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5.

The Canadian Shield had not attracted much attention from the mining ships. Out in the wastes of northern Ontario and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, new ugly highlands were piled, rising higher than Everest already, but the Fleuve Saint-Laurent rolled on in its majesty, north from the puddle-like lower Great Lakes, widening at Ville de Quebec and opening past Gaspé into the Gulf of Saint Laurence. The two Ghosts slanted down across the hill country of the southeastern sections of La Belle Province, then cruised up the Plains of Abraham and settled on the cannon-strewn grassy lawn along the Terrasse Dufferin, in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac, overlooking the river.

Their hatches popped open. The two vac suited figures got out. They both had their sensors waving about. “Seems okay to me,” said Clay after a minute.

“Seems okay, huh?” Rachel replied. She opened her visor and pulled her helmet back off her head. “I will have you know, Sir, that I have ascertained that there is a less than one one millionth of one percent chance of surviving pathogens.”

Clay, walking away from her along the broad expanse of rotten board walk, pulled his helmet off and let it hang behind him. He said nothing. He came to the metal railing over the Saint-Laurent and stood there looking down, the sun of midmorning boiling through a thin haze.

“Hey Clay,” called Rachel, running a little to catch up with him. “Hey.”

He turned to her, and then they looked around. At first it had seemed as if the place was just abandoned, as if the myriads had simply crowded somewhere else, Old Orchard Beach perhaps. But now they could pick out a body here, a body there. Rachel took a few steps toward a corpse perhaps ten meters from them, which seemed to have sat down with its back against the railing before expiring. She stopped, then looked back at Clay.

“No thanks,” he said. He bent forward over the railing. She wondered if he were about to vomit.

“Well,” she said quietly, “I’m just going to, you know, look around.” She wandered toward the sitting corpse, checking and rechecking with her sensor gizmo. She knelt before the corpse: it was in an advanced state of decomposition. She couldn’t even tell if it had been male or female, and its clothes, from two centuries beyond Rachel’s birth era, didn’t offer any clues she could read.

A black shadow went over. Rachel looked up: two crows landed on the boards a little way away and gawked at her. They wandered off a few steps and then took to the air again. She went on down the Terrasse twenty more paces, taking readings, and then she turned around and came back. She paused before the corpse. “You’ll have to pardon me,” she said. “I just need a sample of tissue.” She took a sample kit out of a pocket and managed to snip a bit of flesh and bone off the pinky of a hand the corpse was no longer using. Rachel plunked the bit of finger into a tube and put it into the opening in her sensor, and then she jumped up as the corpse suddenly fell on its side, destabilized or demoralized by the violation of its bodily remains.

Trying to control how shaken she was, Rachel half staggered back to Clay. He had a gloved hand out, with a wafer in the palm, and a couple of chickadees were sitting on his fingers taking pecks and eying him.

“Died of hemorrhagic disease,” said Rachel. “Widespread cell death, and lots of viral remains.”

“Poor thing,” said Clay.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” said Rachel. “I feel bad about the finger, but she, or he or whatever, they weren’t using it anymore.”

Clay watched his bird friends as they ate, and then he put the wafer on the board walk and the birds dropped down to finish it off. “I’m sorry, Rache,” he said, as the two of them walked away in the direction of the hulking Chateau Frontenac. “I wimped out there. I couldn’t handle it just right away. I’ll sample the next one.”

“Sure,” said Rachel. “It seems like the event, um, the plague or whatever, it was six months to a year ago. Does that seem right?”

“Sure,” said Clay. “Whatever. And the miners aren’t finished yet? I guess that seems believable.” He stopped and sighed, and she stopped, and they spent a minute just looking around as if things were about to come at them from around a corner or drop on them from the sky. Clay sighed again and resumed walking, there being nothing else to do.

They came to the big building, its windows broken, its doors standing open. They peered in on a lobby, a gift shop. The gift shop was empty and looked peremptorily looted. The lobby was crowded with corpses.

Rachel turned, holding her gorge down, and found Clay missing. She turned away from the building: Clay was walking across the street and the little park beyond. She followed him, and they walked in silence along the streets of the Old City, up the Rue St-Jean, toward the walls and the ancient gate. They imagined it the way they remembered it, what, last year? Two centuries ago? And they imagined it, the Pub St-Alexandre, Le Pub Zoot, the streets, the hotels, the cafes and creperies and patisseries, full of bodies. But the bodies were rather few. An alley was piled with bodies, but they didn’t seem very human in their current state. The buildings were not deteriorated enough to fall down, but they were clearly abandoned, paint peeling, glass broken, birds and rats moving in and out. A few dogs came sauntering across a square outside the gate, saw the two people and bent their course to avoid contact. Cats sunned themselves in safe window ledges. Traffic lights were off and starting to fall, but signs still gave speed limits and instructed nonexistent drivers en Français.

Finally Clay stopped on a narrow sloping side street in the sunlight. He turned aside and up the steps to a little brick house. The door stood open. Inside, up a few more steps, they found the residents, sitting in chairs and lying on the floor, perhaps a dozen people.

Clay staggered back out. Rachel followed him. “Can we go home now,” he said.

“Not yet,” said Rachel. “I’m sorry, Clay. We need to make sure there isn’t, oh, a pocket of resistance somewhere.” She looked up, as if at the ships in orbit. “We need to think about what we can do.”

“What we can do,” he repeated. “You mean, other than give the bleep up?”

Just as she was about to reply, he turned and went back down the street, and they retraced their steps to the Old City and to their Ghosts resting among the cannons, and ghosts, of Vieux Quebec.

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