The Passage Page 107

"The coast," Peter repeated. The word felt heavy in his mouth. "You mean the ocean?"

"The Gulf of Mexico, anyway." Vorhees shrugged. "Calling it the ocean would be polite. It's pretty much a chemical slick. All those offshore platforms still pumping the crap out, plus the discharge from New Orleans. Ocean currents pushed a lot of debris in through there, too. Tankers, cargo ships, you name it. In places you can practically walk across it without getting your feet wet."

"But you could still leave from there," Peter tendered. "If you had a boat."

"In theory. But I wouldn't recommend it. The problem is getting past the barrier."

"Mines," Greer explained.

Vorhees nodded. "And lots of them. In the last days of the war, the NATO alliance, our so-called friends, banded together and made one last effort to contain the infection. Heavy bombing along the coasts, and not just conventional explosives. They blasted just about anything in the water. You can still see the wreckage down in Corpus. Then they laid mines, just to slam the door."

Peter remembered the stories his father had told him. The stories of the ocean, and the Long Beach. The rusting ribs of the great ships, stretching as far as the eye could see. Never had he thought to wonder how this had come about. He had lived in a world without history, without cause, a world where things just were what they were. Talking to Vorhees and Greer was like looking at lines on a page and suddenly seeing words written there.

"What about farther east?" he asked. "Have you ever sent anybody there?"

Vorhees shook his head. "Not for years. The First Expeditionary sent two battalions that way, one north into Louisiana through Shreveport, another across Missouri toward St. Louis. They never came back." He shrugged. "Maybe someday. For now, Texas is what we've got."

"I'd like to see it," Peter said after a moment. "The city. Kerrville."

"And you will, Peter." Vorhees allowed himself a rare smile. "If you take that convoy."

They had yet to give Vorhees an answer, and Peter felt torn. They had safety, they had lights, they had found the Army after all. It might not be until spring, but Peter felt confident that Vorhees would send an expedition to the Colony and bring the others in. They had found what they had come for, in other words-more than found it. To ask his friends to continue seemed like an unnecessary risk. And without Alicia, part of him wanted to say yes, to just let the whole thing be over.

But whenever he thought this, his next thought would be of Amy. Alicia had been right: to come so close and turn away felt like something he would regret, probably for the rest of his life. Michael had tried to pick up the signal from the radio in the general's tent, but their radio equipment was all short range, worthless in the mountains. In the end, Vorhees said he had no reason to doubt their story, but who knew what the signal meant?

"The military left all kinds of crap behind. Civilians, too. Believe me, we've seen it before. You can't go chasing every squeak." He spoke with the weariness of a man who had seen a lot, more than enough. "This girl of yours, Amy. Maybe she's a hundred years old, like you say, and maybe she isn't. I have no reason to disbelieve you, except for the fact that she looks about fifteen and scared shitless. You can't always explain these things. My guess is she's just some poor traumatized soul who survived somehow and by a stroke of luck just wandered into your camp."

"What about the transmitter in her neck?"

"Well, what about it?" Vorhees's tone wasn't mocking, merely factual. "Hell, maybe she's Russian or Chinese. We've been waiting for those people to show up, assuming there's even anyone left alive out there."

"Is there?"

Vorhees paused; he and Greer exchanged a look of caution.

"The truth is, we don't know. Some people say the quarantine worked, that the rest of the world is just humming right along out there without us. This raises the question as to why we wouldn't hear anything over the wireless, but I suppose it's possible they set up some kind of electronic barricade in addition to the mines. Others believe-and I think the major and I share this opinion-that everybody's dead. This is all conjecture, mind you, but the story goes that the quarantine wasn't quite as tight as people thought. Five years after the outbreak, the continental United States was pretty much depopulated, ripe for the picking. The gold depository at Fort Knox. The vault at the Federal Reserve in New York. Every museum and jewelry shop and bank, right down to the corner savings and loan, all just sitting there, nobody minding the store. But the real prize was all that American military ordnance just lying around, including upwards of ten thousand nuclear weapons, any one of which could shift the balance of power in a world without the United States to babysit it. Frankly, I don't think it's a question of if anyone came ashore, but how many and who. Chances are, they took the virus back with them."

Peter gave himself a moment to absorb all this. Vorhees was telling him the world was empty, an empty place.

"I don't think Amy's here to steal anything," he said finally.

"If it's any help, I don't think so either. She's just a kid, Peter. How she survived out there is anybody's guess. Maybe she'll find a way to tell you."

"I think she already has."

"That's what you believe. And I won't disagree with you. But I'll tell you something else. I knew a woman growing up, crazy old lady lived in a shack behind our housing section, an old falling-down dump of a place. Wrinkled as a raisin, kept about a hundred cats, place absolutely reeked of cat piss. This woman claimed she could hear what the dracs were thinking. We kids would tease the hell out of her, though of course we couldn't get enough of her, either. The kind of thing you feel bad about later, but not at the time. She was what you all call a Walker, just appeared at the gates one day." Vorhees concluded with a shrug: "Time to time you hear stories like this. Old people mostly, half-crazy mystics, never a young one like this girl. But it's not a new story."

Greer leaned forward. He seemed suddenly interested. "What happened to her?"

"The woman?" The general rubbed his chin as he searched his memory. "As I recall, she took the trip. Hanged herself in her cat-piss-smelling house." When neither Peter nor Greer said anything, the general went on: "You can't overthink these things. Or at least we can't. I'm sure the major will agree with me. We're here to clear out as many dracs as we can, lay in supplies, find the hot spots and burn them out. Maybe someday it'll all add up to something. I'm sure it's nothing I'll live to see."

The general pushed back from the table, and Greer as well; the time for talk was over, at least for the day. "In the meantime, think about my offer, Jaxon. A ride home. You've earned it."

By the time Peter had stepped to the door, Greer and Vorhees were already leaning over the table, where a large map had been unrolled. Vorhees raised his face, frowning.

"Was there something else?"

"It's just ... " What did he want to say? "I was wondering about Alicia. How she's doing."

"She's fine, Peter. However Coffee did it, he taught her well. You probably wouldn't even recognize her."

He felt stung. "I'd like to see her."

"I know you would. But it's just not a good idea right now." When Peter didn't move from the door, Vorhees said, with barely concealed impatience, "Is that all?"

Peter shook his head. "Just tell her I asked for her."

"I'll do that, son."

Peter stepped through the flap, into the darkening afternoon. The rain had let up, but the air felt completely saturated, heavy with bone-chilling dampness. Beyond the walls of the garrison, a dense fogbank was drifting over the ridge. Everything was spattered with mud. He hugged his jacket around himself as he crossed the open ground between Vorhees's tent and the mess hall, where he caught sight of Hollis, sitting alone at one of the long tables, spooning beans into his mouth from a battered plastic tray. More soldiers were scattered around the room, quietly talking. Peter fetched a tray and filled it from the pot and went to where Hollis was sitting.

"This seat taken?"

"They're all taken," Hollis said glumly. "They're just letting me borrow this one."

Peter took a place on the bench. He knew what Hollis meant; they were like extra limbs here, something vestigial, with nothing to do, no role to play. Sara and Amy had been relegated to their tent, but for all his relative freedom, Peter felt just as trapped. And none of the soldiers would have anything to do with them. The unstated assumption was that they had nothing worth saying and would be leaving soon anyway.

He updated Hollis on all he had learned, then asked the question that was really on his mind: "Any sign of her?"

"I saw them leaving this morning, with Raimey's squad."

Raimey's unit, one of six, was doing short recon patrols to the southeast. When Peter had asked Vorhees how long they'd be gone, he had answered, enigmatically, "However long it takes."

"How'd she look?"

"Like one of them." Hollis paused. "I waved to her, but I don't think she saw me. Know what they're calling her?"

Peter shook his head.

"The Last Expeditionary." Hollis frowned at this. "Kind of a mouthful, if you ask me."

They fell silent; there was nothing more to say. If they were extra limbs, Alicia felt to Peter like a missing one. He kept looking for her in his mind, turning his thoughts to the place where Alicia should be. It wasn't the kind of thing he thought he could ever really get used to.

"I don't think they really believe us about Amy," Peter said.

"Would you?"

Peter shook his head, conceding the point. "I guess not."

Another silence descended.

"So what do you think?" Hollis said. "About the evac."

With all the rain, the battalion's departure had been delayed another week. "Vorhees keeps urging us to go. He may be right."

"But you don't think so." When Peter hesitated, Hollis put down his fork and looked him in the eye. "You know me, Peter. I'll do whatever you want to do."

"Why am I in charge? I don't want to decide for everyone."

"I didn't say you were. I think it's just a case of what is, Peter. If you don't know yet, you don't know. It'll keep until the rain lets up."

Peter felt a twinge of guilt. Since they'd arrived at the garrison, he had somehow never quite found the moment to tell Hollis that he knew about him and Sara. With Alicia gone, part of him didn't want to face the fact that the force that held them all together was dissolving. The three men had been billeted in a tent adjacent to the one where Sara and Amy now bided their time, playing hands of go-to and waiting for the rain to stop; for two nights running, Peter had awakened to find that Hollis's bunk was empty. But always he was there in the morning, snoring away. Peter wondered if Hollis and Sara were staging this for his benefit or for Michael's, who was, after all, her brother. As for Amy: after a period of time, a day or so, in which she had seemed nervous, even a little afraid of the soldiers who brought them their meals and escorted them to the latrine, she appeared to have moved into a state of hopeful, even cheerful waiting, content to bide her time but wholly expecting to press forward. Will we be leaving soon? she had asked Peter, her voice gently urging. Because I would like to see the snow. To which Peter had only said, I don't know, Amy. We'll see, after the rain stops. The truth, yet even as he'd spoken, the words had the hollow taste of a lie.

Hollis tipped his head toward Peter's plate. "You should eat."

He pushed the tray aside. "I'm not hungry."

They were joined by Michael, who swept down to the table in a rain-beaded poncho, carrying a tray piled high with food. Of all of them, he alone had found some use for his time: Vorhees had assigned him to the motor pool, helping to ready the vehicles for the trip south. He placed the tray on the table, sat before it, and dug in greedily, using a piece of corn bread to shovel beans into his mouth with his oil-stained hands.

"What's the matter?" he said, looking up. He swallowed a mouthful of bread and beans. "The two of you look like somebody died."

One of the soldiers moved past their table with his tray. A jug-eared private, his bald head shimmering with a downy fuzz.

"Hey, Lugnut," he said to Michael.

Michael brightened. "Sancho. What's the ups?"

"De nada. Listen. A bunch of us were talking, thought maybe you'd like to join us later."

Michael smiled around a mouthful of beans. "Sure thing."

"Nineteen hundred in the mess." The soldier looked at Peter and Hollis as if noticing them for the first time. "You strags can come too, if you want."

Peter had never quite gotten used to this term. There was always a note of derision in it.

"Come where?"

"Thanks, Sancho," Michael said. "I'll run it by them."

When the soldier had moved on, Peter narrowed his eyes at Michael. "Lugnut?"

Michael had resumed eating. "They're big on names like that. I kind of like it better than Circuit." He mopped the last of the beans from his plate. "They're not bad guys, Peter."

"I didn't say they were."

"What's tonight?" Hollis asked after a moment.

"Oh, that." Michael shrugged dismissively, his face reddening. "I'm surprised no one told you. It's movie night."

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