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By Matt Eaton

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure, Thriller, Paranormal

eBook, Audiobook

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432
26 mins

One


The chilled predawn light offered just enough illumination to negotiate Canberra’s streets without headlights, but the progress was slow. The sheer volume of domestic flotsam that had migrated from the abandoned yards of Yarralumla made driving a hazardous prospect. If the car broke down or a tyre punctured, Maxine Warrington might quickly find herself in danger and no-one would be rushing to her assistance. The physical risk didn’t particularly worry her. Of greater concern was the prospect of failure – a distinct possibility if she faced any major delay. She drove cautiously past the Chinese Embassy and was keenly aware of the armed guards manning the front gate.
Being so far inland, Canberra had been untouched by the Flood, meaning many areas of the city were disturbingly intact. The militarised zone – the areas around Capital Hill and the ASIO headquarters to the north – had been heavily fortified since the early days of the crisis. Inside the barricades where life had continued almost as normal there were no obvious signs of decay. But that was an illusion. The parameters of normal had been reset. The Sunburst – the first of the twin calamities to strike that December day – had dismembered the world they had known like a circular saw through butter.
This was the first time Max had ventured outside the safe zone. The parlous state of the streets in the diplomatic precinct was almost a comfort. It was a tangible indication of what had befallen them. But she saw now why Yarralumla had been designated a no-go area for all but essential travel. Her route avoided the large US Embassy compound, which was now more akin to a medieval fortress. But she knew they would be watching all local movements.
She turned the car into Forster Crescent and cruised past the New Zealand High Commission. The road wound through bushland that kissed the city fringe. Here the landscape was pock-marked with destruction. Trees stripped of leaves, branches ripped from tree trunks, saplings torn from the ground. A funeral pyre smouldered in a clearing. The Army had been busy overnight. She became aware of the smell of burning human flesh languidly wafting toward her on the morning breeze. It reminded her she was hungry.
Though she tried not to look her eyes were drawn toward the fire. This was the Army’s ‘dead of night’ policy at work. Bodies were gathered and burnt in the hours of darkness on evenings when no strong winds were forecast. This pyre was small, just a handful of corpses, as the soldiers were no doubt trying to prevent a bushfire. Canberra was perennially a city at risk from bushfire but the necessity of dealing with the dead was deemed worth the risk. Whether it was good management, luck or the sympathy of the gods the fire had remained within its containment lines.
She couldn’t make out age or sex. A hand extended from the fire, its fingers moving as if beckoning for help – the twitching of tendons contracting in the heat.
Max continued to drive slowly past the turnoff to Perth Avenue, noting the nearby Malaysian High Commission, gates torn from their hinges, its car park strewn with shards of wooden furniture.
Kindling.
She turned right into Hunter Street. It looked disturbingly normal. Cars were still parked on the roadside. The large front yards of luxury homes looked as if nothing had befallen them a lawnmower couldn’t fix. On a whim she pointed her car up a long driveway leading to a single-storey bungalow. There was no sign of life through its dark windows. She was still several hundred metres from her destination, but leaving the car here made her presence harder to detect from the street. She was still a sitting duck to satellite surveillance, but she planned to be in and out before anyone had time to challenge her.
She removed her Browning L9A1 pistol from its shoulder holster and for the third time that morning checked the magazine. She tapped herself down and felt reassured by the two fully loaded mags in the vest pockets. She popped the car keys under the driver’s seat and set off, pulling herself over a brick perimeter wall and into the yard next door, noting the neighbours’ plush stone kitchen, now decorated in a mosaic of broken crockery and the once-comfortable living room ripped apart, most likely by a scavenger’s desperate search for food and water.
Max made her way along the side of the house toward the street front but was careful to keep herself out of view. She crouched for a minute, scanning the road and listening for movement. Confident no-one was watching, she walked briskly across the road to the front steps of the house opposite. The front door had no handle. She kicked it open, swallowing the urge to yell: “Honey, I’m home!”
She closed the door behind her and looked around. The house was remarkably well ordered. No looters had made it in here. There might still be tinned food in the cupboards. She moved through the living room toward the kitchen, the spot offering the best view of her target’s home. It was safe to assume the Americans were likewise watching Wu Yaoqing, but she was counting on the likelihood they had chosen a surveillance point in front of his house. It was the easiest way for them to monitor comings and goings.
Wu Yaoqing was a nobody, the office manager of the Chinese defence attaché. He held no power or sway within the embassy. But he was a loose end, which made him an easy target.
The attacker’s ear-piercing howl caught Max so completely off guard that she almost failed to get out of the way. The creature’s wildly swinging arm missed her face by centimetres. Max retreated to the dining room, grabbing a chair to fend it off. It was a woman, maybe late 30s, the madness in its eyes driven by fear as much as fury. Max swung the chair in front of her in a bid to warn the creature to stay back, but it wasn’t to be deterred. Once more it howled like an alley cat and lashed an arm at the chair. Max pushed it to the ground and jammed the chair over its torso, pinning its arms by its side. The creature screamed in outrage and wildly swung its body back and forth in a fruitless bid to break free. The noise was appalling. It would almost certainly attract attention.
Max sighed. She pulled the revolver from its holster and shot the woman in the head. It was insanely loud in the confined space and the sound reverberated in her skull for a long while after it had faded from the air. If the Americans were using audio surveillance they would certainly have detected it.
A child’s cry arose from a nearby room of the house.
She cursed under her breath. Suddenly the creature’s frenzy made sense – it was a mother. But how had mother and child stayed alive all this time? Max launched herself toward the source of the crying, scanning rooms for any further signs of movement. Main bedroom, empty. Second bedroom, same. Bathroom – neat, ordered, bath tub full of water.
Who had done that?
Wu. He had been taking care of them.
She found the child in the third bedroom. It was a young boy, maybe two or three years old. He cowered in a corner, but it was shyness more than mortal terror that kept him there. Were children this age still Blanks? Weren’t their minds already empty? Did they retain a capacity to learn? She didn’t know.
She shooshed the boy gently, sat down on his bed and stroked his hair. He quietened a little, but was glancing anxiously toward the hallway beyond his bedroom door, clearly suspecting something had happened to his mother. No words of comfort sprang to mind on that front.
It was a complication she didn’t need. If she called it in and requested a pick-up she would give her location away. The Americans were probably already wondering what was going on.
He was just a child.
General Shearer had been unequivocal. No compromise. She had to get the job done.
If Wu was taking care of them, wasn’t he bound to return? But that might not be for hours. Unless he heard the gunshot. She peered out the boy’s window, but couldn’t make out any movement on Wu’s side of the fence.
“Come on you bastard, show yourself,” she muttered impatiently. Each second she waited was time she didn’t have.
There was no sign of him.
She smiled at the boy and backed out of the room, pulling the bedroom door shut behind her. The child immediately began to wail. She opened the door and hissed at him to be quiet. But he was frightened now. He wanted to be heard.
Max gathered him up and lay him down on his bed. She picked up a small brown teddy bear lying next to him and held it to the boy’s face. He grabbed the bear and tried to move it away, so she held it down over him firmly. She lifted the muzzle of her Browning and took out boy and bear with a single slug.
By the time she returned to the kitchen, Wu Yaoqing was standing in his backyard.
Now he comes.
He caught sight of Maxine and began running toward the fence. He stepped through a man-sized gap in the wooden palings and onto the deck outside the kitchen. Max opened the door to the deck to meet him.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
She held a finger to her lips and ushered him inside. He looked down at the pistol still in her right hand and jumped past her, spotting the woman’s body on the floor. Wu knelt down beside the body and began to cry.
“Why you do this?”
“She was trying to kill me.”
“No,” he insisted. “She was just trying to protect… her son.”
He looked up at Maxine accusingly. She didn’t need to tell him the boy was dead. Wu let out a guttural moan of anguish that nearly knocked her from her feet.
“Is this why you’ve been riding your bicycle home each night? How long did you think you could keep it up?”
“They needed me. They trusted me.”
He was right about the need. She had her doubts about the trust. The Blanks had been stripped of humanity. They ran on fear and base instinct. Trust didn’t figure highly on that pyramid of requirement. These days it was pretty low on everyone’s list.
“You’re lucky you’re still alive.”
“Not as dangerous as you might think.”
“I’m amazed your boss allows this.”
“He turns a blind eye. Mr Yang says in times like this we must show ‘gei mainzi’. We must all act with honour.”
“I’m sorry,” she said emptily.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“My name’s Captain Maxine Warrington. I’m here on behalf of the director of Australian Defence Intelligence, Major General Neil Shearer.
“He wants to meet with Mr Yang tomorrow morning.”

Two


From a kilometre above the tangled mess there was a peculiar sort of beauty to the devastation. The way the waves dazzled in the reflected glass, impossibly filling all the spaces in between the metal skeletons and tumbled mortar ruins. The Gold Coast was no more. The map had been trashed and the boundaries between land and sea redrawn. It was as if Atlantis had resurfaced from the hidden depths of a watery grave.
There was a part of Captain Stone Luckman that derived a grim satisfaction from what had gone down. This was his land, his people’s land, though he might just be the last Kombumerri man alive to stake the claim. His father would have called it payback, except he too had been lost in the maelstrom. The land had been reclaimed, and in his eyes at least it was an act of God that honoured the names of all the saltwater people who were murdered in the name of white progress.
Their history had remained forgotten for too long. They never taught such things when he was at school but his grandparents were the keepers of the stories. They filled his young head with the legacy, said he must never forget the blood that had been spilt. The innocent men who were shot down like dogs by the Queensland Native Police for daring to maintain a claim on land that had nurtured the Kombumerri for thousands of years.
In the Australia of the 1860s, Aboriginal people were viewed more like feral pests than human beings. To the white settlers who claimed their stake in Kombumerri tribal lands Luckman’s ancestors were little more than wild animals to be tamed or wiped out. As America’s Union forces fought the Confederates over the immorality of slavery, half a world away across the Pacific Ocean a far more sinister civil war was waged. Aboriginal people were something lower than slaves for a slave at least had economic value.
The slaughter of his people had been so one-sided in force and rhetoric that the murderers were hailed as heroes.
By the 1990s, such repugnant truths were dismissed by a white prime minister as the black armband view of history. But the people of the Gold Coast had already long forgotten, so adept had they become at turning a blind eye. Over the course of his life Luckman had watched as the Gold Coast became a mecca to human avarice and greed, a haven for criminals and bent police and racist bastards in white shoes who viewed the past as something to be demolished with a wrecking ball like it had never existed.
Now the circle had closed. Their flawed notion of progress had been swept away by the relentless force of nature. But in the weeks since that awful day, Luckman had come to realise he found little solace in karmic justice. His coping mechanism had instead driven him toward focusing on survival. He had willed himself into an obsessional search for those still clinging to life in the rubble of all that once was.
He would never forget.
The Black Hawk had begun to bank to the north on its return journey down the coast as a radio call came in.
“Searcher 210, do you copy?”
His pilot, Lieutenant Eddie Bell, responded with his usual cool detachment. “210, over.”
“Searcher 210 status, over.”
“All clear, over.”
“We have a weather warning...”
Captain Luckman tuned out. He struggled once more to shift his body to relieve the ache in his left leg. There was never enough room in this thing to get comfortable. He was just over six feet tall and moderately well built, but in the minds of the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s designers he was obviously a giant.
He didn’t give a damn about the Army’s weather report. Bell had spotted the storm clouds a good 10 minutes ago. These days the weather made everyone skittish, as if the Earth had somehow developed the capacity to whip up a storm with untold speed and ferocity. More than ever before the forces of nature were to be feared and avoided at all costs. Admittedly, flying a mothballed Black Hawk with a crew of two would always mean it was best to err on the side of caution. Especially as Luckman was no pilot. If something happened to Bell they both died. Just as well no-one was shooting at them.
He was weary to the core. Despite the mind-numbing effort of each day upon day he had been struggling to sleep. He’d said nothing to anyone. No point, really. No-one had the time for his petty problems. If forced to acknowledge it, the Army would prescribe sleeping tablets before simply dismissing it as post-traumatic stress disorder. Safe to assume everyone now suffered the effects of PTSD to some degree.
Everyone except the Blanks.
That the Army had accepted him back no questions asked was a mark of how far the tide had shifted in Government and Defence circles. In the years since he'd quit the Overseas Information Service Luckman’s activities had shaped him into what authorities described euphemistically as a person of interest. A dissident. While for now he was welcome back in the fold they would take no responsibility for his mental health – despite his war record, and the years spent in the service of his country. At the first sign of trouble he’d be cut adrift. For the time being, however, their interests intersected.
Strange to think only a few short years had passed since Queensland’s summer of sorrow, when a series of devastating floods were capped off by a category five cyclone. A few months later the disaster virus had spread across the Pacific when an earthquake crippled Christchurch and another massive quake unleashed a devastating tsunami in Japan.
Who could have known these were but a curtain raiser, a ripple ahead of the hellish waves to come. Dual sucker punches, the twisting of the knife. Because one event had immediately followed another most people assumed at first they were connected. A foolish misjudgement that now seemed so obvious in hindsight. A solar coronal mass ejection, no matter how devastating to global infrastructure, could never on its own have triggered the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
The Flood had been a deliberate act. A terrifying act of terrorism, or a state-sanctioned act of global genocide for which China and America were blaming each other. In a world crippled by the sudden five-metre rise in sea levels, in which human beings were suddenly an endangered species, there was actually talk of war. As if a million cubic kilometres of ice plunging into the Southern Ocean with the force of 100 atomic bombs wasn’t destruction enough.
Below the chopper, the pulse of the ocean was steady. It was low tide, which revealed more of the carnage. Waves gently broke against the shells of structures that lined what had once been the beachfront. The old roads and footpaths were already buried in sand as if the ocean was trying to wipe away the mess.
After the tsunami, the twisted detritus of civilisation left swirling in the surging tide had taken a week to come to rest. It had killed anything in its path still clinging to life. Most of the Gold Coast’s beachfront flora and fauna was torn up, washed away, or ripped to shreds. All that was left were patches of deadened pine trees still doggedly rooted to ground the ocean had claimed and were still visible above the waterline. From Main Beach to Coolangatta, hundreds of tree stumps pointed bleakly skyward like monuments to what had forever been taken away.
The salt water had already killed most of them. But their branches had become a haven for bewildered sea birds, spiders, snakes and countless other creatures.
As if in homage to the pines, great islands of torn concrete and twisted metal likewise reached out for the heavens. The city had become one huge demolition site, a playground for the rich and famous with its guts ripped open, glamourous facades washed away like last night’s cheap make-up. Many of the towers had collapsed with the impact of the first wave. However, dotted among their shattered skeletons, some had remained intact. It was inside these that Luckman and Bell had discovered scores of survivors – with their memories intact.
After the Flood, most countries across the world imposed martial law. It was quickly deemed essential when the awful truth about so many of the survivors became apparent.
Luckman knew their work here was near its end. Their two most recent rescues had been people who had slipped into madness. They weren’t Blanks – they had simply become consumed by the horror, slipping into delusion in a desperate bid to cling to a past that no longer existed. In a town where image was once everything, the sudden submersion of their world simply left them cut adrift from sanity’s safe mooring.
The chopper banked over Broadbeach to retrace its path. Once more he scanned the deserted ruins for signs of life. Bell threaded the chopper slowly along the line of buildings. From Broadbeach to Surfers Paradise, the towers were packed together like Ionic columns. With so many now toppled over, Luckman found himself likening what remained to the ruins of ancient Greece. He examined balconies, windows, probed the shadows for anything alive.
There. Eight floors down from the roof. A face.
“Focal.”
Bell turned to him and nodded. “Fuck all is about right.”
Luckman grinned. “No, I said ‘focal’. The Focal building.”
“Nasty storm coming our way, Captain.”
Luckman smiled apologetically. “I saw him again.”
Bell sighed but said nothing. Luckman didn't blame him. Whatever this was – spirit man, vision, hallucination – had led Luckman to almost 30 survivors in the past two weeks. But the supernatural was simply not on Eddie Bell’s radar.
“That building’s red listed,” Bell pointed out.
“Ahh, man up will you?” Luckman chided.
“You’ve been lucky so far,” the pilot warned. “Your luck’s gonna start running out soon. And I’m not waiting around ’til that storm hits. I’m almost out of fuel.”
Luckman shrugged. He scanned their status list for notes on the Focal building. It was condemned. The engineers expected it to topple any day.
“Just get me on the roof and I’ll see what I can see.”
The chopper closed to within a metre of the rooftop.
“Billy, don’t be a hero,” said Bell. “Come back to me.”
It was their ritual. Quoting maudlin pop lyrics somehow helped to keep grim reality at arm’s length.
“The road is long, with many a winding turn,” Luckman replied.
“Yeah, well, keep your pretty head low,” Bell muttered.
Luckman gave his pilot a sage nod and removed his headphones. He opened the cockpit door, threw out his ropes and leapt onto the roof. The chopper rose and circled for a moment before heading north-west towards Amberley Air Base.
As the sound of the Black Hawk’s twin engines faded, Luckman was left in a silence punctuated only by the wind. It blew hard at this altitude, all but obliterating the gentle thrum of the ocean far below. To the south-west, storm clouds were rolling in quickly. Gazing out to sea, he could almost imagine the world was as it used to be.
Billy, don’t be a hero...
He was going to have that lousy song in his head all night.

Three

At precisely 5.10am, two black Great Wall SUVs departed the confines of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China and began heading north toward Commonwealth Avenue.
The roads were devoid of traffic, making any covert attempt at tailing the vehicles a waste of time. Both cars crossed Lake Burley Griffin, seemingly en route to Parliament House, but then parted company, one veering east the other west along Parkes Way.
Tracking them both via satellite simultaneously would prove challenging, although it must be assumed such a task remained within America’s operational capacity given that movement of any nature by Chinese officials was unusual and therefore immediately suspicious.
This was precisely what the Defence Attaché was relying upon as his battered white Toyota Corolla left the embassy gates five minutes later. Yang Hongbo was not behind the wheel. He was instead huddled in the backseat under a blanket, admittedly feeling somewhat foolish, though happy to accept the humiliation if it meant beating the Americans at their own game.
The Corolla likewise headed north over the bridge and turned west along Parkes Way, but slowed down once safely inside the traffic tunnel. Yang leapt out from under the blanket and opened the rear door of the car before his startled driver (a female staffer whose name escaped him) had time to stop.
“Keep moving,” he hissed at her. “Return to me in 10 minutes.”
She looked at him in confusion.
“On the other side,” he snapped.
She nodded and nervously hit the accelerator. Yang barely had a chance to shut the car door. She was out of her competence zone, but would reveal nothing if questioned for the simple reason that she didn’t know anything and had no direct connection with his office.
Yang watched the car emerge into the light at the other end of the tunnel then began to search for signs of the man he had come to meet. He could see nobody; and there was nowhere to hide. The walls of the tunnel were tall and straight. He had been driven through here many times. The tunnel’s walls were normally well lit, however electricity was now too valuable to waste on such things. He would have to find his way in the dark.
He heard the sound of metal hinges somewhere ahead. A man’s figure came into view about 10 metres away, silhouetted against the rising curtain of daylight at the tunnel’s far end. The figure waved at him then disappeared back into the tunnel wall – a maintenance compartment separating the westbound and eastbound lanes.
Yang paused for a moment. If one wanted to plan an assassination there would be few places better than this in which to carry it out. But he had already decided neither Australia nor the US had anything to gain from his death. If he was murdered today, it could only be because many more people were marked for death tomorrow. In that case, all hope was lost.
But Yang had not yet lost hope. He stepped into the service bay and pulled the door shut behind him. It was so dark he could not see his hand in front of his face.
A fluorescent light flickered to life above his head. General Neil Shearer stepped forward and held out his hand. He was dressed like an old man out for a Sunday stroll.
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
Yang shook the General’s hand and stared deep into the man’s eyes. Each held the other’s gaze warily.
“I apologise for the meeting place,” said Shearer. “But needs must.”
Yang smiled, his suspicions far from allayed. He was aware the General was obliquely referring to China’s infiltration of ASIO headquarters. Plans of the building were obtained from its construction company, forcing a total refit of the building at a cost of many millions of dollars.
“I know why I value such secrecy, General,” Yang told him. “But I wonder why you feel it necessary.”
“What I have to say is not for American ears.”
Nor, perhaps, for other Australian ears?
Yang checked his watch. “You have precisely seven minutes to state your case before I depart, General. Until then you have, as they say, my undivided attention.”
“I am here,” Shearer began, “because I hope war can be prevented. But in the event war becomes inevitable, it is necessary to choose sides.”
“Has Australia not already done so?”
Shearer paused, then changed tack. “Tell me all you know about what occurred in the Antarctic.”
“It was a volcanic eruption. A natural cataclysm.”
Shearer shook his head. “Don’t just give me the party line – tell me how China made it happen.”
Yang grew angry. “You assume too much – and have no right to do so.”
“Something happened down there the US can’t explain.”
“They detected an event with seismic instruments set up by their own scientists,” said Yang. “It is a region busy with research and quasi-scientific American activity. How could China hope to do what you suggest without being discovered?”
Shearer smiled. “That’s a very good question.”
“Whatever happened to trigger the volcanic eruption occurred more than a kilometre under the ice. Surely that means it was a natural occurrence,” said Yang.
“The signals I’m talking about were not seismic waves – they were radio waves. They were man-made.”
The statement caught Yang off-guard. “China has no capacity to explode weapons of any sort deep underground. We cannot conceive of why America or any nation would carry out such an act of self-destruction. Yet this is the terrible thing of which you accuse my people.”
“Do you deny trying to shoot down an American spy satellite?”
“We lost many of our satellites in the solar storm,” said Yang. “We were merely trying to launch another.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” said Shearer. “America was blind for two days after the Sunburst. Their military sats were built to withstand the most intense solar radiation storms, but US Space Command shut them down as a precaution. Trouble was, it took two days to get them back online. The Americans were sitting ducks for all that time.”
Yang’s expression gave nothing away.
“Isn’t it possible the People’s Liberation Army learned of this vulnerability and your generals decided to press their advantage?” Shearer asked him.
“It is possible,” Yang admitted. “But I have been assured this did not happen.”
General Shearer stared hard into the man’s eyes and saw he was telling the truth. “Then I’m sorry, but your superiors are lying to you. Space Command didn’t detect the launch until your bird was in the air. However, they know the difference between a rocket and a missile.”
Yang sighed. “Let us presume that what you say is true. From this act alone China is being held responsible for the Flood. But one and one do not make three.”
“Forgive me,” Shearer countered, “but the People’s Republic seems to place little value on the lives of individuals. Someone in your leadership perhaps saw the Flood as a way to lift China’s standing in the world.”
“Do I need to remind you the US has a long history of aggression in virtually every corner of the globe? China is on its knees, General. Yet instead of using our armed forces to help the people recover from the catastrophe, we are forced to prepare for possible invasion.”
Shearer nodded. He appeared to have made up his mind about something.
“Tell me why I am here, General.”
“I’ve been instructed to inform you that Australia does not wish to become collateral damage in a war between two superpowers.”
“Meaning?”
“Meaning we are willing to walk away from our strategic alliance with the United States.”
Yang Hongbo’s expression narrowed. “Such words are easy. They are much harder to demonstrate. Defence treaties require more than a handshake on the side of the road.”
“Surely I don’t need to explain the sensitivity of this matter. The Prime Minister is terrified this will backfire. We can’t risk going public before we know your response.”
“You may need to offer something more concrete to convince my Government your words are not merely a calculated distraction.”
“Which is why I am informing you my operatives will soon commence an operation that will demonstrate the seriousness of Australia’s intent in this regard.”

Four

A magpie's storm call echoed through the air below. It snapped Luckman out of his reverie and he turned to the job at hand. Eight floors ... about 24 metres. One rope would be enough, which would save some time.
He double checked he was facing the right way. One balcony looked much like another on a circular building and he didn’t want to miss his target. Near the edge he yanked on a metal railing and decided it would hold his weight. He fed out the rope, securing it to allow for its retrieval from below, then slung the rest of his gear on his back. Within two minutes he was moon-walking down the vertical face of the building exterior.
Bell was the only person in the Army who knew about his visions. Luckman had had nightmares for years, on and off... about the men he’d killed or the faces of soldiers he’d seen shot to pieces. The smell and the pain had been seared into his brain. They were all part of him, each phantom instantly recognisable. But the faces coming to him lately were unfamiliar. There had only been one or two at first, but they quickly formed a mob that pursued him through a dreamscape of desolation, pleading for safety and relief. Their ardent appeals were alarming enough, but the dark force from which they fled evoked a fear so intense it was nothing short of blind panic. At the heart of it lay something he would do anything to avoid. The desperate faces in flight were likewise terrified, but he had not the vaguest inkling of why they thought he could help them.
It may simply be a recurring nightmare, a product of his brain’s attempt to process the horror of his waking existence. But he had begun to wonder whether there might be more to it than that, whether there were more people out there in desperate need of help. Luckman had awoken in fright so many times he’d taken to leaving a light on.
He leapt over the large cavity of the penthouse balcony, noting the growing swell below him as he watched waves crash around the base of the building. As he touched down again he remained on the move, jumping once more into space as another balcony loomed. It was almost like flying. He repeated the process six more times and was almost disappointed to arrive at his destination. The fun part was always over too soon. He swung in and landed on his feet, narrowly missing a gas barbecue and a banana lounge.
As he stood up he heard a woman’s scream from somewhere inside the apartment. He unclipped himself from the rope, throwing his other equipment down on the balcony. She kept on screaming. He still couldn’t see her, but held up his hands in an effort to calm her down.
“It’s OK. I’m with the Army, I’m here to help.”
The woman showed herself – pale, bedraggled and clearly scared out of her wits. Her shorts and T-shirt were crumpled and filthy. She had a cricket bat and looked ready to knock his block off, but as she caught sight of him she relaxed.
“Oh, it’s you.”
“Hello.”
“You took your time ¬– if you don’t mind me saying.”
“We were told there was no-one alive in this building.”
“Yeah? Well guess what?” she said, hands raised like the minstrel of sarcasm.
Luckman pointed to his left shoulder, to indicate he was unclipping his walkie talkie.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke,” she said.
He gazed at the device. Sheathed in its waterproof plastic film it looked just like a packet of cigarettes.
“Searcher 210. Do you copy, Ed?”
“Copy Stone, over.”
“I’m secure. Contact established. Any chance of a lift, over?”
“I need to refuel, over.”
“Can you give me an ETA, over?”
“About an hour, over.”
“Roger.”
OK, so far so good. Stage one, meet and greet. Now came the hard bit.
“I'm here to help,” he repeated, trying to sound calm – maybe even soothing.
“So you said,” she returned, laughing humourlessly. She took a step toward him and then stopped herself.
Humour, anger, awkward social interaction – all the classic hallmarks of trauma. But she had accepted his explanation. Maybe she wasn't insane.
He heard a knock on the apartment's front door, which was barricaded from the inside.
“Mel?” a voice inquired from outside the apartment. “You OK? What’s going on in there?”
She wheeled round in fright at the sound of the man’s voice then turned back to Luckman with a look hovering somewhere between fear, embarrassment and guilt. There was something weird going on here.
“How many of you are left in the building?” he asked her.
“Just me and him. But believe me, you don’t wanna go out there.”
He sighed. “Let’s try to stay calm.”
“Don’t s’pose you have a Taser?” she inquired.
“You’re Mel, I take it.”
She nodded. He waited for more information. “Mel Palace.”
“Pretty name,” he told her, stepping toward the front door. “Hello out there?”
“Who the fuck are you?” an angry male voice demanded.
“Captain Luckman, Australian Army. Are you, by any chance, Carter Pimford?”
Luckman heard the man swear again.
“How did you know that?” Mel wondered.
Luckman looked back at her, noting the confirmation. “I’m opening the door Carter,” he called back.
“That's really not a good idea,” Mel insisted.
Slowly, Luckman pulled the bookcase, chair and washing machine away from the door. He unbolted the latch and opened the door, revealing a messy but otherwise empty hallway.
“I’m coming out, Carter.”

Five

Luckman took one step into the corridor and caught movement in the corner of his eye. He threw himself to the ground in a commando roll, feeling a glancing blow to the back of his head. He willed himself to remain conscious because he sensed he was a dead man if he passed out. Fighting off dizzy nausea he leapt to his feet.
Pimford dropped the fire extinguisher and ran.
Luckman unzipped a pocket on his jump suit and pulled out a revolver, then followed Pimford down the hallway to see him run into another apartment and slam the door behind him. Luckman sized up the door to work out where best to give it a kick. Picking the wrong spot risked a broken leg or possibly getting stuck in a mess of plywood and cardboard. Both possibilities flickered across his mind as his boot hit the door. It swung open, slamming against the wall behind. He scanned the room before entering, steeling himself for another assault.
“I’m pissed off now Carter,” Luckman called out. “And I have a gun, by the way, so it’s probably not a good idea to piss me off any further.”
A head popped up from behind the couch in the lounge room. The same look; terror and guilt. Pimford retreated toward the balcony and pulled open the sliding door. Only one way out from there.
“All right. Slow down. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Even though you deserve a good smack in the head, you stupid prick. Luckman lowered his gun.
“Relax, all right? Talk to me.”
But Pimford was way past talk. He started to cry in wailing sobs. He leapt over the balustrade. He was still holding on, but his intention was clear.
“NO! Listen mate, we can work this out. Just calm down...”
“I’m sorry.”
Pimford let go and pushed himself backwards off the edge of the balcony.
“Oh shit.” Luckman ran to the balcony and peered down. Pimford hit the water like a sack of cement. If the 60-metre fall hadn’t killed him instantly, he was most certainly unconscious and would drown in minutes.
Mel was waiting in the hallway. “What happened?” she wanted to know.
“He’s... gone,” Luckman informed her, as he put his gun back in his pocket.
“Did you kill him?”
“No!” Luckman roared, a little too loudly. “He jumped.”
“But he’s dead. That’s the main thing.” She burst into tears.
He tried to comfort her but she pushed him away. He left her to it and walked back inside her apartment to gather up his equipment.
The storm was visible now. Clouds of driving rain joined the wild surf’s assault on the broken line of buildings along the old beachfront. She entered the room behind him silently. He saw her reflection in the glass and turned to face her.
“Do you have a mobile phone?” she asked.
“Phones don’t work,” he told her.
“Since when?”
“Since the Sunburst shut down the electricity grid.”
She retreated into a bedroom and shut the door. He heard her sobbing. To relieve the nervous tension, he started to poke around her abode. It was messy, but not to the point of despair. Plenty of canned food in the kitchen, a few plastic bottles of water. There was an awful stench seeping from under the closed toilet door. He avoided looking in there and instead peered into the bathroom. The bathtub was maybe a quarter full, but it was starting to look pretty murky. He’d arrived just in time. Another day or two and she’d be getting sick.
She appeared at his side. He hadn’t heard the bedroom door open.
“So you found me,” she said.
“Yeah. It's what I do.”
“Figured.”
The whistling chorus of the wind at the windows rose a few decibels. Mel ran to close the balcony door as the rain began sweeping into the lounge room.
“Looks like we’re not going anywhere for a while,” she said.
“I need to check the roof access.”
“It’s locked.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ll get it open,” he assured her. “Why don’t you use some of that bath water to clean yourself up? But don’t drink any more of it.”
He ripped a bottle from a side pouch on his jumpsuit.
“Drink this if you’re thirsty. I’ll be back in a minute, then we can talk some more.”
She looked hurt. “Clean up? Am I that bad?”
He shrugged and smiled sheepishly; she was a long way past bad, but he’d seen worse. “You’re alive,” he told her. “That’s one up on a whole lot of people.”
He found a remarkable change in her appearance by the time he returned. She had rinsed her wavy blonde hair, tied it back in a ponytail and found a cute little red T-shirt and some shorts covered in a cheerful Hawaiian hibiscus print. It made her look 10 years younger and reminded him there were still things to smile about. He nodded his approval as he strained to hear Eddie Bell on the two-way radio.
“The engineers say it’s not safe to land. They want me to use the winch.”
“Bugger the engineers,” Luckman replied angrily. “The building is secure and it’s just the two of us. You can be in and out again in 30 seconds, over.”
“...when I get there, over.”
The bad weather was breaking up the transmission.
“What’s your ETA?” Luckman asked him.
“... minutes, over.”
“Say again, over.”
“For......inutes.”
“Was that 14 or 40?” Mel pondered.
“Probably 40 – or longer. He’s not supposed to fly in a storm unless it's life or death.”
“Um, hello?” she answered, again with the minstrel hands.
As if to underscore the point, thunder and lightning exploded deafeningly right outside the window. Mel screamed in shock.
“That hit the building,” Luckman realised. He threw open the balcony door and peered over the edge to where the building met the sea. The gale blew sheets of rain sideways and they slapped into his face like a rebuke.
This was what happened when you didn’t take the weather seriously.
Six
The swell was huge and the tide had risen sharply. More water than usual would be pounding through the building’s lower floors. He held his hands to the exterior superstructure – he could feel the impact of the waves. Lightning flashed close by again. And then he felt it; a tremor reverberated through the concrete superstructure. Their time had run out.
She grabbed his arm. “This isn’t the moment for sightseeing, Captain.” She was simply trying to drag him out of the rain but caught the look on his face. “That bad?”
He tried and failed to think of a suitable response. “Do you know how to abseil?”
She grimaced in bewildered surprise. “I do, actually.”
He could have kissed her.
“But can’t we just take the stairs?” she suggested.
“The building’s ready to collapse. We can’t wait for the chopper. We have to get out of here now. I don’t want to be in a stairwell when that happens.”
They would have a fighting chance. He began to tie his two ropes together. They should be able to make it down to a couple of floors above water level. It would have to do. He glanced at his watch. Half past four. Two hours of daylight left. Every second felt like one too many as he checked and double-checked his knots. He could feel the fear slowing his movements down.
Breathe, Stone. Relax. Keep it together.
She reappeared in a long-sleeved rash vest and a pair of Dunlop volleys.
“You’ll have to go first,” he told her.
“Why?”
“So I can keep an eye on you. You’re gonna have to walk down face first.”
Her eyes widened. “I’ve never done it that way.”
“Don’t worry, it’s easy. And it’s actually much safer. You can see exactly where your feet are landing.”
She started to say something then stopped herself and just nodded. Luckman checked the balustrade and decided he wouldn’t bet their lives on it. Instead, he fed the rope around a pillar near the kitchen. That meant they’d finish one floor higher, but it was probably the least of their worries. He pulled out a climbing harness from his rucksack and helped her into it. His spare glove was too big for her hand, but as long as she didn’t let go of the rope she’d be fine.
“Get as far down as you can, but for God’s sake don’t fall off the end of the rope. We’ll work out stage two when I’m down there with you.”
She nodded. She knew what was to come.
“I’ll be watching,” he told her. “I’ll be right behind you.”
He helped her over the balcony.
“Oh God, my feet are tingling,” she said nervously.
“Here’s your brake,” he said, handing her the rope. “You remember? Hand out to your side to stop, hard into your back to go forward again.”
She leapt into space and instantly lost control of her descent as the relentless wind swept her off balance. She slammed hard into the side of the building and started to slide wildly for a moment before remembering to brake her fall. Luckman winced.
“You OK?” he called.
She didn’t reply. She stood up and kept moving, but she had lost her glove. She must have let go of the rope. Miraculously she had grabbed hold of it again without falling but from now on the movement would be burning her hand. She started moving again, slower than he would have liked, but at least she was moving.
A stronger vibration shook the building. He wasn’t sure if it was a wave impact or a shift in the structure itself. As he considered the options, he looked away for just a moment.
When he looked back she was nowhere to be seen. For a split second he thought she’d fallen into the water. Then he saw her arm waving back up at him. She’d made it down to a balcony.
He attached himself to the rope in seconds and began to descend so quickly that he might have overshot her if she hadn’t been hanging onto the end of the rope. He swung himself around in mid-air and landed on his feet on the balcony in front of her.
She was impressed. “You’ve done this before.”
“Once or twice. How’s your hand?”
She showed him. “A bit sore. Not too bad.”
It looked terrible. And it would hurt like hell once the adrenalin rush wore off, but he said nothing. She’d find out soon enough.
“Actually it does hurt like hell,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow. “You did well.”
“So – surf’s up.” she replied.
He sighed, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack. “Yeah, it sure is.”
“We’re in luck,” she said, pointing to a stash of surfboards on the balcony floor. “Can you ride?”
He peered out at the waves peeling past about 10 metres below their feet. The swell was building, and from here the sound of its crash was mighty. “It’s been a while.”
She smiled. “So, now the master becomes the student.”
“Was that supposed to be Yoda?” he asked her. She nodded.
“It sounded more like Jar Jar Binks.”
A violent shudder shook the floor and Mel stumbled into his arms. A look of mortal terror flickered ever so quickly across her eyes before she regathered her composure and stepped nimbly toward the surfboards. She chose a longboard and handed it to him then grabbed a shorter board for herself.
“Strap the leg rope onto your ankle before you jump,” she told him. She did likewise, ripping off her tennis shoes.
She thrust her board at him. “Here, hold this for a sec.” She climbed over the balcony. He was gripped with a terrible sense of Deja vu as he fed the surfboard out to her over the railing.
“When you jump,” she yelled, “hang onto the board until you’re just above the water, otherwise it could spring back and hit you in the face.”
She waited for a wave to pass then took the plunge, piercing the water cleanly like a high diver. She surfaced, then beckoned to him. Talk about cool head in a crisis. If they survived the next few minutes he could grow to like this girl. He considered taking his boots off, but decided against it and clambered over the railing. One boot slipped on the wet edge and electricity spasmed through his toes as his adrenalin surged at the peril. Luckily he was holding on.
He had promised himself he would never again set foot in the ocean. It had taken everything he’d ever held dear. Storms he could deal with. The ocean couldn’t be trusted.
But this wasn’t about him. “Faaaark,” he screamed, leaping into the air.
As his feet hit the water, he saw he was in the impact zone. It occurred to him he had just taken one giant step beyond his level of competence as a rescuer. He desperately yanked on his leg rope and threw himself onto the surfboard. He saw Mel paddling furiously a moment before he noticed the wave looming. He lost sight of her as she paddled over the back of the crest. Luckman tried to do the same.
He didn’t make it. The board flipped backwards and the world disappeared.
He was upside down when the concussion of the breaking wave hit him like a sledgehammer. His head smacked against the board and he almost lost consciousness for the second time that day as the shock sucked the air from his lungs. He let go of the board to avoid being hit in the head again and tumbled head over arse as the vacuum pounded through his chest. The water pressure and his damned boots were pulling him down. The seconds felt like days and he didn’t know which way was up. But his leg rope yanked – the longboard was still in the grip of the wave and dragging him along. Flailing toward the surface he grabbed a mouthful of air before the board dragged him under the foam again.
He heard rather than saw what happened next. The terrifying crash of ripping metal and pulverising concrete tore through the water all around him. When the spin cycle finally released him, he hit the surface and snatched a lung-full of air, hurriedly pulling the board back under his body. He searched the sky and saw to his relief the building was still upright.
But it was impossibly tilted. It was going to fall any time now, and from what Luckman could see they were directly in the path of its descent.


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