas tossed the map into the back seat for Fidel to fold, and also turned right towards the hills, followed by Bart.

Mort made it easy to follow so they kept a fair distance behind, and ten minutes later were parked beside his Land Rover under a giant benjamina fig. They got out to stretch their legs. Mort was under the tree, sitting with his back to the trunk. He grinned and waved an arm, inviting them to join him. They sat on the grass in silence for about a minute, Mort scrutinising his five new acquaintances while they studied him.

'The supermarket precinct is full of cameras. We'd been talking long enough to arouse suspicion. I'm pretty sure this spot's not bugged,' he said cheerfully. 'We're invisible from drones, and there's no radio signal for some reason, so… why do you all look hunted, cautious, nervous and tired? And how long is it since you had a hot bath, a shave and slept in a soft, warm dry bed?'

'What's your opinion of JECHIS?' Robert asked abruptly, ignoring the questions.

Mort grinned, appreciating their caution. 'They're all mad. Dangerously mad but clever. They've taken over the place and have almost finished what unfettered corporate capitalism had already started, the transformation of Australia's secular democracy to a feudal state. It's a vile scam.'


'Promising to keep the peace and make us safe. Ha! As if a coalition of the three greediest, most arrogant, soulless, cruellest religions in the history of humans could keep the peace. Like all totalitarian governments they make the rules, enforce them through terror with a violent police force and have total control of the judiciary. We're returning to the default form of human governance…a ruling elite kept in splendour by a slave society.'

'Mort! You're a prophet. And who are the members of this elite?'

'It's a theocracy, so the dictator will be either a caliph, a pontiff or a chief rabbi, surrounded by a select group of wealthy clerics and their 'noble' merchant sycophants, protected by militant priest-Protectors. The rest of us will be slaves, serfs or tradesmen subsisting and existing at their pleasure.'

'There'll be a revolution.'

'Too late.'

'Can't anyone stop them?'

'The army's been absorbed into the Protector system.' He stopped suddenly and the look he gave his audience was equal parts calculating, cute and cautious. Suddenly he grinned. 'Was that the right answer?'

'Very right. Thanks. As for our ragged appearance, we've been on the run for a few years, living in our transport.'

'On the run from…?'

'We're the Brisbane Bombers.'

Mort frowned, stared from one to the other, then smiled beatifically. 'Ah yes! Five naked devil worshippers who ran a fitness club or similar in which they forced their acolytes to perform vile acts stark naked in front of others. Am I right?'

'Sort of.'

'I love it! So, what are your plans now?'

'We're clean out of them.'

'Mmm… I figured as much. You've got that slightly disoriented look about you.'

'Desperate, you mean?'

'No. You're not the sort of men who get desperate. But I'm desperate to do something positive against our common foe, so I'd like you all to stay with me for a while to recharge your rebellious batteries.'

'You're sure?'

'Do I look the sort of person who'd make such an offer without careful thought?'

'At first glance, yes. Now? Definitely not.' Fidel looked around at his friends. They nodded. He turned back to Mort. 'We'd love to accept your insanely brave and generous offer and promise never to reveal our sins or your treasonous ideas to anyone else.'

'Good. We're going to a gated estate where only owners and employees of the Body Corporate may live permanently. Therefore, you'll be employees. The place is fenced securely, security is monitored, and everyone except owners is strip searched on entering and leaving. Your details will be noted and your vehicles thoroughly searched. If you've anything incriminating in them including large amounts of cash. Put it in my wagon, which won't be searched. What about ID?'

They handed them to Mort.

'They're all fake.'

'Of course.'

Mort flicked through them and looked up angrily. 'The names are also fake! Why the fuck did you tell me your real names back at the shops? Are you insane?'

Bart's mouth dropped in shock. 'You're right. I… I... You seemed such a nice guy and your reaction to Fidel's tale and…' He shook his head, sank to the ground and buried his head between his knees. Robert dropped beside him and stroked his shoulders.

'Bart's the rock that sustains us!' Arnold said sharply. 'He's been under enormous strain. Yesterday he conned our way out of a confrontation with twenty Protectors and their chief who were going to lynch us. None of us have had enough sleep. Our brains are short-circuiting and I know it's no excuse, and you're right.' He stopped talking and bit his lip.

'It's Ok. We understand, Mort' Hylas said emotionlessly. 'You can't afford to have loose lipped people around you.' He turned proudly and with raised head walked back to the vehicle.

'Fidel put out his hand. 'Thanks anyway, Mort. And rest easy, what you've said to us will go no further.'

Mort pushed the hand away. 'Do you think I'm totally nuts? There's no way I'm letting you mad buggers loose on the world, you're a danger to yourselves and everyone else. I was angry, but only because I like you and don't want you to put your heads in nooses by doing the same thing at the gatehouse. The guard's a JECHIS appointee—the price we pay for not having Oasis declared a public place. He will be looking for any slip up. If he hears you refer to each other by names different from what's on your identification papers, which by the way have not aged well and are beginning to look very fake, you're stuffed.'

'Thanks, Mort,' Fidel said seriously. 'It's not an excuse, but you are, in fact, the first person we have introduced ourselves to since we left Brisbane, so we've never actually used our fake names in a social setting. When we go to banks and offices, or are asked for our papers, we're prepared. We're very, very conscious of the danger and…'

'Enough excuses. You don't need them. I obviously trust you and like you. You don't imagine I'd tell you my thoughts on our inglorious leaders otherwise? So, back to business. Tell me all about what you were doing when you became bombers, and why.'

Ten minutes later Mort was grinning widely. 'Ah! You're exactly the sort of men I'm looking for! But I'm running late, so let's go. When the gatekeeper asks, you'll be living in my family house—My father's up north with his boyfriend—and you are tradesmen hired to repair all sorts of things after the recent storms. Ok?'

'Yes, of course. But won't he also know the papers are fakes?

'If he gets to see them, which he won't. I'll scan them for him, and once on the computer they'll look good enough.'

'You're brilliant.'

'I know.'

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