The Passage Page 31

"I'm here to ask a favor."

Wolgast hadn't uttered a word in days. When he tried to answer, his windpipe felt half-closed, thickened from disuse; his voice emerged as a croak.

"I'm done with favors."

Sykes drew in a long breath. A stale smell was rising off him, dried sweat and old polyester. For a moment he let his eyes drift around the tiny room.

"Probably this all seems a little ... ungrateful. I admit that."

"Fuck yourself." It pleased Wolgast enormously to say this.

"I'm here about the girl, Agent."

"Her name," Wolgast said, "is Amy."

"I know her name. I know a great deal about her."

"She's six. She likes pancakes and carnival rides. She has a toy rabbit named Peter. You're a heartless prick, you know that, Sykes?"

Sykes withdrew an envelope from the pocket of his coat and placed it on the table. Inside were two photographs. One was a picture of Amy, taken, Wolgast guessed, at the convent. Probably it was the same one that had gone out with the Amber Alert. The second was a high school yearbook photo. The woman in the picture was obviously Amy's mother. The same dark hair, the same delicate arrangement of the facial bones, the same deep-set, melancholy eyes, though suffused, at the instant that the shutter opened, with a warm, expectant light. Who was this girl? Did she have friends, family, a boyfriend? A favorite subject in school? A sport she loved and was good at? Did she have secrets, a story of herself that no one knew? What did she hope her life would become? She was positioned at a three-quarter angle to the camera, looking over her right shoulder, wearing what looked like a prom dress, pale blue; her shoulders were bare. At the bottom of the photo was a caption: "Mason Consolidated High School, Mason, IA."

"Her mother was a prostitute. The night before she left Amy at the convent, she shot a trick on the front lawn of a frat house. For the record."

Wolgast wanted to say, So? How was any of that Amy's fault? But the image of the woman in the photograph-not even really a woman, just a girl herself-belayed his anger. Maybe Sykes wasn't even telling the truth. He put the photo down. "What happened to her?"

Sykes lifted his shoulder in a shrug. "No one knows. Gone."

"And the nuns?"

A shadow skittered across Sykes's face. Wolgast could tell that he'd hit the mark without even meaning to. Jesus, he thought. The nuns, too? Had it been Richards or somebody else?

"I don't know," Skyes answered.

"Look at you," Wolgast said. "Yes, you do."

Sykes said nothing more about it, his silence telling Wolgast, This line of conversation is over. He rubbed his eyes and returned the photos to their envelope and put it away.

"Where is she?"

"Agent, the thing is-"

"Where's Amy?"

Sykes cleared his throat again. "That's the reason I'm here, you see," he said. "The favor. We think Amy may be dying."

Wolgast wasn't allowed to ask any questions. He wasn't allowed to speak to anyone, or look around, or step from Sykes's line of vision. A detail of two soldiers led him across the compound, through the damp morning light. The air felt and smelled like spring. After almost five weeks in his room, Wolgast found himself taking deep, hungry breaths. The sun was painful to his eyes.

Once they were in the Chalet, Sykes took him down an elevator, four floors. They exited onto an empty hallway, Spartan and white, like a hospital. Wolgast guessed they were fifty feet belowground, maybe more. Whatever Sykes's people kept down here, they wanted at least that much dirt separating it from the world above. They came to a door marked MAIN LAB, but Sykes passed it without slowing his stride. More doors, and then they came to the one Sykes wanted. He slid a card through the reader and opened it.

Wolgast found himself in some kind of observation room. On the other side of the broad window, in dim, blue light, Amy's small form lay on a hospital bed, alone. She was connected to an IV, but that was all. Beside her bed was a plastic chair, empty. From tracks on the ceiling hung a group of color-coded hoses, coiled like the pneumatic hoses at a garage. Otherwise the room was bare.

"This is him?"

Wolgast turned to see a man he hadn't noticed before. He was wearing a lab coat and green scrubs, like Wolgast's.

"Agent Wolgast, this is Dr. Fortes."

They nodded without shaking hands. Fortes was young, not even thirty. Wolgast wondered if he was an MD or something else. Like Sykes, Fortes appeared exhausted, physically spent. His skin was oily, and he needed a haircut and a shave. His glasses looked like they hadn't been cleaned in a month.

"She has an embedded chip. It transmits vitals to the panel here." Fortes showed him: heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, temperature. Amy's was 102.6.


"Where what?" The doctor's eyes floated with incomprehension.

"Where's the chip?"

"Oh." Fortes looked at Sykes, who nodded. Fortes pointed at the back of his own neck. "Subcutaneous, between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae. The power source is pretty nifty, actually, a tiny nuclear cell. Like the kind on satellites, only much smaller."

Nifty. Wolgast shuddered. A nifty nuclear power source in Amy's neck. He turned to Sykes, who was watching with a look of caution.

"Is this what happened to the others? Carter and the rest."

"They were ... preliminary," Sykes said.

"Preliminary to what?"

He paused. "To Amy."

Fortes explained the situation: Amy was in a coma. No one had expected this, and her fever was too high and had gone on too long. Her kidney and liver values were depressed.

"We were hoping you could talk to her," Sykes said. "This sometimes helps with patients in a prolonged state of unconsciousness. Doyle tells us that she's pretty ... bonded with you."

A two-stage air lock connected them to Amy's room. Sykes and Fortes led him into the first chamber. An orange biosuit was hanging on the wall, the empty helmet tipped forward, like a man with a broken neck. Sykes explained how it worked.

"You'll need to put this on, then wrap all seams with duct tape. The valves at the base of the helmet connect to the hoses in the ceiling. They're color-coded, so that should be obvious. When you come back through, you need to shower in the suit, then shower again without it. There are instructions on the wall."

Wolgast sat on the bench to remove his slippers. Then he stopped.

"No," he said.

Sykes looked at him and frowned. "No what?"

"No, I'm not wearing it." He turned and faced Sykes squarely. "It's not going to help if she wakes up and sees me in a space suit. You want me to go in there, I go as I am."

"That's not a good idea, Agent," Sykes warned.

His mind was made up. "No suit or no deal."

Sykes glanced at Fortes, who shrugged. "It could be ... interesting. In theory, the virus should be inert by now. On the other hand, it might not be."

"The virus?"

"I guess you'll find out," Sykes said. "Let him in on my authority. And, Agent, once you're in, you're in. I can't guarantee anything beyond that. Is that clear?"

Wolgast said it was; Sykes and Fortes stepped from the air lock. Wolgast realized he hadn't expected them to say yes. At the last instant Wolgast called back to them. "Where's her backpack?"

Fortes and Sykes exchanged another private look. "Wait here," Sykes said.

He returned a few minutes later with Amy's knapsack. The Powerpuff Girls: Wolgast had never really looked at it, not closely. Three of them, their images made of a rubbery plastic glued onto the rough canvas of the pack, fists raised and flying. Wolgast unzipped it; some of Amy's things were missing, such as her hairbrush, but Peter was still inside.

He fixed his gaze on Fortes. "How will I know if it's not ... inert?"

"Oh, you'll know," Fortes said.

They sealed the door behind him. Wolgast felt the pressure drop. Above the second door, the light switched from red to green. Wolgast turned the handle and stepped inside.

A second room, longer than the first, with a fat drain in the floor and a sunflower-head shower, activated by a metal chain. The light in here was different; it had a bluish cast, like autumn twilight. A sign on the wall bore the instructions Sykes had indicated: a long list of steps that ended in na**dness, standing above the drain, rinsing the mouth and eyes and then clearing the throat and spitting. A camera peered down at him from a corner of the ceiling.

He paused at the second door. The light above it was red. A keypad was affixed to the wall. How would he go through? Then the light switched from red to green, as the first had done-Sykes, from outside, overriding the system.

He paused before opening the door. It looked heavy, made of gleaming steel. Like a bank vault, or something on a submarine. He couldn't say exactly why he'd insisted on not wearing the biosuit, a decision that now seemed rash. For Amy, as he'd said? Or to tease out some information, however meager, from Sykes? Either way, the decision had felt right to him.

He turned the handle, felt his ears pop as the pressure dropped again. He drew in a lungful of air, holding it in his chest, and stepped through.

Grey had no idea what was happening. Days and days of this: he'd report for his shift, ride the elevator down to L4-nothing had happened after that first night; Davis had covered for him-change in the locker room and do his work, cleaning the halls and bathrooms, then step into Containment, and step out six hours later.

All perfectly normal, except that those six hours were a blank, like an empty drawer in his brain. He'd obviously done the things he was supposed to, filed his reports and backed up the drives, moved the rabbit cages in and out, even exchanged a few words with Pujol or the other techs who came in. And yet he couldn't remember any of it. He'd slide his card to enter the observation room and the next thing he knew his shift was over and he was coming out the other side.

Except for little things: fleeting things, small but bright somehow, little bits of recorded data that seemed to catch the light like confetti as they fluttered down through his mind throughout the day. They weren't pictures, nothing as clear and straightforward as that, and nothing he could hold on to. But he'd be sitting in the commissary, or back in his room, or crossing the yard to the Chalet, and a taste would bubble from the back of his throat, and a queer juicy feeling in his teeth. Sometimes it struck him so hard it actually made him freeze in his tracks. And when this happened, he'd think of funny things, unrelated, a lot of which had to do with Brownbear. Like the taste in his mouth would push a button that would start him up thinking about his old dog, who, truth be told, he hadn't really thought about much at all until recently, not for years and years, until that night he'd had that dream in Containment and tossed all over the floor.

Brownbear and his reeking breath. Brownbear dragging something dead, a possum or raccoon, up the front steps. That time he got into a nest of bunnies under the trailer, tiny little balls of peach-colored skin, not even covered with fur yet, and crunched them one by one, their little skulls popping between his molars, like a kid sitting in the movies with a box of Whoppers.

Funny thing: he couldn't say for sure Brownbear had actually done that.

He wondered if he was sick. The sign over the sentry station on L3 made him nervous, in a way it hadn't before. It seemed to be talking right to him. ANY OF THE FOLLOWING SYMPTOMS ... One morning, returning from breakfast, he'd felt a tickle in this throat, like maybe he was getting a cold; before he knew it he'd sneezed hard into his hand. His nose had been running a little ever since. Then again, it was spring now, still cold at night but rising into the fifties or even sixties during the afternoon, and all the trees were budding out, a faint haze of green, like a spatter of paint over the mountains. He'd always been allergic.

And then there was the quiet. It took Grey a while to notice what this was. Nobody was saying anything-not just the sweeps, who never spoke much to begin with, but the techs and soldiers and doctors, too. It wasn't like it happened all at once, in a day or even a week. But slowly, over time, a hush had settled over the place, sealing down on it like a lid. Grey had always been more of a listener himself-that's what Wilder, the prison shrink, had said about him: "You're a good listener, Grey." He'd meant it as a compliment, but mostly Wilder was just in love with the sound of his own voice and happy to have an audience. Still, Grey missed the sound of human voices. One night in the commissary he counted thirty men hunched over their trays, and not one of them was saying a word. Some weren't even eating, just sitting in their chairs, maybe nursing a cup of coffee or tea and staring into space. Like they were half asleep.

One thing: Grey was fine in the shut-eye department. He slept and slept and slept, and when his alarm went off at 05:00, or noon if, as likely as not, he'd been on the late shift, he'd roll over in bed, light a smoke from the pack on the nightstand, and stay still for a few minutes, trying to decide if he'd dreamed or not. He didn't think he had.

Then one morning he sat down at a table in the commissary to eat-French toast stamped with butter, a couple of eggs, three sausages, and a bowl of grits on the side; if he was sick it sure hadn't killed his appetite any-and when he lifted his face to take his first bite, a dripping slab of toast just inches from his lips, he saw Paulson. Sitting there, right across from him, two tables away. Grey had caught sight of him once or twice since their conversation, but not up close, not like this. Paulson was sitting over a plate of eggs he hadn't touched. He looked like shit, his skin stretched so tight over his face you could see the edges of his bones. For an instant, just one, their eyes met.

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