Chapter 1

 Scott Westerfeld

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Chapter 1
After a year of hunting, I finally caught up with Sarah.
It turned out she'd been hiding in New Jersey, which broke my heart. I mean, Hoboken? Sarah was always head-over-heels in love with Manhattan. For her, New York was like another Elvis, the King remade of bricks, steel, and granite. The rest of the world was a vast extension of her parents' basement, the last place she wanted to wind up.
No wonder she'd had to leave when the disease took hold of her mind. Peeps always run from the things they used to love.
Still, I shook my head when I found out where she was. The old Sarah wouldn't have been caught dead in Hoboken. And yet here I was, finishing my tenth cup of coffee in the crumbling parking lot of the old ferry terminal, armed only with my wits and a backpack full of Elvis memorabilia. In the black mirror of the coffee's surface, the gray sky trembled with the beating of my heart.
It was late afternoon. I'd spent the day in a nearby diner, working my way through the menu and waiting for the clouds to clear, praying that the bored and very cute waitress wouldn't start talking to me. If that happened, I'd have to leave and wander around the docks all day.
I was nervous - the usual tension of meeting an ex, with the added bonus of facing a maniacal cannibal - and the hours stretched out torturously. But finally a few shafts of sun had broken through, bright enough to trap Sarah inside the terminal. Peeps can't stand sunlight.
It had been raining a lot that week, and green weeds pushed up through the asphalt, cracking the old parking lot like so much dried mud. Feral cats watched me from every hiding place, no doubt drawn here by the spiking rat population. Predators and prey and ruin - it's amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing.
According to the Night Watch's crime blotters, this spot didn't show any of the usual signs of a predator. No transit workers gone missing, no homeless people turning psychotically violent. But every time New Jersey Pest Control did another round of poisoning, the hordes of rats just reappeared, despite the fact that there wasn't much garbage to eat in this deserted part of town. The only explanation was a resident peep. When the Night Watch had tested one of the rats, it had turned out to be of my bloodline, once removed.
That could only mean Sarah. Except for her and Morgan, every other girl I'd ever kissed was already locked up tight. (And Morgan, I was certain, was not hiding out in an old ferry terminal in Hoboken.)
Big yellow stickers plastered the terminal's padlocked doors, warning of rat poison, but it looked like the guys at pest control were starting to get spooked. They'd dropped off their little packets of death, slapped up a few warning stickers, and then gotten the heck out of there.
Good for them. They don't get paid enough to deal with peeps.
Of course, neither do I, despite the excellent health benefits. But I had a certain responsibility here. Sarah wasn't just the first of my bloodline - she was my first real girlfriend.
My only real girlfriend, if you must know.
We met the opening day of classes - freshman year, Philosophy 101 - and soon found ourselves in a big argument about free will and predetermination. The discussion spilled out of class, into a caf, and all the way back to her room that night. Sarah was very into free will. I was very into Sarah.
The argument went on that whole semester. As a bio major, I figured "free will" meant chemicals in your brain telling you what to do, the molecules bouncing around in a way that felt like choosing but was actually the dance of little gears - neurons and hormones bubbling up into decisions like clockwork. You don't use your body; it uses you.
Guess I won that one.
There were signs of Sarah everywhere. All the windows at eye level were smashed, every expanse of reflective metal smeared with dirt or something worse.
And of course there were rats. Lots of them. I could hear that even from outside.
I squeezed between the loosely padlocked doors, then stood waiting for my vision to adjust to the darkness. The sound of little feet skittered along the gloomy edges of the vast interior space. My entrance had the effect of a stone landing in a still pond: The rippling rats took a while to settle.
I listened for my ex-girlfriend but heard only wind whistling over broken glass and the myriad nostrils snuffling around me.
They stayed in the shadows, smelling the familiarity of me, wondering if I was part of the family. Rats have evolved into an arrangement with the disease, you see. They don't suffer from infection.
Human beings aren't so lucky. Even people like me - who don't turn into ravening monsters, who don't have to run from everything they love - we suffer too. Exquisitely.
I dropped my backpack to the floor and pulled out a poster, unrolling it and taping it to the inside of the door.
I stepped back, and the King smiled down at me through the darkness, resplendent against black velvet. No way could Sarah get past those piercing green eyes and that radiant smile.
Feeling safer under his gaze, I moved farther into the darkness. Long benches lined the floor like church pews, and the faded smell of long-gone human crowds rose up. Passengers had once sat here to await the next ferry to Manhattan. There were a few beds of newspaper where homeless people had slept, but my nose informed me that they'd lain empty for weeks.
Since the predator had arrived.
The hordes of tiny footsteps followed me warily, still unsure of what I was.
I taped a black-velvet Elvis poster onto each exit from the terminal, the bright colors clashing with the dingy yellow of the rat-poison warnings. Then I postered the broken windows, plastering every means of escape with the King's face.
Against one wall, I found pieces of a shredded shirt. Stained with fresh-smelling blood, it had been flung aside like a discarded candy wrapper. I had to remind myself that this creature wasn't really Sarah, full of free will and tidbits of Elvis trivia. This was a cold-blooded killer.
Before I zipped the backpack closed, I pulled out an eight-inch '68 Comeback Special action figure and put it in my pocket. I hoped my familiar face would protect me, but it never hurts to have a trusty anathema close at hand.
I heard something from above, where the old ferry administration offices jutted out from the back wall, overlooking the waiting room. Peeps prefer to nest in small, high places.
There was only one set of stairs, the steps sagging like a flat tire in the middle. As my weight pressed into the first one, it creaked unhappily.
The noise didn't matter - Sarah had to know already someone was here - but I went carefully, letting the staircase's sway settle between every step. The guys in Records had warned me that this place had been condemned for a decade.
I took advantage of the slow ascent to leave a few items from my backpack on the stairs. A sequined cape, a miniature blue Christmas tree, an album of Elvis Sings Gospel.
From the top of the stairs, a row of skulls looked down at me.
I'd seen lairs marked this way before, part territorialism - a warning to other predators to stay away - and partly the sort of thing that peeps just ... liked. Not free will but those chemicals in the brain again, determining aesthetic responses, as predictable as a middle-aged guy buying a red sports car.
More tiny feet skittered when I kicked one of the skulls into the gloom. It rolled with a limping, asymmetrical ka-thump, ka-thump across the floor. As the echoes died away, I heard something human-size breathing. But she didn't show herself, didn't attack. I wondered if she recognized my smell.
"It's me," I called softly, not expecting any response.
I froze, not believing my ears. None of the other girls I'd ever dated had spoken at all when I'd tracked them down, much less said my name.
But I recognized Sarah's voice. Even raspy and desiccated, as dry and brittle as a lost contact lens, it was her. I heard her dry throat swallow.
"I'm here to help you," I said.
There was no answer, no movement of rats' feet. The sounds of her breathing had stopped. Peeps can do that, subsist on pockets of oxygen stored in the parasite's cysts.
The balcony stretched before me, a row of doors leading to abandoned offices. I took a few steps and glanced into the first one. It was stripped of furniture, but I could see the outlines of tiny cubicles imprinted into the gray industrial carpet. Not a terrible place to work, though: Iron-framed windows overlooked the harbor, the views magnificent, even though the glass was broken and smeared.
Manhattan lay across the river, the downtown spires lighting up as the sun went down, painting the glass towers orange. Strange that Sarah would stay here, in sight of the island she'd loved. How could she stand it?
Maybe she was different.
Old clothes and a couple of crack vials littered the floor, along with more human bones. I wondered where she had been hunting and how the Watch had missed the kills. That's the thing about predators: They leave a huge statistical footprint on any ecosystem. Get more than a dozen of them in even the biggest city and the homicides show up like a house on fire. The disease has spent the last thousand years evolving to conceal itself, but it gets tougher and tougher for man-eaters to stay hidden. Human beings are prey with cell phones, after all.
I stepped back into the hall and closed my eyes, listening again. Hearing nothing.
When I opened them, Sarah stood before me.
I sucked in a breath and the most trivial of thoughts went through me: She's lost weight. Her wiry body almost disappeared in the stolen rags she wore, like a child in borrowed, grown-up clothes. As always when running into an ex after a long time, there was the weirdness of seeing a once-familiar face transformed.
I could see why the legends call them beautiful: that bone structure right there on the surface, like heroin chic without the bad skin. And a peep's gaze is so intense. Adapted to the darkness, their irises and pupils are huge, the skin around the orbitals pulled back in a predatory facelift, revealing more of the eyeballs. Like Botoxed movie stars, they always look surprised and almost never blink.
For a brief and horrible moment, I thought I was in love with her again. But it was just the insatiable parasite inside me.
"Sarah," I breathed out.
She hissed. Peeps hate the sound of their own names, which cuts into the tangled channels of their brains just like an anathema. But she'd said, "Cal..."
"Go away," came the raspy voice.
I could see hunger in her eyes - peeps are always hungry - but she didn't want me. I was too familiar.
Rats began to swirl around my feet, thinking a kill was coming. I stamped one of my rat-proof cowboy boots down hard to send them scurrying. Sarah bared her teeth at the noise and my stomach clenched. I had to remind myself that she wouldn't eat me, couldn't eat me.
"I have to take you out of here," I said, my fingers closing on the action figure in my pocket. They never went without a fight, but Sarah was my first real love. I thought maybe.
She struck like lightning, her open palm landing upside my head, a slap that felt like it had burst my eardrum.
I staggered back, the world ringing, and more blows pummeled my stomach, driving the breath from me. And then I was lying on my back, Sarah's weight on my chest, her body as sinewy as a bag full of pissed-off snakes, her smell thick in my nostrils.
She pushed my head back, baring my throat, but then froze, something fighting behind her Botoxed eyes. Her love for me? Or just the anathema of my familiar face?
"Ray's Original, First Avenue and Eighth Street," I said quickly, invoking her favorite pizza place. "Vanilla vodka on the rocks. Viva Las Vegas." That last one scored, so I added, "His mother's middle name was Love."
At this second Elvis reference, Sarah hissed like a snake, one hand curling into a claw. The fingernails, like a corpse's, keep growing as everything else is eaten away, and hers were as gnarled and black as dried beetle husks.
I stopped her with the password for our shared video store account, then rattled off her old cell-phone number and the names of the goldfish she'd left behind. Sarah flinched, battered by these old, familiar signifiers. Then she let out a howl, her mouth stretching wide to bare the awful teeth again. A dark claw raised up.
I pulled the action figure from my pocket and thrust it into her face.
It was the King, of course, in Comeback Special black, complete with leather wristband and four-inch guitar. This was my only keepsake from her former life - I'd stolen it from under her roommate's nose, dropping by a week after Sarah had disappeared, instinctively knowing she wasn't coming back. Wanting something of hers.
Sarah howled, closing her fist and bringing it down on my chest. The blow left me coughing, my eyes filling with tears. But her weight was suddenly gone.
I rolled over, gasping, trying to regain my feet. As my eyes cleared, I saw boiling fur in every direction, the rats in a panic at their mistress's distress.
She had started down the stairs, but now the anathema had taken hold of her mind. The Elvis memorabilia I'd placed on the steps did its job - Sarah twisted in mid-course at the sequined cape, like a horse glimpsing a rattlesnake, and crashed through the rickety banister.
I scrambled to the balcony's edge and looked down. She crouched on one of the pews, glaring up at me.
"Are you okay, Sarah?"
The sound of her own name got her moving, gliding across the waiting room, bare feet silent on the backs of the benches. But she stumbled to a halt as she came face-to-face with the black velvet King poster, a horrible wail filling the echoing terminal. It was one of those spine-tingling transformations, like when a forlorn cat suddenly makes the sound of a human child, Sarah uttering the cry of some other species.
Rats swept toward me from all sides - attacking, I thought for a moment. But they were simply freaking out, swirling without purpose around my boots, disappearing through holes and into office doorways.
As I ran down the staircase, the metal bolts that held it to the wall yanked at their berths in a screeching chorus. Sarah darted from exit to exit, mewling at the sight of the King's face. She froze and hissed at me again.
She knew I had her cornered and watched warily as I put the doll back in my pocket.
"Stay there. I won't hurt you." I slowly climbed down the rest of the swaying stairs. It was about as steady as standing in a canoe.
The moment one of my feet touched the ground floor, Sarah ran straight toward the far wall. She leaped high, her black claws grasping one of a web of steam pipes that fed a long radiator. Her long black fingernails made pinging sounds on the empty pipes as she climbed up and along the wall toward a high window I hadn't bothered to cover. She moved like a spider, fast and jerky.
There was no Elvis between her and freedom. I was going to lose her.
Swearing, I turned and dashed back up the swaying stairs. A series of pops came from behind me, bolts failing, and just as I reached the top, the whole staircase pulled away, freeing itself from the wall at last. But it didn't crash to the ground, just sagged exhaustedly, a few bolts still clinging to the upper floor like rusty fingernails.
Sarah reached the high window and put her fist through it, smeared glass shattering onto a jagged patch of gray sky. But as she pulled herself up into the window frame, a bright shaft of sun struck through the clouds, hitting her square in the face.
The rosy light filled the terminal, and Sarah screamed again, swinging from one hand, the other flailing. She tried to hoist herself through the broken window twice more, but the punishing sunlight forced her back. Finally she scurried away, fleeing along the pipes and leaping to the balcony, darting through the farthest doorway from me.
I was already running.
The last office was the darkest, but I could smell the rats, the main nest of her brood. When I reached the door they turned to face me in awful unison, red eyes illuminated by the dusty shaft of sunlight filtering in behind me. There was a bed in one corner, its rusty springs covered with rotting clothes. Most peeps didn't bother with beds. Had it been left here by squatters? Or had Sarah salvaged it from some rubbish heap?
She'd always been a fussy sleeper, bringing her own pillow to college from Tennessee. Did she still care what she slept on?
Sarah watched me from the bed, her eyes half closed. It was only because the sunlight had burned them, but it made her look more human.
I approached carefully, one hand on the action figure in my pocket. But I didn't pull it out. Maybe I could take her without any more struggle. She'd said my name, after all.
The motionless rats made me nervous. I took a plastic bag from my pocket and emptied it onto my boots. The brood parted, scenting Cornelius's dander. My ancient cat hadn't hunted in years, but the rats didn't know that. Suddenly, I smelled like a predator.
Sarah clung to the bed's spindly frame, which began to shudder. I paused to pull a Kevlar glove onto my left hand and dropped two knockout pills into its palm.
"Let me give you these. They'll make you better."
Sarah squinted at me, still wary, but listening. She had always forgotten to take her pills, and it had been my job to remind her. Maybe this ritual would calm her, something remembered, but not fondly enough to be an anathema. I could hear her breathing, her heart still beating as fast as it had during the chase.
She could spring at me at any moment.
I took another slow step and sat down beside her. The bed's rusty springs made a questioning sound.
"Take these. They're good for you."
Sarah stared at the small white pills cupped in my palm. I felt her relax for a moment, maybe recalling what it was like to be sick - just normal sick - and have a boyfriend look after you.
I'm not as fast as a full-blown peep, or as strong, but I am pretty quick. I cupped my hand over her mouth in a flash and heard the pills snick into her dehydrated throat. Her hands gripped my shoulders, but I pressed her head back with my whole weight, letting her teeth savage the thick glove. Sarah's black nails didn't go for my face, and I saw swallows pulsing along her pale neck.
The pills took her down in seconds. With a metabolism as fast as ours, drugs hit right away - I feel tipsy about a minute after alcohol touches my tongue, and I damn near need an IV to keep a coffee buzz going.
"Well done, Sarah." I let her go and saw that her eyes were still open. "You'll be okay now, I promise."
I pulled the glove off. The outer water-resistant layer was shredded, but her teeth hadn't broken the Kevlar. (It has happened, though.)
My cell phone showed one lonely bar of reception, but the call went straight through. "It was her. Pick us up."
As the phone went dark, I wondered if I should have mentioned the crumbling stairs. Oh, well. They'd figure out how to get up.
I started at the sound, but her slitted eyes didn't seem to pose a threat. "What is it, Sarah?"
"Show me again."
"Show you what?"
She tried to speak, but a pained look crossed her face.
"You mean..." His name would hurt her if I said it. "The King?"
She nodded.
"You don't want that. It'll only burn you. Like the sun did."
"But I miss him." Her voice was fading, sleep taking her.
I swallowed, feeling something flat and heavy settle over me. "I know you do."
Sarah knew a lot about Elvis, but she enjoyed obscure facts the most. She loved it that his mother's middle name was Love. She searched the Web for MP3s of the B-sides of rare seventies singles. Her favorite movie was one that you've probably never heard of: Stay Away, Joe.
In it, Elvis is a half-Navajo bronco buster on a reservation. Sarah claimed it was the role he was born to play, because he really was part Native American. Yeah, right. His great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee. And, like most of us, he had sixteen great-great-great-grandmothers. Not much genetic impact there. But Sarah didn't care. She said obscure influences were the most important.
That's a philosophy major for you.
In the movie, Elvis sells pieces of his car whenever he needs money. The doors go, then the roof, then the seats, one by one. By the end he's riding along on an empty frame - Elvis at the steering wheel, four tires and a sputtering engine on an open road.
As the disease had settled across her, Sarah had held onto Elvis the longest. After she'd thrown out all her books and clothes, erased every photograph from her hard drive, and broken all the mirrors in her dorm bathroom, the Elvis posters still clung to her walls, crumpled and scratched from bitter blows, but hanging on. As her mind transformed, Sarah shouted more than once that she couldn't stand the sight of me, but she never said a word against the King.
Finally, she fled, deciding to disappear into the night rather than tear down those slyly grinning faces she could no longer bear to look at.
As I waited for the transport squad, I watched her shivering on the bed and thought of Elvis clutching the steering wheel of his skeletal car.
Sarah had lost everything, shedding the pieces of her life one by one to placate the anathema, until she was left here in this dark place, clinging to a shuddering, rickety frame.