Written by Erik Garkain © 2018
(Approx. 32,000 words)
Chapter 1: Life is Elsewhere
Mica joined the queue for the Firefly coach from Sydney to Adelaide, all his worldly possessions in his tattered backpack. At the front of the line, the ticketing lady looked at him twice before asking if he was sure, was that really where a nice boy like him wanted to go?
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he said with a polite smile.
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘You one of them, then? Those infected, those—Volatiles?’ She growled the slur at him. ‘That’s all Adelaide’s good for anymore. No more City of Churches, it’s City of Freaks now!’ she spat.
Mica’s heart pounded as he snatched the ticket away rougher than he’d intended. ‘You see anything freakish about me, lady?!’ he managed. Mica knew there were limited outward physical signs of his mutation and he’d almost perfected the art of pretending there were none. He turned his back with more confidence than he felt, then boarded the bus to the sounds of her incoherent grunts. The curious gazes of his fellow passengers, who all looked as normal as him but could quite as easily be hiding their own secrets, followed his steps.
The bus was at near capacity for the overnight trip to Melbourne, but most people disembarked into the first flush of morning at Southern Cross station. The city was already bustling, and the aroma of coffee wafted through every street. This metropolis was mostly unchanged, still home to people unaffected by the Oneiroi Zero-Eight virus that had spread throughout the country. People who didn’t want to know freaks like him. People like his family, those unaffected by the retrovirus. Apparently, Adelaide was an entirely different story.
There were only a handful of people still aboard when the bus passed through Ballarat, and after the drivers changed at Horsham, Mica was the only passenger left. He was the only one to see the illuminated billboards in the night. Not the path you seek. Turn back and find the light: A message brought to you by the Anti-Oneiroi Community. And another one not even half a kilometre down the road, a desperate last plea by the same community who were petitioning for mandatory testing and isolation of the infected. There is life elsewhere. Call us today. Concerned citizens spreading the words of their God; ignorant of the increasing statistics of scared young people killing themselves because of that same hateful propaganda and fear mongering bullshit. The same support ‘community’ that his parents had contacted after he’d come out to them when he received his blood test back. The ones that had influenced his parent’s views on his affliction, made him appear like a predator to his kid sister when Mica refused to attend their internment ‘camp’… and his father’s belligerent last words to his firstborn.
Mica turned away before his rising hatred had time to get the better of him, but the next billboard pulled his attention back. Two people, seemingly in full body makeup rivalling the best prosthetic special effects in the industry, dressed to the nines, their top hats dipped low. Their arms were held back like a private welcoming ceremony to the greatest show on earth. And the words, quoted from one of his favourite superhero films, Hellboy: All us freaks have is each other. And, Welcome home.
Mica grinned and settled more comfortably in his seat.
In the early hours of the night, almost twenty-four hours since he’d boarded, they stopped outside of a place called ‘Sweeties Bakehouse’ in the small country town of the unambiguously named, Bordertown, though it was almost twenty kilometres from the actual border separating Victoria from South Australia. The deli was a dimly lit weatherboard shop sporting two large wagon wheels. Here the bus keys exchanged hands once again. Fuzzy with perpetual dozing, Mica peered out of the window at the two drivers who conversed and traded satchels. Lights from the neighbouring Shell service station didn’t penetrate the shadows enough to see the pair clearly beneath a gently swaying tree, but the new driver glanced up and directly at Mica. What light there was reflected from his eyes and Mica shrank back. It must have been pitch black on the bus, only the headlights and safety lights around the outside were lit up – there was no way he could have seen in, could he?
Mica sank away from the window and deeper into his seat, his eyes bleary from sporadic sleep and his mind still vague from dreams, or so he convinced himself. The new chauffeur boarded and stood glancing down the aisle at his single silent passenger. Mica feigned sleep but swore the driver’s eyes gleamed red beneath his hood for only a second or two. He clutched his backpack closer to his chest and calmed his breathing. The bus rumbled into ignition and sat idling for a moment while the driver sorted himself out. Mica breathed a sigh of relief as the bus rolled down the quiet street and back onto the highway.
Weathered signs were highlighted by the bus’s high beams. Some of these vandalised, ripped down, but their messages were all the same: Road Closed Ahead; No Access; Restricted Area; Quarantine; Do Not Venture Beyond This Point; Oneiroi Zero-Eight Infected Zone. Mica stared.
The bus slowed to a stop. Were they going to be turned away? Mica sat taller, his head swivelling, searching for danger.
The driver didn’t appear worried. He stood up casually and stretched rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck from side to side. ‘Pit stop,’ he called down the aisle. ‘Won’t be a moment.’ The front door yawned open, and the driver disembarked.
He reappeared moments later strolling towards the shell of a long since abandoned single brick office building. Colourful scrawls of graffiti and the charcoal stain of fire were visible through a single busted window. A huge weathered sign labelled it ‘Checkpoint Zone 6’. The driver walked straight up to the checkpoint, shuffled around in the front of his pants and started pissing on the remains of the building.
Mica jerked his eyes away. Six-foot fences topped with razor wire surrounded them and disappeared into the darkness beyond – how long did they go on for? Once in, was he trapped? But it had been damaged, and there wasn’t a single person to enforce the quarantine. No doubt, when the virus has been new and scary, these gates would have been heavily restricted. He’d heard about the testing measures to ensure only the infected were allowed to pass. Nowadays people were free to make their own decisions whether to come or go. What uninfected person would want to cross this border? And who of the infected would think it was a good idea to leave? Or perhaps, did too many people carry latent versions of the virus making any control unenforceable? It was hard to believe anything mainstream media said of the virus.
The lights, only a few of which remained, lit up the surrounds like daylight. The gate ahead of them had been ripped from its hinges, laying bent across one side of the road. So, it had been busted open? Not freely opened? Since when? A single tank upended onto its side, the continuous tread stripped from the wheels, the turret ripped clean from the hull – what could do that? Behind it an emu lay decomposing, one toe twisted between two lengths of wire fencing, its other leg snapped under its heavy body.
Mica startled as the driver reclaimed his seat behind the wheel. ‘Tradition,’ he laughed.
The door closed. Off they went, unhindered.
Four hours later they reached Adelaide.
Mica hadn’t slept since the drivers swapped. He watched the darkness lift and the city lights approach, his mind filled with anticipation and a dreaded fear. Would he be any more welcome here than he had been at home?
The driver was standing at the doors when Mica disembarked. His hood pulled back revealing his face to be unshaven, but otherwise unremarkable. No visible sign of mutation, but Mica knew that meant little.
He held out a perfectly regular hand to Mica. ‘Welcome to the city of Adelaide,’ he greeted with a warm smile. ‘May you find what you’re looking for.’
Mica hesitantly clutched the man’s hand, thrown by his sincere welcome and the intrusion into his soul. Was he that obvious? ‘Thank you,’ Mica mumbled unable to find any other words. He moved off, his legs humming with the relief of activity. He could feel the bus driver’s eyes on him until he found the foyer of the bus station and finally disappeared out of sight into the restrooms. He splashed the sheen of sweat off his face with cold water and stared at his haggard reflection. No regrets.
The young lady behind the counter this time was friendly and helpful. She called him ‘bloke’ and told him not to take attitude from anyone; that the people around here could be aloof at times, but generally, they had good intentions. She directed him to cheap accommodation just around the corner.
‘Good luck finding what you’re after,’ she called after him.
He stopped. ‘Why do you think I’m looking for something?’
She smiled. The tattoos down her neck swirled and morphed like Rorschach blots when she moved. ‘We’re all freaks here. All outcasts. No one comes to Adelaide these days unless they are looking for something; somewhere to call home, somewhere to fit in, someone to love; hey bloke?’ She suggested. ‘I hope you find your happiness.’
‘Thanks,’ he mumbled. So his journey here hadn’t been original? The double doors slid open and warm air burst in drying out Mica’s already tired eyes. The sun was only just on the rise and already the day promised to be a warm one.
On the corner, only a hundred metres from the bus station he found ‘Sunnies’, what he’d been told was the friendliest place to stay for those with little to spare. Tourists were up and sharing a pancake breakfast, so he joined them with minimal persuasion. Although they included him, Mica was too tired to hold any conversation for long. He retired to a newly purchased bunk in a shared room and collapsed. His bones creaked and popped in relief as he stretched out for the first time in what felt like aeons. Suddenly the weight of the past week, his recent journey, and his full belly overwhelmed him. He couldn’t even find the energy to make it to the shower before the need for sleep defeated him. He closed his eyes to the tune of his father’s angry mantra: Get away from my daughter. Get out of my house. Go away!