End of the Track
So people listen, we all shall go
As our springs have dried and the seasons changed.
We smile, because that day will come
When we are gone...
As night descends, so ends our day.
The hour was just past darkest night. Carlos had driven for hours and hundreds of kilometers. He had only stopped twice since the weird battle with the thylacine. Once was to observe a falling "star" less than two kilometers from the road. Looking through binoculars, he saw it land, and then from the roof of the Bus, he examined what remained of the object. "It's a satellite," he had said.
After that, he had Jonny zoom out the satellite feed to a wider field, and Carlos stopped again to look at the results. It proved grainy, with obvious skips in the real-time feed. There were also four new dark spaces in the map: at Barrow, at Renner Springs, at Newcastle and at the town of Cape Crawford, which was a long distance directly north of Barkly. Carlos had sworn. "The kudlak plague must've gone north, with a few who managed to drive out of Barkly on the Tablelands route. If it goes west from there, the army in Newcastle would be cut off. So they're fallin' back, prob'ly to Daly, maybe all the way to Katherine."
Now, as they approached an intersecting road that came south from Barrow and went down to Hart's range, he swore again, at an odd vehicles that barred the way south. Its body that were little more than a six-wheeled chassis, and it bore a ball turret conspicuously lacking room for an operator. "Shoulda seen this coming," he said. "They left a battle drone to cover their butts."
"Turn right!" a voice blared from the drone. "Turn left, and you will be fired upon! Go forward, and you will be fired upon!" Carlos stopped, opened the door and strode toward the drone. "Return to your vehicle! Halt! Back away from the unit! Display your hands and-" Carlos lobbed a small object with an underhanded throw. It bounced twice and then rolled between the drone's wheels. There was no explosion, but a bright flash. The drone's loud speakers squealed and then shut down with an audible click.
Carlos returned to the Bus, and drove down the southwestern route, nosing the inert drone off the road and out of the way. "It'll probably come back on line in 10 minutes," he said. "We can be out of acquisition range by then."
But, in less time than that, there was a sound of helicopter rotors. A large transport helicopter swooped overhead. A voice blared from on high: "Corporal Carlos Wrzniewski! Pull over! We are here to help you!"
Carlos pulled the yoke back, and the Bus slowed to a halt. The helicopter came down in front of him. The doors in its sides slid open, and four soldiers in exoskeletons piled out. One of them approached the Bus. "Corporal Carlos Wrzniewski," he said, "you have orders to come with us."
"Haven't taken orders in a long time," Carlos said. "Wouldn't have thought I was past that."
"You know better, Corporal. In a state of national emergence, any and all past or present Defense Force personnel can be placed on active duty. And, frankly, you seem to be the one person able to deal with the situation. An order was issued to locate you almost 24 hours ago. If you had stayed at your homestead, you would already have been picked up."
Carlos waved at the children. "Would they?" he said. The officer gave no answer, which was answer enough. "So what exactly do they think they need me for?"
"Engagements with the- infected have gone poorly," the officer said guardedly. "The tactics recommended in your original reports don't work consistently. There have been significant failures in containment."
"If you paid attention to my bloody report," Carlos responded sardonically, "you would know that you need to shoot at the base of the skull. Or sever the spine, or just torch them. And you have to screen survivors for bites. If they have them, it's likely, maybe certain, they'll turn. That, I'll admit, is new. Now, either you can help me move these kids, or you can bloody well get out of my way." The officer turned aside, muttering audibly but not intelligibly into a mouth piece.
Turning back, he said, "All right, I have authorization to pick up as many civilians as the chopper will carry, provided you come with them, and leave two of my men- the drone too, if you left it in one piece- to escort the rest to Hart's Range. That takes care of ten of your charges."
"Where do we go?"
"Katherine." Under Carlos' stern gaze, he added, "Hart's Range is being converted into an aid station. They will be safe there."
"Safer than Barrow was?"
"The Barrow site is being evacuated, but it's still functional as we speak," the officer said. "The Hart's Range station is set up to receive the civilians from there. And, civilians are being allowed to drive east from there as soon as they are screened." Carlos nodded, though he continued to scowl. Jonny had no trouble recognizing his thought: The officer was almost certainly putting an overly positive spin on events, but his account of the bare facts could be trusted.
Carlos spoke: "Here's my final offer: You take the women and kids in those two other vehicles. I drive the rest of the way to Hart's Range, and fly out of there as soon as those with me are evacuated."
After more muttering, the officer said, "Command accepts." Colleen, Esther and their passengers boarded the helicopter, and the empty vehicles parked beside the road. Before reboarding, the officer told Carlos, "I'm not authorized to tell you this, but you probably saved half the territory yesterday." Carlos watched the helicopter until it disappeared. To north and west, there was a flash just below the curve of the horizon, about where Barrow would be.
They reached Hart's Range just after dawn. They found a scene of chaos. The small roadside town had expanded into a tent city worthy of a large army. The number of itinerants could not be less than 5,000. Cars could be seen driving east, but for every one that went through, ten backed up behind. The visible military presence had been reduced to a single squad, divided between the entrance and exit of the town, plus a second squad gathered around a single helicopter clearly prepped to leave. A few more were presumably in the screening tents, from which short bursts of gunfire could be heard at regular intervals.
At the sight of the approaching Bus, the soldiers around the helicopter shouted and pointed, and two ran up the road. Carlos stopped 100 m short of the station gate. "Get out, kids," he said. "Run to those soldiers. They'll take care of you. You too, Jonny. Leave the tablet."
The children complied, mostly in silence. Jonny got off first, and the others gathered around him. Tommy cried and clung to his seat. Billy had to pry him away and carry him. The elder brother looked back, with tears in his eyes. "What about you, Carlos?"
Carlos stared at a mass of strangely dim figures marching down the road from the west. "I'm taking a little detour," he said. Then, just as the soldiers arrived, he turned off the road. He circled the town and surrounding tents, heedless of the guards who shouted from the fence. He raced past the gridlocked refugees, who gaped in disbelief at the one men who was going the other way. Finally, he pulled onto the paved road and redoubled his speed, racing toward the doom of all men.
Soldiers tried to follow, but were swallowed in the crowds of refugees. The children were herded onto the helipad. Jonny took Tommy on his shoulders, and it was perhaps only Tommy who saw the end: How the bus stopped at the edge of the throng, then was enveloped by it, while shot after feeble shot rang out. How it suddenly lurched back to life, plowing through the dark crowd, actually gaining speed, going faster and faster.
But Tommy buried his head in the teenager's shoulders then. Thus, only he failed to see the explosion.
The desert of central Australia is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. But not so long ago, men who thought they could tame it built ranches and mines, towns and cities here. Most are gone now, even of the blackfellows. Of those who remain, most are growing old. All are strangely timid. They live with the desert, without trying to change it, as if striving to appease it after the uncanny plague that once came forth to destroy them.
The works of men have fared little better than the men themselves. For every house where men still dwell, two lie empty. The roads have grown poor, save for those which are essential to cross the wastes, and none are poorer than the Sandover Track, whose length can scarcely be traced, let alone traversed. But, where the old track enters Hart's Range, a statue still stands of an old blackfellow whom it is said saved their town at the cost of his own life. Sometimes, the blackfellows who still live by the old ways, few but no longer twindling, stop from their tracks in the wastes to leave a sign or gift in the dust in honor of their kin. Also seen often is a man who still gives his name as Tommy, who if given the chance will argue that the man's fate is not certain, that perhaps it was a computer linked to the dashboard which drove the Bus deeper and deeper into the undead throng, while he just perhaps fought his way clear. And if one listens long enough, he may well tell that, after the desert blackfellows visit, a man eerily like the statue is sometimes seen stooped before it in the darkest night, with something resembling a dog by his side.
All the townspeople work to make sure the statue stays whole and polished and pristine. And they must take special care to trim the vibrant green foliage which sprouts in unaccountable profusion every spring, so that it does not envelope the statue of their savior.
Perhaps the rocks do more than remember...