Cover art copyright
by Stephen Youll
Chapters 1 and 2
Cover art copyright
by Danielle Tunstall
He felt like God.
Scanlon O'Rysley, forty-four years old, onetime washer of cars and, in his less than enlightening moments, former cleaner of dog runs, now stood before a transfixed crowd in a tiny town in the southernmost part of Minnesota. Not many people here, but he'd been here four times total in the last three years and he liked coming back because the folks were cheerful and friendly and always had something going on. Like now, with the hoopla that was preceding their Fourth of July celebration in a couple of days-- who would've thought anyone had bothered to keep that old tradition alive?
But Independence Day was taking a backseat to the presence of Scanlon O'Rysley. He was here and he was news, the Smokeman, a big event by God, and they could all put aside their tasks, could damned well drop them. Because if they weren't interested in what he had to tell them, if they weren't desperate to hear it, why thank you very much but he could just move along and not pass on any news at all, and of course he'd just take his supplies right on with him.
Including his Rollers.
Faces looked up expectantly, gazes pinned on him, ears straining for everything and anything he had to say. This was good, this was as it should be, the way he, the Smokeman, liked things to be.
"I was right there," he declared to the crowd from the wooden platform where the officials of Owatonna made their town announcements. "Almost in Columbus proper. But at the last minute I decided against it-- the people there, they looked fit as they could be, but I asked myself, what if they aren't?" He sent the people a few feet below him a meaningful glance. "We all know the rumors about the cities and how the people in there always sicken and die, how it's been that way since the Impacts. Any sane person has to wonder why those people, assuming they're God-fearing and of sound mind--" Scanlon rolled his eyes and glanced purposely at the back corner of the square where the townsfolk had used old cyclone fencing to erect a six-foot enclosure to keep a small knot of mindless men and women out of trouble's way. He cleared his throat and continued. "--would want to settle in a place so close to the city proper?"
"So you didn't take any supplies from them?" asked a hard-faced man in the front row who Scanlon recognized as the community's leader. His eyes were narrow and suspicious. "None at all?"
"Not so much as a bag of salt," Scanlon lied. "But you know, I felt bad for 'em, because of the rumors about sickness, so I passed on the bulk of the Rollers I had at the time and figured if they did run into trouble, maybe the smokes would be a help."
His interrogator looked doubtfully at another man standing next to him, but his companion only shrugged. "All right," the first man said as his dark eyes met with Scanlon's. "When you're done telling these folks the news from around the Zones, we'll talk trade."
Not much to tell-- the same struggle for survival that'd been going on for the past two decades, a few places getting electricity, a few more dying out, the ever-present rumors about some bullshit plague he'd never actually seen wiping out whole communities. But Scanlon smiled personably and nodded his agreement, then launched into another of the half dozen or so tales he'd made up on the way here. After all, he was the Smokeman.
"As I recall," Smokeman said, "you folks were looking to up your stock of ammunition-- Remington .223, wasn't it?" He swung his canvas backpack over and onto the tabletop with a grunt and shoved his hand inside; when he withdrew it, the box he held was old and water-stained-- reused many times-- but they all knew what was inside. "Box of twenty," he said levelly.
"Where'd you get it?" The hard-eyed man again, and Smokeman had finally remembered his name-- Wierman. No first names around here, at least not to him. But then, all they knew him by was Smokeman, and that was okay, too.
"Got a contact in North Carolina," he said without missing a beat. "Real hunting enthusiasts there in the mountains." The only truth in his statement was the word mountains-- the Carolinas-- what was left of them-- were so full of peaks now that a man couldn't hardly get past the old state lines. He'd gone a couple of days in on more than a few occasions to look around, but as far as he could tell, there weren't any settlements, just flash floods from the mountain run-off and the constant rains.
"Never had no contact with anyone from there," said Wierman's companion, who didn't bother to introduce himself. "Never picked up a transmission."
"Because of the mountains," Smokeman said patiently. "It's impossible to get a signal out. They gave up trying years ago." Was he nuts or had the friendliness he remembered in Owatonna somehow slipped away? Damned rumors of the plague, no doubt, making people crazy everywhere.
"We're not sure--"
"I got seven more boxes," Smokeman interrupted. He let the tone of his voice turn cold. "It's a heavy load and I carried it all the way up the Grayzone because you asked for it." He slipped the hand holding the box of ammo back into his supply sack. "But it don't matter-- ammo's always in demand and there's plenty of other people'll trade good supplies for it." He raised his eyes and let his expression go rigid, much more so than either of the men in front of him. "Others'll be wanting my Rollers, too."
For a moment the two men seemed stunned and Smokeman almost felt sympathetic. He could imagine their thoughts--
No Rollers? But they're the best medicine that's come along in years, nothing better since the Impacts! What'll we do without them?
--but any empathy was lost in disdain. No, he hadn't been to North Carolina and yes, he'd gotten this ammunition from the group in Columbus. But it was just ammo, for Christ's sake, not food or anything that went in a person's body. Besides, hadn't he himself been carrying it for weeks now with no ill effects?
His Rollers, his recipe, his cure, for most of the common cold-like symptoms existing in the fucked-up world today. The implication was clear: If they wouldn't take the merchandise they'd asked for, they wouldn't get any Rollers either. And what would they do without them? That was the critical question, wasn't it?
"I'm sure we can work something out," Wierman said hastily. "No need to jump to conclusions."
Two decades since the Impacts, and man hadn't changed a bit. People still didn't think things through.
"Don't reckon I'll be back for a while," Smokeman said after all the trading and talking was done. Beneath the layers of cape and fabric covering his shoulders, no one could see his hands squeeze briefly into fists, then relax. "Best to make these Rollers last as long as you can." The group of people standing at the edge of town said nothing, but Smokeman could see their thoughts reflected in their widening eyes: they had no doctor in this town, not even a nurse-- with only bare electricity and a crude ham setup, Owatonna was a primitive place and the Smokeman's Rollers were sometimes all they'd had short of spit and a prayer to keep things going through a flu outbreak or, God forbid, something worse. Bronchitis was a common visitor and pneumonia was a close and hostile cousin that visited often, and if there was something else around that would break a fever like his Rollers, neither the people of Owatonna nor the Smokeman knew about it.
Too bad they'd pissed him off so bad about the ammunition. The truth was, he wasn't ever coming back here. He had one more good-sized stash he would pick up, but after that his supply was out and what he needed for the Rollers only grew in certain parts of the Grayzone. His list of things to do no longer included this part of Minnesota; not only did he need to harvest, dry, and grind more plants, he was almost out of the paper he needed to roll the smokes themselves and that meant moving farther south. Smokeman could do the paper himself in a pinch, but his skills in that area were lousy. His luck, however, was good: In his travels he'd come across a guy in downstate Illinois who was real good at it and they'd struck an understanding. Smokeman had wish lists from a lot of folks across the Grayzone, but his paper maker's interest in specialty knives was now in the priority arena. What the man did with the blades wasn't his business or concern.
"You want us to radio ahead somewhere for you?" Wierman asked, clearly trying to make up for the earlier inhospitable attitude. "So folks know you're headed their way?"
Smokeman smiled but on his thin and grizzled face only his lips stretched; his muddy green eyes never warmed. It was far too late for amends and no matter the more- than-generous trade he'd gotten in return for the ammo and Rollers. He was very good at holding grudges. "Don't bother. I've got no set course-- go where I want, when I want... and where I don't want. It's the only way to live."
With that, Scanlon O'Rysley, the Smokeman, turned and walked out of Owatonna, Minnesota, for the last time.
"You people," Smokeman said when he was far enough down the road to be out of sight and out of earshot, "can kiss my happy ass if you think you'll ever see any help from me again."
He stopped walking and shrugged out of his pack, then found his well-used map and spread it on a dry spot on the ground, grateful that the last day and a half had brought a letup in the drizzle here in the upper part of the Grayzone. It only took a moment to confirm the distance and he stabbed at the paper with one finger for emphasis-- he'd be cutting it close, but he thought he could stop and do some harvesting and rolling before he had to make his next scheduled meet with the guy who supplied his papers. It was the first time the man was meeting up with him instead of him having to make the entire journey, and that was good. The guy was an odd one and Smokeman didn't for a moment think he had any power over the papermaker, but at least he didn't have to go so damned close to the Darkzone anymore. Dangerous place, that.
For some reason Smokeman felt cheerful, despite those assholes back in Owatonna and the way they'd treated him-- like he was something nasty coming into their territory, for crying out loud. But who cared? He could put those folks out of his mind forever now. Life was pretty good-- he had something folks wanted that he could trade for food and supplies and warm clothes and sometimes, if the place was right, even women. Since no one else could supply it, he went where he would with impunity, doing what he wanted and when-- like traveling around and getting news, giving more news, learning all the secrets of what went on in the Zones and which folks were doing it. On occasion, he even acted as an intermediary between one group or another, performing a sort of civic responsibility in negotiating trade between folks who otherwise wouldn't-- or couldn't, because of the danger-- have anything to do with one another. Amazing how all these folks were so convinced-- excepting Owatonna-- that it was only their best interests and no one else's that Smokeman had in his heart. Why, he would've been perfect in politics before the Impacts!
He packed his stuff up again, arranging things a little more carefully so he'd be comfortable enough to go the distance this time. He had someplace to be, and if the weather held, he thought he could make a good seven or eight miles before his belly would demand dinner, and that was a fine measure of distance to start off the next leg of his journeys. And let's not forget that the radio reports from the last few towns he'd visited-- forget those fools in Owatonna-- talked about at least two or three settlements he'd yet to see.
Walking and whistling and smiling, the Smokeman set off to spread his good cheer around the world he knew.
The Outskirts of Columbus, Ohio
Adilah Travers was a strong, hard woman, and she would've never admitted to the tear that trickled down her cheek as she aimed, then carefully squeezed the trigger of her rifle and watched the side of her target's head shatter.
The .30-06 Sako bucked in her hands and she felt the stock slam backward into the meat of her shoulder, ground her teeth against the pain at the same time as her spine scraped against the wood of the tree in which she was perched. A woman this time, and how many did that make this morning-- ten? Or was it fifteen? Through the last four days she'd lost count, but surely there couldn't be that many more alive in the settlement who were capable of trying to get up and walk out.
Adilah just couldn't let that happen.
Something else she'd lost count of was how many times she'd checked her own skin, peering carefully at the roughened areas between her fingers and toes, examining the bends of her elbows, straining to see into the softer areas beneath her arms and at the back of her knees when she hiked her jeans down and attended to her body's needs. She was okay so far, still free of the black-red bruising that would mark her as one of the plague's victims and eventually spread to blotches seeping across the surface of her skin like moss on the trunk of a wet tree. So she'd left in time, trucked on out of this small settlement of people settled on the southeastern fringe of what had once been Columbus and left everyone else behind while she moved on pure instinct.
In retrospect she didn't think it'd been so hard to see the plague coming. After all, the rumors were there and only a fool ignored tales that had as much of an edge of fear to them as the constantly recurring ones about--
By choice, the folks in Columbus hadn't had much contact with the outside world. They were a territorial bunch: They did irregular supply runs to the interior of the city and weren't particularly eager to share what they found, though God knows they'd sure open their hands if someone new showed up and wanted to give. Well, someone had given them all right, and it was only the fact that Adilah hunted up her own supplies and kept to herself most of the time that had probably saved her from catching the sickness. No telling how long or how far the disease had spread before people admitted its presence and started showing their faces, the skin smeared with ugly scarlet, openly on the streets. Coughing and spitting blood, touching everything and everyone else and saying it would pass, while Adilah regarded them from behind the shutters of her small house and stayed away, grimly watching as the settlement started to die. She'd grown up in Columbus proper and had stayed after the Impacts because it was familiar, taking a bit of comfort and a sort of reluctant security from the people who lived around her. But at her core she'd always been a loner and always been lonely; in the end it was her solitary ways that saved her.
She shifted on her perch, minding her position because her legs were half-numb from sitting for almost six hours. The last radio transmissions had been at least a week ago, warning people away from the town unless they had a cure. There'd been nothing but silence in return, and Adilah could well imagine the reaction on the other end: No one had a cure, and no sane person would risk coming in and exposing themselves without it. Like everywhere, Columbus had had its share of the crazy folks-- she'd heard about a town in the Lightzone where they were called The Lost-- who'd freaked out either about the Impacts or something horrible that had happened to them since then. Another disease for which there seemed to be no cure, this time in the head, but at least these folks weren't contagious and didn't do more than kind of wander around town and stare at nothing. Not that it mattered now, anyway; these Lost people seemed to be immune to Red Shadows and, boy, hadn't they become the scapegoats for the misery and terror the people of Columbus were going through? All of them disease-free, and not a single one of them had lived past the third week of its appearance.
Adilah swallowed, then coughed, wishing she could get out of this tree and just move on, be done with the dirty job at hand. It'd been at least an hour in between this latest target and the one before that; surely most of the people in the settlement were dead or too weak to try to escape by now--
But no, here came another one, staggering down the path that led out of town and so feverish he was barely upright-- didn't even have a pack of supplies, for God's sake, and he thought he'd just head on out of town and give Red Shadows to the rest of the meager civilization.
Not while I'm alive, Adilah thought, and shouldered the Sako Classic Grade again, carefully sighting the dying man in the view through the weapon's scope. She knew this one, not by name but by sight-- somebody from one of the trading posts she'd gone to so infrequently. For a moment her vision blurred and she blinked, angry at herself, angry at the nameless man she was about to kill, angry at God, for crying out loud. There was so little left of the world already, between the Impacts and the killings afterward, then the run of post-Impact diseases with no more medicine. Did He have to come down and stomp out the rest?
Adilah's eyes cleared and she ground her teeth and squeezed the trigger, seeing once again the result of her long-ago military training. This time the bullet went low and she had to watch as his throat tore open, live through it with her victim for just over a minute as the man's hand came up in surprise and tried to stop the flow of his lifeblood from his vaporized carotid artery. A bad shot and she'd have to be more careful; she wasn't out here to torture people.
It'd been almost eight weeks since she'd had true physical contact with anyone in the settlement, exchanging goods, shaking hands, whatever. Still, she couldn't stop herself from checking her fingers again; what she wouldn't give for a mirror, though the little that she could see of her reflection in the rain puddles showed her a complexion clear of the marks and healthy, if not a little worn around the edges. Taking a deep breath, she adjusted her seat once more in the tree and leaned back to wait; she figured she had at least another hour in her before she'd need to come down and take a break.
In the meantime, Adilah Travers, who'd gotten out of Columbus before being touched in the flesh by the horror that was Red Shadows, was just doing her part to try and keep what was left of humanity safe. Maybe God would forgive her.
But she wasn't betting on it.
* * *
Published by from Bantam Books - November, 1998
ISBN 0-553-57749-2 -- 512 pages.
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