The Passage Page 106

"He didn't, sir. I mean, he did. Mention it."

"Good." Vorhees nodded, regarding them all another moment. "So, am I to understand-and forgive me if I seem incredulous on this point-that the six of you walked all the way from California?"

Actually, Peter thought, we drove some of the way. For some of it, we took a train. But instead he simply answered, "Yes, sir."

"And why, may I ask, would anyone attempt such a thing?"

Peter opened his mouth to reply; but once again the answer, the true one, seemed too large. Outside, the rain had begun to fall in earnest, drumming on the tent's canvas roof.

"It's a long story," he managed.

"Well, I'm sure it is, Mr. Jaxon. And I'd be very interested to hear it. For now, we need to concern ourselves with a few preliminaries. You are civilian guests of the Second Expeditionary. For the duration of your stay, you're under my authority. Think you can live with that?"

Peter nodded.

"In another six days, this unit will be moving south to rendezvous with Third Battalion at the town of Roswell, New Mexico. From there, we can send you back to Kerrville with a supply convoy. I suggest you take this offer, but this is entirely your choice. No doubt it is something you will wish to discuss among yourselves."

Peter broke his gaze away to look at the others, whose faces seemed to mirror his own surprise. He hadn't considered the possibility that their journey might be over.

"Now, as for the other matter," Vorhees went on, "which you heard me speak of with the major. I will need you to instruct the women in your party that they are not to have any contact with my men, beyond what is absolutely necessary. They are to remain in their tent, except to go to the latrine. Any needs they have are to go through you or Major Greer. Is this clear?"

Peter had no reason to refuse, other than the fact that the offer struck him as plainly ridiculous. "I'm not sure I can tell them that, sir."

"You can't?"

"No sir." He shrugged. There were no other words for it. "We're all together. That's just how it is."

The general sighed. "Perhaps you misunderstood me. I am asking only as a courtesy. The mission of the Second Expeditionary is such that it would be completely improper, even dangerous, for them to move freely among the unit."

"Why would they be in danger?"

He frowned. "They wouldn't. It's not the women I'm thinking of." Vorhees took a patient breath and began again. "I will explain this as simply as I know how. We are a volunteer force. To join the Expeditionary is to do so for life, by blood oath, and each of these men is sworn to die. He's cut all ties to the world but this unit and the men within it. Each time a man leaves this compound, he wholly believes he'll never come back. He accepts this. More than that, he embraces it. A man will happily die for his friends, but a woman-a woman makes him want to live. Once that happens, I promise you, he'll walk through that gate and never come back."

Vorhees was talking, Peter understood, about giving it up. But after all they had been through, it was simply impossible to imagine telling any of them, Alicia especially, that they would have to hide in their tent.

"I'm sure all of these women are fine fighters," Vorhees continued. "You couldn't have made it this far if they weren't. But our code is very strict, and I need you to respect it. If you can't, I will return your weapons and send you on your way."

"Fine," he said, "we'll go."

"Wait, Peter."

It was Alicia who had spoken. Peter turned to face her.

"Lish, it's all right. I'm with you on this. He says we go, we'll go."

But Alicia didn't acknowledge him. Her eyes were pointed at the general. Peter realized she was standing at attention, her arms held rigidly at her sides.

"General Vorhees. Colonel Niles Coffee of the First Expeditionary sends his regards."

"Niles Coffee?" A light seemed to come on in his face. "The Niles Coffee?"

"Lish," Peter said, her meaning dawning upon him, "do you mean ... the Colonel?"

But Alicia said nothing. She didn't even look at him. Her expression was set in a way that Peter had never seen before.

"Young lady. Colonel Coffee was lost with all his men thirty years ago."

"Not true, sir," Alicia said. "He survived."

"Coffee's alive?"

"KIA, sir. Three months ago."

Vorhees glanced around the room before finding Alicia with his eyes again. "And who, may I ask, are you?"

She gave a crisp nod from her chin. "His adopted daughter, sir. Private Alicia Donadio, First Expeditionary. Baptized and sworn."

No one spoke. Something final was occurring, Peter knew. Something irrevocable. He felt a wave of disorienting panic rising inside him, as if some basic fact of his life, fundamental as gravity, had been suddenly, and without warning, stripped away.

"Lish, what are you saying?"

At last she turned her face to look at him; her eyes were pooled with trembling tears.

"Oh, Peter," she said, as the first one broke away to descend her dirt-stained cheek, "I'm sorry. I really should have told you."

"You can't have her!"

"I'm sorry, Jaxon," the general said. "This isn't your decision to make. It's no one's decision." He stepped briskly to the door of the tent. "Greer! Somebody get Major Greer to my tent, now."

"What's going on?" Michael demanded. "Peter, what is she talking about?"

Suddenly everybody was speaking at once. Peter gripped Alicia by the arms, making her look at him. "Lish, what are you doing? Think about what you're doing."

"It's already done." Through her tears, her face seemed to glow with relief, as if a burden long carried had finally been put to rest. "It was done before I knew you. Long before. The day the Colonel came into the Sanctuary to claim me. He made me promise not to tell."

He understood, then, what she'd been trying to say to him that morning. "You were tracking them."

She nodded. "Yes, for the last two days. When I was scouting downstream I found one of their camps. The ashes of their fire were still warm. Way out here, I didn't think it could be anybody else." She shook her head faintly. "Honestly, Peter, I didn't know if I even wanted to find them. Part of me always thought they were just an old man's stories. You have to believe that."

Greer appeared at the door of the tent, dripping with rain.

"Major Greer," the general said, "this woman is First Expeditionary."

Greer's jaw fell open. "She's what?"

"Niles Coffee's daughter."

Greer stared at Alicia, his eyes wide with shock, as if he were looking at some strange animal. "Holy goddamn. Coffee had a daughter?"

"She says she's sworn."

Greer scratched his bare head in puzzlement. "Christ. She's a woman. What do you want to do?"

"There's nothing to do. Sworn is sworn. The men will have to learn to live with it. Take her to the barber, get her assigned."

It was all happening too fast. Peter felt as if something huge were breaking open inside him. "Lish, tell them you're lying!"

"I'm sorry. This is how it has to be. Major?"

Greer nodded, his face grave, and stepped to her side.

"You can't leave me," Peter heard himself say, though the voice that spoke these words did not seem to be his own.

"I have to, Peter. It's who I am."

He had, without realizing it, stepped into her arms. He felt the tears in his throat. "I can't ... do this without you."

"Yes, you can. I know you can."

It was no use. Alicia was leaving him; he felt her slipping away. "I can't, I can't."

"It's all right," she said, her voice close to his ear. "Hush now."

She held him that way a long moment, the two of them wrapped in a bubble of silence, as if they were alone. Then Alicia took his face in her hands and bent him toward her; she kissed him, once and quickly, on the forehead. A kiss that both sought forgiveness and bestowed it: a kiss of goodbye. The air parted between them. She had released him, stepping away.

"Thank you, General," she said. "Major Greer, I'm ready now."

Chapter SIXTY

The days of rain: Peter told them everything.

For five full days the rain poured down. He sat for hours at the long table in Vorhees's tent, sometimes just the two of them, but usually with Greer as well. He told them about Amy, and the Colony, and the signal they had come to find; he told them about Theo and Mausami, and the Haven, and all that had happened there. He told them that sixteen hundred kilometers away, on a mountaintop in California, ninety souls were waiting for the lights to go out.

"I won't lie to you," Vorhees said, when Peter asked them if they could send the soldiers there. It was late afternoon. Alicia had left in the morning, on patrol. Just like that, she had been subsumed into the life of Vorhees's men.

"It's not that I don't believe you," Vorhees explained. "And this bunker of yours alone sounds like it would be worth the trip. But I'll have to take this up the line, and that means Division. It would be next spring at the earliest before we could think about making such a trip. That's all uncharted ground."

"I'm not sure they can wait that long."

"Well, they'll have to. My biggest worry is getting out of this valley before the snow hits. This rain doesn't let up, we could get stuck here. There's only enough fuel to keep our lights going another thirty days."

"What I want to know more about is this place, the Haven," Greer cut in. Outside the walls of the tent and in the presence of any of the men, Greer's and Vorhees's relationship was rigidly formal; but inside, as they were now, they visibly relaxed into friendship. Greer looked at the general, his eyes darkening thoughtfully. "Sounds a little like those folks in Oklahoma."

"What folks?" Peter asked.

"Place called Homer," Vorhees replied, picking up the thread. "Third Battalion came across them about ten years ago, way the hell and gone out in the panhandle. A whole town of survivors, over eleven hundred men, women, and children. I wasn't there, but I heard the stories. It was like stepping back a hundred years; they didn't even seem to know what the dracs were. Just going about their business, nice as you please, no lights or fencing, happy to see you but don't slam the door on your way out. The CO offered them transport but they said no thanks, and in any case, the Third wasn't really equipped to move that many bodies south to Kerrville. It was the damndest thing. Survivors, and they didn't want to be rescued. Third Battalion left a squad behind and moved on north, up to Wichita, where got their happy asses handed to them. Lost half their men; the rest hightailed it back. When they got there, the place was empty."

"What do you mean 'empty'?" Peter asked.

Vorhees's eyebrows lifted sharply. "I mean empty. Not a soul, and no bodies. Everything neat as a pin, dinner dishes sitting on the table. No sign of the squad they'd left, either."

Peter had to admit it was puzzling, but he didn't see what this had to do with the Haven. "Maybe they decided to go somewhere safer," Peter offered.

"Maybe. Maybe the dracs just took them so fast they didn't have time to wash the dishes. You're asking something I don't know the answer to. But I will tell you this. Thirty years ago, when Kerrville sent out the First Expeditionary, you couldn't walk a hundred meters without tripping over a drac. The First lost half a dozen men on a good day, and when Coffee's unit disappeared, people pretty much thought it was over. I mean, the guy was a legend. The Expeditionary more or less disbanded right then. But now here you are, having traveled all the way from California. Back in the day, you wouldn't have made it twenty steps to the latrine."

Peter glanced at Greer, who acknowledged this truth with a nod, then looked back at Vorhees. "Are you saying they're dying off?"

"Oh, there's plenty, believe me. You just got to know where to look. What I'm saying is something's different. Something's changed. In the last sixty months, we've run two supply lines from Kerrville, one up as far as Hutchinson, Kansas, another through New Mexico into Colorado. What we've seen is that you tend to find them in clusters now. They're burrowing deeper, too, using mines, caves, places like that mountain you found. They're sometimes packed in there so tightly you'd need a crowbar to pry them apart. The cities are still crawling, with all the empty buildings, but there's plenty of open countryside where you could go for days without seeing one."

"What about Kerrville? Why is that safe?"

The general frowned. "Well, it isn't. Not a hundred percent. Most of Texas is pretty bad, actually. Laredo is no place you'd ever want to go, or Dallas. Houston, what's left of it, is like a goddamn bloodsucker swamp. The place is so polluted with petrochemicals I don't know how they survive there, but they do. San Antonio and Austin were both pretty much leveled in the first war, El Paso, too. Fucking federal government, trying to burn the dracs out. That's what led to the Declaration, along about the same time California split off."

"Split off?" Peter asked.

Vorhees nodded. "From the Union. Declared its independence. The California thing was a real bloodbath, pretty much open warfare for a while, like there wasn't anything else to worry about. But Texas got lost in the shuffle. Maybe the federals just didn't want to fight on two fronts. The governor seized all military assets, which wasn't hard, since the Army by then was in total free fall, everything coming apart. They moved the capital to Kerrville and dug in. Walled it off, like your Colony, but the difference is, we had oil, and lots of it. Down near Freeport, there's about five hundred million barrels sitting in underground salt domes, the old Strategic Petroleum Reserve. You got oil, you got power. You got power, you got lights. We've got over thirty thousand souls inside the walls, plus another fifty thousand acres under irrigation and a fortified supply line running to a working refinery on the coast."

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