Fruit had become strangely bitter in the aftermath. The ashes had stained into the flesh of the apples that grew in great groves across the Illawarra, and the sulphur in the air permeated the winds across the entire state.
The scent of baking damper slowly overpowered that smell, mingling with the scent of roasting apple – caramelising butter and cane-sugar to sweeten it – and a herbal tea that steeped in a cast-iron pot.
The small camp-site on the edge of a small quickly desertifying town, in a small fenced in car-dealership lot. The rusted wrecks of the cars had already been stripped for useful parts. The heavily boarded up dealership was a safe-house for the Pathfinder patrols that crossed the suburbs. Forward scouts for the resistance against the living and the dead.
Sam leaned her head against her friend’s shoulder. Jess, too busy drinking to stop her. Patrol 36, eight unfortunate souls, sat around a campfire made from scavenge and dreams. It was mostly silent, until someone spoke, a long day had taken most of the joviality from them. A few ‘chem-lights’ – glow-sticks – lit the road beyond the dealership’s thick chain-link fence with bright yellow and orange lights. Nothing was out there yet. But it was probably due for some rain.
The newcomer, a young woman a few years Sam’s junior, sat across from her, hand still clutching their rifle as they drank the thick soldier’s beer. Two meals a day, three litres of water and two bottles of the thing the commissariat was generously calling beer.
Jess: “Got any smokes still on you?”
Sam pulled a tin-box from her breast pocket and took a peek. Still a few left.
Jess was her second-in-command, her last remaining friend from before the end. Nearly as fucked up as she was. Jess rummaged through their pockets.
Sam: “Here.” She offered a cigarette, “Don’t worry about that shit.”
Jess: “You sure?”
Sam: “Yeah, I gotta quit anyway.”
Jess took the cigarette, those things’ll kill ya. Herbal cigarettes, half the time they were padded with saw-dust because it burned but didn’t fuck up your lungs or the taste quite as much.
Jess lit up, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders and held her close. Dinner took a long time, and most of it was just spent in silence staring at the flickering flames. A few sips of soldier’s beer and a bite to eat, then it was time to sleep. Nights out on patrol became bitterly cold, so it was always welcome to have Jess to share them with. The entire Greater Sydney Basin had started to turn into a desert, ashen and grey. The small town where they made camp was too small to retain much heat and she could feel the ache in her bones as she laid in the back of their truck to rest.
Had it only been five years? She had lived in this town once, her school was just down the road from here. Everything that had happened in the aftermath; death, misery, suffering, darkness. Everything from before felt like a dream, another reality. The only thing that reminded her it was real once upon a time was Jess.
It had begun with a cough. A small outbreak of an unknown virus in the heart of Manhattan. It was entirely innocuous, life went on as everyone simply struggled through another bad flu season. Then people started to die, it spread so quickly that the world was on-fire before anyone had any clue what had happened. It went from a sniffle to a pandemic in a month. Governments went into crisis, the world locked down, quarantined the sick.
Whatever it was presented itself, bleeding membranes and bruising on the more delicate skin of the body.
In a month one percent of the entire world’s population was dead. Nearly eighty million people. And that would have been survivable, if they had stayed dead. In two months, five percent of the population had died. Then they stopped keeping track. It was pointless to quarantine the sick, so they quarantined the healthy.
Every single healthy person they could fine boarded the long-train west. The sick but not yet dead were rounded up and told to die fighting. Ten percent, the population of the world that was resistant enough to the virus that they weren’t killed outright. Half of one percent, those who seemed physically immune. It wasn’t immunity, they were carriers, with no symptoms and no need to fear.
Sam and Jess were two of them, they were torn from their family. They all died in the war as Sam and Jess boarded the long train.
Day Zero, the last day of the war, when the dead had overcome the living. A broadcast echoed out across the world, the final radio signal to reach out and transmit what little the Australian Government knew about the virus. It had broadcast on all frequencies, it cut through all the static, it interrupted broadcasts and it said the same thing for a week.
It is airborne, it is airborne, it is airborne.
There was no escape, simply breathing the air was enough to infect you. And you could tell if you were going to die just by how the bruising spread across your body. If it was only isolated to the eyes and mouth, you had a good chance of surviving.
The government was gone, and rather than descending into anarchy, fear brought the remnants of society together. Those that filled the power vacuum had a few ideas about how the world had come to end. As a punishment for the sins of the living; the queers, colours and heathens. Hedonism and addiction, the old world had to be eaten to cleanse it for the righteous.
Fire-brands in the shell of the old Commonwealth, the entire world started to burn.
“By the fires of the grace of the Fallen God, we are cleansed of the impurities of the soul. Be they called as Jehovah, Allah, or by any other name, the Fallen God lights the path to our salvation.”
They took root in the quarantine camps, and immediately began their reign of ‘correction’ and ‘cleansing’.
“It is upon us to correct the sins of those who do not walk in the light of the Fallen God.”
Being a young girl trapped in the confines of a cell, surrounded by monsters, having them know you are with another girl. Seeing the pyres they light, hoping that is your fate over the alternative – yet knowing the real fate for you.
“You are too precious to burn.”
Death is a kindness.
“Through the grace of the Fallen God, we were made. And yet by our hubris we rebelled and slew them. With no guide to take our souls to eternal paradise, instead we shall return to consume our own flesh and drink our own blood until the final body is devoured and nothing remains but the purgatory.”
Sam woke, she had missed her shift. A grumpy Ashley, one of her closer friends, had no issues taking over.
Ash: “Boss needed her sleep, she’s been running herself into the ground.”
Elizabeth: “What’s her deal anyway?”
Sam laid listening to them.
Elizabeth: “Why’s she hate them so much?”
Everyone here hated those pricks, that’s why they rebelled, why they fought two wars instead of one.
Ash: “It’s not my place to tell that story. But there are worse things you can do to someone than killing them.”
Sam got up, there was no point delaying it. It was nearly dawn, just the slightest hint of colour had made it into the sky. She approached the still burning fire and sat down. They noticed her, greeted her with a nod.
Elizabeth: “It’s not really the best I’ve ever made, but…”
Elizabeth was making something from the left over bread and apple. Tea was reboiling.
Elizabeth: “Beats the alternative.”
They offered her the first slice, it was toast. Toast with some kind of crushed apple spread.
She took a bite, it was surprisingly good. Crushed apple paste, a hint of something she couldn’t put her finger on, maybe some butter in there, nice and brown with a bit of a char to the ashen bread.
Sam: “You’re good at this.”
Elizabeth smiled warmly: “Thanks, I taught myself how to cook. I didn’t have much else to trade.”
Ash: “What’d you get for that sort of thing?”
Trade was pretty simple, if you didn’t have a service to offer, you needed a good to barter. The Pathfinders were a good place to scavenge up some stuff, but the Free Colonies of Sydney that the Pathfinders were a part of also gave them rations and a few luxuries for doing their job. Luxuries were basically the only thing worth trading because there was always a shortage.
Elizabeth struck Sam as a pragmatist: “Coffee, smokes, condoms, grog.”
Sam: “So why give that up?”
Ashley drank a morning beer and stoked the flames: “Gotta do something ‘til you die.”
Ashley definitely was a pragmatist, the kind of girl that traded all her smokes for condoms so she could spend some time earning some more smokes.
Sam: “Thanks for letting me sleep in.”
Ash: “No worries, mate,” Ashley took the slice of bread offered to them, “I figured I’d get Jess on my good-side for once.”
Ashley was one of those country-town girls that had been rounded up for the long-train ride. Wouldn’t know it by looking at her though. A grimy, scarred, messy kind of a girl that scrubbed up alright with a bit of steel wool and elbow grease. They were all like that though, Sam supposed. Ugly young women in tattered repurposed clothes designed for a different world, torn and gnawed and cut into a thousand pieces. The only real difference was her hair. Digging through ruins, killing undead, crawling through mud and dirt and marching through rain. Sam had been such a delicate girl in her youth, Jess was the tomboy.
Ash: “This is pretty good, you should do some cooking back at base.”
Sam agreed: “I’ve got nothing to offer, but I know people that’d give an arm and a leg for something decent to eat.”
Plus people hoarded up cigarettes and alcohol just because they liked to feel like they’ve got something to their name. They’d definitely part with a little of their stash for some proper food.
Ash: “If I weren’t on the hook to Jess for fags-uh, sorry.”
Ashley chagrined. Sam shrugged.
Ash: “I already give her smokes.”
Sam was curious, she’d never actually bothered to ask: “What does she trade you anyway?”
Sam traded them the same thing for their coffee…: “Wait, then how are you always complaining you need more?”
Ashley shrugged: “Sun’s up, I’ll go wake everyone.”
Ashley dashed off before any more questions could be raised. Elizabeth poured herself a cup of tea. Coffee had been in short supply for a while now, whatever the substitute was they’d been having trouble getting more.
Sam: “She’s gonna be pissed when she finds out I’m giving up smoking.”
Elizabeth laughed, Sam chuckled.
Elizabeth: “She can have mine if she wants, I’ve got no use for ‘em.”
Sam: “I’ve still got no clue where they get half this shit from. Logistics is fucking magic to me.”
Elizabeth nodded thoughtfully: “I guess it’s no less impressive than the dead coming back to life.”
Sam: “Guess not.”
Elizabeth: “I bet you’ve seen some shit. You’re a career soldier right?”
As far as occupations go, she was a philosopher. She’d never actually trained to be a soldier, she just refused to die easily.
Sam: “Yeah, guess so.”
Elizabeth: “You’re a black-shield, right?”
Sam nodded. The whole shield thing always kind of bothered her. It was a pseudo-rank thing the Free Colonies did and all it really meant was that you had logged a lot of time out in the field. Every three months you got a different colour, from White which was untrained, Green which was trained but under three months. All the way to Black, which was an entire twelve months spent in the field. Her actual military rank was captain. Ashley who was a red-shield, nine-months, was also a captain and Jess who was second-in-command was a lieutenant but also a black-shield. Elizabeth was a green-shield, and a private. In the end, it meant fuck all, it was just some revolutionary bullshit the high-command was pulling because they were worried about any associations at all with the Commonwealth. They had even considered renaming Sydney but never came up with a good name for it.
Elizabeth: “How many times have you been bitten?”
Sam: “Twelve, maybe as high as fifteen.”
The others started showing up for breakfast. Elizabeth passed around the food and the tea. The eight women of Patrol 36, much more cheery than last night, but all still looking like death.
Jess: “So, where to next Boss?”
They wrapped an arm around her, hugged her to their side as they ate.
Sam: “Well, I’m out of cigarettes, so I say we head back to base.”
She offered Jess her last cigarette. They were getting low on supplies anyway.