The Passage Page 109

Others were crowding around. "Where's Raimey?" Vorhees bellowed, moving through the men. "Where the hell's Raimey?"

"He's dead, sir."

Vorhees turned to where Alicia was kneeling in the mud. When he saw Peter, his eyes flashed with anger. "Jaxon, you don't belong here."

"We found it, sir," Alicia said. "Stumbled right into it. A regular hornet's nest. There must be hundreds of them."

Vorhees waved to Hollis and the others. "All of you, back to your quarters, now." Without waiting for an answer, he turned back to Alicia. "Private Donadio, report."

"The mine, General," she said. "We found the mine."

• • •

All that summer Vorhees's men had been looking for it: the entrance shaft to an old copper mine, hidden somewhere in the hills. It was thought that this was one of the hot spots Vorhees had spoken of, a nest where the virals slept. Using old geological survey maps and tracking the creatures' movements with the nets, they had narrowed their search to the southeast quadrant, an area of roughly twenty square kilometers above the river. Blue Squad's mission had been one last attempt to locate it before the evac. It was sheer chance that they had; as Peter heard the story from Michael, Blue Squad had simply wandered into it, just before sundown-a soft depression in the earth, into which the point man had vanished with a scream. The first viral who emerged took two more men before anyone could get off a shot. The rest of the squad was able to form some kind of firing line, but more virals swarmed out, braving the last of daylight in their blood fury; once the sun went down, the unit would be quickly overwhelmed, the location of the mine shaft lost with them. The flares they carried would buy them a few minutes, but that was all. They broke into two groups; the first would make a run for it while the second, led by Lieutenant Raimey, would cover their escape, holding the creatures off as long as they could, until the sun went down and all the flares were gone, and that would be the end of it.

All night long, the camp buzzed with activity. Peter could feel the change: the days of waiting, of hunt-and-peck missions in the forest, were over; Vorhees's men were preparing themselves for battle. Michael was gone, helping to ready the vehicles that would carry the explosives, drums of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate with a grenade-cluster igniter, known as a "flusher." These would be lowered by winch straight into the exposed shaft. The explosion would no doubt kill many of the virals inside; the question was, where would the survivors emerge? In a hundred years the topography might have changed, and for all Vorhees and the others knew, a landslide or earthquake had opened an entirely new access point. While one squad put the explosives in place, the rest of the men would do their best to sniff out any other openings. With luck, everyone would be in position when the bomb went off.

The lights came down to a gray dawn. The temperature had dropped in the night, and all the puddles in the yard were encrusted with ice. The vehicles were being loaded; Vorhees's soldiers were assembled at the gate, all but a single squad, which would stay behind to man the garrison. Alicia had spent many of the intervening hours in Vorhees's tent. It was she who had led the survivors back to the garrison, using the route they had first traveled along the river. Now Peter saw her up front with the general, the two of them with a map spread over the hood of one of the Humvees. Greer, on horseback, was supervising the final loading of supplies. Watching from the sidelines, Peter felt a growing unease, but something else, too-a strong attractive force, instinctual as breathing. For days he had drifted between the poles of his uncertainty, knowing he should press on but unable to leave Alicia behind. Now, as he watched the soldiers completing their preparations at the gate, Alicia among them, a single desire pushed itself forward. Vorhees's men were going to war; he wanted to be part of it.

As Greer moved down the line, Peter stepped forward. "Major, I'd like to speak with you."

Greer's face and voice were distracted, hasty. He looked over Peter's head as he spoke: "What is it, Jaxon?"

"I'd like to go, sir."

Greer regarded him a moment. "We can't take civilians."

"Just put me at the rear. There must be something I can do. I can, I don't know, be a runner or something."

Greer's focus shifted to the back of one of the trucks, where a group of four men, including Michael, were winching the drums of fuel into place over the tailgate.

"Sergeant," Greer barked to the squad sergeant, a man named Withers, "can you take over for me here? And Sancho, watch that chain-it's all wrapped up."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

"These are bombs, son. For Christsakes, be careful." Then, to Peter: "Come with me."

The major dismounted and took Peter aside, out of earshot. "I know you're worried about her," he said. "Okay? I get it. If it were up to me, I'd probably let you come."

"Maybe if we talked to the general-"

"That's not going to happen. I'm sorry." A curious expression came into Greer's face, a flickering indecision. "Look. What you told me about the girl, Amy. You should know something." He shook his head, glancing away. "I can't believe I'm about to tell you this. Maybe I really have been out in these woods too long. What's that thing called? When you think something's happened before, like you dreamed it. There's a name for it."


Greer still wasn't looking at him. "Deja vu. That's it. I've been feeling that way since I first found you guys. A big bad case of deja vu. I know it doesn't look like it now, but when I was a kid, I was a scrawny little thing, sick all the time. My parents died when I was small, I never even really met them, so probably it was just the orphanage where I was raised, fifty kids all crammed together, all that snot and dirty hands. You name it, I caught it. About a dozen times the sisters were ready to write me off. Fever dreams like you wouldn't believe, too. Nothing I could really describe, or even remember. Just the feeling of it, like being lost in the dark for a thousand years. But the thing was, I wasn't alone. That was part of the dream, too. I hadn't thought about it for a long time, not until you all showed up. That girl. Those eyes of hers. You think I didn't notice that? Jesus, it's like I'm right back there, six years old and sweating my brains out with fever. I'm telling you, she was the one. I know it sounds crazy. She was in the dream with me."

An expectant silence hung around his final words. Peter felt a shiver of recognition.

"Did you tell Vorhees this?"

"Are you kidding? What would I say? Hell, son, I'm not even telling you."

To show Peter that the conversation was over, Greer took his mount by the reins and swung back up into the saddle. "That's all. But you ask me why you can't go, there's my answer. We don't come back, Red Squad has orders to evacuate you down to Roswell. That's official. Unofficially, I will tell you they won't stop you if you decide to press on."

He heeled his mount to take his place at the head of the line. A roar of engines; the gates swung open. Peter watched as the men, five squads plus the horses and vehicles, moved slowly through. Alicia was somewhere in there, Peter thought, probably up front with Vorhees. But he couldn't find her anywhere.

The line had long since passed when Michael came up beside him.

"He didn't let you go, huh?"

Peter could only shake his head.

"Me neither," said Michael.


They waited, through that day and into the next. With just a single squad remaining to man the walls, the camp felt strange, empty and alone. Amy and Sara were now free to move through the garrison as they wished, but there was nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait. Amy had lapsed into a silence so profound that Peter had begun to wonder if he had dreamed her voice in the first place; all day long she sat on her bunk in her tent, her eyes drawn into an intense look of concentration. When Peter could stand it no longer, he asked her if she knew what was happening out there.

Her voice when she answered was vague; she seemed to be looking at him and also not. "They're lost. Lost in the woods."

"Who is, Amy? Who's lost?"

She seemed to discover him only then, to enter into the present moment and its circumstances. "Will we be leaving soon, Peter?" she asked again. "Because I would like to leave soon." An airy smile. "To make the snow angels."

It was more than puzzling; it was maddening. For the first time, Peter actually felt anger at her. Never had he felt so helpless, pinned in place by his own hesitancy and the delay it had created. They should have departed days ago; now they were trapped. To leave without knowing if Alicia was safe was simply impossible for him. He stormed from the women's tent and resumed his haunted walks around the compound, filling the useless hours. He made no effort even to speak with the others, keeping his distance. The sky was clear, but to the east, the peaks of the mountains glinted with ice. It had begun to seem possible they would never leave the garrison at all.

Then, on the morning of the third day, they heard it: the sound of engines. Peter raced to the ladder and ascended to the catwalk, where the squad commander, whose name was Eustace, was looking south through a pair of binoculars. Eustace alone had deigned to talk to any of them, though he kept such exchanges brief and to the point.

"It's them," Eustace said. "Some of them, anyway."

"How many?" Peter asked.

"Looks like two squads."

The men who moved through the gate were filthy, exhausted; everything about them spoke of defeat. Alicia was nowhere among them. At the rear of the line, still on horseback, was Major Greer. Hollis and Michael had come running from their tent. Greer dismounted, looking dazed, and took a long drink of water before speaking.

"Are we the first?" he asked Peter. He seemed to not quite know where he was.

"Where's Alicia?" Peter demanded.

"Christ, what a mess. The whole f**king hillside caved in. They came at us from everywhere. We were totally flanked."

Peter could contain himself no longer. He grabbed Greer roughly by the shoulders, forcing the major to look him in the eye·· "Goddamnit, tell me where she is!"

Greer made no resistance. "I don't know, Peter. I'm sorry. Everybody got split up in the dark. She was with Vorhees. We waited a day at the fallback point, but they never showed."

More waiting; it was unbearable, infuriating. Peter had never felt so powerless. A short time later, a cry went up from the wall.

"Two more squads!"

Peter was sitting in the mess hall in a haze of worry. He dashed outside, arriving at the gate as the first truck pulled into the compound. It was the one that had carried the explosives; the winch was still attached to the bed, the empty hook swinging. Twenty-four men, three squads reconstituted as two. Peter searched for Alicia among their benumbed faces.

"Private Donadio! Does anyone know what happened to Private Donadio!"

No one did. Everyone told the same story: the bomb exploding, the ground tearing open beneath them, the virals pouring forth, everyone scattering, lost in the dark.

Someone claimed they'd seen Vorhees die, others that he was with Blue Squad. But no one had seen Alicia.

The day dragged on. Peter paced the parade ground, talking to no one. As senior officer, Greer was now in charge. He spoke briefly to Peter, telling him not to abandon hope. The general knew what he was doing; if anyone could bring his unit back alive, it was Curtis Vorhees. But Peter could see in Greer's face that he, too, had begun to believe that no one else was coming back.

His hopes ended with the fall of darkness. He returned to the tent, where Hollis and Michael were playing hands of go-to. Both glanced up as he entered.

"Just keeping busy," Hollis said.

"I didn't say anything."

Peter lay down on his bunk and drew a blanket over himself, not even bothering to remove his muddy boots. He was filthy, wrung out with fatigue; the last, unreal hours seemed to have transpired in a kind of trance. He had barely eaten for days, but the thought of food was impossible. A cold wind-a winter wind-was shaking the walls of the tent. His last thoughts before he slept were of Alicia's final words to him: Get the hell out of here.

He was awakened by a distant cry that sent him lurching upright. Hollis's face ducked through the flap of the tent.

"Someone's at the gate."

He threw the blanket aside and tore outside, into the glare of the spotlights. His doubts turned to certainty, and by the time he was halfway across the parade ground he knew what was waiting for him.

Alicia. Alicia had come back.

She was standing at the gate. His first impression, as he moved toward her, was that she was alone. But as he pushed his way through the gathering men, he saw a second soldier, kneeling on the dirt. It was Muncey. His wrists were bound before him. Under the blaze of the spotlights, Peter could see that his face was glazed with sweat. He was shivering, but not from the cold; one of his hands was wrapped in a rag sodden with blood.

The two were surrounded by soldiers now, everyone keeping their distance. A reverential hush had descended. Greer stepped forward to Alicia.

"The general?"

She shook her head: no.

The private was holding his bloody hand away from his body, breathing rapidly. Greer crouched before him. "Corporal Muncey." His voice was quiet, soothing.

"Yes, sir." Muncey licked his lips with a slow tongue. "Sorry, sir."

"It's all right, son. You've done well."

"Don't know how I missed the one that did it. Chewed me like a dog before Donadio got him." He raised his head toward Alicia. "You wouldn't know she was a girl from the way she fights. Hope you don't mind I asked her to truss me up and bring me home."

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