Frontier Futures

Intellectual preparation for a more challenging future. If I can be bothered.

Down Maria – A Short Story

The fence looked smaller somehow.  He was sure it was the same – standard chain-link and razor wire, and slightly faded “Australian Government: Prohibited Area” signs every twenty-five metres.  Yet smaller – if only in the scale of the threat it promised, even if not in its physical dimensions.  As their car pulled up at the gate, he realised it wasn’t the fence that had changed, but the entrance.  The concrete strongpoint that had long guarded the only access route had gone, replaced by a neatly painted weatherboard guardroom and a matching sentry box by the boom.  They looked rather like they might be hired out for low-budget historical movies.   However, the figure that emerged from the sentry box was not an extra from a colonial scene, but an Australian Federal Police officer for whom admitting their vehicle was clearly the highlight of an uneventful morning.

She chattered as she checked his and the driver’s ID and filled in her register, so he felt bold enough to ask her, “What happened to the old bunker?”

The policewoman chuckled.  “They broke it up last year.  The plumbing was crook, and when they came to fix it, they realised some genius had laid the drains under the concrete base.   No dunny, no guard house. So they thought they’d get ahead of the game and replace it with something that might be useful once the island’s decommissioned.  Been here before then?”

“Yes.  A few times.”  As he said the words, he suddenly felt much older than could reasonably be attributed to the jet lag he was still feeling.  The truth was that he had been here eight times in thirty years.  The island had been a constant for much of his adult life, a destination of strange, regular pilgrimage, here at the ends of the earth.  And now the block house was gone, and they were thinking ahead to shutting up shop.  Of course they were.  There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever.  Where did that leave him?

“Better get going.” said the policewoman.  “Boat’s leaving soon.”

He could have kissed her for breaking that particular train of thought.


Francis O’Riordan was sixty five years old.  Almost exactly.  In fact, one of the particular benefits of this trip had been the chance it offered to spend his birthday with his daughter and her family in Melbourne, a day of joyfully befuddled celebration that had started as soon as his grandchildren saw him walking out of the arrivals gate at the airport.  The pleasure of seeing the children and Annie was intense, driving out all the fatigue of his long journey, and punctuated only occasionally by the stabbing pain of the remembrance that Sylvie would never see them again.  This wasn’t like his other trips to or from the island, stopping to see Annie on the way, knowing that her mother was safely but jealously back in London, waiting to hang on Francis’ every word describing their growing band of grandchildren.   Now Sylvie was dead, and when the monthly flight finally took him back to Heathrow, he would return to an empty house, with no one to tell about the rampaging horde of hooligans clattering around the old rectory on the other side of the world.  He had lain awake that night in a dry river bed of grief, from which he thought he had escaped months earlier, until the clank and crash of the first tram of the morning in the street outside had returned him gratefully to the world of the living.

There was no space for grief the following night, as an angry Bass Strait crossing focused every waking thought on not losing the rather good dinner he had unwisely tucked into before the ferry had left its moorings in Melbourne.   The next morning, he had slept for most of the train ride from Devonport, waking as the train slowed to cross the Derwent on its way into Hobart’s northern suburbs.  His tiredness and sadness were gone, his mind clear now.  He spent the afternoon re-reading the case files he had brought with him from London, and reviewing the prison intelligence and psychologists’ reports that had awaited him at his Hobart hotel.  He had time to attend choral evensong at the Cathedral before enjoying a deep and uninterrupted sleep.  Next day, the journey out to Triabunna was a pleasure to him – the paddocks green from the winter’s rains, and the rolling hillsides of forest rich and deeply shadowed in the spring sunshine.

So the realisation that the work of the island might slowly and inexorably be coming to an end – and with it, his own relationship with this place – was deeply jarring.  And a few moments’ reflection showed that this reality was, of course, utterly unsurprising.  He couldn’t help but feel angry with himself for not having considered the obvious possibility that this might be his last trip to the island.  This bad mood was still with him as the motor launch docked at Darlington and he stepped onto the jetty.


This visit, the United Nations contingent guarding the facility were South Africans.  It was something of a polite fiction; in truth, Australia operated the facility and provided the backbone of its staff – whether that was the correctional services officers and domestic staff who travelled across from Triabunna every day, or the navy and air defence units who quietly watched the waters and skies around Maria.  Nevertheless, every six months a new detail of forty guards rotated through from another nation, visibly maintaining the world’s commitment to human-centred development.  Being paid in Australian dollars for the duration of their tour helped make this an appealing posting for military prison staff the world over, needless to say.

Francis was searched and screened by two guards who did a passable act as a comedy duo – a short, wiry coloured Capetonian with three gold teeth, and a tall, beefy afrikaaner whose face looked like he’d had one too many rapid impacts on the rugby pitch.  Their banter and childish double entendre cleared away the mood that had earlier seized him, and their elision of English with choice Afrikaans expletives transported him through the decades to the years he and Sylvie had spent in Pretoria when their children were tiny, lifting his spirits greatly.

Processing complete, he stepped through the control door and was inside the prison.  A woman of about forty in a Correctional Services uniform was waiting for him.

“Professor O’Riordan?  I’m Kylie Dunbar, the deputy psychologist for CST Maria.  May I?”

“Thank you”, Francis said as he gratefully passed her the large folder of briefing documents he had been juggling with his bag after the Cape Town comics had finished searching him.  He paused.  “You’re not Don Dunbar’s daughter, are you?”

She laughed.  “Yes, I am.  Dad said to say hello when he heard there was a Panel hearing coming up.”

“How is he? Retired yet?”

“Two years ago.  He’s good, thanks – making a nuisance of himself to Mum and generally not catching as many fish as he’d like to think he does.”

“What made you go into the family business?”

She laughed again.  “The stylish uniform?  No, there’s only one place on the East Coast of Tasmania with a job for an unemployed forensic psychologist who wants her kids to be close to family.   I studied psychology because I thought it would get me out of Triabunna forever, but after I graduated I realised that my dad worked at the world’s most interesting natural experiment.  Take a group of certified geniuses who used to own the world and lock them up on a rock no one has successfully escaped from in two hundred years.  Observe and discuss!”

She paused and looked at her watch.  “We’d best get over to the Superintendent’s dining room.  The rest of the Panel arrived last night, so there’s going to be some lunch and then the pre-Hearing discussion starts at 2.30.  We’ll have your bag taken over to your room.”


He always enjoyed the lunches on Maria.   Running the facility was a curious mix of tedium and readiness, and the pattern had been set early that the staff needed to be well looked after.  He was very pleased to see that the signs of winding down had not extended to the kitchens, and the food did not disappoint.  Nor did the company.

Collins had been the Australian Superintendent for a good few years.  He was a dour-looking man who defied expectations with his dry but sympathetic humour.   Next to him sat Mkhize, the South African Commandant.  There were four other Panel members alongside O’Riordan, two of whom he knew well of old – Anand George, the Indian Supreme Court Justice, and Mariam Petrossian, the technology threat assessor from the Office of the UN Secretary General.  The third was Jens Olstrom, a Danish behavioural psychologist whom Francis knew by reputation.  Collins introduced to him to the fourth – who, by convention, was furnished by the nation on rotation at the time of each Hearing.

“This is Nonkonzo Mda, our South African member this year.”

“Professor O’Riordan, it’s a pleasure to meet you after reading so much of your work.”

She was a small, slight woman, perhaps in her late fifties.  Her face had a sleepy look, and her tightly locked hair was pepper-potted with grey.  Yet her eyes twinkled slyly and she moved with a precision that spoke of anything  but sleepiness.  She was seated next to him at the lunch table, so they chatted as the food was served.

“Your accent, Nonkonzo – where is it from?”  Francis asked, not quite able to place the South African’s speech pattern.

She chuckled.  “All over, Professor.  I’m a child of exile.  I was born in Zambia, primary school in London, high school in Moscow, university in Jo’burg when we returned after Democracy, doctorate in Heidelberg.  I confuse myself if I’m not careful.”

“And how did that road end up here?”

“Ah.”  She chuckled again, in a way that Francis found unaccountably pleasing.  “An unusual combination of specialisations and a very poor eye for the career choices that would get you to the top in Pretoria.”

He laughed, recognising the pattern of his own life in her description.  They chatted about Pretoria and London for a while, before being drawn into an animated discussion between Kylie Dunbar and Olstrom on the merits of predictive profiling.

After lunch they moved to the Hearing Room.   It was a large boardroom, internally like any other corporate meeting space – yet it was screened and insulated to make it impervious to penetration by any known eavesdropping technique.  Not that anyone was trying now, to the best of their knowledge, but maintaining the old disciplines had served the facility well over the decades.

Collins called them to order after they had taken their allotted places behind their name plaques around the table.

“Ladies and gentleman, let us commence the pre-Hearing procedures for the fourth parole application for Mark Franklin Rothko, prisoner number GZ037.  Please identify yourselves for the record.”

After the Panel and the other attending officers had done so, Collins continued.

“You all appreciate the significance of this hearing.  Rothko is the last prisoner on the island, since Wei Xu and Davenant’s deaths last year.  I would remind you that – much as the Australian Government might be pained by my saying so – issues of cost must play no part in your deliberations.  This facility was established by international treaty to incarcerate those convicted of crimes against humanity until they pose no further threat.  That is the only the factor you should give decisive weight in your discussions.  There are those who argue Rothko’s continued detention is wasteful, and who would ask what possible threat a seventy-three year old man could pose to the world today.  You, however, have the fullest possible evidence at your disposal, and are able to make the most informed decision on the real risks at play here.”

And so their discussion began.  They had all consumed many hundreds of pages of briefing, and three of the five Panel members had, of course, heard at least one of Rothko’s previous parole applications.  But the basic facts of Rothko’s case always made O’Riordan experience a flush of angry disbelief at his sheer arrogance.

Rothko had made an immense fortune in tech.  At first, he had done so the traditional way – a social media start up sold for a record price, and the establishment of a lavishly endowed foundation.  Yet, unlike most of his peers, Rothko had quickly parlayed his first fortune into a set of companies that continued to make massive profits year after year, pumping ever more money into his “foundation for the future human”.  So far, so good.  But after the signing of the Dushanbe Protocols, rather than terminating his work on Artificial Intelligence, Rothko had doubled down on it – scarcely even in secrecy.  More than that, when the police finally raided Transcentis laboratories in five different countries, not only did they find AI installations that showed every sign of being fully active and connected off-site, but also human subjects with wetware connections to his AI networks.  They were all willing and handsomely paid – mainly migrant workers sending large remittances home – but they had undergone neurosurgery and ongoing drug treatment, sometimes for years.  And all were significantly changed, in ways that left their interviewers and investigators disturbed.

It was the human subject work which had really resulted in Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu receiving the longest sentences of all the antihumanists.  Surprisingly many firms had continued with AI research after Dushanbe, confident their will would prevail.  It had been a great shock to them when coordinated raids across the globe had pulled them from their beds or their boardrooms; still more salutary when one corporation – perhaps tipped off in advance – chose to lock down their facility and resist arrest.  The level of lethal force used by the Canadian authorities that day left no one in any doubt that the rules had changed beyond recognition.  Yet only the owners of Transcentis could be shown to have used altered humans in their illegal AI work.   The Special Tribunal had reflected these ethics violations in its sentencing, handing down an additional ten years for each beyond the basic sentences all had received for (in the familiar words of a verdict that had changed history in the precedent it set) “…defying international law while knowingly and wilfully exposing all humanity to existential risk for the purposes of private profit.”

Ultimately, though, they all knew that Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu had remained on the island far longer than the forty two others originally sentenced with them for one reason alone – their defiance.  All the others had settled in the end.  They had recanted, publicly renounced the goal of Artificial Intelligence, and agreed to parole terms that essentially forbade them from any contact with anything remotely resembling a computing device for the rest of their lives.  By the time most of them left Maria this hadn’t been hard; twenty years of degrowth and restabilisation had relegated their kinds of technology to niche functions in key public services – dull, utilitarian, and under tight, if discreet, control by the authorities to avoid unduly tempting enquiring minds.

The three old men of the island had been made of different stuff.    They had refused to concede any wrongdoing.  They railed at their confinement.  They wrote prolifically and worked together every day on grand projects, doubling and redoubling their efforts as the number of their fellow convicts dwindled.  They raged with contempt at each new parolee who accepted the inevitable and left Maria to make his or her peace with a new reality.  Once only the three of them remained, their rage had settled, and they had established a way of life that might have been best described as monastic in its routines. Yet they remained incarcerated not because the authorities wished to punish their defiance, but because they feared it.  Not in its spirit, but its implication.  These men had a hope; they appeared to remain utterly convinced that they could return the world to its rightful path towards the Singularity and immortality.  They shrugged off the delay caused by the Great Transition and its absurd insistence on the equality and beauty of unaugmented, unadorned humans as if it were nothing more than the irritating bites of insects.  Of course, to the intelligence specialists who monitored their conversations and writings, this raised the very worrying question of why they remained so resolute.  Did they know of secret resources, hidden away to await their release?  Was there some remnant movement at large, biding its time until its leaders emerged from prison?  Could there, almost inconceivably, still be AIs running quietly, sequestered out of sight, far better able to hide in a world of limited connectivity than their forebears had been in the days of the turning?  The only possible risk management strategy must be to keep these anti-human prophets safely under lock and key.

Davenant and Wei Xu’s deaths had been unexpected.  Davenant had succumbed to a highly aggressive brain cancer in just a few months, which autopsy suggested must have metastasised even before his first symptoms were visible.  Some of the medical staff had insinuated that it may have been related to the unconventional anti-ageing therapies he had enthusiastically partaken of in the years before his conviction, but this assertion did not find its way into any official records.   Wei Xu, by contrast, appeared almost to have chosen to die, retreating into himself after Davenant’s death and suffering a massive stroke only six weeks after his friend and former start-up partner had died.  The emergency facilities on Maria were as good as any teaching hospital’s (better, as the Principal Medical Officer liked to joke, because there were no trainees to get in the way), but Wei Xu was dead within eight hours of collapsing.

That left only Rothko.  But did it change the risk calculus?


The Panel was not without compassion.  For ten months, Rothko had effectively been in solitary confinement, an old man whose last friends were now dead.  But that in itself posed them a problem.  There were no longer any transcripts of unguarded conversations between prisoners to provide insights.  Kylie Dunbar and the other psychologists noted an increasing withdrawal from his previous activities, and some evidence of depression, although Rothko was wholly unwilling to participate in any form of therapeutic regime.  News of the birth of a grandchild appeared initially to have caused excitement, but this had rapidly given way to despondency.   Rothko’s writings had decreased greatly in number and length, falling back to little more than weekly notes to his wife and daughter.  Where once he was haughty and defiant with prison guards and welfare staff, now he was compliant and quiet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Panel split between the lawyers and the threat specialists.  George and Olstrom clearly saw a broken man who had been incarcerated for thirty-two years, who had lost his only remaining friends.  Patrossian and Mda saw a man who had nothing to lose, whose release might allow one last throw of the dice in the game of madness which had only narrowly been thwarted years before.  And that, of course, left the decision to O’Riordan, as chair.

During afternoon tea, he had left the Hearing Room for some fresh air.  He stood outside and breathed in the warm, dampening air.   The sky to the East darkened over the Tasman Sea as a storm birthed itself, and the great mass of Bishop and Clerk brooded over him.  O’Riordan wished he could slip past the chain-link fence and make his way up the mountain to hide as the cloud rolled in from the sea.  He felt someone touch his arm, and turned slightly to see Mda standing beside him.

She looked up into his face, her eyes now sad rather than twinkling as they had at lunchtime.  “This is hard”, she said.  “But it was hard when we fought them.  You remember how hard.  I know your story, Francis.  It is the same as mine.  Neither of us chose to be revolutionaries, I think.  Rather the Revolution chose us.  And because we fought them hard and early, the Revolution was able to become a Transition, and not a river of blood.

“That old man in there is sad and suffering.  But he is powerful too.  We cannot let that power out when there is any chance his machines remain in the world.  We do not speak of that risk in public any more, yet you and I both know we did not find all their machines, or even all their wetware.  Just because he is old and filled with grief, does not mean he is safe.  There is only one thing we can do.”

Her fingers brushed his as she turned and walked away.  He stood for several minutes, not wishing to release the memory of the comfort of her touch. As the first drops of rain hit his face, he knew that this would not be his last visit to the island.   Tomorrow he would tell that to Rothko.  Then he might take that walk up Bishop and Clerk.



After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis – Out Now!

Just back from a fantastic holiday in the Snowy Mountains and the Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. Probably the first holiday in years where everyone has enjoyed every day – for those among you with larger families, you will appreciate that this is an achievement of surpassing significance…And the most wonderful way to spend my birthday!

In the meantime, I’m delighted to report that my first story on this site, Crown Prerogative, has now been released in John Michael Greer’s new anthology After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis. The book is now available in electronic format from Founder’s House Publishing, and details of the paperback version will be provided soon. Please do take a look at:

Crown Prerogative is still available here on Frontier Futures – while it may be indicative of my lack of business acumen it just seems wrong to take it down. But I would thoroughly recommend taking a look at the After Oil anthologies, because there are some great stories in them!

1984 revisited

1984 revisited.

1984 revisited

George Orwell’s 1984 has come back to me twice in the last couple of months, in that way that nags and prods until you accept that you need to respond. I first read 1984 in that very year – at the age of seventeen. That same year I was studying for the Oxford entrance exams, and was reading Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) on ideology, the Cold War was still far from thawing, and it all seemed very clear that this was a cautionary tale about communism. As indeed it was. And in any case, there were girls to be pursued, which provided a highly effective regulator to over-intellectualisation.

Thirty years later, I read it again. On a sad visit back to my parents’ house; now just my father’s house, following my mother’s death last year, as we prepared for her funeral. And 1984 popped off the shelf at me. I couldn’t really swear it was the very same physical book I had read 30 years ago – but it might have been. And it gripped me and engrossed me in the long hours of the night as I battled jet lag and sadness.

Then, a week or two ago, I was led to bdhesse’s excellent blog and her piece on The Problem with Dystopians

She makes an interesting argument, namely that claims of how closely our world now resembles Orwell’s 1984 are grossly overblown, and that we need not worry that literary dystopias will come to pass in the real world. Indeed, just as history does not, in fact, repeat itself exactly, naturally neither will science fiction dystopias manifest themselves anywhere near word for word. I should say, though, that I am less convinced by her argument that this is because “That world is never going to happen because there is no benefit in it for anyone.” Sadly, in all the real dsytopias we have managed to create in this world, there has never been a shortage of those who find a way to benefit.

As I re-read 1984 last year, far from home, and in the altered state of grief and fatigue, I noticed a very important thing. Something I really had no memory of from my first reading, thirty years earlier. That was Orwell’s book within the book – The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the thought criminal Emmanuel Goldstein. To quote from Chapter 1 (“Ignorance is Strength”):

“Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low…The aims of these groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim – for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives – is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.”

So don’t worry as to whether the Ministry of Truth has manifested itself in the form of the Murdoch press and the instant news cycle. Don’t worry about whether your webcam and your other devices serve the same function as a tele screen, to monitor your every word and action. Rather let us address that part of the dystopia which is well and truly alive and uncannily accurate. The real question, as 21st century capitalism dives ever deeper into inequality, economic and ecological crisis, is for each of us to ask ourselves where we fit in Orwell and Goldstein’s hierarchy. Where that might take us. And whether there is anything at all we can do about that…

Down Maria – Post #2

Down Maria – Post #2.

Down Maria – Post #2

Jenny and her daughter walked slowly down the steps from the viewing platform on top of the cable car tower, not really wishing to tear their gaze from the view below. They had seen it many times before, yet today it seemed more perfect than ever. In the bright winter sunlight, Hobart stretched out in its comfortable sprawl below, hugging the contours of the hills down to the shores of the Derwent. The water glistened in the sunshine, sparkling blues and whites dancing in the broad river and the bays stretching East to the Peninsula and the ocean beyond. Behind the glass of the viewing platform, the sun had felt strong and the waters below had spoken of contented summer days soon to come. Out on the steps, though, the wind reminded them that Antarctica still ruled for now. Emily cried out to her mother, half in laughter and half in pain as the chill bit into her exposed face and ears, and increased her pace down the stairs.

“Come on, Mum, let’s get inside and have a coffee before my nose falls off!”

“I told you to wear a hat” Jenny said, laughing inside herself as the words came out. How ludicrous to be chiding her daughter like a child, she thought, as she watched the poised and graceful young woman dance down the steps ahead of her like the ballerina she was. For all her twenty eight years, her daughter had danced through life in joy. Jenny followed rapidly too, her own hat doing less than she would have liked to keep the cold scalpel of the wind out.

They scuttled across the car park and roadway to the café, laughing in relief as the door swung closed behind them.

“What do you want, Mum?” Emily asked her as she strode towards the queue at the counter.

“Just a flat white, please love. I’m just going to the ladies, OK?”

Jenny turned and looked for the toilets. Ahead of her, a woman pushed a stroller with a baby inside and a little boy riding on the back. Her face showed such an intensity of focus on reaching the change room that Jenny had to smile. As the young mother struggled to open the door while still controlling the stroller, Jenny reached out and held the door for her, saying “Here, let me.” The younger woman’s plaintive smile of gratitude seemed close to tears.

When Jenny came out of the toilet, she paused to look out of the window again on her way back into the café. As she rounded the corner, she could see Emily in conversation with a man with his back to Jenny. Emily’s face was turned up attentively to look at the man, her eyes twinkling, and Jenny felt she could see the colour very gently filling her cheeks. As her daughter looked towards her, Jenny could not resist giving her a pantomime wink as she drew level with the mystery man. Emily laughed and spluttered “Mum!” indignantly, her cheeks reddening more deeply, as the man turned towards Jenny as if from a reverie.

He was tall and wiry, even under the layers of down and fleece he was wearing, with short curly hair and pale, intent blue eyes, perhaps in his early thirties. On her first glance she thought he was beautiful. And on her second she knew that he was the most beautiful man she had ever met.

Jenny stood rooted to the spot, her mind freezing as her heart swelled in impossibility. The man also seemed paralysed, gazing intently at Jenny, before turning to look briefly at Emily and then back again. His eyes widened and he lifted his hands slightly in front of him, palms upwards.

Emily was smiling, quizzically, even as her mother stepped forward and gently took hold of the man’s upturned left hand with both of her own. His eyes were locked on Jenny’s face as she pushed up the cuff of his jacket. She looked down at his wrist and half-stifled a sob, as she traced the pink scar that ran from his wrist up his forearm and under his sleeve.

“Michael? Oh, Christ. Oh, Michael.” It was Jenny’s turn now to look from the man’s face to her daughter’s, whose smile was fading into confusion.

“Michael! What’s happening?” Another woman’s voice cut through the slow motion bubble that seemed to have enveloped them. It was the woman with the stroller. She and her children stared at the three adults in front of them expectantly. The man looked towards her, but his gaze rested on the two children, before looking back to Emily once more.

“Oh, Michael,” said Jenny again, softly letting go of the man’s hand. The café seemed to have gone silent, as she heard the blood coursing in her own head.

“Michael, please tell me what is happening here?” demanded the woman, loudly and with angry tears only just repressed. The man’s head snapped up, and for the first time he looked his wife in the eye.

“We have to go,” he said to her, and stepped towards the door.

“What?” she asked, tears now hot on her face.

“We have to go now,” he repeated, as he placed one hand on the stroller and one hand on his wife’s arm, turning both sharply towards the exit and pushing them onwards. The baby began to cry, while the little boy stared back at Jenny and Emily in fear. The baby’s cry disappeared with the thud of the door as it closed behind them.

Emily looked at her mother and simply asked “Mum?” Jenny made no reply. She stood motionless for a few seconds more, before also turning towards the door and running.

Yet she did not follow the man and his family. Instead, she careened out blindly into the biting wind and away from the café towards the cairn of rocks on the summit, where she knelt against a boulder and vomited repeatedly. The hot well of her long-forgotten sadness flowed up and out of her as if for hours, until finally the cold of the rock and the piercing air forced her to stand and stagger back into her daughter’s arms.

New Story Start – Working Title “Down Maria”

New Story Start – Working Title "Down Maria".

New Story Start – Working Title “Down Maria”

Here’s a new story start. It’s a backgrounder for something rather longer; perhaps it doesn’t belong at the beginning, but here it is. Any feedback on whether you’d want to read any more is welcome! Nicely, please…

Arkady Nikolayevich Mashenko had completed his temporal informational reflexivity theorems almost by chance; a by-product of his day job, attempting to push informational delay in financial markets to that infinitely small space right next to zero. And, of course, the great joy of working for Transcentis was that the brightest minds and tools in the world were just down the corridor, soaking up opportunities for synergy and barrier-breaking around expensive water coolers and – that year, at least – cold-drip coffee filters. There were no sceptical committees looking to trip you up; no senior colleagues hogging the research grants while quietly and effectively keeping you in your place by planting seeds of doubt about your work. There were just talented, bright and excited members of a very select team, who took genuine pleasure in helping you to do something extraordinary. So the simultaneous development of field inversion generators at Transcentis had seemed to be the kind of radical serendipity that simply had to be.

In later life, Arkady Nikolayevich came to realise that he would willingly have sat through a thousand ethics committees and institutional review panels, if but one of them would have stopped his work. He came to long for a world in which some insipid bureaucrat had decided his work was too risky, or too unlikely to advance the institution’s research assessment rating. In the beginning, it was the banality and smallness of how they had ultimately used his work that appalled him. Yet it didn’t take long before it was quite simply the consequences of its application that came to disgust him.

Indeed, as Arkady’s path of prayer grew deeper and his pilgrimages to the Orthodox shrines of his native Crimea grew longer, he realised that there was no serendipity in his early work. In truth, it had been a time of mortal temptation. A test that he and all those around him had failed so utterly that the Devil must have laughed so hard that the torments of hell were briefly interrupted. He fully grasped the irony of the fact that, as the man who had effectively invented time travel, he could do nothing to change either the present or the future his work had unlocked. So he had devoted almost every day of the last four decades of his life to seeking forgiveness, and to interceding in prayer for all those whose lives his genius had so unimaginatively blighted.

Arkady Nikolayevich died with some calm in his heart, satisfied that the sheer labour he had applied to this path of prayerful repentance went at least a little way to balancing the unthinking and lazy brilliance of his youthful idea. He passed peacefully, seated in his favourite armchair at his daughter’s dacha, with the joyful shouts of his grandchildren playing in the garden as the last sounds he heard.

Not so for far too many of those whose lives his work had inadvertently touched down multiplicative streams of years.

On Diversity in Science Fiction & Fantasy

Crown Prerogative – a short story

They had made good time from the end of the railway line. The weather was cool and the horses were pleased to be off the clanking, jolting train, with its hot clouds of wood-pellet smoke and steam; and the going was easy along the old highway. The bush was growing in thick either side of the road, but the asphalt was still mainly intact, the white lines fading slowly away as the road surface took on a grey-purple tinge. Donaldson could hear his grandfather’s voice saying “what do you expect boy, that cost good tax-payer’s money.” Now it was a road to nowhere, speeding ahead to nothing but the blackened ruins of half a dozen country towns that hadn’t survived the Big Fire. Neither the men nor the horses liked passing through them. Brick hearths and chimneys stood out from the rich green scrub like some ancient monster’s teeth, while here and there stood untouched but long-abandoned buildings, grinning at them like enchanted houses from some nightmare fairy tale. He could see the men’s grip on their carbines tighten as they entered each village and loosen as they left. But this was not where they were going to find trouble, he reminded himself.

It was as they left the last of the burned-out towns that they met the Palawa, sitting quietly on the river bank. Unlike the highway itself, the big road bridge ahead of them was now little more than rusty beams and the empty air between them, yet next to it sat a yellow sandstone bridge that had probably been built by convicts soon after Settlement; its arches and cobbles patiently sitting out the centuries and waiting for the clatter of horseshoes to return. There were three Palawa; two very young men, and a much older man. All three wore sealskin cloaks and boots, and carried bags and pouches slung over their shoulders alongside long, powerful-looking bows. They left their spears at their feet as they rose to greet the approaching party. Donaldson paused for a second before he dismounted, wrestling away a sudden fear that he was about to make some terrible yet unknowable mistake. He dropped to the ground and passed his reins to Trooper Jackson, then motioned Mackay, the aboriginal policeman, to join him. The two of them scrambled down from the road to the river bank to join the Palawa men. Mackay stepped ahead of Donaldson, opening his hands in greeting.

“ya pulingina” he said, nodding to each of the Palawa in turn.

“ya pulingina milaythina mana mapali tu” replied the older of the three men, nodding back to Mackay and Donaldson. His face broke into a broad smile, radiating out from a thousand creases and wrinkles. He laughed out loud and turned to Donaldson. “Don’t worry, son. I still speak the King’s English. Even these boys here do if you twist their arm.” Donaldson looked to the two younger men, who smiled in embarrassment.

“You are welcome in our land” said the shorter of the two, in a songlike accent unlike any Donaldson had ever heard before. His companion just smiled again, and spread his hands in the same gesture Mackay had used.

“My name’s Mikey Daniels,” said the old man. “I took a clan name when we come out here, but it never really stuck. Never knew it was me they was talking to when someone called me. So I went back to what me old mum named us.”

Donaldson’s mind raced as he took that in. This was one of the original Treaty reclaimers? That must make him eighty years old if he was a day. But then he could have been anything between fifty and a hundred, this skinny old geezer with sinews like metal hawsers under a skin like an elephant’s hide.

“These lads here are Maulboyheener and Rolepa”, Mikey stated, gesturing first at the shorter man and then to the taller.
“G’day” said Donaldson, perhaps rather deliberately. “I’m James Donaldson. Tasmanian Light Horse. It’s an honour to meet you. This is Police Sergeant Geoff Mackay.”

The old man nodded. He turned to look at the troops waiting up on the road, and Donaldson saw his eye rest long on the mule train carrying their two pack howitzers and the machine gun tripods. He turned back slowly, the smile no longer filling the folds of his face.


They had called him to the barracks first. Jacobs, the Army Commandant for Hobart, had been apologetic – “Sorry to call you in so soon before harvest, James, but you’re the best bloke for this job.” Not the first time his plans had been screwed up by a mobilisation, after all – and at least this time Ellie wasn’t about to have a baby. But rather than receiving his travel warrant and beginning another long journey north to the mainland and beyond to some desultory tropical stand-off, this time he found himself being driven across town with Jacobs in his staff car. Seeing the passing trolleys and trams from the car window was quite a novelty for Donaldson; he savoured the feeling as if he were a little boy once more, and that sensation in turn filled him with an unaccountable longing. Not something he could explain to Jacobs, who in any case was fully absorbed in his efforts to flick some intruding substance visible only to himself from the brim of his slouch hat. Jacobs raised his eyes as the car drew through the gates of Government House and looked at Donaldson. “Ready?” was all he said, before an orderly opened his car door and he stepped out onto the gravel, putting his hat back on with precision and evident satisfaction that it now met his standard for cleanliness. Ready for what, though, Donaldson at that stage had no idea whatsoever.

They were led onto a verandah where they waited long enough to be served morning tea by another white-jacketed orderly. Donaldson stared out over the sparkling waters of the Derwent, the morning sun already burning white in the sky, although the air was still fresh. A bulk windjammer under Chilean flag was being towed carefully under the bridge by a tug to load up at the zinc works, her four masts reaching nearly as high as the great arc of the bridge itself. Further downriver, three graceful white pinisiq in full sail were putting in to Macquarie Wharf, ready to unload their cargoes of coffee and spices before returning to Sumatra with new loads of grain and wool. In the foreground, a train puffed and wheezed its way out of the port railyards and along the riverside, wagons swaying along the track as it passed the botanical gardens. He looked around as a door opened, and a secretary requested that they follow her inside.

They were shown into a large room, where a group of men were seated round an imposing table. Donaldson had collected himself sufficiently from his earlier reverie to salute the Governor on entering the room, who was seated at the head of the group. The Governor waved them to seats at the table, as Donaldson took in with some surprise those other members of the group he could recognise. “Captain Donaldson”, said the Governor, “You know the Premier? The Solicitor General, and the Police Commissioner?” He nodded, somewhat stupidly – he didn’t really know them, although he had once declared his ardent passion for the Premier’s younger sister at a grade ten combined social. She had not been impressed.

The Premier had started the meeting, staring intently at the two soldiers through the thick lenses of his wire-framed glasses. “We have a problem in the Treaty territory,” he had begun, “and we need to resolve it promptly and decisively.”
“We and the Palawa have always respected the terms of the Treaty very carefully, as you know,” he continued. “Once the land grant was made, and the Reclaiming clans returned to their lands there, it was agreed that there would be no further contact between the Palawa and the outside world unless it was explicitly initiated by the Palawa. While there has been a certain amount of – shall we say – traffic between the Reclaimers and the majority of Aboriginal people who chose to remain among us, we have turned a blind eye.” Donaldson saw the Commissioner of Police suppress a chuckle. “Our only formal contact has been an annual visit by an immunisation team, to give them some chance against pandemics. And they have never asked us for any other help before.”

“But this year, the immunisation team came back with a message from the Palawa leaders. They had been attacked by armed white men and several of their young men killed. They are invoking the terms of the Treaty to seek the Crown’s protection from this threat. And that, Captain Donaldson, is where you come in.”

The Governor sat forward in his chair at this point. “I have spoken with Canberra about this at length, as you would expect.” He looked down into his coffee cup reflectively, as if inspiration lay in its dregs. “We agree that upholding the terms of the treaty is paramount. And the Australian Government believes that this is a job for the Army, not just the state police. And both Governments therefore accept that this may have consequences in terms of the level of force that may be used in this operation. Michael here will be able to advise you further, won’t you?” he said, looking at the Solicitor-General.

“Yes, Governor. It’s pretty simple. Any reasonable and necessary force may be used by the Crown to ensure the sovereignty and integrity of the Palawa people and the Treaty lands. The Crown in the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Tasmania is their ultimate protector, and the Treaty voids the rights of any non-Palawa Australian citizen who enters the Palawa Treaty lands. Whoever attacked them – if they are still there – has no rights under Australian law. Which allows you significant discretion as to how best to execute your mission, Captain.”

They looked at him meaningfully, but Donaldson struggled to answer. He was grateful when Jacobs intervened.

“Can we tell James any more about who we might be dealing with here, Sir?”

This question was passed to the Police Commissioner, who pulled up his substantial frame to sit erect in his chair before answering gruffly, “Not a lot. No more for sure than what the Palawa told the nurses – seven or eight white fellas with rifles who attacked a hunting party and killed five of their hunters unprovoked. By now I expect the Palawa know more about who and where they are. I wouldn’t put it past them to have dealt with them themselves. We don’t know any more than that yet. But we have made an arrangement,” he said as a smile flickered over his face in pleasure at his cleverness. “You’ll rendezvous with some Palawa guides who will track them for you.”

The Commissioner spread his hands on the blotter in front of him. “Look, they could be anything. Illegal miners, illegal loggers, Deep Greenie head cases trying to be more authentic hunter-gatherers than the First Australians. We’ve seen all of them on the mainland. All we really know is that they were armed, they’re trespassing, and they shot a bunch of black fellas who were out hunting kangaroos. So they’re not good neighbours.”

The Governor stared once more into his coffee cup, as if calculating precisely how long it would be until it was refilled. He looked up as the Premier spoke. “ Two and half centuries ago, we all but exterminated the Palawa’s ancestors. The Treaty was signed to go some way to right that wrong. And the Palawa have honoured their obligations to us. If white blood has to be shed to honour our obligations to them, so be it.”

The Governor leaned forward. “We will not tolerate anarchy here, James. The Crown will uphold the Treaty. You will see to that.” And with that he rose from the table, as an orderly pulled open the patio doors for lunch.


With Mikey and his two companions leading them, it didn’t take the party long to locate the intruders; they marched for a day and half, sometimes through bush but often through open, almost park-like grasslands. The Palawa men weren’t tracking; they clearly knew exactly where they were going ahead of time, and Donaldson was not inclined to query their knowledge. For their part, the aborigines kept themselves separate from the soldiers and their officers, staying ahead and conferring quietly in Palawa-Kani from time to time – usually mindful of whether Mackay was nearby before they spoke. On the afternoon of the second day, Mikey explained that they were drawing close, and they should halt this side of an imposing ridge. Donaldson and his men established a patrol harbour, drawing the horses into the trees and setting up their hootchies. The Palawa men went off hunting, and returned some hours later very pleased with their haul of wallaby meat and duck eggs. The soldiers were less entranced by their tinned rations, but, as Squadron Sergeant Major Franklin-Tsang was keen to remind them, dinner was a parade, not a gastronomic event. They tried to get a decent sleep, for they all knew the next few nights would be busy.

In the morning, Donaldson had Mikey and his men guide his initial commanders’ recce. He took Anderson and Cohen, his own troop commanders, Duckworth, the artillery troop commander from Launceston, and Sergeant van Wijk, the machine gun section commander. Mikey led them up the big ridge on foot until they were just below its crest. He stopped them there to explain. “Other side of this ridge, you’ll see ‘em. A little way off, but it’s clear from here. They don’t have any look-outs this side, only other side.”

The men moved forward at the crouch until they crested the ridge and crawled forward into some bush from which they could see the ground in front of them. Before them, a broad valley opened out to the sea beyond. The valley was deep rainforest, filled with trees that had stood long before the French had first sailed up the sparkling coast that lay beyond, the first European eyes to take in this land. A river flowed down the valley, opening out in the coastal plain into a series of great lagoons behind sand spits, traversed by a bridge, which was the only visible sign of a road which seemed to have been consumed by the growing forest around it. But it took all of them only seconds before their eyes were drawn further upriver. The green of the rainforest canopy gave way at one point along the river to a broad swathe of brown and grey mud. Felled trees lay beside the river on both sides, while the river itself seemed to turn from sparkling silver to shimmering black just beyond that opening in the forest. As they looked more closely, bringing binoculars up to their eyes in silence, they could make out plumes of smoke and structures of some kind – small, but many of them. And tiny figures, on the river bank and in the water itself. Donaldson counted at least thirty on his first attempt. He put down his binoculars and turned to Mikey.

“What are they doing?”

“You’ll see, soon enough,” the old man replied. “They don’t come up this way much,” he continued. “They go down to the sea when the ship comes for ‘em.”

“When does the ship come?” asked Donaldson.

“Every couple of months, we reckon,” said Mikey. “Probably soon.”

So they stayed on top of the ridge for a couple of hours, discussing how best to recce the camp below, how to work their way around unseen, and how to block off any exit to the sea. Donaldson did not wish to rush into anything here. This was a mission he knew he did not yet understand, and much as he wanted to get home, he knew that this was no time for laziness.


In the end, Donaldson had them spend five days recceing and observing the encampment they had seen from the ridge. The weather turned to rain and cold winds, and the soldiers cursed and swore as they stumbled in the mud and on the slippery roots in the great rainforest, and shivered in misery under their oilskins. But the weather protected them from their targets, who huddled on their river bank, apparently unaware they were being watched. And a picture began to emerge as the patrols came and went to be debriefed and to hand over their drawings and notes. They were miners, or prospectors, at least. They had quarries near the river, muddy holes in the ground they were working with pick axes and crowbars. They had dammed off ponds in the river; next to them were stone kilns on the bank, which they fed with charcoal they were burning themselves. The ponds were blue and black, and the river ran black downstream of them. And they had women and children there, families living in lean-tos and ragged tents of branches and old sails. The men broke and hauled the rocks, while the women fed the kilns and charcoal mounds, and the children paddled in the noxious tailing ponds, faces down searching for whatever lode all this revolved around. A kilometre downriver, closer to the bridge, they had another furnace. This was surrounded by mounds of discarded insulation, and they appeared to be melting down cables and scrap they had gathered from the burned out town that lay beside the lagoon. They went out at times to hunt kangaroos with rifles and dogs, but no other weaponry seemed to be in evidence. One day, a ship arrived off the lagoon, a single masted cutter, and a large portion of this community busied itself unloading stores from two whaling boats and reloading them with panniers which the patrol assumed contained metal ingots or processed ore.

After a few days, the officers were able to estimate that there were perhaps a hundred people down there in this camp, men, women and children. Which, of course, raised the very awkward question of what to do with them all.

As their intelligence formed itself more clearly, Donaldson spent some time reflecting on the true nature of his task. For all their apparent eagerness to despatch those who had killed the Palawa with force, he was confident that the Government would not thank him for causing a massacre of women and children. Well, he wasn’t entirely confident – but he had no desire to cause one, and it was a helpful rationalisation. Yet he was even more confident that – whoever these people were – they would be unlikely to welcome the opportunity to be escorted to Hobart or Launceston. Their most likely option there would be convict labour on the farms or the railway, with their children almost certain to be removed from them. Given that they had already chosen to bring their families into a deserted wilderness to scratch in the mud they had themselves contaminated, he had little expectation they would come willingly into the embrace of the authorities.

Donaldson had been careful to communicate only minimal information to Hobart in his nightly radio checks. He had kept his messages short, as the signallers cranked the charger handle on the big HF radio. His brevity was aided by the fact that most evenings their skywave signal could only reliably manage Morse transmission. He had reasoned to himself that Hobart had little to offer him by way of help, and only really offered the prospect of interfering to order him to do something regrettable. He had been left to his own devices in a number of foreign jungles in the past, after all. It was all a long way from his grandfather and the old infantryman’s stories of drones and satellite links and computer displays in his helmet. Not that they had really seemed to help make anything clearer, if you had listened closely to what the old boy was saying. Now that his plan was forming more clearly, Donaldson realised that he would need to provide more detail – and a very clear request for help with how to remove these people – but that he needed to do so only at the point where Hobart could have no option but to comply.

Which just left the Palawa.


The Palawa men had chosen to camp outside the Light Horse perimeter. After some discussion, they had agreed to tuck themselves down in a dip, so they would at least be in dead ground and out of their field of fire in the event of an attack. Although, as the days passed, Donaldson came to see why Mikey had been so dismissive of the likelihood of such a thing occurring. As a result, they had had little contact except when they accompanied recce patrols, retiring to their shelter as soon as they returned.

Donaldson made his way past the horses, bored and wet as they waited to be taken to forage in the grasslands below, and followed the track plan out to the sentry post. He paused to speak to Trooper Chingarai, the sniper, who was doing his turn on stag.

“I’m going to speak to the Palawa,” Donaldson explained.

“Are you sure, Sir? Watch out for what they’re up to in that hut of theirs,” replied Chingarai, his eyes opening wide in his broad black face in an equal parody of concern and lewdness.

“Really, Chingarai, we’ve only been out here a week,” he opined in mock disapproval, stepping past the sentry hide.

“Righto, Sir, but try not to bend over” chuckled Chingarai, returning himself to the warmest position he could find while still able to see out of the pit.

Donaldson approached the Palawa’s shelter, a temporary structure of branches and sealskins with a small fire burning within. He paused in the doorway to say “May I come in?”

Maulboyheener pulled back a skin covering the doorway and motioned him to enter. “Please,’ he said, “Come in” and gestured for him to sit. “Mikey is sleeping.” Rolepa looked up from some complicated work he was doing, which appeared to be making laces or straps from skins.

The old man was indeed lying on the floor of the warm shelter, wrapped in kangaroo skins. But his eyes flipped open immediately, and he sat up .
“Captain. You’ve come to talk.”

“Yes, Mikey. I need your advice – and your agreement.”

“You’re happy for these boys to listen?”

“Of course.”

“That’s good. I’m old now. They need to know what happens next, and how and why. Our people need to know how this goes.”

“Look, these people attacked you. My job is to make sure they are removed from your lands. And I will do that. But I don’t want to kill them if I can possibly avoid it. And I really don’t want to kill women and children. I think I know how to do this; but I need to understand what you and your people really need here from us.”

Mikey turned away for a while, as if looking through the walls of the hut at something far away. As he waited, it occurred to Donaldson that the distance the old man’s gaze traversed might perhaps be better measured in centuries rather than meters.

The Palawa man nodded to himself at last, and turned back to face Donaldson.
“Before the white man came here to Trowunna, there were maybe ten thousand of my ancestors here on this island. It only took thirty years for there to be more white fellas here than Palawa – and just a few more for them to have killed off almost all of my people. A hundred and fifty years after that there were half a million souls in old Tasmania. Growing, building, expanding always.

“Our elders had fought for recognition, and for restitution, for decades before I was born. And it had come, in some ways, with land rights, and apologies and even a little bit of power here and there. But let’s not bullshit ourselves, Donaldson. We’re only here now, in our own land, living by the old ways, because so many people died back then. Disease, the droughts, the fires. After the Big Fire, the old Government came and asked us if we wanted this land back – not us asking them. They knew they couldn’t rebuild that time. Couldn’t afford it – had to “conserve resources for the core,” they said. So a dream of an idea started to be born among us, my parents, my uncles and aunties. And they seized on it too, the Government and their scientists and that. You know what the Treaty really was? Not just restitution – although we give thanks every day for that, for there was repentance there too, among your grandfathers. But really, it was an insurance policy for the human race, you understand?

Donaldson listened and waited, tasting the smoke from the fire in the back of his mouth. The old man continued.

“Back then, people were starting to think that white man’s civilisation couldn’t last. It felt like an ending. And there was all this space the fire had created, all this land emptied of its inhabitants. And there was us Palawa, who had been busy reclaiming our culture and our knowledge, wrestling ourselves back from the brink of extinction. And we got to thinking maybe we didn’t need anything much of the little they still had. Just needed the land and the shore and the sea. And they thought to themselves, those clever Government fellas, “they might just survive even if we can’t – let’s give’em a chance.” So they offered us a one way ticket. A ticket back into history to have another chance. That’s how it felt that day we stepped off the boat onto the shore, like we was walking along a beach back two hundred, three hundred years and our ancestors was about to jump up out of the bush and embrace us, and we’d tell them of a nightmare we’d just woken from, filled with white spirits of the dead. No offence, mate.” He chuckled and paused, his eyes narrowing for a few seconds.

“I’ll tell you what we learned, and then I’ll tell you what we need from you, Captain Donaldson of the Tasmanian Light Horse. We learned that we could live the old way. A lot of us died trying, but we have rekindled the secrets of the time before, along with some new ones we learned from you. We learned that ownership of the land is everything for us, just as it is for you. And we also learned that the White man’s time wasn’t up yet either. You’re still here, like you always were – just fewer, weaker and poorer than before. We don’t bear those people down there in that valley any grudge. They’re poor and desperate, poisoning their children even as they believe they are providing for them. But we can’t let them be in our lands, because our history and yours shows that they will never be satisfied until they own it all again, never stop until they have taken every centimetre of it from us.”

“When I was a young man, like these boys here” – he gestured to Rolepa and Maulboyheener, whose eyes were fixed on the elder, “the old King came to Hobart on the day they promulgated the Treaty. He looked us square in the eye and told us “these lands will never again be taken from you.” That’s all we need from you, Captain. Enforcement. Making good on a solemn promise. No back sliding.”

Donaldson blinked repeatedly. The smoke was almost overpowering now, but the burning in his eyes came not from any physical irritation but from the rising sense of horror at what history seemed to be demanding of him.

Then Rolepa spoke quietly to the old man in Palawa Kani. It was the first time Donaldson had heard him speak. His words sounded like a river running over stones, repeating words and phrases more like an incantation than a conversation. Mikey nodded slowly after a while, as if in assent.

Rolepa turned to Donaldson and stared intently at him. “Our land asks for no more blood. It is still soaked with the blood of our ancestors – and yours. It needs no more” he said, his voice still like a softly flowing river, even in unfamiliar English. “But my grandfather is right. They cannot stay. And no others can ever come in their place. He says you have the power to kill them all if you choose. But can you give us what we need without killing them?”

Donaldson breathed deeply, and looked each of the three Palawa men in the eye before speaking. “Yes.”

But when he left the Palawa hut, he turned away from the patrol base and walked further into the forest, where he knelt, resting his face on the muzzle of his carbine, and prayed to the Lord.


Three mornings later, they were ready. Hobart had agreed with his plan, and he had busied the men with preparation and rehearsals. Half his force had set out well before dawn, to establish their cordon and stop groups well before the rest revealed themselves to the prospectors. The fire support group followed them, to hide themselves in the high ground above the miners’ encampment – although Donaldson wanted them to make themselves and their heavy weapons very visible to the people below at the right moment. That left Donaldson and another twenty men, with the Palawa. They began their descent towards the mining encampment at about eight a.m. Initially they moved through the forest, staying hidden for a while. Further down, they joined a track that they knew would lead them down to the camp. After about half an hour, the forest either side of the track opened out, where – he guessed – the miners had been logging for their charcoal kilns. At the start of this clearing, two wooden frames had been hammered into the ground, one either side of the track. Each frame contained a sodden animal pelt, stretched out and threaded tight with twine through the battens.

“Kullener” said Rolepa, angrily.

Mackay edged his horse closer to one of the frames. “Thylacines.” He said. “Look at them. This one on the right is a reintroduced clone – see, the darker fur comes from the Tassie Devil DNA they used to culture it. This lighter one on the left is natural. I’ve never seen both side by side before. That’s something.”

Mikey replied, “Yes, they live together here now. Maybe even breed together by now. You know it’s funny. They went to all that effort to recreate old kullener – all that science and genetics and all – when all they really needed to do was take the people away and he just quietly came down out of those mountains where he was hiding all along.”

“But why kill them and string them up here?” asked Donaldson.

Rolepa looked up at him sharply and said “To make a sign. To make a sign that they have taken this land back from nature and from us.”

Donaldson nodded and sighed to himself. These people liked making themselves difficult to sympathise with, he thought.

Further down the track, they finally came upon a look-out. He was a boy, no more than ten years old. They saw him stand up in surprise as they rounded a bend. He stood stock still for a few moments, his mouth open, and they had time to take in the rags he was dressed in before he turned and flew through the bush, his bare feet carrying him soundlessly from root to root. A couple of minutes later they heard his shouts as he neared the camp.

Donaldson turned to face the party. “Ready, gentlemen?” he asked, before kicking his horse forward gently.


As the track left the forest and joined the river bank and the miners’ camp, Donaldson was relieved to look up and see the fire support party up above them on the hillside, very deliberately setting up the howitzers and heavy machine guns in full view of the valley below. They slowly walked their horses along the path leading into the middle of the riverside clearing, as women and children poked their heads out of shelters and men and women came running from the kilns and pits. Donaldson and his men stopped in a more open space where some of the people were already congregating, careful to keep out of the line of fire from the hill above. They waited.

The growing crowd was quiet, with little more than whispering to be heard. Some of the more observant among them were looking around to see what else was happening, and they soon spotted the support weapons trained on their settlement from above, which caused a murmur of concern to run through the group. A handful of men and women who had recently arrived were allowed to push their way to the front of the crowd. The way the others parted for them made it clear that these were leaders of some kind. All faces were turned to Donaldson in expectant silence; many looked anxious, a few were hostile, but none seemed especially surprised. All the faces were gaunt; the children were thin and dirty.

When he judged that all were present, Donaldson began.

“You know why we are here. These are Palawa lands. They are closed to all but the Palawa nation. You are trespassing, and some of you have killed Palawa men. I have come to remove you by the authority of the Crown. You will never come back here. And others will know what will happen to them if they try to come here. Here is what I can offer you.”

“At 3.00 this afternoon, transport ships will arrive to take you to Hobart. At 12.00, you will have packed everything you wish to take with you, and you will assemble here to be escorted to the beach. You can take anything you can carry; we won’t ask any questions. When you reach Hobart, you will receive a rail or sea ticket to anywhere you wish to travel to in Australia. Again, no questions asked.”

A man at the front of the crowd, with a face like raw meat and a grey beard that reached down to his belly, stepped forward. “Thanks, cobber,” he sneered. “That’s generous. But I don’t think so. What’ll you do to make us?”

“Anyone still here after 12.00 will be arrested. You will all be interrogated until the people who murdered the Palawa are found and punished. The rest will be charged with being illegal aliens; by the look of what you’ve been up to here, there’ll be no shortage of other charges. Your children will be taken into the care of the State. Any attempt to resist arrest by anyone will cause me to use those weapons up there to finish this. And the Palawa here will find anyone who tries to go bush. They have all the time in the world to come after you. The Navy will make sure that your friends with the boat don’t pay you any more visits either.”

Donaldson looked out at the faces staring at him. He saw anger in some, but in others he saw resignation and weariness. Good, he thought to himself.

Then a woman stepped out of the crowd and turned side on, as if to address everyone present. Her skin was deep brown from the sun, her cheeks were sunken and her face lined. She looked as if the beauty of her youth was still visible in outline, but its substance had been leached out of her by whatever poisons they had filled their tailing ponds with. Her voice was clear and articulate as she spoke, as incongruous and unexpected to Donaldson as a drunken pub brawler pausing to declaim Shakespeare.

“We know why you are here, yes. But do you know why we are here?” she asked, looking Donaldson clear in the eye. She turned back to the crowd. “Because we have nothing anywhere else. Because there is nothing for us. Because you and your government can give us nothing except pain and contempt. You can give us a ticket to anywhere you like – but that’s where we already left from. You people – you have the land and the water and the houses and the food. But we can’t survive on the crumbs off your table. And now, when we try to do something for ourselves, make some honest value for ourselves out of this land of Australia, along comes His Majesty’s finest to kick us to our knees again.”

The crowd was murmuring its support, and Donaldson could see the woman was warming up nicely.

“Why do you keep us out of these lands? To indulge these people in their role playing?” She pointed at the Palawa men. “How dare you lock up all the wealth of this land, how dare you lock up the copper, the gold, the timber, when we have nothing? How can you waste all these resources which we can extract and turn into value, to grow a new future for ourselves? How can you protect these people above us? They don’t want to achieve anything, they just want to hunt kangaroo and seals and live like they did forty thousand years ago. How can you side with them when we want progress? When we – the poor and the dispossessed – want nothing more than to use the hard work of our own hands to extract the wealth from this land, just like our forefathers have done these hundreds of years? To build back what we have lost? Why don’t our traditions count? We are a mining people. Why do aborigines and landowners get a monopoly on tradition?”

She had the crowd on her side now. Donaldson could see defeat beginning to spark into defiance in the faces of the adults. But then it happened. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement. Before he could even register what it was, he heard the crack and thump of a rifle round pass by him, always redolent of countless days in the butts, and the moving object changed direction and resolved into the shape of a man arcing away from him under the impact of Chingarai’s sniper round, a shotgun tumbling from his hand as he flew backwards.

The woman screamed, all oratory gone. “Davey! No!” Even as the words ripped out of her throat, Donaldson could see the man’s face, a younger version of his mother, fire and passion turning to bewilderment as the kinetic energy of the metal impacting his body took control of his destiny. She started running towards her son, the indignation of seconds before transformed into naked horror. Mackay wheeled his horse towards her, and planted the butt of his carbine square into her cheek. As she reeled backwards, the policeman slid down from his horse on top of her, pinning her to the muddy grass. It was Franklin-Tsang who saved them all, his Sergeant Major’s roar of “Lie Down” hitting the crowd at the very instant of their indecision. “Lie down, or you will all be killed,” he reinforced. And they did, some meekly, some angrily. In the silence that followed, Donaldson gave thanks that van Wijk and the machine gunners on the hill above kept their fingers from their triggers.

Donaldson swallowed. “Cohen! Treat the casualty, ” he ordered, and the medic dropped from his horse and ran to the young man. To the rest of the men, he said, “Dismount and search these people for weapons, one at a time. Move them over by that hut once they are cleared.” The men moved forwards, organising themselves, weapons trained on the by now cowering crowd, who no longer needed Franklin-Tsang’s encouragement to keep low. One by one the adults were pulled up from the ground and searched unceremoniously.

Donaldson moved across to the wounded man, just as Cohen snapped the wrapper on the trauma pack ampoules. He watched in fascination as the bright blue nano gel swarmed into the gunshot wound in the man’s shoulder, forming itself to the contours of his body and visibly sealing the exit wound in his back as Cohen rolled him to check. The medic moved quickly to insert a line into his other arm, pushing volume expanders and targeted coagulants into his veins. He sat back on his feet and inspected his patient. “Zimbo’s a good shot, Sir. He’ll be right,” he opined to Donaldson, “long as we get him back to Hobart before any infection sets in.” Donaldson looked over to the young man’s mother, whom Mackay had now released, but who knelt on all fours, tears, blood and snot running down her face. He walked to her and knelt.

“He’ll live,” he said to her. “But we need to get him out of here as soon as we can – on the ship.”

“You bastard,” she replied. “Please save him.” She raised herself up on to her knees and surveyed her people in their indignity. “Will they really let us go?” she asked him.

“They have told me they will,” he replied. She looked deep into his eyes, and he felt for a second that the hatred with which she had first fixed him seemed to give way to longing.

“They just want to feed their families as free men and women.”

“I know,” he answered. “But not here. This is not your land or my land any more.” And he turned away from her and walked back to his horse.


The ships arrived on time, coming into sight as the soldiers marched the bedraggled miners and their families down to the sand spit. Two clippers under full sail, chartered for the occasion, and an old and battered-looking destroyer whose smoke-stack occasionally belched a black cloud of diesel fumes. They set anchor beyond the surf, dropping cutters and whaling boats, their crews rowing smartly towards the shore. The miners were slowly transferred to the ships over a couple of hours, until all were aboard.

Once they were alone on the beach, Donaldson had the men prepare for their return march to the railhead. They were eager to oblige, and as they repacked stores and weapons, he came and sat with the three Palawa men, who had been observing for some time.

“I hope you can tell your people that we did what was needed,” he said to them.

Mikey regarded him carefully for a few seconds, before answering “Yes, we can tell them that. And we give you our thanks. You upheld the Treaty and the promises that were made to us. And you did it without any more killing.”
The old man sighed. “The white fella in me would have liked to see them who killed our boys brought to justice. But the black fella is simply happy you got rid of them. Thank you.”

Rolepa rose to his feet. “We must go now, Captain Donaldson,” he said. “nentegga menyawa gondalyerroo, gondalyerroo nentegga menyawa.”

Maulboyheener also rose and smiled as Donaldson looked at him quizzically. “It means ‘yesterday was tomorrow, tomorrow will be yesterday’. We wish you a safe journey home, Captain.”

Donaldson watched the Palawa walk away down the beach for a long while. They did not look back towards the soldiers.

Eventually, he turned back to the men and found them all watching him. It was Chingarai who broke the silence.

“Can we go home now, Sir?”