The Passage Page 79

The lights were out!

That he had managed to make his way back down the catwalk and descend the ladder at something close to a dead run, in utter darkness, was a feat that, in hindsight, seemed completely incredible. He had taken the last few meters at a drop, tool bag swinging, knees bent to absorb the impact, and sprinted toward the Lighthouse. "Elton!" he was shouting as he skidded around the corner and mounted the porch and blasted through the door. "Elton, wake up!" He expected to find the system crashed, but when he reached the panel, Elton lumbering into the room from the other side like a big blind horse, and he saw the glow of the CRTs, all meters in the green, he froze.

Why the hell were the lights off?

He lurched across the room to the box, and there he saw the problem. The main breaker was open. All he had to do was close it, and the lights came on again.

Michael made his report to Ian at first light. The story of the power surge was the best he could come up with, to get Ian out of the Lighthouse. And he supposed a surge could do it, although this would have been logged by the system, and there was nothing in the file. The problem could have been a short somewhere, but if that were true, the breaker wouldn't have held; the circuit would have failed again the moment he flipped the switch. He'd spent the morning checking every connection, venting and reventing the ports, charging the capacitors. There was simply nothing wrong.

Was anyone in here? he asked Elton. Did you hear anything? But Elton only shook his head. I was sleeping, Michael. I was sound asleep in the back. I didn't hear a thing until you came in yelling.

It was past half-day before Michael was able to reassemble the frame of mind to return to work on the radio. In all the excitement, he'd almost forgotten about it, but as he exited the Lighthouse in search of the spool he had dropped the night before, then found it lying undisturbed in the dust, the long wire arcing up to the top of the Wall, he was convinced anew of its importance. He spliced the wire to the copper filaments he'd left in place, returned to the Lighthouse, pulled the logbook down off the shelf to check the frequency, and clamped the headphones to his ears.

Two hours later, lit with adrenaline, his hair and jersey drenched with sweat, he found Peter in the barracks. Peter was sitting on a bunk, spinning a blade around his index finger. No one else was in the room; at the sound of Michael's entry, Peter glanced up with only passing interest. He looked like something awful had happened, Michael thought. Like he wanted to use that blade on someone but couldn't decide just who. And come to think of it, Michael wondered, where was everybody? Wasn't it awful damn quiet around here? Nobody ever told him anything.

"What is it?" Peter said, and resumed his melancholy spinning. "Because whatever it is, I hope it's good news."

"Oh my God," said Michael. He was struggling to get the words out. "You have to hear this."

"Michael, do you have any idea what's going on around this place? What do I have to hear?"

"Amy," he said. "You have to hear Amy."


In the Lighthouse, Michael took a seat at his terminal. The device they'd removed from the girl's neck now lay in pieces on a leather mat beside Michael's CRT.

"The power source," Michael was saying, "now, that's interesting. Very interesting." With a pair of tweezers, he lifted a tiny metal capsule from inside the transmitter. "A battery, but not like anything I've seen. Given how long it's been running, my guess is nuclear."

Peter startled. "Isn't that dangerous?"

"It wasn't to her, apparently. And it's been inside her a long time."

"What's long?" Peter looked at his friend, whose face glowed with excitement. So far he'd provided only the vaguest answers to Peter's questions. "You mean like a year?"

Michael grinned mysteriously. "You don't know the half of it. Just hang on a minute." He directed Peter's attention again to the object on the counter, using his tweezers to identify the parts. "So you've got a transmitter, a battery, and then-the rest. My first guess was a memory chip, but it was way too small to fit into any of the ports on the mainframe, so I had to solder it hard."

With a couple of quick strokes on his keyboard, Michael called up a page of information on the screen.

"The information on the chip is divided into two partitions, one much smaller than the other. What you're looking at is the first partition."

Peter saw a single line of text, letters and numbers all run together. "I can't really read it," he confessed.

"That's because the spaces have been removed. For some reason, some of it's transposed, too. I think it's just a bad sector on the chip. Maybe something happened when I soldered it to the board. Either way, it looks like a lot of it is gone. But what's here tells us a lot."

Michael called up a second screen. The same figures, Peter saw, but the numbers and letters had reorganized themselves.


SUB 13


G:F W:22.72K

"Amy NLN." Peter lifted his eyes from the screen. "Amy?"

Michael nodded. "That's our girl. I don't know for sure what NLN stands for, but I'm thinking 'no last name.' I'll get to the stuff in the middle in a second, but the bottom line is pretty clear. Gender, female. Weight, 22.72 kilos. That's about the size of a five-or six-year-old kid. So I'm figuring she was about that age when the transmitter was put in."

None of it was clear to Peter, and yet Michael spoke with such confidence he could only take his friend's word for it. "So it's been in there, what, ten years?"

"Well," Michael said, still grinning, "not exactly. And don't jump ahead, I've got a lot to show you. It's better if you just let me walk you through it. Now, that's all I can get from the first partition, and it isn't much, but it's not nearly the most interesting stuff by a long shot. The second partition is the real storehouse. Close to sixteen terabytes. That's sixteen trillion bytes of data."

He pressed another key. Dense columns of numbers began to fly up the screen.

"It's something, isn't it? I thought at first it was some kind of encryption, but it actually isn't. Everything's right here, it's just all run together like the first partition." Michael did something to freeze the rush of columns and tapped a finger against the glass. "The key was this number here, first in the sequence, repeated down the column."

Peter squinted at the screen. "Nine hundred eighty-six?"

"Close. Ninety-eight point six. Ring any bells?"

Peter could only shake his head. "Not really, no."

"Ninety-eight point six is a normal human body temperature, using the old Fahrenheit scale. Now look at the rest of the line. The seventy-two is probably heart rate. You've got respiration and blood pressure. I'm guessing the rest has to do with brain activity, kidney function, that sort of thing. Sara would probably understand it better than I do. But the most important thing is that they come in discrete groups. It's pretty obvious if you look for the first number and see where the sequence remounts. I'm thinking this thing is a kind of body monitor, designed to transmit data to a mainframe. My guess is she was a patient of some kind."

"A patient? Like in an infirmary?" Peter frowned. "No one could do this."

"No one could now. And here's where it gets more interesting. All told, there are five hundred forty-five thousand four hundred and six groups on the chip. The transmitter was set to cycle every ninety minutes. The rest was just arithmetic. Sixteen cycles a day times three hundred sixty-five days in a year."

Peter felt like he was trying to take a sip of water from a blasting hose. "I'm sorry, Michael. You've lost me."

Michael turned to face him. "I'm telling you that this thing in her neck has been taking her temperature every hour-and-a-half for a little more than ninety-three years. Ninety-three years, four months, and twenty-one days, to be exact. Amy NLN is a hundred years old."

By the time his mind was able to bring Michael's face back into focus, Peter realized he had collapsed into a chair.

"That's impossible."

Michael shrugged. "Okay, it's impossible. But there's no other way I can figure it. And remember the first partition? That word, USAMRIID? I recognized it right away. It stands for United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. There's tons of stuff with USAMRIID all over it in the shed. Documents about the epidemic, lots of technical material." He turned in his chair and directed Peter's attention to the top of the screen. "See this here? This long string of numbers in the first line? That's the mainframe's digital signature."

"The what?"

"Think of it as an address, the name of the system this little transmitter is looking for. You might think it was just gibberish, but if you look closely the numbers actually tell you more. This thing had to have some kind of onboard locator system, probably linked to a satellite. Old military stuff. So what you're seeing are actually coordinates on a grid, and not anything fancy. It's just longitude and latitude. Thirty-seven degrees, fifty-six minutes north by one hundred seven degrees, forty-nine minutes west. So, we go to the map-"

Michael cleared the screen again, tapping briskly at the keys. A new image sprang into view. It took Peter a moment to understand what he was seeing, that it was a map of the North American continent.

"We type in the coordinates, like so ... "

A grid of black lines appeared over the map, breaking it into squares. With a flourish, Michael lifted his fingers from the keyboard and slapped Enter. A bright yellow dot appeared.

" ... and there we have it. Southwestern Colorado. A town called Telluride."

The name meant nothing to Peter. "So?"

"Colorado, Peter. The heart of the CQZ."

"What's the CQZ?"

Michael sighed impatiently. "You really need to brush up on your history. The Central Quarantine Zone. It's where the epidemic began. The first virals all came out of Colorado."

Peter felt like he was being dragged from a runaway horse. "Please, just slow down. Are you telling me she comes from there?"

Michael nodded. "Basically, yeah. The transmitter was short-range, so she had to be within a few clicks when they put it in. The real question is why."

"Flyers. You're asking like I know?"

His friend paused, searching Peter's face for a long moment. "Let me ask you something. Have you ever really thought about what the virals are? Not just what they do, Peter. What they are."

"A being without a soul?"

Michael nodded. "Right, that's what everybody says. But what if there's more to it? This girl, Amy, she's not a viral. We'd all be dead if she were. But you've seen the way she heals, and she survived out there. You said it yourself, she protected you. And how do you explain the fact that she's almost a hundred years old but doesn't look a day over, what, fourteen? The Army did something to her. I don't know how they did it, but they did. This transmitter was broadcasting on a military frequency. Maybe she was infected and they did something to her that made her normal again." He paused once more, his eyes fixed on Peter's face. "Maybe she's the cure."

"That's ... a big leap."

"I'm not so sure." Michael lifted in his chair to remove a book from the shelf above his terminal. "So I went back through the old logbook to see if we had ever picked up a signal from those coordinates. Just a hunch. And sure enough, we did. Eighty years ago, we picked up a beacon broadcasting these same coordinates. Military distress frequency, old-style Morse. But then there's this notation."

Michael opened the log to the page he'd marked. He placed the book in Peter's lap, pointing at the words written there.

If you found her, bring her here.

"And here's the clincher," Michael went on. "It's still transmitting. That's what took me so long. I had to run a cable up the Wall to get a decent signal."

Peter lifted his eyes from the page. Michael was still looking at him with the same intense gaze.

"It's what?"

"Transmitting. Those same words. 'If you found her, bring her here.'"

Peter felt a kind of dizziness, gathering at the fringes of his brain. "How could it be transmitting?"

"Because somebody's there, Peter. Don't you get it?" He smiled victoriously. "Ninety-three years. That's year zero, the start of the outbreak. That's what I'm telling you. Ninety-three years ago, in the spring of the year zero, in Telluride, Colorado, somebody put a nuclear-powered transmitter inside a six-year-old-girl's neck. Who's still alive and sitting in quarantine, like she walked straight out of the Time Before. And for ninety-three years, whoever did this has been asking for her back."

Chapter FORTY

It was nearly half-night, no one about, everyone but the Watch inside because of the curfew. All seemed quiet on the Wall. During the intervening hours, Peter had done all he could to get a handle on the situation. He hadn't reported for duty, and nobody had come looking for him, though probably they wouldn't have thought to look in the Lighthouse or in the FEMA trailer, from which he had scouted the lockup. With the coming of night, and the Watch so depleted, Ian had posted only a single guard there, Galen Strauss. But Peter doubted Sam and the others would try anything before first light. By then he planned to be gone.

The Infirmary was under heavier guard-a pair of Watchers, one in the front and one in the rear. Dale had been moved up to the Wall, so there was no way Peter could get inside, but Sara was still free to come and go. He had hidden in the shrubbery at the base of the courtyard wall and waited for her to appear. A long time passed before the door opened and she stepped onto the porch. She spoke briefly to the Watcher on duty, Ben Chou, before descending the stairs and making her way down the path, evidently headed to her house to get something to eat. Peter followed her at a discreet distance until he was sure they were out of sight and made his quick approach.

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