The Golden Circle

by Nial Thorne

Chapter 1: Fierce with the cruel

THIS STORY is the first under the overall title A Time of Change. It’s a bit strange. A few people will like it a lot, I hope, but others will be bored witless; my apologies to them. Warnings: there’s adult/teenager sex here, and some BDSM, although both are quite a long time coming. There’s quite a bit of violence in the background, too. There’s a lot of this written already, by the way. It could be a long ride...

A couple of things are worth saying. First: this is a fantasy. In our present society, there can’t be any excuse for sex between adults and children, even teenage children. And second: this is set in the future, when AIDS is a thing of the past; that doesn’t apply to us either.

Reading further constitutes an unambiguous gesture of assent to the statement: I am not a minor person, nor in the company of a minor person. The story is copyright © 2004 Nial Thorne. You may copy it for your own private use; all other rights reserved. Comments very welcome at

Have you ever heard someone scream? I don’t mean the yell you make when you hammer your thumb, or if someone jumps out and says ‘Boo’. Not the even the scream of someone in agony, or under attack. I mean the scream of someone in the uttermost extremity of terror and despair and grief; of someone who has reached the end. The scream of someone who is being dragged to the fire, to the noose, to the burial pit, who faces not just death, but torment. It’s not just noise: there are words in it, prayers maybe, pleas. They do no good. Those who hear them are without pity.

So many years ago, and that sound still lingers in the edges of my dreams. It’s that sound which has driven me forward throughout my life, through everything I’ve seen and done. It’s a sound which is bad enough when it’s a man, or a woman. It’s worse still, it’s the worst thing in the world, when it’s a child.

All that spring and summer of 2042 it went on. Not just the screams: the slogans, the hymns, the preaching. The light of the fires. The smoke. The shouts and prayers as someone thrashed on the end of the rope, or writhed in the flames, or as the stones thudded down onto them. Yes, the light of the fires, flickering on the skylights, as my brother and I lay holding each other in the back room where our uncle had hidden us, the fires and the smoke, and the screams. I was 13 and Neal was 11.

Our uncle Alan tried to shield us; but we could see and hear enough. It was always in the nights they did it. The Hand of God, they called themselves; they were a militia, the militia of the National Christan Reconstruction Fellowship. And they were going to cleanse our town, they said, rid it of peedos, homosexuals, witches, unmarried couples, Muslims, Jews, feminists, disrespectful children and anyone else they disliked, cleanse it with fire and noose and blade and stone. Torches and flares in the gardens, in Victoria Square where we lived, and hymns; and then the screams. Fear: constant, inescapable fear.

To us it seemed to be the end of everything, this, the final chapter of what we called The Problems, with a capital ‘P’; the final chapter of the dissolution that had started five years before. I was always interested in political events and current affairs, and although I was only eight when the War started, I remember it well enough, and from that moment things had got worse and worse, with the destruction of the Middle Eastern oilfields, and the economic chaos which followed, the world-wide slump, the collapse of the dollar, the euro and the yen, the end of the Internet and the international financial system.

It took three years; by the time I was twelve, the social order was beginning to fracture. And there were the things that seemed to affect our country more than most: the rise in religious fundamentalisms of all kinds, their political parties and their armed militias, the Muhajiroun, the Army of the Lord and their splinters and splinters of splinters, of which the Hand of God was one, spiralling out into madness. And the other extremists: fascists, communists, libertarians, anarchists, regional groups; others you couldn’t really describe. Mobs of racists and bigots, whole areas of the cities in flames, areas which were inhabited by Indians, Pakistanis, Blacks, Bangladeshis, Irish, Jews; murders and pogroms of every kind of minority, gay men and lesbians, paedophiles, drug users, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Chinese, the Salvation Army, Greens, feminists, their homes and shops and centres burnt, their bodies hanging from lampposts and trees, burnt in the parks, impaled, torn limb from limb. In the Name of Jesus! Allahu Akbar! White Power! Taxation is Theft! Down with the State! KILL!

Things got worse and worse. The police gave up, or simply joined one or other of the militia groups. The schools stopped working; so did the hospitals, transport, the phones. The electricity and water supplies became sporadic, the TV and radio as well. There were shortages of everything. Money became valueless. Shops and public buildings were looted and sacked. Packs of wild, uncontrolled children and teenagers roamed the streets, hunting for food. Women avoided going out. So did my uncle, if he had to take us: a man alone with two kids looked too much like a peedo for comfort. In the end he invited his sister, our Aunt Judy, to stay with us. She lived alone, and was happy to come. Safety in numbers.

And the politicians were no use, of course, divided and weak, with nearly twenty parties in Parliament, many of them openly controlled by the militias. During that year, the Government fell six times. Four times it was patched together; once there was an election, which simply added to the disorder. The last time, shooting broke out in Parliament itself, and many of the outgoing ministers were killed. After that, they seemed to give up, mostly. The King appointed a Government, but pretty much nobody took any notice. Small local Committees, mostly controlled by one or other of the militias, took over. Local currencies and barter replaced the euro. And heaven help you if you lived in the wrong area. In our case, after prolonged and vicious fighting, Chedley was taken over by the NCRF and the Hand of God in April 2042.

This was the start of the slaughter in the Square, for our town the worst time of all. None of us went outside more than we could avoid. We had vegetables from our back garden, including potatoes; we had a store of canned food. The water still ran occasionally. The windows on the front of the house were left shuttered. We kept our heads down.

Neal had started by regarding all this as an adventure, and an excuse to skip school. He was a rangy child, well-muscled and bold, with fair hair and blue eyes; a perfect Aryan, my dark-haired Uncle Alan joked. We were a close pair of brothers. I had always protected him as well as I could. He seemed to me like a joyful spirit, passing extravagently and wildly through life, and I loved him. But as the weeks and months passed his eyes became deep and dark, haunted by the things we had seen. I feared for him.

For my part, I took after my uncle: I was dark, but slender and small for my age. Unlike Neal, I continued to follow political events with as much care as I could.

Uncle Alan was a doctor, and thirty-five at the time, my father’s younger brother, and he had looked after us since the day our parents had been killed in a car crash in February 2041. His profession had protected him from conscription. His sister, my aunt Judy, gave us something we had lacked since then: hugs and kisses. I remember when we first came to stay with Uncle Alan, I had wanted him to hug us, just once, as we wept out our grief, but he always refused. It was, he said, something which a man simply couldn’t risk these days; and I noticed it made him sad. Aunt Judy was profligate with hugs, and we loved it.

When they hanged Mr Burnley from across the square as a peedo, they burnt his two girls, and that for us was the worse day of all, because we had known them. The next day I got my uncle alone.

“Don’t let them burn Neal and me,” I said.

“Believe me, Jack, I’ll do all I can.”

“If it comes to it, give us something instead.”

“Oh, dear lad, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“Promise me,” I said, and I meant it.

We looked at each other for a moment.

“I promise,” he said. “If there’s no chance. But in return, Jack, promise you won’t give up hope.”

I wept a little. It seemed to me that our lives were coming to an end.

Bleak memories, bleak and frightening. And yet, sometimes you have to be wise enough to remember, as people say now. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said, I was thirteen, and Neal was eleven. Our birthdays fall on the same day, in fact: September 29. It was three weeks before that, on September 8, a Monday, that it happened, the event which later we called The Change. We had woken early. Although there was no school, my uncle and aunt used to teach us what they could every day, and they insisted we should be up for this. In a way, we liked it, because it made life seem more normal. We always kept the TV turned on, so that when we had power we might catch any programmes that might be transmitted. It didn’t happen often, but that morning it did; upstairs, Neal and I perked up our ears at the sound from the kitchen below. Suddenly, Uncle Alan called up to us.

“Come down here, boys! The King’s going to speak! Could be important!”

“Oh, big hairy deal,” said Neal. But we hurried downstairs, wearing only our pyjama bottoms, just as the King’s face appeared on the screen.

“He looks tired, poor man,” said Aunt Judy.

“Hush,” said Uncle Alan; and the King began to speak.

And this is what he said. I got it off the Net much later.

Good morning. As everyone knows, for the last months, our country has been overwhelmed by a succession of problems. They have got worse and worse; thousands of lives have now been lost, industry is at a standstill, transport is coming to a stop, our schools and hospitals, our electricity and water supplies, even the distribution of food, all are collapsing. Again and again, assisted by many people of good will, I have attempted to bring together a Government that would address these problems, but on every occasion I have failed. Now we are faced with a total collapse of every aspect of society, if we do not take action at once.

For that reason, I have agreed to the suggestion of the General Staff that the Armed Forces should take control of the State. I do this with a heavy heart. But I am convinced that my duty to the people itself overrides any duty I may have to maintain a political system which has so manifestly failed.

I am your King. And I require you all now, whatever your own feelings may be, to cooperate with the Armed Forces in the maintenance of order and good government, so that the life of our people may be rebuilt. And in the quiet moments of the days that follow, let us pray for our people, and our country, and our leaders.

Now I step aside, for General Tom Baxter, Chair of the Central Council.

Then we caught our first glimpse of Baxter. As every one knows, he’s quite an ordinary-looking man: in his mid-fifties then, but fit and slim, with neat grey hair and a greying moustache. His eyes were brown and quite soft, and something about them told you that he was a man who smiled and laughed often, as we found out later was the case. He wasn’t smiling now. But the way he spoke was not what we expected.

So this is what it’s come to: a military coup in our country! Because that’s what this is, make no mistake. The King has said some good things, and I agree with them, and no one could doubt the devotion with which that man has tried to save the day. But I’m not afraid to tell you: if he had not been prepared to let us take over at once, we’d have taken over anyhow.

We don’t have any option, do we? Look out of your window, just look! If we don’t just stop tearing each other to pieces right now, it won’t be thousands dying: it’ll be millions. Everybody has tried to sort it out and nobody has succeeded. Now it’s our turn.

As military coups go, this won’t be a harsh one. There won’t be mass arrests and shootings, or wholesale banning of organisations or draconian censorship. But we are military people. If there’s unrest, or more riots and pogroms and killings, if our instructions are disobeyed, then we will strike, and strike as hard as we need. And some organisations and papers and TV channels will be banned, some people will be arrested: those who have called again and again for murder and death and terrorism and rebellion. I don’t much like it, and I don’t suppose you do either, but it’s just something we have to put up with.

We’re going to do our best. I expect we’ll make mistakes, and people will have a chance to point them out. But we expect, we claim, your support. This our last chance, people. If we blow it this time, our country will go down the tubes, and all of us with it.

I haven’t got time just now to say much more than this. Please stay indoors today. Troops will occupy important buildings and so on, you know the drill; keep your heads down. This evening I’ll make another statement and answer questions. See you later.

“My God,” said Uncle Alan, as the TV started to play the national anthem. “We’re a military dictatorship. It’s really happened.”

“Is that so bad?” I said. “Nothing could be worse than the way things are now.”

“It depends. Suppose these generals are all members of the NCRF? What then?”

“That man, Baxter, he sounded quite sensible.”

“Early days,” said Uncle Alan.

“I just hope...” started Aunt Judy.

And at that moment we heard it: military vehicles coming into Victoria Square. We heard the grinding noise as a tank crunched through the wall of the gardens, onto the lawn where the horrible burnings had taken place; and paused, its engine racing.

“Lie on the floor!” shouted my uncle.

We obeyed. My uncle and aunt put us both underneath them and held us down. The room we were in was in the front of the house, so even though the shutters were closed we could hear everything. For a while nothing happened. Then we heard it: the sound of the militia we had feared for months, chanting their slogan: BEWARE, BEWARE, THE HAND OF GOD. In my mind’s eye I could see them as I had so often before, clapping their hands rhythmically above their heads, on and on... After half an hour of this, there was a spatter of shots: instantly the tank replied with a burst of machine gun fire. There were screams and then silence.

And then, to start with quietly, and then loader and louder, an unexpected sound.

“I must look,” said Uncle Alan. “I can’t bear it. You stay back.”

He went to the front door and opened it, and of course we all followed him. We could see the tank, still in the gardens. Its hatch cover was flung back and a young officer was surveying the scene. A scattering of bodies in militia uniform lay sprawled on the ground, and a soldier was checking them one by one. And all round the square, people were standing at their doors in the autumn sunlight, and cheering.

Something made me keep silent; my uncle and aunt the same. Neal gave a cheer, but Uncle Alan quelled him with a look. We stood and gazed.

“Not cheering?” said another young officer, passing the house. “Were they friends of yours?”

“No,” said Uncle Alan. “I’m glad to see them gone. But someone’s death—well, it may be necessary, but it’s not much of a cause for celebration.”

The officer smiled.

“I hear you. Can I have your name, sir?”

“You going to arrest me?”

“Good God, no. But before long we’ll be looking for a local council, and maybe you’ll be a possible.”

“I’ll need to know a lot more about your bosses before I do anything like that.”

“Fair enough. It won’t be for a couple of months—but we were told to collect names of possibles.”

“I’m Alan Marchmont. I’m a doctor. This is Judy, and these are Jack and Neal. And you are?”

“Captain Ewan Hart. I’m the adjutant to the guy who’s in charge of Chedley for the moment.”

I was impressed, and, I think, so was my uncle. Nonetheless, we stayed at home that day, although we opened the front shutters for the first time in months and the sunlight into our house. I couldn’t help feeling optimistic.

Around five o’clock, Captain Hart reappeared, driving his own jeep, and invited himself to a cup of tea—he provided the tea, which was just as well, because we had none.

“Well, Dr Marchmont, what do you think of it so far?”

Uncle Alan laughed shortly.

“It’s been less than a day. Give me a chance.”

“Sure—provided you give us a chance. I wanted to talk to you about the medical services in the town. What’s the situation?”

“My practice is based in this house,” said Uncle Alan. “I had a colleague, Vincent Pike, but he is—is dead. I’ve had almost no patients for months—people are too scared to come out. There are five other practices with a total of twenty-three other doctors, but at least three of them are dead. Then there’s the cottage hospital, which we used to run together, with six nurses. One of them is dead. Burnt as a witch...”

“Oh, dear God. And your colleague? What happened to him?”

“Also burnt. As a peedo, simply because he was a widower and lived by himself.”

“I’m so sorry. I suppose as a married man you were immune.”

“I’m not married—Judy is my sister. Jack and Neal are my nephews—their parents died in a car crash. I can tell you, Captain Hart, we’ve been keeping a very low profile. In cases like ours, you know, they sometimes burnt the children too.”

For a moment, Captain Hart stared at my father. I could see he was shocked into silence. He was a good-looking man, blond, with an open, expressive face, and looking at him gave me a familiar feeling, a feeling I had tried to suppress over the last year; but his eyes, and his uniform, and the shape of his mouth, left me helpless.

“Unbelievable,” he whispered finally.

“A neighbour was burned because he congratulated someone on their ‘fine-looking son’.”

“Ridiculous, as well as horrible,” said Captain Hart. “You have fine-looking nephews, and I can’t see the harm in saying so. Irrational nonsense. A person should be able to enjoy things that are fine-looking, no matter who or what they are.”

His words made me shiver. He thought we were fine-looking? No one had ever said anything like that before about me. I found myself blushing; to my surprise, he winked at me. I was covered in confusion.

“I agree with you, of course,” said Uncle Alan. “Denholm Cutts, however, did not.”

“We’ve arrested him.”

“I can’t say I’m sorry. He burnt Vincent, and he’s responsible for the deaths of all those people.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw it, with my own eyes. It happened right out there in the gardens. Just where your tank is parked.”

“Would you testify?”

“Like a shot, Captain. Like a shot.”

“So would I,” said Aunt Judy.

My uncle’s face was hard. I remembered Dr Pike, and I understood. Captain Hart gripped my uncle’s forearm.

“I want to get the medical services started again,” he said, after a pause. “What do you need?”

“The people,” said Uncle Alan. “The doctors and nurses at the cottage hospital. There won’t be much in the way of drugs to start with, but at least we’ll be there. Drugs as soon as we can. Cleaning services. Waste disposal. Electricity—all these things we can add as we go along. But to start with: people, and water.”

“I hope you’ll have the people. We have a plan for the water, and that’s already under way.” He looked at his watch. “Baxter will be on the box in a moment—shall we watch?”

Uncle Alan turned the TV on. I cuddled up to Aunt Judy, with Neal on her other side. This time there was no national anthem or fanfare, just Baxter behind a small studio desk, and on his right a longer table with a number of people. Baxter was chatting to one of them as the camera came on, and turned towards us: a caption said Gen Tom Baxter, Chief Executive. Once again, I got his speech off the Net much later.

Good evening. Well, we’ve moved out over the whole country, with the exception of certain areas in the North of Scotland and the West Country. In a number of places we have had to deal with resistance, the worst being in Manchester, where a heavy attack from a coalition of militia groups was only stopped after a serious battle in which over a hundred people died.

Let me make it plain again: we don’t want stuff like that, but we’re professional soldiers and we can do it if we have to. We have our mission, and we will carry it out. There will be peace and order in this country. The militias can have it the hard way, or the easy way. If they think they can stand against battle-hardened professional troops, they are pathetically mistaken.

Enough of that. We now control the country; let’s move on. We are now establishing a Provisional Administration. For the present, it consists of a Central Council, which has full executive, legislative and judicial powers. Later we shall develop from that. The members are in they studio with me. Let me introduce them.

Dr Marietta Borley, health services...
Max Margrave, education and children...
Admiral Sir Kenneth Parrot, security...
Air Marshall Jackson Peat, transport and services...
Dr Joanne Banks, economy...
Prof Lakshmi Anderson, science and technology...
Hilda Perkins, KC, justice...
Brigadier Karen Townsend, housing and reconstruction...
Dr Rajan Patel, foreign affairs...
George Padmore, constitution and society...

...and myself, as Chief Executive.”

“Wow,” I said.

“You know their names?” asked Captain Hart.

“Most of the civilians. They’re all members of the Rationalist Party. Padmore’s their leader.”

“Yup,” said Uncle Alan. “Now we know where this Government is coming from. Interesting times.”

As we were talking, the camera moved in on Padmore. I had heard of him and his party, although I had very little idea what they stood for. His book, The Rational State, was quite well known. I had a copy and I’d read it, although quite a lot of it was a bit hard to understand, and I wasn’t really sure what it would mean in practice. He was a small man, black, balding and with spectacles, and as he looked at the camera, you got the impression of enormous energy and excitement.

Well, we have control of the state. What are we going to do with it?

You’ll expect me to announce that in a few years, the old system or something like it will be reestablished. Not so. We believe that the right to vote has to be earned. If you wish to vote, you must demonstrate that you are literate, that you understand our political system and that you have good general knowledge of history, economics, statistics and science, and a good ethical grounding. People who wish to be elected to high office will have to undertake a serious course of study first. We have had enough of idiots voting and vapid people in the councils of state.

Every citizen will receive as a right a basic wage from the State. It will be enough to live on, but only in poverty. If you wish to live on that, you may without any sanction; there will be no other benefits, and the entire benefit system will be scrapped.

The Government accepts and prefers the free market and free enterprise, so long as they work. When they fail, state enterprise is quite acceptable.

The only tax will be a graduated income tax. Taxes on consumption are unjust and pernicious.

The protection and education of children and young people are a primary duty of the State and of all citizens. Children and teenagers can expect care, love, total protection and relentless control. Adults who harm children will be punished without mercy. All children will attend State education. Education will no longer include a religious element, nor will it be entrusted to religious groupings.

Useless restrictions of all kinds on people’s freedoms of action, and interferences in their private lives, will be removed. For example, prohibitions on drug use will abandoned. The regulation of marriage will cease to be a concern of the State; people may order their own relationships by contract, following the guidance of their own religious precepts if they wish.

Discrimination in economic or political life against people on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or sexuality, or for any other stupid reason, will be prohibited. So will advocating such nonsense in print or over the air. This is a restriction on people’s freedom, we admit it, but our country has just torn itself to shreds over such stuff, and thousands of people have been killed. No more.

There’s a lot more that I could say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Back to Tom.

“Wow,” I said again. “That’s completely wild!”

“Hush,” said Uncle Alan. “Let’s hear Baxter again.”

Okay, said Baxter, taking the stage again. It’s going to take a while to get from here to there, but that’s where we’re going. Now, to start with, here are some orders. We expect them to be carried out. Complain if you like, write to the papers if you like—but do it, okay? Here we go.

Our first task is to get children back to school. Everyone must take their kids to school tomorrow. I don’t care if there’s no transport, I don’t care if the school’s been burnt or it’s a shambles or the teachers are dead or absent—we can’t do anything if the kids aren’t there. Take your kids to the last school they attended. No exceptions; this applies to every child between five and sixteen, unless they’re seriously ill. Teachers and school staff: be there.

Kids must arrive at school not wearing any clothes or badges or whatnot which identify them with any political party, any religion or any militia group. If they have any of these, they will be removed. I mean this. Think about it. If you can look at your kid and say: I can see he’s a Muslim, or a Christian, or a supporter of the Lord’s Army or of the Muhajiroun or whatever, then he’s breaking this rule. We will take steps. I expect trouble about this tomorrow, but it will be ruthlessly crushed if it happens.

When you arrive there, if there are things to do, do them. In the new state, actions are more important than bureaucracy. If something needs to be done, do it. People who stand back when something needs to be done are shirkers. Do that too much, if it’s to do with your kids, and we’ll find someone else to look after them.

The day after tomorrow, you must go back to work. Same thing: I don’t care if it’s a mess and a shambles: go there, start to sort things out. Don’t quibble about pay; we can sort that out later. Doing your job means that people can eat and go to hospital and school. Sitting on your arse at home in these days is shirking.

Okay, we have some journalists here—I expect they’d like to ask a few questions.

“I’d like to ask some questions if I was there,” I said. “Relentless control! I wonder what that means?”

“Maybe someone will ask,” said my aunt. “Hush!”

“General, are you aware that all the civilian members of the Council are members of the Rationalist Party? Aren’t you concerned that this could expose you to charges of political bias?”

“We’re all Rationalists, including the military,” said Baxter. “So yes, we’re biased. We aren’t ashamed of that at all. This will be a Rationalist Government.”

“Have you read George Padmore’s book, General?”

“Yes, indeed. I expect lots of people will now, and I recommend that they do. You should get a few quid royalties, George!”

“Unfortunately they belong to Aston University, Tom. Damn!”

“Aren’t you concerned that the Rationalists favour paedophilia? And that many of them are in fact peedos themselves?”

“None of the people I introduced is a paedophile, as it happens.”

“But they say that sex between adults and children should be allowed, don’t they?”

“Within certain boundaries, yes. But I’ll remind you of what George said: Adults who harm children will be punished without mercy.”

“Isn’t that contradictory?”

“We don’t think so. Max will talk about this tomorrow. Okay, people, that’s it. Curfew tonight, nine o’clock. Let’s get to work. I’ll be back tomorrow, same place, same time.”

The screen faded to what we would soon learn to recognise as the symbol of the Council: a golden ring rotating against a green background.

“You’re a bright lad, Jack,” said the captain.

“They’re both bright lads,” said Uncle Alan. “Jack’s always been interested in politics and history, though. Neal’s more science and maths.”

“We’ve been trying to keep their schooling going,” said Aunt Judy. “But there are some things we can’t teach, of course, and it’s been very frustrating for them, not going out and no TV.”

“I think we’ll both go round to Chedley High tomorrow, shall we?” said Uncle Alan. “Give the boys some moral support.”

“You needn’t if there’s medical stuff you can get going,” said the captain.

“Mm. Actually, Tim Kingsway’s girl goes there, he’s a GP, his practice is over Borton way. We could both go along and give the kids a quick once over, maybe, see if there are any obvious problems...”

“Great idea,” said the captain. “I’ll make sure there’s a room available for the two of you. Could you turn up a bit early?

“Okay,” said Uncle Alan. He smiled. “I’m looking forward to it.”

The captain clapped his arm and tousled our hair—something no one had done to us for years—and I caught his wink again; it made my heart jump. Then he wished us good night, and was gone.

As we lay in bed that night in the room we shared, we could feel clearly that things were changing. For the first time for many months, the night was quiet, apart from the sound of an occasional vehicle.

To my surprise, Neal was keen on the idea of going back to school. So was I. After the last few months of tedium by day and horror by night we were hungry for normality, and desperate to start doing things.

“I wonder if Pete’s okay,” he said.

“Yeah. And Dezzy, and Ron. And lots of other people.”

“Captain Hart was nice.”


“He was looking at you,” he said. “Maybe he’s a peedo.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

All the same, I did wonder, because he had been looking at me, and I’d been looking at him, too. I’d been aware of my attraction for boys and men for months, but I’d suppressed it rigorously. During The Problems this was a deadly urgent matter. Daily I looked out of the window to see the ashes of people burnt right in front of our house, for the crime of being just possibly gay, just possibly a lover of boys or girls. I had schooled myself to avoid thinking of these things.

“What does it matter if he is?” said Neal. “You heard what General Thing said. It’s going to be different now.”

“What do you mean?”

“The crazies, they’re finished. So you won’t have to be so careful, will you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t think I don’t know, do you?” said Neal. “I know about you.”

“What—what do you mean?” I said, completely terrified.

“Don’t worry, I’ve never told anyone. But I know. That’s why I was so pleased at what the General said. I’ve—I’ve been scared for you...”

For a moment I didn’t know what to say.

“You could have had me killed,” I whispered.

“I know. That’s why I never said anything to anyone. You’re my brother, Jack, I’d never hurt you! But now it’ll be different, because they don’t care about that stuff, the new Government, that’s what the General said....”

“Yeah, that’s what he said, but still... You can’t tell, can you? Don’t...”

“‘Sokay, I’m not stupid. But all the same...”

I could hear the smile in his voice, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

“Neal? I reckon, nobody’s got a nicer brother than you.”

“You’re pretty good too.”

Finally, our tiredness overcame our excitement, and we drifted off to sleep.