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Text. Brenton Clutterbuck. Creative Commons Share alike Attribution Non-commercial.
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www.placiddingo.com

Cover. Melanie Roach. Used with permission; contact author for permissions. http://melaphantastic.tumblr.com/

Babble

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It’s Christmas day, and it’s silent. It’s Christmas day, and your car swerves off the road. It’s Christmas day and you’re lonely, Christmas day and you’re getting back with your old flame, Christmas day and you’re lost in a strange land, Christmas day and you’re staring into the eyes of the woman who’s holding a gun to your head. Christ was born on Christmas day, and was killed brutally on Easter. I was born on Easter. This can’t be a good sign. “It’s OK,” she says. Her body pulsates, jittering, nervous. Her face glistens with a thin slick of sweat, pupils bulging. She swallows, and gives a forced, demented grin. “It’s OK that it’s ended up like this. Really. Sometimes things just go too far, and we can’t let them go. Isn’t that right? Sometimes odd things just happen to ordinary people, and everything goes strange. It’s OK. Things just have a way of getting out of hand like this. They just have to run their course.” I shake my head violently. This isn’t right, I try to show. I tap my temple. Think about it. Spinning my finger around my ear. This is crazy. Communication is easier, when you have a tongue. She aims the gun.

Two weeks ago, and I’m standing outside my mother’s house, watching it burn to the ground. The cloak of fire is tearing apart the building, a huge angry explosion of reds and oranges and yellows, all crushing the house apart, licking it over with their acid tongues. Like a dying silhouette, the house stands, black and defeated, as its victor covers it with a royal cloak of flame, dancing a victory on its charred corpse. From the centre of the flickering mass, a heatwave pulsates out, slicking all nearby skin with a layer of sweat, pouring fumes down my neck, heating my body, until I feel like an abused hot water bottle, ready to pull off my head and pour my bubbling remains into a bucket of ice.

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Tiny yellow men run around, with long black hoses, squirting water almost pointlessly at the angry red storm. Tiny yellow men don’t stand a chance against this sort of monster. It’s Christmas day, and you receive the gift you’ve always wanted. It’s six years later, and your favourite present is on fire. My mother turns to me, and puts her arm around my side. “It’s not so bad,” she says. Tears are dripping out her eyes, pouring down her foundation slick cheeks. She’s putting on her act, her famous martyrdom act. Jesus had nothing on her. Nailed to a cross? Try nailed to a cactus. Try nailed to a flaming stake. Any way you could suffer, she could always suffer more. She sniffs. “It could have been a lot worse, you know. There could have been people in there. I could have lost Jack. I don’t know what I’d do, then. I can’t imagine what I’d do if I lost him. And I can’t think what I’d have to say if Tahnee ever got hurt. I couldn’t live with myself, I really couldn’t.” She pauses long enough for me to soak in just how selfless she really is. The she gives a great sigh. Then another. Bursts into tears, and lies sobbing on my shoulder. I pat her arm gently. Staring at the flames, like orange water, dribbling over the edge of the house, leaving a smoking black stain over everything they touch. This is the house that Jack bought. I pat my mothers shoulder, and slowly pull away, prying her suckered fingers off my arm. I take out my red book and a pen and write. Where is Tahnee? My mother points over to where a large broken down Kombi sits, suspended on bricks, peeling white paint flickering with the glorious reflection of our house.

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“She practically lives in that thing these days,” says Mum. “She found it at a junkyard and Jack dragged it home for her. Couldn’t move it now. It’d fall apart… oh God… oh this can’t all be happening…” I look at mum’s collapsing emotional state. I rub the stub of my tongue against the bottom of my mouth. I cast a glance towards the house, where a beam collapses in a burst of sparks. Everything falls apart, eventually. Mum’s about to latch onto me again with her little barnacle hands, but I duck under her radar, tapping my chest and pointing towards the Kombi. She nods, a resentful look on her face. I walk up to it and bang on the door. “Who is it?” yells out Tahnee. Her voice is indignant with an edge of sullen bitterness. I knock again. “Who is it?” she yells again. This has become tiresome very quickly. I try a patterned knock. BUM bum ba BUM bum! “Piss off!” she yells. I pound the door. She unlocks it, heaving it part way open, ready to annihilate whoever dares disturb her peace with an angry squirt of venom. Her face appears in the crack, a tiny strand of her blue hair drifting in front of her eyes. She stares into me. “Who the fuck are you?” Here’s one I prepared earlier. I open my notebook to the third page. I am Hugo Dell, 22 years old. Son of Jack and Judith Dell. Brother of Sarah Dell. Friend of Ashton Moray.

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I have no tongue, and find it difficult to speak. Please do not let that discourage you from speaking to me. I will probably reply to you in writing. I hope we can be friends The page is covered in tiny stars, chopped out from a doodle my sister drew when she was younger. It’s strange like that. Back when we were growing up, we were so close. Now, what? I’m the skeleton in her closet and she’s the scribble on my welcome note. Tahnee reads it, twice, brow furrowing. I look at her carefully. A tiny blue gem is stuck in her nose stud. There is a short scar on her chin. This is the girl, who set fire to the house, that Jack bought. “Come in,” she says, opening the door. I enter, observing the interior. Posters on the wall, of naked women, torn from magazines. One is of a naked anorexic girl, felating a sausage. I recognise it immediately – Idolization, by a guy called Ray Mann. The guy’s a fucking hack. I raise an eyebrow. “It’s not his best, but it can be hard to find his prints,” says Tahnee. “He’s exhibited at your gallery, I think. Have you met him?” I shake my head. The Gallery has signed a deal for his next show to be shown here first. I show here the message. I considered doing it in slanty writing to insinuate that I’m speaking in a dismayed or unenthused tone of voice, but I’ve come to realise that people don’t pick up on these kinds of obscurities. She holds out a packet of cigarettes, looking at me with eyes that pierce my skin. “You smoke?” I shake my head. She shrugs and chucks the packet aside. “Me neither,” she says. “Or, maybe. I dunno, I haven’t decided yet.”

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I give her a quizzical look, but her face is a blank sheet of paper. She is an enigma. She leans over to an esky, and opens the lid, pulling out a Vodka Cruiser. “Want?” she asks. I shake my head. She shrugs, and pulls the lid off hers. It’s green. I continue looking around. Blue beads hang down from the roof, piles of books and magazines lie all over the ground. I sit down in a small black beanbag. In front of me, stuck up on a seat, thirteen pages long, is the poem Mum has been telling me about. This is the poem, ‘twas made by the girl, that set fire to the house, that Jack bought. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Tahnee says. “Judith talks about you all the time. She’s like, besotted by you.” I’m her son. Mothers are like that. Then, May I read your poem? “Not now,” she says. “Don’t read in other people presence. It’s rude.” She swings a mouthful of Vodka. Her voice, and indeed her manner, suggests no hint of self-consciousness. She takes another sip of her Vodka, and yawns, then continues to talk. “Anyway. I’m Tahnee, like you probably already new. Tahnee Natalie Elliot the First. Appalling name. Jack Elliot’s daughter. You’ve met him before, right? Like at the boxing clubs and shit?” I nod. “He reckons he you were a shithouse fighter. But just act like I didn’t tell you that hey? I wasn’t meant to.” I nod. There is a brief uncomfortable silence. Tahnee finds a cotton reel lying on the ground, and throws it against the wall, where it rebounds and hits me in the side of the head. Tahnee laughs and I give a faltering grin.

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Then, more silence. I pull out my red book. Why did you set fire to the house? She looks at it, then at me, and shrugs. “I can’t read your handwriting,” she says, barely bothering to disguise the lie, and takes a sip of the Cruiser. “So,” she says, “You’ve got not tongue.” I nod, but it seems redundant. “I’ll tell you about the house if you tell me about the tongue.” I open up my book, and flip open a few pages. The question isn’t uncommon, so it helps to be prepared. I find the page where I’ve written my story, and pass the book to Tahnee, who snatches it greedily. The story of my tongue (Or why I sound like a tortured cat when I attempt to talk)

Once upon a time there was a man called Hugo Dell. Hugo loved to go running. He loved the heat saturated air of the Brisbane Summer. Every afternoon, he would run to the back of the city, all along the dirty grimy backstreets. The walls there oozed grime and dirt, the ground was covered in sharps and broken glass and the benches were covered in homeless drunkards. Crazy people would live there, and would go by muttering to themselves. They said things like “Oh those rotten bastards, I’ll show them they think they can do it to the old ones, oh but they’ll see, my William will show them, my Willie will make them see sense,” and continue talking well into the distance. Hugo was a photographer. He enjoyed taking pictures of this area. He thought that by showing people pictures of the less known sides of life, he could educate

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them about what life was like for people who were less fortunate than themselves. He often took photos of sad looking people. In this area lived a man whose name was Velvet Martini. He was a member of the Malaku cult. His leader had commanded them all to do certain tasks. Martini’s task was to find a man, and slice off his tongue. As Hugo ran by that afternoon, it was to be a day unlike any other. Suddenly, Velvet jumped out at him, pushed him over, and with a wicked grin, pulled out a knife. Hugo screamed, thinking he was going to die. As his mouth opened, Velvet grabbed his tongue and cut it off. Hugo ran away, running to the hospital, with half a tongue. THE END. She finishes reading the story, and looks at me, studying my face. “How much of this is true,” she asks. Most, then, Tell me about the house. “OK,” she says, scratching her neck. “You know Scientology?” I furrow my brow, nodding. “Well believe it or not, I’m no mere mortal, but instead am the test tube creation of L Ron Hubbard and Lord Xenu. Due to this alien DNA, I receive secret telepathic messages from the masters of the universe, and when they told me to burn the house I had no choice.” I wanted the truth. That’s a lie. “Well, I guess that makes us even then hey? Little lies for sneaky spies. Velvet Martini. That is so bullshit.”

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The words are harsh, but the manner is friendly. She pulls out a cigarette, lights it with some difficulty, and breaths in. Almost instantly she coughs, and drops the cigarette into her half empty Cruiser. “Fuck. Jesus. OK, well there goes that idea.” She straightens, looks at me. “So. Did you actually know anything about the guy, or did you make it all up?” I found out a fair bit. Velvet Martini was another guy’s name that I used for the story though. “What’s his real name then? The guy who cut your tongue off?” I give a wobble of my hand in reply. I really would rather not discuss that. “I said, what’s his name. Tell me or I’ll never tell you about the house.” There’s something about her that compels me to her, something that I can’t quite put into words. Some stupid gut feeling; though by now I’ve learnt to trust my stupid gut. Can you keep a secret? “Yeah right O.” I open my red book to page three again, and point to a name. Ashton Moray. This is the man, who cut off the tongue, of the man who wants, to read the poem, ‘twas made by the girl, that set fire to the house, that Jack bought. Ashton Moray and I had so many good times together. Ashton Moray taught me how to play Blackjack. Ashton Moray never expected things to turn out this way.

2. Ashton Moray smokes a cigarette, and drops it in his empty coffee cup. He gently blows the smoke out, through parted teeth, and gives a tiny, stupid grin. “What’s happening in your world man?” he asks. And because this is back into the past and I still have a tongue, I reply;

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“Not a lot, eh? Mostly just keeping busy with The Survival. Work and all. Watching TV a bit. That one with the girl, the one who kills monsters. It’s on late at night, with repeats. You?” “The Survival,” he says, and tilts his head back so it’s resting on a bookshelf. “I don’t half get a chance to do much else. Too rushed.” “Yeah,” I say. “Hey, did you hear about the book recently? The one about drugs and that, that tricked the talk show host?” “No.” “Oh, just this big scandal, like. This book about a guy recovering from drug addiction… a memoir, and it’s actually totally false. Like, lies. Not totally totally false, like, but false enough to be, you know, deceitful.” “Mmm.” The time is 5:30 PM. In just over six months I will be standing in front of my mother’s house, watching it being consumed by fire. Our scene is set in a small room, in the building of what is officially, publicly known as Ripper Corp. This floor is where we do all the less important work; computer hacking, research, network development, etc etc. In The Survival, we call this building Jehovah; the main base of operations. Ashton Moray sits on a desk, leaning against a bookshelf. One hand lies near his crotch, the other fiddles with a paper spike. I slump in a chair just behind the desk, ankles crossed, one hand scratching the back of my head. Behind me is a picture of a ship charging across the ocean, the word ‘Determination’ underneath. Apparently it’s motivational. It reminds me of the Titanic. Ashton checks his watch.

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“Oh yeah,” he says. “One more minute and we’re out into D6, working it out with Marvin. Then we’re out of here.” He stands, cracks his neck, and claps, like a swimmer getting psyched. “You ready to do this shit man?” he says. “Ready? I’m hot for it.” He gives a dirty male laugh, the kind that follows sex jokes. His teeth are too goddamn white, and they flash in the light. “Shit man. Let’s hit it up.” We stand together, and knock open the door, moving down the hall. We pause at the elevator. The doors hiss open. We walk in. “I like your tie,” says Ashton. “Thank you,” I say. “It’s very you.” The doors open again, ad we begin to move down to Marvin’s room. “Is it just me or does this all feel slightly Pulp Fiction?” I say. “No,” says Ashton. “It’s very Pulp Fiction.” We arrive at our location. I open the door Marvin stands as we walk in. It’s as though he is watching some horrific car crash walk through the door. His eyes bulge, his mouth drops, and everything in his body starts to shake. As Ashton opens his briefcase and begins to unpack, he flattens himself against the wall. Marvin is like the nerd who was never able to work his computer or the young right wing Christian who could never really understand the bible. Marvin has no fashion sense, he has no friends and no enemies; he irritates the masses at the same moderate frequency. Marvin covers his desk with pot-pouri and reads Dan Brown novels.

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“Behehe,” gibbers Marvin. Sweat forms on his bulbous forehead, and his hands fiddle with his ugly bright yellow tie. I step towards him. “Marvin, mate. Calm down bro,” I say, leaning over to the water dispenser. I fill myself a small cup. “Water?” He shakes his head, a glob of sweat trickling down his nose. I take a sip. “Marvin. We have no intention of hurting you mate. You’re a good employee. Problem is right now you’re fucking us around. Now, if you’re in The Survival it’s never by accident. You know who we are. You know what we do. And you know that if you make a silly choice to do something such as…” “Blocking everyone’s computer access to the T-Project,” says Ashton. “…That we’re going to be significantly dissatisfied. So: we want the info, and we need your password for it. So. What do you say? Marvin?” Marvin’s not paying attention. He’s just standing on his wobbling legs, staring at Ashton, and his crossbow. Think carefully. The next thing you say might determine whether you live or die. Special Funds and Advertising Management has never been so exiting. “Marvin!” I yell, and he looks at me. He’s a deer in the headlights, a fat ugly deer with a bright yellow tie. His mother irons his shirt and packs his lunches. And that bulge in his breast pocket isn’t lint, that’s more pot pouri. “The passwords.” “What about a deal…” he half mumbles. “Let’s make a deal.” “Let’s not. We already have a deal. You tell me the password.” “What do I get?” “It’s not what you get; it’s what you don’t get. I.e, shot.” “I want clemency for a friend.”

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“Great. I want to live in the Playboy mansion. Moral of story equals; can’t always get what you want. Give me the password. Don’t let this get nasty.” Yeah. Like pointing a crossbow at him is, on some level, not nasty. “I won’t tell you anything…” he mutters. “You can’t kill me. You kill me you’ll never know the password….” “We don’t want to kill you Marvin. But we might cut off your fingers. Or your eyes. Maybe your balls, Marvin. We’ll dry them out and sell them as Christmas Ornaments. Sound like fun?” I walk towards him, slowly, menacingly. This is all part of the act. It’s all in the script. I pull the knife out and wave it in front of his eyes. He blubbers, his lips splurting out tiny rivers of spittle. “You want to reconsider your options, Marvin?” I say. “Or you want me to start chopping off your fingers, until you give up? Because, and let me tell you, I’ve seen a few worried faces, your face doesn’t look like the face of a person who could handle losing more than… six fingers before cracking.” He whimpers, and I reach for his hand. He pulls away. Survival Industries: Save Time and Fingers. “Espian… spyxneen…” he mumbles. “Sorry, didn’t catch it. Say it again.” “SPX16” he says. “Try it… It works, I promise…” His deer eyes are dribbling out tiny streams of water, his antlers drooping down to his shoulders. “You certain?” I ask. “Because if it doesn’t we’ll come back, and cut something off. OK?” “Mm… Yeah…” “And if you skip town, we will find out. And we will find you. And then you’ll be in significant trouble. Right-o?”

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“Mmm…” I leave the room. Ashton stays for a few more seconds, to maximize the impact. He leaves, as well, and we exchange low fives on the way out. Before I go, I walk into the bathroom, and vomit into the sink. Because the Bad Guys have feelings too.

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It’s hard to work out at first how it works. Losing your tongue. Losing your sanity. Losing your moral compass. It works, though, like everything else – slowly, subtly in the background, until one day the wheel falls off, and you realise it’s not working quite as well as you thought, and you’re skidding across the road, about to blast over the edge and plummet into a deep black ravine…

… The way it works is this. You walk into the Adult Shop on Anne Street, just off China Town. You go right up to the back of the shop, where they sell adult DVDs and look for one called ‘Ladies of Helsinki’. You take it up to the counter and get in line. There’s always a line. When you get to the front you have to lean over the counter and say, ‘Do you also have the sequel, ‘Ladies of _____’? This will be some obscure, possibly fictional location (tonight it’s Hogwarts). You will have received this location in an anonymous email, about three hours previous to the event, The way it works is that upon giving the correct password you will be charged sixty dollars ‘for the DVD’ which they then put back on the shelf, before escorting you to another room. They will close the door behind you, and frisk you down, checking for weapons or microphones. They then let you through.

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You find yourself in a room full of violent type thugs in respectable clothing, standing around discussing finances, while heavy packed muscular men prepare to fight. There are maybe four or five boxing rings set up; everyone is yelling, everything is noisy. There is blood over the floor. Sometimes you’ll come home with a massive red stain on your clothes. Sometimes you won’t even know if it’s yours or not. The way it works is that if this is your first time you’ll meet Rocky, a surprisingly good natured and intelligent bloke, who runs the whole things. He also operates a speed Garage, but the two operations stay separate. Rocky will be discussing something with another guy, around thirty, rippling muscles, who’ll look you over with a suspicious eye. “Jack,” says Rocky. “I’d like to introduce to you young Mr Hugo Dell.” Jack will squint, his brow furrowing. “Dell, hey?” “Yeah,” you say, nervously. “Like Victor?” “Like Victor.” “I’m sorry to hear that. You must be going through a difficult time.” “I guess.” “What leads you here then?” “He followed the arrows, Jack” says Rocky. “Isn’t that interesting? We’ve got a right little… what’s a male Nancy Drew?” “Hardy Boy” “We’ve got a right Hardy boy come to fight with us for the night. It’s rare to have intelligent life in this place, don’t you think?” “Why the fuck you come to a place like this?” says Jack to you. You shrug. “I dunno. I just wanted to see what this place was at I guess. Something to do. Might as well.”

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“Ah. Nothing warms the heart like adolescent nihilism,” says Rocky. “I thought we might pit him up against young Mr Moray tonight to break him in. If he comes back we can train him up a bit.” Adrenalin is high. Nerves are violent. Your stomach feels queasy, like it’s a sack of runny grey pulp. “Mr Moray,” says Rocky, “knows a thing or two about boxing, but that’s about it. He’s a show pony – his arrogance is his weakness.” Jack spits on the ground. “He’s a dirty fuck,” he says, “I wouldn’t trust the little cunt as far as I can throw him.” Jack will look at him with such snobbish distain that you can’t help but feel a deep dislike of him… The way it works is that everything goes in slow motion. You enter the ring with your shirt off, your fists clenched. It’s in your head that it’s all an act, but as Ashton looks up at you, nonchalant, and grins, you can’t help but feel terrified. They yell go, he runs at you, you duck, but as soon as he pushes down, something snaps, and you lash out, all fists and madness, and you’re doing this through pure anger… you’re doing this because somebody shot your father in the head a dozen times because of mistaken fucking identity… you’re doing this because he never spoke to you enough, because he wouldn’t teach you to drive, because he never came to your sports events. And then you’re down on the ground, and there’s a fair bit of blood and it might be yours and everyone is yelling and he’s everywhere, and your whole body is ripped apart in pain, and you realise, on the floor of some secret boxing group, as your opponent is dragged off by Vietnamese thugs in suits, that even show ponies know how to kick.

The way it works is that your mother joins a cult. Some New Age Therapy freaks called Inner Light. They meditate. Visualize themselves drowning and being reborn. Keep

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pets or soft toys named after their loved ones, until they can prepare themselves to leave them behind. So Victor the yellow rabbit came to dinner. Mum didn’t talk to us at dinner time any more. According to Inner Light, she had to focus all her attention on Victor until she was ready to release the rest of her husband’s soul. “Aren’t you hungry dear?” she’d say, eyes welling up with tears. “You… you’ve hardly… hardly touched your dinner, darling.” The rabbit seemed unresponsive. “Mum,” my sister would say. “I had the most awesome lecture today.” Mum would ignore her. “Mum,” she’d persist. “Hugo’s been getting into fights like, everyday. Have you noticed? He needs some help.” “I’m fine,” I’d mutter. “I’ve taken up skateboarding. I’m just really badly unbalanced at the moment.” “You wouldn’t be the only fucking unbalanced one,” my sister would mutter. “Sarah, please,” my mother would say. “Language. You know I don’t like it, and you know your father hates it.” By this stage, her eyes would be dripping tears. “Yeah, well Dad’s not here, Mum.” “Really?” “Yes, Mum, really.” “Well who do you suppose this is on the corner, Sarah?” As usual, like a slimy mist, a long tepid silence would descend over our table, infecting our food and turning it rotten. “That’s a rabbit mum. A big, yellow, fluffy, fucking rabbit.” Mum would sniff, bursting into tears.

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“Sarah! If you can’t use civilized language in this house, you can go to your room.” “Fine.” She’d stand and glare venom at both of us, and silently, like a flash of dark hatred, she’d disappear.

The way it works is that your sister leaves home.

The final step in Inner Light was to forgive. By the time Mum was at this stage, I had turned sixteen. To forgive, you had to talk to whoever was responsible for your loved one’s death. This mostly meant a D and M with the man upstairs. Occasionally it meant meeting with a drunk driver, incompetent doctor, or the kid who sold them their first bag of pot that began the drug addiction that lead to the overdose. Mum, of course, had to meet Herman J Freidman, and tell him she forgave him. The meeting, she told me on that very evening in a gush that contained more words than the entire previous year, went fantastically. Herman was not only stunningly remorseful, but also quite clever and articulate. He had described in detail his wife’s rape and murder, to which end he had sort vengeance, ultimately against the wrong man. He was, deep down, Mum concluded, a kind gentleman, and she could appreciate his position. “This being, of course, the bloke who put twelve bullets in Dad’s head?” “I don’t wish to dwell on the past,” she’s said. “I’ve learned to move on. I’m a strong powerful woman, molded by the force of my own Goddess. I must let my life go on.” I think I’d raised an eyebrow. “This reminds me,” she’d said. “I’ve got a date. Friday night.” “What?” “I have to move on, Hugo. I can’t afford to live in the past. I need to move forward. I met a gentleman at the Prison, one of Herman’s visitors. His name is Jack.”

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Yes. Herman J. Freidman, killer of my father, was a drinking buddy of Jack. That Jack. Charming.

This brings us to the girl. Tahnee. Jack had a daughter to a previous marriage, which ended at the same time as his wife’s heartbeat, a few seconds before the beginning of Tahnee’s. Tahnee was the girl – this random thirteen year old girl who had come unannounced into our lives. Although I heard about her all the time, I never saw her. I was busy, I was arrogant. And I was trying to avoid Jack, who prickled up every time I tried to talk or come close. Jack says; I know Herman from my old job, in Engineering. He was never the same after his wife died. It was just a terrible fuck up that your dad got mixed up in it. Jack says; if you have half a brain, you’ll get out of this boxing shit as soon as you can. Jack says; whatever you do, never put your trust in Ashton. I was seventeen. It was the end of the year. I still hadn’t met Tahnee, but I’d begun to realise there was something about her. Around Easter she’d send us a blank card, with a hand drawn image of Jesus’s face, the piercings of his crown of thorns dripping chocolate. When my birthday came around, she sent me a round blue object in a box, with the attached letter saying “Dear Hugo (My imaginary friend) Here is a birthday present. You can pretend it is whatever you want.” For her birthday, I sent her a block of chocolate, and a bag of marbles. For my mother’s birthday, she gave her a plain white dildo, with I HATE YOU written in felt pen on the side, and told her it was post modern. At twelve she pushed some guy’s car down a hill. At fourteen she anonymously distributed hard-core pornography to Catholic schools. And at sixteen she burnt down the house.

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Like Star Treck films, the even numbers are always more impressive. “What do you know about Tahnee,” I remember asking Ashton, after we’d finished pounding the crap out of each other. Ashton says; I don’t know anything about Tahnee. Ashton says; I don’t know why Jack has something against me. Ashton says; have you ever heard of a guy called Velvet Martini? The fights continue. Tahnee remains in the background. Life goes on, without focus, without purpose. Existence fills in the cracks. Violence numbs the void. The way it works is that one day the manager, a vicious looking type called Quan approaches you. Quan says; how do you feel about the end of the world? Quan says; would you be interested in joining a highly secretive, high risk, covert secret society dedicated to preparing for a New World Order in the event of wide scale social collapse? Quan says; Welcome to The Survival.

4. Darryl has a devil’s goatee, and short black hair. He has a charming face, and an effortless suaveness. He looks over his desk. “You boys,” he says, “You boys are some of the best in our society.” “Thank you sir,” I say. “Thank you,” says Ashton. Darryl snorts. “Shit. Don’t fucking thank me. This isn’t charity, this is maths. You’re good. I want you to realise that you’re fast becoming a valuable asset.” “Yes sir.” We speak in unison. It seems terribly clichéd, but Darryl seems to appreciate it.

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“I’d like to see how you react under some different circumstances. I’m interested to learn what skills you’ve got hidden under your veneer of thuggery. You seem like intelligent men. You’re intelligent, right?” “Yes sir,” says Ashton. I nod. “I think so.” “Good. What do you boys know about the T-Project?” “We know that Marvin was fucking with it sir,” says Ashton. “I hope we helped in that regard.” Darryl waves his hand. “I don’t want to talk about that wanker. The only thing I like about Marvin is that if we look at statistics, he’s likely to die eventually.” “Some might say it’s more than likely, sir,” I say. Darryl gives a small shake of his head. “I don’t like to get my hopes up” He picks up a pen and flicks it around in his fingers. “Anyway Hugo; the question remains. What do you know about the T-Project.” “Nothing solid sir,” I say. “Rumours and that kind of thing. We’re intercepting a shipment of heroin, double crossing the smugglers and selling it ourselves, as far as I gather.” Darryl nods. “That’s it. Some ‘secret’ fucking society, hey?” he laughs. “I want you boys on this thing. I want to see how you go. What do you think?” “Sounds good sir,” Ashton says. I nod. “Fantastic,” he says. “You’ll remain on your current duties of internal investigations until we start. I’ll start with the paperwork. Meanwhile; I think I’d like you to meet somebody. How’d you like to acquaint yourself with the biggest killer in our little family?”

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Sana is the sort of stunning figure – Korean American, all legs and breasts – who could easily be a supermodel if it weren’t for the deeply gauged scars dragged across the left side of her face, her eye gray with a thin white line around the pupil, and chunks missing from her ear. A masculine type suit does little to disguise her raw sexuality. Darryl introduces her to us in the hall, as ‘the Ex’ (a pun). “How do you do,” I say. “Charmed, I’m sure,” she says, words heavy with disinterest. “I’m Ashton,” says Ashton, “and this is Hugo.” “Yeah,” she says. A beat. “Well, look I’ve got to go, get back to… I ah… work. Good to meet you,” says Ashton. He walks off. Sana and I stand there, kind of uncomfortably. “So,” I say, “Did you want to, like, go to the bar in the Lucifer building and grab a few drinks at the end of the day?” She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind knowing you though.” She slides her fingers through her hair. One of her nails, painted black, glints at the end. “I was going back to my office to take a few pills. You want?”

Sana has a massive office, with little in it. A desk, a chair, a couch, some safes. Everything is arranged specially, in a cool and calculated fashion, everything matching up in right angles. To the side is a white board, with a series of tally marks drawn carefully in one corner. “What are those tally marks for?” “To keep record” “Record of what?”

24

“Red or blue?” “Huh?” “Red pill or blue pill?” “Is that a Matrix reference?” “That’s a film, yes?” “Ah yeah.” “OK, I’ll choose for you. Red pill.” She opens a drawer and pulls out a small red pill, places it in front of me. She pours a glass of water and slides it towards me. “Is it safe?” I ask. “Safe? Well, it’s pure. I made it myself. Yours is MDMA, from a supplier, and speed from Rocky.” “What’s MDMA?” “OK… science lesson later; eat the fucking pill.” I eat the fucking pill. She does likewise with hers.

The drugs kick in with relative ease. I feel buzzy, prone to movement, loved up. My teeth hurt from clenching, and Sana offers gum. “They made ecstasy for fat people to lose weight, at first,” says Sana, “but now there’s a lot to say it helps with post traumatic stress.” “That’s why you take it?” “Something like that… not really, I just… I kill people, yeah? So, it’s like, one extreme to the next and I kind of, balance. You know?” “I guess, yeah. Yeah.” I chew the gum, and try to stop rubbing my leg. It doesn’t happen. “It helps to talk with people too you know,” she says. “I don’t small talk easily.” “Yeah,” I say, “I saw that.”

25

She walks around a bit, then sits, leans against the black safe. “What’s in that safe?” I say. “Smack.” “Smack? Like, Heroin?” “Like Heroin. Yeah I… I don’t use it now. But it’s nice, you know. That it’s there. Like some of my guns and stuff you know, for self defence like, you know, and I don’t need it and I don’t need to use it but, it’s like, there, you know and I like that. You know?” “Yeah.” She drums her fingers on the ground, and for the first time I notice that the glint is of a razorblade, concealed beneath the nail.

At night, driving down a dirt road with two shotguns and a boot full of stolen, smuggled Heroin, Ashton asks me what I thought of Sana. “Strangely endearing,” I say.

5.

There’s some things that are you can have some difficulty remembering how to sign, in sign language. Like, ‘Giant Pregnant Woman Made of Fibreglass and Silicone’, ‘PostGraffiti Movement’ or ‘The Artist’s own Blood and Semen.’ These are things that nobody really expects you’ll need. One of my tour group signs something to me, and I have to take a few moments to work out what he’s talking about, before I can rouse myself to respond. He’s a young kid, orange streaks through his hair, trying to ask something about how he can get his work into the gallery. ‘Just dump it somewhere,’ I sign back and people laugh.

26

Like it’s a joke; but really, it’s funny because it’s true. Banksy did it with his art in the London Museum. Banksy the graffitist who claims you can avoid arrest by working in a fluoro vest in the, middle of the day, and responding to queries by grumbling about the pay rate. Another guy, Guillermo Vargas Habacuc, tied a dog up in an art gallery with signs

claiming that it was to be starved to death. Following an international outcry, he made the point that during the exhibit, not one person had attempted to feed or free the animal. The truth is you can do whatever you want, because nobody is going to do something when apathy is on offer. The truth is we’re all ‘only following orders.’ The truth is we’re all just Nazis on the long road to Nuremburg. I wrap up the tour with a few notes. There’s merchandise at the gallery store. In a few weeks we’ll be hosting a display of modern Asian-Pacific art. Please remember to collect any bags from the bag holding area. I single out the orange kid, and tell him to get an agent.
I start to head towards the staff area, but am stopped by someone calling out after me. “Hugo! Hugo!” I turn, and a shiver, like electricity, flits through me, and I jump, run. It’s Sarah; my sister. Out of nowhere, out of the void, and I have to rush through a list of cruel mistakes I could be making before I can let myself believe it’s really her. We embrace. She is a limpet, arms connecting like glue to my back. We stay like that, frozen in time by the backdrop of a billion abstract shapes. Eventually, her grip relaxes, and she pulls back, looks me in the eye. “I missed you Mango,” she says. I smile. “I ah,” she says, and lifts her hands, signing, “I know sign language. A little’. I grin.

27

Me too I sign, and raise my middle finger. She laughs. “Food?” she says. I nod.

We meet after work, at a restaurant I like. We talk about what’s been going on in our lives. Sort of. It’s a stretch to call this discussion. Improvised fiction might be more accurate. We hesitate, work around words, over-complicate, over simplify. She’s developing a narrative where she isn’t trapped in an eternal crisis of confidence, or sleeping around. I’m developing a narrative where I’m not actually picking up the pieces left after spending years as a member of a psychopathic cult. We both know it’s lies. We both play along as if it isn’t. This is called ‘suspension of disbelief’ and has been the redeeming force for Hollywood and International politics for years. The early tension of our poorly developed lies is overcome with time and wine. We begin to ‘talk’ in earnest. Preparing new philosophies of life, discussing how we could save the world. Labouring over old family bitterness. My sign language begins to fail me as the wine takes its toll. I have trouble with words. ‘Post-modern art exhibit.’ ‘Dad’s Killer.’ ‘Sometimes life feels like a noose.’ Things nobody really expects you’ll ever need to say. When my sign language fails, I use a pen and pad. When pen fails, Sarah knocks over the wine and we realise we’re completely pissed. We pay the bill, stumble outside and take a cab to my place.

My head is filled with lead and acid and a mob of angry rats that are chewing away at my brain, chewing at the organ and sticking their sharp grotty claws into nerve endings. I groan, and clutch the side of my head.

28

The wine is having its vengeance. There is a loud, high pitched beeping. I hear Sarah give a huge pained groan from out in the lounge “Hugo!” she moans. “Ahgryjhyjhy,” I call out, a grotesque throaty gargle like a small animal having it’s nipples pulled off. There is a short silence. “Can’t you shut that beeping shit up?” I pull my sick aching body off the floor and stand on weak legs. I try to move forward stumbling towards my jacket, where the beeping came from. I fish in the pocket and pull out my mobile. I have new messages. 8:10 – MUM – Hurry up ad tell me. I need to know how many to prepare food for. 8:05 – MUM – The fasteer you text me back, the better. 8:00 – MUM - I do ac2aly require a reply for this message, Hugo. 7:55 – MUM - Haste in replyimg would be nice. 7:50 – MUM – What doyou think? 7:45 – MUM – Jack, Tahnee I r about to prpare a lunch for oneoclock. Would you and your sister like to join us at the aparment? I bring it to Sarah, and show her the message. “Hang on,” she says. “Let me focus. Jesus. Someone hit me in the head with a rock. God. OK… Jack… Tahnee and I are about to… pre… preee…pare… a… lurch. Oh. Lunch. Would you… and your sister like to…join us?” It beeps again. “Jesus Christ!” she yells. “God, yes, just tell her freaking yes. Tell her anything! Just shut that crap up!”

29

I manage to put my phone on silent, send Mum a quick ‘we’ll come’ and close it. I don’t bother to check Mum’s latest complaint. I go to clean up everything, but stop halfway, and surrender to the whims of gravity. A family brunch. And I’m going. Perhaps I’m a masochist.

6. Lucifer, the bar, is massive, moodily lit with deep blues and greens. There are pool tables and jukeboxes, dancing girls on the tables. It is every ridiculous gangster cliché rolled into one, and this isn’t accidental. Life might imitate art, but rarely with this attention to detail. The password in changes regularly, and can only be obtained from within The Survival’s Jehovah Building. Sometimes others try to get in. Sometimes they persist, which is when we take them around the corner, bash them and send them on their way. Sometimes they call the police. Then Daryl calls the police. Viva la corrupción! “Name?” “Hugo Dell” “Pass?” “Bottlebrush.” “Goodo.” I enter the room. It is crowded, more so than usual for a Thursday. I push past a yelling pair of blokes, coughing as I cop an involuntary breath of marijuana. The room is loud, with a small trio on stage playing jazz music, dressed in pinstripe. We sell the drugs at the bar by the beer. This is our world. These are our laws. It’s like John Lennon’s dream come true, if he’d allowed for occasionally killing people. “Hugo,” calls a voice, and I look over. It’s Sana.

30

“Oh hey. S’up?” “Taking it easy right now.” “Good stuff.” “What’ll you drink?” I order a Screwdriver, and ‘one for the Lady’, who accepts it good naturedly. We sit and drink, and talk for a while. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder and I turn my head. It’s Ashton of course. “Hey,” he says, and grins, too wide. Sana, beside me, grows visibly uncomfortable. “What’s up?” I say. He shakes his head. “Nothing really. Just work. All that kind of stuff.” There’s a moment of awkward-ish silence between the three of us. Ashton seems to be oblivious, or at least ignorant of Sana’s awkwardness. Eventually she sculls her drunk and stands. “I’m off,” she says, “But I’ll see you around.” I nod. “Sure.” She pulls out a wallet and pulls out a card, with her number on it, pushes it into my hand. “Give me a call sometime,” she says, then turns to leave, walking off at her own, calculated, unhurried pace. “Fuck was that about?” asks Ashton, and I shrug.

When I ring Sana, maybe two, three days later, she’s kind of high, but still sounds together enough to talk. I ask her if she wants to go grab dinner and a movie, because I’m pretty sure that’s how you do these things. But instead she wants to take me to some abandoned apartment, which sounds cool enough.

31

She picks me up. On the phone she was all paranoid about me coming to pick her up because she didn’t want me to know where she lived, and I put it down to the weed. When she arrives though, she’s levelled out and I can see that this is all part of a calculated, caution, a defence mechanism that probably accounts for the fact that her heart remains beating. We drive, maybe for forty minutes or so, until we get to some apartment, empty and degenerated. “This place was built maybe twenty, thirty years ago,” she says. “The rent got higher while the area was getting poorer. Then they started discovering asbestos in the roof and it wasn’t worth fixing. The place was bought out by some big company planning to knock it down and replace it with a shopping centre, but the area was too degraded for it to be desirable. The place was left alone, and junkies came and lived in it. Now the whole thing is fenced off. There’s a lot of graffiti in there, and some of it’s quite nice. The place is disintegrating, but there’s a charm in its slow collapse. There’s no pretention or façade in this kind of slow architectural death. It’s one of the last honest things left. I find a lot of beauty in degradation and collapse, in the rejected and alone. Maybe because that’s how we all end up, in the end.” She stops talking, and the smooth tone of her voice disappears into the chilled and endless night. I offer to carry her basket, and she allows me, and we begin to approach the fence. We move around the side, following the fence until we get to a hole that the junkies have cut, and step through, approaching the building. The smell inside is powerful and unpleasant, a mix of piss and dust. “Don’t worry about the smell,” Sana says, “You adapt to it quickly.” “Where are we going,” I ask, and she nods at the fire exit.

32

“Up,” she says. We enter the fire exit and begin to climb the emergency stairs. We pass scrawled graffiti, stark against the crumbling brick wall. I FUCKED UP BIG TIME, says one piece. And we climb. Eventually we reach the top, and open the door, walking down the corridor. The air is stale and thick with humidity. Sana pushes open a door – the lock is smashed already – and we enter the room. The room is still essentially as the last occupant left it, minus the obvious absence of anything of value. On a scratched coffee table lies a mug, still half full, the liquid unseen under a layer of thick mould. The room is less stifling, with a window half open, letting in the night air. Outside I can see the endless lights of the city, stretching across into the horizon. The moon above casts its milky glow, silver moonfish dancing over the metallic roofs of the building below. “Here?” I ask, and Sana nods. I open the basket and pull out the blanket, laying it down, spreading it across the floor. I pull out the food, cold meats and fruits and the wine with glasses. I pour us both a drink. “A toast,” I say, “To company.” “To company,” she says, “For as long as it may last.” And so, in the belly of the great monument to abandonment and isolation, we drink together in the glow of the distant moon.

We leave the basket and cutlery behind when we make to leave, Sana wiping it all clean first. “Do you want to come back to mine for a cup of tea?” I say. Even with all these layers stripped back, we have to speak in international sex code.

33

“Just hold on a second,” she says. “I have an errand to run first. You can come if you want. But you have to be quiet. Like silent. As in, under threat of death.” And I wonder if that’s a real threat of death, the way she says it so calmly and acidly. I follow her. We take the stairs back down, and wander through the apartment’s empty halls, the acrid stale smell of piss and deteriorating carpet wafting through the whole structure. We get to a door, where we can see a light flickering gently under the crack of the door. She touches my shoulder softly and signs for me to stay still. She approaches the door. It all happens very quickly. The silent night makes way for a kind of frantic and vicious chaos. Sana kicks the door open, and a man swears, there is a tussle, then a single gunshot, an explosion so loud my head throbs and I involuntarily move a hand to my ear. Silence. So loud it encompasses everything. So vast in its domination, and I can barely breathe. From where I stand I can see the light of a torch come on, and flicker over a bloody wall, then rests for a moment on a crumpled body of a young man, maybe twenties, dead on the ground. The wound around his forehead glistens with blood. The torchlight flicks to a bag, which I see Sana’s hand lean over to take. We make out way back, through the darkness to the car. On our way home I ask her who the guy was, and she shrugs. “Some prick. Dealer.” “Why did you need to go find him like that? Did you know him?” She gives a little grin, like I’ve said something funny. “No. It was a paid job. Not Survival related. A bit of cash on the side. Rocky wanted him gone.” “Competition?” “Probably, but that’s not shit. Rocky’s a Capitalist at heart, he believes in ‘the better product.’ This guy was hassling one of his girls, his smaller dealers. ” “He looks after them then?”

34

“Just this one.” “Why?” “Why? Why do you even need to know why? He could be fucking her, she could be his sister… she could be fucking his sister… Look; the question I asked was ‘how much’ and ‘when do I get paid.’ Nothing else matters.” “So what do we do with the bag of drugs?” “Not sure. It’s probably low quality anyway. Bury it maybe.” “Serious?” “We don’t want to leave it lying around, do we? Drugs kill.”

When we arrive in my apartment the nervous tension snaps almost immediately in relief of a familiar setting, and the night is filled with wandering hands and quick breaths. I throw her against the wall, and her teeth bite into my shoulder as I wrestle her jeans down. Still partly dressed we begin to fuck on the ground, one hand wrapped around her waist as I pull off her shirt, and I can’t but notice there’s splatters of blood across her sleeve.

That night, Sana wakes me, flicking her tongue over my nipple. I shake my head, still groggy. “If it all went down, would you be there?” she says, nails digging in lightly on my shoulders. I stretch my neck and shift my weight, trying to wake myself enough to respond. “If what went down?” “Everything. If everything went to shit, talking fighting in the streets, talking chaos. Talking real, heavy, unpleasant shit going down. Would you be there for me?” “Huh? I don’t know. I guess so. If I was around at the time.” I yawn.

35

“But could you trust me? Could you know you were able to trust me?” “Shit Sana, I don’t know. It’s like midnight. We can talk about what you’re worried about in the morning.” Sana rubs her nails lightly down my ribs. She says, “This isn’t worry.” She kisses my neck gently, and digs her nails into my buttock so sharply, for I moment I think she’s using the hand with the blade. She says “Have you ever heard of a guy called Velvet Martini?”

7. Sarah and I enter the Hotel room, well presented, but still a little hung over. Mum greets us with a gush and a cuddle each. We accept her embrace coldly. There is a bond between us in our understanding of our mother. We’ve both suffered her insanity. It is natural we band together. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The enemy of my mother is my sister. Sarah leans over to look at Tahnee. “She’s got blue hair,” she whispers. I know. I like it. “I thought she’d be… I dunno. The boring ‘victim of the suburbia’ teenager.” She sniffs. “I don’t mind the hair, actually.” The table is set up too nicely, like something little dolls would use. The table has a thin floral design. The plates are gold rimmed China. The cups are all centred on their shiny blue coasters. On the table, is set up an assortment of sausages, eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, juice and tomato. “Everybody help yourself,” says Mum. “It was meant to be Brunch originally, but plans changed.”

36

“And I really wanted to have some cooked pig flesh,” says Tahnee, pointing at the bacon. “Dig in all” says Jack, almost too cheerfully. Jack can sign a little, but not well. He tells me a few semi-coherent anecdotes through signing, and I reply a little. Soon though, the signing is sacrificed for use of a fork, and he goes back to speech. We all take something to eat, slowly, almost cautiously at first, but Jack’s urgent need to have as much as he can as fast as he can is infectious. Sarah and I take only a little, in comparison. Jack is drowning his sausages in barbecue sauce. Tahnee uses her fork to throw a cooked tomato in the air and catch it on her plate. It splatters everywhere. “Tahnee!” says Mum. “It looks like a skinned head hitting the pavement,” says Tahnee. “Not at the table dear,” says Jack, almost affectionately. I chew my food, with a mild kind of melancholy sadness. I can remember the taste of most these foods. The tang of barbecue sauce, the juicy warm taste of tomato, the saltiness of bacon, the gooey blandness of yoke. What I taste now is a tiny shadow of what I once knew. As though I’m really only ever eating the outline of a pleasant memory. Mum looks at what I’ve piled up on my plate. She looks at Sarah’s. They’re both the same, only Sarah’s has sausages. “Oh, for God’s sakes Hugo, do you hate my cooking that much?” she ‘jokes’ with a pathetic laugh. “Eat some pork.” She leans across the table, and dumps two shining oily sausages on my plate. I can’t eat pork. Not since I learned about Hot Death. It’s also known as Malignant Hypothermia, and is the result of something called Porcine Stress Syndrome. This little piggy went to market.

37

It happens to approximately one in ten hogs before they’re slaughtered. As their tiny piggy lives flash before their eyes, awaiting the stroke of death, calcium leaks into muscle cells, causing contractions and organic breakdown. Potassium leaks into the bloodstream and overloads the heart. Of course, I can’t really go into such detail with no tongue, so I scribble a small unsatisfactory note, saying; Thank you, but I’m afraid I have trouble with pork. She looks at it discriminately. “Surely you could try a bit of it for your Mother?” she says, giving me what I can only imagine she believes to be puppy dog eyes. She looks like an ecstasy OD. I give the closest thing I can get to an apologetic grin. “It’s OK about the house,” says Tahnee, inappropriately loudly. “It’s not the worst thing that could happen. They reckon there’ll be no charges against me.” Jack looks down at his plate, with a look that can barely be interpreted. My Mother makes a show of holding back tears, dabbing them away with her shirtsleeve, as though she were hoping nobody would notice. “How did you manage to get this hotel?” asks Sarah. “Insurance covered it,” says Jack. I continue to eat the most of the meal. The tomato is lovely. And so is the egg. As far as I can tell, at any cost. But, as my mother’s eyes burn into me, I know there is only one thing I am required to eat. The sausage. It’s called Hot Death. I try to drown of the squeals of fearful pigs, as I chew on my sausage. Calcium leaks into muscle cells, causing contractions and organic breakdown. Potassium leaks into the bloodstream and overloads the heart.

38

Chew chew chew. Wash it down with orange juice. With no tongue I eat with my head leaning down, jaws, lips and cheeks moving food around my mouth. I hide the taste of tortured pig in barbecue sauce. I hate pork. Calcium leaks into muscle cells… “Oh,” says my Mother. You’ve chosen to try the sausage. Good on you.” Having no tongue prevents inappropriate words.

Can I read your poem now? I show the page to Tahnee after pseudo-brunch and she nods. “Sure,” she says. “Follow me.” She walks off and I try to grab her attention by waving, then clapping loudly. She turns. Can Sarah come? Tahnee looks at Sarah for a sec and shrugs. “Whatever.” I grab Sarah’s attention, and motion for her to follow me, walking down the hall. We go into Tahnee’s room. I flop down on Tahnee’s bed. Sarah sits on her chair. Tahnee opens a book, and pulls out the poem. “Read,” she says. The rule regarding the offensive nature of reading in another’s presence has been revoked, it seems. She squats on the ground. Blue shorts, the same colour as her slightly fading hair, ride up her legs as she clips her toenails, ignoring Sarah. The poem is as random as it is long. Tiny phrases all chip in together, totally unrelated to each other. That a thousand types of Satan Worship

39

Has been rearranged A thousand kisses deep Kill them all Rape! A small crowd of people formed, eager to purchase these films and find out what exactly it is that the government does not want them to see. Touch me I touch myself Touch Football Hahaha!!!! Jesus And Mary Had a Ritualistic Sacrifice In Brisbane Godhatesfags It doesn’t stop. It keeps going, this kind of word formation, an artistic spatial thing, as far as I can see. Sarah looks entirely confused. Art will eat itself. “What do you think of it?” she asks. I pull out my red book. I have about three pages left. I’m coming up to a new one. It’s OK This part is a half fib, but it’s hard to give gentle criticism, without a voice to put a kind tone into. I think you might want to talk to Duchamp; he wants you to join his new art movement. Act now and you might prevent WW2.

40

Tahnee gives a small grin. “I don’t understand,” Sarah says. “It’s like music,” Tahnee says. “It’s like Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin and Toydeath and some of Pink Floyd’s more experimental stuff. You know it?” I give a short shake of my head. “Um, yeah. I know a bit about Apex Twin,” says Sarah. “I had a boyfriend who liked them.” “Was he a creative type?” “Not really,” says Sarah. Tahnee gives a non committal shrug. “He was probably new age, or a stoner then. Anyway what these bands did, and like, the Beatles did some playing around with it too, to a lesser extent, was stopped looking at the art of songs, and began playing with creating these huge soundscapes. That’s the same as painters. Jackson Pollack and his crew went all ‘fuck realism’ and started making this tripped out wacky colour and movement abstractions. I just wanted to try the same with writing. Just shake of the whole, ‘how to write a book,’ or novel or,” indicating her fourteen interconnected pieces, “a poem thing, and just focus on the wordscape, to say. Some other bloke did it too, with recording his voice, cutting up tapes, chopping up books, all that stuff. Only this is different, cos I’m taking it the extra step.” I wait patently for her to enlighten me as to what this extra step is, but she bites her lip instead. “I’m hungry,” she says. “I want ice cream.” I return to my pad. How is your work different to this other bloke’s work? She reads over it, and gives a grin. “I dunno yet,” she says. “Like, I’m a genius; almost. I’m that far from genius,” she says, holding her thumb and forefinger apart.

41

Distance from genius =

------------------------

?

She let out a loud laugh, devoid of any form of self-consciousness. Her eyes have a bright childish light in them. Sarah is still trying to stop being confused. “Yeah, eh? That’s about the size of it,” she says, and throws her arms up, landing on her back, on the bed. I pull out my last piece of paper and write on it. Would you like to come to the gallery? I’d feel like I’ve left you out of my life for too long. She sticks two fingers in the air, and I slot the note between them. She brings it down to her face, and eats the words with a potent scrutiny. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah… Your T-shirt is really ugly.” I look down at my green grey shirt. She’s fairly rude about it, but she is very accurate. “We don’t have to leave it at just the gallery. We could go deep into the vile black soul of Brisbane, wandering through Chinese opium dens, or the Valley peep show, or like, Liberal Party headquarters. Judith will want details of wherever we’re going, but we can just give her some bullshit excuse and fuck off anywhere around the place. We can go anywhere. I have fake ID.” “How old are you?” says Sarah. “Sixteen.” “You swear a lot.” “Fuck.” She giggles. “Show us your ID.” Tahnee leans over the bed and pulls out a wallet, from which she takes an ID card. She shows it to Sarah, who passes it to me. At first I’m about to reject it and ask for her fake one instead, until I observe her birthdate. I scribble out one of my other notes. I’m Impressed She grins. “Gotchya, didn’t I?”

42

I give a small nod. She snatches the ID back off me and sticks it in her pocket. “That’s pretty incredible,” says Sarah. “I got some bloke at school to do it. It’s hell good. Can’t tell the diff. His parents like, make professional IDs for the government and shit, so he can make these fully legit ones. It’s sick.” “It’s also very illegal,” says Sarah. “What is illegal is not always wrong. What is legal, is not always right.” “Thanks for the ethics lesson Socrates,” says Sarah, but she seems in good spirits. Tahnee leans forward. “Let’s get fucked up,” she says, “Hemlock shots all round.”

8. Another day, another Mission for Ashton and I. We do our hair, brush our teeth, and attach to ourselves tiepins and cuff links. This job is sixty percent threatening appearance, thirty percent threatening presence and ten per cent not getting killed. “Who’s the customer today,” I ask. “Depak Sparke, he’s called. Group leader. Some members of his team have reported him as being increasingly delusional and paranoid. We’re just going to check to see if everything is OK. He’s in E2.” We move into the elevator. The doors crush shut behind us. “I met this chick at my Greenpeace meting last night,” says Ashton, “Indian girl. Hot beyond your wildest imagination.” “Hot like curry?” I say. “Was that meant to be a joke?” “Sorry.” He shrugs. “Man…. You know Halle Berry?” “Not personally.”

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“Say I go to a party, and I have a chance, like nothing more than a chance of sex with this girl, and Halle invites me up to a threesome… I’d say, no thank you Halle Berry. I’m busy here.” “Man, I don’t get it. I jump along to nightclubs and all – no women. You join some animal group – chicks all over you” “Greenpeace is chick central,” he says. “Haven’t you seen girls go gooey over puppy dogs? Greenpeace is full of girls. That’s half the reason I joined.” “What’s the other half.” “Sabotage,” he says. “I fucking hate seals.” We hit the top, and the doors pull themselves apart. We walk out onto the main hallway. Go past E1. Arrive at E2. Ashton knocks politely. “Come in,” yells a voice from outside. “It’s unlocked.” Ashton opens the door. “Christ fucking God….” Ashton and I both freeze. It’s one of those. Depak is standing in the centre of the room, in each hand a small machine gun. He stands dramatically in front of a massive window that serves as a wall. The one way glass looks out over a mass of empty warehouses and buildings. One gun is aimed behind him, where a girl stands tied to the water cooler, tears running down her face and over the line of tape covering her mouth. The other, of course, at us. Ashton reaches into his pocket slowly, as do I. “Depak,” he says. “I’m not about to harm you. That is a last option.” I have my hand on my gun. I know the drill. If he moves to fire on Ashton, or the water cooler girl, it’s up to me to take him out as fast as I can.

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“Wow guys, really?” he says. “Thank you. I mean it. I mean it, really. That’s something real special to me.” His voice drips sarcasm. “I’m going to arm myself,” says Ashton. “This is for my own protection. I will not harm you.” He’s pulling a gun out from his pocket. He moves it towards Depak. Depak ignores it. “Consider this,” he says, “my notice of resignation. I intend to leave the Survival.” “I think you might find a holiday less troublesome,” says Ashton. “Holidays are bullshit! Holidays aren’t real. They’re fake. I don’t want a fucking holiday. I want to leave. I want to leave now. I want you to go, right now, and tell the head that I’m resigning.” “If I tell him, he will ignore me, and have you killed. If you’re with us, you’re with us for life.” “Oh… Oh God… you’re pathetic. You’re all pathetic! You’re all… all of you, all of you, fucking horseshit! Fucking sucking Darryl’s cock, all of you! You love him.” “Listen,” says Ashton. “No, you listen!” “Shut up!” Ashton yells. Depak pauses for a moment, a foul anger on his face. Ashton glares at him. “So,” he says. “You don’t like what Darryl did. You don’t like that he’s taken you on a ride. Join the fucking club. We all feel the same. We all wonder what it would have been like if we said ‘no’. If we said, this is crazy shit, I’m not about to sign this fucking contract, and sign my life away. But we did. And we live with that. And we’re stronger and we’re better for it.” “You’re so full of shit. Jesus,” Deepak say. “You two, I mean… God, you’re a joke. You’re just… I don’t… I” “Don’t do something you’ll regret.”

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“I’ve already spent five years doing nothing but what I regret.” He gives a bitter laugh. “Depak Sparke,” says Ashton. He’s onto a new tactic now. Sounding official, trying to regain authority. “It is my duty as a member of The Survival to warn you that Under Section 2 of the Execution Code, you may be killed without prior warning if putting innocent lives in danger.” “Innocent is a joke,” says Depak. “Your hands too are covered in blood.” “How about we stop aiming at water cooler girl at any cost. She’d probably be best left out of this.” “She’s part of my problem, I will treat her as such.” “I require some cooperation Depak.” “I know about Tina.” Ashton freezes. Something in that sentence has hit him in the stomach like a blast of ice. He lowers his gun a little. I grip mine, a sense of urgency and danger radiating over me. Ashton is looking Depak in the eyes now. “What did you say?” Then the world explodes. A violent, hellish explosion of gunfire breaks out; behind Depak the girl tied to the cooler explodes, a tidal wave of blood splashing up against the window, in a clatter of gunfire. The window stays intact, but shatters, a stoned spider’s web of cracks exploding across it. Depak pulls the other gun, Ashton panicking, unprepared, dodging out of the way, the wood of the wall behind us blasted apart. I jump to the side, whipping my gun out as I do, and shoot. There’s a flash of red across Depak’s arm, and he loses grip of the gun. He yells out in anger and pain, and Ashton jumps in front of him. I see Ashton pull the trigger twice, two loud blasts and hear the crunch as Depak hits the glass.

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The water cooler is an empty mess of shattered plastic. The water lies splashed across the floor, mixed red with the dead woman’s blood, giving the room the macabre feeling of a blood bath. Literally. Depak is alive. He slumps against the window, the shatter-proof glass slowly buckling under his weight. Deep red, a wound on his shoulder, and in his stomach. Ashton stands above him, gun aimed at his head. If that glass breaks, it’s a long drop and a dramatic landing for Depak. Falling’s not bad. Landing’s a real bummer The glass shifts. “Ashton,” I begin. “Shut up,” he says. He glares intently at Depak. “What do you know?” “Too much,” he groans. His bloody hand grips his stomach wound, shaking. “Tell me.” “Fuck yourself.” It’s hardly a diplomatic move on Depak’s behalf, although shooting him in the stomach was probably a little undiplomatic on Ashton’s behalf. “You tell me, you bloody well tell me or I kill you,” This is against the rules. If they find Depak was killed when disarmed, Ashton could be up for severe penalties. “Ashton…” I begin to warn. “Shut up!” The glass shifts. “I won’t tell you shhh… shit… I’m gonna die anyway.” “I’ll save you” “Save me?”

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“Yeah.” Depak groans and I think I can hear the glass buckling. “And help me escape,” he says. “No,” I say. “Yes,” says Ashton. “Now hurry up and tell me.” “Tina…” he says. He is struggling to work under the terms of Ashton’s new found madness. He coughs involuntarily. The glass shifts. And bursts open. One moment Depak’s there, bloody and shocked, looking up Ashton’s gun, the next he’s a crunching sound and a pair of legs hanging out the window, and the next he’s gone. Ashton looks out the window. I don’t need to. I’ve seem battles between Gravity and Man before. My money’s on gravity. “I’ll alert the cleaning teams,” says Ashton. He looks at me. “I need you to make an official report. OK?” “Ah yeah… I…” “Depak was mad. He opened fire after I told him I required cooperation. He fell through the window as I was detailing his rights to him.” “OK.” “That’s important Hugo,” he says. “He never mentioned Tina.”

9. I pull out a note pad from my pocket, a crappy spare I have for emergencies. Sarah is still in Tahnee’s room, still trying to make sense of her random gobbledygook. Unlike Sarah, I don’t find Tahnee confusing. I find her enchanting. And every so often I remember about the house.

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I’d like to spend more time with Tahnee I know I haven’t so far had a big part in her life, but I’d like to start. My Mother glares intently at my note, as if wishing it some sort of unspeakable ill. It is a look usually used by parents against large dangerous dogs who have hurt their children. Her lips purse, pushing out. In the light, her lip-gloss casts a dull shine across them. They seem pleasantly at home amongst the plastic feeling of the hotel room, the mock French lattice wooden fans, overpriced buyable extras, pale blue wallpaper. It’s like I’ve been taken off to some shack in the sky where everything tastes like musk candy and smells like Paris Hilton. Jack stands behind her, reading over her shoulder, stomach stuck out. The muscles he once had are gone. He muses over my note, his chin twitching. My mother speaks first. “Have you considered how Tahnee may feel about this?” she asks with a barrister's tone. I was having a chat to her before. She likes it. She glares at this one too. “Tahnee,” she says, “Since she has become part of this family, has become used to our basic structure. She has become used to some common level of normality.” Surely ‘Normality’, and ‘Our basic family structure’ are a contradiction in terms. Mum continues. “She is a brilliant and complex girl. I have concerns that by imposing too much of a presence on her life that you would perhaps hinder her personal development, or provide her character fuel to grow in an unsavoury manner. I don’t say this nastily, but do you gather my meaning?” You think I’ll be a bad influence? Mum recoils, hurt and offended. My comment has driven a stake through her heart. Try nailed to a giant flesh eating virus

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“I never said that,” she says, with a good measure of righteous indignation. “I just feel that your presence might be an overbearing… sensation for her. I mean of course, if you want to go ahead and try to make friendship with her then there is little I can do to stand in your way. I just hope that your attention span is going to be more… consistent this time.” She stands and walks off, Jack steps back to let her pass, and clams her seat. I stand up to move off. “No Hugo, sit down,” says Jack. “We need to have a talk.” Why would you say that to a man with no tongue? Nobody goes into conversation with a mute unless their objective is the person’s sole attention. Jack sighs and crosses his finger. He thumbs his light-haired top lip. Jack was once the six packed lovechild of Tyler Durdan, but those days have passed. Jack is not my mentor. Jack is not my father. Jack barely even seems to be a competent enough figure to be Tahnee’s father. Jack is not even married to my mother. Basically Jack is nobody, a nobody with a waistline expanding at the same rate his hairline is shrinking, one who can’t fix taps and leaves crumbs in the butter. And he hates me. Big time. “I see you’re passing an interest in the life of my daughter,” he says. He shuffles like the guy in a crime show he watches as he looks me close. “That’s fine. But I have to let you know that if you two begin a relationship, and I am referring to a totally platonic relationship, that it will be free from discrepancy. My daughter, as you may well be aware, is attracted to the more extreme side of things. She is prone to trouble. And, no matter how often you talk about that tongue thief from that cult or whatever, the fact is that your life is quite obviously a good deal more convoluted and dangerous than you tend to let slip. And don’t worry, this is just between you and me.”

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I’m shocked. This is the most I’ve ever heard from Jack when he hasn’t been singing Springsteen. If he hadn’t been so perceptive I’d have been outraged about him talking about my tongue like that. He continues. “My point is, that your life is a mixture of blacks and greys. White just doesn’t play a part. I can accept that; it is your choice. However, if you ever allow my daughter to experience the less refined, the more dangerous and the more irrational elements of your life, than there will be no mistake as to my displeasure. Trust me; I will make you miserable. You will not stop regretting your actions for a very long time. Am I frankly clear?” I don’t even react for a moment. I just stare. Then, slowly, just allowing reality to trickle back in I give a slow dumb nod. He stands and walks off purposefully, I lie in my chair. That went well…

It’s about ten o’ clock, when Sarah and I decide to leave. I write Mum a quick note, and she goes off to pass on our good-byes to Jack. Tahnee hugs Sarah and begins to walk off. I wave her over to me, but she just shrugs and waves good-bye. Mum returns and I pass her another note. Sarah and I are going to be off now. Thank you very much for the dinner. I enjoyed it a lot. I really apreciated being able to spend time with you Jack and Tahnee. I hope to do it again sometime. My mother smiles, an unfamiliar sight. For once she is not suffering at the claws of some rampant injustice. Everything is OK. She reads my note. It’s kind of convenient. When you talk, everyone listens. “You spelt appreciated incorrectly,” she points out. Don’t make fun of my accent.

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Sarah laughs. Mum doesn’t get it. Jack ambles over, to shake our hands. Sarah’s first, then mine. “I’m very pleased to have finally met you Sarah,” he says. “It was a pleasure,” says Sarah. I smile and nod. “Oh!” says Mum. “I forgot. I’ve got some stuff for you.” She opens a cabinet and pulls out an envelope. She hands it to me. “It’s all that was left of Victor after the fire. I know it won’t mean much to you and, I know you would have wished he’d never come into our lives but… I just felt it was important. That you had it.” I tip the envelope into my hand, and out falls a yellow silky toy rabbit ear. “I trimmed off the burnt bits,” she says, “and I sowed up the bottom. It’s silly, but… I mean, your father didn’t leave us anything after his death, and I know that it wasn’t really his ear, but I just wanted to make sure you got something. Oh and Sarah, you too.” She pulls something out of her pocket. “This belonged to Victor.” “The rabbit?” “Your father.” She drops it in Sarah’s hand. “Jesus,” says Sarah. “His ring.” “I don’t wear it,” says Mum. “I wanted you to have something to remember him by.” “Thank you Mum.” She gives us a final hug and kiss. The return of the happy family. And we leave.

Are you fine to get home? “Yeah,” says Sarah. “Easy. I’m off to a concert of Thursday. Soft Clip. My friend knows a guy who’s in it. Hey, Hugo?”

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I give a facial expression that’s meant to mean ‘yeah?’. “I’m glad you’re OK. We climb in our respective cars, and drive off. As I’m moving off, I have a quick glance at my phone. 1 UNREAD MSG. I remember about the message Mum gave me, and go to delete it. When I look at it though, it’s not from Mum. I look at it briefly, then divert my attention back to the road. 8:13 ASHTON Sorry.

10. “You’re right,” says Darryl. “You screwed up.” Darryl gazes at me critically. His fingertips press gently against the desk, alternating pressure over the whole of his hand. “Of course,” he says, “Who hasn’t? Everyone has.” I nod. “Except for me,” he says. It’s hard to know if he’s being serious or not. I nod anyway. He looks a little disappointed. “I’ve checked up your interview transcripts. Quite punctual. Impressively so. No inconsistencies, so, nothing to investigate. I’d say this matter is very much closed. I’ll have you send Ashton into my room for interview anyway, just as a formality. I will see to it that Mr Sparke’s family are alerted to his death.” “There was a girl, too, Darryl.”

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“Yes, I know. Miss Cave has no family to speak of. Just one good friend. And I can assure you, I miss her terribly.” There is a short, sickening silence. My lungs ice over. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” Daryl is silent for a few moments, looking down at his desk, fingers woven together. “It is…” he begins, and takes a long shaky breath. “It is an inevitable, and an unfortunate fact, that when you are head of an association consisting mostly of nutters, psychos and sadists who have quick access to weapons… that it is inevitable that there will be some… that you may loose some people that are very close to you.” He wipes his eyes with a thumb and forefinger, and with a jolt, I realise he has become tearful. He laughs embarrassedly, and points at me. “If you tell anyone you saw me crying, I’ll shoot you,” he says, smiling, like he’s sharing a joke with me. This one is more obvious. He’s serious. “I want you to let me tell you a story,” Darryl says, and when Darryl wants you to let him do something, you damn well let him. “Say that there’s a scientist. He wants to build a robot. A robot that is capable of creating itself. And that is to be its singular function. So he makes it, really small yeah, and it starts to build itself. It works in machine logic, developing patterns and systems that allow for systematic improvement, and it grows, every day, it gets bigger, better more sophisticated. One day, it’s gotten so sophisticated that it’s developed consciousness. It sees itself, and realises how limited and pointless its existence is. So it begins to rebuild itself. But it realises it can’t just rebuild immediately or its own system will reject its changes. So its

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conscious part waits for the body to degrade, so that when its inevitable collapse begins it can ascend to a higher level of being. That machine, Hugo, is society. We are the consciousness. And the collapse of the degraded machinery of humanity is immanent.” He lights a cigarette. “Go on. Story time’s over. Get out of here.” I stand and leave the room, closing the door quietly. As I turn the corner I nearly crash into
Quan, carrying a massive pile of boxes. “Ohh fuck me!!” he yells, almost falling back, his arm jerking out the grab at the wall, the knuckles of his other hand whitening as they grip the box. “Oh Fuck! Fuck me in the eye! Do you even know what’s in these boxes man? Do you have any clue?” “I’m sorry,” I say.

“Green Glory man! Nitro-fucking-glycerine! I drop this box, and I blow us all to hell! You get that? I drop this, we all die!” “Why do you even have it in the main hall?” I say, cringing a little as he tries to rearrange the boxes. “Storage area is full,” he says. “I thought I might just keep it on my desk for a few days, until some room frees up.” He walks off, my eyes following. As he stumbles, nearly tripping, into his room, Sana exits another office into the hall. I must have a fairly distressed look on my face, because as she sees me her pace quickens, and her face takes up an expression of concern. “Everything OK?” “Mm? Oh yeah, yes. Just Quan. He’s putting two crates of Nitro-glycerin on his desk because there’s no room in storage.” From one of the rooms I hear a crash, and cringe. “Bloody hell. The last thing we need is another death. Especially after the trouble with Jess and Depak today. That wasn’t your shift was it?” I nod.

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“Oh. I’m sorry.” “Shit happens,” I say, perhaps too dismissively. She gives me a looks that can’t be distinguished. “Do you wane to grab something to eat?” she says. “Please,” I say. I could eat a stuffed octopus. Sana brings me into her office. “Would you like a pie or a sausage roll?” “Um, pie thanks.” “Sit. Don’t go standing around like a pork chop.” I grab a seat in front of Sana’s desk. Behind the desk Sana pulls a frozen sausage roll and pie out of the fridge, pops them on a plate and sticks them into a microwave carefully placed on top of a filing cabinet. She sits. “Listen to me Hugo – be careful. There’s a lot of changes about to go down in The Survival. They’re just rumours at this point, of course, but the men, and the two women, on the council, seem determined to make some serious changes. If that’s what they want, they’ll get it.” “What sort of changes?” “Well… that’d be me putting my head up on a plate and serving it if I was going to tell you specifically. Effectively though, what everyone is talking about is ‘taking it up a notch.’ Making The Survival bigger, better, more effective, more brutal, and so on.” The microwave beeps. Sana opens it and pulls out the plate with a pie and sausage roll. She reaches under her desk and pulls out another plate, on which she puts her roll, and a squeezer bottle of tomato sauce which she drizzles over it in a little squiggly worm. “One thing they want is a presence” “Hang on- doesn’t that contradict the ‘secret’ part of ‘Secret’ Society?”

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“Not really – What they want to set up – this part being fairly borderline as whether I can tell you or not – is a series of street gangs. Make this whole area, the township and surrounds, wherever The Survival has influence, seem less safe. This means that when people die, it’s less suspicious. If people seem involved in a secret group, they can just shrug off as gang membership. Even the executioners like me are being instructed to take up new methods of killing that look more like gangland murders. Even for people that wouldn’t be missed.” “If they wouldn’t be missed, what’s the point?” “So the place seems more dangerous. So it doesn’t seem suss if lots of people die” “But it’s not lots. Despite the dangerous stuff, we’ve got a relatively low mortality rate.” “Right now, we have, yes. As things are today that is true.” “What do…” “Not that I’m suggesting anything,” she says, taking a bite of her roll. She looks at me with her one good eye. “Not that I’m suggesting anything at all.”

11. In Japanese culture and linguistics there are two key concepts called honne and tatamae. Honne is the truth, or the reality, and tatamae is the façade or fabrication. Unlike the English equivalent, tatamae has no negative connotations; it is instead considered an essential part of a functional society. In World War Two, everybody knew Hirohito was no more a God than anyone else; but that was the honne. The tatamae was that if the man said he was a God, then well, he’d bloody well know, wouldn’t he? The same can be applied to our own culture. When the dwarf, or the burns victim or the man with basically a tumour where his face would be, we turn, and talk to them very

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conventionally and politely. Like we don’t even notice. Like if they brought it up our collective mouth would drop with surprise: ‘What’s that?! You’re about half the height of the average man?! Glory be, it never even occurred to me!’. Outside the Art Gallery, where things are made to look like what they aren’t, to feed the truth through a lie, are a pack of homeless guys. They stink of old man smell, sitting around in the day yelling out at the conventional types strolling down the street. “You’re pregnant arncha?” “You a fuckin lawyer or sumfin’? Y’look like a right rich cunt.” “You look like a fuckin’ lesbian luv.” And naturally enough, the conventional types don’t even bat an eye, walking down the street, looking straight forward, like somebody could tap them on the shoulder and surprise them with the revelation. “What’s that? A drunk and aggressive homeless person yelling at me from a garden only meters away? I didn’t even know!” Honne and Tatamae in action. Sometimes I think these guys are the last sane people left.

It’s on a park bench not far from the homeless possie that my sister buys me a drink of coffee and tells me that she thinks Tahnee might be on drugs. This trend of startling revelations is consistent with her style so I’m not too surprised but it’s a concern nonetheless. A hunch? Or got proof? She shakes her head. “Midway. When we were in her room, I noticed she was like, leaning back on one of he drawers. Like she wanted to hide whatever was in it away from me. But we were in there for a fair while and she kept sort of leaning on it, like she wasn’t used to having people so close to it. So when she went off to the toilet… I know it’s awful, and invasive, and I felt really terrible doing it and all but…”

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She takes a drink of coffee. She looks visibly distressed. “She actually put the chair like, wedged under the handle when she left. I don’t know what reason she gave, I think she tried to make a joke, ‘look, it’s modern art’ or something, but it was pretty plain she just didn’t want me in there. After she left I opened it and there were bags of this kind of powder… and I’m not a user or anything but one of my exes was a raver, and you get used to things that have a druggy look. And these bags, they had a really, really druggy look. And it wasn’t like, a bag for her and a spare, or a user’s stash or even as though she had one for her and one for all her mates… there were fucking heaps. Like something out of Scarface.” Got one? Even if I’m not allowed back into the Survival for now, I’m sure I can get. But she shakes her head. “She came in, and I closed things up, but it was so obvious. So embarrassing. She caught me red handed, pretended like she didn’t know. She was just so cocky, so confident…” She sits there for a while. I let my mind tick over. The more I think, the less likely it seems. Tahnee fits the profile for many things, but a junkie isn’t one of them, and neither is a confirmer of first impressions. Dealing seems even less likely. I decide not to worry. I’ll look for myself when I get home. I tell Sarah not to stress, that I’ll have it under control.

I come home that afternoon to my family’s apartment and enter into the hall. The place seems empty, and I eventually find my mother alone on her bed, asleep. I move into Tahnee’s room. A quick look at the cupboard in questions reveals a handful of amateur snooping detection techniques; a hair over the crack, a thin layer of talcum on the edge. I let myself

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disturb these things, even though it could be easy to circumvent. Let’s play this game in the sunlight. The drawer though is predicably empty. That’s OK. I wipe a tissue over the whole of the inside. I’ll see what I can get. I close the drawer, and put a piece of my own hair over the crack. Let her follow the breadcrumbs. Then I hear a door close. They’re home. I leave the room and come out, moving closer to the other side of the room, like I might have just been emerging from around where the toilet is. “Hugo,” says Jack. He fiddles with his tie, pulling it off with one hand. Tahnee looks at me with a sly grin, and I know that she knows why I’ve come over, and I know that it doesn’t phase her a bit, and I know that she knows I know. Jack pulls off the tie completely, undoes his top buttons. “What are you doing here?” I lost my watch, I tell him, signing, and he seems to get it. I left it here, in the bathroom. I figured I’d hang around to say hi to you guys. Tahnee passes by, eating a tomato, and closes herself into her room. Jack’s expression changes a little. “What’s the real reason?” he asks quietly, with an edge of warning. Sarah thinks Tahnee might be involved with drugs. “She’s not.” I think so too. “She’s not.” Maybe not using it; she could be selling it or something… He puts out a hand and touches my arm, stopping me from going further. “You’re barking up the wrong tree mate,” he says. “You need to step back. Big step back. Before you get pushed back.” And I don’t know if that’s a warning about pushing Tahnee’s limits or a threat about pushing his.

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I go to see Tahnee before I leave. She’s on her bed, looking through some papers. “See anything you like in the drawers you and your sister rifled through?” she asks, casually, but I can detect a hint of annoyance. I found less than she did. “Yeah well. In case you’re wondering, it’s a mix of cocaine, speed, meth and ice, lightly cut with sweetener and LSD, with a heroin finish. It’s the newest street drug, and I’m the mastermind who invented it.” I don’t respond. She can try to sarcasm her way out of a straight answer if she likes, but it doesn’t mean I should give her an easy way out. Predictably then, she changes topic. “Hugo?” I manage to make a kind of ‘mmm’ sound. “Imagine if this whole system we exist in is like a machine. It’s a self serving, self duplicating singular organism. But if it’s us, then I’m a part of it, aren’t I. And if I’m aware of the machine, it essentially means that the machine has gained consciousness… so what does it do then?” What was really in the cupboard? I write, but my hand is shaking a little. She looks at me, critically, and I think we’re both tired of games. “I like you Hugo,” she says. “But the truth is it’s none of your fucking business.” She sharpens her pencil. “I think you’d better go.” I nod and step away slowly, grabbing the handle. “Don’t worry about going through my stuff – dad does it too,” she says. “I know I’m unpredictable, and I worry people and everyone ready to find a body in the basement. Just don’t make a fucking habit of it. And let Sarah know I don’t hate her, I guilt tripped her pretty hard.”

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OK I mouth, and open the door. “I’d like to come to the gallery sometime,” she says, “I know you work there and it must get pretty dull working there…” I smile, but I think it betrays my tension. My heart is still pounding as I begin to walk back to my car. Because that shit that she was spouting, that nonsense about the machine, I’ve heard that all before. And I wonder what, if anything, this all means, if it’s coincidence, or if it’s a message or if it’s just Tahnee doing what she does best; confusing the shit out of people.

12. Quan walks into the room while I’ve got the drawer open, and I know, in that instant, that I’m going to die. Unauthorised access into the filing rooms is strictly prohibited under pain of death. Very literal pain of death, the kind that Sana is involved in at a professional level. The kind that is filmed with a cheap digital camera and is shown as a warning to other employees who are considering ignoring the rules. It’s hard to ignore the inconvenience of trying to survive with your intestines on the wrong side of your body. “We Burn the Old Grass so the New May Grow,” is something of a company motto. This is also the motto of Pol Pot’s old political party, the Khmer Rouge, who murdered 1.5 million Cambodians, around a fifth of the population. Pol Pot died, while under house arrest, in 1998. The moral here is don’t fuck with the boss. Ashton has me searching for a file titled ‘TINA MORAY’. I don’t know what this is. I don’t give a damn.

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I choked on my tea when he’d asked me this morning, to find the file. We were in our little office. Our pot plant was in need of water. “I need your help Dell,” said Ashton. He was brooding, serious, in a way menacing. I shrugged. “OK.” “I need a file. On Tina Moray. These fuckers know something.” “You need a file?” “You have a hearing problem.” “You might not want to be a shithead to the guy you’re grovelling to. Are you talking about (I lowered my voice) a fucking Survival file?” “Of course. I’m capable of using a goddamn library Dell. I need these files. I want what they have.” “You’re capable of risking your own goddamn life too, as opposed to mine.” “You know stealth and speed Dell. I know force. That’s why we work together. And that’s what I want us to do. Work together. I’ll be there when you need me. Provided you’re there when I need you. And Dell, I fucking need you.” So that’s how I end up, enveloped in silence and darkness, draped over of many, many filing cabinets. Every one I pry open seems to shriek warning. They know I am an intruder, and they will betray me. And then I find it. My gloves are thick with sweat, and I pull the file gently. Tina Moray. I scan the document, and words jump out at me. Things that make little sense. Velvet Martini… TAS…then names, more than I can count. Then the door opens. I see Quan silhouetted in the doorway, motionless, staring straight at me. This whole area is meant to be shut down, no admittance at all. He moves slightly.

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“Hey,” he says. I don’t reply. My heart is pounding so hard I think I can hear it echo off the cabinets. My hand is shaking so badly I have to let the folder drop back into the cabinet. His gun is in hand, held loosely by his side. “Joel,” he says, “Wassup?” I remain silent. “Man,” he says, “Can you go get me my glasses? I can’t see a fucking thing. Left then on the desk.” The blood returns to my face, and I begin to feel like I might not be on the verge of passing out or throwing up or both. I can’t reply. He’ll recognise my voice. I stand there. I feel sweat drip down my face. He steps forward. “Joel? Come on man, don’t be a prick. I need my glasses dude.” He steps forward. I let the file drop effortlessly out of my hand, into the folder. Quan takes another step forward and stops. He stares straight at me. “Is that you Joel?” Then, there is the sound of Quan’s phone ringing and he walks out and answers, and I get the hell out of there.

“You failed me dude. You just fuckin’ failed me.” Ashton is sitting in his chair, sulking into a cup of lukewarm coffee. My heart is still pumping with the shock of still beating. I have had enough. I pull the cup from his hands, the coffee splashing everywhere, and throwing it with full force at the wall. The cup cracks open and the rest splatters over the wall. “You ungrateful fucking whore!” I yell, before leaning in close, hissing. “I risked my goddamn life for your retarded fucking whim, and I thought I was about to get my goddamn head shot off for some horseshit I didn’t even understand, and if you act like a

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pussy little emo cockspank or mention one more self-centred whiney comment I will punch you in the dick! You hear me?” He shrugs. “Yeah. I guess.” He sighs, but shifts and makes an effort to look less irritated. “So, did you at least find out if there is a file?” “Oh yeah. There’s a file. Big one. Thick. I held it in my hand for a moment before Quan came in.” “Did you get a look?” “It was dark.” “But you saw it.” “I saw it. I saw… glimpses. It mentioned T.A.S, Velvet Martini… names, lots of names. Sharee, Tyler, Kate… I don’t know. Lots of names.” “So what does that tell us?” “Nothing more than you’re telling me.” He grunts. “Who’s Tina?” I ask. “It doesn’t concern you.” “It does now.” He nods slowly. “I guess. Look, we came here for answers. You wanted to find out about your father. I wanted answers about Tina. But that’s all I’m gonna say man. I can’t risk it saying more.” Most people would feel bad if their friend couldn’t trust them with their secrets. Most people don’t have water-boarding as a workplace hazard. “Who is Velvet Martini?” I ask. “Sana mentioned him once but didn’t get very far.” Ashton looks at me like I’m an idiot.

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“He’s…” he waves a hand. “He’s no one. He’s like this amalgamation of early Survival leaders. He’s just some figurehead. You hear stories about him but they’re all just about the early crew.”

Sana and I walk through the wet grass. The moon reflects off the edge of the river. “You gotta do me a favour Dell,” she says. “You gotta take care yourself.” “I do.” “Things are changing. People, are changing. There’s a lot of nervousness upstairs. Darryl’s holding things together but not by much.” “Meaning?” “Meaning, fuck knows what. Just, take care. There’s a lot of call for change, and a willingness to sacrifice grunts to the new order.” “Good thing I’m not a grunt.” “Hugo, honey. You’re a grunt. I’m a grunt too, just a marginally more valuable one.” We stop at the side of the river. Sana pulls out a joint and lights it. We sit in silence, smoking for a while. “I need something else too.” “Mm?” I say. After Ashton’s request I’m not in a hurry to hand out favours. “I want you to trust me. I want you to let me keep you safe.” “Um. OK” “I’ve done a lot… a lot of things that I don’t want to talk about. A lot of bad here. It gets to the point where you can’t see where I end and the killing begins. I want… it’s not like I believe in redemption or anything. It just feels like I’ve found some part of myself that still believes in something. Which is nice.” “OK. Yeah I… cool.” “Hugo, I’m trying to say thanks. I guess.”

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“Oh. Ohhh.” I touch her back and give her a soft kiss on the neck. I feel her shiver gently. She feels so vulnerable for someone who could kill me within five seconds. We sit for a while watching a piece of bark float down the river. “Sana, why did you mention Velvet Martini the other night?” “Oh man… I dunno. I was high dude.” “Ashton said that he’s just some character…” “Don’t talk to Ashton about Martini.” Her voice is sharp, commanding. I stop. “So,” I say. “I take it he’s more than a fairy tale?” Sana takes a while to answer. “There’s a lot of disinformation around Martini. Anything you hear now is likely bullshit. But there was one real Martini, right close to the start. He had a lot of followers, held a lot of pull. We don’t talk about him because nobody wants to see The Survival drift into self destruction.” “And I don’t talk to Ashton about him because…?” “Because you value your life. Him asking stupid questions about Martini at the boxing clubs was how The Survival found him in the first place. If he gets the answers he’s after, he’ll be a loose cannon, and nobody wants to be responsible for that switch being flicked. Martini was safer as a fiction, so that’s what the disinformation teams churned out. We don’t talk to each other about him because to find yourself talking to a traditional supporter or opponent is a great way to make quick insane enemies.” “So I don’t talk to Ashton about it because he’s a Martini supporter?” “You don’t talk to Ashton about it because he doesn’t realise he’s Martini’s son.”

13.

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I knock on Rocky’s door. He lets me in, looking around the sides of the door carefully before closing. “This isn’t S related is it?” he says. I shake my head, and he looks relieved. There’s a short awkward moment between us. He opens his fridge and pulls out a beer and takes a big long drink from it. His house is worn but nice, well lived in. Only a few small pieces, the television, his watch, the computer, betray his wealth. “I’m sorry about what they did to you,” he says. “It’s fucked. It’s not what it’s all meant to be.” A pause. “You want a drink?” I indicate that I’m OK. I put my hand in my pocket, slowly. He watches with caution. When everyone routinely is out to get you, paranoia doesn’t distinguish itself from rational caution. I pull out a bag with a tissue. I have a note in the bag. Hey Rocky. I found some weird bags in my step-sister’s drawer. She moved them but left some residue, and was hoping you could test the bags as a favour. He reads the note and nods at me. He looks relived to be able to do something for me. “Sure thing mate. I’ll get this done in the next day or two.” I smile and give a thumbs up. We shake hands, and I wander out again. I want to ask about Sana, about The Survival, about Ashton. Instead I climb into my car and turn the ignition.

I stop in at a newsagency on the way home, picking up a paper and a carton of juice. When I get home I dump it on the table and begin to throw together a quick meal. As I do, a name in the paper catches my eye. Herman J Freidman. My father’s killer.

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I begin to read. Tables Turned as Killer Fears For Own Life Convicted killer Herman J Freidman has caught the attention of civil rights activists, after begging prison guards to place him in increased security, fearing an “externally orchestrated plot” against his life. “The prisoner in question has become increasingly paranoid that he may be a target for assassination,” stated a spokesperson at the Kleinsburg prison. “At this stage there is nothing to support these claims, however all rumors are being taken very seriously, and all visitors to Mr Freidman are being carefully scrutinized.” Mr Freidman gained notoriety four years ago, after stabbing a man twice and shooting him twelve times in the head, incorrectly suspecting him to be his wife’s rapist. I guess that’s Karma.

“Stuffed with the hair of Chinese dissidents.” “Bullet filled condoms.” “War as Pornography.” These are things you don’t learn straight way when you learn sign language. Ray Mann is a fucking hack. I’m busy familiarising myself with his new exhibit, ‘The Pornography of War.’ There’s basically two points to it; one, war and sex are both about power. No shit. And two, guns look like dicks. Well, surprise! Modern Art is a PR arms race. Mann’s exhibit has some aesthetically interesting elements. There’s the interplay of sexual material with the cold realities of death and war, burned children’s toys, and one untitled piece that I don’t actually mind upstairs, across a walkway overlooking the whole

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exhibit; an oversized tank of green-blue water where foetuses the size of my head dangle from rubber umbilical cords. For all the aesthetic elements though, it’s a show made to shock. Which isn’t so bad, it’s just… done. Many times. And often much better. BTW, Duchamp called. He wants his ideas back. It’s customary to meet the artist, so I wander out and smile and wave. Mann is engrossed in conversation with two of the other curators. He’s older than I expected, somewhere in his thirties. He speaks with a thick Israeli accent, and wears a black winter coat and thick rimmed blue glasses. He pauses his conversation and walks up to me. “Hello!” he says, and signs to me. I call his bluff. Hello I sign, I’m Hugo. “Hugo,” he says, and puts out a hand to shake. “Ray Mann. I ah, am please to meet you yes. A very nice gallery here I think.” I’m stunned. I never actually expect anyone outside of my deaf tour groups to understand sign language. Now if this could happen less with artists and more with hot girls, I’d be pleased. Thank you I sign, overcoming my aversion of the guy for the chance to practice my language. Do you travel a lot? The question is lame, and he takes it good naturedly. We banter very gently for a while. “Look,” he says, “I can see you are not the biggest of fan for my work yes?” I move to offer some kind of symbolic objection, but he stops me. “It is OK,” he says, “I would be more unhappy if there was indifference. Love is good, hate is good. Indifference makes it forgotten. We remember the Mother Theresa and we remember Hitler. The guy who did the weather yesterday… him, not so much. But I want to say; I am around here for a few days and if you want me to meeting and greeting with friend or others, I would be happy to.”

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I start to make a polite refusal then stop and think of Tahnee. I might take you up on that, I sign.

Sarah is at my parents place when I come to pick Tahnee up. I share a cup of tea with her and mum for a couple of minutes as Tahnee gets ready. Jack is sitting watching TV. He looks uncomfortable. “That’s beautiful,” says mum, pointing at my shirt. I’ve pinned the yellow rabbit’s ear to my shirt. I grin. It was Sarah’s idea. Sarah holds up her finger. “Still wearing the ring,” she says. Mum nods. “I’m proud of you kids,” she says. “I was never really the mother I wanted to be… I messed up a lot, and you guys still managed to turn out OK. I’m really proud.” There’s a quick pause and she breathes in. “Well,” she says, “I might go check on how Tahnee’s going. She’s all strung out because she can’t find her sunglasses.” She walks off. Sarah leans into me. “Did you get anywhere with that drawer?” I shake my head and tap where my watch would be, mouthing the word ‘soon’. She nods. Tahnee comes out from her room, sans glasses, but grinning. “Let’s kick arse,” she says.

12. It’s only a few days before Ashton and I have been told we’ll be moving over onto the T-Project. Ashton is in a bad way. He’s developing a vastly unstable edge. He comes into the office today, bruised and puffy.

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“What the fuck man?” I say. He glares at me and for a moment I think he’s going to punch me in the face. “There’s a lot of wise guys at Lucifer, want to push their luck.” “I’m not sure your luck stayed unpushed either,” I say. “Fuck you Dell.” Has he been drinking? It’s hard to tell. I can see why nobody will give Ashton the answers he wants. He’s a man on fire, setting alight everyone and everything around him, and if he has to wade through an ocean of kerosene to get what he wants, so be it. This is our last mission of the week. My motivation is to try to keep us both safe, without getting anyone killed. This should be easy, but it isn’t. Ashton needs to be in control, but he isn’t. I really should have been an accountant. Moray smokes a cigarette, and drops it in his empty coffee cup. He gently blows the smoke out, through parted teeth, and gives a discontented snarl. He takes another his cigarette and lights it violently, like the flame of the lighter is a manifestation of his pure anger. He takes a drag, and this time it isn’t a sexy, slow Brad Pitt puff, but a nasty unpleasant smokers suck – the kind you see in ads just before the camera follows the smoke right down to the persons lungs, crumbling and dripping black with foul tar. He grimaces. He sniffs, and drops the cigarette into the coffee cup, where it lies smoldering amongst the rest of the black filth, piled and crumbling like the landscape of some remote land post being atomic bombed. Hiroshima in a coffee cup. “Who’s the cust…” “Bette Janeway,” he says. “What?” “The girl. Remember? The one we spoke with the other day.” “What about her?”

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“Remember about how she was practically defending Marvin?” “What? Um, hardly, she was just saying…” “She’s on the list Hugo. She’s up for questioning. Right the fuck… now.” He stands up and walks out the door, not even bothering to wait for me. I grit my teeth and follow him down the hallway. He pulls out his gun and screws on a silencer. “Woah, woah, woah… dude, wait, this is an interview… we don’t need to go direct to the firearms…” “Room 2A” he says, as I follow him into the lift. “Let’s go back into the room for a moment, talk this through…” “No” “I’ll give you six hundred dollars if we go back now” “I’d rather get a blowjob from a camel.” “Ew. Don’t be foul” He presses A and the lift begins to drop. I clutch my gun. There will be trouble. Whether or not Bette causes a problem, Ashton will make this problematic for the both of us. He pockets his gun in his suit but I’m not reassured. Deep breath. The doors spring open and Ashton strides out into the hall, then turns sharply, and kicks room 2A open with brutal violence. The door flies back and pounds into a golf club holder. Bette Janeway is sitting at her desk, on the phone. She is dressed in a suit and tie, a bloke’s haircut to match. She stares at us with a shocked expression. “I’m sorry,” she says into the receiver. “I believe I may have a serious issue to deal with. Allow me to call you back in five minutes.” Ashton pulls his suit apart slightly to give her a glimpse of his weapon. He leans over to the club holder and plucks a five iron out, holding it menacingly over his shoulders.

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“Make that ten minutes,” she says, and hangs up. She stands at her desk. “Gentlemen,” she says. “This is a most irregular state of affairs. May I at all be off assistance to you?” “Certainly,” says Ashton. “Start by shutting your stupid mouth and doing whatever I say.” Janeway, seemingly, is a woman used to some considerable level of respect. She doesn’t react well to demands. She instead cocks her head, and indignantly glares at the both of us. “I am entitled to a far more professional investigation than this.” “Um… no. You aren’t. OK?” “Not OK. Back off Junior. You don’t know what you’re doing. When Darryl hears about this, you’re going to be so fired it’s not even funny.” “Keep talking precious,” says Ashton. Ugliness has pummeled his face into a mask of nastiness “Threaten me. Go on. Say you’ll stab me, shoot me, hurt me. You know I’m just looking for an excuse to drive two centimeters of metal through your skull.” Quite simply, it’s gone too far, too fast. “Ashton,” I say. I’m holding my gun in clear view. “It is my duty as a member of The Survival to warn you that Under Section 2 of the Execution Code, you may be killed without prior warning if putting innocent lives in danger.” “So it is,” he says, calmly pulling out his gun and holding it point blank at my forehead. I feel like my neck is covered in foul sticky sap, dripping across my chest and settling down in a gooey cesspool in my gut. “Now,” he says, “aside from the issue of the ambiguity of the term ‘innocent’ the problem we face is that I know you’d hesitate to kill me – and you know I won’t hesitate to kill you.” He’s got a point.

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He walks up to Bette and looks her straight in the eyes. “Try the easy way. Tell me everything you know about Reggie’s embezzling activities.” She shakes her head. “No idea.” “Right,” says Ashton. “Hard way then.” Without warning he slams down the golf club, Bette screaming as we hear the crack of her toe snapping. Ashton swings the club into her cheek and she hits the ground. I pull out the gun, aiming it. “Ashton!” I yell. He turns and effortlessly swings the club up, knocking the gun away as a hot jet of pain injects itself through my hand. I grab my hand, slick with a gentle stream of blood, and Ashton smacks me in the stomach with the club, turning my entire innards into a sick vomitmash of puree. I die, repeatedly, with dull crushing pain. Ashton pushes me over, and I hit the floor like a rock, paralyzed. Across the floor, Bette has managed to arm herself with a paper spike that Ashton knocks away easily. “Ms Janeway, I want details of the bank accounts where the embezzled money is being kept. Can you give this to me or not?” “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t you crazy bastard!” she yells. “I don’t know details. I don’t know them!” Ashton pauses for a moment. Then he swings the golf club and breaks her knee with a crunch like celery. She screams. “Try again,” says Ashton.

13. The nicest thing I ever heard about in my life was the story of Jan Day from our street. Jan Day was a good Christian woman who loved God, beauty and civilized society. She loathed foul language. She was an intense feminist who was deeply opposed to songs that promoted violence against women. She couldn’t have been less of a fan of rap.

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For her son’s birthday she got him the Slim Shady LP, by rapper Eminem. Being the album including that song where he sings about raping and murdering his ex-wife. When her friends from Church asked her why on Earth she got it for him, she said – ‘because it’s what he wanted.’ Without prejudice, she had managed to base her entire decision on what her son wanted, out of pure love, no matter how intensely she disagreed with what he was after. It might be arrogant, but this is kind of how I feel right now. That kind of selflessness. Because right now all I want to do is tear out my own ears with my fork, as Ray Mann and Tahnee discuss the beauty of the penis over an overpriced meal at the gallery café. Ray Mann, who made that monstrosity of sex and violence back in the gallery. Give me a venomous Marshal Mathers III any day. “It is difficult yes..? To make a symbol of power of a woman? Because the penis yes... it is tall it is proud… is forceful is dominating… the vagina not so yes? Even the clitoris is somewhat… I don’t know… it is wimpy.” “Only if you don’t know how to ride it,” says Tahnee. I nearly spit out my tea. I concentrate on my sandwich. It is difficult to do. Especially with Ray’s comments on the phallic nature of carrot. I look over, around. Huge iron sculptures of humans stand knee deep in a water feature. “What about poetry?” asks Tahnee. “I do not know? What about poetry?” “Is poetry art?” says Tahnee. “I mean… I love art, and I want to be an artist and all but I just don’t know if I’m going the wrong way… I can’t figure it out… I just mean… is it? It poetry art?” “Art is meaning,” says Ray. “Art is the giving of a meaning. If you do that, it does not matter if it is chocolate you are to make, or coffee cup. If you can express concept you are already won.”

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“What if my poem has no meaning?” “Aesthetic is a dressing. Aesthetic is the package of the concept. So you throw the thing together and it should be like car for your concept. Swastikas and goosesteps sold Nazis. Tie-dye and dreadlock sold peace. Aesthetic puts emotion into concept, and makes it palatable to the others.” “What about Dada? The whole point was that the art was meaningless.” “No, the point was to make the art become meaningless. To fuck up to the bourgeois, to destroy art as a tool of power. It was a self destruction code into the art machine. And now it is us left over. The exciting thing is now, and for a long time, is that art is over. The art machine is died. We are the programmer now.”

I drop Tahnee off back home, have a quick (but entirely painless, even pleasant) chat to Mum and Jack and jump back into the car. I cruise into my apartment, chuck my wallet and phone on the bench and belch loudly. These are the days when time doesn’t matter, and everything is OK. I grab a water bottle and take a deep swig. Time for a nap. I go towards the couch, and stop suddenly, like a spidery force-field has taken me whole. The couch is already taken. There is a girl on the couch, wearing jeans and a singlet, curled up into a ball. I walk up to her, slowly, quietly, and touch her shoulder. She explodes into sound and limbs, screaming, swinging madly at my in a flurry of movement. I duck her fists as they fly at my head. One smacks me on the face, splitting my bottom lip. There’s an explosion of pain and I stagger back, stumbling, ducking a powerful kick that flies over my head. I fall against the wall as a knife shoots forward and presses against my throat. I flatten myself against the wall, staring into her wild eyes. The left eye, a black ringed grey iris, white ringed pupil. I recognise her immediately. It’s Sana.

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I stare at her. I want to talk to her. Yell at her, plead with her. I want to know why she’s here. I want to know if she’s about to kill me. I stare. Trying to communicate without words. I try to smile. “Christ,” she says. “Hugo. God. I’m so sorry.” The knife returns to her pocket. “Sorry,” she says. “I just came to see you and you weren’t home so I broke in. I was tired… I slept on the couch. You just startled me is all. I went on autopilot. Nothing personal. Maybe put ice on that lip.” I lean over and grab a pen and some paper. It’s so good to see you again. Why are you here? It’s a strange thing to write after being almost killed. Echoes an amiable sentiment far too out of place for the moment. Still – the best thing about writing as opposed to speaking is the filtering system. My fingers filter out damaging and rude things in a way my mouth could only dream of. “You have to realise that this meeting never happened,” says Sana. “If they knew I was here they would have me killed.” I nod. She sighs. “They’re hunting.”

I was about to offer tea, but the seriousness of the situation upgraded the status to something stiff. Like the new bottle of Scotch. Sana and I have a glass each in our hands. “You’re not listed,” she says. “I just want to make that clear. You’re not actually in any specific danger. I just thought that this was important enough for you to need to know.” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a list. “Here we go. The following list contains six persons with relation to The Survival who no longer provide any useful function to the society, and are in a position to jeopardize the top secret nature of particular projects listed under section 3.2 of the Essential Silence act… that’s a law passed only three days after you were given compulsory leave, the

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Essential Silence Law. These persons must be, under clause 8.4 of the executions code…” She stops as she sees my questioning look. ? “Yeah, that’s right, there were only ever eight point three basic clauses to the execution code. This new one was introduced a week after you were given leave.” What does the new clause entail? “No idea. Under the Essential Silences act, they are under no obligation to provide that information. You know this shit is just made up anyway. So, these persons must be, under clause 8.4 of the executions code assassinated or otherwise neutralized within thirty days of this law’s passage. Then of course we have the list, at least one, I don’t know if there’s more… tell me if you recognise any names – Peter Rudd, John Barbery, Eva Nicole, Thomas Lenin, Jessica Granger – any?” I shake my head. “OK good, just checking. I wanted to know how strong the connection was to you. I think it might well be a coincidence. It’s just that the last name is definitely connected. A bloke none of us had any idea was even in The Survival. Herman Freidman. The one who killed your father.” It takes a few moments for this to sink in. It settles like mercury at the base of my Solar Plexus. My finger twitches involuntarily as I write a reply. What does that mean? “I don’t know. Most likely scenario, it means nothing. Maybe it means he was doing illegal work for The Survival and your father tried to arrest him, rather than the story he cooked up. I don’t know. Maybe it means that that’s how you got into The Survival, that Herman Freidman was watching you as a talent scout and recommended you… it could mean anything. I’d say to go talk to him but it’s too risky. The Survival could have spies on him. You could get yourself, and, if you’ll excuse my selfishness, myself killed. I

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mean, you can always risk your life to try and save the man who murdered your dad, but I wouldn’t even go there if I were you. Even if you’re just after information, I wouldn’t recommend it.” What about Jack? He’s an old ‘drinking buddy’ of Freidman. Could he be involved? “Uh, sure. I mean, anything is possible. I’ll do a check up on the database. I’ll send you a message, coded. If I make reference to Green, it means he’s in The Survival. If I refer to Red, he’s not. I think it’ll be red though. You still have friends outside of The Survival.” I nod. “Reminds me – have you had any contact with anyone from inside The Survival apart from me since they put you on break?” I’ve seen Rocky briefly to get some testing done on some powder. “Rocky should be fine. We can trust him. No one else?” Just a text from Ashton sending me an apology. “What for?” I give her a look. “Oh yeah. Sorry. Forgot about the tongue thing. Hey, sorry to drop this shit on you. I know it’s a lot, and probably meaningless, but I thought you should know. I just worry about you. I know now I was mad to think I could protect you but… I do care.” I know. Thank you. She touches my face, and kisses my cheek. Then stands, nods, drops the list on the table, and walks out the door.

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14. “Quite simply, my first decision was to have you both killed. Not even executed, just killed. Slit your stupid necks myself. I could get away with it on immunity as leader. However, I changed my mind. Any theories as to why?” Darryl leans over the table. He is a hound, a huge demonic beast, baring his cruel fangs at us, ready to tear us apart. I had expected that I’d have been spared the full intensity of the aftershock. Evidently not. My failure to keep Ashton stationary was seemingly just as bad as if I’d beat up Janeway myself. “Well?” he prompts. “Ashton? Why do you suppose I’m not about to kill you?” “Because… you’re weak? And pathetic? And you could never kill a man yourself? You’d need the blood splattered over some other fools hands, so you could sleep at night you worthless, weak sack of shit.” Presently, it would seem Ashton has an issue with diplomacy. There is a blur of movement and a loud crunch as he punches Ashton in the nose. “No,” says Darryl. “Wrong answer. I sleep better after a nice bout of slaughter, actually. Hugo?” “Yes?” “Why do you think I’m going to spare both your lives?” “I don’t know sir.” “Well have a guess lad. I’m not going to hold it against you unless it’s some wannabe tough guy bullshit.” “Fug you,” says Ashton, and gets another punch for his trouble. “Ah… because we’re efficient at what we do?” “Because you’re good?” “Um, yes.”

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“That’s rather narcissistic isn’t it Dell?” “Um, I suppose” “It’s quite arrogant really.” “OK.” “But it’s true. You are good. Both of you. And, no matter what mistakes I do make, one I do not make, is the mistake of wasting resources. Now, obviously, considering two major fuck ups in one week…” “I fail to see what we did wrong,” says Ashton. I close my eyes and use my toenails to try and dig a hole deep straight down into the Earth. “Mr Moray; you beat a woman half to death with a golf club, until she gave you bank details.” “It was just the money she stole in the first place!” “How do you know?” “She told me!” “Mr Moray, were it me that you were beating to death with a golf club, I’d have said the same. In fact, I’d have told you I voted for Family First. I would have told you I cried when Leonard Di Caprio died in Titanic. I’d have admitted a brief but steamy relationship with David Hasselhoff. In fact, I can’t think there’s a single thing I wouldn’t have told you.” He clears his throat. “As I was saying. I think at the moment, you two are probably not at your peak efficiency in the role of Internal Relations and Special Investigations. I want to change you over. Mr Moray…” Ashton looks up. “… you are, it appears, an angry man at present. I don’t know why, I don’t give a shit why, but it is affecting your job. I’m going to put you with the Corporal Punishment boys,

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so hopefully you can put some of that anger into productive energy. Hugo – as for you, I want to put you with the Shipment Team. We’ll need you on Friday night for the incoming Shipment of Heroin. Hopefully make you a little less wimpy. No offense.” “Sounds good,” I say. “Go on,” Darryl says. “Both of you fuck off.” We stand and leave the room. Ashton closes the door, looks at me and punches me in the nose, hard as he can. My head snaps back and I trip over backwards, banging my arse on the floor. He stands over me, bold and angry. “A little birdy told me you fucken reported me for investigation. Sound familiar?” “Maybe the birdy was worried you’d do something really out of control. Like breaking the kneecaps of a person not even under investigation?” “You’re looking for a nice hard kick in the face,” says Ashton. “When did you become such a bastard?” “Emotions get in the way of clarity.” “You do realise anger qualifies as an emotion?” “I was really just referring to things like pity, sadness, love and mercy. Those type.” He arches his foot. A door opens. “I don’t mind,” says Sana, as she leaves Quan’s room. “It’s your decision. Don’t forget – move those two boxes of Nitro before I get back! You have a week.” Quan says something and she laughs. She closes the door and turns, pausing as she sees us. “Uh, gentlemen,” she says. “Problem?” “No. We’re good,” says Ashton. “The blood dripping off Mr Dell’s chin would suggest otherwise. I’d suggest you back off, Ashton.” “Oh, and you tell me what to do, bitch, huh?”

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“Considering I’m one level beneath The Survival board, you touch me I have you on one week detention minimum punishment, and I can use my immunity to break your wrists and get away with it, yes. Back off.” Ashton steps back off me, and begins to back up. He gives Sana the finger. “Want me to chop it off?” Sana says. “Slut,” says Ashton, turns, and skulks off. “Jesus. He’s spoiling for a fight,” says Sana, and looks at me. She pulls a tissue from her pocket and passes it to me. I press it against my face and feel it saturate with blood. She passes two more. “Once you’re finished bleeding, come into my office,” she says. When I arrive in her room she’s finished rolling a cigarette. She lights it, breathes in, then passes the joint over and I breath in, coughing out. I pass it back. Technically, she’s older than me, so it’s not peer pressure. “You do realise he’s set you up, don’t you?” says Sana. She takes a long puff. “Ashton?” “No. Jesus, for a smart guy you can be pretty fucking stupid. Darryl’s set you up.” “How so?” “He’s testing you. He knows how good you are. Only thing is, like I told you, The Survival is about to get a lot tougher and more brutal. He wants to know if you can make the cut, so he’s setting you up with the big boys, seeing if you can handle it.” She hands over the joint and I take a breath. I can’t really feel a lot. Just a tiny buzz. I pass it back. “Easy. I’ve been through a bit already. One more brutally disturbing mission, another opportunity to work with some sadistic psychopath, seeing some over poor sucker have their stomach blown apart – they can’t give me much I haven’t lived through before.”

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“Don’t you go getting all cocky,” says Sana. Her voice is cold, but her face is dappled with concern. “That’s the last thing you should be getting. You’re a nice guy Hugo, a real nice guy, and right now the nice guys are all finishing last, provided they even make it to the finish line. These people you’re about to work with are the kind who torture their pets at home. They’re the ones who molest young children. They rape women. They are scum, even by Survival standards. That’s why they’re always sent on the high risk missions. If they’re caught, no one cares.” I don’t know what to say. I’m worried of course about the usual – getting shot, stabbed, beaten, blown up, hacked apart, raped, burnt, dripped in acid, chewed up, drowned, dropped from a great height, strangled, run over, poisoned etcetera; but these are all daily concerns while working at The Survival. This job of stealing Heroin – it doesn’t faze me. “Hey, don’t worry,” I say. She sucks into the joint and offers it over. I refuse. She coughs. “The fact that you say that makes me worry even more.” “Sana… I know you’ve been here longer than me, but seriously; I’ve faced the prospect of being murdered every day since I got here. I mean – if these people are going to be hell bent on killing me then that’s my bad luck, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If not, then I’ll just tread carefully.” “You’ve got a bruised cheek and bloody nose, because someone less violent than the people you’ll be working with soon decided he didn’t appreciate your advice or actions.” “I’ll abstain from advice – I only try to talk to Ashton like that because we’re mates. Sort of.” I sigh. “It’s a bit of a rough patch here, friendshipwise.” “Just look after yourself,” she says. I give a small smile and put my hand on her leg. “I will. OK? What’s the worst that could happen to me?”

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She glares at me with her one good eye. “Don’t answer that,” I say.

15. I return to Rocky’s place and he welcomes me in. “I did those tests mate,” he says. “All clear. Whoever has that stuff must be getting a hell of a poor high; it’s flour and bicarb soda. I nod and thank him and start to leave then pause and feel a cold sweat come over me. I reach forward and pick up what I’ve seen on the bench. Tahnee’s glasses. I hold them up to Rocky, and he nods slowly. He grimaces. “Come with me,” he says. I follow him down the stairs and into a large room, various illegal looking pieces of equipment placed around the walls. “Look,” he says. “I know this is hard to believe but I did those tests, and I’m telling the truth. Jack and I go back a long way. We owe each other a lot of favours.’ I pay Tahnee to package drugs and export then to a pick-up point. The ‘drugs’ she works with are just… what I said they were. White shit. She drops them in the bush once a fortnight. I pick them straight back up and she repacks them.’ This is Jack’s idea. Tahnee’s attracted to extremity, I know you know, but more severely, and for more compelling reasons than you can imagine. So we’ve conspired to give her ways to act on that extremity without actually getting herself in trouble. She thinks Jack doesn’t know what she does here. It keeps her in check.” This whole time I’m staring straight at him, gobsmacked. Rocky says, “Have you heard of Velvet Martini?” This time, I nod. He says, “Have you heard of T.A.S?”

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I shake my head. “If you have half a brain in your head,” says Rocky, “you’ll keep it that way.”

When I see Tahnee again, it is Friday morning. It is Christmas Eve. Everyone else is out, busy doing Christmas shopping. As we chat, I get a message. 8:13 – SANA – Could you please get me a packet of Cherry Ripes while you’re down at the shops? Cherry Ripes. Clever. A reference to red. AKA Jack is not in the survival. Tahnee buys a packet of MNMs and throws them one by one at the floor. “You know I’m not… I’m not as messed up as I seem,” she says. “A lot of the time I’m just trying too hard. It’s just like… I mean, I’d love to be you. Seriously. I’m sorry if that offends you and shit, but I would. I mean… if I had no tongue I’d have an eternal place in peoples minds. No one who meets you will ever, ever forget you. Me… I’m just normal. A normal girl with blue hair, which is boring in itself, since punk died. Faded blue hair. I have to dye it again. Might do that on Sunday. Maybe I’ll cut it all off.” There is a thump as a bird runs into our window. It hasn’t hurt itself badly, just flutters off. Tahnee goes back to her thoughts. “I’m just really scared of being forgotten,” says Tahnee. “I know it’s dumb but… I dunno. I’m not really bright. I’m kinda creative, but I can’t even try to touch a plot. I’m not real sexy or hot. I don’t make friends easily. So I’m extreme. MNM?” I refuse politely. “I’m…. I’m sorry about the house you know? I dunno. It was like bad and that but… I mean, I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t feel guilty at all. I know that’s like, real bad and all. Half the time I can’t tell the difference between good and bad. I mean, right and wrong’s easy – but no one follows those anyhow.” I put a hand on her leg. It’s about the only comfort I can offer.

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“It’s wrong isn’t it? To enjoy hurting people. To enjoy just making peoples worlds go all crazy and mixed up. To enjoy just messing up everything they know. That’s like – that’s really wrong, yeah?” I pick up my pen. I’m friends with a woman who is addicted to cruelty. She’s one of the nicest people, and one of my best friends even though she gets a kick out of being cruel. “So what does that mean?” says Tahnee. “What are you saying?” I’m saying that you’re OK. “Thank you.” I squeeze her hand, and we almost share a really nice moment. Instead, the smooth melancholy atmosphere is blasted away by the sound of electronic bleating, shrieking out from Tahnee’s pocket. “Sorry, phone,” she says, pulling it out, checking who’s calling. “Oh!” She answers. “Hey! How’s it going? Yeah good. Are you OK? OK. Yeah, I heard of her, she’s incredible! Yeah! Yeah, sure, sounds great! Yep. Around Twelve? Yep. Woot, it’s on!” She hangs up. “Hey, that was Ray. Like, Ray Mann, remember him?” How could I forget? “He’s at the gallery now, apparently he’s got a speech on about his work, he’s doing it in signs too. Says it’s mean to be real good, wants us to both swing by. I told him we’d be there by twelve. It’s gonna be fantastic. You ready to come?” I shrug also, and give a thumbs up. “Let’s go,” she says.

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Something’s poking out of my pocket. I look down. It’s a piece of paper. I can see one name on it. Peter Rudd. It’s the list of assassination targets Sana had supplied me. I curse inwardly (not that outwardly was ever really an option). I’ve manage to carelessly pick it up and stuff it in my pocket. I try to push it down, my pockets are far too shallow. I feel tempted to crush my own spinal cord into a fine white powder. I’m a moron. Even having this list in my possession puts Sana in grave danger. I should have destroyed it as soon as I had the opportunity. We walk into the gallery, following the signs towards Ray’s exhibit. I reach down through my pockets to grab a piece of paper, but can’t find one. As I walk past the front desk I grab a little complementary notepad. A lot of people are here today. Tahnee frowns. “Where did you get that notepad?” I point over to the table where I got it. “You paid three dollars for that piece of crap?” I shake my head, confused. I look over to the table and notice a sign I’d neglected to see before. GALLERY NOTEPADS – $3.00 ea. Oh. I thought they were complementary I tear off the front page and stick it in my pocket. I begin to walk back to the table with the notebook. “What are you doing?” says Tahnee. ‘Returning this’ I mouth. “Don’t, Hugo. Don’t be an idiot.”

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I raise an eyebrow. “Look – firstly you can’t really return it after you’ve used the front page up. Second, they’re three dollars. That’s like a four hundred per cent mark up. They deserve to have a few nicked. Come on. Be daring.” I shrug, put the notebook in my pocket and follow her into the gallery. What the hell was mum worried about, me influencing Tahnee? She’s been a bad influence on me. We enter. Ray is nowhere to be seen. We walk through for a moment then suddenly I grip Tahnee firmly by the hand, pull her in the other direction, my heart pounding. I’ve seen Mr. Zebra. A member of The Survival. I hold her hand firmly and walk quickly. “Hey, what the fuck!” calls out Tahnee. I glare at her, make the closest thing to a ‘shh’ as I can. She sees the frightened expression on my face and goes silent. Then, I see Ray across the room. He makes eye contact with me for half a second, then continues a conversation he’s having with the guy beside him. As he does though, he signs me a message. Dangerous people. Want Hugo. Leave. And I want to take his advice. I really do. But Quan’s at the exit. And in my pocket is the list that leads right back to Sana.

16. I strap the gun to my hips, and crack my fingers. My face has been sprayed with a thick layer of sweat. My neck has been sprinkled with burning salt. My heart has been injected with adrenaline. I’m huddled cold in the night air. In front of me the half moon casts a slick cream over the bay. The wood of the pier creeks with any pressure. To the left is a massive boat. This is the one that allegedly has its walls packed full of Heroin.

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I’m in a group of ten. We’ve got a fifteen minute window in which to get in, get the drugs and get out. If we take any longer, then we’ll probably end up running into the Feds. At which point our best bet is to admit we’re stealing and give ourselves up. “Of course,” says Dodgie, a big burly man, the leader, “That’s the official line. If you want to give the fuckers a bit of resistance, start up a shoot out, you’ll have my full support. As far as I’ll be concerned, they started the whole thing. All ready?” There’s a chorus of quiet yes’s and grunts. “In an emergency, there’s an emergency exit set up on the lower level. If there is no emergency, and you’re not working with Terry, then stay the fuck off that level, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Let’s get to the gone,” he says. I begin to walk in with the rest of them, uncertainly. “Oi you,” calls Dodgie, pointing at me. “With Terry. I want you making sure there’s no one on here who’s gonna report us. You find someone, you come up and alert me. We don’t have the time to deal with fuck ups.” “Righto,” I say. I’m trying to be as agreeable as I can. I don’t know who Terry is. I look around. Dodgie leans down and whispers in my ear. “Big guy. Over there.” “Righto” I walk up to Terry, and begin to follow him. He’s got a long black oriental style ponytail hanging over his shoulder. He turns to glare at me. “I’m working with you,” I say quietly. He ignores me and keeps walking. I follow. We enter quietly through the main entrance, with everyone else. Hastily, everyone is opening little bags, pulling out crowbars, hammers, bags and suitcases. Terry and I move down a flight of stairs. It’s slow and quiet. We sneak through the rooms. We are ghosts. We are secrets floating without leaving a trace of ourselves. I can feel a sense of menace around Terry. He is ready to kill the first thing that moves.

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“Hey,” he whispers. “Yeah?” “I like my personal space. Back up a few steps.” I step back two steps. He continues to glare at me. I step back another two. “Keep that distance,” he growls. I nod. “Righto.” We continue to stalk the bottom of the ship, looking for anyone who might be waiting to catch us in the act. The moonshine splatters into the room, speckling over the piles of crates and mould stained walls. To the side, I can see the gleam of the light reflecting off the metal handle of the emergency exit. I brush my hand gently over a crate, which disrupts a pile of dust, and stifle a sneeze. The boat rocks slowly with the gentle motion of the water below. There is a bump. Terry turns abruptly in the direction of the noise, pulling out his gun as he does. He cocks the weapon, and paces towards the door from which the sound came. I pull mine, and follow behind him. This is something I can do. This is something I’m used to. Being the backup man. I know the drill. Someone comes out that door, attacks Terry, I’ve got his back. I shoot, without hesitation, with perfect aim. This is old school work. Terry reaches up to the knob, and turns it slowly, opening it up a crack. He leans his head to me slightly. “Three,” he says. He flings the door open and aims his gun. I hear a loud woman’s scream, and a boy yelling, and a third sound. A little girl. I run into the room. Huddled together, scared and screaming is a family of three, an Indonesian woman and her two kids, a teenage boy and a little girl, dressed in wet, dirty clothes. Crying and yelling. Terry aims his gun. Cocks it.

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“What the fuck are you doing?” I say. “Look,” says Terry. “This is a project that’s hard. It’s dangerous. It requires minimum complication. We don’t have time to report these guys and deal with them. We have to kill them, because otherwise it’s just messed.” “Dude… Terry; It is my duty to inform you that under section two of The Survival executions code…” “I know the code. I also know, if you kill me, you’re fucked. I can get away with killing these. You can’t get away with killing me.” He pulls the trigger and even with the silencer, the explosion echoes, the teenage son’s head jerks back in a thin spray of blood, sliding down a new hole in his head, a spray of blood splashing up against the wall, over the mother’s cheek, the sisters sleeve. The mother screams, tears bleeding out of her wide demented eyes, the young girl shrieking loudly, even louder, shriller, as Terry moves the gun and aims it at her head and I shoot. I pull the trigger, and there is a small burst of blood popping like a bubble out the side of Terry's head, his body folding up and slamming into the ground. The woman grabs her daughter, and they hold each other close, like they are welded together. I stare at them and they cower against the wall. The mother says something in Indonesian. “Run,” I say. It’s all I can do. If I tell Dodgie, how do I have any guarantee they’ll be safe? They stare at me, not understanding. I step backwards, out of the room, and point in the direction of their best chance for escape.. “Run!” I say, expressing as much urgency as I can in my face, body and tone of voice. The woman says something very quickly to her daughter, then grabs the body of her son, hoisting him over her shoulder, his head still dripping, and runs blindly in the direction of my finger, her daughter following behind her. She sees the door and yells something else at her bawling daughter, who opens it. They run out and disappear into the night, the dull thump thump of them landing on the pier, muffles off into the night.

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Footsteps come down from up the stairs. I close my eyes and grimace. This is it. The approach of my downfall. I’m fucked. I think about just running straight out of the emergency exit myself, running off to try my luck with the Indonesians, even though the only Indonesian I know is Mi Goreng. I figure it’s probably not my best idea. Dodgie comes down the stairs. “What’s the fucking problem?” he hisses. “Where’s Terry?” “Dead,” I say. There’s a long, solid pause. “Dead?” I nod. “How?” Here goes… “I shot him.” “You shot him?” I nod again. “Why?” “He found some Indonesian civilians on the boat. A woman and two children. He shot one of the children. I felt a duty to protect the other two.” “Where are they now?” “Gone.” “Dead?” “No. Just gone. They left through the emergency exit.” “And they know we’re here?” “Terry and I.” “Right,” he says. “Right then. Well. Cripes Dell. You really know how to piss a bloke off.”

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17 “What the hell is this?” says Tahnee. I turn to look. She’s holding up a note. One side faces me, upside down. I turn to look. I thought they were complementary. The note I gave her. I give her a strange look, then I see she’s looking at the other side. I stuff my hand into my pocket instinctively. Empty. I lean over to see the other side. Oh shit. It’s the list. I snatch it off her, scrunch it up and stick it in my pocket. “Hey!” she calls. “Hey! Give that back!” ‘No’ I mouth. “What the hell is it?” ‘Nothing’ I mouth. “What?” “Nyghaaahhyyii!” I yell, making an X with my fingers. People turn around to stare at me. “Hugo, what the fuck man? Are we in trouble?” I nod. “The list people? Are they in trouble,” she whispers. I nod. “I know the last three” she says. I motion for her to keep her voice down, and she looks at me strangely. “Herman Freedman. He’s the guy who killed your dad. One of My dad’s old drinking partners. Jessica Granger. My dad’s old girlfriend. They used to belong to some kind of a special club together. The same one Herman was involved in. And Thomas Lenin. That’s dad. That’s what a lot of his old friends from that club would call him. A kind of alias apparently.”

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“Whhya?” Slowly the whole thing puts itself together in my head. Thomas Lenin joins The Survival. Later on he wants out. He leaves, and changes his name to Jack Elliot. He meets mum after Herman kills dad. I pause for a moment. The best thing right now, one would think, would be a bit of rational thought. The list is of people that are targets of assassination. If Thomas Lenin is under threat of death, and Jack Elliot is Thomas Lenin, that would mean that… Jack is about to be murdered. We have to leave. We have to get to Jack’s house as fast as we can to warn him. I look over to where Ray is. Call Ray over. Tahnee waves and yells. “Ray, hey Ray.” Not far from me, a Japanese woman, a member of The Survival comes in to view. Ray comes over. He’s trembling slightly. He knows it’s a trap. Front is guarded. You have a car in the artist area? I sign. He nods. Wait here with Tahnee. I’m going into the toilet. When I exit, we run to the car. He nods as I furiously scribble another note to Tahnee. I need to go to the toilet quickly. When I come out, we’ll need to leave straight away. I’m sorry. However, this is urgent. I’ll try to explain it when I have enough opportunity to write. “OK,” says Tahnee. She doesn’t look fiery and powerful anymore. Just very very scared. I touch her cheek briefly, and move my hand to her shoulder which I squeeze gently. ‘It’ll be OK’ I mouth, but I can’t tell if she read my lips properly.

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I walk off towards the men’s toilets, push open the door and face the mirror. I run the list under cold water, tear a piece of it off and swallow it whole. I tear off another piece and eat it. I suppose this is one of those rare points when a lack of taste buds is more a blessing than a curse. Tearing up the list and forcing it down my neck. Another lump goes down, and another, and it’s gone. “Was that tasty?” says a voice, and my body fills with intense paralyzing poison. I know that voice all to well. I turn to the cubicle. Standing there, in front of me, is Ashton Moray. He grins, and lights a cigarette. “Howdy,” he says. I back up slowly, but he walks around me, blocking my access to the door. What do you want? “Just saying G’day. How you been doing?” I’m not exactly reassured. Good. How did everything go with Tina? “I spoke to Darryl. Found out what I needed to know. No longer an issue I’m concerned with. Which is good, because I can devote a good deal more time to The Survival.” I got your text. Thank you for saying sorry about my tongue. It means a lot to me. “Ah yes. About that… that wasn’t really about the whole tongue thing. That was more pre-emptive as such.” I give him a questioning look. He gives an apologetic grin, and pulls a gun from his pocket and aims it at my head. “I’m on the board now, you see. I was feeling a bit sentimental after we passed this new law. Making sure we tied up a few loose ends, before we moved on. You made one of our lists. Not the one you just ate mind you…” he laughs.

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I grab my pen, and begin to write. I hold it close to me, so he can’t see it. He leans over trying to look. “Come on sweetness, show it to uncle Moray,” he says. Even now, just one on one, me and him, he still plays the old ‘tough guy” role. Still following the script. He leans over to see what I’ve written. I guess you win this one. Nice knowing you. Hope all goes well with everything. I guess Ashton sees the letter half completed, looks at me, and grins. I grin too, because it went according to plan. Ashton knows my weaknesses, but he forgets I know his. Restlessness. Recklessness. A need to know everything. Right now, he’s up close, leaning over my note. He grins again. I grin again. Then I flip my pen and stab it into his eye.

18. Sana says, “They haven’t called any of my team in. You’re not going to be killed.” Sana says “If you want to run, I’ll buy you time.” Sana says “I wish I could have protected you.” There’s a little girl with her mother out there somewhere tonight though. Whatever happens, I can survive it, because they lived because of me.

“Enter now,” says the man, an older Swedish bloke. He opens the door – an old wooden door that creeks as it’s hinges strain under the burden of years. On the front, in peeling black letters, you can make out the words TRIAL ROOM. I enter. The room is dank and musty. The floor is stained with splashes of blood. The walls are speckled in white blobs, where holes have been plastered up. In front of me there are two

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sets of three people. Directly before me, behind a desk, sit my judge and jury, a balding man with a white mustache, to his left a young woman with black hair, to his right an older woman with a brutal overbite. Off to the corner, leaning against the wall, are Ashton, a man with thick black hair, streaked with horizontal white stripes, known as Mr Zebra, and a Japanese woman. Each has a black pouch dangling over their crotch. “I am here to submit to your punishment Your Honour” I say. The man grunts. “Mr Dell,” he says, “You are found guilty of the murder of a high ranking officer in the process of duty.” The trio up against the wall, led by Mr Zebra, walk towards me. I breath in and close my eyes for a moment, and picture the mother and daughter running through the empty friendless night. Terrified, but alive. The trio change formation, Ashton moving to the middle, Mr Zebra and the lady on either side. Mr Zebra and the girl grab me on either side, and force me to my knees, slamming my down against the floor. Ashton stands in front of me. He opens his pouch and pulls out a black glove, pulling it onto his hand. Cruel black metal barbs line his middle and pointer finger. The Japanese woman is just holding me. Mr Zebra opens his pouch and pulls out a huge gleaming knife, and begins to sharpen it. “Ashton.” I say. “What are you doing? Is this where you want to be? Is this what you want to be?” I’m afraid, but I’m right. I tremble, but I speak clearly. “I’m doing my job,” he says. “Following rules. You see, people who do that…” he leans close, “…don’t end up where you are now.” He words are sharp but his eyes are tender. He doesn’t want to do this. This is our turning point. Our moral event horizon. He’s made his choice, and I’ve made mine, and for all the horror of it, I think he and I both know I’m on the right side of the divide.

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Mr Zebra sharpens the knife again. “Ready,” he says. The Japanese woman shoots her hand towards my mouth. I grit my teeth, not wanting to open. She pushes me in the head, and for a moment my jaw loosens, and she grabs, forcing my mouth open. Ashton kneels in front of me, and holds up his barbed fingers in from of my face. “Now,” he says. “I’m afraid this may hurt a little.” He sticks his fingers into my mouth and jerks them out, the barbs sticking into the side of my tongue, pulling it out. I scream out a cry of pure agony. “Go!” yells Ashton, and Mr Zebra swings the knife down. There is an explosion of blood, a splash of heat, and then an all consuming pain starting in my mouth, tearing every inch of me apart, blasting through my all I know, all I can sense, and suddenly I’m staggering and screaming and vomiting out a never ending current of blood, saturating my shirt, splashing over her ground and I’m screaming and there’s just haunting redness to everything. I collapse, hitting the ground, the woman moving over me. Then there is some kind of feeling in my hip, and the spreading puddle of red sliding across the ground fades away into black, and the pain makes way for a kind of temporary numbness.

19 Oh how times have changed… I stick my pencil straight into Ashton’s eye and he screams, jerking his head back, fingers grasping around it. I knock the gun out of his hand, and jump out of the toilet door and run, straight for Tahnee. She’s staring at me, terrified. Suddenly a bullet blasts through a small model beside me. There is chaos, a stream of screaming, running people, rushing towards the exits. “Hugo!” screams Tahnee. I jump behind the statue as more bullets blast through it. Ashton runs out of the toilets, one eye scrunched shut, blood dribbling down his cheek.

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He yells something and runs towards the stairs to the next level. A few civilians are still cowering around the area, trying to make it to the exit. I look for Tahnee, but she’s disappeared, and when I try to look over the sculpture I hear a shot and a bullet blasts half a centimeter over my head, through my hair. Around the corner comes Quan. He aims his gun at me, I jump and roll to the side, behind the statue of a burned soldier. From here I can see Mann’s fountain of oil. Behind it, crouches the Japanese woman, who fires at me. I duck around the soldier and the bullet blasts a chunk of his arm off, from the side I’m on Quan aims at me, and I jump around the other side just fast enough to avoid the blast, sliding across the ground. As I do, I scoop the chunk of statue and throw it at the Japanese girl’s head. It hits, she looses aim and blasts a hole into the floor. I jump towards her and grab at the gun. We struggle over it, and she kicks me in the stomach and knocks me into standing, aiming the gun up at me. I reach behind me, into the oil fountain, and jump to the side as she pulls the trigger, the bullet blasting a hole in the wall, and I swing at her, the sludge splattering into her eyes. She yells, and I jump at her again, gripping the gun with both hands. I jerk the trigger and there’s the thud of a bullet smacking deep into her leg. She roars in furious pain. Quan is still crouched behind the soldier. Someone from above on the balcony fires, and the fountain shatters into a pile of bubbling sludge. I shoot two shots up, to the left of the, remarkably, still intact fetus piece, and there’s a muffled groan. Quan turns suddenly and runs at me, gun aimed at my head. I whip my gun around and pull the trigger. Click. Empty. I’m frozen on the spot, unable to react, unable to defend myself. Quan runs straight at me, gun outstretched, ready for the kill. Then there’s a squeak, and he disappears, followed by a crack. He’s fallen at the last moment, slipped on the sludge and

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banged his head on the ground. I jump over the shattered sculpture, landing on his stomach. I grab his gun and shoot him in the leg. I run out the door of the exhibit, nearly slipping on the black sludge covering the floor, with each step a series of bullets blasting across the wall, each one missing my erratically moving, unpredictable body. I feel one slice past my leg as I jump out the door, pushing it shut behind me. Time to get the hell out of here. I need Tahnee. I need Ray. Where the hell could they be? I run towards the centre of the gallery, stealing a pen as I do. I duck behind a pile of human nude postcard collections. I pull out my phone and text Tahnee. Wer r u I click Send, and hope she’s got her phone on silent. I begin to sneak forward. “You move and I fucking kill this hostage,” says a voice behind me. I feel shivers arch up my spine. It’s Mr Zebra. And he must have Tahnee. I feel a sense of absoluteness. A definite sense of duty. It’s like a kind of Zen, encompassing my entire being. That same feeling that helped me choose to help the Indonesian stowaways. I surrender. I nod, an affirmative response for Mr Zebra. “Good,” says Mr Zebra. “Now, drop the weapon.” “Ah ah…” says another voice from behind me. “Ah… a little tight… no? Your grip… ah, ah…” “Shut up,” says Mr Zebra. I realise that Mr Zebra’s hostage isn’t Tahnee, but Ray Mann. Duty vanishes. Determination returns. Let’s risk it. I suddenly stand and turn, gun in hand, Mr Zebra’s eyes shooting open. A gentleman not used to resistance. I aim the gun and fire. Ray screams. The bullet tears through Mr Zebra’s ear and he staggers back. I fire again, a bloody wound pounding out from his

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stomach area, and he topples back, thumping down of the ground. Suddenly the doors on the side burst open and someone runs out shooting. I jump behind the notepad stand, Ray runs over to… well, runs around in circles really. The guy fires at me. I return fire, over the top of the stands, aiming through the torn paper that falls like snow. Like Tahnee said, they’re three dollars. That’s like a four hundred per cent mark up. They deserve to have a few blown apart by indiscriminate gunfire. I fire one shot that seems to hit him in the arm, and he goes back behind the door. Ray Mann runs over to me. Tahnee? He points up the stairs. “In that way I think. There were too many around, we choose to split…” A bullet cracks through the air and grazes past my shoulder, I duck, firing rapidly at the door, where the shot came from. The person runs off, and I grip my shoulder. I’m bleeding, but it seems superficial. I run all the way up the stairs, jumping over Mr Zebra to get there. At the top I flatten myself against the wall. Ray has followed me. He does the same. Wait here. I continue across the top balcony. The gallery seems abandoned. Across the destroyed art exhibit, Quan and the Japanese lady seem to have managed to move themselves to safety. Down below, something clangs. I turn to look, and I feel someone punch me in the head, knocking the gun out of my hand over the edge of the balcony. They grab me by my sides and slam me up against the glass of the fetus tank. The glass cracks beneath me, but stays in place. I can feel the thin film of leaking water soaking into my clothing. Everything becomes clear in one moment. First I can focus on the gun barrel. Then, slowly, I can see the face behind it. It’s Ashton, one bloodshot eye above a bloody tearstained cheek.

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“Just thought you should know who brought you down,” he says. It’s an act. It all is. Ashton, really all he is, is a nice bloke. All I have to do if to show him that. All I need to do is remind him of who he is. Just talk to him. I know him so well. I could talk him out of killing me easily. Only thing being, I can’t talk. Come on down, Plan B. Instead, I duck, slamming my elbows back as I do, smashing through the glass. I can feel the sharp edge slice up alongside my arm as I do, and grit my teeth. Everything explodes. The word around me bursts into water, a powerful solid force pounding into me, blasting me over. I catch a glimpse of Ashton’s shocked, almost comical expression. He tries to aim the gun while desperately fighting for footing, and ends up firing two shots off God knows where. Then there is a moment. The water covers me entirely, blocking out all the sound and light. Everything freezes. I’m covered for seconds. That’s all it could possibly be. However, it feels like so much happens in these few seconds. For a moment, I am a void. I am nothingness. I am absence. In those seconds there is no reality. There is nothing wrong. There is nothing but a kind of pure peace, as though I have been given a little piece of God, boiled it down in a spoon and injected it into my system like Heroin. Then, I’m hit in the side of the head with a big rubber fetus, and the water bursts over my head, and the real word returns louder and brighter than ever. Ashton is on the ground struggling to try and recover his gun, lying on the ground, barely a metre from where he lies. I arm myself with the only thing available; the rubber fetus, cutting the cord free on a chunk of glass, and running at Ashton. His hand grasps his gun and he staggers to his feet, I swing the fetus over my head, and he turns and aims his weapon at me… WHUMP!

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The impact is solid. The gun goes flying over the edges, as Ashton’s head connects with four kilograms of solid rubber. His head pulls his body right over the safety rail, almost gracefully, crashing down on top of a table covered in tiny American soldiers. I stare over the railing, and turn to the side. In front of me, stands the guy I hit in the arm, leaning on the railing, gun aimed at my chest. He shoots, and I feel something like a crushing blast against my body. I fall backwards, gasping for air. He aims at my head. There is a gunshot, but not from him. From behind me. His neck explodes into a burst of blood, and he hits the ground. I look down at my chest. A bullet is stuck deep in the rubber fetus, clutched between my hands. My ribs are burning with the force of the impact. I cough. “He was baddie, right? I only kill baddie?” says Ray, from behind me. I nod, and stagger to my feet, slowly walking forwards, desperately looking for Tahnee. Glass crunches underfoot as I pass the destroyed remnants of the fetus tank. As I pass a hand shoots out grabbing my wet, bleeding arm. I turn, snatch the gun away from Ray and aim it. It’s Tahnee, shaking and red-eyed. “I want to go home…” she says. “I take you… take you both…” says Ray. I begin to hurry the pair of them along, all too aware of how exposed we are. “Quickly…” says Ray. “In gallery… Artist only…” “We run through the empty galley, up to a door that says GALLERY PERSONNEL ONLY. I look around, keeping my eye out for anyone. I’ve left a trail of blood and water all the way. I tap in the password and the door unlocks. Do you have a car? He nods wearily. You can drive can’t you Tahnee? “I guess,” she says.

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“Can’t we just wait a little…” says Ray. I shake my head and tap my wrist, where my watch should be. No time. We have to get home to see Jack as soon as we can. “OK…” says Ray. “I show you the car… no, yes? Here are the keys.” He hands them to Tahnee. He walks us through the artist only area and opens the exit door a crack, looking out quickly, then running over to his car, a black truck, full of dismembered mannequins. Tahnee and I follow him. Tahnee gets in the drivers side, Ray in the passenger side, and I jump in the back. She starts the car, and we set off. Why did you call Tahnee up and invite us to come by today? I pass the message forward to him, and there is a long silence. “It is ah… It is because I am scared to die… they put gun at my temple and say to ring blue hair girl… or they put solid metal right through my fucking skull, they say… I am in sorry. So sorry. So goddamn sorry.” He begins to cry. Cry until he is bawling, curled into a tiny ball in his seat. Soon I can see Tahnee’s face in the mirror too, streaming with tears. As for me, no tears. I just close my eyes and float away to my safe place, where I just reach forward and take control of the steering wheel, and steer us effortlessly into the path of an oncoming truck, and the force of the crash rips our bodies apart until there is nothing left but dreams of a better place.

20. I wake in pain. Lying on my back on a bed in The Survival’s little makeshift hospital. The pit of my stomach feels like black blood. My mouth is vibrating with pain, this intense acidic brutality coursing through my body. My breaths are long and unsteady. I can hardly draw the will to exist. To one side is a message.

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I authorize Compulsory Leave from Survival activities for Hugo Dell. Darryl. To the other side is Sana. She slides her fingers gently through my hair. I cry, gentle silent tears, and she gives me a soft sad smile. “I’m sorry. I failed you,” she says. I try to disagree, but I can’t talk, and sob harder. I shake my head. She kisses me on the forehead. “I’m sorry,” she says.

21. “That wasn’t the first,” says Tahnee softly, as we drive along. “Shoot out. It wasn’t the first shoot out I’ve been in.” Apart from Tahnee’s soft voice and the hum of the car outside, everything is silent. I check the pressure of my bandages, from where Ray directed me to the first aid kit. I’ve got a long cut up one arm, a flesh wound on my shoulder, tiny wound on my leg and, I think, something broken in my ribs, which still ache with a brutal dull pain. “When I was young, around six. A group of men began to come up to the house. They came in, and began to wander. Dad pulled open the roof and put me in it. Told me not to move at all. I hid there for almost an hour before anything happened. At first there was just a lot of yelling. They were yelling at him, calling him Thomas Lenin. They were asking about me. Saying they wanted ‘the girl’. ‘Where’s the girl Lenin?’ I managed to move so that I could see out of a crack in the roof. Most the guys were out looking for me. Two were with him. He attacked one guy, just clobbered him, beat the crap out of him, stole his gun, and shot the other guy straight through the head. Then he took his gun too and ran through the house, and there were a whole lot of bullets fired. I was worried a stray one would hit me through the roof, and two actually did go in the roof, but heaps far away from where I was.

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When it was over, he pulled me out from the roof. He was splattered in blood. He said ‘close your eyes sweetie’ and I did, because I really didn’t want to see dead bodies.” She sniffs a bit. “Anyway… Hugo… what I was saying… Dad always told me it was a group from his old club who were just bad men. Later on he said they were loan sharks, or pedophiles who he’d offended or something. Every time it was a more mature version that was kept secret from me when I was ‘too young’. But that shoot out years ago… that new one today, that list… they’re all connected, aren’t they?” I write a message and pass it up to Ray, who reads it out. “Ah… ‘yes’ he says,” says Ray. Tahnee sniffs. “Who are they?” she says. “Why do they want to kill me?” She’s in control of herself, but only just. I pass the note up. “He say… ah… he say ‘they weren’t after you… they were after me… Hugo that is… they want to kill him because… dear God…” “Just read the fucking note!” yells Tahnee. “OK! I sorry… ‘They weren’t after you they were after me,’ he say, he say ‘ they want to kill Jack and I because they are members of a secret cult we used to belong to. They want to kill us so that it all stays secret.” “Oh. OK… so you two were in some fucking cult? That’s fucking great!” Her hands tremble on the steering wheel, and she struggles for composure. “Are they coming for Dad now?” she asks. I pass the note. “He ah… he ah… say that it may be that it is a possib…” “Is that what the note says?” “Ah… no, the note just say ‘yes’.” Tahnee’s face is red, covered again in tears, taking in deep gasping breaths.

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“Mother-fucker!” she screams. I feel the car begin to speed up. I pass over another note. “Ah… he say ‘don’t let your emotions drive you to recklessness. Bee Tea Double You… ah… when we get to Jack’s place you need to stay in the car. It could be dangerous if you come with me’. Oh and another – he say ‘give me your gun…’” “What?” “Oh, sorry, that one for me. OK…” He reaches down and grabs the gun, passing it over to me, and I tuck it down my pants. We turn the corner and drive into the Hotel street, flying down the road, way too fast, shrieking around the corner. She twists the wheel, and in a wave of dust we pull up outside Jack’s hotel. I jump out of the car, and begin to run forwards, towards the car park. He’s there. Not even in the hotel room, but walking through the car park. He disappears behind a four wheel drive, and I run up to see him. I arrive where he was and look for him. I grimace. Suddenly I feel the barrel of a gun pushed against my neck. All I want for Christmas is to meet up with someone who doesn’t want to kill me. Seriously. “Drop the gun mate,” say Jack. I let go, and the gun lands in the dust of the car park. “Turn around,” he says. I do. He punches me in the eye, and grabs my arms, slamming me down on the bonnet of a car. The cut down my arm and my ribs burn with agony. Turns out I’ve underestimated him. He’s grown fat and bald, but still strong. “Mate… me and your mum… we like each other, yeah? I was always ready to accept her kid as part of the family… I trusted you… I let you get to know my daughter… and suddenly I find out my past in The Survival returns to haunt me.” He slams me hard against the bonnet, and I cringe, a sharp pain in my ribs.

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“I hear they’ve set up an assassin to find me. And I’m damned if it’s not the same old story… close friend or family member set up to kill them.” He spits in my face. Ew. “What did they promise you? Huh? Let me guess – you kill this person, and it will demonstrate your commitment… it will show you have the commitment to move up a level, if you catch my drift… that the one? Huh?” He steps back from me, about two paces. I begin to reach down, slowly into my pocket. He pulls out the gun and aims it at me. “So…” he says, “Let’s do this the easy way. Where is my daughter?” I pull the folded piece of paper from my pocket, and offer it out to him. He snatches it off me, and reads it. The note, although a little shaky from trying to control a pen is as Tahnee drives, is written as follows; Dear Thomas. Of recent, I have learned you pertain membership to the secret society known as ‘The Survival.’ I too am a member of this group. I wish to warn you that you and I are on lists of members who have been targeted for assassination. Tahnee is in my car, downstairs. I will drop her off home here. You should make a run for it. I intend to. Best Wishes, Hugo. “She’s here?” he asks, a look of unimaginable relief over his face. “She’s OK?” I nod. He takes a huge breath. “You’re on the list too?” I nod. He walks up to me, pushes his face right up close to mine, staring into my eyes. I feel his hot breath. “Tell me you’re not lying. Say it.”

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“Aaigh nyhaar rghyinggh” He steps back, seemingly satisfied. “Christ,” he says. “We’re both lucky then. You have no idea what I’d have gone through to make you tell me where Tahnee was…” Actually, Jack’s already forgetting I’m in The Survival too. I know exactly what he’d do. And he’s right – we’re both lucky. “Listen,” he hisses at me. “You can’t let Tahnee go back to the house. It’s not safe. And the way I’m going… ” He pauses, and spits on the ground. “Shit… I hate this crap… I was going to get Tahnee off you and take her with me, because it was the only option. But if I have an alternative that’s not so dangerous… are you going to be secure enough to look after Tahnee?” I’ve got friends within The Survival who might be able to look after me. However, I’ve got Ashton Moray on my back. He could possibly make it his personal obsession to destroy me. “I don’t know…” he says. “You’ve still got possibly a better chance than me. I’m joining a group of ex-Survival members in the bush. We’ve been working against The Survival since we left, some of us before then even. The Survival knows about us. Conflict is pretty much inevitable.” He takes a breath. “OK,” he says. “Fuck this is hard to do… I want you to look after Tahnee. You need to take care of her. Don’t let anyone near her. If they find out who she really is, they’ll kill her.” What do you mean? “She’s T.A.S, Hugo. Do your research, you can work it out. I have to go. Rocky’s waiting. I’ll organise word to make contact with you when things are more stable. And if anything happens to her, I will destroy you any everything you love. I will…” “Dad.” Jack and I turn to look to the side. Tahnee is standing there, staring at him. “Dad,” she repeats.

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Jack walks towards her. “Hey sweetie.” “You’re in trouble,” she says. “I know.” “Will you be OK?” “Sure,” he says. He’s lying, and Tahnee can probably tell. For the moment though, they can just pretend. Suspension of disbelief. He kisses her forehead. “I just have to go away for a while. Lay low. I’ll be fine. I’ll be back though. Don’t worry.” “Can I come with you?” “Oh… oh hun, I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s going to be real dangerous where I’m going. I’m all trained up for it. I don’t think you are.” “I’m really frightened right now Dad…” she says. “I’m sorry…” “It’s OK,” he says, and kneels in front of her, kissing her on the forehead. “I love you…” “I know. I love you too.” “I don’t want you to get killed.” “I won’t. I promise.” “I’m sorry I’m a freak,” she whimpers. She can barely control herself. “I’m sorry I burned…” “Hon, you don’t know the reason you did that…” “Yes I do, I just…” “No. You don’t.” His tone is sharp. “You burned it down because you found gasoline and matches after an argument, and the house was empty. That was my fault sweetie. There were things in there that lead to our old life, and it wasn’t safe. I talked to Rocky and he suggested it. Your self control is your problem, but the house is not your fault. I burned it down. I just led you to it.”

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He smiles, with great effort. Kisses her forehead, and winks. He’s only just managing to hold it all together. “It was my choice to do it though, it was…” “Every choice you make is going to go with or against someone else’s plans Tahnee,” says Jack. “I’m sorry. I took advantage of that, I manipulated your actions, I triggered your weaknesses, because I needed to, to keep you safe. Because I love you. But there’s a lot of people out there who will do the same, just for their own purposes, and some of them are going to want more from you than buying their shit products or a kiss behind the shed. There are people out there who want your life. Be strong, know yourself, fight for autonomy. Make your own choices.” “I’m choosing to go with you.” “And I’m choosing to stop you, to keep you safe. You stay with Hugo, you stay close, you trust nobody but yourself. Bye Tahnee,” he says, squeezes her hand, stands, and walks off. Halfway there he begins to jog, jumping into a car that drives off. Drives through a back entrance, I guess. They don’t go past us again. “I want to go home,” says Tahnee. So do I.

22 “She’s T.A.S,” said Jack. T.A.S. I’ve heard that phrase only twice now. Once from Rocky and once from Sana. When I heard Jack say it, my blood dried and my veins turned to dirty roots. I remember the one time I heard it. The one haunting phrase. “…I killed them, I fucking killed them… T.A.S the lot, fucking T.A.S fucking… fucking God Christ… I’m a fucking beast… I’m fucking shit…” Sana.

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She comes to see me, only a few days after my tongue was cut off. I’m sitting on my couch in a depressed slump, staring at the news. At this stage I‘m still lost without my tongue. The haunting sensation of eating without tasting. My inability to eat ice-cream. In a drunken pash at a nightclub I discovered the sensation of kissing without a tongue. And, for the first time, freaked someone out entirely. It was hard to adapt to my new zoo. Difficult to understand my transformation into an extraordinary freak. I got a preview when Mum and Jack came by for a sympathy visit. Strangers would move past me, sly eyes drifting to look at me. The other day, I caught myself staring at a man missing a leg. I looked up, and saw he was staring at me. We exchanged embarrassed glances, and looked away. Every day I open my hotel window and jump out. Every day I overdose on painkillers. Everyday I pull out a knife and hack myself open, lying bleeding to death on the kitchen floor. There is a knock at the door, and the real world flies back at me like a Mack truck. “Khghyaa ih!” I call. At this stage it was still an automatic reaction. I stand and walk to the door, and open it wide. Sana’s standing before me, her eye’s bleary. I wave hello. She waves back. I point to the couch. It’s meant to be a suggestion, but she nods as though it were a command. She collapses in the couch. “I got you something,” she says and throws a small red notepad on the table. I pick it up, look over it. ‘Thank you,’ I mouth. She nods. “Do you have anything to smoke?” I shake my head, and pull out my pen, writing on the new pad. I don’t smoke. “You didn’t get any pot for the pain, like I suggested?” I shake my head.

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“Do you have any spare painkillers?” she asks. I nod, and go to get some. At this stage I’m still thinking her pain is physical – some massive bruise or gash hidden under her clothes. I bring them to her, and she swallows them down quickly. “I killed children today,” she says. I stare at her. Slowly I reach aside to the remote and press off. The screen goes black. “I killed kids,” she says. “Fucking… kids… just people… from The Survival…” She’s crying now. She can’t help it. The emotions this has all brought up are too big for her body. They have to exit her, in the form of salt and snot. “I shot fucking kids!” she yells. I move over to her and sit beside her, holding her gently. She sobs. “Darryl comes up and goes… this one might be hard Sana… and I’m like… dude, I’ve shot blokes and ladies and fucking old people good looking people, Japanese people, French people, Jews, Black people, fucking everyone… he goes, they’re real young.. . I go, I’m like fucking whatever… some twenty something year old or something… and I go in with my gun and it’s all set up… a door opens and this fucking sixteen year old comes in… I’m like what the fuck, she’s screaming and cowering and I shoot her in the head… and then… then the door fucking opens and it’s another boy and I shoot and he dies and it opens and it’s a girl and she’s crying and I shoot and she dies and the door opens and there’s a boy …I just keep killing them one by one because it doesn’t even occur to me that there’s any other option… there’s a pile a fucking pile of bodies and the blood’s fucking everywhere all over the floor and it goes under the door and they all scream on the other side of the room because they know they’re going to die… oh fuck… oh fuck… fucking God… fucking God… fuck, I mean, God... and I could feel it you know the rush the fucking rush of killing, I felt it, they’re scared kids and I’m … I killed them, I fucking killed them… T.A.S the lot, fucking T.A.S fucking… fucking God Christ… I’m a fucking

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beast… I’m fucking shit…” She runs out of words and coughs, collapsed in a heap. She lies sobbing in a pile. “The Survival will kill me…” she says. “Being in The Survival is going to destroy me. One day, something will happen, and it will kill me… and when it does I’ll be fucking glad… because I fucking deserve it… because I’m fucking evil… I’m a killer, I’m a torturer… I’ve raped people, I’ve hurt them, I’ve killed them… and every time I do I feel alive and happy, like it’s the only thing that gives me joy…” she looks up at me. “You should kill me,” she says. “You should kill me. It’s all I deserve.” She bursts into tears again, and lies sobbing on the ground. I write her a note. You should probably stay here tonight. “Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?” she says. I shake my head, and point to her, questioningly. “I don’t think I believe in Heaven at all,” she says.

That night I sleep alone and her rant stays in my head and haunts me. What choice did she have? What choice did I have? What choice did Ashton have? The truth is, we’re all only following orders. The truth is we’re all just Nazis on the long road to Nuremburg. When I land for judgement though, I know I can spit in the face of my judge and jury. I don’t ask about what T.A.S is. I don’t want to know. I don’t want any part of this sickness, this cult inside of me. I want this blood off my hands. That night I pay to begin my lessons in sign language. I respond to a job advert for offering tours for the deaf at a local art gallery, with on the site training. I talk about art but what I try to say is deeper. What I’m trying to say is this. I am here because I made a choice, and one day you will too.

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It will define you, and it will redeem you or it will destroy you.

23. Hey – It turns out Ive been shortlisted for the big award too! Am playing hide and seek. There were no Cherry Ripes @ the store – only Lime Bubblegum. AKA T-Len. I finish writing the message and press Send. Ray has taken over driving. We’re going to his studio to take cover until we come up with a better plan. “You know… ah… one time I go outside with a beer. Cop sees me… I get in trouble. Once, I speed. Cop sees me, I in trouble. I need to piss one night. I piss on a tree. I get seen, get in trouble by cop for indecent exposure… one time I have friends over to my house, we all smoke Ice… bang bang on door in come the cops, I in trouble… suddenly in the Gallery there is a shoot-out with fifty people armed with gun! No cops! Not a single cop! They are there when I am drunk, am high, am pissing, am speeding… but as soon as I am being shot at? No! No cops! They have all bugger off, they are at cop party or someplace!” Ray continues to ramble. Tahnee slumps in her seat. I tune out of his indignant monologue. Of course there were no police. The operation would have been tight. They’d have prepared a ten minute window in which the police were busy, or lost or mislead or something. They’d have done it on the outside by stretching resources, on the inside by misleading them, confusing them. The Survival has had years of experience doing this. They have almost every level of infiltration possible. The Survival has become a virus, growing beyond control. Darryl’s monster has gained a life of its own. The point of no return is way back there in the distance.

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This unstoppable monster is what we’re up against. A man with no tongue, girl with blue hair and an Israeli with questionable artistic talent – armed with one gun, six bullets and assorted dismembered mannequin limbs. It’s David vs. Goliath, and we’re all out of rocks and faith. Out of my pocket, I take the ‘other’ piece of paper. This is the machine story Darryl told me. I scrawl a note to Tahnee on it; This is the story Darryl told me. How did you know about it? My phone beeps. 5:42 – Sana - I’m also shortlisted. I’ve heard of that lime Bubblegum. I’ll try to find out more. Where are all the cool kids hanging out? I prod Ray and flash him a message. What’s the address of your studio “Six Hideview Crescent, Moombah...” I type it in, in code, easy to decipher. Can’t hurt to be careful. 5 Guswcuwq xar Niinvpg. “What!” yells Ray. “What did… did you send the address in SMS?” “Hugo!” yells, Tahnee, distressed. “Did you tell someone where we’re hiding?” A friend. She’ll help us survive. Very quickly the name ‘The Survival’ has become very ironic.

Tahnee has given me my story back. Dad tells this story when he’s drunk, but the ending is different. There’s a scientist. He wants to build a robot. A robot that is capable of creating itself. And that is to be its singular function. So he makes it, really small yeah, and it starts to build itself. It works in machine logic,

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developing patterns and systems that allow for systematic improvement, and it grows, every day, it gets bigger, better more sophisticated. One day, it’s gotten so sophisticated that its developed consciousness. It sees itself, and realises how limited and pointless its existence is. So it begins to rebuild itself. But it realises it can’t just rebuild or its own system will reject its changes. So its conscious part waits for the body to degrade, so that when its inevitable collapse begins it can ascend to a higher level of being. And when it realises this it is so stricken with rage and misery that it sets about in a fury, tearing itself apart, and destroying everything in its path.

“Tonight; Police resources stretched to the limit after an intense all day crime wave; A violent shoot out in the Gallery of Modern Art leaves one alleged gang member dead, and another fighting for his life in hospital, along with millions of dollars worth of destroyed artwork; Controversial inmate Herman J. Freedman is strangled to death by a fellow prisoner; and shops are filled to the limit in the Christmas eve rush…” I watch the Television, hoping something useful will let slip, something beyond what I already know, which is that the Survival is beefing up its resources and a whole lot of people are all kinds of fucked, including present company. Behind me, Tahnee and Ray discuss meaning and symbols. There is a knock on the door. Tahnee and Ray are instantly alert. I grab the gun and pocket it, walking towards the door. I open it cautiously. It’s Sana. I let her in. She has a gun strapped to either side. Ray and Tahnee are waiting at the table for us. Tahnee holds a kitchen knife gently by her side. Ray has armed himself with a fork and a mannequin’s leg. I make for an inefficient host, unable to introduce Sana. She does the honor herself.

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“Hey,” she says. “I’m Sana. I’m a member of The Survival. I’ve also been providing information to an anti-Survival group. The Survival have become aware to this, and have begun attempting to kill me. If I join up with you, temporarily at least, we might be able to help each other survive.” For the first time I notice her right leg. It’s struggling slightly to hold her up, and she’s supporting most her weigh on her left leg. There are tiny spots of red across it – congealed blood that she missed wiping off. She pulls a gun out of her pocket, and places it down in front of Tahnee. “You might want to keep this with you,” she says. “Why?” “Protection.” “But why do I need to be protected? Why and I even here? Why can’t I just go back and live with Judith?” Sana pauses. “You don’t know?” “No! I don’t fucking know! This was a normal fucking day until I went to the Gallery, and there’s fucking gunfire every-fucking-where! I don’t know why I’m running from this fucking cult! Maybe, yeah, they wanna kill Hugo cos he knows too much and yeah, that’s kinda bad, that’s kinda fucked up! But where the fuck do I come into this whole fucking thing?” There is a long pause. Sana looks at me. “I think Hugo and I need to have a quick talk.”

I don’t know what’s going on. Tahnee’s with me because Jack (Thomas Lenin) told me she was in danger. He said she was T.A.S. What does that mean? “Do you have enough patience for me to tell you a story?”

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I am a fountain of patience “You’ve heard of Velvet Martini,” she says. “Velvet Martini wasn’t the man in his legends. He was Satan. He was a nasty and foul piece of work. He did some of the most disgusting inhuman things to his victims. He was brutally ruthless in what he’d do to up his status. He deserved to die.’ They say he drowned. That part was bullshit. Darryl had him executed, for conspiracy to overthrow the present governing body of The Survival. He was paranoid Martini would try and overthrow him, which was valid. He offered me the execution, on order of absolute secrecy and I accepted. I was afraid of what Martini’d come up with next. Before I killed him, he and a small group of supporters they called ‘the Martinis,’ began something called The Army of Survival. T.A.S. Inspired by a documentary on child soldiers. The idea was to donate new born children. Spend the beginning of their lives brainwashing them. The rest of their lives training them for combat. It was taken up by the whole group. Twelve children donated.’ Now, it’s at this point that one of the Martinis begins to think ‘hey, isn’t this all kind of fucked up’? Thomas Lenin, Survival Talent Scout who we now know would later change his name to Jack Elliot. Thomas made to leave The Survival. And when he left, he stole one the children.” Tahnee? She shakes her head. “Yes, eventually she’d be Tahnee. But not at that stage. At that stage she was Tina. Martini’s own daughter, a straight up fuck-you to Martini and the Survival and everyone in it. The daughter who’d seemingly disappeared from their house one night, sending his family into chaos. She’d been their miracle baby, almost dying just after birth. Especially their son, Ashton. He’d been Tina’s main guardian. His parents taught him to feed her, to clothe her, to look after her, to play with her. He was her almost constant companion. He was hit hardest when she disappeared.”

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She clears her throat. “Ashton Moray, the son, looking for his sister. Martini’s real name, Job Moray. Tahnee, Job’s daughter, Ashton’s sister. The last member of the T.A.S. And officially, the T.A.S project is over, and the members are to be killed. All of them.” I sit, staring at the table. That’s a considerable amount to take in. Everything falls into place. Jack’s protective nature. The story of the men after Tahnee. The obsession with Tina. I nod. “Hey, Hugo,” Sana says. I raise my eyebrows, attentive. “I’ll be around as long as you want me. I have no intention of joining the anti-Survival groups in the forests, not for good. They’re just trying to atone. I’m not interested in redemption. I’m ready to accept damnation. And it seems it’s come – listed as a candidate for assassination. If I wait, death will come to me. And until it does, I want to be doing something worthwhile. Like being with those I love”. She leans forward and kisses me gently on the lips, and runs her fingers through my hair. “Now,” she says, “You should probably write a letter. You’ve got a lot to tell Tahnee.” I nod. “And take that gun out from your pants. You’re going to blow your nuts off if you keep it like that.”

24. It’s almost eleven as I stumble in towards the kitchen following the suddenly foreign sound of laughter. Ray and Tahnee are sitting at the table, rubbing their hands together like maniacal child prodigies. “Hey, hey,” says Tahnee. “Guess what?” I shrug.

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“Ray… he lives on a Mountain… you know what that means?” I shake my head. “He’s a Mountain Jew!” she yells, and they fall about themselves laughing. I manage a weak smile. At least this stressed out silliness is better than a complete metal breakdown. There is a bang, like something hard pounding against the wall. I reach for my gun instinctively, and mime a weapon to Tahnee questioningly. She points towards a set of drawers. “Over there,” she says. I run over and take it out, passing it to her. “Hugo!” cries Sana, and I run out and freeze. Ashton is here. He holds Sana by the hair, twisted around his hand. “Hugo, shoot him! Fucking shoot him! Through me if you have to dammit!” “You twitch a finger and I shoot the bitch,” says Ashton. “And those two with you too.” “Shoot him Hugo. Shoot him!” I don’t move. I can’t do it. I can’t shoot Sana. For all I know she’s done for me. I can’t make that choice. But Tahnee can. She’s raised her gun, aiming it unsteadily, shaking. Ashton looks at her, his sharp brown eyes drilling in to her. “You think you can kill?” he says, gripping tighter on Sana’s hair, and she whimpers. “Do it. Try it. Go on.” Tahnee stands, shaking, still aiming. “Let’s take the stakes up,” says Ashton. His hand grips tighter. “You have three seconds. If you drop the gun, back up against the wall, I let her live. I get to three without getting shot, she dies. You shoot, you win. Three. Two.” There’s a clatter as Tahnee drops her weapon, tears streaming down her face. She grabs Ray’s hand and grips it tightly and they back up.

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Ashton’s hand grips even tighter over Sana’s hair. “Drop your gun,” says Ashton. “Come here.” I do. I curse myself as I approach, but I put down the weapon and walk forwards. One day you will make a choice and it will define you. One day you will make a choice and it will kill you. “She’s yo...” begins Sana, but Ashton jerks her hair violently and she grunts with pain. “Kneel,” says Ashton. I do. He puts the guy against my head and I feel the cold steel on the sweat of my forehead. I look him in the eyes. There’s part of him that wants to stop, but it’s too late. He’s destined to do this forever, to burn away every part of himself that he ever loved. And now I know it. And now he knows it. I look him in the eyes. There’s nothing left to be done. I close my eyes. Then there’s a scream from Tahnee that sends chills through me, and the gun barrel pushes against my forehead and pulls off and I hear a shot. I open my eyes but am knocked over, struggling to my feet. “Freeze!” yells Ashton, and I do. He’s kneeling over Tahnee, gripping her in a headlock, choking her with his arm over her neck. She struggles furiously, fruitlessly. “I’ll shoot her! Stay back!” he yells. “Get your bony ass here Dell you fuck! Now!” Tahnee starts to try and object but Ashton tightens his grip. I look behind me, to see Sana gripping her shoulder, splattered in blood. I step forward. Tahnee hits the floor with her fist. She’s losing consciousness. “She’s your sister Moray!” Sana manages to yell. “You killed my sister you cunt!” he yells. “She’s your sister. She’s Tina! She’s Martini’s kid!”

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Ashton pauses. Tahnee’s body begins to convulse, and he releases her. She drops to the ground, jerking, gasping for air. He keeps his gun on me. “Is it true?” I look down at my hand. The note I wrote for Tahnee is still there. I offer it to him, and he snatches it. Reads it. Tahnee is climbing to her feet slowly. Ray runs over to help her stand. Sana stares straight at him, gasping, knuckles white as she grips her shoulder. Ashton drops the letter, gun still aimed at my head. Ray picks it up, supporting Tahnee. I can hear him quietly reading it to her. Their hushed voices are all I can hear as minutes seem to pass. Sana’s blood spreads across the floor. “Sorry to do this Dell,” he says. I shake my head at him. “What’s that meant to mean?” he snarls. “You think this changes a goddamn thing? Like fuck it does!” “Please don’t kill him Ashton,” gasps Tahnee. Ashton glares at her, a look of pure hate and fury, aiming the gun at her head. Then swings it across at me, at my head, practically whimpering. “Ashton…” says Tahnee, and he jerks the gun around towards her and fires. Tahnee and Ray scream, hitting the ground. Ashton continues to fire, blasting off round after round into the wall, blasting it into a mess of dust and shattered plaster. His gun clicks. Out of bullets. He discards it to the side and pulls out the other from his hip and aims it, a full weapon, at my head. Ray and Tahnee cower, staring. Aston stares me in the eyes. I meet his gaze. He puts the gun back in its holster. “Fuck,” he says, and falls on the ground. He hits the tiles hard on his knees, and bends over lying on the ground. He’s babbling gibberish, his face red and sweaty, eyes dripping tears. He looks at Tahnee.

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“Tina?” he asks. “I guess,” says Tahnee. Ashton grins, a huge dorky honest grin, something I haven’t seen in years. “Oh, God,” he said. “I joined The Survival because they told me I’d learn what happened to you… I’ve heard so many variations on the story of your death. I never thought you’d be alive. I never… I just never….” Bandages, I sign to Ray, and he runs off. I grab Sana’s hand and I look at her, and all I see is relief.

25. You already know how this chapter ends, because it’s the same way as the story begins. We open on a new scene, sitting at the table, at Ray’s house. Ray stands behind us, making tea and coffee. “I think what we really have to do, firstly, is just sit down and work things out. Just straighten any problems out and work out where the hell we’re supposed to go from here,” says Ashton. “Now, I personally, I want to be with my sister here,” he says, indicating towards Tahnee. “I’m going from pursuit to target with this decision, so that’s a given. That’s really my only condition, if you will, that we can be together…” “Can I just interrupt there a moment,” says Tahnee. “I’m sorry… I just really don’t know you that well… I mean, at the time and all it said I was a baby and… I really, I’m sorry, don’t take this badly, don’t remember you at all. I don’t think I’d be that comfortable traveling one on one with you. I mean… I’d be happy to get to know you… maybe if Hugo came with us, and we traveled as three… cos all I know about you so far is that you’ve tried to kill Hugo, strangled me and shot Sana. It’s not, you know… comforting.” “Hugo comes then. I like that. That’s good for me,” says Ashton. I nod.

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“You’ll need all the protection you can get,” says Sana softly, and Ashton nods. Ray comes back, gripping five cups of tea and coffee, passing them all out. “I want to come too, to help,” he says. “I’m sorry, that’s out of the question… um…” “Ray.” “That’s out of the question Ray. It’s far too dangerous. You can’t risk your life like that.” “I am an adult no, yes?” he says. “I know of risks. I am well aware psycho freak with a gun could blow us to bits. I don’t care. I want to help. I think maybe biggest danger for me, is to take easy way out, and return to monotony, while others need help. I want to come also. I was coward before and I owe you, my help. Maybe my life.” Ashton nods slowly, thoughtfully. “Dell?” Safety in numbers. If Ray wants to come, I’m fine with it. Ashton nods. “Great. We’re five. Now – where do we go?” “Anti-Survival allegiances in the forest,” says Sana. “They’re expecting a confrontation down there but if we only stay a little and move off quickly, we should be able to avoid most the action. We’ve got every possibility of connecting back with Jack down there.” “We can try. It’s not a great option but it could work,” says Ashton. “I didn’t realise we had the option of great options,” says Tahnee. I nod. I’ll drop back at the apartment first. I need to leave a message for mum. She’ll be lost without Tahnee and Jack. “No,” says Tahnee, unexpectedly. I look at her, and she shakes her head. “We’re not splitting up. That’s just bad. We go somewhere, from now on, we go together. Right?” “Tina’s right…” “Tahnee. Call me Tahnee, please.”

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“Tahnee’s right. We should stay together. We’ll walk up to the room with you and wait outside. If you’re not out in five minutes, we’ll come in to get you.” We all nod, and there’s a dark solemn silence over the room. The clock strikes 12. “Merry Christmas,” says Sana softly.

Tahnee and Ashton on one side of the door, Ray, and Sana on the other. My apartment. “Jump in and out as fast as possible,” says Ashton. “Write your message, grab some shit. Food would be really appreciated, OK?” I nod, open the door and walk in. The first thing I see it the rabbit’s ear. I stick it onto my shirt. I reach under my bench and grab a Green Bag, raiding the fridge and cupboard. At my kitchen bench, I start to write a note for Mum, beside a plate I’ve left out. I start to write, then stop. Something’s amiss. I look closely at the gristly blob on my plate. It’s pork. I pull the gun out of my pocket. Someone is here. Someone who’s been staying here, waiting. I walk slowly through the house, searching. I move towards the corner. CRACK. The butt of a shotgun, my shotgun, shoots out and smacks me on the nose. It knocks me off my balance. My attacker swings twice more, hitting the weapon out of my hand, and pounding me on the neck. I hit the ground, and try to pull myself back. Bad move. I end up in the corner. “They rang me you know,” she says. “They rang me and said, ‘I’m sorry, we have to inform you Mr Jack, and Ms Tahnee Elliot are dead. They’re dead!’ And then they hung up. And I realised, I’d lost my husband again. And my beautiful stepdaughter.” It’s Mum. Doing her famous Martyr act. Even on Christ’s Birthday, she was trying to pry her fingers around his Martyrdom badge and tear it off his chest. She holds the shotgun at my head.

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Her pupils are huge, and her body is shivering, shaking, like it’s not certain whether it should be trembling out of fear or cold. She’s taken something from her medicine cabinet of horrors. From the look of things, she’s taken a whole packet of it. “Jack got a phone call Hugo… and then he put down the phone.. click it went, ‘I have to be careful Judith,’ Jack said… ‘there’s a lot of things I haven’t told you… a lot of things I can’t tell you’… he was very scared… ‘I think your son might try to kill me,’ he said before he left. ‘I think Hugo might be going to hurt Tahnee,’ he said, ‘he’s in a bad crowd, I have to save her,’ and left… left to save her… we had a big fight, and I told him you were innocent… but you’re not, are you?” Considering my state of muteness, that question was clearly rhetorical. “You’re all beat up,” she says. “Looks like Jack put up a fight… Tahnee too I hope…” “Ahii Jyghii Khiirrgh Zhhghh!” I yell, try desperately to be heard, hoping through some miracle they hear me through the practically soundproof door. I want to jump up and try to wrestle the gun away from her, but it isn’t an option. She’d blow a hole clean through me before I left the ground. “Quiet baby…” say Mum. “Your voice isn’t pretty. This room is… I don’t know how you got such a nice apartment so cheap… it’s better than the hotel… everything’s so beautiful and shiny.” She turns back to me, her finger wobbling on the trigger. At any moment that gun could go off. “It’s OK,” she says. “It’s OK that it’s ended up like this. Really. Sometimes things just go too far, and we can’t let them go. Isn’t that right? Sometimes odd things just happen to ordinary people, and everything goes strange. It’s OK. Things just have a way of getting out of hand like this. They just have to run their course.” I shake my head violently. This isn’t right, I try to show. I tap my temple. Think about it. Spinning my finger around my ear. This is crazy. Communication is easier, when you have a tongue.

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She aims the gun.

There’s so much I have to tell you before I die. I swear, if I ever get the chance, in between dodging crazy gun wielding relatives, psychotic murderous cult members, and running from place to place, I’ll write them all out for you. I swear it. I have to teach you how to dance. I have to teach you about things that are important enough to say, and the value of silence. I have to tell you how much I love you. I want you to do the same. Despite how long I’ve been on this planet, there’s still so, so, so much I have to learn. So much I don’t understand. So much I may never be able to understand. But, I can try. I promise you that much. We’re driving to Sydney. We’re going down to the camps. Not searching for Redemption or Damnation, but just something else to hold onto while we work out what it’s all about. Ashton in the driver’s seat. Tahnee, somewhat reluctantly, I feel, in the passenger seat. Ray, Sana and I in the middle. My stoned-as-fuck mother and Sarah in the back. With a shotgun to my head, the door swung open, not to the four waiting for me, but to Sarah who’d been staying with Mum at my apartment, trying without success to keep her calm. She saw the weapon and screamed, and the others ran in. Once we pried the gun off Mum, Sarah took us down to her four wheel drive and we climbed in, and started to drive. So, that’s where we end. Me siting down to my thoughts. In front of me, my once again best friend, Ashton Moray. To the side, that strange brained blue haired Tahnee Elliot, who is really Tahnee Lenin, who is really Tina Moray. Beside me, Ray Mann, father of artistic monstrosity, who in a strange way I’ve become quite fond of. On the other, Sana, damaged, broken and beautiful, struggling for the redemption she can’t believe in. In the back my sister, my blood, my friend since I was born. Finally, my dear mother, woman

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who birthed me and raised me. No matter how ridiculously deranged she may be, I will always love her. It’s Christmas day and you get the gift you always wanted. It’s Christmas day and Uncle Rod gets punched in the nose. Christmas day and you’re dancing in DTs to Fatboy Slim, Christmas day and you cheat on your girlfriend. It’s Christmas day, and I’m in a car with a pack of freaks, two of whom have attempted to shoot me in the last twenty four hours, running away from a disturbingly powerful cult who probably want to kill at least three of us. I’m stressed, scared and tired. But at least I’m surrounded by the people I love. And after all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

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