Chapter Fifteen - "Make It End"

May 13

I'm writing this by hand, my laptop is gone. Everything in my penthouse, including the penthouse, is now gone. There's a printout of all of the journal pages I've been writing tucked away for safekeeping, but I lost everything else, including the photos of me and Chrissie. I have to start over now.

I went to the hospital nine hours ago to see Kat and to pick up what I was hoping would be enough ant-bird flu gear - gloves, disinfectant, mask, gown - to keep me safe when I went back to the Imperium to see how Maggie was doing.

Kat was with the babies when I found her. Nappy changing and bath time. I helped her out, and I was amazed, as always, at how even after handling festering corpses on the Crew the smell of fresh baby shit could still turn my stomach.

Kat told me again how much she enjoyed our dinner on the rooftop and how she would play host to me, next time.

"So when do you want to do this?" I asked her, she smiled.

"Couple of nights from now," Kat said, and then she gave me a kiss on the lips, fast enough to surprise me, but long enough to linger.

"You were pretty amazing at the Town Hall meeting," I told her. "You're really getting under his skin with your questions."

Kat shrugged. "Good. Why should this be easy for him? He wants to take control of us and tell us what to do. The more we resist, the more he knows he can't push us around. We have to stand up to him. All of us."

Few of us need to say Bossbloke's name anymore when we're talking about him. 'Him' or 'He' is enough.

"Sometimes I just...want to, I don't know, get one of those buses and fill it full of petrol cans," Kat said, "and get Matron and a few of the other volunteers and all the babies and the old people and hit the road for...I don't know, the Gold Coast, or further up. Cooktown maybe, get into the rainforests right up the top there."

"I know," I said. "It feels like something bad is coming, for all of us."

"Yeah," she said, and nodded quickly, "Exactly. Do what they did in Mad Max 2. Grab a bus and head for paradise and leave the rest of them to do whatever they want. Fight it out...."

The baby I was changing was 'Tony'. He was only about 11 months old, but he really did look like Tony Soprano. A baby version of him anyway. An old face, underneath that baby flesh. He stares at you like he's scanning your mind. Like he knows more about you than you know about yourself. Matron found him sitting in a pram in Hyde Park on ED Day. His mother had died right in front of him. There were thirty or forty other corpses close by. What does Tony think of what he saw that day? Does he dream about watching his mother die?

"I don't want to stay here and live off the scraps of the old society," Kat said. "We need to build a new society, I know that, like he always says. But not here."

"There's probably road blocks on the other side of where the robot sentries are set up," I said. "I mean, we don't really know if we can get out of the city or not."

"Some of the men can go forward, ahead of the bus, scout it all out, maybe. We could burn the sentries. Five or six bottle bombs, that would confuse them long enough to ram a bus through, wouldn't it?"

I shrugged. I didn't really know. We're only going to know if we can really get out of here when we try to do it.

"You don't have to go all the way up to the top of Queensland," I said. "There's hundreds of little villages and towns along the coast between here and there. There must be somewhere you can all start again."

Kat stopped bathing one of the baby girls and her head dropped, her black hair hanging over her face.

"I knew you wouldn't be coming with us," she said. "You're going to the Blue Mountains, aren't you?"

There was no point in lying. She'd know anyway. I nodded, moved along the line to the next baby that needed changing. Half of them were crying now.

"You're going to leave here soon," Kat said. "I'm just going to look around one day and you'll be gone. Isn't that right?"

It was true. She was right. I knew in the back of my mind that when I left for the Mountains I wouldn't be going around and saying goodbye to everyone, and telling them where I'm off to. I didn't want Bossbloke to find out for a start. But I didn't think I'd end up going if I had to go through all those goodbyes.

"Just promise me you'll come and say goodbye, to me, before you leave," Kat said.

Kat turned away as she moved onto another baby.

"I have to go and check on Maggie now," I said. "I need to get some gloves and a mask."

Kat told me where to find them. I thought she would come with me to find the gear, but she stayed with the babies. The noise of all those babies crying hurried me through the hospital corridors. I found what I needed, I stuffed them into a clear plastic bag and headed for the Imperium.

I was a few blocks from my place when Bossbloke walked out of a side street and straight up to me. I stopped, and he kept walking, until his face was only a few inches from mine. There was no friendly hello, or chatter. Bossbloke was in business-only mode. I only noticed he had a pistol in his hand when he started talking and I couldn't match his intense stare.

"Where are you going, Paul?"

"Home," I said, trying to keep my voice neutral. "I've got some stuff to do, and sleep to catch up on. I'll come and see you tomorrow if you want to talk."

"I do want to talk," Bossbloke said. "But not tomorrow. Right now."

"Whatever..." I mumbled.

"What's in the bag there, Paul?"

"Stuff and things."

"Yeah, funny. What's in the bag, Paul?"

"Nothing. Look, I've gotta go..."

"Tell me what's in the bag, Paul, or I will look for myself."

This was bullshit. I was sick of his intimidation, his bullying. I didn't care that he was armed. I had to go and check on my friend and he was delaying me.

"No, it's none of your business."

Bossbloke tried to give me his super-scary intensity stare, but it wasn't working. He snatched at the bag without breaking eye contact. I stepped back in time and then around him, and walked away, fast. I didn't let myself run.

"Come back here!" Bossbloke yelled, but he didn't come after me. "Paul! Get back here NOW!"

I didn't answer, I didn't look back, I was only a few hundred metres from the Imperium.

"Paul...." And then I heard the click as he cocked the pistol. I didn't need to turn around to know he was aiming it at my back. "If someone is sick, you know I have to know about it. Stop...."

But I didn't answer him and I didn't stop. I walked quickly to my building and when I hit the stairs I began to run.

The door to Maggie's apartment was unlocked, as I'd left it a few days ago. I didn't trust her to get up and open the door when I came to visit, I didn't know if she would even hear me knocking.

The smell hit me before I even reached the door. Stale vomit, blood, urine. And that other smell, that death smell, the one that seems to hang around people who are just about to die.

When I walked into the main room of her apartment, the sun was blazing in through the open balcony doors. There were weird colourful patterns across the walls. It looked like some kind of crappy modern art, but then I realised what it was, and what had happened to Maggie since I last saw her.

The mess on the walls of the main room looked like someone had spun in a circle while opening up a firehose of blood and vomit.

The usual mess of Maggie's forgetful past weeks were strewn across the floors and benches and table tops. I hadn't cleaned up in here for ages. The mess had seemed to multiply by itself when nobody was watching. Everywhere I looked I saw drops or splashes of blood. Deep maroon or near black blood, streaked with white strings and yellow balls of pus.

I heard her gasping from the bedroom. The door was half closed. The smell was incredible. Concentrated, gagging, fucking terrible.

Maggie was on the bed. The sheets used to be white, now they were purple and a weird almost luminescent green.

There wasn't much left of her. She was already thin when I first met her shortly after ED Day. I'd tried to make sure she ate, and had plenty to eat, over the past two months. Now she looked like she hadn't eaten for a year.

I knew what was happening to her as soon I saw her on the bed. I knew as soon as I walked into the apartment.

The signs of full-blown H5N1 infection are bloody. You bleed from your nose, your ears, even your eyes. Blood fills your lungs until you feel like you are drowning. Blood bursts from veins under your skin and your flesh grows massive bright-purple coloured blood blisters. When you thrash around as your body tries to cough, hack and vomit out all that blood and fluid from your lungs, your stomach, your throat, you bust those blisters on your back and your arms and your legs and sometimes when they pop under pressure they explode like bullet hits in the movies.

But all of that horror was only a preview. When the ED Day bird flu virus really got going, the blood didn't flow from your eyes, nose, mouth, penis, vagina and anus, it gushed out. Like a foamy red fountain. This is what must have happened to Maggie in the main room of her apartment. Staggering, turning in circles, geysering blood and gore as every organ in her body began to fail and rupture.

Maggie was already hours into the last stages of the virus. Her entire body had turned blue because she couldn't absorb any oxygen. The blue of indigo, deep and dark. She didn't breath, she gasped, fought, battled for air.

Her old whithered fingers were already black. Her lips looked like they were rotting from all the stomach acid that had passed across them. Most of her teeth had come loose from her gums and had been ejected by the sheer force of the blood that had jetted out of her.

I'd put on the mask, the gown and the gloves before I entered the apartment. I don't remember thinking about catching the bird flu virus from Maggie as I sat down on the edge of the bed.

She sensed someone was there with her, but she couldn't see me. Blood had dried, caked around her eyes, and they were filmed over with yet more blood, like it had somehow found a way to get right inside her eyeballs.

She groaned as she shifted in the sodden bed. I could hear a crackling sound coming from her body. Matron had told me she heard a sound from bird flu patients she'd dealt with that I thought was probably similar to this. The lungs can fill up with so much blood and pus that they burst, and this forces air under pressure into the skin. Thousands of tiny air pockets across the back, so when the patient moves, the little pockets break, making popping and crackling sounds.

Maggie tried to blink away the dried blood from her eyes, but she only managed to seal her eyelids shut. I tried to wipe away the gunk with my gloved fingers. She could blink again, but slowly, as though this too was an effort beyond her strength.

She tried to tell me something, but her throat could only produce gurgling sounds. Then a flow of green and yellow pus lumped out of Maggie's mouth, there must have been two litres of the stuff. The stink of it was incredible. And it wasn't just that. The smell in the room was that of human decay. Maggie had already begun to decompose while she was still alive.

I used my fingers to clear the thick clay-like shit from her mouth. She was beginning to suffocate. When her airwaves were clear enough, her body fought for another big breath. It wasn't Maggie fighting to live now, it was her body, her muscles and nerves responding and trying to deal with what was going on.

If this was bird flu, I hadn't seen anything this extreme before. I coughed up plenty of blood and pus when I was ill at the camp. I felt like I was going to die, the throbbing agony in my bones and joints and the struggle to breathe through all that fluid, the endless vomiting and stomach muscle spasms, all of it made me want to die. But I didn't begin to decompose when I was still alive, like Maggie.

Is this the next mutation? Is this how bird flu is going to really finish off humanity? By mutating into an evil more horrific virus and delivering a immune-system apocalypse that means no-one can survive once they got sick because decomposition begins before you even die?

I sat with Maggie for an hour, thinking if I started to develop any symptoms at all, I was going into the harbour attached to some concrete blocks, so none of the other survivors could become infected from my corpse. I thought about walking off the edge of a 20 story building, but the impact would splash me on walls and windows.

Air whistled thinly in and out of Maggie's chest. Who had Maggie been when she was 30 years old? Where was her family? Her relatives and friends? What had she done in her life? I knew so little about her. I only knew her as Maggie, the nutty old bird who lived below me for a couple of months, who only wanted to watch DVDs of old British sitcoms and sit in her chair. She had been waiting for the end for ten weeks. Now it was here.

I thought about my grandmother, who I saw die slowly, over months, dying miserably from cancer when I was seven years old, wasting away, fading. Even back then I wanted to know why death had to be so horrible for so many old people. My grandmother's hospital ward had been filled with old people like her in their last days. I used to go and visit others there when I went to see grandma. They always found a smile for me, despite their terrible condition.

Priests and doctors and nurses and equipment, trying to keep them alive. Many had no grandchildren coming to visit, my gran was popular with the others on the ward because she had seven or eight grandchildren who came in once a week. The old dying people loved to see us. Sometimes they wanted to talk, or just listen to us chatter away. Sometimes they needed someone to hold their hand for a while. Sometimes they needed a hug.

Gran always found the energy to talk to me during those last three months of her life. She couldn't speak the last few visits, and the last words I heard her say were to my mother, standing there, shattered. Gran said, "Help me...." My mother didn't know how to help her, but gran did. "Make it end," she gasped.

I was called away from gran's bed by another old woman in the room, who always smelt of stale piss. She gave me enough coins to go down and buy some chocolate from a machine in the waiting room.

When I came back into gran's room, a few minutes later, my mother was slumped in a chair next to gran's bed, and gran was gone. Her mouth was open, just a little bit, her eyes closed, but she had started to smile when she died. The half smile remained locked on her face. There was a fading red oval shape across her mouth, chin and cheeks. I knew it was the shape of my mother's hand print.

My mother didn't cry, but some of the other women in the ward were weeping, quietly. She did what had to be done, what the nurses would have done eventually, with drugs. Gran died knowing her daughter cared enough about her to help her end the pain.

"Say goodbye to gran now," my mother said. I don't remember fear, just curiosity. So this was what the kids at school had been talking about. Death. Gran's arm was ice cold but her forehead was hot, damp, when I kissed her goodbye.

"She loved you so much," my mother said to me. "She was happy you were close by when she went."

I was happy, too. I was never haunted by gran's death. I never had bad dreams about it, and although mum was said her mother was gone, I think she always felt comforted knowing she there with her, and that she helped her.

Maggie whispered, her voice a weak thick gurgle. "Finish it..."

I could have left her with her mouth filled with that horrible muck, I could have not cleared her mouth and throat for her earlier, and maybe I should have. Maggie was right, it had to be finished.

I put my left hand over Maggie's mouth and I pinched her nostrils closed with my right hand. She didn't fight me. She raised a trembling arm from the bed and draped her fire hot hand over mine. I looked into her eyes as she died. She was just gone.

I sat with Maggie until the smell of smoke began to compete with the stench of vomit, pus and decomposition.

I thought it was smoke blowing in from more fires on the north side of the harbour, but I could see the flickering shadows of flame through the window, amongst the sunset light, coming from below.

The stairs thickened with smoke as I ran down them. It was black in the stair well, but I could feel the heaviness of the smoke in the air. The mask still on my face filtered some of it.

By the time I got down the ground floor, flames were licking under the door. I touched the door, it was hot. I kept going down the stairs and into the underground carpark. I ran towards the orange and red light of dusk and fire filling the exit ramp.

The smoke must have been thicker than I thought. I could barely walk up the exit ramp and I tore off the mask and gloves and gown before I collapsed in the gutter. I remember looking up and seeing the flames bursting through the glass of the foyer around the corner, and the black billows of smoke pouring from open balcony doors on the first three or four floors.

When I woke up I was in the Botanical Gardens, lying on a cot in one of Greenfinger's glasshouses. Bookman and Johnny were there. They were standing five or six feet back from me. I could smell citrus fruits, but not from the plants in the greenhouse. Someone had sprayed me from head to toe with lime and lemon juice. It stung in the tiny cuts and nicks on my hands and arms that I didn't even know were there.

"Are you sick, Paul?" Bookman asked me. "Do you feel ill? Are your joints aching?"

I shook my head. They weren't. I didn't feel sick. I sat up on the cot and drank deeply from the bottle of water one of them had placed next to me.

"I'm fine," I said. "What happened? There was a fire..."

Johnny nodded, I could see he was furious. "Fucking Bossbloke. That cunt. He torched your building. We're gonna get him..."

"The shut-ins...." I remembered and adrenalin snapped me wide awake, cleared my head. "There were four others in there, on the fourth, sixth and eighth floor....Carmine....Felix..."

"They're all dead, Paul," Bookman said, his voice grim but firm. "You were the only one to get out. The whole building's still on fire. It's been burning for four hours..."

I looked around, back towards the skyline of the city, a few hundred metres away. I could see the glowing smoke blooming from the top half of the Imperium. The office blocks on each side of the Imperium were burning now as well. In a few hours, those fires too would be burning as big as the one consuming the Imperium.

"Are you sure you're not sick...." Bookman started again, but I shut him with a wave of my hand.

"It was Bossbloke, Paul," Johnny seethed, "He torched the place. One of the Boomers saw him doing it. He threw half a dozen burning bottle bombs into the foyer...He knew you were in there. He fucking knew! We're gonna get that fucker. We'll get him...."

"We can't stop the fires," Bookman said. "We'll have to let them burn out. There's nothing we can do."

"Is everyone else okay?" I asked and they both nodded. Johnny grabbed my arm as he walked past me, and squeezed tight.

"When I saw the building on," he said, and his voice caught in his throat, but only for a second, "I thought you were in there, mate. I thought I'd lost you."

Johnny walked outside and lit up a cigarette. He turned his attention to the sky.

"Everybody went down there to take a look at what was happening," Bookman said, "but Bossbloke told them all to stay back. He said it was a gas leak or some bullshit. I knew by looking at him, before PartyGirl even told us, that he'd done it. He looked like a pyro who'd just gotten off."

Johnny walked back into the glasshouse. "Rain's coming in. An hour or so away." He gave me his half-smoked cigarette but it was too rough in raw lungs.

To back up Johnny's claim of coming rain, the horizon blinked with distant flashes of lightning.

Bookman sighed deeply. "Let's hope it's some real rain. Those fires could take out the whole city if they spread."

I thought about the old people in my building, I hoped they'd died from the smoke before the flames got them. But then I thought about the rooftop, about my garden, all those fruits and herbs and vegetables. That food supply is gone. All the private stashes of food and booze and cigarettes and fuel I'd stockpiled, hidden away in more than two dozen apartments throughout the Imperium, all of it gone.

Bookman and Johnny are staying here with me tonight. They're snoring away on sleeping bags between the rows of seedlings. They wanted to stay because they thought Bossbloke might come after me. I'm awake, they're sleeping. But Johnny is sleeping with his hand on one of the assault rifles I found in the Army truck on ED Day.

It's close to dawn. The writing takes so much longer by hand. The rain hasn't come yet, but it smells close. From where I'm sitting on my cot, my spider scrawl filling the pages of this notebook, I can see there are now seven, or maybe eight, buildings burning.

The smoke is thick and every now and then, a wall of it blows through the Gardens, like a fog.

I hope the rain comes soon. If the fire keeps moving from building to building, we're going to have to evacuate the hospital.

Go Here To Read Chapter Sixteen - City On Fire