The Passage Page 84

"It stands for Meal, Ready to Eat," Hollis explained. "Army food. There are thousands of them in the bunker. You've got ... let's see," he said, and took the pouch Peter was holding, squinting at the tiny print. "'Soyloaf with gravy.' I've never had that one."

Alicia was holding one of the pouches, frowning at it skeptically. "Hollis, these things have been 'ready' for about ninety years. They can't still be good."

The big man shrugged and began passing the pouches around. "A lot aren't. But if it's still airtight, you can eat it. Believe me, you'll know when you pull the tab. Most are pretty good, but look out for the beef Stroganoff. Demo called it 'Meal Refusing to Exit.'"

They were reluctant but, in the end, too hungry to refuse. Peter had two: the soyloaf and a sweet, gluey pudding called "mango cobbler." Amy sat on the edge of one of the cots to nibble suspiciously on a handful of yellow crackers and a wedge of what appeared to be cheese. From time to time she lifted her eyes warily; then she returned to her furtive eating. The mango cobbler was so sugary it made Peter's head buzz, but when he lay down he felt his fatigue uncoiling in his chest and knew that sleep would grab him fast. His last thought was of Amy, nibbling on the crackers, her eyes darting over the room. As if she were waiting for something to happen. But this idea was like a rope in his hands he could not hold, and soon his hands were empty; the thought was gone.

Then Hollis's face was floating above him in the dark. He blinked the fog of his disorientation away. The room was stifling; his shirt and hair were soaked with sweat. Before Peter could speak, Hollis silenced him with a finger held to his lips.

"Get your rifle and come on."

Hollis, carrying the lantern, led him to the garage. Sara was standing against the wall of concrete blocks where the bay doors had once been. A small observation port had been built into one of the doors-a metal plate that pulled aside in a track, bolted into the concrete.

Sara stepped away. "Take a look," she whispered.

Peter pressed his eyes to the opening. He could smell the wind in his nostrils, the cooling desert night. The window faced the town's main street, Route 62. Across from the fire station stood a block of buildings, ruined hulks, and behind them a softly undulating line of hills, all of it bathed in a bluish moonlight.

Crouched in the roadway was a single viral.

Peter had never seen one so motionless, at least not at night. It was facing the building, resting on its chiseled haunches, gazing at the building. While Peter watched, two more appeared out of the darkness, moving along the road and stopping to take up the same, vigilant posture, facing the firehouse. A pod of three.

"What're they doing?" Peter whispered.

"Just standing there," Hollis said. "They move around a bit but never come any closer."

Peter pulled his face from the window. "You think they know we're in here?"

"It's tight but not that tight. They can smell the horse for sure."

"Sara, go wake up Alicia," Peter said. "Keep quiet-it's best if everyone else stays asleep."

Peter returned his face to the window. After a moment he asked, "How many did you say there were?"

"Three," Hollis answered

"Well, there's six now."

Peter stood aside for Hollis to look.

"This is ... bad," Hollis said.

"What are the weak spots?" Alicia was beside them now. She freed the safety on her rifle and, making an effort to keep quiet, pulled the bolt. Then they heard it: a thump from above.

"They're on the roof."

Michael stumbled from the back room. He looked them over, frowning, his eyes blurry with sleep. "What's going on?" he said, too loudly. Alicia touched a finger to her lips, then pointed urgently to the ceiling.

More sounds of impact came from overhead. In his gut Peter felt it, a soft bomb exploding. The virals were searching for a way in.

Something was scratching at the door.

A thump of flesh on metal, of bone on steel. It was as if the virals were testing it, Peter thought. Gauging its strength before they made a final push. He tightened the stock against his shoulder, ready to fire, just as Amy stepped into his line of vision. Later he would wonder if she'd been in the room all along, hiding in a corner, silently observing. She stepped to the barricade.

"Amy, get back-"

She knelt before the door, placing her palms against it. Her head was bowed, her brow touching the metal. Another thump from the far side, though softer this time, searching. Amy's shoulders were trembling.

"What's she doing?"

It was Sara who answered. "I think she's ... crying."

No one moved. There were no more sounds coming from the far side of the door now. Finally Amy shifted off her knees and stood, facing them all. Her eyes were distant, unfocused; she seemed not to be seeing any of them.

Peter held up a hand. "Don't wake her."

While they watched in silence, Amy turned and walked, with the same otherworldly air, to the door to the bedroom, just as Mausami, the last sleeper, emerged. Amy pushed past her without appearing to notice her. The next thing they heard was the squeak of rusted springs as she lay down on her cot.

"What's going on?" Mausami said. "Why is everybody looking at me like that?"

Peter went to check the window. He pressed his face against the slot. It was as he expected. Nothing was moving outside; the moonlit field was empty.

"I think they're gone."

Alicia frowned. "Why would they just leave like that?"

He felt strangely calm; the crisis, he knew, had passed. "Look for yourself."

Alicia slung her rifle and pressed her eyes to the window, her neck straining as she tried to widen her field of vision through the opening.

"He's right," she reported. "There's nothing out there." She drew her face away and turned toward Peter, her eyes narrowed. "Like ... pets?"

He shook his head, searching for the right word. "Like friends, I think."

"Will somebody please tell me what's going on?" Mausami said.

"I wish I knew," said Peter.

They raised the barricade just after daybreak. All around they saw the creatures' tracks in the dust. None of them had slept much, but even so, Peter felt a new energy coursing through him. He wondered what this was, and then he knew. They had survived their first night out in the Darklands.

The map spread out on a boulder, Hollis went over their route.

"After Twentynine Palms, it's open desert through here, no real roads. The trick to finding the bunker is this range of mountains to the east. There are two distinct peaks at the south end, and a third behind them. When the third stands right in the middle of the two, turn due east, and you're going the right way."

"What if we don't make it before dark?" he asked.

"We could hole up in Twentynine if we had to. There are a few structures still standing. But as I remember it they're just hulks, nothing like the fire station."

Peter glanced toward Amy, who was standing with the others. She was still wearing the brimmed cap from the supply room; Sara had also given her a man's long-sleeved shirt to wear, frayed at the sleeves and collar, and a pair of desert glasses they'd found in the firehouse. Her black hair was pushed away from her face, a nimbus of dark tangles flapping under the brim of the cap.

"Do you really think she did it?" Hollis said. "Sent them away."

Peter turned back toward his friend. He thought of the magazine in the bathroom, the two stark words on its cover.

"Truthfully, Hollis? I don't know."

"Well, we better hope she did. After Kelso, it's open country clear to the Nevada line." He drew his blade and wiped it on the hem of his jersey. When he resumed speaking his voice was quiet, confidential. "Before I left, you know, I heard people talking, saying things about her. The Girl from Nowhere, the last Walker. People were saying she was a sign."

"Of what?"

Hollis frowned. "The end, Peter. The end of the Colony, the end of the war. The human race, or what's left of it. I'm not saying they were right. It was probably just more of Sam and Milo's bullshit."

Sara stepped toward them. The swelling on her face had eased overnight; the worst of the bruising had faded to a greenish purple.

"We should let Maus ride," she said.

"Is she okay?" Peter asked.

"A little dehydrated. In her condition, she has to keep her fluids up. I don't think she should be walking in the heat. I'm worried about Amy, too."

"What's wrong with her?"

She shrugged. "The sun. I don't think she's used to it. She's got a bad burn already. The glasses and shirt will help, but she can stay covered only so long in this heat." She cocked her head and looked at Hollis. "So what's this Michael tells me about a vehicle?"

· · ·

They marched.

The mountains fell away behind them; by half-day, they were deep in open desert. The roadway was little more than suggestion, but they could still follow its course, tracing the bulge it made in the hardpan, through a landscape of scattered boulders and strange, stunted trees, beneath a boiling sun and a limitless sky bleached of all color. The breeze hadn't so much died as collapsed; the air was so motionless it seemed to hum, the heat vibrating around them like an insect's wings. Everything in the landscape looked both close and far away, the sense of perspective distorted by the immeasurable horizon. How easy it would be, Peter thought, to get turned around in such a place, to wander aimlessly until darkness fell. Past the town of Mojave Junction-no town at all, just a few empty foundations and a name on the map-they crested a small rise to discover a long line of abandoned vehicles, two abreast, facing the direction they had come. Most were passenger cars but there were some trucks as well, their rusted, sand-scoured chassis sunk in the drifting sand. It felt as if they'd stumbled on an open grave, a grave of machines. Many of the roofs had been peeled away, the doors torn off their hinges. The interiors looked melted; if there had once been bodies inside, they were long gone, scattered to the desert winds. Here and there in the undifferentiated debris, Peter detected a recognizable item of human scale: a pair of eyeglasses, an open suitcase, a child's plastic doll. They passed in silence, not daring to speak. Peter counted over a thousand vehicles before they ended in a final plume of wreckage, the indifferent desert sands resuming.

It was midafternoon when Hollis announced that it was time to leave the road and turn north. Peter had begun to doubt that they would ever make it to the bunker. The heat was simply overwhelming. A blazing wind was blowing from the east, pushing dust into their faces and eyes. Since the line of cars, no one had said much of anything. Michael seemed the worst off; he'd begun, discernibly, to limp. When Peter questioned him, Michael removed his boot without comment to show him a fat, blood-filled blister on his heel.

They paused to rest in the sparse shadow of a yucca grove. "How much farther?" Michael asked. He'd taken off his boot for Sara to attend to his blister; he winced as she pierced it with a small scalpel from the med kit she had found at the station. From the incision came forth a single bead of blood.

"From here, about fifteen kilometers," Hollis said. He was standing away from them, at the edge of the shade. "See that line of mountains? That's what we're looking for."

Caleb and Mausami had fallen asleep, their heads propped on their packs. Sara wrapped Michael's foot in a bandage; he wedged it back into his boot, grimacing with pain. Only Amy seemed little worse for the wear. She was sitting apart from the others, her skinny legs folded under her, watching them warily from behind her dark glasses.

Peter went to where Hollis was standing. "Will we make it?" he asked quietly.

"It'll be close."

"Let's give everyone half a hand."

"I wouldn't go longer."

Peter's first canteen was empty. He allowed himself a sip from his second, vowing to hold the rest in reserve. He lay down with the others in the shade. It was as if he'd only just closed his eyes when he heard his name and opened them again to find Alicia standing over him.

"You said half a hand."

He rose on his elbows. "Right. Time to go."

Another hand had passed before they saw the sign, rising out of the wavering heat. First a long line of fencing, tall chain-link with coils of barbed wire at the top, and then, a hundred meters inside the open gate, the small sentry house and the sign standing beside it.





"Unexploded ordnance." Michael's face was compacted in a fierce squint. "What does that mean?"

"It means watch your step, Circuit." Alicia directed her voice to everyone. "It could be bombs, or maybe mines. Single file, try to step in the footprints of the person in front of you."

"What's that?" Mausami was pointing with one hand, the other held over her brow against the glare. "Are they buildings?"

They were buses: thirty-two of them parked in two closely spaced lines, their yellow paint almost entirely rubbed away. Peter stepped toward the closest bus, at the rear of the line. The breeze had died; the only sound came from their footsteps on the hardpan. Below windows covered in heavy-gauge wire were the words DESERT CENTER UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT. He clambered up the dune of sand that was pushed against it and peered inside. More sand had blown through, subsuming the benches in wavelike drifts. Birds had roosted in the ceiling, staining the walls with the white paint of their droppings.

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