Scott Westerfeld

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:
The orange was fading from the sky, but through my binoculars, the waters of the Hudson sparkled like teeth capped with gold, the river's choppy surface holding the last dregs of the pollution sunset, which was turning bloodred as it disappeared behind the spiked jaw of New Jersey's skyline.
A warm, insistent body pushed against my ankles, making noises under its breath. I looked down. "What's the matter, Corny? I thought you liked it up here."
He looked up with hungry eyes, assuring me that his annoyance had nothing to do with a fear of heights. Just impatience: It was taking the promised nummies too long to arrive.
At first, bringing Cornelius up to the roof had made me nervous, but Dr. Rat says that peep cats have an improved sense of self-preservation. She also talks a lot about feline high-rise syndrome, the magical ability of cats to survive a fall from any height. In fact, with all the time Dr. Rat spends talking about cats these days, she may need a new nickname.
"Don't worry, Corny. She'll be back soon."
On cue, I heard the scrape of cowboy boots on concrete. A hand reached over the edge of the roof, then another, and Lace pulled herself into view, her face faintly red from the effort.
I frowned. "Don't you think it's a little light out to be climbing buildings?"
"You should talk, dude!" Lace said. "At least I wasn't on the street side."
"Like there aren't a million people on the piers?"
She snorted. "They're all watching the sunset."
Cornelius yowled, sensing that our argument was delaying nummies.
"Yes, Corny, I love you too," Lace muttered, slipping off her backpack and unzipping it. She pulled out a paper bag, which gave off the mouthwatering scent of rare hamburgers.
Cornelius began to purr as Lace opened one of the foil-wrapped burgers for him, laying to one side the pointless bun and wilted leaf of lettuce. He liked the mayo, though, and licked it off her fingers as she placed the hamburger on the black-tar roof. Then he dug noisily into the main event.
Lace looked at her cat-spittled fingers. "Great. Now I'm supposed to eat with these?"
I laughed, pulling my burger from the bag. "Relax. Corny doesn't have any diseases. Nothing you haven't already got anyway."
"Tell me about it," she said, glancing over the roof's edge. "What's Dr. Rat always saying? About how cats can fall from any distance?"
"Hey!" I knelt and protectively stroked his flank. He munched away, paying no attention to her threats.
"You're right anyway," Lace said. "A fat-ass cat like him would probably leave a crack in the sidewalk, big enough for monsters to get through. Manny wouldn't like that."
Manny did like Corny, though. Pets weren't officially allowed in Lace's building, but he and the staff had started to make exceptions. With so many people complaining about rat noises in their walls, we'd been lending Cornelius out overnight. A lot of Lace's fellow tenants took us up on the offer, after we'd explained how once a cat gets its dander inside your apartment, rodents will give you a wide berth. You just had to get used to waking up with him sitting on your chest.
This building was on the front line, after all; Lace and I had made it something of a personal project.
Plus, Lace still had that apartment with the cheap rent and the good views. Once Health and Mental had fired off a few nasty memos to her landlords about the rat issue, they'd extended those seventh-floor leases indefinitely. These particular landlords had plenty of money already, having been New York City landowners for almost four hundred years.
Of course, we know that staying in town won't be a cakewalk. New York City can be very stressful. There are rough days ahead, right around the corner. It takes some getting used to, going to Bob's Diner for pepper steak, innocently chatting with Rebecky while fully aware of what's coming next - the meltdown, the crumbling of civilization, the zombie apocalypse.
Or, as they call it in the New Watch these days, the Inflammation.
When the burgers were eaten, I said, "We should get back to work."
Lace rolled her eyes, always ready to demonstrate her incredulity that I officially outranked her in the New Watch. But she lifted her binoculars, training them on the red-tinged river. "So what are we looking for again?"
"Worm signs," I said.
"No duh. But no one ever tells me, what in fact are the signs of a worm?"
I shrugged. "Worminess?"
She turned from her vigil long enough to stick her tongue out at me.
I smiled and raised my own binoculars. "You'll know them when you see them. We always do."
"Sure. But do they even like water?"
"Another good question. After all, the PATH tunnel doesn't actually go through the water, just under it." I swept my amplified gaze across to the exhaust towers, the dynamos of subterranean fresh air that had caused this whole turn of the worm. Above the windowless column of bricks, shapes circled in the fading light, their white feathers toasted a dull orange by the sunset. This was a new thing, the wheeling cloud of seagulls that perpetually hovered over the towers. No one knew what it meant.
Some new airborne vector? Mere coincidence? Scavengers sensing a coming kill?
I sighed. "Sometimes I don't think we actually know anything."
"Don't worry, Cal," she said. "It's still early days."
The whoop of a siren filtered up from the street, and we ran to the other side of the building, peering down into the darkness. The flash of police-car lights filled the cavern between our building and the one across the street, the pop of radios echoing up. Definitely an arrest.
"Got your badge?" I asked.
"Always. Best part of the job."
We sometimes have to intervene, when the police are about to take a confused and violent newbie off to jail. We flash our Homeland Security badges and talk some bio-warfare crap, and everyone backs off real quick. Ten hours later, the peep is in Montana, hooked up to an intravenous garlic drip and getting the lowdown way too fast.
Of course, newbies take a lot less convincing, these days. The signs are everywhere.
I focused my binoculars, training them on the crowd gathered around the police car. The cops were putting handcuffs on some guy, and a woman was yelling at him, shaking her purse by its broken strap. A wallet and some other stuff lay scattered across the sidewalk. A backup police car rolled down the block at a leisurely speed.
I sighed, lowering the binoculars. "Looks like a purse-snatching, just a perp, not a peep."
One thing you can say for them, peeps don't steal, except for maybe the occasional chunk of meat. They can't think far enough ahead to go for the cash. And it's interesting how, even with the Inflammation going on, regular crime still happens. Maybe more so. End of the world or not, people aren't going to change that much.
"Yeah," Lace sighed, lowering her binoculars. "This sucks." Her teeth chewed at her lower lip.
"Don't worry," I reassured her. "We'll get some action tonight. We always do."
"Yeah, whatever." She shook her head. "I'm just bummed."
She let out a long breath. "Side effects."
My eyebrows raised. "From the pills?"
"No, the disease." Lace turned to me and made a face. "I don't like potato salad anymore."
I had to laugh. "Don't worry. Carbs just don't do it for the parasite."
"Sure, but what if it's ... you know, the anathema. What if I'm starting to hate stuff?"
"Is that what you're worried about?" I nodded sagely. "Well, maybe we should do a little testing, just to make sure."
I drew her closer, and we kissed. The chill wind kicked up, and Corny padded over to slide figure eights between our ankles, but our mouths stayed locked, warm and unbreakable. So much was changing around us, it was good how this feeling stayed the same.
She still smelled wonderful.
"Hating me yet?" I asked after a while.
"No. In fact..." She stopped. "Whoa. Did you feel that?"
I knelt and placed a palm on the black tar. The slightest rumble filtered up through the fourteen stories of the building. "Two big ones, fading now."
"I'll call them in," Lace said, pulling out her phone, her thumbs darting out a text message to the tracking office.
I sniffed the air, smelling traces of the beasts. Impressive how the scent reached all the way up here, as if the earth were growing more porous every day.
But all I wanted to do was hold Lace again.
"Funny how that happens," I said. "How we're always kissing, or about to, when they come around?"
She pressed send, looked up from the tiny screen, and smiled. "You've noticed that too?"
I nodded slowly. "Remember, Morgan said she could feel something here, after she'd been infected. She'd sneak down into the basement and the darkness would turn her on. Drive her crazy."
"That's parasite mind control, right? Making carriers horny so the disease spreads fastest where it's needed most?" Lace smiled, pleased at her own analysis; she was starting to get the biology down.
"Sure, mind control." I frowned. "But you and I are already both infected. Why does it care what we do?"
"Maybe it just likes us, dude," Lace said.
She pulled me close again, and our mouths met. The scent of the worms began to fade, overwhelmed by Lace's jasmine and the salt of the Hudson. We stayed there on the roof for a while, letting the warmth between us build, moved by nothing more than what our bodies wanted from each other. The monsters had passed for now.
Still, part of me is always waiting for the tremors in the earth to come again.
And they will, soon.
You may have seen the signs where you live. Garbage piling higher and higher on the streets. Pale rats scurrying along the subway tracks. Strangers in black trying to pick you up in bars. A red flash in the eyes of your cat, or its weight heavy on your chest in the morning.
But that's nothing. When the epidemic really starts to roll, civilization will crumble, blood will run in the streets, and some of your neighbors may try to eat you. But resist the temptation to buy a shotgun and start blowing their heads off. Just feed them garlic and plenty of sausage, and eventually they'll calm down. You see, they're not the real enemy. Compared to the monsters coming next, those ravening cannibals aren't so bad. In fact, they're on your side.
The real enemy will be close behind, though, and that shotgun won't help you one bit. Nothing in the arsenal of science will avail against these creatures. A lot of us will die.
Don't panic, though. Nature has provided. There has always been a defense against the worms, a disease hidden in the sewers and deep cracks, coursing through the veins of a few old families, waiting for its time to bubble up.
So stock up on some bottled water and a few cans of pasta sauce, maybe the kind with extra garlic. Set aside a few good books and DVDs, and buy a decent lock for your door. Try not to watch TV for a few months - it will only upset you. Don't take the subway.
And leave the rest to us vampires. We've got your back.
The parasites described in the even-numbered chapters of this novel are all real. Every terrifying process is going on right now in a meadow, pond, or digestive system near you. Possibly in your own body.
As this book may freak out certain readers with its graphic biological details, I feel compelled to share some of the preventative measures I discovered during my research. Sure, parasites are part of the ecosystem, part of our evolution, blah, blah, blah. But that doesn't mean you want hookworms in your gut, chewing on your stomach lining and sucking your blood. Right?
So follow these simple rules, and you will be much less likely to be invaded by parasites. No guarantees, though. (Sorry.)
1. Sing "Happy Birthday"
Many microscopic parasites (and other germs) exist in the air and on everyday surfaces. They get on your hands, and when you touch your mouth, eyes, or food, they take the opportunity to slip into your body. So wash your hands often, and when you do:
a) Use warm water.
b) Use soap.
c) Sing "Happy Birthday" at a normal tempo. Do not stop washing until you're done with the entire song.
And by the way, quit rubbing your eyes so much!
(Thanks to Yvette Christianse for this one.)
2. If You Eat Meat, Cook It Good
A major vector of parasites is predation: one animal eating another. That's because when you eat an animal, you're exposing yourself to every parasite adapted to living inside that animal, and every parasite adapted to all the things it eats.
Meat-borne parasites include hookworms, tapeworms, blood flukes, and more. There are zillions of them. Your humble author is a vegetarian (for non-parasite-related reasons), but you don't have to go that far. It doesn't hurt to eat a few worms every once in a while, as long as they're thoroughly cooked. So don't eat rare meat, and memorize this simple rhyme:
If your burger oozes red,
Send it back; them worms ain't dead.
3. Don't Swim in Tropical Rivers
The tropics are the warmest places on earth, and warm water is a great place for parasites to spend time outside a host. Commonly, tropical parasites jump from their host into a river, then swim around looking for the next host to invade. They can enter your body through your skin, mouth, eyes, and other orifices. These parasites include the famous guinea worms, those snaky things that roost in your leg and have to be spooled out like spaghetti on a fork. Ew.
The ocean is fine (it's salty) and so are swimming pools (chlorinated), but don't swim in tropical rivers. And if you must swim in tropical rivers, for heaven's sake don't pee! Your urine will attract a spiny creature called a candiru, which swims furiously toward any urine it smells, and will lodge in your ... Well, where it lodges depends on whether you're male or female, but either way, you don't want it lodging there.
Just don't pee in tropical rivers. Trust me.
4. Don't Have Unsafe Sex
Parasites and viruses and bacteria that have evolved to live in human beings are often found in ... human beings. For this and many other obvious reasons, be careful with your body when you're getting close to someone else's.
5. You Have Parasites - So Deal With It
Okay, here's the thing: No matter how careful you are, eventually you'll wind up parasitized. Some scientists consider all bacteria and viruses parasites; by this definition, having a simple head cold means that millions of little parasites are living inside you. But don't freak out about it. It's all part of the rich tapestry of life, blah, blah, blah.
Tough luck. Nature isn't just the simple barnyard set you got when you were five years old: pigs, cows, goats, and a dog. It's also liver flukes, guinea worms, and skin mites. All of nature's creatures have to eat, and it just so happens that some eat you. But it's not worth losing sleep over. Humans have had these little friends along since the beginning of our species. So deal with it. Hey, at least they're mostly too small to see, and that's better than, you know, lions eating you.
And remember, the vast majority of human beings in the developed world die in car wrecks and from cancer, heart disease, and smoking - not blood flukes, lung-worms, rinderpest, or toxoplasmic brain infestations.
Just don't pee in tropical rivers. Really. Just don't.
No, really.
Here are some books for reading more about parasites and rats and other icky things. Because you know you want to.
Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer (Touchstone, 2000)
Practically every parasite mentioned in this novel can be found in this very enjoyable book, plus many more. Without Parasite Rex, Peeps could not have been written. And it has pictures. But trust me, if you value your sleep, don't look at the pictures.
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (Bloomsbury, 2004)
A beautifully written history of rats in New York City. As a bonus, there's a field guide to rat-watching in Ryder's Alley, a tiny little rodent heaven downtown. And yes, there really is a family called the Ryders, who I'm fairly sure are nice people and not really vampires.
Bitten: True Medical Stories of Bites and Stings by Pamela Nagami (St. Martins Press, 2004)
All you ever wanted to know about diseases that spread through bites and stings, and then some. Did you know that if you punch someone in the mouth, there's a bacteria that can spread from their teeth to your knuckles and eat your hand away? Hitting people is bad.
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (going strong since 1859)
The book that started it all. The key to understanding modern biology, from DNA to dinosaurs, and of all the great books of science, the most readable. And those stickers on textbooks, the ones stating that evolution is "only a theory"? Not true. When scientists use the word theory, they don't mean "something that hasn't been proven to be a fact." They mean "a framework for understanding the facts." So guess what, it's a fact that human beings have evolved from other primates over the last five million years. (Like we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimps by accident?) But the framework we use to make sense of this fact is called evolutionary theory, Darwin's awesome mash-up of several concepts: inherited traits, mutation, and survival of the fittest. So yes, we're all distantly related to modern-day apes. Find that hard to believe? Dude, look around you.