The Scourge: Part One

Black Swan

By Chris Picone, 2017

John pushed the body out of the way with his foot and closed the door, then went back inside and sat on the couch with his head between his hands. The temptation was to panic – but with the rest of the world panicking, he knew that a clear head would be the key to survival. He tried to clear the image of his neighbour’s crushed skull so that he could focus on what he was going to do next.

“John?” A woman’s voice called down the stairwell. John took stock of his surroundings. He was clenching the arm of the couch so hard that his fingers had turned white. He had also forgotten to tell his wife that the immediate threat was over. He didn’t respond immediately so Mia hesitantly made her way down the stairs. She froze when she saw one of their dining chairs shattered across the living room and covered in blood.

John caught her gaze. “I had to do it, you know. He attacked me as soon as I opened the door. I had him in a headlock and everything, but he kept trying to bite me. I couldn’t choke him out. I couldn’t stop him.”

“I know,” Mia said understandingly.

She had been there, after all. There had been an odd scratching sound at the door, so naturally she had looked through the window to see what was making the sound. What she saw was their neighbour, an elderly gentleman, palming at the door like he was trying to open it but couldn’t remember how. He was paler than usual, his mouth kept opening and closing soundlessly as if he had some kind of tic, and his eyes were an unnerving milky white. When John had opened the door, the neighbour immediately lunged at him, and with unexpected strength. John fell backwards in surprise, causing the attack to miss, and was probably the only reason his life was spared.

“Is it safe to come down?” She asked.

“Just stay up there for now, in case there’s more. I need to think.” John replied without turning. He was staring at the blank television screen, but seeing nothing.

Mia returned to the bedroom without a word. She was terrified, and trying her hardest not to show it. She had to keep a brave face for the kids. And she trusted him. He might be the sort of bloke that could look miserable at a party, but crises were where he shined.

John went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, then returned to the couch. He had an idea, but he wasn’t sure how to make it work. Without mobile phones, he needed to be in too many places at once. The network wasn’t actually down, it was just overloaded as hundreds of thousands of people were trying to make the same phone calls he needed to make. Landlines would probably still work, but no one had those anymore. He sipped his beer, which was still fairly cold. Electricity had only been down for a few hours. A thought occurred to him.

“Mia, Aidan.” He called out in a calm voice, turning to face the stairs.

Mia came out to the top of the balcony, followed by Aidan and their other child. “Yes?” She asked.

John frowned. He hadn’t called for Trent. He bit back his frustration – it would have been natural to bring the youngest child with you rather than leaving him in a room on his own, he supposed. “Aidan, I need your mum to help me with something. Stay in the room with Trent. Neither of you are to leave that room until your Mum or I come and get you, understand?”

Mia started making her way down the stairs. Aidan nodded and tried to usher Trent back inside the room, but Trent wasn’t having a bar of it. “No. I go with Mummy!” he shouted, shoving Aidan. Aidan wrapped his arms around him to stop him from following and tried to drag him into the room but Trent grabbed a hold of the sides of the door. “No!” He shouted again.

Mia’s eyes welled up, but she stayed strong. “It’s okay sweetheart. You stay here with Aidan,” she said sternly.

“No!” Trent cried. Aidan was still trying to pull him into the room. Aidan was ten and Trent was four, but he was strong for his age and had a firm grip on the door frame.

“Do I have to come up there? If I do, you’re getting a smack,” John said, his voice still flat. He eyeballed Trent, who stared defiantly back at him.

“Come on Trent,” Aidan urged, but Trent just shook his head fiercely and held on even tighter.

“Okay, smack it is then.” John said with a sigh, and made a move toward the staircase.

“No!” Trent cried again, but his voice was worried rather than defiant this time. He suddenly let go of the door frame and ran inside the room, even closing the door behind him.

Despite her tears, an amused half-smile slipped onto Mia’s face as she descended the stairs. John didn’t wait for her, and headed into the carport where he pulled a large esky down from the racking. He slid it across the floor toward her. “Fill that with everything from the freezer and as much as you can from the fridge.”

She took the esky but hesitated. “Where are we going?”

“I have a plan, but we need to get moving. Pack as quickly as you can and I’ll explain on the way,” John told her, and left her to it.

Before John did anything else, he walked to the far side of the carport and reached up to the top of the racking where he pulled a machete down from its hiding place. It was a big bastard; the blade was nearly two foot long. He set it aside, ready to go in case he needed it, then went about the task of pulling his camping supplies out of the racking and arranging it in front of the roller door, ready to go.

“Done.” Mia said, leaning into the carport.

“Good. Here-” John replied, stepping over tents and chairs until he reached the side wall where a dozen large plastic tubs were stacked floor to ceiling. He pulled one down, tipped its contents of old baby clothing onto the ground, and handed it to her. “Load up the pantry. Let me know if you need another tub. Oh, and is the dry box still packed?”

“Should be, but I’ll check,” she answered.

Mia returned to the kitchen with the tub, then took John’s dive bag inside to pack the kid’s clothing into. John kept packing. When he was finished, he looked about the carport. What else would be useful? They would be tight for room as it was. He frowned. They would need all manner of things. More food, to begin with, and some real weapons wouldn’t go astray. Zombies aside, desperate people were dangerous.

One light-hearted night at a barbeque a few years ago, John and his friends had jokingly made plans for an impending zombie apocalypse. One of his friends worked at the local gun shop, so he was going to bring the weapons and ammunition. Another of his friends was in the army, so he was going to raid the stores and bring bulk rations. John’s job was to bring all the tools and camping equipment. The plan had expanded over the years to include a few more close friends: Dan and Stella, army mates and drinking buddies; Abby, who had been studying to become and was now a doctor; and most importantly Liam, an old school friend who liked to brew and distil his own beer and spirits in liberal quantities, as well as whoever his girlfriend happened to be at the time. They were all going to meet up at Macrossan, where an old rail bridge spread across the Burdekin River. The place was perfect, only an hour’s drive away but far enough from population centres that it should be a long time before zombies found them. The Burdekin River beneath was always flowing with fresh water, and it was surrounded by cattle properties so they would never run out of food or water. And the rail bridge itself was a defensible location. They figured zombies wouldn’t be able to traverse the gaps in the sleepers, and they would be able to shoot them down all day without taking any significant risk.

John chuckled at the thought. It was still a solid idea but times had changed, people had left town, and he thought he had a better idea now.

Two hours later, John was satisfied that they were as ready as they were going to be. His four-wheel drive and Mia’s SUV were loaded to the brim with clothes, food, camping supplies, and a small collection of toys. The streets were almost empty. Anyone with any sense had already left town and everyone else had locked themselves inside their houses. The shopping centres had been inundated with panic buyers for the last week and the power had only just been cut so everyone was fairly well stocked and for most there was just no way to justify the risk.

“Zombies everywhere,” John commented as he rounded the corner.

“They still look so human,” Mia noted. It was a bizarre sight. Apart from milky eyes and pale skin, there was nothing to visually set them apart from any healthy person. If they hadn’t known better, it would have just looked like some kind of extensive door-knocking or an incredibly boring street party was taking place.

John drove past all of it, thankful that so far all the zombies had been on the footpaths and not on the road.

“John, look!”

Ahead was what could only be described as a roving band of bogans, armed with all manner of kitchen knives, garden tools, and a lever-action shotgun, apparently reclaiming Townsville one street at a time. The two groups gave each other a spirited wave as they passed.

“They don’t stand a chance. There are too many of them." John planned on joining the fight, but on his own terms. Right now, his priority was to get his family to safety. He would come back, but with a strategy, and something a little more dangerous than his machete.

There were a few cars on the road as they continued toward the south side of town –survivors trying to flee the city. They were moving slowly, so there must be some sort of obstruction further down the road, but so far there were no traffic jams.

“So where are we going?” Mia asked.

“Work,” John answered.

Mia was about to press him for more information, but she could see he was concentrating. It would have to wait. Instead, she turned around to check the kids were okay. Aidan was glued to the window, clearly scared out of his mind but disciplined enough to know that his parents were busy and right now was not the time to bother them. Mia reached over and gave his leg a reassuring squeeze, the closest thing to a hug she could manage given the circumstances. Blessedly, Trent had fallen asleep, probably exhausted from his little tantrum earlier.

John was carefully watching the road in front of him, but his mind had jumped two steps ahead, working out his next moves. There were two ways to get to where he was going, but one of them involved heading into the city district, which was the most densely populated part of town. And since the police were preoccupied with the new zombie threat there was no way of enforcing road laws. John fully expected some moron to go flying past the traffic on the footpath at a hundred miles an hour at any given moment. With most of the stoplights out, every intersection was dangerous. No, the other way might be longer but it was substantially safer. It took him half an hour just to get to the southern side of town. The main road leading to the southern highways took them across the front of the army base. He stole a look as he drove past. The first building was a combat engineers’ depot, where he trained as a reservist. It was empty. The rest of the base was a hive of activity: Soldiers scurried about, loading trucks with supplies. More soldiers lined the fences, accompanied by bushmasters and rovers. Just as he passed the main entrance, a convoy of bushmasters rolled out, heading back into the suburbs.

“Where do you think they’re going?” Mia asked.

“The hospital, I expect.” John said morbidly. It was only a couple of kilometres up the road, and would no doubt be full of freshly-risen bodies.

John followed the southern highway until he came to the Port Access Road, which was almost entirely devoid of cars. Just before the road met the gates to the port, John turned off and headed toward the civilian marine precinct, and to his workplace, Townsville Industrial Maritime. He had to stop out the front as he had no way to get the gates open. He planned on breaking into the building and opening the gates from the inside, and then driving the car through and closing the gates behind them. He was wary of leaving his family out here unprotected, but he hadn’t seen any signs that anyone else was out this way and they were a reasonable distance from residential areas, so for now at least, they should be relatively safe.

“Are we going to stay here?” Mia asked. She had dropped him off at work a few times over the last couple of years but had never actually stepped inside. “The place looks pretty solid.”

John shook his head no. “We’re going to take one of the boats,” he said as he squeezed through a gap between the gate and the fence. “Wait here.”

Mia swapped into the driver’s seat as John ran around the side of the building, just in case they needed to make a quick getaway. She had barely sat back down when she heard the unmistakable sound of glass shattering. A few seconds later the gate shuddered to life, and slid open on its rollers. Mia drove through and then waited for John to come running back out to the car, but he didn’t. She waited. There! Movement in the window. A figure – was it John? No, wait. There were two figures. Mia’s heart jumped into her throat.