The Passage Page 121

"If it's okay with you, Peter," she'd said, "would you mind closing those shades? Because it's really, really bright in here."

The New Thing. That's what they were calling her. Neither one nor the other, but somehow both. She couldn't feel the virals, as Amy could; couldn't hear the question, the great sadness of the world. In every respect she seemed herself, the same Alicia she had always been, save one:

When she chose to, she could do the most astounding things.

But then, Peter thought, when had that not been true of her?

• • •

The Sno-Cat died within sight of the valley floor. A chuffing and wheezing, followed by a final sneeze of smoke from the exhaust pipe; they coasted a few more meters on the treads and came to rest.

"That's it," Michael called from the cab. "We hoof it from here."

Everyone climbed down. Peter could detect, rising from the trees below, the sound of the river, swollen with runoff. Their destination was the garrison, at least two days of travel in the sticky spring snow. They unloaded their gear and strapped themselves into their skis. They had learned the basics from a book they'd found in the lodge, a slender, yellowed volume called Principles of Nordic Skiing, though the words and pictures it contained made the thing itself look easier than it actually was. Greer, of all people, could barely stay upright and, even when he managed it, was always flying off helplessly into the trees. Amy did her best to help him-she had taken to it immediately, gliding and pushing off with a nimble grace-and showed him what to do. "Like this," she'd say. "You just kind of fly along the snow. It's easy." It wasn't easy, not by a long shot, and the rest of them had suffered more than their share of tumbles but, with practice, had all become at least passably proficient.

"Ready, everyone?" Peter asked, as he snapped his bindings closed. A murmured assent from the group. It was just shy of half-day, the sun high in the sky. "Amy?"

The girl nodded. "I think we're all right."

"Okay, everyone. All eyes."

They crossed the river at the old iron bridge, turned west, spent one night in the open, and reached the garrison by the end of the second day. Spring was in the valley. At this lower altitude, most of the snow had melted away, and the exposed ground was thick with mud. They traded their skis for the Humvee the battalion had left behind, supplied themselves with food and fuel and weapons from the underground cache, and set out once again.

They could carry enough diesel to take them as far as the Utah line. Maybe a little farther. After that, unless they found more, they'd be on foot again. They cut south, skirting the hills, into a dry country of blood-red rocks rising around them in fantastic formations. At night they took refuge where they could-a grain elevator, the back of an empty semi-truck, a gas station shaped like a tepee.

They knew they were not safe. The ones of Babcock were dead, but there were others. The ones of Sosa. The ones of Lambright. The ones of Baffes and Morrison and Carter and all the rest. That was what they had learned. That was what Lacey had showed them when she'd exploded the bomb, and Amy, when she had stood among the Many as they lay down in the snow and died. What the Twelve were, but even more: how to set the others free.

"I think the closest analogue would be bees," Michael had said. During their long days on the mountain, Peter had given everyone Lacey's files to read; the group had spent many hours in debate. But ultimately it was Michael who had advanced the hypothesis that pulled all the facts together.

"These Twelve original subjects," he went on, gesturing over the files, "they're like the queens, each with a different variant of the virus. Carriers of that variant are part of a collective mind, linked to the original host."

"How do you figure that?" Hollis asked. Of all of them, he was the most skeptical, pressing on every point.

"The way they move, for starters. Haven't you ever wondered about that? Everything they do looks coordinated because it is, just like Olson said. The more I think about it, the more this makes sense. The fact that they always travel in pods-bees do the same thing, traveling in swarms. I'll bet they send out scouts the same way, to establish new hives, like the one in the mine. And it explains why they take up one person out of ten. Think of it as a kind of reproduction, a way of continuing a particular viral strain."

"Like a family?" Sara said.

"Well, that's putting it nicely. We're talking about virals here, don't forget. But yes, I suppose you could look at it that way."

Peter remembered something Vorhees had said to him, that the virals were-what was the word? Clustering. He related this to the group.

"It follows," Michael agreed, nodding along. "There's very little large game left, and almost no people. They're running out of food, and running out of new hosts to infect. They're a species like any other, programmed to survive. So pulling together like that could be a kind of adaptation, to conserve their energy."

"Meaning ... they're weaker now?" Hollis tendered.

Michael considered this, rubbing his patchy beard. "'Weaker' is a relative term," he replied guardedly, "but yes, I'd say so. And I'll go back to the bee analogy. Everything a hive does, it does to protect its queen. If Vorhees was right, then what you're seeing is a consolidation around each of these original Twelve. I think that's what we found at the Haven. They need us, and they need us alive. I'll bet there are eleven more big hives like it somewhere."

"And what if we could find them?" Peter said.

Michael frowned. "I'd say it was nice knowing you."

Peter leaned forward in his chair. "But what if we could? What if we could find the rest of the Twelve and kill them?"

"When the queen dies, the hive dies with it."

"Like Babcock. Like the Many."

Michael glanced cautiously at the others. "Look, it's just a theory. We saw what we saw, but I could be wrong. And that doesn't solve the first problem, which is finding them. It's a big continent. They could be anyplace."

Peter was suddenly aware that everyone was looking at him.

"Peter?" This was Sara, seated beside him. "What is it?"

They always go home, he thought.

"I think I know where they are," said Peter.

They drove on. It was on their fifth night out-they were in Arizona, near the Utah border-that Greer turned to Peter, saying, "You know, the funny thing is, I always thought it was all made up."

They were sitting by a fire of crackling mesquite, a concession to the cold. Alicia and Hollis were on watch, patrolling the perimeter; the others were asleep. They were in a broad, empty valley, and had taken shelter for the night beneath a bridge over a dry arroyo.

"What was?"

"The movie. Dracula." Greer had grown leaner over the weeks. His hair had grown back in a tonsure of gray, and he had a full beard now. It was hard to recall a time when he wasn't one of them. "You didn't see the end, did you?"

That night in the mess: to Peter, it seemed like long ago. He thought back, trying to remember the order of events.

"You're right," he said finally. "They were going to kill the girl when Blue Squad came back. Harker and the other one. Van Helsing." He shrugged. "I was sort of glad I didn't have to watch that part."

"See, that's the thing. They don't kill the girl. They kill the vampire. Stake the son of a bitch right in the sweet spot. And just like that, Mina wakes up, good as new." Greer shrugged. "I never really bought that part, to tell you the truth. Now I'm not so sure. Not after what I saw on that mountain." He paused. "Do you really think they remembered who they were? That they couldn't die until they did?"

"That's what Amy says."

"And you believe her."


Greer nodded, allowing a moment to pass. "It's funny. I've spent my whole life trying to kill them. I've never really thought about the people they used to be. For some reason, it never seemed important. Now I find myself feeling sorry for them."

Peter knew what he meant; he had thought the same thing.

"I'm just a soldier, Peter. Or at least I was. Technically, I'm about as AWOL as you get. But everything that's happened, it means something. Even my being here, with you. It feels like more than chance."

Peter remembered the story Lacey had told him, about Noah and the ship, realizing something he hadn't thought of before. Noah wasn't alone. There were the animals, of course, but that wasn't all. He had taken his family with him.

"What do you think we're supposed to do?" he asked.

Greer shook his head. "I don't think it's up to me. You're the one with those vials in your pack. That woman gave them to you and no one else. As far as I'm concerned, my friend, that decision is yours." He rose, taking up his rifle. "But speaking as a soldier, ten more Donadios would make a hell of a weapon."

They spoke no more that night. Moab was two days away.

They approached the farmstead from the south, Sara at the wheel of the Humvee, Peter up top with the binoculars.

"Anything?" Sara called.

It was late afternoon. Sara had brought the vehicle to a halt on the wide plain of the valley. A hard, dusty wind had arisen, obscuring Peter's vision. After four warm days the temperature had fallen again, cold as winter.

Peter climbed down, blowing onto his hands. The others were crowded onto the benches with their gear. "I can see the buildings. No movement. The dust is too heavy."

Everyone was silent, fearful of what they'd find. At least they had fuel; south of the town of Blanding, they had stumbled across-actually driven straight into-a vast fuel depot, two dozen rust-streaked tanks poking from the soil like a field of giant mushrooms. They realized that if they planned their route correctly, seeking out airfields and the larger towns, especially those with railheads, they should be able to find enough usable fuel along the way to get them home, as long as the Humvee itself held out.

"Pull ahead," Peter said.

She drew forward slowly, onto the street of little houses. Peter thought, with a sinking feeling, that it all seemed just like it had when they'd found it, empty and abandoned. Surely Theo and Mausami should have heard the sound of their motor and come out by now. Sara drew up to the porch of the main house and silenced the engine; everyone got out. Still no sounds or movement from inside.

Alicia spoke first, touching Peter on the shoulder. "Let me go."

But he shook his head; the job was his. "No. I'll do it."

He ascended the porch and opened the door. He saw at once that everything had changed. The furniture had been moved around, made more comfortable, even homey. An arrangement of old photographs stood on the mantel above the ashy hearth. He stepped forward and felt for heat, but the fire had gone cold, long ago.


No reply. He moved into the kitchen, everything tidy and scrubbed and put away. He remembered, with an icy chill, the story Vorhees had told about the disappearing town-what was its name? Homer. Homer, Oklahoma. Dishes on the table, everything neat as a pin, all the people simply vanished into thin air.

The top of the stairs met a narrow hallway with two doors, one for each bedroom. Peter gingerly opened the first one. The room was empty, undisturbed.

His hope all but gone, Peter opened the second door.

Theo and Maus were lying on the big bed, fast asleep. Maus was facing away, a blanket drawn around her shoulders, black hair spilling over the pillow; Theo was lying stiffly on his back, his left leg splinted from ankle to hip. Between the two of them, peeking from the porthole of its heavy swaddling, was a baby's tiny face.

"Well, I'll be damned," said Theo, opening his eyes and smiling to reveal a line of broken teeth. "Will you look what the wind blew in."


The first thing Maus did was ask them to bury Conroy. She would have done it herself, she said, but she was simply not able. With Theo and the baby to take care of, she'd had to leave him where he was for the three days since the attack. Peter carried what was left of the poor animal to the yard of graves, where Hollis and Michael had dug a hole beside the others, moving stones to mark the perimeter in the same manner. If not for the freshly turned earth, Conroy's grave would have looked no different at all.

How they had survived the attack in the barn was nothing Theo or Mausami could wholly explain. Huddled in the backseat of the car with baby Caleb, her face pressed to the floor, Mausami had heard the shotgun go off; when she lifted her face to see the viral lying on the floor of the barn, dead, she assumed that Theo had shot him. But Theo maintained that he had no memory of this, and the gun itself was lying several meters away, near the door-far beyond his reach. At the moment when he heard the shot, his eyes were closed; the next thing he knew, Mausami's face was hovering over him in the dark, saying his name. He'd assumed the only thing that made sense: that she had been the one. She had somehow gotten ahold of the shotgun and fired the shot that had saved them.

This left as the only possibility a third, unseen party-the owner of the footprints Theo had found in the barn. But how such a person would arrive at just the right moment and then escape without being detected-and, most curiously of all, why he or she would want to do such a thing-was unaccountable. They had found no more prints in the dust, no additional evidence that anyone else had been there. It was as if they'd been saved by a ghost.

The other question was why the viral hadn't simply killed them when it had the chance. Neither Theo nor Mausami had returned to the barn since the attack; the body, sheltered from the sun, still lay inside. But once Alicia and Peter went to look, the mystery was solved. Neither of them had ever seen a viral corpse that was more than a few hours old, and, in fact, the passing days in the dark barn had brought about a wholly unexpected effect, the skin drawing more tightly over the bones to restore a semblance of recognizable humanness to its face. The viral's eyes were open, clouded over like marbles. The fingers of one hand lay spread upon its chest, splayed over the cratered wound from the shotgun-a gesture of surprise or even shock. Peter was touched by a feeling of familiarity, as if he were viewing a person he knew at a great distance, or through some incidentally reflective surface. But it wasn't until Alicia said the name that he knew, and once she did, all uncertainty vanished from his mind. The curve of the viral's brow and the look of puzzlement on his face, accentuated by the cold blankness of his gaze; the searching gesture of his hand upon his wound, as if, in the last instant, he had sought to verify what was happening to him. There was no doubt that the man on the floor of the barn was Galen Strauss.

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