The Passage Page 87

Alicia had opened the rear compartment and was hurriedly passing out packs and rifles. "Just take what we'll need for tonight," she ordered. "Whatever we can carry. Bring as much water as you can."

"What about the Humvees?" Sara asked.

"They're not going anywhere on their own." Alicia, after drawing a belt of grenades over her head, checked the load on her rifle. "Hightop, do you have a way in yet? We're losing the light here."

Caleb and Michael were furiously working to pry loose the covering from one of the windows. With a crack of splitting plywood it yanked loose from the frame, revealing the glass behind it, caked with grime. A single stroke from Caleb's pry bar and the glass shattered.

"Flyers," he exclaimed, wrinkling his nose, "what's that stink?"

"I guess we'll find out," Alicia said. "Okay, everybody, let's move."

Peter and Alicia climbed through the window first. Hollis would bring up the rear with Amy and the others in between. Dropping inside, Peter found himself in a dark hallway, running parallel with the front of the building. To his right stood a pair of metal doors, chained shut through the handles. He stepped back to the open window.

"Caleb, pass me a hammer. The pry bar, too."

He used the sharp end of the pry bar to shatter the chain. The door swung free, revealing a wide, open space, more region than room, remarkably undisturbed. Apart from the smell-a tart chemical scent, vaguely biological-and a heavy layer of dust that coated every surface, the impression it gave was less of ruin than abandonment, as if its inhabitants had departed days ago, not decades. At the center of the space stood a large stone structure, evidently some kind of fountain, and on a raised platform in the corner, a piano, tented with cobwebs. A long counter was positioned to the left.

Peter tilted his gaze upward to the ceiling, which was bisected by elaborately carved molding into discrete, convex panels. Each was ornately painted: winged figures with sad, dewy eyes and plump-cheeked faces, set against a sky of billowing clouds.

Caleb whispered, "Is it ... some kind of church?"

Peter didn't answer; he didn't know. Something about the winged figures on the ceiling was disquieting, even a little ominous. He turned to see Amy standing by the cobwebbed piano, gazing upward like the rest of them.

Then Hollis was beside him. "We better get to higher ground." He felt it, too, Peter could tell, this ghostlike presence hovering over them. "Let's try to find the stairs."

They advanced into the building's interior down a second, wider hallway, lined with stores-Prada, Tutto, La Scarpa, Tesorini-the names meaningless but strangely musical. There was more damage here, windows shattered, shards of glinting glass scattered over the stone floor and crunching under the soles of their boots. Many of the stores appeared to have been ransacked-counters smashed, everything overturned-while others seemed untouched, their peculiar, useless wares-shoes no one could actually walk in, bags that were too small to carry anything-still displayed in the windows. They passed signs that said SPA LEVEL and POOL PROMENADE, with arrows pointing down other, adjacent hallways, and banks of elevators, their gleaming doors sealed, but nothing that said STAIRS.

The hallway ended in a second open area, as large as the first, receding into darkness. There was something subterranean about it, as if they had stumbled upon the entrance to an immense cave. The smell was stronger here. They broke their light sticks and moved forward, sweeping the area with their rifles. The room appeared to be filled with long banks of machines, like nothing Peter had ever seen before, with video screens and various buttons and levers and switches. Before each was a stool, presumably where the machines' operators had sat, performing their unknown function.

Then they saw the slims.

First one and then another and then more and more, their frozen figures resolving out of the gloom. Most were seated around a series of tall tables, their postures grimly comical, as if they'd been overcome in the midst of some desperate, private act.

"What the hell is this place?"

Peter approached the nearest table. Three seated figures occupied it; a fourth lay on the floor beside his overturned stool. Holding up his light stick, Peter bent to the closest body, a woman. She had toppled face-first; her head was turned to the side, her cheekbone resting on the table's surface. Her hair, bleached of all color, formed a snarl of parched fibers around the knob of her skull. Where her teeth should have been were a pair of dentures, their plastic gums still retaining an incongruously lifelike pinkness. Ropes of golden metal wreathed her neck; the bones of her fingers, where they rested on the tabletop-she seemed to have reached out to stop her fall-were bedecked with rings, fat shining stones of every color. On the table before her was a pair of playing cards, face-up. A six and a jack. It was the same with the others, he saw: each player had two cards showing. There were more cards strewn over the table. Some kind of game, like go-to. In the center lay a heaping mound of more jewelry, rings and watches and bracelets, as well as a pistol and a handful of shells.

"We better keep moving," Alicia said, coming up beside him.

Something was here, he thought, something he was meant to find.

"It'll be dark soon, Peter. We have to find those stairs."

He pulled his gaze away, nodding.

They emerged into an atrium, domed in glass. The sky above was cooling, night falling. Escalators led down to another dark recess; to the right they saw a bank of elevators, and yet another hallway, and more shops.

"Are we going in circles?" This was Michael. "I swear we came right though here."

Alicia's face was grave. "Peter-"

"I know, I know." The moment of decision was upon them: keep looking for the stairs or seek shelter on the ground floor. He turned to face the group, which seemed, suddenly, too small.

"Damnit, not now."

Mausami pointed toward the windows of the closest shop. "There she is."

DESERT GIFT EMPORIUM, the sign read. Peter opened the door and moved inside. Amy was facing a wall of shelves by the counter, bearing a display of spherical glass objects. Amy had taken one in her hand. She gave it a hard shake, filling its interior with a flurry of movement.

"Amy, what is that?"

The girl turned, her face bright-I have found something, her eyes seemed to say, something wonderful-and held it out for him to take. An unexpected weight filled his hand: the sphere was full of liquid. Suspended in this fluid, bits of glittering white matter, like flakes of snow, were settling down upon a landscape of tiny buildings. Rising at the center of this miniaturized city was a white tower-the same tower, Peter realized, in which they now stood.

The others had crowded around. "What is it?" Michael asked.

Peter passed it to Sara, who showed it to the others.

"Some kind of model, I think." Amy's face was still wearing a look of glowing happiness. "Why did you want us to see this?"

But it was Alicia who provided the answer.

"Peter," she said, "I think you better look at this."

She had turned the globe upside down, revealing the words that were printed on its base.

Milagro Hotel and Casino

Las Vegas

The smell had nothing to do with the slims, Michael explained. It was sewer gas. Mostly methane, which was why the place smelled like an outhouse. Somewhere beneath the hotel was a sea of one-hundred-year-old effluent, the pooled waste of an entire city, trapped like a giant fermentation tank.

"We don't want to be here when that lets go," he warned. "It'll be the biggest fart in history. The place will go up like a torch."

They were on the fifteenth floor of the hotel, watching the night come on. For a few, panicked minutes it had begun to look as if they'd have to take refuge on the hotel's lower levels. The only stairwell they'd found, on the far side of the casino, was clogged with debris-chairs, tables, mattresses, suitcases, all of it bent and smashed, as if hurled from a great height. It was Hollis who had suggested jimmying open one of the elevators. Assuming the cable was intact, he explained, they could climb a couple of floors, enough to get around the barricade, and take the stairs the rest of the way.

It worked. Then, at the sixteenth floor, they encountered a second barricade. The floor of the stairwell was littered with shell casings. They exited to find themselves in a darkened hallway. Alicia cracked another light stick. The hall was lined with doors; a sign on the wall said AMBASSADOR SUITE LEVEL.

Peter gestured with his rifle to the first door. "Caleb, do your thing."

The room had two bodies in it, a man and a woman, lying on the bed. They were both wearing bathrobes and slippers; on the table by the bed was an open whiskey bottle, its contents long evaporated to a brown stain, and a plastic syringe. Caleb, voicing the words everyone was thinking, said he wasn't going to spend the night with a couple of slims, especially slims that had killed themselves. It wasn't until they had tried five doors that they found one without bodies behind it. Three rooms, two with a pair of beds in each and a third, larger room facing a wall of windows that gazed over the city. Peter stepped to the glass. The last daylight was going, bathing the scene in an orange glow. He wished they were higher, even on the roof, but this would have to do.

"What's that down there?" Mausami asked. She was pointing across the street, where a massive structure of ribbed steel, four legs that tapered to a narrow tip, rose between the buildings.

"I think it's the Eiffel Tower," said Caleb. "I saw a picture of it in a book once."

Mausami frowned. "Isn't that in Europe?"

"It's in Paris." Michael was kneeling on the floor, unpacking their gear. "Paris, France."

"So what's it doing here?"

"How should I know?" Michael shrugged. "Maybe they moved it."

They watched together as night fell-first the street, then the buildings, then the mountains beyond, all sinking into darkness as if into the waters of a filling tub. The stars were coming out. No one was in the mood to talk; the precariousness of their situation was obvious. Sitting on the sofa, Sara rebandaged Hollis's wounded arm. Peter could discern, not from anything she said but from what she didn't, going about her work with tight-lipped efficiency, that she was worried about him.

They divvied up the MREs and lay down to rest. Alicia and Sara volunteered to take first watch. Peter was too exhausted to object. Wake me up when you're ready, he said. Probably I won't even sleep.

He didn't. In the bedroom he lay on the floor, his head propped on his pack, staring at the ceiling. Milagro, he thought. This was Milagro. Amy was sitting in a corner with her back to the wall, holding the glass globe. Every few minutes she would lift it from her lap and give it a shake, holding it close to her face as she watched the snow whirl and settle inside it. At such moments, Peter wondered what he was to her, what all of them were. He had explained to her where they were going and why. But if she knew what was in Colorado, and who had sent the signal, she had made no indication.

At last he gave up trying to sleep and returned to the main room. A wedge of moon had risen over the buildings. Alicia was standing at the window, scanning the street below; Sara was sitting at the small table, playing a hand of solo, her rifle resting across her lap.

"Any sign out there?"

Sara frowned. "Would I be playing cards?"

He took a chair. For a while he said nothing, watching her play.

"Where'd you get the cards?" On the backs was that name, Milagro.

"Lish found them in a drawer."

"You should rest, Sara," Peter offered. "I can take over."

"I'm fine." Frowning again, she swept the cards into a pile and redealt. "Go back to bed."

Peter said nothing more. He had the feeling he'd done something wrong, but he didn't know what.

Alicia turned from the window. "You know, if you don't mind, I think I'll take you up on your offer. Put my head down for a few minutes. If it's okay with you, Sara."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Alicia left them alone. Peter rose and stepped to the window, using the nightscope on his rifle to scan the street: abandoned cars, heaps of rubble and trash, the empty buildings. A world frozen in time, caught at the moment of its abandonment in the last, violent hours of the Time Before.

"You don't have to pretend, you know."

He turned. Sara was looking at him coolly, her face bathed in moonlight. "Pretend what?"

"Peter, please. Not now." Peter could feel her resolve; she had decided something. "You did your best. I know that." She gave a quiet laugh, looking away. "I'd say I was grateful but I'd sound like an idiot, so I won't. If we're all going to die out here, I just wanted you to know it's all right."

"No one's going to die." It was all he could think to say.

"Well. I hope that's true." She paused. "Still, that one night-"

"Look, I'm sorry, Sara." He took a deep breath. "I should have told you that before. It was my fault."

"You don't have to apologize, Peter. Like I said, you tried. It was a good try, too. But the two of you are meant for each other. I think I've always known that. It was stupid of me not to accept it."

He was completely confounded. "Sara, who are you talking about?"

Sara didn't answer. Her eyes grew suddenly wide. She was looking past him, out the window.

He turned sharply. Sara rose and came to stand beside him.

"What did you see?"

She pointed. "Across the street, up on the tower."

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