All text copyright © 1998-2004 by Yvonne Navarro. Don't be naughty-- no reprinting or use in any form whatsoever without prior written permission of the starving author. We mean it. We know lots of lawyers. And we ain't afraid to use them.
Chapters 3 and 4
"My God," Morrell breathed. "What the hell happened to Owatonna?"
At first Eddie Cuerlacroix couldn't answer his son, then he found his voice in time to stop the young man's hand from reaching out. "Don't touch anything," he managed. He snatched at Morrell's sleeve and pulled on it, tugging him backward down the wooden steps that led to the town's meeting hall and away from the nearly skinless corpse propped against the post at the top of the stairs.
Morrell, his youthful face blanched with shock, didn't argue. Instead he shoved his hands in his pockets and returned to Eddie's side, gazing up at the porch, then at the street in speechless dismay. A breeze stirred, wet and sharp, bringing with it an edge of bitter cold that reminded them that the Darkzone was only sixty miles or so to the west, less than a week's travel.
"It's like a ghost town," Eddie said softly. "Almost."
"Have you ever seen one before?" Morrell asked. Like his father's, his voice was low and quiet, as though he was afraid to disturb the dead who rested in this once-lively town. "Like this?"
Eddie shook his head. "Read about them, though. There've been a few down through history, but... no. Not like this."
"What's the difference?"
"The ones I'd heard about are empty. They don't have bodies in them like this one does."
Neither man said anything for a few moments, then Morrell wiped a hand across his forehead before pulling the collar of his jacket tighter around his throat. "How long since we were here?" his son whispered.
Eddie frowned. He could see fearsweat glistening on Morrell's skin, and although Morrell was a full-grown man, he couldn't say he blamed his son for that; his own gut had tightened to a nearly unbearable ball and he was pretty sure that if he unclenched his fists, his hands would be shaking. "Without checking my date book, I'd guess at a year," he finally decided. "No less." More silence then, a void where the sounds of a once-bustling town should have moved in to fill it-- people coming to greet them, kids playing, a thousand of the little noises that were normally associated with life.
Not here though. Now there were only the bodies, not many but scattered here and there. A few looked like they'd been trying to leave and had collapsed along the way in the middle of the street; most gave witness to people who'd just set themselves down somewhere comfortable and waited to die. It wasn't a pretty sight or scent-- Owatonna was chilly and damp and prone to cold rains, hence the Grayzone's varied forms of mildew had set in pretty quickly. Where the decomposition couldn't move fast enough, the scavengers had come to help things along, and now it was hard to tell whether the bloated corpses had been male or female, or who had died sooner or later. No doubt the small houses that had made up the occupied part of Owatonna were filled with the same sad and unmourned dead.
"Should we... bury them?" Morrell asked hesitantly.
"No," Eddie answered immediately. The thought of leaving all these people like this-- they'd seen at least twenty from the start of the town limits to where they now stood a couple of blocks in-- made him feel guilty and tired, but they needed to think of themselves. These folks were beyond help and wouldn't care anyway; a part of him still wanted to go house to house and check for survivors, but he knew they didn't dare. Every minute more that they stayed increased the danger. "We mustn't touch them. If it hit the whole town, it's probably contagious."
Morrell looked at him sharply. "Spread by breathing?"
Eddie ran a hand through his hair, pushing the ginger-colored mop out of his eyes. "Could be," he had to admit. "But we still might be okay." He paused, then continued, hoping to God he wasn't just spinning a tale for the sake of his own sanity. "No one's been stirring up the air around here for a while. Whatever did this could've died out by now."
"You said we 'might' be okay." Morrell's eyes had narrowed and gone dark with fright.
Eddie gestured helplessly around them. "If we're not, then it's too late anyway. I mean, look around-- we're in the midst of hell already. The best we can do now is back on out of here, camp a good ways outside of town, and wait to see if we end up sick."
Eddie nodded, then reached over and gave Morrell's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "We're probably okay," he said with conviction. "Just focus on that and we'll see what happens."
Morrell nodded, then followed him as Eddie turned to retrace their steps. Above them the sky was the color of dirty metal tinged at the edges with black, the same shade as the twisted remains of a million buildings across the continent. "Wow," Morrell said after they'd walked for a few minutes. "All those people dead. Just like that."
Eddie glanced over at his son and saw a closed, faraway expression on the younger man's face. "I don't think it was that quick for those people," he started to say. "They--"
"I didn't mean it that way," Morrell interrupted. He shifted the weight of his backpack. "I mean... you know, without any real warning. One minute you think you're fine, you're going to live forever, and the next-- bam. You realize you're going to kiss it all good- bye, and never mind all the great plans you had or stuff you were going to get around to doing. People you wanted to meet. Before you know it, you've become history... only no one will probably ever write about you or what killed you. Will they?"
Eddie opened his mouth, then closed it again. What could he say to that? "I wonder what happened to their radio setup," he said instead.
"Boy, there's a question." Morrell's face twisted slightly and his feet came down a little harder on the ground, worn shoes making an angry slapping sound between the rocks along the muddy path. "Sure don't see many people who came running with help."
Eddie was surprised at the resentful tone of his son's voice. "There probably wasn't anything to be done, Morrell. The medical supplies are pretty much depleted, you know that. Hell, we've all heard the stories about a plague in the Zones-- I think you and I just had our first look at it."
"What if it kills us, too?"
What, indeed? The settled part of Owatonna had been built at the edge of a stretch of once-verdant Minnesota farmland, and now they were far enough away so that a gentle rise and waist-high field grasses, florishing in the damp and cool climate, separated them from the morbid sight of the darkened, empty houses. This was far enough, so Eddie stopped and shrugged off the weight of his knapsack, then inhaled deeply and held it for a moment. When he thought he could bear to say the words, he finally answered.
"If that happens," he said quietly, "then we'll die by ourselves right here, without giving it to anyone else."
Malcolm had never known it was possible for a small group of people to sound so loud.
"That's out of the question, Malcolm." Up at the front, Dr. Frank Gelasias had to shout-- something else Malcolm had never thought he would hear-- to be heard over the jabbering voices in the meeting room. From his right, Malcolm's parents were staring at him with astonished expressions, their mouths working soundlessly. No doubt his father-- Are you out of your mind, boy?-- was going to rant at him from the moment they walked out of the building until next Tuesday, but what Malcolm had suggested had been kicking around in his head for days-- no, weeks. It'd had to be asked, but who would've expected this kind of a reaction? Jesus on a stick, you'd think he'd suggested they kill all the babies in town.
"Why not?" Malcolm shouted right back. His next words were drowned out and frustration made his arms sweep the air in front of him, but no one paid any attention. At his side his mother was pulling frantically on his sleeve, but the last thing he wanted was a whining lecture in the midst of what was already an uproar, so Malcolm solved that problem by refusing to look at her.
Seated next to Dr. Gelasias at the head table were Lily and Pax Bailby, the latter grinning like a fool as he scrawled notes in his journal and tried to keep up with what everyone was saying. If he hadn't been so pissed about this out-of-hand refusal, Malcolm would have laughed at Pax-- so often bored out of his skull, the man was clearly enjoying recording the details of the ruckus.
Pax's wife, however, was not nearly as amused, and now she reached in front of Gelasias and snatched up the wooden gavel he liked to keep up there for show. The professor blinked like a surprised owl when she began hammering on the table with it. "Oh, for God's sake," she yelled. "Would you people just be quiet so we can talk about this?" When the noise level didn't decrease fast enough for her, Lily yanked her chair back, then climbed on top of the seat. "Shut UP!"
Finally, finally, the babbling dropped to a few still bewildered mumbles, then died away altogether. "Okay," Lily said in a more reasonable tone. "That's great. Now maybe we can discuss this like rational adults--"
"He's just a kid," someone said. It sounded like Richard Umps (or Bumpy Umps, as he and his friends like to call the reserved man who taught middle grades over at the school).
"That's incorrect," Crystal Gelasias cut in pointedly. Good for her-- she didn't give a damn that it was a teacher she was dressing down. "This young man is nearly eighteen years old and he has the right to be heard in this meeting just like everyone else." She was holding up admirably, though Malcolm had never seen the woman who acted as the town's sole medical practitioner so pale. Wasn't it odd how how stress and a change in skin color could make that faint scar on Crystal's cheek stand out so vividly? Now Crystal took a deep breath and lifted an eyebrow at Lily, who, when she realized she was still standing on her chair, returned a sheepish smile and climbed down. Crystal's eyes, blue and bright enough for Malcolm to see clearly from his seat in the eighth row, scanned the room until she found him. "Malcolm Cassidy has proposed a supply and scouting trip into the city of Columbus--" A few people started to talk but Crystal held up her hand. "And this has clearly been met with objection. Nevertheless, we will talk about this, and why people think it shouldn't-- or should-- be done. And we'll start with Malcolm, who should be given a chance to say why he believes it's a good idea and" --her glance at him was stern-- "why it's necessary. Malcolm?"
Now that he was actually going to be allowed to say more than ten words, a hard-edged feeling of stage fright swept over Malcolm. For a few awkward seconds he lost his breath and felt his knees weaken, damned near mumbled "Never mind." and sat back down. That was crazy-- he wasn't a troublemaker, but Malcolm had never been shy. His parents--whom he loved but privately thought of as too conservative-- sometimes called him insolent, and his teachers sometimes called him impetuous. This was different than school or softball, though; as was always the case with town meetings, the languid people of Jacksontown had nothing better to do on a Saturday night than yap about what building who wanted to rebuild next and where; afterward the adults would go outside, ladle themselves cups of hard cactus cider from Craig Ita's latest batch, and exchange stories about their kids or the Impact Days until they were all pretty shit-faced and had to wobble home. He felt a surge of resentment when he realized that these were the so-called responsible people saying no to his idea.
Still, the sheer number of folks surrounding him made Malcolm have to swallow around a tongue that suddenly felt three times its normal size. That done, he could finally choke out the first of the words he'd been practicing for the last three weeks, ever since he'd decided to speak out-- after all, his future, the rest of his life, was on the table here. He was not going to open his eyes some morning thirty years from now and find nothing had changed, nothing had improved. He refused to be stuck in time like that.
"Listen," Malcolm began, willing himself not to stutter, reminding himself not to add an uh after every three words. "We always need supplies, right? All we ever hear about is how it was in the old days, before the asteroids hit and changed everything. I mean, electric lights for everyone all the time? A refrigerator-- something you could put food in and it stayed cold? And ice-- what's that? Medicine and bandages and all the clothes you could wear in a lifetime-- you tell us these things existed, but we've never seen them." Malcolm hesitated, surprised that no one had interrupted. Then his gaze flicked around him and he saw a few of the younger people nodding to themselves or their partners; others had half-dreamy expressions on their faces, their minds and memories turned backward to a world he'd never seen. The teenager sucked in a lungful of air, forcing it through the tight mass of tissue that had lodged inside his rib cage. "Yet all you guys ever do," he continued, "is talk about the pre-Impact Days if you got to experience them, or try to imagine what it was like if you didn't. Ryan Zimmermann makes patrol runs but he never goes more than two or three days away to check for trouble and see if there's stuff out there we can use. This town has been in the same place for twenty years-- what's out there that he hasn't already found?"
"A plague, that's what!" someone shouted.
At the front, Lily Bailby jerked to her feet and slapped her open palm against the table. The sound, sharp and unexpectedly loud, stopped the babble of voices that would have drowned out Malcolm's next words. "No more of that," she hollered. "You want to talk, you wait your damned turn and let him finish first. That's how we do things in these meetings, and if you don't like like, march your butt out the door!"
Scowling, Malcolm waited but no one got up. "I've been studying the old maps," he continued, "and the way I figure it, Columbus is maybe only a ten-day walk from here, fourteen at the most. Hell--" Oops-- he felt his mother's sharp look at his profanity and momentarily lost his train of thought. "Uh... anyway, everyone's always talking about how they wandered all over creation after the Impacts." He looked specifically at Pax but the older man was, as usual, struggling to record everything that was said. "Why can't we do the same thing now? There's probably everything we need or dreamed of in that city. If we took four or five people and a couple of the horses, we could probably bring back medicine, spices, clothes, who knows what. For crying out loud, look at how we're always scrounging around to keep the generators running-- how many times do we have to hear about how we've used up all the spare parts before we do something about it?" He looked around the room and saw everyone staring at him. Had he touched enough of a nerve here to make a difference? Or did these placid little mice have any nerves left? Sure, they did... and it was time, right now, to give it a good hard yank.
"The plague," he said abruptly. Where there'd been murmuring around the room, everything suddenly went silent-- he couldn't have shut them up faster if he'd stood on the table and yelled "Pecker!" at the top of his lungs. For a precarious second he almost laughed aloud, then he found control. "We've all heard the rumors, and we're all afraid of it coming to Jacksontown. But what if it does-- what if everything we do isn't enough and we get it anyway?" He let that sink in for a double heartbeat, noting the way expressions around the room shifted to dread. "Instead of waiting for someone to show up with it here, why don't we go find what we need to fight it if it happens?"
Abruptly he was all talked out. "So that's pretty much what I have to say, I guess." I guess? Damn-- bad way to end things, but it was done now.
He expected a repeat of the earlier bedlam that had greeted his first words, but it never came. For quite a few moments, no one said anything, then Crystal Gelasias stood. "If no one has any objections, I'd like to start the discussion about this." She looked at the others-- her husband Frank, Pax and Lily, some dark-skinned guy whose name Malcolm didn't know because he hadn't paid attention during the last election-- sharing the committee table and they all nodded assent. It was kind of funny to watch Crystal up there; she was used to dealing with folks, but she hardly ever made speeches and then only to tell them about the latest nasty bug that was making the rounds. Anything else public was generally left to Pax, who seemed to like the limelight as much as he liked scrawling away in his notebooks.
Crystal cleared her throat nervously. "This isn't a new idea, Malcolm. I know you and your friends probably think that we don't do much in the way of exploration or supply runs, and you're right. We've made it a point for the last twenty years to become as self-sufficient as possible. See, the problem with people who didn't experience the Impact Days-- and at the risk of sounding ancient, that means people your age-- is that like all things they hear about or read about, they tend to adventurize the stories. They think it would be fun to ramble across the country and see what they could see, maybe find and bring back all kinds of wonderful things that no one around here has seen in years. Things like cures for the diseases that are trying to make a reappearance, lost fabrics and flavors, whatever.
"But a trip like this would not be fun, and I don't think that after twenty years of being exposed to the elements anything we find in the cities will be useful. I know for a fact that any medicine, even if it hasn't been exposed to the elements for all this time, will be far past its shelf life and effectiveness. And no one wants to eat twenty-year-old food."
"But what about clothes and stuff?" Malcolm interrupted. "You guys are always talking about tools and equipment, how badly we need mechanical parts. Medical supplies-- like microscopes and test tubes and whatever else you use." Malcolm gestured impatiently. "The way I hear it, everyone had cars, electric lights, and air-conditioning-- something else I can't imagine. If we don't go out and see, how will we know all that stuff isn't still out there and usable? I mean, here we are in the Lightzone and nowhere near anything else living for a hundred miles. No one's been to Columbus since the Impact Days-- how does anyone really know that there isn't something there?"
"I've been there."
All heads in the room turned toward the speaker, an older woman Malcolm had seen around town but never spoken to beyond a passing "Good morning." Sitting only a few chairs away from her was sixteen-year-old Hope Durbin; he recognized his classmate's mother sitting between them, and unlike the doughy, sunburned woman who was talking, Hope was about as gorgeous as the girls got in Jacksontown. The woman who'd spoken looked over at him and Malcolm's mouth turned down at the strange expression she sent his way. Great-- another adult who thought she knew everything.
"I'm sorry," Pax said as his scribbling abruptly halted. "I don't believe I know your name. How long have you been in town?"
The woman coughed nervously. "My name's Adilah Travers. I guess I've been in town about a month. This is the first meeting I've come to."
Pax nodded politely enough but his next words were curt. "See me after the meeting, please. If you remember, there are signs at both ends of town that tell new folks who stay for more than two days that you're required to register."
Adilah Travers nodded but didn't say anything, and Crystal picked up the lag in conversation smoothly. "And how long ago was that, Ms. Travers?"
"You could call me Adilah. I guess it was maybe, uh, a year ago."
"That's exactly what I'm talking about!" Malcolm exclaimed. He felt his face flush with excitement. "Can anyone in this room say they've been to Columbus since then?" He looked around but no one raised a hand. "See what I mean?"
"Malcolm," Pax started to rise from his seat. "These rumors--"
"It's not what you'd expect," Adilah interrupted. She was a homely woman in her forties, whose hair was pulled back in a thin ponytail and who also, to Malcolm's eye, looked a little too well fed to have been on the road all that long. Had she really be in town for only a month? He could've sworn-- "I only skirted it," she continued, "but the whole area seemed so empty--"
"So what?" Malcolm asked stubbornly. "That was a year ago. This whole town knows we've had radio contact with people in Columbus, and they're fine."
"I don't think a year is the point here. We're talking about medicine manufactured two decades ago where even just a year can be a long time when you're dealing with shelf-life limitations," Crystal said. "Humidity, insects, scavenger animals such as rats-- all these things combine to make the end product generally unusable after a very short time. These are supplies that, even if they're still there and provided we could find any to begin with, have been sitting around for nearly twice that amount of time."
"They say no one comes out of the cities alive," Adilah said ominously.
Malcolm didn't miss a beat. "What the heck is this?" he demanded. "Superstition? I thought we lived here based on hard work and trying to relearn all the stuff lost in the Impacts-- that's what my folks tell me all the time, anyway." He shot the committee table an exasperated look. "Jesus, why don't we just start throwing salt over our left shoulders and making the evil eye at each other?" Malcolm was pleased to note a few faces pinken in embarrassment and he folded his arms. "While we're at it, let's see if we can find a few people to burn as witches."
"Sarcasm doesn't gain us anything," Crystal said sharply.
"Neither does superstition and rumor," Malcolm argued stubbornly. "She was there a year ago but she's standing right in this room and healthy. How much more proof do you want that there's nothing wrong?"
On the tabletop, Crystal's fingers twisted tensely. "The way Adilah phrased that may make it seem like heresy, but there is some truth in that no one we know of in Jacksontown, nor anyone passing through--again, that we know of-- has explored Columbus or any of the other larger cities in the Zones. I suspect this is where the rumor began that no one who visits them survives." Her gaze found Adilah's. "You were just on the outskirts?"
To Malcolm's ears, the delay in Adilah Travers's answer was just a breath too long, but no one else seemed to notice. "That's right," she said. "Not in the city proper. Never saw nobody who was sick or anything."
Malcolm frowned. "I don't bel--"
"Malcolm," Pax interrupted uncharacteristically, "where did this sudden interest in going to Columbus come from? This certainly isn't anything you've ever talked about before."
"Well, I--uh..." His voice stammered away and Malcolm involuntarily glanced over at Hope. She was looking right back at him-- big blue eyes and sun-lightened curls, and Malcolm's face went scarlet. Great, with his reddish hair, he probably looked like a carrot standing here. For once he wished he were one of the camouflage people like Frank or Crystal; wouldn't now just be the perfect time to blend into his surroundings? Instead only Malcolm's father had the gift, and not strong enough to pass it along to Malcolm or his sister.
Malcolm found some air and managed to make his words come out strong and clear. "I just think it's important that we try to grow, that's all." There were a few nods and murmurs of assent from the crowd and Malcolm felt a encouraging, momentary thrill-- adults loved phrases like "try to grow." Somehow they equated fancy wording with maturity, but he knew what he was doing so if that's how they wanted to read it, well, that was okay, too. "We sit back and talk about all the wonderful things that used to be but no one does anything to get them back except read books that tell us to make things out of materials we don't have." He stood there awkwardly, suddenly aware that there was no graceful way to close this out if they weren't going to keep the conversation going. Finally he just said, "I would go."
Next to him, his father jerked, then Walker Cassidy's calm voice, deeper than usual, rolled across the room. "I don't believe so, Malcolm."
"Why not?" he said. Boy, was his father going to be pissed that Malcolm had had the nerve to keep going. "I'm not afraid." He could feel Hope's gaze on him, but he dared not look over at her or he knew his face would go red again. "I think we should vote on it and see," he said a little recklessly. "Maybe there's a lot of people who'd like to find out what we've been missing." Thoughtful silence greeted his statement. Finally Malcolm shuffled his feet nervously, then sat back down to wait with everyone else, grateful finally to be out of center stage and away from Hope's appraising, slightly smiling study. He was so freaked out by this whole thing that he was perspiring-- moisture beaded across his upper lip and in the grooves of his palms. There wasn't much day-to-day temperature fluctuation in Jacksontown; except for a couple of months each year, 110 degrees was pretty much the norm for this settlement forty miles into the blistering Lightzone, and Malcolm knew he'd be thirsty all night if he didn't make up the water loss before he went to bed.
"Does anyone else want to talk?" Crystal asked. She looked tired and oddly fearful, caught off guard by this unexpected discussion; she was clearly against the idea and Malcolm could imagine her qualms that there would be some people who would want to head out into the world. He liked Crystal and wasn't happy to see her so distressed; he certainly hadn't targeted her or anyone else, but sometimes the unknown just had to be faced head on. "Otherwise--"
"Yeah," Pax said. "I do."
Malcolm grinned to himself. Pax Bailby was just the person to have on his side-- curious about everything, insisting that their little slice of Lightzone history be recorded at every turn so that nothing was overlooked or lost. A born wanderer who'd walked from someplace deep inside the Darkzone called Searcy, Arkansas, until he'd ended up here, fallen in love with Lily, and stayed. Now he and Lily had six kids and they weren't going anywhere-- the youngest was only eight months and had been a surprise to the whole family. Pax's oldest son, Galen, was a pretty good buddy to Malcolm and Galen had confided that sometimes his dad talked about his times on the road, wild stories about people turning to cannibalism-- not that Malcolm wanted to run into anything like that-- and sometimes shooting at each other just for the thrill of it. Malcolm didn't think a gun had ever been fired in Jacksontown, and anyway, there were patrols like Ryan's to keep a level edge to the occasional folks who came and went. Galen also claimed his dad got that sort of dreamy-eyed look that a lot of the adults did when they recalled the pre-Impact times, although his friend had noted that he wasn't sure if Pax had a true case of wanderlust or was just pining a little for what he'd lost in the Impacts. Now the older man put down his pencil and pushed his chair back; as he stood, the wooden legs screeched along the plank floor and made a sound like a yowling cat that sent an unexplained sense of foreboding into Malcolm. Why did he sense he wasn't going to like what Pax had to say?
"I don't believe we have any other new folks in the crowd tonight," Pax began, "but just in case, my name is Pax Bailby." Pax's voice was clear and strong, his delivery as smooth as Crystal's had been tense. "I've been here in Jacksontown for most of the last twenty-odd years, and it's been a good time with lots of good people rebuilding as best we could what we lost in the Impacts. What I want to talk about though, is what I saw before I got here and met my wife. All that happy-sappy that came after"-- here Lily snickered aloud-- "is as pretty well known as everyone else's business in a town this size.
"We've got a young man here tonight whom I admire very much," Pax continued. "Malcolm is a good guy. He's smart and energetic and helps out not only when he should, but when he can. And like all healthy young people, he gets more curious and more restless as he gets older. Nothing wrong with that-- like he said, that's the way we grow and learn. If no one had stretched their minds a bit, none of the things we have today-- as limited as folks might think they are compared to what used to exist-- would even be." For a second he was silent, looking down at his hands as he turned them over and rubbed them together, as though he were feeling the inner workings of his body.
"I think that the Impact Days are like the pain of childbirth," Pax said suddenly. "It hurts so much, so much, that a woman swears she'll never do it again... then two or three years down the line there's another baby on the way and everyone is overjoyed and all the pain and the sweat and blood from before is forgotten. And that's fine-- when you're talking childbirth.
"But we're not talking about birth, are we? We've had twenty years for the bad memories to fade, but what this conversation is really about is dying. In the year 2000 everything as we knew it stopped, even the planet itself, and everything that we are and hoped to be ended up filled with death." Pax gazed around the room, but Malcolm could have sworn he was looking at a scene that no one else could see, something he'd found in his mental filing cabinet and pulled out for inspection during this speech. He blinked for a second, but didn't smile. "We've got science here to the best of our ability. Mr. Umps teaches us and he's always looking for more materials and ways to bring as much of it back as he can. But what he doesn't teach, what he doesn't want to teach, is the fine art of killing your fellow man."
A murmur ran through the crowd, people looking at one another and once again nodding. Malcolm found himself scowling; damn it, his bad feeling had been smack on-- Pax wasn't going to stand by him at all.
Pax lifted his chin. "We-- and make no mistake about my use of the word we-- did this in a number of ways. Denial-- remember that one? We had a government that swore that Millennium's remains would miss. Then they said only a piece or two would hit but it would be no big deal. If they really were trying to do something about this hellish thing coming at us, the public didn't know until later-- and by then all their efforts fell flat." He stopped and swallowed for a second, as though it was hard to continue. "Then there was man against man," he said softly. "The army, the police, your neighbors-- shooting and killing each other. Malcolm, did your parents ever admit that the soldiers spent quite a few months, before and after the Impacts, using everyday people on the roads for target practice?"
Malcolm gave a little shake of his head-- no, they hadn't-- but he didn't think Pax saw him. Target practice? Jesus... but the soldiers were all gone now, the army faded away like turned goat's milk poured onto the Lightzone's thirsty ground. What difference did a long-absent militia make?
"The army isn't there anymore, of course," Pax said, echoing Malcolm's thoughts. "But there are other groups out there now, like the Raiders, that people don't like to talk about more than is absolutely necessary. We run patrols and do what we can to keep watch and discourage these people from coming around Jacksontown without getting outright belligerent about it, and I don't think we've ever turned anyone away we shouldn't have--"
"But what does that have to do with Columbus?" Malcolm said. He didn't raise his voice, but everyone in the room still heard him. "You said yourself that the soldiers are gone-- if we had a big enough group, why couldn't we go?"
Pax nodded in agreement. "Oh, we could go. It isn't the going that's the problem-- the Raiders are cowards at heart and no one's ever seen them mess with more than one or two people at a time. What troubles me is the getting there, and what we'd find once we do." He backed up a couple of steps until he could slip into a half-sitting position on the edge of the table. For a moment he didn't say anything and Malcolm thought maybe the lecture would stop, despite the fact that Pax hadn't, in Malcolm's opinion, given any concrete reason for discounting the notion of a supply trip. But no-- Pax took a deep breath, then plunged on.
"I saw men eating other men," he said bluntly. "Sitting around campfires like old hunting buddies and roasting human meat like it was everyday fare-- and for them, it was. Over and over I saw the Vigilantes act as judge, jury, and executioner, and all those decisions were usually made inside a five-second time slot-- bam!" A few people gasped, but most of the room just sat in uncomfortable silence; terrible things, true, but how many people, Malcolm wondered, really remembered them? Moreover, how many people truly believed they still happened? As Crystal had pointed out, twenty years was a lifetime, an eternity-- no way would that crap have continued all that time.
"Chemical spills and all kinds of fires-- gas, oil, petroleum, paper," Pax said. His voice had lowered and for a moment it had a singsong quality that was almost hypnotizing. "Leveled buildings, buckled and split roads-- no one's fixed the highway to Columbus or any other road, you know. Mass destruction, packs of dogs and people that would take down anyone unlucky enough to get singled out, rats the size of healthy tomcats swarming over the bodies of dead folks." He folded his hands in front of him. "Let me ask you something. If I remember correctly, Columbus was a city with slightly under a million people at the time Millennium hit. How many of those bodies do you think were buried?" He gestured at Crystal, whose face had gone an even shade of ivory under her perpetual Lightzone tan. "You only have to look at Crystal to know how healthy it must be to go wandering around in a place like that."
Malcolm's heart sank. For Christ's sake, why did he have to bring up all that stuff? Of course no one had buried the bodies... but by now the relentless sun and scavenger creatures would have picked the bones clean. He knew about bacteria and viruses, but it was twenty fucking years. He let air whistle out quietly through his teeth. It didn't matter; no way was his idea going to get approval tonight. Even had it met with a positive response, Pax was bringing up enough dirt to suffocate any hope of actually getting it pushed through. He might as well give up... for now.
As if to drive the nail in farther, Pax wasn't through. "We've got something good going here, and maybe it's not apparent, but we are changing, every day. Growing, learning, surviving. Even the name-- if you dig around on the old maps, you'll find that Jacksontown wasn't even called that before the Impacts. It used to be named Shadyside and the folks figured, obviously, that it just didn't fit anymore. As for out there, I... just don't think it's gotten any better," he said finally. He looked around the room, his expression earnest. "In fact, I think it's probably a whole lot worse. As if things weren't bad enough after the Impacts, who knows what all those chemicals have caused with twenty years of fertile ground lying around. We know for a fact that the Vigilantes haven't stopped, and we just learned about these Raiders a few years ago from our radio contacts. Another fine example of man adapting to the survival needs of his environment, and we're just lucky-- some would say blessed-- that none of 'em have ever come here. Those are the type who live the kill or be killed rule. We have people here who've undergone bodily changes that enable them to hide in plain sight-- who's to say there haven't been changes to other people that aren't nearly so beneficial or favorable? Or to the environment and what's in it? Sure, we've got limited contact with a few settlements within our tranmission range, but what else is out there that we, and they, can't see? Could be nothing much... or it could be the plague. When it comes down to it, we just don't know. And the bottom- line question is this:
"Do we really want to go out there in the midst of it?"
No one said anything while Pax stood, then went back around the table to his seat; except for the few people who cleared their throats or coughed in the still heat, it might have been the funeral of someone very important. Hell, Malcolm thought in disgust, it is a funeral-- mine. Or at least for the death of my idea.
"All right," Crystal said at last. "Does anyone else want to speak or shall we vote on it?" When no one said anything, she looked over at Frank, then at the guy whose name still eluded Malcolm. It was this man who opened the battered leather record book that served as Jacksontown's official journal and carefully wrote down the date-- November 27-- as he announced, "This is a vote on whether or not to organize an exploratory trip to Columbus. My name is Sajag Safa, and I will count and record the votes in front of everyone. All in favor, say aye and raise your hand to be counted."
No wasted words there, and Malcolm's hand shot up. But the ayes were a dismal few, and the young man couldn't have even described his own feeling of abject humiliation as his palm wavered above his head with only two, maybe three others in the room. Worse, he couldn't even see who those people were without standing up and making more of a spectacle of himself than he already had.
At the front of the room, Sajag Safa counted each hand aloud-- "One, two, three, and four." Then he bent to the journal and carefully wrote down the number. "All against say nay and raise your hand to be counted," he said without preamble. To heighten his shame, Malcolm realized that of the estimated fifty or sixty people there, a full three-quarters of them were voting against him. Yellow bellies, he though bitterly. Chicken-shit people too old and placid to look for something better.
Safa's voice cut into his brooding. "Let the record show that there are more than forty votes against." The man's swarthy skin was the color of diluted coffee and the skin of his forehead had the faintest tinge of dryness where it met his considerable hair, a condition common in the hot, arid climate close to the Lightzone's edge.
"I think we're finished here," Crystal said. She sounded tired and overworked-- well, she was both. "Malcolm, I'm afraid you've been outvoted. You have the right to bring this up again in six months."
Malcolm nodded stiffly from his seat, feeling his face flame anew as his peripheral vision gave him a view of his parents glancing in his direction. How much bigger a fool could he have been than to do this without preparation? He should've gone around and garnered support ahead of time so he wouldn't be so open to attack. Plus he would've been able to think about how to respond to some of these objections-- instead he felt like he'd just been slashed by flying razors. Six months? Why bother? If twenty years hadn't calmed the fears around here, why would another six months make any difference?
"All right then," Frank Gelasias said from the table. "I guess we'll bring this meeting to an end for tonight. You all know where the agenda box is in Crystal's office-- if you don't, just ask your neighbor. If you have a suggestion or a topic for the next meeting, be sure to drop it in; when the number gets up to five, we'll call another meeting-- and, of course, anyone's free to speak at the meeting, just like Malcolm did tonight." Next to him, Safa closed the record journal with a bang as all the committee members rose.
Malcolm saw people making their way out of the stuffy hall in groups of four and five. "You all have a good night," Lily called over the crowd. Miss Congeniality, he thought sullenly, but cross that lady once and she'd likely snap your face off-- and speaking of Lily, she was another one who'd gotten to wander all over hell and back during the Impact Days. She'd seen it all, but surely she had to realize that things would be different by now--
"Let's go, Malcolm." His father's voice was quiet and contemplative, not at all upset. Malcolm had expected anger, an undertone of Just wait, young man-- we're going to have a talk about your behavior! but the elder Cassidy's face was closed, his thoughts turned inward on something that Malcolm couldn't see. Columbus, perhaps? Even his mother was oddly silent as they left the building and went to stand with a group of his parents' friends by the cider barrel that Craig had set up out front. The men and women milling around it were also more subdued than usual, and Malcolm caught more than a few inquisitive looks as he stood by his mom and dad and waited for the postmeeting rituals to be over. Above them the sun was like a ball of white heat beating its way through a light haze that did nothing to dispel its brightness or lower the hundred-degree-plus temperature-- not so bad tonight. There were two months each year when the thermometers soared to 130 and most of Jacksontown's residents functioned only enough to keep themselves and their families fed and clean. Rebuilding and farming stopped, even the mutated crops withered in the summer blasts. All the things people made, the teaching, trading... it all halted. Tonight, though, Craig was doling out cups of his brew and Malcolm accepted his gratefully; although no one had said as much, somehow it made him feel less of an idiot to have this man offer him a small portion of this slightly alcoholic beverage.
The teenager and his parents turned at the sound of Pax's voice and Malcolm felt a pulse start to thud softly in his temple. It surprised him-- sure, he was pissed about being shot down in the meeting, but he hadn't realized how much until the blood forced its way into his brain and gifted him with a few tinny jolts of pain. For a moment Malcolm didn't-- couldn't-- say anything, then he found his voice.
Pax nodded politely at Malcolm's parents, then his eyes met Malcolm's steadily. "Could I have a word with you?"
Baffled, Malcolm glanced at his father and his father nodded permission. The teenager drained his cider cup and handed it to his mom, then followed Pax as he strode down the cracked pathway, letting his footsteps pound harder than necessary to release some of the tension he felt. What did Pax want with him? Hadn't he stepped on him enough at the meeting? Finally far enough away to be out of earshot of Malcolm's parents, the older man stopped and turned to him.
"Malcolm, I know you're angry," Pax said. "And I'm sorry about that. But I also know that you're old enough to realize that not everyone will always share the same opinion as you, and I hope you'll remember that we put the idea of a trip to Columbus to a fair vote and it was passed over not by me, but by nearly everyone there."
"But I thought you would stick by me!" Malcolm blurted. "You're always going on about all the stuff you saw on your trip across the country, but in there you acted like you didn't remember any of it!"
"No," Pax said evenly. "I acted like I remembered all of it." His faded green eyes searched Malcolm's. "Don't you know how much I leave out of those stories I tell you and Galen's other friends? Most of the time that I was on the road wasn't fun. It was terrifying-- running constantly, afraid to sleep at night, cold, hungry, wet all the time. Now I see that was a mistake, because you've formed your own ideas about how it's the twenty-first century's version of Gulliver's Travels.
"Malcolm, that woman tonight, that Adilah Travers-- I don't know why, but she lied, and anyone who pays attention to what goes on in town knew it. We had contact with Columbus up until a month ago, remember? You've built Columbus into a sort of promised land, but the truth is-- was-- that it was just another place like here, full of people always hunting for supplies and trying to rebuild. Those rumors about the plague aren't rumors. They're the truth, and that's why we can't go." He paused, his gaze searching Malcolm's. "We're not getting any more transmissions from the settlement outside of Columbus. They've all stopped, but we can't just up and announce it because too many folks might just freak out, pack it up, and hightail it. But to where? Jacksonville is plague-free and the safest place most of us know. Damn it, do you understand what I'm saying? Out there, the plague is a reality, not the figment of somebody just out to preach disaster."
When Malcolm stayed stubbornly silent, Pax spread his hands. "Come on, Malcolm. A total stranger might hand you a line of bullshit, but do you really think I'd do the same?"
Malcolm stared at him. "No... maybe. I don't know."
Pax sighed. "Well, I didn't."
"Nice talking to you," Malcolm said. He managed to make the words come out nice and light, but Pax wasn't fooled. "I'll see you around."
"Look," Pax said. "If you want to hear the way it really was, you're welcome to come over to the house some evening this week and I'll sit down with you and Galen-- none of your other friends, though."
"Thanks anyway," Malcolm said. "I think I heard about everything that was needed tonight." Before Pax could say any more, Malcolm strolled away with as much dignity as he could manage. He caught a glimpse of the disheartened expression on Pax's face but he couldn't let it bother him-- that's just what adults tried to do most of the time, use the guilt factor to get a hook in where there shouldn't be one to begin with. He was a decent guy, he did what his parents asked him and didn't cause anyone grief-- and Jacksontown had its share of those types. He certainly didn't deserve to be feeling bad about expressing his rightful opinion.
As for Pax... Malcolm was tired of his stories. If he followed what the man had just told him, then all those tales of dark adventure weren't even true-- which meant there was no guarantee that anything he said in the future would be true, either. Why bother to listen? Pax could make up whatever he wanted and it would-- it was, as a matter of fact-- taken as the God's truth.
Malcolm glanced back over his shoulder just enough to see that the other man was standing there and watching him go. It gave him another guilty pang to have Pax feel bad about hurting Malcolm's feelings, because on the one hand Pax was a good guy like Malcolm; on the other, however, he'd sure shown that typical omnipotent adult side tonight, hadn't he?
But that was all right, Malcolm thought as he rejoined his parents and accepted a rare second cup of hard cider. Malcolm had plenty of plans of his own regarding Columbus.
Standing next to the building outside, Adilah Travers saw the boy walk off a ways with Pax Bailby. What were they talking about? Columbus? Red Shadows? Or her? Bailby had known she was lying-- she'd seen it in those sharp green eyes of his. Didn't miss a trick, that one. For that matter, so had the teenager, such a know-it-all youngster. People always thought they knew so much... they didn't know shit about what they were trying to get into.
Jacksontown was clean so far, as was she-- no way could she have gone three months without a blemish on her skin if she'd picked up the plague from Columbus, and technically it was two months longer than that since Adilah'd had skin-to-skin contact with anyone in her ill-fated former city. But it wouldn't have mattered-- the whole place would've gone into a panic if she'd admitted to being there, to actually seeing people keel over and die before walking away. They'd have lynched her for bringing the plague to Jacksontown, for God's sake, and it didn't matter how levelheaded people claimed to be when fear, the deep-down you're-going-to-die kind, came to call. Look what the folks in Columbus, her so-called neighbors, had done to those poor, mindless idiots around the settlement. They'd been spared the effects of the plague, all right, but God sure hadn't come down with a holy shield to block the bullets and the clubs of the righteous. Adilah was willing to bet Jacksontown had the same kind of people, and never mind that right now they were all hiding their true faces.
Adilah stayed to the back and watched as the people drank their cider and talked, their conversations wavering between shock and excitement about the meeting tonight. Farther down the sun-baked street, Adilah saw Pax gesturing at Malcolm, then saw the boy turn and stride away, his head held high and defiant. Problems were coming, all right, and she thought the people of this good, clean town would do well to watch that boy, and watch him carefully.
I tried to warn them, she thought morosely. She folded her arms, savoring the smell of the heat-warmed cider but unwilling to use a drinking cup probably used by dozens of others and barely washed in between. Staying alive was sometimes a damned unsociable thing to accomplish.
Her gaze focused on Pax, who'd paused for a few moments before starting to work his way back in her direction. Adilah took a step back around the corner of the building before he could see her. There sure wasn't any sense in having some kind of meeting or registering with Pax Bailby. She'd thought this was a safe place, a healthy haven hot enough and far enough away from Columbus to be inhospitable to the bacteria and such that grew so well in the Grayzone's cool, wet climate. But that was all just a theory, her theory, and what did she really know about those things? It had yet to be tested, and God save them all, but Malcolm looked like just the fool to start the waters rippling.
And if that happened, she wouldn't be staying.
* * *
Published by from Bantam Books - November, 1998
ISBN 0-553-57749-2 -- 512 pages.
This novel is now out of print, but
You can buy an autographed copy through
the Palace Offerings or below.
Return to Chapters 1 and 2.
Return to the Prologue and Foreword.
Return to Palace Offerings.
Return to the Darke Palace Book Page.
Return to the Bibliography.
Return to Darke Palace.
An autographed copy of this out of print book
can be ordered right Here,
using your Visa, Mastercard, Discover
or PayPal.com Account!