The Scourge: Part Two
Chief and the Toucan
By Chris Picone, 2018
“Aidan, stay here,” Mia whispered unnecessarily – whoever was inside the building would have heard the car long before they heard her voice.
“No, don’t leave me here,” Aidan pleaded, his voice rooted in fear.
Mia looked over at Trent, who was currently unconscious in the booster seat next to his big brother. “Aidan, I need you to stay here in case Trent wakes up. Lock the doors and you’ll be safe. Don’t unlock them until your dad or I come back.”
“But what if the zombies come?”
“We’re a long way from any other people,” Mia lied. “There won’t be any zombies out here.”
Mia went to leave, causing Aidan to launch into panic mode. He wailed and reached through the gap between the front chairs, trying to grab his mother by the shirt to stop her from leaving. Mia pushed him back in his seat angrily. “Be quiet! You’ll wake Trent up. I don’t have time for this,” she snapped. John could be in danger. Mia reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out John’s machete. “Lock the doors,” she commanded. Wasting no more time, she shut the door and rushed toward the building.
Industrial Marine was a huge building, but the offices were all up the end closest to the gate. Mia frowned as she reached her hand through the hole in the glass and opened the door to the reception. She would have to sneak in – if John was in danger, the machete would be of no use unless she could get close enough to use it. She briefly wondered whether she would actually be able to kill a man with it, if it came to that, but set the thought aside just as quickly. If it came to that, she would have to.
Mia had been here before, a few times. The office put on a Christmas party for the workers and their families every year, and the occasional barbeque in between. But those were always held around the side of the building, behind the workshops where the crews had their lunch breaks. There were toilets just inside, but that was as far inside the building as she’d ever gone. She waited silently, hoping to use the voices of the two men to guide her. There was only one other door in the room, but judging by the size of the door and the way it was gilded, she suspected that it would only lead to a conference room. On the other side of the reception desk was a corridor, which snaked out of view. She stalked her way up the corridor, which led around the corner into an open office. The voices had gone quiet again, so she was forced to stop and wait once more. A spiral staircase with fine polished timber steps and brass railings thrust it way majestically into the room just in front of her. Short-walled cubicles filled the rest of the room. There was a door at the back, but it had a glass window, and she could see it led back outside to the yard. There were three other doors along the side wall. One clearly led to an office, perhaps belonging to one of the senior managers. The one in the middle had a window as well, through which she could see bare concrete walls; presumably, that one must lead through to the workshops. She couldn’t determine what was through the other door. She fretted; maybe she’d made a noise on the way in, and alerted whoever was in here with her husband.
No – there it was again. The voices hadn’t stopped, they were just muffled by the heavy door and she couldn’t hear it over the pounding of her heart. Machete raised, ready to strike, she edged over to the office door. She turned the doorknob slowly, then burst in! Her husband jumped back in alarm, crashing into a filing cabinet in the process. The other man, a good foot taller than her husband and proportionately wider, turned to face her. His eyes lit up as he saw her, but it wasn’t with fear. ‘Mia!’ He bellowed. ‘So good to see you! I’d give you a hug, but – what’s the knife for?’
‘You through yet?’ Chief called out.
‘Yes!’ Mia called back. The gate shut behind her. Moments later, Chief lumbered out of the office and over to the car. While inside the office, John had discussed his plan with Chief, and they’d agreed it was solid. Even more-so, now that they had someone that actually knew how to drive the boat. That was one thing John had worried about, but he gambled that he would be able to work it out. He may never have driven the tug before, but he knew how to drive a boat and, with the exception of all the gauges, controls, and radar, it didn’t look that different. Starting it was a different matter, but he’d spent quite a bit of time working down in the engine bay, and he knew how the machinery worked and how to follow pipe. As long as nothing was broken, he was fairly confident he would be able to get it moving. Worst-case scenario, they could escape on one of the punts and then come up with a Plan B.
‘I still don’t understand why the door was shut,’ Mia complained. After the initial surprise and panic had worn off, the men had made fun of her for trying to attack them with a machete, which she felt was entirely unjustified. Chief – or Fred, if you weren’t on friendly terms with him – was one of the skippers. Her husband was a yardy, but he didn’t get along well with the yard supervisor and frequently found himself despatched to assist the marine crews, which was perfectly okay by him. He’d helped Chief with a few things in the engine room one time, while the tugs had been docked for maintenance, and the two had hit it off instantly.
Chief just laughed. ‘Come on, pretty lady,’ he bellowed. He was one of those larger-than-life characters whose every action was loud and boisterous.
‘Can I get out, Mum?’ Aidan asked.
‘Just wait, Aidan,’ she responded. ‘I’m only driving around the corner then we’re stopping anyway.’ Aidan sat back in his seat, frustrated, but knew better than to push the point. By some miracle, Trent was still asleep.
She stopped at the far end of the building, only a short walk from the crib room, but parked so that the vehicle could not be seen from the road. She got out and, reluctantly, tried to pick Trent up. Just like every other time, he jolted awake as soon as she touched him, and started screaming what Mia liked to think of as ‘baby profanities.’ He always had been a bad-tempered child. She hurried him into the crib room, knowing that trying to hush him would only aggravate his protests. Aidan obediently closed the car up, and then followed her inside.
‘Mum, I want to help.’ Aidan complained once they were inside.
‘Why not? I can unload the car.’
‘Actually, that might not be a bad idea. Wait-,’ Mia said, just as Aidan was about to run outside. She needed to consider for a moment, and that was difficult with Trent screaming in her ear. ‘Trent! Cut it out or I’ll flog you!’ she snapped.
‘Fine.’ Trent said, and abruptly went silent. Mia stared at her son, bewildered, then turned back to Aidan. ‘I want you to stay in here for now,’ she said. ‘No, listen – Dad and Chief are going to be driving around in forklifts and cranes and all sorts of things, so I need you to stay out of their way. And I don’t know where your Dad is going to want everything out of the car yet. When he comes back in for a drink, I’ll ask him. Okay? Now play with your brother, please.’
Aidan went and sat in front of Trent, but he didn’t play. He was sulking. Mia ignored it and pulled a chair up next to the door. Aside from keeping the kids out of the way, she was the lookout. The crib room ended in a one-way glass wall, and from here she could clearly see the only road that led to the precinct. Unless the zombies could swim, she would see them coming. The only other threat was if someone else decided to come by boat, but the men would see that.
Meanwhile, John was zipping around the yard on a forklift, preparing loads to be dropped onto the Toucan. Pallets were laid out, waiting to be loaded with food supplies. Industrial Marine always had a store full of food, ready for the crews to head out on short notice. Two ice-boxes, one to be filled with fresh drinking water, the other to be loaded with any left-over food that wouldn’t fit in the ship’s galley. A cage was placed near the family car, to transfer their personal effects onto the ship. There wasn’t much else to load – the ships were usually kept loaded, ready to be sent back out on the next job. He spent the next ten minutes climbing around on top of the yard’s 100-ton crane, checking the hook, the lifting straps, the fluid levels, and making sure everything was in working condition, then started it up. It’d take a good ten minutes or so for the engine to warm up and all the computers to calibrate and do their thing. The noise of the machine made him nervous – he didn’t know what attracted a zombie’s attention, but that kind of noise was sure to attract any other humans in the area, and they were possibly more dangerous. Chief was already on the Toucan. A gangplank allowed him to cross the threshold onto the stern of the ship. He had dragged a hose across with him and was now using it to top up the ship’s water supply. He checked the diesel tank – it was already full, as it should be – and then went below-decks to prepare the engine room.
With Aidan’s help, John loaded and filled all the pallets, ice boxes, and cages, and then went down the gangplank to see if Chief needed any help.
“Easy now,” John cautioned. “The plank will go up and down with the waves but it’s tied to the ship and the dock and won’t go anywhere. If you’re worried, hold onto the handrail.”
Aidan’s eyes were wide as he took in the ship. Oh, he had seen them all before, from the dock. But they seemed like toys in the harbor, no bigger than cars in a carpark. Now that he was so much closer, and looking up at the boat instead of down, he finally realized just how big the thing was. If the deck was the ground floor, the wheelhouse was the third floor, and the myriad antennae, radars, and flag masts above that made the ship look nothing short of imposing to nine-year-old eyes.
Toucan was a deep-sea tugboat; tiny by sea-going standards, but the largest in Industrial Marine’s fleet at slightly more than 30m in length, although she had a twin sister. She was the logical choice to take out: Bigger boat meant bigger everything. In this case, that meant a bigger supply of fuel and water, and enough beds to accommodate Chief, his family, and room for a few more survivors if they happened across any. John wasn’t sure how much fuel and water they had, but was confident that it would be enough to keep them out of trouble until they could come up with another supply source.
The gangplank passed under a kind of arch extending from the rear of the deck, a device designed to allow the ship’s crane to retrieve items from the sea bed. John had never seen it used but apparently the diving crews used it on salvage operations. The bulk of the deck was vacant space, deliberately left clear so the hawser had room to swing back and forth when the tug was hauling barges, which was its most common function. The space was interrupted by two huge structures, the housing for the ship’s funnels, which jutted up on either side of the deck. Around the edges were a number of capstans, with loops of rope next to them ready to go, and holes in the gunwale to allow the ship to tie off. Off to one side was a HIAB crane. The only other things on the deck were two hatches, one of which was currently wide open. John was about to descend this when Chief’s head popped up.
“Righto yardy, ready to lift?” He asked.
“Ready.” John confirmed.
“Legs Eleven?” Chief asked, referring to the crane barge which was sitting next to the Toucan, within lifting distance.
“Nah,” John said. “I hate that bloody thing. And I’ve already got the 100 tonner warmed up.”
“Sounds fair. Hello, mate – you helping, are you?” Chief asked, smiling at Aidan.
Aidan crossed his legs and said nothing, too shy to answer.
“We’re going to start lifting everything onto the boat now, mate. You want to ride up with your Dad or do you want to help me down here?”
“Dad.” Aidan squeaked.
“Good, he needs all the help he can get. Don’t let him drive the crane off the dock, okay? They’re not good swimmers.”
Aidan positively beamed under Chief’s attention, and charged up the gangplank with new confidence. John followed him up, pausing to give Chief the finger as he passed. Chief chuckled.
John climbed into the cabin of the 100-ton crane, Aidan only millimetres behind him – there was no way he was going to miss this. After briefly checking the instruments and testing the hydraulics, he put the crane into gear and they crawled their way up to the other end of the yard and sidled up to the water’s edge. Once there, he set the outriggers, and the crane was in action. John’s job was easy from here: All he had to do was boom over to the collection of pallets and cages, and then back over to the boat. Poor Chief was up and down the gangplank, slinging the load and then racing back down to lower it onto the deck behind the winch and out of the way of the hawser. But they knew their business and the job was finished inside fifteen minutes.
‘Should we bring the diesel tanker?’ John asked. ‘Reckon we’ve got room on deck for it.’
‘Nah,’ Chief said. ‘We haven’t got time to weld anchor points on there, and I’m not going to do a half-arsed job dogging it down. Besides, we’ve got about 70 tons of diesel on-board already. Should keep us going for a while. Reckon we make a get-away now, get your family to safety. We’ve got the welding kit on board, so we can install some anchor points while we’re at sea, then come back for it.’
“Alright. Let’s get Mia and Trent and get out of here.”
A short time later John had pulled the ropes off the bollards, and before he had even finished rolling them under the gunwale, they were under way. Once they were clear of the tugs and had passed the breakwater, John went to the back of the boat and loosened the hawser.
“Punt away!” John called. The tug sped up in response.
At Chief’s suggestion, they were towing one of the punts along with them. It would be much easier to use the punt from the tug to the harbor and back than to try and guide the tug in every time. Aidan stood by, staying out of his way but watching his every move. The job done, they headed upstairs to join the others in the wheelhouse.
The tug motored its way up past the rock wall, and then turned across the front of the port, cutting through the shipping channel. To their surprise, the reclaim and port were swarming with zombies, only a few hundred metres from Industrial Marine. They had thought themselves safe, and it was shocking to realise just how close they had just come to death.
“Jesus,” Chief swore.
“Why are there so many?” Mia asked. Everyone knew the port only ever ran a skeleton crew. Even when ships were in, the port was too small for cruise ships, and cargo ships didn’t normally have much in the way of crew. John said nothing, but he wore the same expression of fear mixed with revulsion. He had almost led them all to their deaths.
Soon enough, they found their answer. The USS Essex, one of the big US warships that utilised the Townsville port, was docked. It must have been here for a joint exercise, and full of US Marines, when the pandemic took hold of the town.