Larry readied himself by spreading his feet and bending his legs. He glanced up to the landing at the top of the stairs, then squatted. After a count to three he leapt up and grabbed hold. His grip held. He planted his feet against the wall and climbed. A crack sounded, then a groan from the timber. The landing shuddered.
Larry released his grip and landed back on the concrete floor in a crouched position. The landing resettled and stopped groaning.
The simple timber steps had become too weak. He kicked a chair. It rolled across the room spinning in circles and bounced off a table. He kicked the chair again, harder this time, it bounced off the wall and crashed into a work desk. The LCD monitor fell and smashed.
Larry looked over the other computers, desks, chairs, benches and metal cabinets. He then turned back to the demolished steps. He walked to the nearest bench and pulled it to position under the steps, ignoring the equipment that fell off as he dragged it over.
After a few minutes he had a sizable furniture construction and the height he needed to the open door. Before leaving the basement, Larry took out his thumb drive he had intended on using to get his data back, and downloaded what he could from the computers hoping to decipher it later. Only a few gigabytes remained on archive hard drives, but better than nothing.
Now on the ground level Larry walked the corridors until he found Simon’s office. A large oak desk took up much of the room in the centre and dominated the cluttered room. Chest high papers surrounded the area where Simon presumably sat and worked.
Larry flicked through the papers and found invoices for office supplies, receipts for security, a brochure from a shoe store, and on it went. He then searched all the drawers, cupboards, and behind picture frames.
Larry rubbed his eyes. He then put his hands on his hips and looked over the room again. In a moment of frustration he tipped the desk over into the wall. Books, papers and knickknacks spilled everywhere. The bottom of the desk did not even have anything hidden there.
Larry left the room and back down his improvised stairs. He stopped at a very old computer, still using a thirteen inch CRT monitor. A USB cord ran from the computer to a small mobile phone.
Larry switched on the monitor and waited for it to warm up. He tapped the space bar a couple of times and the computer screen came to life to show a download in progress.
Larry grabbed the plug to pull it out, then stopped, his finger loose on the cord. While the computer stayed connected, he may be able to discover where the information is being sent to. A bar scrolled across as the copy continued from this computer to another and into a folder called Backup.
Larry found the IP address, not knowing exactly how he had, and noted it down on scrap paper. Just as he did, the cursor moved without him touching the mouse. The cursor then clicked on cancel for the file transfer.
A message popped up: e-mail sent.
And another: User disconnected.
Nothing else happened. He moved the mouse to see if he had control again. The cursor moved. Larry opened the e-mail application and checked the sent box. An e-mail had been sent from here to the Tech Dynamics Facility at Kinglake. But it only had one word in the entire email, the same one Simon Green had said earlier: Da sveedaneeya (good-bye).
Larry reached for his phone to call Tom, and found he had messages waiting. In fact, three picture messages from Tom.
In the first picture it showed a wide-angle shot of rows and rows of beds in a high ceiling warehouse. He recognized the place from the very first day of this nightmare. And also where he had first seen Simon Green.
The next photo showed a close-up of a person who had an additional semi-formed limb coming from his side. The body had also been torn apart by bullets. The next showed a photo of a woman with semitransparent skin, muscle and organs, so that only her skeleton appeared fully opaque.
When he scrolled to the last picture he saw more people on beds, all alive and unharmed. And one familiar face he had not expected to see ever again. A text message had been attached at the end: “Call me when you get this.”
Larry pressed on the call button for Tom, and waited.
When it connected a blaring siren burst to life from his phone. He immediately pulled the phone from his ear. Tom yelled out over the top.
“Larry! ...hear me?” Tom yelled. “I can’t talk right now. I’ve been told this place is about to be incinerated. I’ll call you when we get out if I’m alive.”
“I think it’s Simon Green’s doing,” Larry yelled back.
“I didn’t catch that. Look, I have to go.”
“Alright, just get out of there, I’ll speak to you when you’re safe.”
The team wheeled patients out of the small room and into the larger warehouse toward the exit. Tom stripped the sheets from off the doc.
“Leave them behind,” Doctor Harvey said as Tom’s team continued to move the patients. “There’s less than five minutes before we’re fried.”
“We not leaving anyone, even you—”
“You idiot. The Russians have bigger bombs than our daisy cutter out in that truck. We have to get a kilometer away to stand any chance of staying alive. You can’t take them all, they’ll slow us down!”
Tom punched the doctor in the nose, then tossed the thin man on his shoulder, possibly tearing his stitches. His hand throbbed. He had forgotten how much it hurt to hit someone. The doctor moaned and squirmed on his shoulder.
Tom fell forwards into a bed, which then rolled away. His legs buckled. The bed crashed into a large crate. Tom again got his balance and left he room to catch up with his team. He crashed into three more beds on his way out cutting his shins each time. Finally he reached the doors leading outside.
“Major, this place is going to be leveled in under two minutes!” The sergeant called from a jeep as Tom came through the double hinged exit door.
The bus rumbled along the road heading for the exit. Tom threw his cargo into the back of the jeep and jumped in himself. The jeep skidded and spun sideways before it gained traction and powered after the bus and other vehicles leaving the complex. The gate had been rigged to stay open with the butt of a rifle at each side.
Tom thought about asking if they would be far enough away soon, but then decided he did not want to know the answer.
The jeep leapt through the gates and skidded sideways in the orange dirt before accelerating again along the clay road. They closed on the tail lights ahead of them in short time.
The jeep shook.
A large thump came from behind like an artillery gun going off. The jeep left the ground, all four wheels spun freely. The engine roared. They hit the ground again, and skidded from side to side coming close to the cliff edge. Then a boom hit them like the world had come to an end, encompassing every part of them and reverberating in through the jeep.
The sky darkened. Tom turned his head and saw trees and grass brightening then catching fire under an inky blackness. Super heated air blasted against him. His lungs burned, his eyes stung and his hair felt like it had burst into flames.
Everyone put their heads down into their seats, the doctor did the same. Tom had a horrifying thought that maybe the driver had too. He braced himself for the imminent collision. Less than a second later the air sucked back toward the initial explosion as its thirst for oxygen to fuel the fires reached a peak.
Tom raised his head again. The driver still drove. The sergeant also still with his head up. A deep black and orange mushroom cloud rose above them. The smoke swayed and shifted. Everything smelt of ash. Wisps of grey swirled around at the rear of the jeep. Night time came early.
They passed the bus and the few other military and civilian vehicles in the lead. The sergeant’s driver continued to power along the unsealed road until they moved well away from the site and onto a main road.
“Sergeant,” Tom yelled over the wind whipping past his ears. “About the, live test, can you tell me what happened with that?”
“Sorry Major, we have no way to watch or record it. I sat glued to the screen in the observation room only a few minutes ago, but as soon as we heard the sirens we knew we didn’t have long to get out. We bailed as soon as we could. I expect they started the assault on the first drop zone. I don’t think they’ll take longer than an hour, even with the first team running stealth. They’ll then be joined by two more platoons for the full assault on the larger target.”
“These two targets, they have civilian names?”
“Kinglake and Healesville. You really don’t seem to be well informed, Major.”
“We’re very uneducated at this point, Sergeant.”
“The briefing is redundant now anyway, sir, the video from the satellite and from the recording unit within the team won’t be seen or caught on digital file by anyone. It’s such a damn waste, sir.”
“What about the recording capabilities of the camera itself.”
“The cam has no hard drive or way of recording. It transmits back to us via satellite link up.”
Tom now had an idea to stop this so called live test. “We should probably abort the mission and try for a do over when we’re back up and running.”
“That would be perfect, sir, but we have no way to get in contact. It’s radio silence until completion. Pen-pusher’s idea, sir. Said it’s part of the test, see how we operate with no communication after orders.”
It made sense. The Carotranine in their system would cause the soldiers to follow any order even if they found it morally objectionable, but it also meant they would be susceptible to having their orders altered by a second superior officer.
“Sergeant, is the second team still in radio contact?” Thomas said, hopeful.
“No, not by now. As soon as Alpha unit started their assault, all went radio silence.”
“Is the second team far from here?”
“No more than a few kilometers. They’ll rendezvous with the first team close to the second target, but have been ordered to fire upon any approaching soldiers or civilians who aren’t assault team Alpha.”
“And how are they to recognise assault team Alpha?” Thomas asked.
“That, I have no information on, sir.”
Tom turned to Doctor Harvey. The guy looked terribly uncomfortable. Not just because of the way he held his chest as if his insides would fall out through his opened wounds, but because eventually Tom would look to him for answers.
Harvey’s eyes narrowed and he mouthed the word, idiot, then looked away and watched the landscape speed by.
Constable Lisa McKay, formally stationed at Kinglake Police Department, now suspended with pay, sat in her childhood bedroom at her parent’s home watching a DVD a friend lent her a few weeks past. Until recently she had not the time nor the want to sit in front of a television and get into a new series. Now that she had no work to go to, and few friends living in Kinglake, she had all the time in the world.
She had little love for futuristic movies, but her friend had persisted. A spaceship, a captain shuttling cargo from one world to another, and hunting down a stolen artifact.
The second episode now playing she decided she wanted something salty or greasy to munch on. She started for the hallway, potato gems on her mind, maybe a puddle of sweet chili sauce.
She heard a crack like a brick hitting concrete. Then pressure in her head, she stumbled off balance and crumpled to the floor. Her eyes stayed open. Blood fell in thick drips from the ancient TV, covering the paused image of the inside of a space faring ship and its crew eating dinner.
A second soldier cut Sarah’s mother’s throat in the lounge room, at the same time he shot the father in the head from behind. All three had died silently, which was the directive they had been given on the first live test targets.
Jimmy kicked the soccer ball to his son, happy to have time off and spend it with his boy. His wife had headed out earlier to see friends for a long afternoon lunch and cocktails.
Jimmy kicked the ball again, pretending to try his hardest to get it past his son and into the imaginary goals behind. He and the rest of the Kinglake police staff would still get paid, so what did he care if they were not at work.
The determination on his son’s face while he mimicked protecting his goal, was priceless. Jimmy tried not laugh. He took out his phone to get a quick video recording, and some photos. Something for his son’s 21st birthday board so his girlfriend can poke fun.
Just as his son was about to reach the ball this time, he collapsed face first without even attempting the kick.
Horrified, Jimmy ran to his boy while calling out to see if he was okay, but his voice caught and his throat hurt. Blood filled his lungs. He coughed and gagged as he tried to breath. Another bullet went through his chest and then another to his head. He collapsed with his hands at his throat, only a few feet from his son.
The soldier stared at the blood dotting the grass and soaking into the dirt from the two dead figures. Something stirred in his mind at the sight. Somehow it felt wrong. He shrugged. He had carried out his orders perfectly and even been humane and made sure they died as quickly as possible. And although this confused him a little, it was preferable. He signalled the three others in his squad and they moved to the next home.
Senior Sergeant Phillip Gordon returned home after a long walk with his Labrador leading the way, he unclasped the leash from the collar and Bobby ran straight to his water bowl. That was until Phil poured food into another bowl, then Bobby couldn’t decide which to go for first and ended up alternating from food then to water and back again. Usually Bobby got enough exercise when they went on patrol. Also out the back of the station his constables would go say hello and throw the ball, but since everything went to hell and the only station nearby was in Healesville, he rarely left home. Most of the time Bobby just had to make his own fun—which is exactly what Phil was going to do tonight.
He and Cassandra were about to have their fifth date. And if all the books he had read recently were right, it meant that after dinner she would be expecting more than just a kiss.
Cassandra had retired early at fifty, maybe with some decent money. She bought a place Kinglake, which had been vacant for most of summer. Not far from Phil’s home, so she would probably walk over to work up an appetite. Phil smiled at that.
He shook his head, need to concentrate on getting dinner ready before what may come afterward. Still, the smile did not leave his face. No supermarket frozen meals from the oven tonight. Not if he wanted to get lucky. Tonight would be lamb cutlets.
Phil tied his white apron around his waist and readied the ingredients in record time. Lamb cutlets first, which he set in a neat row, bowl of cracked eggs, flour and bread crumbs from the shelf above his homemade spice rack. He turned looking for his wooden cutting board and came back full circle. On his second turn he stopped when he saw the board on top of the microwave.
“There you are you little devil.”
His mouth watered as he thought of the shallow-fried lamb crumbed cutlets and washing them down with a nice red.
A yelp from outside broke through Phil’s concentration. He looked up from his cooking, Momentarily irritated. His expression softened. Bobby did not usually yelp unless he had good reason. He loved that dog, probably more than anything else in the world. The thought of the playful little guy being bitten by a snake or getting caught in the barbed fence drove Phil to forget the dinner preparation and instead investigate. He set the flour back on the bench and searched out the window.
“Bobby, you okay out there?” Phil called.
He found him near the back of his property, his tail between his legs, staring down the side of the shed. Phil knew that look, he had seen it once before when a drunk stumbled across the backyard, falling over himself and calling out obscenities. Phil found his holster in the bedroom, loaded his gun and stood by the back door to listen. Nothing.
The door creaked as he pushed it. He winced. It made no further sounds. He slipped through. Then let the door close on his finger so it did not slam, then let it go the rest of the way. He still could not see what Bobby saw.
Bobby’s left ear turned toward him. He would know Phil was coming up from behind. This was not just some drunk Bobby had found though. He turned the safety off and raised the semi automatic pistol to the edge of the shed.
His dog moved.
A gun barrel glinted in the sun around the corner.
A man in black followed behind the raised gun and pointed it at Bobby. Bobby growled. Phil took less than a second to aim his pistol. He fired three rounds. The bullets blasted into the body of the dark figure. The intruder dropped the rifle and staggered back and out of site behind the shed. Then he heard a thud as the figure hit the ground.
Phil did not relax, he scanned the rest of the yard. Bobby still stood rigid, and did not wag his tail.
Searing pain struck Phil’s neck. He grabbed at his throat. It felt like stinging ants all around his neck. There was blood. Lots of it running down his arms. Too much. He could not breath. He coughed and tasted salty thick liquid rush into his mouth and down his throat.
He fell to his knees, too tired to stand.
He kept his fingers in the wet mess at his neck even though he knew it would not help.
He rolled to his side, something pulled and snapped in his chest.
His hands felt so numb now, he could not grip his throat anymore.
Bobby blurred before him.
A firecracker went off. He grunted and blood dribbled down his chin.
How had those damn teenagers gotten hold of illegal fireworks again?
He needed to find Bobby. He gets scared of loud noises like that.
Maybe if he just slept for a little while, then looked for Bobby soon. Take him inside and sit him on his bed while they watched TV. He’d like that.
Tom studied the Tech Dynamics doctor a few moments. The doc mumbled something else. Tom missed it over the wind whipping past their ears in the roofless jeep.
“What’s on your mind, doc.”
“You’ve ruined everything. We have to start over—elsewhere. Such a waste.” The doctor kept his voice low as if talking to himself.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me where this other place will be?” Tom asked.
No answer. The doctor turned his head back to watch the rising blanket of smoke behind them.
Tom sighed. So many people dead. How could someone give so little care to the people he worked with and the others who had died when the place went up. He took his phone from his pocket remembering to call Larry.
“Tom, Tom, you’re okay?” Larry said when the call went through.
“I’m fine and we got everyone out, I think.”
“I saw from the pictures you’ve got one of Detective Bradbury’s men with you. I thought he died, but—”
“Who?” Tom asked.
“At the police station. The explosion. I thought everyone had died except me and Sunny. He would have been charcoal when he got to the hospital.”
“Your viruses hard at work, I guess?”
Larry barked a laugh. “At least there’s been some good. I didn’t like what I saw in the pics you sent me.”
“It gets worse,” Tom said to his long time friend. “From what I’ve gathered, there’s soldiers heading to both nearby towns. I think they’re going kill everyone. Radios are off, so we’ve no way of recalling them.”
Larry stayed quite a few minutes before he spoke. “You could let them finish the mission... in a way. I mean, once its over they’ll be easier to approach. I don’t mean get everyone killed, but somehow make the soldiers think the mission is over.”
“Good plan, and how do I do that?”
“That part I don’t know. Look, I have to go. Talk to Bradbury, he’s got a good head on his shoulders, I’m sure you’ll both figure it out. Talk soon.”
Detective Bradbury listened as Tom explained how their investigation may have lead to the destruction of the Tech Dynamics Testing Facility and then of the troops descending on the towns.
“Did you talk to Mr Emerson?”
“I did a moment ago, he didn’t have time to talk, but it sounded like he knew Tech Dynamics could be in trouble and that things would only get worse.”
Bradbury grunted in acknowledgment on his end of the phone. “And what do you propose we do about this soldier incursion, drive around to the thousand or so residents yelling out of car windows telling them they have to leave town. No, the best idea is to stop them before they get here. Block off all roads and see if we can get some help from your base.” The detective paused. “I wish I knew what was going on at Kinglake right now, no one’s answering. Even Phil didn’t pick up the phone.”
“Actually, Detective, maybe your idea to tell everyone to leave could work.”
“What? No, I said that was ridiculous. We—”
“The extreme fire warning!” Tom said, a smile spreading across his lips. Tom wondered why he had not thought of it earlier. The TV and papers had been flooded with information on the early warning system after the last fires. “That should give everyone just enough time to get away. Everyone in and near Healesville will get a recorded message directly to their home or mobile phone when the extreme fire warning is initiated. Also, all radio and television is blanketed with warnings of the extreme fire telling everyone to leave immediately! This could work!”
Bradbury grunted again. Although the next words he said were with a softer edge. “It’s certainly worth a try. I guess I should have thought of it as well.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Well done, Major, I’ll get it underway. Keep in contact.”
Tom checked the time on his phone, just after nine, and put his phone back in his pocket.
“Sergeant, have you had a lot of combat experience?” Tom asked.
“Sir? I’ve done my part in the past, now I just keep the lads in line. I haven’t seen much fighting for a while, until today that is. Only volunteered to be stabbed with a needle because they said it would give me more years with the recruits. Not sure if it was worth it, I look like an ape on ’roids. Told I was fine though, so who am I to argue.”
“When was your last injection, Sergeant?”
“Few days ago. We’re supposed to be injected every 72 hours. I guess its been almost eight hours past that. Would’ve injected myself, but all hell broke lose. Haven’t slept for at least 24 hours either, nor the men.”
“Sirs, we’re almost at the rendezvous point,” the driver said.
Tom had not really thought about their destination, but now as the lights from the jeep shone high beam, he could see portable buildings being set up in grid-like formation in a newly cleared bushland. Lights on tall stands shone while more cranked upward into position. Many tents had already been pitched with lights shining inside. Soldiers dug what looked to be latrines and bunkers.
The driver changed down gears with a rough clunk and they rolled through the camp. Adaptation and forward thinking, two things the military excelled at, and these men and women were making sure no one thought different. The few soldiers who had already arrived unpacked back packs and sorted food, while others unloaded trucks.
“Sergeant, what are your thoughts on stopping the assault teams before they have a chance on reaching the second target?”
The sergeant turned to Tom. “By force, Major?” Surprised but then shrugged. “Not sure we have enough people to even to make a mark on them, sir. We could certainly give it a shot if you wanted to go in that direction, but, sir, I if you want my honest opinion, find another way. We would be up against specialists. We’re just support personnel.”
“Of course. I just wanted to be sure I was making the right decision. I’ve a plan to make sure not a single shot is fired.”
Tom smiled at the sergeant. The large soldier just shrugged in reply as if it didn’t really matter.
“Oh and Sergeant, does this site have any sort of fail-safe with explosives like the last place. I don’t want to have to pack up and run again.”
“Absolutely not. I had this place chosen myself. Everything is independent; electricity is from the diesel generators and the computers here are only the laptops we brought in with us.”
The jeep pulled up alongside some other vehicles. Tom stayed in the jeep with Doctor Harvey after the sergeant and his driver headed in the direction of the nearest group of soldiers. The doctor turned to Tom and waited to see what would happen. Tom just stared. Finally the doctor’s anger built.
“Major!” the doctor said, then closed his eyes and spoke more softly.
“Major, I’m willing to tell you what I know about the experiments, as well as something else you wouldn’t even have any idea about. Plus, what is no doubt happening to Kinglake right now, and what will happen to Healesville soon.”
Tom did not acknowledge the man for quite some time. After almost a minute, Doctor Harvey opened his mouth again—Tom then said, “I don’t believe you, Ronald, and I think we’re going to have to do something about you.”
“You idiotic fool, you know nothing. Everyone here will be dead in under an hour. Everyone in the towns, not long after. No one should have survived that blast. I’m the only one that can get you out of this alive. Everyone else will be put down like the mangy dogs they are. Including that Sergeant over there.”
“Sergeant,” Tom called, and got out of the jeep.
The doctor cringed, but kept his expression defiant.
“Major?” he called back while helping carry equipment from the newly arriving vehicles.
“We need to talk about Tech Dynamics and their recent dealings. I’ll also fill you in on what information we have regarding what was done to you and your men. Lastly we need to sort out this business regarding the live tests on the two towns, one of which will hopefully be a ghost town shortly.” Tom reached the sergeant as he put down a large crate.
“Sir, we can have a chat in here,” the sergeant said, and pointed to the lit up portable office.
Tom said, “Oh, and you’ll need to keep Doctor Harvey over there under guard, he can’t be trusted.” Tom waved his hand toward the jeep.
The sergeant signaled two men to gather the doctor up and have him restrained.
The soldiers pulled Harvey by the armpits up and out of the army jeep and carried him away without his feet ever touching the ground.
“You’re all dead. You know that! Everyone, everyone, dead!” he yelled.
The Sergeant and the Major entered the portable building and closed the door.
Doctor Harvey yelled louder. “I can’t wait to see the look on your face when your skin burns and falls off. I’ll be standing over you kicking you like a dog. I’ll see you all dead soon.”
“Sergeant, I’m not sure if you’ll understand everything I have to say.” Tom waited until he received a nod in reply. “I have to tell you about the drugs you were given in the injections. Then I want your thoughts. The drug is called Carotranine, they added it to the viruses which have given you the... well, the steroid look you mentioned. First, Carotranine is a drug which has the ability to make people more susceptible to taking orders without being concerned with moralistic issues or harm for themselves.
“Within the military we take orders without question as it is, but with Carotranine we would follow the order even if it meant killing ourselves or a fellow soldier for no good reason. There may be a war going on in your mind, but it won’t show and it won’t stop you.
“I’ve been with the military for almost ten years, a little less than you, Sergeant, but I know taking orders without question is paramount for our hierarchy. However, the fact that these assault teams are going to be murdering innocent people in an Australian town, it’s atrocious. These are not orders that a sane superior would give and definitely not orders you would normally follow. Do you agree, Sergeant?”
The sergeant’s eyes, a dirty black, didn’t move, but his eyelids blinked quicker. The large soldier reseated himself and looked past Tom to the door as if he thought to escape rather than answer. Tom sat back in his chair and tried to appear as calm and neutral as he could.
In his mind, warning bells had sounded. He wanted to run for the door as well. The sergeant could go berserk any second. Maybe he should have lied?
“Are you alright, Sergeant?”
The sergeant turned back to Tom and stopped his fidgeting. He sat passively again, but did not speak for a full minute.
“I know what you’re saying, Major, and I kind of feel conflicted, a little, somehow. All my orders came from a captain, and he told me to follow the docs orders like they were his. I haven’t seen him since the madness earlier today.”
“I assure you, no captain was sent to give you and your men orders. You and everyone else were sent to keep an eye on the goings on of Tech Dynamics, nothing more. As far as I know, you weren’t supposed to be given any kind of treatment either. Although, I guess there’s no certainty on that. I don’t know who this captain is, or even if he’s with the military, but I’ve been sent by General Reginald Franks to make sure you lot are okay, and from what I see, you’re not. I’ll be calling my CO soon and we’ll get this all sorted.”
“I see,” the sergeant said.
Tom wasn’t sure if he really did.
“Sergeant,” Tom said. “Would you mind giving me some help in devising a plan to obstruct the assault team?’
The sergeant’s eyes widened, then narrowed. Tom’s face flushed. Sweat rolled down his neck in streams and clung to his shirt like a damp face cloth.
“I can do that, Major. I’ll head the team myself!”
Tom opened his mouth and had to cough to stop himself from saying something along the lines of, Fuck, you scared the shit out of me. And instead pretended to think hard on what the sergeant had said.
“I’ll want you there, Sergeant, but there’s no need for a team, it will just be the two of us and my plan.”