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«Chapter One They ate Jorgensen first. He'd twisted his leg bad—his long white leg. The man hadn't been much more than a stranger, but Cam ...»

-- [ Page 1 ] --

PLAGUE YEAR

by Jeff Carlson

Release Date: July 31, 2007

Ace Books/Penguin Group

$7.99 U.S./$10.99 CAN

ISBN 978-0-441-01514-6

© Jeff Carlson

All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

They ate Jorgensen first. He'd twisted his leg bad—his long white leg. The man hadn't been

much more than a stranger, but Cam remembered five hundred things about him.

It was a weakness.

Cam remembered someone who never cursed, who kept his credit cards and driver's license for some reason. He remembered a hard worker who exhausted himself the day that he fell.

Later there were others Cam had actually talked with, where they were from, what kind of jobs they'd had. Talking made the days easier, except that ghosts seemed very real after you’d sucked the marrow out of someone's finger bones, and Cam got extra portions because he volunteered for wood detail even when the snow drifted up over the roof.

Each night stretched longer than his memory. Erin refused to have sex more than it took to get warm, and then there was nothing to do but pick at his blister rash and listen to the nightmares and slow whispers that filled the hut.

He was glad when Manny banged on the wall and yelled.

Erin shifted but didn't wake. She could stay down for twelve, thirteen hours at a stretch.

Others pushed up on one elbow or raised their heads, mumbling, groaning—screaming when Manny pushed through the door and let in a river of cold air. Fresh air. It washed Cam's ghosts away.

The kid was short for fifteen, barely five-three, but still had to duck the ceiling. They were lucky they hadn't scavenged enough material for anything better. They probably would have built high out of habit. This low space was quick to heat and they planned to drop the roof another twelve inches before winter rolled around again, use the extra boards for insulation.

Manny said, "There's someone in the valley."

"What?" "Price wants to light a bonfire."

"What are you talking about?" "Someone's in the valley. Coming toward us."

Cam reached over Erin to shake Sawyer, but Sawyer was already awake. His arm tensed under Cam's palm. The fire, down to coals, threw just enough light into their corner that the profile of Sawyer's newly shaved scalp looked like a bullet.

"In the valley," Sawyer repeated. "That's impossible."

Manny shook his head. "We can see a flashlight."

~~~ The high California Sierra, east of whatever remained of Sacramento, consisted of surprisingly straight lines. Ravines and drainages formed slashing V shapes. Every mountaintop grew to a pyramid or slumped away as flat as a parking lot. Painted by the sweet glow of the stars, the sight gave Cam hope—that it was beautiful, that he could still recognize beauty.

Even better, it must be April or even May and would finally get warm enough that he could escape the stinking hut and sleep outside.

The toes Manny had lost didn't prevent the kid from setting a quick pace, weaving around the fields of snow they hadn't yet carried to their crude reservoir. Cam and Sawyer kept close on his heels. This peak was no bigger than the back of God's hand and they knew every barren inch of it, hunting day and night for the few rodents and birds that lived along the treeline, scouring it clean of plantlife.

They'd been up here now for most of a year, maybe longer. It was definitely spring again, they knew that much, no matter how confused their best calendar might be.

They'd been up here too long.

Jim Price had everyone from the other cabin hauling firewood to a low ridge, even his woman, Lorraine, who'd miscarried just three weeks ago. Cam couldn't recall whether Lorraine had limped before or not. So many of them moved awkwardly now.

Price himself stayed by the woodpile, pointing, hollering, marching alongside one man briefly before hustling back to help another guy load up. “Here you go, let’s go!” Unfortunately some of these people needed cheerleading. In Cam's opinion, at least half of Price's supporters were fractured, beaten souls who had latched on to the only available father figure. At forty-six, Price was twelve years older than anyone else on the mountain.

Sawyer plunged into the busy line, leading with his stubble-dark head. Talking louder than Price, he grabbed at people's sleeves and blocked their way as Cam strode out to where they were making three piles. Big piles.

Manny followed, pointing with his entire arm. The kid's voice was unmistakably eager.

"Down there."

Cam stared out across the valley instead. The people on the next peak had built three bonfires, just flickering orange sparks from here but an obvious signal.

"See him?" Manny asked, then yelled, "Heyyyyy!" Some of the human shadows around them also cheered. There was little chance this sound would penetrate the vast, black valley, but a sense of hope and wonder welled up in Cam again.

About a mile below them, a wand of light strobed wildly over the rough terrain—electric light like a star.

Cam said, "He must have started across this morning."

"You think someone could make it that far in a day?" "Longer than that would kill him."

Price bustled over with a tin soup bowl of embers, hugging it against his chest with one hand and waving his other arm grandly at each of the few stragglers he passed.





Jim Price had a compact, barrel-shaped torso that in daylight sometimes gave him the illusion of plumpness. In the dim shine of the embers, his face was all hollows and cheekbone.

Across his chin, a prominent hourglass pattern disrupted his beard, scarring from the last time he'd gone below 10,000 feet with a scavenging party. His grin was unbelievable, even frightening, but Cam must not have looked any better because Price lowered his eyes when Cam stepped in front of him.

Cameron Luis Najarro had been below the barrier four times as often and his brown skin was mottled with burn blisters. His eyebrow and left nostril. Both hands. Both feet. He kept his coarse black hair at shoulder length to cover a badly disfigured ear.

"One fire," Cam said. "One fire's plenty, and make it smaller. Where the hell are we going to get more wood?" "He must have a way to protect us!" Price glanced at his hut mates, chopping his hand through the air again, and some of them nodded and mumbled. Some of them had been listening to his pompous crap all winter.

"Don't be stupid. If he did, he'd camp for the night instead of risking a broken leg.

Remember what Colorado said."

"That was five months ago!" Sawyer moved closer, both arms tight by his sides, his chin tucked down into his chest. "We can't afford the wood," he said.

Price didn't even look at him. He had never understood Sawyer's body language, so much more subtle than his own. Facing Cam, Price made a wagging, dismissive gesture and said, "You tell your little bed buddy—" Sawyer decked him, one jab sideways across that big mouth. Price fell in a heap and fumbled his soup bowl, throwing orange meteors over his head. He scrabbled and kicked in the dirt as Sawyer paced forward, stiff, deliberate. Then Lorraine lurched between them, keening deep in her throat, spreading her arms wide in a very Price-like gesture.

"One fire," Cam said. "Please."

A few of them went back into their cabin. Everyone else pressed tight around the bonfire, roasting themselves, blocking the light. Sawyer was obvious about staring at Price over the yellow flames, and Cam almost said something but didn't want to embarrass his friend. He and Sawyer hardly talked to each other anymore outside their hut unless Erin was with them—and he was sick of playing peacemaker.

Across the valley, the other fires were put out.

"They don't have forests to burn either," Sawyer announced with mean satisfaction, but Cam felt a spike of disappointment, misplaced fear. It was as if the dark of the valley lunged up like a wave and smothered those people.

After the last of their batteries had died, after they’d lost the calm, redundant, twenty-fourhour military broadcasts out of Colorado and the underground shelters near Los Angeles, there had been two suicides. Almost 10 percent of their population. Both women, of which there were only six left.

Cam had no idea how many people survived across the valley or how bad winter had hit them—nothing except that they were there. Cam's group had never possessed binoculars or a real radio, just a glossy red CD boom box. He'd tried faking Morse code with a pocket mirror and reflected sunlight, thinking they could teach each other, but even if communication had been possible there was nothing the other survivors could do for them except say hello.

Nothing except keep them sane.

Isolation cinched tighter around their hearts every hour, and they had become as much of a threat to themselves as their environment, contorted by despair, strain, and mistrust. Ferocious hunger and guilt.

Maybe they were all poisoned by the same thought. Sawyer said, "I wonder what they've been eating."

~~~ Jorgensen was easy. That gimp leg made him totally useless. He'd crashed down a stairwell while they were scavenging insulation and more nails from the ski resort lodge, clumsy with exhaustion. They'd been rushing nonstop for days because the first snow came early. They could have just left him there but chose to be heroes, dropping most of what they'd collected and hauling him back instead. Cam didn't remember even discussing it, which was strange and awful and hilarious, considering what they did to him six weeks later.

But they needed to be heroes.

Every person on this mountain had left family and friends behind in the first mad scramble to get above the invisible sea of nanotech.

~~~ The flashlight vanished into thatches of whitebark pine, too small to be considered forest, then soon reemerged. Plantlife thinned dramatically well below their peak, reduced in clearly visible bands from trees to brush to hardy little flowering weeds. Not enough air, water, or soil. The few pines and firs scattered above the timberline were nearly indistinguishable, all of them bent, pretzeled, abused by wind and snow.

The jouncing beam of light disappeared again behind a rise in the land. A minute passed.

Five. Cam had hiked through there repeatedly and tried to picture it in his head. No sheer drainages, no slides, nothing to delay the man.

Sawyer said, "He's slowing down."

"Come on." Cam moved into the night with his friend, and Jim Price muttered something. A few people laughed. Sawyer stopped, looked back. But Cam slapped at Sawyer's shoulder and Manny had left the fire to tag along, and that seemed enough to get Sawyer walking again.

The three of them ventured down a wide, shallow ravine that formed a natural funnel to their peak and was the easiest access through a series of granite ledges and crumbling ridgelines of old basaltic lava. Picking confidently through the rocks and packed earth, Cam felt as if he'd physically evolved. Sweeping his eyes left and right to make the most of his peripheral vision, he smashed his toes only once.

A chipmunk piped and they all froze, listening. The rare sound wasn't repeated.

The grasshoppers sang and sang and sang.

They found seats at the base of a ragged pinnacle of lava they thought they'd identified on their best topo map, marked at 10,200 feet. Normal fluctuations in atmospheric pressure meant the barrier shifted daily, hourly, and it was only smart to minimize their exposure.

Cam said, "Maybe he does have some way to stop it."

"You don't make nano keys out of dirt." Sawyer rarely spoke of who he had been, who and what he'd lost, but he’d argued like an engineer when they were building their huts, pointing out drainage and foundation problems. "Even if there was someone over there who knew what they were doing, I seriously doubt they have any real equipment."

"Maybe they brought it up in the beginning."

"If he had a defensive nano that worked like antibodies in individual people, he would've stopped for the night like you said. And the only other option is to go on offense, build a hunter-killer that'd go out in the world and eat all of the little fuckers that have been eating us."

Cam turned from the dark slope downhill to look at him.

Sawyer was staring at the ground instead of searching below. He said, "This crazy son of a bitch wouldn't have to carry a weapon like that over here, he'd just release it."

Manny stood up. "There he is."

A ray of light burst over round boulders and skeletal brush no more than two hundred yards away.

"Heyyy!" Manny screamed. "Heyyyyyy!" The grasshoppers quit for one instant, then started up again in full chorus. Ree ree ree ree.

The mindless noise seemed to synchronize with Cam's heartbeat and interrupted his thoughts.

The bugs were like a sea of their own, rising higher every day, triumphant, unstoppable.

Manny danced, all his weight on his good foot. "Hey! Hey!" The kid windmilled his arms as if to break apart the darkness.

"Here over here!" Cam hadn't intended to start yelling himself, but his breath went out of him in a rush. Blinking back tears made his eyes sting and he half choked as he whirled on Sawyer.

"You said SCUBA gear might protect somebody."

"Right." The long shadow of Sawyer's face split with a grin. "There's lots of dive shops on mountains."

"I just meant..." Cam turned downslope again to hide his face as one fat drop squeezed free, streaking his skin with cold before sifting into his beard. "Maybe they have bottled air like medical supplies, that could work."

"Right. Except for your eyes. Open wounds. Bug bites."

Cam involuntarily touched the still-healing burn blisters on his nose. His body itched with a hundred minor scratches, especially his hands.

Every cut, every breath, was a doorway.

"It doesn't matter," Sawyer said. "Even if he was driving a limousine up here with enough air for everyone, that wouldn't solve anything."

~~~ Of the few known facts, it was certain that the machine plague first got loose in northern California—San Jose, Cal Berkeley, someone's garage—and there hadn't been time for much warning. Otherwise their desolate peak might have been very, very crowded.

Last they'd heard, Colorado was dealing with 14 million refugees, food riots, and a rogue element of Air Force recruits carrying automatic weapons.



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