28th of October 2102;
Hands at two and ten; after a quick pause, we’re driving again. The inner right of the Harbour Bridge blurs past me and my cargo of two people. Clad in an old boot, my foot is shoved against the black plastic of a brand new gas pedal however, no matter the number on the cracked speedometer, I know how this is going to end.
We’re going to die here.
Three quarters of the bridge remain outstretched ahead four lit headlamps. A dome of light follows. The bleach white of pure energy erupts from beneath the Opera House, a blinding volcanic explosion. The structure is gone, no more than a story now. A myth, washed away into the Harbour. Before tomorrow dawns the remnants of New South Wales will stick to the soil and the ash will back in the morning sun: discarded, smoking and lifeless.
The others: the rich and the famous, the talented and the beautiful. They are already dead, swallowed by the city of safety. You might understand, this began with the undead. They were the ‘Zeds’ for the most part, the undead, the scum of the Earth. The Australian people feared them; we had all been brainwashed by the movies and the media. This is the undead hordes we’re talking about, they must be out for flesh and brains. We kept ourselves as far away from them as we could, blocking them out of our city and killing them as we see fit.
“Ridley!” another survivor shouts, alive for now and thankful for it. She is Lisa: her surname slips my mind as I swerve to the left, dodging a barrier I failed to recognise in my daze. “Watch where you’re going!”
Her words, they just dance around me. There’s no weight to them anymore, no reason to take them seriously. I’m lost in the back of my own head, seeing every step of our journey leading up to this point. Reflected in the windscreen I see their faces, morphing from the young expressions I knew from The Basin to the gravel-textured fear I see today.
To say this all ‘goes back to the Zeds’ is wrong but the birth of the first is what kicked these events into motion. The disease was first seen in Cootamundra, New South Wales. Some traveller picked it up, it drove him mad and the cycle began.
It begins in the blood. The disease sucks and swims through the body, switching off the immune system and attacking the vital organs. Then, it waits. It hides in the body until it can spark: forcing a quick, irreversible mutation. Within two hours, the infection becomes fatal.
Survival rate? 0%.
Of course, this whole situation was taken and reworked by those with a more spiritual inclination. The religious nut-jobs grasped for any possible explanation that would suit their historically inaccurate beliefs and the workforce began to give up. As more and more people were smote and the dead rose, chalky and violent, nobody had the heart to go on.
We adapt though, don’t we? That’s what has aided humans in their conquest of Earth. Australia adapted after the whole world went fucking nuts, anyway. After every beating, we’ve picked ourselves up: Oceania against the world. In this case, we brought the best and brightest (read: rich and famous) together and created the safest place in the country.
The only safe haven in New South Wales.
For the most part, I’ve spent my entire life in the city. Born into a poor little household; the Haig family. This disaster began many, many years after the birth of my younger brother, Byron. Afterwards, when the city was rebuilt, we were swept away from it like dust. You miss a payment, you’re out of the city for life. Those are the laws of safety, security. I’m used to it now, my father and I have been travelling ever since. Hardened by the dust and the dirt, toughened by mosquito bites. Our skin low lighted with coat after coat of thick mud.
For the longest time, we stuck it out in a community of survivors. A campsite, The Basin. Once upon a time, you’d find happy families - real families - spending a night or two here. They’d surround a camp fire toasting marshmallows and chatting all night long, real brochure stuff. Wallabies would stray from the surrounding bush to collect their daily helping of hamburger meat, or handfuls of breakfast cereal. And the laughter of kookaburras could keep you up all night.
Now, the wallabies are dead, the birds flew away.
The Basin was heaven for survivors and stragglers in a pinch. It was free, safe and heavily guarded. Your regular stay was - at the most - two months long but we had dug our fingernails into the ground. Sixty percent of the population was dead, there wasn’t very much out there for us. In payment, we provided services to the proprietor of The Basin.
We had weapons and we knew how to use them. Alongside a couple ex-soldiers, we patrolled the bush, armed to the few teeth we had left, ready to open fire on anything with a shuffle. It was pretty quiet most of the time but once in a while, you’d hear the rapid firing of an M60 machine gun. The Fullers had no chance against us.
I was talking to the children on the day that we left. You see, the people living on the campsite with us were young or stupid. In my spare time, I taught them because I knew how to survive in the wild. Lesson three began with a smaller group than lesson two; of the many residents, only fifty were interested in my rambles. The rest enjoyed an early night because I took care of the children with my ‘nonsense’.
I lit a fire of dry twigs and old newspapers and stood with my hands in my pockets. “Lesson three,” I told them, “is about the difference between the Halfers and the Fullers.”
That’s what I called them, anyway.
The infection, as I mentioned, begins its lifespan by spreading through the blood before finding a way to ensure its survival. Then, it evolves. The evolution is - for both parties - a gamble. On one hand, it could mean strength and intelligence, or it could leave the host worthless and dying. It’s impossible to tell before the symptoms fully develop but several patterns have emerged.
Per convention, the first pattern was known as ‘Strain A’. The Latin name, I think, was Post-Mortem Anima, “don’t expect to hear that name a lot. Doctor speak, only city-folk would spend their time learning a dead language.”
The people of the Zombie Nation prefer nicknames anyway.
The strains can be further split, a forking stream, into three recognised mutations. The Strongmen, The Smartest and The Rotters. “Strain A kills you as fast as it can. Then, it brings you back to life!”
‘Strain B’ doesn’t have a Latin name, I suppose it takes a lot of thinking to come up with something so clever sounding. They’re known as Halfers because the strain is non-fatal; instead of killing you, your body devolves into a rotting, mid-death state. Life becomes a state of perpetual pain, breathlessness, nausea, confusion and medicated survival.
Those infected with Strain A can live on indefinitely, “they have no lifespan and will only cease to function when the brain is completely destroyed. Strain B victims begin to degrade from minute one, the professionally administered medication required for survival is impossible to come by outside the walls.”
It’s better to just kill them when you can, I suppose.
The Basin had rules regarding the Zeds, both strains. They were hand painted onto an old box of local rum, where the prices for the night used to hang.
THERE WILL BE NO FULLY INFECTED ZEDS ON THE PREMISES.
ANY FULLY INFECTED ZEDS, OBSERVED ON-SITE OR OFF, WILL BE ERADICATED.
NO MERCY WILL BE SHOWN TOWARDS THE DECEASED.
THIS IS FOR THE PROTECTION AND PROLONGED SURVIVAL OF THE HUMAN RACE.
THERE WILL BE PEACE FOR THIS NEW WORLD.
HALF-INFECTED ZEDS, ACCOMPANIED BY A LARGE GROUP OF LIVING PEOPLE, MAY ENTER UNDER THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS:
THERE MAY ONLY BE ONE HALF-INFECTED PERSON PER GROUP,
THE GROUP IN QUESTION MAY ONLY SPEND ONE MONTH ON THE GROUNDS,
IF A THREAT IS DETECTED, NO MERCY WILL BE SHOWN TO THOSE WHO PROTECT THE DEAD.
ANY AND ALL LONERS WILL BE ERADICATED.
The rules were harsh but, for the scared, the witless and the uninvited, The Basin was a little slice of peace. It was quiet and, if you got into the spirit of things, you could spend the rest of your life there. With a tent, you had a home. If you travelled with people, you had a family. And, if you were lucky, you’d nabbed a spot with a halfway decent barbecue nearby.
Granted, the gas ran out fast and it was tough to find. That was our job, finding supplies across to Palm Beach. Each trip we took to the outside world reminded us that we were never truly safe; Pittwater was home to a large amount of the Zed population. Only a few survivor groups remain, leaving supplies ripe for the taking. That used to be the case, they’re all gone now. The old L90 route leads on through there, a path travelled daily by those seeking the shelter of the City walls.
Once I was finished giving the children their monthly nightmares, our trooped retreated to our shabby, patchwork tent. Handmade by our resident mechanic: Lana Baker, mother of two boys. She found her way into our pack by necessity, without her we’d have never made across Pittwater.
Back then, our little posse consisted of five: myself, my father, Lana, Lisa and our youngest, Cameron, the self-nominated scout. We were tough and friendly, but I couldn’t say close. As I remember it, we were more like newly acquainted roommates sharing a nylon flat. The cold and the lack of space kept us together, two enormous bags sat on either side of us like bookends, a collection of preloaded firearms at our feet. An innocent kick in the night and one of us would’ve lost a foot.
In the nation the accident prone die, fast. When lacking in medical supplies, a mistake can become an infection in minutes.
I hear the second biggest killer is food poisoning.
We were woken by gunfire. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear the rat-tat-tat-tat of an automatic rifle, you’ll never be used to it. Cylindrical death machines wail as they soar at 700 miles per hour, if you felt that searing rush of warmth up your thigh you’d be crippled or death within the week. A few days, if you’re lucky.
When bandits hide in the bush, safety off, ready to increase the size of your pores tenfold for a packet of cold cuts, your brain is in a constant state of awareness. It took about three shots before the entire tent was awake, scrambling for weapons. We had a routine for acts of terror: we weren’t about to roll over and let barbarians slaughter us like lambs. We - my father and I - were the first to take up arms, moving out to battle straight away, leaving the other three to start making what I liked to call ‘desperation preparations’.
They were to stay right down, pack everything we could carry and join us if we called for them. I took a handgun, the one we passed around three people like the last Pall Mall in the state. My father Aaron never shared, keeping to himself an old revolver, a hand-me-down from his father’s father. A relic with a loose trigger, a broken grip.
Between us existed sixty rounds.
Well rationed, sixty bullets could last two or three years. Every battle costs us twenty, at the least but this time, we had company. Most people on the campsite had something that could be used as a weapon: a crowbar, a hammer or a cricket bat. In this situation, those people were less than useless.
In a community 400-strong only three more survivors had long-range weaponry. A third of those people knew what they were doing whilst the remainder owned them simply for ‘you can that a gun?’ arguments. This fraction was Raymond Pine and, if he wasn’t the very definition of redneck, I don’t know what could be. He wore his blue jean dungarees until the ass fell out of them, then he wore them some more. The man lived his life in the eye of a proverbial hurricane formed entirely of racial slurs, sunburnt skin and the vile colours of moonshine vomit staining staining the front pocket of his overwork overalls.
On the boat ride to The Basin, Raymond’s wife collapsed and began to show signs of infection. In the process, she fell off the side of the boat, never to be seen again. It scarred him, messed his mind up. A couple of the wires crossed but the rest seemed to snap. He developed twitches, and a disturbingly open fondness for a young lady named Darlene.
Did I say lady? I meant shotgun.
Darlene was Raymond Pine’s shotgun.
The two of them were wed August 2022, he claims. If I were placing bets on who would go insane first, my money would be on Raymond. I cursed his name as I left the tent, believing with all my might that Raymond’s tiny, sun-dried brain had finally cracked open and spilled a creamy yolk of utter nonsense over his fat-lined insides. It wasn’t Raymond though, that conclusion lasted no more than thirty seconds as a wave of lead villains flew past me. Darlene was a Citori; stacked barrel shotgun, she held two slugs at a time. With his goon ravished reflexes, there was no way he could fire so many shots at once.
Our guests were much more dangerous, hiding behind miniature explosions and the white-flashing of a firearm light-show, I could hear a growling. A hungry, desperate sound. A traveller once warned me with stories of these people; keeping Fuller’s chained to them like guard dogs.
After the city walls were completed, the fear went away. It was only a few months afterwards that the citizens of Sydney started to bring the dead into the walls, house training them, keeping them on leashes. Pets. Zeds soon became the hip thing; they were television stars, fashion icons and heroes in ‘based on a true story’ novels. Rotters were the preferred pet material because they had a tendency to lose their wits and their instincts. Weak and famished, no energy and no willpower: perfect for conditioning.
Like the oyster before it, the zombie soon became the fancy of the rich.
They were ‘tamed’, if you can call it that. Smuggled in below the city streets, their teeth and fingernails removed, wounds poorly stitched and PVA glued together because any scratch or passage of fluids can transmit the disease. Suddenly, you saw Zeds being taken on daily walks. They were the talent in circuses, covered in make-up and forced to win pageants.
Once in a while, there would be some story floating around about a Human/Zed marriage. Some people will do anything for fame, Hell, celebrities would spend weeks trapped in houses with them just to make the front page of the last remaining newspaper. The people ahead of us, trying to blow holes in our last remaining connection to normality, were part of the problem.
They were the rebels of the city, the upper class punk, spending their lives going to places like The Basin to fuck things up. They kill for sport, hunting Halfers for fun. Back home, they’d leave their doors open to the public. Houses became personal collection museums solely to cause trouble with the People for the Ethical Treatment of the Recently Deceased.
We could hear redneck Raymond yelling for help. It wasn’t for our help, he just wanted Darlene’s veins to pump out slugs again. The poor girl, aged by a cholesterol coating of black, charred dust and other ‘fluids’. “Darlene, my sweet!” we heard him scream as he plunged his inch-too-thick fingers into the scolding barrel.
Honestly, the man was a fool. The gun was fine, somehow, he just never remembered to reload it. Maybe he truly believed the slender, wooden frame could love him back one day. Finally, when he realised his mistake, we get that heavenly flash of pale gold, revealing the disheveled poachers to us.
They were poachers, yes. Monstrous in moral blindness but human in the skin and bone sense. Before then, I had never shot another human being. The thought still haunts me, I remember clearly. I shouted at my father who fired like their lives meant nothing. A veil of dusk formed around him, they were a hazy outline through frosted glass eyes.
I said, “we can’t shoot people.”
When those words finally hit his ears, in that moment, he blessed me with some of the worst advice I have ever been given. A sentence that sunk into my subconscious and remained hidden, a sleeper agent agenda. These words, they claw at my moral fibre: “just shoot. Don’t look back, nobody ever likes to see what they’ve really killed.”
He reloaded his revolver, the old ‘Russian Roulette’ style six-shot chamber. If they made a movie of my life, the time for a close up would be now. The worms beneath the caked in shit-dirt beneath his never clipped fingernails climb the steel ramp of the hammer. His index finger is forever glued to that silver trigger and, when he fires, his shot drags through in the airy darkness.
No scream means no hit, end of.
Beneath the blackout curtain of night, the details were shrouded. It helps you think, doesn’t it? The canvas patterned darkness stowed a thought in my head. A link was made, we owned something that could help. My eyes lit up with admiration towards my own lightbulb moment.
“Cameron, chuck us a flare.”
Out from the rip-stop nylon housing tears this tiny hand and in its grasp is what I asked for: a dynamite-red stick complete with twist top and an attractive red button. It’s passed between us with the accuracy of an Olympic relay champion and I take a single second to entertain the possibility of misread instructions.
But without further ado, I twist the top for a satisfying selection of cracks. The sounds range from knuckles popping to that nostalgic chemical reaction in glow sticks. The lighting process strikes fear with a fizzle, followed by the final step: the comically sized ‘on’ button.
The surrounding area is dressed in lipstick red, shining from the vial as though it contained the very sun itself and revealing the poachers. They were nothing to fear. Fat, old men - two of them - well dressed and snobbish. They hid lazy eyes behind flared sleeves awash with scarlet, the light attracted their Zeds. The two of them, slack jawed, scrambled out from behind their masters with the utmost excitement. Without eyelids to disguise the light, desert dry eyes looked on. You could almost see dimples forming where a smile might develop and grow into a grin, but lipless mouths kill the notion entirely.
It’s the little things you notice that destroy the humanity.
My father’s circulatory system was made from brass clockwork, a human pocket watch that wouldn’t waste a second. Before I had even returned to my firing position, he had crippled the right hand poacher. His left knee cap had shattered, blown to smithereens and covering every tent in the radius in a gentle glistening of rich-man blood. Droplets fled from the underground tunnels of his body, a ruby riot that left no home unpainted. I followed up on my father’s bold move, firing a bullet into the other poacher. His sleeves, pulled right out of the previous decade, offer no protection and the round punctures his windpipe.
We leave that situation with a high. The sensation of the hunt, the excitement of survival to take over my form and I stood in awe. The aftershock of dopamine fills each crevice with unadulterated delight as the Fullers began to sniff. Nothing could call the zombies off them now; not the screaming, not the panicked breathing, nothing at all.
They began to react, as they had been conditioned. The vile scent of fresh blood had been released into the air, pooling beneath wounds. Between the two creatures, they divided up the poachers and headed straight for the erupted appendages to devour fat-lined flesh. They were lions feasting upon zoo-bred zebras, they best meal they’ve had in years.
If a single drop of saliva is all it takes to infect a grown man, imagine the damage a mouthful could do. A taste of their own medicine, an eye for an eye of biblical proportions that my father would have no part in. Dated leather Ravens crushed their skulls without mercy despite knowing their fate: waking two hours later as their enslaved brethren once had.
The flare was beginning to die out and the sun was stretching its arms and legs, waking up for a fourteen hour shift. The Basin’s residents warmed the site, soaked in poacher blood. Some had been shot, others bitten. The rest simply looked at me like it was my fault, like we hadn’t just saved them from certain death. I had told them before, the bitten will have to be killed, at least those with open, obvious wounds. And so, they shunned us.
I took out the two distracted Fullers with my hand-me-down pocket knife: Swiss Army. They fall to my father’s feet where their ruined faces are mutilated further. He used the tread of his boot to slide flesh from bone with the greatest level of disconnect. He saw nothing in the swollen eyes, no humanity in the yellowed hills of bone. The pupils popped under pressure, a grey fluid leaked from the corner of their eyes and pooled beneath like aluminium tears, worthless.
“Disgusting,” my father said. His personal and professional opinion of a lifeless corpse. When he was satisfied, he turned to me and spoke the words I expected to hear: “we’re leaving. No chatter, no excuses. We’re not second guessing it this time, we’re leaving now.”
“What about the others?”
“Ridley, I couldn’t care less about them,” he told me, “but if you really want to drag them along, be my guest.”
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