Fiction

The mists of down below

THERE WAS NOTHING Agent Kayl Green feared more than the kindness of strangers, something that could never really be repaid; kindness had a cost that was unknown until it was owed. Nothing Kayl feared more except the disease, the pandemic – perhaps more than one by now – that was destroying human life on Earth.

Above all, Kayl was consumed by terror of a pandemic getting into a community on their watch. Failure would kill too many.

The third, and unfortunately not the last, time the words ‘this area is under quarantine’ were pumped into the airport’s air through a PA speaker, Kayl felt ready to do violence on whoever had set up that loop, whoever the fuck they were. By the sixth time, Kayl probably could have killed anybody, even some random stranger, whether they had something to do with it or not. Luckily there were no random strangers around. Kayl checked their filter mask as they stepped through the gate, past the thermo scanner and into the domestic terminal: it covered their face from just below the bags under their eyes to the neck of their uniform: blood red, emergency red, ambulance-light red, and emblazoned with the insignia of the Border and Quarantine Agency.

It was a fucking airport – everybody, surely, already knew the area was under quarantine, the entire country was under quarantine; the announcement on a constant loop felt a bit like overkill. If someone somehow arrived at the airport and didn’t already know there was an isolation ward, then the sight of a fourteen-storey hospital connected to the International Terminal where people were locked up for weeks was clue enough. In the past, when the airport was busier, when it was legal to arrive from overseas, the hospital had beds for an entire planeload of passengers; hundreds of people could be quarantined, sometimes for weeks, until it was determined whether they were infected.

The hospital still had room for hundreds of people, but there was only a skeleton staff now, mostly orderlies and a maintenance team. And security, of course, always.

They could move the quarantine hospital – nobody was allowed into the country anyway – but it was still there. Building another one would cost money.

In a black uniform, in a red filter mask, Kayl breezed through security with not much more than a cursory ID examination. Kayl would have no choice but to report this – lax security must always be reported, even when it was advantageous.

It was a tiny airport but the few people there, all business trippers with hard-to-get permits, coming from or going interstate, bounced around the empty space regardless. Even this tiny city must have had a lot more visitors before.

Kayl started feeling that thing nobody else seemed to ever feel, a vibration up from the ground, like the ancestors’ bones deep within it, the ancestors who were the Country itself, whispering. Country was trying to welcome Kayl, perhaps understanding what was going on, perhaps just lonely.

There was so much death, so much death in that place, massacres and genocide and then the plague, the plagues. Nearly every disease hit airports first. For a long time, whenever this happened, they closed the airports and let the people in them die.

Kayl breathed, concentrated on the feel of the mask moving in and out with the pressure of breath.

The lone cabby waiting at the rank looked like he was about to shit himself when Kayl climbed into his car. The cabby’s eyes bugged at the red mask, the uniform, the ‘Border and Quarantine’ logos: red on the shirt, black on the mask.

The city lived and breathed like a place that did not know what was coming, like a person with the flu who did not yet have symptoms but carried the disease like a shroud. Like an asymptomatic carrier who was about to infect everybody they loved.

The shadow of the Border and Quarantine hospital pointed at the city like an accusing finger, looming over the suburbs like the ghost of a great bird.

Kayl tried to rest during the cab ride, but there was just not enough time, not enough distance to even imagine resting.

City police had their headquarters in a squat concrete-grey building surrounded by ram-raid poles and anti-tank trenches; all that and military-grade fencing around their motor pool was a reminder of the riots back before, when the quarantine restrictions became too much for the people. Then it became a case of natural selection – those unable to follow orders and live under the new rules died by police action or plague, the result was the same.

The Border and Quarantine offices, below the hospital, were even more fortified than the local police station. Kayl hoped they would not need those offices later.

Kayl had to wait a little too long for a response to the door buzzer. The police were perhaps not as alert as they should be.

‘Sir, sorry, Ma’am…um, sorry?’ The local copper at the door looked like half his brain had just dropped out through his arse, which was not unusual for people unexpectedly confronted with Border and Quarantine agents, so Kayl didn’t take it personally – although it probably was personal. People didn’t react well to Kayl even when they weren’t in uniform.

‘Neither, Constable. You can call me “Agent”.’ The copper’s eyes were fixed on the agency insignia in the middle of Kayl’s mask. He didn’t seem to be breathing.

‘Sorry, Agent,’ he said after his breath returned, hiding his confusion behind the strength of his voice. ‘What’s a Plaguency agent doing in Darwin?’

The agency did not approve of the unofficial title local constables throughout the continent had given them, but Kayl let it slide – it was a minor issue and not worth getting knotted up about. There would be plenty to be furious over later. Kayl didn’t like local police on principle – they were sloppy, lazy, and this one looked crumpled, like he’d recently been asleep in a chair. Kayl did not approve of his surly face, his shambolic appearance. He would never make it as an agent.

‘Are you aware’ – Kayl let the words drip ice – ‘that at approximately 2.15 am this morning a microlight aircraft landed, or possibly crashed, in Darwin?’

Kayl did not laugh at the dance of expressions over the copper’s face, and would never reveal how enjoyable it was to watch.

‘Fuck’ was the only word to fall out of the cop’s open mouth. Kayl grinned behind the mask; it was probably the correct response.

‘Precisely. Quarantine has been breached and it was in your zone, on your watch. Let’s get moving.’

Commendably, but perhaps more than twelve hours too late, the cop turned and spoke into his radio. ‘Quarantine has been breached, quarantine has been breached. We need all officers fully armed and equipped with their outbreak kits on immediate notice. We have a code red.’

Kayl kept pace easily as the cop ran down the hall, puffing and spluttering in a red-faced way that suggested he could go no faster. By the time they both entered the briefing room, there was a crowd: flabby cops and covert fascists, red-faced drinkers and complete non-thinkers, surly women and bewildered men, looking like they were ready for blood, but not looking like they were ready for an outbreak. Words tripped from Kayl’s mouth as soon as the local cops were in earshot.

‘A microlight plane landed, or maybe it crashed, somewhere in Darwin in the early hours of this morning. We chased it for a time in the air but lost it. We did not see it land or record its landing on radar, but we have a strong idea of its point of origin: it came from Indonesia.’

There were gasps all around the room.

‘We need to locate the downed plane,’ Kayl continued. ‘Track the pilot and identify anyone who might have been in contact with them. We need to do it before the virus spreads any further. I don’t want to quarantine the entire city, but I will before I let the outbreak move into the wider community. Forget the pandemic masks – we don’t want to alarm the locals. If they know there’s an outbreak they might assume, rightly, that we’re going to lock down the city – there’ll be panic buying, riots in the streets, people running for the city limits, and we’ll lose control. We need to keep a lid on this. If I call for a lockdown, you’ll need to go for personal protection immediately – if you don’t, I’ll put you in quarantine lock-up, so have your masks and goggles ready in your kits and make sure there are spares in your cars.’

The coppers reacted like their blood had been replaced with broken glass.

‘Move.’ Kayl did not shout, but they didn’t have to. The cops ran for the door. One woman – or someone who could be assumed to be a woman – did not leave. She was fitter, or at least less flabby, than the others in the room, and as black as Kayl, which was not particularly black but blacker than any of the cops. She was a sergeant, upright and neat, all insignia and polish, embodying the idea that ‘if you want to be seen as equal, be better’. She was also, clearly, not afraid of Kayl.

‘Who’s your mob?’ Kayl almost whispered the question, half afraid of the negative consequences if the sergeant was indeed not as blak as she appeared and half hopeful of the use it would be if she was.

‘Larakiya. You?’

‘Noongar. Sergeant, can we rely on your wadjela, your balanda?’

‘Maybe when they’re sober,’ the sergeant laughed, ‘but maybe not – they haven’t been either completely reliable or particularly unreliable before. They’re cops, but they’re only cops.’ She paused. ‘They’re all we’ve got.’

 

WHAT REMAINED OF the microlight was an abstract sculpture of twisted aluminium poles and ragged, torn polyester, like an umbrella that had lost a fight with a storm and then died while attempting to mate with a lawnmower engine. The whole thing was improvised: the polyester was multicoloured, like something sewn together from old parasilk tracksuits, dead tents and the ragged flags of many nations. The motor was ancient and scabby with rust and grease – it probably was a fucking lawnmower engine.

Kayl could imagine the sound of banjos being strangled by the wind.

The tropical parkland had been dampened by sprinklers, with stored water used to green the trimmed lawn in a way the desert-like southern states would never do. The trees were as alien as the overall greenness: palms, tamarinds, mangoes. Even this little park in the middle of the suburbs was manicured with a desperation that implied the park would escape into feral overgrowth as soon as their back was turned.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Who flies something like that piece of shit over the ocean?’ said a voice. Kayl didn’t see who said the words, but agreed with the sentiment. Admittedly, the microlight had almost certainly been in better shape when it had crossed the ocean.

Kayl had to concede one thing. Whoever had flown it was either a good pilot – perhaps a fucking great pilot – or extremely lucky: they had flown an improvised microlight from somewhere in Indonesia to Darwin and had managed to land in a couple of acres of park in the middle of the suburbs. If Border Force radar hadn’t been so effective, their troopers so alert, nobody would ever have identified this breach until some rando stumbled upon the wreckage.

But identified it they had, and Kayl had been mobilised so fast there hadn’t been time to pack.

‘Sergeant,’ Kayl projected, waiting with vibrating impatience for her to attend, to pay attention, ‘we need to canvas this area, find out if anybody saw the microlight land or saw the pilot walk, or probably run, away. We need to know if there are any strangers in the area, anything suspicious, if anybody saw anyone they didn’t recognise. Be cautious – imply that you’re looking for a fugitive from another city. Don’t tell them we’re looking for someone from outside our borders – we don’t want an outbreak of outbreak panic.’

The sergeant turned to walk away, hopefully to follow orders, managing a few steps before Kayl spoke again. ‘And no masks – we don’t want to give anyone we speak to the right impression.’

‘What about your mask, Agent?’

‘There’s a reason masks are an integral part of our uniforms, why I’d be out of uniform if I wasn’t wearing it – so that when we need to put them on, they won’t cause panic.’ Kayl was no longer even slightly aware of the feeling of wearing a mask, was only aware of it when the filters filled with dust and dander and spit and made breathing difficult – but that was a personal feeling, not the mask getting in the way. Being without a mask was a bit like not wearing underwear, and a full mask that needed its filters replaced was just like having a blocked nose.

A mask had long ago become part of Kayl’s sense of self.

 

COPPERS SCATTERED LIKE cockroaches do when you turn the light on, running away from the dead-duck aircraft at ground zero, holding belts heaving with firearms and equipment, flab bouncing as they jogged; heading to nearby houses, to nearby streets, to search the local park, although anybody in that microlight would probably have long ago run for it – it had been over twelve hours. They were probably miles away by now, but it was best to check, to eliminate the possibility they were still in the area – hiding in a house, in a backyard, up a tree, in a treehouse, under a bridge.

There were a few houses surrounding the park, their low roofs peeking over what fencing they had like spies under broad hats. Many of the fences were overgrown with tropical vines, trying their damnedest to blend into the park and disappear. Looking for the pilot was like looking for a pin in a bucket of needles, and it would likely turn out just as painful.

‘Tracker’s here,’ said somebody. Kayl didn’t care who.

Kayl hadn’t heard anybody approach, but refused to show shock when they turned to see the sergeant leading a man dressed like a clichéd stockman from the early twentieth century, shading his eyes, redundantly, under his hat with his left hand while examining the ground intently. He certainly looked the part, walking around the crashed vehicle with a lighter tread than his age suggested was possible, crouching to check signs on the ground that Kayl could not hope to identify.

Kayl stood in silence, taking careful, measured breaths, concentrating on the in-and-out ebb and flow of the mask fabric, refusing to allow their naked eyes to show anger, frustration, fear or any other emotion. Kayl had a reputation to maintain of inhuman efficiency, of being the best, or at least better than anybody else currently available. It was important to be infallible even when sometimes it felt impossible; when failure became inevitable, the illusion of calm was more important than anyone’s feelings.

Feelings didn’t matter; operational efficiency did. Winning didn’t matter; keeping control didn’t matter; being perceived to be in control mattered.

The wind carried nothing but the sound of wind itself, a faint wisp of breathing, and the forever strong breath of Country – a Country that feared pandemic as much as Kayl did. Country had lost too many of its people last time, with the last disease, and Country without people is lonely unto death.

Every disease hurt the people of the land more than the inter­lopers; that was how it had been since smallpox hundreds of years ago.

That fear surged in Kayl, not quite reaching the surface, not quite showing on their face: the fear that it would happen again, that people would die, too many people, and that Country’s tears would break the souls of those who survived. If it happened again, it would be Kayl who hadn’t stopped it.

That fear was what had kept the country’s borders closed for so long, that fear of the latest pandemic that seemed to never abate – the pandemic that had decimated every other continent. That fear followed hard on the heels of the virus before it that had killed so many. Kayl knew there were houses in sight that were still empty: the population had not bounced back all the way from last time a virus came across the borders, across the sea.

Someone was talking.

Then they weren’t.

Kayl listened for the voice that was no longer there, looked for a speaker who was no longer speaking.

The tracker was standing in front of Kayl with a bemused expression on his face. Kayl pretended not to notice his faint smirk. ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that,’ was the only thing Kayl could think to say.

The tracker’s smirk metamorphosed into a toothy grin.

‘You aren’t going to be a problem, are you?’ Kayl asked. The tracker’s voice was eaten by the wind but his hand pointed away. He started walking and Kayl, bereft of choice, walked after him. It felt like they were following the wind itself, and perhaps they were. The tracker wound across the park. Then he stopped and Kayl almost staggered into him.

They were in the shade of a tree, a cool relief after the blowtorch heat. The tracker was pointing at something on the ground, glistening red but fading to matt darkness.

A splatter of blood and a bloody scrap of cloth; Kayl recoiled from the red vector of infection. ‘Forensics,’ Kayl shouted.

The pilot had been wounded; that was the obvious assumption to make.

The sergeant was suddenly by Kayl’s side. ‘None of the constables have discovered anything – this pilot is a ghost. So far they haven’t managed to find anyone in the area who’s seen anything, either. If the microlight was even slightly more advanced than the piece of shit lying over there I’d consider the idea that it was a drone.’

‘Ghosts don’t bleed. Neither do drones.’

Kayl could imagine the sergeant nodding, but didn’t look to determine if she was. ‘Told you the tracker was good,’ she said.

The tracker started walking again and Kayl and the sergeant stood by the bloody evidence. ‘We can’t have an outbreak here,’ the sergeant said. ‘The rest of the country will close us off, blockade us here and let us die.’

‘Yes,’ said Kayl. ‘I’ll do it and I won’t hesitate. And yes, when I blockade this city, people will die.’

The sergeant reached out and grabbed Kayl by the shoulder, fingers gripping like a vice, strong enough to bruise. Kayl did not let on that it hurt, but stopped and breathed carefully. The only thing that moved was the wind and what it carried.

‘Let go of my shoulder.’

She didn’t, tried to force Kayl to turn and face her, but it was like trying to turn a tree. Kayl relaxed into Country, held it tight, wondered why the sergeant wasn’t using her closer contact with that place to her advantage.

‘Let the fuck go of my shoulder.’ Kayl’s voice froze the wind.

‘You would cut us off,’ said the sergeant. ‘You would cut us off and let us all die.’

Country breathed. The tracker stopped and stared into the distance like he was trying desperately not to notice the people he had left behind. The wind carried the sound of voices, panicked and angry, in the distance.

Kayl barely breathed the words. ‘Yes. Without a moment’s thought, without hesitation. I would cut you off in a second, no matter what the consequences to your city would be. When we find the pilot of that piece of shit in the middle of the park, I will test him, and if he’s infected with the plague, I will cut off this city from the rest of the country. I will call in the army and Border and Quarantine, and they will shoot anybody who tries to get in or out. As you are no doubt aware, I am authorised to relieve you of your position if you resist me.’

Country breathed. The wind carried strong voices, armed voices, threatening voices from far away.

‘I’ll remove anybody who resists from their position, no matter who they are.’

Country breathed. The wind carried shouting and the sound of batons striking flesh.

‘And if you help me and we find this person and they’re infected, I’ll make sure you get a promotion – you’ll be the Border and Quarantine lead officer in this city after I leave. When we reopen the Border and Quarantine facility here, the crash is enough reason to return to operational staffing immediately.’

Country breathed. The wind carried the sound of pained, angry screams.

‘And,’ Kayl breathed in an almost whisper, ‘if you don’t control your cops, I’ll shoot you down and arrest them all, then call in the army to take over.’

Kayl paused.

‘Now, let the fuck go of my shoulder.’

The sergeant let go. She seemed to be forcibly controlling her temper. She stared at Kayl with the sort of expression Kayl had seen many times before, trapped somewhere between angry and bewildered. Then she turned and strode away in the manner of someone who will run once out of sight.

A forensics investigator scurried over, put on a mask and crouched down to check the fabric.

‘I know what you’re about to ask, Agent, but that blood is pretty dry. Any idea how old this sample is?’

‘The crash was over twelve hours ago.’

Forensics had small, worried eyes in a bland fortysomething face. ‘I’ll test it, but it’s probably too old. I might be able to tell you if one of the known viruses is present, but to prove its absence, I’ll need more blood in better condition – the fresher the better.’

Kayl nodded, shrugged. Obviously the good luck of a decent-quality blood sample right there at the crash site was too much to ask. ‘I know every copper and his, her or their copper mate has walked on this site and contaminated the evidence, but it can’t be helped. Finding the pilot is a higher priority than proving they did something illegal, but check for more evidence while you’re here. Call in more people if you need to.’

The tracker was still standing there waiting, as still as an ancient stone, as the bones of ancestors, as Country. ‘Move,’ Kayl said to the tracker after catching up. ‘Do your job – find that pilot before he infects someone.’

‘She, not he,’ said the tracker, and Kayl started like someone hearing a gunshot. ‘If it’s a man his feet are very small – tiny.’

‘Find him, her, them, I don’t care – just do it.’

Kayl was suddenly shaken by self-hate at the assumption that a man had flown that piece-of-shit microlight over the sea.

Kayl tried to find solace in the feel of wind, the rustle of leaves and the vibration of the Earth itself, but felt nothing – it was like Country was not there. It felt, imagined Kayl, how everybody else must feel. Anger often broke the connection, so Kayl concentrated on being just a little less angry.

The tracker was already moving on, following invisible signs.

Kayl breathed.

The tracker bent at the waist to look closer at something.

Kayl breathed.

And Kayl followed as the tracker walked slowly away, careful to be fast enough to close the gap between them, but not so fast it looked too much like hurrying. It never paid to be in a hurry; people might lose respect.

They stopped at a wooden fence, under six feet high, which nearly anybody could climb – it was only a barrier to the less determined. The fence separated the park from a house, keeping the house locked up like a dog that had been caged so long it didn’t understand what escape meant.

‘She went over the fence here,’ said the tracker, pointing at a spot on the fence that looked to Kayl like any other. There was no evidence of the truth of it except the tracker’s word, and why would he lie?

‘Can you find this place from the street?’

The tracker looked around to identify some landmarks, then nodded.

‘Go find the sergeant and tell her which house to enter. I’ll go over the fence and check the back, make sure whoever lives here doesn’t try to leave out the back as you’re all coming in through the front. I’ll meet you at the front of the house, or inside.’

The tracker nodded, turned and stalked away. Kayl took a breath and vaulted over the fence, catching a foot on the top and falling over, landing with a barely dignified roll and then tumbling over to stare at the sky and pray nobody had seen that.

It could have gone better.

Sun stalked the soggy, tropical heat of the yard, throwing a shadow from the fence deep and wide enough for Kayl to hide in. There was not a lot to see: a mango tree hanging with fruit, a couple of tropical palms, a kids’ play set, a dead stump, grass that should have been cut weeks ago. The house was pulling at its chain, rearing up on its stumps, baring its back door like teeth; Kayl was surprised it was not growling.

The people who lived here were not particularly poor, nor were they especially rich. Their backyard wasn’t a shit pit, but it wasn’t manicured. Kayl guessed that whoever lived here was painfully, dreadfully average.

The swing set was the important thing, the scattering of bright plastic toys, some obviously broken. There were kids in that house. If the pilot had gone in there, anybody else inside would need to be quarantined.

The word ‘fuck’ appeared from nowhere in Kayl’s mouth, tumbled out onto the ground and sank into Country.

No sign at all of the fugitive.

Kayl stalked carefully towards the back door, every sense stretched out for what might be coming. There was nothing to see but the backyard, nothing to hear but the wind, nothing to smell but the strange scent of alien country that had been a faint irritant since Kayl had left the air-conditioned airport. Country seemed to want to say something, but Kayl couldn’t quite understand it.

Nobody answered the back door when Kayl knocked.

Kayl knocked again, not really expecting anything to happen; there was probably nobody home.

There was a footstep and a click.

The door opened to reveal a white woman, her eyes widening until they looked like they were going to fall out. Kayl knew she could see nothing but the mask and the uniform, not the person inside them. She would not even look at Kayl’s eyes. Which suited Kayl just fine – being nothing more than a uniform is pretty much the same thing as being invisible. Better to be the agency than to be an agent; better to be an agent than to be a human being.

‘Ma’am,’ Kayl said, ‘we’re tracking a criminal. They came over your back fence. Have you seen anyone?’

‘Why is the Plaguency chasing a criminal? Are they infected?’ Her voice was the squeal of a frog being crushed under a boot.

‘Have you seen them?’

‘Seen who?’

Kayl was becoming exasperated, was fighting the urge to call down all sorts of hell on this household, this shithole, breathe Kayl breathe. ‘Anyone. Have you seen anyone in your yard, anyone you don’t know in your neighbourhood, anybody, anything unusual? Has anyone knocked on your door, has anybody walked down the side of your house and out the front, have you heard any strange noises?’

‘No, no one. The kids have been in and out all day and they haven’t mentioned seeing anybody.’

Kayl did not like where their train of thought was going, did not like the destination. It was too much like destiny; there was a tense vibration in the air.

If only the kids had stayed inside.

‘Can I come in, talk to you where nobody can see us?’

The woman looked scared. With or without her permission, Kayl was going in.

‘Please,’ Kayl asked.

The woman stepped back without a word, stepped aside without a breath, and Kayl stepped inside with eyes bright enough to hide all true intentions. The house was full of clutter, but it was superficially clean, which was almost an emotional inoculation against the mess. Kayl took out a phone, entered a code, waited for someone to pick up, said ‘We need testing and decontamination at my position immediately’, hung up, then reached out and casually snatched the homeowner’s smartphone from her hand before she could thumb an app or make a call.

‘No calls. If only your kids hadn’t been in and out of the backyard,’ Kayl sighed. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll wait here. I’ll make sure no harm comes to you until you and your house can be tested.’

‘Bitch,’ screamed the woman, swinging an ill-advised punch.

Kayl just shrugged, caught the swinging fist one-handed without taking it personally.

Local police were already at the door. Containment and quarantine were coming; they had been on standby for a decade, waiting for a moment like this.

 

THE KIDS, TWO of them, at an age when they seemed to have no purpose in their lives but to irritate adults, were squalling as their blood was taken, as their throats and noses were swabbed, as they were forcibly cleaned, as their mother screamed at the containment, contamination and testing crew who were, frankly, just trying to do their jobs. Kayl was shaking with anger at the sound of them, holding on to the desire for the outside, for a return to the chase – to chase a ghost through the city, to do anything other than stand there. But this job had to be done right. The medics taking blood from the children tried to calm them with kind words, but in the end resorted to threats, which just made them scream louder.

Kayl did not dislike people, notwithstanding the knowledge that an excess of them is how pandemics happen. But Kayl took a special dislike to kids: they were loud, dangerous and couldn’t be trusted not to touch everything and then put their fingers in their mouths and get sick. That made them uniquely unlikeable.

Kayl had been a kid during the last pandemic the country had tolerated before completely closing its international borders. Kayl was the first family member to get sick. It was a safe assumption that Kayl had touched something and put their fingers in their mouth, or rubbed their itchy, tearful eyes with their knuckles. Before that pandemic, everybody had rubbed their eyes with their knuckles from time to time. Father had died suddenly in the first few days, the other kids after a couple of weeks. Mother had never been the same again, had spent years in a hospital until she died. It was Kayl who brought the disease home, Kayl who killed the family, broke isolation, broke quarantine.

It was Kayl who killed the entire family, including big sister and little brother.

It was Kayl who went straight from the overcrowded orphanage full of the children of the pandemic dead to the brand new Agency Academy. It was Kayl who was driven to be the best agent, who vowed a pandemic would never reach this continent and the people who lived there again.

Kayl was firm in the thought: I will kill every soul in the city before I let a virus escape to the rest of the continent. The only thing that mattered was keeping the virus contained. For a moment the room was filled with frantic energy as the mother ran and grabbed her tablet and tried to send out a message, connect to social media (or worse, to some platform the government couldn’t control), call the press, do something anti-social, but the internet to the building had been cut and Kayl still had the woman’s phone stashed away in a sealed evidence bag. Nobody could be allowed to inform social media of the infection, panic the sheep, before it could be contained. A police constable casually took the tablet from the woman and put it in an evidence bag while she screamed like someone whose hands were being cut off.

For fuck’s sake, Kayl thought, it’s just a tablet.

Not long now, not long; the ambulances and crews would be there soon. The stealth ambulances that were deployed for secret isolations looked just like white delivery vans and would stand out here in the suburbs, particularly three of them at once. Alongside the obvious police presence at the house, normal ambulances would make the neighbours assume an assault, a home invasion, domestic violence: the blood and bone crime of quiet suburban neighbourhoods.

If they didn’t see Kayl, they would not assume there was an outbreak; and if they did somehow add two plus two and get ‘disease’, there was nothing anybody could do about it.

Some people – the fearful, and those like Kayl who had lost everything, who had no families and the pandemic to blame, the angry, the painfully, dreadfully alone, the orphans, those whose bodies hadn’t recovered from last time or who were caring for the still sick – those people would always expect a pandemic.

Fear of a pandemic had reshaped society.

Some people were always suspicious. The sound of sirens, the white sides of an ambulance, the presence of the blue police uniforms, the black uniforms and red masks of agents. Sometimes just a noise on the wind, someone they had never seen before – anything out of the ordinary, and sometimes something completely ordinary. Everything meant the pandemic, or a new one, could be back.

Kayl was always suspicious; it was essential for a great agent. Kayl knew fear never did anybody any good – that fertile ground between suspicion and fear was the best place to work from.

The ambulance lights chased the siren into the street. The ambulance itself arrived last, long after the sound and flash of its warning. The ambos hustled from their vehicle, grabbed their gurney and rolled it in. There was another siren, and another, another ambulance and another. The first pair of ambos grew wide-eyed at the sight of Kayl, a red-masked agent in agency black.

Good, thought Kayl – they don’t know they were called in for a virus scare, so they couldn’t possibly have spread the bad news yet.

‘We’re still trying to keep a lid on news of a potential outbreak,’ Kayl told them in an authoritative tone. ‘Sedate these people and take them to hospital – use the secret entrance and turn off your sirens at least a block before you get there. It’s important for operational reasons that people get the wrong idea about what’s going on here. I don’t think there’s much hope of that now, but we can pretend there is.’

The mother tried to break. Kayl hadn’t expected that, hadn’t expected her to leave her kids and run for it, but was faster than her – grabbed her arm, pulled her closer and slugged her in the face.

She spun around and screamed her terror in Kayl’s face. At least it wasn’t a fist. ‘Fight me and you’ll arrive at hospital with some painful fucking injuries. In pain or not, you’re still going to hospital.’

Agents didn’t carry guns – shooting people was seldom necessary, and the local police could be relied on to do their part when people needed threatening. Kayl had a stun gun in a side holster, a tranquilliser injector just behind it, and pressed the injector to the mother’s neck before she could flinch. Kayl held her as she screamed and thrashed, while the kids lost their shit completely; it seemed the smallest concession to make, to be the one to take the elbows to the face and the ear pain. Eventually she subsided and the kids started screaming even louder.

‘Shut those kids up and put them down,’ Kayl hissed at the ambos. ‘You don’t want me to have to do it while I’m this pissed off.’

 

THE NOISE LEVEL reduced again as the children, one by one, were knocked out by ambos and lifted carefully onto beds, wheeled out to the waiting ambulances.

The tracker came in from the backyard. ‘Nobody here – the pilot’s not here. The tracks go up the side of the house – there’s a gate there – and then onto the street.’

Kayl felt a descending dread of what was coming. ‘Did you see which way she went?’

‘I lost her trail when her feet hit the asphalt. She’s gone.’

The string of expletives resting on the tip of Kayl’s tongue stayed there. It should have been expected that the pilot would get away; things were getting out of control far too fast and she’d had more than twelve hours to make her escape.

The sergeant was already standing at Kayl’s shoulder, had probably heard the conversation. ‘What’s the plan now?’ she asked.

‘Get your troops to keep questioning people throughout the neighbourhood – we need a description. We need air support – get a chopper and drones. Do you have drones?’ Stupid question – from the state of their equipment, the city police did not have a whole lot.

The sergeant shook her head. Around Kayl and outside the house, forensics investigators and biohazard test crews were checking everything, looking under the house, in the shadow of the mango tree, in the bushes; checking the kids’ toys and swing set, checking the bannisters, anywhere foreign infected hands could have touched.

‘I’ll call in a chopper and drones, and I think I might need backup,’ muttered Kayl. ‘I hope we’re not already too late.’

Kayl didn’t want to touch anything. There was so much clutter the children could have touched after touching something else. It would all have to be checked.

‘We probably are.’ Kayl was horrified to be the person uttering those words and then turning to the forensics and biohazard crew and saying, ‘Test everything. You heard me – everything.’

 

THE POLICE STATION was overwhelmed with action and noise.

Someone brought Kayl a coffee, and Kayl did not look up from the tablet screen to find out who. Sometimes coffee was just not worth it; sometimes it was too much caffeine, and Kayl hated the taste. The pilot had disappeared without a trace and police were searching everywhere, asking too many questions for secrecy. Eventually rumour would overtake fact, and when the rumours were closer to the truth than the story people were being fed, it would be a disaster – the news of an outbreak could break out any moment. Soon, before people tried en masse to leave the city, somebody would need to declare a lockdown.

That person would be Kayl. They only gave that job to people who did not want it.

Two years ago Kayl had been forced to decide, to declare a town contaminated, to lock it down and call in the army to hold the line. It was a small town, but the panic when news of a potential infection leaked had caused riots, violence and death. There had been consequences: the people in that town were nearly lost to anarchy, nearly lost all trust in the machinery of government. The fear had been worse than the disease: the army had to kill a couple of people who’d tried to violently force their way out. When the disease turned out to be a false alarm, an environmental contaminant, people wanted heads to roll, and the agency protected Kayl’s head.

A local government, a disposable figurehead, had taken the blame in the end. They had volunteered to protect the agency, Kayl had heard.

If people had been allowed to leave, they would have been safer. If the town had not been locked down, everybody would have been safer.

It was Kayl’s fault. Again. Everything was Kayl’s fault. Always.

Nobody could be harsher on Kayl than Kayl was.

That tension between underreaction and overreaction made the need to make a decision vibrate like a piano string.

In cases involving a choice between underreaction and over­reaction, agency convention supported the latter. Kayl was not certain the agency was right, but it created a pathway to decide without blame.

Someone came in, paused as if they were about to break Kayl’s concentration. Then they walked out.

More footsteps and a cup of tea appeared in front of Kayl. ‘Thank you.’ Back to concentration, but this time with tea; concentration is better with tea. Who told them Kayl liked tea? Might be in a file somewhere. It wasn’t good to leave a trace in the files, but if the trace involved tea it couldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe nobody had read the file and the coffee, ignored until cold, gave someone the idea to try tea.

Good tea. Hopefully somebody had noticed and would bring more.

An alert flared up on the tablet; Kale checked the details hungrily. Footage had been found on a security camera: the pilot running from the park, the gait and general shape of a woman – though that truly meant little to Kayl – dressed in formless, probably warm clothing, too warm for Darwin but perfect for flying a microlight over the ocean. One of the local cops had found discarded clothing that matched the description of what the pilot had been wearing. Kayl had them taken to the quarantine hospital near the airport, where they could be tested safely. Kayl asked the cops to canvas the area.

It would not be long before they lost the ability to trace the fugitive and discover what they had touched and who they had infected. It would not be long before they lost control. When that happened, they would have to close the city.

Kayl messaged the sergeant’s phone. The sergeant appeared so fast it was almost like she’d been waiting just outside.

‘What do we know?’ Kayl asked in a tone that was not taking prisoners.

‘I don’t know much more than you,’ huffed the sergeant.

Kayl ignored this and motioned for her to go on.

The sergeant sighed. ‘The pilot arrived last night, nearly twenty-four hours ago. They managed an almost impossible landing. They’re probably female. We know they’ve changed their clothes and we know they’re a ghost – we’ve seen and heard little of them.’

Kayl listened to the wind, but there was nothing there; felt for the ground, but it was too far away, too wounded by the building’s foundation.

Kayl knew they would have to act.

‘Twelve hours,’ Kayl said.

‘What?’ Now the sergeant sounded irritated.

‘If we’re lucky, if the city is lucky.’

‘What happens then?’

‘In twelve hours? If we haven’t traced every footstep of the pilot in twelve hours and caught and tested every person they might have had contact with or who might have touched something they touched and quarantined every single one of them, if we haven’t caught that pilot and tested her or them for every known pandemic virus to discover that by some miracle they’re clean, I will lock down your city and to hell with the consequences.’

‘Fuck you,’ said the sergeant. ‘You can’t make that decision, not on your own.’

‘I can. I don’t want to,’ said Kayl, ‘but I can and I will. I have the power, you know that, and I don’t really have a choice, you know that too. It’s protocol, necessary to ensure the rest of the country stays safe.’

Echoing down the hall was the sound of local cops doing whatever local cops do in a crisis, which Kayl thought was not a lot, but they made a lot of noise doing it.

It could easily be assumed that they would be even worse at locking down the city.

Kayl mentally prepared for calling in muscle and more agents from Border and Quarantine; it would feel like losing. They would not be kind on the city, would be forced to occupy it like an invading army, which was really what they were. Kayl considered warning the sergeant, but thought it not worth the risk. It would happen no matter what.

‘This is a little above my pay grade,’ the sergeant said. ‘I think it’s time to get a higher ranking officer involved.’

Kayl’s head shook. ‘No, I like you, I like how you work and that you don’t piss me off. I can choose who to work with and I don’t want a higher ranked officer cramping my style. Let’s go look at the place where the clothes were found.’

Kayl called for a stealth ambulance equipped to contain infected subjects before they could infect anybody else. It rolled to a halt outside the police station just as Kayl and the sergeant stepped out the door. Kayl strode arrogantly to the passenger side and climbed in.

‘Coming?’ Kayl said to the sergeant, who looked discombobulated for a moment before jumping into the back with the medical and test equipment, weapons and stretcher. Kayl did not like the look in the sergeant’s eyes when she stopped and stared at the bed restraints: straps and locks and chains.

There was a gag disguised as a dust mask on the stretcher. The sergeant picked it up, stared at it and looked disgusted.

The sergeant sat cross-legged on the floor.

The streets were thick with anxious traffic, mostly half-empty cars going who knew where, scratched white vans that would render Kayl’s transport anonymous, motorcycles, bicycles. The footpaths were packed with people, the shops crowded in a way they would not be in twelve hours. Kayl hoped that would be the case, anyway – if the people here were not prepared for lockdown, the streets would fill with fear and desperation. Kayl felt sorry for them, the denizens of this pocket-sized city. They did not deserve what was about to happen to them; they had done nothing except simply live close to the plague-ridden countries to the north.

All communications into the country from Indonesia had ceased during the last pandemic. Nobody was sure whether it was an outward communications blockade, a complete sociopolitical collapse or there just weren’t enough people left alive. Nobody cared. Australia had grown fatigued from hearing bad news, from seeing all the inter­national television footage of people dying in the streets.

Soon after, the government informed everybody that all communication with the rest of the world was unavailable until further notice.

Perhaps the government was still in contact with other countries, the countries being decimated by disease, the countries who lived in fear of one another’s breath, the countries desperately working on a cure or a vaccine for the latest strain of influenza or another illness that had not reached the continent yet. Kayl didn’t know, didn’t care, what viruses were running rampant elsewhere – what mattered was keeping Australia disease-free.

Nobody would tell Kayl anything anyway. But it was vitally important that someone in Border and Quarantine was keeping up to date with the movement of disease; Kayl would hate for there to be another new sickness here beyond that decades-old, incurable influenza they feared so much. It would be a disaster if there was a new disease they didn’t have a test for, or if the influenza had mutated enough that the tests were no longer effective.

Kayl would have to get a tech to check that, when the techs arrived.

The driver pulled the van up to a curb; Kayl hadn’t even been aware of zoning out. How could Kayl be that tired? It had only been about forty-eight hours without sleep – pathetic. It might be time for one of those impressively addictive little pills that every agent kept in a hidden pocket in their uniform.

It said a lot about Border and Quarantine, a lot that they would not want the public to know, that its agents all had this special hidden pocket for amphetamines; the drugs were as much a part of their uniforms as their masks. When a crisis happened, none of them got to sleep.

Agents had been ruined by those little pills: once an agent became addicted, the agency abandoned them.

Kayl’s record at staying awake on the pills was seven days.

Kayl dropped out the door of the van before it had completely stopped, stood beside it in practised stillness while waiting for the sergeant. The driver was sitting like he’d been switched off, but surely as soon as nobody was looking he would be on his phone, on social media, doing anything but nothing. The sergeant arrived at Kayl’s side.

They walked together to an area roped off with police tape, ignoring the eyes glinting with suspicion in windows all up and down the street, the twitching curtains. People did not understand, could not guess (perhaps did not really care), that their curiosity would simply lead to the city being locked down sooner.

Don’t look, thought Kayl, please don’t look. You’re making every­thing worse.

The uniforms of the local cops looked a bit washed out in the too-harsh daylight as they stood in doorways; walked down footpaths; examined every mark on the ground and every piece of trash and tried to determine if it was important. From time to time they called forensics over to check something.

The tracker was stalking the area, as he should have been, stooped, eyes down, hand covering his eyes.

Kayl waited patiently outside the fence of tape while forensics did their job, while the tracker moved with great care, while police did the only useful thing they could do: knock on doors and annoy people. When one or more of the kids would inevitably break out from the orphanage, it was always the police who brought them back. Kayl could remember seeing those kids returned with blood on their faces, their clothes damaged, sullen but defiant looks embedded so deep in their eyes they might be there forever. When Kayl’s mother was really sick, when Kayl got word of it and was refused a day pass, they had escaped as well. When Kayl returned to the orphanage, because there was nowhere else to go, the police – having failed to find Kayl in the streets – were waiting.

It was the first serious beating Kayl could remember: the first broken nose, the first split eyebrow, the first missing tooth. Kayl had gone from quiet to rebellious, from avoiding fights to causing them, from hopeful to quietly nihilistic and violently pessimistic. The fury had lasted all the way into the academy, to boot camp, where Kayl gained a reputation as someone not to fuck with, to further training as a specialist field investigator, to the streets, to doing whatever was necessary to stop pandemics.

Kayl remained dangerous.

The poised frigidity, the reputation for being inhuman and emotionless, was gained later at a meditation retreat when Kayl had lost control once too often and was given a choice: learn to calm down, or face discharge or worse. For the agency, anything worse than discharge was certainly something too terrifying to contemplate.

Then, when a police inspector in Adelaide somehow contracted a serious disease, it was Kayl who had dispassionately led a group of agents into a fortified police station to remove said inspector to a quarantine hospital. It was Kayl who had decided that every rebellious police officer who had tried to protect the inspector from quarantine would themselves face quarantine and then jail.

It was also Kayl who had tracked down and captured the illegal immigrant who had infected his lover and, ultimately, that police inspector.

Kayl had done it all without losing control, without a flash of temper. Kayl had become a perfect agent, as cold and relentless as winter.

The cops in Darwin were doing their jobs as best they could, which was all Kayl had the right to ask.

One of them approached the sergeant, spoke into her ear. The sergeant spoke into the copper’s ear and the copper answered back.

Kayl studiously listened to the wind, watched the interplay of sun on rustling leaves, concentrated on the feel of breathing; following the breath on its path into the nose, down into the lungs and back out again.

‘Agent,’ the sergeant said in a tone that was not quite a question.

Kayl nodded, then said, ‘Yes, Sergeant. How are we doing, what do we have?’

‘Nothing. We have nothing.’

‘There’s never nothing,’ said Kayl.

Kayl grabbed a tablet, loaded up a map and entered the co-ordinates for where they were, where the microlite was found and where the house was that they were still decontaminating. It was pretty easy to predict the easiest path to connect the three locations. Kayl showed the tablet to the sergeant. ‘Get the tracker and as many police as you can together, follow that trail, tell them to spread out a couple of blocks wide if they can and canvas every house, check every inch of ground for tracks or clues.’

‘Fuck,’ said the sergeant, ‘that’s a fuck tonne of doors to knock on.’

‘Got any better ideas?’

There was time for the wind to sing in Kayl’s ear, for hearts to beat, for a crow to pass overhead cawing before the sergeant turned on her heel and walked off towards the tracker, beckoning senior police over.

Kayl’s phone screamed.

Kayl fought for composure; that particular scream was only set to go off in certain situations.

Kayl’s phone hollered again.

ALERT ALERT ALERT, the screen read.

Kayl checked the details and was faced with the worst imaginable news at that stage of the mission: the presence in Darwin of an unknown plague carrier and a Border and Quarantine agent was going viral on social media.

Kayl thumbed a hotline app and spoke into the phone: ‘We need immediate stage-four lockdown in Darwin of unknown duration, nobody in or out, nobody leaves their homes. Implement now and send me some backup.’

Someone was standing in the street, phone in hand, held in a way that made it obvious they were filming Kayl and the police. ‘You,’ Kayl said to a passing constable, ‘arrest that person and confiscate their phone.’

The constable hustled uncomfortably towards the house as the person in the doorway ran inside; the constable chased after her, almost shouldering the door off its hinges. He must have guessed Kayl was about to declare a state of emergency. The arrest was noisier than Kayl would have liked; up and down the road, curtains twitched.

The sergeant came running, ready to draw blood. ‘I just got a notification: the city’s being locked down immediately. For fuck’s sake, there’s going to be blood in the streets, people panicking, running to the shops – we don’t have enough officers to keep the peace.’

Kayl looked at the sergeant blankly. ‘Then get every officer in, call in the army – there’s a base right nearby, isn’t there?’

For a moment there was exasperated fury in the sergeant’s eyes, but she turned and ran off, pulling her phone out of her pocket as she moved. Kayl’s phone buzzed. The voice of the agency director coming down the line was not what should be expected at this juncture. ‘Situation report, Agent – is the lockdown necessary?’

‘Yes, sir, Director. We haven’t found the fugitive yet, we don’t know what they’re carrying, we still need to track them down and test them. We don’t know where they’ve been. We don’t know if they have a virus, if they’ve infected anybody else. This city is not secured at this point and social media is aware there’s something going on. We need to lock it down.’

‘It’s your call, Agent. We’ll send as many field agents as we can spare and the emergency crews.’

‘Thank you, Director.’

‘Keep up the good work, Agent. Find that fugitive and contain that infection. We haven’t gone public with this yet, but there are rumours from Europe of a dangerous new disease with pandemic potential coming out of Asia.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Kayl was suddenly terrified.

Police constables were running and Kayl could hear screaming, shouting, fury. Someone was attacking a copper with a broomstick; Kayl sympathised with that desire. The copper was pulling out a gun.

‘Sorry, sir, I have to go – someone’s attacking a local copper. They must have seen the lockdown report and lost their shit. The cops might be about to shoot someone. It’s a bit early for that behaviour.’

The lazy day had become something else; the populace had woken as if from a long sleep and was starting to snarl. Engines were roaring, voices too, and people were following the noise out into the street. Drones and choppers cut the silence of the sky; the entire city felt dangerous. Kayl ran over to the fight, disarmed the cop and then stunned the broom-wielder at the speed of rumour. The white van roared to a stop close enough to feel dangerous. ‘The sergeant advised me to pick you up,’ said the driver.

Getting in, Kayl said, ‘Thanks. Let’s go to the quarantine hospital – I have access to secure offices there. I’m commandeering your services: you work for B and Q now.’

As they drove, the streets were alive, scared and angry. A car ran a red light and the van driver barely avoided it; a torched car was burning; people threw rocks at a police car; the coppers fired rubber bullets into the crowd.

They passed a shopping centre and already the car park was bedlam, with people fighting over parking spots, brawling over trolleys, shoving each other out of the way to get through the doors faster. Kayl knew that inside the shop would be worse, with people panic buying things they didn’t really need, fighting over goods because they were scarce rather than necessary and buying the wrong things that would not keep them alive.

A fight broke out in the car park and Kayl saw a trolley tip over, scattering groceries over the asphalt. Someone – it might have been the owner of the groceries, maybe not – pulled a gun, and people started running. Kayl’s driver made to turn around and go back to break up the fight.

‘No,’ Kayl said. ‘Call it in but don’t stop. We need to get to a secure location before things get worse. We need to ensure the plague hospital is clean and prepared, and we need to prepare for the arrival of a medical team and Border and Quarantine staff.’

The driver nodded and dialled a number on his phone with his left thumb.

Just as the driver held the phone to his ear, Kayl’s phone rang, and there was a moment of confusion as both thought he must have called Kayl by mistake.

But Kayl’s phone was an unknown number.

‘Agent,’ said a sleepily calm voice, ‘I have Major Thomas on the line. Can you take the call?’

‘Of course.’

The line was silent; not even hold music. Kayl waited.

‘Agent.’ The major had a much nicer voice than Kayl had expected. Calm and measured, but powerful.

‘Major.’

‘I’ve been informed that until the city is confirmed as clean of infection, you have control over all the government facilities you require. I’m calling to inquire if there’s anything you need from our forces on base.’

Kayl considered this. ‘Thank you, Major. You’re well positioned, on the edge of the city, to assist in maintaining the blockade, and we need that blockade staffed as much as it can be, as soon as possible. Nobody gets out of here. I’ll have Border Force aid relieve you as soon as they arrive.’

‘Yes, Agent,’ said the major. ‘I’ll send troops to enforce the blockade as soon as possible.’

They passed the airport, where people were charging the doors, which were locked and being held closed by baton-swinging riot cops. The crowd was roaring like a hurricane. As they drove past, someone saw the red flash of Kayl’s uniform mask and threw a stone. Someone else started chasing the van and others joined them, a great migration, a herd fuelled by hate and instinct.

‘At least we’re drawing them away from the doors,’ quipped the driver. ‘Shall I slow down and let them think they can catch us?’

Kayl didn’t want to laugh, but did.

The driver really did slow down, but not enough for the crowds to catch them.

They passed through a gate that closed behind them in the faces of the rioters, went down a ramp and roared into an underground car park. They halted near a door bearing the agency’s logo. Kayl left the van and thumbed a panel beside the door to open it. Inside was a long corridor, some interview rooms and an empty field office with a desk, a phone, a computer, some tablets. Somewhere on this floor would be barracks for Border and Quarantine troops and small private rooms for officers and agents.

Kayl needed sleep, but knew there was no time; took out two stimulant pills and swallowed them dry.

The phone on the desk started ringing. Kayl stared at it for a while in the way that one examines a poisonous snake behind glass and then grabbed the handset.

‘Yes?’

There was short, heavy breathing on the other end, someone in pain or afraid, perhaps both. ‘Please,’ the voice said, thick with an accent Kayl could not quite place, ‘Stop chasing me, stop looking for me, don’t lock down your city. I’m not sick, I’m not infected.’

Kayl said, ‘Do you really think I’m going to believe what you say?’ while reaching over and starting a call-trace via an app.

‘Please,’ the voice said again. ‘I’m not going to hurt anybody, I’m not infectious. I need to get out of this city.’

Kayl thought, Not going to happen, and then, what the hell, said it.

There was silence at the other end of the line.

Kayl checked the app; the trace had not completed.

 

KAYL STOOD IN the airport arrivals lounge watching a plane disgorge its passengers and trying to ignore the riot still raging around the doors. Through the gate came about fifty Border and Quarantine patrol troopers in blood-red fatigues, their faces masked and goggled, then armed soldiers in khaki and federal police in navy-blue uniforms. Finally, with less order, with the responsibility to be disciplined and controlled resting entirely on their own shoulders, a group of people who were probably doctors and nurses, and other medical and science professionals, in street clothes; they might be a problem, they didn’t follow orders like military and police.

On the other hand, doctors and scientists tended to be better at being self-directed; they would not need their hands held as much. The army would control the borders, the feds would try to find the pilot, and the Border and Quarantine patrol would help do both. But it was the doctors, nurses, scientists and pathologists who were the most important arrivals, as much as the military and police wouldn’t want to hear that. The doctors would be running the quarantine hospital; if there was an outbreak, the doctors and nurses would start the fight to save as many lives as possible. The scientists and pathologists would be analysing samples taken from the sick.

Last out of the plane were ten Border and Quarantine agents. The heads of each organisation or team would soon gather in the meeting room in the Border and Quarantine offices beneath the plague hospital. Kayl walked through an airport checkpoint and down the corridor that led to the offices. Kayl was now wearing goggles and thick gloves, which removed their last vestige of visible humanity. Not long after the agency had been established, not long before the borders were closed ‘until further notice’, an international arrival at Melbourne airport had showed disdain at being dragged to a lockdown hospital by spitting in a lead agent’s eyes. That agent, who’d been the mentor of one of Kayl’s mentors, had died, coughing up corrupted foam from useless lungs, delirious from lack of oxygen as much as from fever.

After that, goggles had become part of the agents’ uniform during a lockdown or state of emergency.

Kayl hated goggles – the thick plastic of the lenses was too much of a wall between the eyes and the world. Yet Kayl always followed orders; the inspired, half-mad solutions that made Kayl a great agent happened in the gap between those orders.

The meeting room was windowless, with a table, a huge screen on one wall, a whiteboard and about twenty chairs. In front of each chair was a tablet and a glass of water.

A plane with quarantine staff, orderlies, cooks, and logistics and medical staff was already on its way.

The agents arrived at the meeting first. Kayl had not met any of them before, but that was not unusual, as agents rarely worked together; until an outbreak, they investigated solo. They took seats, scattered around the table in a pattern that could only have been devised to appear random.

The army arrived next; Major Thomas had a dressing over one eyebrow and the faintest trace of blood staining that side of his face. His eyes looked like he had seen things that day he’d never wanted to see. Kayl had noticed that look before on the faces of other military officers forced to undertake the most violent of peacetime operations they could be called on to perform: the sudden hard lockdown of a city.

‘Major,’ said Kayl with a tiny bow of the head, ‘it’s good to finally meet you in person.’ The major saluted. They did not shake hands; protocol was against that during an outbreak. Shaking hands was less common than it used to be in the old days anyway, Kayl had heard.

Kayl liked the senior federal agent at first sight: a short black woman, but not Indigenous, with her white hair in a pageboy cut. ‘Agent Green,’ she said, ‘I’m Agent White, which proves that God has a sense of humour.’

Kayl didn’t want to laugh, but did. ‘Please, Agent White, take a seat. We’ll get started once everybody has arrived.’

Next came a Border and Quarantine supervisor, somehow looking uncomfortable in bright red; she greeted the agents she knew with elbow bumps and sat down.

The local police sergeant stormed in, something on her tongue trying to break out through her lips. She noticed the Border and Quarantine agents, silent in their black and red, the federal agent staring thoughtfully, and the major, bloody-faced and brooding, and stopped dead.

Tension overtook the room like a cavalry charge. Kayl’s esteem for the sergeant collapsed: if that woman had a problem, she should have been strong enough to say it despite the room.

The crippling tension broke when a woman and a man in nurse’s scrubs walked in. Kayl wondered which was the lead scientist and which was the lead doctor. But it didn’t really matter – they had a job to do and they were going to do it.

‘I think that’s everybody,’ said Kayl through air that was as thick as plasticine. ‘There’s probably a lot to say and we don’t all know each other, for obvious reasons, but every one of us has a job to do. You know your roles, but protocol requires me to remind you what your jobs are. Medical,’ – the civvy man and the man in nurse’s scrubs both nodded – ‘your immediate responsibility is to prepare the hospital for unknown numbers of infected people. Also of critical importance is preparation for testing potentially thousands of patients and collecting thousands of samples.

‘As for the rest of you: Major, I would appreciate if you could keep holding the city borders, not let anyone out. Police, I need you to keep order as much as possible until we find the fugitive. Federal police, I need you to help me find them, whoever they are. All we know is that it’s a woman or non-binary person, between 155 and 160 centimetres tall. Co-ordinate with the B and Q agents and Territory police; the sergeant here is my liaison with local police. It’s vitally important you work together and co-ordinate well. We need to find this person.

‘Finally, scientists, your lab should be equipped to test samples and to develop more reliable tests. We need to know everything we can about any diseases the fugitive might be carrying. They might be carrying a pathogen we have never encountered before. You’ve all drilled for this scenario, so you all know what to do. Any questions?’

Nobody said anything.

‘Okay. My office is on this floor and you can get me on the phone. If you need me, I’m here. I’m in charge of this operation. I haven’t been allocated an aide yet, but when I am, they’ll be answering my phone. There are meeting rooms all over the building, so feel free to arrange meetings with whoever you like and to open whatever facilities and offices you need. Thank you.’

The group started filtering out, and soon the room was empty. Then Kayl realised it wasn’t – Agent White was still there, silent, watching Kayl expectantly.

‘Yes, Agent?’ said Kayl, slightly irritated.

‘I feel like I need to fully disclose my real intent and mission here. I wasn’t just brought in to help find your fugitive. I was also sent here to check up on your actions and the actions of your department. There are concerns that quarantine is being abused, that your department has too much power, that fear of an outbreak has been used to seize power.’

Kayl didn’t immediately know what to say to that, took advantage of the blankness provided by their mask and goggles. ‘Thank you for informing me, Agent White. I can guess that you weren’t supposed to.’

White shrugged. ‘I wasn’t told to tell you, nor was I told not to tell you. I’ve been assigned to watch you for some time, and I’ve seen the surveillance on you – one thing your department’s good at is collecting surveillance on agents – and I’ve read your files. I don’t think you’re corrupt. I’m certain if you knew of corruption in your department, you’d want to stop it.’

Kayl shrugged. ‘I can assure you I’m not involved in any corruption, Agent. Not that I know of.’

A little shiver, an internal pain, warned Kayl of the danger. That the agency might not be protecting the country, was not doing what it was intended to do, and that Kayl was part of that abuse, was not a thought to be entertained. But Kayl did not like doubt; it got in the way of doing the job.

White said, ‘I just wanted to do you the courtesy of letting you know you’re being watched.’

‘Thank you, I guess,’ Kayl said.

 

CO-ORDINATING OPERATIONS OVER an entire city was not as fun as it sounded, and it didn’t sound fun in the first place. Kayl needed to get out and join the hunt for the fugitive. It was perhaps irresponsible to be out chasing a ghost when there was other work to do, but Kayl wasn’t exactly out of contact. Everybody had a mobile phone.

The city had developed from surly to outright bratty, from threats of violence to riots and insurrection. Even the drive through the city was not without danger, with bricks thrown, hands bashing against the side of the van, Kayl’s driver flinching with every noise, with every blow. The agency mask was a target for every angry fist, every hurled rock.

‘We’ve tracked the movement of the fugitive and have a pretty good idea where to find her,’ the sergeant said over the phone, giving Kayl an address to start the pursuit.

They passed a supermarket where the car park had become a snarl of badly parked cars.

People inside would be fighting, perhaps over the last can of beans, the last bag of flour or the last packet of toilet paper, the last barely edible can of tinned meat. A scrum of local police ran into the supermarket, carrying stun guns in their hands. A chopper flew overhead – Kayl looked up to see if it was one of theirs or from the news or, even worse, someone trying to break quarantine in a private chopper. A flock of drones hovered over the car park, filming; some would surely be police or B and Q surveillance, others from local media. Some might even be civilians fucking around.

Down a street, no movement visible, no cars on the road, every door closed, every curtain shut, cars in driveways, bicycles on front lawns, a pained, oppressive silence. In the distance, the sound of engines roaring and tyres screaming; shouting voices and doors slamming.

Then noise, the sound of engines, of drones, of choppers, of shouting voices. They gave chase in the van.

They came to a park, a path, trees, swarming police. Kayl dove from the car and started running.

Kayl could hear the police giving chase, feet pounding, breathing heavy, the shouts of ‘Stop’ and ‘I’ll shoot’. Kayl ran, delighting in their own speed and stamina.

There had been another chase, in Perth, the subject a carrier of the last pandemic flu who had somehow managed to enter the country; perhaps by sea kayak.

He was asymptomatic, did not want to know how dangerous he was. He had stabbed the first agent who’d tried to apprehend him. Kayl had chased him down in the end, down the alleyways, smelling sweat and spit and heat through the fabric of a mask, the heat of the sun.

Border and Quarantine agents were chasing him, local police were chasing him, Kayl was leading the chase, sweating and feeling and fearing with the police.

Kayl had caught up with the infected man as a local police officer’s bullet dropped him to his knees. He would have died in Kayl’s arms, but it was not safe to touch him. He had stared at Kayl with pleading eyes until the moment the light of life left them.

In Darwin a shot rang out, echoing off the walls, off the hard fences, and Kayl accelerated, pushing legs, pounding pavement until it hurt, until it would be impossible to run any faster. Then another shot and Kayl somehow, impossibly, found more speed.

More shouting, around the corner, Kayl chased the sound. Police pounded ahead and to the side, guns drawn. The fugitive was not in sight.

Agent White appeared from the scrum, angling towards Kayl. ‘I want to take that fugitive alive, Agent Green,’ she puffed.

‘That would be optimal,’ agreed Kayl, ‘if for no other reason than it being easier to question and test a living prisoner.’

Kayl and White kept pace, chasing the coppers down a street and into an alley between fences.

There were police everywhere, a chopper eating the air, the sound of its hunger deafening, its downdraft throwing drones to the ground. And dead ahead, dressed in white, sweat-stained and dirty, was the fugitive, a small, thin woman, her back to the pursuit, running full tilt down a terrified suburban street.

Someone fired; it might have been a warning shot because the sound rang out, echoed around the buildings, seemed to fill the sky itself. The fugitive kept running.

‘Ceasefire,’ screamed Agent White, ‘all of you.’

Kayl caught up with the fugitive as she staggered to a halt and warned the cops, with a glance, to stay back.

‘I’m not infected,’ said the fugitive.

‘I’m not sure I can believe you,’ replied Kayl.

‘My name,’ said the fugitive, ‘is Dr Nurul. I’m trying to deliver a vaccine for the pandemic flu to your country’s scientists. Your government said they don’t want it and I don’t understand why.’

Kayl could hear the drones, the noise of the chopper. Could feel the movement of the cops, the Federal Police and Border and Quarantine agents who had just arrived. The sound of the wind was muted but it was still there, its voice tormented. Kayl could see Agent White approaching, could hear murmurs from the surrounding troops from three different chains of command.

Kayl could not feel the ground, could not feel Country, did not know what to do.

A shot rang out and Dr Nurul fell to her knees. Kayl turned and saw the sergeant holding a gun aimed at the doctor.

‘Please,’ whispered the doctor, furtively pressing a small parcel into Kayl’s gloved hand, ‘take this. It’s the vaccine and instructions for how to make more. I was trying to deliver it to a lab at a university in Sydney where they can replicate it.’

Kayl disappeared the parcel into a pocket, turned and paced over to the sergeant with deceptive calm, buoyed by belief and love of Country, reached out and took the gun from her hand, looked at it, felt the wind, smelled for the scent of life and pointed the gun between the sergeant’s eyes. Feeling the vibrations in the land, Kayl dropped the gun and walked away.

The bright sun had become too bright, hateful, the smell of leaves had become a fume, the fresh air full of miasmata. This was never the plan. Kayl had not imagined that quarantine was just to keep people out; that the disease Australia so feared had been defeated elsewhere; that the borders should have reopened. B and Q had kept them shut just to keep them shut, used the plague as an excuse.

Kayl’s red mask landed on the road; as soon as the cops were out of sight Kayl dropped to their knees and puked into a drain. Kayl’s goggles meant that nobody could see Kayl cry at the kindness of strangers, at the kindness of this stranger who had died to bring the vaccine to Australia, at the stranger Kayl had hunted down while ‘just doing the job’.

Kayl didn’t want to believe it, but it felt true.

 

THE BAR WAS noisy, crowded. It felt strange to Kayl to be out of uniform, in civilian clothes, without a mask. It felt great to finally have a night off, to drink and try to forget.

Like in a gun battle, it had become too easy to lose track of all the shots taken.

Kayl turned just in time to see a pair of agents become visible in the crowd, wearing the red masks that so terrified the public. Sloppy – their presence in a bar would cause panic. Kayl, if in charge of a mission, would not recommend acquiring a target in bar.

Sadly, Kayl was not co-ordinating the capture of a target; Kayl was the target.

‘Agent,’ said one of the agents, ‘we’re taking you in.’

Kayl shrugged, prepared to stand, but a hand was on Kayl’s shoulder. It was Agent White.

‘I don’t think so,’ White said. ‘I get this agent first.’

Kayl did not resist being taken away from the other agents, out of the bar and into the street. They stopped in an alleyway a block away.

‘It was never about quarantine and disease,’ Agent White said. ‘It was always just an excuse. I need you out and free so you can testify to the Plaguency’s abuses of power, if and when we’re in position to do something. Now get the hell out of here.’

Kayl started to walk away, but stopped.

‘The vax was real,’ said Kayl. ‘I delivered it where Dr Nurul wanted it to go. They’ve confirmed that it’s real, and there’s enough information on the USB for them to make enough to vaccinate the entire continent. They told me the rest of the world has had that vaccine for nearly five years. They say they were offered it, but our government refused to give them import permission.’

‘When I find you again,’ said White, ‘when I need you to testify, you tell them that.’

There was nothing Kayl feared more than the kindness of strangers – kindness that could not be repaid.

Kayl ran.

 

This essay was edited with the assistance of Allanah Hunt, Jasmin McGaughey and Grace Lucas-Pennington as part of State Library of Queensland’s black&write! editorial program.

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