by Morgan Dawn & Justine Bennett


“Every generation thinks it has the answers, and every generation is humbled by nature.”


Chapter 1: The Empty Road  

“Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,

 Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands, 

Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.” 

 —Alfred, Lord Tennyson  


     “Hey, Benny, you know what the best part of this whole wilderness experience is?”

     “What, Ray?”

     “Going home.”

     Ray, in the lead for this section of the trail, shifted his pack straps and took a deep breath. It was actually a lovely morning. The trail was reasonably level and dry, the mosquitoes had, thank God, thinned in number to mere occasional annoyances, and the air was still summer-warm. He imagined that he could actually smell the difference between the spruces and the firs among the green and spicy scents. Not that he could tell them apart. But something in the air seemed to have a direct connection to his sense of well-being. And if he felt this good, he could just imagine how Fraser must be feeling.

     “Ray, you don't really mean that,” came Fraser's voice from behind him, with only the slightest trace of reproach.

     “Yes, I do. After six weeks out here, even your old neighborhood in Chicago is going to look luxurious. You know, it'll be like the feeling you get when you stop beating your head against a wall.” Ray resisted the temptation to look back and see Fraser's reaction.

     “I think it's been a very pleasant month already,” Fraser said stoutly, as Ray knew he would. Fraser picked up the pace, forcing Ray to speed up in turn. They had been playing this form of tag all morning. Even without looking back, Ray could picture Fraser perfectly. The bright red flannel would be peeking out from under his open jacket. His tousled brown hair and his well-browned face with its open look would present the image of a man perfectly content and at home.

     Fraser nipped at his heels again. “Only you, Fraser,” Ray announced to the empty path in front of him. “Only you would consider sleeping on rocks, communing with bugs, and eating stuff from unknown food groups as pleasant. Not to mention the joy of home construction in the middle of the howling wilderness. Other people go to gyms when they want a little healthy exercise, they don't travel three thousand miles to go and chop down trees to do it.”

     Ray swung under an overhanging snag, neatly gauging the space needed for his pack to clear. The trail had entered another washout and gone steep and stony underfoot. Ray slowed, rock-hopping down the polished granite boulders. He could hear Fraser behind him, negotiating the terrain with somewhat less noise and effort.

     “It was your idea, Ray.”

     “It was my idea three, no, four years ago now. I didn't think it would become our life's work every summer. At this rate we'll still be rebuilding at the end of the next millennium.”

     “Well, if you really prefer to sleep outside we could always stop.” Fraser's voice held just the right touch of patient long-suffering. “It probably won't snow quite so heavily this winter as last and most of the rafters aren't sagging too much. At least, not the ones we've stripped the shingles off. And I'm sure the outhouse is still perfectly functional.”

     Ray smiled to himself, and then stomped deliberately through the boggy spot at the foot of the slope they had just descended, raising a cloud of late-season bugs. Diefenbaker, having decided that the two men were going to be at this for a while, trotted stiffly on ahead, carefully choosing the easiest path on the uneven ground.

     “Inside, outside, when you're this far from civilization it hardly makes a difference where you sleep,” Ray said, beginning to let himself exaggerate a little. “Your privacy can still be invaded at any moment by winged and four‑footed wildlife. At least in Chicago the only kind of wildlife we have to worry about is out running around on the streets where it belongs. And when you want a meal you don't have to do the Daniel Boone routine with a bowie knife, you just hit the fast food joints; and when you want to go somewhere you can drive, instead of doing it the slow, scenic, and painful way on foot.”

     “I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't realize you were still so out of shape. Do you want to rest for a while?” There was a definite note of teasing glee in Fraser's voice. Ray mentally kicked himself for letting his rhetoric get away from him. Point to Fraser.

     “No, no, not unless you do. I am anticipating that cup of coffee at the general store way too much to stop now. This time we're gonna get twice the usual coffee supply. I don't want to go through another week again of caffeine withdrawal.”

     “Well, you know, Ray, there are several shrubs in the forest here that make perfectly adequate coffee substitutes. The leaves of ephedra make a very stimulating tea and I believe the roots of the kinickinick, when dried, have a flavor similar to coffee, though I admit I've never tried it.”

     “Just keep it up, Fraser. You're making the big city look more appealing by the minute.”

     They walked along for a while in companionable silence. It had been a good idea to take such a long vacation this year, Ray thought. Total absence of anything remotely resembling police work, or undercover work, or consulate work; plenty of opportunities for complaining and teasing and being teased as they stretched their competencies in the chores of rebuilding; time to try to re-establish and re-tune their friendship; time to get the world in proper perspective, before returning to the violence, speed, danger, and sordid tedium of their professional lives. Another couple of weeks of this, and Ray knew he might half regret leaving it behind for the real world.

     As for what Fraser felt, well, that was a little harder. He was always happy to return home to the Yukon , but it was clear to Ray that that happiness was still darkened with yearning, and probably would be until the day came, if it ever did, when he was recalled home for duty. But Fraser's critics in the Territorial RCMP still blocked his return. Each success at the consulate made it only more certain that the only way his career could advance now was in administration. And that meant, if anything, another city, another desk job, and Fraser's slow, progressive transformation into just another desk-bound bureaucrat.

     What a horrible vision.

     But for the moment Fraser seemed happy as a clam. A particularly apt expression for him, Ray thought, stealing a glance over his shoulder, since Fraser was usually about as expressive as the average mollusk. But there was more eagerness in his eyes and freedom in his movements than he ever showed in Chicago . He could only imagine what Fraser could see and understand of the forest and mountains around them that Ray couldn't. Fraser caught his eye and quirked the corner of his mouth in what passed for him as a grin.

     “I really think you're being a bit hard on the wildlife, Ray,” he said, picking up the argument. “I don't think that chipmunk meant to bite you when you tried to feed it—”

     “See, that's just what I mean.” Ray didn't miss a beat. “Back home you wouldn't have chipmunks barging through the windows and panhandling in your kitchen. And remember the wolves howling that we heard last night?” Ray was glad Fraser couldn't see the growing glee on his face.

     “Well Ray, you have to admit that's an experience that Chicago can't match.”

     “I wouldn't want it to. I don't need to go all the way to the armpit of the North to see nature red in tooth and claw. Don't you think that cranked-out junkies screaming abuse and shooting random Joes for twenty bucks for the next hit bear a striking resemblance to the wild?”

     “Not at all, Ray. You have a common misconception about the nature of wolves. They are not vicious, pointless killers, they are highly cooperative, intensely social animals, with a community structure that optimizes survival for the maximum number.”

     Ray made a vaguely skeptical sound, preoccupied by picking his way down a steep bouldery bit. Fraser, naturally, chose to take that for encouragement.

     “The entire pack is organized around ensuring sufficient food for the breeding pair and their pups, the alpha pair, as they are called, and around minimizing social stress between the pack members, because the individual wolf cannot reliably survive in this harsh environment.”

     “Harsher than the streets of Chicago ?”

     “Much harsher. Only in a pack are they able to hunt and kill enough large prey to survive. And each wolf knows its place and function in the hierarchy. The alpha leads the hunt and gets first feeding at the kill; the beta mediates between the other wolves, almost like a policeman, if you will.”

     “A place for everyone and everyone in his place. Nature must abhor a democracy.”

     “Even the lowest rank, the omega wolf, is important. He is not only a scapegoat for aggression, protected against abuse by the beta wolf, but also serves the function of breaking societal barriers in encouraging the pack to play. You know play is one of the signs of an evolved species—”

     Fraser was really warming to his subject, and showing all the signs of wandering off into other, even more tangential fields. Ray ruthlessly nipped him in the bud.

     “Fraser, do I look like I care about the social lives of wolves?”

     “Well, I don't know, Ray, as I can't see your expression...”

     “Trust me, I do not look interested. The only wolf whose social life interests me is Diefenbaker, and that's because it coincides with mine, especially the lazing around and mooching jelly donuts part.”

     “Ah, but Diefenbaker is only part wolf. And five years in Chicago seem to have dulled his wolfish instincts somewhat. Still, I'm sure that he would know what to do if ever he returned to the wild.”

     “Yeah, get some other dumb wolf to do all the work for him.”

     As if hearing his name, Diefenbaker turned around and trotted back, with a pathetically lolling tongue and a considerably more exaggerated limp than he'd displayed five minutes previously. Fraser got out a treat from his pocket and Dief snapped it up.

     “I'm afraid so.”

     The wolf looked inquisitively at Ray, who made a show of keeping his hands well away from his pockets. Dief snuffled in disappointment and went back to ambling along beside the two men.

     “He's moving a lot slower these days, isn't he?”

     “Well, he's over ten years old. That's approaching old age for a wolf. And the fact that he's spent the last five years in Chicago hasn't helped his fitness at all.”

     “He's just disappointed that out here we have to get places the slow way on foot, instead of sitting in the back seat and letting me drive. And have I told you that I'll never forgive you for letting the Riv blow up that third time?”

     “Yes, Ray. About five hundred and eighty-seven times, so far.”

     “Oh. Well, just so long as you're counting.”

     “Somebody has to,” Fraser muttered, but Ray pretended not to hear.

     Ray paused and glanced back at Fraser. The trail was ending and Ray was feeling generous, so he stepped aside to let Fraser pass.

     The trail looped one last time, angling sharply down to the highway. Well, actually it was a road. Chicago had highways. Canada —well, southern Canada —had highways, if one wanted to be charitable. The Yukon had crumbling roads. Ray stepped roughly onto the pavement and grunted in irritation. His legs were tired and his thigh muscles sent tight complaints through his lower back. Not that he'd ever admit it.

     Fraser was scanning up and down the road. “I wonder if we can find out what's happened to the road crew? They were supposed to have fixed that washout weeks ago.” Fraser sighed. “I suppose I'll have to get Carey to drop a couple truckloads of gravel for me. Dad used to do it every other year.”

     Ray groaned theatrically. “And are they going to spread the gravel? No, of course not. That's for the idiots in the only cabin up the road, who have nothing better to do every summer than find more ways to do other people's work for them.”

     As they headed up the road Fraser commented, “Quiet, isn't it?” They had been walking for almost twenty minutes, and not a single car had gone by.

     Ray sighed. “Never thought I'd say it, but it's kinda nice without the RVs barreling by. Even if it means we can't get a lift.”

     “Hmm. This time of year they're usually like a herd of starving caribou hurtling south.”

     “Well, I guess there's a road break somewhere. Must be why the road crew isn't working on ours.”


     Another few minutes passed while they walked side by side. Insects buzzed in the cotton grass that filled the drainage cuts with white fluff. “Okay, I can tell you're listening to something. What?”

     “Nothing, Ray. Everything's just so—normal.”

     “Nothing wrong with normal. I'm all for normal. Normal is what civilization is all about.”

     This far north, even the midday sun slanted in the sky, glinting brightness off Fraser's dark hair, highlighting the worn denim and leather and flannel. Here in his native country, even grunge favored him, Ray thought, with more admiration than envy. “So, Fraser, why did your Dad build so far from the road? It'd make the resupply so much easier to be closer in. Not to mention cheaper.”

     Fraser's head turned slightly as he scanned the trees. His voice skipped backward, fading in and out between the sounds of Ray's boots kicking gravel. “Well, actually, the distance is quite right. Close enough for a one‑day trip there. Far enough—”

     “Far enough to forget the neighbors. Yeah, I know, Fraser. Only you'd think that twenty-five miles is a reasonable neighborly distance.” Ray shifted the backpack as he adjusted to the leveling path. “And of course mountains just don't factor into this neighborly distance, do they?”

     Fraser turned his head forward and Ray pressed ahead to catch his reply. “These aren't mountains, Ray. They're just foothills to the Mackenzie range.”

     Ray grinned, keeping his mouth shut. He trod closer to Fraser, egging the pace along. He really needed that coffee.

     He was glad to see the first buildings edge into view. Carey Klafter's Blue Heron Café was just a general store and eatery, but to Ray it had the allure of civilization. It even had a neon “Open” sign. And it sold the only coffee, gas, and propane for seventy miles.

     The “town” scrunched next to the café, a few cabins and a small motel, and the open field across the road that was kept cleared for a landing strip. Someone had planted quick-growing summer vegetables among the fireweed where the gravel shoulder petered out. Ray stepped past a zucchini the size of a small car with amusement. Everything was big in the Yukon .

     The empty road curved away from them toward the café, then back out again into the distance. Fraser crossed without pausing and Ray hurried to catch up. Fraser had kept moving, his shoulders bunching as he increased speed.

     What's his hurry? Ray thought. The town was quiet, no one in sight. The sunlight, falling in the midday haze, softened the weathered wood and peeling paint of the storefront. The café's neon “Open” sign hung there in the window, dark and unlit. Carey's going to be pissed it's not working. He just bought that thing. Said it'd draw truckers like bugs at night.

     Fraser clumped up the café steps quickly, pausing at the top. Ray stopped at the bottom, automatically scraping the mud off his boots, while Diefenbaker trotted back and forth along the frontage, nose to ground. Fraser stood on the porch, scanning the mountains behind them with a puzzled air. Diefenbaker, having found a scent of major interest, took off around the side.

     Something wasn't right. Ray could feel it now, that cop's sense that the pieces were out of order. It pricked him between the shoulder blades and made him move a little quicker, lighter on his feet. He wished automatically for his gun, then tried to shake the feeling away. This was Canada , for God's sake.

     “I don't see it, Fraser. Just more mountains, same as last month.”

     “That's not it, Ray. It's something¼” Fraser shook his head and turned abruptly into the café. Ray lurched forward, catching the screen door before it slammed.

     The store was cool and dark, unusually dark. And quiet.

     Ray stopped sharply, his inner voice flaring. Fraser's tense movements showed the same awareness. Ray watched Fraser's silent motion behind the counter.

     Scanning right, then left. No lights. The cash register was dark. “Power outage,” he breathed in discovery. Fraser nodded, still alert. “Probably all through town.”

     Fraser carefully eased out of his pack and leaned it against the wooden counter. Ray followed suit, shrugging his muscles loose and ready.

     “Mr. Klafter?” Fraser called, leaning over the counter to get a view into the back rooms. After a moment, Fraser walked around behind the counter and called again through the door. Fraser turned and looked directly at Ray. His mouth was taut, his face floating palely above his flannel shirt. He looked almost ghostly in the dim silence. It really was quiet, even for such a small town.

     Moving loudly, he stamped to the counter. Carey's latest toy was still sitting where Ray had left it after their last visit: a plastic outhouse with the words “Charity Piggy Bank.” Can't believe I let a man named Klafter fool me with this thing. Ray fished out a penny from his jeans pocket and slid it into the piggy bank.

     The outhouse exploded with a loud crack!, pieces scattering to reveal a butt-naked occupant caught mid-stream. Ray snickered and knelt to pick up a loose piece.

     “Ray—” he heard Fraser whisper and glanced back over his shoulder. Carey Klafter stood shadowed in the doorway, the light spilling around him like a halo. Diefenbaker slunk around his feet and took up a watchful position in front of the counter. Fraser whispered to Dief and Ray focused more closely. Carey's shoes were covered with mud up to his ankles. Blinking, Ray rose to his feet. Actually, Carey was covered in mud. His face was blank, his eyes closed. He stood, rooted, his upper torso shaking, hands clutching a dirt-encrusted shovel. It banged against his right knee rhythmically.

     Ray's hand shot to his waist in a reflexive grab for the gun he did not carry. Keeping his hands low, he signaled over his left shoulder to Fraser with his chin.

     Fraser nodded once. “Hello, Carey,” he said softly. “We wanted to pick up a few supplies but were having some difficulty locating the red beans. Could you show them to us?”

     The shovel kept banging rhythmically. Carey's bearded face was pale, his black hair matted. Ray felt his chest tighten. He inched closer on Carey's left. Fraser kept talking: “And Ray's been asking for more coffee. Do you still have that Nicaraguan blend?”

Carey's mouth finally moved, his voice paler than his face. “Couldn't wait to bury her. It still gets warm during the day.”

     Ray and Fraser exchanged glances. Ray swallowed and moved closer. “Where's Rose, Cary ? We brought some late-season blackberries for her. The ones she likes.”

     Carey's mumbling increased in speed. “I told her we'd be fine. We're safe here, I said. No matter what caused the power to go out, silenced the radios, deadened the phones—we're safe here.” His right leg began jerking stiffly in counterpoint to the shovel. Ray angled further to the left, eyes fixed on Carey's hands. Always watch the hands, he remembered. Safer bet than the eyes.

     He was almost close enough when Fraser spoke again. “Well, I guess we can do without the beans and coffee for now. But we'll need some more flour. That's an essential building block—”

     Ray had tensed to reach out when Carey's voice exploded. “But Lavelle—Tom, the pilot—he decided to fly into Whitehorse to see what was up. When he came back he landed right here on the road. Didn't even make it to the strip. Not surprising—there was blood everywhere. From his mouth, his skin, his eyes. But God, oh God, he was still alive. Bleeding everywhere and he was still moving. And talking. Kept saying, over and over: they're dead. They're all dead.”

     Carey choked, tears running down his bearded face. Ray kept still.

     “Rose—Rose—she wanted to leave. Said it was too dangerous. I told her we'd be fine. No need to run to a place where we'd only be strangers. But then Barry died that night. Bled to death in his own kitchen. His wife Essen died the next day. By the end of the night they all bled.”

     He paused, staring straight into Ray's face, awareness unfolding in his eyes like a crumpled piece of paper. “You can't stop the bleeding once it starts. Rose only had a nosebleed. She used to get those before. A little ice, pinch the nose, and it'd stop.”

     “And this one didn't,” Fraser said gently, moving around the end of the counter next to Ray.

     Carey's hands stilled. The shovel's point clunked gently on the floor.

     “This one did. We were fine. Just like I told her. We were fine. Everybody else was gone but us. I told her we'd leave in the morning.” His voice became thick with tears. “And when I woke this morning, I found this.”

     He reached out with his left hand, a note clenched tightly in his fingers. Fraser eased it gently from him, his arm resting around Carey's shoulder. Ray took the shovel out of the other hand, holding it out of reach. His chest hurt and he forced himself to breathe.

     Fraser's lips moved silently and then he handed the note to Ray. “Come on over here, Carey, let's sit you down.” Tugging, Fraser shifted the man into a shambling, wide-legged walk. Ray stood in the pale light, dust flowering in the air, his throat closing as he read the note.

     Carey—It's not fine. It will never be fine again. We've unleashed hell and can never go back. I can't wait for it to eat away at me. I love you dearly. Don't wait too long.

     Love, Rose.

     Ray raised his eyes to the sweat-stained man moving hesitantly toward the back rooms, shepherded by Fraser. He breathed once, deeply. Then again. Oh, God, he thought. It must be contagious. He threw the shovel and note away with both hands and rubbed them on his jeans. How was it transmitted? Could it be airborne? What was the latency period? What was it?

     Oh, God, Fraser had touched Carey. Fraser's hands had touched the sweat-and mud-soaked shoulder. He had to get them away from here. To someplace safe.

     His boots echoed loudly through the store. He ran around the counter, crunching plastic pieces. The back rooms were littered with clothing, suitcases, and shoes. Stumbling, he heard Fraser before he saw him: “Close your eyes and rest. We'll take care of you.”

     “Why?” Carey's voice was thick with tears. Ray paused in the doorway. The windows faced west, casting a reddish glow over Fraser kneeling beside Carey's bed. He held a limp hand, tucking it gently under a blanket.

     “Why what, Carey?”

     “Why take care of me? It'll be over soon. Why bother? Why bother with any of it?”

     Fraser sighed. His eyes, charred with sadness, were abstract, distant. “It's what we do, Carey. Now rest.” Carey closed his eyes tightly and curled himself on his side, tense and motionless. Fraser crouched watchfully beside the bed. Carey lay like that for only a few minutes, until exhaustion tricked him into sleep. Fraser rocked back on his heels and closed the nightstand drawer. Then he pulled an empty bottle off the nightstand, tossing it to Ray. Holding the bottle up to the fading light, Ray read its label: digitalis.

     “If she took these—”

     Fraser shook his head, motioning them both into the hall. Diefenbaker remained in the bedroom, lying on the rag rug by the bedside like a watchful sphinx. Fraser pulled the bedroom door halfway shut. “If she took them, then she died quickly.” Fraser took the bottle back, rolling it between his fingers, his face brittle, cold and white as bone, unseeing.

     “I don't believe it,” Ray said fiercely. “It's crazy. Carey's gone nuts from his wife's suicide and imagined the whole thing.” He put all the conviction he could into his voice, willing Fraser to agree with him.

     “I don't think so, Ray. A mass epidemic explains a lot: the emptiness, the lack of power, the absence of traffic. We need to see if anyone else is still around, what information they might have, and find the evidence of what's happened.” The sad look was gone. Fraser's voice was decisive and calm, though a little too quick.

     “Okay, fine, I'm on it.” Ray couldn't wait to get out of the claustrophobic back rooms, out into somewhere cleaner and alive.

     “Ray, wait.” Fraser's voice sounded oddly muffled in the hallway. Concerned, Ray turned back. Fraser's silhouette had faded in the gloom. The faint ticking of a clock, the wind whistling though the front door, and his harsh breathing filled the silence. “I think you should go straight to the post office. If any phone line is still up, it'll be that one.”

     Ray frowned. “Sure, Benny.”

     “Then maybe the Hensons'. They have a CB, I think.”

     Ray opened his mouth and then closed it. “See you in about an hour, Benny.” Ray reached for the flashlight kept under the stove and clicked it on. Shining the light, he saw the newspaper racks and grabbed a handful.

     They came out of the dark store onto the porch, into the sunlight, and looked out again over the empty road, the silent buildings, and the dark forested hills surrounding it all. Quiet. Not a sound in the still air. Ray held his breath with the intensity of listening. He could hear the soft creak of Fraser's leather jacket, the minute rustle of cloth, the faintest squeak of the floorboards shifting under their weight. But beyond the circle of their bodies there was only a vast dumbness.

     “Christ, Benny,” Ray muttered. “Jesus Christ.” He heard his breathing increase, could feel his legs tremble.

     Fraser pressed his hand to Ray's shoulder and let it lie there, a link of stability and permanence. “We don't know anything yet, Ray. They could all have fled.”

     Ray nodded, grateful for the solid feel of Fraser, the press of him along his side, the direct gaze. “Right. What you don't know will hurt you. Right.” He spun his fear and anger into his words, felt the flush of adrenaline clearing his thinking. “Okay. We'll start the door‑to‑door. But let's assume Carey's right. That makes this a fatality without survivors or witnesses.”

     “And neither of us are trained in forensics, and the crucial evidence of the origin could be far away. As least as far as Whitehorse .”

     “That's if Carey was right about Lavelle being the first. So there might be a mention in the newspapers of the beginnings of unexplained illness.” Ray's brain was working again, going through the familiar stages of talking out a case strategy with Fraser. The vertigo receded.

     “Who's got a radio or TV?” Fraser spoke abruptly, washing away the last of Ray's fuzziness.

     “Right. I'll check the radios and phones again. Maybe the problems have cleared up.” Ray pushed away, eager to have clear directions. Fraser strode off in the opposite direction, toward the small clustering of cabins near the road. His eyes flicked back and forth in constant watch for any sign of movement.

     Ray crossed the road to the cabin that doubled as post office, campground office, and airstrip terminal. A couple of RVs were parked in the back. The Canadian flag hung limp over the door. The tiny shack, hardly bigger than a mailbox, was usually crowded with people arranging deliveries, or storing supplies, or just shooting the breeze with Essen and Barry. It didn't take more than a glance to show the room was empty. The bodies weren't here. Ray felt relieved, and then embarrassed. He was a cop. Bodies didn't faze him.

     The phone was dead. Ray poked behind the tiny desk and found a mailbag, not even unsealed. Inside, the letters' postmarks were all over two weeks old.

     Out the back door the illusion of normality was abruptly lost. On the edge of the gravel RV lot was a large blackened patch, where someone had apparently been burning garbage. As Ray drew nearer a small breeze picked up, carrying a sickly garbage smell as of a rancid barbecue. A couple of the ubiquitous ravens flew up and landed in the trees just behind the lot, their croaks breaking the silence as nerve-shatteringly as a sonic boom.

     Ray didn't need to go closer. He could see the bodies now, charred but still grotesquely recognizable as human. It was a lot more difficult than most people thought to reduce a body to ash, and even soaking the corpses in aviation fuel hadn't raised the heat high enough to do more than consume the clothing, hair, and skin. There were at least a half dozen, probably more, but Ray had no intention of going close enough to count. The barbecue smell was making him gag. He started to skirt the edge of the burn, startling a coyote preoccupied with gnawing on something.

     “Get away! Get! Get out of here!” Ray yelled, but the coyote just looked at him, then unhurriedly trotted off into the trees.

     Ray knew he should check out the RVs, but just at this moment he didn't think he could. He went back around the front of the post office and pulled a few more newspapers from the rack. The breeze was picking up and the flag overhead flapped at tired intervals. He sat on the steps and began skimming the papers. Weather, local sports, inept politicians. He checked the date. The paper was three weeks old. Tossing it aside, he sorted for a more recent date.

     “Flu-like outbreak” floods emergency room with patients. This one, from the Vancouver Sun, was dated fifteen days ago. He kept digging.

     “Flu” more serious than originally reported. Authorities investigating. Curfews and health advisories will be announced this afternoon. He could not find any later news.

     Reading the newspapers again for greater detail he discovered that the “flu” had been detected on the eastern seaboard first, spreading west and north. Early reports also indicated that Europe and Asia had been equally affected. International updates were difficult to come by due to an unprecedented travel and media clamp‑down. Within Canada , early reports downplayed the symptoms, vaguely described as “increased temperature, followed by a coma, and possible blood loss.” Ray snorted. Blood loss didn't seem to begin describing it.

     He kept reading. Disease is characterized as highly contagious. He checked the date. This was the last report, from the Whitehorse Gazette. He leafed determinedly through the rest of the papers, Edmonton, Vancouver, Fairbanks, Anchorage, but he could not find anything more specific. He was not the only reader who must have been alarmed by this news. The authorities, anticipating a panic, had closed major roads, to prevent wide-scale evacuation.

     He dropped the papers. He knew what that meant. He thought of his colleagues, holding the barricades back. You could not hold back a city of half a million. In Chicago it would have been worse, three million panicked citizens and every one of them and their brother with a gun.

     The gunshot reverberated across the dusty road, slicing into his awareness. He scrambled for the flashlight and sprinted to the store. As he slid into the hallway, he slowed, training and instinct extinguishing the flashlight. Crouching low, he called softly, “Fraser?” He waited a few seconds and then edged closer to the partially open bedroom door: “Fraser?”

     “It's all right, Ray. You can come in.”

     Still cautious, he stepped into the dark room, keeping a low profile. He could barely make out Fraser. But the smell of cordite and blood was unmistakable.

     “Are you...?” he asked, still holding the unlit flashlight.

     “I'm fine.” Fraser spoke slowly, distantly.

     Ray flicked on the light and scanned the room. Carey had half-fallen off the bed. Blood dripped from his skull, pooling on the wood floor. Ray swung the light in circles, looking for the gun.

     “Where did he get it?” he wondered aloud. Then he saw the opened nightstand drawer and nodded. “Right. I guess we should have checked before we left him alone.”

     Fraser stood quietly in the middle of the room, holding the revolver firmly in his hand. With a smooth motion, he released the trigger guard and put the weapon back in the drawer. “I did check.”

     “Hey, he could have kept it under his pillow, for all we know. You can't keep a man from killing himself. Not out here, anyway.” Ray picked up the blanket and covered the body. “Come on, let's get some air.” He moved toward the door, pulling Fraser in his wake. He thought he could see an unfamiliar expression flicking across Fraser's face, but it was too dark to be sure. “Come on, Fraser,” he urged, uneasy in this dark room filled with the smell of blood.

     The long afternoon twilight stretched around them, peppered with the faint chirps of the last surviving insects. Fall was approaching and the air had become biting. Suddenly tired, Ray slumped on the porch steps and leaned into his knees. “So...” he said.

     Fraser did not answer. He slowly rolled down his sleeves, buttoning them and smoothing the fabric. His face was unreadable.

     “The motel was empty, cleaned out. It looks like only the Klafters stayed behind,” he said at last.

     “The RV park is empty too—I guess when it got here they all took off.” Fraser must have caught something in Ray's voice, and turned to look at him with a clear-eyed acceptance that made it easier somehow. Ray went on, “There's a pile of bodies on the edge of the airstrip. Someone must have collected them and tried to burn them. Didn't do too good of a job.”

     “How many?” Fraser asked thinly.

     “I don't know. Not enough to account for everyone who lives here.”

     “I found a government quarantine notice on the motel door, listing the symptoms and ordering three weeks' isolation, but not suggesting any treatment.”

     Ray tried again. “The papers weren't much help. Whatever it is, it's big. Worldwide.” He looked up at Fraser, standing still in the dimness. “And contagious.” He felt his remaining strength flowing out into the emptiness.

     “The symptoms described sound like a type of hemorrhagic fever, but more virulent. Almost as if it were artificially enhanced. It could be a variant of Lassa, or Ebola, or dengue, or¼

     “Oh, shut up, Fraser! Just shut up!” Ray yelled, all patience with Fraser long forgotten. “It doesn't matter. We don't know how it's transmitted or incubated; even corpses could still be infectious. Shit, shit, shit! We're probably dying already.”

     “It'll be fine, Ray.” Fraser kept staring into the distance, scanning the dark.

     “No, it won't, Benny. We're cut off, we don't know the incubation period, and we don't know if there's any hope of outside contact. Or help.”

     The silence stretched between them, magnifying the tension. Ray let it build and then forced himself to speak: “I want to go home. I want to see my family and hold them and make them safe.” He turned his head toward Fraser's shape. “It's what I do, Fraser. It's what I'm supposed to do.”

     Fraser sighed and then cleared his throat. “I know. We're two hundred miles from Whitehorse , and over three thousand from Chicago . And how much death in between? We have no idea if we can find vehicles, or fuel, and if we have to go on foot, the weather—”

     “It doesn't matter. It's never mattered to you when you had someone to protect.” His jaw was hurting now.

     “I didn't say it didn't matter. Your family matters to me too, Ray. But what if we are contagious? What if they have it contained and we reintroduce it? Or we bring back a mutated version?”

     Ray clenched his fists, the nails biting into his palms. He wasn't thinking clearly. Of course, who would be, but he should have thought of that. “How long until we know?”

     Fraser stepped down, moving carefully around Ray. “Three weeks. One month. How long before we're willing to risk their lives?”

     Ray clamped down again on his knees, forcing himself to think. “You're right. So we keep checking the phone and radio.”

     “Yes.” Fraser sounded relieved. Hard to tell sometimes. Strange how the dark could make you feel closer to someone—an intimate connection of sound and sensation. “And start preparing in case we have to winter here.”

     “Right.” Wintering seemed so remote. They'd know within a few days at most, if Carey was right. Until then, he wouldn't let Fraser down. He could handle this. They could handle it.

     The wind picked up, blowing briskly across the road. Leaves rustled in the darkness, rasping across the pavement, and beneath their trembling chatter, he heard the silence of the dead. Ray leaned his forehead on his knees. “Shit,” he whispered. “Shit.” The porch door banged sharply, rattling loosely in answer. It wouldn't take too much time. Before they had an answer. Before they knew.

On To Chapter Two

Skip To Part Two (Chapter 7)

Back To Morgan Dawn Home Page