The Lost Journal of Private Kenji Yoshida by James Harden

January 11th – The Afghan Mountains are cold and this is NOT a diary.


OK, technically it is a diary.

Dear Diary...

Nah. I’m not going to do that. I just can’t bring myself to write those words. Even though I just sort of did write those words.
The Lost Journal of Private Kenji Yoshida
The Lost Journal of Private Kenji Yoshida by James Harden
But anyways… Yes, Kenji. This is a diary. But I think I’m going to call it a journal. Sounds less girly, I guess. So why am I writing a journal? Good question. I’m not proud to admit it, but over the last two years I’ve made a lot of stupid decisions. And these stupid decisions just so happened to be life changing. Let me explain… Stupid life changing decision number 1: I left home for military school without telling Rebecca. I don’t know why I didn’t say goodbye. Maybe it was because I was scared. Maybe it’s because I’m a coward. In the end there was a part of me that thought she was too fragile to hear what I had to say. I didn’t want to hurt her. I didn’t want to see her cry. It seems so stupid now. Of course I should’ve said goodbye. And I should’ve told her how I felt. I think about her every day. And every day I rehearse in my head what I’m going to say to her, if I ever see her again. My apology speech. It goes a little something like this… Dear Rebecca. I’m sorry I left. I was an idiot. I should’ve told you. I miss you. Please forgive me. Do you want to get some pizza? OK, so I haven’t really worked out what I’m going to say. It’s still all mumbled up in my head. I don’t know why it’s so hard. It should be easy. Telling the person you love that you love them should be the easiest thing in the world, right? But it’s not. It’s hard. It’s scary. I wrote a letter to Rebecca on the day I left home. I figured if I was too much of a chicken to tell her face to face, then a letter, a hand written letter would be the next best thing. But guess what? Yeah, I couldn’t even give the letter to her. My plan was to sneak over to her house. Leave it under her pillow or something. I don’t know. But again, I chickened out. I’m shaking my head as I write this. My only hope is that one day I’ll get a chance to see her again, to say I’m sorry and give her the letter I wrote for her. Even if she slaps me in the face or spits in my face, even if she screams at me and tells me to go away and that she never wants to see me again; it’ll totally be worth it. And if all else fails, I can at least give her the letter. Hopefully she won’t tear it up. I’ve thought about posting it to her. I’ve thought about that a lot. But I don’t want to risk sending it off. So I keep it with me in my top pocket, right next to my heart. I’m not superstitious but I think it’s brought me good luck. Stupid Life Decision part 2: Ran away from military school and joined the U.S. Marines. Again, I’m not even sure why I did this. Was I punishing myself? Was I so angry that I would risk my life in the armed forces? At that point in time I hated my parents for sending me away. I hated them more than I thought it was possible to hate anyone. How could they send me off without even consulting with me first? What were they thinking? How did they expect me to react? I was furious and for a while I didn’t want anything to do with my parents. So I didn’t tell them that I was enlisting. I guess maybe it was a rebellious thing. An act of total defiance. But there was part of me that really wanted to go. There was part of me that wanted to push myself, find out if I was strong enough to be a soldier. But of course, my father found out. I knew he would. He has his ways. He called me up. I thought he was going to yell at me and rip into me for being stupid and careless. I was expecting him to pull some strings and get me discharged for being a minor. I knew if the military looked into it, my fake birth certificate wouldn’t hold up under close investigation. But he didn’t rat me out. Instead he quoted something from ‘The Art of War’. He said the warrior’s path is his own. It is lonely. “The first rule of war.” “Yeah, I know.” I said cutting him off. “Know your enemy.” “No. Remember. Think back. Focus. The first rule of war is, know yourself. You must know yourself; know your strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and limitations before you know anything else. Go. Find yourself. Know yourself.” I’m glad we were talking over the phone. I think I started to cry a little bit. And I did not want my father to see me crying. But that phone call helped me get through the first few months of training. And For a while my mind was clear. But then we got the call up. We were being deployed in the Middle East and all the fear and uncertainty I had felt before was back, stronger than ever. Was I too young for this? Was I brave enough? Did I have the courage to put my life on the line? My father has always told me that our family comes from a long line of Samurai. Our ancestors were the personal guard to all fifteen Tokugawa Shoguns. Do I have that warrior’s soul? I had no idea. And really, I still have no idea. But when we got our orders I had no choice but to find out. The answer would be life or death. Sink or swim. Live or die. No pressure, right? So yeah, I’ll admit it. I haven’t always done the smart thing or the right thing. But to my credit I’ve stuck by my decisions and I’ve lived with the consequences. Unfortunately, I think the only way that I’ve been able to survive and cope and keep going is to compartmentalize everything, to bottle everything up. I didn’t notice it at first, but keeping these thoughts and feelings bottled up and buried deep inside were slowly taking their toll on me. And yesterday... Yesterday I saw something that pushed me over the edge. When we got back to the base, I felt numb and sick. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t breathe. I made an appointment to see the psychologist on base. I needed to do it. I was completely freaking out and I wasn’t even sure why. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor kid. So I went and saw the counselor. She assured me that after everything I’d been through, a reaction like this was perfectly normal. She was actually surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. She advised me to start keeping a journal. She said I needed to verbalize and articulate and materialize these feelings. Get them out of my head, out of my heart. She said keeping them inside and bottled up will destroy me, tear me apart. She said they would infect my insides. Kill me from the inside out, like a virus. Yeah, that’s it; she said it would be like a virus. It would spread through me, overwhelm me and destroy me. I do not want that to happen. So here I go. Let’s get this stuff out of my head before it kills me. Yesterday (Jan 10th) - Patrol in the Hindu Kush We were on patrol, the four of us. Gordon, Franco, Drake and I. We had taken a Blackhawk chopper up into the Hindu Kush mountain range. Command had received an unspecified distress call from a small, isolated village. We were sent up there to find out what was going on. We flew up to an elevation of about eight thousand feet, following a narrow valley all the way to the target area. We were dropped off a small distance away from the outer-wall of the village. The Blackhawk took off in a mini-dust storm and in a matter of seconds it was out of the valley and had disappeared over the mountain range. As soon as we entered the village walls, a woman came rushing up to us. She was crying, wailing to the point of hysteria. Her eyes were red and swollen, like she had been crying for days. Franco stepped forward and tried to calm the woman down. He did not have much success. Franco is a short Italian guy who fancies himself as a bit of a ladies’ man. But that’s not why he was speaking to this woman. He had spent the most part of his childhood in Italy, France, Spain, Egypt and probably some other countries around the Mediterranean. I think his dad worked for an oil company and they moved around a lot. As a result, Franco is something of a linguistics expert. He is the only one on our team that knows a little bit of the language. Unfortunately, he was struggling with this particular dialect. He had to get the woman to slow down and repeat herself a couple of times. After a few minutes he figured out the woman was crying over her son. She said he was sick. The woman led us to a small hut at the back edge of the village. She was urging us to go inside, to help her son. But the other villagers warned us not to go in. They were waving their arms at us, trying to push us back and away. I couldn’t understand what they were saying or trying to do. “I’m not entirely sure but it sounds like they’re saying the boy is cursed,” Franco explained to us. “They’re saying he is evil. That he has changed into a monster, a demon.” I assumed Franco had mistranslated. We pushed our way through the crowd of people. The wooden door to the mud hut was barricaded and locked from the outside. Lance Corporal Gordon, our team leader, asked the villagers if anyone could open the door for us. When no one responded we were forced to remove the barricade ourselves and kick the door in. We found the boy inside. Strangely, he was standing on the far side of the room. He was facing the corner. The light was poor inside but it looked like he was banging his head against the mud wall. His arms were bound in front of his body. His legs were tied together at the knees and ankles. His mouth was gagged. When the boy heard us enter the room, he slowly turned his head in our direction, looking over his shoulder but not looking directly at us. He appeared to be drooling. Again, I couldn’t be sure but it appeared that his face was covered in mud. And it appeared that his drool had mixed with the mud, turning it a dark brown color. Gordon called out to the boy but he didn’t answer. Franco then tried a few slight variations of a basic greeting speaking in Persian and then Pashto. But the boy didn’t respond to anything. When we moved closer, the boy tried to turn around, but because his feet were bound together he fell over in a heap on the dirt floor. Gordon moved over to the boy and conducted a basic medical examination. He checked the boy’s vital obs. He shined a torch into his eyes. They were sunken and wild. Frantic. The boy’s gaze was firmly locked on to Gordon. “I can’t find a heartbeat,” Gordon said. “Or a pulse for that matter.” “What? How is that possible?” I asked. “Usually means the heart is beating very fast. Combined with low blood pressure.” During the examination the boy became more and more agitated. And more and more violent. He kept trying to bite through the gag. Again, I couldn’t be sure but it looked like he was drooling blood. It was very dark in color. Almost black. And very thick, like it was coagulated. Drake and I moved over to help Gordon. Drake held his feet. I held his arms. Drake’s a pretty big guy; he had played high school and college football. But even he was struggling to keep the boy’s legs under control. At first he was using just one hand. But then he had to use both hands. And then soon after that, Drake was using his entire body, almost as if he was laying across the boys legs. As we pinned the boy down on the dirt ground, his movements became even more violent. He started to resemble a fish out of water. Flapping wildly. Constantly struggling. Franco was trying to radio back to Command. But he couldn’t get a signal. I had my full weight pushed down on the boy’s wrists, pinning them down on the ground, so they were above his head. But he continued to struggle. A second later, I heard a snap and a loud crack. The noise was so loud I actually jumped back and let go of the boy. In his struggle to get free, the boy had snapped both his arms at the elbow. Amazingly he didn’t seem to notice. There was no recognition of pain whatsoever. He kept fighting us. And I know it sounds crazy but he was getting stronger, even after he had just broken both of his arms. His right forearm was bent at a sickening angle. And on his left arm the bone had pierced right through the skin. Dark blood oozed around the open wound. This was bad. Out here, in these conditions, death by infection was a real danger. This kid needed medical help immediately. But he continued to struggle, he kept fighting against us. And when he didn’t stop, when he showed no signs of letting up, we all backed away. The boy didn’t display any recognition of his injuries, or the immense amount of pain that a compound fraction would cause. His condition was beyond any amount of first aid training Gordon had received. We moved out of the room. We shut the door and ordered some of the villagers to barricade the hut again. Franco continued to call for help, for a medical chopper. It was the only option. There was no point in subduing the child or putting his arms in a makeshift splint. He’d be dead in a week. “Still can’t get a damn signal,” Franco said as he kept trying. “We need a medivac for a civilian child. Male. Approximately ten years of age. Suffering from, ah, two broken arms. Compound fracture.” The radio was full of static. “Let me try,” Gordon said. “Talk to the mother. See if you can get some answers. I want to know what the hell is going on.” Franco and I asked the mother more questions. Well, Franco did most of the interrogating. Not that he was getting very far. It’s a painful thing, trying to conduct a conversation whilst speaking only bits and pieces of a language. “Has the boy eaten anything poisonous?” Franco asked. “How long has he been sick?” The mother was trying to understand us, trying to answer our questions through a mess of tears. But she kept choking up on every second word. We were getting nowhere. The rest of the villagers had crowded around. A group of men had finished barricading the door. I couldn’t be sure but over the noise of nails being hammered into the wooden door and the mother crying and wailing, I thought I could hear a thumping noise. This noise sounded like it was coming from inside the mud hut. Was the boy knocking on the door? Was he banging into the door? How? Both of his arms were broken. There was so much going on. I kinda felt like I was in the middle of a storm, a tornado. We were surrounded by the villagers. They seemed to be all talking at once, shouting at us, and waving their arms at us. They all looked worried, afraid. One of the older men broke through the crowd. He pointed up into the ridge of the valley. He shouted something. The villagers then dispersed and took cover. A split second later gun fire erupted. Shots echoed throughout the tiny valley. We all took cover as bullets smashed into the dirt ground and the mud-brick buildings around us. Now it was clear. The penny finally dropped. We had been led into a trap. They had done this type of thing before. We had been briefed and warned about this ambush technique when we first arrived here. The Taliban and Al Qaeda. They use innocent villagers as bait. They would target towns and areas that were ‘friendly’ towards U.S. forces. They would usually poison the water supply. When a patrol team goes to investigate, they pounce. They had set up two machine gun nests; one on each side of the valley, pinning us down. They had the high ground and they had the fire power. We were trapped. We should’ve been prepared. But the boy was so sick. It was shocking. We had been completely and totally distracted. We had taken the bait. Gordon was back on the radio, asking for air support. We took up defensive positions around the small village and returned fire. Luckily Drake and I were both packing m249’s, SAW machine guns (Squad Automatic Weapons). It was sheer luck that I decided to take it with me instead of my usual M40 sniper rifle. Having two Squad Automatic Weapons was a great luxury. Probably saved our lives. We were able to return a pretty effective line of suppressive fire. At that point we were just hoping they didn’t have any mortar rounds or any grenades. If they did, they would reduce this tiny village to dust in a matter of seconds. Luckily they didn’t. They were basically taking pot shots. Shooting and hoping. Gordon eventually got through to command. He requested immediate air support and a medivac for the boy. We were able to hold them back for another thirty minutes or so before a couple of gunships showed up. Apache helicopters. When we heard their rotor blades echo through the valley we all gave out a cheer. They flew in low and fast. Gordon was able to give ground support and advise the pilots, helping them locate their targets. The Apaches unleashed a couple of hell fire missiles each and that was the end of the skirmish. The choppers were gone as quickly as they had appeared. After the brief encounter we were back on our feet. The villagers emerged from their homes. The boy’s mother was there, waiting, pleading with her eyes for some good news. But there was nothing good to tell her. We had no idea what was wrong with her son. We had no idea what he had been poisoned with. I did not want to be the one to tell her that her son was probably dying. A few minutes later Command finally confirmed the ETA of medical chopper. Soon after the Apaches had cleared out, the medivac arrived with a full team of doctors and first aid staff. They went back in an examined the boy again. We were asked various questions by the doctor in charge. How long had he been in there? When did we arrive? Was anyone hurt during the skirmish? Did anyone receive bullet wounds or shrapnel wounds? Or open wounds of any kind? Luckily no one had suffered any injuries. And luckily it was just the boy who had been poisoned. Apparently he had been poisoned with a powerful neurotoxin. The toxin was the reason for the violent, sporadic movements and the loss of feeling in his limbs. Hopefully, the medical team would be able to pump the boy’s stomach, get him on a drip and flush the neurotoxin out of his body. Not to mention fixing that nasty compound fracture. But the village seemed to have gotten off lightly. Twenty minutes later, the boy was removed from the hut. He was taken away on a stretcher. His arms and legs were still bound. And he was tied down to the stretcher. The chopper flew up and out of the valley. And we were left behind, forced to trek about eight miles to a separate extraction point. The boy’s mother continued to cry, wailing to the point of exhaustion. The other villagers carried her off and helped her back to her home. As we walked away and began the trek back down the mountain to our base, we could still hear her crying for her son. I don’t know why this has had such a huge effect on me. I’ve been in worse situations in my short time here. I’ve confronted my own mortality on multiple occasions. But since that incident I haven’t been able to sleep. The psychologist said it was because I saw myself in the boy. I was struggling and fighting. I was raging. She said I saw my own mother in the swollen, red eyes of the boy’s mother. She said I was angry because I had cut myself off from my parents and because I’d left without saying goodbye to Rebecca, for not telling her how I felt. She said I wouldn’t be able to move on until I had sought forgiveness. Redemption. I needed to be aware of this. I hope she is right. Jan 12th - Run in with Green Berets. Actually I don’t know if they were Green Berets or not. But that’s what they called themselves. Apparently they had been operating in some of the more isolated areas of the Hindu Kush mountain range for over a month. They had been helping the local villagers build better shelters, teaching the men and some of the older boys shooting techniques and basic defensive strategies. But there was something about them I didn’t like. I don’t know. I didn’t fully trust them. It’s hard to explain. There was something about their body language. And their weak cover story about the men they had locked up in that crappy little mud hut. The men were just lying in there on the dirt floor. No beds, no blankets. The walls and the roof were made of mud and straw. There was no heating. It was the middle of winter for crying out loud. No wonder they were sick. No wonder they weren’t getting any better. The Special Forces team claimed their prisoners were connected to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That was how they justified it. I’m not a huge expert on the Geneva Convention or anything but I’m pretty sure those men were being mistreated. Anyway, the reason we had been sent out there was because Command had received another distress call from a village about fifteen miles from where we found the sick boy. They’d tried to radio back and confirm but they had lost contact. Apparently there was a Special Forces team – Green Berets, who had been operating in the area. We were to take a chopper ride back up into the mountains, rendezvous with them, check out the situation and report back. The Blackhawk chopper dropped us about five miles outside of the village and we made our way slowly towards the camp. As always, the mountainous terrain made it difficult to move. There was a cold wind blowing in from the north. All of the surrounding mountains were covered in snow. The jagged peaks, gave the impression of crooked, razor sharp teeth. At this point, summer was a distant memory. Hundred degree heat waves were a distant memory. It had been a particularly harsh winter so far. On average the temperature was at freezing or a few degrees below. But in reality it felt a lot colder, especially when you took the wind chill factor into consideration. We pulled up about a half mile out from the village. I picked out a point a cover and tried to get a look at our rendezvous point. Today I had my M40 sniper rifle with me. I looked through the scope. The village appeared to be quiet. There was no sign of activity or enemy contact. Gordon crouched down next to me. “What can you see?” “Not much. Looks pretty quiet. No signs of artillery fire or anything.” “All right,” Gordon said. “Let’s get down there. Everyone stay frosty.” It was a completely different atmosphere to the other village. No one came running up to us. No one was yelling. It was eerily quiet. The only noise was the ice cold wind blowing down from the snowcapped mountain peaks. We walked by a few houses. We could tell there were people inside. They were sneaking a look at us as we walked passed. But as soon as we got too close, they would close their doors or windows. We eventually met up with the Special Forces team. They were situated outside one of the larger huts near the middle of the village. They were having a briefing session when we arrived. They looked completely surprised to see us. “Didn’t anyone tell you we were coming?” Gordon asked them. Their team leader gave a few quick orders to his men and they packed up the maps they were studying. They all stood up, blocking the entrance to the hut. It was like they were guarding it, protecting whatever or whoever was inside. I thought I heard one of them flick their safety off. I looked over at Drake and Franco. They both tensed up. “What’s inside?” Gordon asked. “Nothing that concerns you, Corporal.” Gordon held his hands up in an attempt to keep everyone relaxed. “Look, Command sent us in here because they received a distress call. Our orders were to meet up with you guys and make sure everything’s all right. We’re not here, to screw around with your operations or anything.” “Distress call?” “Yeah. There was an incident at one of the villages about fifteen miles east of here. A boy had been poisoned. They wanted to make sure this wasn’t related.” “We haven’t heard anything from Command in a couple of weeks.” I was starting to feel uneasy. It was a weird situation. We were basically having a stand-off with these guys. And for what? They didn’t even know about the distress call. Gordon motioned with his head at the hut the Green Berets seemed to be guarding. “Who you got inside?” “You know what our objective is. We’re here to work with these people.” “That’s not what I asked,” Gordon said calmly. ”Who’s inside?” The team leader paused, like he was weighing up his options. He then told one of his men to open the door. The man seemed to hesitate for a second before opening it. As he did, two other guys stood behind him, weapons at the ready. “We’re not entirely sure who they are,” the team leader answered. “But if I had to take a guess I’d say they were Al Qaeda. They came in yesterday, guns blazing.” We had a look inside the mud hut. I counted ten men. They were lying on their backs. Their arms were tied down by their side and their legs were tied together. “Look, we’ve been delivering intel to Command for months now,” the team leader said. “We’ve been all over this area raiding hide outs and supply routes. Trust us, these guys in there. They’re bad news.” I snuck another look past the Special Forces soldiers. The prisoners were lying down, eyes closed. One of them seemed to be moaning in pain. They looked ill. They did not look like hardened guerrillas. “Why do they look so sick?” Franco asked. “Have you been mistreating them?” “Hell no. They came here on a suicide mission. They had planted IED’s around the outskirts of the village. Probably a couple of nights ago.” “IED’s?” Drake said, surprised. “Improvised Explosive Devices.” “We know what they are,” Gordon replied. “But why here? All the way up in the mountains. Doesn’t make sense.” “As far as we can tell, their plan was to come in here and cause as much damage as possible,” he said as he pointed at the men in the hut. “I mean, look at them. They’re sick. They’ve probably got pneumonia. It’s been a hard winter. These guys are malnourished. They’re dying. They wanted to go out as martyrs. Tomorrow we’re gonna set out with one of the local guides. I’m guessing we’ll find their hideout. We were lucky to nip this in the bud.” What he said made sense. But I still felt uneasy. The Green Berets were famous for supplying misinformation. Eventually we all calmed down. About twenty minutes later some reinforcements moved in on the village to make sure it was truly secure. Well maybe they weren’t reinforcements. They looked more like a forensic investigation unit or something. We decided it wasn’t worth the time and energy to hang around. Besides the Special Forces team had seniority and they were here in this area for the long haul. No point in arguing. Command had obviously screwed up with the lines of communication. I had one last look at their prisoners before we left. They were older men. Sick and desperate. They were helpless. Again, I couldn’t help but think about how they looked nothing like battle-hardened warriors. Jan 15th – PAYBACK Command called us in the next day. I assumed it was for another debrief. I was wrong. They were organizing a bombing mission and they wanted eyes on the ground for a battle damage assessment. It was probably at the request of the Green Berets. I’m guessing they had searched the surrounding area with one of the local guides, like they said they would. I’m guessing they had found something. Gordon volunteered to lead the mission as usual. But Command said they only wanted a two man team. Basically, all they needed was a sniper and a scout. Franco and I were chosen. I had only been in the team for a short time but I had proven myself as the best marksmen. I was honored to be singled out for a mission like this. Apparently, the Green Berets had discovered a hideout of insurgents. And according to their intelligence, this particular hideout was used by the Al Qaeda leadership. The plan was to fly two F16 jets into the valley and destroy it. All we had to do was observe and report. We took a chopper ride up into the mountains and dropped in just on the other side of the valley. We were pretty close to the target area but the mountainous terrain provided us with plenty of cover. The chopper moved out and away from us. It then descended down into the valley that led back towards the base. The noise of the rotor blades, echoed off the valley walls, giving the impression there was more than one helicopter. Franco and I waited for the chopper to clear out before we made our move. To get eyes on the target we needed to climb up and over the ridge above us. We would then need to climb down and get underneath the cloud cover. The cloud cover was good for concealing us and keeping us hidden. But we needed to get below the haze and the mist of the clouds so we could see the target. I checked my watch. We had about ten minutes until the F16’s would be here. We climbed down to a vantage point. We could see a few buildings in the valley below. Like most of the buildings up in these mountains, they were little more than mud huts. But according to the intelligence of the Green Berets, these buildings were used for Al Qaeda leadership. We decided to get a little closer. We continued to climb down. We came across a switch-back road cut into the side of the valley. Well actually it was more like a muddy goat track. I guess it wasn’t all that unusual, but the thing that freaked me out was that it wasn’t on any of the maps we’d studied. It was enough to make me even more nervous than I already was. But ultimately there was nothing we could do about it. We found a section of the goat track where a few low lying scrubs grew out between some huge boulders and took cover. Even though we were a fair distance away from the target we still took the time to make sure we were completely hidden from view. I did not want to take any chances. We settled in. I positioned my sniper rifle and looked through the scope. Franco was acting as my spotter. The mud huts were pretty dilapidated. It wouldn’t take much for the F16’s to reduce these structures to complete nothingness. I checked my watch again. Five minutes until the jets would be here. The excitement and anticipation was growing. I was about to say something to Franco. I think I was going to ask him if he had ever done anything like this before, when we heard a noise coming from back down the muddy track. It sounded like a cowbell. Franco pointed to his eyes and then pointed back down the road, indicating that he had seen some possible enemies. We hunkered down behind the scrub and the rock boulders. Coming towards us was a malnourished looking donkey. It was pulling a rickety old cart. An elderly looking man was driving the cart, urging the donkey forward. The donkey slowly but surely made his way down the track towards us. On the back of the cart were two younger men. They were armed with AK-47’s. Lying down next to the men in the back of the cart was an RPG - rocket propelled grenade launcher. And several body bags. My heart began to beat faster. I held my breath and prayed that our choice of cover was enough to keep us hidden. I rested my hand on my sidearm and thumbed the safety off as quietly as humanly possible. I glanced across at Franco; he had his M4 rifle aimed at the men. His face was a picture of complete serenity. Franco out ranked me, so he had the say on whether or not we engaged. Basically, if he fired his weapon, I would fire mine. The cart moved slowly, passing us by only a few feet. Just when I thought they were going to move on they stopped. One of the men jumped off the back of the cart and looked around. He took a drag on a cigarette he was smoking and then threw it in the mud. After that he coughed up a bit of phlegm and spat on the ground. My heart was beating so hard at this point; I was convinced they could hear it. The man then had a real good look around. He couldn’t see us though. We were completely concealed. But if he came any closer we would have no choice but to open fire and get the hell out of this area. Fortunately, he got back on the cart and they continued on their way. The donkey climbed down the switch back road and they made their way into the valley. They moved slowly passed the mud huts and then disappeared on the opposite side of the valley. They must’ve entered a cave, I thought. But we couldn’t see from where we were. The whole incident seemed to last an eternity. But in reality it was only a couple of minutes. I flicked the safety back on my sidearm and repositioned my rifle. I checked my watch. The F16’s would be here any second now. I looked towards the east, the direction where the jets would come from. But there was no sign of them yet. About a minute later or so the donkey cart remerged from the cave down in the valley. And weirdly, it was stacked full with bodies. There must’ve been a dozen or so. The old man stopped the cart next to a massive ditch about a hundred feet away from the mud huts. Two men unloaded the bodies. From what we could tell, the bodies appeared to be fellow guerrillas. But we couldn’t be totally sure. The bodies were dumped unceremoniously in the ditch. Once the cart was empty, the old man and the cart disappeared from view. But then another cart appeared. A bigger cart. It was carrying even more bodies. They dumped these bodies on the ground in a heap. I noticed a couple more men next to the pile. They had begun to dig another mass grave. Thirty seconds later, Franco tapped me on the shoulder and nodded back towards the east. “They’re here,” he whispered. I turned my head to have a look. It took me a split second to spot them. The jets were so low to the ground I could barely see them. I actually thought they were helicopters at first. But they came in fast. Too fast for helicopters. And way too fast to be flying at such low levels, through a rocky valley in a mountain range. The pilots were either extremely good or extremely crazy. Maybe both. They were silent in their approach. A split second later, they dropped their bombs and climbed up and out of the valley and hit the after burners. It wasn’t until they began their climb that we could hear the deafening roar of their engines. In the blink of an eye the jets had climbed out of the valley and disappeared over the mountain range. Meanwhile the bombs and the missiles they had launched streaked towards their targets. The warheads erupted in giant orange fireballs. Black columns of smoke rolled up into the sky as if they were chasing the F16’s. The once silent valley was now full of noise, full of death and destruction. A few seconds later there was another explosion, as something, maybe an ammunition supply shed caught on fire and detonated. The missiles and bombs they had dropped completely annihilated the mud huts. But we couldn’t see from where we were if the cave had been affected. Who knows how big that underground section was? It could’ve cut right back into the mountain range. The noise of the explosions continued to reverberate and echo throughout the valley. It was impossible not to be humbled by the firepower of the air strike. I would not want to be caught in the middle of one. Not ever. Several minutes later the smoke had drifted away. Franco and I scanned the area. As predicted, the mud huts were completely destroyed. Once the smoke had cleared away, the survivors emerged. They seemed to be running around in a panic. Strangely, as some of the men searched the huts and the surrounding area for survivors, a couple of other men continued to dig the mass grave. Another cart emerged from the cave. It was also loaded up with bodies. There’s no way they were killed by the bombing, I thought. The other men continued to search for survivors in amongst the ruins of the mud huts. But we knew they wouldn’t find any. We had seen enough. Franco and I were just about to make a move and get to the extraction point, when all of a sudden one of the men pointed up to our location. I looked over at Franco. I was confused. There was no way they could see us, right? If the guy on the back of the cart couldn’t see us when they rode pass, there was no way they could see us from all the way down in the valley. But then it hit me. The guy pointing up at us was probably the guy on the back of the donkey cart. He had been spooked. That’s why he had a look around. And now the bombing had confirmed his suspicions. Suddenly, a whole squad of bad guys emerged from the cave. They began taking up positions around the ruins of their crumbled buildings. At least the intel was correct, I thought. It was definitely a hideout. A few seconds later they opened fire. Fortunately they were lousy shots. At least they were to begin with. They slowly adjusted their aim. The bullets started landing closer, smashing into the surrounding rocks. Then they started advancing on us. At this point we had two options. Fall back or return fire. Falling back was the nice, easy option. But these guys knew the terrain. They knew every rock and goat track and hidden passage. They would run us down in no time. So we had no choice but to return fire. At first Franco was acting as my spotter and I was able to take out a number of bad guys. But then they started getting closer, their aim was getting better. Franco had to put the spotting scope down and return fire as well. He unleashed with his rifle, laying down a suppressive line of fire, pinning them down so I could pick them off. He also pumped a few 40mm grenades down on them. I’m not sure how long the fire fight lasted. Time seems to lose all meaning when I get jacked up on adrenalin. It’s like I become super focused. My eye sight turns into what I would imagine an eagle’s eyesight to be. Everything kind of goes into slow motion. I can see the enemy, my prey as clear as day. I inhale. Exhale. Squeeze the trigger. And move on to the next target. I’m not sure how many we took out but after a while they stopped shooting at us. The valley fell silent and we made our retreat. We reported the incident to Command. Surprisingly they didn’t seem too concerned with the actual fire fight. They wanted to know the specific details of the bombing, they wanted the damage report. We reported that the airstrike had completely obliterated the small buildings within the valley. But when we told them we couldn’t really confirm any battle damage for the cave section of the hideout, they didn’t look too happy. They then asked us if any of the guerrillas got up after the bombing or after the fire fight. It was a strange question. “No, sir.” Franco answered. “I’m pretty sure we eliminated any of the survivors during the fire fight.” “Good.” They marked something on a map of the area and we were dismissed. Jan 16th - New Orders I can’t believe it. We’re being redeployed. A whole regiment. Over five thousand soldiers. And we’re being sent to Australia of all places. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Australia is a peaceful country. When they told us we were being re-deployed to Australia I initially thought there had been some sort of natural disaster, like an earthquake or tsunami. Or maybe both. I was wrong. Apparently there’s been an outbreak of a virus and we’re being sent to help enforce a quarantine. Again, I can’t believe it. Re-deploying a whole regiment of troops to help with the quarantine and containment of a virus? It doesn’t make any damn sense. We’ve heard rumors they want battle hardened Marines down there. Why? I have no freakin idea. I mean, why the hell would they take us out of Afghanistan for a goddamn babysitting gig down in Australia? Shouldn’t the Australian armed forces be able to handle it by themselves? I can’t figure it out. They briefed us quickly. Apparently the virus that’s causing all the problems is an extremely dangerous and virulent strain. It is extremely contagious. It changes people. A person infected with this particular virus becomes violent and aggressive. They said there has been an outbreak within an immigration center in the Australian outback, at a place called Woomera. The immigration center is where they process the majority of refugees and asylum seekers who had come to Australia in search of a better life. This is the place where they determine whether or not they are allowed to stay in the country or if they are to be sent home. Basically, it’s the place where their fate is decided. When we arrive there we will join up with the Australian Army. Our mission will be to contain the virus and enforce the quarantine by any means necessary. We were flying out immediately. It was worrying to think about. I mean seriously, why did they need us? Weren’t we better off here? Weren’t we needed here? The news was shocking and unsettling. But ultimately, we had to follow orders. Semper Fi. Always faithful. And the weird thing is, now that I’ve packed my bag, I’m actually starting to accept that we are leaving Afghanistan. I’m actually kinda looking forward to this little adventure. The main reason I’m looking forward to it? Rebecca. I know Australia is a huge country but I can’t help the way I feel. I’m getting excited and nervous. I can’t stop thinking about how I would be setting foot in the same country as her. I can’t stop thinking how there is a chance, a one in a million chance, but still a chance that I would see her. I have butterflies in my stomach. Giant, monstrous butterflies. I wonder if it would be awkward if I saw her. I wonder if it could ever go back to the way things used to be. All of a sudden I can’t stop thinking about being with her. Hanging out. Like we used to. Hanging out with Rebecca was the best thing in the world. It felt right. Natural. I don’t know how to explain it but whenever we were together, it felt like nothing else in the world mattered. This one time my parents flew to Tokyo on business and left me at home. It was summer and I had the whole house to myself. It was awesome. It’s not like I was gonna go crazy and have a whole bunch of parties or anything like that. But it was fun. I could stay up late, watch movies; crank my music as loud as I wanted. And I could spend all day and all night with Rebecca. I had only just met her but I was desperate to know more about her, to know everything about her. I suggested we camp out in my backyard. It was a hot summer and I figured it would be fun to sleep out under the stars. I know it was kinda stupid and childish and as soon as the words left my mouth I was fully expecting her to laugh at my silly idea. But to my surprise she said she’d love to. My heart skipped a beat and it took all of my concentration to contain my excitement. I played it cool even though I was jumping for joy on the inside. Her mom was working a lot of night shifts so we’d sleep out in the tent in the backyard and then Rebecca would wake up at sunrise and sneak back into her house before her mom got home. During the night we would read comic books by torchlight and talk about who our favorite X-men were. Mine was Wolverine. Hers was Storm. I’d say, “But Wolverine has claws and is practically indestructible.” And she’d say, “Yeah but Storm can control the weather. She can make a class five tornado whenever she wants.” Then I’d ask her who her favorite Ninja Turtle was. “Definitely, Michelangelo. He’s a party dude. And nun-chucks are like the hardest martial art weapon to master.” “But what about Leonardo?” “He’s too straight edge. He’s too boring.” The she’d ask me who my favorite Ninja Turtle was but I could never decide. I liked Leonardo because he was the leader and he had two samurai swords. But I also liked Raphael because red was my favorite color and he was a total badass. So I could never decide. During the night we would also scare the hell out of each other with ghost stories. They weren’t the urban legend type ghost stories, the ‘oh my god, the call is coming from inside the house!’ type ghost stories. They were more like what would you do if - insert horrifying thing - happened? I’d say, “What would you do if the city was suddenly overrun by killer robots?” And she’d say, “I’d hide in your basement. We’d be safe there.” That made me laugh. Rebecca was in awe of all the training equipment my dad had set up down in our basement. So during the day, we’d go down there and I would teach her to shoot a bow and arrow and how to throw a knife and how to shoot a gun. We practiced karate and jujitsu for hours and hours. I was always amazed at how quickly she learnt. She was like a sponge. She absorbed everything. New York was in the middle of a record heat-wave that summer, so after a couple hours or so of training we’d both be drenched in sweat. I couldn’t help but think Rebecca looked damn sexy when she worked up a sweat. After cooling down, we’d lie out on the grass in my tiny backyard and get some sun. Then we’d ride our bikes to the store so we could stock up on MnM’s and Coke and corn chips and salsa for the night. When we returned to the safety of our tent we would spray each other with a water bottle to sooth our sun burnt skin. After two weeks of camping in my backyard, the tent had killed the patch of grass beneath it. When my parents found out, they didn’t let us camp in the backyard anymore. I can’t stop smiling as I write this. I want nothing more than for everything to go back to the way it was between us. I want to stay up all night with her. I want to talk about movies and comic books with her. I want to lay out in the sun with her. I know it’s a long shot but I can’t help but think maybe it’s meant to be. Maybe this is destiny. I mean, what are they odds that I’d be re-deployed in Australia of all places? I know it’s a big country but I’m going to do everything in my power to find her. I’m going to find her and say I’m sorry. I’m going to give her the letter I wrote for her, the letter I should’ve given her the day I left. And whatever happens, happens. But I’m not going down without a fight. Yeah. Maybe this is destiny. January 18th – The Australian Outback (The Red Center) Wow. Sixteen hour flight time. Thank God they gave us sleeping pills. The wheels of our C17 Globemaster hitting the tarmac was what actually woke me up. The first thing I noticed when we stepped off the plane was the heat. It was well over a hundred degrees. A hot wind blew in from across the desert, providing no relief at all. When you breathed in, it felt like the air was burning your nostrils and the back of your throat. It was a shock to go from an Afghanistan winter to an Australian summer. When I stepped off the plane I could see a lot of activity. The size of the military force that had been deployed here was ridiculous. In my opinion it was way too much for the tiny town of Woomera. The population was just over a thousand people. And we had a whole regiment. Five thousand troops! Sometimes I question the sanity of the Command. As soon as we stepped off the plane we were briefed immediately. Apparently the immigration processing center just outside the town is where the outbreak of the virus first occurred. I’m not sure what the population of the immigration center is but there’s no way it warrants the amount of soldiers that have been deployed here. It borders on comical. We’ve got a whole fleet of transport aircraft, Humvees, tanks, Apache gunships, A10 bombers. I mean, what the hell did they need A10’s for? It’s complete overkill. Apparently there are even a couple of aircraft carriers making their way into Australian waters as well. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m pretty sure the Australian armed forces could’ve handled this just fine on their own. Afternoon Orientation – The Mission. There were three main areas that we’d be required to patrol. The town of Woomera. The immigration center. And the Woomera Military Testing Site. The testing site was a huge area that was used for hazardous weapons and explosives testing. It stretched way out into the desert. Something like 50,000 square miles. Apparently it is the largest land-based weapons testing site in the world. Because the testing site was so large, the majority of our forces would be deployed out there in the absolute middle of nowhere in five separate temporary bases. The area would also be patrolled by helicopters and predator drones. Basically, our main objective will be to secure the quarantine around these two facilities and the town itself. Sounded easy enough. Sounded boring enough. I must admit I kind of tuned out after a few minutes. I think they started talking about the virus, how they’ve tested on lab rats and rhesus monkeys, and how the only way to prevent a carrier from spreading the infection was to destroy certain areas of their brain. I know I should’ve been paying better attention but I couldn’t help it. I’m not sure if it was the heat, or the jet lag but I just couldn’t focus. And I couldn’t stop thinking about Rebecca. This is going to sound weird. But deep down I think I’m a hopeless romantic. Actually, I know I’m a hopeless romantic. I was convinced it was fate that had brought me here. Fate had given me a chance to find her, to tell her that I was sorry, tell her how I feel. The shrink said something about seeking forgiveness. Redemption. Well, maybe this was my chance. After the briefing we settled into our barracks. On the one hand I still thought that it was a mistake to have brought this many troops here to this peaceful and isolated part of the world, especially since we still had a job to do in Afghanistan. Insurgents were still striking out against us. They were getting bolder. Smarter. And they were continuing to attack and operate even in the middle of the cold winter months. But we had been given new orders. And there was nothing I could do about that. We were here to enforce the quarantine. I guess we should all consider ourselves lucky. Afghanistan is a dangerous place. This babysitting job will be a walk in the park. January 20th – Opal Mine We had two straight days of boredom and patrolling the small township. For the most part of those two days I was waving flies away from my mouth and eyes - seriously no one ever mentioned anything about the freakin flies out here. I bet they don’t put that on any tourist brochures. But yeah, after two straight days of boredom we received a call for help. It’s funny. During those two days, I was hoping and praying for some action. Something to do. Anything. There’s a reason people say, ‘Be careful what you wish for’. There was a situation about five miles outside of the township of Woomera at a small, privately owned opal mine. It was a father and son operation. The mine had been in the family for a couple generations. Apparently there was a tunnel collapse or something. Gordon, Franco, Drake and I were to escort a rescue team down into the opal mine. I thought this was going to be a simple assignment. In all honesty, I thought maybe the father had bumped his head on a rock or maybe someone had broken their arm. I thought we’d be in and out in no time. And besides, the actual rescue guys would be doing most of the work. We were just there to supervise. I was wrong. As soon as we arrived at the small entrance to the mine I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be a simple job. Leading up to the mineshaft was a trail of bloody footprints. And right next to the entrance was a dead horse. It was a mess. The horse was lying on its side. It’s stomach; its entire mid-section had been ripped open. Its guts had spilled out on the ground. It was completely covered in flies. The stench of it was incredible. Franco threw up. One of the rescuers was gagging, trying to hold it in. I had to look away and take a few deep breaths. “Gotta be wild dogs, right?” Drake said. “Dingoes or wolves or something?” No one answered him. The horse had been carrying some saddle bags across its back. The bags contained large rocks. At first glance the rocks were rough and plain looking. But upon closer inspection we could see bright green and blue sections, as well as red and violet. They were like veins running through the rock. It was raw opal. “Jesus Christ,” one of the rescuers said. “That would have to be worth thousands. You don’t just leave that kind of find lying around.” Bloody foot prints led towards the entry to the mine. Dark blood. It looked black against the dusty, red ground. Thick. Coagulated. Brown chunks of horse flesh were scatted on the ground near the mine shaft as well. Then again, maybe it was human flesh. I don’t know. It was a puzzling scene. “Has anything like this ever happened before?” Gordon asked the rescue guys. “No way. Nothing like this.” “Any reports of wild dog attacks?” “Years ago we had some reports of dingo attacks. Back when their population was getting out of control. But I don’t think there’s ever been a case where a pack of dingoes have brought down a horse. They wouldn’t even bother. This doesn’t make sense.” Gordon told Drake and Franco to remain up top. Keep an eye out for any wild dogs or dingoes or whatever. Gordon and I were going down into the mine. The rescue guys told us to take our packs off because the tunnels were narrow. They led the way and Gordon and I followed them in. The entry to the mine was a small, narrow tunnel about three feet in diameter. It led straight down into darkness. Hand and foot holds were fixed to the rock, like a ladder built into the wall. I don’t consider myself to be claustrophobic but as I descended down that tiny, vertical tunnel, I started to freak out. It was a good thing the rescue guys told us to take our packs off. There’s no way we would’ve fit. We climbed down to a depth of about fifty feet. When we reached the bottom I discovered that the tunnels of the mine were just as narrow as the entry shaft. They weren’t even high enough for us to stand up properly. We had to move around hunched over. The rescue guys turned their hard-hat torches on. Gordon and I did the same with our rifles. It was then we noticed the pile of flesh and blood at the foot of the entry shaft we had just climbed down. Again, it was hard to tell if the flesh was from the horse or if it was human. To my left there was a clump of hair and some blood on the wall of the entry tunnel. And something else that looked like a graft of human skin. I got the impression that someone had fallen down the mine shaft and cut themselves up pretty bad. The rescuers had never been down here so no one knew where to go, or where to even start looking. I was about to call out to see if anyone answered. But I stopped myself. Would calling out cause one of these tiny tunnels to collapse? I did not want to find out. In the end, we followed the blood trail. As we moved along I noticed some marks in the tunnel walls. I looked closer. They were marks caused by bullets. Small arms fire. Had there been a shoot-out down here? We moved slowly around a bend in the tunnel. Gordon took the lead and I followed closely behind. Up ahead we found a revolver lying on the ground in a pool of blood. It had been fired recently. Six empty bullet shells lay on the ground next to the revolver. The barrel was still warm. Further ahead was a shotgun. Gordon moved ahead and picked it up. “Hasn’t been fired,” he said. He unloaded the rifle, placing the shells in his pocket. He handed the weapon back to me. We continued further, deeper into the mine. After a couple of minutes I was completely disorientated and the feeling of claustrophobia intensified. At that point I sort of forgot why we were down there. I was just hoping we weren’t lost. I really wanted to get the hell out as soon as possible. I did not want one of the tunnels to collapse. The walls were solid rock. We’d be crushed with no hope of survival. Gordon held up his hand, motioning for us to stop. The blood trail ended. “What is it?” one of the rescuers asked from behind. “Blood trail ends here,” Gordon answered as he shone his torch at the dusty ground. The other rescue guy said something about how maybe whoever had been bleeding had bandaged up their wounds. Apparently mines like this have first aid kits located throughout the tunnels. I was about to ask him if that was the case then where the hell was the first aid kit? But then I thought I heard something coming from further down the tunnel. A scream. I held my breath and strained my ears. Did I just imagine it? Was the scream real? But then I noticed everyone was silent. We had all heard it. “Ah, was that a scream?” I asked. No one answered me. A few seconds later we could hear moaning. Someone was in pain. Someone was trapped down here, probably bleeding to death. We continued forward, hunched over, moving as fast as we could in the confined area. We turned down another bend but then Gordon came to an abrupt stop. I actually ran up the back of him. The mine broke off into a fork but they were both collapsed in. It was a dead end. We quickly searched the collapsed pile of rocks for any gaps but there were none. The rescuers lowered their heads. This was bad news. There was no hope for the miners. I’m not sure what had happened. Why was the revolver fired? Who was doing the shooting? What were they shooting at? Why was the shotgun dropped, fully loaded? Why would you bring a shotgun down into a confined mine like this? Or any weapon for that matter. And what the hell happened to the damn horse? We sat there in the fork of the tunnel for a while. We listened for any noises. Any cries for help. But there were no sounds at all. The rescuers had some equipment, heat sensors to pick up human body heat. And sound equipment that could pick up and faint noises, like cries for help or breathing. But they found nothing. There was no sign of life. After a couple of hours we gave up hope. All we knew was that something bad had happened. A struggle. Maybe an argument over the opal find? I don’t know. But something bad had gone down. And then the tunnel had collapsed, probably crushing both the father and the son. It was tragic. But there was nothing we could do. And now I’m hoping, praying for more days of boredom. January 21st – Outbreak. Things are starting to get weird. Yesterday it was the incident in the mine. And now today. Wow. I mean, I really have no idea what the hell happened today. I’ve tried to think it through logically but I can’t. Everything that happened keeps playing over and over in my head. I have to be up in three hours, but I can’t sleep. It’s just so messed up. Even more messed up then that damn mutilated horse carcass we saw yesterday. We were on patrol in the town center. We were the closest team to the incident so we were ordered to go and investigate. Apparently there was a robbery at the local medical center. Command suspected it was probably someone trying to rob the joint for pain meds. When we got there the receptionist was crying. She was hysterical. She was pointing at the back room. It was the room they used for minor procedures, like giving shots and removing stitches and stuff like that. Apparently there was a patient in there who had an abscess. Apparently that patient had gone bat crap insane. “He was about to have it lanced,” she said. “Lanced?” Franco asked. “Yeah. The abscess had become inflamed and swollen. The guy was complaining of fever and body aches. He was shivering. Doctor Grant assumed it was because of the infected abscess.” From behind me, Drake asked, “What the hell is an abscess?” “It’s like a boil,” she answered. “Oh, right. Yeah, I knew that.” “He actually had a few of them,” she continued. “A couple on his arms and some on his torso. To lance them, you inject a local anesthetic into the boil and wait for the area to become numb. Then you make a small incision with a scalpel and drain the puss and the fluid from the wound.” “Gross,” Franco said. “But something happened. I heard screams. Not just from the patient but from Doctor Grant and the nurse as well. Something is wrong. I know there are a lot of rumors circulating about the virus outbreak in the immigration center. Do you think this is related?” The receptionist looked scared. Actually she looked down right terrified. Her hands were shaking. We told her not to worry. Just relax. Just breathe. We told her that everything would be all right. We were lying. We moved over to the back room. The receptionist had jammed a chair up against the handle. Gordon moved it out of the way and knocked on the door. He called out to Doctor Grant. But there was no response. “Is this door locked?” Gordon asked the receptionist. She shook her head. Drake moved up alongside Gordon. They didn’t say anything. They gave each other a quick look and Drake gave a slight nod. They didn’t need to say anything. They know each other so well, it’s like they can read each other’s minds. Gordon opened the door and Drake stepped into the ‘operating’ room with his rifle shouldered and ready. We all followed him in. And here’s where it gets weird. And messy. In the far right hand corner of the room was the patient. He was leaning over Doctor Grant, who was lying down on his back. The doctor was lying down in a massive pool of blood. The patient was kneeling in the blood, leaning over Doctor Grant. He was oblivious to the mess. I can’t be totally sure but it looked like the patient was digging his hands into the doctor’s torso, into his stomach. And it looked like he was shoveling the contents of the doctor’s torso into his mouth. But I can’t be sure. The reason I can’t be sure is because I couldn’t see clearly. And because it sounds so crazy. A patient, a person, eating another person’s intestines? There has to be some other explanation right? There just has to be. The patient heard us enter the room. He turned to face us. Blood stained his mouth, his chin. Flesh was stuck between his teeth. He was chewing. We were stunned into silence. We stood there for a few seconds, staring blankly. The blood was everywhere. It was all over the patient’s face and his chest. He was totally covered in it. A few more seconds ticked by. But no one said or did anything. We were definitely in shock. There was no way this was a robbery. A junkie looking for some pain meds? No freakin way. Gordon took a small step forward. He was about to say something. But then the patient charged at us. Gordon raised his rifle and put two bullets in the patient’s chest and one in his head. And here’s another thing I can’t stop thinking about. Gordon shot him in the chest. He shot him in the chest twice! But the patient didn’t react. The bullets tore right through him but he kept coming. He kept charging. It was only after Gordon put a round in his head did he finally drop. But he fell forward. Not backwards. Usually, taking a point blank round from an M4 carbine will send anyone or anything flying back. But not this guy. It defied logic. And thinking about this has kept me wide awake tonight. The patient’s momentum sent him crashing into Gordon and knocked him off his feet. Gordon was pushed back into the wall. He cracked his head. I reacted immediately. I wasn’t thinking. It was just a reflex. I grabbed the patient by the hair and pulled him out of the way, throwing him to the other side of the room. Gordon’s eyes were closed. I checked his pulse. He was alive but he had been knocked out cold. The receptionist heard the gunshots and moved up to the door. “What the hell’s going on?” “That patient,” Drake said. “He completely lost it. He attacked us. He charged us.” The receptionist stood in the door way, with her hands covering her mouth. She was in a state of shock. We all were. It happened so fast. We had no time to stop and think things through. No time to warn the patient that we were authorized to use deadly force if necessary. He was too quick. We called it in right away. Requested a containment crew ASAP. They arrived in a couple of minutes. A whole group of guys in yellow HAZMAT suits. They secured Gordon to a stretcher and took him away for overnight observation at the hospital. After the shock had worn off, Franco moved outside to give a full report to the containment crew. The gunshots must’ve aroused the suspicions of some the locals because there were a few people milling around the front of the reception area, trying to get a look. Drake told everyone to back the hell off. He didn’t bother with politeness or courtesy. He just started yelling and swearing at people. I found myself alone in the bloody, messed up operating room. It was only then, when everything had calmed down that I noticed someone else in the room. A nurse. She was lying in the opposite far corner, behind the doctor’s desk and an overturned patient bed. She was lying on her back. Her breathing was rapid. Her chest was rising and falling in short sharp breaths. Her head was resting in a pool of blood. Her blonde hair was soaked red. I looked around for someone, anyone. But I was alone. The other guys had moved back out of the room. Franco and Drake were still talking to the containment crew. I was about to go and get someone, maybe the receptionist, or another nurse or another doctor. But then I heard the woman whisper to me. I walked slowly towards her. Her neck had been ripped open. You could see her throat, her esophagus. Blood was flowing and oozing out on to the floor. It was very dark. It seemed to be coagulating right before my eyes. “Are you all right?” I asked. Yeah, as soon as the words left my mouth I felt like such an idiot. I can’t believe I said that. Of course she wasn’t all right. Half of her neck was missing. She was bleeding out. She was dying a slow and painful death right in front of me. But I said it anyway. I don’t know why. She whispered something again. I couldn’t hear her, so I leant in closer. “Please,” she said. “Please.” “It’s going to be OK,” I lied. “A medical team is on their way. They’ll be here in a couple of minutes.” “Please,” she repeated. “Kill me.” She began shivering, her legs started to twitch. “Please, kill me.” Strangely, the wound in her neck had stopped bleeding altogether. The pool of blood around her head had turned black, almost solid. Her eyes were becoming more and more blood shot. “Please, kill me.” I stood up and took out my side arm and aimed the barrel at her forehead. I thumbed the safety off. I hesitated. Franco entered the room with a couple guys dressed in yellow HAZMAT suits. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked. “She’s hurting,” I answered. “She’s dying.” The guys in the HAZMAT suits stood at the entrance to the room, refusing to come any closer. “Has she been infected?” one of them asked. “What?” “Has she been infected?” he repeated. “I don’t know.” “Has she been bitten?” I looked back at her neck. It was a complete mess. “I... I don’t know. Possibly.” “Dispose of her.” “Excuse me?” “Kill her. A headshot is the only way.” The woman looked at me with her blood shot eyes, pleading. I placed my index finger on the trigger of my sidearm. I held my breath. I’m looking at my watch right now, counting the seconds. It’s three in the morning. But I can’t sleep. Whenever I close my eyes, I see this woman. I see her blood soaked blonde hair. She was young. Attractive. She was dying. I can hear her whispering to me. Like her head is right next to me, resting on my pillow, like she is whispering into my ear. Please. Kill me. And just as I’m about to fall asleep, I hear the gunshot. January 22nd – Testing Unfortunately the attack at the medical center was not an isolated incident. There had been other reports of violence throughout Woomera. The virus was beginning to spread through the town as well as the immigration center. It was starting to get out of control. And after everything I saw today, I’ve got a bad feeling that this situation is about to get a whole lot worse. We were woken up an hour early. Not that I minded. I was still wide awake. I knew I was probably going to crash hard later on in the day but I was hoping adrenalin would help me get through the patrol. Some strong coffee wouldn’t hurt either. The briefing was quick. But it put all of us on edge. Today, everyone, all the civilians were to be tested. The whole town. All 1,348 people. The township of Woomera was being put under an ‘unofficial’ quarantine. This basically meant they weren’t going to announce this quarantine to the media. At least, not yet. We were ordered to wear flak jackets, body armor and gloves during the testing process. The troops let out a collective groan. No one wanted to wear body armor. Let alone flak jackets and gloves. Not in this heat. Especially when we weren’t even being shot at by enemy forces. The townspeople were to be gathered up and herded through testing gates. Like cattle, I thought. The testing gates measured core body temperature. Apparently a low temperature reading was bad. If a person had a lowered core body temperature, the alarm on the testing gate would flash red. If this happened the person was to be escorted away to an isolated wing of the local hospital for more testing. This was the quickest way to identify any possible infected or carriers of the virus. They also had sniffer dog teams patrolling the lines for some reason. They were mean looking German Shepherds. I don’t know what they were trained to smell or detect or whatever. But every person the dogs singled out had a lowered core body temp. Every single one of those people were taken away at gun point. Testing was conducted in the main street, out the front of the small town hall. Drake, Franco and I were situated on the rooftop of the town’s one and only bank. We had a bird’s eye view of everything. Throughout the day most of the people were pretty cooperative. Even when the light flashed red and they were taken away at gun point, most people remained calm. There were a few incidents, a few guys freaked out when the light flashed red. Initially they refused to go, forcing the soldiers on the ground level to get rough. But when they realized there was no point in fighting back they eventually calmed down and cooperated. So yeah, for the most part everything was going smoothly. We were nearly done. We had managed to process everyone in a couple of hours. We only had about a hundred people left. Franco, Drake and I were getting a bit bored with our supervision duty. At that point I was a little jealous that Gordon was still in the sweet air-conditioned comfort of the hospital. It was well over a hundred degrees today. And up on the roof of the bank it felt a lot hotter. We had been scanning the lines all morning, making sure everyone remained calm during the testing process. Like I said, for the most part people had been well behaved. Until this one guy had to go and ruin everything. This one act of stupidity has put the whole town in a state of panic. Thanks to this guy, the whole town is on the verge of rioting. He was one of the last to line up. We were so close to finishing up for the day. Drake saw him first. He pointed down to the street, towards the back of the line. “Check that guy out. Looks jumpy as hell.” I looked through the scope on my rifle down at the street below. The guy Drake had pointed out kept checking over his shoulder. He kept looking back down the road, and then up at the sniffer dog team that was slowly but surely making their way towards him. “Yeah he looks pretty nervous,” I said, agreeing with Drake’s assessment. “You think he’ll put up a fight?” Before Drake could answer me, the guy bolted. The troops on the ground shouted out to him, ordering him to stop. But the guy ignored them and kept running. Even when they told him they would shoot. He kept running. I aimed my rifle at the man. I had a clean shot. I could take him out if I wanted to. Not that I did want to. I lowered my aim slightly. I was confident I could clip him in the leg. Put him down without seriously injuring him. Yeah, I thought. That was the better option. There was no need for more bloodshed. Not after what happened yesterday. I was just about to squeeze the trigger. But I never got the chance. The soldiers on the ground opened fire. They didn’t lower their aim. They didn’t fire a warning shot. The man fell in the street, face forward. He skidded for a few feet before coming to rest in the gutter. The other people lining up were all shocked into silence. A few of them ran out of fear. They just took off. Most of them were tackled to the ground and taken away. But a couple ran down the side streets and completely disappeared. News of the shooting spread quickly through the small town. Anger and panic followed. Security has been increased throughout the township. By night fall we had a squad on every block, making sure everyone kept indoors. Making sure there were no riots. People have been ordered to remain in their homes, or risk being shot on sight. The perimeter of the quarantine area was reinforced with more troops. Machine gun bunkers were set up right around the outskirts of the town. This is bad. The whole town is on edge. So are the troops. This isn’t a babysitting job anymore. January 24th – Hell on Earth We’re back. Finally. And after a grueling two days on patrol the last thing I feel like doing is writing in this goddamn journal. But I have to. I have to get this down on the page. Maybe then it won’t sound so crazy. Maybe then I won’t feel like I’m losing my mind. Firstly, the day after the shooting, we were ordered to supervise more testing - this time within the immigration center. The Woomera immigration center looked a bit like a prison complex. It had a couple of perimeter fences that were topped with razor wire. There were even gun towers at each corner of the compound. There were two main warehouse type buildings where the refugees were housed. Or kept hostage as prisoners, depending on how you viewed the situation. Initially the plan was to conduct more testing within this area. But then they closed it off completely. They sent in the guys in the bright yellow HAZMAT suits and one of the main buildings was draped in huge sheet of plastic. We were told this area no longer concerned us. And for a fleeting moment I thought maybe we were going to be sent home. No such luck. We were sent out on patrol. A lot of fireteams were sent out. It was basically a long line of soldiers that stretched for miles. The idea was to sweep the area between the town and the target area. We were to look for anyone who had broken through the quarantine. We were authorized to use deadly force if necessary. There had been reports of people packing up their things and making a run for it. Apparently they were younger males, between the ages of 20 and 25. They had come out here for work. Cattle farming, coal mining. Anything they could get their hands on. The reason a young male would come all the way out here for work? The pay. The pay was extremely good. Especially work in the mines. But after the initial outbreak and the shooting, a few of these guys figured the pay wasn’t worth it. So it was our job to find them. Our orders were to sweep the section for anyone who had broken through the quarantine. I personally thought it was a waste of time. Of course, I didn’t say anything other than ‘yes, sir’. It’s not our job to argue. But as I predicted we didn’t find anyone. Whoever had escaped through the perimeter of the quarantine was either already long gone, or they had died out in the middle of nowhere. If someone ran off out here, without adequate food or water, they wouldn’t get very far. They’d be dead within a few days. So yeah, in my opinion the patrol was a waste of time. But that was only the first part of the operation. The second part of our assignment was to supervise more Testing. Our destination - The Unofficial Immigration Center. Yeah that’s right. Unofficial Immigration Center. Or Temporary Immigration Center. Blew my freakin mind when they told us that. It was a completely separate section. It was hidden in plain sight, in the middle of nowhere. It was listed as ‘unofficial’ and ‘temporary’. I’m guessing no one knows about it. Certainly not the public. No freakin way. Now I knew why they had brought a whole regiment of troops down here. It all made sense. The Unofficial Immigration Center was located about twenty miles further north-west of the ‘Official’ Immigration Center. It was located within the military testing ground. It was basically a slum. They told us it was where they housed the criminals of the refugee population. Put simply, it was where they took anyone who had committed a criminal offence whilst in custody of the immigration center. The most common offences were assault and sexual assault. It was also the place where they took anyone who allegedly worked for people smuggling networks. But that had to be a lie. There were thousands of people living in that slum. The population was massive. There’s no way they were all criminal offenders, or people smugglers. There was just too many. And there were women and children. Elderly. There were entire extended families. These were scared, innocent people who had left their homes, saved up all their money, sold all their earthly possessions. They had risked their lives and the lives of their children to come here. And against all the odds they had made it. They had come here in search of asylum, in search of safety and a new life. Instead, they had found a nightmare. Now they were living in a slum, a makeshift shanty town in the middle of the Australian outback. No one knew how many people called this place home. But estimates were as high as ten thousand. And since it was located in the middle of the Woomera Military Testing site, the largest land-based testing site in the world, it was basically hidden from the world. It was a dirty little secret of the Australian government. The site was initially the same size as the ‘official’ immigration center. It was basically the same set up, the same buildings and design. But overtime the population, the number of immigrants had grown and grown. The shanty town kept expanding. Most of the little huts were made of corrugated tin and aluminum sheets, metal shipping containers, plastic tarpaulins and ply wood, anything the refugees could get their hands on. And since it was in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but miles and miles of desert in all directions, it appeared that this site was free to just keep growing and growing. It was out of control. I was now starting to wonder if a regiment of troops was enough to enforce the quarantine. As we approached it we couldn’t really see how big it was. It sort of blended into the horizon as a shimmering heat mirage. But as we got closer… then we could see. It was late afternoon when we finally made it to the immigration center. The sight of it, the enormity of it took my breath away. This place was huge. It was massive. And the smell. My god, the smell of the place was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. The stench hit us all in the face, causing some of the soldiers to gag and throw up. The size of the slum was big enough that Command had even set up some temporary barracks just outside the shanty town. And we figured after we’d just trekked twenty miles in the desert we’d be resting up for the remainder of the day. Again, no such luck. We were ordered into the slum. They were about to conduct more testing. Just like the other day. Same set up with the testing gates and everything. If the light flashed red, the person had a lowered core body temperature and they were to be taken away for more testing. The difference being there would be thousands more people to process. And I’m guessing not many of them spoke English. This was going to be a nightmare. Where there is smoke… We had been testing all day. The sniffer dogs had been busy. The testing gates would flash red every five minutes or so. Hundreds of people were being taken away at gun point. Children torn away from mothers. Families ripped apart with no explanation. The suspected cases were taken into the main buildings, the original buildings of the immigration center for further testing. This meant that whoever had been lucky enough to call those buildings their home, were now displaced once again, forced to find homes out in the slum. It was sickening to think that they were refugees inside an asylum for refugees. Fate can be cruel sometimes. After a while I began to feel like I was going to throw up. The cry of young children. The desperate pleas of mothers and fathers. It was a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing exercise. But it had to be done. People were getting sick all over. The virus was spreading fast. The situation was getting out of control. We worked through the day and into the night. It was late, almost midnight when we were finally relieved of duty for the day. We were walking back through the small laneways of the slum. As we made our way back to our temporary barracks, winding through the narrow laneways – the people, the refugees stared at us with a kind of scared, fascination, like we were aliens or something. The men made sure they stood between us and the women. The women made sure they held on to their children, making sure the kids didn’t run up to us. At first I was nodding and smiling at them. But after a while I gave up trying to be friendly. I was just too tired. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept much the past couple of nights. Pretty soon my eyes glazed over and became unfocused. My surroundings kind of blurred into one messy scene of dilapidated huts and the sick, scared faces of refugees, of people that I didn’t know the names of and never will. I was basically walking in a daze through the narrow laneways of the shanty town. And I’ll admit, at that point, I was getting a little disorientated. OK, I was completely lost. But I was following Drake and Franco. I trusted they knew the way. We must’ve been close to the edge of the slum when everything went to hell. I was so tired my brain didn’t even fully register what was happening at first. Off in the distance I heard gunshots. At first I thought they were firecrackers. I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe because there were so many kids running around. Drake and Franco stopped. We heard more gunshots. We crouched behind a small shanty and listened. My brain still wasn’t functioning. Gunshots? Why was there shooting? Who was shooting? What were they shooting at? Then my mind flashed to the day before. The shooting in the street. That man running, refusing to stop, getting shot in the back. Dying in the gutter. If these people started to resist here, in this slum. If people started to run… “The shots are coming from the testing area,” Drake said. We all listened for a few more seconds. At first we could hear single shots being fired. Controlled bursts. But then we could hear automatic gun fire. And then we could hear the heavy machine guns. The fifty cal’s mounted on the Humvees. “Jesus Christ,” Franco said. “Let’s go!” We started running back the way we had come, back to the testing facilities. But the small walkways and laneways were disorientating and confusing. The slum was a maze, a labyrinth. Now I really was lost. Men, women and children were now running in the opposite direction. Not just running but sprinting. Shouting in broken English, “They are coming. Run. Get away.” They all looked scared, every single one of those people. Young and old. Even the smaller kids, they probably didn’t understand what was happening but they were scared. We tried to ask them who was coming. What were they running from? But no one was stopping to answer us. I guess most of them couldn’t really speak English that well. We tried to stop one of the men. He was carrying a small girl, his daughter. I grabbed him by the arm to stop him from running away. He looked Arab. I thought maybe Franco could speak to him. But we never got the chance to ask him what his nationality was or if he spoke English, or what he was running from. He wrestled away from me, kicking me hard in the shin. We gave up trying to stop anyone after that. We kept moving against the flow of the crowd. I could smell smoke. And ahead I could see flames reaching up into the black sky. If a fire broke out in this shanty town there would be no stopping it. Franco was on the radio, trying to find out what the hell was going on. We continued to force our way through the fleeing masses. It was slow going. Finally, we made it back to the main buildings where they had been conducting the testing all day. The buildings where they were taking anyone who might be infected. The buildings were on fire. Huge, angry flames engulfed the entire structure. The heat blasted us, keeping us at bay. I could feel the heat on my face. The smoke was making my eyes water. But I couldn’t look away. Something was wrong with this scene. These buildings were the only buildings on fire. And the soldiers were watching them burn. None of the refugees remained. No one was trying to put out the fire. The Humvees were all facing the burning buildings. The barrels of the fifty cal machine guns were smoking. I heard a crash. Windows and glass shattering. There was a man inside the building. He was trying to get out. My natural instinct was to go and help him. I was about to run over there but Drake held me back. The soldier manning the fifty cal machine gun pulled the trigger. The orange flames reached up and out of the broken windows. The fire continued to burn steadily throughout the night. It was late when we got back to the barracks. We were all covered in ash and soot. Our clothes and hair smelt like smoke. We were all exhausted. But again, I found it hard to sleep that night. Even after the exhausting trek, and spending the afternoon and most of the night testing people for the infection, even after getting everything out of my head and on to the page. I still found it hard to sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes I saw a blur, a collage of frightened and helpless people. They looked at me with scared fascination. Some of them were holding children. Some of them were on fire. January 25th - Deadly Force The next day they had expanded the outer perimeter of the quarantine to a ten mile radius. The quarantine now covered the town, the official immigration center and the unofficial immigration center. It was a huge area. But I’m starting to think the quarantine is a band-aid solution. I’m starting to think we’ve lost control. Yesterday, the unofficial immigration center was partially destroyed by fire. A fire that was deliberately lit. Command isn’t telling us why. No one tells us grunts anything. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why they did it. They locked up those poor people. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Then they cleared out and set them on fire. They were burned alive. I woke up that morning and my whole body was sore. My feet, my legs. Even my throat was sore from the smoke. I was hoping today we would be given a chopper ride back to the main barracks. Grab a shower. Some real food. Get some rest. But no. We had been assigned to guard duty. We were to set up at a checkpoint about a mile outside of the outer-perimeter and watch for anyone who had broken through. The fire and the shooting in the town had put everyone on edge. And understandably, people were trying to get the hell out of here. Not just the immigrants, but people from the township as well. I can’t blame them. But no one was allowed to leave. Didn’t matter if you were healthy. Our orders were to keep a look out for anyone trying to make a run for it. We were authorized to eliminate any probable threat or any persons we believed were infected beyond help. If they were infected we were authorized to use deadly force if necessary. They reminded us that a head shot was the only way the only way to stop a person infected with the virus. If we couldn’t contain the threat, or if the outer-perimeter was breached by too many people, we were to call in the gunships for aerial support. Usually we operated in pairs. One shooter and one spotter. But since Gordon was still in hospital and apparently they were running low on field experienced snipers, Command said we had to split up. They wanted to cover as much ground as possible. They wanted as many shooters as possible. So we split up. We were about a hundred meters apart. The low lying scrubs provided plenty of concealment. We settled in and positioned ourselves. I was lying flat on my stomach, rifle pointed back towards the town of Woomera. Once Drake and Franco had positioned themselves, they completely disappeared from my sight. If anyone was walking through here, there’s no way they would see us. I was praying that no one would be stupid enough to try and escape. My prayers fell on deaf ears. Two guys ran towards us, about half a mile away. They were hunched over, trying to keep low and out of sight. They had no idea they were being watched. They seemed to be running between the low lying scrubs and every now and then they would dive behind one and wait for a few minutes. Once they thought it was clear they would continue running to the next point of cover. Out in the desert it wasn’t much but the shrubbery actually provided pretty good concealment. Unfortunately for these guys it wasn’t good enough. We could see them easily. I spoke into my mic. “Franco. I got a couple of guys here in my sights. About half a mile away. Directly in front of me. They’re headed towards your position. Do you see them?” “Ah, that’s a negative,” Franco responded. “Are you sure? They’re right there.” “Oh, wait. Yeah. I see them.” “What do we do?” I asked. “We better call it in.” “But we don’t even know if they’re infected.” “Why else would they be running?” “Because they’re scared?” “Look, we got orders to stop anyone from getting through here. Doesn’t matter if they’re infected or not.” “I’m going to talk to them,” I said. “I’ll just tell them to turn around. Nobody has to get hurt.” “What? Kenji, no. Stand down!” I turned my mic off. I don’t know what came over me. But I wasn’t going to sit there and call in the gunships. Who knew how those guys would react? And I sure as hell wasn’t going to take pot shots at innocent people. And for all we knew these guys were innocent. For all we knew they probably weren’t even infected. I decided to take it upon myself then to save their lives. Tell them to turn around. Go back before they did something stupid like get themselves killed. I stood up and started walking towards them. I looked over in the direction where I knew Franco and Drake were situated but I couldn’t see them at all. I looked back to where I had last seen the guys trying to escape. They were standing up, looking right at me. They paused for a split second, frozen, like a couple of deer caught in headlights. I waved at them, trying to get them to come over to me. But instead they started running away. They had panicked. They were not going to make this easy. I was about to start running after them. I took maybe two steps before I heard the rotor blades of an Apache gunship. It flew in low over my head. I dived for the ground as the engine and the rotor blades roared on by. It hovered over the area for a few seconds before locating the two guys. They continued to run, oblivious to the fact that it was useless to try an outrun an Apache gunship. I got back to my feet and started running after them. I actually shouted, “NO!” Not that anyone could hear me. What’s that saying? ‘In space no one can hear you scream’. Yeah well, same thing goes here. In the outback no one can hear you scream. The Apache unloaded with its minigun. The burst only lasted a second. The tracer bullets whizzed through the sky giving the impression they were shooting a bright orange laser beam. The guys fell to the ground. They did not get up. The Apache turned around and began flying right for me. It flew low, over my head once again, incredibly close. I guess they were listening in on us before as we argued over these guys lives. I guess they were trying to send a message to us. Enforce the quarantine. We were probably going to get chewed out for hesitating when we got back to base. Later in the day, when we finally did make it back for debriefing, I prepared myself to get reprimanded for compromising the quarantine. But to my surprise we weren’t in trouble. We didn’t even get a chance to debrief. Everyone was too busy. The regiment was stretched thin over the vast area of the twin immigration centers and Woomera Testing Site. They told us to get a good night sleep. We were going back out again tomorrow. January 26th - Shoot to kill. The sun wasn’t even up when we made our way to the check point. They wanted us back out there, watching the perimeter as soon as possible. Our orders were simple. We were to keep a look out and make sure no one gets through. Infected or otherwise. If anyone stepped outside the quarantine area we were to take them out. Shoot to kill. Maybe that’s why we weren’t reprimanded yesterday, I thought. Maybe they figured our orders were too vague or confusing. Deciding whether or not a person was infected and then deciding on whether or not to use deadly force was too much for one little grunt to handle right? Well, now they were removing all doubt. Shoot to kill. No exceptions. We set up in the exact same positions as the day before. About a mile outside the perimeter, rifles pointed back towards the town. We spread out. We watched and waited. And waited. We waited out in the hot desert sun for about six hours before anything happened. At one point I thought I was going to die of boredom. And heat stroke. But then all hell broke loose. At first I thought maybe I was seeing things. Maybe the sun and the heat had sent me crazy. Maybe I was dehydrated. I could see three people off in the distance, back towards the town. Three figures on the horizon. Their bodies appeared to be distorted, shimmering in the heat. I couldn’t see clearly but they seemed to be staggering slowly towards us. They actually looked drunk. “Franco. Drake,” I whispered. “I got three people in my sights.” I had another look through my scope at them. As they walked closer I could see that there were two men and one woman. They looked old. One of the men was wearing a dressing gown that was untied at the waist, exposed for the whole world to see. The woman was wearing a night dress and nothing else. None of them were wearing shoes. “They look elderly,” I said. “Two men. One woman. The actually look like they’re intoxicated. Or maybe they’re medicated. Is there an old folk’s home in town?” “Ah, yeah I think so,” Franco answered. “It’s near the hospital.” They continued to stumble aimlessly through the desert. “So what do we do?” “Have you got a clear shot?” “Yeah.” “Take it.” “What?” “Take the shot.” “Franco. Dude, they’re old people. That’s somebody’s grandma. Somebody’s poppy.” “Kenji, we’ve got orders.” Franco then lowered his voice even though I’m not sure why. “You know they’re listening in,” he said. “Gunships will be here any second to do the dirty work anyways.” He was right. I knew he was right. Just like yesterday. If we hesitated, the Apache would show up and take them out in the blink of an eye. And our orders were shoot to kill anybody that broke through the quarantine. Anybody. If we didn’t take the shot we would be disobeying a direct order. But still, I did not want to kill these people. They were old, helpless. Maybe I could clip them in the legs? Take them down without killing them. Maybe if I could do that, then I could go and check them out. Show everyone that they are not infected. Maybe then we could get them back to the old folk’s home. Get them fixed up. I shook my head. That was a pipe dream. A fantasy. But I was desperate. My mind was racing through any and all possibilities, anything that would prevent me from shooting these people. I inhaled and steadied my aim. I lined up one of the old men in my sights. His legs were bent with age and arthritis. I was about to squeeze the trigger. But I couldn’t. This man was frail. A bullet shot to the leg would blow it apart and probably kill him. “Franco, I can’t do it,” I said. “These people need help.” “We got orders, Kenji,” Franco replied. “And look at them. They’re sick. There’s no helping them. You heard what the virus does to a person.” The old people walked closer. At first I couldn’t see them clearly but the closer they came, the more I realized these people were indeed sick. Their skin was a pale grey. Blood was dripping down their chins, staining their bare chests. “I’ve got a shot,” Franco said. “I’m taking them out.” I took my finger off the trigger. I couldn’t do it. I knew we had orders. I knew these people were probably sick. But I couldn’t do it. I guess I was scared. Franco got on the radio to command. He wanted to check our orders, make sure that we had to take the shot. He didn’t want to kill these people any more than I did. The reply came back immediately. Shoot to kill. NOW. Franco requested aerial support but was quickly denied. There would be no gunship to do the dirty work this time. No aerial support at all. They were probably busy elsewhere in the town or the immigration centers or maybe in the massive testing area. Whatever the reason, we were on our own. That much was clear. And we would have to make a decision on these people’s lives. Franco fired. The noise of the shot scared the hell out of me. He just went ahead and took it. No more hesitation. The time for discussion was over. His first shot missed. He fired again. Watching through the scope on my rifle I saw the bullet clip one of the old men in the shoulder. He stumbled back half a step, but then regained his balance. And then the weirdest thing happened. The old man started to run. He began sprinting towards Franco’s position. Old, arthritic legs pumping faster than any Olympic sprinter. The other old man, and the old woman followed closely behind. They were all running barefoot, faster than humanly possible. “Ah, Franco. I… I think they’re coming for you.” Franco swore. He fired again and missed completely. The infected kept running. They seemed to be gaining speed. Drake opened fire with his m249 machine gun. I could see the puffs of dust where the bullets hit the ground. He nailed one of the infected – the woman but it didn’t stop her. It was like she stumbled for a bit, like someone had pushed her. But then she regained her footing and kept sprinting. “Oh God,” Franco said. “They’re not going down!” Franco was freaking out. He took a few single round shots before he switched to full automatic. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. These people were taking fire; they were being shot with high-powered assault rifles. But they weren’t going down. They weren’t human. They were monsters. I took aim again and rested my index finger on the trigger. Inhaled. Exhaled. I took the woman out first. She had actually over taken the men. She was in front by a few feet. The bullet passed through her temple, her head snapped to the side and she fell to the ground, her momentum causing her to roll head over ass. The two old men did not stop or even acknowledge that the woman had been killed. They just kept running. They were a hundred feet away from Franco now. Drake was still shooting, trying to provide support. But his aim was getting more and more erratic. And when the old men got within fifty feet of Franco, Drake stopped shooting altogether from fear of hitting Franco. I fired again and took out one of the men. There was one guy left. I reloaded. Took aim. Fired. Clipped him in the shoulder. But he kept running. I fired one more shot. Missed. I saw Franco stand up from where he had been lying down. His rifle was raised up to his shoulder. He fired at point blank range. He would’ve had to have hit the old man but he was so close I couldn’t tell. The infected man crashed into Franco, tackling him to the ground. I stood up and sprinted over. When I got there, Franco was lying on his back. He was breathing hard. The infected old man was face down in the dirt. He was not moving. A few seconds later Drake arrived. “Jesus, man. Are you all right?” Franco slowly got to his feet and brushed himself off. “Yeah, I’m fine. I think.” “That was messed up,” I said. “Yeah, I freakin nailed that old lady,” Drake said. “Didn’t drop her. She didn’t even stop running. It was like nothing had happened.” “They weren’t lying when they said a head shot is the only way to stop the infection,” Franco added between deep breaths. “This virus is messed up.” Franco called back to command and reported the incident and requested reinforcements. He was denied. They couldn’t spare the men. “You’re kidding,” I said. “What the hell?” I checked my watch. We still had a couple more hours until we were scheduled to be relieved. And unfortunately this incident was just the beginning of our worries. Complications. Yeah, it gets worse. We were standing around, trying to catch our breath, trying to make sense of the situation. I was struggling to come to grips with shooting and killing these old people, an old woman for crying out loud. I guess I was in denial. Even though deep down there was a part of me that knew these people were infected. How else could they have escaped from the old folk’s home? How else could these geriatrics get through the perimeter? How else could they run barefoot through the desert? We were just about to call it in but off in the distance a van approached. It appeared to have a satellite dish on top of its roof. It was a goddamn news van. "What the hell?” Drake said. “Is that what I think it is?” Reporters? Out here? It was the last thing we needed. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my first thought was that we’d have to shoot them. I mean, these guys were obviously not infected. At least, I don’t think they were. But what would happen if we refused to follow orders? Would we be court marshaled? Locked up? Would they send in the gunships now and take us all out? I know it sounds crazy but all these thoughts were running through my head as that news van pulled up to us. Once again we held innocent people’s lives in our hands. We had the final say. I feel sick just thinking about it. For all we knew, these guys were just lost. Maybe they were going to ask for directions. Maybe they were going to tell us how much they appreciated us soldiers and what we do for our countries. But the situation was about to get real tense, especially if they saw the corpse of the old man that Franco had just shot. The body of the old man was lying on the ground a few feet behind us. He was lying face down in the dirt, tangled up in a low lying scrub. Drake, Franco and I stood between them and the corpse, hoping we had sufficiently blocked it from their view. We were just praying that they reporters didn’t look past us and see it, praying they didn’t get out of the van. The news van drove up alongside us and came to a stop as the driver wound down his window. I could only see a driver and the cameraman sitting in the front passenger seat. But there could’ve been more in the back. "Good afternoon, soldiers,” the driver said. “Do you mind if we ask you few questions?" Franco was waving them back. "This is a restricted area. You can’t be here." "Where are you boys from? The states?" “Are you deaf?” Franco said. “This is a restricted area. You need to leave immediately.” The reporters didn’t understand the severity of the situation. They just kept asking questions. “What’s going on in Woomera? Rumor has it that people are being kept inside their own homes against their will. And why is the U.S. military involved?” “Look, we’ve been authorized to use deadly force in this area. You need to leave right now.” “Deadly force? What the hell for?” They weren’t taking the hint. Drake moved up to the van. “You guys ever heard of Guantanamo Bay? Camp X-ray? You know why they call it Camp X-ray? Coz no one knows what goes on there. You wanna get locked up? The military police are on their way here right now. And believe me, once they get here, they will lock you up. And all your expensive equipment, including that pretty looking satellite dish will become property of the United States Military. Please, gentlemen, get the hell out of there.” The reporters gave each other worried looks. I guess they were trying to figure out if Drake’s threat was serious or not. But in the end, they decided it wasn’t worth the risk. They apologized for the disturbance and drove off. I guess at that point we were distracted, scared of the possibility of shooting more innocent people, scared and sick that we were all thinking like that. And because we were distracted, we didn’t see it. The thing. It was infected. Another reason we didn’t see it; it was crawling on its belly. Maybe it got out with the others. I don’t know. But it managed to sneak up on us. It grabbed Franco by his leg and bit into his flesh. He jumped back, yelling in shock. At first I thought he’d been bitten by a snake. But then I looked down and saw it. Another old man. Well, half of an old man. He was missing his legs. His legs looked like they had been amputated some time ago. Maybe a war injury. Maybe diabetes. It was hard to tell because they were torn up and bleeding. He must’ve crawled all the way from town. His dressing gown was torn up. As was his belly and chest from crawling all this way over rock and gravel. Before we could react, before we could put a gun to his head and put him out of his misery, he had already grabbed Franco by the leg and bit into his calf muscle. And the old man did not let go. Franco fell back screaming. He was trying to shake it off. But the man had locked his jaw around Franco’s leg and he wasn’t letting go. Franco continued to scream and shout. “Get it off me!” Drake grabbed the thing by its hair and put his sidearm up to its temple. He blew its brains out all over the desert. Franco had gone into shock. He threw up. He was shaking and shivering. There was a huge bloody wound in his lower leg where the thing had bitten into him. I called it in. The containment crew chopper showed up five minutes later. A team of guys in yellow HAZMAT suits piled out. Two of them strapped Franco to a stretcher and got him into the chopper. The rest got to work securing the area. They located the three other bodies and threw them into a shallow ditch. They doused them in fuel and set them on fire. They watched them burn for a few minutes before they got back in the chopper. And just like that, they were gone. As Franco was airlifted away I watched the helicopter until it disappeared over the horizon. It was headed somewhere towards the military testing site. Complete opposite direction to the hospital. Maybe there was another hospital. Maybe they wanted to keep him separate from the public and the soldiers because he had been bitten. I don’t know. Everything happened so damn fast. We didn’t get a chance to ask where they were taking him. Way off in the distance, I could also see black smoke rising up into to sky. It looked like it was coming from the Unofficial Immigration Center. I looked to the east. There was nothing but miles and miles of flat, desolate land. For a fleeting moment I thought about running away, off into the desert. Walking away from all this madness. But then Drake said, "Come on. We still got a job to do. Stay frosty.” He patted me on the shoulder and went off to find a spot to watch for anyone else trying to escape the quarantine. He was putting on a brave face but I knew he was just as worried. Gordon It had been a long day. Franco’s injury and his immediate evacuation had left me shaken up. And I couldn’t get the image of those old people sprinting across the desert out of my head. A cold shiver ran down my spine whenever I thought about it. And just how the hell did they break out? How were they running barefoot through the desert? It didn’t make sense. I needed to talk this over with Gordon. I had to go and see him. I asked Drake if he wanted to come to the hospital but he said he was going to grab a shower and get some food because he was starving. I can’t blame him. We’d been out in the sun all day. We hadn’t had much to eat. Normally I’d be starving as well but after what had happened, I’d completely lost my appetite. I probably should’ve forced myself to have something. I should’ve at least showered. It had been such a long couple of days. But everything was a mess. And I needed to see Gordon. He was a level headed guy. I needed to hear him speak. I needed him to tell me it was going to be all right. I finally found him in an isolated wing of the small hospital of Woomera. It took me a while though because there were barely any nurses. Looked like they were understaffed. The nurse who did point me in the right direction was extremely stressed out. I walked into Gordon’s room. He was lying flat on his back with his eyes closed. His head was bandaged. It sort of looked like his face was drooping on the left side. His head had been shaved. A long line of stitches ran down the side of his scalp. There may have been more but I couldn’t see under the bandage. And for some weird reason, his hands and feet were bound to the rail guards of the hospital bed. Despite all that he seemed to be in good spirits. When he heard me enter the room he opened his eyes and smiled. "Got the afternoon off?" he asked. “Yeah. We’ve been out on patrol all over the place.” “Jeez. They’re working you to the bone. What’s the deal?” “I don’t know, man. It’s getting pretty crazy. We’ve been supervising the testing procedures for the town and the immigration centers.” “Centers?” “Yeah, there’s a secondary immigration center. It’s located out in the military testing zone. It’s pretty messed up. It’s basically a slum out in the middle of nowhere." “Oh wait. Yeah I heard about that,” Gordon said. “I had a roommate in here yesterday. He wouldn’t tell me his rank, but I’m guessing he was pretty high up because he seemed to know a lot of stuff. He probably should’ve kept his mouth shut but he was well and truly doped up on pain meds.” “What did he tell you?” “Apparently they’re on the verge of rioting at the immigration center.” “Which one?” “Both of them.” “I can’t say that surprises me.” “Why not? What the hell is going on out there? I’ve been hearing a lot of gunfire.” “They’ve been testing the town’s people. And the refugees.” “Testing?” “Yeah. For the virus. If anyone tests positive, they get taken away. No questions asked. No explanation.” “I guess people are starting to get pissed off.” “Yeah, I’d say so.” Gordon pushed button on a control panel that was attached to a drip. “What’s that?” “PCA.” “What?" “Pain killers. It’s morphine.” “Oh. So what the hell did they do to you? Was cutting your head open like that really necessary?” “Yeah. Apparently my head injury was worse than I thought. They had to cut me open to relieve the pressure. If my brain continued to swell, I would’ve died. Brain basically would’ve been pushed out the base of my skull.” “Damn. I didn’t know. I would’ve been here sooner. I…” “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. So what else has been going on out there?” I was going to tell him about the fire, the massacre at the unofficial immigration center. And about Franco and how he may very well be infected. And about the rabid old people who very nearly ran us down. But I held my tongue. I didn’t want to freak him out or upset him unnecessarily. He needed to focus on getting better. “Not much,” I lied. “Since you’ve been in hospital it’s been a whole lot less interesting.” “Yeah? Why am I not buying that?” “Look, you just concentrate on getting better. You don’t want to be in here forever. You’ll get hooked on that stuff.” Gordon closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. “Kenji, listen to me. You gotta be careful. I know it’s getting worse. I know. The guy in here yesterday, the one doped up on pain meds. He told me some stuff.” “What do you mean?” “If they can’t keep this thing under control they’re gonna order in air strikes.” “Air strikes? What are you saying?” “I’m saying, if the infection gets beyond their control, they’re going to level this town. They’re going to wipe it from the face of the planet. They’ll use nukes if they have to.” “You’re kidding.” “I wish I was. First they’ll use napalm. Anything that doesn’t get blown up will burn to the ground. In World War Two the allied forces fire bombed the major German cities in their counter strikes. They created firestorms that would last for days. Burn the cities down. Buildings, houses, bomb shelters. Everything. In Vietnam, they used napalm to burn the jungle down. Now they’ll use it here. They need to make sure the infected burn. They need to make sure the virus doesn’t get out. If they can’t stop it with fire. They’ll nuke the place. Vaporize every last one of them.” I was speechless. Dumbfounded. Imagining in my mind’s eye a huge crater in place of this town. “Nuke the town?” I asked. “They’ll never get away with it.” “The quarantine,” Gordon answered. “What?” “The quarantine. They’re about to enforce a nationwide quarantine. No one gets in. No one gets out. They’re shutting down the phone networks, internet, everything. They’re going to stop the flow of information to the outside world. Believe me; they’ll get away with it.” I was shaking my head. “Woomera is just the beginning,” Gordon continued. “They’ve tested nukes out there before, out in testing site. The damage from fallout will be minimal. They figure this is an easier option. Sacrifice a few to save the many.” “Is it that bad?” He nodded. “It’s a last resort but once they make the call, they won’t hesitate.” Gordon then closed his eyes again and took a few more deep breaths. “Damn, this morphine is stronger than I thought.” “Maybe you should just take it easy.” Gordon started to drift off to sleep. “You know wars, battles, fighting,” he mumbled. “You used to fight the enemy face to face. But it changes. Jungle warfare. Desert warfare. Urban warfare. It’s constantly changing. You prepare for the last war you fought and then the next battle comes along and the rules change. The enemy gets smarter. They evolve. But what if the enemy is within? What if the rules change so much, to a point… where...” He started to slur his speech. It was taking him considerable effort to talk. “Gordon, are you all right?” “This virus makes an enemy out of everyone. If it gets out of control there will be no stopping it. Command knows this. The people in charge, the people responsible know this. They are going to do everything in their power to stop it.” Gordon then passed out and I left the hospital even more worried than when I arrived. To Hell and back. I walked out of the hospital feeling like I’d been kicked in the guts. I went to Gordon for reassurance but instead I was even more on edge than I was before. Would they really order in airstrikes? Would they really nuke the place? There’s no way, right? And what the hell did he mean by ‘people in charge’? If the military weren’t in charge, then who the hell was? I got back to the barracks, looking forward to a hot shower and some hot food. But as soon as I’d finished writing in my journal Drake and I were pulled aside. Initially I thought we were going to be reprimanded for the incidents at the outer-perimeter. For our hesitation the day before, for almost disobeying a direct order. For Franco. But instead we had been chosen for another operation. A chopper had crashed in the middle of the unofficial immigration center. Right in the middle of the slum. The pilot and co-pilot had survived the crash. But they had suffered some serious injuries and they were possibly surrounded. “Surrounded by who?” I asked. “We can’t confirm but it’s possible, actually it’s more than likely there are infected people in that section,” the commanding officer said. “And the refugees are now starting to riot. They are getting hostile. We fear they may attempt to take the pilots as hostage and start making demands for their lives.” I shook my head. The refugees were getting desperate. Violent. I can’t say I blame them. People will only be oppressed for so long until they fight back. No matter what the situation is. Fortunately for us the riots had broken out on the opposite side of the slum to where the chopper had crashed. This gave us some time. But if the riots moved the pilots would be in big trouble. We needed to provide protection for the pilots until the medical chopper arrived. We would act as a deterrent in case anyone got too close or got any wild ideas. I can’t say that I was thrilled about the assignment. It would’ve been nice to have had more support. But that wasn’t possible. And we couldn’t pick them up in any land based vehicles because the area where they had crashed was inaccessible to cars. The laneways and walkways between the shanties were too narrow for a car, let alone a Humvee to pass through in that area. “Why can’t we move them to a suitable location, get them into an ambulance and get them out?” I asked. “No. We can’t move the co-pilot. He has a suspected spinal injury. You have to wait there for the medivac.” And that was it. We couldn’t get them out in a chopper at the moment and we couldn’t drive in there and get them out. We were it. The last hope. The only hope. We had to wait it out with them until the medical chopper was available. I couldn’t believe it. I initially thought we had sent way too many soldiers down here. But now we had no one left. We were stretched to capacity. I wondered what the hell was going on out in the 50,000 square miles of the military testing site. What the hell were they doing out there? Were there more immigration centers? Were there more towns under quarantine? I suddenly wanted reinforcements. We were driven into the slum as far as we could go, until the laneways became too narrow for the Humvee to drive through. It took us about ten minutes to reach this point. Again, the size of the shanty town took my breath away. It was an endless sprawl of shacks, and makeshift huts. In the far north-west corner of the slum we could see black smoke rising into the sky. That was where the riots had broken out. The Humvee pulled up in one of the wider laneways. “Last stop,” the driver said. “Good luck.” We would have to walk the rest of the way. Amazingly, there didn’t seem to be many people in this area. Maybe they were all over at the riots. Maybe they were all hiding indoors. Too scared to come out. We were a few ‘streets’ away from where the chopper had gone down. The driver of the Humvee performed an awkward U-turn and sped away. We were on our own now until the medical chopper arrived. Hopefully that wouldn’t be too long. We set off at a jog and made our way as quickly as possible through the slum. Drake pointed down a small side street. “Should be down here.” We moved down the side street, carefully checking around each corner and through each flimsy doorway. No people. No one at all. We came out into another main street. I guess it was more of a walkway really. The chopper was a mangled wreck. It was lying on its side, the rotor blades crumpled up. It had crushed a few of the shacks in the area as well. We found the pilots inside. The head pilot had a compound fracture in his leg. The co-pilot was lying on his back in the cabin area. He was unconscious. There was another person as well. A refugee. He was lying across the front windshield of the cockpit. He had a giant hole in his chest. And his head. “Thank God you guys made it,” the pilot said. “He’s in bad shape,” he said motioning with his head towards the co-pilot. “What the hell happened here?” Drake asked. “Engine failure. We came down hard. Luckily the area seems to be deserted. Otherwise this could’ve been a lot worse.” “Who the hell is that?” I asked referring to the guy sprawled across the cockpit windshield. “Don’t know. He tried to attack us. He charged us. He was screaming. Tried to break through the windshield. I had to take him out.” The guy’s face was frozen in a look of pain and anguish. His mouth was open, like he was killed mid-scream. His teeth were exposed. There was a bullet hole in his chest and another one just above his right eyebrow. It was so small you could barely see the entry point. The exit wound on the other hand was a different matter entirely. It was the size of a man’s fist. Must’ve been shot with a hollow point, I thought. “You better check him out first,” the pilot said. “He’s been out for a while now. And I’d love some pain killers. My leg is killing me. Wait, where is your equipment? Where’s the medivac? Which one of you...” “We’re not doctors,” Drake said, cutting him off. “What?” “We’re not doctors.” “But they said the medivac was on its way.” “Well yeah, technically the medivac is on its way. But they’re tied up at the moment. We’re here to provide support until they show up.” “Fantastic,” the pilot said through clenched teeth. He put his hands over his head and took several deep breaths, closing his eyes. The bone sticking out of his leg was covered in blood. He must’ve been in an extreme amount of pain. I felt bad that we didn’t think to bring any morphine with us. “Look, they’ll be here within a few minutes,” Drake said. “We’ll be out in no time.” “I hope for his sake you’re right,” the pilot said. “I’m not sure how badly he is busted up. He’s been out cold for a while now. I haven’t been able to check up on him. I can’t put any pressure on my leg.” Drake moved over to the co-pilot and checked his pulse. “Strong heartbeat. Nice and steady.” “So why did they send you guys anyways?” the pilot asked. “Just as a precaution. Make sure none of the people here tried to hurt you or take you hostage or anything. We’re pretty lucky that this area seems to be empty at the moment.” “Yeah. When we did our fly over it looked like there was town meeting on the other side of the slum.” “Town meeting?” “Yeah, that’s what it looked like from the air. Of course, that’s not what it was. It was the riots.” “The refugees are angry,” I said. “They’re fed up. Everything that’s going on. The virus. The testing. It’s pushed them over the edge.” “Yeah, that’s an understatement,” the pilot agreed. “Hey, can you check up there?” he said pointing to an overhead storage compartment. “There might be a first aid kit in there. Might have some pain killers.” Drake retrieved the first aid kit from the storage container. He opened it up and found some morphine. Drake prepared a shot and injected it into the arm of the pilot. A few minutes later he was asleep. “What now?” I asked. “We need to get to a vantage point,” Drake answered. “So we can see what’s going on. We need to be able to see people coming from a distance. It’s no good being down here on the ground floor. We can’t see a damn thing.” The chopper had crashed into a heavy duty shipping container. The massive container had been converted into a home. By the looks of it, I’m guessing more than one family lived in it. “Up there.” Drake said. “We’ll have a good view of the surrounding area.” We positioned ourselves on top of the container. From our vantage point we could see the entire slum. At the very far end we could see a few wisps of black smoke floating up into the air. The riots. Thankfully they were still a fair way off. At least a few miles. Drake and I settled in. He was up one end and I was down the other. We got into position and prepared ourselves to play the waiting game. Before we left base, they stressed to us that it was important we monitor this section and the surrounding lane ways with the utmost vigilance. We had to hold this position. If at any point we became overrun, we were to radio for back up, immediately. So once again we played the waiting game. Drake called up command a couple of times to see what the ETA was on the evac. But the medical chopper was still out at an isolated area of the military testing site. We had to wait it out. And wait. And wait some more. The sun set and the stars came out. The night sky was stunning. Out here, where there are barely any lights, and no electricity, the stars look amazing. Endless. You can actually see the spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. I’ve seen so many shooting stars streaking across the night sky, I’ve lost count. Drake has climbed down and checked on the pilots a couple of times. Apparently they’re in bad shape. The Pilot is shivering. He had gone into shock. Can’t blame him. He had freakin bone sticking out of his leg. I feel sick just thinking about it. The co-pilot was still unconscious. Luckily it’s been ridiculously quiet for the whole afternoon. And so far into the night. I mean, it’s quiet enough so I can write all this down. So yeah it’s quiet. Drake tells me I look like shit. Tells me to get some rest. I begin to argue but he tells me he knows that I haven’t been sleeping. He tells me to get a few hours. He’s got a bad feeling we’re going to be here all night. He said he’ll wake me if he needs me. Again, I begin to protest. But he’s right. If I don’t get some sleep soon, I’m going to crash and burn. So I’m going to sleep on top of a shipping container, in a shanty town in the middle of the Australian outback. Never thought I’d write those words. Never thought I’d get to sleep in the desert, watching the stars go by. Watching the galaxy go by. Left behind. I woke to gun fire. That’s the first thing I remember. I was still half-asleep when I heard the shots. My brain didn’t understand what was going on. I was totally confused. I had no idea where I was. The fact that it was still dark didn’t help matters either. There was no moon. Not even any stars. Hidden by cloud cover I assumed. It’s weird. Now that I look back on it, everything seems like a dream. I tried to sit up. My back twinged in pain due to sleeping on the hard metal surface of the shipping container. I must’ve been out for a couple hours at least. Unfortunately I didn’t feel very rested. More gunshots. Closer this time. Drake was on the far side of the shipping container. He had his night vision goggles on. Checking the chopper, checking the surrounding area. He was on the radio to Command asking if any soldiers or friendlies were in our section. I assumed the answer was no, because the next words out of Drakes mouth were, “Then who the hell is shooting at us?” The gunshots were sporadic. Out of control. Whoever was shooting wasn’t shooting at us. How would they even know we were here? But just then a barrage of bullets smashed into the side of the shipping container. The noise scared the hell out of me. The night had been so quiet and peaceful when I’d fallen asleep. Now it was alive with gunfire and something else. Other noises filled the darkness. I could hear people shouting. Screaming. Howling. My mind flashed back to the horse carcass we found at the entry to the opal mine. The wild dogs. It had to have been wild dogs, right? Then from the far side of the shanty town, we could see flames. Another fire had broken out. Was this one controlled? Was this one deliberately lit like the other night? Or had the refugees done this? It seemed doubtful that they would set their own homes on fire. I finally spoke, fumbling for my night vision goggles as I did. “Drake, what the hell is going on?” “Not sure. We’ve got gunshots coming from all around. Command says nobody is in this area. Command says they’ve pulled out completely.” “Pulled out? What about the riots? Who’s going to control these people? What about the quarantine?” I could see the flashes of gun fire around the narrow streets of the shanty town. I put my night vision goggles on and everything turned a luminous green color. Not much help though. The slum was a labyrinth. I could see the flashes of gunfire but the shooters were still hidden behind the actual shanties. One thing was clear. Whoever was shooting, they weren’t shooting at us. It was too random. “Are the pilots all right?” I asked. “Yeah.” Drake answered. “But they won’t be for long.” “Why isn’t the medivac here yet?” “I don’t know.” Just then another barrage of bullets smashed into the container and we dived, flattening ourselves on the opposite side. “We’re going to take a stray bullet if we don’t get out of here,” I said. Drake was back on the radio, trying to find out what was going on. But there was no response. We were on our own. “Why the hell aren’t they responding?” Another barrage of bullets smashed in the container and the chopper below. We had to get out of here. We had to make a move. When the gunfire stopped I peered over the edge of the container to see if I could locate the shooter. I don’t know what I expected to see. Maybe a soldier left behind. Scared and unsure of himself. But it wasn’t a soldier shooting at us. It was a refugee. Amazingly I recognized the man. He was the guy who had kicked me in the shin the other day. He looked scared. In his hands was an M4 rifle. I have no idea how he came to be in possession of a marine’s weapon. He was firing in all directions. He kept looking left and right. This man was terrified. He then lowered the rifle and slung it over his shoulder. He reached inside one of the huts and grabbed his daughter. He carried her in both arms. Her head was tilted back, blood stained her open mouth and her eyes were closed. The man ducked down one of the narrow laneways and vanished. Drake continued to use the radio. Calling for help, calling for an extraction over and over again. But there was no reply. We slowly came to the realization that we’d been left behind. Suddenly I remembered Gordon’s warning from earlier. If they couldn’t contain the virus they would blow this place sky high, wipe it from the face of the planet. “Come on, we gotta check on the pilots,” Drake said. We jumped down from the roof of the storage container and checked on the pilots. They were both out cold. “What do we do?” I asked. “We gotta move them. We’ll have to carry them out.” “But if this guy’s got a busted spine we could do some serious damage if we try and move him.” “We have no choice. No one is answering our call.” Drake was about to try calling for an evac again but the pilot regained consciousness. He grabbed Drake by the hand. “There’s a reason they’re not responding on the radio,” the pilot said. “They’re going to call in an air strike any minute now.” “No. No way,” Drake said. “They wouldn’t do that.” “Yeah they would,” the pilot answered. “This place is crawling with infected refugees. It’s out of control. The only way to make sure it doesn’t spread any further is to blow this place up and burn it to the ground. They need to destroy it.” “No! These are innocent people!” I shouted. “It doesn’t matter,” the pilot said calmly. ‘Think about it. This place is listed as unofficial. No one knows it even exists, no one knows these people exist. If they get rid of this place no one will know. No one will ask questions.” “So they’re just abandoning these people?” I asked. “Open your eyes, Kenji,” Drake said. “These people are screwed. It’s over. We’ve lost control.” “What about the riots? What about the soldiers operating in the slum?” “Forget about them,” the pilot said. “What?” “They’re not riots,” he explained. “The refugees are sick. They’re infected. They’re all going crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not in Baghdad, not in Mogadishu. This is a nightmare.” "So if they’re not rioting then what the hell are they doing?” I asked. “What’s going on?" “Did you even read the report? Weren’t you paying attention during the briefing session? The infected refugees are attacking us. They are attacking anyone who is not infected. If any of them make it here, we’re in big trouble. You think you can hold off a couple thousand infected psychopaths?” I think back to yesterday. We could barely handle three infected elderly people. “We inserted a squad on the other side of the slum,” the pilot continued. “They joined up with a few other squads. It’s basically a distraction.” “A distraction?” Drake asked. “What do you mean?” “I mean those poor bastards are gonna be left behind. They are keeping the infected refugees distracted and occupied while the rest of our forces pull out and get ready for the air strike.” “What? We have to warn them!” I said. “We have to get them out of here!” “Have you lost your mind? They’re dug in. There is no getting them out. You even try and you’ll be surrounded by the infected. You won’t survive it.” “Do they know?” “Know what?” “Do they know there being left behind!?” “No. They have no idea. Their orders are to hold the fort. Shoot to kill. They are geared up with enough ammo to last them a month. They have no idea that their lives, this whole place will be reduced to dust tonight.” I was sick to my stomach. I wanted to throw up. Just then the pilot started to lose consciousness. He started shaking and shivering. He was going back into shock. He started whispering something over and over. “What’s he saying?” I asked Drake. “Shh.” We held our breath and listened. “Midnight,” the pilot said. “At midnight.” He kept whispering, repeating the same thing over and over. Midnight. Drake gently shook him by the shoulders. “What are you trying to say?” The pilot swallowed some excess saliva. He seemed to regain his focus and composure momentarily. “We were sent into to provide an assessment,” he whispered. “To determine whether or not an air strike was necessary.” “You had the final say?” I asked. “I doubt our say was final. But we gave our assessment. We acknowledged and confirmed the pockets of resistance, the areas of infection. We informed Command that the infection was spreading. We recommended the air strike.” It was slowly dawning on me. We were in deep. So very deep. Drake and I had been sent in here to protect these pilots but now we had been left behind. It was supposed to be a simple assignment. It was a suicide mission. “So what happens next?” Drake asked. The pilot closed his eyes, wincing in considerable pain. But Drake wouldn’t let up. “How long, Goddamn it!?” he shouted. “How long before the air strike?" “The air strike,” the pilot whispered. “It’s scheduled for midnight tonight.” I checked my watch. My heart sank. Twenty minutes. “Jesus Christ.” Drake said. “They’re gonna bomb this place. They gonna flatten it. We have to go.” Drake was right. Gordon was right. The pilot had confirmed it. They were calling in an air strike. They were going to destroy this place. I checked my watch again. We had twenty minutes. They were going to bomb this place. Level it. Wipe it from the face of the planet. And we had been left behind. Written off as collateral damage. A sacrifice. We had twenty minutes to get ourselves and the pilots the hell out of that God forsaken slum. Exit Strategy. For about a nano-second I freaked out. I did not want to die in an air strike. But once I reasoned with myself and came to the conclusion that I could either curl up into a little ball and wait for the inevitable or at least try and make a run for it, I was unnaturally calm. We decided to carry the pilots out. To hell with their injuries. If we didn’t get them out they were going to die anyway. Drake kicked out the front wall of the nearest hut. It was made of ply wood. Using the wood we made a makeshift stretcher. We basically piled up the pilot and the co-pilot on top of each other. It wasn’t safe or supportive but it was the best we could do. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes. Drake and I slowly picked up the stretcher, taking care to keep the piece of wood flat and even so the pilots didn’t fall off. Once we had a good grip on each end of the make-shift stretcher we began running as fast as we could. Unfortunately, our top speed wasn’t very fast. It was slow going. And the twisting, narrow lanes of the slum weren’t making it any easier. To make matters worse, every couple of minutes we would hear some gunshots close by. We were forced to put the stretcher down and take up defensive positions in case we needed to return fire. And the further we moved through the slum, the thicker the smoke from the fires became. I started to cough and choke. It was hard to breathe, hard to see through watering eyes. We finally made it back to the wider laneways, the area where we had been dropped off earlier that afternoon. We scanned the street up and down. Amazingly at the very far end of the laneway was a vehicle. I couldn’t tell what it was because it had its head lights on. But it had to be one of ours, I thought. Who the hell else would it be? We gingerly set the pilots down on the ground. Drake flashed the torch on his rifle on and then off. He repeated this multiple times. The vehicle then flashed its high beams at us and began driving slowly down the laneway in our direction. It was a Humvee. I checked my watch. We had ten minutes until midnight, ten minutes until the bombs started dropping. I had no idea what these guys were still doing here at this late stage. Maybe they were hanging back for us? Maybe they were waiting until the last possible second to clear out? Whatever the reason, we owe them our lives. We picked up the stretcher once more and picked up the pace. The sporadic gunfire continued to erupt and echo throughout the dark slum. Somehow we had managed to avoid whoever was doing the shooting so far. I guess it was just sheer luck. If we had turned down a different laneway who knows what might’ve happened? We were really in no position to get into a fire fight. The Humvee finally made it to us. It was a medical Humvee. The driver and the medic confirmed they had been waiting for us. But they had no idea where we were and had no way to reach us because the massive vehicle wouldn’t fit through the narrow laneways. And all radio frequencies were jammed up. They were just about to leave before they saw us. It was a stroke of good luck. But there was no time to celebrate. We lifted the co-pilot and the pilot into the back of the Humvee, making sure they were secure. Off in the distance we could hear howling and screaming. The strange noises were getting closer. More gunfire erupted, coming from all around us. I was the last to climb into the rear of the Humvee. I was just about to close the door when I heard fast, running footsteps, like someone was sprinting towards us. I turned around and saw a small child charging at us. I tried to shut the back door but the kid jammed his body into the doorway. Drake reached over from behind me to help shut it. The doctor was yelling at us. “Close it! The child is infected! Close it!” And all of a sudden I’m reminded of that small child from that isolated village in the Hindu Kush mountain range we tried to help. Drake kicked the boy in the chest, trying to push him back. But the kid didn’t budge. He was snapping his teeth furiously, chipping and cracking them in the process. Outside someone started shooting as us. Bullets smashed into the armored doors of the Humvee. The boy had been shot. Drake managed to finally kick him back and we were able to slam the door shut. Drake fell back into the cabin of the medivac. His leg was covered in blood. He had been shot and bitten. He was in bad shape. “Drake, are you all right?” He was swearing and looking at his leg, like he was afraid of it, like he was trying to back up away from it. He kept swearing. He kept saying no. Over and over. No. God. No. “Drake, snap out of it. We made it. You’re gonna be all right. We’re going to the hospital right now. You and the pilots. You’re all going to be fine.” The doctor was working frantically on the co-pilot, strapping him in, making sure he was secure so he wouldn’t fall out of his stretcher. The doctor’s hands were shaking. “Are you all right, man?” I asked “We got less than five minutes,” he answered. “If we’re not out of here we’re going up in flames.” I looked at my watch as I coughed uncontrollably. I couldn’t really focus my eyes. I must’ve inhaled way more smoke than I thought. Less than five minutes. The doctor told me to sit back and strap in. He slipped an oxygen mask over my mouth. He said that I’d inhaled a dangerous amount of smoke. And judging by the materials in this slum, it was probably toxic. So I needed as much clean oxygen in my lungs as possible. “Just breathe,” he said. “In and out.” Inhale. Exhale. As soon as he said this I started to feel weird. The fumes had gone to my head. I was still coughing. Outside the Humvee I could hear screaming and howling. Like a wolf. The doctor then jabbed a needle into Drake’s leg. He inspected the bullet wound and bandaged it up. He told him to sit back as he pulled an oxygen mask over his head. He told me to hold on. Keep an eye on the guys. It was going to be a bumpy ride. The doctor jumped up front to the passenger seat and strapped in. He yelled at the driver to go faster. “Step on it!” The Humvee picked up speed. Drake was staring at his leg. “Kenji. You gotta help me." I knew what he meant. But I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “I’m bitten,” he said “I’m infected.” “We don’t know that,” I said, desperately trying to fight the obvious. “Yeah we do. You get bitten, you get infected. Simple as that. Please, Kenji.” “Maybe not. Maybe you’re fine. We need to get you to the hospital.” “Look at me!” Flak jackets. Armor. Gloves. This is why we were ordered to wear them. “Please, Kenji. I don’t want to turn into one of those things.” He begged me. Pleaded with me. But I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t even look at him. I couldn’t. I unstrapped myself from my seat and fumbled around in one of the medical kits. I gave him another shot of morphine. Drake is usually terrified of needles. Terrified to the point where he passes out whenever he’s about to get a shot or a vaccination injection. But at that point in time, he didn’t notice the needle. He didn’t even flinch when it punctured his skin. His breathing began to slow. I told him it was going to be all right even though I knew that it was not. I told him I was sorry. Sorry for everything. I told him that it was an honor to have served with him. I readjusted the oxygen mask on his face, making sure it was nice and secure. As the morphine and the oxygen warmed and calmed him down he began to slip into what I knew would be a dreamless sleep. I checked my watch again. We had three minutes. We were in bad shape. Drake had lost a lot of blood. I had inhaled a lot of smoke. The Humvee continued to pick up speed as we raced the clock. Somewhere off in the night sky were the approaching jets. F16 falcons. Or maybe A10 warthogs. They were on their way. They would not wait for us. High Speed. It gets a little hazy here. But this is what I remember. It’s starting to come back to me – little bits and pieces. I was feeling weird and dizzy. At first I thought I must’ve inhaled a large amount of smoke. And the smoke must’ve been way more toxic than I initially thought. But the real reason I was feeling so damn weird? The doctor had hooked me up to a bottle of nitrous oxide in his haste, instead of oxygen. I was tripping out. It was surreal, like I was having an out of body experience. I wasn’t even scared of being blown up at that point. I was more concerned with Drake. He was hurt. He was in bad shape. I remembered I’d given him some morphine. And I’m pretty sure the doctor had given him some morphine as well. So he was well and truly out of it. Imagine my surprise when he started talking to me. I remember the Humvee ride was a bumpy one but I didn’t seem to care. The speed we were travelling at was definitely not safe for the narrow laneways but again, I didn’t seem to care. I focused on my breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Just like the doctor said. I looked over at Drake and the other men. The pilots. And I wondered if they were going to die. I wondered whether or not there should be someone in here besides me just in case these critically injured soldiers decide to flat line or something. Would I be able to resuscitate them if I needed to? “I don’t think they’re too worried about us dying.” Drake said. “Huh? What?” “I said, I don’t think they’re too worried about us dying. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they’re even taking us to the hospital.” I looked over at Drake again. My vision was blurry. I couldn’t see him clearly. But it looked like his leg was bleeding heavily from the bullet wound and the bite wound. “I…I thought you were asleep. We pumped you full of morphine.” “Yeah, I am asleep. You’re having a psychotic episode, genius. You’re hallucinating.” “What?” “And I don’t think that’s oxygen you’re sucking on.” I followed the tube from my face mask to the blue bottle it was connected to. On the little pressure gauge on top of the bottle it read: NO2 - Nitrous oxide. AKA - happy gas. I took another deep breath. In and out. Just like the doctor said. I should’ve been scared. I should’ve been terrified that we were about to be blown up and vaporized. But I wasn’t scared at all. I was as high as a kite in a hurricane. I should’ve taken the mask off. But then Drake spoke again. “Leave it on. You might as well enjoy these last few minutes of your life.” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” “You really think we’re going to get out of here alive? You think we can outrun those jets screaming their way towards us faster than the speed of sound? You do realize that it took us ten minutes to drive from the entrance of the slum to where they dropped us off. I’m no mathematical genius but even if we’re driving at sixty miles per hour right now we’re still not gonna make it.” “Shut up Drake. We’ll make it.” I felt like I was trying to convince myself more than anyone. “And just what the hell did you mean by they’re not taking us to the hospital?” “Open your eyes, Kenji. It’s over. We’ve lost control. The virus is spreading faster than they can contain it. Do you really think they’re going to take us all in and patch us all up? I’ve been bitten. I’m infected. Do you think the medic hasn’t radioed ahead and informed them of our situation? If we get out of here, and trust me, that’s a big ‘if’, they’re not going to risk taking us into the hospital, they’re not going to risk another outbreak over me, a lowly grunt. I’m as good as dead. You shoulda saved me the trouble when you had the chance.” “You’re wrong. They’ll take us in. They’ll get us fixed. We don’t even know that you’re infected.” “Doesn’t matter if I’m not infected. Easier to get rid of me. Safer. Sacrifice the few to save the many.” Gordon’s words coming out of Drake’s mouth. Would they really kill us? “Yeah they would. They got bigger problems to worry about now.” “Bigger? Like what?” “Like making sure no one finds out about this unholy mess. Like making sure this virus doesn’t spread out of the desert to any of the cities. The only way to make sure that happens is to blow this place up. And what do you think they are hiding out in the Woomera military testing site? Whatever it is, I bet they’ll do anything to stop it from getting out. This air strike is just the beginning. You think a couple of soldiers are going to change their mind? Hell, you think a few thousand refugees are going to change their minds?” Damn it, Drake. He had it all figured out. Maybe being on death’s door made it easier for him to see the grim reality of it. Maybe I knew it all along as well. Maybe I was just too scared to admit it, to say it out loud. The other day when Franco was bitten, I looked to the east and thought of running away. Maybe I still could. Maybe. If I got out of this slum alive, if we survived the air strike I could get out of here. I could warn Rebecca before it’s too late. “Yeah that’s a great plan. Again, not that you’re going to get out of this slum alive, but let’s just say hypothetically you do make it out of here. Where are you going to go? How are you going to survive? You’ll end up infected. Just like me. Just like these poor refugees. Oh, you think you’ll run away? Run all the way to Sydney and warn Rebecca? How are you going to do that? How are you going to make it that far? Have you thought this through at all? And what is she going say to you when you get there? You think she’s going to welcome you in with open arms and give you a big hug? You’re a goner. You should never have joined the marines. You’re not a warrior. You never will be. You’re a coward. A lying coward. Not that it matters anymore what you are. Because in a couple of minutes you’re a dead man. Just like me. Just like the rest of us.” “Shut up, Drake.” At that moment the Humvee ran over a pothole or a ditch or maybe even a crowd of people and my ass momentarily left the seat. Maybe it was the first missiles of the air strike. I don’t know what it was. But the ride was a bumpy one. The speed the Humvee was travelling at was not safe for the narrow laneways. The Humvee swerved and I was thrown back in my seat. The tires screeched and the brakes locked up. The Humvee spun out of control and I lost all sense of direction. Left or right, up or down. I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t know where I was. The only thing I knew for certain was that Drake was shot, bitten, bleeding. He was dying right in front of me but he was one hundred percent right about everything. January 27th – Escape. I woke up in a hospital bed. I was alone. There were five other beds in the room but they were all empty. The white sheets were all covered in blood. No sign of Drake. No sign of the pilots. The one and only window of the room was open slightly. It was dawn. The first rays of sunshine were just appearing over the horizon. I wondered where they were keeping Drake. I went to get out of my bed but then I noticed both my right leg and my right arm were bound to the rail guard with Velcro straps. My left leg and wrist were not tied down. I untied myself quickly and jumped out of bed. My head was throbbing and I was dizzy. I slowly made my way out into the corridor, using the walls for support. I expected the hospital to be full. I was expecting to see nurses and doctors and patients everywhere. But there was no one. The hospital was deserted. I checked a few other rooms and saw the same thing each time. Empty beds. Blood stained sheets. But the last room I checked was different. The last room still had bodies in the beds. Civilians. They were all dead. Bullet holes in their heads. The room stank of death. I felt dizzy again. I doubled over and threw up. I fell to my knees and crawled out of the room. At the far end of the corridor was a team of guys in bright yellow HAZMAT suits. They were coming this way. They were armed. It dawned on me then that these guys weren’t regular soldiers. They weren’t U.S. Marines or Rangers or Special Forces. And there’s no way they were part of the Australian Army. There was something about them. Their weapons were different. Their radios were different. Even their HAZMAT suits were slightly different. They looked more advanced, less bulky, more mobile. It was clear to me then. These guys were powerful. And deadly. And they were doing the dirty work of whoever was in charge of this mess. I had no idea who that might be, still have no idea. But I sure as hell wasn’t hanging around to find out. I stayed low and crawled around the corner of the hallway. Once I was out of sight, I bolted. I did not look back. I made it to the main entrance of the hospital. To my surprise the news van we had seen the other day was parked directly out front. The hood of the van had been smashed in like it had been in a pretty serious accident. The satellite dish on top of the roof had been shot to pieces. All the tires had been shot out. Bullets holes streaked down the side of the van. I heard gunshots coming from back inside the hospital. The noise scared the hell out of me, sent a cold shiver down my spine, forced me to keep running. I’ve been running for days now. I had to get out of there while I still could. We had lost control. The immigration centers, the town. Everything. The people in the towns weren’t so much under quarantine as they were prisoners. Prisoners on death row. I have no doubt that Command were about to order a nuclear strike. As Gordon said, sacrifice the few to save the many. It doesn’t matter if those people are innocent. Doesn’t matter if they’re healthy. Command weren’t prepared to take that risk. And it makes me sick to my stomach. Their top priority is to contain the virus by any means necessary. Nuclear strikes included. And I wanted nothing to do with it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. No way. So I’m leaving. I’m running away. Again. Yeah I know. I must be crazy. I could get court marshaled for this. They could lock me up and throw away the key. Damn. I’ve got to stop running away. But I’ve got no other option. This virus is out of control. And if spreads. If it gets out... I need to warn Rebecca. I can’t stop thinking about her. What’s that saying? ‘Fortune favors the bold’ or something? Well, I hope fortune favors the crazy. Because what I am doing right now is downright insane. There’s every chance that I’ll be caught. There’s every chance they’ll shoot me dead and bury me out in the desert. The virus was spreading faster than they could contain it. How long before it reaches the next town over? Or the next city? Will the Apache gunships get all of the infected? Will the containment crews be able to chase them all down? I don’t think so. The Australian outback is huge. There’s no way. And that thought terrifies me. So I’ve got to warn Rebecca. She’s here somewhere. My parents said she had moved to Sydney. That was over a year ago. I have no idea if she’s still there. I don’t even know her address. But this is my decision. To hell with the consequences. I’m on the run. I’m alone. I’m hungry. I’m dehydrated and scared. But I have to try. I have to warn her. Rebecca, I am coming for you. OUT NOW The Secret Apocalypse Book 1 in the series EXTINCTION LEVEL Book 2 in The Secret Apocalypse series Where The Dead Men Lie Book 3 in The Secret Apocalypse series Torn Apart Book 4 in The Secret Apocalypse series Salvation Book 5 in The Secret Apocalypse series A World on Fire Book 6 in The Secret Apocalypse series Land of Dust and Bones Book 7 in The Secret Apocalypse series The Lost Journal Part 2 Coming Soon Secret Apocalypse book 8 Also by J. L. / James Harden Wasteland Wonderland Ninja Vs Samurai For more info visit jamesharden.blogspot.au Or Tweet me @james.harden07 or whatever. Or email me at james.harden07@gmail.com I don’t have Instagram yet. But maybe soon? Why not, right? Could be nice. The following is an excerpt from THE SECRET APOCALYPSE (Book 1 in the series.) Los Angeles February 23rd Sixteen year old Rebecca Robinson is the sole survivor of the Australian Apocalypse. The death toll is at an estimated 22 million. The entire world wants to know what happened down there and since the military aren’t talking, everyone is looking to Rebecca for answers. Sydney, Australia 3 Weeks Earlier A deadly new virus is spreading through an immigration detention center in the outback. It is 100% lethal. There is no cure. As a precaution the Australian Government has ordered a nationwide quarantine. No one is allowed to leave the country. No one is allowed to enter. School across the country has been canceled. Despite these warning signs Rebecca and her friends are in the mood to celebrate their extended summer vacation, blissfully unaware of the dangers that are coming their way. Over the next few days, things go from bad to worse as the virus begins to spread throughout Australia, killing anyone infected and turning them into ferocious undead monsters. Worse, the military have been ordered to contain the spread of infection and to cover up all trace of the outbreak by any means necessary. Mass panic and hysteria grip the population as the plague reaches the outskirts of Sydney. Rebecca and her friends realize that it’s no longer safe to simply go home and lock the door. They need to make a run for it. They need to escape from Australia. The Beginning of The End I’m sitting in the penthouse suite of a hotel in Los Angeles with a TV camera pointed at my face. Sitting next to me is a journalist from a well known news program, although I can’t remember which news program they said. Was it Fox News or something on CNN? Maybe it was 60 minutes? For the life of me I can’t remember. After everything I’ve been through, little details like which global TV network I’m appearing on are starting to slip my mind. The journalist also has a camera pointed at his face but I don’t think the cameras are on yet. At least I hope they’re not on yet. I look like crap. The makeup department is going to have their work cut out for them when they get here. I’ve just been through hell and as a result I look like hell. What’s that saying again? A face for radio? The room is full of people working frantically to get everything ready in time. There’s the camera man and a sound guy. There’s a guy holding up a big white reflective thing and an important looking woman who could be a producer or something of that nature. The important looking woman walks over to me with a clipboard in hand and asks me if I’m feeling all right. “Are you feeling all right?” She checks her clipboard. “Have you taken your medication?” I haven’t been able to sleep since I made it back. They gave me some pills to help with the insomnia but they’re not working. I don’t want to tell her this. So I nod my head and smile. The producer kneels down in front of me. “Rebecca, we did a brief background check on you and we just need you to verify some of our facts.” I nod my head again. They need to put a human face to all of this and at the moment I’m the only human face they’ve got. She runs a French manicured finger nail down the clip board and asks me a whole bunch of boring stuff like how I grew up in Brooklyn and then moved to Sydney. How I’m only sixteen years old and how I don’t even have a driver’s license yet. “Is that even important?” I ask about the driver’s license. “We can use it to highlight how young you are.” “Oh.” Then she asks about the stuff I don’t want people to know about. She asks me about my father. “OK, according to this, your father was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan when you were thirteen?” “No.” “No?” “They never confirmed he had been killed,” I say. “They never found his body.” “I’m sorry. It’s just that our records indicate...” “He’s MIA.” She makes a note on her clipboard. “Missing in action. Got it. I’m sorry, to push these issues, Rebecca. But we need to be sure of everything. If at any stage you feel uncomfortable during the interview we can stop and take a break. The interview will be a delayed telecast of about thirty minutes so we’ve got plenty of time.” “You’re not going to ask me about all of that are you?” “No. Not all of it. We just need to use some of that background information to introduce you to the public. Once they know your story, they’ll have a better understanding of everything that’s going on. You have a big responsibility. You’re the only survivor. People have a right to know what happened down there. And since the military aren’t talking, we’re all counting on you.” It’s weird how they keep saying I’m the only survivor, like the others are already dead. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around just how many people died. I think I’m still in denial. The producer introduces me to the journalist. “Rebecca, this is Steve Munroe. He’s one of our most senior reporters here.” His face looks familiar but I was never really one for watching hardcore news programs. He extends his hand to shake mine. “Hi, Rebecca. I just want to say I admire your courage and determination. You’re a brave girl for doing this.” I shake his hand. The producer’s phone rings and she walks away to answer it. “Now Rebecca,” says Steve, the journalist. “Before we start recording, I just want to run you through some of the questions I’ll be asking you.” “OK.” “If there’s anything you don’t want to talk about you just let me know.” “Will do.” He tells me people will want to know four things. “So basically, with a big story like this, people always want to know four things. They want to know the who, the what, the why and the how.” I nod my head. “The who is easy. That’s you. You are the sole survivor. People will want to know all about you. They’ll want to know what makes you special, what makes you tick. Once people know who you are, they’ll want to know what happened down there and why it happened. But they won’t want to hear it from just anyone; they’ll want to hear it from you, straight from your mouth, straight from the source.” I wonder if anyone will even believe me when I tell them what is happening down there. “But a big part of this interview will deal with the how of it. How did you do it? How did you survive when so many people didn’t make it? When so many people died?” That’s a good question. I’ve been trying to figure this one out ever since I made it back. But I can’t. All I can think about are the people who matter most to me. Forget about the millions of other people. I know it sounds selfish but that’s the way it is. I can’t stop thinking about my mother. I can’t stop thinking about my friends. Maria and Kenji. Jack and Kim. We survived so much. We survived together. Yet somehow I’m the only one who made it out. Somehow, I’m the only one giving this interview. “I mean, the entire Australian population is gone,” says Steve. “Over twenty million people wiped out in a matter of weeks. People will want to know, people will need to know how you escaped, how you stayed alive.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And the more I think about it, the more I realize my friends were the reason I survived. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t be here. No freakin way. The producer walks back over to us as she hangs up her phone. “Rebecca sweetie, just answer the questions like no one else is in the room, OK? Take all the time you need. I understand if everything might be a little hazy.” I tell her I’ll try real hard to remember even though everything is crystal clear, ultra real, like I’m watching my memories on a high definition, flat screen television. The producer looks at her watch. “We haven’t got long. We’re going live in one hour. Steve, can I talk to you in private for a second?” “Live?” I ask. “Yeah. There’s been a slight change of plan.” The two of them exchange a look and I get the feeling that something is wrong. “Please excuse me for just one minute,” says the journalist. “Oh, and while I’m gone try and think about the turning point for you. The moment when you realized something bad was about to happen.” They both walk off to the master bedroom. They start talking. The producer then turns around and closes the door behind her. Great. This is going to be worse than I thought. I’m starting to regret my decision to give this interview. I know people have a right to hear the truth but do they really need to hear it from me? I was never a good public speaker, never good at verbalizing what I wanted to say. Maybe I should just run away. No one is really paying attention. Not the sound guy, not even the camera man. I could totally do it. I could walk out of the room, take the elevator down to the lobby, hail a taxi. Seems like a good option, an easier option. But then I see Steve left his pen and notepad on his chair. The producer mentioned something about everyone counting on me to find out what happened especially since the military aren’t answering questions. The media have called it ‘The Secret Apocalypse’, a full on extinction level event that was covered up and kept hidden from the world. It’s hard to believe in this age of information no one really knows what’s going on. It’s hard to believe no one knows the truth. No one but me. I remind myself that I do have a duty of sorts. Not just to answer everyone’s questions, but to my friends, to let people know what they did, how awesome and heroic they were right to the very end. So I pick up the pen and the notepad and head for the bathroom. I lock the door and sit down on the cool marble floor. People need the truth and this is the best way. I used to write a lot, especially after my father disappeared. So I force myself to concentrate. It takes a few minutes but then my brain kicks into gear and starts working overtime. The pen begins to move almost of its own accord. My writing is messy but legible. Everything is being replayed in my mind’s eye at high speed. Important events are being freeze framed, rewound, watched over and over. I scribble down the main points that people need to know about. The quarantine. The Oz Virus. My friends. Maria. Jack. Kim. And Kenji. The massive cover up by the government and the military. Twenty-two million people dead. The Secret Apocalypse. Chapter 1 Steve, the journalist said to think about the turning point, the moment I realized something was wrong. I guess most people would’ve realized something was wrong when the Australian government ordered a nationwide quarantine. But for me it was on the first day of school. Two days before the quarantine was ordered. I woke up early because I was too nervous to sleep. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been the previous year when I was the new girl in town but I was still a mess. I’d laid out my school uniform the night before so I wouldn’t be running around in the morning looking for my skirt or my shoes. I’d made sure we had plenty of cereal and fresh milk and fresh fruit stocked in the kitchen. I was determined to have the most amazingly healthy and balanced breakfast to get me through the day. But when I walked out to the kitchen on that scorching hot summer’s morning, I forgot all about school and first day nerves. There was a note on the bench from my mother which read: Left 4 work early. This alone wasn’t a shock because she was always working. Apparently there was a shortage of nurses in Sydney hospitals or something. But right next to the note was an origami horse. It was tiny and intricate and beautiful. It looked like it was about to come to life and rear onto its hind legs. I was officially freaked out. Alarm bells were ringing inside my head. This little paper horse scared me and it scared me because there was only one person in the entire world that could’ve made something so goddamn amazing. Kenji Yoshida. I wouldn’t call him my ex-boyfriend because we were never really going out. But we were close. It felt like we had something. Well, maybe more than just something. He was the boy next door when I lived in Brooklyn and he was my closest friend. Unfortunately one day he decided to turn into a total jerk and leave home without even saying goodbye or saying anything. He ran off to join the US Marines to defend the country and see the world or whatever. No note, no email, no phone call from the train station, no text message. We hadn’t talked since he left and I had never forgiven him. Probably never will. I’m not sure how long I had been standing in the kitchen in a daze but the next thing I knew my phone was beeping and vibrating across the kitchen bench. There was one new text from Maria. It read: First day mofo! Get excited! I was just about to reply when I heard the school bus pull up out the front. I guess I’d been staring at the horse for longer than I thought. I grabbed my bag and the paper horse and ran out the door. Suddenly there was no time for a healthy and complete breakfast. I hadn’t even brushed my hair. Not that I was thinking about any of that. I was so lost in my own thoughts that when I boarded the bus I didn’t even see Maria waving at me from way up the back. “Rebecca!” she yelled. “Back here! Are you blind?” She was waving at me with both hands like she was flagging down a plane on a deserted island. She didn’t care that she was making a scene. She never cared what the other kids thought about her. “Sorry. Didn’t see you,” I said as I sat down next to her. “You didn’t see me? I was waving at you the entire time.” “Maybe you should consider wearing some sort of fluorescent vest to stand out more,” I said. “Hey, I have a lot of fluoro in my wardrobe. Do not tempt me.” The bus pulled away from the curb and I was thrown back in my seat. “What the hell is that?” Maria asked referring to the origami horse. “This?" I said. “It’s... it’s nothing” “Oh really?” She snatched it out of my hand before I could hide it. “Hey, be careful!” She held it up to her ocean blue eyes and studied it carefully. I don’t know why but I was jealous of Maria’s eyes. They were so blue they looked fake, like she was wearing contact lenses. Combine that with her sun kissed blonde hair and her tan that seemed to glow all year round and I could see why she didn’t care about making a scene on the bus or what the other kids thought about her. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Did you make it?” “Not really.” “Not really?” What do you mean ‘not really’?” “I, um, I think someone made it for me.” “I get it. Say no more. It’s a gift from a secret admirer, isn’t it?” “Ah, yeah. That’s it.” “Wow. And on the first day of school! You’re such a heart breaker.” I don’t know why I lied to her. I guess I didn’t want to explain that I thought it was from my sort of ex boyfriend from back home. I’d never told her about Kenji. Actually, I’d never really told her anything about my past. Sure we were good friends but there are just some things in my life I do not want to talk about. Not with anyone. “So where’s Jack?” I asked in an attempt to change the subject. “I’m not sure. I think he said he was getting a lift into school.” It was strange that Maria didn’t know where Jack was. Those two were practically inseparable. If they weren’t together, they were talking on the phone or texting or IMing each other on Facebook. I know this because last year I somehow managed to become a permanent third wheel to their relationship. And for some reason they liked it. No, not like that. I don’t swing that way and they don’t either. At least, I don’t think they do. Anyway, I met Maria on my first day of school last year and we were instant friends. She introduced me to Jack and we became instant friends as well. This alone was reason enough to hang out with them. I’d never made friends easily and yet there I was making two friends on my first day at a new school, in a new country. I could barely string two words together I was such a nervous wreck. I remember Jack trying to shake my hand to greet me but my hands were so sweaty I refused to shake his hand back. I just sort of bowed my head. I personally thought it was a divine miracle that we became friends at all. There was just no other explanation. So I started hanging out with them. They took me under their wings and showed me around Sydney. Jack is a really good surfer so he started teaching me how to surf. Maria is really into fashion so she would take me shopping all the time. She would go on and on about how she wanted me to take her to the New York fashion show. On the one hand it was kind of weird. I mean, no one wants to be the third wheel right? It’s awkward. The couple is usually making out or calling each other pet names like sweetie pie or honey bun, while the third wheel has to sit there and pretend not to be disgusted. But with Jack and Maria I never felt awkward. I never even felt like I was a third wheel. When Jack gave me surfing lessons Maria would chill out on the beach listening to music. Sometimes she would stand at the water’s edge with a white board. She would write a score out of ten and hold the board up, rating how good I was. And when we went shopping, Jack would pretend to be a world famous fashion photographer. He would borrow his father’s old camera and take a whole bunch of photos of Maria and me. He would say silly things like, “Pop darlings. Pop your hip. Make love to the camera.” I know it sounds stupid but it was fun. And I hadn’t had fun in such a long time. Maria’s phone rang. “It’s Jack,” she said to me. “Hey, where the hell are you?” She tried to sound angry even though her blue eyes lit up and a smile crept across her lips. Maria once told me that they liked hanging out with me because it took the pressure of their relationship. “Sometimes I feel like it’s too intense,” she said. “That I’ve fallen too hard for him. If he ever left me or whatever, I don’t think I’d be able to cope. I’d shut down. I don’t think I could live without him.” So having me around kept them from getting too intense I suppose. I was like a buffer of sorts, someone to keep their feet on the ground. It was hard to imagine either one of these guys being lost on their own. They were both extremely popular, fun loving, people persons. You might think it was like they were using me but it wasn’t like that at all. The truth was I liked hanging around them. I really didn’t care that I was a third wheel. The best thing about these guys was they made me feel better about myself. Maria hung up her phone and immediately started sending a text message, probably to Jack. “So where is he? I asked. “Don’t tell me he slept in on the first day?” “No, his sister was asked at the last minute to give a speech at assembly this morning. So they’re carpooling.” “Oh. What do you think her speech will be about?” “It’ll probably be about joining the cops. It could involve handcuffs. It might get kinky.” Jack’s sister Kim was a real life action hero. She’d finished high school last year and had since joined the police force. She was the kind of person who rode a bike everywhere instead of driving a car because it was great for your core strength. She was constantly training for a half marathon or full marathon or triathlon. Sometimes she could make you feel like a slacker. Despite this, I was actually looking forward to her speech. She had the same great sense of humor as Jack and it sure beat listening to the principal talk about the school motto and how we had a responsibility and a duty to study hard and try our very best and all that stuff. As the bus pulled up to the front gates of the school my heart began to beat a little faster and I started to think about what would lay ahead in the coming year. New teachers, maybe new friends, definitely late night study sessions and hopefully good grades. I was excited and nervous and scared all at the same time. But then we stepped off the bus and saw that the school gates were chained shut. Hundreds of kids and their parents were standing out the front of the entrance. The principal was speaking through a loudspeaker. He kept saying sorry. Sorry for the confusion and the disorganization. He said, “School has been cancelled across the state by order of the Government and the World Health Organization.” Chapter 2 Even though there must have been close to a thousand kids all gathered around the main entrance of the school, the mood was pretty calm. I had expected everyone to lose it, for parents to angrily demand an explanation, for the students to cheer with excitement. But this wasn’t the case. One time when I was in the eighth grade the school was evacuated because there was a fire in the staff kitchen. Apparently one of the teacher’s aides had put a pizza box in the oven and forgot about it. Five minutes later the box caught on fire. The whole school was evacuated. I’m pretty sure the entire New York fired department turned up to put out the burning pizza box. The kids thought it was hilarious; even some of the teachers thought it was funny. But this was different. Looking back, I think people somehow knew it was more than just a precaution. Maria had walked off to find Jack and Kim. I told her I’d meet her back on the bus and save us some seats. I was pushing my way through the crowd of students when I felt a tap on my right shoulder. I turned to the right but no one was there. I turned to the left and saw Jack standing there with a giant, excited smile on his face. “Isn’t this great?” he said. “One more day of summer vaykay!” Jack was always in a laid back mood. He never really stressed about school or exams. “Aren’t you worried that something is wrong?” I asked. “Or that we’re just going to get more homework tomorrow to make up for the lost time?” “It’s the first day. They’re not going to make us do homework on the first day. That’s just cruel. Everyone knows that a student’s mind needs time to warm up after doing nothing for two months.” I would’ve agreed with him but for some reason I was feeling uneasy. It’s not like I’m psychic or anything. I had no idea why classes had been cancelled but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it wasn’t the school who had chained the front gates together. “So where’s Maria?” he asked. “I thought you guys caught the bus together this morning?” “She went to find you and your sister actually.” “But I sent her a text to meet at the bus.” “Maybe she didn’t get it?” “Yeah maybe,” he said as he checked his phone. “Anyways, now that school is out for the day, how about we meet up at the beach? We can squeeze in one last surfing lesson for the summer.” For some reason Jack had made it his life’s mission to teach me how to surf. He said if they can put a man on the moon, he could teach me to surf. I wasn’t so sure. And I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to go to the beach. I was still trying to figure out if Kenji had somehow broken into my house last night. And if he did, how the hell did he find me? I guess I was still a little freaked out. “How are you enjoying my surfing lessons by the way?” Jack asked. “Am I a good teacher or what?” “You’re great. I can almost stand up for longer than two seconds. That’s a new personal best for me.” “So, are you in?” Usually I would be keen for a surfing lesson from Jack. Despite his relaxed attitude towards school and all the trouble he gave the teachers, he was actually a very good teacher himself. And even though I was terrible at surfing and spent most of the time trying not to drown it was always lots of fun. But I was still feeling uneasy. So I said, “Maybe. Let me think about it.” “Sure. Take all the time you want. But for now, let’s find Maria and get the hell out of here before they re-open the school.” Jack said we could get a ride home in Kim’s patrol car. The police had leant it to her today as a public relations exercise to impress the kids. Jack was super excited. He kept going on and on about the V8 engine and how it had a whole bunch of horsepower. He said he’d get Kim to fire up the sirens so we could run some red lights but then she got a call from the station and she had to leave without us. Apparently there was a riot out in western suburbs or something. So we all had to take the bus home. Jack and Maria pestered me about going to the beach again but I made up some lame excuse about how I hadn’t eaten breakfast and that I wasn’t feeling very well. I don’t think they bought it but they didn’t push the issue. The next day we were notified by email that school had been postponed for a whole week due to ‘health concerns’. Not that they needed to send an email. It was all over the news. I remember watching all morning to see if they would tell us when school would be going back but no one seemed to have any idea when that would be. Around lunch time I got a call from Maria to meet her and Jack at the beach. “We might as well make the most of this extended vacation,” she said. “And I won’t be accepting any more pathetic excuses for not going.” “Well, it’s a good thing I’m feeling a lot better.” I replied. I met them at Bondi beach and Jack gave me another surfing lesson. I managed to stand for at least three seconds so it was a definite improvement. Maria sat on the beach and laughed at me. I didn’t know it at the time but it was my last ever surfing lesson. I arrived back home in the afternoon and turned the TV on, eager to see if anyone knew when school was going back. But to my surprise no one was even covering that story anymore. Every single station was now covering a story about an outbreak of a virus. Every single station now showed the exact same image; a live feed of what looked like a prison complex in the middle of the desert. Every single channel had the same information scrolling across the bottom of the picture. “Virus spreads through immigration center in outback.” I continued to change the channel but there was no use. It reminded me of the September eleven terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York. I was only young but I clearly remember the live images of the World Trade Center. I remember smoke billowing into the blue New York sky from one of the towers. The information scrolling across the bottom of the picture read: “Fire in south tower.” But it wasn’t a fire. It was something much worse. And then almost in slow motion, a plane, a 767, flies in from nowhere, slamming into the north tower. Was this like that? Was it really a virus outbreak? Or was it something much worse? Just as I was about to turn the TV off the information scrolling across the bottom of the picture was updated. It now read: “American scientists confirm virus is a multi-resistant virus or ‘super bug’. They have named it the Oz Virus.” Apparently things were getting worse. Breaking News: The Oz Virus 4:08pm - The World Health Organization has declared a Phase 4 PANDEMIC alert. Phase 4 = multiple cases reported and human to human transmission of virus has been confirmed. 5:16pm - Reports of multiple deaths within the Woomera Immigration Center 6:32pm – A military force made up of Australian and American troops have set up a 10km quarantine around the immigration center. 7:02Pm - The township of Woomera is also under strict quarantine. No one is allowed to leave. No one is allowed to enter. 7:21pm - Scientist declare Oz Virus extremely dangerous and recommend national quarantine. I was glued to the TV for another five hours. The constant updates were progressively getting worse and worse. I wasn’t really afraid at this point in time, just curious. Maybe I should’ve been more worried about the deadly virus and the military force and the quarantine but who could’ve known it was the humble beginnings of an all out apocalypse? Who even thinks like that? It was nearly midnight before I noticed a note from my mother on the kitchen bench. It read: Working night shift. Dinner is in the freezer. Love you. I looked back at the TV. There was a bright flash and then the live image went black. On Wednesday a nationwide quarantine was announced. All flights in and out of the country were cancelled. Travel between different states was also banned. According to the news this was a first in Australian history and even in the days of small pox and the bubonic plague, such measures had never been taken. By midday there were police cars patrolling the streets urging everyone to stay indoors. On TV and radio there were public health announcements telling everyone to wash their hands regularly and to cover their mouth when coughing and sneezing. Later that afternoon the government announced a 10pm curfew. Anyone found outside their homes after ten would be arrested on site. Zero tolerance. On Wednesday night my mother called me to tell me she had to work overtime again at the hospital and that she wouldn’t be home. There was spaghetti bolognaise in the freezer. Defrost. Eat. The week dragged on and boredom set in. There was nothing to do except watch the TV and wait for the paranoia and cabin fever to take over. I’d lost track of how many hours of TV I had watched. One particular news segment showed a panel of scientists and doctors discussing the basic definition of a virus. Scientist number one said, “A virus is a microscopic organism that replicates within a living host.” You could tell the journalist doing the interview wasn’t really paying attention. But the panel was made up of professional nerds and hardcore academics and the discussion was getting pretty fired up. Scientist number two said, “I think we are on the brink of a major viral outbreak. A virus much worse than the black plague. A virus that will wipe out a significant percentage of the global population.” “Not a chance in the world,” another Doctor replied. “We have medicines and vaccines now days. They didn’t have any of that back then.” “That’s part of the problem. Viruses have an amazing ability to adapt and survive.” “How bad could it be?” “Worst case scenario is the virus mutates. An aggressive virus will kill its host. But a successful one will allow its host to stay alive.” “Why would it do that?” “So it can spread.” “Let me get this straight. You’re talking about a virus that will evolve and mutate into something we’ve never seen before, something that we can’t cure or immunize against?” “Yes. I’m talking about a virus that will kill quickly and spread even quicker. It will find a way to live and multiply inside the host body for a long time. Even after death.” Chapter 3 On Friday, after two straight days of wearing my pajamas and not showering, Maria called me to tell me about a party she was throwing that night. “What about the curfew?” I asked. “Screw the curfew. The cops aren’t even patrolling the streets anymore.” She was right. I hadn’t heard any sirens or loudspeaker warnings in at least a day. “Jack can pick you up on the way,” she said. “What about your parents?” “My parents are away on business. They’re in France or somewhere. I have the house to myself. My aunt has been coming over to check up on me but I told her to stop stressing. If we’re real quiet we can go down the back to the beach.” Maria’s family was ridiculously rich. Her father was a big time business guru. He made his money through computers or real estate or advertising or maybe a combination of all three. I can’t remember what Jack told me. But it was obvious by the size of their house he was in some serious cash. The house was located on the northern side of Sydney Harbor. It was a four level mansion with amazing views of the bridge and the opera house and the entire Sydney skyline. They even had their own private beach down the back of their property. “It’s just a party,” Maria said. “So what if there’s a curfew? Everyone can sleep over if they want. We’ve got plenty of spare beds.” “All right, you twisted my arm. But if I get in trouble, I’m blaming it all on you and your intense peer pressure.” “Deal. See you soon.” As I hung up the phone there was a knock at the door. I looked through the window and expected to see Jack but I saw some other guy standing there instead. It definitely wasn’t Jack but for some reason this guy looked familiar. He kept checking over his shoulder, shifting his weight, like he was nervous. He was wearing military fatigues. I couldn’t quite read the name on his jacket but then he turned around and a jolt of recognition shot through my body. It was Kenji. I immediately crouched and hid behind the door. What the hell was he doing here? He knocked on the door again. The door shook with loud, urgent thumps. “Rebecca?” He knocked again. “Rebecca, it’s Kenji. I know you’re in there.” How? How does he know I’m in here? Has he been being spying on me? “Go away!” I finally said. “Rebecca! Please! I need to talk to you. I need to tell you something.” “It’s a bit late for that, you jerk. What are you even doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be on tour in the Middle East or something, being all that you can be?” “The Marine’s motto is Semper Fi.” “Whatever.” “Look, that’s part of the reason why I’m here,” he said. “Please Bec, it’s important.” “Don’t call me Bec.” I stood slowly and turned to face the door. Although there was part of me that wanted to slap him in the face, there was a part of me that wanted everything to go back to the way it was, to close this huge divide between us. Either way, I needed to get this over with. I hesitated for a split second before I finally opened the door. Kenji smiled. Apart from the uniform and the short hair he looked like the same old Kenji. He had grown quite a few inches since I last saw him and he was leaner but he still had the same friendly face. He opened his arms to hug me but I took a step back. I wasn’t ready for that. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I needed to find you. I...” “What the hell for?” “I’ve come to warn you.” “Warn me? About what?” “We we’re re-deployed from Afghanistan to help with the quarantine. But I left... I deserted my post.” “Left without notice again, huh?” “Look, this is serious.” “Yeah I bet. Can’t you get court marshaled for desertion?” “I had to leave. I had to warn you. It’s starting to get out of control.” I should’ve let him explain. But I was too angry. Suddenly that anger I’d been suppressing for two years bubbled its way to the surface of my being. “You just left!” I shouted. “You didn’t even tell me you were leaving. No goodbye, no note. Nothing! What do you want me to say? How did you expect me to react?” I’d started yelling without realizing and this was making Kenji uncomfortable. “Can I come inside? I’ll explain everything.” “No you can’t. I think it’s best if you leave.” “Please, Rebecca. It’s not safe here.” I slammed the door in his face because he just wasn’t listening and I didn’t want him to see me cry. “OK, fine I’ll leave. Just promise me one thing,” he said through the door. “Promise me you’ll unfold the horse I left on your kitchen bench.” “Why? What for? How the hell did you break into my house anyway?” But he didn’t answer. I peered through the window. He was gone. I collapsed on the floor. My heart was racing. It had been two years since he left without saying goodbye but it felt longer than that. I remember the first time we met. I was going through a rough time after my father was reported missing. For days I cried. For days I thought it was some kind of mistake and that he’d be sent home. I was in complete denial. My mother eventually decided to send me to a doctor because I had totally shut myself off from the world. I had no friends, no social life. I stayed in my room all day and all night. I was hurt. It felt like I was dying inside. That’s when Kenji moved in next door. He basically saved me. I was sitting in the gutter out the front of my house. He was kicking a soccer ball around. He came up to me and asked me if I liked soccer. “Not really,” I said. “But I like David Beckham.” And just like that we became friends. We used to stay up all night watching movies. We would camp out in his back yard and scare each other with ghost stories. He was like no boy I’d ever met. He was funny and cute but he wasn’t up himself like other guys I knew. He was this weird mix of a complete nerd and a total action hero. On the one hand he liked comic books and Star Wars but on the other hand he had a black belt in just about every martial art I’d ever heard of. I think it was because his father was a real traditionalist and insisted that Kenji become proficient in all aspects of Japanese culture including the martial arts. As a result Kenji used to teach me all kinds of cool stuff like Karate and Jujitsu. They had a huge basement underneath their house that looked like an old Japanese training hall. I swear it was like stepping back in time to feudal Japan. They even had a small shooting range where they would practice firing the bow and arrow and even guns. I asked Kenji once why they had a shooting range in their basement and if it was even legal. He told me he wasn’t sure if it was legal but the reason they had built one was because the bow and arrow was a big part of Samurai culture. And the rifle was just a new and improved version of that. The principles were the same. The breathing, the concentration. It was like an active form of meditation if you did it right. He even taught me how to shoot a gun. I wasn’t strong enough to use the bow and arrow properly but I was a decent shot with the rifle. His father didn’t approve of me at all. But Kenji would always convince him to let me stay. I think he would tell his father that teaching me helped him remember all the stuff that he had been taught over the years. His father would always reluctantly agree. The best part about learning all this stuff and hanging out with Kenji was that it helped me take my mind of the possibility that my father was never coming home. It really was like an active form of meditation. The more we hung out, the more I started to fall for Kenji. I didn’t think I could ever get close to another person after I’d been hurt so badly. But Kenji was just so amazing. And then he left. He just vanished. Shortly after that, my mother and I moved out to Australia to start a new life. She told me it would be good for us both, that it would be an adventure. I knew it was painful for her as well. Now my old life was coming back to haunt me, opening old wounds, digging up long buried feelings. I picked myself up off the floor and wiped the tears off my face. I walked into my room and unfolded the origami horse. Sure enough there was a note written inside. Dear Rebecca, I’m sorry for what I did. I know you don’t trust me anymore but you must believe me when I say everyone is in danger right now. I will come for you. -Kenji Chapter 4 Five minutes later, Jack arrived to pick me up. He tried talking to me on the drive to Maria’s house but I was miles away. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Huh?” “Are you all right? You’re pretty quiet over there, Bec.”

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