Chapter Sixteen - City On Fire

May 14

By the time the sun set today, the fires had spread to twelve buildings. Entire skyscrapers and apartment towers went up, windows exploding, the hurricanes caused by the hungry flames blowing out lumps of burning furniture and rains of ash and paper. Choking black smoke spewed out of the buildings and settled over the city.

From down in the Botanical Gardens, surrounded by trees and the rolling green lawns, it was like watching the world’s biggest IMAX screen. It seemed altogether unreal, this vast destruction. There was nothing we could do. You can’t fight a skyscraper fire with buckets of water. The rain clouds loomed, but refused to break, like they were waiting for the fires to finish their destruction.

Me and Johnny and Bookman stayed in the Gardens for most of the day. Bossbloke didn’t come looking for me, but we had decided to get ourselves ready in case he did. We were nervous, and still are. Nobody has said it to me, they don’t have to, but I know Bossbloke tried to kill me when he set fire to the Imperium. He knew I was inside, as he knew I was going back to look after someone, Maggie, who was sick with the bird flu. The thing is, most of us would probably agree that burning new bird flu victims in their beds, before they get a chance to spread the virus again, is the right thing to do. Of course we’re all terrified of the virus returning and finishing us off.

I haven’t told Bookman or Johnny or Greenfingers yet about how different the bird flu virus that killed Maggie was from the one that killed so many in the months leading up to ED Day. I want to tell them, to warn them, but I’m afraid of what they will do. Will they kill me if my temperature goes up? If I start to cough and hack? If I spit up some blood?

The rain finally began to fall, about an hour ago, around 10pm. Fires are still burning, but the rain is coming down harder and harder.

The Professor came down to tell us about the emergency Town Hall meeting Bossbloke called at 2pm. The Professor said it was tense, and the smoke from the fires was drifting into the hall. Bossbloke had told them they could do nothing to stop the fires, only that they had to get out of the way. Except for the Imperium, and another apartment tower where seven survivors had been living, all the buildings that went up were empty. Bossbloke didn't tell the Town Hall meeting that he had set the fire in The Imperium, and that it had spread to the other buildings. But the Professor said the rumour that Bossbloke was responsible had been passed around the crowd in the Town Hall before Bossbloke began the meeting. He overheard one of the boomers telling an elderly woman that Bossbloke had set the fire because there might have been new bird flu victims inside. The Professor said the elderly woman just nodded and muttered, "Good."

The Professor said Bossbloke was ranting, and claimed the fires had been deliberately lit by arsonists. Bossbloke allowed no questions from the floor during his half hour vent. The Professor said Bossbloke had warned that anyone caught trying to set fires or steal food or water from the stockpiles would be shot on sight.

But shot by who? Bossbloke? Was he going to stop disappearing for two or three days at a time and stand guard over the whole city?

The Professor said there had been a call for volunteers to act as security guards, and nine male survivors he didn’t know that well had raised their hands. Including Trader. We’ll definitely have to call him Traitor now.

Bossbloke had talked some more about how survivors had to be prepared for the arrival of others from outside the city. He said he had seen “signs” that we would have visitors soon, but the Professor said no indication was given by Bossbloke as to what these “signs” were, or who exactly would be rolling into the streets of our city soon.

As me and Johnny and Boookman and the Professor sat around outside the greenhouse, drinking harbour-cooled beers, we didn’t have to wrack our brains to work out who these visitors would be. Army friends of Bossbloke, or private security forces. We all agreed on that.

Bookman said Bossbloke will use the destruction wrought by today’s fires as an excuse to implement curfews and his brand of martial law, backed up the visitors Bossbloke has been preparing us to expect sometime soon.

The Professor then told us about his walk from the Town Hall to the Botanic Gardens. He walked down George Street, pass the Queen Victoria Building. The next block down towards Wynyard was mostly burning. The huge fires had created a windstorm in the canyons between the buildings. The Professor said he had to duck and weave around burning, falling debris. Abandoned cars had also begun to burn.

He saw he saw a few other survivors, watching the fires, devastated by the scenes of destruction, but he also said that shops were burning two blocks over from where the line of burning office blocks and apartment towers were going up. Small fires, the Professor said, maybe more pyromania. Bookman went green when the Professor said that. What shops, he wanted to know. He snapped off the question like he already knew the answer and was furious at his foreknowledge.

“Bookshops,” the Professor said. “A couple of camping stores. A Dick Smith electronics shop…”

“Fuck,” Bookman said and slammed his half drunk bottle of beer to the ground. “That fucking shitbag!” The bottle didn’t explode in a burst of beer and glass. We were sitting on the lawn, It bounced, and rolled and then blubbed foamy beer.

“He’s burning the bookshops,” Bookman explained. “Bossbloke, he’s…going after the places that have what we value the most. Knowledge, information, tools. He's destroying the things we can use to survive and fend for ourselves.”

The Professor nodded. He had counted six bookshops belching smoke and flames, including the biggest one in the city, on George Street, opposite the north end of the Queen Victoria Building. Bookman actually began to weep as he talked about the four floors of books and manuals in that shop. All the books were probably already burning now, and even if we rushed up there, we didn't have any way of putting out the fires.

No doubt Bookman would be picking through the ruins in a day or two, trying to retrieve the books that weren’t burned, or singed beyond readable.

I asked the Professor which camping stores had been torched.

“All of them, I think. The Kent Street one, that was the biggest in the city, wasn’t it? It’s gone.”

Knowing all those tents, gas barbecues, water bottles, water purifiers, battery-powered coffee makers, urns, backpacks, sleeping bags, everything you need to survive in the bush, had gone up in flames crushed me about as much as Bookman was destroyed by the loss of all those bookshops.

The burning of the shops had been systematic. I told them Bossbloke couldn’t have done it all by himself.

“You’re right,” Johnny said. “He used the skyscraper fires as a cover. He probably didn’t think anyone would notice, or care, that all those bookshops and camping stores were gone as well.”

“Well, I fucking care!” Bookman shouted. “That son of a bitch….”

An horrific realisation dawned then in Bookman’s mind, you could see it in the way the misery in his eyes soaked through his whole face.

“My libraries!” That was what he now called the State and Mitchell libraries on Macquarie Street. "My libraries, he's going to burn them all!"

Bookman jumped to his feet and turned to Johnny.

“Give me the rifle,” he said, firmly.

Johnny shook his head. “No way, mate. That’s not going to happen.”

Bookman immediately turned and stalked towards the greenhouse where he knew Johnny had stashed the assault rifle. It was loaded with a full clip. There were two more clips gaff-taped to the underside of a seedling table.

“Come back here!” The Professor shouted, but Bookman was running by then.

It took me and Johnny to stop Bookman reaching the greenhouse. Johnny tackled him and I threw myself on top, to hold him down. Bookman was weeping, but his fury trembled throughout his entire body.

“What are waiting for?” he shouted. “I’ll kill him, you don’t have to be involved…Let me go!”

“He’ll kill you first,” I said, as Bookman struggled to throw us off. “Listen to me, he’ll know we’re after him. He’ll be waiting for us, one of us, to try and get him. You won’t get within fifty feet of him.”

“Paul’s right, old man,” Johnny said. "Don't throw your life away on that bastard. We'll deal with him...soon."

We stayed on Bookman for a few minutes more until we felt his anger subside. Until his body was only shuddering from his sobs. He wasn’t just crying about the loss of his beloved bookshops, he was probably letting go about plenty of other stuff as well.

We keep so much of our shock and grief and horror locked up inside us that whenever something set us off, gets us crying, all the other shit we've been holding back pours out as well.

I knew Bookman would be better for having had this session of tears, we always felt better afterwards. Relieved, kind of refreshed.

“I have to go and look after my libraries…” Bookman said, when he began to recover. “You have to let me do that. We can’t let him burn those, too. It’s our history! Please…”

Johnny went and retrieved the assault rifle, and one of the spare clips, from the greenhouse and then left with Bookman to patrol Macqaurie Street, outside the State and Mitchell libraries. I told them I'd come up after dawn and let one of them take a break.

All the time we were talking, and arguing, Greenfingers had said nothing. He'd sat with us for a while when we were drinking beers and then he’d gone back to his work. Outside the greenhouse, he was re-potting a huge variety of vegetable seedlings. Mostly salad greens, but also more varieties of tomatoes, beans and root vegetables. The huge garden beds of the Botanic Gardens, now mostly stripped clean of all those foreign decorative flowers and shrubs was filling up with Greenfingers' food crops. The soil was magnificent, rich, fertile (or so he told me). The ashes and crushed bones from the thousands of corpses that had gone through the funeral pyres were now feeding the fruit and vegetables that would soon be supplying enough food to help keep a few hundred people alive. But as I watched Greenfingers working away tonight, almost oblivious to the towers of smoke and flame rising above the city, I wondered what sort of society would be living here in a year’s time, when most of the crops would be turning out a steady supply of fresh food.

Would this society twelve months from now be the small enclave of mostly free survivors that we’d had for the past few months, or would it be more like a return to the prison colony that gave birth to this nation more than 200 years ago, on the very same harbour foreshore where we now live?

Greenfingers smiled at me as I walked up to his tables. “You okay, son?” he asked, his concern genuine. I nodded, and asked him what he wanted me to do. He assigned me a few dozen flourishing seedlings to re-pot.

“You did the right thing for that old woman,” Greenfingers said, after a few minutes. "My dad died a slow and lingering death from cancer. I wanted to kill him so many times, but I was only a boy back then. All those poor old things, dying slowly in bloody grim nursing homes. And we were supposed to be the civilised ones, right?”

A few minutes of silence passed between us. The dull throb of small explosions in the burning towers, and the distant tinkle of sheets of glass falling into the street, cut through the normal silence of our dead city. I could smell the office paper and carpets and plastic chairs in the smoke that drifted down across the Gardens.

“You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you, son?” Greenfingers said, suddenly. “You wouldn’t let me suffer, would you?”

I shook my head, quickly. “Of course not.”

“If it comes again, if I get sick,” he said, “don’t make me wait. Don’t let me suffer. Just get it over with, and bury me in under some fruit trees. Can you promise me that?”

I promised Greenfingers I would do as he asked. And I meant it. I expect that he would the same for me.

2am : The rain began to really come down while I was writing. I helped Greenfingers drag a few tables of seedlings out of the greenhouse to get a good dose of rain.

Water was pounding out of the sky by the time we were done. It fell so hard you didn’t see drops, only a wall made up of clear strings of water in front of your face.

I let myself get soaked, enjoying the way the force of the rain pummelled my flesh. It felt cleansing.

Geenfingers went for a walk up through the Gardens to get a closer look at the burning buildings. He came back a few minutes ago, soaked through, and told me it looked like the worst of the fires were out. There were no more flames reaching out like huge red arms from the lower floors, but there was plenty of smoke trying escape the broken windows, where it was then churned by the rain.

The fires inside the buildings could slow-burn for days, but they weren’t spreading, and the thousands of broken windows meant the interiors were getting sodden with water.

Greenfingers reckons three apartment towers and eight office buildings have been half-gutted by the fires. None of them collapsed from the fire damage, not like the three World Trade Centre towers on September 11, 2001. Maybe Sydney buildings were built stronger.

I thought about my rooftop garden when the rain began, how much all those vegetables and herbs and fruit trees needed a good watering. I felt sad when I remembered they would have all been destroyed or damaged beyond saving by the fire that engulfed the Imperium.

I was already making plans for which building along Bridge Street or Macquarie Street I could set up home in next, and which rooftops would be best for hosting my new garden beds. But then I lightbulbed that I didn’t have to make those plans, because I’m not staying here. I’m leaving, in a day or two, once I’ve worked out a way to bypass the robot sentries and deal with a few things I still need to get done.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get to the Blue Mountains and reach Chrissie. A week on foot, maybe a day or two if I can get a motorbike or moped onto the motorways. I don’t know what I will find out there, beyond this little zone that I’ve come to know as home now : our new society in the heart of what was once the world’s greatest city.

I can’t say goodbye to all these people and I can't let Bossbloke know I'm leaving. I just have to go. Disappear in the middle of the night, like a coward, leaving behind a note or two for Bookman and Johnny to explain why I had to go.

The rain is slowing now, but it’s still coming down steady and strong. The fires will go out, the streets of our Zone will be washed clean of some of the last stains of the thousands of corpses that died and rotted there, and the gardens will drink their fill and be able to survive the normal heat of the days now for a week or two more. Until the rain comes again.

Greenfingers just came into the storeroom next the greenhouse where I’m camping out, writing by lamplight.

I’ve got a late night visitor.

Go Here To Read Chapter Seventeen