The Passage Page 56

"So what about the smokes?" Theo asked.

"Well, that's the funny thing. It was just like Zander said. There weren't any. At least none that came close. I could see them once in a while at night, moving out in the valley. But they pretty much just left me alone. They don't like to hunt in the turbine fields, Zander always thought the movement screwed them up, so maybe that's got something to do with it, I don't know." The boy paused; Peter could see the weight of his ordeal finally catching up with him. "Once I got used to it, it was actually kind of peaceful. I didn't see Zander after that. I could hear him, scuffling around at the base of the tower. But he never answered me. By then I figured my best chance was to wait for the relief crew to show up and try to get away."

"So you saw us."

"Believe me, I yelled my lungs out, but I guess you were just too far away to hear me. That's when I realized Zander was gone. The jenny, too. The virals must have dragged it off. By then I only had a hand of daylight at the most. But I was out of water, and there was no way anyone was coming to look for me in the east field, so I decided to climb down and make a run for it. I got to within maybe a thousand meters when suddenly the smokes were just everywhere. I thought, That's it, I'm meat for sure. I hid under the base of one of the towers and pretty much waited to die. But for some reason, they kept their distance. I couldn't tell you how long I was under there, but when I looked out they were gone, not a smoke in sight. By then I knew the gate was closed, but I guess I just thought I could get inside somehow."

Arlo turned to Theo. "It doesn't make sense. Why would they leave him alone like that?"

"Because they were following him," Alicia cut in. "We could see them from the roof. Using him as bait maybe, to draw us out? Since when do they do that?"

"They don't." Something hardened in Theo's expression then; he stiffened in his chair. "Look, I'm glad Caleb's safe, don't get me wrong. But that was some stupid stunt, both of you. This station goes off-line, the lights go out, that's it for everybody. I don't know why I have to explain this, but apparently I do."

Peter and Alicia were silent; there was nothing to say. It was true. If Peter's rifle had gone just a few centimeters to the left or right, they'd probably all be dead now. It had been a lucky shot and he knew it.

"None of which explains how Zander got infected," Theo went on. "Or what he was doing, leaving Caleb on the tower."

"The hell with that," Arlo said, and slapped his knees. "What I really want to know about are those guns. How many are there?"

"Twelve crates under the stairs," Alicia answered. "Six more in the crawl space on the roof."

"Which is exactly where they're going to stay," Theo said.

Alicia laughed. "You can't be serious."

"Oh, yes, I can. Look what almost happened. Can you honestly tell me you would have gone outside there without those guns?"

"Maybe not. But Caleb's alive because of them. And I don't care what you say, I'm glad we went outside. These aren't just guns, Theo. They're like brand-new."

"I know they are," Theo said. "I've seen them. I know all about them."

"You do?"

He nodded. "Of course I do."

For a moment no one spoke. Alicia leaned forward over the table. "So whose guns are they?"

But it was Peter to whom Theo gave his answer. "Our father's." So, in the last hour of the night, Theo told the story. Caleb, unable to keep his eyes open another minute, had gone to the barracks to sleep, and Arlo had broken out the shine, as they sometimes did after a night on the Wall. He poured it into each of their cups, two fingers, and passed it around the table.

There was an old Marine Corps base east of there, Theo explained, about a two-day ride. A place called Twentynine Palms. Most of it was gone, he said, pretty much sanded up. You could hardly tell there was anything there unless you knew where to look. Their father had found the weapons in an underground bunker-all boxed up, tight and dry, and not just rifles. Pistols and mortars. Machine guns and grenades. A whole garage of vehicles, even a couple of tanks. They had no way to move the heavier weapons, and none of the vehicles would run, but their father and Uncle Willem had been moving the rifles back to the station a cartload at a time-three trips total before Willem had been killed.

"So why didn't he tell anyone?" Peter asked.

"Well, he did. He told our mother, and a few others. He didn't ride alone, you know. I'm guessing the Colonel knew. Probably Old Chou. Zander had to know, since he was stashing them here."

"But not Sanjay," Alicia cut in.

Theo shook his head, frowning. "Believe me, Sanjay was the last person my father would tell. Don't get me wrong: Sanjay is fine at what he does. But he was always dead set against the rides, especially after Raj was killed."

"That's right," Arlo said. "He was one of the three."

Theo nodded. "I think it was always a sore spot with Sanjay, that his brother wanted to ride with our father. I never really understood it, but there was some bad blood between them from way back. After Raj was killed, it only got worse. Sanjay turned the Household against our father, voted him out as Head, put an end to the rides. That was when our father stepped down and began to ride alone."

Peter held his cup of shine to his nose, felt its acrid fumes burning his nostrils, and put it down on the table. He didn't know what was more discouraging-that his father had kept this secret from him or that Theo had.

"So why hide the guns in the first place?" he asked. "Why not just bring them up the mountain?"

"And do what with them? Think about it, brother. We all heard you out there. By my count, the two of you shot off thirty-six rounds to kill, what, two virals? Out of how many? Those guns'd last about a season if he just handed them over to the Watch. People would be shooting at their own shadows. Hell, half the time they'd probably be shooting each other. I think that's what he was most afraid of."

"How many are left?" Alicia asked.

"In the bunker? I don't know. I've never seen it."

"But you know where it is."

Theo sipped his shine. "I see where you're going with this, and you can stop right there. Our father, well, he had ideas. Peter, you know this as well as I do. He just couldn't accept the fact that we're all that's left, that there's no one out there. And if he could find others, and if they had guns ... " His voice trailed away.

Alicia lifted in her chair. "An army," she said, her eyes moving over all of them. "That's it, isn't it? He wanted to make an army. To fight the smokes."

"Which is pointless," Theo said, and Peter heard the bitterness in his brother's voice. "Pointless and crazy. The Army had guns, and what happened to them? Did they ever come back for us? With their guns and rockets and helicopters? No, they didn't, and I'll tell you why. Because they're all dead."

Alicia was undeterred. "Well, I like it," she said. "Hell, I think it's a great idea."

Theo gave a bitter laugh. "I knew you would."

"And I don't think we're alone, either," she pressed. "There are others. Out there, somewhere."

"Is that right? What makes you so sure?"

Alicia appeared suddenly at a loss. "Nothing," she said. "I just am."

Theo frowned into his cup, giving the contents a long swirl. "You can believe anything you want," he said quietly, "but that doesn't make it true."

"Our father believed it," Peter said.

"Yes, he did, brother. And it got him killed. I know it's not something we talk about, but those are the facts. You stand the Mercy and you figure some things out, believe me. Our father didn't go out there to let it go. Whoever thinks so doesn't understand the first thing about him. He went out there because he just couldn't stand not knowing, not for one more minute of his life. It was brave, and it was stupid, and he got his answer."

"He saw a Walker. At Milagro."

"Maybe he did. If you ask me, he saw what he wanted to see. And it doesn't matter either way. What difference would one Walker make?"

Peter felt badly shaken by Theo's hopelessness; it seemed not just defeated but disloyal.

"Where there's one, there are others," Peter said.

"What there are, brother, are smokes. All the guns in the world won't change that."

For a moment no one spoke. The idea was in the air, unspoken but palpable. How long did they have before the lights went out? Before no one remembered how to fix them?

"I don't believe that," Arlo said. "And I can't believe you do either. If that's all there is, what's the point of anything?"

"The point?" Theo peered into his cup again. "I wish I knew. I suppose the point is just staying alive. Keeping the lights on as long as we can." He tipped the shine to his lips and drained it in one hard swallow. "On that note, it'll be daybreak soon, everyone. Let Caleb sleep, but wake the others. We've got bodies to take care of."

There were four. They found three in the yard and one, Zander, on the roof, lying face-up on the concrete by the hatch, his na**d limbs sprawled in a startled-looking X. The bullet from Peter's rifle had blasted through the top of his head, shearing off the crown of his skull, which was hanging kitty-corner by a flap of skin. Already the morning sun had begun to shrivel him; a fine, gray mist was rising from his blackening flesh.

Peter had gotten used to the virals' appearance but still found it unnerving to see one close up. The way the facial features seemed to have been buffed away, smoothed into an almost infantile blandness; the curling expansion of the hands and feet, with their grasping digits and razor-sharp claws; the dense muscularity of the limbs and torso and the long, gimballed neck; the slivered teeth crowding the mouth like spikes of steel. In rubber boots and gloves, wearing a rag around his face, Finn used a long pitchfork to lift the key by its cord and drop it in a metal bucket. They doused the key with alcohol and set it aflame, then left it to dry in the sun; what the flames hadn't killed, the sun's rays would. Then they rolled Zander, his body stiff as wood, onto a plastic tarp, which they folded over him, making a tube. Arlo and Rey hoisted it to the edge of the roof and dropped it to the yard below.

By the time they'd dragged all four past the fence line, the sun was high and hot. Peter, leaning on a length of pipe, watched from the upwind side as Theo poured alcohol over the bodies. He felt useless, but with his ankle the way it was, there wasn't much he could do to help. Alicia was standing watch, holding one of the rifles. Caleb had finally awakened and had come outside to watch with the others. Peter saw that he was wearing a pair of tall leather boots.

"Zander's," Caleb explained. The boy shrugged, a little guiltily. "His extra pair. I didn't think he'd mind."

Theo removed a tin of sulfur matches from his pouch and drew down his mask. In his other hand he held a torch. Huge circles of sweat stained his shirt at the throat and armpits. The shirt was an old one from the Storehouse, the sleeves long gone, the collar frayed to threads; on the breast pocket, embroidered in a curving script, was the name Armando.

"Anybody want to say anything?"

Peter thought he should, but couldn't find the words. Seeing the body on the roof had done nothing to change the disquieting feeling that, at the end, Zander had made it easy for him-that Zander had still been Zander. But all of the bodies in the pile had been somebody once. Maybe one of them was Armando.

"Okay, I'll do it," Theo said, and cleared his throat. "Zander, you were a good engineer, and a good friend. You never had a bad word for anyone, and we thank you for that. Sleep well." Then he struck the match, held the flame to the torch until it caught, and touched it to the pile.

The skin went quickly, vaporizing like paper, followed by the rest, the bones caving in on themselves to burst into puffing clouds of ash. It was over in a minute. When the last of the flames had died down, they shoveled the remains into the shallow pit Rey and Finn had dug, pushing a layer of earth on top.

They were tamping down the dirt when Caleb spoke. "I just want to say, I think he fought it. He could have killed me out there."

Theo put his shovel aside. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said, "but what worries me is that he didn't."

In the days that followed, Peter thought about the events of that night, replaying them in his mind. Not only what had happened on the roof and Caleb's strange story of the tower, but also his brother's bitter tone when they'd spoken of the guns. Because Alicia was right; the guns meant something. His whole life Peter had thought of the world of the Time Before as something gone. It was as if a blade had fallen onto time itself, cleaving it into halves, that which came before and that which came after. Between these halves there was no bridge; the war had been lost, the Army was no more, the world beyond the Colony was an open grave of a history no one even remembered. Peter, in fact, had never given much thought to what his father had actually been looking for, out there in the dark. He supposed this was because it had seemed so obvious: people, other survivors. But holding one of his father's rifles-and even now, lying in the barracks while his ankle mended and remembering the feel of it-he sensed something more, how the past and all its powers seemed to have flowed into him. So maybe that was what his father had been doing all along, on the Long Rides. He'd been trying to remember the world.

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