I’ve left Canberra. I’m sort of following the river, just to keep some kind of water supply, but trying not to be too visible from the major paths. Still no idea where I’m headed to, but I have new reasons to fear what I’m running from.
Yesterday, I was searching for a key-safe – they make the breaking and entering a little easier, and they tend to be found amongst the tackier lawn ornaments. I wasn’t having much luck, and was scattering woodland creatures in my wake when I heard the sound that every city scavenger dreads: engines. I scrambled for the cover of a water butt as the sound of a truck engine approached, a recorded message blaring out its windows. I listened, pressed against the wall, watching a meerkat I’d overturned roll to a stop at my feet, its paws raised in alert and a madness in its resin eye.
“…have to run and hide. This amnesty will last three days. If you are still in the contaminated zone after this time, we cannot guarantee your safety. This area must be sanitised. The quarantines are clean and safe. You will find food, shelter. medical care and clean water. Once the city can be sanitised, the quarantine will end. You will be able to return to your home. Go to your nearest quarantine centre and all refusal charges will be dropped. You no longer have to run and hide. This amnesty will last three days…”
I considered my options. Give up and go to quarantine? Not happening. I don’t believe a crackle about any amnesty, and even if I did I’m not just walking into it, not after all this. Hide out somewhere to wait until this “sanitisation” is over? Where would I be safe? What will it involve? Are they going to fumigate each building? Nuke us from the air? How do you sanitise a whole city? I couldn’t risk assuming a bluff any more than I could risk trusting the announcement. It’d have to be option three: head into the bush until it’s over, then see what’s left to sneak back to.
So I headed towards the river to find that the paths out that way were looking freshly trodden. I wasn’t the only contestant to choose door number three. I saw some people out in front, and after passing them in a wide arc I saw some more. I haven’t seen more than one person at a time since the raid, and I never thought I’d see a crowd again. I didn’t think that many people were even left in Canberra. Something on the back of my neck started prickling, and I pulled my hat down and walked on the edge of the path, casting quick glances and listening to the chatter, but not meeting anybody’s eye. There were families there, little kids, people who’ve been hiding out in their own basements or escaped the quarantines. People were beginning to talk openly, the way you can when you’re two strangers on a journey in a crowd instead of two strangers with guns in a dusty store with one tin can left on the shelf. They were starting to get friendly, swap stories. They were letting their guard down. And I thought, “This isn’t right.” We were like a bunch of sheep trotting away from a crouching collie. Sooner or later we’d walk right into a pen.
I tried to talk to a few people, the ones who were front and centre of small huddles, to point out how visible we all were heading this way together. I suggested breaking up into smaller groups, taking different routes, staying under cover, travelling at night. Some nodded and started talking amongst themselves, then shrugged and carried on. Most said, “Safety in numbers” or “Jumpy, aren’t ya?” or even “If they’re coming for us, they’ll get us one way or another.” Towards nightfall people started making camp, and I thought about what to do. In the end I decided to keep my distance from the herd and scout ahead, in cover of darkness. If I spotted anything, I could get back and warn them, but mostly I hoped I could get safely round any trap before it was sprung. I guess I did that.
About 4am I heard a plane approaching, turned off my torch and dived for cover. It passed over, back the way I’d come, towards the refugees. Then a minute later I saw something like fireworks dropping from the sky, and the distance lit up, and a moment after that I heard the muted rumbles and felt the shockwaves, like a train passing underground. I started running back, then away again, then back again. Then I did what I always do, what I’ve done since the day I took over the store – hid and waited it out, with my hands over my ears. I did go back this morning, but there wasn’t anybody left to save.
I don’t think this is even about decontamination. I think it’s about control. Anybody not under it is a threat. I don’t know how I’m going to live away from the city. I’ve got my rifle and hobbyist bushcraft, and there might be the odd farmhouse to raid on the way out. I doubt I’ll find much to eat, but I’ve got some supplies and I can survive a little longer.
A little before I started writing this, I wondered whether it was even worth the effort. I lay down where I stood, decided I wasn’t going to fish or forage or do anything. I never planned to make it even this far – it’s here and no further, I thought. That’s it, I’ve had enough. I can’t do it anymore. I just wanted to stop. I wanted to make it all stop.
Well, after an hour or so, I was kind of half asleep, but I opened my eyes and saw a huge brown snake slinking along, not a metre from me. Not sure what species, but all the ones like it are pretty deadly. I’ve seen them before, but never that close. It had tiny, perfect, light brown scales, like a baby pine cone, except where the sun glinted blue-green on the edges, then it was like a tropical fish, sliding through the dry ocean towards me. And I just thought… oh.
I rolled away, and by the time I’d picked up a stick it had slithered out of view, leaving me to contend with the idea that I really didn’t want to die after all. Fucked if I know what I do want. I guess I need to hang around a little longer and find out.