The golden aftermath of dawn rushes across the city now, eating up the dark still hiding behind all those fingers of steel and glass. It was the most beautiful dawn I've seen yet. Bright pink and hot orange clouds, the vivid colours swirling together.
Beautiful, hypnotizing. It's been a good distraction. I've got too much to think about.
I met Kat on the stairs last night, She was wearing some designer label dress she'd liberated from a boutique in the Queen Victoria Building, with jeans underneath. Weird combo, but she looked great, when I finally saw her up on the rooftop.
I was left blinded by the ten million candle power (or whatever strength it was) portable flood light I'd found for her to navigate around this city at night. It's the kind of light roo shooters used to daze their targets in the bush, and that's what I felt like when she blasted my eyes with it.
I stepped into the stairwell to say hello, and she swung that light around right in my face. It was such a shock I flailed backwards, arms pinwheeling, like Kramer in Jerry Seinfield's door way.
That got her laughing. I stumbled up the stairs, tripping again and again, my vision obscured by two burning white balls. Kat was still laughing when she stepped out onto the rooftop and saw what I had set up for her. Her laugh was stopped by a gasp.
The dozens of candles were already lit and flickering throughout the gardens. I'd spent an hour cutting flowers in the Botanical Gardens earlier in the day and had set them up in the ceramic pots that some previous tenant had left up there. There was also about fifty metres of Christmas lights strung around the edge of the roof garden, and wrapped around the clotheslines someone had installed up there, presumably in an afternoon of climate change-related guilt.
"It's so beautiful," Kat said. "Did you do all this for me?"
I shrugged, and went to get her a drink.
"What do you want to start with?"
"That wine you've been going on about," Kat said, and walked to the edge of the roof to look over the side. "I've never drank anything that expensive before."
She was talking about the bottles of '51 Grange I'd found in the top floor office of some insurance executive. He had eight bottles stashed behind a false wall. I cracked the first one in the office where I found them. I dropped two in the street carrying them home. I gave a couple to Bookman, and me and Kat finished up two last night.
We didn't bother with the swirling, sniffing, tasting. We just drank the old wine and enjoyed it. You'd think a 50-plus year old bottle of red would taste like vinegar piss but it didn't.
There was something special about it. Not all that different in taste to the dozens of other good bottles of red I'd put away in the last month, but there was something unique and rare to the '51. It felt, I don't know, special when it touched my tongue. That's probably why it was worth about $30,000 a bottle before ED Day.
Kat laughed when she said, "This bottle was put on a shelf two years before my parents were even born."
She'd never talked much about her parents before. I knew they both died before ED Day, back in February I think.
I let her wander her library of memories for a few minutes. We all do this. It's better to let yourself experience those memories for a while then to try and push them away when they come calling. You have to acknowledge the painful memories of the people you had loved and lost. You have to give yourself over to those mini-mind videos of the past, if only so they go away again. The more you do it, the less often the memories just pop into your head.
When Kat came back from her memory wander, she apologized for drifting away and I told her not to worry about it.
Sitting on my balcony now, the morning sun warming the solar panel now powering this laptop, I can still smell Kat's perfume on my clothes. It's a good smell, it instantly reminds me of her.
She tasted like chocolate and red wine when I kissed her, when we were dancing. Warm, sweet and lingering.
While I was cooking the vegetable kebabs on the barbecue, we talked non-stop, like we usually did. About the babies at the hospital, about Matron's interest in Bookman, who she all but demanded had to come to the hospital to fill in for Kat so she could come and have dinner with me (Bookman grunted when I asked him to do a hospital shift, but I know he likes working there, occasionally, talking to the old people who can still hold a conversation).
Kat told me what the babies had been up to, some were starting to crawl, some making vowel sounds, and she told me how some of the former 'shut in' old people had been visiting the hospital and offering to help out.
She said they mostly wanted to see the babies.
"I think they just wanted to make sure the human race wasn't completely over," Kat said.
I feel the same way when I go to the hospital to help Kat look after the babies. They remind us that we're not done yet, that there is another generation, an immune generation, alive and breathing and growing (and wailing and screaming and shitting, endlessly).
"A couple of them, the old people, they just stood there and stared at the babies, and cried," Kat said. "It was like they were waking up from a dream. You could...I don't know...it was like you could see them coming back to life. Does that make sense?"
It did, and I told her so.
I then told her, without the gory details, some of the funnier stuff that had happened on the Corpse Crew shifts in the past few days. We were all endlessly fascinated by the things found in the pockets of the dead. Not just the ID and jewellery and the occasional stash of drugs, but the mementos, the good luck charms, the trinkets. Whenever I was pulling ID and personal items from the bodies I felt like a detective, trying to piece together the details of the life once lived by the people we dumped into foundation pits.
Every now and then as me and Kat talked, we kind of jumped a bit. Like we suddenly realised just how we were actually looking at each other. Not just listening to each other's stories and nodding along, but really looking at each other. Into each other.
Every time I sit down and eat with Kat now it's like catching up with an old friend, like we've known each other most of our lives. She's said the same thing before and she said it again last night.
We talked about the lack of rain, about how long gardens, like mine, will last without a good soaking (another week or two) and about how Bossbloke has been getting on her nerves. Kat said he comes to the hospital every two days or so and wants to know all the health problems of the babies (none really to speak of). Matron usually chases him off, but Kat said he has been timing it so he shows up when Matron is busy elsewhere in the hospital, and it's just Kat alone with the babies when he comes round.
The conversation faded off on Bossbloke. I kept cooking the kebabs, and Kat laid back on the sunbed I'd hauled up all those stairs for her, happily. Well, maybe not happily, but I wanted to do it. I knew Kat would love lying on that sunbed, looking at the night sky, and she did.
There was no moon, and with no huge glow of city lights, the star field seemed to be suspended just out of reach. Bright pure pindots of light, planets flashing colours, the occasional satellite blinking past.
The dogs were quiet last night. We could hear the dolphins in the harbour chattering away to each other. It seems like such a normal sound of this city now. I listened for Maggie's usually roaring television, but there was only silence coming out of her apartment. Either her batteries had run out or she'd actually remembered to turn the TV off, for a change.
Kat made a noise of approval when she tasted her first glass of '51 Grange. It didn't last long. Neither did mine. By the time the food was cooked, we were both finishing off our second glasses and feeling the buzz.
We took our time eating the food, and worked our way through our third glasses of wine. The bottle was done by the time we'd finished eating. I cracked another one and pulled out the plate of cheese and biscuits and chocolate I'd hidden away under a tea towel. Kat almost cooed at the sight of the cheese.
"Oh my God," she said, "where did you get this?"
I told her how I'd found it in a restaurant storeroom, during those first days or organised food round ups. It was canned cheese, but there was no label on it. It tasted something like Brie, but it had the blue vein streaks in it as well. The same day I found it, I stashed the cheese in the bar fridge I'd kept running in my room, most of the time, and it was still edible enough.
"I haven't had cheese in weeks," Kat said. She closed her eyes as she ate it, and for a moment she seemed to be in a state of bliss. "I went to a winery for my honeymoon, up the Hunter Valley, and we stayed at this place that made cheese, and oh God I ate so much...but I couldn't stop. The owner of the farm thought it was hilarious..."
And then her face fell. And whatever pleasure she had been experiencing was flushed away by the memory of her husband. Kat swallowed hard and then downed the rest of her glass.
"You can talk about him if you want, you know," I said. "You never told me much about your life before ED Day. How old was your daughter before...you know..."
Kat nodded. "They're my memories, Paul, and they've all I've got left now of them. I don't think I'm ready to share all that with you. Is that okay?"
"Of course it is," I told her. "You tell me you're ready."
Kat nodded and reached for the bottle of Grange. It slipped from her fingers and plunged to the tiles. But the bottle landed square on its base and didn't break. A small fountain of wine shot up out of the neck of the bottle, and splashed across my jeans.
Kat burst into laughter, and then apologised. Then laughed again.
"That's about a $4000 stain," I said, and pretended to be concerned about wiping the wine away. "That's alright. You just made these jeans really expensive ones."
That only made Kat laugh more. She lay back on the sunbed and stared into the heavens.
"I'm so glad I met you," she said and closed her eyes. "That first week after ED Day...I thought I'd never laugh again. It still feels weird to laugh now...I don't know, it feels wrong or something."
"You gotta laugh sometimes," I said. "You might go nuts, otherwise."
"Yeah," Kat said. "That's what I reckon."
"Do you want to take a nap?"
"No," she said, "I just want to look at the view. I never looked at the stars much before...They were just there. They didn't seem so special, but now...oh wow, look! A falling star!"
I looked up just in time to see the streak of light fading. Then there was another, and another. As we watched the sky, stunned, about ten falling stars streaked across the night sky in the space of a minute or so.
"What's going on, Paul? Why are there so many?"
"It's a meteor shower," I said, because that's exactly what it looked like. Another dozen falling balls of light whipped across the arc of the heavens, some were faint, but others were almost blinding and stretching across half the sky. One seemed to explode, and the light left behind pulsed for a second or two.
"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Kat said.
But I'd already stopped watching the meteor shower. I was watching Kat as tears began to form in the corners of her eyes, the streaks of starlight glistening in her eyes.
"You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," I said, but not loud enough for her to hear. But then she looked at me, like she had heard me.
"This is the perfect time for you to ask me to dance you know," Kat said. "Before I have another glass. Then you'll have to carry me."
"I need to go and get some music, I'll just be a sec...." But Kat grabbed my arm to stop me leaving.
"It's okay, we don't need music..." she said. And she was right. We didn't.
We danced, slowly, like a slow waltz, no music, just holding each other and moving across the rooftop. She rested her head on my shoulder and I gently pulled her deeper into her my embrace. We didn't say anything, and the silence between us was okay, comforting.
I could feel her body against me, her cheek on my shoulder, her chest against mine, our bellies pressed together warm and full, our hips brushing as we moved.
There was no talk, just comfortable sighs as we breathed in time, in tune, and danced slowly.
"I forgot how nice it is to have someone just hold me," Kat whispered.
We both closed our eyes and turned in slower, smaller circles until we were just holding each other and swaying. And all that time, the sky was alive with falling stars, it was a moment that could not have been anymore perfect. Then Kat made it something beyond perfect.
Kat lifted her face and pressed her lips against mine.
I kissed her, and she kissed me, like that kiss was going to give us both eternal life.
Through my closed eyelids I could still see the glow of the falling stars. We stayed like that for ages, like we would never stop kissing and holding each other. She pressed herself against me, so we were touching from our knees to our lips. I couldn't tell if it was me trembling or her. Or if I was trembling so much, I was making her tremble.
We kissed and swayed and held each other. I didn't think of Chrissie, I wasn't thinking of anything other than how good it felt to feel someone so close. To be this close, to smell a woman, to feel her warmth in my arms.
This is it then, I thought, this is how my new life really begins in this new society in this new world after ED Day, it begins here, with Kat, kissing her under falling stars on the rooftop of the Imperium, in Dead Sydney.
One day, I said to myself, years from now, I will look back at this moment as the punctuation mark to when my old life ended and my new life began. Everything that had happened between ED Day and now was just preamble, the prologue, this was the new start. With Kat, this was my new life.
I had to tell her. I knew it was too soon, but it felt like it was going to be the right thing to say, the perfect thing to say to make this perfect night even more perfect.
I felt the words I was going to say, I could taste them in my mouth, like I could taste the wine and chocolate on Kat's breath. I had felt this way for weeks now. I was sure she felt this way, too. How could it be too soon when we had both lost so much? We needed to hear each other say this.
So I just started saying, "I could fall in love with you", but I only managed to say, "I could fall...." and the rest of that sentence froze in my throat because by then we had turned so that I was facing the distant dark rise of the Blue Mountains, more than one hundred kilometres west of my hotel rooftop, and that glowing orange falling star that I'd seen through my closed eyelids was not a failing star at all, but a fire in the distance. A fire in the Blue Mountains.
A fire out there, amongst all that darkness that hung across the corpse-strewn suburbs where no streetlights had glowed for two months. Out there in amongst those coal-black silhouettes of the distant mountain ranges, I could see something twinkling.
Orange and red, flickering.
A signal fire.
A tiny fire, but it would have been big up there in the mountains. A huge stack of burning wood.
"What's wrong?" Kat said and I realized my whole body had become totally rigid. She must have felt that because I was still hugging her.
I couldn't speak. I was waiting for the...
And then I saw it.
The second fire.
Then the third fire flared up.
"Are you okay, Paul?" Kat said, her voice rising with concern. I barely heard her. Three fires burning on a hillside in the lower Blue Mountains. Big enough, high enough, to be clearly visible to the city so far away across those blackened suburban ruins. Clearly visible to me, as they were intended to be.
Chrissie was alive.
She was in the Blue Mountains.
She had lit the signal fires.
And how's her timing?
Perfect, of course.
Now I know Chrissie is alive, she is living in the Blue Mountains, she is waiting for me. And she wants me to come to her.
So how come I'm not stuffing my backpack with food and water and supplies right now?
How come I haven't already hit the road?
Kat knew straightaway something was up. I let her go and I walked towards the edge of the roof, staring at the distant mountains.
"What's wrong?" she said. "What just happened?"
"Nothing," I said and tried to swallow, nothing, my mouth was totally dry.
"It looks like there's fires in the mountains." Kat said, and came up behind me. She slipped her arms around my waist.
"...probably started by lightning or something..." I mumbled, but I could barely speak. Not only was my mouth sandpaper dry, but my throat was filled with what felt like cotton wool.
Chrissie's three signal fires were burning away, and I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow, all the way up there in the Blue Mountains, Chrissie was looking right at me, and knew exactly what I had been just doing, and knew the words I had just begun to speak to Kat.
"Lightning?" Kat said. "No, there's no clouds anywhere in the sky."
I looked up, the meteor shower was over.
"Somebody's lit those fires, Paul," Kat said. "Maybe they're trying to signal to us. You know, let us know they're alive up there."
"Dunno," I lied, on instinct, not even knowing why I couldn't tell her the truth.
Did I say "Dunno" straightaway instead of telling her the truth because I'd already made the decision to stay down here? To stay with Kat?
"Fires break out, sometimes," I told Kat, "It doesn't mean there are people alive up there."
"But why wouldn't there be?" she said. "We made it. Maybe there's more people alive up there than down here. There might be whole towns full of survivors. You've been to the Mountains. You've seen the way some of them were living up there before all this happened. They had fruit and vegetable gardens, chickens and goats and sheep and rainwater tanks and solar panels and..."
"So why haven't we seen any of them yet?" I demanded, with real anger in my voice.
Kat's arms fell away from my waist and she backed off.
I felt like an instant prick-fuckwit-bastard.
"I mean..." calming myself, hating myself, "I mean, why hasn't anyone from up there come into the city to see if people are still alive, down here?"
"Well, they probably can't get in here," Kat said. "Those robot sentries might be stopping people from getting in. They stop us from getting out, don't they?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, unable to tear my eyes away from the signal fires. Fuck oh fuck oh fuck...
"Did you know people up there? From before?" Kat asked.
I didn't answer. Kat walked back to the table and refilled her wine glass. "They're probably living better lives up there than we're living down here. They wouldn't have had to deal with so many corpses, that's for sure."
"Maybe..." I said. I was still trying to swallow. I felt like if I didn't swallow I was going to start choking. I went back to the table for my wine glass. My hand was shaking as I drained it.
"You want to go up there, to the Blue Mountains I mean," Kat said, "Don't you?"
I shrugged, made a noise that was supposed to be a dismissing snort, or little laugh, but sounded like a choking gasp.
"If you want to go up there and see who's left alive, you should go," Kat said. "I'd come with you, I would. But I can't leave the babies."
"I know," I said, and I was glad, then, that Kat had a reason to stay here in the city. I could leave here. I can leave here.
We stood there, finishing our wine, watching the fires burn down. There was nothing to say.
"I need to get some sleep before I start my shift," Kat said. She had scheduled herself on from 6am in the hospital, and it was already heading towards 2am.
"I'll walk you downstairs," I said, but Kat shook her head. "You'll just fall over again." Then that laugh, that wonderful laugh, and the tension was gone.
"Maybe you should get some sleep, too," Kat said. "You don't sleep enough. I can tell. I'm not surprised. Anybody who had to do your job would have trouble sleeping."
Was that true? Did I have trouble sleeping? When was the last time I didn't drink myself to sleep? Or swallow a handful of pills around 1opm? Was I doing that every night? Or just some nights? I can't remember. Do I dream about the dead most nights? I can't remember.
Kat thanked me for dinner, smiled a real smile, and picked up her blinding lamp.
"We can do this again. I'd like to, Paul. I really would. Dinner was great, thank you."
We stood there and just stared at each other for a while, both smiling.
"Thank you for..." Kat began. "I don't know...thank you for being here, and...I had a really good time."
Kat drained the last of her wine, apologised for leaving me to clean up and then gave me a final grin. I know she liked the way I reacted to her. God. She was so beautiful, her face lit by those candles and Christmas lights. I felt that falling feeling again, I felt like pulling her into my arms, kissing her, then carrying her down to my penthouse and into my bed.
But then she was gone.
About five minutes later I looked over the edge of the roof and saw her walk out of the Imperium and down the empty street. She disappeared amongst the darkness. But the soft echo of her voice came to me. She was singing as she walked home. An old song. One I knew. It reminded me of being a teenager, when life seemed eternal and death something that happened to people you didn't know.
I stayed on the rooftop for a while, finishing off the bottle of '51 Grange and watching the signal fires in the mountains burn down. When the last fire blinked out, I headed downstairs.
There was no sleep. I sat on the balcony, with the laptop on, staring at the glowing screen, waiting to see how I really felt about what happened before I started writing this entry.
I know I don't have to stay here even one more hour.
I can just bail. Right now. This morning. It's that easy.
I can just walk out of the city with a backpack stuffed with supplies. I can go down into the drains maybe and find a way past the robot sentries. Bookman showed me old maps in the Mitchell Library. There are tunnels under the city that were built for trains that were never used, along with the hundreds of kilometres of infrastructure corridors and tunnels and colonial era water passageways. There'd be lots of spiders and rats, but I could find a way through.
I've never gone to see if the sentry robots are actually in position, or watching over every route out of the city, because I haven't wanted to leave here before.
If I want to leave here now. And I still don't know if I do.
But I can go, and start making my way towards the Blue Mountains. I don't owe these people anything, and they don't own me.
I'm just another survivor. I'm not their leader. If anybody is their leader, it's Bossbloke.
They'll wonder what happened to me if I do a runner, and Kat will probably miss me, maybe all my new friends will, but I'll just be another disappeared person, like everyone else they knew who were suddenly dead or gone.
I can just go.
So why can't I do that?
Why can't I just get up, pack up and get the fuck out of here?
I was pretty drunk when I was kissing Kat, but seeing Chrissie's signal fires snapped me straight. Now, a few hours later, I can feel the booze and fatigue creeping through me like cold fog down empty streets. I've got to get some sleep, maybe a few hours, enough to get my head straight.
I've got a Corpse Crew shift to finish today, anyway. I have to get that done first.
Then I can decide what I'm going to do, and when I'm going to do it.
Go Here To Read Chapter Fourteen