The Passage Page 108

By 18:30, all the tables had been pulled from the mess hall, the benches assembled in rows. With nightfall had come a distinct cooling and drying of the air; the rain had blown through. All the soldiers had gathered outside, noisily talking among themselves in a way that Peter had not seen before, laughing and joking and passing flasks of shine. He took a bench with Hollis at the back of the hall, facing the screen, a sheet of plywood covered in whitewash. Michael was somewhere up forward, among his new friends from the motor pool.

Michael had done his best to explain how the movie would work, but still Peter did not quite know what to expect, and he found the idea vaguely troubling, not rooted in any physical logic he understood. The projector, which rested on a high table behind them, would beam a current of moving images onto the screen-but if that was true, where did these images come from? If they were reflections, what did they reflect? A long electric cable had been run from the projector, out the door of the mess to one of the generators; Peter could not help but think how wasteful it was to use precious fuel for the simple purpose of entertainment. But as Major Greer stepped forward, to the excited hoots of sixty men, Peter felt it too: a pure anticipation, an almost childlike thrill.

Greer held up a hand to quiet the men, which only made them hoot louder.

"Shut up, you bloodbags!"

"Bring on the Count!" someone yelled.

More hooting and shouting. Standing in front of the screen, Greer wore a thinly concealed smile; for the moment, the hard carapace of military discipline had been allowed to crack. Peter had spent enough time in Greer's company to know this was no accident.

Greer allowed the excitement to die down on its own, then cleared his throat and spoke: "All right, everyone, that'll do. First, an announcement. I know you all have enjoyed your stay out here in the north woods-"

"Fucking A right!"

Greer shot a frown in the direction of the man who'd spoken. "Interrupt me again, Muncey, and you'll be sucking latrines for a month."

"Just saying how happy I am to be here poking dracs, sir!"

More laughter. Greer let it go.

"As I was saying, with the break in the weather, we have some news. General?"

Vorhees stepped forward from where he'd been waiting, off to the side. "Thank you, Major. Good evening, Second Battalion."

A shouted chorus: "Good evening, sir!"

"It looks like we've got ourselves a bit of a window here with the weather, so I'm calling it. Oh-five-hundred, report to your squad leaders after morning chow for your sections. We need this place racked and packed by lights tomorrow. When Blue Squad gets back, we're moving south. Any questions?"

A soldier raised his hand. Peter recognized him as the one who had spoken to Michael in the mess hall. Sancho.

"What about the heavy mechs, sir? They won't make it in the mud."

"The decision's been made to leave them in place. We'll be traveling L and Q. Your squad leaders will go over this with you. Anyone else?"

Silence from the crowd.

"All right then. Enjoy the show."

The lanterns were doused; at the back of the room, the wheels of the projector began to turn. So there it was, Peter thought; the moment to decide was upon them. A week had suddenly become no time at all. Peter felt someone slip onto the bench next to him: Sara. Beside her was Amy, wearing a dark woolen blanket over her shoulders, against the cold.

"You shouldn't be here," Peter whispered.

"The hell with that," Sara said quietly. "You think I'd miss this?"

The screen blazed with light. Encircled numbers, descending in sequence: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Then:








A chorus of cheers rose up from the benches as, incredibly, the screen was filled with the moving image of a horse-drawn carriage, racing along a mountain road. The picture was bleached of all color, composed entirely of tones of gray-the palette of a half-remembered dream.

"Dracs," said Hollis. He turned to Peter, frowning. "Dracula?"

"Sound!" one of the soldiers bellowed, followed by others. "Sound! Sound!"

The soldier operating the projector was frantically checking connections, twisting knobs. He jogged briskly forward and knelt by a box positioned under the screen.

"Wait, there, I think that's it-"

A crackling boom of static: Peter, entranced by the moving image on the screen-the carriage was entering a village now, people running to meet it-reflexively bolted in his chair. But then he realized what had occurred, what the box under the screen was. The clop of horses, the creak of the carriage on its springs and the voices of the villagers, speaking to one another in a strange language he had never heard before: the images were more than pictures, more than light. They were alive and breathing with sound.

On the screen, a man in a white hat waved a walking stick at the carriage man. As he opened his mouth to speak, all the soldiers chimed in as one:

"Don't take my luggage down, I'm going on to Borgo Pass tonight!"

An explosion of general hilarity. Peter tore his gaze away to glance at Hollis. But his friend's eyes, glowing with reflected light, were raptly focused on the moving images before them. He turned to Sara and Amy; they were the same.

On the screen, a heavyset man was speaking to the driver of the carriage, a burble of meaningless sounds. He returned to the first fellow, in the hat, his words amplified by the shouted recitation of the men:

"The driii-ver. He eez ... afraid. Good fellow he eez. He wants me to ask if you can wait, and go on after sunrise."

The first man waved his cane arrogantly, having none of it. "Well, I'm sorry, but there's a carriage meeting me at Borgo Pass at midnight."

"Borgo Pass? Whose carriage?"

"Why, Count Dracula's."

The mustached man's eyes widened with terror. "Count ... Dracula's?"

"Don't do it, Renfield!" one of the soldiers yelled, and everybody laughed.

It was a story, Peter realized. A story, like the old books in the Sanctuary, the ones Teacher read to them in circle, all those years ago. The people on the screen looked like they were pretending because they were; their exaggerated motions and expressions called to mind the way Teacher would act out the voices of the characters in the books she read. The heavy man with the mustache knew something that the man in the hat did not; there was danger ahead. Despite this warning, the traveler resumed his journey, to more mocking shouts from the soldiers. In darkness, the carriage ascended a mountain road, approaching a massive structure of turrets and walls, drenched in a forbidding moonlight. What lay ahead was obvious: the mustached man had more or less explained it. Vampires. An old word, but one Peter knew. He waited for the virals to appear, falling on the carriage and tearing the traveler to shreds, but this didn't happen. The carriage pulled through the gate; the man, Renfield, stepped out to find that he was alone; the driver was gone. A creaking door, opening of its own accord, beckoned him inside, where he found himself in a great ruined cave of a room. Renfield, unaware, his innocence almost laughable, backed toward a massive flight of stairs, where a figure in a dark cloak, holding a single candle, was descending. As the cloaked figure reached the bottom, Renfield turned, the whites of his eyes expanding with such horror it was as if he'd stumbled on a whole pod of smokes, not a single man in a cape.

"I am ... Drrrrrac-ulaaah."

Another tent-shaking detonation of whoops, whistles, cheers. One of the soldiers in the front row shot to his feet.

"Hey, Count, eat this!"

A flash of spinning steel through the stream of light from the projector: the tip of the blade met the wood of the screen with a meaty thunk, burying itself squarely in the chest of the caped man, who seemed, surprisingly, to take no notice of this.

"Muncey, what the f**k!" the projector operator yelled.

"Get your blade," someone else shouted, "it's in the way!"

But the voices weren't angry; everybody thought it was hilarious. Under a storm of catcalls, Muncey bounded to the screen, the images washing over him, to yank his blade free of the wood. He turned, grinning, and gave a little bow.

Despite it all-the chaotic interruptions, the laughter and mocking recitations of the soldiers, who anticipated every line-Peter soon found himself sliding into the story. He sensed that some pieces of the film were missing; the narrative leapt ahead in confusing jerks, leaving the castle behind for a ship at sea, then for a place called London. A city, he realized. A city from the Time Before. The Count-some kind of viral, though he didn't look like one-was killing women. First a girl handing out flowers in the street, then a young woman asleep in her bed, with great sleepy curls of hair and a face so composed she looked like a doll. The Count's movements were comically slow, as were his victim's; everyone in the movie seemed trapped in a dream in which they couldn't make themselves move fast enough, or even at all. Dracula himself possessed a pale, almost womanly face, his lips painted to look bowed, like the wings of a bat; whenever he was about to bite someone, the screen would hold for a long, lingering moment on his eyes, which were lit from below to glow like twin candle flames.

Part of Peter knew it was all fake, nothing to take seriously, and yet as the story continued, he found himself worried for the girl, Mina, the daughter of the doctor-Dr. Seward, owner of the sanatorium, whatever that was-and whose husband, the ineffectual Harker, seemed to have no idea how to help her, always standing around with his hands in his pockets, looking helpless and lost. None of them knew what to do, except for Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. He wasn't like any hunter Peter had ever seen-an old man with thick, distorting eyeglasses, given to vast, windy pronouncements that were the object of the soldiers' most outspoken mockery. "Gentlemen, we are dealing with the unthinkable!" and "The superstitions of tomorrow can become the scientific reality of today!" The catcalls flew each time, and yet a great deal of what Van Helsing said seemed true to Peter, especially the part about a vampire being "a creature whose life has been unnaturally prolonged." If that didn't describe a smoke, he didn't know what did. He found himself wondering if Van Helsing's trick with the jewelry-box mirror wasn't some version of what had happened with the pans in Las Vegas, and if, as Van Helsing claimed, a vampire "must sleep each night in his native soil." Was that why they always came home, the ones who'd been taken up? At times the movie seemed almost to be a kind of instruction manual. Peter wondered if it wasn't a made-up tale at all but an account of something that had actually happened.

The girl, Mina, was taken up; Harker and Van Helsing pursued the vampire to his lair, a dank basement. Peter realized where the story was headed: they were going to perform the Mercy. They were going to hunt down Mina and kill her, and it was Harker, Mina's husband, who would have to perform this terrible duty. Peter braced himself. The soldiers had finally grown quiet, their antics put aside as they were caught up, despite themselves, in the story's final, grim unfolding.

He never got to see the end. A single soldier dashed into the tent.

"Lights up! Extraction at the gate!"

The movie was instantly forgotten; all the soldiers bolted from their chairs. Weapons were coming out, pistols, rifles, blades. In the rush to get to the door, someone tripped over the projector's power cable, sinking the room into darkness. Everyone was pushing, shouting, calling out orders; Peter heard the pop of rifle fire from outside. As he followed the crowd from the tent, he saw a pair of flares rocketing over the walls toward the muddy field beyond the gate. Michael was running past him with Sancho; Peter seized him by the arm.

"What is it? What's happening?"

Michael barely broke his stride. "It's Blue Squad!" he said. "Come on!"

From the chaos of the mess hall had emerged a sudden orderliness; everyone knew what to do. The soldiers had broken into distinct groups, some quickly ascending the ladders to the catwalk at the tops of the pickets, others taking positions behind a barricade of sandbags just inside the gate. More men were swiveling the spotlights to aim them across the muddy field beyond the opening.

"Here they come!"

"Open it now!" Greer shouted from the base of the wall. "Open the goddamn gate!"

A deafening barrage of cover fire from the catwalk as half a dozen soldiers leapt into the space over the yard, holding the ropes that connected through a system of pulleys and blocks to the gate's hinges. Peter was momentarily arrested by the coordinated grace of it all, the practiced beauty of their synchronized movements. As the soldiers descended, the gates began to part, revealing the light-bathed ground beyond the walls and a group of figures racing toward them. Alicia was leading the way. They hit the gate at a dead sprint, six of them, dropping and rolling in the dust as the men behind the sandbags opened fire, releasing a stream of rounds over their heads. If there were virals back there, Peter didn't see any. It was all too fast, too loud, and then, just like that, it was over: the gates were sealed behind them.

Peter ran to where Alicia lay with the others. She was on all fours in the dirt, breathing hard; the paint was dripping down her face, her bald head shining like polished metal under the harsh glare of the spotlights.

As she rocked back onto her knees, their eyes met quickly. "Peter, get the hell out of here."

From above, a few last halfhearted shots. The virals had scattered, retreating from the lights.

"I mean it," she said fiercely. Every part of her seemed clenched. "Go."

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