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brought to you by SciFiQuest 2010: Odyssey Two

It did not take long for Jared to realise that Gemma's little sister was a natural with a pool cue. Gemma had apologised for having to drag her along, and had scolded her when she had pushed up to the table in the middle of Ben's shack, and asked if she could have a go.

But the boys quickly took a liking to little Alana, and humoured her by letting her take a few shots.

"Ok, remember I told you - keep ya fingers spread! - lean right down over, look down the cue - don't lunge, just move your elbow! Ok..."

The white ball clinked firmly, banging the blue stripe towards the corner pocket. The slight 15-year-old giggled.

"Ha, not quite. She's getting closer though - good effort, girl!"

"You sure you've never played this before? She's better than you, Gem!"

In the corner, Gemma snorted. Jared took his shot, and stepped back, looking for his drink. Ben was loving this; he'd apparently lost his younger sister when he was a kid, and although he couldn't remember her, Jared suspected he was living out a bit of fantasy. Good for him.

Ben had gotten hold of a keg of beer brewed by that old guy; what was his name now. He also supplied the local pub. Kellie reckoned that Taimana got a salvaged case of beer for himself off every convoy, but Jared didn't believe it. There was no way he could afford the travel costs for something like that.

At about 11 Ben's battery ran low, and the party broke up, walking, cycling and riding out into the hot January night, to their various dwellings in the small Australian town. Very soon, it was just Jared and Ben left to clean up.

"Hey, Jared mate, we've totally got to get that girl into Taimana's for the comp next week. Imagine pool hustling all those serious blokes with a 15-year-old girl!"

"Yeah, that'd be hilarious fun...and risky. I can imagine some guys getting pretty upset..."

"You could hook up the I.D though right?"

Jared sighed and stared out at the patio, looking at the clouds forming over the hills in the distance. Finally, he glanced back at Ben and grinned. He stood up to leave.

"Yeah, I'll talk to Dave...next Tuesday should be fun. Night mate."

"See ya!"


Out of the small group of former engineers and self-taught tinkerers in town, Dave was generally held to be the most competent. He'd been a senior engineer for Telstra or something back in the day, and had survived the collapse on his ability to build and repair radio gear. He currently earned his food by keeping open the communication lines that ran through town. It had taken the big men in the council a while to appreciate what he did, but he had eventually earned a fair bit of respect, so long as it was understood that he kept out of the way of politics and didn't offer advice unless asked.

Jared was handy with installing a solar panel or coaxing to life an ancient computer, even building a converter or I-V tracker, but he often had to come to Dave for help. He felt he had a bit of a rapport with the guy. So late the next day he walked out to Dave's cottage with Alana's I.D., and asked Dave if he could mod it to get into restricted premises.

Dave looked thoughtful for a moment, looking at his shoes and stroking his chin.

"Do you have any old I.D.s? Dead granny or something? You could just clone the RFID tag - you know how to do that don't you? Pretty sure teenage kids have been doing this since forever to get into bars"

"Not on me. I can definitely find a couple. I'd have to use your gear though"

"I'm thinking I want to try something new anyway...this is interesting timing."

Dave walked back to his desk and rummaged around. He pulled out a piece of paper scribbled over with twenty or so lines of hexadecimal.

"I had a very long conversation with a contact in Sydney the other day...among other things, he dictated this to me. It got leaked and has been floating around the black market. It's the private key the government uses to generate I.D. tags. Do you know how cryptography works?"

"Not really"

"Well, the RFID tag on an I.D. is scrambled, right? It looks like a meaningless sequence. But when you put it into the tag reader, a key like this one is, uh, combined with the signal to decrypt it. Then the reader can get the name, place of birth, age and so on."

Jared frowned. "So you can use an old tag reader to decode I.D. tags? You can make new ones?"

"No, not quite. It would be easy if it was like that. But the tag readers can only decrypt, not encrypt. It's a maths thing, I'll have to show you one day. There is one master private key the government uses to encrypt new I.D.s. That's what I have here. So what we can do, is decrypt this I.D. with the key from a reader, change the age field, re-encrypt it with this key here, and flash that on to the card. Indistinguishable from the real thing. It's a big more complicated than that, there's several different key pairs in use and some handshake protocol stuff. This key is older, but I know that the army hasn't gone through Taimana's in a while."


On Saturday, the convoy rolled into town. This always made Jared nervous - there were too many guns around. The council pulled together an escort, and with curt nod, unloading began as everyone nearby was sent to ferry stuff from various stockpiles. Food and water was traded for metal, natural gas, ethanol, various components, and ammunition. Dave had been called on hand to pick out needed electronics. The whole scene was watched over by several army men in dusty camouflage.

One item leaving the convoy was definitely unusual. Several Asian-looking people were piling out of a truck, with a meagre-looking set of belongings.

"What's this?"

One of the councilmen, a grizzled sneering man behind a shotgun, spurred his horse over and gestured, looking at one of the army men.

"Climies. You take 'em"

"What the FUCK"

The grizzled sneering managed to morph into a very dissatisfied face. The army man was unimpressed.

"This is where I was told to send 'em"

"We can't feed 'em. They're a drag on our community. You should shoot 'em the moment they set foot on the shore"

The army man darkened.

"You will not shoot them. You will find work for them and maybe, they will not be a drag on the community, and actually find a place in it."

Climies. Climate refugees. Jared shuddered at the thought of what they must have had to do to get all the way out here. Millions had landed onto the northern and western coasts of Australia...they just sunk the boats now, no questions asked. Even if you made it, you had to get across the desert to the inhabited bits. A lot of skeletons out there. That was a hell of a lot of bribes...Maybe they had brought oil. He wondered briefly what had happened to countries without major geographical isolation.

Ben had come out to help with the unloading, and shot Jared a meaningful glance. He nodded in reply. Ben's face split into a grin, and he went back to work.


When Tuesday night rolled around, Jared found himself walking down to Taimana's with an older, stocky Greek bloke who worked as a mechanic.

"Much work lately? Find any more salvageable stuff?"

"Yeah. Actually with the last convoy, we got even got some complete engines. Been a bitch to convert some of these trucks and generators to run on gas or ethanol...now we'll be able to pick the ones in the best condition and chuck these new engines straight in. Some bright sparks up in the city must be starting to re-tool some factories...it's nice to see new things again"

"Awesome. Be a while before we see that with computer parts though"

"That Dave guy seems to be able to knock up things"

"Yeah, well, PCBs and hacked-up discrete stuff, that's pretty easy to make, there's components everywhere. But the really complicated, high-performance network gear and processors - microchips - it's so hard to see them being made again anytime soon. They just didn't have the expertise in this country. No manufacturing capacity, it all came from overseas. They must've raided the all Intel and Alcatel-Lucent offices in Sydney and Melbourne...we would have known if anyone had found anything. People just scavenge shit out of the old switchboards."

"What we really need is power. Generators and solar gear..."

"Mmmm. You know, the government got their hands on as many solar panels and distributed grid equipment as they could, and shipped it everywhere just before things really went to hell. Probably saved the country."

Jared could see Alana coming down a side road.

"Hey, just wait a sec, this girl's with me"

She recognised him and ran the final twenty metres.

"Hi!"

"Hi Alana, this is Pap. Pap, Alana."

"Hello. I think I know your sister - Gemma, right?"

"Yeah! My sister knows a lot of boys"

At this, both Jared and Pap laughed.


They met Ben waiting outside Taimana's Bar. Pap's eyebrow raised as he realised they intended to take Alana inside.

"How're you getting her in? Not gunna fool anyone for a moment that she's 18..."

Ben laughed. "Magic!"

The gate itself was a little anticlimactic. The girl swiped the tampered-with I.D. and the turnstile click and let her through, just like with everyone else. Inside, they made for the battered snooker tables in the corner, where a small crowd was gathering for the weekly small-stakes comp.

Ben, who was a regular winner, threw down his I.D. card. "Who's up for an opener with me and my partner?"

"Well, we are" said a voice from the corner

The boys laughed. Jared looked; it was three of the climies who'd arrived on Saturday. Ben stared briefly, then looked around and cut back "All right!"

Alana stepped forward. There was another, bigger round of laughing, along with some whistles and jovial comments. Jared found a wall to lean on, next to one of the climies. He was dark fellow; probably Indonesian, with a quiet look. Younger than the others.

"Do you speak english?"

"Yes."

Clear enough then.

"I'm Jared. I'm a sparky, I do electrical work here and there."

"I am Sing. Please, does you friend always play with the young girl?"

"No. He brought her tonight for a bit of a joke. She's quite good though. He taught her."

"She is."

Alana took an easy shoot, a little wobbly, but she didn't miss. Ben had been making quick work of the table.

Sing whispered "but I do not think my brother will take it well if she beats him."

Jared nodded uneasily, and left to go and get a drink from the bar.


When he came back (seconds later, it seemed) the mood had soured considerably. Ben and Alana had won; quite fairly. Jared heard one of the other climies, presumably Sing's brother, exclaim "I did not think it serious, with the little girl...not part of the competition. I don't think we should be out"

Another man, a harvester, growled back. "You can't say that now. All the games tonight are part of the comp. Our pub, our table, our comp." He looked around, aiming for everyone's eyes. "Our town".

Sing's brother stepped forward, and the other climie stood up. "I have just as much a right to be here as you". There was a sliding of chairs.

"The hell you do -"

"WHAT THE FUCK is going on down here. Anyone being rowdy I'll chuck your bitchface out!" Taimana had emerged from behind the bar with heavy steps. From Pacific Islander ancestry, the predictably huge publican was his own bouncer. The grizzled councilman was with him, making that same face at the climies. Jared suspected he'd been waiting for this.

Taimana, for the first time, noticed Alana. He turned and looked straight at her. There was a pause.

"Just...I don't want to know about her. Get her the hell out of here now."

Behind him, Ben nodded furiously, and Jared mouthed 'Go'. The girl's nervous eyes wavered back, and she scrambled out of the bar, jumping through the turnstile and running into the scorching night. Behind her, the lights of Taimana's Bar began to flicker, and heat wafted off the cooling solar panels over every building in town.


Author's note: I'm too young to remember Mel Gibson in Mad Max, so my only inspiration for post-apocalyptic Australia is John Marsden's Tomorrow, When The War Began. This fictional town is probably in south-east New South Wales.

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