By asking questions of Arch and Jenkins, from which he hoped they would not guess his plans, Sirach Pierce figured out how he was going to carry the plague. Mariana helped him gather her sweat and saliva and the clear fluids that leaked from her sores, and he diluted them with purified water and soaked the liquid into a few old washcloths, and then let them dry. Then he went and bought a few pairs of thin cotton gloves -- which had the extra advantage that they are the best gloves for not leaving traceable prints. When he got ready to infect people, he would dampen a pair of gloves, rub them in the washcloths, and simply put them on and go around touching things.
He took out $200 cash, so he wouldn't have to use any bank machines on the trip, and he told everyone he was riding his bike down the coast. With Freejohn's help he made ten pounds of dried sprouted grain crackers and nut bars, which would feed him for weeks. Mariana was healing fast with the colloidal silver, and he was anxious to get going before she and the Troll started having sex. The guy was disturbing enough by himself, sitting like a volcano about to blow, at Mariana's bedside as she spoke to him in soothing tones.
On a warm, sunny afternoon in early August, Sirach set out on his bicycle. From Mariana's he rode over the University Bridge and down Eastlake, then through downtown and south on 1st Avenue. He looked at everything with the thought that he might never see it again. His plan was to stash the bike under a tarp in the blackberry jungle on the west edge of Beacon Hill, then walk to the train yards and hop a freight over the mountains. But first he'd left himself a few hours to ride around and scout the security.
I'll have to catch a grainer, he thought, because it has a space you can crawl into where you can't be seen. I'll get on behind the giant warehouse hardware store, and it'll take me up the coast to Everett and then east along highway 2. If the security's tight in one place, I'll go to another. Railyards are big and they can't possibly...
But they could. When he got there he found that the entire area, anywhere the trains would be stopped or moving slowly enough that he could get on, was surrounded by a new high fence and patrolled by soldiers. At both ends the trains passed devices that might be infrared scanners, or something even more sophisticated to detect human passengers. If they had them here they would probably have them in Everett, and up in the mountains where the trains crossed the quarantine line. Would the devices spot him in a grainer? Could he get on outside a railyard, maybe by tricking a train into stopping, or finding a spot where it stopped to wait for another train? He paused, deep in thought, searching all his knowledge about trains, and suddenly he remembered that the northbound grainers don't even go over the mountains -- they all go up to Vancouver.
He was at a dead end, and now one of the soldiers, over behind the fence, was looking at him suspiciously. He casually drank some water and rode away, up 1st Avenue, past the stadiums with their plumes of smoke that everybody ignored, and then he wandered through downtown and up toward Capitol Hill.
He looked at the people, aware that he carried, stuffed into the bottom of his right pannier, the means to infect every one of them with the pox, that he was intending to infect millions of people like them. So many were already sick, weak, weary, barely able to climb up the steps into the buses, or stumbling along staring into space, one bad break away from death. They're not going to make it, he thought. I would kill these people outright. There's a group of young hipsters, five of them, healthy but statistically I'd be killing one. Which one? There's a little boy and his mother. If they both got sick, would either survive, and how would one go on without the other? What am I doing?
On Capitol Hill he went into a coffee shop and just sat watching the people, that one, that one, that one, feverish, trembling, skin covered with sores, dying in an alley, in a hospital, in a quarantine camp, leaving a bloated stinking body or going up in smoke, dying alone or leaving survivors alone and grieving. He had never loved people as much as now, when he was poised on the edge of killing them. I won't do it, he thought. I'll go back to the squat and set the washcloths on fire, and take my chances with... but he couldn't forget his certainty that the ruling system was going to pick the same good people off one by one, turning the many against the few and against nature, until there was nothing left, if someone didn't break its grip.
At the next table sat a young woman, quiet, thoughtful, reading the book Arctic Dreams
. He knew it -- it was full of descriptions of wildlife -- birds, musk oxen, whales, polar bears -- all now threatened with extinction by industrial chemicals, global warming, oil drilling. If it goes on a few more years they will all be gone. What would she choose? To go on, in a tightening police state, maybe worked to death in a camp, maybe living a few more decades and dying of cancer, sadly reading nature books that have become history books... or getting very sick, maybe dying, many of her friends dying, not only of the pox but from starvation as the food distribution broke down, but being relatively free, and giving nature a chance?
Why don't I just go ask her? No, that's silly. She'll think I'm some psycho hitting on her. What a world, where you can't even talk to a stranger without them assuming the worst. But she'd be right -- not only in general but in particular. I'm a potential mass murderer and I would
be hitting on her. Me, the super-self-sufficient loner, still looking for someone to lean on, hoping that she'll say, "Yes, spread the plague, and I'll come with you and help you, a criminal couple on the run. We'll infect the entire ruling elite and then make out in a marshmallow dumpster until they all die." Or, "No, come with me instead to my cabin in the Canadian Rockies, where I need someone just like you to help me survive until better times. Someone to father children by me and my three sisters, and teach the next generations how to live with the Earth and never again fall into this--"
Sirach shook out of his daydream and looked up. It was one of his younger anarchist friends, a skinny energetic kid who went by Bert -- his original name was something really common like Jason.
"We thought you were dead. We heard you had the plague."
Several people turned to look. Sirach faked a laugh and said, "No, I was out of town. Come on." He led Bert outside and a little way up the sidewalk, pushing his bike and motioning him to follow.
"Where did you go?" Bert said.
"You dumbass! I did have the plague."
"And those people might have called the police on me. They still might, because they're in a panic and they don't know I'm way past the contagious--"
"You really did?"
He pointed to one of his more visible pock marks. They were more subtle than smallpox marks, but obvious if you knew what to look for.
"That is so cool! Dude, that's so much better than a tattoo."
"It takes a lot longer, and you've got a one in four chance of dying."
"I know. You rock!"
"Well, thanks. You might get your chance."
"Hey, a bunch of us are having a meeting tonight. Eight o'clock at the stinky cheese house."
All the Seattle anarchist houses had nicknames. Sirach said, "I don't know that one."
Bert gave him the address, somewhere south of the Montlake bridge, past the north edge of Capitol Hill. Sirach spent a couple hours on the internet at the library, reading about the latest high-tech surveillance inventions which, it was taken for granted, were to be used by the authorities against the people and never the other way around. Then he rode down to the meeting.
He came into the house and they all crowded around him, looking at his pock marks, but he was looking at the room. It was the room from his dream. Then the conversation began, and it too matched the dream, with small variations. He kept feeling like he was dreaming again, and had to keep checking, using a technique Mariana had told him, looking at a clock, then looking away, then looking back. If he was dreaming, the time would change, but it stayed the same and moved slowly forward. He spoke his lines as if he were watching a movie and had no choice. Why is it, he thought, that when you're dreaming you always think it's real, but in reality every time something interesting happens you think you're dreaming? What exactly are we talking about when we say "real"? Do "real" and "not dreaming" mean the same thing, or are they different concepts that just happen to overlap in some places?
"...if Si takes some vials of plague over the mountains."
"Sure. You've already had it so you won't get sick halfway through. You can hop trains, survive in the wilderness, pick locks..."
"I can get you there."
That line had not been in the dream. Sirach looked at the speaker, Jake Bagley, a stocky guy in his late 20's, willful but normally cautious.
"I know a road," Jake went on, "near the Canadian border. It doesn't go through, but you can hike a few miles to another road that comes out the other side. I have a friend in Wenatchee who can come pick you up."
Sirach was tempted. After all my uncertainty, he thought, fate has opened a door... But that's bullshit. Jake has opened a door, and I'm not totally sure I can trust him, or any of these people, or that the house isn't bugged. This was the moment in the dream when the police had burst in, and he was half certain they were out there now, outside the windows, on the porch, listening, their black-booted feet up and poised to kick in the door, waiting for him to say the word.
"No, I won't do it." He held his breath.
"Yeah, you're right. Sorry I suggested it."
"I can't believe we were even considering that."
"Is there any beer?"
Sirach said his goodbyes and went out to his bike, still fully loaded for the fake bike trip, with water in the front rack, food in the back panniers, and a sleeping bag and tarp held onto the back rack with mini-bungees. He still didn't know if he was going, or how. I'll ride up to the squat tonight, he thought, and sleep on it. Maybe I'll wake up with -- oh wait, I already did.
He was not familiar with this neighborhood. He could ride east over to 24th and follow it south up the hill, but that was a terrible street for bicycles. He was pretty sure if he went straight south from here, he could find his way up on the little streets -- or isn't there a park here somewhere?
The night was getting foggy, strange for this time of year. The steep streets twisted and the fog grew deeper. After a few minutes he had no idea which direction he was going, except he knew if he kept going uphill he would eventually get to somewhere he recognized. But he was in the park now, and the uphill routes were paths too steep and uneven for his loaded bike. After what seemed like an hour, but must have been less, he wasn't sure if he was any higher or any farther south. How big is this park? Am I going in circles? But everything keeps looking unfamiliar. Is it possible I've gone around the hill? Maybe some of those roads I passed over were major streets that happened to be empty.
The city lights went out. There had been little blackouts here and there since the tsunami, but this was a big one. The omnipresent orange glow of the streetlights was gone, and the night was totally dark. With his bike headlight, a dim yellow LED flasher, he made out a narrow paved road going steeply up. He couldn't see more than ten feet. At the top, the fog above him momentarily parted and he could see the stars, shockingly bright. He recognized Cassiopeia, which he called the Big W, and found Polaris just as the fog closed. So that's north, and that's south. He rode south, or was it southwest, on a flat street that went on and on. At least I'm making good time, he thought -- I just don't know where.
Some time later he decided to forget about finding the squat. I've probably gone way past it, he thought. And I'm totally equipped to camp out anywhere, and this fog is perfect for getting out of the city unseen. He was using a compass now, a tiny cheap one that he had tucked into a bag of miscellaneous survival supplies and finally remembered. He stayed roughly south-southeast, avoiding hills where possible, sensing vague shapes of buildings and trees and overpasses, crossing streets with the lights of cars gliding ghost-like in the distance.
He felt good and kept riding. Hours passed. The cars disappeared and the night grew silent. It smelled like the woods now, not the city. He could almost feel the trees leaning in on him. Tiny creatures scurried, and for a long time he kept hearing the eerie hoot of the same owl.
The paved road he was following turned to gravel, and then dirt, and seemed to vanish completely in a flat grassy area. He was sleepy. Off to the side, under a big douglas fir, he cleared a little space and spent a few minutes padding it with fir needles and dry grass. He unzipped his bag and put it just on top of him, and was asleep before the sky started to lighten.
When he awoke it was nearly noon, judging from his compass and the position of the sun. The air was dry and full of brown dust blowing through on a strong west wind. He was in some kind of clearing or meadow, roughly rectangular. Then, as he sat munching on his nut bars and crackers, he gradually noticed that it was exactly rectangular. He scrambled into the woods and found a strong stick, and went out to the center and dug into the sandy dirt. A few inches down he struck pavement, cracked black asphalt that crumbled in his fingers. This was an old parking lot. A really old parking lot.
Over on the east edge was something he had taken for a couple of dead trees, but now he went to look more closely, and saw that it was one of those gates they use to keep motorized vehicles off trails, but weathered almost beyond recognition, the metal rusted and broken, the cement covered with moss and lichens. It can't be that old, he thought. How long have they made these things?
Beyond it, of course, was a trail. Sirach was not a great tracker, but he bent down to examine it, and couldn't find evidence of anything but deer. It went the way he was going, so he packed his stuff and rode.
His bike was designed for paved roads, with smooth narrow tires and no suspension, but the trail was good enough that he was able to ride more than half the time, and with the wind at his back he moved easily up into the mountains. He looked for Mt. Rainier to the south, but among the blowing dust, the trees, and the growing nearby peaks, he never saw it, nor did he see any evidence of civilization, except a few roads that had clearly not been maintained for years. He didn't even see or hear any airplanes, and he began to wonder if the blackout in the city had been part of some bigger event. Maybe the whole west coast was blacked out.
He camped at dusk, by a little waterfall where he refilled his bottles. By then he had left the trail and taken to the old roads, on which, through lucky guesses, he continued to move generally southeast. He had 1:150,000 maps cut out of a Delorme atlas, but he was never able to figure out where he was on them.
The next morning he started early and rode at an easy pace all day. The trees were enormous now, the air was fresh and alive, and there was wildlife everywhere -- eagles, deer, red squirrels, even a distant bear and the track of some kind of big cat. This must be old growth, he thought, but then what's the road doing here? They wouldn't have made it except to cut down the trees.
Near the end of that day he finally saw something human. He stopped his bike and stared at it, dumbfounded, the skin tingling up his back. The road passed by a tiny oblong lake, and in the middle of the water was a lone chunk of granite. Sticking two feet out of the rock was the hilt end of a sword, glimmering in a shaft of sunlight. He blinked, shook his head, and continued on down the road.
The next day he came down from the mountains onto an arid plateau. He had expected to see Yakima or Ellensburg, but he still saw nothing -- or, he reminded himself, everything, a subtle fullness uncut by human artifacts, sagebrush and bunch grass, hawks and mice and snakes and grasshoppers, the midnight calls of coyotes. It was wonderful -- except that he'd been counting on convenience stores where he could buy gallon jugs of water. Now he was in danger of dying.
From here on he rode at night, trying to keep warm without sweating away his moisture. Every morning he spent an hour licking up dew, and then found a shady place to wait out the heat. It worked in theory, but in practice he drank up his reserves and got badly dehydrated, and after a couple of days, when he found a trickling stream, tan-colored and mineral-tasting, he drank greedily and filled all his bottles.
As he got more skilled at conserving water and drinking dew, the land got drier. He lost track of the days, passing over grassy steppe, through high desert, along trails through rocky canyons where he was tempted to abandon his bike, and finally into land that looked like Nevada, vast plains of sagebrush stretching away to long thin ranges of dry peaks. But he could not possibly have come so far in so little time, and he had no memory of crossing the Columbia River or I-84. Was it possible he had blacked out, lost weeks of memory in the delirium of thirst? He tried to think back over the phases of the moon, and discovered that his memories had fallen out of line -- they were all there, but he could not tell which ones came before or after any of the others. He wondered if this was what it was like to be a wild animal, or a human outside the idea of linear time.
He was comfortable now sleeping on the hard ground -- his body felt tough and almost weightless, like a dry weed. He grew more and more attuned to water, licking the morning dew off stones, and smelling the damp places on the wind. Sometimes he imagined that he could sense every molecule, inside him and around him. Still, he was losing slightly more than he gained, and he got comfortable with the idea that he was going to die out here.
It was not quite sunset. He had started his night's journey early, and been riding about half an hour. The dirt road ahead was straight and smooth, and shimmered away at the horizon. Then out of the blurriness came a shape, which resolved itself into...
Somehow Sirach had expected an Indian on a pony, or a wizard on a white horse, or an ancient Egyptian trader on a camel, or even a caveman on a dinosaur, but this was an old man on a bicycle, with a black bandanna over his face and a mess of coarse grey hair lit up in the sun.
They stopped and looked at each other, and Sirach became less sure of the man's age. Something confounded his attempts to put a number to it, but later he was able to put words to it: It's as if a person could keep getting older without in any way wearing out. His clothing seemed hand-made, pants and a shirt of dusty beige linen with unmatched buttons. He was barefoot, with thick calluses on his soles and deeply tanned feet and hands. His bike bags were hand-sewn out of supple brown leather, worn with use. The bike, like Sirach's own, was a freewheeling singlespeed with upright handlebars, but both frame and tires were wider, and all the components were highest quality, though aged. The man spoke.
"You need water."
"Do you have some?"
He pulled out -- Sirach had expected some kind of gourd or bladder, but it was a battered two-liter plastic bottle, full. "Take it slow."
Sirach swallowed and felt the water going into him, expanding him like a dry sponge. Nothing had ever felt so good. He waited a few seconds and swallowed again. "How much can I have?"
"It's all for you."
Sirach didn't argue. "Do you want something for it?"
The man nodded. "Your rain pants."
The words were unmistakable, but Sirach stared as if they were in another language. "What?"
Behind the bandanna the man chuckled. "I mean it."
Sirach's rain pants were stuffed down in the bottom of his left pannier. He hadn't touched them the whole trip. He reached down and pulled them up and... it was something else. It was just the bottom of one leg of his rain pants, cut off and stuffed with something. He kneeled down, dumped out the contents, and stared.
"I know," the man said. "It's not a fair trade. I'll give you one more thing to bring it closer." Out of one of his leather bike bags he pulled a burlap bag that was hardly smaller, and tossed it on the ground. Sirach looked inside and found stacks of cash -- fives, tens, twenties, fifties, and hundreds. The man said, "Maybe you can find a use for it."
After they had packed up and were getting ready to leave, Sirach said, "I have a question."
The man nodded.
"Why is your face covered?"
He answered, barely in a whisper, "So you don't recognize me," and Sirach saw that his eyes were full of tears. "You take care of yourself." Then he got on his bike and rode off into the dust in the orange rays of the sun.
That night Sirach began to see signs of civilization again. He heard a jet fly over, and spotted its lights tiny against the stars. He saw fallen, rusty barbed wire fences, and newer roads. In the pre-dawn light he passed through an area two miles across with not a single living or growing thing, but with four sheds in a line spaced a quarter mile apart.
His water gone again, he followed a dry creek bed up into a range of mountains, and found a spring that was only a wet spot in a rock face, and he stayed there almost a day sucking the moisture out until he was satisfied. Then he followed a trail on through the mountains and finally down into a deep narrow canyon, where he camped.
When night fell, he came down out of the canyon and saw, down on the plain below him, a highway with the moving lights of cars, and away to the south, the lights of a city -- not just a diffuse orange glow but a spectacular dazzling whiteness. There was no mistaking it -- it was Las Vegas.