What if Mother Nature thought we humans were out of control and decided to reset population growth? How would it be if you somehow woke up 100 years after the event and didn’t find anything like what you see in the movies? What if violence and mayhem hadn’t come to rule, and that what you found was all peaceful and nice?
The year is 2130.
World population: 1 million.
Current fertility rate: 98%
Loosely based on an actual virus outbreak in Australia in 1997. The “Menangle Virus” was transmitted from bats to pigs to people. It caused illness in people. It caused massive infertility on pigs. This “Paramyxo” virus was localised and didn’t spread very far, fortunately.
Adam is sitting on a bus with his head rocked back and resting against the window. It’s late at night, about ten-thirty. He’s kind of hypnotising himself with the street lights flashing by.
The bus is on a straight stretch of road, so the stream of lights are constant for a while. Adam is drifting off into an episode in his life that he had shared with his ex-girlfriend, and he’s really going there. He’s floating right out of his body and walking with Amanda through the Westfield shopping centre at Liverpool. It’s as real as if they are doing it right then, as they had every Saturday morning when they were together. Adam can hear Amanda’s voice and feel the touch of her hand. He can smell the apple fragrance of her hair as the flashing streetlights turn to seagulls, and he squints then opens his eyes to a bright blue sky.
Suddenly he’s lying on a slatted wooden bench seat. He has his legs tucked up, and the wrought iron armrest is cutting into his shins. The other armrest is above his head, and he’s staring directly up at the sky—at the seagulls flashing by like streetlights through a bus window.
Adam doesn’t sit up right away. He just turns his head and looks at the barnacle infested remains of a small water taxi tied to its dock.
What the hell?
There’s a paved walkway between the bench and the wharf rail, but it’s cracked everywhere with grass and weeds growing up through it. Beyond the water taxi is a ferry terminal that Adam recognises, and above that is the Circular Quay railway station. He spins around to face the city of Sydney with the towering office blocks seemingly intact yet the streets abandoned. There are rusted shells of cars, and shrubs and trees growing up through the concrete and bitumen.
What the hell?
Adam is standing there with his mouth hanging open, gazing around at everything.
Is this for real?
He thinks of pinching himself but there’s no need. His shins are still aching and he’s thinking too clearly to be dreaming. He can smell the salt in the air, and the sound of the ocean gently crashing into the wharf is clear and distinct. He’s wringing his hands and can feel the heat and sweat in his skin.
Adam gazes out to the ocean and the horizon there—all seemingly real and true. A hundred metres to his left, there is an ocean liner docked. Like the city, it’s aged and rusted, and it has smashed at the wharf and seems to be resting slightly off kilter. Adam wanders towards it and makes out the name Pacific Princess III on the side. From there, he is able to see beyond the ferry terminal and across to the Opera House. It looks perfectly preserved with its white sail-like roof glistening in the sun. The forecourt is overgrown with trees, though, and as Adam spins back around he is looking up at the Harbour Bridge.
“What the hell?” he utters, out loud this time. The bridge is also intact but it’s a rusty orange colour, and there’s a massive sign suspended beneath it that reads QUARANTINE.
Adam’s mind is numb. He’s trying to grasp what he’s looking at but… It was night time and I was on the bus. I remember that clearly. It was like, five minutes ago.
There’s a sound to Adam’s right, and he spins with his heart pounding. There’s nothing for a few seconds, then the head of a small grey kangaroo emerges above the height of the grass and weeds in the park. It’s behind a bench like the one Adam had woken up on. Another kangaroo lifts its head and the two of them watch him intently, their ears and noses twitching.
Adam tries to force his mind to shift—to snap it out of neutral. He looks down at his clothing. He has on weird faded-orange jeans and leather pointy-toed shoes. He had been in uniform and should be wearing navy blue trousers and a white shirt with the CMR logo embroidered above the pocket.
CMR is the Centre for Microbiological Research, not more than two kilometres from where Adam’s standing. He works on the gate mostly, but today he’d swapped with Carl and done his shift on the front desk checking ID’s and signing people in and out—issuing visitor passes and the like. He had done a sweep of the building before knocking off and poked his head in Amanda’s office as he was passing. All had been quiet, so Adam snuck in and left a small gift box right in the middle of Amanda’s desk. It was just a pendant he had made from a shell. They had been sort of friendly again lately and Adam knew Amanda liked shells. He figured it would be nice for her to find it there in the morning, and maybe it would lead to something. There had been a scattering of white coats bent over microscopes or glued to computer screens in the labs. There was always something that needed monitoring 24/7—something they were incubating or the odd rodent they had injected with one thing or another. None of it meant much to Adam. He was just a rent-a-cop security dude.
“I’m no time travelling super hero,” he mumbles to himself as he watches three black and white spotted cows wander from the street and into the park with the kangaroos.
After work Adam had stopped at the pub for a counter-meal, then he had caught the bus and was sitting there minding his own business and drifting off a bit.
The absurdity of the situation is hanging in the air all around, but Adam takes hold of it and ventures forth. There is something seriously unreal going on, but he’s feeling quite thirsty and needs to find a drink.
Adam follows the walkway along the wharf and approaches the ferry terminal. There are stalls there where he often buys lunch. The first one has the shutter pulled down and locked. The next one has a timber counter that’s flaked and warped. The glass display cabinet below has plastic sandwich packets that look like they’ve been pecked open and small foil dishes that were probably for cakes. There are shelves at the back of the stall with bleached white cardboard boxes and faded candy bar wrappers. There’s a display case of cigarettes that looks okay, although caked in a thick film of dust. There’s a fridge with a sealed glass door with cans and plastic bottles of juice, water and soft drinks. The water is clear and appears reasonably safe. Adam cracks open a bottle and has a drink. It tastes fine.
Inside the ferry terminal is a stall with newspapers and magazines on display. Adam pulls a paper from underneath the faded one on top. The headlines are about a plane crash in India and a sex scandal involving the Australian Foreign Minister. The date reads October 27th, 2063—2063 being thirty-five years in the future.
Adam looks at his hand and notices the absence of his tattoo. As a drunken youth he had let a buddy tattoo the word GAME across the knuckles of his left hand. It’s gone and his hand is bigger than it should be. Adam’s arm is more muscular too. He flexes, and squeezes and feels his bicep and shoulder.
What the hell?
There’s a glassed poster on the wall of the ferry terminal. Adam approaches and looks at his reflection to find a stranger looking back at him. He’s blond and his face is too narrow. The reflection is not Adam at all.
Adam feels his face—pinching at this point to prove the dream.
He backs away from the stranger and turns to the city again. He walks. He has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, but he walks up a street, sticking to the middle of the road and gazing into the abandoned shops and up at the towering buildings. Most shops are empty. Adam considers they have been more so closed down than abandoned. The buildings are intact. They haven’t been bombed or anything. There are no broken windows that Adam can see. There are just big cracks in the pavement and road with grass and weeds growing everywhere.
There’s a distant humming sound. It’s high-pitched and quickly approaching. It pierces the air, and suddenly a train flashes across the road ahead of Adam. It had appeared from between buildings and is gone. Adam runs and sees it vanishing into the distance. It’s fully tinted glass, sleek and hugging a single rail, and it’s moving at an incredible speed.
Adam enters a building and finds stairs. He leaps upward, gaining the tenth storey with his lungs clenching and his legs numb. He kicks open a door marked with a no entry sign and stumbles out onto a roof-top. The train is gone. The rail spears off between buildings, some having been roughly knocked down to accommodate it.
Adam turns and looks the other way, out at the ocean. The rail is suspended above. It swings in a broad arc and follows the coastline with massive steel pillars jutting up out of the sand and the water, and it disappears beyond a headland.
Adam slumps back onto a concrete ledge and sucks in some breaths. He’s fitter and stronger than he used to be. He couldn’t have bounded those ten flights of stairs in his own body.
He looks himself over again, feeling his legs and genitals. He has a look down the front of his pants and finds no appreciable difference. He has less hair, though. It looks trimmed. Adam is thirsty again. He still has the bottle of water. There’s a kind of metallic taste in his mouth but he’s thirsty enough to ignore it.
The distance in all directions reveals no further sign of human life. There are birds and bugs, and more kangaroos and some goats. There’s a boundless silence, so stark and crisp that it’s ringing in Adam’s ears. The air is thin and clean and alive with the sweetness of spring or early summer. It had been winter an hour earlier—when Adam was himself and in the real world.
This can’t be real. If I jump off here I’m going to glide to the ground or wake up on a bus.
Adam’s looking over the edge of the building. He considers testing that theory but has never been big on heights. He suddenly thinks to check the pockets of the jeans he’s wearing and finds what looks like a watch. It’s an oddly thin device with a large square screen and a black plastic band. The screen is blank, as if turned off or with a dead battery. There are no buttons of any kind. Adam taps the screen to no effect. He tries pressing and the words VOICE PROMT flash. He presses again and says, “Hello”.
“Good afternoon, Cooper, who can I get you?”
Adam gulps. “Home, please?”
The screen shows a jingling bell icon. It lasts for a minute.
“Sorry, no answer,” the device says. “Would you like to record a message?”
Adam sniffs and clears his throat. “No message, thanks… Contacts list, please?”
The smiling face of a middle-aged woman appears. It’s a still image. Adam swipes across the screen and the face of a middle-aged man is next. It looks like him—the face he currently has. Adam assumes it to be his father. He swipes again and gets a logo AFP. The next image is another face—that of a guy about his age, completely unfamiliar. There are twenty or so contacts in all before the woman in the first image appears again.
Adam takes a breath and taps the screen. The ringing bell appears. The screen then flashes to an image of the woman, obviously live now.
“Cooper! Darling, how are you?” The woman looks to her side. “Hanson, it’s Cooper.”
A man’s voice replies, “Put him on screen, love.”
The screen flashes to a broader shot with the man who Adam assumes to be his father looking over the woman’s shoulder.
“How are you, son? What’s up?”
“Um… I’m not sure… I’m…” Adam stammers.
“Are you okay, son?”
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know who you are. You’re on my phone thingy… I don’t know who I am or what’s happening.”
“Wait… What?” the man asks. “You don’t know who we are?”
“Cooper, are you hurt? Are you okay?” the woman adds.
“I’m not hurt. I’m fine… Just—what the hell’s going on? I’m not who you think I am. I’m not this Cooper.”
The two faces on screen are staring blankly. The man speaks again after a moment. His demeanour shows confusion and concern. “Who do you think you are, son? Is there something wrong with your mind or memory or something? Do you have a head injury?”
“My name is Adam O’Malley. As far as I can remember, this is the year 2028… I’m going to wake up from this any minute now.”
The man and woman look to each other, their faces streaked in concern—horror. They turn back. The man speaks again. “Son, where are you right now?”
Adam glances around. “Standing on top of a building in Sydney… Where are you?”
The couple confer once more, their faces unchanged as they turn back to the screen. The woman answers, “We’re on our cruise in the middle of the Pacific, darling.”
The man adds, his tone measured, “Son, I want you to stay where you are. I’ll get the clinic at Oakdale to send someone for you… Are you right in the old city?”
“I’m near Circular Quay,” Adam replies. “I can go back to where I woke up a while ago.”
“No, that’s fine. Just wait somewhere safe. The clinic will GPS your device. It’ll probably take them an hour to get there.”
“I don’t know why you have to go exploring that silly old city all the time, darling,” the woman adds. “You must have fallen and hurt yourself. It’s just not safe there with everything crumbling down.”
“Now, Lola, just…” the man says to the woman, cuddling and patting her arm.
“Oh, but he shouldn’t even be going down there!”
The man addresses Adam again. “Are you safe right now, son? Will you be okay to wait?”
“I’m fine. I’ll wait,” Adam tells him. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on but I’ll wait for whoever.”
“Alright, son, I’ll check in with you again in ten minutes… We’ll sort this out.”
Adam’s device screen flashes back to the still picture of the woman smiling. He puts it on his wrist and fastens the catch. He has another drink of his metallic water.
The clinic is sending someone, huh? Think I might need a frigging clinic.