The Passage Page 105

They cleaned the fish and set the tender meat on racks in the smokehouse; tomorrow they would take them out to dry in the sun. One they saved for dinner, and cooked it in the pan with a bit of onion and one of the seedy potatoes.

As the sun was setting, Theo took up the shotgun from its place in the corner of the kitchen. Maus was putting the last of the dishes away in the cabinets. She turned to see him ejecting the shells, three of them, into his palm, blowing on each to clean the cap of dust, then sliding them back into the magazine. Next he removed his blade and cleaned this also, wiping it on his pants.

"Well." He cleared his throat. "I guess it's time."

"No, Theo."

She put down the plate she was holding and stepped toward him, taking the gun from his hands and placing it on the kitchen table.

"We're safe here, I know it." Even as she said the words, she felt their veracity. They were safe because she believed they were safe. "Don't go."

He shook his head. "I don't think that's such a good idea, Maus."

She leaned her face into his and kissed him again, long and slow, so he would know this about her, about both of them. They were safe. Inside her, the baby had begun to hiccup.

"Come to bed, Theo," said Mausami. "Please. I want you to come to bed with me, now."

It was sleep he feared. He told her that night, as they lay curled together. He couldn't not sleep; he knew that. Not sleeping was like not eating, he explained, or not breathing; it was like holding your breath in your chest as long as you could, until motes of light were dancing before your eyes and every part of you was saying one word: breathe. That's what it had been like in the cell, for days and days and days.

And now: the dream was gone, but not the feeling of it. The fear that he would close his eyes and find himself in the dream again. Because, at the end, if not for the girl, he would have done it. She'd come into the dream and stayed his hand, but by then it was too late. He would have killed the woman, killed anyone. He would have done whatever they wanted. And once you knew that about yourself, he said, you could never unknow it. Whoever you thought you were, you were somebody else entirely.

She held him as he spoke, his voice drifting in the darkness, and then for a long time both of them were silent.

Maus? Are you awake?

I'm right here. Though this wasn't so: she had, in fact, dozed off.

He shifted against her, pulling her arm over his chest like a blanket to keep him warm. Stay awake for me, he said. Can you do that? Until I'm asleep.

Yes, she said. Yes, I can do that.

He was quiet for a while. In the marginless space between their bodies, the baby flipped and kicked.

We're safe here, Theo, she said. As long as we're together, we'll be safe.

I hope that's true, he said.

I know it's true, Mausami said. But even as she felt his breathing slow against her, sleep taking him at last, she kept her eyes open, staring into the dark. It's true, she thought, because it has to be.


By the time they reached the garrison, it was midafternoon. Their packs had been returned but not their weapons; they were not prisoners, but neither were they free to go as they wished. The term the major had used was "under protection." From the river they had marched straight north over the ridge. At the base of a second valley they'd come to a muddy trace, rutted with hoofprints and tire tracks. It was sheer chance that they had missed it on their own. Heavy clouds had moved in from the west; the air looked and felt like rain. As the first spits commenced to fall, Peter tasted woodsmoke in the wind.

Major Greer came up beside him. He was a tall, well-built man with a brow so furrowed it looked plowed. He might have been forty years old. He was dressed in loose-fitting camouflage spattered in a pattern of green and brown, drawn tight at the waist by a wide belt, pockets fat with gear. His head, covered by a woolen cap, was shaved clean. Like all his men, a squad of fifteen, he'd painted his face with streaks of mud and charcoal, giving the whites of his eyes a startling vividness. They looked like wolves, like creatures of the forest; they looked like the forest itself. A long-range patrol unit; they had been in the woods for weeks.

Greer paused on the path and shouldered his rifle. A black pistol was holstered at his waist. He took a long drink from his canteen and waved it toward the hillside. They were close now; Peter could feel it in the quickening step of Greer's men. A hot meal, a cot to sleep on, a roof over their heads.

"Just over the next ridge," Greer said.

In the intervening hours they had formed something that felt, to Peter, like the beginnings of a friendship. After the initial confusion of their capture, a situation compounded by the fact that neither group would agree to say who they were until the other blinked first, it was Michael who had broken the stalemate, lifting his vomit-smeared face from the dirt where the net had disgorged them to proclaim, "Oh, f**k. I surrender. We're from California, all right? Somebody, please just shoot me so the ground will stop spinning."

As Greer capped his canteen, Alicia caught up to them on the path. From the start she had been unusually silent. She'd voiced no objection to Greer's order that they travel unarmed, a fact that now struck Peter as completely out of character. But probably she was just in shock, as they all were. For the duration of the march to camp she had kept protectively to Amy's side. Perhaps, Peter thought, she was simply embarrassed that she'd led them straight into the soldiers' trap. As for Amy, the girl seemed to have absorbed this new turn of events as she absorbed everything, with a neutral, watchful countenance.

"What's it like?" he asked Greer.

The major shrugged. "Just like you'd think. It's like a big latrine. It beats being out in the rain, though."

As they crested the hill, nestled in a bowl-like valley below them, the garrison leapt into view: a cluster of canvas tents and vehicles ringed by a fence of timbers, fifteen meters tall at least and each honed at the top to a sharp point. Among the vehicles Peter saw at least half a dozen Humvees, two large tankers, and a number of smaller trucks, pickups and five-tons with heavy, mud-choked tires. At the perimeter, a dozen large floodlights stood on tall poles; at the far end of the compound horses were grazing in a paddock. More soldiers were moving among the buildings, and along a catwalk at the top of the wall. At the center of the compound, standing over all, a large flag flapped in the wind, blocks of red, white, and blue with a single white star. The whole thing couldn't have been more than half a square kilometer, and yet, standing on the ridge, Peter felt as if he were gazing into an entire city, the heart of a world he'd always believed in but never actually imagined.

"They've got lights," said Michael. More men from Greer's unit moved past them, headed down the hill.

"Hell, son," said the one named Muncey-a corporal, bald as the rest of them, with a wide, snaggle-toothed smile. Most of Greer's men bore themselves with a soldierly silence, speaking only when spoken to, but not Muncey, who chattered like a bird. His job, fittingly, was to operate the radio, which he carried on his back, a mechanism with a generator run by a hand crank, which stuck from the bottom like a tail.

"Inside that fence?" Muncey said with a grin. "That dirt is Texas. If we ain't got it, you don't need it."

They weren't regular army, Greer had explained. At least not the U.S. Army. There was no U.S. Army anymore. Then whose army are you? Peter had asked.

That was when Greer had told them about Texas.

By the time they reached the base of the hill, a crowd of men had gathered. Despite the cold, and now the rain, a pattering drizzle, some were bare-chested, exposing their narrow waists, the densely ribboned muscles of their shoulders and chests. All were smooth-shaven, their heads, too. Everyone was armed; rifles and pistols, even a few crossbows.

"Folks'll stare," Greer said quietly. "You better get used to it."

"How many ... strags do you usually bring in?" Peter asked. The term, Greer had explained, was short for stragglers.

Greer frowned. They were moving toward the gate. "None. Farther east you still get some. Up in Oklahoma, Third Battalion once found a whole goddamn town. But way out here? We're not even looking."

"Then what was the net for?"

"Sorry," Greer said, "I thought you understood. That's for the dracs. What you all call smokes." He twirled a finger in the air. "That twisting motion messes with their heads. They're like ducks in a barrel in that thing."

Peter recalled something Caleb had told him, about why the virals stayed out of the turbine field. Zander always said the movement screwed them up. He related this to Greer.

"Makes sense," the major agreed. "They don't like spinning. I haven't heard that about turbines, though."

Michael was walking beside them. "So what were those things? Hanging in the trees, with the bad smell."

"Garlic." Greer gave a little laugh. "Oldest trick in the book. The f**king dracs love it."

The conversation was cut short as they stepped through the gate, into a tunnel of waiting men. Greer's squad had dispersed among the crowd. No one was talking. As Peter passed, he saw their eyes darting quickly over him. That was when he realized what the soldiers were all looking at: they were looking at the women.


Everyone snapped to. Peter saw a figure stepping briskly toward them from one of the tents. At first glance, he was not what Peter would have expected of a high-ranking military officer: an almost barrel-shaped man, a full head shorter than Greer, with a waddling, round-heeled gate. Under the dome of his shorn head, the features of his face seemed scrunched, as if they had been placed too close together. But as he approached, Peter felt the force of his authority, a mysterious energy, like a zone of static electricity that hovered in the air around him. His eyes, small and dark, possessed a frank, piercing intensity, even if, as it appeared, they had been incongruously set in the wrong face.

He regarded Peter a long moment, his hands on his hips, then looked past him toward the others, holding each briefly with the same evaluating gaze.

"I'll be goddamned."

His voice was surprisingly deep. He spoke with the same loose-jawed accent as Greer and his men.

"At ease, all of you."

Everyone relaxed. Peter didn't know what to say; best, he thought, to wait to hear from this man first.

"Men of the Second," he declared, lifting his voice to the gathered men, "it has come to my attention that some of these strags are women. You are not to look at these women. You are not to speak to them, or come near them, or approach them, or in any way think you have anything to do with them, or they with you. They are not your girlfriends or your wives. They are not your mothers or your sisters. They are nothing, they do not exist, they are not here. Am I clear?"

"Sir yes sir!"

Peter glanced at Alicia, where she was standing with Amy, but couldn't meet her eye. Hollis shot him a skeptical frown: clearly he had no idea what to make of this, either.

"You six, drop your packs and come with me. Major, you too."

They followed him into the tent, a single room with an earthen floor beneath a sagging canvas ceiling. The only furnishings were a potbellied stove, a pair of plywood trestle tables covered with papers, and, along the far wall, a smaller table with a radio manned by a soldier with earphones clamped to the sides of his head. On the wall above him was a large, multicolored map, marked with dozens of beaded pins forming an irregular V As Peter moved closer, he saw that the base of the V was in central Texas, with one arm reaching north across Oklahoma and into southern Kansas, the other veering west, into New Mexico, before it, too, turned north, ending just across the Colorado border-the place where he now stood. At the top of the map, written in yellow on a dark stripe, were the words UNITED STATES INTERMEDIATE POLITICAL, and, beneath that, Fox and Sons Classroom Maps, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Greer came up beside him. "Welcome to the war," he murmured.

The commander, who had entered behind them, directed his voice to the radio operator, who, as the men outside had, was staring frankly at the women. He seemed to have chosen Sara, but then his eyes moved to Alicia, then Amy, in a series of nervous jerks.

"Corporal, excuse us, please."

With obvious effort, he broke his gaze away, pulling the earphones from his head. His face bloomed with embarrassment. "Sir. Sorry, sir."

"Now, son."

The corporal got to his feet and scampered away.

"So." The commander's eyes settled on Greer. "Major. Is there something you neglected to tell me?"

"Three of the strags are women, sir."

"Yes. Yes, they are. Thank you for letting me know."

"Sorry, General." He seemed to wince. "We should have called that in."

"Yes, you should have. Since you found them, I'm putting you in charge. Think you can handle that?"

"Of course, sir. No problem."

"Put together a detail, get them billeted. They'll need their own latrine, too."

"Yes, General."


Greer nodded, glancing quickly toward Peter-Good luck, his eyes seemed to say-and exited the tent. The general, whose name, Peter realized, he had yet to learn, took another moment to look them over. Now that they were alone, his bearing had relaxed.

"You're Jaxon?"

Peter nodded.

"I'm Brigadier General Curtis Vorhees. Second Expeditionary Forces, Army of the Republic of Texas." A hint of a smile. "I'm the big dog around here, in case that was something else Major Greer neglected to mention."

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