Jeff Carlson wowed readers with the insane disease apocalypse of Plague Year, and now he's back with Interrupt — a tale that ties cutting-edge medicine together with the mystery of the Neanderthals. You know you want to read this great excerpt of the introduction and first chapter.
Excerpt from Interrupt
By Jeff Carlson
Nim’s tribe always hunted in packs. Their world was too dangerous for anyone to walk alone. Even his scouts traveled in threes, and those men never left the valley beyond sight of their camp. The instinct to stay together was as powerful as the urge to breathe.
Sunrise touched the valley as Nim led five hunters over a ridgeline, each man glancing back in turn. Below them, the horse-skin tents of their home had dwindled to six small specks. Now the shallow contours of the land separated Nim’s pack from the tribe entirely.
“Follow me,” he said.
It was more than the law. It was the best Nim could offer them. He put himself in front as much as possible, shielding his people.
The wind was cutting on the ridge. No trees grew from the earth, only patches of short grass and isolated shrubs. The wind tugged at their bodies, rushing southward as they moved east.
The men ignored the cold. If they reacted, it was to tighten their formation even more, using each other for warmth as they jogged into the barren steppe plains.
They did not speak. There was no need. Nim worried about En’s leg and Han’s cough — En had wrenched his knee six days ago, and Han’s throat had bothered him much longer — but they would have sent other men in their places if they thought they couldn’t keep up.
Nor did anyone ask where Nim was going when his direction and pace began to change, slowing, sprinting, then slowing again. They kept their eyes down to search through the rock and brittle earth.
Silence was a survival trait. In the cold, each breath whipped away as white gusts of fog. Talking made their lungs more vulnerable. They trusted Nim to guide them.
It was a dreary world. Gleaming through the clouds, only the sun wasn’t gray or brown or dark green. Nim was less attuned to color than to the shape of the land, which varied sharply. Mountains filled two horizons. The men themselves were brown in every way, brown-eyed, brown-haired, clad in tan skins and leggings. Their faces had been burnished by the weather where their skin was exposed between their manes and beards.
Skirting a lake’s ice-rimmed muddy shore, Nim found reindeer tracks. “Good,” he said.
Unfortunately, the adults of their prey weighed several hundred pounds with antlers and stamping hooves. Three of his men ran with limps. Han had a withered forearm he’d broken twice. Every hunt was a risk.
Nim led his pack north — upwind from the reindeer. Scents and sounds carried for miles because there were so few of either. Nim hoped the smell of his pack would drive the reindeer toward the mountains.
The mountains were important because the foothills acted as a wall. Nim used box canyons for traps or stampeded the animals over cliffs, anything to minimize his casualties. Only twenty-six of them had survived the winter. Five were children. Three women were pregnant. That was it. They were aware of two other tribes living in the south, but otherwise Nim’s people were alone.
Discovering new tracks ahead of him was like stepping on knives. Nim felt a sharp thrill of fear. “Stop!” he hissed, looking downwind first in case they’d walked into an ambush.
Man-shaped footprints had disturbed the pulverized rock — fresh tracks — intruders.
The sun was higher now, dull white behind the clouds. Snow gleamed on the mountains. Nim paced slowly over a wide area, examining the ground. Then he made his decision.
The reindeer had shied north to avoid the other men, so he took his hunters east. East was away from the herd but away from home, too. Han grunted his approval as they ran from the other men’s tracks, recognizing Nim’s intent.
Soon they hooked northward again, maneuvering behind the enemy. Twice they found more footprints where the other men had followed the wider trail left by the reindeer. Each time Nim adjusted his course, threading through the terrain. He was careful never to cross the highest points, which would allow him to see but also to be seen. The wind was enough. He had their scent, so he stalked after both targets.
Finally, he spotted one of the intruders near the base of a hill. Nim dropped into a crawl with his best knife in hand. Each of his hunters carried several blades of flaked granite in addition to clubs of horse bone.
“Be ready,” he said as a second intruder joined the first.
The other men touched the earth again and again, clumsily examining the herd’s spoor. They were hideous. They had small heads, flat faces, and pebble noses. One had diseased-looking hair that was yellow and thin. They were taller than Nim with longer legs and arms.
He knew of them from his father’s legends. His father had called them Dead Men because they uttered nonsense if they spoke and because their tools and clothing were pitiful efforts like things imagined by ghosts. The Dead Men even walked like spirits, with strides as long as the reindeer.
Nim’s pack had caught up because the Dead Men appeared to need a lot of rest, which was good. For any advantage the Dead Men possessed in height and reach, Nim’s hunters compensated with their stamina. His people were stronger. They had natural armor in the dense bone of their foreheads.
The Dead Men were Cro-Magnon men, the early race of Homo sapiens.
Nim and his tribe were Neanderthals.
“Now. Before they smell us,” Nim said. He stole sideways against a crease of bedrock. Han and En came after him while the other three stayed behind. They would attack in two prongs, although they were outnumbered.
Nim didn’t need to see all of the Dead Men to know there were eleven. From their tracks, he’d learned a great deal about them. The Dead Men wore leather wrappings like his people, but they had smaller feet and didn’t push as hard into the earth. They were insubstantial.
To his eyes, their movements also lacked focus. As they traveled, the Dead Men meandered with the same flighty behavior as the reindeer, never holding position. Nim didn’t like it. Everything his people did, they did with unity.
The adrenaline in his veins felt loud and good as he ascended the lee side of the hill. Near the top, the wind increased. Nim was acutely aware of each gust sweeping his skin with the oxygen-thick scent of the glaciers.
This is our land, he thought.
Beside him, En wore a feral grin. Han flexed his bad arm in a repetitive, habitual motion that Nim found calming.
“Go,” he said.
They charged over the hill. The Dead Men were exactly where he’d expected, kneeling at a spring. One fell backward in shock. The rest scattered to Nim’s right, where they would meet his other hunters...
But their speed was breathtaking. Nim’s pack had no chance to engage the Dead Men, not even the one who’d fallen. Han got in a single slash of his knife, opening the Dead Man’s shoulder before the Dead Man sprang onto his long legs and ran.
“Haaaaaaaaa!” Nim shouted, chasing them with his voice.
His father had defended this territory before him. Nim would find the enemy camp and kill them in their tents if necessary. With luck, the Dead Men would return to their tribe and leave, taking their women and children. Why did they keep coming?
Seconds later, Nim saw the Dead Men sprinting up a hill to the southeast. Han laughed and sank his knife into the mud by the spring, rubbing off the enemy’s blood.
Nim had only superstition to explain what happened next. The moment Han’s knife cut the earth, the sky sputtered and dimmed.
It was as if Nim blinked with his eyes open. Darkness buzzed inside his mind.
Magic, he thought. Evil.
Something in the daylight had undergone a profound change. The sun flickered. Then there was pain. When Nim could think again, he found himself on the ground, his cheek bloodied by a rock. The hunk of granite obscured his sight.
Nim shoved himself upright. His hunters sprawled nearby, dazed. The Dead Men must have unleashed a power beyond comprehension. Nim had no proof the Dead Men were to blame, but he trusted his hatred of them. He remembered how the sky had dimmed. Those shadows had been worse than any eclipse, unnatural and silent.
He swung his head to look at the sun. Was its light changing? Terrible currents roiled the clouds on the horizon, turning the sky black. The storm would reach them soon.
He realized instantly how this magic would tip the balance between his kind and the Dead Men. If his people couldn’t think during the shadows, they would be helpless.
“Get up!” he said.
En was the first to stand. Nim’s heart surged with defiant strength.
“Track the Dead Men and kill them,” he said.
The sun flickered again. Nim sagged to one knee, fighting it. The shadows felt like a club smashing him. He went blank, woke, went blank, and woke again. Each moment of clarity lasted seconds, allowing him no more than glimpses of his surroundings.
When it stopped, his environment had changed wildly. Rain fell through the dark of night. He was alone. Freezing water swirled at his feet, coursing over an open field where the hill had been. Other things had changed, too. His belly was as tight as if he hadn’t eaten for days.
When he felt his cheek, the wound had scabbed. His senses screamed that he’d moved across the land while forgetting everything he’d done in coming to this place. It was two or even three nights later.
Nim’s feelings of loss were gut-wrenching. He howled in rage for his tribe.
“Where are you!?” he cried. Then another black bolt seared through his mind, and this assault did not stop.
The Neanderthals’ time had come to an end.
Emily’s vision went white as she drove down West 4th Street. For an instant, she thought the sky had flashed with lightning, but the air was clear and perfect like most summer mornings in California — and when she blinked, a red car was swerving into her lane. The front of her new black Nissan Altima crunched against the other vehicle.
Emily shouted, “Oh!”
The jolt wasn’t hard enough to set off her airbags. She’d barely been going twenty-five between two stoplights, but that was enough to ruin her entire day at six in the morning.
Fortunately, she had an arsenal of bad movie dialogue for any occasion.
“It looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue,” she said, stunned, trying to laugh at her misfortune. Had she been blinded by the sun reflecting from the glass face of a building?
Her next thought was work. I’m going to be late, she thought, reaching for the files on the passenger seat. Impact had caused a landslide.
She grabbed at her lists of IgA proteins and the nonconfidential summaries written by her biology team.
Down the block, a horn blared. Much closer, someone was yelling. Emily glanced at the mini-mall on her right, where two men knelt over someone else in front of a McDonald’s.
Her view was obstructed by the cars lined up for the drive-thru. If the men over there were mugging the third guy, it wouldn’t be the first crime she’d witnessed in L.A., but she stepped out of her car anyway. It was the right thing to do.
Emily Flint was twenty-seven years old, small, and trim. The low heels of her work shoes clacked on the street as she stood up, safe inside the V of her open door and the car itself. She didn’t think anyone could see her as she steadied her nerves by straightening her charcoal skirt and white blouse.
The sun rose over the tall, square shapes of the business district. It cast sparks on steel and glass. That must be what got me, she thought, but she couldn’t convince herself.
The two men at the McDonald’s were helping the fallen man. Other people were arguing in the drive-thru where a blue Toyota had bumped another car. Somehow they’d all been distracted at once.
Everything about the busy street felt wrong.
Emily had set her alarm for five a.m. on one of the biggest days of her career. Now her eight-month-old Altima was banged up, not to mention the hours she’d waste on the phone with her insurance. She’d planned to deliver the envelope in her purse this week, too. She couldn’t let it wait.
The envelope held a $3500 check for a catering hall. Her wedding was scheduled for September 1. If she didn’t get the deposit to the caterers by Friday, their reservation would be cancelled. Then what? Everyone would think she was dragging her feet. But she wasn’t. She was busy with work, and she and Chase were basically married already, sharing most of their finances as well as their tiny apartment.
Here we go, she thought as an older man emerged from the red car.
A truck rig eased down the street behind him. It probably wouldn’t fit past his car. The old man was pale, and Emily said, “Are you okay?”
“Sorry!” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I think there was an earthquake. Someone else crashed in front of the McDonald’s,” she said before the truck horn bellowed. The enormous machine was ten feet away. Emily jumped half out of her skin.
A guy in sunglasses leaned through the cab window. “Hey, move it,” he said.
Emily wanted to be clever. This jerk was too comfortable bullying them, but she couldn’t think of anything good, so she went for loud instead. “Bite me!” she yelled.
The words surprised everyone, including herself.
“Jeez, lady,” the trucker said. He disappeared into his cab as Emily put her hand over her mouth. The older man gaped at her. Then the two of them laughed. It was a good moment, unexpected and fun, until the truck’s air brakes squealed.
“Let me help you move your car,” she said.
Fifteen minutes later, Emily drove away. She’d lost a headlight and the steering felt sticky, but her engine seemed fi ne. So were her tires.
On the next block, she saw another wreck, a three-car collision much uglier than her fender bender. An ambulance was on-scene. Two paramedics helped a man with a bloody scalp as Emily drove past, feeling an uneasy blend of empathy and creeping fear.
So many accidents, she thought. She reached for her files again, then put both hands on the steering wheel as if the comfort she wanted wasn’t in those printouts.
Emily led a group of computational biologists at DNAllied Inc. In three hours, the company expected her to announce a billion-dollar breakthrough. They’d scheduled a major media release at One California Plaza, an elegant downtown skyscraper, which meant anyone in her right mind would have finalized her presentation by now. The catch was she’d heard back from a collaborator at Yale at the last second. He had experimental data sets that would improve her results on multiple levels, so yesterday she’d restarted her programs from scratch.
Her boss was going to shoot her.
The Altima definitely had a shimmy.
“Sometimes I feel like my life is an earthquake,” she said as a strand of smoke rose in the distance, barely visible between two buildings. Talking to herself was a bad habit. She grabbed her BlackBerry.
“Hey, babe,” Chase said through a tick of static.
“Hi.” Her reception was only at two bars. Weird. “Did you feel the quake? Either it was pretty big or I picked the wrong week to quit drinking again.”
“Right.” He was used to her goofball humor and had gotten pretty good at deflecting it. Chase Coughlin was a thirty-two-year-old M.D. with a crushing schedule of his own. Tuesday was one of his days off. “I didn’t feel anything,” he said.
“I had an accident. The car’s a little smashed in. I don’t know what’s going on, but I saw two other crashes and a fire, I think.”
“Did they check for whiplash?”
“I’m okay. I’m just really, really late and I don’t want to spend the money on the car.”
That was Chase. Good or bad, he told you what he thought. Maybe all surgeons were the same, disinterested in anything except their own assessment of a situation. Emily had a harder time working through her problems — this problem especially.
Chase was good-looking and confident and completely unfair about how many household chores were her responsibility. Emily did the shopping. Emily fetched the dry cleaning. Yes, Chase made more money, but he also carried more debt from his student loans. The truth was she’d been having second thoughts.
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
“Wait. Where are you?”
“I’m downtown,” she said. “The car’s still driving and I don’t have time to deal with it today.”
“I know. I’ll get it to the shop for you.”
“Would you?” Relief softened Emily’s doubt. Chase was a good guy, really. He was just such a guy, more interested in sports, sex, and sandwiches than in tedious junk like keeping their lives organized.
As she turned into the entrance of the Plaza’s underground garage, Emily made up her mind. She would FedEx the deposit to the catering hall.
He said, “Your extra keys are in your dresser, right? I’ll figure out a tow truck. We can catch up for lunch.”
“Love to. Bye.”
She heard an ambulance wailing when she opened her window to punch the ticket button at the gate. The hospital where Chase worked was ten minutes from the Plaza. DNAllied was about an equal distance away. They often met for tacos or sushi. Both of them spent more time at their jobs than in their apartment, which might have contributed to the uncertainty she’d felt.
The sirens echoed from the next block over, howling through the gaps between the buildings. But the same sound was also to her left. Another emergency vehicle was on the move somewhere else in the neighborhood.
A chill slithered up the back of Emily’s neck. It’s like the whole city is coming apart.
She drove into the garage. At 7:05 a.m., the top level was packed. She descended to the second level to find a space. Then the elevator took forever.
DNAllied had booked a fourth-floor conference room with a gamut of visual aids from dry-erase boards to HDTV monitors. Their media director was testing short clips of 3D animation and other mock-ups when Emily walked in.
It was 7:21. She had her laptop slung over one shoulder and her other arm loaded with paperwork. “Good morning,” she called, looking for her boss. A knot of men sat in the front row by the podium.
Raymund Esposito was fifty-one and resembled a beach ball in a yellow tie. He banged against his chair when he jumped up.
“Emily!” he said, not Dr. Flint, chastising her for the benefit of the other men in the room. He’d been on the warpath even before she trash-canned her results and started over, because they didn’t see eye to eye about what she was doing.
Emily motioned for him to walk with her to the podium. She thought she had a new argument that was sure to convince him, although it would take some fancy footwork.
She started off cautiously. “Hi, Ray. I’m late.”
“I’ve been here since the day started in New York,” he said. “The board is very concerned about your email.”
“I’m sorry you’re caught in the middle,” she said, wondering if she might move from this small surrender to her new tactic, but Ray was absorbed in his misery.
“There is no middle,” he said. “They’re right. You’re wrong. I think they’d pull you from the media release if your name wasn’t on the agenda.”
“Let me show you something,” she said, taking a seat.
The conference room had high-speed Wi-Fi, and her laptop was loaded with state-of-the-art encryption. What it lacked was the muscle to process the staggering amounts of data associated with her project.
Like everyone at DNAllied, Emily used a secure shell to remotely access the exascale cloud allocations at the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA’s supercloud clocked in at .001 exaflops — billions upon billions of floating-point calculations per second — which was a supremely beautiful number.
Nevertheless, the old mantra held true. Garbage in, garbage out. The computer wasn’t smart. She was.
Next-generation biologists like Emily combined degrees in biophysical chemistry with excellent programming skills, which had led to the hottest trend in genetics: data mining, data integration, and predictive models. She did lab work, too, yet it was her ability to sift through the results of hundreds of other labs that put her at the front of the pack.
Pure research was necessary, even prestigious, but the money and power were in applicable science.
In her field, that meant gene therapies. Medicine. Emily worked in biomarker discovery, targeting the reasons behind hereditary diseases and other genetic miscues. What they understood, they could fix. Her team was on the verge of eradicating an entire spectrum of neurological disorders including autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and bipolar disorder.
Accessing the university’s supercloud, Emily typed in her username and password. Her log-in failed. She must have mis-keyed either Eflint or Capricorn421 while Ray hovered over her.
“Our guy at Yale is topnotch,” she said as she tried again. “His SNPs data on the Pelat find changes everything.” She spoke the acronym like a single word, snips, for single nucleotide polymorphisms.
“Pelat had nothing to do with your biomarkers,” Ray said.
“That’s not true.”
“We should be rehearsing your speech.”
“Not yet. Let me show you.”
Last summer, mountain climbers in France had unearthed the remains of a man near the base of Mount Pelat. Less than half the body had been preserved by the ice, but police were quick to realize he’d been murdered by a blow to the skull — and that he was Neanderthal. The mummified tissue had been a godsend for geneticists. Years ago, rough sequences of the Neanderthal genome had been performed using fossilized bone samples, but Pelat offered organs and skin as good as anything taken from a living man, which made all the difference in the analysis of protein-signaling networks.
“Pelat could be our holy grail,” Emily said. “We’ve been using chimpanzee samples for the same reason. Their expression patterns—”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does. Their protein and metabolite expression patterns are different than ours! I don’t think you realize how much we can do with orthogonal data sets. If I have enough information, I can tell you anything. We’re on the cusp on resolving so many issues in a single model.”
“Listen,” Ray said. “I need to ask you straight out. Are you working up the data for a prenatal vaccine?”
“The patents belong to the company, not you. The board is enthusiastic about your work, but you have to remember you need approval instead of striking out on your own.”
“That’s not what you said in your email. Then you started your programs all over again.”
The email, she thought. God save me from the email.
In a moment of high energy, Emily had dashed off a note about the ultimate goal of her research. Apparently she’d used an exclamation point. The email was passed up the food chain, where someone decided she must be a fire-breathing socialist on a crusade.
Yes, she wanted to save lives. She loved the idea of helping people everywhere, but to think she wanted to give everything away for free was ridiculous.
Emily liked money. Who didn’t like money?
Her stock options gave her a personal stake in DNAllied landing the interest of a major pharmaceutical company, after which she could pay down Chase’s loans and move them into a better apartment, but the board was afraid she intended to speak out against her own project.
“I’m sorry I sent the email,” she said. “All I meant was we aren’t done yet. We’ll never be done, not in our lifetimes.”
“That’s right.” Ray pounced on her words. “That’s exactly right. We take it one step at a time, which means we stay on track. The infant and juvenile therapies come first.”
“But we could be refining our data for those therapies and the prenatal vaccine. There’s no reason we can’t do both.”
“There is,” Ray said. “This is about managing our resources. We can’t have our best minds running in a thousand directions at once, and it’s not your job to choose where or how we’re most productive.”
It made her queasy to think they’d dissuade her from the real cure. A single vaccine for pregnant women would be a gold mine. The board wanted more. They wanted diamond mines. The fact of the matter was that weekly shots for afflicted children and adults would be many, many times more lucrative than giving expectant mothers a single inoculation to protect babies against a wide range of disabilities.
“There’s an easy solution,” she said. “I know how we can make DNAllied the priciest thing on the market.”
Ray grimaced. “Emily—”
“If we give one subset of my data to the right people, they can design the vaccine. There’s a team at the University of Texas. They’re primed to jump on this. They probably won’t develop it as fast as I could, but maybe I can consult a bit. Then the vaccine goes to trials. They make eighty billion dollars. Most of that money comes right back to us and we also get the accolades, the good will, and the proof this stuff works exactly like the melanoma gene therapies out of UCSD in 2010. If we have real-world evidence from—”
“Emily, enough. I see what you’re trying to do and it’s commendable. This is about your nephew.” The look in Ray’s brown eyes was shrewder than she would have guessed. “You don’t want anyone else to suffer like him,” Ray said. “It’s a noble cause. Honestly. But how old is he now? Eight? He’s exactly who you’ll save by developing our juvenile therapies, and he’s your own flesh and blood.”
That was a cheap shot, she thought.
“The important thing is to help the people who need it,” Ray said. He was parroting the company line, which sounded great. Help the people who need it.
In the meanwhile, what if their own kids were born with preventable disorders? Their greed had a blindness she couldn’t resolve. If their own children grew up autistic or bipolar, what good were an extra gazillion dollars in stock?
“Here we go,” she said, looking down to hide her anger. Her log-in had finally been accepted, and she navigated her way through the UCLA server to her files. There were two. The third was only a progress bar at ninety-eight percent. “Let me show you how the Pelat data changes our simulations.”
“We’re using your original sims today,” Ray said.
“The new results are done.”
“They haven’t been vetted, and we’re not rescheduling this event.” Ray’s voice was stern with a hint of exasperation.
He was being fatherly now, she realized, and he’d cast her as the overexcited young fool. Emily wanted to forgive him. Ray was protecting his job. He had retired parents to support and two sons, one in the Air Force, another in college. Her project wasn’t the only reason he was on edge. His first boy was a weapons loader in South Korea, where the military had been on alert for weeks. Ray was worried.
I guess I should be, too.
DNAllied was already doing the dance with Pfizer and Enring Corp., two of the heavy hitters in Big Pharma. The board wanted a bidding war. The miracles Emily envisioned couldn’t come fast enough.
Even if Pfizer or Enring bought in, her team at DNAllied was several months from their first drug trials. She could accelerate the process by sinking her time into the infant and juvenile therapies, but she wanted to stay with her vaccine. She didn’t have six months to spare. Other labs were pursuing identical lines of research, and a prenatal vaccine might be worth consideration for the Nobel Prize for medicine.
“Just tell me I’ll have free rein after today,” she said. “I’ve earned the right to move in new directions.”
“Absolutely not,” Ray said. “You’re the one who started this, and you’re the one they want to see it through. What’s wrong with that?”
He must have seen the dismay in her eyes.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m not supposed to say this. The board brought up the possibility of firing you if necessary.”
“That’s insane. I did all the work.”
Legally, the patents were theirs. Her data, her simulations, the biomarkers — her contract said everything she did on company time was proprietary.
Should I get a lawyer? she wondered. All they want are their drugs. They don’t care what else I can accomplish.
“I went to bat for you,” Ray said. “I told them you’re a team player, but you’re a little ball of energy. A genius. I told them you’re like our own little Einstein.”
Emily forced a smile, but inside, she chafed at little. Worse, her laptop dropped the connection to UCLA. “Wait,” she said.
“I lost everything.”
“Don’t give me this, Emily.”
She flashed Ray a look, hoping it was clear she wouldn’t kill her own data on purpose. But for the first time, she wondered if she should sneak her files to another team. She corresponded with other labs every day. Getting her data out wouldn’t be hard.
She logged in again as Ray took the chair beside her. He smelled like deodorant and sweat. She opened one of her files. It should have begun with a series of bipartite graphs showing the abundance of specific peptides in autistic males. Instead, she’d received half of her data feed.
“This isn’t right,” she said with an unpleasant heat in her stomach. She laid one hand on her midriff as if to contain the feeling.
Somehow her new files had been corrupted. DNAllied’s laptops were loaded with firewalls and crypto. The university’s supercloud was equally secure. A virus was unlikely. What did that leave? Either she’d experienced data transmission errors or someone in the company had sabotaged her results.
My God, Emily thought. What else could go wrong today?
Jeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of Plague Year and The Frozen Sky. To date, his work has been translated into fifteen languages worldwide. Readers can find free fiction, videos, contests and more at www.jverse.com.