2028 – Excerpt


Renard Prendergast eased the car into an available parking spot, but as he reached for the door, Autocar clicked in and straightened out his parking attempt. Normally, Autocar only took over when a vehicle was in danger; however, several months earlier, Renard had accidentally set his Autocar feature to ‘Correct all’ and didn’t know how to turn it off. Renard didn’t much care for driving, yet every time Autocar intervened, he felt diminished. Though he held an office-based data-analysis job, deep down he felt that, as an ASIO agent, he ought to be able to drive like James Bond. Autocar clearly thought he couldn’t.

Renard inserted his credit card into the Parkie and opted to play for two dollars. Brisbane City Council had been the first local government to introduce Parkies, but now they were everywhere, even in this inner-city suburb of Glebe in Sydney. They brought, in a limited way, poker machines to the streets. Motorists still had to pay for parking, but now got one play in return, a chance to hit the jackpot. Parking meters had been transformed into something they had never been before: popular. The Parkies had proven a windfall for councils. Even pedestrians stopped to play the meters and many motorists readily paid/played for more parking time than they needed.

The machine made a few cha-ching sounds before lighting up with: Congratulations! You have won five minutes of free parking. Double or nothing? Renard punched No. Who would play double or nothing for five minutes? He started a new round. This time the parking meter chimed a tinkly rendition of the 1812 Overture finale. Renard stepped back in surprise.

‘What did you win?’ a pedestrian called out, she and her dog both stopping to look.

‘I don’t know,’ Renard stammered. ‘I’ve never won before.’

They peered at the screen of the parking meter and a ripple of disappointment passed through them. He’d won only fifty dollars. ‘I’d have thought the 1812 Overture would be for a five-hundred-dollar prize at least,’ the woman commented. ‘I’m told if you win a thousand, it plays “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.’

‘What if you’re not a girl?’

‘The Parkies have face recognition software,’ the dog walker replied.

‘Do they?’ Renard asked. He knew full well they did. The Parkies were one of the wearying sources of information he routinely examined in his work. The thing about metadata was its meta-ness.

‘Sure they do,’ the woman continued. ‘Remember how a Parkie helped catch the Strathfield bank robbery gang? Though the guy driving the getaway car put a stolen credit card into the parking meter, the Parkie itself was still able to identify him. Funny attitude to try to pay for parking while your friends are sticking up a bank. A chance to win, I suppose,’ she mused philosophically. ‘He should have worn a balaclava like the rest of the gang. Actually . . . I think it plays “Money Changes Everything” when you win a thousand dollars. That would make more sense.’

Renard squinted at the Parkie. It was still offering to play double or nothing. Renard was not going to push his luck. He pressed the button and one clean fifty-dollar note emerged from the machine.

The woman raised her eyebrows. ‘I didn’t think anyone under thirty used cash anymore.’

‘I’m eating at Low Expectations tonight,’ he explained. ‘No cards accepted.’

‘I should have guessed when you chose cash,’ she replied. ‘I go there every so often. God knows why.’ She and her dog set off down Glebe Point Road.

Low Expectations had been his first assignment with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Well, not his first assignment, but his first and only out-of-office assignment. This was eight years earlier, a year after he’d joined the organisation. A new director had been appointed, someone unlike any of the long-term spooks in ASIO’s upper echelons. This one had hit the agency with public relations and team-building ideas never before contemplated. ‘You need to be a people person to head a security agency,’ he had told the cameras on his appointment, ‘and our agents need to be so too.’ He had launched, in the year of the same name, ASIO’s ‘20:20 Vision’. He wanted the data analysts to get out of the office one day per week to get a feel for the public they spied on—to ‘get touched’, he said, adopting a catchphrase popular back then. It was not a complete break with tradition; ‘meeting people’ was still to be done in the traditional ASIO way of infiltrating groups, planting listening devices and intercepting messages whenever possible. The regular workload of the data analysts stayed the same, mind you, but now they had only four office days per week to do it. The initiative, just like the ASIO director himself, had not lasted the year. The data analysts had proved remarkably inept, leaving fingerprints where they should not have and, in the case of the Lustathon incident, landing ASIO utterly in the soup.

Renard’s 20:20 Vision assignment had been Low Expectations, which had come to ASIO’s attention precisely because it wasn’t coming to their attention. ASIO wanted to know why. Officially, Low Expectations was a bookshop/cafe, yet it sold only Charles Dickens novels and all the stock was second-hand. The inside was decked out in what Renard termed ‘Industrial Revolution chic’: a few tables were scattered between the even fewer bookcases, while at the back, several teenagers toiled over contraptions that appeared to be working looms. There were teacups on some tables and a smell of food. On his first visit, Renard rashly ordered a cappuccino.

The owner scowled. ‘You can have tea,’ he rumbled, in a tone that indicated Renard ought not to ask for cinnamon chai.

The tea was weak and Renard understood why when he witnessed the owner reusing the tea bag for subsequent orders. There was only one item on the menu. Renard ordered a bowl of gruel.

The reason for ASIO’s interest was that Low Expectations had absolutely no online presence. It wasn’t just that it had no website and no social media accounts—it had no wifi. In an era when virtually no one carried money, the shop didn’t accept credit cards. The owner kept his accounts handwritten in ink in large nineteenth-century-style ledgers. There wasn’t a laptop, a Genie phone or a Gargantuan in the place. Their only concession to modern times was that they had electricity—used sparingly, to judge by the temperature of the tea.

Any business with so low a profile must be hiding something. Renard was tasked with finding out what. However, as Renard dutifully pointed out in report after report, he found nothing to report. He could discover no subversive activities and no answer to the still more perplexing question: how could an enterprise with such an appalling business model survive?

The owner employed a gang of local teenagers to work the looms after school. Although they did their best to appear downtrodden, Renard discovered that they were paid the standard award wage. All the employees dressed in nineteenth-century clothes or nineteenth-century rags, depending on their roles. The owner sold what cloth was produced, but the quality was not high. Book sales were minimal. Customers were permitted to read novels from the shelves while having tea and gruel. The owner kept the gruel bubbling all day. Upstairs, where the new-fangled electricity flowed more generously, they ran movies and TV adaptations of Dickens’ novels. A large, threatening sign on the front door indicated that customers were not allowed to use mobile phones or any electronic devices while in the shop, and when Renard tried surreptitiously, he found some sort of jamming device prevented signal reception. Despite appearances, someone in the place had technical savvy. As far as his efforts at eavesdropping went, he overheard nothing beyond local cafe chitchat and one person snivelling over the fate of Little Dorrit.

The adolescents on the looms looked the part of surly, malcontent labourers, and on Renard’s first visit, one of them lifted his wallet. Renard found it necessary to protest vigorously before the owner reluctantly compelled the youth to produce the wallet. The owner then proceeded to take the lad off ‘for a thrashing’. Renard was left with his gruel and the shrieks from out the back. Later, at the office, he viewed the ‘thrashing’ from a CCTV camera in the laneway behind the shop. There he saw the owner and the kid laughing and having a drink of something, with the pickpocket emitting periodic howls and pleas for mercy. What sort of business operated by training your staff to pick the pockets of the customers?

His immediate supervisor at ASIO back then dated from the romantic Cold War era, when spies spied on spies and filing cabinets had secrets worth stealing. He thought Low Expectations might be a front for something and told Renard of a photography shop that the Soviets operated in Melbourne in the 1970s. The two Soviet spies filled their shop window with dreadful wedding photos: people with their eyes bugged out or looking as though they had something stuck in their teeth. The Soviet agents wanted to work without being disturbed. The photos were there to make sure they weren’t bothered by customers.

For ASIO in the 2020s, those glory days of spy-versus-spy were long gone. Now the spy service defended against terrorists: addled young men who blew themselves up in public places or lonely fourteen-year-old boys locked in their rooms hacking into the electricity grid for no particular reason. With opponents such as these, ASIO was perpetually on guard and there could never be a point of victory. ‘In the old days,’ his supervisor reminisced, ‘when we successfully turned their double agent into our triple agent, there was a moment of triumph to something like that.’

Though he was no longer required to, Renard continued his surveillance of Low Expectations. He always went on his own. It wasn’t a place that could be shared with friends, let alone with a date. And he continued to spy. He’d once stolen a letter from the box where people could leave and pick up mail. (Low Expectations had introduced this service after Australia Post abandoned letter delivery in 2022.) This stolen letter, he hoped, would finally reveal whatever was going on in the shop.

The letter had been not only harmless but inane. It was a load of Elizabeth Bennet-style trivialities about who would be attending some upcoming dance, who was wearing what and who had said what to whom. He was pretty sure he knew who wrote it: one of those Jane Austen types who had begun frequenting the place. They often sat there in their bonnets writing away. Their frivolousness annoyed him. What business did they have being in a Dickensian workshop?

That was when he realised that he actually liked Low Expectations.

Now, with his fifty-dollar Parkie win in his hand, he pushed open the squeaky door. The looms were mostly quiet, and only Kate, one of the friendlier of the teenage textile labourers, was there. In her two years working in the shop, her cloth work had become skilled.

The owner came over to Renard. ‘Gruel?’ he asked and, after Renard nodded, added a surly, ‘Tea as well, I suppose.’ Renard took a copy of Bleak House from the shelf and searched for where he’d left off. Did it even matter? The first forty pages were about it being foggy and little else. Eight years ago he hadn’t liked Dickens novels. He wasn’t sure he liked them any better now.

The owner was back with a large, badly chipped bowl full of gruel. ‘There’s a letter for you,’ he announced.

‘A letter?’ ‘Yes, a letter. Your name is Ned, isn’t it?’

Renard’s shock could not have been greater. ‘Yes,’ he managed.

‘It looked like you weren’t too sure about that answer,’ the owner observed suspiciously.

‘It’s just—’ Renard paused, thinking fast ‘—how did you know I was called Ned?’

‘You told me your name was Ned when you first started coming here.’

‘Ah, y-yes . . .’ Renard stammered, reaching for the letter that the owner now seemed reluctant to give to him. ‘My name is Ned . . . It’s just that no one has called me that for a very long time.’

The owner considered this for a moment, then finally handed over the envelope.

A letter for Ned. A letter that had been nine years in the coming. ‘No one has called me Ned,’ he repeated, his heart beating faster, ‘for a very, very long time.’

. . .  

Autocar was a business with a single product, normally a Darwinian vulnerability in the fickle world of technology. Autocar could stave off extinction only through the most demanding of juggling acts. Its niche was in a tiny crevice of public and political indecision and, to survive, it had to nourish that indecision. Autocar was still thriving for the moment. Everyone who wanted to drive a car needed its product; indeed, it had been mandated by legislation to be installed in all motorist-operated vehicles still on Australian roads.

The history of software companies was littered with success stories that led to the abyss. One moment, everyone would be salivating for a company’s product; the next, no one wanted it at all. Autocar was attuned to this perilous environment. Despite its enormous success, it was perpetually primed to shut down the business the next day, if necessary. It rented no offices and had no inventory to speak of. The only ‘premises’ it kept was space on a server located in Collinsvale, Tasmania—Collinsvale being the Australian town with the lowest annual temperature, hence the lowest air-conditioning costs for the server. All Autocar employees worked from home and had what was called in the industry a ‘no ripcord clause’: your future redundancy money was included in your fortnightly pay. You could be tossed out of the plane without a parachute at any moment, but at least you had been paid all your entitlements.

The opportunity that Autocar had wedged open was society’s inability to come to grips with the benefits of the driverless car. In its first five years, the driverless car had achieved only a 37 per cent market share. Those vehicles obeyed the rules, gave way when it was correct to do so, slowed in wet conditions. In other words, they behaved like complete chumps in the minds of certain motorists still behind the wheel who didn’t obey the rules or give way and who sped past other cars in thunderstorms. Knowing that driverless cars never drove aggressively and the passengers in those cars were probably doing Sudokus or sleeping, motorists asserted themselves with greater and greater abandon. Thus, while driverless cars never hit other driverless cars, the motorists out there hit driverless cars, they hit cars driven by other motorists, they hit pedestrians and cyclists and they hit lampposts. In looking at the data, it was clear to everyone that the lampposts were not the problem. The obvious response, at least to the pedestrians and cyclists recuperating in hospital, would have been to ban the motorist car. But nothing was that simple.

Seventy years of relentless car advertisements, of sleek vehicles streaking alone across the outback or ascending to the apex of some steep mountain where no car had any proper reason to be, had left an imprint on part of the population. For them, driving was a right. Driving was freedom. Admittedly, that freedom was sometimes hard to perceive, but those motorists knew it was there, if only they could roar along that deserted outback road instead of being mired in traffic on the Western Distributor. They weren’t giving all that up without a fight. To the hard core of the motorist faction, most of whom couldn’t help but have a Y chromosome, the driverless car was for wusses, uncoordinated gits and women. Legislators feared to antagonise so large a group of voters, but nonetheless motorists, like the cigarette smokers before them, were going to have to make concessions.

Into this historic opportunity of political dithering marched Autocar. Programmed into a vehicle, Autocar followed a driver’s every movement. It still let the motorist cut people off, pass on the shoulder and drive above the speed limit at times; what it didn’t do was allow critical accidents to occur. It would always seize control prior to the moment of crisis, taking over the steering when the drunken motorist was nodding off, reducing speed on the wet road before the car careened out of control. To avoid accusations that it was a tool of the nanny state, Autocar came with illegality settings whereby motorists could choose their level of disobedience of traffic laws with a maximum ceiling set at 25 per cent over the speed limit. Whatever the setting, though, Autocar would intercede if human life was imperilled. A car could still run a red light, but Autocar made sure it was only able to do so if everyone in that intersection would survive. Installing Autocar was the concession motorists had to make. It practically eliminated the death toll.

The software programming required for Autocar to work was astoundingly complex and Agnieska ‘Aggie’ Posniak was among the very best of Autocar’s programmers. She had never met Colin Sanderson—the founder and CEO of Autocar—in person, but when she’d joined the company four years earlier, he had sent her (as he did all new employees) a copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in which he had inscribed: Autocar will not through action or inaction allow a human to come to harm.

However, a company such as Autocar could not survive on programming excellence alone. It needed the political stasis, the mix of driverless and motorist-driven cars, to be maintained. To that end, Aggie was also one of what Autocar called its ‘operatives’. As Autocar’s mole within the Royal Commission into Road Safety, a commission of critical importance to the company, she was to alert Autocar to which way the political winds were about to blow.

No one on the commission knew she was with Autocar. Instead, she purported to be a bicyclist-rights enthusiast, representing a group called Bicyclism Australia. Bicyclism Australia was a totally phantom association. It had been created by Autocar solely as a means of manoeuvring Aggie on to the commission. This cyclist lobby group may have been conjured into existence by Autocar out of nothing, but, thanks to the company’s wizardry, it had an impressive internet presence—so impressive that not only had Aggie been appointed to the Royal Commission but, fourteen months of commission hearings later, Bicyclism Australia, to Autocar’s astonishment, had developed a sizeable and growing membership of actual cyclists. Aggie now found herself obliged to send out e-newsletters, rent occasional meeting spaces and produce tedious annual reports on behalf of Bicyclism Australia just to keep up the appearance of legitimacy in the eyes of the group’s loyal membership.

It was a hot night to be attending Royal Commission hearings. Though she was still several kilometres from her destination, Aggie dutifully got off the train, hoisting her bicycle onto her shoulder as she climbed the steps out of the station. Attention to detail was important. The bicycle ride would be just enough distance to give her a credible film of sweat for her arrival at the public hearings.

After more than a year of hearings, Aggie thought she had the other commissioners sussed. Two were plants from the Free Drivers movement (as the motorists now called themselves). Another was an operative from the Car Share people, who were playing a very subtle game in the new motoring world order. The rest were a hotchpotch of advertising firm types and automobile salespeople, many of whom now considered the driverless car to be their Frankenstein’s monster escaped from the lab. Finally, there was Sandra, a representative of the Australian Public Transport Alliance, a painfully sincere citizens group that all the other players could safely ignore. Given Aggie’s guise as a representative of cyclists, Sandra had gravitated to her as a fellow outcast from the main game.

Aggie did not particularly approve of the industrial espionage, lobbying and political chicanery involved in her role as an operative. She simply had interests that overlapped with those of Autocar in its fight for survival. She had her own agenda and would be loyal to Autocar right up to the moment when she wasn’t any longer. Both Autocar and Aggie sensed the temporary nature of the alignment.

When Aggie arrived, bicycle helmet under her arm, Sandra was the only commissioner seated at the table. The others were scattered around the room typing into their Genie phones. Sandra beckoned to Aggie and patted the chair beside her. ‘Agnieska,’ she hissed excitedly, ‘there’s a letter for you. Hand delivered.’

Aggie blinked. No one sent letters anymore. No one could send letters anymore. ‘Hand delivered . . . by who?’

‘By whom,’ corrected Sandra, who was always un-splitting infinitives in the revisions to their commission reports, ‘and the answer is, I don’t know by whom. He didn’t leave a name.’

‘What did he look like?’

Sandra levelled her eyes on Aggie. ‘Look like? I’ll tell you what he looked like: he looked like a spy.’

Aggie stared at the public transport activist. Was Sandra having a joke with her? She had never seemed the joking type before. ‘What do you mean he looked like a spy?’

‘Like in an old movie. Trench coat, sunglasses, a three-corner hat pulled low over a four-corner face.’ Sandra paused, as if hoping for a laugh, but got none.

Aggie gazed back at her, baffled.

‘A trench coat!’ Sandra remarked. ‘It’s thirty degrees out there.’

‘You’re making this up,’ Aggie suggested.

‘Making it up?’ Sandra repeated. ‘Well, have a look at this then.’

She handed Aggie the envelope. It had Aggie’s full name on it but, underneath, it read: For Ned.

‘Who’s Ned?’ Sandra probed.

‘I’m Ned,’ Aggie replied without hesitating. ‘It’s an old nickname.’

‘What’s it about?’ Sandra asked, apparently feeling entitled to know. She had delivered the letter, after all. ‘Is it Royal Commission business?’

‘No, not Royal Commission business.’ Aggie could feel the excitement tingling through her. She could tell the envelope contained a plastic identity card. She shifted her eyes back to Sandra. ‘It’s about . . .’ Aggie paused, ‘to become interesting.’

It was going to be hard to concentrate on the hearings that night, and besides, she would soon have to resign from the commission anyway.


Despite the confidence he was exuding, Prime Minister Fitzwilliams could not help but feel that this cabinet, his carefully constructed cabinet, was an uninspiring group. They were what he called ‘lifers’: MPs who thought the way to get ahead was by keeping their own head down, hitching one’s wagon to the strongest horse around and being very, very careful where one used one’s credit card. Duration was their measure of success. Reliable, steadfast, said some. Dullards, the Prime Minister thought—with very few exceptions.

It was his own doing. Three terms as PM, and over those years he had effectively seen off any rivals to his leadership. He had dispatched them all, the lean and hungry ones, those who would have used his fallen body as the podium from which to address the nation. The most threatening of them had been Boswell, Damian Boswell: poster boy of the private schools, movie-star handsome, witty—all things the Prime Minister was not. Damian Boswell had the common touch as well. He could mix it with the crowd at a Rabbitohs match and from there go straight on to ABC Classic FM to confide his love of Shostakovich. ‘I’ll give him Shostakovich,’ the PM had muttered darkly to Senator Olga O’Rourke. Olga soon saw to it that Damian Boswell was outmanoeuvred in cabinet and isolated to such an extent that Boswell was almost grateful to accept a posting as Australia’s ambassador to Russia, just to escape. The Prime Minister was not an overly vindictive man, although he did occasionally instruct his new ambassador in Moscow to tour some godforsaken mining town in the depths of the Siberian winter.

The cabinet was a tepid crew, but they would do. It was the moment to go for a fourth term. His inner circle had been planning it for months, his final campaign before retirement. Labor was in a feeble state. The honeymoon was over for Roslyn Stanfield, their newish leader. She was perceived as vacillating, thin on policy, a lightweight whose only ideas came from focus groups. The PR and marketing firm Baxter Lockwood Inc. had confirmed this for the Prime Minister via their own focus groups. Baxter Lockwood’s research had delivered Fitzwilliams three terms in power and he counted on their help to win the fourth.

The Australian Greens, meanwhile, were in receivership. In the previous election, they had campaigned hard to ban some chemical . . . Fitzwilliams had mastered the name of it back then, but it eluded him now. The Greens had stumped up and down the country crying that if the stuff got into the water table, you could kiss agriculture goodbye. They might even have been right, scientifically speaking. Fitzwilliams had no idea. Being scientifically correct, however, had no particular clout when it came to the terms of the Tri-Ocean Free Trade Agreement. The Australian Greens were successfully sued for compensation by the manufacturer of Dioxy . . . something or other . . . for ‘unfair practices causing a diminution in trade’. The suit cost them almost a billion dollars, with the Akron, Ohio company arguing that the damage to their reputation had been worldwide. The Australian Greens had no choice but to go into receivership and lodge an appeal. That the Akron company had been subsequently taken over by a German consortium which later went into receivership itself meant that no phoenix-like Green Party was likely to emerge from that legal morass for at least a decade.

Fitzwilliams’ announcement of his intention to call a snap election had gone down well with cabinet. The polls were strong and already there was a taste of victory in the air. ‘Total confidentiality,’ he now told them. ‘I’m visiting the Governor-General tomorrow at two p.m. and going straight into a press conference at three thirty. That way we’ll capture the evening news with scarcely any time for Labor to react. At seven, we’ll have a “spontaneous” rally in front of Parliament House at the Stadlet. The whole of cabinet together on the platform. From there, we’ll disperse in different directions without talking to the press, telling them only that we are fanning out across the country to take our message to the people.’

The election material packages from the campaign team lay before the cabinet members, each package tailored to the minister’s specific portfolio. It would contain the catchphrases, slogans, tactics and targets of the campaign to come. There were grunts of approval around the table.

 ‘Ah, Prime Minister . . .’

 The room fell silent, the interjection jarring the upbeat mood. All eyes, including the Prime Minister’s, shifted to Russell Langdon, the Minister for Security and Freedom.

Fitzwilliams had always felt Langdon was born to be on the backbench. He possessed those contradictory attributes of a backbencher: an extreme deference to the Prime Minister that barely concealed a suppressed inclination to mutiny. Yet it was thanks to career backbencher Langdon, even more than Baxter Lockwood, that they were comfortably ensconced in their present positions. It was Langdon who had won them the last election, an election that even the Prime Minister had thought they would lose. The Labor leader then was impossibly good-looking, a charismatic charmer, gladhanding his way around the country and social media, muttering inanities about the need for change. He appeared unstoppable.

But in their darkest electoral hour, backbencher Russ Langdon had managed to get his leg blown off. It happened at a campaign speech in Langdon’s safe electorate of Flinders (although safe, Prime Minister Fitzwilliams supposed, was probably not an accurate term in this case). A terrorist suicide bomber, a lone wolf who had objected to . . . the PM frowned

. . . objected to the court ruling on prayer rooms in state schools? Three dead. Four if you counted the terrorist, but the media seldom did these days. Four and a bit if you counted Langdon’s left leg.

The fifty-six-year-old Langdon was rushed to hospital where they amputated the leg and saved his life, and Langdon, doped up to his eyeballs on painkillers, summoned all his backbencher nous, propped himself up on his pillows and gave a smiling, double thumbs-up to the photographers. That photo had won the election. Suddenly everyone realised that they didn’t need Labor’s heartthrob with his shallow Tony Blair smile. They needed a steady hand. They needed the kind of indomitable spirit that was Russ Langdon.

When re-elected, Prime Minister Fitzwilliams made Langdon the Minster for Security and Freedom. Whether he was competent to manage such an important portfolio didn’t overly worry Fitzwilliams. The bureaucrats of vital portfolios could run them no matter who was minister.

‘There may be a problem tomorrow, Prime Minister . . .’ Langdon now told his leader. He winced, shifting his artificial leg. The grimace irritated the PM, who sensed it was done to remind him of just what he owed Langdon. It was an uncharitable thought, but Fitzwilliams still felt it was true.

‘A problem?’

‘You said three thirty for the press conference and seven o’clock for the rally outside parliament.’

The Prime Minister nodded, but Langdon appeared uncertain how to proceed. ‘It may be nothing, but there appear to be demonstrations scheduled at both those times—here in Canberra—right here, outside parliament.’

‘Demonstrations?’ the Prime Minister queried. How was such a thing even possible? He shot a glance at Olga, the veteran Minister for Communications. She looked equally surprised but nodded at him reassuringly. It was nothing they couldn’t handle.

It was not good to start off an election campaign dealing with the unexpected. He hadn’t encountered a demonstration for what . . . five, six years? On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to delay when everything was poised to go, including radio and internet interviews scheduled for ungodly hours on the morning after the election call. They had bought advertising, billboards, goodness knew what on the internet, and it was all scheduled for release at dawn on Wednesday.

His face betrayed none of his deliberations. ‘I think Olga’s legislation will sideline any demonstrators sufficiently,’ he assured the cabinet, referring to the senator’s much-lauded Demonstration Protection Act of 2022. ‘We announce as scheduled tomorrow.’

He redirected his attention to Russ Langdon. ‘Who’s planning these demonstrations?’ he asked. It never paid to ignore the unexpected.

‘This is somewhat surprising, Prime Minister.’

‘Just tell me, Russell,’ the PM urged, ignoring another wince from the minister as he shifted his leg.

‘Well, Prime Minister . . . it’s the Luddites.’