by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 21


By the time Park Rangers arrived the following morning to check the toilets, waste bins and barbeque facilities, the eight men had been walking for two hours, scrambling over boulders, pushing through tall grass and threading their way between dense young regrowth. They had crossed three walking tracks and two narrow roadways. Suburbs stretched almost up to the base of the cliffs and the men were seldom further than five hundred metres from human activity. The chance of finding somewhere peaceful and private where they could calmly consider their future, seemed remote.

'Why are we doing this? Why not just walk along the roads?'

'I thought we needed exercise.'

'And we don't want to be seen.'

'Who will be looking?'

'You're right.'

'No he isn't. At least here we have a chance to find somewhere interesting, from the road there's no chance.'

'Yes, but it's so slow. Pity we couldn't take our vehicles, then we could easily get out of the city.'

'They were crushed before we left!'

'I liked our old Land Rover,' Mort said wistfully.'

'Meanwhile, what do we do? Use the roads or press on in the hope of finding a passageway to paradise?'

'Onwards to Utopia.'

'That's somewhere in the Northern Territory.'

'Bit far to walk.'

'Then it's up to you, Hercules. You're the oldest and wisest and suffer scratches more stoically that we sensitive souls, we will follow you unquestioningly.'

'Fair enough, Bart. But I warn you, I'm only following my nose.'

They set off again, only to have their way blocked after twenty minutes by a new housing estate backed right against the cliffs. Without hesitation, as if he'd been there before, Hercules turned west into a deep, narrow cleft in the rocks that they followed for a hundred metres until it ended in a vertical wall. Without pausing for breath he began to climb, followed silently by his devoted band of savages who noted his hand and foot holds and didn't look down. At the top they sprawled on their backs on a bare rocky shelf that offered a glimpse of the sea. Everything was peaceful. A couple of sea eagles swirled in thermals.

'Ten minutes to drink and eat, then we push on.'

Beyond the rocks a recent landslide of small pebbles made the traverse perilous. The forest returned and they trudged through it, climbing higher and higher for two hours in silence until the rough, steep terrain became a gentle slope sprinkled with newly planted saplings. Unfortunately, a new, five-strand, barbed wire fence prevented entry. They continued uphill for fifty metres until they crossed a kangaroo track heading towards the fence. They followed it to where the wires had been pulled apart to create a gap large enough to permit native animals to pass through.

'Whoever owns this place is a gentleman and a conservationist,' Zadig said with feeling. 'I hope we meet him.'

After crawling through the gap in the fence they tramped uphill for half an hour, threading their way through the sapling plantation to the top of a ridge. On the other side was very dense, old growth forest. Laughing in delight they plunged into it, following animal tracks down the gentle slope. Twenty minutes later they arrived at a clearing containing a stone cottage that looked as if it had been there for centuries. Ten metres below it, a small rock pool was fed by a trickle of water oozing from between rocks further up the hillside. The one-roomed building was well maintained and the door unlocked, so as there was no sign forbidding entry they decided to camp outside. The owner clearly wasn't expecting strangers so it would be rude to impose.

They stripped and swam and washed the dust, dirt and plant debris from their bodies, then groomed each other as they had done every day since starting Natural Fitness. Beards and body hair trimmed, anuses, feet, hands, nails, nostrils and ears inspected for cleanliness.

'I don't feel clean until I've been spruced up and preened by Hercules,' Hylas laughed. 'So I never want to stop doing this.'

A soft chorus of agreement.

'We ought to celebrate our escape and finding such a wonderful place, even if we can't stay,' Fidel suggested. 'Let's throw ourselves on the generosity of the gods of the forest and eat the last of our food; then think what to do next.'

'I guess there's no point in eking the food out?'

'None whatsoever.'

Hunger pangs appeased, they lay back and gazed up at the forest canopy.

'I've been thinking,' Fidel said diffidently, 'about our future. Hercules, Mort and Zadig, you're not wanted by the cops, but we are, so there's no need for you to stick with us.'

'Are you trying to get rid of us?' Mort tried to sound as if he was joking, but failed.

Fidel was aghast. 'No! No! Never! We love you guys as much as we love ourselves. I'd be happy to live with all of you for the rest of my life. It's just… you mustn't feel obliged to…'

'We don't feel obliged,' Zadig's tone was thoughtful. 'Life in Oasis before you guys came was pleasant and amusing. After you arrived it became the absolute best time in my life. So I never want to live away from you. It's that simple. Mort was my first real friend and will always be my best friend and lover, and Hercules is irreplaceable, but to meet five other men who turned out to be like lovers, brothers, and best mates all rolled into one, is beyond reason. According to the laws of chance it could never happen, but it did, so if you're not unhappy with us, please don't break the bond.'

'I've no choice in the matter,' Hercules said lightly to prevent a descent into pathos. 'Where Hylas goes, I go, whether he likes it or not.'

'I love it.' Hylas grinned, kissing Hercules and ruffling his hair.

'When we joined up with those three,' Robert pointed at Fidel, Hylas and Arnold, 'Bart and I felt reborn. We got a new enthusiasm for life and became brave and broke out of the middleclass bonds that were stifling us. And since meeting, living and working with you guys, I've felt even enthusiasticer, as if we're all part of a composite being, like our bodies. We think we're a single organism, but in each one of us there is more weight of other organisms—mainly bacteria, than our own weight… each individual human is a collection of organisms living in symbiotic harmony—usually.'

Silence greeted this curious analogy.

'I like your word, enthusiasticer,' Mort grinned. 'Creative use of language is the hallmark of an inventive mind.'

'Robert may be inventive, Mort,' Hercules sniffed, 'but I'm not sure I like being told we're just a clump of bacteria. Bart, how do you live with this guy? Does he ever talk sense.'

'No idea, I seldom listen.'

'This calls for a vote,' Mort said decisively. 'Those who want us all to stay together like fleas on a dog, stand up and piss with the wind. If you want to separate, piss into the wind. Go!'

They stood in a line and bet on who could squirt the furthest. Then fell on the ground laughing.

'Do you know what I'd like to do now?' Arnold asked excitedly.

'Learn to knit?'

'I can do that. No, I'd like us to do what my high school footy team did whenever we won a game.'


'Go on.'

'We'd sit in a circle and jerk off. The last one to come had to buy cream donuts for everyone.'

'I wouldn't mind, but there's no donut shop handy.'


'No one calls me a piker.' Mort yelled. 'Come on, guys, humour Arnold's infantile desires.'

With lots of laughter they sat in a tight circle, legs intertwined, and on Arnold's count of three the race began. The laughter stopped, faint grunts punctuated the silence as each man bent to the task. With a yelp of victory, Hylas was first, followed immediately by Mort, then Arnold, Fidel, Robert, Bart and twelve long seconds later, Hercules shot his load into the air and they all fell back laughing like the kids they used to be, gazing up in total relaxation at scudding clouds in an almost indigo sky.

'Are you wankers aware you're trespassing?' The voice was pleasantly husky. The man deeply tanned, lean, hard, and weathered rather than weather-beaten—looking as if nothing could beat him. Aged between thirty and fifty, he stood in relaxed contrapposto. A sculpture by Donatello. Face serious, left hand on hip, the fingers of the other lightly brushing his thigh.

'We guessed as much, having gone through a fence,' Bart said apologetically. 'That's why we didn't go into the cottage. If you'll show us the quickest way out, we'll be off. I don't think we've damaged anything.'

'Who said anything about leaving? All you had to say was, yes.'

'Oops. I'm getting garrulous. You're right.'

'Fuck you're beautiful!' Robert's ejaculation surprised even himself. 'You're like a bronze statue.'

'Thanks. You're not bad looking yourselves, and obviously fit. Shouldn't you take a dip and wash off the cum before it dries?'

'Yeah, good idea.'

The man squatted, watching the eight men carefully. He always trusted his instincts and he instinctively liked these men. Judging by their tans they hadn't worn clothes for a while. He was always careful to note first reactions and it was clear his lack of clothes hadn't registered with them. So far no alarms had been triggered. He'd take them home and see if Sebastian agreed. They might be useful.

Clean and refreshed, the eight friends jumped up and down to shake off the water, then cautiously approached the man who scrutinised them for several seconds as if making up his mind. Then with no change of expression he extended a hand to Hercules.

'I'm Jarek. This land belongs to me and my partner, Sebastian.'

Instead of a normal handshake, Jarek took Hercules' hand in both his and kneaded it slightly as if feeling for something. The process was repeated with the seven others.

'I think you're honest. What are you running from?'

'Five of us did some damage to JECHIS so had to leave Brisbane. We've no idea if Christian Kingdom wants to punish us—didn't ask for fear of opening a can of worms.'


'We've been living in Oasis, a gated estate that the Kingdom decided it wants. Yesterday, they moved in with bulldozers and evicted us. So we're looking for somewhere to live and be useful.'

'Will you miss it?'

'I took the advice of Othello,' Bart said with a smile. ' To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the way to draw new mischief on. What cannot be preserved when fortune takes, Patience her injury a mockery makes. The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief; He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.' He laughed softly. 'For some reason those lines stuck in my head at school.'

'Because they make excellent sense, I imagine. So, are you looking for work?'

'Hoping to be employed usefully; we don't need money… as long as the banks continue to honour our cards.'

'They will. If they start mucking around with the property of the wealthy men who support them, they're finished.'

'How did you know we were here?'

'I didn't. There's a feral cat in the neighbourhood, judging by the number of carcases I've seen lately, so I came up to dispose of her before there are no small native mammals left.'

'I guess we've ruined your chances. Sorry.'

'Not necessarily. They're arrogant beasts. So, get your gear and follow me silently, but keep a few metres behind. If I stop, you stop. If I squat, you squat. We're down wind of where I think she'll be, so I might be able to surprise her.'

'Shall we dress?'

Jarek shook his head dismissively and walked quietly uphill towards a rocky outcrop. The men quickly shoved their meagre possessions into the rucksacks and followed silently, hearts racing. Feeling like real hunters. Jarek blended into a landscape as brown and hard as himself. As they approached the rocks he bent almost double and continued like a shadow, gliding between increasingly large boulders as if he was a native animal himself. Suddenly he stopped and squatted. The others mimicked him. He indicated they should stay low while raising himself slightly and drawing back his left hand. In a movement too fast to register, the arm shot forward and he sprang towards a yowl of fury that, when they approached, revealed itself to be an enormous tabby cat with a knife through its throat. It had dragged itself a metre before collapsing in a shuddering heap of fur, its claws, insanely angry yellow eyes and gigantic bared teeth still capable of inflicting serious wounds. Jarek picked up a large stone and hurled it, crushing the head.

While the others came up for a closer look, he pulled the knife from her neck and wiped the blade carefully on his thigh before sliding it into a tiny silver sheath he'd been holding in his right hand. He then inspected a hollow in the rocks a few metres to the right. Taking another rock he pounded five times, then squatted behind a large boulder to reach in and pick up five dead kittens. When he stood with three held by their tails in one hand and two in the other, there was no sign of the knife.

'That was fantastic!'

'No it wasn't, it was the result of lots of practice. How heavy do you reckon she is?'

Hercules picked the cat up by the tail and his eyes grew large. 'She's a giant! Must be nearly half a metre long and I'd say at least twenty kilos.'

The others were equally astonished.

'Look at those jaws! She's more like a tiger than a cat; surely it's a different breed?'

'She'll be the offspring of a domestic cat; the feral life makes them develop these huge heads and claws. Feral cats have massacred about ninety percent of all smaller native mammals in Australia. It's a disaster no one cares about.'

'We do.'


'Where's the knife?'

'What knife?'

'The one you threw.'

'Did you see a knife?'

'Not really, it all went a bit fast too fast.'

'You must have imagined it. I'll take the cat and you guys can bring the kittens. I'll skin them at home.' Holding the cat by the tail, away from his body to avoid being scratched by swinging claws, he set off at a fast trot downhill, followed by the eight men who wished they'd put on their trainers. Shoes hadn't been necessary at Oasis because it was all grass and soft forest floor, not rocks. They'd have to toughen their feet up if they wanted to stay here.

Half an hour later the forest thinned and they looked down a long, scrubby slope onto the roof of a multi-sided house surrounded by a large garden and tall trees. They jogged towards the back where a walled garden and several stone outhouses seemed to grow out of the earth.

'Leave the kittens and your rucksacks here and take a look around while I skin and gut them.'

'Need a hand?'

'No, thanks.'

They wandered into the walled garden and admired the organisation; rows of vegetables, herb gardens, espaliered fruit trees, grape vines and every other thing that ought to be there. The out-houses contained tools, pumps, solar electric stuff and all anyone intent on being self-sufficient could ever need. On completion of their short tour the cat and kittens had been skinned, the guts placed in flytraps, the skins in the compost and the meat and bones were being minced in a large hand mincer.

They followed Jarek to a wide yard surrounded by cyclone netting strong enough to keep out even the most importunate fox. He made a soft sound and in seconds a dozen brown hens and a rooster were at his feet, swallowing chunks of meat. In a minute all was gone and they were asking for more.

'Right, that's done, lets get cleaned up and have a drink.'

Cleaning up meant standing on a paved area and directing a garden hose at each other to wash off dust, dirt, sticks and other debris. By the time they arrived at the front of the house they were dry enough to relax on cane chairs, a dozen of which fitted easily on the wide verandah. Jarek arrived with a tray of cool drinks and slices of cake, then sat in an elegant cane 'peacock chair'. While refreshing themselves they answered questions about their former lives. An hour and a half later an all-wheel-drive wagon drove silently in and parked to one side of the verandah.

'Ah, here's Sebastian.'

A slim, perky, visibly athletic man in fawn slacks and short-sleeved white shirt, got out, slammed the door, bounded up the steps and gave Jarek an affectionate hug and kiss before acknowledging the eight intruders with an enigmatic smile that could have been either amused or dangerous. They suddenly felt nervous.

'I found these guys up by the hut this afternoon when I was looking for the cat.'

'Did you get it?'

'Yep. And her kittens.'

'You're brilliant.' He stepped inside, stopped and swung round to face the visitors 'You can tell me who and what you are after my shower when I'm clean and pretty.'

Ten minutes later Sebastian returned. Without clothes he was, like Jarek, impossible to pin an age on—somewhere between twenty-five and forty depending on whether you looked at the head with its closely cropped black hair and lightly lined, wary face of a man who didn't suffer fools gladly, or the slim, firm body of which any twenty-five year-old would be proud.

'Ok, I'm sane again.' His mouth smiled and his eyes followed suit. But was it a smile of delight or malice? 'Introduce us, Jarek. I'm assuming they're still alive because you think they pose no threat, so it'll be safe to leave me alone with them while you make us something delicious to eat and they convince me we shouldn't dig a big hole and bury them.'

'What do you fancy?'

'Apart from you… whatever you can be bothered preparing.' They shared a grin and Sebastian replaced Jarek on the large chair.

He gazed thoughtfully at his guests for a few seconds before suddenly leaning forward to point at Hylas. 'You're the youngest so we'll start with you. Tell me your name and all about your life, loves, interests, history, hopes and fears in ten minutes, starting now!' He looked up and grinned boyishly. 'Who'll be timekeeper?'

Everyone laughed at the absurdity and tension lightened. Clearly Sebastian was wary of the newcomers and was waiting to see how to treat them. But they were wary too. They really liked Jarek and the environment, but was Sebastian trustworthy? Was it some sort of trap? Had they walked into a slave-dealer's snare? But something about Sebastian's intensity, charm and unpredictability, made it unlikely. Suddenly it seemed very important that he should like them.

Hercules offered to count his heartbeats and tell them when he reached six hundred.

Sebastian laughed lightly and nodded at Hylas to begin.

Nearly two hours later the tales were told and they were sitting in slightly awkward silence wondering if they'd made fools of themselves, when Jarek and a handsome, dark skinned, prepubescent youth arrived with trays of food. Sebastian introduced the youth as Primo, who smiled pleasantly, helped everyone to food, then disappeared back inside the house.

They ate with gusto, keeping the conversation to food and the weather while the trees and hills darkened and the pale blue sky changed through almost green to indigo. By the time everything had been cleared away it was a black vault sprinkled with stars. There was no moon.

'If you are all telling the truth,' Sebastian said reflectively, 'and I think you are, we have few philosophical differences. And as politics is the physical expression of one's philosophy, we're in agreement there too, so I'd like to know what you think of the following proposition.' He paused to collect his thoughts then spoke slowly and very clearly. 'The current social order in which a small aristocratic elite, govern a large proletariat with the assistance of a powerful police force that, along with the aristocrats, are above the law, is the norm for all societies. It is the inevitable evolutionary outcome of an inquisitive, gregarious mammalian species with the brainpower to invent clever tools, but not sufficient imagination to foresee the consequences. The few years last century when inventions made life easy for the majority of people in a few western societies, who were also permitted a voice in running the show, were an aberration that destabilised the species balance as well as the climate, with the predictable result that homo sapiens is careering towards extinction via a return to preindustrial feudalism.'

'That sounds about right,' Hercules murmured. 'Living in Oasis we fell into the trap of imagining these changes only applied to others. We hoped our new lords and masters would never use their tools of oppression on us, but all the while they were making a machine to chew us all up and spit us out as slaves. That's the world we live in; and it's time to face the facts.'

'And having faced them?' Jarek was genuinely interested.

'Avoid engaging with the regime at any level.'

'Don't you feel sorry for the unfortunate majority who are suffering under this tyranny?'

Hercules shook his head. 'No. They've all been warned many, many times. When the U.S.A. spied on every citizen on the planet, they laughed. When the US made war on every country that wouldn't obey, Australians demanded we follow. When the US increased police powers and armed them like front-line combat troops, Australians demanded we do the same. When warned of rising seas, droughts and floods, they voted for men and women who didn't believe the warnings. Like the frog that didn't realise the water was boiling they've stayed in the pot, but they've suffered the consequences just the same.'

'Was it really inevitable?'

'Probably. We've evolved to be gullible and follow 'strong' leaders. In the past they were only required to be brave, not clever, so we've never chosen wise leaders. When all media came under the control of a few right-wing, climate-change-denying, population expansionist billionaires, we cheered because they were rich and powerful, and drank deep of the lies that supported their game of endless wars, global destruction and fiscal destabilisation.'

'Is it like a game to you?' Sebastian looked at the others as if seeking their input.

'It's an endgame,' Bart said softly.

'The end of humans?'

'As the dominant species, certainly. With a bit of luck it'll end in extinction.'

'You don't like humans?'

'I like some individuals, but detest the species and am ashamed to be a member.'

'When humans are no longer top of the midden, what'll replace them?' Sebastian looked around the verandah, inviting ideas.

'Whatever it is couldn't be worse than humans!' Fidel said with some vehemence.

'I think it could, Fidel,' Sebastian said softly. 'All life that's evolved through fighting for survival must become what we call selfish and cruel.'

Robert frowned. 'The way you said that suggests there might be ways other than evolution to make changes.'

'Where's Doctor Frankenstein when we need him,' Hylas laughed.

'Don't laugh, he was a classic case of a clever man who failed to see the consequences of his actions.' Arnold sounded sad. 'I cried when I read how that poor monster suffered. I'd just been given a hard time by guys who thought I was queer, so it meant a lot to me, being different myself.' He lapsed into silence.

'Yeah, in hindsight it's easy to see that building a gentle giant was asking for him to be hounded to death because he was different, with the danger of that making him as cruel and horrible than the people tormenting him.'

'These are subjects for tomorrow as its getting late. But to prevent you lying awake all night wondering about Jarek and me, here's a quick history. My mother used me as a means of making money. I discovered my father and his wife when I was sixteen. Got a bit of education, lived with my lover who got himself killed defending me, assisted my parents with their private school, met Jarek who saved me from doing foolish things, and since then we've worked together.' He nodded to Jarek.

'My parents were middleclass trash and uninterested in me,' so I became a teacher, discovered I couldn't work in the education system, got into a spot of bother, met Sebastian who prevented me from doing foolish things, and since then we've been working together and keeping this place in order.'

'Your lives sound so exciting!' Arnold's eyes were wide in exaggerated awe, his voice a reverential whisper. 'Will you autograph my T-shirt?'

Everyone laughed.

'More exciting tales tomorrow if you're good little boys and go straight to sleep. We've only one guest room; do you mind sharing?'

'We prefer it.'

'I thought you might. Come on then.'

The hosts led the way around the house and a hundred metres up the hill to a large boulder.

'Forgive the Arabian Nights fantasy,' Jarek laughed as he pushed on the boulder causing it to swing to one side and expose steps leading into a wide cavern. 'When Sebastian asked me to design and build a hidden room, I couldn't resist it.'

'It's magic,' Robert whispered. 'Look, Bart, there's a shower, toilet and kitchen nook. It's brilliant.'

'Glad you like it. No mattresses, but there's a stack of mats over there.'

'They'll be fine.'

'Does the boulder lock? I mean… can we get out?'

'Yes, and yes. Just lift this lever and the lock's released. It locks automatically when closed.'

'It was closed when we arrived just now.'

'There's a secret lever I'll show you tomorrow.'

'How do we get air?'

'A cunningly designed ventilation system… don't worry, you won't asphyxiate. I've decided we need you.'

They slept well with few dreams and woke refreshed. After showering and drinking cool spring water they opened the boulder and discovered brilliant sunshine—the sun already halfway to the meridian.

'We slept in! Come on, my stomach thinks my throat's been cut. Let's hope there's something to eat at the house.'

As they stepped onto the verandah they were greeted by Primo, who eyed them shrewdly.

'Jarek said to make you breakfast and keep you occupied till they came home.' The lad's voice was clear but soft. 'You can explore that hill over there,' he pointed at a forested peak several kilometres away, 'but you're not to go inside the house, and don't go down the road to the gate, and try not to damage your feet, the blood attracts ants. It took me ages to get the spots off the verandah this morning.' He turned on his heel and disappeared into the house, returning instantly. 'I forgot to say, no one is to see you.'

A few minutes later he reappeared pulling a trolley containing plates, toast, fried eggs, fried tomatoes, mugs and a jug of warm, milky tea.

'Thanks… ah… sorry I forgot your…'


'Thanks, Primo. Did you make all this?'

'Of course. Sebastian and Jarek left before sunrise. Just leave everything when you've finished, I'll clear away.' He disappeared into the dim interior, only to return once more. 'Those bottles of water are for your hike.' This time he stayed away.

'Was it my imagination, or does that kid look a bit like Sebastian must have at that age?'

'I think you're right. His son?'

'Goodness knows. What we know is that they don't like nosey people, so we must be careful not to seem as if we're snooping.'

There was plenty of food so they ate with appetite, then, feeling guilty, stacked their dirty plates and dishes and set off to explore the hill to which Primo had pointed.

The going was easy for the first half hour, then became steeper. Half an hour later they rested on a rocky shelf surrounded by giant trees that obscured whatever view there might have been, but it was peaceful.

A soft voice made them jump. 'You're either lazy or not very fit.' Primo was standing behind them, hands on hips gazing down in what looked like scorn.

'How did you get here?'

'And how did you find us?'

'I had nothing to do after cleaning up, so thought I'd take a stroll. It wasn't difficult to follow you, it looked as if a herd of buffaloes had wandered up here.' He sniffed derision, then seeing the utter dismay on their faces, laughed loudly. His teeth were perfect, his voice rich and clear and his eyes twinkled with mischief. 'Only joking. You hardly left any tracks, considering there are eight of you. Did you stop because you're tired?'

'You cheeky little bugger! Of course we're not tired.' Hercules made a lunge at Primo, who stepped lightly aside, making Hercules look clumsy.

'Careful old man, you'll do yourself an injury.'

'That'll teach you, Hercules,' Mort laughed. 'Tell me young Primo, are you human or woodland elf?'

'I am what I am. So… if you're all so fit, lets see who gets to the top of the hill first.' With a flippant wave he turned and within seconds all they could see was his cute brown bum disappearing into the forest.

'We can't let that cheeky young kid beat us! Come on men! Onward and upward.' Fidel waved an arm and they set off in hot pursuit.

Primo left no trail. It was as if he'd never been there, and an hour later they struggled up the last steep outcrop to flop onto their backs, panting heavily, oblivious to the rough grass and twigs underneath them.

'Oh no!' Robert sat up in irritation. 'A bloody bird shat on me.'

Hercules rolled over, looked up and began to laugh uproariously. 'And such a cute little bird.'

Perched on a branch near the top of the tree right above their heads, Primo was preparing to drop another wad of saliva. His targets scattered and started throwing pebbles at him. He slithered to the other side of the trunk and disappeared.

'Where's he gone?'

'I'm here, old men.' They swung round and there he was, leaning nonchalantly against the trunk of a tree behind them.

'And you've been up here for at least half an hour I suppose?'

Primo pointed at a stick poked into the soft soil. 'The shadow has moved from here,' he indicated a mark on the ground, to here, since I arrived. I'd say that's a good five degrees, wouldn't you?'

'Looks like it to me,' Zadig agreed. 'So you arrived here twenty minutes before us. All I can say is congratulations. You are now officially my hero; a brilliant cook and bottle washer, bloodstained floor cleaner, tracker and mountaineer and mathematician. A universal genius no less.' He gazed deep into the boy's dark eyes and felt a nervous twinge in his guts as his heart rate surged briefly. 'Primo, will you do me the honour of shaking my hand?'

Primo grinned. 'Delighted, Zadig. In fact I'd like to shake the hands of everyone. I've had more fun today than I've had for ages. I sure hope you'll be staying.'

'So do we, Primo. So do we.'

It was dark when Sebastian and Jarek arrived home looking stressed. But after a shower and food they seemed to have regained the good humour of the previous evening. Again served by Primo who sat between them after removing the plates and cups.

'Had an interesting day?'

'Very.' Zadig pulled his lips together as if wondering if he should speak, then looked at his hosts and said without expression, 'Primo made us breakfast and cleaned up, then started up the mountain twenty minutes after we left, arriving at the top twenty minutes before us. He is one of the most handsome lads I've ever seen, and the most intelligent, fit, strong, agile and witty.'

Sebastian smiled into his teacup. 'Is that true, Primo?'

Primo shrugged disconsolately. 'I'm sorry, Sebastian, I did my best. You know I do try, but it really isn't fair of Zadig to point out all my shortcomings.'

After a nanosecond's shock everyone laughed in relief.

'I forgot to add,' Zadig said trying not to laugh, 'for a ten-year-old he's also a bloody fine actor who happens to resemble you, Sebastian, despite his skin being many shades darker. We can't help being curious. Are there any more such paragons here?'

'The darker skin he gets from his mother. And he's actually seven, not ten.' Sebastian paused to allow murmurs of astonishment to subside. 'To satisfy your natural curiosity I need to go back about twenty years, but I must be certain that everything you hear will be kept secret. It's insane that I'm trusting men I've known only a few hours, but something tells me I can.' He paused and looked around.

A chorus of, 'My lips are sealed. It'll go no further. Your secrets are safe with me' and other banal phrases were uttered with such sincerity Sebastian's concerns evaporated.

He nodded acceptance and turned to Jarek. 'Do you want to tell them?'

'No. I'll get bogged down in minutiae.'

'And I'll be too telegraphic.' He laughed and cleared his throat. 'Not long after Jarek and I met, my father gathered some super intelligent minds and started an institute to see if it was possible for humans to be taught to live in harmony and behave decently. After a few years they decided it wasn't, so the best thing to do would be to close the institute down and let nature solve the problem. That would mean human populations would plummet to prehistoric levels, along with living standards. Research into human development indicated that the chance of the few remaining humans evolving over the next million or so years into a species able to live with nature instead of fighting it, was zero. They'd just repeat the mistakes of the past and end up where we are now.

'A smart geneticist suggested that the sort of change they were looking for could be achieved by giving evolution a shove and tweaking a few genes to breed men of the required abilities and character, able to survive and flourish without destroying everything around them in a hotter future of wildly unstable weather.'

[Author's note: This topic is discussed by Sebastian in greater detail in the first chapter of 'NumbaCruncha'. And the mystery of Jarek's disappearing knife is made clear in the novel, 'Jarek.']

'I guess it's logical,' Hylas murmured. 'We've got GM crops and domesticated animals, so why not humans?'

'Why not indeed? But what would have to change to make humans behave decently? It turned out the problem is twofold; wildly different genders, and brains that can deliberately but honestly believe two opposite things simultaneously, despite evidence to the contrary.'

'Like invisibility is impossible, but there's an invisible god?'

'Yes, and the planet is finite but it can support an infinite number of humans.'

'Believing nonsense is certainly a huge problem,' Bart said thoughtfully. 'And I think most married men I've counselled would agree with the gender problem.'

'Of course they do, because most males are content with a simple life as long as they feel useful. Without women, men would still be relaxing in the Garden of Eden. Females, who are emotionally wired so they can never be satisfied, drive change by constantly demanding evidence of their partner's ability to take care of them. That means men are in a constant struggle to get more and more, bigger and better, regardless of whether it is useful or essential for survival. So we've used up the planet and poisoned it in the process. And commonsense doesn't get a look in when it comes to breeding, so nine thousand million people now eke out an existence in a death struggle for survival on a tiny planet that our rapacious behaviour has rendered uninhabitable.'

'If you've published your results you must have stomped on a few sensitive toes.'

'We're a privately funded institute, so apart from broad generalisations we've told the public nothing. Unfortunately, Christian Kingdom overlords heard we were dabbling in genetics, so arrived and told us if we wanted to continue working we had to also come up with ways to prolong life. As you probably know, religious nutters are terrified of dying in case their afterlife myths are true. As it wouldn't seriously interfere with our program, we agreed, and a few men have been working on that while the rest continued designing a new man, pretending to anyone who asked that they were merely looking for ways to make life better for people.'

'It must be hard work; when you returned today you both looked utterly bushed.'

'That was because we had long discussions with a couple of mad monks—Duke-Bishop Pyinsky, and Lord-Cardinal Gnarsisto, who threatened us with extermination if we didn't come up with a way to clone them so they need never actually die. They were as blunt as that. These people have zero modesty or self-awareness. Of course we agreed, but we'll never manage it.'

'That's why we were away all day and arrived home late,' Jarek explained.

'Do you need a rest now, then?'

'No thanks, Arnold. We're fine. Where were we?'

'Turning females into males, it seems.'

'No. As the male brain is nearer to the required type, we worked on creating a physically perfect and mentally superlative male, but with both female and male sexual organs. Then with relatively simple tweaking of genes we removed natural destructive urges and the capacity for illogical thinking. After many trials we produced a charming young androgyne who embodies all our ideas.'

'You mean…?' Hylas glanced at Primo who was sprawling back in his chair, apparently unconcerned.

'Yes, Hylas,' Primo said with a slight shrug. 'I'm even queerer than you.'

'And you're only seven!'

'Not so much of the only. It seems a good age to me.'

'But…' Robert shook his head in disbelief.

'We've been indoctrinated into thinking children learn slowly, but in the natural state their brains are faster than the fastest computer. There's almost nothing a child can't learn from birth until the age of ten. Children who are fluent in several languages are common, as are infant prodigies. We infantilise our boys even more than girls by letting females have control of their upbringing and education. You'll have noticed that female infants are competent in the arts of seduction and getting their own way with men, because they learn from constant contact with their mothers. But boys learn nothing about being male from being constantly with females, except frustration and a sense of helplessness at knowing they are not like women, but are expected to act like them. The result is guilty contempt for, and violence against females in adult males. Primo has been in contact only with men since parturition, and today you've experienced the result. I'm not saying all boys could develop like him, but they'd be a damned sight better than they are.'

'You must have done a lot of tweaking,' Bart observed.

'Less than you'd think. The default state of a human foetus is female. At various stages throughout pregnancy the embryo's xx or xy chromosomes cause the mother to release hormones that trigger changes in the way its body develops. If the foetus is destined to become a male, doses of hormones at specific times cause what could be ovaries to descend and become testicles, and the clitoris to lengthen and curl into a tube, which conducts both urine and sperm. Other doses of hormones remain dormant till puberty when they trigger the growth of breasts and the menstrual cycle in females, and such things as enlargement of the voice-box, hair growth, and, in both genders, the way they perceive the opposite sex.

'Errors can and do occur. In about ten percent of the population an insufficient or poorly timed release of hormone affecting the potential adult male's perception of females will result in an otherwise perfectly normal male reverting to the default state and seeing some males as sexually arousing. As every gay man knows, a person's character, sexual identity and gender preference is hard-wired in the womb, and there's no way they can change it, any more than they can change the colour of their eyes.'

'This is interesting, Sebastian,' Hercules sounded slightly incredulous, 'But how did you do it?'

'We developed an artificial womb and administered the required doses of hormones to a foetus to create exactly the result we desired. Testing constantly with computer modelling at every stage of foetal development.'

'You must have had some failures.'

'Many, but they were all detected early and aborted. Primo is the product of my father's sperm and my stepmother's eggs, the finest people I know. Chosen because both come from exceptionally hardy ethnic stock—Australian Aborigine, and Polynesian.'

'Why not your sperm?'

'Because, Fidel, my mother was a European of the most vile sort.' Sebastian turned to Jarek. 'Can you finish this off? I'm in danger of wandering off topic.'

'Sure. There's not much more to tell. Apart from Primo we have a couple of two year-olds, a three year-old, and a four-week-old babe in arms. All are from different, carefully selected donors. Like Primo they'll look exactly like perfect human males, but have a womb with ovaries as well as functioning testicles and penis. The womb opens into a vagina and vulva in the usual place for females; the penis still serves as a conduit for both urine and sperm, and the pelvis is modified to allow easy birth.'

'And you chose the male body because…?'

'Males can move faster, are stronger and more flexible, have greater endurance, and higher tolerance of pain. And their brains required surprisingly little adjustment, once female interference in their education is eradicated.'

'Well, if they turn out like Primo, I'd say you have a race of supermen.' Hercules turned to Primo. 'How do you feel, being the first deliberately designed hermaphrodite?'

'I go to school with human boys as part of my education about them, and I can honestly say I am very pleased I am not one—even though I've no hair and never will have. I love my parents and step brother,' he grinned at Sebastian, 'and his boyfriend. I have a wonderful life. How can I feel anything other than normal? How do you feel, having been born different to Hylas? It's why he loves you so much—your difference. I hope I'll find someone to love too one day.'

Hercules shook his head in admiration. 'You will, Primo. You will. But you suggested you're not human, what are you then?'

'Superhuman!' Primo shouted, leaping onto the verandah handrail, then out a good two metres to swing from the branch of a tree before disappearing up into the foliage.

'I'm gobsmacked,' Mort said slowly. 'You've designed and created a sentient, rational, reasonable, sensible, self-aware creature who bases his life on observable facts, not wishful thinking, and is physically perfect into the bargain. Will Primo get old and ugly like us?'

'No. We eliminated the design fault the rest of us have—the telomere that loses bits so that after half a century or less our DNA forgets how to repair organs properly, and so we age. Once he reaches maturity he'll remain the same until he dies. We won't know when that will be until it happens.'

'You lucky bugger!' Zadig called up into the tree. 'That's my one fear—getting old and frail and sick.'

'You won't, I'll knock you on the head if you get to be a problem,' Mort laughed.

'And I'll help you,' Primo shouted, dropping to the ground and cart wheeling up the steps and back to his chair, where he sprawled with no visible effect from his exertion.

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