The Asian across the table from me is tearing great gobs of warm flesh from his girlfriend’s neck. Tendons and tissue hang from his mouth in bloody spaghetti strands while his jaw works tirelessly to consume. He chews her like gum.
The skull of the small dog, cooked and served on the plate between us, has me thinking the Asian is Korean. The crisped flesh with the dark ginger sauce and the crusty roasted eyes are probably a delicacy, I could be wrong or course, he might not be Korean. The cooked eyes might be garbage.
I look away from the dog head. It’s making me salivate in a way I’m not comfortable with. The Asian casually pushes the girl away. She hasn’t resisted him, cried out or shown fear. She’s Tankbread.
‘You like dog?’ The Asian’s voice is thick with juice but eloquent for one of his kind.
‘Reminds me of a pet I once had.’ I reply and let my right hand slide over the handgrip of the sawn-off shotgun holstered to my thigh.
‘Ha-ha! You had good dog yes? Now you good dog.’ Evol humour I suppose. Maybe some geek has written a paper on it. Something for the other geeks to consider as they push out Tankbread and keep us from taking that final step into extinction. The Asian leans forward, his eyes clouded, like dead fish eyes, but I can feel his intelligence shining through.
‘We do business now. You deal, you get dog.’
As far as opening offers go, I’ve had worse. Usually of the ‘Do what I say or get butt-fucked with a bayonet,’ pedigree.
‘I’m listening,’ it is true in the literal sense. I’m listening so hard I can barely think. The space behind us is filled with evols and the humans who serve them. Some of the walking dead are chowing down on Tankbread. The room echoes with the wet sound of living flesh being torn from bone. The low murmur of zombie growls muffled only by the thick wads of raw meat they are gorging on. And there’s the smell. Slow decay, the nostril-clogging stink of flesh starting to rot. You get used to it. You become immune or your nose just gives up and says screw it, this stench is normal. Fresh air is what smells odd now.
‘I’m listening.’ I’m listening for the one chance an outlaw like me can have. The early days of hunting these zombie pricks have long passed. It’s a new world order and each of us have to stake our claim and exercise our Darwinian right to exist.
‘You go to Opera House, tell them Soo-Yong send you. Bring back what they give you. Bring to me here.’
He knows I’ve understood. There is a change in his expression from the determined focus required for the formation of thought and words ,, to the more basic recognition of meat emotions. His grey lips constrict into a grin that goes well beyond mere rictus.
‘And what’s in it for me?’ I ask the age old question that was Yang to his Yin. Judas would have asked the same thing.
‘Passage, vehicle, supplies. You can run away like a bad dog.’
I swallowed. I wasn’t in a position to argue, but I could sure act like negotiating might be an option. ‘There’s some wild turf between us and the House. Whatcha got to get me there?’
‘Motorcycle, four litre fuel for bike. Two round for that shotgun. Fare for the boatman. House give you same for return. But must bring back what they give you or…’ Soo-Yong didn’t need to waste his rotting brains on spelling it out. Fuck it up, and I was worse than dead.
The evols do fine if they have time to marshal their thoughts, think things through and arrive at the same conclusion that you or I could come to in seconds. Except with them, it can take hours.
How the hell did they end up ruling the world?
I ate the roast dog while I waited, crouched in the evening shade under a tattered canvas awning. The diner, in the eastern suburbs of Sydney was run by meat, that’s live folk like you and me. They were the people who’d gotten over the crawling revulsion that the living felt for our zombie masters and worked for them. Doing shit like cooking dogs in ginger sauce for the occasional living diner like me and tending the tankbread.
All of us who are older than twenty-something still remember the war, the apocalypse, the end-of-the-fucking-world. Call it what you want, it all refers to when the dead started coming back to life and attacking the living. It’s the sort of shit we used to go to the Drive In to see. We used to go see movies about all kinds of things back in the day. Now we live in a state of cold war. Some of us have gone crazy, some of us are holed up in secure compounds and some of us are kissing dead arse. Yet we keep telling ourselves--at least we’re alive, right?
Evols, zombies, the walking dead. Early on, when TV still worked and we thought we had a chance, some geek labelled the risen dead as Extremely Violent Lucid Organisms. Evol was easier to Tweet and the moniker caught on around the world. Almost as fast as the virus, or meteor or toxic waste, or genetic engineering experiment. We still don’t know what caused the mess. When someone dies you destroy their brain or they get up again and start trying to eat whoever is close. What the geeks call the infection factor is transmitted by undead body fluids in contact with open wounds. I’ve never seen anyone survive a zombie bite.
There was a little time between my accepting the job from Soo-Yong and sitting astride a beaten up trail bike watching closely as exactly four litres of fuel was measured into the tank by one of Soo-Yong’s mob. He must have been thinking about this for a while.
The bike took some starting and evols don’t like loud noises. When the engine backfired the bunch that were hanging around set to moaning and shuffling in that way they do when agitated. I was sweating ice water throughout the next three pumps on the kick-start before the bike came to life.
Soo-Yong handed over the two shotgun rounds last, carefully wrapped in a scrap of old tinfoil. The foil was a valuable item in itself. I hadn’t seen tinfoil in I didn’t know how long. The fare for the boatman was in a stained sack on a rope, which I looped and tied over my shoulder.
I didn’t stop to wave, or make a speech; they wouldn’t have listened anyway. I tore out of the diner car park, past the burned out shells of long abandoned cars and through the streets of the evol-controlled sector of the city. The dead were walking the streets, they had no concern for day or night, and it was now well dark. They just got out and wandered around, reliving some parody of their former lives. The geeks said it was part of their re-evolution. The walking dead were reinforcing synaptic links by repetition of learned behaviour.
It still freaks me out to see them stumbling around, lining up for buses that will never come, wandering through decaying shops in silent malls, and no doubt when, whatever internal clock they are setting their time by tells them to, they go home and try to fuck their putrescent wives.
Meat live here too; the survivors who refuse to give up their nice north Sydney homes in suburbs like Roseville. They’re usually in well barricaded apartment buildings or parks. They keep some livestock, a sheep or a goat. I even saw a cow once, calmly chewing it’s cud in a rooftop garden. With no fence or tether to stop it stampeding over the edge and falling 13 floors to the empty street below. The city dwelling meat are hard-core survivalists and they tend to keep to themselves. I guess they know they are one failed crop away from cannibalism.
I rode through a silent city. Zombies, both solo and in small packs caught on to the noise of the bike and started following. There was never enough Tankbread to go around and most of these were feral zeds. A steady diet of ‘bread kept the evols who could get their hands on it intelligent and almost civil. Regardless, I usually walked, scuttled or scurried from shadow to bolt hole when I had to travel. The dead are everywhere and they have a taste for human flesh. There’s been as much speculation as to why the dead attack the living as there has been about what caused them to get up in the first place. All I know for sure is that if they are eating tankbread, they aren’t eating me.
Many small communities in the great Sydney ruin would let me stay for a day or a night in exchange for some news or whatever job needed doing. Never longer; food was always a problem and they didn’t like extra mouths to feed.
Crossing the Sydney harbour is always risky and I don’t do it often. The bridge was blown back in the early days. No one thought ahead far enough to realise that evols don’t need to breathe. Whatever need was driving them on would push them into the water, along the septic bottom and up the other side.
They came out of the dark water, clambering and falling over the abandoned tables and chairs of the restaurants and cafes that lined the waterfront to scale the harbour side barricades.
I remember the screaming. It seemed constant, people just screamed and screamed during those dark times. We called it The Great Panic and I never got used to it. Though I miss the noise now that the world is so quiet.
The dead got through all our defences of course, they always did. Every one of us that fell became another one of them. The siege mentality and a need to secure a large number of civilians made the Sydney Opera House an obvious choice. So it was there, at the living heart of the greatest city in Australia that we made our final stand. The slaughter stopped at the barricades on those iconic steps.
Some survivors call it The War. It wasn’t a war. It was a fight to survive. We haven’t won it yet, and I don’t see how we ever can. In time we will die out, Tankbread or no Tankbread. We have a limited usefulness and if the evols haven’t figured it out yet they will eventually. Like they seem to with everything else.
I rode down the Pacific Highway, passing empty shops and dead faces. There was nothing worth scrounging from here anymore, it had all been stripped years ago. First, anything that could be used as a weapon, then food and finally anything that would burn, could be used as shelter or traded for food. The dead don’t need to eat to survive like us living folk, but they have a hunger. Tankbread soothe that, like a nicotine patch for a heavy smoker.
At the corner of Pacific and Freeman I came up on a roadblock. There were no dead around and this wasn’t their style. I stopped the bike, acting casual as I glanced around, looking for movement. The zombies following me hadn’t caught up yet, but they were coming.
The intersection had been sealed off with wrecked cars. I waited, the bike idling away underneath me, burning through the precious few litres of fuel I had.
With a flash of movement he appeared first on a balcony of the apartment building on my left. I kept looking around because he might have had buddies lining me up for a shot. A minute later a thin figure with long grey hair and beard appeared on the other side of the cars. He wore a business shirt that might have been white once and a filth encrusted tie. ‘Hey mate,’ he said in greeting. I switched the bike off and stroked the butt of the shotgun on my thigh.
‘Evening,’ I couldn’t hear the evols coming up behind me yet, but I could feel the skin between my shoulder blades crawling in anticipation.
‘Say,’ the guy wiped his matted hair back from his eyes. ‘Got any food to trade mate?’
‘Nope.’ It was true. I didn't have shit, the roast dog was the first decent meal I’d eaten in days. The man licked his lips and glanced back at the open door way of the apartment building.
‘You gotta have something,’ he paced up and down on the other side of the blockade. ‘We are dying here man. Rats got into my supplies. There’s no more cans you know? No fucking cans!’
‘It’s hard all over. How about you shift this car and let me through?’
‘Wait, wait, I got something you want. Yeah I got something every guy wants. Wait right there.’ He darted back into the shadows and re-emerged with two kids in tow. One a girl, maybe fourteen years old, bone thin, small breasts, and long dreadlocked hair adorned with bottle caps and shards of shiny plastic. She wore a long singlet and her legs were pockmarked with sores and scabs. The other kid was an even younger boy. As thin as the girl, his hair hung down past his shoulders too. He wore nothing but a pair of stained underpants that he held up with one hand under his swollen belly.
‘Gimme some food and you can fuck my girl. She’s a great cock-sucker. Just a can, some meat. Anything man and you can do her all night,’ He pulled the girl forward and swept her hair back, tilting her face up so I could get a clear look. ‘Maybe you like boys? You can fuck him too if you want. He kinda looks like a girl anyway.’
‘I told you man, I don’t have any food.’ Now I could hear them, the slow gait and moans of the dead. A whispering hiss of dry flesh shuffling down the street towards us. When the dead move they attract others, and crowds form quickly, which can mean certain death if they corner you.
‘Listen,’ I hissed at the bearded man. ‘You hear that? There’s a parade of evols coming up behind me, and if you don’t clear the way they are going to be all over you and your kids and then food is going to be the least of your problems.’
He started pawing the girl’s breasts, doing the hard sell, I pushed the bike’s kickstand down and climbed over the barricade.
The guy snatched at the sack over my shoulder. It had nothing for him in it, just my fare across the harbour. I pulled it out of his reach and yanked the car door open. Twisting the wheel I pushed back, rolling it slowly out of the blockade and opening up enough space to ride through.
‘Please, we are fucked, completely fucked!’ Shirt and Tie was crying, tears streaking white in the grime on his cheeks.‘Dance for the man baby, show him you’re sexy.’ He pushed his daughter at me. She started twisting and moving in a listless way. I got the car moved and jogged back to the bike. Dark silhouettes appeared from the darkness down the street. I kicked the bike to life and rolled through past the family. ‘You might want to get out of here,’ I called as I rode past. I didn’t look back again and focused on putting distance between me and the following dead.