Chapter Four - Those Who Leave, Don't Come Back

April 24

Another group left the 'Zone' this morning. We tried to talk them out of it. They said they had to go, they had to find out if their relatives and friends were still alive. There was seven in the group. They were all heading out west, towards the blackened ruins. Some of them had friends and/or relatives out near Parramatta, others wanted to reach the suburbs near Blacktown. A couple of days walk, but they figured they'd probably find clearer roads and vehicles that would still run, once they got across the Iron Cove Bridge, and made their way along Victoria Road.

I didn't really know any of the survivors in the group. I'd seen most of them at the Town Hall meetings, and at the meeting two days ago, one of them got up and demanded we leave the city and go look for other survivors. There was next to no support from the 80 or 90 other survivors to go and do that.

So they loaded up backpacks with water and food and torches and a couple of machetes they found in a camping store. I thought about giving them one of the assault rifles I had stashed. I wish now I'd done that.

About an hour after they walked away from our 'Zone', heading down towards Darling Harbour, to get up onto one of the roads leading to the Anzac Bridge, and Victoria Road beyond that, I heard the same noise I'd heard after every other group of survivors had left. Gun fire. Lots of it. Short bursts, like from a machine gun. Then nothing.

Me and Trader and Johnny were doing a Corpse Crew shift. We'd just finished loading up the truck with another load of bodies when we heard the echoing blasts. Johnny reckoned he heard one of the women who left in the group, screaming her head off. None of them came back, and none of us went looking for them.

Trader got upset. He said we should have stopped them, made them stay here with us, but none of us force anyone else to do anything. The old rules of society before ED Day would say this is a formula for anarchy, but most of the survivors are still too shocked, I think anyway, by what happened on ED Day to start raising hell and causing trouble.

"You reckon the Army are still out there?" I asked Johnny, "With the road blocks up?"

He shook his head. If they were out on the other side of the Anzac Bridge, or the Harbour Bridge, he said, why haven't we seen any of them in here yet?

"Maybe they set up those robot sentries, before the soldiers left, or died," Johnny suggested.

I knew what he was talking about.

In late February, the Army left these armed robots outside the main medical centres and hospitals out west. They didn't have enough soldiers or security guards to look after every place out there the public was trying to smash their way into to get anti-virals, or help.

The robot sentries were basically huge machine guns on tractor treads, with surveillance cameras and speakers built into them. An Australian defence contractor started building them in late 2007 for use along the wall in Israel and to lock down whole neighbourhoods in Iraq. Every time one of them killed a half dozen civilians in Palestine or Iraq there'd be talk of "malfunctions".

The robot sentries were pretty freaky to see for the first time, but then they were just there. Outside hospitals and pharmaceutical warehouses. They showed them on the news so everyone knew they shouldn't fuck around and try to bust into those places.

There was a couple of the sentries outside the quarantine camp me and Johnny were in, back in mid-March. After the riot, when the fence came down and everyone inside the camp tried to make a run for it, the sentries opened fire and killed a few people. Me and Johnny didn't hang around to count bodies.

We don't talk much about what's going on outside Sydney's CBD. People say stuff, but you just nod and go back to what you were doing, or what you were talking about before.

Trader reckons this was the ninth group to leave since we all got together in the week after ED Day. My count is seven. But after every group left, heading out over the Harbour Bridge, or down Park Street towards William Street, to go east, or down George Street towards Central Station, the bursts of gun fire always echoed back to us an hour or so later.

We figure there's a ring, a cordon, of sentries, or guards, killing anyone who tries to leave. Well, me and Bookman and Johnny and Trader reckon that's what's going on. We don't talk about that stuff with the other survivors.

Bookman wants to raise the issue of who or what is killing, or at the least shooting at, the groups of survivors who leave at tomorrow night's Town Hall meeting.

He's been keen to do some reconnaissance, find out what's going on out there. But nobody volunteers to go with him.

We've pretty well finished raiding every car, bus and van in the Zone now.

We’ve emptied the fuel tanks of a few hundred vehicles. We pulled every battery that still had a decent charge left in them.

Like I wrote before, I turned off the engines of about 60 vehicles on ED Day on the streets near my hideout, but there were plenty of other vehicles that stalled in the gridlock of people trying to escape, and a few dozen more cars that the owners had turned off when they abandoned their vehicles and tried to get out on foot.

We also emptied glove boxes and boots of any tools and other stuff that might be useful.

We’ve cleared the corpses from all the cars and trucks and vans that are within a few dozen metres of the hotels and apartment blocks we live in. That keeps most of the rats and the worst of the stench away from our front doors.

But clearing the streets of all the dead, and finding the last of the bodies inside all the apartment and office blocks, the Opera House, the Art Gallery, the Botanical Gardens, the Queen Victoria Building, and all the malls underneath the city centre, is still going to take a while.

Maybe a few more months more. Maybe a year.

Maybe it’ll be like the ruins of the World Trade Centre and we’ll never find all those bodies.

There's about 280 to 300 survivors in our 'clan', as Bookman likes to call us. There's probably 90,000 dead bodies still waiting to be disposed of, but most of them are in office blocks or hotels or apartment towers we don't use, or live in. Most of them will stay there and rot. Or mummify.

In the 30 or so days the Corpse Crews have been picking up bodies, we've disposed of maybe eight or nine thousand corpses in total.

We didn’t really know what we were doing the first time we lit the funeral pyre of four hundred bodies in the Domain.

We used too much fuel and the flames sheeted up, setting fire to a dozen or so trees.

When the funeral pyre really got going, the burning corpses shot out globs of sizzling fat that splattered on us. Disgusting. We were thirty or more feet back from the pyre and we still got hit with the scalding fat.

The first funeral pyre we lit, back on March 29, ended up collapsing when it really got burning.

Corpses wrapped in fire rolled down the steep hillside of the Domain, leaving burning trails of fat and hair flesh, as they raced each other to the bottom.

We didn’t check the wind either, and the sickening stench-thick smoke blew back into the apartments of the survivors along Macquarie Street, and settled over the barbecue in Hyde Park.

Everyone puked that night, nobody ate dinner.

Now we don’t burn off until after midnight, and only when the wind is blowing away from our part of the city.

We burn off corpses four or five times a week. The Corpse Crews deliver bodies to funeral pyres in the Domain and down in the Botanical Gardens two or three times a day.

The bloke I call 'Greenfingers' collects the ashes and uses them on the food gardens he's got going in the glass houses over in the Botanical Gardens.

We keep a piece of identification, usually a driver's license or one of the bio-ID cards that were becoming compulsory in 2008, from every body we collect and burn.

Maybe one day people will come into the city looking for their mothers or fathers or children or friends. At least the way we're doing it now, those people can go and check the ID wall on the bottom floor of the Town Hall to see if the ones they're searching for have already been cremated.

Preacher used to do a bit of service at every burn-off, but he's not so much of true believer anymore. He says what happened in Sydney didn't do much for his faith. Now there's usually only two of us standing there when the funeral pyres go up. Sometimes the corpses move when the flames get to them. They scream and grunt, too, real guttural nightmare noises.

Matron says the body movements are something to do with muscles tightening or relaxing from the heat, and the noises they make is air escaping from the lungs.

If they don't wake up when the hooks slammed into them, they go onto the pyres.

I only thought about accidentally burning someone who was in a coma or something for the first couple of weeks. There's plenty of nightmares, but the booze and pills get rid of most of those.

We don't burn kids, or babies. We never even discussed that as a rule. It's just something we started doing - putting aside the little bodies for burial later in Hyde Park. It shouldn't make a difference. A dead body is a dead body. But it's something we have to do, if that makes sense.

It shouldn't matter, but it does.

I was talking to Bookman and the Professor earlier today about the death tolls of the first and second waves of the pandemic. They remember more about that then I do. They followed the news.

Here's a bit more of what I remember, and what I learned from talking to Bookman and the Professor.

The first wave of the bird flu pandemic officially began in December last year and faded out in early January this year.

The government admitted to maybe 10,000 deaths from the H5N1 (bird flu) virus in those four to five weeks. But you’d see doctors on the news saying that it was like the Influenza A epidemic back in mid-to-late 2007. A few dozen official deaths, but probably hundreds, or thousands, more dying from complications of being sick from the flu – heart attacks, lung infections, pneumonia.

The media were still free to report what they wanted during the first wave of the pandemic.

The government said 10,000 died, but doctors and experts in the papers said the figure was probably 40,000. Maybe 60,000 dead.

Hospitals everywhere were full of the dead and dying, and there were long lines outside pharmacists and medical centres, but the government refused to declare it was a pandemic until just before Christmas.

Around Christmas, I heard reports on the news every now and then about tens of thousands of people dying in England and the US and China and Europe, but like I said, I didn’t follow the news that much. Me and Chrissie had started playing World of Warcraft online in the evenings, or we were watching DVD box sets of Arrested Development, Deadwood or The Sopranos.

The first time I really paid much notice to the bird flu news was when Chrissie’s uncle got sick and died in about four hours on January 6. It was shocking to hear how fast the virus had taken him.

Bookman and the Professor reckon the second wave of the pandemic began the first week of February, and by then the death toll was growing so fast, and the bullshit from the government was flowing so thick, the media stopped playing by the government’s rules on reporting on the spread of the virus, and called it a pandemic. It was too big to cover up. Too many dead people.

A bloke on my building site said his cousin was working out near Penrith on a government project, supposedly top secret, some new military base with deep foundations. That was the cover story. My mate's cousin told him everybody working out there reckoned they were actually digging mass graves.

The federal and state governments, the media said, had huge stock piles of anti-virals, which you could take and they were suppose to stop the bird flu virus from really sinking its claws into and making you sick or dead.

When people started breaking into the government warehouses and raiding the stockpile, they realised they had to start releasing it. By February 17 or 18, you could go a medical centre or pharmacy and get your allocation of anti-virals. Not much, but you had it to take when you thought you might have been exposed to the virus, which was everywhere by then.

On February 20, the government locked down the city and declared a week of public holidays. They didn't make quarantines mandatory, just "advised". I worked on the Clarence Street building site for a few of those public holidays, we had stuff to finish and lock down so if we didn't come in for a week or three, the building wouldn't collapse, or break apart.

Walking through the near empty streets on those days when most people didn't come to work reminded me of that week back in September, 2007, when all the world leaders came to town and everybody pissed off for holidays.

The government didn't declare mandatory quarantines in February, just a bunch of public holidays. The first talk back radio shows got pulled off air on February 19 or 20, Bookman reckons. I didn't listen to them, so I didn't notice them gone. He said the talk back shows were filling up with callers telling stories about whole streets full of families dying in the western suburbs, and police and robot sentries gunning people down outside medical centres.

When most of Sydney didn't come to work during the public holidays, the pubs were shut, cinemas closed, most supermarkets didn't open in the mornings. Trader reckons the state government forced the businesses where people normally gathered in large numbers - cinemas, nightclubs, live concert venues - to close, but Bookman reckons they ended up shutting their doors because no-one was coming in.

During the public holidays, except for the few days when I went in work, me and Chrissie mostly stayed home and played WoW for about ten hours a day, when the power was on, and when it wasn’t we read books and caught up on sleep.

Workers who were responsible for ‘essential services’ still went to work during the public holidays. They were supposed to keep the infrastructure of the city going, but during that week we had whole days with no electricity, and sometimes the taps ran dry.

With the electricity shut off, we didn't see much of the news.

We went to a neighbour’s house mid-week for something to do when the power was off, and he had his television and satellite channels running of a diesel generator.

Me and Chrissie sat there and watched BBC World News and CNN. It was all about the pandemic, and the riots across Asia where the anti-virals were in short supply, or non-existent.

Whole cities were burning.

The worldwide death toll was already said to be above a million or three. Maybe ten million. Maybe twenty million. Nobody really knew. Russia, the US, the UK, Japan, Europe, China, South East Asia, Indonesia, it was everywhere.

In one news bit on BBC, we were told that more than 200,000 people had died in Australia. It was mind-blowing. We hadn't heard anything like that kind of toll from the local news. Nobody in the government said how many they thought had died from the bird flu pandemic because "it's impossible to determine such things now."

When we went home that night, we were planning on calling all our relatives and old friends, but the phone lines were dead, and stayed dead for the next two days. The government lifted the city-wide stretch of 'public holidays' and on February 26, and everyone got their phones and electricity back working like before.

The prime minister and the health minister were all over the news saying the anti-virals and voluntary quarantines had worked and the bird flu deaths had stopped.

The news and current affairs that night were weird. There were different people fronting the evening news shows, people we hadn't seen on TV before. On Channel 9, 7, 10 and the ABC, there was nothing about what was happening overseas. Not a word. We didn't hear what had happened on a national basis, it was all local stories, about how some guy saved his sick father, or how families went door to door in their neighbourhoods to make sure everyone was okay. Chrissie noticed in the news stories that all the leaves were off the trees in the background. It looked like the news stories had been filmed the previous autumn. But there was no bird flu pandemic back then.

We didn’t have cable or satellite at home to check out international reports. And by then, the government was filtering all the internet content, and heaps of sites were blocked, except their own of course. And on the government sites, you got the same bullshit hero and 'Help Your Community' stories that were all over the evening news.

If you went on the internet to try and cut through the crap, it would take minutes to upload just one page from CNN or BBC. We were supposed to have broadband. Most of the pages failed before they finished loading.

After trying to load up BBC News or CNN pages, and getting nothing, we just gave up. Every time we'd turn on the radio, there was one or two less stations on the air, and more and more frequency slots taken up by government broadcasts telling us how everything was under control and playing classical music.

The next week, leading into early March, six people in our little street of 40 houses and cottages in Pyrmont died from the virus. We didn’t really know them that well, but you'd say "how ya goin" if you saw them in the street.

Everyone in the city, at the building site, at cafes and the places I went for lunch, were talking about how the virus was still killing people, heaps of people. But you’d open the newspaper, and all you’d get was more guff from the prime minister saying how effective their fight against the virus had been, and how safe we all were now.

It was hard to take seriously what you heard people saying in the city when that wasn't what you were hearing on the news. You'd look in a newspaper, and it wouldn't have anything about what you'd hear people in a cafe on Pitt Street saying.

Maybe the second wave of the pandemic never really ended.

Two plumbers on my building site died on March 3.

We lost six day labourers on March 5, 6 and 7.

I saw my first dead body on March 7 or 8, some old guy who died behind the wheel of his car in the middle of Clarence Street, blocking up the traffic. He’d sneezed blood all over the inside of the windscreen, so even after me and this other pulled his body out of the car and dragged him onto the footpath, nobody wanted to get in and move his car.

The state and federal government tried to claim the third pandemic wave hadn’t begun, even though half the city was off sick by March 10.

Whole office blocks, hotels and long stretches of the shopping malls snaking under the city were closed up because not enough people had come to work to keep them running.

I kept hearing stories about all these people who had packed up their families, locked up their houses and hit the road for the other side of the Blue Mountains, way out west.

The chief electrician on my site lived out at Parramatta. He said most of the families in his street had gone to visit relatives, in Queensland, Adelaide, or country New South Wales.

I walked past Sydney Hospital, on Macquarie Street, on March 10 or 11, and there were soldiers armed with machine guns keeping the long line of sick people under control. They sprayed the crowd with hoses. The hoses went to backpacks they wore. The stuff they were spraying smelled like disinfectant. Nearly everyone in the city was wearing a face mask by then, or a bandanna around their mouth and nose.

On March 13, the girls in the cafĂ© where I sometimes brought beef curry pies for lunch told me that a big freezer truck had crashed and rolled over turning into William Street. They said the truck had come from Sydney Hospital. The girls reckoned the back doors of the truck were knocked open and people passing by got a good look inside. It was packed full of corpses, some wrapped in sheets and plastic, others in body bags. Some of the corpses fell onto the road and people ran screaming. I didn’t hear anything about it on the news.

By March 14, all the talkback radio was off air, the government deemed phone-in radio shows to be a national security threat, some bullshit about a whole load of terror bombing threats being called in. Then you just got music most of the day instead. It was so boring you ended up switching it off.

Chrissie never got sick from the virus, even though she'd helped look after some of the old people in our street when they came down with the bird flu. I got sick as hell in the evening of March 15, but I’ll explain that later.

I never really worked out whether the government was lying to us, or whether they really didn’t know what was happening, or just how bad the pandemic really was. Sure they fed us crap to keep us calm, that was pretty obvious, but did they know how far and wide the virus had spread in Australia, and exactly how many had died, or were dying? Dunno.

The more people who got sick, the less people there were to keep the power stations and the rest of the infrastructure running. There were blackouts and dry taps every two or three days. You got used to it.

The prime minister and the health minister were on the news all the time, but never live on air.
People reckoned they were already out of the country.

In the first week of March, a lot of senior government ministers pissed off to islands up north for "emergency onferences”, taking their families with them.

Some of the survivors here reckon the government knew what was coming, but they didn’t want us to survive. Something to do with a worldwide depopulation program that Prince Philip and Henry Kissinger have been talking about for decades.

The government ministers, say some survivors, saved themselves and their families and friends, by hogging anti-virals and leaving the mainland, and left the rest of us here to die. Bookman seems pretty convinced that's what happened. The more he talks about that version of what happened, the more survivors believe it, too.

When we think back the chaos and confusion in February and early March, it’s easy enough to believe such things might have been true. This is the sort of stuff people talk about when there’s no nightly news or newspapers anymore, and no television or radio shows. It’s like we have to make up our own news.

Here’s one of the most popular theories on what happened before ED Day that some of the survivors talk about, a lot :

Those in the government that didn’t leave before March 21 (the day when nearly everyone who stayed in the city ended up dying) isolated themselves away, beneath the city.

Somewhere under the city, some of the survivors reckon, there are all these halls and bunkers and vaults, dating back from World War 2. They were expanded as nuclear bunkers during the 1950s and 1960s, and refurbished during the massive building projects that swamped Sydney in 2008.

Down there, goes the theories, there is a big network of rooms and kitchens and sleeping quarters, with air filters and warehouses full of food and water and medicine. Enough to last a year or more.

That’s where some of the state government ministers, senior public servants, and their families, are supposed to be hiding out right now.

If you go into the basements of the State Parliament on Macqaurie Street and put your ear to the wall, you can sometimes hear something that sounds like the whir of air-conditioning. Or it could just be wind blowing through ducting.

“They’re still down there,” this one guy yelled at a Town Hall meeting last week, “they’re down there right now, waiting for the all clear.”

It’s a bit too much like a science fiction movie for me to believe all that's true.

If the government ministers knew how bad the pandemic was going to get, that is if they knew ED Day was coming, why would they hang around at all? Why not just get out with the family and come back later when it’s safe? Safer?

I think it makes some of the survivors happy to believe a secret government is hiding out beneath the city streets. Maybe they find comfort or security in thinking that someone is going to come and make everything better again, and get their lives organised, tell them what to do, take control.

The rest of us just get on with what needs to be done. Clearing away corpses, stockpiling food and water, finding medicines and generators and fuel to keep Sydney Hospital running, so Matron and Kat can take of the babies and the old people.

There’s plenty to keep you busy. If you need to be kept busy, that is.

Nobody’s forcing us to do any of the things we fill our days doing.

No-one’s there cracking the whip and nobody gets paid.

If you want to get pissed and sleep in the park all day, every day, you can do that. But you’re not going to get a decent feed when the barbecues are fired up.

Most of us that can work, work, because we want to keep busy and make the city better for everyone who's still alive.

"Maybe we're wasting our time," Johnny said to me this morning. "You know, maybe we're just putting off the day when we all have to leave here."

Maybe he's right. I don't know. But it feels like what we're doing is important.

It feels like we're making a difference.

I just looked out the window. It's dawn already. I didn't even notice the time going by, writing all this stuff. Five hours disappeared like a few minutes. The dawn light is beautiful, all this burning orange cutting through the black-blue clouds. The sunsets and sunrises are better than anything I used to watch on television. I never noticed just how beautiful they could be before ED Day.

I'm going to see Kat at the hospital before I start my shift today.

I don't go see her every day, even though I want to. And I do want to.

I want to spend every day with her. But she's got her work, and I've got mine.

I haven't told her about Chrissie yet.

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