The new postapocalyptic thriller from the author of Invasive Species
IT’S THEIR TERRITORY NOW.
Twenty years ago, venomous parasitic wasps known as “thieves” staged a massive, apocalyptic attack on another species—Homo sapiens—putting them on the brink of extinction.
But some humans did survive. The colony called Refugia is home to a population of 281, including scientists, a pilot, and a tough young woman named Kait. In the African wilderness, there’s Aisha Rose, nearly feral, born at the end of the old world. And in the ruins of New York City, there’s a mysterious, powerful boy, a skilled hunter, isolated and living by his wits.
As the survivors journey through the wastelands, they will find that they are not the only humans left on earth. Not by a long shot.
But they may be the only ones left who are not under the thieves’ control...
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Joseph Wallace, author of Slavemakers, Invasive Species, and Diamond Ruby, has written for Sierra, Audubon, Newsday, and many other publications, and contributed short stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, among others.
Read an Excerpt
Sharon AvRutick, a superb editor and, as always, my first reader, who guided me through the process of making this complex story come clear.
Deborah Schneider, my brilliant literary agent and a marvelously insightful reader as well. This novel and I are both indebted to her.
Robin Barletta, Natalee Rosenstein, and the whole team at Berkley and Ace. I’m grateful for their faith in this book and the beautiful job they did turning it into a reality.
My brothers, Jonathan and Rich, who share my love of nature, not least the creepy-crawly parts.
Keith Bass, with memories of bug-filled tents with leopards snarling just outside; Danielle Tobias, who allowed me to distract her from work for lively conversations about parasitic wasps, zombie ants, and other cool creatures; and Carl Mehling and Fiona Brady, who provided timeless perspectives on the history of life on earth—as well as peerless company over delicious meals on Arthur Avenue.
And, crucially, Emmalisa Stangarone, my research assistant. During hours-long Skype sessions, Emma patiently and generously discussed her findings, experiences, and insights, helping me breathe life into some of the novel’s most important characters and settings.
Praise for Invasive Species
Titles by Joseph Wallace
THE HELICOPTER ROSE from the black, blood-soaked grass, slewing sideways as its rotors spilled air. Malcolm Granger fought with the stick and the throttle, but even though he was the best pilot he’d ever met, he knew that his chances of wrestling this overloaded Schweizer S-333 over the trees were god-awful—and of getting himself and his passengers to safety, even worse.
Thirty seconds earlier, Malcolm had been sure he was about to die. He’d seen the instrument of his death approaching, coming at him from all directions, and had known there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He’d known he was helpless.
This pissed him off. He fucking hated being helpless. He’d done the best he could, gotten further already than anyone else would have, he was sure of that. And death had never scared him. Losing, failing, that gutted him, but dying itself? No worries.
But then, just like that, the threat had disappeared. In a blink. The thieves were coming, they were inside the helicopter with him, then they were . . . gone. The moment of his death passed, and he was still alive.
He couldn’t understand it. But understanding didn’t matter. The S-333 bucked in his hands, fell twenty feet, threatened to roll. He was still alive, and if the bugs hadn’t killed him, this fucking machine wasn’t going to be the thing that did.
Down on the ground, too close once again, he saw the pale smudges of faces in the darkness, flickering white in the light of the immense flames consuming the buildings to the south. That was where the jet had gone down, the passenger plane that, screaming upside down a hundred feet above them, had come close to turning the helicopter—and Malcolm—into a smear of metal and flesh.
Smudges of faces. Not human faces, though. The faces of whatever humans became in the last stage. The faces of monsters reaching for him as he regained control and hovered for an instant just above their grasp.
The humans who were still alive weren’t looking up. They were running. Or rolling on the ground. Or clutching at their eyes. Or they were already lying still.
Soon enough, all of them would be dead. Dead or worse. There was no room for them on the Schweizer, nor time.
Once more, Malcolm regained control, and the helicopter roared upward to safety. Temporary safety. At his feet, Trey Gilliard writhed and spasmed. Malcolm had no idea what had possessed him, but you didn’t have to be a devil-worshipper to see that he was possessed.
Or: Half of Trey writhed. The other half was hanging out of the hatch. The way the S-333 was slipping and sliding, he would have been long gone, plummeted to the blood-soaked ground into the grasp of the monsters, if not for Sheila.
Malcolm had barely met Sheila, and she hadn’t made much of an impression on him. A serious young woman who rarely smiled and sometimes seemed overwhelmed by the speed with which things were falling apart.
But now, watching her hang on to Trey, risking her own life to save his, Malcolm was changing his opinion. As they skimmed just above the trees that lined the park—feeling the heat from the airplane crash and a dozen, a hundred, other fires already beginning to consume the city—he saw her pull Trey fully inside and to safety.
Well. Shit. Safety by its current definition.
In his life on the edges of civilization, Malcolm, clear-eyed and fearless, had been witness to war and famine and acts of terrorism, to human suffering and death in all its variety and abundance. But as he took the little helicopter higher and aimed it north, the sights that greeted him were almost unendurable.
He wanted to close his eyes. Yet he forced himself to look because already he knew that someone had to see it. Had to watch the destruction of the civilization, the world, they’d all thought could not be breached.
On the floor near Malcolm’s feet, Trey was finally still. Sheila was huddled over him, her face close to his.
So Malcolm was the only witness. No, that wasn’t true. There were others. Millions. Billions. But they were all dead already, even if they didn’t realize it yet. He would be the only one to see and live to remember. The only one left to tell the story.
If they reached their destination, the little airport where the others waited for them. If he survived this night.
He piloted the S-333 over and around countless burning buildings. Orange and red and pure blinding white, spreading, flooding like a tsunami’s wake down avenues snarled with cars that would never move again. Buildings collapsing, sending plumes of sparks and fountains of smoke erupting skyward.
On the streets below, some headlights were still gleaming. Brighter, and more hopeless, were the spinning red-and-white beacons of the fire engines. But no one was left to operate the hoses, and anyway, it was far too late. The city was beyond saving.
The cars and trucks were abandoned, but not the buildings that were still standing. He saw people perched on windowsills, outlined by fire. People jumping, choosing one kind of death over another. Small groups and big crowds huddled on rooftops, black smoke billowing past them, faces turned toward the helicopter, toward Malcolm, as if he were a vision from a future where they might survive. A dream of life.
A hopeless dream. Because everywhere, everywhere, was the whirlwind. Thieves in such numbers that even Malcolm’s head spun. Vast spiraling clouds of them, the maestros of the city’s destruction.
No. Not them. Not the whirlwind. It was the mind that had done this. The thieves were just the instruments of its plan.
* * *
THEY FLEW NORTH.
Finally leaving the conflagration behind and passing over the darkened suburbs. Some fires here as well, just beginning to spread, but all else dark except for the headlights. The power grid gone, and gone for good.
The highways gone as well, blocked forever by crashed and wrecked cars. Yet not every route was closed off, and Malcolm glimpsed below them the weakly glowing firefly’s trail of a car moving along some smaller road. A lone car cresting a hill, its headlights flashing like a lighthouse beacon.
No: like the ghostly lights on a ship, seen from the surface as it sinks into the depths.
Malcolm took one last look at the car, imagining its unseen driver hurtling from one certain death to another. Then he straightened. Ahead, through a scrim of bare trees, he could see the emergency lights illuminating the runway of Westchester County Airport. At the foot of the runway stood the Citation X private jet that he had retrofitted for this night. This night that had come too soon.
The little plane that held some of the few who would survive the destruction of the Last World.
* * *
IN ALL THE years that followed, Malcolm told only a few people about what he had seen that night. Only those few who were closest to him, who never passed on the details to anyone else.
But others let their imaginations run wild, and in doing so assumed that Malcolm would never want to venture back into the world whose final torments he’d witnessed. They assumed he’d be happy spending the rest of his life in the haven that Refugia, the village that was their home, provided.
So everyone was shocked when, even in the early years, Malcolm was already making plans to leave once again. And when, as soon as he could, he started building the three-masted, square-rigged ship that years later would be christened the Trey Gilliard. A ship designed for nothing but exploration. Escape.
People guessed, they psychoanalyzed, they speculated. But they couldn’t understand why Malcolm couldn’t stop wandering.
Or what—or who—he was so desperate to find.
“DON’T GO,” TREY said.
Looking into his eyes, Kait didn’t reply. He’d made the same request, the same plea, many times, and she’d never replied.
Don’t go. When Malcolm finishes building that ship, and it finally sails away from here, don’t be on it.
No. It wasn’t true. Sometimes she had answered the request. With a question.
And then it had been his turn to be silent.
It was maddening.
This time, as usual, she planned not to answer, not even with a question. Nor did she intend to allow any expression to cross her face.
Yet even though she was the best she knew at remaining expressionless—she’d been good at that forever—she could tell from the glint in his eyes that he was seeing her frustration, her annoyance, anyway.
And that, on some level, her reaction amused him.
The longtime pattern between Trey Gilliard and Kaitlin Finneran Gilliard.
Father and daughter. Kind of. By temperament and paperwork and love, if not by blood.
So, without intending to, because he was her father, because he was ill, she found herself saying, “All right. I won’t.”
For a moment, his eyes went wide. He tilted his head and looked at her more closely, his large dark eyes prominent in his gaunt face.
Then, without saying anything, he turned away and looked out over the savanna again. After a moment, she did the same, and they sat side by side, but in silence.
* * *
KAIT AND TREY came often to this spot, the watchtower that stood where Refugia’s northern wall met its eastern one. The sturdy walls, made of kapok and other local hardwoods, and the towers at each corner were designed to withstand an unnamed, unidentified danger. An onslaught that, once the terrible early months after the Fall had passed, seemed less and less likely ever to occur.
In the nearly twenty years since the colony had been established, there’d never been a warning given from any of the towers. No, that wasn’t true: Twice the colonists—Malcolm had dubbed them “Fugians” early on, and the name had stuck—had been alerted to a monsoon rolling inland from the Atlantic Ocean three miles away.
But the kind of threats they’d guessed might be coming? The kind of invasion they couldn’t even put into words, but feared anyway? No. Of course not.
Still, even now, someone was stationed in each of the watchtowers twenty-four hours a day. Because you never knew. Because people still had nightmares.
In those early weeks and months, some had feared a human invasion: desperate, starving people fleeing Dakar or Banjul or one of the other fallen cities to the north.
Clare Shapiro, Refugia’s resident skeptic, had scoffed at the idea. “You all have read too many pulp novels and seen too many movies,” she’d said. “Invading hordes? I think not.”
And she’d been right. No one had come. Not once. Not ever.
Shapiro hadn’t been done, though. “You know as well as I do,” she’d said. “The attackers that will bring our walls tumbling down won’t be anything we’ll see coming. And a wall sure won’t stop them.”
Yes, they had known. But the logic of it didn’t much matter. Kait had long since learned that humans did all sorts of things for no reason other than reassurance. Growing up in this vulnerable colony, seemingly the last human population on earth, she’d come to understand the value of being reassured.
So as soon as she’d been deemed old enough—fourteen—she’d taken her turn in the watch. It had been no burden, an eight-hour shift every ten days or so. She’d always been a solitary soul, so she enjoyed the chance to be alone, looking out over the savannas to the north or the rain forests that flanked Refugia’s other three walls.
The forests, regenerating year by year, always a shocking, intense green, and the grasslands, ever-changing depending on the season and the time of day. Sometimes gray, sometimes a reddish brown, and sometimes the palest jade, as fragile as an eggshell.
Brown now as she and Trey looked out at them. Yet even so, in the midst of the dry season, the savanna was still beautiful, in its own subtle way. The green of the thorn trees, flat and jagged against the horizon. The warm gold of the grazing antelope, the bushbucks and kob. The enormous billowing clouds, white and slate gray, that built up on the horizon every afternoon, harbingers of the approaching rainy season.
Kait knew that Trey loved the diverse landscapes around Refugia. The rain forests, the mossy streams, the coastline with its endless miles of empty white-sand beaches.
He’d spent most of his life before the Fall escaping civilization and lighting out for the most remote and unpopulated territories he could find on a shrinking planet. Seeking out swamps and thorn forests and icy mountain páramos—all the places that people in their right mind avoided. With those as far from his reach as the moon, Kait thought he’d been most at peace when they sat together and looked out over the savanna.
At the water hole that lay across what had once been the red-dirt Massou-Djibo Road but was now just a grassy stripe a little lighter than the savanna beyond, six elephants were bathing. The elephants had returned just months before, yet another sign—and there were many—of an earth recovering from the contagion that had been the human species.
Anyone who had been part of the Last World, and had been paying even the slightest bit of attention, had known that elephants had been on their way out during those final, unstable years. The worldwide demand for ivory had become so insatiable that extinction was certain. When poachers were machine-gunning elephants from helicopters and poisoning water holes with cyanide, what possible other future did the species face?
There was just a single hope: that Homo sapiens would exit before the last elephants did the same. And, amazingly, that was what had happened.
Watching them, Trey smiled. But when he spoke, it wasn’t about the elephants or anything else out on the savanna. It was the same old topic, the one that always made Kait feel like a child, as she’d been when they first met.
“I used to play poker with this guy,” he said.
Poker was one of the games that had been carried over to the Next World, poker for money, even though the money itself was meaningless. They even had real playing cards, packs hoarded by the hundred, some before the Fall and others retrieved by Malcolm on his forays away from Refugia in the first months after.
Kait played sometimes, though she’d never seen Trey at a game.
“Guy named Greg,” he went on. “You’d bluff him, and he’d always know. Always. If you had a real hand, he’d fold. But if you were bluffing, he’d stay in and beat you. Every damn time.”
Kait stayed quiet and let him get to the point.
Trey shook his head at the memory. “He said it was easy to spot a bluff. He could always tell. ‘Take you, for example,’ he said to me. ‘If you’re planning to bluff, you always take a deep breath before you bet.’
“‘I do?’ I said. And he nodded. ‘But don’t feel bad. Everybody has something, or three things. Their pupils dilate. They get a little sweaty on the temples. They drum their fingers a certain way. Always something.’”
Trey turned his head to look at her, and Kait thought she might be blushing. “So it’s that obvious?” she said. “That I’ll be on board the ship?”
“Sure.” He smiled at her expression. “I’ve never understood most people that well. But you? You I know.”
Kait knew this was true. That didn’t make it any less exasperating.
“But I don’t understand—” The words were out before she even knew she was saying them.
He looked interested. “Don’t understand what?”
She felt her chin lift. “Back before, you would have been the first one on that boat.”
Kait saw him draw in a breath, like they were playing poker. But this time it was no bluff, and all at once his illness, that relentless, unstoppable thing, showed starkly in his pale skin, taut over his cheekbones.
When he spoke, his voice was quieter. “It’s true,” he said. “But the world was a different place back then.”
“More dangerous, not less,” she said.
Trey was silent.
She stared at him. “Dad, it was more dangerous, wasn’t it?”
Still Trey did not speak.
* * *
HOW COULD IT not have been?
In the chaotic weeks and months that preceded the end of the Last World, the parasitic wasps they called thieves had both explosively extended their range and expanded the variety of species they used as hosts for their young. Though monkeys had been their preferred targets in the remote forests where they’d evolved, they’d soon found humans fertile territory as well.
The thieves were far from the first insects to parasitize Homo sapiens. Some species of botfly, for example, depended entirely on human flesh to raise their larvae. These flies still sometimes afflicted the Fugians, even the hardiest of whom didn’t relish extracting a wiggling white worm from their scalps or the palms of their hands.
But the thieves were far more sophisticated than the primitive botflies. Both wasp adults and larvae poured drugs, toxins, into the hosts, to control their behavior—at first to make them forget they’d been infected and later to make them fiercely protective of the alien life growing inside them.
And, lastly, to guarantee that the host died if the larva was removed before hatching, and in any event died upon the emergence of the adult wasp.
Before the end, this all had been widely known. But Trey had understood far better than most what it meant because he’d been one of the earliest thief victims. He’d been infected, parasitized, had a thief larva growing inside him and pumping its poisons into his blood.
He’d barely survived the surgery to remove the larva from his belly, but although he had lived, he’d been condemned by the thieves. Destined for a long, slow, irreversible slide into weakness, decrepitude, early death.
Condemned in another way as well because of something else the thieves had done to him. The larva growing inside him had connected him to the wasps’ hive mind. And not just Trey: others who’d been host to a thief larva but had somehow survived.
But what did that mean? Her whole life, Kait had been desperate to learn what it was like.
And now, sitting beside him on the edge of Refugia, the home she was ready to leave as soon as she could, she understood that something about Trey’s condition—his curse—was the cause of his warning to her. His plea, because it was a plea, to stay behind when the ship left. To stay home. To stay safe.
“Dad,” she said.
His eyes had been closed, but when he opened them to look at her, they were clear.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t go,” she said, “and maybe I’ll understand.”
Trey was silent.
Kait didn’t relent. “When you close your eyes,” she asked him, “what do you see?”
But still he would not say.
AND NOW SHE would never find out. Not from Trey, at least.
Because that conversation had been years ago, of course. The two of them had been sitting side by side, watching the elephants bathe and spar.
Year Six, it had been, or Seven. Back when Kait was young, a child still, and filled with a child’s questions.
And Trey was still alive.
But he was long dead by now. And Kait was nearly thirty, not that much younger than he’d been when they first met. These days, she sometimes found it hard to remember what his face looked like, or the tone and timbre of his voice.
But not his words. Those she would never forget even as she prepared to ignore them.
* * *
KAIT STOOD AT the edge of the beach that lay three miles west of Refugia. The gleaming white-sand beach, largely free twenty years after the Fall even from plastic garbage spat up by the surf, that bordered the Atlantic Ocean.
Just offshore, the Trey Gilliard, the ship Trey had warned her against—and had been named for him, in honor and irony—was preparing for departure. The next day, it was going to set off on the first great scientific exploration of the Next World, and Kait, as both she and Trey had always known, was going to be on board.
The first great scientific exploration. At least, that was the reason everyone gave, and it was true that Refugia’s chief biologist, Ross McKay, would be part of the crew of twenty-eight. Ross, who’d been a primatologist in the Last World, Clare Shapiro, and other scientists would be keeping journals, collecting specimens, and doing everything that the great scientific explorers of the nineteenth century, the last before aviation, had done.
But that was not the only reason, or even the main one.
The main reason was to discover if, in fact, Refugia was it: the last human colony on earth.
Another human trait that had carried over from the Last World to this one. The desire, need, obsession, to find out if you are alone.
* * *
DOWN THE BEACH, a caravan of rowboats was bringing the last shipments to the Trey Gilliard. Food: salted meat, fruits and vegetables, both fresh and pickled. Freshwater for the tanks belowdecks.
And medicines, including precious supplies of antibiotics. Kait thought that Shapiro was going on the expedition partly to keep a close eye on the pharmacy, which she’d done so much to develop and stock.
Including the vaccine, derived from the fruit and seeds of the n’te vine, which—when taken weekly—kept the people of Refugia safe from the thieves.
Kait recognized everyone hauling supplies. There was Fatou Konte, born not thirty miles from here, who would be ship physician. Brett and Darby Callahan, the odd twins, just a little older than Kait, who’d worked nearly as tirelessly as Malcolm had to make the Trey Gilliard seaworthy. Shapiro, supervising. Malcolm himself.
Of course she recognized all of them: When you lived in an isolated community of just 281 souls, you came to know every face—and every quirk, every fear, every strain of kindness and cruelty—as if they were your own.
You knew too much.
Kait had thought about that often, what it had been like to live in a world where you could know thousands—or millions—of others without much effort. Though she understood now that this had been an aberration, a sign of the sickness possessing the world in the century or so before the Fall.
Such a vast human population, so mobile and interconnected, was a blip that could never have endured. It had gone against Nature. Humans could build airplanes, satellites, computers, bombs, but they were still primates, and throughout million of years of evolution, no primates had ever lived in hordes of thousands, much less millions.
In fact, Refugia’s structure and size, an isolated society with no interaction with any other, but a society nonetheless, was a lot more in line with the way primate societies had always existed than the cities of the Last World had ever been.
The problem, Kait thought, was that the colony’s older residents sometimes missed the old ways too much. Life would be easier in a generation or two, when no one could remember the way things had once been.
She turned away from the beach. She’d go down to join them soon, but not quite yet. There was something she had to do first.
* * *
SHE’D TAKEN ONLY a few steps along the trail that led among the palm trees and scrubby beachside undergrowth when she stopped and tilted her head, waiting.
There it was: the familiar migrainous shimmering movement at the corner of her vision.
She’d known she’d find it somewhere around here. There was always a little thief colony near the beach. The sandy soil suited the wasps, and so did the distance from Refugia. Close enough to keep an eye on the humans there, far enough away to stay alive.
Maybe stay alive. Whenever Fugians came upon one of the colonies, they destroyed it. But no one worried much about the thieves’ presence. For now, at least, the wasps posed no threat.
A thief rose on bloodred wings from the black hole of its burrow and hovered in front of her face. Its triangular head tilted this way and that as it stared at her with its bulbous, multifaceted green eyes.
That’s what thieves did. They looked you in the eyes.
Kait stood unmoving. The big wasp, three inches long at least, flew closer, its wings beating so rapidly they were invisible save for the characteristic bloody smear they left in the air. Kait saw its thin, black body arch. Its abdomen pulsed and extruded the stinger, a needle as white as ivory. A drop of black liquid—its deadly venom—danced on the needle’s end.
Her heart thudded. Maybe this was the time. The time when her immunity would fail her. The moment when the thieves would first demonstrate that they’d evolved the ability to overcome the vaccine, as Shapiro had long predicted they eventually would.
If this was the case, Kait knew what would happen. The thief would rise, then stoop like a hawk toward her, too fast for even the sharpest eyes to follow. Its stinger would plunge like a hypodermic into the flesh of her neck. The injected venom would flood through her, and the thief would pull back and hover once again at a safe distance, watching as she fell to the ground in agony.
And then it, and any others in the vicinity—and there were always others—would attack her eyes. That was what the thieves always did: destroyed their victims’ eyes.
Or at least, that’s what they used to do.
The thief shifted position in midair. But in that moment’s hesitation—a pause that she knew as well as her own breath—Kait thrust her right hand out and snatched the wasp from the air.
This was something she’d been doing for nearly two decades though everyone told her not to. In a place like Refugia, most people didn’t believe in taking any unnecessary risks. Not when you were one of 281.
Kait understood that, but even so, she could never stop herself. She was always compelled to look closer, to see once again what had brought the Last World to ruin and killed so many people she’d loved.
She held the wasp between her thumb and forefinger, in that spot on its thorax that rendered it helpless. Where she was out of range of both its mandibles and its lethal stinger.
Not that it didn’t try to reach her, twisting its head around, curving its abdomen up over its back like a scorpion, the black poison dripping from the stinger’s end. The thieves’ characteristic bitter smell rose more strongly from it, making her nose prickle.
She always wondered after she caught one: If she let it go, would this be the time it overcame the vaccine’s prohibition and stung her?
All she knew was that it hadn’t happened yet.
She looked at the wasp more closely. It was a female, and gravid. Pregnant. Kait could tell by the tumorous swelling of its abdomen.
But this was no surprise. Adult female thieves were always gravid. They were one of the creatures—there were many—that carried their eggs around with them for as long as they needed to, until they found a host. They could delay the implantation almost indefinitely.
Kait straightened. She wanted to do nothing more than to twist her fingers and pop the thief’s head off.
But she knew that would be the most dangerous thing to do. A beheaded thief could live for days or even weeks in that condition, until it starved to death. And all that time, it would use specialized heat receptors on its abdomen to seek out warm-blooded prey. Prey that included humans, vaccinated or not.
Clare Shapiro’s theory was that by beheading an individual thief, or severely wounding it, you severed it from the hive mind. Without the guidance of the mind, the warning to stay away from vaccinated humans, its only goal was to kill you or to lay its egg in your flesh. In the colony’s early years, two vaccinated Fugians—both children—had been killed and one adult, Emily Russo, had been infected by wounded thieves.
The vaccine hadn’t kept the dying thief from laying its egg, but it had stunted the growth of the larva and delayed its attempted emergence for days, maybe even weeks. And, at the very end, the emerging wasp had been so small and weak that it had died while hatching out.
Too weak to emerge successfully, yet strong enough to kill Emily during the process.
Of course, converting a thief to pulp with the bottom of your sandal took care of all potential risks. But instead, Kait reached into her pocket with her left hand and withdrew the small brown bottle she’d brought for this purpose. She popped the top off and, in one fluid move, dropped the wasp into the bottle.
She got the cap back on just as it leaped to escape. For a few seconds it battered itself against the glass, but then—as captive thieves always did—it seemed to give up, settling back to the bottom of the small space.
As Kait replaced the bottle in her pocket, three more thieves rose from somewhere nearby and flew off, heading south. In just a few moments, they were tiny dots against the sky; and then they were gone.
* * *
KAIT LIFTED HER right hand to her face and breathed in the thief odor that clung to her fingers. Then she raised her head, drew in a deeper breath of fresh salt air, and turned back toward the beach to go help load the ship.
Remembering, as she did, the last words Trey had spoken to her on that far-off day when they’d sat atop the wall and watched the elephants. The closest he’d ever come to describing what he saw inside his head, the curse the hive mind had bestowed on him.
“Because if you stay here,” he had finally said, “you’ll stay—”
He’d paused, searching for the right word. She hadn’t hurried him.
“Ignorant,” he’d said. Then, always precise in his language, he’d grimaced and shaken his head. “No. Innocent.”
She’d stayed quiet and, just for a moment, his haunted gaze had met hers.
“Alive,” he’d said.
MALCOLM HAD INTENDED to stay awake all through the last night in Refugia. He’d made his speech, and afterward he’d commandeered a comfortable seat with his back against a wall and made sure he had a ready supply of single malt at hand. He’d attracted a small group of friends and admirers, some of whom would be traveling with him the next day and others who would be staying back. He’d had no intention of going anywhere until it was time to head down to the Trey Gilliard and set off.
Then Shapiro had shown up, much later than he’d expected. No: In truth, he hadn’t expected to see her at all. He’d never imagined she could tear herself away from her precious bugs and worms and pickled specimens. He’d thought someone might have to pry her fingers off the doorjamb and drag her away when the time came to depart.
But in that deadest moment of the forest night, when even the hyraxes and bushbabies had given up and gone to bed, and the first birds hadn’t started testing out their dawn chorus, there she was, leaning against the wall beside him. He hadn’t seen her approach, which was surprising. She wasn’t exactly quick on her feet.
Sitting on the ground, some looking up from where they were sprawled, Malcolm’s friends all seemed a little wide-eyed at seeing her. As if they were seeing an apparition.
And not a friendly ghost, either. More like a poltergeist.
Malcolm looked up at her. “Shapiro,” he said.
“Done saying good-bye to your near and dear?”
But she didn’t reply. She just put her hand out, and after a moment, he took it and let her pull him to his feet.
No one said a word as they walked away.
* * *
AFTER A WHILE, in the rumpled bed of the cabin they shared, Shapiro turned to look at him. The sheen of her sweat, reflecting the banked light of the oil lamp hanging on the wall, was like a pale bioluminescence outlining the sharp planes of her face.
“I saw Kait before,” she said.
He shrugged. “Night like this, you trip over everybody.”
“I don’t care about everybody,” she said.
Or anybody, Malcolm thought. Excepting me, possibly.
“I’m talking about Kait. Did you tell her?”
Now Malcolm was silent.
She grimaced. “What, are you hoping we sink before we get there?”
Still he didn’t speak.
“Malcolm, just don’t wait too long.”
After a moment he nodded. And, though she was still frowning, she didn’t push any further, just rolled over onto her back and looked up at the ceiling. With her scowl, her spiky gray hair, sharp jaw, and beaky nose, she resembled nothing so much as some powerful soothsayer out of a storybook.
Malcolm knew she was most likely right. He needed to be honest with Kait.
Just . . . not yet.
* * *
THEY HADN’T SPOKEN again that night. As he’d watched her, she’d gazed up at the ceiling, her eyes following a small pale gecko that pursued the moths drawn to the lantern light. Then, almost imperceptibly, she’d fallen asleep.
A few minutes later, Malcolm had followed. And that was a big mistake, because the dreams came.
As they always did.
* * *
THE DREAMS OF what he’d seen those early days, those early months, as he headed out in his Piper—the little plane he’d flown all over Africa, and brought to Refugia just days before the Fall—to retrieve all those supplies that the planners had neglected to stock. Or had run out of time to gather. Food, seeds, medicines, clothing. Replacement solar panels to keep the power on a little longer.
Doing essential work, and at the same time—alone among the colonists—seeing the last convulsions of a dying race. The sole witness.
The sole witness and participant.
Malcolm never told anyone, not even Trey, or Mariama, or Shapiro, about everything he’d seen. Everything he’d killed.
Everyone he’d killed.
On his forays, he always tried to lie low. But that didn’t always work, and sometimes he was noticed.
And being noticed meant killing. Killing whoever got in his way as he sought the supplies that would keep Refugia alive.
Sometimes this was inevitable: Last-stage hosts in that violent paroxysm that preceded the birth of the thieves within them gave him no choice, and he killed them without a second thought.
But on his first flights, he’d sometimes encounter desperate survivors, possibly even uninfected. People, humans, who’d seen or heard his airplane approach and hoped it represented salvation.
If there were too many clustered below, he wouldn’t land, and often enough he returned to Refugia empty-handed. But if he was already on the ground, and someone saw him, made to come up to him, it didn’t matter what they looked like or what they said, or how they begged, or even how old they were.
He was good with a gun, and no one ever got close enough to harm him.
But there hadn’t been that many left even at the start, and each time he ventured out there were fewer. On the last flights he took on the Piper before it was grounded forever, he saw no one.
But that didn’t stop him from dreaming about what he’d done, what he’d had to do. And what might still be out there.
And it was still one of the reasons he’d built that fucking boat. To find out for sure, either way.
* * *
AND . . . CHLOE.
The other reason that Malcolm had built that fucking boat. The most important reason.
Chloe, who’d shared a villa with him a stone’s throw from Shela Beach on Lamu Island just off the coast of Kenya. Chloe, whom he’d invited, pleaded with, ordered to come to Refugia, in those final unstable days and weeks when the Last World dangled for one final time over the precipice.
But Chloe had refused. She’d laughed at him, at his intensity, the look in his eyes. “Since when,” she’d said, in that tone so much like his, “have a bunch of fucking bugs been able to get your pants in such a knot?”
Then, because she loved him, she softened. “This is my home,” she’d said. “Whatever happens to the world, I’m not leaving.”
He kept trying, but he knew from that moment it was useless. And up until the very end, she—like so many others—hadn’t truly believed. Like so many others who’d known of its existence, she’d considered Refugia’s residents little more than a doomsday cult, and the colony itself another Georgetown or Waco.
So eventually he gave up, and instead he brought her the vaccine, and insisted she start taking it and keep doing so after he left. As there were few thieves on Lamu—in the weeks leading up to the assault that overthrew the Last World, there seemed to be few thieves anywhere—she didn’t take this seriously either, but it was a promise she could easily keep. Or promise to keep, at least.
He also brought cuttings of the vine that produced the vaccine and planted them in the shaded garden behind the villa. Neither the soil nor the weather was a close match for the plant’s rain-forest home, but the vine was hardy, and it did seem to be growing well, and even producing flowers before it was time for him to leave.
Again Malcolm insisted, pleaded, this time that she tend to the plants. Make the vaccine. Keep herself safe, and others as well.
Chloe had laughed.
“Fuck it all,” he said finally. “Tell me you will, or I’m never going to shut up.”
She’d thrown her hands in the air in mock horror. “Heaven forbid,” she’d said. “I will!”
* * *
CHLOE. TALL AND angular, with dark-blond hair and a strong jaw and fierce blue eyes, and freckles and an abrupt way of speaking that brooked no disagreement.
Chloe. Twenty-three years old the last time Malcolm had seen her. Twenty-three still, in his dreams.
Chloe. His daughter.
KAIT STOOD ON the deck of the Trey Gilliard, looking back toward shore. The ship was ready to go—she was ready to go—but about half of the crew still lingered on the beach, unwilling to tear themselves away.
Half of the crew of twenty-eight. That meant almost exactly one in every ten residents of Refugia would soon be sailing over the horizon and out of reach. Kait didn’t share the reluctance of those exchanging last words, last hugs, but she understood it.
Malcolm had told her that back during what they called the Age of Sail in the Last World, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such partings were routine. Hundreds of ships like this one crisscrossed the oceans, some carrying goods, other seeking to explore—and exploit—unknown lands, still others seeking scientific knowledge.
And always some were left behind. It was hardest for them, Kait thought. You stood onshore, waving good-bye, and you knew it would likely be years before you saw your friends, your family, again.
Years or never . . . and you had to live each day without ever being certain which it was. For all you knew, and it must have happened often enough in reality, the ship whose return you were awaiting had sunk a week out of port, with the loss of all hands.
Only when a certain amount of time had passed—how long was that? Two years? Five?—would the likely truth begin to sink in. But even then, you would have always wondered, and there must have been a few times at least when people returned years and years after they’d been given up for dead.
During the ten years that Kait had lived in the Last World, the idea of anyone’s being out of touch for more than about an hour was the sheerest fantasy. (Her school friends with cell phones had hated to let ten minutes pass without saying, “I’m here!” to somebody.)
But now they were back in the past again, everyone, with the old rules in force. Back in force for good, Kait guessed, and soon enough there would be no one left who remembered that it had ever been any different.
It was a beautiful morning, the high blue sky above, a fresh breeze snapping at the canvas. A beautiful day to sail, and Kait felt like she’d been waiting forever. But if others wanted to delay a little longer, she guessed she could, too.
Still, she didn’t have to watch. So she turned away, walked past Dylan Connell—the first mate—and a few other crew members, and headed belowdecks to her cabin.
* * *
KAIT THOUGHT THERE had been plenty of time for farewells the night before.
Ceremonies and speeches and a party that had gone on almost all night. Scheduled events and casual interactions spreading everywhere but centered around the main plaza, where someone had built a little wooden stage for the proceedings.
Lots of speeches. Kait, at the periphery of the large milling crowd, listened as the head of Refugia’s elected council, Steve Francis—an architect who had helped design the colony—gave the official bon voyage. It was dull enough to make Kait realize that not every old habit had been left in the Last World.
She listened more carefully to Nick Albright, who on the night the world fell had helped Malcolm fly the plane carrying Trey, Kait, and others here. Nick’s speech was interesting, a detailed description reminding everyone staying in Refugia how safe and secure they would be, even with Malcolm and so many others gone.
Malcolm spoke next, commanding as always in his shaggy-haired, hawklike way. Standing on the stage, a glass of something in his hand, he made jokes, cursed without caring who was listening, and in general acted like a fierce-eyed prophet, as he always did.
He described their plans aboard the Trey Gilliard, the time frames he envisioned, and where they hoped to drop anchor to undertake their explorations on land. No one in Refugia had a greater knowledge of the African continent than he did, or had traveled across it more widely when such travel was possible.
Listening, Kait was beginning to understand that every speech had an agenda beyond the actual words being spoken. Malcolm’s agenda, his true meaning, was simple: I’m smart. I’m strong. I know what I’m doing.
It may be years, but I will bring these people back home, safe.
The last to speak—and the only one Kait made sure to hear—was Mariama.
Mariama Honso, perhaps the single most important figure in Refugia’s brief history. One of the colony’s founders, before even Trey and Sheila knew it existed. The one who’d taught them that human survival depended on the vaccine—and also on gathering experts, from physicians and biochemists to architects and glassblowers, and bringing them to live close to the vaccine’s source.
Mariama had voyaged across the world, risking her life and suffering months of imprisonment, in order to reach Trey and tell him of her plans. Thus she became the one person most responsible for Kait’s own survival as well.
Nor had her role diminished after the Fall. Although never allowing herself to be elected to any official post, Mariama’s strength and determination had helped carry Refugia through its early, hungry, disease-ridden years. She always had a purpose, even if it was just finding the next meal, and she always inspired others to persevere as well.
Most people had thought that Mariama would leap at the chance to head off on the Trey Gilliard, but she’d chosen to stay behind. To stay onshore and wave good-bye to the departing ship and many of the people she loved the most.
Her speech was short and characteristically blunt. No hidden agendas for her. Watching her, Kait marveled once again that this short, gray-haired woman could be so strong, wield so much power.
“It’s going to be hard for us,” she told the others who were going to be staying behind. “Harder than you all think.”
She paused for a moment. “But we’ll get through,” she said. “We always have, and we will again.”
Someone in the crowd shouted out, “Do you promise, Mom?”
Everyone laughed, but Mariama didn’t smile.
“I promise,” she said.
* * *
THE INSIDE OF the ship smelled like fresh-cut wood and shellac and oiled iron and human sweat, overlaid by whatever Esteban and Fiona, the ship’s cooks, were preparing for the first meal on their voyage.
If they ever began voyaging.
Most of the crew would be sleeping in shifts in hammocks strung in one of two dormitories in the center of the ship, but a few had been given private cabins: Kait, Clare Shapiro, Fatou Konte, and Malcolm, the captain. Kait’s place in the hierarchy had been determined, she thought, by her place in Refugia’s history, not by anything she’d done.
Excerpted from "Slavemakers"
Copyright © 2015 Joseph Wallace.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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