The number 96 tram was a monument to randomness – nobody really wanted to go from Brunswick to St Kilda. At least not unless it was a really hot summers day. Even the tram itself told you something about the city. A lurking irrationality. We all liked that.
It snaked through the inner north. Slowly. Rattling and jerking. Even riding the trams was like an initiation rite. As it accelerated away from the stop you were lucky if you didn't end up sprawled on the floor.
It became more crowded as we approached the city. Revellers coming in to go to the New Year celebrations. Mostly young people. It was that time. Expectation.
On the flat as we travelled south from the river the tram got into open space. Not so many on the tram now. It gathered speed. More a rat-a-tat than a slow clack-clack. Racing away towards the beach.
I'd persuaded Phil to come. Took a bit of doing. We were both a bit insular now. Cliches. Fourties. Not married. On the way to becoming invisible. He had that ‘smartest guy in the room’ look. Think early Bill Gates. He had totally unkempt long dark hair that fell about his face. Even now that he was in his 40’s. Wore glasses. He looked like somebody who spent long hours sitting in a room starting at computers. Which of course he did. But if you looked closer you could see evidence of his hobbies. Most of which centred around late night drinking sessions.
Phil worked at a software company. I called it the kindergarten. He was ancient for that industry. A manager of a small army of twenty somethings. Becoming a manager was one of those things that you did. For the money. He was by far the most skilled programmer I'd ever seen, and I figured that was what he'd rather be doing.
I worked for a telecommunications company. The largest one. At the wall of lights I called it. Operations Center. Bit like a war room. On the upside, it was connected to everything that happened. Mostly it was leaden boredom interspersed with the occasional bout of total chaos.
Phil and I went way back. We'd worked together for about ten years when I first started out. We'd become friends and somehow stayed friends.
My pitch was “Female 30 somethings that are single will most likely go to the St Kilda New Year’s Eve beach event.” I backed it up with some invented statistics and social research. It got his attention anyway. Enough to get him there. Once there I figured he'd just go with the flow.
The next stop was crowded. People milling about. Most of them looked like they had been sleeping rough. Lights came on above the doors, and the doors locked. “Security countermeasures” the sign said. White gas spewed out from the outside of the tram. High up. It sort of rolled out. Waves of white enveloped the crowd. Those it got fell to the ground. Disabled in some way. They couldn't move. Nobody on the tram paid any attention to it.
Lights went off and on we rolled towards the beach. Big sign as we approached the terminus. “Happy New Year 2023.”
“Party. Party. Party.” I said.
“Ha. It looks like a pensioner's picnic.”
True. We were a bit early. I was sure it would pick up later. Not so sure about the 30 somethings.
There was a band playing, with a precious few revellers huddled around the stage. So we went for a walk along the beach.
“How's the wall of lights. Still worshipping?” Phil asked.
“Sure. Weeping. Wailing. Every afternoon we have a prayer meeting.” I said.
“Keeping the universe balanced and smoothly working.”
“How about you. Kindergarten going ok? Still getting them to sleep on their mats after lunch?”
“Yes. So young. Frighteningly young. Breathlessly eager. All I need to do is point them in a general direction. Like greyhounds chasing a white rabbit.”
“Why do we bother?”
“Higher ideals. A moral purpose. The pursuit of excellence.”
We both burst out laughing. Why did we bother? It was not as if we had anybody to leave it to. Better to find a beach somewhere. Far away from the conflict, far from everything.
“Still got that beach hut reserved at Phuket?” I asked.
“Sitting. Waiting. Just a phone call and a plane ride away. Make sure I send a Christmas card each year to the tax office.”
It was a little overcast. Even cold. Not that it really got cold at this time of year. Not anymore.
As we walked we came to the perimeter fence. It divided the patrolled beach from the open beach outside. Razor wire on the top. On the outside the homeless sprawled. Since the beach was originally open public space, it was one of the first places to be camped out.
“Time to turn around and fight our way through the single 30 somethings.” he said.
So it went. The sun sailed into the horizon. The music got louder. We stood at the far edge of the crowd. As the night wore on I could even see Phil talking to a couple of quite attractive looking 30 somethings.
At midnight the crowd surged. A big 2023 in fireworks lit up the sky, and everyone cheered. Then it was back towards the city on the brightly lit 96 tram. I really did wonder to myself how much longer I could worship at the wall of lights.
Stabbing light found its way past the blind. It was a tiny apartment. Really only two rooms - the living/bedroom type room and the bathroom. There was a cooking corner, but I’d long since given up cooking at home. I had a slight hangover from the new year celebrations.
Brave new world. So it went. New year, new possibilities. Time yet for the brutal reality to kick in. For the moment I stumbled out into Gardenvale Road into the cafe. As a regular, I could just fall into my corner and it would all appear. Mohammed ran a tight cafe. He smiled at me, bringing a bowl of muesli.
“A great celebration for the new year.”
“The beach party at Elwood.”
“Ah. The girls. The abandon.”
I expect Mohammed would have been in bed by 9. To open the cafe in the morning. I grinned. There was an element of regret in his voice. I smiled.
“You stick with the family Mohammed. Much better.”
It was a lazy day. I stared out down the street towards the major intersection. Nepean Highway.
I had a head up display on the glasses. All I had to do was think about navigating and it would shift the content and navigate. In my not quite competent state it was skipping a bit. Phil had posted some footage from the night before. It played in the background.
I jumped about. Usual stuff. Drought. They still called it that. What do you call it? Permanent shortage of rain? New climate? Still the vocabulary had to catch up.
Crisis talks. Always. New permutations of a classic problem. China and India alternately hosted these talks. The western powers, UK, the US and a smaller and smaller Japan shuffled between Shanghai and Delhi. Resources. Climate. Antagonisms. The new world, losing patience with the old.
Here on the street in Gardenvale that all seemed a bit surreal. It was peaceful enough. Crowds walking. Bicycles swarming. A car went past every minute or so. I looked at the traffic lights. They seemed a bit silly, overkill for the task at hand. I was almost sentimental about the time when they were needed.
Everybody planned their personal future. The blank sheet. I finished up breakfast and went back to head for the beach. Straight down Gardenvale Rd, only a few blocks away.
It was magic. That you could just walk to the beach. As a kid it had seemed the ultimate luxury. Instead of an expedition, crammed into a car, or a train, you just strolled there. Did it feel like luxury still? Yes, it did.
Down Martin Street. Serious mansions here. If you stood back and looked from a distance, maybe a bit out of focus, it all looked normal. Or at least as it was a few years ago.
If you looked closer, it was clearly not. How many are still occupied? Some were clearly abandoned. Grass knee high, windows broken, or boarded up. Every second house was showing signs of lack of occupation.
The smart money. The old money. Long gone. Not the new world order for them. Maybe some of the younger ones. Stockbrokers. Managers. Off to Mumbai, or Shanghai. For most of them it was a gated community outside of Auckland, or Christchurch. Hydro power. Most importantly, plenty of ocean between you and the world’s problems.
I liked the way the street just opened up and there you were on the beach. I walked a little further north, and stretched out on the beach not far from last night’s party. On the other side of the fence. There wasn’t as much sand now.
On the beach, young families huddled in the shadows. Kids playing. Splashing. Then you scanned back, and there were the tents. For them this wasn’t a day out at the beach. This was home. Displaced. Dislocated.
I liked the way I could still leave my stuff on my towel, go for a swim, and it would still be there when I came back. I wondered how long that would be the case.
Putting the glasses on, I managed to raise Phil.
“Kicked on, did you?” I asked
“Of course. I assume you went straight to the nursing home.”
This was a reference to our age differences. Phil was all of two years younger than me.
“Pretty much. Stuffed.”
“Well you missed the grand tour. Finished up at the sensorium down by Docklands. I was giving the teenagers a lesson in how to play.”
Computer games. Phil’s ability in anything that remotely resembled a computer carried over into games. I could just picture him there blitzing all comers. Cognitive aging didn’t come into it.
“New year. New start.”
“Absolutely. That’s what I have been telling the Princesses. It’s the year of Phil.”
“Sure. Just like last year.”
“Another year of our relentless pursuit of excellence. Our endless enthusiasm for the cause. Brightest of the brightest. Best of the best.”
“Of course. Three sigma.”
“I’m really looking forward to more worship at the wall of lights.”
“Can’t wait to get back to the kindergarten.”
“Coming to the beach?”
“No. Need more recovery.”
If you de-focussed and stared out to sea, all you could see was the water. Flat blue water. If I focussed in closer all I could see was the newsfeeds. Peace and chaos.
At the end, what is the point of a low emissions economy if the old economy is still pushing out the emissions at the old rate? So the tension began to grow.
Here in Melbourne these tensions were not what people worried about. Here the tension related directly to the temperature. The hotter it got, the more tense it got. Like a collective growing hysteria.
Back at the wall of lights, it was like a graveyard. Much as I hated the lead up to the end of the year, this was worse. I stared at the wall and struggled to find signs of life.
It was the same for Phil.
“Not many takers for the pursuit of excellence?” I asked.
“No. They seem to prefer a cold beer and a beach. Can’t understand it.”
Too much time on our hands. Flitting across news. Looking for something, anything.
Time on my hands, I took to trawling the social networks. I could see a new video of a bicycle ride through Melbourne. Fast. Furious. Helmet camera. Started up near the cemetery, then down Swanston St, up an alley, then down the hill to the bike path along the Yarra. Camera panned for a full panoramic as the bike went under the bridges. At the end of the ride, a short shot back to the grinning rider. With the tag “Kylie’s favourite bike ride.”
I played it again. I put it in a loop. I tagged Kylie’s posts. So now I had a customised Kylie feed.
“You are a tragic fossil fool.”
“Bicycle futures. The only futures worth buying.”
So it went. I just leaned back in the chair. Watching the video and watching Kylie’s messages. They just kept coming.
In the morning you could still watch the traffic build up on the freeway. I wondered for how much longer. No oil, no petrol, no cars. So I was almost sentimental as I watched it grow. The Hoddle Street end of the Eastern freeway. Four lanes wide, stretching back into the middle distance. Maybe there will be cars right up to the last day? Or will there be a black market, the privileged few speeding through at a speed they would only have dreamed of? I stared at the queue of cars. Looked about a kilometre long.
Something was happening. A hundred or more cyclists coming down the emergency lane. Got my attention. Protest ride? That’s great, I thought. Maybe they are getting in practice for when they have the whole thing to themselves.
They filtered through the stopped cars, making their way to the end. Strangely, they were stopping in some sort of formation. About a car apart. This was really weird. I couldn’t make any sense of it. A few people in the room picked up on it, and zoomed for a closer look. I turned on the audio: nothing, just idling cars.
The lead cyclist looked back, checking to see that everything was in formation. I had a bad feeling. Perfectly arranged, in a grid. I heard a whistle blow on the audio. Then I realised that each of the cyclists had a jerry can. In a synchronised movement, they all unscrewed the top of the can, and started throwing, spreading, petrol all over the cars.
One or two of the drivers got out. Remonstrated. The cyclists all started riding away, synchronised. Except for the leader, at the front. He stood back, looking, then in a high arc he threw a lighted torch into the pool of petrol.
For those that had watched, and understood what was going on, they made a getaway. The flames just consumed the cars, and quite a few of the drivers. The wind carried it back.
Now everyone in the room was standing, silently, looking at the screen. In the top left corner of the screen, it appeared: “W4”.
The Padley building. It dominated the skyline. Padley was the local force in finance. Built up over the period following 2012, when they ran a series of brilliant short trades on commodities. Reminiscent of George Soros taking on the supposed might of the British pound. He won, and took with him about a billion dollars. The original Padley, now lost in time, made a similar stand against the might of the Chinese driven commodity market. He was rumoured to have made around $A3 billion dollars. More than enough to pay for the Padley building, and plenty more besides.
Nowadays they were the major force to reckon with in the futures markets. So Marcus and Steve didn't have to lie awake at night wondering about competitors. They only had to worry about the markets.
It wasn't that early, but it was slow. Steve and Marcus were doing their "Masters of the Universe" rap. It kept them amused.
"Short on BHP." Steve
"Sell the dollar." Marcus
"Start a rumour of oversupply in the Shanghai spot market."
"Huge contract on oil."
Too slow. Too quiet. It really dragged. You could almost see the second hand of the clock moving. Kate wandered past. Sensed the mood.
"Go and have a coffee. It will warm up later."
So down they went to the fifth floor. Didn't need any encouragement. Empty. Seats at the window. They got a panoramic view of the street below. Just a hint of the view towards the bay.
"Plenty of activity in the green sector." Marcus said.
"Serious money. Who are they?”
“Everyone. No-one. Chinese. European."
"Conquer the world. Usual stuff."
"More active than that. Total destruction. Scorched earth."
"Place for us?"
"You'd have to learn how to put on a tie."
"I'd have to learn to enunciate."
Marcus looked down at the street. Yes, vowels would be an issue. Here it was only your ability to move the dollars about that mattered.
As they sat, the street below suddenly filled with people. All they could see was the crowd surging.
"What's this?" asked Steve.
"See the hackers there. They are disabling the security, isolating the shops. Crowd follows, grabbing everything."
As they went up in the lift they were grateful for the building's security. Too tough for the crowd. Entering the trading room, it was like putting on a favourite jacket.
"Set phasors to stun."
Newcastle was not such a large town, even then. Far enough from the main cities to still have a rural feel to it. You could almost forget it was there. Then when you wandered down to the river harbour, you found the largest coal port in the world. The huge cargo ships being filled to capacity with the black stuff. Then if you looked East, out to sea, on a clear day you could see the queue of ships stretching out to the horizon. That queue had been there as long as anyone could remember.
On the sea bottom in the harbour, the robot mines had completed their long journey. Several months ago they had been launched far out to sea, in international waters. They travelled at depth, out of sight of any surveillance. Only surfacing to recharge their solar panels and communicate. Narrow beam communication to low flying satellites. Slowly they made their way, drifting with the currents and powering when necessary.
Arriving at Newcastle, they sat on the bottom, waiting for the moment. The harbour, and the sea lanes were controlled in a room not unlike the wall of lights. Big screens. Displays of ship positions. Getting the ships in and out quickly was important. Delays here became delays in remote ports. Remote steel furnaces. Mostly those furnaces were in the cold latitudes. The poor latitudes. Where the sun didn’t shine so brightly.
It was a still night. The moon was only half full, but you could still see most of the harbour. Sea calm. It was a struggle for the room operators to stay awake. The line of red markers showed the line of ships that could be seen out of the windows of the control room. The deck lights visible for quite a long distance.
The first mine stirred. It expelled some water that it had taken on as ballast, and began to float upwards. Only a metre a minute or so. It was not in a hurry. At the stern and at the bow, another two mines rose in a synchronised manner. Slowly rising.
There was only a slight breeze on the bay. On the deck of the ship, it was just enough to stir up the coal dust. The dust drifted across the pier.
Each mine had no need to communicate to the others. They each had their missions. As they got closer and closer to the hull, they slowed. If somebody had been standing on the deck, they would have heard a slight metallic clunk as the mines latched onto the hull. The crew were in their quarters, high above the deck.
The three mines exploded at precisely the same moment. Blowing three large holes in the hull. In the control room they could only just hear the sound. They were standing and staring at the monitors. It was already sinking. Quite clearly sinking. Alarms were sounding.
Rescue boats were in motion. On board the cargo ship, all the crew were in motion. Heading toward the lifeboats. They scrambled to get into them. No need to lower them to the water, as the water was fast rising to meet them.
They had time to recover their equilibrium in the control room. Time to study the next course of action. Just enough time. Then as they watched the queue of red markers, one by one they disappeared.
“Get me Colin on the secure line.”
I was watching the feeds showing a street demonstration. They weren't so common nowadays. I could see the crowd, assembling at the top of Collins Street. It stretched all the way through the park, almost down to East Richmond station. Very large. I could see the police and army assembling on the other side of town, down near Docklands.
Slowly the march began down Collins Street. Banners. Mainly green banners. These days it seemed to be abbreviated into colours. Blue for the fossil fuel fans, and green for the rest. No more debates. No more words. Just vast crowds of the two different colors. Like two tribes.
Then I became aware of the police and army moving. All of them. Their personnel carriers , the small armoured vans. All moving. Up Bourke Street. Up Flinders Street. They gathered at the intersections. How many? Thousands. I looked across at the carnival atmosphere in the march. Then back at the assembled forces. I wanted to look away, but I couldn't. Then I saw the open trucks, queued at the top of Swanston Street. Stretching up past RMIT, almost as far as the children’s hospital. I wanted to shout out. But to who? And what to say?
At each intersection, all up Bourke Street, the full length of Flinders St. The armoured carriers moved on the crowd. Firing tear gas high into the air. Arc after arc, hundreds, thousands of cannisters. Surging, the crowd had nowhere to go. It pushed against the buildings. Pushed in on itself.
Herded into the trucks. On their way to the camps. I could see the brown of the army uniforms shepherding them into the open backs of the trucks.
“Looks nasty” I said to Phil.
“It just gets hotter.”
“Not the weather. The situation.”
“Oh yes. The situation. The state of things.”
“Seriously. Food. Water. Repression.”
“The actual situation. As opposed to delusions about the situation.”
“So what is the solution?”
“What bloody solution. What on earth gave you the idea that there was a solution? ”
I turned for a moment to the wall of lights. To my glasses, and the custom Kylie feed. She was streaming as she rode around the bay. I caught glimpses of the blue of the bay. She was inserting anti fossil fuel rants as she rode. Scenery plus ranting.
“Escape?” I said.
“Sure. Escape is still possible. Not easy. Somehow get to Darwin. Somehow get to Timor. On from there.”
“Maybe we should just go?”
“But you would miss the culture. The charm of the people. The small cafes. The city of literature.”
“If we are going to go then it better be soon.”
“Our new lords and masters, for one.”
“In what way?”
“Just imagine you had invested about $300 billion in clean energy technology. The new economy.”
“Only one problem. Those Australian maniacs are still shipping coal like there is no tomorrow. Except that there is no tomorrow if they keep shipping it.”
“They are running out of patience.”
I looked across at the Kylie feed. Now she was going through Elwood.
“Hi. Nice day for a ride.” I said to Kylie.
“Every day is a nice day for bike riding.”
Max was sitting in a park. Dog walkers drifting around. Off-leash area, so there was a swarm of dogs alternately fighting and running around him. Balls being thrown. Reassuringly domestic.
He had one eye on the sky. Scanning for drones. Small, highly mobile. Hovering. They would stay just out of sight. Most were for surveillance. The mother drones could launch small missiles.
Alice was sitting on a towel at the beach. Watching the swimmers - a shining day. Early at Brighton beach. Just across from the station. Thin stretch of sand. Had to be a public place to open up a channel. Protocol. It all helped. One day you would feel invincible, the next day you were watching your own shadow. It was like that.
Max didn’t need to talk loudly - the communicator picked up his sub-vocalisations - hardly a whisper - but at the other end it sounded like normal conversation.
Max was normally reserved. But given what they had been through, he was concerned about Alice. So he called her.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. The physical stuff is fine.”
Yes, but the emotional stuff, thought Max.
“You saw it.”
“Massacring innocent civilians. I’d hardly describe that as magnificent. You really don’t mean that.”
“Innocent. Who is innocent? Spewing out carbon dioxide.”
“So we don’t distinguish between the coal generators and the innocents on the street?”
Now there was a pause. Max was really worried now. This wasn’t about W4 at all. He looked at the dog walkers. This was about losing your mother. Your mother being killed right in front of you.
Alice came back on the line.
“W4 is all donation funded, you know.”
“Come on Alice. Is this morality by crowd-sourcing? W4 are nihilists. If they prevail, then there is nothing left. Nothing.”
Max paused. The silence stretched. It wasn’t about W4. Not about morality. Yes, W4 was an issue. They were not really of great consequence - they only had tiny funding. This was about fighting your way out of a building, leaving your mother dying.
They just both sat. Waiting for the other to speak. Finally Alice spoke.
“I keep seeing her. Lying there. Like a rag doll.”
“I wish it had been me.”
“You can’t think like that.”
He was fighting his own grief. It was like your body had been crushed. Somehow they both had to go on.
Alice watched a small child playing with a beach ball in the shallows. Pushing the ball toward the waves. Then laughing as it washed up on the beach. Doing it over and over again.
Max broke the silence.
“She wouldn’t want us to give up. Or just strike out at random.”
Every morning Elaine would be first in. Buzzing around, she was tall and striking with those sort of near-model good looks. Knew it, too and used it. Would catch you off guard, and ask you a direct question, knowing your brain was still processing the look and you'd be behind on the question.
Helena arrived about 8.30 and Elaine would hit her with a string of things to do. Fired off machine gun style, this, then this and don't forget this. Helena was solidly built, a ski racer in her youth. Eastern European accent that lingered.
"How are we?" she asked Elaine
"You promised me you would let me know all the names by last night. Who are these blow-ins from national energy security?"
"I don't know them either, but we have to be nice to them."
"Well you just ring them right now and get their names. I need to clear them at the gate or they will just sit there."
"OK. Don't fuss."
Colin lingered in the outer office, trying to catch a word before the meeting. He had that almost military look. Tall, thin, fit. As if he spent all his time at the gym. To an extent he was fighting the aging process. Including the pattern baldness. By keeping his red hair short, it was less obvious. He had that intense look about him so that when he looked straight at you, you almost instinctively looked away.
Helena was making sure she was absolutely ready for the meeting. Things were coming to a head. All of her attempts to shut down the funded groups had failed. Her career was on the line.
First to arrive was Peter Morrison, cabinet advisor. Very expensive black suit.
"This is bullshit. They are running rings around us."
"Calm down Peter, you know that we have to take it step by step." Helena didn't look the slightest flustered - of course she had expected to take flack.
"Don't give me that. Once the food runs out, the punters will string us up from the nearest lightpole."
Elaine moved quickly to break the mood.
"How are those wonderful children of yours. Still going to that hideously expensive school?"
"I only eat every second day."
Helena opened the meeting.
“As you know we have a focus on the Abromowitz group. It has strong funding, and presents a real threat. To date we have not found any links with W4.”
The cabinet secretary intervened.
“Who funds W4?”
She paused. Not the thing to get dragged into a slanging match at this stage.
“Which part of the funding analysis do you wish to take issue with?”
Staring at him. Colin flipped the presentation back to the finance page. It showed that the Abromowitz group had roughly one hundred times the funding of W4. W4 got all the publicity, and that drove the politicians.
“Why aren’t we doing something about W4?”
“Strategically they are insignificant.”
“As you know, the funds have been attacking ships using robot mines. This has been highly effective.”
She brought up a graph showing the hit rate of the mines. As far as the public knew, one or two ships had sunk. Most of the sinkings were offshore. The actual success rate was close to 95%. The room went silent.
“Now if we look at the impact on food security.”
The next graphic showed a 20% cut in food supply.
“I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the implications.”
No, you didn’t. At best millions would starve.
“Recent reports indicate that the renewable funds are now moving to the next stage. They plan to progressively eliminate coal fired power generation in this country.”
“Eliminating 60% of our energy supply.” the energy minister intervened.
Helena looked around the room. It was sinking in. She wondered if any of them were thinking of making a run for it. Go home and pack the car, drive to Darwin. See what they could do from there.
“The Abromowitz group will be the vehicle for the first wave of attacks.”
She brought up the profiles of Max, Kylie, Alice. Then Andrew and Phil.
“Targetted elimination.” the minister for security suggested.
“Yes, we have had limited success to date. You’re aware of the attack that eliminated Susan Nguyen. But unfortunately almost the rest of the group escaped. Since that time they have recruited.”
She paused. For effect.
“I hope you can see why we have elimination of this group as our highest priority.”
It got ridiculous. The flow of messages back and forward to Kylie. Most of the day. Especially late at night. Standing on the edge of something. That was it. Stranded at the wall of lights. Like I was waiting for a train. Something to take me away. Maybe Kylie was that train.
The newsfeeds were total hysteria. Gradually it became clear that every ship (bar a few lucky escapes) into or out of Australia was being sunk. Every last one of them.
In the end I just went for it: “Are we ever going to meet?” I asked.
“I’m game if you are.”
“Druids. 12pm tomorrow.”
There it was. I’d picked the location carefully. Not close to either of our locations. We wouldn’t run into somebody we knew. Mostly bereft staff from the University. Harmless enough. Not as down market as Phil’s places. Nothing was.
Sitting waiting, at first I was totally nervous. Then a sudden calm descended and I felt as calm as I ever had. That whatever happened was meant to happen. Cyclists threading through the sparse traffic. As the time approached, I watched closely. One of these must be Kylie. I didn’t know what she looked like - no photos online, just one with sunglasses on. Very careful I guessed.
It was the style of riding. Not drifting with the traffic, but attacking it. So fast. I knew it was her before she even stopped.
“Hi.” she said.
“You’re so tall.”
“That’s so lame. Everyone says that.”
“The second bike.”
It was an urban special. Fixed gear.
“What’s your other bike?”
“Tourer. Heavier. I couldn’t stand to lose that, so I ride this around town.”
When I stood in front of her, I was staring straight into her eyes. In those days, she wore jeans, which seemed to accentuate it even more. She had that country look about her, but of course she wasn’t from the country. Long dark hair, dark eyes. She didn’t wear any make-up and perhaps that made her stand out more. I never saw her wearing lycra on the bike, which made her stand out amongst bike riders.
“You’re pretty outspoken about fossil fuels.”
She paused, and looked at me.
“Anything more important than the future of the planet?”
“No, I guess not.”
“So, you’re W4 ?” I asked, in a half joking way.
She looked down, saying nothing. When she looked up, I could see she was upset.
“I’m sorry.” I stumbled.
“W4 are nihilists. They just want to destroy everything and everyone. That’s bullshit.”
“It’s all about the new economy versus the old economy. You don’t have to lay everything to waste. Just replace the energy infrastructure. But the dinosaurs here are intent on continuing to burn fossils.”
All too soon it was time to go. Now I spent most of the time at the wall watching the Kylie feed. Looking for an excuse. It was quiet anyway. So I suggested a bike ride.
Federation Square - early. Yarra glinting - flat and reflective. Heading East on the bike path next to the southern bank. Probably my favourite ride on the planet.
“Nice day for it.” I said.
“Every day’s a good day for a bike ride.”
Past the sporting grounds. Pride of Melbourne. MCG. Tennis centre. Soccer Stadium. Every square metre of space between the stadiums was packed with tents.
“Packed.” I turned, smiling at her.
I wondered what she would say. Why did I feel like I was treading on egg shells?
“A karma thing. Nation of climate change deniers has the first climate change refugees.”
“I can’t remember a time before they were here.”
The first wave had come from the Murray. As it diminished. This had a connection for me.
“I used to ride a lot along the Murray in the early days. It’s so sad to see them like this.”
They looked so out of place. As if they had flown in from Mars.
“I grew up in Brisbane. Before the great flood. I was ten when it came through. Hardly anybody talked about climate change then.”
Towards Malvern. The bike path was suspended under the road tollway. You could hear the cars overhead as they hit the expansion joints in the roadway. Not so many now. I could remember when it was like a metronome, a continuing thud thud of cars. Now it was more like the very occasional thud.
I tried to get Kylie to tell more.
“I bet you were a real tomboy then.”
“The original. It set me off. Now I’m unstoppable.”
She grinned and accelerated. At first I thought it would be easy to catch her. But as I pushed I realised I was going to really struggle. It was all power to weight. Not as much weight but almost as much power. Just for a moment I thought of a future of wandering the planet. Just Kylie and I, riding like this. It was a fleeting moment. I continued the battle to get her to talk more about herself.
“You don’t know the half of it.”
We came to the circle trail. It was called the Anniversary Trail for reasons that I had forgotten.
“Up the circle trail?”
It weaved through hard core suburbia. Here things were less damaged. No smart money fleeing to the gated communities. Only the local shops showed the changes. More food shops. The locals would ride or walk on foot. It was peaceful. Almost reassuring. Kylie slowed and I could see that she was taking it all in. Smiling, looking back.
After work I chased down Phil. His favourite drinking hole. Propped at the bar. Staring lovingly at a beer, glinting in the half-light.
“The Mona Lisa of beers. One for you?” he said.
“Lemon squash thanks.”
“Still on that fitness slave train?”
“You drink way too much. You know that, don’t you?”
He purported to put on a concerned look.
“I had no idea. What do you think might become of me?”
“You know. Early demise.”
“That I might leave the planet at 57 years and eight months, instead of taking my full 58 years?”
It was pointless to argue.
“I’m concerned for all the beers I would miss.”
“To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”
He was right. It was unusual. I stumbled. Long pause. Now he was grinning.
“There’s this girl.”
“Huly duly. Now I’m all ears.”
“Kylie. She’s an activist of some sort. I spend all my time messaging back and forth. Going on bike rides.”
“Hang on. Isn’t there a bit missing here. Have you, or have you not done the horizontal jogging thing?”
“Not yet. But I’d like to.”
“So just to get it clear. You need the blessing of the agony aunt here before you wrestle her jeans off?”
“Just as well. I’m not an authority on this sort of thing.”
“I remember. Wife number two. Something about an ex-girlfriend in Sydney? Ran an escort service?”
“I shouldn’t have visited.”
“How did wife number two find out?”
Phil was not exactly stupid. He know how to hide his tracks.
“If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else.”
I paused. Phil had never expressed a political thought. I couldn’t even recall him paying attention to the news. I stumbled on.
“It’s a joining up type of thing.”
“Save the planet? Protests. Marching up and down. Grabbed and sent to the camps?”
“No. More serious.”
“No. They want a new energy system. Not obliteration.”
Of course with Phil he had already meditated on all of this. Probably the first time I mentioned Kylie. For all I knew he had a disk full of data on Kylie and her group.
“So let’s get this straight. You and I are going to become eco-terrorists just so you can get into Kylie’s jeans?”
“No. Not really. Sort of.”
I was helpless. Didn’t know what to say. I looked across. He smiled, sipped on the beer. A half grin.
“Absolutely. Sign me up. At least we won’t be bored.”
After days of staring at screens all day, you don’t really take it in. It becomes a blur. All of a sudden I was wide awake, with every neuron firing. A message labelled as from “Susan Nguyen”. A name that meant a lot to me. A name that I hadn’t seen for twenty years. I looked at it: maybe it was fake? After all this time, who would think to fake it? I had an instant recollection of Susan in the kitchen. Talking about not so much, then going off somewhere. Never returning. Susan smiling. Then going through the door. Memories of the pain kicked in - the searches, the overwhelming feeling of loss.
I played the message. It could have been a room anywhere. There were signs of damage. I could hear explosions in the background. Then, the camera turned to face Susan. She was clearly injured. Only a one sentence message:
“Your daughter needs you.”
I played it again. Then again. What daughter?
Slowly, like the cogs slipping into place, it all made sense. To disappear without a trace. One compelling reason.
Births, deaths, marriages. First stop. I had the mothers name and an idea of the date. It only took a few minutes and there it was. Alice Nguyen, born July 5, 2008 in Melbourne. I stared at the entry for quite a while. Now, after all these years, it finally made sense.
Getting more was going to be difficult. Just as well she had an anglo first name. There are many Nguyens on the planet.
Schools? Or just a broad search? Maybe she is famous and only I haven't heard of her. Still, there were a few Alice Nguyen's. Back to the schools. Location? Inner Melbourne? All I had were third hand rumours. I'd asked a lot about Susan over the years and got brushed off with misinformation.
I went for a walk at lunchtime. Up towards the Exhibition gardens. Children running around, playing. Smoke coming from campfires. Traffic on Victoria St mostly bicycles or electric bicycles.
A red sports car running a red light clipped the back of a bicycle as it went through. It imparted enough momentum to push the cyclist over. The cyclist got up, shaken. I stopped and watched. I couldn't hear what they were saying. More cyclists stopped, then more. The motorist's hands were waving. Then he looked up and realised he was surrounded by about 20 cyclists. Just standing there, waiting. I smiled as he reached for the wallet and started handing bills. Very sensible.
Lost lives. Had I wanted to be a parent? Obviously Susan decided I wasn't cut out for it.
Web archives. Trawling for school dates. Newsletters. There she was. School sports day. Alice Nguyen, winner of 100 m sprint. Did she look like me, or was I projecting?
I rang Phil.
"Found her. Not hard. School sports. A runner."
"Look like you does she?"
"I think so. Have a look."
"I've still got no idea what this is all about. Can't trace anything about the message. "
"Any more messages?"
The wall of lights was quiet. I stared into space. News feed was chattering away about food riots. Looked fairly tame, but I guess it was a sign of things to come.
High school. Awards night. That face smiling out at me. What am I supposed to do? Why do you need me?
Sometimes you had to shake yourself. It looked so much like it did before. Riding along the Yarra you could see the city in the distance. Across the green, and across the river. So calm.
All those years. I struggled to picture Susan. It was all over in a month or more. Just vanished. No real goodbye. Just gone. I was devastated.
Just having the school photo didn't help me much. I needed help to go further. I walked along the street outside the wall of lights and glanced at the newscreen. Smoke, demonstrations. Again.
I struggled with the wall of lights. Didn't seem that important anymore. I rang Phil and arranged a meeting.
"Not like you. I thought you were addicted to the wall." he said.
“I'm sort of over it at the moment.”
So I quizzed him about how to get further in the search for the long lost daughter.
"No, its not hard to get more. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Sounds like she's been told that you were dead. Or something like that."
"She may not want to be found. "
In my glasses the wall lit up. All around Flinders St station. I looked at the surveillance camera feeds. Lots of people on the platforms. It was hot, but we had grown used to the heat. What was the problem? A localised power failure. No trains in or out. This didn't stop people entering the station. As I watched horrified it was just a slow motion crush. I struggled to keep the wall together. Newsfeeds already picking up on it. “Station crush. Fifteen dead.”
Colin was hunkered down, going through traces. It was mostly automated. Anything that fitted within the scenario models just went straight through. He could just watch it only paying half-attention.
The analysis paused. A long shot of Federation Square. Various individuals identified and followed. Little figures with their labels as they mixed. All assigned by the image recognition software. There was Kylie. There was 24 hour tracing on Kylie. But who is that guy? No label.
Colin clicked on the image. Moments later he had Andrew’s life history. It didn’t fit. None of it fitted. He fast forwarded it all. There he was again. Colin made a mental note to tag this guy and learn what was going on.
Traces beyond High School were harder to find. I tried deep searches that went beyond gateways. Larger databases. Student databases.
Phil was helping.
"What do you know about her?"
"What about her mother?"
"Some sort of social worker, I think."
“Sounds like we have to follow the mother and track out from there."
"Where is she now?"
"This is not going to be easy."
Susan Nguyen. I started with news. Regional news. Only found a single news item. "Opening of cultural centre. Great new initiative for Horsham." A photo. Definitely her. Flashing that smile.
A government department. Got it. Getting into the department's systems was not too hard. Not a tough target. I put a trawling program onto it to grab everything. Random stuff.
“Just launched my first serious hack.”
"Good for you."
Phil laughed at the thought of me as a hacker.
All the hacking in the world won't get you far without a bit of insight. By late afternoon I had Susan's personnel file. Not that interesting. It showed that she had left the department three years ago. Resignation. No reasons given.
On the off chance, for no reason, I thought of court records. Why not? Easy to search. Public. There it was. Convicted of assault. Demonstration.
Susan's record gave me a couple of addresses I could use in searching for Alice. Now the trail was quite cold. Universities? Some cracking required, but I soon had a list of records. Addresses made it easier. Not much there, but eventually I had the academic record. Now I had a graduation date.
Just of the off-chance I searched all images. Bingo. Another photo. Older. Staring back at me. Looking more confident. Coalition for combatting climate change. Demonstration of some sort. Alice giving a speech. Now I had a thread. Not so much the needle in the haystack.
I glanced up at the newsfeed. Politicians on about ‘not surrendering to blackmail’.
"Got a stronger lead." I messaged Phil.
"About five years ago."
"No, she's in politics."
In the mid-morning it was eerily quiet. Marcus and Steve were staring into space. As Kate swung into view they both sat upright and tried to look as if they were busy. She just grinned.
“Got a conference for you. New investors. Very interesting.”
“New lords and masters?”
“You got it. Gilbert Fong, Shanghai Millenium and Vaikom Basheer, Chennai Mutual.”
“Looking for ?”
“Not the usual thing. They want to not only shake the tree, they want to burn down the forest.”
“Clean energy, of course. But exactly what angle?”
“Together these two have about 40% of the sector across India and China.”
“Surely they need a banker, not a trading house?”
“They want to do a large trade. An unusual trade.”
“We live in interesting times.”
So later in the afternoon they all gathered in the virtual meeting room. Very flash. All 3D and holographic projection. If you sat really still you had trouble working out who was real and who was virtual. Gilbert, Vaikom and their entourage were all virtual. It was hard to pick. The technology had really improved in the last five years.
“Let me be direct. What is the point of saving the planet if there are powerful forces set on destroying it anyway?”
“None whatsoever. I thought your investments would more than guarantee the future of our planet”
Marcus rarely saw Kate in “cosy the client along” mode. It was entertaining.
“The business imperative. Our customers are sick of being under cut by competitors fuelled by Australian coal supplies. We want it stopped.”
“The usual negotiations.” Kate began.
“Have produced lots more negotiations. We’ve had enough.”
“I’m not sure how we can help with this. You have things in motion?”
“It will become apparent. You don’t need to trouble yourself with that aspect. “
“Which brings us to ?”
“Naked shorting of CoalGen.”
Marcus now was paying attention. Naked shorting wasn’t technically illegal. Just frowned on a lot. It essentially amounted to taking a gamble that the price of something would be much less in the future than what it is now.
“A very risky trade.” Kate said.
“The future is better predicted in hindsight. In this case we intend to make the future happen to suit our purposes.”
Kate looked at Steve and Marcus. Clearly this was not only technically illegal, it was highly illegal.
“Of course.” she said.
“We live in increasingly volatile times. We will make our own connections. I simply want you to place the trade.”
Marcus and Steve were watching Kate closely. They were all thinking the same thing. Years in gaol versus becoming instantly rich. How rich? Enough to never work again, that was for sure.
Phil had decided to seriously distract me. So I got lots of messages. I had to see it. It was the distraction to end all distractions. On it went.
"4WD dogging." Phil had a quiet grin.
"What's that?" I said.
"That would be telling. It's better seen than explained. You have to experience it."
He had what looked like a small sized suitcase. Except it was metallic and had antennas attached to it. It didn't look like anything I had seen before. So for that I was intrigued.
"OK. Where do we do this?" I asked.
"My favourite spot is the Yarra boulevard. Scenic. Like an arena."
So we loaded up the equipment onto the bike trailer and towed it up the hill. I hadn't the faintest idea what was involved here, but I was curious. Up at the boulevard he stopped on the top of a hill. Downhill with a slow left turn. A serious hill. Over to the right it was bush down to the river.
"OK. What do I do?"
"We set up. And wait."
"Out of sight, over there, up the hill."
So we scrambled up into the bush on the high side of the road. We were close to the road, but out of sight.
"You sure this is going to work?"
"Absolutely. It's great entertainment."
I was a bit sceptical. It all looked a bit rag-tag to me. But he was convincing. Time seemed to really drag now, as we waited. Presumably for the right vehicle to come along.
"Now?" I said, as a small red Ford went past.
It took a while, but large blue 4WD came around the bend.
"Here we go." Phil said.
He hit the button, and nothing happened.
"Watch and learn."
The car rolled to a stop.
"Impressive." I said.
"Wait for it."
The driver got out, wandered around the vehicle. Totally confused of course. Why had the car stopped? He headed towards the bonnet.
He hit the off button, and the car lurched forward. Straight ahead of course. Slowly at first, then gathering speed. Down the slope it went, jumping and bouncing towards the river.
"Yes!" I said.
We were both laughing and jumping. One less 4WD.
"How?" I asked.
"Huge electromagnetic pulse. Disables the onboard computer. When it fires up again, just kick it over slightly and off we go."
"Impressive. Truly impressive." I said
It was as if I had spent the night drinking, except that I hadn’t. The overnight temperature so hot. Just stretched out in a pool of sweat. It was still, and I lay there struggling to sleep. Thinking about Kylie, of course. I couldn’t message her at that time of night - or could I ? I wasn’t sure.
It was almost slightly cool as I began the ride to work. Early, about 6am. Might as well go to work. Too hot to sit here. Almost reminiscent of my days of dedication. What Phil called the worship of the wall. When did I stop worshipping? I couldn’t remember. I was just going through the motions now.
Turning north, it hit me. Like being punched in the face. The North wind. I had an instant feeling of dread. Bad day. Very bad day. The newsfeeds along the highway all had the warnings running. Catastrophic fire warnings. Evacuation procedures.
I struggled against the wind. Not many companions on the road. We all naturally bunched together. I sat at the back for a while, then took my turn at the front.
Inside, at the wall, it was cold. Eerily quiet also. The wall itself showed not much. Normally at this time there would be a bit of bustle. But today almost nothing. Everyone filled with the same quiet, chilling, dread. About ten of us in the room. I looked at the traffic feeds. Yes, there were people moving, but only a small fraction of those that would be moving on a normal day.
Through the day, it all operated on a hair trigger. Small fires were attacked very quickly. One near Ballarat, another just south of Colac. Nothing dramatic. The wind had died down a little, but the forecasts indicated that it would pick up, and that it would get hotter. We were all sitting, and waiting.
First came the wind. It arced up to nearly 100 kilometres per hour. All of a sudden. Like somebody turned on the fan in the oven. I looked at the air temperature: 47C.
Then, it started. I looked at the fire feed. In a tight ring. All at once. From Emerald to Beaconsfield and further eastward. Not just your random firebug. Coordinated, synchronised. As if those lighting it anticipated how it would come up on the screen. Designed to terrify. And it did. Now the room was active. Lots of coordination happening. But no planes or helicopters - it was way too windy. The ground crews were in motion.
Looking at the traffic display, it was clear that the ground crews were impeded by people fleeing. Still some got through. Several of the fires were out. But too many were not.
At first I thought I was imagining it. A second line of red dots, showing new outbreaks. Precisely positioned to build the momentum from the first wave. Now the firefront was about 20 kilometres in width. Driven by that wind. Now the room was quiet again. Nothing we could do. The “W4” at the top left of the screen.
I looked across at the traffic display. Then I switched to the surveillance cameras, for the wide view of the highway at Pakenham. Cars everywhere. People fleeing any way they could. On foot. On bicycles. I looked at the fire status, and saw the firefront come over the hill. A wall of flame, driven by that wind.
Slowly, quietly, I walked to the front of the room. My colleagues looked at me, as if trying to read my face. But I just kept walking. Out into the street. The heat enveloping me. It was as if I could sense thousands of souls departing the planet. As if I could hear them screaming. I slumped against the outside wall, sitting on the footpath. Tears streaming down my face.
When I got up and walked away, I knew that I actually was walking away, that I would never return to the wall of lights.
Phil and I argued about it.
“So we are going to become eco-terrorists just so you can hang out with Kylie?”
“No. Of course not. It's important.”
“Oh man, the planet. Of course.”
It wasn't just that Kylie had suggested it. All around us things were falling apart. Neither of us seriously had thought about leaving. Now it was too late. Chancing the blockade was not really feasible. You only had about a one in ten chance of making it through. When you got outside Australia, nobody really would take you. Say ‘I'm from Australia’ and you might as well say ‘I'm a paedophile’ or ‘I've got smallpox’. It was like that.
Standing outside Flinders St station, the newsfeed on top of the hotel opposite was shouting stuff. Prime Minister making some sort of announcement.
"The blockade strikes at the heart of our country. We will not surrender our freedoms, our way of life."
Stirring stuff. I was waiting for Kylie. Looking up Swanston St I could see a bicycle cutting through, going faster. Of course it was her.
"Ready for your first meeting?"
Would it be a grilling by the leadership? Like a job interview? I guess some time to prepare wouldn't really help.
I hadn't expected this at all. We walked up Swanston St. Not so crowded. I was bracing myself. Am I going to fit in here? Kylie led me into the cafe. Headed towards a table at the back. I sat down and looked across. Alice.
"Somebody you should meet." said Kylie
"Who's this?" said Alice
I didn't know what to say. I figured that Alice was somewhere in the organisation. Maybe she was more important than I thought. Of course that wasn't the conversation we were going to have. I stared. I shouldn’t have. But it was awful. The recognition.
"I'm your father."
"I've been looking for you.”
"My father died before I was born."
She looked across at Kylie. Kylie just smiled. I continued.
"No, that's just a story your mother invented. She didn't want you to know me. Wanted me blanked out of your life."
So we went through it. The whole history. Kylie filled in gaps. Obviously they had researched, and figured that this had to be resolved first. It was the resemblance that threw me. It was spooky.
"I thought I was here to be interviewed by operational commanders." I asked.
I looked across at Kylie. She laughed, at last. A lot to take in. Alice kicked into operational mode
"You'll be assigned a role. Most likely in intelligence, given your background. We all take operational roles. We are not big enough to have back room people."
Not the sentimental meeting I had anticipated. But these were tough times.
Kylie grabbed me and almost pulled me over as we walked to where the bikes were.
"You should have seen your face." she said
"You should have told me."
"Not allowed to."
"How high up is she?"
I sent quite a few messages to Alice before I got a response.
An instant parent. Just add water. Except that Alice was a fully grown adult, and I didn't have the slightest idea what being a parent was.
So it was that Alice and I found ourselves sitting on opposite sides of a table. Quiet. Thoughtful.
"Why didn't she tell me that you existed? Did she really hate you? " Alice asked. Direct and to the point. Her eyes strong, but betraying emotion.
"It was a long time ago. I'm not sure." I said.
"Yes, it was exactly twenty-one years and eight months ago. Have a crack at it." She said. No escape. I didn't expect any.
"We were young. I was young. I was living in this house, sharing with a girl, Noni. She had a friend that visited. I remember the first time I saw her I just couldn't take my eyes off her. I was lost from that moment."
That stopped her. A glint of understanding.
"How long were you together?”
"Not so long. A few months"
"Wham bam, thankyou mam." She said.
I looked into her eyes. The toughness. It was an act, and it wasn't an act. She was tough, but not as tough as she pretended.
"No. Not like that. We were close. Really close."
"So what happened?"
"One day we were together. Next day, she was gone."
"Just like that."
"Yes, just like that."
"You never tried to make contact?"
Now I was struggling. My eyes welled up, and I tried for the tears not to fall out of my eyes. She could see it, and I could sense that she was shocked.
"I tried for years. All the usual hacks. But she was too good at hiding."
"She was pregnant. She never told you."
"So what made you decide to find me?"
"I didn't. I got an email."
"Two months ago."
It became clear. Alice and her mother were increasingly at risk. Followed constantly. All their computers hacked. A growing sense of dread.
Late at night - a full assault. Only Alice and Max fought their way out. No wonder she had that hard look in the eyes.
"So after all these years, she contacts you. Why?"
"Blind faith, I guess."
"So was her faith justified?"
Our eyes met.
"We'll just have to see."
Colin was tired. Not at all in the mood for an emergency meeting. The junior spooks were presenting. Lots of clever graphics. He struggled to take it in. All the graphs sagged in the same direction. Not a pretty picture. What was this one? Food supply. Now that no ships were coming in or out of any port - the robots had about a 95% hit rate - only domestic food. So, food to reduce by 30%. Water was a continuing struggle. Energy held to about 80%, but almost all of it was coal fired.
It was like it was “golden opportunity for junior spook day”. They were all here, pitching. A crisis was an opportunity, and they weren’t going to miss this for the world. God they give me the shits, he thought. I’d like to pick one up by the neck and hold it until it turned blue. Now they were building up to their new intelligence.
“As you know, some time ago we succeeded in breaking into the clearing station. Let me remind you this is an internet marketplace for terrorist acts. Funding sources put out actions, and groups bid for the right to carry them out.”
Colin struggled to keep his eyes open. Of course everything was virtual. With the state of modern surveillance, nobody was going to take the risk of physical meetings.
“The key Asian funds have an action against CoalGen: the bidding has been accepted by the Abromowitz group. If this action succeeds we will have less than 20% power for at least three months.”
Colin was awake now. They were running through the slides: Kylie Rogers, Alice Nguyen. Phil’s slide came up. He had a bad feeling, a very bad feeling.
“Dogs.” Phil said. Out of the blue.
“Huh?” I said
“Sandown dogs Thursday.”
“No, we are going.”
I’d only been once before. To humour him. A desperado’s convention. There’s no jockey, so it’s a genuine contest. At least that is the theory. A flying gaggle of greyhounds after a pretend white rabbit. Down market didn’t describe it.
“Sure. Anytime.” Immediately I regretted it.
So here we were on the Pakenham line, heading towards Sandown. Clayton, Huntingdale. Not so many lights you could see from the train now. Lots of cyclists, following the road beside the railway. Cargo bikes at the shops.
Huddled in the crowd, walking towards the track, I seized the moment to quiz him.
“The China-India fund?” I asked
“Our newest and richest friends?”
“Masters of the Universe. Dr. Evil. Usual stuff.”
“No, seriously. They are business people. What do they want from us?”
“Maybe Australia gives them the shits. Smug. Rich. Trashing the planet.”
Of course that wasn’t it. I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere. Tonight wasn’t about serious discussion. It was about the dogs.
Up in the stands, Phil was grinning. Beer in hand.
“I like Kinetica in the first. Serious form.”
“OK. You’re the genius.”
So we sipped the beer and waited. Stadium was lit up like a Christmas tree. It got supply priority. The novelty of something this brightly lit up was quite something.
All of a sudden they were off. Kinetica was gallant, but at the final turn Swanky Path streaked past it to claim the prize. Near the finishing post there was a great swirl of people shouting and grabbing each other. For some reason I thought of the inevitable surveillance that would be following us. The more we mixed with the crowd, the deeper we got inside the crowd, the more difficult it was for them. Looking around you couldn’t help but wonder. Him? Or her?
Phil moved towards the owner’s circle. I followed, a bit mystified. Clearly not going to congratulate the winners. He looked back, and gestured for me to follow. He moved towards the centre of the crowd. The proud owners, accepting congratulations.
Steve and Marcus, the proud owners of Swanky Path. Phil moved up, and congratulated Marcus.
I was right next to Phil. Steve passed a small package, and Phil pocketed it. It was such a small movement.
“The timing is critical?” Phil asked
“Absolutely. It has to be exact.”
He wasn’t going to talk about it until we were well on the way. I got the feeling that things were moving fast.
We were just up from the Exhibition gardens, in an old terrace: Max, Alice, Kylie, Phil and the rest of the group. At night you could see the gardens, the light of the campfires. So many tents.
Kylie was in the corridor going to the front meeting room. Didn't even look up.
"Bike ride" I said.
"Interested in a bike ride?"
"Never been more serious."
Any excuse, I thought.
We had to take the anti-tag precautions. Searching for electronics. Scanning each other first. A tag could be deadly. In a clear open space, even the satellites could pick up on the tags if they had line of sight.
Out into Nicholson Street. Fast. We had to lose anyone trailing, but it was really the adrenalin kicking in. Down the middle of the street. No cars really now. Over Victoria Street. The hospital was lit up. It had its own supplies. Past Parliament House. Badly damaged. Abandoned really. Only the Federal government really operated still. Down Collins Street, left at Swanston, heading for Flinders St.
Sure enough, there was a car trailing us. At a distance.
"Here's the fun bit." Kylie shouted.
Incorrigible, I thought. The objective here is just to get away and back. She couldn't resist playing with them. Down Flinders St. Heading out towards Docklands. Then double back. They were following at a distance. I could see them chatting on the phone. Getting instructions. We were heading East along Flinders St.
"Subway" she shouted.
Now I knew the plan. At the Elizabeth Street corner, Kylie jumped off the bike, put it over her shoulder and ran down the steps. I followed. We ran along the subway, past the train station and out onto the track near the Yarra. No, they hadn't seen it coming, and we could now just make our way lazily back.
Most of the buildings were deserted. One or two trams still running. People wandering. We laughed and headed back. I had an occasion to go to.
Alice’s friend Peter. I think that’s how he was introduced. One of those friend of a friend type things. A semi-social type occasion. ‘Adaptation to climate change’. One of those nice type events. I didn’t imagine that starvation and civil war would be on the agenda, but I was there anyway.
All very genteel. Graphs and projections. Polite conversation. In the early days I’d felt like asking ‘...precisely what percentage of the population will starve to death?’. But you didn’t do that sort of thing in polite society.
Alice was speaking. That was an experience. Forthright didn’t adequately describe it. To me she was so young. She was. It was a disconnect. She had experience, and she was good at this.
“There is no greater threat to Australia’s ongoing security than the coal industry.”
You could almost see them shifting in their seats.
“Yes, it is extremely profitable. So was tobacco. So was blood diamonds. The world is shifting on its axis. You can have the coal industry or you can have Australia. Only one of these will survive.”
Peter was at the back. Smiling. He appreciated Alice, but he also appreciated the argument. Alice drifted back towards us after finishing the talk.
“Like it?” Alice asked
“Direct, to the point. Powerful.” I said
“This is my friend Peter. We went to Uni together.”
I looked at Peter. Maybe I was becoming a parent, as I found myself weighing him up as a prospective son-in-law. Stupid really.
“Meet my father.”
I could see Peter’s eyes widen. There was never a father.
“Pleased to meet you. I wasn’t aware that you existed.”
Direct, to the point, just like Alice.
“It came as a shock to me also.”
“What do you do, Peter?” I asked. Idle conversation to fill the gap.
“Army. Special Forces.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I was really flustered now. All my preconceptions about the military. I hoped they weren’t showing.
“Training tough?” I asked.
Alice was hovering. Wanting to take Peter away.
“I better let you two go.”
Helena stared at the screen. None of the numbers were good. None of the reports were good. She got up and wandered to the outer office. Elaine was never downbeat, but even today she was struggling.
"Not so good darling. We are toast, yes?"
She sought out Colin in the analysis area. He was sitting at a large workstation, looking pensive.
“W4?” she asked
“What about them?”
“What makes them tick?”
“Simple really. The name says it all. Stands for ‘fourth world’. The third world is impacted by climate change. Monsoon doesn’t come, millions starve.”
“They strike me as just random. Just totally anarchic.”
“Not at all. The logic is irrefutable. If you look at the emissions profile, almost all of it comes from the West. If you eliminate the West, the problem goes away.”
“No. It’s funded by the young. Donations. Think of it this way. If you look at the correlation between baby boomers and emissions. Like so.”
A projected hologram filled the exhibition space. It showed the time from 1945 to the present day. Showed the rise of the baby boomers. The rise of the emissions profile.
“So it’s the children of the baby boomers?”
“Killing off their parents.”
“Now you are with the program.”
“They are not a priority?”
“No. Their funding is trivial compared with the rise of the new economy.”
There was something about Max that made you pay attention. Perhaps it was the economy of speech. The seriousness. Max being Max. The fact that no doubt there was a picture of him on the wall at security with ‘most wanted’ or similar.
“In the past we have operated a little bit under the radar. Of course they were gathering information, monitoring us. With the CoalGen operation we are in the open. We will be their top target.”
He paused to take in the room. There were about twenty of us. I wondered how much longer we would be having physical meetings. All done through the glasses. Virtual meetings.
“If they haven’t already, they will become aware of the depth of our ambitions. That ultimately we are focussed on each other. We are initiating top level attacks on security. I want to progressively break down their systems. We need to develop a plan.”
"It's the physical aspects that are difficult." Phil interjected.
"In what way?"
"Need hashtags inside their space. No other way."
"What do you need?" Alice asked.
"Middle level insider. Access to the servers. Authentication especially."
I looked at Max and Alice. They were already working out a plan. It would happen this way. We would watch where they had lunch, where they arrived at work. Once we had a space, we would try to spray hashtags.
The hashtags didn't have enough internal power to transmit further than a few metres. So we couldn't monitor them. They stored their information on internal memory, and we had to access them later. Very tricky.
So Phil and I planted a hashtag exploding bunch at the exit of the subway. When we triggered it thousands of the tags would spray out into the air. Invisible, but floating. Some of them would stick to everyone who was within about 5 metres. Ideally we needed a day that was still, and not too windy - otherwise they would just blow away. They were all early starters, so this worked in our favour. Not too crowded, and not likely to be windy.
6am. Watching the Flagstaff station exit. It was ideal. A stairway upwards to an exit onto the street. They would have to go past our installation, no way to dodge it. Much better than the other exits, which were wide and hard to mark.
We had to rely on the scouts below watching for security people coming off the train. Then allow enough time for them to climb the stairs to the exit. Precise timing needed.
"Any victims?" Alice asked
"Plenty. About 20." I said.
The next phase was tricky. We had to harvest from the hashtags. We needed to get up close and personal to download the information.
We had detectors either side of the security building main entrance. They interrogated hashtags, looking for likely targets. We knew what we were looking for, so we could trawl for the targets. We only needed to be within a metre or so for about 20 seconds to download everything that was on the tag.
"OK. We have two likely targets on Bourke St heading west towards William St." Max.
Alice got ready. She was dressed for the occasion. Office dress. She would blend into the crowd.
"Here he comes. Brown pants, white business shirt." Max again.
Alice was towing a bag on rollers. Typical office stuff. Not heavy, but it was the thing to tow a bag. As she got in front of him she veered right, as if to go to cross the street. But stumbled, and the bag got directly in his path. Down she went, on one knee to the pavement.
"Locking on. Yes, loading. I need 20 seconds from here." Max.
Now she had to just keep him within range. She pulled off her shoe, apologising profusely.
"I'm so sorry, you must think I'm so clumsy."
Beaming, the big grin. Got him. He stopped and helped her to her feet.
"Not at all, those things are difficult to navigate. You must have some gear in there."
"Just the usual sales pitch stuff."
As she got up, we were working to extract data from the dust.
"OK. Got it." Max.
So the intercept was over. Time enough to get about 10M of data. Gotcha.
Stray fields. Every computer has electrical fields. Even highly secure equipment leaves a trace of its activity within a small distance. The hashtags picked up on that and recorded them. No real processing onboard, just recording. They only had limited energy storage, just enough to deliver the memory contents when prompted. Small enough to evade the scanning for bugs. They were formidable, but clumsy.
I sat with Phil as he trawled the tag traces. It would have half a day's recordings. Raw. There might be one authentication attempt in the whole recording. I didn't doubt his ability, but it sure seemed like a long shot to me. There was too much riding on getting through this gateway.
"OK. I have to do a broad search first. That will take a day or two. Then we'll have some possible targets."
"Soon. We need it soon." A note of urgency in Max's voice.
To keep me amused, Phil put up a 3D display of the traces. Sometimes it helped to visualise - occasionally we would discover something that all the algorithms missed. Not often, but enough to keep us looking. I couldn't help but feel that he was just giving me the task to keep me busy.
"How did we end up here?" I asked Phil.
"We woke up, had breakfast and resumed our glorious quest for the authentication codes."
"No, I mean how did we end up fighting for this side?"
"It's the path of the true believers. Also I seem to remember your thirst for knowledge about the lost daughter, followed by some hormonal interactions. You dragged me along as an accomplice."
After a long day of what was basic low level hacking, late in the evening we both needed a break. Down Elizabeth St. Suddenly it all came back to me. I never thought I would be sentimental about the wall of lights. Seemed like several lifetimes ago. Who was that person? It was as if I might meet myself walking in the opposite direction down this street, huddled from a hard day staring at the wall.
Phil liked seedy places. It was his thing. The seedier the better. So we found ourselves buried at the back of ‘The Castle’. I couldn't believe it. He'd excelled himself. A strip show in progress. Bored eighteen year olds shedding clothing slowly. Probably thinking of a troubling plot development in their latest novel. Hopeless middle aged men sprawled across tables. Beyond drunk. Everyone staring into the middle distance.
We downed Scotch and Cokes. Classy we were.
"Rest and recreation for the front line" I asked.
"Class. It oozes class."
Just to the right of us was a thirty something woman with dark glasses on. It was dark enough in there without shades on. "Future's so bright, has to wear shades" I thought. She looked at home in the place, which was an achievement in itself.
"Come here often?" Phil asked.
"You sure have a way with words. Screenwriter?" she responded.
"Phil. Front line eco-warrior. This is Andrew, my trusty sidekick."
"Kate, front line journalist in the quest for truth."
"Hard day at the office? Fingers worn out from thumping the keyboard?"
I started to feel like the third person. As in the third person that makes up the crowd. After all, they seemed to share a passion for squalor, amongst other things. So as the show drifted on, I could see that soon I was going to make an excuse, then make an exit.
"I've got to get back to some analysis."
I expected Phil to laugh, but he was otherwise engaged. So off I went into the night.
Colin hated meetings. Everyone hates meetings. He had an impatience that didn't lend itself to fine chatter.
"What do we have?"
"We lost tracking."
"I expected that - they know our techniques."
"We have footage of the incident in the laneway."
"You're not telling me anything I don't already know."
Robert stood there politely. Protocol didn't allow him to speak his mind.
"Of course. Progressing."
"Their current objective?"
"Not clear yet."
"Bullshit. They have ambitions. Our destruction is what gets them out of bed in the morning. Don't jolly me along with this pap. It's not worthy of your talents."
Robert took this as his cue to sit. He didn't want to agitate the situation any further.
Screens. Just screens. Mostly just numbers. Scrolling. Phil could stare at them for hours. He would throw up an animation occasionally, spinning and twirling in 3D space. I realised that it was just to keep me entertained. He didn't need it. It all happened inside his head. I couldn't do much to help. This was a territory where my mental horsepower wouldn't cut it.
In the other room Kylie was amusing herself by baiting the fossil fuel lobby on Twitter. It was like a sentimental recollection of earlier days. When we lived to tweet and tweeted to live.
"Fossil fuel leeches sucking the life out of the planet."
"Australia: a world parasite."
"Time to pull the plug on Oz."
She really enjoyed baiting them.
"Ever thought of leaving Australia?" I asked
Who were the smart Jews that left Germany early? You don't see memorials to them. 'Saw the writing on the wall. Walked across the border in 1934. Eventually settled in America.'
"Sure. Haven't you?" she replied
It was fiercely logical. The rest of the first world was well into the post-carbon age. Plenty to do, lots of opportunities. Australia was an anachronism. A mildly annoying one at that. The money behind the blockade fund was vast. It showed the country was slated for destruction. Small country, no friends.
I looked across at Kylie. Did we have a relationship, or was I just tagging along? Hard to tell. Not a question to be asked. She paused, collecting her thoughts.
"It's going to sound sentimental."
"You know, when you are on a bicycle tour in the middle. Miles from nowhere. Just you and the bush."
"Everyone says: why do you go there? There is nothing there."
"They don't get it."
"Well, when I'm out there on the bike, East of Bourke. Just dust and the horizon. I feel welded to it. Like it's in my blood. I couldn't live with the thought of never being there again. I would rot away inside. Become a shadow of a shadow. If I die here then so be it. Everybody has to die somewhere."
I couldn't resist having a go at Phil.
"How's things with your new friend Kate?"
"We just shared a few drinks. Nothing to it."
"OK. If you say so."
I wondered if he was just being cautious. I don't think Max would react well to a journalist. Not with them, but certainly not with us.
"Progress?" I asked.
"Look at this."
He projected it onto the wall. Curiously beautiful. But meant little to me. If it wasn't all so serious.
"I feel like I'm close here. Just need a little longer."
Max wandered in. He stared at the projection. Looked expectant. When nothing was forthcoming, he wandered out again.
I trawled the newsfeeds. Increasingly hysterical. Riots. Mostly food riots. Footage of desperate people on the move. Where to? I wondered. It wasn't as if things were going to be better at their destination. But I guess I was the same. Waiting was harder than moving. When you were moving you could imagine a destination.
At the height of summer, we relented. Just too hot. Too hot to sit sweating over projected hacks. So we piled onto the magic 96 tram to St Kilda.
Crowded. The beach. The arc of sand. As we walked along the footpath beside the beach wall it seemed as if every centimetre of had an owner. Littered rectangles of cloth marking the spot.
Like kids on a day out. I don’t think I’d ever seen Kylie in a swimsuit. In a dirty old man sort of way I was looking forward to it. You just mostly noticed how tall she was.
Max and Alice walked ahead. Like stockbrokers off on a yachting weekend. Purposeful in a place without serious purpose. Even they got into the mood of it. So hot. No wind.
By the time we found a place the sand it was so hot on our feet there was no alternative. Straight in the water. Dithering in the shallows. But not Alice. Off and swimming. Where did she learn to swim like that? I dived in. Icy, but great.
You stayed in the water until you were cold. Starting to wrinkle. Then tiptoed back across the sand back to the towel. Stretched out.
I asked Kylie: “This is magic. Did you spend much time at the beach as a kid?”
“Always. Long bike rides, the surf. Lived for it.”
At least we were together, relaxing. That was rare enough. We waited until at least the edge had gone off the heat that little bit. It didn’t let up.
I wanted to linger, but of course Max and Alice didn’t. We shook off the sand, and gathered our clothing. For the ride back to town. It was crowded on the footpath, with people following the same rhythm. Now that we were coming to the end of the day it was cooling slightly.
“Back to the hack.” I said to Alice.
“You love it. How many days of your life have you spent staring at a computer screen?”
“Seems like all of them.”
“From here on, maybe not so many.”
We walked to the crossing, to get across Beaconsfield Parade. Making our way to the tram stop on Fitzroy St. What was it that made me take notice of the van? Going East around the curve of the street. It was slowing, in a place where there was no reason to slow.
“That van.” I said to Max
All of a sudden it turned, and accelerated. Right towards us. Across lanes of traffic. The door slid, quickly. Two men wearing balaclavas, and holding automatic weapons. Aimed straight at us. Two more men behind those. In an instant they had Alice. She kicked and yelled, but it was all too fast. The van was moving even before the door shut. Moving very fast.
We stood, as if glued to the spot. Max was on the phone, talking quietly, sending orders. In a moment of stupid ordinary everyday activity, the tram arrived, and we got on it.
Sitting on the tram, we just stared at each other. Speechless. Max, Kylie, Phil and I. I looked across at Max. He had known Alice since she joined up. In a sense he was the only constant in her life.
The tram shook its way down the leafy avenue. Now so little car traffic. My old school. The expensive one, loomed up on the right. What would they make of me now? Effing terrorist. But ironically the set of skills, the strength, it all came from there.
Past the shrine. Wasn’t it about how to live? Isn’t that what they fought about? Isn’t this what it was about?
Max broke the silence.
“All battles are mental. All battles are personal. The way we are feeling. That is the way that they want us to feel. We can’t be like that.” He paused. I could see a tear in Kylie’s eye. She brushed it away.
“They know about the strike against CoalGen. Somehow they know about it. They know that Alice was key to that.”
Now the tram was shaking past the Arts centre, over the Yarra. Looking south the river snaked past Southbank. It was low. The tourist boats had to put extra steps down to reach the boats.
I struggled to not let my shaking show.
We split up, and merged with the crowds, to shake surveillance. All of us like bloody samurai, I thought. All we needed was a shiny sword each.
Yes, all conflict is personal. I summoned up an image of Colin from the security hacks we had. It didn’t help. Then Phil came up on the glasses.
“Time to call in all favours.”
Colin sat in the monitoring room. Looking at Alice. Yes, she did look like her mother. The dock warehouse was a dedicated interrogation centre. Not a location with passing traffic.
It had all the tricks. But they couldn’t use drugs. All of them had the nano-implants - first sign of truth drugs and they expired.
Alice was only 21 or 22 according to their intelligence. She sat calmly. Sleep deprivation was the first phase. Sometimes it worked really quickly. Throw in some of the primitive stuff, and most of them just crumbled. He tuned into the interrogation.
“They have left you for dead. You are expendable.”
“All you need to do is give us the time of the attack. We’ll arrange for you to disappear. A new identity in New Zealand.”
Then he turned it down and just watched without the sound on. What the hell, he thought. He grabbed the photos of Susan. Large, A2 size. Then he hooked into the interrogator’s communicator circuit.
“Just leave her alone. I want to try something.”
After about 30 minutes, he just walked in and threw the photos on the table. Waited for a reaction. She hadn’t said a word since she had been captured. Not a word for five days.
Alice looked down at the photos. Slowly her gaze settled on each of them. No hurry, taking them in. Then she looked up at Colin.
“You are a dead man walking.”
Colin turned and walked out. Not yet, he thought.
“What’s that?” I turned to Phil, as he scanned a feed.
“The exit corridor at security.”
“Yes, really and truly.”
“How the fuck did you set that up?”
“Call in all favours. It’s dropped behind a fire extinguisher. It will give us stuff until they do a scan in a couple of days.”
“But in the meantime.”
Every time somebody went past we got the vibrations. No pictures or video, but we could use it as at trigger for other scans. We couldn’t send pictures or video out of their building anyway - they would pick that up. We had to hide this down in the noise.
I looked at the other feed. It looked like an ordinary house. An up-market one. Phil anticipated my question.
Then I had a horrible thought.
“We’re not going to kidnap one of his kids are we?”
Phil gave me that look. The long-suffering look.
“No. We don’t do that sort of thing. We’re the good guys, remember?”
“Yeah, right, the hired gun eco-terrorists working for a foreign fund guys.”
“Yes, the good guys.”
Phil just continued to watch the two feeds. He was obviously hatching a plan.
“Ideas?” I asked.
“Colin is the key. He will be supervising the interrogation personally. He’s a bit of a control freak.”
How do we know that, I wondered? But I followed the thought through.
“So we can trail him?”
“Not easily. We only have a few drones, plus the hacked feeds from the street cameras. We can’t put a tag on his car as it goes through the scans at security every morning when he goes into the car park.”
“We can only use hashtags. On him personally.”
“So we need to meet?”
“No, of course not. He knows you, he knows me.”
“We could ambush him as he left.”
“Too much surveillance. We would be picked up approaching.”
“We could tail him.”
“No. Again, we’d be picked up.”
“Who can plant hashtags. We task a drone to follow him.”
We both sat looking at each other. Looking at the feeds.
“Kate.” Phil said.
Colin sat and stewed. It wasn’t Alice’s threat. He expected that. It was the constant stream of emails and meeting schedules that assumed they already had the information they needed from Alice. He walked into the outer office to talk to Liuping.
“The dissociative stuff. Substitute reality. Does it work?”
“In about 60% of cases. There is a risk of total catatonia.”
“OK. I want you to have a go at Alice.”
“It takes time to set up.”
“Sure. Just do it.”
He retreated back into his office. Messages from home. Holiday itineraries and hotels for the south of France. Sometimes he wished he could just pick his wife up, hold her close and say simply “It’s never going to be like that again. The best we can hope for is to come out of this alive.” He couldn’t do it. So home became like a fantasy world.
Staring at Alice on the feed. She wasn’t simply a fanatic, she was strong, but not strong enough.
Phil asked Kate: “Do I need to persuade you?”
“No, not really. It’s all going to hell in a handbasket. At least I can tell myself that I did something.”
“OK. A minor accident in a car park. Nothing really. You get close enough to throw some hashtags over him.”
“Small trackers. Size of a dust particle. Our drones can track it. It will get us to the lock-up. That’s all we need.”
News were showing a regional shopping centre. Looked like Southland. They all looked the same. Huge crowd, spilling out onto the highway. Commentary was about food shortages. The crowd was surging in the direction of the supermarket. It pulled back for a long shot. The helicopters were throwing gas grenades. Then a tight shot on the supermarket doors. Looked like the store security, armed with automatic weapons. The crowd surged forward again and the store security started firing. Like a scathe cutting through wheat. A row would fall, then another. Now the gas was spreading, and the crowd was scattering.
Late afternoon. Phil was tidying the game plan. I was about to ask about the snatch part, when Peter came on the line.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“No. You don’t have to say anything.”
“We have a plan.”
“Yes, Phil’s briefed me. I can help.”
“Just a few friends. Nothing official. They’ve had enough of herding people into camps.”
We had to gamble on Colin going straight from home to the lockup. Every time he went in and out of the security building he went through the scanners. They would pick up the hashtags. Phil had analysed Colin’s path from home. 90% of the time he would stop for a coffee at a small shop in Gardenvale. Ideal.
Nothing on Kate being connected to Phil showed in a complete scan of security. We couldn’t be absolutely sure. It was risky. Of course after the event, Kate would have to disappear, but we had that in motion.
6am. I talked to Kate.
“It’s ok that you are nervous. He will assume it is because of the accident.”
“Drone ready?” I asked.
“Yes, hovering out of sight.” Max replied.
“He’s in motion.”
“Give me the waypoints.”
Phil just looked calm. He always looked calm. Sometimes I wondered whether he was really a cyborg.
It was a small carpark. I was hoping like hell there was going to be a slot for Colin.
He moved fast. Car was parked and he was out of it. Familiar, practised. Kate was sitting in her car.
She backed out and steered left. Just enough to touch Colin’s bumper and leave a very small indentation. Colin was on his way back towards the car. For one horrible moment I thought he was going to pull a gun.
“I’m so very sorry. I was in a rush. So very sorry. I’ll just give you my details.” Kate was playing it out, getting close.
“No need. It’s too minor. Don’t worry about it.” Colin was worried about the delay.
Kate reached into the handbag. For a pen. But also for the dust. The precious dust. I could see it glisten, and swirl, and find its mark.
“Ok. If you insist.” Colin writing on a piece of paper.
“Lock?” Max asked.
I positioned the drone. It had to be close, with such a weak signal coming through the metallic skin of the car. Luckily these days most it was plastic.
“Locked.” I said.
Alice’s gut wrenched with recognition. She almost gasped as she stared at the collection of people. The row of caskets, with photos on top. The faces in the crowd, familiar, all of them, even those she could not name. A hall, a speaking platform. The photos: Andrew, Phil, Max, Kylie.
Peter walked to the stage.
“I’m here. I’m here” she wanted to say. But held back. This was a funeral, after all.
“We are gathered here to celebrate the lives of Max, Andrew, Phil and Kylie. They died for all of us.”
Inside Alice was screaming: No!
“In the difficult days since their death we have grappled. We have struggled. We will always remember their sacrifice.”
Alice just sat quietly, shedding tears. Waiting for Peter to finish. So she could rush to his side. Finally, he finished. The coffins were each borne by six people. The colors draped across. Slowly down the aisle, towards the sunlight.
Peter walked behind. When he got to Alice he looked up. It was a sad look, a grief stricken look. A look of somebody who has aged a lot in a short time.
Peter and Alice embraced, but it was more of a leaning on each other. It was a long time before Peter spoke.
“It’s all over. Finished.”
“With 90% against us, how could we go on?”
“A backlash against us. People lumped us in with W4. The lack of electricity.”
“What will we do?”
“Grow vegetables I guess. Wait for the end.”
Alice sat in the corner at the wake. It was so loud. Shouting. You wouldn’t have known it was a funeral.
Colin drove away from the coffee place. Looking at the time. Hoping he could make it up. He hated the breakfast meetings. The politicians nervously shifting in their chairs. As if their arses were on fire.
He called the lockup, Liuping. She answered almost immediately.
“Is it taking?”
“Yes. She’s at stage 3. She’s very susceptible.”
“OK. I’m coming straight there.”
The car swerved left. He knew he was violating protocols. He also knew without results in the next week he would be going the way of Helena, so protocols didn’t feature.
“He’s going for it.” I said to Phil.
“Wait a moment. We need a definite trajectory.”
Max interjected: “You’ve got to be sure.”
“He’s not heading for the city.”
I looked at the drone status. We had to stay locked. If we lost him we had no way of finding him again.
Peter came online.
“Yes.” Max said.
“OK. We are ten minutes away.”
Alice didn’t struggle. But they weren’t taking any chances. She was tied at both her ankles and wrists. Her eyes were closed. She was off in an another world. They knew that a few more hours of this and she would answer any questions they had.
Max was close managing it.
“Not too close. Don’t spook him.”
I looked across at Kylie. She was concentrating.
“He’s right. Go with the drone trace.”
We had the screen up on the dashboard. I was driving for once.
We were in Beaconsfield Parade. Going past the pier. Not far from where she had been snatched. That day. That day. I pushed it out of mind. I had to concentrate.
“I am five minutes out.” Peter said.
There was an element of luck needed here. We figured they needed a large facility, somewhere in this dockyard district.
Now we were passing the ferry terminal. Heading for Todd Road. I could feel it. Somewhere here was Alice. Turning into Lorimer Street I had that feeling strongly, as Colin slowed. I could see the perimeter fence.
“Hold back. Wait for Peter.”
Colin stopped briefly at the gate. Waved a pass. Drove through.
“Where is he?” I asked. I scanned the skies. No sign of a helicopter.
I felt it through the ground as I saw it. A helicopter, at full throttle, coming under the Westgate bridge. It was angling down to land right beside us, but as it rotated it fired a missile at the gatehouse, and the gatehouse disappeared.
“Move. Follow Peter.”
The helicopter didn’t land, it just placed one leg down and Peter with three soldiers came running out. Full gear. All the headsets, the lot.
Gunfire was coming from the remainder of the gatehouse. The helicopter backed up, about four metres in the air and raked the front of the warehouse with high speed machine gun fire, rotating as it fired.
“Clear.” Peter said.
Peter had a direct feed from the drone, with Colin’s location. But that wasn’t his focus. We ran across the concrete towards the door. One of the soldiers put a charge against the door, we backed around the corner, and the door blew.
We looked inside the room. Alice, and four armed guards. Peter backed around the corner as they fired at him. He pulled a small robot, no larger than a wombat, off his backpack. Peter whispered to the robot “Kill everyone in the room except the girl.”
I looked at Peter. He was watching the robot.
Its expensive Swiss motors screamed as it accelerated to full velocity. Around 15 metres per second. They couldn’t follow it’s movement. One of the guards moved to aim at it. Even as he aimed, the robot slightly adjusted the angle of it’s arm and fired. Before he had a finger on the trigger, a small hole had appeared in his head, right between his eyes.
From the recoil, the robot spun, but accelerated as it spun. It’s motors screamed again. It was going away from the other two guards. It stopped about three meters from both of them. Again as they prepared to fire, a hail of three, four bullets hit them. Too fast.
With the last guard, it was the same. The robot was almost underneath him as it fired. Through his legs it passed, firing almost continuously. It stopped, and slowly moved back in the direction of Peter.
We ran towards Alice, unstrapped her. She was very weak. She looked at Peter.
“They are dead. They are all dead.”
We half carried Alice to the helicopter. It lifted away quickly, wheeling back away from the city as fast as we could move.
Then I remembered the hashtags. Colin.
“Colin.” I said.
“Today he gets lucky.”
Watching the monitor, and the signals coming from Alice, Colin was calm and confident. They had taken a risk, but it was paying off. Another hour or two of this, and Alice would be ready to talk.
He felt it through the floor, even before he heard it. The building shook. He scanned the surveillance system, stopping and staring when he saw the Skyhawk helicopter. What was that doing here? He hadn’t ordered it up.
The surveillance zoomed in, and in an instant of recognition, Colin began to move. There was only one exit, and he wasn’t going to wait to see if they cut it off. He was running even before the front door was breached.
Walking along Lorimer Street, he called for an urgent pickup. From the high of highs, now he contemplated the depths. How was he going to explain this? The violation of protocol, the disclosure of the location. That bloody coffee stop. That bloody woman. Suckered.
Peter arrived, with Alice. She was almost hanging off him. Struggling to walk. To see her physically struggling, it was shocking.
Even through that, the grin. We gathered around. The relief. The letting go of tension. It was only now that we realised how much on edge we had been. The not-knowing. The trying not to think of what might happen.
“Magic.” I said.
“I thought you were all dead.”
“I know. I know.”
It was going to take some time to wear off.
“The funeral. So real. I could feel the breeze, the sunshine.”
Peter sat her down. He hovered, as if he was not sure it she could even sit. Through the haze, the injuries, we could see that she would eventually recover. We had that much more strength.
We were constantly aware of the refugees in the Exhibition Gardens. Not that we had much to do with them. Going past every day, it nagged at you. The kids playing, running up and down the paths, beside the tents. The smoke from the campfires would waft across. Eucalypts burning. It haunted you.
So as Max went on about the operational plan, the penetration attacks, my mind wandered. Not much food at the camps. The irony wasn't lost on me, or them, as for most of their lives they had grown the food. Proud, strong.
I hassled Max. The kids, I said. He furrowed his brow and spared me the speech. You know, I know. In the end he relented. Just one raid. You better have it well organised.
Dark. Quiet. Beside the Yarra. We could see the food store. Behind the barricade. We had maps and photos. Had sensors at the barricade. Max up in a high location in one of the buildings behind us. Overall control. Good sight lines. Rubber dinghy. Only one chance.
"Ready?" Max asked.
"Yes." I replied.
As the truck convoy went past our sensors, Max got a signal. He could get us to the right location. As the trucks came down past the Botanic gardens, we laid down a series of smoke grenades. This was to give us some room to move. At least their cameras wouldn't be useful. They would still have plenty of tracking sensors.
I pressed the buttons and the gates blew. Before the guards could react we were inside, and waiting for the trucks. We were throwing smoke grenades. It was one big cloud.
Phil was listening on their network. "You have about five minutes."
We had the forklifts moving. We were loading crates. Anything we could grab. I was watching our feeds from the roadway - nothing moving yet.
"Hurry." I shouted.
We had charges placed at about 300 metres from the gate.
"Now." said Max
The lead car heaved up and rolled back on to the others. It was heading for the river. It blocked enough of the oncoming.
We drove away - back down St Kilda Rd.
It was great chucking the stuff off the back of the truck. Max just sat quietly. I knew what he was thinking. Indulgence. But sometimes you need it to break the grip.
Then, finally, the day came. Time to take out CoalGen. It was a relief in a way. Better than sitting and hacking. Inside I started to get the shakes. Kylie arrived, ready for the bike ride. To pick up the motor bikes. Kylie, Alice, Phil and an armed escort. Nearly ten of us.
“They are in a lockup south of Dandenong. I've got the keys here.”
“Fuel? Ready to go?” I asked.
“So this is it?”
I was nervous. It was fine to sit around and draw diagrams. Easy to talk to a whiteboard. Doing it was something else. Experience with explosives? The training course at the camp. How many things have you blown up? This is my first. I didn't want to show my real feelings. Max would assign somebody else.
“Kylie will go with you. I want her back here. You'll go on with Phil.”
It didn't make sense. They knew who was the most likely to be assigned. So they would track them intensively. Not expecting Phil and I.
South down Dandenong Rd. As if we were off for a ride. Hopefully enough to discount it. It was pleasant. If it hadn't been for the churning in my stomach. I wasn't actually shaking, just on the verge of it.
“At the sharp end.” I said to Phil.
“Strange territory for us.”
I could tell he was as nervous as I was. But he handled it better. Through Dandenong and onto the bypass road. Towards the industrial area. The lockup.
We turned the corner. A vast crowd in front of us. Surging. More people in one place than I had ever seen. The streets were impassable.
“We can't get through here Max. It's clogged.”
“Can you see the Coles logo?”
“It's a supermarket distribution centre. Huge food storage place.”
There must have been two hundred thousand people. I pulled up an aerial view on the glasses. Huge. It was like they were waiting for something. I looked across at Kylie. “We have to keep moving. We are on a schedule.” she said.
“I know, but what is this?” I asked.
“When a truck comes out, they will go for it.”
“Are there armed guards.”
Kylie was becoming impatient.
"This isn't our situation. You know that."
"Yes, but there are so many of them."
"Of course. Lots of people. Not much food."
"We should do something."
"Exactly what? A two person crack assault squad versus about two hundred well armed guards. In place?"
"So many of them."
"You should get out more. How long do you think its been like this?"
"I thought the rains?”
"Not enough. One good season. Now there are five drought years for every one normal year. No imports, can't keep up."
I scanned the crowd. Family groups. Not quite in rags. Nobody here looked like they had slept in a bed for a while. Huddled quietly. Carrying everything they owned, I guessed. I looked across at Kylie and wished that I hadn't.
"While you are indulging your middle class guilt here, we have a job to do. It's important."
So hard to move on. The higher imperative. What greater cause was there? She was right. One food grab here or there won't make any difference. I felt like my legs were full of lead.
"Which way?" I asked Max.
So up we climbed, above the crowd. Up and over. Not far to the lockup. As we got to the flat and gained speed I could hear gunshots.
We did a check scan. Searching for their sensors. All clear. Planning a route. Tracking the intel. It kept my mind off things.
I couldn't reassure myself that what we were doing would help them. They would be long gone. Abstract. All causes were abstract. Not about people really.
We cut further south on the electric motor bikes. Hit the bay at Beaumaris and gained speed. Spectacular. The sun going down it was just breathtaking. We took turns passing each other and drifting in and out of the lanes. No traffic. Like a dance at high speed. Towards the city.
Churning in my stomach. The realisation that I was totally ill-equipped for what I had signed up to do. But that I would do it anyway.
“Star.” Kylie said. So we got to the intersection and equally split. In four directions. Kylie and Alice going one way. The others each going the other arm of the intersection. Phil and I heading East. Forced security to make a choice. Who to follow? They had the profiles. The systems already programmed. Max figured they would let the computers decide who to track.
Gormandale. When you thought of the hidden valley, this was it. Northwards slight hills towards Traralgon. To the South the steep hills, and beyond that the coast. So peaceful. Birds flitting about. You could hear the zee-twang of the banjo frogs.
No communication now with anyone - too much danger of interception.
"This is intense." I said to Phil.
"All the fault of your hormones."
We both laughed. Timing. When we took the contract it seemed so easy. Just specify exactly the date and time at which the coal fired power station is disabled.
Put up the tent. Stared into the middle distance. Stretched out and tried to sleep. Knowing that we would only sleep in fits and bursts.
The first glints of light were coming through the trees as we stirred. No talk at all. I checked the explosives. Five packs, detonators. Simple countdown timers.
Nobody at all on the road. We stood out. I kept thinking of the satellites. The surveillance. Turning every bend expecting to see a roadblock and guns pointed at us. Maybe not even that. Just a roadside bomb, primed for our approach. Paranoia. Just because you were paranoid didn't mean that they were not out to get you.
Up the hill, the trees arcing over the road. Past the general store, with the football ground on the other side of the road. Climbing the hill.
There it was. The white steam draped vertical. Imposing. The power station. Our target. You could see the coal elevators working.
"Ready?" said Phil.
So we turned at the road to the gatehouse. Boom down. Concrete barriers. The gatehouse was low and brick. It had darkened glass, so we couldn't see what was going on inside. Sleepy stuff, I guess. There was no real security here at all. Just wire fences.
At the last moment we veered right and pushed over the wire fence. Pulling up directly beside the gatehouse. I attached the first charge to the side, hard up against the bricks. Short fuse.
On we went towards the first plant. As we got to the bottom, I could see figures coming out of the gatehouse, just as it blew. Throwing bricks across the carpark.
At the base of the tower we were to throw the charge into the bottom hopper. No real smart placement. Any damage here would take weeks to fix, and that was enough. The structure towered over us. If you want to destroy it then a much larger explosion would be needed. We were just disabling it. Now we were running. To get to the other three towers. So high. So solid.
We placed the last charge. Ran. Still no sign of any security. We rode down the hill, round the corner. To a vantage point. The pillars of white smoke still trailed across the sky. Mocking us, for even thinking that we could do any damage.
Nothing. Not a sound. At the time. Was it time yet?
Then it came. A dull thud. I couldn't see any damage. Had we done it?
Max "Zero output. You've done it."
We were jumping. High fives. Yelling. Then the realisation that we had to move. Fast.
Colin tensed up as he waited for the lift. It wasn’t good. None of it was good. He imagined the calls waiting for him. As he left the lift it was like he was hit by waves. Liuping, Ian. “Conference room, ten minutes” was all he got out. At least he would have a few minutes to collect his thoughts.
Looking at the gatehouse security footage wasn’t really necessary. But he was surprised to see Andrew and Phil.
“I want all the satellites re-tasked. Drones in a circle around the impact site. You are not going to lose them.”
He looked up.
“Now would be good.”
He turned to Ian
“How many EMP weapons do we have?”
“All together? Including military?”
“Only about 10.”
“I want them deployed in a radius centred on Warragul Road. Every major intersection.”
Yes, it was personal. But now he had to field the calls. The bleating.
“Of course. The situation is grave. I recognise. I take full responsibility.”
So it went. One after another.
“They have you locked.” Max said.
“You want us to take a different route?” I said.
“No point. They will still have a lock.”
We were on the M1, just going past Wellington Road. Looking for the drones, but not seeing them.
“Alice is moving to intercept with you. But you have to move fast. They are pulling in resources.”
I looked across at Phil. He gave the thumbs up. Truth be known we were still on a high from the blast. Imagining the party, the high-fives. Now I realised it wasn’t going to be like that. We were fugitives.
“Warragul Road. I want you to exit there.”
Max was almost shouting. Which didn’t improve my mood. So down the ramp we went. Now I could hear Alice giving us instructions.
“There is a path parallel to the M1 straight ahead. Go for that.”
Then I saw them. Just as they saw me. On my right, set up under the bridge. It looked like an EMP box. I could almost see them hit the button.
Then we were just rolling. I tried the throttle once - nothing.
“We are hit. On foot.”
I dropped the bike, and started running towards the path. As I ran away from them, I wondered why they were not firing. Then it came to me - the prize. It was all about capturing Phil.
“Faster.” I yelled.
He didn’t need any encouragement. We were sprinting up the ramp.
“I am 100 metres ahead of you. The first clearing on your left as you come up the path.”
I heard the clack clack clack of the helicopter. Right ahead of us. Now I was running towards it.
“On your left. Hurry.”
There was Alice. In the black BMW.
The helicopter edged lower. Now I could see the arc of a missile heading towards it. Alice accelerated and I was pushed back into the seat. The car strained and only just held on to the road as she pushed west.
“They have a lock. Drones. How do we get out of this?” I said to no-one in particular. Alice wasn’t answering. Max came back.
“Don’t worry. We’re working on it.”
We came up to Dandenong Road. Coming up the hill, the car completely left the ground as we turned south. I almost closed my eyes. Now west again, under the railway bridge at Caulfield. Alice tracing the arc around the racecourse. I looked at the dashboard - the car was redlining. I’m telling myself that you can’t outrun helicopters.
“Max.” I said, then stopped myself.
“Full ghosting.” He said. “We have a complete substitute picture on their systems. They think you are heading north.”
“How?” I said, then looked across. Phil just smiled.
Even though we were screaming through the southern suburbs, I almost relaxed. For a short moment I thought of Kylie. I tried to raise her on the communicator, but couldn’t.
We reached the Nepean Highway at Moorabin. Heading south. Why were we heading south?
Alice looked across and smiled: “You are going on a long bike ride.”
Good. I thought. Then thought: why?
“We can’t hide in the city anymore. They are closing in. We are going to split up. Most important in all of this is to hide Phil. You’ve got to take him and merge in with the refugees. It’s our only hope.”
Phil looked uncomfortable. I wondered what it was like to be a living breathing secret weapon.
“So we blend in. Just us?”
No Kylie, I thought. I was about to ask why, but I knew I’d get some operational stuff.
“You will follow the main refugee trail, heading East then North. Following the coast. You’ll be like a needle in a haystack for them.”
“We have our own path to follow. You know that I can’t tell you. You know why.”
In case we were captured and interrogated. Of course.
It was beautiful. The sun hanging above the water. Alice almost slowed down, as much as Alice ever slowed down for anything.
“If we don’t make it...” I began.
“Don’t talk like that. We will all make it.”
As we passed the Mordialloc pier, Alice followed the road around, over the bridge. Then she accelerated. We were on a time limit with the ghosting. Soon they would switch to broad search, retasking the satellites and the drones.
Alice looked at me.
“You know that our plan is critically dependent on one factor.”
“Yes. I know.”
For some unknown reason I thought of Alice’s first day at school. I wondered what it was like. I looked up and we were at Seaford, and Alice was redlining again. Soon we would be at Frankston.
Bravado. Just ride away into the distance. Not looking back. Who knew if we would meet again? I tried to put those thoughts away somewhere. Somewhere where they wouldn’t come out too often. I looked across at Phil. He didn’t look quite at home on the bike.
“Long way to nowhere.” I said.
“At least we have company.”
True. This was part of the main trail north. I’d ridden this way years ago. Then you might see one cyclist in a week.
Here we were on the main road to Tooradin. Not a major road. I looked ahead. Abut a hundred or so. Then looked back. About the same.
Cargo bikes ruled here. Loaded. Worldly possessions. At least those worldly possessions that could be carried.
We passed through Pearcedale. At the shopping centre, there were camps. Next to the supermarket. The calculus of survival. If you couldn’t or wouldn’t propel yourself then you were stuck here. I looked across. The faces of the lost. The camps of the damned. So after a while you didn’t look.
“What will become of them?” I asked, rhetorically.
“You don’t want to go there.”
Climate. Drought. Breakdown. It only took a small shift in things. A 20 or 30% shortage of water was enough. Throw in energy shortages, little transport, and that was enough. The calculus of survival told you that about 3 million refugees were all heading north, and you were in the middle of it.
Of course the premium went to those who fled early. A plane to far northern Queensland. There in a few hours. Later on, a bus. No such luck now. Only the extremely wealthy and the extremely powerful had a fast exit.
“Death toll?” I asked. Knowing that he would have worked it out.
“Best case 25%.”
Mostly from simple starvation. As the population had grown, it had become dependent on desalinated water and imported food.
“That’s assuming some sort of order prevails. More likely they will start killing each other first.”
So. North it was. Not inland. No water or food. Hugging the coast.
Somewhere out here was Max’s camp. No instructions. Just “Head north once you get to Orbost. We will find you.”
The crowds were important to us. Without them it would be simple to just swoop over in a helicopter and take us out. Now we were small needles in a very large haystack.
I kept thinking of Kylie. Standing there. Just waving slightly. As if we were going off on a short ride.
At Tooradin we headed East towards the highway. At the turnoff there were a couple of bikes heading the other way, back towards the city. Almost all of us were heading the other way. The occasional car, threading its way through. Usually in groups for protection.
I looked across. A family group, towing a trailer. Child on a seat.
“Where you headed?” I asked the mother. She looked mid thirties, not out of place on a bicycle.
“North of Rockhampton. Small place in the hills.”
“My brother has a farm there. Grows everything. We’ll be able to stay there I hope.”
“What about you?”
“Phil and I are headed for Orbost.”
“Should only take you about a week.”
“I’m Marie. This is my husband Maurice, and my son Alexander. Say hi, Alex.”
“Hi.” he said. Smiling a little.
So it went. The large crowd. It was our hiding place. I caught up with Phil.
“Yes, but it makes food and water an issue.”
Always thinking, Phil. He was right. I tried not to think about it too much.
I drifted back to talk to Marie.
“What did you do in the city?”
“IT. Programming. Rather be out here.”
“Me too. I used to do network management. Don’t think I’m going to miss it.”
Hidden in plain sight. My task was to keep Phil hidden. Security now had only one objective: find, and capture or eliminate Phil. Strange, in the age of technology, that it would come to one person. Computer power only got you so far. You needed insight.
I looked around us at the rest stop. About twenty of us in this small group. Young, mostly. You didn’t get too many older types signing up for the self-propelled journey to the North. While we sat, I couldn’t help but scan the tree line for drones. They would be somewhere close. Tasked with a profile, a walk, a face. One face. Armed, primed.
We were both careful not to drink too much of the water at the stop. It had to be enough for all of us. Small stop. Meeniyan.
Colin had a meeting room on the top floor booked. Panoramic view, almost 360 degrees. You could see all the way from the mountains in the East, across the bay to the You Yangs in the South. He sat and waited for the troops to arrive.
Young, eager. Ian and Liuping. Only two years in the service. Their big chance. Colin could sense the excited neurons, the energy. Neat. Alert. Standard issue. Like bloody robots.
“I don’t need to stress the urgency here. You are aware of the details of the penetration attack. The sophistication. What you don’t know was how successful it was.”
There had been a general email. But it didn’t say that.
“The success of their operation is largely down to one person.”
A picture of Phil came up on the screen. Together with a smattering of data and related files.
“What do we know about him?”
Ian almost jumped out of his chair to lead their presentation.
“Born Melbourne 1977. Educated Scotch College. Top of his class years 6-12. Scholarship to Melbourne University. First class honours. Dean’s prize.”
“Top 1% intelligence.”
“Quirky. Has a taste for the low life. Drinking. Gambling. Turned away from the intellectual life. Worked as a low level manager in a software company.”
“Until he was recruited into the Abromowitz group. Recently. In November.”
“Most important achievement in that capacity?”
They both looked glum now.
“Disabling the Maryvale power station. Out of action for two months.”
Colin turned away from them and stared out at the view. Concentrated on the middle distance. Was that somebody launching a yacht at the beach in St Kilda?
Early morning in our campsite at Leongatha. Us and about two thousand others. Staging posts on the trail. If you got caught between campsites it was a problem. Food. Water. All structured now around the bicycle road north. Or for the moment, East. The mountains dictated the path. You had to cross them somewhere, but the later the better.
There had always been heavier rainfall in the south-east. So water here was less of an issue. North of the divide, there wasn’t enough water to support the pilgrimage. Here you registered with an organisation and they would arrange to have enough food and water for you. All local, all out of the local towns.
Today’s target is Port Welshpool. Misty. I stood looking out across a sea of tents. The young kids up at first light. Running, chasing through the maze of tent pegs and ropes. In the short period before their parents stirred they had the whole campsite to themselves. A football ground, it used to be. Now full time as a campsite.
I put on the glasses. Under no circumstances was I to communicate with Max, Alice or Kylie. I had a new mocked up identity that masked everything.
Phil stirred in the tent. I scanned the digital universe. Somewhere above us now the drones would be searching. Drifting like small birds, swooping and searching. Just for an identification of Phil: from the profile, the walking gait, or even better from an image of his face. Larger drones hovered and launched smaller drones. In the scan view it looked like a swarm of butterflies.
There would be a moment of pause. Just after the drone recognised the face. Soon after that moment two hundred people in our immediate vicinity, and ourselves, would vanish in a blast. Missile launched from the mother drone. It weighed on you. Just by being here we were putting these people at risk.
Now Phil was stirring. I got the gas cooker going. No food, no pedal pushing, no progress.
“Drones.” I said.
“What are our chances?”
“Wrong question. Ask yourself how to make their task harder.”
“Stick close to the group. Don’t give the larger drones a target.”
“Sounds like security through obscurity.”
“Works for a while.”
“Of course there is always Plan B.”
“Don’t bullshit. There is no Plan B.”
Then there were the scattered ground sensors. The same dust we used. Tags that picked up any transmission in a ten meter radius and relayed it. We couldn’t see them. Only scan for them. Like a ritual, us with the scanner.
Truth be known without a starting point they had a long human trail to sift through. It was going to take them a while.
Colin stared at the view as if it was the first time he had seen it. When was the first time? At the interview, fifteen years ago. He had been so young and eager. Even more than these two, he thought. Now it was like a forced march across a desert. But he didn’t like to think of the alternative.
“So what are our options?” he asked, turning to face Ian and Liuping. Ian spoke first.
“We have re-tasked the drones. Tomorrow they will start detailed searches.”
Liuping chimed in.
“With detailed analysis we can progressively narrow the search.”
They are like twins, Colin thought. Do they practice this stuff in a mirror before they come up here?
“Which might bring us to a 50 kilometre stretch of road, containing about 30,000 people.”
Ian brought up a slide.
“This is the drone search pattern. In two or three days we are confident of a location.”
“Assuming they don’t take counter measures.”
The twins looked a bit blank.
“They are travelling by bicycle.” Liuping interjected.
“In all respects they have access to the same computing resources as if they were sitting here. I’m really sick of us underestimating them, playing catchup.”
At the lunch stop, Phil was connected. He had the glasses and the gloves on. I could see the tiny movements of his fingers. It was like he was in a trance. So tiny the movements. He was totally lost in it.
“Searching?” I asked.
“Yes, but I’m setting up some alerts as well. We will know when the drones are close.”
“And we will do what?”
I didn’t like it when Phil was stuck for a plan. It didn’t happen very often.
Now the crowd was moving again. We were just west of Toora. I could see the wind farm up on the hill. Slowly moving in the slight breeze.
I could see a rider with a heavily laden bike ahead. Lots of gear. Not your normal gear. It looked like equipment of some sort. What on earth was he going to do with it? I caught up with him.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is all that gear?”
“Electronics. My profession. I need this for my work.”
“In the new settlements?”
Foresight, I thought. But a very heavy load to carry.
Later that afternoon we pulled into Port Welshpool. A major stop. So we found ourselves in the midst of thousands putting up the tents. I thought I caught a glimmer of a drone hovering over the beach. I grabbed Phil.
“Isn’t that a drone over there?”
“No. It could have been but they are on a broad loop.”
I looked around. All the people.
“Just by being here. We put all these people at risk. They could go for the scatter principle. Take everyone out.”
Phil looked straight back at me. That serious look.
“They need confirmation. They wouldn’t be certain that they had eliminated us.”
I looked around. Phil looked around also.
“You want to tell them who we are. Why we are here?”
“Yes. Of course we put them at risk.”
So many people.
“The objective?” He asked.
“To arrive north of Orbost. Undetected.”
“You got us into this.”
“You’re not going to start on about Kylie.”
“Ha. Of course.”
“The only reason I’m here. But why are you here?”
“I’m here because I want to be here. So are these people. Yes, I know that we can’t tell them everything. What do you think they would say?”
“I don’t know. That’s what worries me.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. They would say: Holy Shit, what a prime target. Then they would think a bit. There has to be a way out of the situation we all find ourselves in. We can’t go on this way. We have to break the cycle. You and I are the only thing here that can change that.”
I stared back. Nothing to say.
“Now, are we going to cook something, or what?”
Again the tent city collapsed itself. Synchronised almost. One or two would collapse, then the rest followed in a wave. Soon everyone was packed and moving.
The heat. Even at this time of the morning you could feel it. It was frightening, because it meant the risk of fires. Out here stretched out in the long line, we would be very exposed. From here on it was almost all forest. Dense forest.
You had to put that out of your mind. The straggling caravan. Riding in a steady rhythm. East.
Colin had all communications on bypass. He could do that for a few minutes. Before somebody overrode the settings. Even the simple things like getting to work were a real struggle now. Elaborate security for the kids. Bugger it if I’m going to come to work with an armed escort, he thought. If it comes to that I’ll just give it away. And do what?
Then it was time for the morning briefing. The eager twins. Shit.
He shuffled into the conference room. “Morning. I trust we are making progress.”
“We have a new tack. Psychological analysis. It indicates a strong tendency to take control of a situation. To take responsibility.”
“Oh, I see. So we should issue an appeal. They should take responsibility for putting my retirement fund in peril?” Colin stared back at them.
Where do they get them from? Now they were beginning to show signs of being annoyed. Good, he thought.
“We would like to make use of this profile.”
“Fine. Whatever. We are out of time.”
I liked to slow down, and ride with the kids. They were determined. They had grown up on bicycles, so they were part of a new fitter generation. Today a series of small hills. You could see the next hill only when you got to the top. Always another. As far as you could see the column stretched in both directions. Of course it stretched all the way back to Melbourne, and all the way to north of Brisbane in the direction we were going.
The butterflies looped across the road. As if they were escorting us. On the flat stretches we bunched tightly together - everyone travelling at the same speed. But on the hills we stretched out in a long straggly line.
This part of the road was all forest. It had been a park for a very long time, and the vegetation came right up to the edge of the road. Today would be hot, and we would welcome the shade.
“Magic day.” I said to Phil.
“Beats the office.”
“I wonder whether there will ever be an office again?”
“Sure. This will all be over before you know it.”
“Small country. No friends. Toast.”
I tried to imagine the wall of lights. It was fading, which I took as a good sign.
A glint in the sky. Above the column. I knew what it was, even from this distance. The drones would swoop and dive over the column, searching for us. We were riding along a flat stretch, with a hill in front of us. The drone was above the hill. It was stationary. I was transfixed.
A puff of smoke. A pause. An arc from the drone to the column. The missile found its mark. A muffled explosion. Then another.
Everyone in the column looked forward, surged forward. The children screamed. I looked across at Phil.
“Quick. We have to help.”
Phil stopped. Just stood staring ahead. Not saying anything. Then he turned and looked straight at me.
“No. No. We can’t. The whole purpose of that strike is to find us.”
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
I threw the bike to the ground. Stood right next to him. Tears streaming down my face. For I knew that he was right.
By the time we got to the site of the attack, it was almost cleaned up. Just a few of the lightly wounded waiting. We were careful to stay within the centre of the convoy.
That night we had a campfire.
“Orbost?” I asked.
How were we going to ride on our own? When we turned north, we would be two figures on our own. Easier for a satellite coming over to zoom in on us. A drone could be over us within a few minutes. A missile not long after.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Nothing that will work. Half-baked stuff.”
Now I was really worried. Smartest guy in the room. Always. It was a comforting thing. Here we were, in new territory.
I guess Alice, Kylie were already at the camp. Max also. I would have liked to ask them. But we were forbidden. No outward communication at all.
So I drifted off to sleep with thoughts of drones buzzing in my head. Swarming. The flash. Then oblivion.
The mood over breakfast continued. As if we had a sentence hanging over our heads. Setting off into a slight headwind.
I tried juggling it in my mind. Greatest strength as greatest weakness. Random things. Repetitive hacks. Nothing.
The long line of bicycles was like a moving social club. I caught up to Frederick. Somehow his eccentricity appealed as a comfort.
“What altitude are we at?” I asked. Knowing that he would have the answer.
“Only about 350 metres here.”
“Do we have to climb much today?”
“Only about 400 metres. Depends how far we go.”
“I find the small hills tough.”
“The kids struggle as well.”
“You mentioned that you used to work in communications. Did you like it?”
“I had a great job in a lab. I did diagnostic work.”
“Know much about drones?”
I was on the edge here. I tried not to put a note of desperation in my voice. Frederick turned round and looked at me. I could see him working it through. Looking across at Phil. Thinking back to the attack.
We came to a rest stop. In violation of every protocol, I just spilled it all. I explained who Phil and I were, and what we were trying to do. He only asked a few questions. Thoughtful. He explained about the onboard GPS on the drones, how it was possible to confuse them.
After the rest, I caught up with Phil. Told him what I’d done. He didn’t say anything either. He just looked into the long distance, and then said.
“Sometimes you just have to take a leap into the dark.”
In the morning, raindrops on the tent. Not strong rain, but it meant packing up in the rain. Stretching out tarpaulins we tried to catch as much as we could for drinking.
Now I was thinking only of the end. That I would miss the daily bustle. The long line of refugees. The companionship. Out on our own it was going to be much tougher.
Colin stared across the table at Ian and Liuping. They didn’t have to summarise the situation. The urgency.
“They didn’t fall for it.”
“No. They just know us well.”
“Suggestions?” Colin asked.
“Use a massive hashtag spray. Grab everything and try an identification.”
“Send a fake message.”
“Massive swarm of drones.”
Desperation was evident.
Lakes Entrance. Used to be a holiday spot. I could remember going there as a kid. Now, we came over the hill and looked down on it. At low tide the water on the main street was only about 10 centimetres deep, but at high tide about 70 centimetres. Not much, but enough for the whole town to be abandoned. We had to stay in the hills, cut through and rejoin the highway. Dirt tracks mostly. At least the cover was good.
Next morning I put on the glasses. You could see the drones swooping. Again and again they came in low.
I looked across at Frederick. He had a small pistol, like a dart gun. I gave him the glasses, and then watched. Aiming carefully, he fired once and missed. Sat back, took more careful aim upwards. Then I could see one of the drones fall beside the road.
Catching up, Phil and Frederick had the drone. They had already powered it off.
“You better go on ahead. We’ll catch you.”
Orbost is a small place. Used to be mostly timber logging. We rode past the abandoned sawmill. Down the hill, and across a large wooden bridge. Hard to imagine the floods, but you could see the markers and realise that at the highest point they would be just below the bridge itself.
Here we were at the turning point. I waited for Phil and Frederick. Our direction was north, and up. Lots of up.
Like a war room. Colin sitting at the back. Not really directing operations, just sitting. Big screen. Huge screen. About twenty people sitting at smaller screens. Some with glasses on. Visualisations. Fancy analyses going on.
“That’s a lock on Phil in the top right corner display.” Ian eager to show the results that he finally had. A result.
“Excellent. I want verification. Keep tracking.”
The red dot on the screen kept moving along the road. Steadily. Only occasional visuals. Tree cover blocked out most of the time.
“When you have it you know what to do.”
“Verified?” Colin asked.
“Not yet complete.”
Colin stared at the screen. Something was not right.
“Give me a full frequency analysis of that signal.”
“Huh. What for?”
“Just do it.”
A few moments later the analysis came up. Colin responded.
“Look at that. You’ve been hacked. It’s totally artificial. Hacked to the road pattern.”
The eager twins stared at it. As if their favourite puppy had just been run over by a car. Which, in a sense, it had.