With ComiCon Sydney within sniffing distance and the final proofs done for The South Forsaken, I thought I might take the chance and drop a bit of a teaser. I know many of you have already read the book, so you will already know what’s in the post. For these people, can I encourage you, if you loved the book, please share it! I’ve already had so much support from you, and I appreciate all of it. I promise the next book is right around the corner!
Justin was hunched alone at his desk, swamped in his oversized HAZMAT suit. He had spent the better part of the public holiday running tests for the science bigwigs and just wanted to go home to a cold beer. His wife and son would be back that afternoon from visiting his in-laws for Christmas, something that he wasn’t too broken up over missing if he was going to be honest with himself. He smiled as he imagined Angela’s expression when she saw what he had ready for her, though he knew she would be upset when she realised his medication had been ignored in favour of his work.
He twitched minutely as a familiar, unwelcome voice pushed its intrusive self into his skull, breaching his mind and stealing his thoughts from his head.
He had pressed himself harder than usual, wanting to finish this stage of the experiment early. Half an hour longer and he could leave. Half an hour and he would take the meds he had stored in his workspace. Fighting to pull back control, he twitched violently and looked around quickly. He wasn’t sure if he was looking for the other he could feel watching him, or for his co-workers, who still didn’t know about the schizophrenia he had fought to hide for most of his life.
He picked up the syringe with the current test substance and readied the rat firmly in his other hand. This would be the last, and then he could close everything up and go home. Another jerk had his hand spasming and he looked down in horror, feeling a cold prickle along the back of his neck.
The syringe swayed slightly where it had imbedded itself into the thick fabric of his HAZMAT suit. He hadn’t felt anything on his skin though. Maybe the fabric had stopped it? He was sure he hadn’t depressed the plunger; this was nothing to worry about. With shaking hands, he inserted the syringe into the rat and pushed, injecting Substance F into the squealing creature before replacing it in the cage. He quickly signed off on the paperwork and cleaned up thoroughly, not wanting to raise any suspicions from the scientists around him. He ducked into the airtight room leading off from the lab, waiting for the decontamination procedures to finish before he ripped the air hose from his back and tore off his helmet. He panted slightly as the first hints of panic sent icy fingers down his spine. He knew his work was risky, just as he knew that if they found out that he had been exposed to the untested trial drug his freedom would be little more than a beloved memory. He would be separated from his family, denied his basic rights; he knew that his history was one of the reasons behind his assignment to this team. He had seen it happen before: the government-funded research team he worked for was given liberties no moral person would entertain.
The CSIRO had recently started work on a synthesised hormone thought to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia. Justin’s team was responsible for the first phase, which introduced a lab-mutated Bornavirus spliced with a variant of toxoplasmosis into a host to simulate the symptoms of schizophrenia. He glanced down at his gloved hand, desperately hoping that the toxic mix had been kept from his skin.
“Everything okay, J?” The intercom clicked and he nodded his head, trying to portray the calmness he didn’t feel.
“Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine, mate. Just a long day behind the glass.” He jabbed a finger towards the Plexiglass helmet he had dropped to the floor. A rough chuckle rang through the enclosed room and echoed mockingly through his brain. He fought not to react, as disjointed paranoid thoughts clawed at his mind. He glanced down at his arm, frowning at the line of red scratched across the surface of his skin.
Frantically he ducked into the men’s room, sparing only a moment to make sure he was alone before scrubbing at his arm. The near scalding water turned his skin an angry red as he soaped and rinsed, repeating until he couldn’t take the heat. He moved to the bench, took out his pills and, throwing three of the little green triangles onto his palm, swallowed them dry.
He barely remembered his walk to the car, the trip home twisting into a haze of moving cars and lights. He stumbled in through his front door, guided only by a distant sense that told him he was home. He grabbed a beer from the fridge, throwing back the first mouthful before he walked blankly to the living room, tossing his coat onto the back of the sofa. He sank into the worn recliner and closed his eyes in exhaustion.
It was growing dark when he woke, the click of the door announcing the arrival of his wife and son.
“Dad?” He could hear his son Chris making his way through the house. Justin scratched his arm absently and stood to greet him.
Angela came in and smiled, holding up a thawed, uncooked box of pizza. “Did you go through all this trouble for me? I feel so special.” She reached up to kiss him but he shied away, the scratch on his arm still fresh in his mind. She frowned.
“I think I picked something up at work,” he muttered, trying to brush it off.
“Is it serious?” she asked, concerned.
“Nah.” He winced as his voice listed high and he coughed to clear his throat. “Just need to wait a bit, minimise fluid transfers, the usual precaution. To be sure.” He turned just in time to see Chris place his beer back on the table sheepishly, lips still shiny where he had drunk from his dad’s bottle.
“Oops.” He wiped his mouth.
Justin paled and his wife’s worried frown deepened at his distress.
“What was it? What are you working with?” She knelt beside her son, resting a hand on his brow but he waved her off. Her worried eyes turned to her husband.
Justin held his hands up in what was meant to be a calming gesture. “Look, I’m sure it’s nothing, I barely got scratched. And this happened earlier today. Nothing’s happened to me yet, and if I did pick something up I would have been showing something by now.” He pushed all of the confidence he didn’t feel into his words, and whether it spoke of his skills as an actor or her unwillingness to accept the worst as a possibility, she let it go. It was not mentioned again that night, although her worried gaze darted between her two boys as they moved around the house.
Sleep kept its distance as Justin lay in bed. He looked over Angela where she slept peacefully, and climbed out carefully from between the sheets, stepping softly over the squeaky floorboard and creeping down the familiar stairs. Reaching the fridge, he liberated another beer and slunk over to the recliner, turning on the TV and flipping through the channels, too wired to rest. A thump pulled his attention to the ceiling; he smiled as he followed muffled footsteps as they dragged sleepily from his son’s room to his own. Even as a teenager, Chris liked to know that his parents were nearby.
Justin turned back to the TV, just as an audible scream split the silence. He spun to the stairs, taking them two at a time as he ran to his room. The door was open as he approached and the sight that met him threatened to bring him to his knees: Chris held Angela tightly to him, face buried in her throat, the sheets were dyed a deep red beneath him.
“Oh God,” Justin choked out. His son looked up at the noise and growled at him; his eyes were coated with a milky film, his mouth dripped with blood and spit as his lips peeled back in a growl. Chris dropped the body and lunged towards Justin, who stumbled backwards out of the room, slamming the door as he fled. He ran back downstairs to where the light of the TV still illuminated the house and pulled his mobile phone from his jacket, mashing at the buttons.
“Emergency services, how may I direct your call?”
“He attacked Ange! He’s eating her!” His words garbled together in his haste to get them out, and then he dropped the phone in fright as a heavy thump rattled the door above him. The wood splintered under the heavy body throwing itself against it. A terrified scream filled the house and for a moment Justin didn’t recognise it as his own. He fled past the heavy front door and slammed it shut to wait for the help he desperately hoped was on its way.
The world ended on Boxing Day, with blowflies providing a droning soundtrack to the summer heat. People nationwide were still recovering from gorging themselves the day before.
Sarah worked in aged care in Geelong and didn’t usually get a chance to work in the acute sector. The overload of patients, however, meant they needed all hands on deck and she found herself called in to work at the public hospital. As to be expected, major holidays meant busy emergency wards, and very little time to assimilate the goings on in one case before being called away to work on something completely different. Sarah had spent most of the afternoon tending to her four patients, and forcing down a coffee whenever she could tear herself away.
She nearly overlooked the memo on the desk in the nurse’s station; it might have been a normal warning for a potential viral infection that may be seen in newly-admitted patients, briefly reminding nurses of care instructions and advising use of full precautions. Sarah brushed her lank black hair out of her face and picked up the memo to read it properly. The last alert they had been given for a viral outbreak had been the influenza strain last winter, but something about the tone of the memo insisted she pay attention. She decided to play into her paranoia and ducked out into the fire escape to call Jen, a fellow student nurse she had worked with. They’d kept in contact after Jen was moved to the Royal Melbourne Hospital to complete her final year.
“Jen, hey, how are you? How’s work?”
“Nope, not doing it,” Jen replied. Her tinny, brusque tone seemed rude to those who were unaccustomed to her personality.
“Doing what?” Sarah asked innocently.
“Small talk? You don’t do small talk. What’s up?”
Sarah grinned and looked down at the memo in her hand. “Has your hospital received a memo on this new outbreak?” she asked, purposefully keeping it vague and playing into the tight suspicion that curled down her spine.
“Actually, yes, we got the alert that there was something happening in Geelong. I’m not sure how far it’s spread though. We had one of our regional patients come in this morning, hyper-aggressive, extremely violent behaviour. We had to call a code black on him. I think he came from down your way.” She laughed but it sounded strained. “You know the weirdest thing, though.” Jen paused. “I was in ED when he came in and I know they pronounced him brain dead. It must have been really close, especially with the ferocity with which he woke up; he damn near flew off the trolley.”
“He came back to life?” Sarah asked incredulously, her voice strangled. She coughed to try to cover it. Jen snorted.
“No, that’s not what I said, he was only clinically dead. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re obsessed. I mean that in the nicest way of course.”
“Of course. I know,” Sarah replied, hoping her voice was projecting the reasoned maturity that she wasn’t feeling at the moment.
Sarah ended the call standing quietly in the stairwell, two thoughts warring for attention in her mind. It would be easy to walk back on to the floor and dismiss this as a paranoid geek-out moment, finish her shift and go home to her cats. She opened the door, picked the second option and walked back to the nurses’ station. Her shift didn’t end for another hour, but playing on the fact that she was called in on a public holiday and had cut her break short, she ducked out early and headed down to the emergency ward via the cafeteria to snag another coffee. It might not be the good stuff, but caffeine is caffeine.
Gulping half of the coffee down and logging into the ward computer, she checked the reports for the morning. It wasn’t strictly allowed, but who questions a person wearing scrubs in the hospital? She noted the usual cases that had been admitted: a couple of children brought in with nausea and vomiting; four people involved in a car accident, two of whom were released with minor injuries; and two brought in with suspected substance abuse—one currently sleeping it off, the other displaying very aggressive tendencies. That one had to be restrained after attacking a staff member. A note attached to this last patient’s history suggested that his father, who had his own history in the hospital’s mental health records, had come in with him. It stated that the father had been ranting about mutated viruses and government conspiracies. The doctor who had admitted the young man had called for security to escort his father away from the other patients, assuming the aggressive paranoia to be a result of his schizophrenia.
Sarah looked around to see if anyone she knew was working and smirked slightly when she spotted Nell, a flighty nurse with the unfortunate tendency to babble—something that Sarah now fully intended to exploit.
“Nell! Are you off? I have coffee.” Sarah waggled the half empty coffee cup in the air. Nell followed the movement eagerly; a nurse’s addiction was an easy thing to take advantage of. Sarah handed her the cup and they walked out. Nell removed the lid, looking sceptically at the low level of the coffee.
“Evaporation, it’s the heat.” Sarah waved off Nell’s disgruntled look at the half-empty cup and sat on the low bricks out the front of the hospital. “I hear you’ve been having fun this morning?” Sarah started casually, throwing out the bait. As anticipated, Nell jumped at it eagerly.
“It’s been shocking! Not so much in cases—it’s been surprisingly slow there—but that one guy… I’m sure it’s a full moon tonight! We had to put him in the isolation unit when he came in.” Nell took a sip of the half-warm coffee. “We were waiting for whatever he was on to leave his system but it didn’t, no matter what we pumped in… or out! He was so violent! The doctors eventually said not to go near him, so we had to stick to suicide obs through the window. When he still wasn’t calming down after an hour, Sue went in with security to try to sedate him and take his obs, and he bit her! I don’t know what he’s on, but I haven’t seen anything that does this before! And his dad wasn’t much better; he was talking about killing him! Honestly! His own son! The paramedics that brought them in said their place looked like a slaughter house.”
“Nell, slow down. What case?” She acted ignorant, not wanting to admit to snooping through patient files.
“The substance abuse!” Nell paused, and lowered her voice. “He killed his mum. He was on such a high that he ripped her apart! They said he was eating her when they came in and another team had to be called in to help them. It took four of them to get him down!” A disgusted look crept over Nell’s face.
“Okay, you said he bit Sue. How is she?”
“Not sure, I think they were working on her when you came in. It was pretty bad though. With the amount of blood she was losing, he must have severed an artery.”
Sarah stood up and walked back inside, driven by a need to see what was happening. Nell followed her closely. Sarah wasn’t sure what she was looking for—years of horror movies were beginning to play through her head. She needed to find something to either prove or disprove her suspicions.
She swiped the entrance card-reader and walked in just as a code blue sounded over the intercom. She hurried forward, following the crowd that rushed to a curtained off area. Sarah sucked in a breath, hoping to laugh at her over-blown paranoia. Stepping through the curtain, Sarah saw the resuscitation team working frantically to revive a body on the table. She heard the doctor call for the defibrillator and watched as they applied the shock. Someone thrust a notepad in her hand, yelling at her to take notes if she was planning on ‘just standing there’. On autopilot she started to write down everything: the meds given, the shock applied, the patient stats being yelled out … every action got recorded into the little book, including the doctor’s final statement.
“Time of death … 1500, 26th December 2013.”
A suffocating silence seemed to fill the partitioned area and she felt her heart slow from its panicked pounding to a rate where she felt she could breathe again. Distantly she heard them discussing Sue’s family; someone had called up to the next ward to request nurses who didn’t personally know or work with Sue to clear the room and prepare her body for her family. The adrenaline leeched from Sarah’s system, leaving her feeling drained. She allowed the nurse in charge to guide her to a chair in the office as the rest of the team filed in after her and dropped similarly into the seats littered around the room for the routine debrief.
The team discussed their actions and the outcomes. Sarah read from the notes when asked, relaying everything leading up to the unfortunate death of the nurse involved. The cynical part of Sarah’s brain raised an eyebrow and asked How dead?
A chime sounded overhead, and a faceless voice called over the loudspeaker. “Code black, resuscitation bay two, code black!”
Sarah felt a wave of heat rush through her body, followed by an icy chill. She stared at the curtain she had stood behind moments before.
With adrenaline still coursing through her body, Sarah could almost forgive herself for not noticing the scream that echoed down the hall. As she registered the new chaos that piled itself into her harried brain, she found her feet leading her towards the curtain that separated the bay from the corridor. Her steps led her past the isolation unit where the steady thumps behind thick glass commanded her attention. Her head turned, almost on its own, to look through the thick observation glass. Her hand drifted up absently, hovering in front of the glass that separated her from a young man, his milky eyes seeming to look past her, not following anything in particular. His mouth hung slightly open, a viscous trail of saliva smearing the glass where he was pressed against it. A vicious snarl rattled through her ears and she snatched her hand back, her survival instinct driving her out the door.
The sudden shock of sunlight and overwhelming heat woke her from her wandering thoughts, and she looked up to find that she had left the hospital and was standing on Bellarine Street, facing the staff car park.
“Where are we going? What do we do?” Nell’s small voice startled her out of her reverie.
“We?” Sarah frowned in confusion as Nell stared at her with wide, wretched eyes. Sarah hid a grimace at the added responsibility. “Just keep quiet,” she huffed, walking brusquely to her car. Her nursing training pleaded with her to return and help, but she ignored it, reasoning that her family needed her more. She pulled out her phone and dialled James, newly married and a recent father to daughter Charlie. Her dark-haired, sarcastic geek of a brother made a striking contrast to his tall, blonde, serious wife, Rebecca. Sarah knew that if anyone would be able to empathise with her fears at the moment, it would be James, with whom she had shared so many laughs during horror movie nights when they were growing up. And if this all turned out to be a stress-induced figment of her imagination, he would at least be able to see the funny side of it.
“James?” she said as the phone was picked up.
“No, sorry, he’s with Charlie at the moment.” It was Rebecca’s voice. “Sarah? Are you okay? You sound stressed.”
Sarah choked out a laugh. “I’m really not okay. Can you put me on speaker and go to James please?” There was a muffled jostling and James’s voice came distantly through the phone.
“Sarah? What’s up?”
Sarah sighed. Now that she had to voice her suspicions she wasn’t sure how to word them.
“Sarah?” James questioned; she’d apparently been quiet too long.
“Can you come to Mum’s place?” she asked. “It sounds stupid in my head … I’d rather say this in person.” She could almost hear the look of bemusement that must have passed between James and Rebecca.
“What’s wrong?” he pressed, worry teasing into his voice. “Are Mum and Dad okay?”
“They’re fine,” she assured him. “But something’s going on.” She took a deep breath. Knowing he would need something more than a feeling to go on, told him exactly what had happened so far, and explaining her outlandish suspicions as to the cause. To her relief, her brother and his wife didn’t laugh. There was another fumbling sound and James’s amused voice sounded clearly in her ear.
“It could be nothing; you might be panicking over rubbish.” He sounded like he would really like nothing more than to go back to his family and laugh off the story recounted by his paranoid sister.
“Yes, it might, and by all means, if that’s the case, laugh away. But what if it’s not?” Sarah heard James heave a sigh.
“What do you want us to do?”
“Your home is all glass, and your fence wouldn’t keep anything out. Grab what you need and go to Mum’s. She has that high fence and the extra space in the garage flat if we need it. We can work out what’s going on from there.”
Sarah hung up feeling drained. This was a situation she had never expected to find herself in. Gritting her teeth, she moved towards her car and walked straight into a pale, shaking Nell.
Ahh, right, she mentally corrected herself, family and miscellaneous others …
“Nell, don’t you need to go home?” Sarah struggled to keep the stressed edge from her voice, not needing the added frustration.
“Mum’s overseas. I don’t want to be home on my own,” Nell murmured, her voice low and uncertain. Sarah sucked in a deep breath.
“Come on then.” Sarah gestured impatiently towards the car, her eyes drifting to the small green car and onto the stunted boot that hid the bug-out bag she had worked on and carried around for years. She smiled as she slid into the driver’s seat, the beginnings of a plan starting to form in her mind.
Sarah pulled in at the petrol station down the road, filling up the tank just in case. A squeal of tyres jerked her attention to the front of the car. The crowded sedan in front of her peeled off and swerved along the road, away from the city.
She fumbled a little as she swiped her card at the counter, eyeing the panicked actions of the motorists as they sped past the petrol pumps. More than one took advantage of the panic to avoid paying.
Nell sat wide-eyed in the passenger seat, a pale spooked look fixed on her face. She hadn’t said a word since climbing into the car, her stillness in direct contrast to her usual hyperactivity. Sarah remained silent as she climbed back into the driver’s seat and sped down the crowded road towards her parents’ house.
Sarah’s brakes protested the sharp, jerking stop in front of the high iron bars that separated the house from the street. She left her car parked parallel to the house and almost ran through the tall gates, her father’s sporty coupe the only car in the driveway. Remembering Nell, Sarah turned to see a shaky figure climb out of the car, although she was unsure whether the shaking was a result of the situation they’d found themselves in, or of the fact that a normally twenty-minute drive had been compressed into ten. She hauled the gates shut behind Nell, fighting against years of disuse to bring them together. The faint squeak of the aged front door announced her mother’s arrival.
“Sarah?” Anica was a short woman with sparse greys starting to pepper her short dark hair. She walked slowly out onto the porch and stood with a quizzical look on her face.
“Mum.” Sarah sighed in relief, wanting to laugh at the normalcy of it all. She wanted to laugh off her hyperactive imagination, drive Nell home, then have a coffee with her Mum and listen to her Dad regale her with another debate on AFL vs NRL, trying to sway her decision to rebel against his years of training by choosing the former. The intermittent screech of tyres along nearby Anakie Road suggested otherwise, and she turned to watch the unusually heavy and dangerously fast traffic pouring up the road, eager to put the city behind them. Giving herself a sharp mental shake, Sarah ran to the converted garage behind the house and grabbed the bike chain from behind the door. She hurried to secure it around the gate, locking the group inside the relatively safe, though hopefully temporary shelter afforded to them. Nell had joined Sarah’s mother on the porch by this time and had actually hidden behind the bemused Anica, as though that alone would protect her. Sarah shook her head as she walked up the stairs to join them.
“So …” she began. “We had a bit of an eventful day at work. Could you put the kettle on, Mum?”
The idea of coffee seemed to spur Anica into action and she quickly moved into hostess mode, herding Sarah and Nell indoors and onto the couch. Within five minutes, they all held a coffee and Nell had a plate of biscuits in front of her, for “the shock”. Anica had thoroughly berated Sarah for her traumatising driving.
Sarah leaned back into her chair. “Dad, can you call Georgie please?” she asked, turning to where her father sat in his customary recliner, his solid presence seeming to add some calmness to the room. Alex was the quiet type, a pastor and a counsellor for most of his life. His quiet studiousness seemed to directly contrast with Anica’s loud, at times brash personality. Her mother was currently displaying her restlessness through a constant stream of questions, as she tried to understand what was happening. Alex picked up his phone and dialled, putting it on speaker.
The phone rang several times before Georgia answered, and her strained voice spoke volumes about the stress she felt. Her serving sister on the Adelaide air force base, and her slightly acerbic personality usually kept this sort of emotion well hidden. The fact that she was now displaying her anxiety so openly suggested to Sarah that whatever was going on was big enough to involve the defence force.
“Thank God you’re okay!” Georgia blurted out. “We’re not allowed to call out. They’re watching us too closely and I couldn’t reach my phone without being obvious. I had to make an excuse to leave the room. I was so scared when I hadn’t heard anything from you. Are James and Rebecca okay? Are they with you? Are you all safe?” The questions would have continued but Sarah jumped in when Georgia paused for a much-needed breath.
“Georgie, slow down.” Sarah surprised herself with how calm she sounded. “I’m here with Mum and Dad. James and Rebecca are on their way here with Charlie.” As if summoned by the statement, a furious horn sounded at the gate. Anica walked over to the window.
“They’re here,” she said unnecessarily, and walked towards the door
“I’ll get it,” Sarah said quickly. “I put the bike lock on.”
Anica stared at her blankly. “Why is the bike lock on?” she asked incredulously. “The gates are way too heavy to steal.”
Sarah ignored her mother’s attempt at humour and walked outside, leaving her parents to talk with their absent daughter.
James and Rebecca had parked outside the gates and were taking Charlie out of her car seat. Sarah could see their frightened expressions and quickly moved to undo the lock.
“Going by the traffic out there, I think I’ve missed a good ‘I told you so opportunity.” James’s voice had a forced lightness to it that belied his pale face.
She did a double take as she saw their outfits. Rebecca’s wasn’t a surprise, dressed as she usually was in a skirt and heels. Sarah could understand that, to a point, there was no proof that this was anything more than a panicked request to visit. Why dress for the end of the world if you’re just visiting the in-laws? The sceptical part of Sarah’s brain scoffed at that before she turned on her brother.
“Seriously? You’re potentially running for what may well be your life in what is hypothetically the zombie apocalypse, and you thought that was the shirt to do it in?”
James looked down at his artistically styled blood spattered shirt with “This is my zombie killing shirt” emblazoned across the front.
“Seemed fitting.” He shrugged.
Sarah cocked an eyebrow, hoping her expression read, I’m so disappointed in your facetious behaviour, and that it didn’t betray the internal laughter she was trying to quash.
Sarah led the family inside, where Alex was speaking softly over the phone with Georgia, his face drawn. Anica was making coffee in the kitchen, with Nell hovering behind her trying to help, but in reality causing more of a hindrance. Secretly Sarah approved, thinking that Nell’s flightiness might give Anica something to focus on. She joined Alex, James and Rebecca in the lounge room, throwing a “hello” towards the phone to announce her presence to Georgia, hoping to prompt her into giving the cliff notes of the conversation. It seemed to be related to their current situation, if Alex’s expression was anything to go by.
Georgia’s voice was uncharacteristically serious when it filled the room. “Hey Sarah, how are you?”
“Oh, you know, recovering from Christmas, the usual,” she shot back, voice oozing sarcasm in response to the inane question.
Georgia snorted inelegantly before filling the silence. “I gather you know something about what’s going on down there?” she asked, taking a steadying breath.
“Not really,” Sarah admitted. Even with what she had seen, she wouldn’t commit to the idea until someone else seconded it. Please God, let me be over-reacting! she silently pleaded. Perhaps it was just an exacerbated viral disease as the memo had said. Jen might have been wrong; they had been hard-core horror fans for years, they had plans in place for the zombie apocalypse, and they certainly had enough material to whip their overactive imaginations into seeing what wasn’t there.
“It’s happening,” Georgia stated directly, bludgeoning that feeling of hope to a mushy pulp.
“Bugger. Yeah, I figured.” Sarah closed her eyes.
“I have to go, there should be an emergency broadcast released soon. They held it off as long as they could in case the locals were able to contain it.” Georgia sounded tired. “We’re not supposed to release information to the public outside of the official information. They’re worried about the panic it could cause. I told Dad what I know. I’ll meet you where we said we’d meet.” She carefully side-stepped around using any names, not wanting to take the chance, as slim as it was, that someone would overhear her. There was silence; no one knew how to end the conversation.
“Stay safe,” Sarah said quietly, leaving the rest unsaid, partly because they weren’t overly demonstrative as a family, partly because it felt too much like goodbye.
She shook off her low mood, wanting to know what Alex had been told. The tension in the room was suffocating as everyone sat nursing what remained of their cold coffees.
Alex straightened in his seat, drawing the attention to himself. “As far as I can tell, there seem to be two stories. The first is the official story that is being given to the hospitals. There is a new strain of an unnamed virus that causes uncontrollable violent actions, and staff need to take precautions. Georgia says the unofficial story is that the viral lab is here in Geelong.” He paused, noticing confusion on all their faces. “You must have heard about it. It was in the news while they were building it. They built a super lab to conduct research into every serious virus known to man here, right in Geelong.” He went back to the story, not wanting to go too far off the track. “Apparently, one of the long-term research teams was using the Borna virus to test a new schizophrenia drug, mutating the virus with a few different strains, such as toxoplasmosis, to duplicate the disorder in order to trial their new treatment …” He trailed off, waving a hand vaguely. “Georgia doesn’t have specifics—the whole thing was highly experimental. She only heard that somehow, one of the mutated strains was released. There’s a rumour that one of the lab techs was infected, but nobody noticed until it was too late. There is someone the military is looking into as a possible source. One of the lab techs admitted his son into ED, after the boy attacked his mother.”
Sarah nodded, thinking back to what she had seen at the hospital. She frowned. “Did she say what happened to the lab tech?” she asked.
Alex shook his head. “The last she heard, he had been restrained due to schizophrenic ideations and manic behaviour. He was threatening to kill his son.”
“So, what now?” Rebecca asked, holding Charlie tightly.
Sarah’s mind flashed to the countless hours of zombie movies she had watched, laughing at the hapless victims as they aimlessly flung themselves headfirst into hordes of predators. Suddenly the humour seemed a lot more distant, her half-formed plans seemingly irrelevant when facing the stark reality of it all. Everything she knew about zombies agreed on two things: first, they started overseas, not some small, secondary city in Australia. The second and the more immediately relevant point was that they needed to leave.
Alex numbly reached for the remote control and turned on the television. The blonde anchorwoman looked annoyed as she read from the statement in front of her, glancing up and to the side of the camera every now and then as if looking for confirmation, a hint that this might be a prank. The red chaser streamed across the bottom of the screen warning viewers in Geelong to stay off the roads and remain in their houses where possible, or find their nearest refugee centre if they found themselves away from home, or in the city.
“People are advised to keep phone lines clear. Officials are aware of what is happening and, with call centre staff reduced and the huge influx of calls, they are unable to keep up with the demand. The army is being called in and will be setting up roadblocks throughout regional Victoria in an attempt to contain this infection … Really?” She looked to the side again. “Tezz, this is ridiculous. Is this a joke?” Someone must have motioned the woman to go on, as she picked up the paper once more, her face tight with frustration. “I repeat. There is a highly infectious virus that has struck residents in Geelong. Victims are showing extreme rage and violent tendencies. There have been reports of the infected attacking others, and fatalities have been reported, though numbers are not known at this point. Towns around the affected area have been put on alert. Residents outside of Geelong are advised to move to the refugee centres that are being set up. The location of your nearest safe location will be sent via the SMS emergency alert system.” The anchorwoman looked to the side again and a slight, brown-haired woman walked up to her, sliding another paper in front of her. “Oh my…” The anchorwoman paled visibly now, betraying her fear, although she covered it quickly with a thin veneer of professionalism. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a joke. We will be switching over to the emergency broadcast system shortly. Please remain calm and follow instructions as they are released.” Her eyes drifted down to the paper in front of her. A shaking hand reaching towards the paper was the last image before the feed was cut off.
“Georgie is headed to Kaniva,” Sarah said softly, as everyone looked at her askance. “It’s halfway between here and Adelaide, with a tiny population. We always said we’d make that our meeting spot if anything happened.”
“The alert said to stay put.” Anica looked concerned but Sarah shook her head.
“We can’t. I saw what it was in the hospital. If we stay here, we’ll die. We could maybe survive a week or so, but not forever. If we stay, we risk being stuck here completely, no way out.” She tried to sound nonchalant. “Don’t worry, we’re ready for this.” Sarah wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince her parents or herself.
A furious whispering drew her attention to where Rebecca and James sat, huddled together.
“James? What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.
It was Rebecca who looked up at her. “I have to find my family,” she said, her voice quiet but strong.
“Call them.” Sarah handed the phone to her. “I’m sure the authorities have started quarantine procedures and set up the refugee centres. They might have received the same message we did and may already be safely tucked away somewhere. They wouldn’t want you to put yourself in danger if they were all fine.”
Rebecca didn’t look comforted by the words, but took the phone and dialled as she left the room for privacy.
Sarah pulled her mobile phone from her pocket, eyes widening at the string of alerts that already covered the home screen. Her Facebook had been flooded with concerned queries as to their safety, and asking what the hell was going on. Several of her American contacts were pressing her for details of the “zombie outbreak” that had struck down half the continent and closed off the airports completely from the rest of the world. She frowned as she read them, wondering how she could have possibly been excited for the apocalypse she found herself in now.