Chapter 3

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As we grew closer to what was left of Brisbane, the Changed grew more numerous, isolated individuals and small groups giving way to clusters of a dozen or more.

Once, we came around a bend to find thirty or forty Changed walking toward us in a ragged group. I froze, but my father took my arm and pulled me aside, and we waited by the side of the road while they passed. At first I thought they hadn't seen us, but as they drew closer they turned their heads as one and fixed their eyes on us without breaking pace.

Still, nothing I had seen so far had prepared me for the city. We reached its outskirts in the late afternoon of the eighth day. The day had been hot, the glare of the sun intense, even through the sunglasses I had taken from a service station on the second day. But as we made our way through the streets, cloud gathered on the horizon and the air was alive with the promise of a storm.

As we made our way through the streets we passed empty houses and shops, petrol stations and schools, all choked with vegetation. In some places cars and buses lay overturned or abandoned in driveways or at the kerbside; now and then we came to lines of them filling the roads, coated with the lumpy excrescences of Changed plants.

At times the quiet streets felt almost sinister, charged with the presence that inhered in everything, but there were flashes of beauty as well. Here and there light fell through the canopy of the Changed trees, illuminating the leaf litter and rotting flowers on the ground; elsewhere pools of water shimmered in holes in the road, shards of green and blue and pink glinting within them.

More unsettling though, was the absence of the Changed. Although we weren't alone – occasionally flocks of Changed birds winging their way through the trees or overhead; now and then I glimpsed cats and other small animals, all altered in small but unsettling ways – for the most part the streets were empty.

Finally we came upon a pair of the Changed gathering fruit in the driveway of a house. They were teenagers, one male, one female, both barefoot and ragged. As we approached, the girl turned to stare at us. As with the child outside the library there was something chilling about her gaze, its blank avidity. She was both a girl and not, both human and utterly inhuman, and as her eyes followed me I had the horrible sense she was seeing me, or worse, that something larger than her was seeing me through her.

Even after we had rounded the next corner I kept looking back, convinced I would find her there, behind us. Over the past few days I had grown ever more aware of something moving within me, a rustling, like whispered words. If I was busy I could almost forget it was there, but if I was still, it would return, insinuating itself into my awareness until, like noticing your own breath, I was conscious of it. I wondered briefly whether I might be going mad, whether the stress of the past few weeks had knocked something loose in my mind, but the other possibility, one I didn't even know how to think through, was that the sound was the Change. My father said the vaccine had worked, but how did I know that was true? Wasn't it possible he was wrong, and even now the metamorphosis was underway, the Change burning through my cells, hour by hour?

As if sensing my thoughts my father glanced back at me and stopped. We had reached an intersection: ahead of us the road continued on toward the city, on the right a main road headed up a hill, and to the left a smaller road snaked off through thick vegetation toward a bridge.

'It's this way,' he said, pointing to the bridge.

For the past hour I had been catching glimpses of the river through the buildings and trees, its water glinting in the sun; the bridge crossed over it, passing over an old cemetery in which the pale shapes of gravestones were visible, and then past a series of ponds into a complex of buildings, their facades obscured by thick vegetation. At some point a fire had run through several of the larger structures, destroying the upper floors and leaving the walls blackened and broken, but since then the Changed plants had moved in, boughs twining themselves up the ravaged exteriors like figs over rock, transforming the shells of the buildings into miniature jungles.

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