Fantasy Science Fiction

Habits of Empire

By Alex Isle
Jan 6, 2020 · 4,912 words · 18 minutes

Parliament House

Photo by Social Estate via Unsplash.

From the author: Simon Harnett is the first president of the new Australian Republic. So far he has led a charmed political life but now the legendary Maiden, Mother and Crone come demanding that he pay the price for what he has achieved, in order to prevent horrors that are to come.


 “Australia had always rather admired the perceived splendour of the British Empire, so it was hardly surprising that it took the first chance available to get one of its own.”

“Hardly an empire,”  Starward said.  He leaned back comfortably in one of Simon Harnett’s immense leather armchairs, casually scanning through a printout of the latter’s speech.  “Ask New Zealand if they think you’re Caesar.”

“Next best thing,” Harnett protested.  “Who else would help them after that sheep disease wiped out ninety per cent of their flocks?”

“And this bit about the British ten year drought,” Starward persisted.  “I don’t think it’s exactly diplomatic to bring that up.  The poor bastards still go red in the face when one mentions Oz Aid to them.”

“Good.”

The President grinned wickedly at him, removing his sneakered feet from the top of the broad jarrah desk and letting them fall to the carpet with a thump.  “My trip to England wasn’t exactly the most comfortable in the world,” he added, serious now.

“Well, you were a new species of animal,” his adviser said, slightly surprised by this turn to the conversation.  “They weren’t used to the idea of an Aussie president at all and to get you was even more of a shock.  Even if you were out of university when you got the job, you didn’t look it.” He studied Harnett’s lean features, the wavy brown hair falling in his eyes and sighed.  “You still don’t.”

“Remember when I got my fortune told in London?  The old woman who must have been the great aunt of someone in the press corps?”

“Oh yes.  All-knowing Delilah or whatever she was called, prophesying fame and fortune for one Simon Harnett but who didn’t know the way to soap and hot water?”

“Mmm.  But remember what she said after that, Rod?  She looked me in the eyes and said, “Are you sure you want that?  You’ll be paying the price now, you know.  You don’t have the British Crown as your scapegoat.”

Rod Starward chuckled.  “I don’t remember that.  So what did you say?”

“Nothing.  And I was lucky there wasn’t a tabloid press cameraman right there, because I must have looked like the original stunned mullet.” Harnett shrugged. “Anyway, it hasn’t been so bad, or I wouldn’t be trying for a second term, would I?  Let me have that back.  I think I’ll cross out the bit about the sheep.”

No, Simon thought as he wheeled his bicycle out of his home’s front gate, it hasn’t been so bad.  He glanced up at the sky;  overcast and windy, but not a drop all day.  Yes, he definitely needed some exercise to clear his head after working on the damn re-election speech for most of the day.

His minders hated him riding off like this.  Not safe, they’d say.  Not dignified, they’d think.  They had never really known what to think about having a leader who, as Rod had said, had barely been out of university when he won a landslide victory to become the first president of Australia.  That victory had seemed so easy that it was creepy.  Even when things were difficult, nothing seemed to stick to him.  And it was not because he was as brilliant as all that, Simon decided, shivering a little as the black bicycle glided down the empty winter street.  He’d made decisions which should have brought the real powers of the land crashing down on his head.  Curfews for cars.  A complete ban on logging the remnants of the old growth native forests. 

People with money should have been on him like starving dogs when he’d proposed Last Chance.  Ministers had lost their jobs over it but not him.  And as for the changes to immigration… His attention snapped back to the here and now as he saw something in the bike’s path.  His hands clenched down in reflex on the brake handles, stopping centimetres away from the little girl who stood like a blinded rabbit in the road.

“Hey, are you all right?  I’m sorry I didn’t see you, but you shouldn’t stand there in the road.” She looked maybe twelve, Simon thought, wearing a checked school dress much too light for the freezing night.

“It’s going to get worse,” the child said solemnly.  “You’ll have to pay, don’t think you won’t.  Are you sure you want that?”

“Want what?” the President asked, but his prospective voter whirled around and ran, feet tapping the footpath as she disappeared around the street corner into darkness.  Simon Harnett sat on his bicycle, staring perplexedly after her.  “I need some help,” he told a tree.  “Definitely I need some help.”

Liu Kim Jia frowned as she wiped the table, while cradling a teetering stack of plates and cups in the other.  Simon Harnett watched, never able to breathe while she did this, no matter how many times he saw it accomplished.

“I’d say it means;  stay away from strange females,” she told him.

“Jia, it’s not funny.  It’s like the kid was waiting for me.  When it happened with the old fortune teller, I didn’t worry about it, but it’s the same words!”

“Twice is deliberate, three times is a Communist plot?” Jia carried her burden around the counter of the bright little coffee shop and into the kitchen.  She came out, glancing at her watch.  “Afternoon crowd time is almost upon us, Simon.  When do you get to read your speech on TV?”

“In three days.  If you think campaigning has been crazy up to now, wait till we’re up to speed.”

“I’m amazed you could get away from everyone long enough to visit my insignificant little cafe.”

“I lied.  I said I was visiting constituents.”

She widened dark almond eyes.  “Well, you are.”

“You said you didn’t vote for me last time.”

“I thought you were a joke.  Oh, sorry.”  She started to giggle.  “Really.  Think about it.  There are these distinguished elder politicians, in their business suits and either their distinguished grey or their cleverly dyed hair, and here’s this kid in blue jeans and a T-shirt, riding a racing bike and talking about banning cars in the city and educating children via the Internet.  Who would you believe?”

“Someone must have,” he retorted in an injured tone.  Jia reached to grasp his forearm, her gaze steady as she looked at him.

“I know.”  She chuckled again.  “If you have to know the truth;  I wasn’t quite 18 years old then so I couldn’t vote.”  She patted him and stepped back.  “And now I have to get the cakes ready to display or my mother will fire me when she sees what I’ve done to our business.”

Simon let her go, feeling as though answers were slipping out of his grasp.  He opened and closed his hands as though releasing something to the winds, then stood up and quietly left the shop.

“Australia had always rather admired the perceived splendour of the British Empire, so it was hardly surprising that it took the first chance available to get one of its own…”

The live studio audience were at least chuckling.  If he entertained them, they would at least remember him at election time, though he knew some of them were opposition here to know the enemy.  Even the Opposition leader, Martin Burns, was there.  Burns, elegant, fiftyish and wealthy, did not even consider Simon Harnett a worthy rival and that was using the polite words.

Simon made it snappy, each word counting – or so he hoped – then made sure he wound it up with time for questions.  First blood was drawn by a thin, Chinese-looking man who asked, “Do you intend to continue the current strict policies concerning immigration?”

“Until the government is convinced that this land can bear the weight of the increased influx of population, yes.” This immediately created a roar of protest among his audience.

“Don’t you care what’s happening to people in Third World countries?” protested a young woman in a bright blouse and long skirt.

“We care.  The aid quotas last year were double those of the year before.”

She studied him intently as though he were a student of hers who had fallen into a trap question, but did not argue further.  That in itself made Simon wonder, but he had little time to ponder as more questions were fired.  There were a lot of women here, he thought, and they couldn’t all be what Rod Starward called his groupies.  At least three quarters of the audience.

Glancing over the rows of seats, his smile nearly froze in place as he recognised a certain cast of  features.  He stared at the elderly woman, sure he had to be mistaken, but she beamed fondly back at him.  Starward, over at the side of the studio, looked sharply from her to his friend and back again.

The presenter called for a last question and a dark hand waved energetically from the back row.  “Yes, the lady in yellow?”

The middle aged Koori woman’s energy became shyness as Simon’s smile focused on her.  “Yeah.  I wanted to ask you, since you’re gonna pay for it, are you sure you want that?”

The words echoed like a drum in his head.

“Want what?”  Simon made himself say, as though innocent of understanding.

“You people aren’t part of country like we are,”  the woman explained kindly, “but you made the land a promise now.  When things get bad, you have to pay back.  You sure you can handle that?”

Simon was silent so long that the presenter cleared his throat in warning. “I think so.  I’ll try.”

“Good.  That’s real good.” She sat down and the presenter tried to start some applause but it was uneasy and fitful.

Simon headed for the side exit, brushing past Starward with a murmured, “Let’s get out of here.”

Jia rose from her seat with a surprised exclamation;  he had not even seemed to see her, though they’d smiled briefly at one another when he went to the podium.  Irritated, she wove her way out past people to the aisle, where an old woman blocked her path.  “Excuse me!” The expected shuffle aside did not occur and Jia looked at her, wondering whether the old biddy was senile.  Her parents had taught her respect for the aged but there were limits.  “Excuse me, grandma!”

“Nice boy,”  the old woman told her, patting her arm.  Her accent was purest London Eastender.  “Bit of a pity and all, but it’s not like he wasn’t warned.”

Another woman shouldered along a row to reach the elder’s side, now fully blocking the way.  It was the stocky Koori woman in the bright yellow dress.  “He’s fine for now,” she said to Jia.  “We need to talk to you, girl.”

“Look, I can’t help you with anything.  I’m not even interested in politics.  I’m Simon’s girlfriend, okay?”

“That’s fine.”  The old woman patted her again as though she was a child being silly.  “Let’s go outside.”   Jia sighed and let them shepherd her out to the car park where Simon and his entourage had parked before the live speech, but there was now no sign of their vehicles.  Jia, expecting to ride back with him, had not brought her car and her annoyance began to rise.  When the Koori woman tapped her shoulder, she spun away with an exclamation and would have stalked off had the oldster not got in her face again.

“There’s proof coming, girl,” the Koori woman told her, patiently ignoring Jia’s reaction.  “White crops and white folks are gonna die, there’ll be bad trouble.  That trouble’s gonna sweep through all our people if he don’t stop it.  That boy needs to be part of the land.”

“Like the old kings,” her companion said, nodding as she spoke.  “Sacrificing themselves for the people.”

“What the f – on earth are you talking about?”  Their seriousness was beginning to scare Jia and she could not have said why.  Some vague shreds of memories, of reading old stories where people, usually in old Norse legends, let themselves be killed to appease gods.  “Come on, that doesn’t make sense.  When did anyone on the British throne ever really do anything for the good of their people?”

“That lot are sneaky,”  the old woman said darkly.  “They make sure someone else pays when it comes due, but you people haven’t learned to be that bloody underhanded.”

“Ha,” Jia said, indicating her face.  “Take a look and tell me what people you’re talking about?  The Chinese are the oldest civilisation on the god damned planet and you say we haven’t learned to be sneaky?”

Both of them chuckled indulgently at that and Jia had to fight an urge to crown them, one fist each.

“Your grandparents came in on one of them boats, up north of Western Australia?” the Koori woman asked and Jia nodded warily.  She refused to let herself be spooked.  It was a pretty easy guess, given her age and heritage, plus the fact that despite efforts, occasionally the news services did run bits and pieces of story about her. 

“That’s right.  They were Uighurs and spent five years on Manus Island after fleeing the last wave of persecution by the Bejiing Government.”

“So maybe they taught you enough to get by, girl, maybe they did,” the old Englishwoman took over.  “When you believe, we’ll teach you the rest.”

Simon stared over the field at what should have been a thriving wheat corp but more closely resembled a drought site.  The cause wasn’t lack of water – there’d been more favourable rain than usual this season – but he had been looking at scenes like this all over the wheatbelt, with most of the crop struck by a swift disease no one had seen before.  He turned away from the devastation and walked back past the farmers and his own minders.  The landowners were talking to him, demanding to know what the government intended to do, but all he could hear was the Koori woman telling him, “When things get bad, you have to pay back.”

He had been given the presidency.  A sweeping, thundering victory so complete it had scared Simon to his core.  Since his second inauguration, things had continued to go as smoothly as they ever did in politics until, three months later, the romance writer was no longer doing his scripts.

“I think it just hit the fan, lady,”  Simon murmured to his memory of her.

When he got back to the city, he called Jia but got no answer, so went wearily to bed.  His inner Canberra suburb was unusually quiet that evening.  Even the single mournful honk from a passing  vehicle didn’t wake him for more than a moment befor he settled back to sleep.

“Wake up, Simon.  I need to talk to you.”

“Jia?”  Simon’s befuddled mind tried to remember how to assemble words as his eyes registered Jia’s presence sitting on his bed, dressed in black and watching him intently.  “This isn’t a really good time, Jia.  I’ve been touring the wheat farms.  Only got home a couple of hours ago.  I think.”

“The wheat’s sick.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” He would have yawned but he wasn’t alert enough to do even that.  “Talk in the morning, okay?” He closed his eyes.

“Simon, I’m sorry, but we have to talk now.  I’m supposed to show you something.”

He opened his eyes again and sighed softly, not moving.  “This isn’t funny, Jia.”

“It’s not meant to be.  Do you remember the three women who spoke to you?”

“What three women?”

“The old woman from London, the child in the street and the Koori woman at your speech.”

“I suppose so.” He looked at her again, reading in her face that she wasn’t going to let him get back to sleep until he humoured her.  He reached for the glass of water he kept by his bed and solemnly dashed the contents into his face, blinking the drops out of his eyes.  “So why are you their advocate?”

“Because of my so-called privileged position with you,” Jia sighed.  “It sounded crazy to me too, night of your speech, but hear me out, all right?  For a start, as president you’re like the seasonal king.  Your life is bound together with the life of the land.””

She paused, studying him to judge the effect of this.  Simon struggled hard to wake up enough.

“So why didn’t anything like this happen to my predecessor – well, the last Prime Minister?”

“It might have, at least the warning, but he was never required to pay the price.  As a colony and then a dominion, Britain paid the price for those who came from there, if ever it was required.”

“Now wait one damned minute.”  Simon sat up, anger sharpening his sleepy thoughts.  “Every stupid war the ‘Mother Country” fought, we got into.  Remember those old broadcasts?  “Britain is now at war and as a result, Australia is also at war.” I’d call the Second World War one hell of a blood price.”

“It was,” Jia agreed quietly.  “The King refused to pay.”

Cool, clear words, drops falling into a night stream flowing beyond sight.  Did he have a fever, Simon wondered.  His had been the charmed life, always the one for whom there is plenty.  He moved over the doona to her, naked in the dark, brushed a hand on the silk of her blouse.

“Did those women tell you all this?” Simon murmured as though afraid he would be overheard.  “That every war or devastation Britain faced is because someone – some royal someone – refused to let himself be killed?  And then their colony, their dominion here, ran by the same rules?”

“They’ve been talking to me for months,” Jia said flatly.  “Everywhere I go, there’s one of them saying these things.  In my café, outside my place, anywhere I go.  The old woman, she taught me some things, so I could show you what she would have shown you if you’d listened to her.  Her name’s Pat, by the way.  She says sometimes dying would be worse.”

“What?” Simon demanded in exasperation.  “What’s worse?  You can’t stop there.”

Jia, still sitting crosslegged on his bed, held out her hand towards him, pointing at the bare wall opposite the window where a tracing of moonlight gleamed.  She seemed to focus, to draw herself in and aim at him in a way which made Simon extremely unsettled.  “God, I feel stupid,”  she murmured, trying to keep her hand steady as she aimed fingers at him like a spear.  She paused, then said a sequence of words in a tumbling, flowing sort of language which Simon recognised, just a little, as being one of the Aboriginal languages once spoken in this local area.

Before Jia’s outstretched hand formed the image of a deserted city.  It was not merely unoccupied, but destroyed.  A bitumen river ran through cliffs of concrete, metal and glass in huge, tumbling pieces.  Every sheet of glass lay in shattered ruin, crystal puddles beside the storefront frames which had contained them.  Cars, neatly parked to wait their owners’ return, had been gutted, doors removed and contents extracted in some thorough mechanical surgery.  Then the scene changed, showing an outward heading main road and then a shopping mall.  All deserted, all broken, rubbish blowing and rattling to provide the only music.  Clothing shops held only empty racks.  In bookshops the occasional survivor lay on the floor, pages rustling in the intruder wind.  Wherever the concrete and bitumen was broken up enough, trees had grown, thrusting their way up to form a new, living forest amid the skyscrapers.

“Where are the people?”  Simon asked, staring at the images on the white wall.  They glimmered and shivered as though reflected in a river.

“They’re inland, living where they can.  The surviving white civilisation and other migrants, that is.  The first nation people are where they’ve always been and they’ve reclaimed some of their country.  There’s a city in Alice Springs where both peoples live and a lot of wanderers.  No one lives on the coast, it’s too dangerous.  The cities are constantly bombed and the next invasion wave – they think China is directing it but no one is sure – will get through.  These things will happen/are happening.  Don’t ask me to make sense of it, that’s the way Pat and the others told it to me.”

“Why are people trying to invade if our crops are destroyed?”

“The crops problem is the beginning,” Jia said.  “That’s the start of everything else that that future holds.  It’s not just here, it’s other countries.  China and the other nations are desperate and they know things aren’t so bad here as they are at home, so they come.  So many of them come.”

Simon felt unnaturally cold as he watched.  He blinked and in that moment the images were gone, leaving only the white wall and the moonlight and the chill breeze blowing into the room.  He couldn’t remember whether he had been the one to leave the window open.  “I need some coffee,”  he mumbled, getting to his feet.

“Simon, wait…”

Simon pushed the bedroom door open and emerged into the hallway between bedroom and living room.  All the lights were on.  He heard voices in his kitchen and headed quickly that way.  The Koori woman in her yellow dress turned towards him, a jar of instant coffee in her hand, unable to stop a giggle as she beheld the country’s president fully revealed.  Embarrassed and wondering how he could have forgotten to get dressed,  Simon grabbed for a nearby teatowel.

Another chuckle to his right made Simon flip that way, glaring in frozen shock at a second female invader, sampling his science fiction bookshelves.  This one was also all too familiar, white-haired and now wearing a purple linen dress.

“Simon, I said wait.” That was Jia, a hand on his shoulder.

“Why yell at me?” Simon demanded, aggrieved.  “It’s my house and I don’t remember asking you or your friends to party.”

“Grandma?”

“Shit!” The President spun around, holding the towel close and colliding with Jia as he tried to evade the view of the twelve-year-old child who had walked around from behind the elderly woman.  The worst thing about the whole evening was that the child was giggling.

“This is Elysa,” Jia introduced the girl whom Simon had first seen by night in a school uniform, now earing jeans and a T-shirt with a drawing of a purple dragon on the front.  “Pat Monkman is her gran and this is Marie Louise Bennett.”

“We’ve met,” Simon said darkly.  Dressed and with a cup of hot coffee in his possession, he felt slightly better but not much.  A look at the digital clock informed him it was 12.10, so he’d managed maybe two hours sleep since getting home.

“Did you get far?” Marie Louise, the Koori woman, asked Jia as though Simon was not present.

“I’m not sure.  I was able to show him the memories to come.”

Marie Louise clicked her tongue and sighed, glancing inquiringly over at Pat.

“We hand down the knowledge, son,” Pat told Simon.  “My daughter should be here but she died three years ago.”   Her expression warned him not to distract her with sympathy.  “So Marie Louise has filled in.  Her country is here, so it’s suitable.  Clear so far?”

“No.”

“Three women of my line give the warning, whenever there is a new king,” Pat emphasised, sighing heavily.  “Crone, mother, maiden.  Got that?  Try not to be so obtuse, son.  I came a long way for this.  You were asked three times if you were prepared to pay and you said yes.  Or at least you didn’t say no.”

“Not exactly,” Simon protested.  “I didn’t know why any of you were saying that to me.”

“No defence,” Marie Louise said with relish.

Simon stared at them.  Women.  A lynch-mob of women, surrounding his career, wanting his blood.  An idea teased around the edge of his mind, hiding in the shadows, an idea so strange and so extreme that even he shrank from examining it.  He looked at Elysa, thinking her the least threatening of his audience but then the child smiled, abruptly a woman, with that same secret behind her eyes that was in her grandmother and Marie Louise.

“To stop the future I saw,”  Simon said slowly, “I have to do something to ensure that it can never be.”

“Good, boy, good,” Pat murmured.  “What else?”

“It means a reversal of everything I – we – have done since we took office,”  Simon said, dazed.  “If I do something that extreme, they’ll throw me out at the next election, or most likely not even wait until then.  We’re not America.  This place sheds its leaders like fleas.”

Marie Louise grinned broadly.  “No, “they” won’t.  Women make up more than half of the population, you know.   You can make sure they all support you and you know how to do that, if you think.”

“Give him space,”  Pat cautioned her.

“True equality,”  Simon said at last.  “That’s the only thing that will help, that’s what my gut says.  Equal pay, equal representation, the lot.  Do you have any idea of the resistance there’ll be against something like that?    This is crazy.  I should have done like Cabinet said and moved into the Lodge with security and all the rest of the song and bloody dance.”

“You’re a fool if you think there isn’t security around this house, no matter what you said,”  Pat told him.  “Not that any security could have stopped us.”

“Because that’s not creepy at all,”  Simon muttered.  “Maybe I am a fool.  But I have to decide.  If you use….magic….to make me do something, then you haven’t got a president, you’ve got a puppet.  I don’t want to see what you showed me, that future with the deserted city and the invaders and the devastation.  But if I do what you ask, you have to work with me.”

“Try and stop us,” the child Elysa cried.  It could have been a threat but Simon heard it for the promise it was.

‘Get some rest,”   Pat said to him, as though she really was his grandmother.  “We’ll be back in a few hours and then you need to go on a journey with us.”

Simon stood out in the wheat field in the chill spring morning, looking down at the limp, sickly plants where there should have been healthy green growth.  He still remembered when the weather had become warm enough to even think of growing wheat within a couple of hours of Canberra.  This new, tough variety had been developed to survive colder conditions than normal for wheat, but not so cold as had once been the norm.  And then had come the plague which was now destroying it.

The four women stood back at the road leading into this farm;   Pat, Marie Louise, Elysa and Jia.  He couldn’t begin to think how they’d explain if the farmer showed up.

 Patricia, in her role as crone, had told him that this was where it needed to begin, a small symbol of a great change.  “That’s all for now,” she’d said.  “Maybe later, things will change.  What it means is that you take responsibility.  You don’t set the weight on anyone else’s shoulders as a child does.”

“What about the leaders who come after me?”

“The land will let them know what they have to do.  And Elysa and her descendants and friends will give them a shove if they need it!”

He couldn’t put it off any more.  In a rush of tension, Simon brought the small pocketknife’s blade slicing into his thumb.  It hurt a lot more than the tiny cut looked like it should.  And a lot of blood.

“Let it flow till it stops,”  Marie Louise instructed him.  The wound looked like it didn’t want to stop, dripping steadily down off his thumb to fall on the wheat around him.  Did thumbs have arteries?  There was a sea roaring in his ears, confusing him, here in the heart of the country where no sea had flowed for hundreds of thousands of years.  The little red drips of blood became magnified before his eyes, like a roaring waterfall that smelled of life, flooding the soil.

All, the sound seemed to convey to him.  When needed, I may require all.

Everything paused around Simon, the circling wind, the rustling of the wheat, the sound of his own blood beating in his ears.  It wasn’t just him.  He could feel somehow the lives of all the people in the land, sleeping or waking, in the great cities and in the inland, in the country of the people there.

“All,” Simon said aloud, knowing it for consent, his throat so dry that the words rasped out.  “All.”

The dizziness passed and he breathed in carefully, almost able to tell himself he’d merely been affected by the sight and smell of his own blood and the unexpected intensity of the pain.  Almost.  Then Jia reached him, anxiously embracing him and he looked past her to find the others waiting, as they had promised they would.

This story originally appeared in Aurealis: Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction Issue 20/21.