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After the Zap
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Because of the very nature of the Zap — the big thermonuclear bomb that had scrambled and rearranged the neurons of everyone’s brains — there was no way of telling what it had taken from them all. The past was a jumbled mass of tantalizing glimpses and agonizing blanks. But the Zap’s gifts were many and varied.
The “Readers” got the rare and often dangerous ability to make sense of the writings of the past…
The “Memors” got perfect recall — of everything they’d heard since the Zap…
The “Bush Punks” got a chance to live free and easy — and die the same way…
The “God Weirders” got religion — if you could call it that…
The “Blimpers” got a purpose — a purpose that could save them, or destroy them all.
Now Holmes, a “Reader, ” was in the perfect position to tip the scales for or against survival — if only he could figure out which side was which.
An Imprint of Warner Books, Inc.
A Warner Communications Company
AFTER THE ZAP. Copyright © 1987 by Michael Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
For information address Warner Books, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
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Hachette Book Group, USA
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First eBook Edition: August 2001
Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com
WE FELL SO FAST I WAS ALMOST WEIGHTLESS
We must have hit a cooler pocket of air, something that made the blimp suddenly drop for a moment; then the air caught us, pitching us about forty-five degrees and sending all of us tumbling to port, our cable spools whirring like fishing reels. Levi's cable went taut, and the eye bolt snapped out of the wall. As he slid toward the opening, he grabbed for the edge of the hatch—and missed.
Kicking out from the bulkhead, my cable spinning behind me, I shot over the gaping hole and made a wild grab for Levi's harness, catching the end of his cable with my right hand. But it whizzed through my fingers, cutting to the bone. Levi flailed his arms, caught the lip of the bay and hung on with his fingertips. I clawed my way to the edge, reached for his wrist and caught him.
My cable whined and I felt like a shark taking the drag to the limit. The wind roared. The blimp pitched again, we swung against the side of the bay, and I felt Levi's grip start to slip...
To my father,
Allan L. Armstrong, M.D.
November 19, 1923–January 21, 1982,
and to my friend,
Michael D. Baring-Gould
May 7, 1937–July 25, 1986
The design of the PRAK flag mentioned in Chapter 5 is based on a design copyright © 1985 by Bill Spear and used with his permission. A pin of this design is available from William Spear Design, 227 Seventh Street, Juneau, AK 99801. Except for this brief mention, the novel is in no way connected with the pin, and use of the design should not be construed as being the only real or official artistic interpretation of the design.
Quotations from The I Ching, Or Book of Changes are taken from the Richard Wilhelm translation, 3rd edition, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Bollingen Series XIX, copyright © 1967 by Princeton University Press, and used with their permission.
"I think that they should put the code [to launch a nuclear attack] in the heart of a child, so Reagan would have to tear it out to use it."
—Petra Kelly, former head of the West German Green Party
She was all punk and plasmatics when I first saw her at the St. Herman's Club. Her Mylar tunic reflected blues and purples and pinks from the neon icon hung over the bar. She was a neon icon herself, dressed in lime green tights, a magenta turtleneck, and fluorescent-orange cowboy boots. Her face was a Maori mask, fine lines drawn on it like fingerprint whorls. Her eyes were made up like cat eyes, and her lips were a bright magenta. She wore a Mepps fishing lure in her left ear and a tiny jade labret in her right cheek.
When she smiled the jade skin plug bobbed up on her cheek and fell into a dimple. Her teeth were clean and even except for a little gap between the front incisors. She wore a fingerless black leather glove on her left hand. Her hair was dyed an azure blue, matching her eyes, and it was arranged in a complicated braid that fell down to her waist.
She held the tip of that blue braid in her left hand and waved it in front of her face, trying to be coy or something. She was coy, all right—like a shark. I gave her a quick glance as I walked by the dance floor, just like I gave the two-tone twins and the gang of albino cruisers a quick glance, but I wasn't lusting after anyone, not just then. I had other things on my mind. I wanted a beer. The St. Herman's was rumored to have a basement full of pre-Zap beer, none of it gut rot. Blue Braid would have to wait. We exchanged electric looks and then I went to get my brains fried.
The St. Herman's Club whirled around me like a slow motion carrousel. It was a club within clubs. At the center was a circular bar, the neon icon of St. Herman glowing beneficent over the crowds. On the carrousel's rim, doors opened up into other rooms that circled slowly around the hub. Every now and then—when the band quit playing and the club got silent for a brief moment, as bars sometimes do—you could hear the crack of whips and the groans of slaves turning the floor of the carrousel down in the basement.
A large arc of the carrousel was taken up by a stage. On the stage a gang of cossacks were froghopping to the house band, Johnny and, the Oosiks. The Oosiks crooned some blues number about a woman named Cordova "who nuked ma heart in two," which impressed me, not because of the song, but the sound; the Oosiks were singing into bone microphones, and the sound shook the walls like a gentle earthquake.
Where the Oosiks had gotten electronics from I didn't know. Maybe Japan. Lots of weird stuff came in from Japan, though the Japs weren't supposed to sell stuff to us in the States. I hadn't seen real electronics since the Zap, since that big thermonuke went off miles up in the sky and fried the world's microchips into little puddles of brown glop. The microphones looked like bones but the sound that came out of them was clear and distinct and strong.
About halfway through the song—at the end of the line, "You fry my eyes / like neutron flies"—there was a pop and a burst of flame from a box behind the singers, and the sound system went dead. The horns and guitars and drums petered out, and then one of the Oosiks went over to the box, fiddled with something on the back of it, and pulled out a smoking vacuum tube. Tubes. The Oosiks used tubes, circa 1960 or something—damn antiques. I was impressed even more. Tubes hadn't been fried in the Zap, and if you could find a tube, any tube, why, that might make you a rich man. Johnny and the Oosiks was a high class band, indeed.
I pushed my way to the bar, holding my copy of the I Ching against my chest so that folks would get the idea that there was a reader around. I didn't know how many readers there were in Kodiak. Some places didn't have any readers, and if Kodiak was one of those places, it couldn't hurt to advertise, especially in bars. People in bars always wanted things read, and sometimes they wanted to let you keep what you read for them. It was the book that impressed them, not the words within. The I Ching? What did they know of the I Ching? Still, I could hear the Oracle murmuring in my ear, even with the book shut.
"It furthers one to cross the great water," the Oracle had said. And had I not crossed the great water? Had I not booked passage on the Orca? And had not Orca Captain left me here at Kodiak, someplace in the godforsaken People's Republic of Alaska? Would it further me? I'd find out.
Oh yeah, I'd find out.
I slapped the Ching down on the bar and sat down next to a guy with hair cemented into two spikes that made him look like a snail. The guy glanced at the book with dead eyes, blank eyes, and drooled on the counter. The book seemed to stir something inside him; a flash of intelligence rippled across his face, then died. Spikes got up and moved to an empty bar stool two seats down. He glanced back at the book once, and shuddered.
From a pouch around my neck I took out three copper coins, then pulled a stub of a pencil from a little pocket on my vest. Doubt nagged me, doubt that had almost kept me from getting on the Orca in Sea-Tac Int'l Airport down south, and I needed to know if I was going in the right direction. Was I on the true path? I would ask the Oracle. I opened the book to the inside cover and threw the coins six times.
A code I'd written on the inside cover told me what each of the four combinations of heads and tails could mean, each combination standing for one of four lines: a broken or unbroken line, or changing broken or unbroken line. I wrote down the lines and built the hexagram from the bottom up. I got SUI, Following, an unbroken line at the bottom, two broken lines, two more unbroken lines, and a broken line at the top, none of them changing. No changing lines meant that I paid no attention to the meaning of the lines in the Oracle. Sui erased all doubts, for it said in the Judgment:
Following has supreme success.
Perseverance furthers. No blame.
The Oracle was saying that I should follow—someone, something, I didn't have the foggiest idea. But I knew the Oracle, knew the devious ways it worked, knew that once it got its hooks on reality it didn't let go. The I Ching was like a peephole into the future, a link to some cosmic connection, and it worked, almost all the damn time.
A big hand slammed the book shut, scattering my coins across the bar. I looked up, stared into the bloodshot eyes of the bartender, a scowl like a bad attack of gas on his face. He pushed the book toward me with his right index finger, a finger about the size of a small spruce tree, and stared at me a little harder. I noticed his other hand was under the bar and I had to assume that whatever was in the hand could do nasty damage to my body. Times like that, it's a good idea to be polite. I decided to be polite.
"Hi," I said. "Anything wrong?"
"Yeah," he said. "No readin' in St. Herman's, unless it's the Bible, that's what's wrong. That the Bible? Don't look like the Bible to me."
"It's the Book of Changes," I said. "Sort of like a tide book." I opened the book up, showed him page 231, hexagram 60, Chieh/Limitation.
"Words," he said. "The book has words." He said "words" the same way someone might say "cancer" or "snakes."
"Yeah," I said. "So?"
"I thought it was a picture book," the bartender said. He reached over, pushed the book away from him. "Man, no readin' of words in here, not even the Bible."
"Heck, I'm sorry," I said. "Don't you have any readers in Kodiak?"
"We had one, once," he said, licking his upper lip, "but we ate him."
"Oh." I took the book off the bar, leaned over, and slipped the I Ching into the back pocket of my vest. I looked to my right and caught Blue Braid staring at me. I turned away quickly. Maybe it wasn't so smart to advertise.
But I couldn't understand why someone would eat readers —eat me. I guess a lot of people blamed readers for the Zap, figured that words equaled intelligence and intelligence was what made the Zap, made the big thermonuclear bomb that fired a million-watt electromagnetic pulse that warped and scrambled and rearranged the neurons of everyone's brains. To lots of folks—certainly Spruce Finger there—readers were a curse, readers were bad news, quid pro quo, let's eat readers.
Heck, I didn't cause the Zap. Not me. I just read. I figured the guys who did fire the Zap didn't have to be readers to do it. Maybe if more people had read, they might have had the wisdom to keep the world from clawing out its throat. But try telling that to people. Nope, sometimes it's better to keep your mouth shut.
And it wasn't like I'd come off clean from the Zap. Sure, I could read. Sure, I could look at the letters and make sense of them, but I didn't have the memories to add to the word. I didn't have the past that made the words mean more, didn't have the experience to make the words my own thoughts.
Everybody was supposed to have memories, but what did I have? Vague notions of where I had been. Flashes of insight that flickered before my eyes in the dawning hours. Twitches in my body when I would try to do something I thought new, and it would turn out I already had done, like helping Orca Captain sail and navigate. Odd feelings of already seen when I knew for a fact I'd never seen.
All I could remember from before the Zap were the immediate moments before the bombs blew miles in the sky. I had been someplace warm, someplace where the air hung heavy with salty spray, outside a pink mansion surrounded by booming music, people tripping their minds out on some kind of mushroom, and me, me, wrapped up in aluminum foil—a costume, I think it was—when the Zap hit. I remembered the burning flash, the crackling like heat lightning in the sky, and then darkness, deep violet darkness, and then awakening to the pink building on fire and people burning books. Nothing else. My memories had been wasted as surely as most people's minds had been wasted. I didn't know why I had to be so different, though I figured being wrapped in aluminum foil might have helped, but it had happened and that was that. In some ways I was about as good as ol' Spikes there, drooling on the counter. The Zap hadn't left me clean, either. So what did Spruce Finger know?
The bartender stood, tapping his hands on the plastic-drenched wood of the bar. "Um, what do you do with readers now?" I asked.
"Nothing," the bartender said. "We don't need no readin' here. No namin', either. We just make our own names up."
"Good idea," I said. "What's in a name?"
"You got it," he said. "Want a beer?"
I smiled, glad to change the subject. "Yeah, okay. Give me a beer." The bartender started to gather up my coins. I stopped him, took the coins, handed him a .22 bullet. "Give me a good beer," I said. "Something from, you know, before."
The bartender smiled, took the bullet, bit it, flipped it in the air, caught it, and dropped the bullet into his barter bag, a big leather pouch around his waist. He went to a large icebox, opened it with a key hanging from a leather thong around his neck, and pulled out a brown bottle icy with frost. He handed me the bottle, and I smiled at my good fortune as I read the faded red label: Budweiser. The bartender watched me savor the fine brew.
Beer. Glorious beer. For that the trip across the Gulf of Alaska might have been worth it. Five years hadn't aged the beer much at all. It was cool and tart with just that right kick of hops. I let the beer wiggle down my throat, caressed it with my tongue. They didn't make beer like that any more; the crap they made these days tasted like battery acid. Down south I had once gotten two weeks lodging for a bullet, but that beer was worth it.
"Good, huh?" the bartender asked.
"Yeah," I said. "You really have a basement full of beer?"
He nodded. "But don't get any ideas. We've got a contract with the KOMs—Kodiak Militia. A KOM gets two free beers a week here. Steal beer from us, you're stealing it from them, if you get what I mean."
"I do," I said.
I sipped my beer, nodded at the bartender as he went down to the bar to wait on a few customers. He came back a moment later—guy must have liked me, or maybe he was just being friendly.
"Wonderful," I said.
"When you get in?" he asked.
"Yesterday," I said. "The Orca." I rubbed my coins together, then put them back in the pouch around my neck.
"You staying in Kodiak?"
I felt this little shiver go down my back; why did he care? "No," I said. "I'm going to try to work my way north."
"The Orca's not going north?" the bartender asked.
"South. Orca Captain heard there were some nice islands down south. I'm heading north."
"Why north?" he asked.
I shrugged. "It's just this urge. You know how sometimes when you're walking down a path, and the path splits, and you take one fork just because it feels right?" The bartender nodded. "Well, that's the way north is for me. Every time I come to a fork, I take the one that goes north. It just feels right."
The bartender pulled his hand up from under the counter, slapped a wet rag down, wiped up the drool Spikes had left on the bar. "So what do you expect to find there?"
"My memory," I said. "Somewhere north is my memory. Zap fried my memory."
"You're a wipe," he said.
"A wipe. That's what we call someone who got their memory wiped by the Zap. My brother was one. Woke up after the Zap and didn't know me from anyone." He looked down the bar at Spikes. "Could be worse. That guy's a total wipe— what some call an ass wipe. Hardly a brain left at all." He slipped the rag back under the counter. "So you're looking to move on?"
"Maybe," I said. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of Blue Braid dancing, turned to look at her. The bartender followed my stare.
"Nice," he said. "Maybe you should talk to her. She's a blimper. They're going north, I hear." The bartender turned around, went to drag one of the albino cruisers off a customer they were trying to hustle.
I stared at the mirror across the bar, watched the bar swirl in a mirror behind my back. I could see myself between mirrors and right on the infinite edge. Brown hair, combed back and flipping over the collar of a green-and-blue plaid flannel shirt. A scraggly mustache. Blue canvas pants. And this vest with like a million pockets.
Blimper? I thought, watching Blue Braid dance in front of me. Her hair swung around her waist and the light gleamed off her tunic. Hot. She was dancing with some guy in pink tights, but it was like he was part of the crowd. Blue Braid was a kaleidoscope swirling in the middle of dullness. Every now and then she would glance my way, and once she smiled, a beckoning smile, I thought.
Over by the door I idly noticed the bartender talking to a man and a woman, both wearing red armbands and carrying nasty-looking little submachine guns. I turned around, finished my beer. I glanced over at the bartender, wished he'd quit talking to the people with the guns, and come get me a beer. The bartender pointed at me, and I gave him a little half-wave, then realized he was pointing me out to the people with the guns.
A fly crawled across my neck, and I reached up to swat it. Something cool and smooth wrapped itself around my hand. I pulled it down, felt resistance, turned, looked up at Blue Braid, her hair coiled around my hand.
"Dance?" she asked.
I blushed. "Not really . . . I'm kind of clumsy," I said.
"Dance," she said, and yanked me to my feet. I had to lift my chin to look at her; even with the boots, she had about three inches on me, and I'm almost six feet. I let her pull me to the dance floor. She took my hands in her hands—Johnny and the Oosiks were doing a slow number and couples were bobbing like drunk buoys in desperate embraces—and whispered in my ear.
"Those folks with the guns are KOMs, kid. They're after your hot little buns."
"Me?" I asked. "What did I do?"
"You read, dumbskull, is what you did. You read in public in Kodiak, which is about the fastest way to make yourself lunch. Let's ease over to the edge here."
Blue Braid and I worked our way from the center of the bar and up onto the carrousel, to a small arc of the dance floor before the band. Blue Braid jerked her head toward a hallway that a hole in the outer wall of the carrousel was opening up to.
"Head for that hall," she said, pointing with her chin at the hole.
"They really would make me lunch?" I asked.
"Or slave you," she said. "You want to stick around and find out?"
"Not really," I said, thinking of the crack of whips from the basement. I looked down the hall, saw what she had in mind. If we could get to the hallway before the KOMs, the inside wall of the carrousel would move around behind us and cut them off. I looked back into the crowd, saw the two KOMs pushing their way around the rim of the carrousel, knocking people aside, kicking over chairs. "Yeah, maybe we should leave."
"Maybe," she said.
Blue Braid started shoving her way through the crowd like she might have had to do this once or twice before; good for her, I thought. I liked that. I liked a woman who knew how to get through crowds. I stayed in her wake, trying to jostle people so they'd bunch up behind us. The hole in the inside wall passed over the hallway, opening about halfway. We jumped through it just as the carrousel creaked around one more notch.
The hall went about five feet and ended in a door with a lock and chain wrapped around the push bar, and a red flap of tape over the handle that was supposed to keep people from opening the door, I guess. There was faded lettering on the door that read EMERGENCY ONLY: ALARM WILL SOUND, which didn't bother Blue Braid a bit. She shoved the door open and smiled as the tape snapped apart. Some alarm. No bells, no lights, just a gust of cold air blasting into the hall. I hung on her heels and we slipped through and out onto a patio. The carrousel turned another notch. I saw one of the KOMs poke an arm through the door, then yank it back as the hallway behind was cut off by the slow revolution of the rim.
There was a high fence around the patio, and the patio was covered almost to the tops of the tables in snow. That fence didn't mean anything. It was wood slats over gridlike metal. Blue Braid kicked at a slat with those bright orange cowboy boots, got a toehold, climbed up, then reached down with that braid and wrapped it around my wrist. I pulled, got a toehold, then looked back. There was another door leading onto the patio. I jerked my wrist away from her braid, jumped down, ran over to one of the picnic tables.
"Come on," Blue Braid said.
"Got to block that door," I said. I thought I heard someone pounding from the inside. I flipped the table over, snow falling onto my pants, flipped the table once more, jamming it against the door.
"Move it!" she yelled.
I ran to her, jumped up at the fence, grabbed for the braid. She jerked her head forward, I scrambled for a hold, and then we were over the fence.
The back of the St. Herman's Club was on a road that went along Kodiak harbor and up into the mountains, I remembered from when the Orca had docked earlier. That might be good, I thought. The KOMs would have to get out the front door and swing around to get us, and if we were lucky, we'd be gone.
I stopped to catch my breath. Blue Braid looked back at me, motioned for me to keep going.
"We're not free yet," she said.
I leaned over, hands on my knees. "Why are you helping me?"
"Because you're kind of cute," she said, smiling. "And because I need a reader."
She shook her head. "Maybe I like readers," she said. I stood up, glared at her. "Okay, I need my name read."
"Okay," I said. Reason enough, I thought. Hadn't the oracle said, "Joy in movement induces following?" I'd follow. I'd follow her, even if she was poison. Women often were. Lots of women had given me that line before, that they wanted something read. Oh yeah. What they had wanted was . . . well, not words exactly. Blue Braid might be different. She might want the word alone. I smiled at the thought. If she wanted a little more, well, she'd be worth giving it to. In any case, I'd follow her if it meant getting away from the KOMs. Better that than becoming lunch.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Up there," she said. She pointed up and to the south, to a flat mountain. Orca Captain had pointed it out to me when we came into Kodiak: Pillar Mountain. A little red light blinked from the top. The road behind the club–DEAD ROAD, a charred metal street sign said—led straight to the bottom of Pillar Mountain. We took off down it, Blue Braid leading.
It was maybe a mile to the mountain, and by the time we got there I was half out of breath. Blue Braid was hardly panting. I looked down Dead Road and couldn't see anyone coming. The KOMs might have gone to get help, might be sneaking up the road right then just waiting for us to make a move. I caught my breath, looked up Pillar Mountain.
We were at the bottom of a trailhead that switchbacked up the side of the mountain, just to the right of a big landslide scar that made the mountain look like a giant grizzly had slashed its face. A rope dangled over the scar. Some big boulders from the landslide littered the ground near the trail head.
"We go up?" I asked her. Blue Braid nodded. "How?"
She reached into her big purse, threw me a hunk of webbing. "Put this on," she said.
I took it from her, untangled it, saw that it was a harness of some kind. I watched Blue Braid put a similar harness on, copied her. The straps of the harness wound under the crotch, around the shoulders, across the back, and connected at the chest.
"You ever use a monkey harness before?" she asked. I shook my head. "Better get used to it—we hang from them a lot on the blimp."
"Hang? Blimp?" I asked. I thought the bartender had been joking.
"Yeah, blimp," she said.
Blue Braid pulled out a little flashlight from her purse and clicked it on. Batteries. She had batteries. I hadn't seen a battery smaller than a six-pack since I'd thrown away the little battery from my old watch four years ago. I was pretty damned impressed. Blue Braid flicked the flashlight on and off a few times. A light flashed back at us from the top of the mountain, and then something dark moved. Something big. Something huge.
Something rose up from the mountaintop and came toward
- On Sale
- May 15, 2001
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing