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Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 1 Second National Republican Short Story Competition Awarded ‘Highly Commended’ 6 November 2010 Inauguration Day By Sean Oliver Ness The theme for the Second National Republican Short Story Competition was 'Life and Death in an Australian Republic'. Australia’s fiction writers were challenged to speculate on possible Australian republican futures. Sean Oliver Ness was born in North Queensland but his family moved to Hong Kong when he was young. He lived there until he was 12 returning to Brisbane and later study in Psychology and Information Technology at university. He works in the public service in Canberra. His interests include travelling, participating in Volunteer Emergency Services, following politics and, of course, reading and writing a lot. James Hapeta’s fifth cigarette fell to his feet. He crushed the butt with a polished shoe and glanced at his watch. 11:03 Fifteen minutes overdue. No word yet. It was hot. Clear skies and January humidity turned the air into a sauna; beads of sweat ran down Hapeta’s neck and irritated his skin. His black suit and tie felt suffocating, more appropriate as Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 2 funeral attire than operational gear. Even his shoe polish mercilessly reflected the sunlight back into his face. Three other men were on the sidewalk, suits and shoes just as slick as Hapeta’s, leaning against the black four-wheel drive beside them and talking quietly between themselves. Hapeta tried to look calm for his men, but could not. 11:05 11:07 He lit another cigarette. As if on cue, his radio earpiece crackled to life. “Escort Two, this is Command.” The cigarette fell out of his mouth and hit the pavement, spilling tobacco. Hapeta cupped a hand over his earpiece and mic. “Command, Escort Two, go ahead.” ”We’re coming out. Tell all units to assume motorcade formation.” Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 3 “Roger, wilco.” Hapeta’s jangled nerves were momentarily calmed by the need to work. His men had stopped talking and were looking at him expectantly. “You heard the order. In the vehicle; all weapons locked and loaded; we move shortly,” Hapeta commanded. The doors were pulled open and the black suits disappeared behind the tinted windows. Hapeta cupped his mic again and spoke, “Escort Three; Escort Four; all Airborne Units; this is Escort Two; move to our position immediately and prepare to go.” A half-dozen acknowledgements talked over each other through his earpiece. Hapeta waited on the sidewalk, surveying the empty street. Thirty seconds later, a jet-black limousine turned the corner, followed by a four wheel drive and a large black van. They were just in time; the glass doors behind Hapeta opened, spewing out a burst of air-conditioning that gave him goose bumps. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 4 Emerging from the doors was a group of five men with suits, all walking in a tight box around a silver-haired man in a light grey suit and a woman beside him in an emerald dress. Hapeta’s stomach turned into ice. The President of the Republic of Australia, and his wife, walking underneath the bright red sign over the doorway that declared HOTEL EXCHEQUER … … took Hapeta back for a moment, fifteen years ago, when he was working as a shopping mall security guard, wondering what to do with his life, until he saw a crowd gathered around the television in a shop window, and he looked and saw a tall man on the TV wearing a cheap-looking suit shake hands with a much shorter, grey-haired man, on the doorstep of the HOTEL EXCHEQUER. The tall man had then walked away from the hotel entrance, wearing such a beatific smile, and spoke to the gaggle of reporters and cameras. “To the people of Australia … today, over lunch at this very hotel, the Governor-General, on behalf of the British Monarchy, signed over all his authority to me. This concludes six months of Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 5 negotiations since the referendum, and as your new Head of State, I shall ensure …” The cheers and cries from the crowd around the TV had almost drowned out the rest of the speech. Hapeta had no interest in politics – was not even registered to vote – yet in that moment realised that the old man on the TV in the cheap suit had gone for lunch one day and end up with a brand new country to run. If that was possible, why couldn’t James Hapeta do anything he wanted? Within six months of that day, he quit security and his application for the Australian Federal Police had been accepted. And that same view, of the front of the Exchequer … … the President and his wife walked over to the sleek limousine, escorted closely by one particular bodyguard – short and thick, bald and fierce-looking. After the Presidential couple were inside, the man closed their door and approached Hapeta. “Commander Griggs,” Hapeta said, “What’s the situation? Is he going to cancel the …” Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 6 Griggs interrupted. “The motorcade is going ahead. Same route – Ainslie, Antill, Northbourne. Keep your men alert and the formation tight. We get to Parliament in thirty minutes, no less.” Hapeta choked down a horrified gasp. “But sir, surely with a threat this credible … I know how much the parade means to the President, but …” “You have your orders, Lieutenant. The President says we continue, so we do.” “But the investigation …” Hapeta stopped as Griggs face went red. “I am sure your AFP colleagues take their jobs very seriously, Lieutenant, however, my colleagues and I understand that we obey the President, not dictate to him. Understand?” Hapeta said nothing. “Your car stays ten metres behind the limo at all times.” Hapeta nodded. Griggs stormed over to the limo to take his place with the President, while Hapeta entered the passenger seat of his Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 7 vehicle. The air-conditioning was a relief, but did not make him feel much better. Hapeta would have found Griggs an off-putting commander at the best of times; that fact that Hapeta was AFP and Griggs was Australian Federal Security Service made it that much more difficult. Inter-agency bickering since the founding of the AFSS made all joint operations stressful. Hapeta wished his bosses would just let the AFSS handle all Presidential security; he’d rather be neck-deep in drug wars and Bikie murders than deal with all this. Forget it, Hapeta thought. Focus on the job. Ten seconds later, half a dozen engines rumbled to life. The motorcade was on the move. Hapeta took one last glance at the entrance to the Exchequer; then they were off. * * * The interior of the car remained silent. Fear bored through Hapeta’s stomach like an angry worm, churning his insides. The other men sensed their superior’s discomfort and said nothing, and the atmosphere became more oppressive than the humidity outside. To focus his mind, Hapeta went through the facts. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 8 The motorcade: The Presidential limousine; armoured, hardened, bullet-proofed. The limo was followed closely by two four-wheel drives, also hardened, each loaded with four highly-trained AFP men, including Harpeta. A large black van following, containing six SAS operatives, armed to the teeth; heavy firepower, if it was needed. Another four-wheel drive watching the rear. A State Police car two hundred metres ahead of the motorcade, making sure the route was clear. Four choppers at high altitude overhead; two surveillance birds, two with SAS counter-snipers on board. Over two dozen personnel, plus two hundred State Police along the route. Hapeta tried to reassure himself. It didn’t work. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 9 “All cars, this is Commander Griggs: surveillance choppers report light crowds in the suburbs up ahead. Keep an eye out.” The line of cars rolled in a tight formation over the four-lane Ainslie roadway. There was no other traffic – every entry and exit was blocked off with wooden barricades, traffic cones and State Police vehicles. The road went through a leafy suburb, all two-storey houses with gates and tall fences. Families stood on the sidewalks outside their homes; dads supported little ones on their shoulders, mothers pointed the limo out to toddlers; cameras flashed and people clapped. Some held cardboard signs with bond felt-pen lettering: YOU HAVE OUR SUPPORT AUSTRALIA FIRST! WE LOVE OUR PRESIDENT Everyone was happy. Of course, this was the easy side of town. This was the base that had never been satisfied with a President who was just a ceremonial chief backed by a two-thirds majority; they wanted a man who they could relate to, who could wield great authority and most Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 10 importantly, who they could vote for directly. These were the people who had carried the Presidential Powers Referendum over the finish line last year and given the country a real Head of State. In other words, Hapeta thought glumly, these people were the source of all his recent professional headaches. They slowed down ever so slightly, and from his place behind the President’s vehicle, Hapeta saw the limo’s window roll down and a thin hand stretch out and wave. Families cheered. Right at the end of the block, right before the houses started to get smaller, was an elderly couple: grey hair, plain clothes, a stiffness that stood out from all the happy families. The lady held a poster- size portrait of the Queen; the gentleman held a sign that said “THE SECOND RUM REBELLION IS HERE – GOD SAVE US ALL!” Hapeta felt a chill run through him. One of the men in the back seat spoke. “Look old enough to remember the first Rum Rebellion.” Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 11 Snorts and giggles. Even Hapeta smiled. As he did, a few kilos seemed to fall off his shoulders. In the early days, monarchists took the Rum Rebellion analogy and ran with it; in response, they were uniformly nicknamed Billy Blighs, or just Billies. The big houses faded as they turned a sharp corner onto Antill. On the left, they passed schools and public swimming pools and clusters of shops; on the right, rows of small homes and low-rise apartment blocks. State Policemen were on either side of the street, controlling the crowds. As the motorcade swept down the street, the low murmurs turned into a loud cheer that echoed off the apartment blocks. Streamers were tossed into the air, and confetti rained down like pink snowflakes. Hapeta’s heart sank. “Bloody hell,” he said aloud, “Why aren’t there any barricades? Didn’t the Staties say there would be?” The driver shook his head. “And half the police are looking inwards – at the motorcade – instead of at the crowd! Useless.” Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 12 Lazy or clumsy? Hapeta wondered. Ever since achieving Statehood, city authorities never seemed to miss a chance to stuff something up. Griggs’ less-than-reassuring voice crackled. “All units, this is Command: crowds are heavy. Airborne units, watch rooftops; ground units, the crowd. Situation is less than ideal, so stay focused.” The other men snorted at Griggs’ euphemistic language. Hapeta said, “Enough clowning – stay sharp.” Hapeta’s gaze jumped from person to person, taking in faces, hands, things they were holding, clothes they were wearing. The glimpses he caught here and there were all filtered down to their most essential components. A group of tanned men with fluoro vests; probably builders, here on their break. A man in yellow shorts, holding a child up on his shoulders. Big smiles. Tall blonde woman, water in one hand, coat in the other. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 13 Coat? In this heat? Hapeta’s focus went from wide-ranging to razor-sharp, watching Blondie. The coat looked too large for this girl; the way she stood casually next to the State, who seemed distracted by her; it seemed so wrong … Blondie was coming up fast; should he sound the alarm? Should he tell Griggs? Should he contact the State Police unit and get them to pull her out of the crowd? Should he … Hapeta just watched. Just wait, just wait … The limo up ahead, with the windows down and the President’s hand waving, came within twenty metres of Blondie. Ten. Five. Hapeta’s hand went to his holster. Blondie went past. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 14 Nothing. Hapeta sighed. But he did not relax. No time. People kept aiming cameras straight at the limo; lenses kept flashing; the parade was a chaotic blur of balloons and waving hands. Hapeta went back to focusing on the most important details as best he could. Hats held in hands. Flags tucked under arms. People that looked too grim. Clenched fists. Unpleasant smirks. Faces, clothes and bulges all blended together. It was almost a relief when Griggs announced, “All units, Command: regular crowds thinning out until Northbourne; demonstrators Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 15 ahead – some students, some Billies – coming up on both sides. Medium-risk groups; watch carefully.” In the parking lot of a Housing Commission apartment block, young people had a series of banners held up with wooden poles. Lined up, the banners formed one lengthy sentence: WE GAVE THE PRESIDENT POWER, NOW GIVE HIM RESPONSIBILITY – BILL OF RIGHTS FOR AUSTRALIA The words were surrounded by students, all jeering and waving theirs hands angrily. They were a riotous splash of colours: neo- rockers, flower children, sharp young hipsters, Bikie wannabes. This was the most organised student protest Hapeta had witnessed: all the cliques sitting under the one banner. On the opposite side of the road were another group of protestors, this crowd much older and greyer and waving less-impressive banners declaring ‘AUSTRALIA IS A ROGUE STATE”; “PRESIDENTIAL POWERS ACT = NAZI POWERS”; “COMMONWEALTH NOT DICTATORSHIP”. The Staties had botched a lot, but at least kept up their promise to separate the leftie protestors from the Monarchists. The two sides Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 16 had sparred on more than one occasion on campuses and main streets all over Australia. The Billies generally did not worry Hapeta. They were old news, quirky but harmless. The smart ones had refashioned themselves as a reformist party and ran for office; the rest were reduced to waving signs in protest of an issue that had effectively died fifteen years ago. On a normal day, they could be ignored. Today was not a normal day. Because today Hapeta kept thinking about the photos that colleagues from the Political Extremism unit had sent him: photos of the apartment the AFP had raided yesterday in Sydney, based on a tip received as part of a five-month investigation into Presidential death threats after the passing of the Presidential Powers Referendum. Photos of walls lined with street maps of the motorcade route, entrances and exits marked out, along with technical schematics on the exact model of limousine the President used. Plans for something big and dangerous, all mixed in with Monarchist pamphlets and ultra-conservative literature. All this taken from an Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 17 apartment that was rented under a false name, with no known photo of the resident. Seeing and knowing all that, Hapeta found himself wishing they could throw everyone who even looked remotely suspicious into prison. Or at least cancel this bloody parade. But they could not, because the President was a man of the future, trying to “brush away the cobwebs of the old system forever,” as he put it. This was Australia’s third elected President, but the first directly elected, and he had big plans to match his increased powers: massive infrastructure projects, foreign military interventions, overhauling federal taxes. But he had the charisma and commonsense to pull it off. While his colleagues debated complicated resource management policies in house, the President flew out to rural communities and pitched his views to the man in the street, face-to-face. While the previous Government cried about the great responsibility of having a President with absolute authority over the Defence Forces, this man had visited servicemen stationed on Pacific Islands and assured them he would never waste their lives on fruitless adventurism. He scored a huge majority, even by pre-Republic reckoning. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 18 To keep on assuring the people that he was their representative, he declared Inauguration Day a national holiday and said he would ride from the Hotel Exchequer to Parliament House, the exact route that the first President had taken, and everyone was invited to watch. The President insisted on the motorcade, even as, at the last minute, Commander Griggs – the AFSS officer personally responsible for Presidential security – tried to talk him out of it, citing the threat that the AFP had uncovered. The President had been unconvinced, saying the same thing that Griggs had said to Hapeta two hours earlier – “All you’ve got are a bunch of maps and car design plans” – and deciding that he was going to give the adoring public what they wanted, risks be damned. If only … Hapeta snapped to attention. Somebody was shouting over the radio: “Window! Left-side, seventh-floor …” Hapeta’s head craned up, as the radio network exploded with a dozen other voices. “Movement in the window …” Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 19 “… sniper, repeat, sniper, left side top room …” “… what’s happening, too much going on to …” Hapeta felt a wave of panic grip him; even though the network was screaming about a window, he was seized by the idea that the blonde he had seen earlier was responsible. What was he doing? He had let everyone down, the whole thing was falling apart, he had to … … no, no, no, focus. Find the window. He saw it, just as a flat sheet rolled down from it: red, black and gold. “… hold your fire, it’s not …” “… just a flag, I repeat, just …” From a window in the apartment above the students, an indigenous flag hung defiantly in the still air. In the neighbouring window, a banner unfurled: DON’T FORGET OUR RIGHTS TOO! Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 20 Upon seeing it, a cheer went through the students. A grim “Boo!” came from the Billies. The atmosphere turned ugly; Hapeta was grateful that five lanes of asphalt separated the two. Griggs cried, “Goddamit, no one say ‘sniper’ until you see a rifle! Chopper Three almost blew those people away!” * * * The motorcade had only one last stretch of road to go: Northbourne. It ran directly through the office complexes and five- star hotels that dominated the CBD, across the lake and all the way to Parliament House. Hapeta was exhausted, but as they turned the block, he noticed that this street at least had the barricades. Some silver lining. ‘O’kay, boys,” he said, “Last strip of asphalt. Keep a look out – we’re almost home.” The motorcade slowed to a crawl; the President’s arm stuck out even further. The air was full of good cheer; no signs, no protests. A burst of static came through; not even Hapeta’s earpiece, but the car radio. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 21 “Escort Two … uh, Lieutenant Hapeta, are you there? This is Constable Mackay, over.” The car interior went silent. Communications should be over the main network, not on the backup channel that the car radio was set to. It was odd, and odd was the last thing Hapeta needed. Hapeta grabbed the hand mic and replied, “Constable Mackay, this is Lieutenant Hapeta, over.” “Lieutenant … I am on crowd control, eastern side of Antill, near Delphi Towers. There’s some kind of, ah, disturbance here.” Hapeta’s blood went cold. The motorcade would pass by Delphi Towers in two minutes, tops. “Roger that, Mackay … why aren’t you reporting this to Command, or your superior, over?” ‘Lieutenant … ah, I don’t have the frequency for Command. I was told to report to the State Police Command unit, but they are unresponsive; technical issues, I think. I only got your vehicle because I talked to an AFP officer and he gave me your frequency.” Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 22 Hapeta felt anger shoot through him. A security detail that didn’t have access to the main communications network? State Police Command unresponsive? It felt like Keystone Cops around here. ‘Roger that, Mackay … what is the nature of the disturbance?” “Another State Police unit reported seeing a man wearing a long black coat, behaving strangely. Units have been unable to locate the individual, but some civilians are confirming the reports and saying the man was acting unstable or oddly; he was last sighted in my location.” Wild goose chase? Maybe … “Constable, thanks for reporting this.” Hapeta cupped his own mic. “Command, this is Escort Two. A State Police unit has reported suspicious individual, near Delphi Towers. Recommend we investigate.” Silence over the network. Hapeta could hear the tension. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 23 “Escort Two, received; nothing has come through from State Command, so we’ll let them handle it until it gets here.” Hapeta wanted to shout and scream and demand, but remembered Grigg’s lack of patience back at the Exchequer. He would get no sympathy. But something was wrong. Fifteen years of trained instinct was screaming at him: do something! Hapeta replied, “Griggs, I have concerns about State Command responsiveness. Requesting permission to get out on foot and investigate.” Hapeta knew he was in trouble; he had bad-mouthed the Staties on the air and been borderline insubordinate. He didn’t care. His mind was a mess of images: the TV screen fifteen years ago; the man in the cheap suit; the apartment in Sydney with maps and photos; snipers and bombers and crazies. “Escort Two, request denied.” No rancor, no rage. Not yet, anyway. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 24 Delphi Towers – fifteen stories of steel and glass, dead ahead. Hapeta shuddered. Mackay’s voice on the car radio: ‘Lieutenant, more civilians in the crowd have reported seeing the disturbed man. He’s definitely out here.” Hapeta felt something inside him twist and snap. He grabbed the radio. “Roger that, Mackay. Meet me at barricade twenty metres to the north of Delphi Towers. Out.” The other men in the car looked on in shock; Hapeta said, “Continue driving, keep the pace.” He opened the door. The heat blasted him. He leapt from the vehicle and ran across the road. He pushed through the line of State Police and cleared the barricade in one hurdle. Shocked faces from Staties and civilians alike. He pushed through the crowd, feeling desperate. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 25 It was a furnace out here! God … He crashed into a tall cop with a crewcut. “Lieutenant Hapeta?” “Constable Mackay.” They exchanged nods, then pushed forward together. Mackay had to yell into Hapeta’s ear over the crowd. ‘The man was last sighted near a food vendor, heading south.” Hapeta nodded. “Stick close to the barricades; is he’s armed, it’s the only shot he’ll get.” The crowd was a heaving mass of bodies and blue flags being waved; Hapeta and Mackay had to push and shove. Up ahead: a rustle of black. A coat. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 26 Hapeta shoved harder; he heard Mackay behind him, shouting into his radio for reinforcements. The black coat was up ahead now, lurching forward. Hapeta was running. The coat, swaying and shuddering erratically, turned around. Hapeta saw a hand clenched tightly around a … … oh God, was it a … … it’s a … … large paper cup, clutched in a sweaty, wrinkled hand. Above the hand was a confused look in ancient blue eyes. Hapeta stopped, stared, just as the man in the coat dropped hid drink and collapsed. What the … Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 27 Hapeta ran forward and saw the elderly man was clutching at his chest, gasping. The crowd parted and looked on in surprise. Staties swarmed around them. Hapeta heard Mackay’s voice: “God, this guy’s having a heart attack!” A cop started resuscitation. “Dad!” a shrill voice cried. A petite blonde woman ran forward, tears in her eyes. Hapeta instinctively grabbed her by the arm. “Ma’am,” he said, “These men are trained, let them administer first aid …” The woman looked at Hapeta. Two Australian flags were painted on her cheeks; her tears were making the colours run. “He … he went to get a drink … I didn’t think he should be out in this heat, but he wanted to … to see …” She burst into sobs and fell forward into Hapeta’s arms. He was stunned at first. Then he started to relax. He hugged her back. Inauguration Day / Sean Oliver Ness 28 ‘Everything’s going to be o’kay …” he said. Grigg’s voice was yelling over his earpiece; it annoyed him greatly, so he pulled it out, and continued to hold her while the cops worked on her father. Behind him, the motorcade swept past. The crowd roared. * * * A tourist snapped a photo of Hapeta, cradling the woman, with her dying father visible in the foreground and the majestic Presidential limo in the background. It showed up in all the newspaper and television coverage of the first Inauguration Day. The President himself cited the image as an example of the humanity and dedication of the country’s police forces, State and Federal, and for a few months, it went a long way towards defusing the suspicion around the President’s new powers. The photo would appear in Inauguration Day retrospectives for decades to come. The photo was also the only thing that saved Hapeta’s job. Instead of being fired for insubordination, he was praised and then quietly transferred elsewhere. Hapeta did not mind; the Republic was wide, and he was sure there was a place in it for him.
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