The roads, highways and even the dirt tracks in every direction leading up into the hills of Kinglake had been fitted with concrete roadblocks allowing no access for through traffic. Yellow lights flashed at the top of each of the barriers, and signs directed people to another route or back the way they had come.
The extreme fire warning initiative was in progress.
The police and fire brigade received over one hundred calls through the tiny phone exchange and minimal mobile phone network to ask how long they had and whether they would be able to come back if their homes were not damaged. Detective Bradbury and his staff answered each of the calls, as well as the redirected calls from the fire brigade, and stressed to the people that they needed to leave immediately before the fires began to block their exit. Not even the best fire protection systems could save them. Everything would be incinerated, nothing would be saved. Eight homes defied the orders to leave. A Squad car was sent to each home to convince them further.
Bradbury checked the time again. Not long before the soldiers would descend on the town and begin their massacre.
Bradbury gathered the last of the staff as they switched off computers and finished their last call. No one hesitated. The first few patrol cars had returned after removing the last few people still insisting on staying behind.
At 10pm not a soul walked the streets. Traffic lights flicked from red, to amber, to green and back again. No car, nor a pedestrian, waited to cross the main road. The stores at the centre of town stayed silent. Lights on, but doors locked. A wallaby jumped out from the scrub and across the road and stopped in the middle of a crossways. It sniffed the air and scratched its hindquarters. A new territory to explore. Grass to eat.
A newspaper fluttered and tumbled along the gutter then stopped and suddenly flew out at the wallaby startling it. It hopped away and back into the woods.
The Grand Hotel, normally full of people, eating and laughing or arguing over the most recent trivia question, stayed closed and locked. The lights blazed within. An obvious attempt by the publican to give the futile appearance of occupancy.
The Healesville Police Station had been the last abandoned. Bradbury and Jones manned the last car to ensure that not one person remained. No emergency vehicles had been left. No one sat a quiet night waiting for emergency calls.
Detour signs also lined the route to Kinglake giving people the option to take a longer route through the valley or turn around and come back tomorrow. Police sat in their squad cars at each of the turn-offs, blue lights flashing, making sure people adhered to the warning. The police manning the vehicles had been stationed well away from the centre of Healesville. Although still understandably nervous at the approaching military force.
A soldier dressed in camouflage battle uniform and his face painted in a dark non reflective color, crept across the dry yellow earth, barely disturbing the underbrush. He kept his head down and concentrated on the unusual and unexpected silence coming from the Healesville Hospital.
No voices, no lights and no vehicles. He swung his rifle to his side and crouched at the main entrance. He held up his hand signalling the rest of his squad. An automatic lock pick whirred. Three more men came from the rear, just as silent. The door clicked and opened and the team of four stepped through. One stayed just inside as rear guard.
The three soldiers passed reception and crept along the corridor in standard cover formation while checking each room. In the first they found no one. The next, no one again. No staff walked the hallways. No doctors tended the emergency room and no patients lay on beds in any of the rooms. No threats found, the lead soldier made an all secure hand single and they left.
At the same time other elite soldiers—broken into squads of four—accessed designated buildings and homes. Each and every time they discovered the structures to be empty. This continued until the squads gathered into the three original platoons and assembled at the opposite end of town. Not a single shot had been fired nor a word spoken between them.
Not even a stray dog or cat had been silenced during the two hours it had taken to search the entire five kilometer radius. The platoon leaders conferred when they met, breaking the silence as had been initially been ordered, and considered searching further afield than their designated area. After a short discussion they all agreed that even the slightest deviation from their orders would not be acceptable. The clean up would come soon and they did not want to be around when the detonations took place.
A lone jeep turned on its lights at the end of the main street illuminating the group of soldiers. The 60-70 men looked up as one, their macabre faces absorbing the light from the glare of the high beams. None brought their weapons to bare. Their mission had come to an end.
The three squad leaders looked to each other, one nodded and broke away from the group and advanced toward Major Thomas Finch—dressed in full battle uniform the same as the three platoons—and stood in the glare of the headlights.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” Tom said returning the salute. “Your mission is over. I would like to congratulate you on a job well done.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“We’ll take you by bus to the next location for debriefing.”
“Sir, you understand we encountered no hostiles within the second target.”
“Yes, Lieutenant, that’s correct.’Tom said, and hoped that would be enough.
“Sir,” he said, and returned to his men.
Sergeant Caufield turned from the driver’s seat of the vehicle and said, “That went as well as it could have, Major.”
“Let’s hope they’re no trouble after the bus drops them back at the barracks. Here it comes.” Tom squinted at the lights spearheading through the night towards them.
The bus shot past and approached the waiting soldiers, then slowed and pulled to the curb directly opposite.
It would be a tight squeeze, but they would fit, some may need to stand for the two hour trip back to Puckapunyal. Tom did not like the idea of waiting for a second bus, so this would have to do. He wanted theses soldiers away from town as soon as possible.
The bus door opened. The soldiers turned their heads to the steps but stayed still. A bright flash came from the centre of the soldiers, followed by a tearing like the earth split in two. An explosion ripped through the group, the air around the men ignited. Flames and pieces of the soldiers shot out in every direction. The ground rumbled and shook. The bus windows shattered. The force of the explosion burst against the side of the bus tipping it momentarily to one side before smashing it back down onto all ten tires. The remainder of the unbroken windows shattered as it bounced about.
The sergeant and Tom lowered their arms after shielding their heads, and stared at the burning bodies strewn across the ground only 200 feet away. Three platoons, dead. Tom’s heart beat hard enough that he felt it in his head.
“Sergeant, get the bus on the radio!’ Tom said, his eyes wide.
Tom heard the sergeant’s voice in the background, asking the driver to acknowledge him. But every time he let go of the button they only heard static.
Doctor Ronald Harvey smiled as he heard word over the radio that the entirety of the three platoons had been incinerated. He and the other doctors had conditioned each soldier to activate a transmitter as soon as the mission came to an end. Or, otherwise had no possibility of being achieved.
The transmitters, however, were actually timed explosives. Small but powerful. Each of the elite soldiers wore one as part of their uniform.
The Tech Dynamics test site itself had been an unexpected and expensive loss and should have stayed operational for years. No matter, another would be built and further testing would resume.
Considering that Doctor Childs had expired, Tech Dynamics would look to him as their lead scientist. So, the circumstances of this unforeseen alteration to plans was not so bad after all.
The two soldiers outside his tent guarding him, had begun showing signs of the Carotranine wearing off. It would not be long before he could easily slip past them while they battled within their own minds. He just had to make sure he left before they became violent, or they got their minds back.
At the edge of town a few feet from a scorched sign with the words, Welcome to Healesville, a bus burned spitting blue and yellow flames up into the night. Two men stood at the side of a jeep, lights on high beam, engine still idling.
Nothing else happened.
No further explosions.
Nothing moved except the flames and smoke rising from the carnage.
“Let’s get down there, Major,” the sergeant said. But Tom just kept staring.
The jeep revved, Tom rubbed his face and swept back his damp hair. He walked back to the jeep, his legs not fully under his control and plonked himself in next to the sergeant and stared ahead. The jeep skidded, the sergeant changed through from first to second then braked with a dry squeal of the tires. The sergeant got out first, although still wary of any further explosions. Tom stepped from the jeep and stood with his hands on his head while staring down at the lifeless bodies before him.
These soldiers, previously intent on murdering everyone in town, although not responsible for their actions, did not deserve to die. Not like this. And no one could have survived. Every man had been torn apart like each had swallowed a hand grenade.
The sergeant peered inside the cabin of the blackened smouldering bus in search of the driver. Tom stood next to the sergeant. Now he knew why the driver did not respond after the explosion. There was not much of the driver left to do anything. The entire front of the bus had been blown apart. Rubber and metal had melted into each other and continued to smoulder.
Tiny tongues of flame burned the last pieces of fabric on the bus driver and melted into his body. His blackened skin made his face unrecognizable. He had no weapon in his hands, nor did he appear to be reaching for one. The explosion had taken him by surprise. Maybe it had with all of them?
Tom’s stomach grumbled as the smell of burning flesh reminded him he had not eaten for most of the day. He then gagged and moved away. He kept going as far as he could until the air became clear again. After a few minutes he took his phone from his pocket and phoned Detective Bradbury. The police needed to see this.
Bradbury and Jones walked the perimeter of the destruction.
“Utterly barbaric,” Bradbury said. “You two haven’t touched anything?”
“No,” the sergeant said.
More officers arrived as well as fire trucks, doctors and paramedics. Lighting shone from newly erected tripods, pulled from police four-wheel drives and other emergency vehicles. The additional light made the destroyed bodies even more startling. The debris that had been thrown into a wide circle was searched and photographed.
The sergeant punched the side of the bus. Everyone looked up and froze.
“Sorry,” the sergeant said.
“Speak your mind.” Tom said
Sergeant Caufield shrugged. ’I should be getting back to the soldiers. They might be having trouble after the drugs.” He looked out over the dead bodies again and then back to Tom. “What if this is going to happen to my people as well?”
The old Sergeant’s lip trembled and Tom thought he would break down. His eyes screwed up like a man about to lose it. Not pain though and not anger. Something else. Either that or it was some strange side effect from the injections.
Bradbury watched both Tom and the sergeant from a distance, paying particular attention the hulking sergeant. He shook his head at them, Tom ignored him, and ushered the sergeant to their jeep.
The jeep skidded around a tight curve, the tires groaning on the still warm asphalt. The sergeant gripped the wheel so hard that Tom thought he would yank from its steering column.
Neither of them had spoken since leaving Healesville. Tom wondered if the sergeant was expecting some sort of trouble at the camp. And, was he thinking it would come from his own men, or would it be an outside source?
Smoke filled Tom’s nostrils again. Too strong and too much to be coming from the tires. They took the next bend and entered a hazy cloud and falling ash leaves. Their visibility dropped to a tenth of what it had been. Tom hoped the sergeant could see much more. The the sergeant slowed, answering Tom’s thoughts.
“I’m not sure if the fire from the explosion spread or if this is a new one,” the sergeant said. “Maybe they destroyed the town after eliminating everyone?”
Men, women, children, all dead. No discrimination. Carotranine may have taken the blame, but it still disappointed him that Australian soldiers could do such a thing.
The ground trembled and their jeep swerved towards the cliff face. The sergeant’s iron grip controlled the wheel and brought them to a stop only feet from the rocky wall.
A shuddering boom rocked the hillside and rattled their teeth. The jeep bounced a few feet closer to the cliff face. The already smoky air swirled and whipped around them like visiting ghosts. Then blasted away with an enormous gust of wind. A wall of heat followed. Both men held up their arms to protect themselves. Tom’s lungs filled with the heat of the explosion. The night changed into a murky red. The wind then blew the other away and finally settled. Orange spot fires reached out to them from all sides of the dry brush. They coughed and hacked, the smoke again forming around them. Water ran from Tom’s open mouth and grit filled his eyes. An orange and black mushroom cloud rose up from further ahead.
Sergeant Caufield continued to cough while turning the car.
“That’s as big as the one that destroyed the base. Something similar to a MOAB.”
Tom was aware of the reference; a Russian bomb, said to be bigger than anything the non-nuclear than the Americans had built.
Another explosion, although much further away, lit up the sky as well. They barely felt the vibration this time, although easily heard the explosion as it echoed off the valley walls.
Once they had cleared the smoke, the sergeant sped up, again taking the corners like he had been born a rally car driver. They shot around the next bend, skidding close to the road’s edge. Both scanned forward looking for another turn to take them along an alternate route. The sergeant took another tight bend, swinging them around to the next straight stretch.
The sergeant saw the sign first—Mount Slide Road—and slammed on the brakes taking the jeep into a tight skidding turn. He then revved and changed down gears and pushed on up the hill heading for the fortified site.
“We take this and head to Old Kinglake Road. May be a good idea to get hold of Corporal Higgins up there and make sure the fires aren’t nearby yet,” the sergeant said to Tom, not taking his eyes from the road.
“Good idea,” Tom said and picked up the two-way microphone. “Although I don’t think they would’ve missed the mushroom clouds. You still sure no one knows of this emergency site, right?”
“I didn’t think so before, sir. Although it probably doesn’t matter now anyway, once they finished erecting the site, protocol is to call it through. I guess someone knows by now.”
“Corporal,” Tom said after waiting for another soldier to go find him. “Do you still have men around the perimeter? Also, the fires. Are you in any danger?”
“Fires are a ways off, sir, and yes, I got small two man teams patrolling away from the site, mostly along the road and small tracks. Are we expecting company, sir?”
“I don’t want you and my team to be part of this clean up. Keep alert. Be ready for anything. I’m calling for aerial support.”
The sergeant nodded, although to himself it seemed. Tom had a feeling the old sergeant felt some pride for his corporal taking care of the situation.
“That corporal of yours seems alright,” Tom said.
“That he is, sir, that he is.”
Tom smiled. The sergeant sounded almost normal, the corporal as well. Maybe once the Carotranine wore off they would be alright? Tom plucked his phone from the jeep’s dash, amazed he hadn’t lost it when they took the earlier turns, and called his commanding officer.
“A massive bombing or clean up is in progress sir, they’re detonating what may be the new Russian big bombs. This is considering Simon’s heritage. I recommend the barracks is locked down and patrols started. If one of those trucks gets even close to the barracks it’ll do some real damage, sir. Also if we could have that aerial support you have on standby, we’d appreciate it. Maybe they can find the trucks and put them out of action before detonation?”
The jeep jerked to the right as they crossed onto Old Kinglake Road.
“We already have birds in the air, Major. One is close to the new site you established. I hear they have the lights in visual range. You’re being patched through to the chopper now.”
The pilot spoke first. “This is Tiger-1. I’m heading around the side of the mountain, Major and I can see the lights are all on and everything looks okay.”
Tom relaxed, the sergeant as well. “What can you see of the two towns?”
“Kinglake is awash with flames. Not a building or tree left. I won’t be able to get a closer look with all that smoke and debris in the air.”
Tom had known it wouldn’t be good. He pinched his nose as he again caught a whiff of the fires.
“Major,” the pilot cut in. I’ve circled around and can see a vehicle en route to the evac’ site. A military truck, sir. You expecting anyone, Major—Wait, it’s turning. It’s off the road and driving down the mountainside toward your people. I can try and take out the driver, but I can’t guarantee that what’s in the back won’t be hit. Or if there are even explosives within.’
“Tiger-1, Take the shot,” Tom cried into the microphone. “I repeat, take the shot.” “Weapons hot.”
In the distance he could hear explosive gunfire. Bullets hitting metal. He waited.
“I’ve taken out the driver, but the cab is on fire. Could go up any minute. I got through to the radio down there and told them to get out now. I’m getting to a safe distance myself.”
A fraction of a second later they saw a flash of light. The ground trembled. And another mushroom cloud ripped through the trees. The sergeant hit the brakes. They shielded their eyes—knowing what would happen next. Once again an enormous blast of hot wind hit them and then burst back.
Tom picked up the microphone once the wind died. The speakers came to life before he hit the button.
“I’m sorry, sir, I shot the front of the truck and hoped to take him out before he could detonate. Maybe I got him too late. Are you both okay there, sir?”
Tom didn’t know what to say. The pilot had acted, but it had not been enough. Sergeant Caufield did not speak nor move. The glowing fires reflected in his eyes. Flames jumped to neighboring trees and intensified.
“Stay in the air and circle around, if you see any vehicles within the road block perimeter, act as you see fit, out.” Tom put the microphone back in its cradle. He turned to the sergeant and wondered about his state of mind right now. He lost a lot people. Tom as well. Many friends from work. But he didn’t have drugs running through his body which could tip him over into possible insanity.
“It’s time we headed back to Healesville, Sergeant, the fires will spread. We should go.”
The sergeant put the jeep into gear, reversed around and left the way they had come.
Minutes later more minigun fire echoed through the night, blazing white hot streaks of awesome power hitting trucks below.
Reports that came through revealed that three more drivers were killed. Only one more bomb went off, but nowhere near a populated area.
Tom sat with Detective Bradbury and told him of their close call as well as the failed attempt to reach the encampment where his team, the sergeants men and the other survivors of the Tech Dynamics testing facility had perished.
“It felt like they had waited for us to get nearby just so we could see the destruction. The sergeant and his people didn’t have anything to do with the explosions, they wanted to get away from Tech Dynamics and what they were doing as much as I did.”
“Have you spoken to Mr Emerson?” Bradbury asked, keeping his voice level. Before you answer, know that if he doesn’t come back soon, the Queensland police will contact the FBI to get their assistance.”
“I phoned him on the way back. He wants to stay in the US a little longer. He’s still hoping to discover where Simon Green vanished to. I told him about Kinglake. He wants me to go to the US to help him. But I don’t think I can. It’s too much. I just want to go back to work and sort things out there.”
“I Know how you feel, Major.”
Tom shook his head. “These trucks were set up to take out the towns once the soldiers killed everyone. Makes you wonder what they had in store next if they got away with it this time.”
“Boyle’s already said that the whole thing’s going to be kept quiet. The US and our government won’t admit to being linked to a company who mass murdered a whole town. They’re going to blame it on the fires.” Detective Bradbury stopped to think for a moment. Tom sat back in chair and sipped on iced water. “I’ll make sure Tech Dynamics doesn’t operate in Australia ever again, and I’ll be in touch with the Americans to do the same. At least that will be something.”
Tom nodded, got up from his chair and walked to the edge of Bradbury’s office.
“I’ll be outside.” Tom’s mind spun. He needed some air to get the day’s events in order. Eventually his CO would want a written report.
Tom finished his water and poured himself another drink from the outside tap. A metal dog bowl under the tap filled further when he took the cup away. Specks of black ash swirled around on the surface.
The wind blew toward the fires for now, so at least he would not have to breath more smoke and be reminded of what the pieces of ash in the air could be. The hills glowed red. The Country Fire Authority had already begun its attack. Choppers with water bombing capabilities had arrived and would eventually get the fires under control and an investigation would begin.
Tom looked down along the main road. He squinted into the gloom and saw a figure. Walking. Heading toward him. A loan man waved his hand from far off. The darkness obscured him enough so Tom could not see what he wore or who he could be. The person climbed over the road block along the vacant street and continued on, waving periodically.
A survivor from the attacks in Kinglake, perhaps? Or it could just as easily be someone from one of the bomb trucks.
Tom called out and rested his hand on his sidearm. “Please identify yourself.”
“Bernie Matthews, Constable Bernie Matthews. Is that you, Tom?” the man called from under the traffic lights. The red light above his head showed him to be dressed in a hospital gown, boots and a large thick camouflage jacket. He walked steadily toward Tom, a smile on his face.
“Matthews? How did you get here? And you’re alive? Is anyone else with you?” He came closer, Tom went out to meet him, although still ready to draw his gun. They both stopped under a streetlight.
“No, its just me. I tried to get one of the soldiers to drive me into town, but they all said they were too busy or waiting on further orders and were not allowed to leave the encampment.”
“They were all drugged,” Tom said.
“They were all a bit strange. They said I was under no such restrictions and should make my way to Healesville on foot if I wanted to. I got some spare clothes and headed out. Took me a couple of hours of hiking and running. Bit strange that there’s no one around town. Do you know what’s going on?”
“Very long story, Constable. I’ll fill you in shortly, what about the fires?”
“I left before that. That first huge mushroom cloud I saw reached up to the sky and made me almost piss my pants. I thought world war three had come. After I wasn’t vaporized, I thought it was a fuel tanker or some such going off.”
“Larry saw the picture of you I sent him from the beds. I hoped to talk to you about what you saw before everything went wrong. I guess Bradbury can ask you about all it now. Come on inside.”
As they walked Tom said, “How do you know me? You were out cold when we grabbed you to get away.”
“Larry talked about you. I didn’t know if it would be you though, but since you’re the only person from the military I know I decided to take a punt. Also, I was worried that if I didn’t say a name you’d just shoot me.”
“And you walked all the way here?” Tom asked.
“I woke up feeling really darn good. Didn’t know where I was, nor did the others who woke. And the soldiers were no help. So started my jog here. I really do feel good.”
“Alright,” Tom smiled, “Bradbury’s inside, let’s go and show him how well these viruses actually work.”