The Passage Page 15

Richards's office, like all the underground spaces of the compound, was little more than a fluorescent box, everything pumped in and filtered. Even the light felt recycled. It was a little after two-thirty in the morning, but Richards got by on less than four hours of sleep a night, he had for years, so he paid this no mind. On the wall above his station, three dozen time-stamped monitors displayed every nook of the compound, from the guards freezing their asses off at the front gate to the vacant mess hall with its empty tables and dozing drink dispensers, to the subject containment areas, two floors below him, with their glowing, infectious cargo, and, farther down, through another fifty feet of rock, to the nuclear cells that powered it all and would keep the lights on, the juice flowing, for a hundred years, give or take a decade. He liked having everything where he could see it at a glance, where he could read it like the cards. Sometime between five and six A.M. they'd be taking a delivery, and he figured he might as well just stay up all night for that. Subject processing took a couple of hours at the most; he could grab a few winks at his desk afterward if he had to.

Then, on the computer screen, he saw the answer. It was right there, under the six: the black queen he needed to move the jack and free up the two and so on. A couple of clicks and it was over. The cards shot up the screen like a pianist's fingers flying over the keys.

Do you want to play again?

You're goddamn right he would.

Because the game was the world's natural state. Because the game was war, it always was, and when wasn't there a war on, somewhere, to keep a man like Richards in good employ? The last twenty years had been kind to him, a long run at the table with nothing but good news from the cards. Sarajevo, Albania, Chechnya. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. Syria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Chad. The Philippines and Indonesia and Nicaragua and Peru.

Richards remembered the day-that glorious and terrible day-watching the planes slam into the towers, the image repeated in endless loops. The fireballs, the bodies falling, the liquefaction of a billion tons of steel and concrete, the pillowing clouds of dust. The money shot of the new millennium, the ultimate reality show broadcast 24-7. Richards had been in Jakarta when it happened, he couldn't even remember why. He'd thought it right then; no, he'd felt it, right down to his bones. A pure, unflinching rightness. You had to give the military something to do of course, or they'd all just f**king shoot each other. But from that day forward, the old way of doing things was over. The war-the real war, the one that had been going on for a thousand years and would go on for a thousand thousand more-the war between Us and Them, between the Haves and the Have-Nots, between my gods and your gods, whoever you are-would be fought by men like Richards: men with faces you didn't notice and couldn't remember, dressed as busboys or cab drivers or mailmen, with silencers tucked up their sleeves. It would be fought by young mothers pushing ten pounds of C-4 in baby strollers and schoolgirls boarding subways with vials of sarin hidden in their Hello Kitty backpacks. It would be fought out of the beds of pickup trucks and blandly anonymous hotel rooms near airports and mountain caves near nothing at all; it would be waged on train platforms and cruise ships, in malls and movie theaters and mosques, in country and in city, in darkness and by day. It would be fought in the name of Allah or Kurdish nationalism or Jews for Jesus or the New York Yankees-the subjects hadn't changed, they never would, all coming down, after you'd boiled away the bullshit, to somebody's quarterly earnings report and who got to sit where-but now the war was everywhere, metastasizing like a million maniac cells run amok across the planet, and everyone was in it.

Which was why NOAH had made a certain sense, back when it all started. Richard had been with the project since the beginning, since his first communique from Cole, rest in peace, you little shit. He'd known it was something important when Cole actually came to see him in Ankara, five years ago. Richards was waiting at a table by a window when Cole strolled in, swinging a briefcase that probably had nothing in it but a cell phone and a diplomatic passport. He was also wearing a Hawaiian shirt under his khaki suit, a nice touch, like something out of Graham Greene. Richards almost laughed. They ordered a pot of coffee and Cole got started, his smooth face animated with excitement. Cole was from a little town in Georgia, but all those years at Andover and Princeton had tightened up the muscles in his jaw, making him sound like Bobby Kennedy channeling Robert E. Lee. The boy had nice-looking teeth, too, Ivy League teeth, straight as a fence and so white you could read by them in a dark room. So, Cole began, think of the A-bomb, how it changed everything just to have it. Until the Russians set off their own in '49, the world was ours to do as we liked; for four years it was Pax Americana, bay-by. Now of course everybody and his uncle was cooking one up in his basement, and at least a hundred rust-bucket Soviet-era warheads were floating around on the open market and those were just the ones we knew about, and of course Pakistan and India had burst the cherry with all their bullshit-thanks a bunch, fellas, you made incinerating a hundred thousand people over diddly-squat just another day at the office of the deputy undersecretary of the War on Terr-rah.

But this, Cole said, and sipped his coffee. Nobody else could do this. This was the new Manhattan Project. This was bigger than that. Cole couldn't go into details, not yet, but for the sake of context, think of the human form itself, weaponized. Think of the American Way as something truly long-term. As in permanent.

Which was why Cole had come to see him. He needed somebody like Richards, he explained, someone off the books, but not only that. Someone practical, with practical skills. People skills, you might say. Maybe not right away, but in the coming months, as the pieces gathered to form the whole. Security was paramount. Security was at the absolute top of Cole's list. That's why he had come all this way and put on this ridiculous luau shirt. To get the buy-in. To get this piece of the puzzle nailed down.

All well and good if things had gone according to plan, which they hadn't, not by a long shot, starting with the fact that Cole was dead. A lot of people were dead, in fact, and some-well, it was hard to say just what they were. Only three people had come out of that jungle alive, not counting Fanning, who was already well on his way to being ... well, what? More than Cole had bargained for, that was for sure. There might have been more survivors, but the order from Special Weapons was clear: anybody who didn't make it to the dust-off was bacon with a side of toast. The missile that screamed in over the mountains had made sure of that. Richards wondered what Cole would have said if he'd known he wouldn't be one of them.

By then-by the time Fanning was safely locked away, Lear was on-site in Colorado, and everything that had happened in South America had been wiped from the system-Richards had learned what it was all about. VSA, for Very Slow Aging. Richards had to hand it to whoever had dreamed up that one. VSA: Very Silly Abbreviation. A virus or, rather, a family of viruses, hidden away in the world, in birds or monkeys or sitting on a dirty toilet seat somewhere. A virus that could, with the proper refinements, restore the thymus gland to its full and proper function. Richards had read Lear's early papers, the ones that had gotten Cole's attention, the first one in Science and the second in Journal of Paleovirology, hypothesizing the existence of "an agent that could significantly lengthen human life span and increase physical robustness and has done so, at select moments, throughout human history." Richards didn't need a PhD in microbiology to know that it was risky stuff: vampire stuff, though no one at Special Weapons ever used the word. If it hadn't been written by a scientist of Lear's stature, a Harvard microbiologist no less, it all would have sounded like something from the Weekly World News. But still, something about it hit a nerve. As a kid Richards had read his share of such stories, not just the comic books-Tales from the Crypt and Dark Shadows and all the rest-but the original Bram Stoker, and seen the movies too. A bunch of silliness and bad sex, he knew that even then, and yet wasn't there something about them that struck a deep chord of recognition, even of memory? The teeth, the blood hunger, the immortal union with darkness-what if these things weren't fantasy but recollection or even instinct, a feeling etched over eons into human DNA, of some dark power that lay within the human animal? A power that could be reactivated, refined, brought under control?

That was what Lear had believed, and Cole too. A belief that had taken them into the Bolivian jungle, looking for a bunch of dead tourists. A bunch of, as it had turned out, undead tourists-Richards disliked the word but couldn't think of a better one, undeadness being, in the end, a pretty solid descriptor of the condition-who had killed-ripped apart, really-what was left of the research team, all except for Lear, Fanning, one of the soldiers, and a young graduate student named Fortes. If not for Fanning, the whole thing would have been a total loss.

Lear: you had to feel for the guy. Probably he still thought he was trying to save the world, but he'd sold that dream up the river the minute he'd gotten into bed with Cole and Special Weapons. And truth be told, it was hard to say what Lear was thinking these days; the guy never came off L4, slept down there in his lab on a sweaty little cot and took his meals off a hot plate. He probably hadn't seen the sun in a year. Back at the start, Richards had done a little extra digging, and come up with a number of interesting tidbits, Exhibit A being Lear's wife's obituary in the Boston Globe-dated just six months before Cole had come to see him in Ankara, a full year before the Bolivia fiasco. Elizabeth Macomb Lear, age forty-one. BA Smith, MA Berkeley, PhD Chicago. Professor of English at Boston College, associate editor of Renaissance Quarterly, author of Shakespeare's Monsters: Bestial Transformation and the Early Modern Moment (Cambridge University Press, 2009). A long battle with lymphoma, et cetera. There was a picture, too. Richards wouldn't have said Elizabeth Lear was a knockout, but she'd been pretty enough, in a slightly undernourished way. A serious woman, with serious ideas. At least there weren't any kids involved. Probably the chemo and radiation had ruled this out.

So, really, when it came down to it: how much of Project NOAH was really just one grieving man sitting in a basement, trying to undo his wife's death?

Now, five years later and who knew how many hundreds of millions down the rathole, all they had to show for their troubles were about three hundred dead monkeys, who knew how many dogs and pigs, half a dozen dead homeless guys, and eleven former death row inmates who glowed in the dark and scared the shit out of absolutely everybody. Like the monkeys, the first human subjects had all died within hours, blazing with fever, bleeding out like busted hydrants. But then the first of the inmates, Babcock, had survived-Giles Babcock, as bullshit crazy a man as ever walked the earth; everyone on L4 called him the Talker, on account of the fact that the guy couldn't shut up even for a second, not before and not after-followed by Morrison and Chavez and Baffes and the rest, each refinement making the virus progressively weaker, so the inmates' bodies could combat it. Eleven vampires-why not use the word?-who weren't much good to anyone, as far as Richards could tell. Sykes had confessed that he wasn't sure you could actually kill them, short of shooting an RPG down their throats. VSA: Vampires, Say Aaaah. The virus had turned their skin into a kind of protein-based exoskeleton, so hard it made Kevlar look like pancake batter. Only over the breastbone, a strike zone about three inches square, was this material thin enough to penetrate. But even that was just a theory.

And the sticks were just crawling with virus. Six months ago, a technician had been exposed; nobody could quite figure out how. But one minute he was fine, the next he was puking onto his faceplate and seizing on the floor of the decon chamber, and if Richards hadn't seen him twitching on the monitor and sealed the level, who knew what might have happened. As it was, all he'd had to do was purge the chamber and watch the man die, then call for cleanup. He thought the tech's name was Samuels, or Samuelson. It didn't matter. The scrubbers showed up clear of virus, and after a seventy-two-hour quarantine, Richards had unsealed the level.

He didn't wonder for a second that he'd pull the plug, if and when the time came. The Elizabeth Protocol: Richards had to hand it to whoever had come up with the name, if it was somebody's idea of a joke. Though of course there was no doubt in Richards's mind who that somebody was. The name was pure Cole-vintage Cole, you might say, since Cole was Cole no more. Beneath that smarmy country club exterior had always lain the heart of a true Machiavellian cutup. Elizabeth, for Christsakes. Only Cole would have actually named it for the guy's dead wife.

Richards could feel it now; the whole thing was adrift. Part of the problem was the sheer boredom of it all. You couldn't drop eighty men onto a mountainside with nothing to do but count rabbit skins and ask them to stay put and keep their mouths shut forever.

And then there were the dreams.

Richards had them, too, or thought he did. He never quite remembered. But he sometimes woke up feeling like something strange had happened in the night, as if he'd taken an unplanned trip and only just returned. That's what had happened with the two sweeps who'd gone AWOL. The castrati had been Richards's idea, and for a time it had worked out nicely; you'd never meet a more docile bunch of fellows, mellow as the Buddha every one, and when the game was finally over, nobody that anyone was ever going to miss. The two sweeps, Jack and Sam, had gotten out of the compound by stuffing themselves into a couple of garbage bins. When Richards tracked them down the next morning-holed up in a Red Roof by the interstate twenty miles away, just waiting to be caught-that's all they could talk about, the dreams. The orange light, the teeth, the voices calling their names from the wind. They were just f**king berserk with it. For a while he just sat on the edge of the bed and let them talk it out: two middle-aged sex offenders with skin soft as cashmere and testicles the size of raisins, blowing their noses on their hands, blubbering like kids. It was touching in a way, but you could listen to something like that for only so long. Time to go, boys, Richards said, it's all right, nobody's mad at you, and he drove to a place he knew, a pretty spot with a view of a river, to show them the world they'd be leaving, and shot them in the forehead.

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