Chapter 21

 Scott Westerfeld

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Chapter 21
"Hiya, darling," Sarah said. "You're looking good."
I didn't say anything, paralyzed by the sight of her. Sarah was utterly transformed from my last glimpse before the transport squad had taken her away. Her hair was clean, her fingernails pink and neatly trimmed; there was no demented gleam in her eye. As her familiar scent reached me through the smell of grease and frying eggs, Bob's Diner seemed to shudder, as if time were snapping backward.
She was even wearing a thick black leather wristband, a definite reference to Elvis's 1968 Comeback Special. Very appropriate.
Rebecky slapped down a cup of coffee in front of me, breaking the spell. "Thought I recognized you," she said to Sarah. "It's been a while since you've been in here, right?"
"Been out of town. Hoboken mostly, then a few days in Montana, of all places," Sarah said, shaking her head. "But I'm back to stay."
"Well, good. Looks like Cal here sure missed you." She patted me on the shoulder, chuckling at my blank expression. "The usual, Cal?"
I nodded. When Rebecky had gone away, I found my voice. "You're looking good too, Sarah."
"Been putting on some weight, actually," she said, shrugging and taking a huge bite of the hamburger in front of her.
"It suits you," I said. "Makes you look more..."
"Human?" Sarah grinned.
"Yeah, I guess." My mind started to struggle for a better word, but an alarm was going off deep in my brain. "Where's Lace?"
"Lace, huh?" Sarah frowned. "What kind of name is that?"
"Short for Lacey. Where is she? You guys didn't..." I looked around for the Shrink's minders, sniffed the air for other predators. All I smelled was Bob's: potatoes and meat and onions, all turning brown on the grill - and Sarah, who smelled of family.
She shrugged. "Look, Cal, I don't know who you're meeting here. Dr. Prolix just called me ten minutes ago and told me to come here and talk to you. She thought you'd listen to someone your own age. She said maybe you needed a jolt."
"Well, mission accomplished on that."
"And she figured it wouldn't hurt if you saw how well I was doing."
"Yeah. You look ... so sane."
"Am sane. Feels good."
I shook my head, trying to think straight through the tangle of memories welling up in me. Lace would get here any moment now. Maybe I could run and try to catch her on the way. If Lace said the wrong thing in front of Sarah, the Watch might figure out that she knew too much.
I looked out the window, searching the street for Lace's face among the lunchtime crowds. But my gaze kept coming back to the girl in front of me - Sarah, alive and well and human.
I couldn't run yet; I had to know... "What happened?"
Sarah chewed a bite of burger thoughtfully, then swallowed. "Well, first this total dickhead gave me a disease."
"Oh, yeah." I drank some coffee, frowned at its bitterness. "I never had a chance to say sorry about that. I didn't know - "
"Yeah, yeah. I guess we're both to blame. Safe sex, blah, blah, blah." Sarah sighed. "Then there was my little ... breakdown. But you saw most of that."
I nodded. "Until you disappeared."
Sarah took a long breath, staring out the window. "Well, the parts you missed out on are kind of hazy for me, too. Sort of like a long, bad dream. About being hungry." She shuddered. "And eating. Then there you were again, rescuing me." She smiled tiredly then took another bite.
"Rescuing you?" I swallowed, never having thought of it that way myself. "It was the least I could do. But, Sarah, how did you get so normal? So fast?"
"Good question, which reminds me." She pulled out a bottle of pills, dumped two into her palm, and swallowed. "Two with every meal."
I blinked. "There's a cure?"
"Sure. They had me straightened out about six hours after I got to Montana."
"When did that happen? The cure, I mean."
"At least seven hundred years ago."
There it was again, that seven-hundred-year thing. "The plague? This doesn't make any sense, Sarah."
"It will, Cal. Just listen up. I'm here to tell you everything. Doctor's orders." She bit deep into her burger, hurrying now that she was only a few swallows from the end.
"Which doctor? Prolix?"
"Yep, the Shrink. She's been telling me all about what's coming." Sarah looked out at the crowds on the sidewalk. "They figured I could take it, because of my personal eating habits lately." She looked down at her hamburger with momentary suspicion, then took another bite. "And because they don't have time to mess with me. Or with you, anymore. Time to face facts, Cal."
Suddenly, the restaurant felt overcrowded, claustrophobic. I could smell the people in the booth behind me, the pressure of the passersby on the street. "The disease is out of control, isn't it? We're going to wake up one day in one of those zombie-apocalypse movies, the parasite spreading faster than anyone can stop it."
"No, Cal. Don't be silly. The disease is in control, the way it should be. The parasite's calling the shots now."
"It's doing what?"
"It's in charge, making things happen. The way it's supposed to. The Night Watch was always just a holding pattern, keeping down the mutation while waiting for the old strain to come back."
I shook my head. "Wait. What?"
Sarah held up her fork and knife, looking from one to the other. "Okay. There's two versions of the parasite. The new kind and the old kind. Right?"
"Two strains, I know." I nodded. "And we've got the new one, you and me."
Sarah sighed. "No, dickhead, we have the old kind. The original." She rattled her pill bottle. "This is mandrake and garlic, mostly. Totally old-school. Until seven hundred years ago, people used to totally control this disease."
"Until the plague?"
"Bingo. That's when the new strain showed up." Sarah shook her head. "You've got to blame the Inquisition for that. You know, when Christians got it into their heads that cats were evil and started killing loads of them? That was bad for the old version of the parasite, seeing as how it jumps back and forth between felines and humans."
"Right... I know about that. But that's the old version?"
"Yes. Pay attention, Cal. As I was saying, it's 1300 a.d. and everyone's killing cats. So with hardly any cats around, the rat population grows like crazy. More human-to-rat contact, evolution of various diseases, fleas and ticks, blah, blah, blah." She waved her hand. "Plague."
"Um, I think you're skipping over something there."
She snorted. "I'm not the one going for a biology degree. I'm just a philosophy major who eats people. But here's the bio-for-philosophers version: A new strain of the parasite appeared, one that moved back and forth between rats and humans, without cats. Of course, as with any new strain, the optimum virulence was a mess; the peeps were much more violent and difficult to control. A total zombie movie, like you said."
"And the old strain went underground."
"Very good." Sarah smiled. "They told me you'd understand."
"But that was Europe. This is New York."
"Rats go everywhere, Cal. They love ships, so of course the new parasites made it to the New World. Even here, the old strain was pushed down into the deep."
"But now it's coming back up," I said. "Why aren't we doing something about it? Why are the old carriers hiding it from the rest of the Watch?"
"Excellent questions." She nodded slowly, chewing the last bite of her hamburger. "That's what you scientists never seem to understand: The whys are always more important than the hows."
"Sarah, just tell me!"
"Okay." She placed her palms on the table. "Feel that?"
I looked at the surface of my coffee; its black mirror reflected the lights overhead with a pulsing shimmer. "You mean the subway going by?"
She shook her head, her eyes closed. "Feel deeper."
I placed my hands on the table, and as the train faded, I felt another, more subtle shudder in its wake. Like something disturbed in its sleep, turning over. Like the trembling I'd felt through my cowboy boots, the first time I'd seen the peep cat.
Sarah opened her eyes. "Our strain is coming up because it's being pushed up."
I remembered the unseen thing I'd smelled in the Underworld, and the shudder in my hands took over my whole body for a moment. "By what?"
Sarah lifted her palms from the table, sighed, then shrugged. "There are a lot of things down there, Cal, things human beings haven't seen in a long time. We lost a lot of knowledge during the plague. But the old guys do know one thing: When the ground starts to tremble, the old strain will rise up. They need us."
"Wait a second. Who needs who?"
"They" - she looked out the window at the passing crowds - "need us. We're the immune system for our species, Cal. Like those kick-ass T-cells and B-cells you always told me about, we get activated by an invasion. New-strainers are just zombies, vampires. But those of us with the old disease, the carrier strain, we're soldiers."
My mind spun, trying to reconcile what Sarah was saying with what I'd seen Morgan doing, spreading the disease haphazardly, enlisting hordes of cats. "But why is this a secret? I mean, why didn't this come up in my Night Watch courses? Does Dr. Rat know about it? Or Records?"
"It's older than Records. Older than science. Even older than New York. So the carriers kept it a secret from the Night Watch humans, Cal. It's not going to be pleasant for them, the next few months. But we need all the soldiers we can get. Fast."
"So you're spreading the disease on purpose?" I asked, but Sarah's eyes had left mine, looking over my right shoulder, a pleasant smile filling her face.
A hand fell on me. "Uh, hey, Cal. Sorry I'm late."
I looked up. Lace was staring down at Sarah, a little unsure.
"Oh, hi." I cleared my throat, realizing I'd waited too long; the inevitable collision had happened. "This is Sarah. My ex."
"And you must be Lacey." Sarah extended her hand.
"Uh, yeah. Lace, actually." They shook.
"Hot stuff, coming through!" said Rebecky, sliding a plate of pepper steak in front of me. Lace sat down next to me, wary of the woman across from her. Rebecky's gaze moved among us, intrigued by the obvious discomfort of it all.
"Coffee, honey?" she asked Lace.
"Yeah, please."
"Me too," I said.
"Me three," Sarah added. "And another hamburger."
"And one of those." Lace pointed at my pepper steak. "I'm starving."
"Pepper steak?" I said. "Oh, crap."
"Hey, it's not against the law, dude," Lace muttered as Rebecky walked away.
"What isn't against the law?" Sarah asked, licking her fingers.
"Eating meat," Lace said. "Sometimes people change, you know?"
Sarah smiled. "Oh. Used to be a vegetarian, did you?"
I started in ravenously on my own pepper steak. Otherwise, I was going to faint. "She was. Until recently."
Sarah looked from Lace to me, then giggled. "You've been very naughty, haven't you, Cal?"
"It was Cornelius."
"Could someone please tell me what's going on?" Lace asked.
Sarah sighed. "Well, Lacey, things are about to get complicated."
Lace raised her hands. "Don't look at me, girl. I never even kissed this guy. In fact, I'm really pissed at him right now."
"Oh, poor Cal!" Sarah said. Then she added in a cruel baby voice, "Did kitty beat you to it?"
"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Lace said.
I dropped my fork to the table. Things were spinning out of control, and I had to do something to unspin them. Most important, I had to get Lace out of here, or she would wind up in Montana.
Sweeping Sarah's bottle of pills into my pocket, I pushed Lace out of the booth and dragged her toward the door.
"What the hell!" she shouted.
"Cal," Sarah called. "Wait a second!"
"We have to leave," I hissed to Lace. "She's one of them."
"What, an old girlfriend? I could tell that." Lace paused, looking back at Sarah. "Oh, you mean ...?"
"Whoa, dude."
As we reached the door, I glanced back. Sarah wasn't following us, just watching our retreat with an amused expression. She pulled out a cell phone but paused to wave it at me: shoo. For some reason - old loyalty? lingering insanity?  -  she was giving us time to get away.
The street in front of us was thronged with pedestrians, but I didn't smell any predators among the crowd - just lots of humans crammed together, ready for infection and slaughter. I kept us moving, tugging Lace along in one random direction after another.
"Where are we going, Cal?"
"I don't know," I said. "But we have to get out of here. They know about you."
"Know what about me? That you told me all your Night Watch stuff?"
I didn't answer for a moment, trying to think, but Lace pulled me to a stop. "Cal? Tell me the truth, or I'll have to kill you."
I glanced behind her - still no signs of pursuit. "They sent Sarah to find me."
"And you told her about me?"
"No! You did. When you ordered that pepper steak!" I tried to get Lace moving again, but she pulled me to a stop.
"What the hell? What's pepper steak got to do with this?"
"You're starving, right? Feeling faint? And you've been craving meat all day..."
She didn't answer, just stood there with eyes narrowed, my words finally sinking in. "Um, earth to Cal: You and I didn't sleep together."
"Believe me, I know. But you see, there's this new strain... I mean, turns out it's an old strain, and it has to do with cats. They're the vectors we have to worry about now."
Unsurprisingly, this explanation didn't alter Lace's perplexed expression. She just stood there staring back at me. A few passersby bumped into her, but the contact didn't register. Finally, after ten long seconds, she spoke slowly and clearly. "Are you saying that your fat-ass cat has turned me into a vampire?"
"Um, maybe?" I coughed. "But I can test you, and we'll know for sure."
"Dude, you are so dead."
"Fine, but wait until we find someplace to test you."
"Someplace like where?"
"Someplace dark."
Finding pitch blackness in Manhattan isn't easy at noon. In fact, finding pitch blackness in Manhattan isn't easy anytime.
I considered going to Lace's apartment, but if the Watch was looking for us, they were as likely to start there as anywhere. I also thought about renting a hotel room and yanking the curtains closed, but if Lace was infected, there was no point throwing away money. We might be on the run for a while.
The pills were still clutched in my hand; even if Lace was infected, we could control the parasite. I could analyze the garlic-and-mandrake compound and keep her human. We could escape whatever the old carriers had planned for the end of civilization.
"What about a movie theater?" Lace asked.
"Not dark enough." The light from exit signs always drives me crazy during movies. "We need cave darkness, Lace."
"Cave darkness? Not a lot of caves in Manhattan, Cal."
"You'd be surprised." My nerves twitched as a trembling came through the soles of my boots. We were standing on the sidewalk grates over Union Square station. I pulled her toward an entrance.
I swiped us through a turnstile and tugged Lace down the stairs and to the very end of the platform, pointing into the darkness ahead. "That way."
"On the tracks? Are you kidding?"
"There's an old abandoned station at Eighteenth. I've been there before. Plenty dark."
She leaned over the tracks; a small and scampering thing darted among discarded coffee cups.
"The rats won't bite you," I said. "Promise."
"Forget it."
"Lace, we subway-hacked all the time in Peep Hunting 101."
She pulled away, glanced at the couple on the platform watching us, and hissed, "Yeah, well, I didn't sign up for that class."
"No, you didn't. You didn't sign up for any of this. But we have to know if you're infected."
Lace stared at me, her eyes gleaming darkly, like wet ink. "What happens if I am a vampire? Do you, like, vanquish me or something?"
"You're not a vampire, Lace, just sick, maybe. And this strain is easy to control. Look." I pulled the pills from my pocket and rattled them. "We'll get out of the city. Otherwise, they'll put you into treatment. In Montana."
I nodded, pointing down the dark tunnel. "The choice is yours."
The 6 train rattled into view, and we waited as the platform cleared. I tugged Lace into the security camera blind spot, just next to the access ladder down to the tracks.
She looked down the tunnel. "And you can cure me?"
"Not cure. Control the parasite. Make you like me."
"What, all superstrong and stuff?"
"Yeah. It'll be great!" After the cannibal stage was over.
"But the disease will kill me eventually, right?"
I shrugged. "Yeah. After a few hundred years."
Lace blinked. "Dude. Major consolation prize."
We ran down the middle of the tracks.
"Don't touch that," I said, pointing down at the wood-covered rail running between our track and the next one over. "Unless you want to get fried."
"The famous third rail?" Lace said. "No problem. I'm a lot more worried about trains."
"The local just passed. We've got a few minutes."
"A few!"
"The abandoned station's only four blocks away, Lace. I'll know if the rails start rumbling. Supersenses and everything." I pointed between the columns that held up the streets over our heads, the safe spots. "And if a train does come, just stand there."
"Oh, yeah, that looks totally safe."
We charged down the tunnel, and I tried not to notice that Lace wasn't stumbling over the tracks and rubbish, as if the darkness didn't bother her. But it wasn't cave dark yet. Work lights dangled around us, casting our manic and fractured shadows against the tracks.
The express train swerved into view ahead, taking the slow curve with one long screaming complaint. The cold white eyes of its headlights flickered through the steel columns like the light of an old movie projector. In the strobing light, I saw that Lace had come to a halt. The train was on the express track; it wouldn't hit us, but the approaching shriek of metal wheels had paralyzed her.
The wall of metal flew past, whipping Lace's hair around her face and throwing sparks at our feet. Light from the passing windows flickered madly around us, and a few passengers' faces shot by, looking down with astonished expressions. I put my arm around Lace, the rhythm of the train's passage shuddering through our bodies. Its roar battered the air, loud enough to force my eyelids shut.
When the sound had faded into the distance, I asked, "Are you okay?"
She blinked. "Dude, that was loud!"
Lace's voice sounded thin in my ringing ears. "No kidding. Come on, before another train comes."
She nodded dumbly, and I pulled her the rest of the way to the abandoned station.
The Eighteenth Street station opened up in 1904, the same time as the rest of the 6; part of that turn-of-the-century dig-fest, I suppose.
Back then, all subway trains were five cars long. In the 1940s, with the city's population booming, they were doubled up to ten, which left the old subway platforms a couple hundred feet too short. During the station-stretching project, a few in-between stations like Eighteenth were deemed not worth the trouble and shut down.
The Transit Authority may have forgotten these underground vaults, but they are remembered by a host of urban adventurers, graffiti artists, and other assorted spelunkers. For the next sixty years, the abandoned stations were spray-painted, vandalized, and made the subject of drunken dares, urban myths, and fannish Web sites. They are tourist stops for amateur subterraneans, training grounds for the Night Watch - the twilight zone between the human habitat and the Underworld.
I pulled Lace up onto the dark and empty platform. Six decades of graffiti swirled around us, the once-bright spray paint darkened by accumulated grime. Crumbling mosaic signs spelled out the street number and pointed toward exits that had been sealed for decades. As Lace steadied herself at the platform's edge, she looked around with wide eyes, and my heart sank. It was awfully close to cave darkness here; a normal person should have been waving a hand in front of her face.
"So what now?" she said.
"This way." Deciding to give her a real test, I led her to the door of the men's bathroom, a relic of sixty years ago. The broken remains of a sink clung to one wall, and the broken wooden doors of the stalls leaned at haphazard angles. The last smells of disinfectant had faded; all that remained was warmish subway air filled with the scent of rats and mold and decay. Distant work lights reflected dimly from the grimy tiles. Even with my fully formed peep vision, I could hardly see.
I pointed into the last stall. "Can you read that?"
She peered unerringly at the one legible line among the tangled layers of graffiti. For a moment, she was silent, then said softly, "This is how it all started. Reading something written on a wall."
"Can you see it?"
"It says, Take a shit, Linus.' "
I closed my eyes. Lace was infected. The parasite must have been working overtime, gathering reflective cells behind her corneas, readying her for a life of nocturnal hunting, of hiding from the sun.
"Who's Linus?" Lace asked.
"Who knows? That's been there for a while."
"Oh. So what happens now?" she said. "I mean, Cal, did you bring me down here to ... get rid of me or something?"
"Get rid - ? Of course not!" I pulled the pills from my pocket. "Here, take two of these, right now."
She shook out two and swallowed them, the pills catching for a moment in her dry throat. She coughed once, then said, "Is it really that dark down here? This isn't some trick you're pulling? I can really see in the dark?"
"Yeah, a normal person would be totally blind."
"And I got this from your cat?"
"I'm afraid so."
"You know, Cal, it's not like I had sex with your cat either."
"But he sat on your chest while you slept and ... exchanged breath with you, or something. Apparently that's the way the old strain spreads, but nobody ever told me about it. Things are really screwed up right now at the Watch. In fact, things are about to go nuts in general." I turned her to face me. "We'll have to get out of the city. There's going to be a lot of trouble as the infections set in."
"Like you said when you first told me about the Watch? Everyone biting one another, a total zombie movie? So why not give everyone the pills?"
I chewed my lip. "Because they want the disease to spread, for some reason. But maybe they'll eventually use the pills, and things will settle down, but until then..."
She looked at the bottle, squinting at its label. "And these really work?"
"You saw Sarah - she's normal now. When I captured her, she was eating rats and hiding from the sun and living in Hoboken."
"Oh, great, dude," Lace said. "So that's what I have to look forward to?"
"I hope not," I said softly, reaching for her hand. She didn't pull away. "Sarah didn't have any pills at first. Maybe you'll just go straight to the superpowers. I mean, you'll be really strong and have great hearing, and a great sense of smell, too."
"But Cal, what about the Garth Brooks thing?"
"Garth Brooks? Oh, the anathema."
"It makes you start hating your old life, right?"
"Yeah." I nodded. "But Sarah's over that too. She was even wearing an Elvis armband."
"Elvis? What is it with your girlfriends?" Lace sighed. "But the anathema won't happen to me?"
I paused, realizing I didn't know anything for sure. None of my classes had covered the cat-borne strain or the ancient garlic-and-mandrake cure - it had all been kept secret from me. I didn't know what symptoms to look for, or how to adjust the dosage if Lace started to grow long black fingernails or fear her own reflection.
I cleared my throat. "Well, we'll have to watch for symptoms. Is there anything in particular you really like? Potato salad?" I wracked my brain, realizing how little I knew about Lace. "Hip-hop? Heavy metal? Oh, yeah, the smell of bacon. Anything else I should worry about if you start despising it?"
She sighed. "I thought we covered this already."
"What? Potato salad?"
"No, stupid." And then she kissed me.
Her mouth was warm against mine, her heart still beating hard from our dash through the darkness, from the creepiness of the abandoned station, from the news that she would soon turn into a vampire. Or maybe just from kissing me - I could feel it pounding in her lips, full of blood. My own heartbeat seemed to rush into my head, strong enough to pulse red at the corners of my vision.
A predator's kiss: endless, insistent, and my first in six long months.
When we finally parted, Lace whispered, "You feel like you've got a fever."
Still dizzy, I smiled. "All the time. Supermetabolism."
"And you've got supersmell too?"
"Oh, yeah."
"Dude." She sniffed the air and frowned. "So what do I smell like?"
I inhaled softly, letting Lace's scent claim me, the familiar jasmine of her shampoo somehow settling the chaos of the past twenty-four hours. We could kiss again, I realized, do anything we wanted. It was safe now, even with the parasite's spores in my blood and saliva, because she was infected, just like me.
"Butterflies," I said after a moment of thought.
"Yeah. You use some kind of jasmine-scented shampoo, right? Smells like butterflies."
"Wait a second. Butterflies have a smell? And it's jasmine?"
My body was still humming from the kiss, my mind still reeling from all the revelations of the day, and there was something comforting about being asked a question I knew the answer to. I let the wonders of biology flow forth. "It's the other way around. Flowers imitate insects - patterning their petals after wings, stealing their smells. Jasmine tricks butterflies into landing on it, so they carry pollen from one flower to another. That's how jasmine flowers have sex with each other."
"Dude. Jasmine has sex? Using butterflies?"
"Yeah. How about that?"
"Huh." She was silent for a moment, still holding me, thinking about all those flowers having butterfly-mediated sex. Finally, she said, "So when butterflies land on my hair, do they think they're having jasmine-sex with it?"
"Probably." I leaned closer, burying my nose in her smell. Maybe the natural world wasn't so jaw-droppingly horrible - appalling, nasty, vile. Sometimes nature could be quite sweet, really, as delicate as a confused and horny butterfly.
The subway platform trembled under us again, another train coming. Eventually, we'd have to return to the surface, to face the sunlight and the coming crumbling of civilization, to ride out whatever tumult the old carriers had planned now that the old strain was surging into daylight. But for the moment I was content to stand there, the thought of an apocalyptic future suddenly less panicking. I had something that I'd thought lost forever, another person warm in my arms. Whatever happened next seemed bearable.
"Will the disease make me hate you, Cal?" she asked again. "Even if I take the pills?"
I started to say I wasn't sure, but in that moment the rumbling underfoot shifted, no longer building steadily. Then it shifted again, like something winding toward us, and among the false butterflies of Lace's hair I caught another scent, ancient and dire.
"Wait a second," I said, and took a deeper breath.
The foul smell redoubled, sweeping over us like air pushed up through subway grates by a passing train. And I knew something as thoroughly as my ancestors had known the scents of lions and tigers and bears...
A bad thing was on its way.