The Passage Page 32

Paulson looked away.

That night, checking in for his shift, Grey asked Davis, "You know that guy Paulson?"

Davis wasn't his usual cheerful self these days. Gone were the jokes and the dirty magazines and the headphones with their buzz saws of leaking music. Grey wondered what in hell Davis did all night at the desk; though it was also true that Grey didn't know what he himself was doing all night, either.

"What about him?"

But Grey's question stopped right there; he couldn't think what else to ask.

"Nothing. Just wondering if you knew him was all."

"Do yourself a favor. Stay away from that a**hole."

Grey went downstairs and got to work. It wasn't until later, running a scrub brush around a toilet bowl on L4, that he thought of the question he'd meant to ask.

What is he so afraid of?

What is everyone so afraid of?

They were calling him Number Twelve. Not Carter or Anthony or Tone, though he was so sick now, lying alone in the dark, that those names and the person they referred to seemed like somebody else, not him. A person who had died, leaving only this sick, writhing form in his place.

The sickness felt like forever. That's the word it made him think of. Not that it would last forever; more that he was sick with time itself. Like the idea of time was inside him, in each cell of his body, and time wasn't an ocean, like somebody had told him once, but a million tiny wicks of flame that would never be extinguished. The worst feeling in the world. Someone had told him he'd be feeling better soon, much better. He'd held on to those words for a while. But now he knew they were a lie.

He was aware, dimly, of movements around him, the comings and goings, the pokings and prickings of the men in the space suits. He wanted water, just a sip of water, to slake his thirst, but when he asked for this, he heard no sound from his lips, nothing except the roaring and ringing in his ears. They'd taken a lot of his blood. It felt like whole gallons of it. The man named Anthony had sold his blood from time to time; he'd squeeze the ball and watch the bag fill up with it, amazed at its density, its rich red color, how alive it looked. Never more than a pint before they gave him the cookies and the folded bills and sent him on his way. But now the men in the suits filled bag after bag, and the blood was different, though he couldn't say just how. The blood in his body was alive but he didn't think it was only his own anymore; it belonged to someone, something, else.

It would have been good to die about now.

Mrs. Wood, she'd known that. And not just about herself but about Anthony too, and when he thought this, for a second he was Anthony again. It was good to die. There was a lightness in it, a letting go, like love.

He tried to hold on to this thought, the thought that made him still Anthony, but bit by bit it slipped away, a rope pulled slowly through his hands. How many days had passed he couldn't tell; something was happening to him, but it wasn't happening quick enough for the men in the suits. They were talking and talking about it, poking and prodding and taking more of his blood. And he was hearing something else now, too: a soft murmur, like voices, but it wasn't coming from the men in the suits. The sounds seemed to come from far away and from inside him all at once. Not words he knew but words nonetheless; it was a language he was hearing, it had order and sense and a mind, and not just one mind: twelve. Yet one was more than the others, not louder but more. The one voice and then behind it the others, twelve in sum. And they were speaking to him, calling to him; they knew he was there. They were in his blood and they were forever, too.

He wanted to say something back.

He opened his eyes.

"Drop the gate!" a voice cried out. "He's flipping!"

The restraints were nothing, like paper. The rivets popped from the table and shot across the room. First his arms and then his legs. The room was dark but hid nothing from his eyes, because the darkness was part of him now. And inside him, far down, a great, devouring hunger uncoiled itself. To eat the very world. To take it all inside him and be filled by it, made whole. To make the world eternal, as he was.

A man was running for the door.

Anthony fell on him swiftly, from above. A scream and then the man was silent in wet pieces on the floor. The beautiful warmth of blood! He drank and drank.

The one who'd told him he'd be feeling better soon: he wasn't wrong, after all.

Anthony Carter had never felt better in his life.

Pujol, that dumb f**k, was dead.

Thirty-six days: that was how long it had taken Carter to flip, the longest since they'd begun. But Carter was supposed to be the meanest of the lot, the last stage before the virus reached its final form. The one the girl had gotten.

Richards personally didn't care one way or another about the girl. She would survive or she wouldn't. She would live forever or die in the next five minutes. Somewhere along the way, the girl had become beside the point, as far as Special Weapons was concerned. They had Wolgast in there with her now, talking to her, trying to bring her around. So far he was fine, but if the girl died, this wouldn't make a lick of difference.

What the hell had Pujol been thinking? They should have dropped the gate days ago. But at least now they knew what these things could do. The report from Bolivia had indicated as much, but it was another thing to see it with your own eyes, to watch the video feed of Carter, this little twig of a man with an IQ not much more than 80 on a good day and scared of his own shadow, launch himself twenty feet through the air, so fast it was as if he were moving not through space but around it, and rip a man from crotch to jowls like a letter he couldn't wait to open. By the time it was all over-about two seconds-they'd had to blast Carter with the lights, to push him back to the corner so they could drop the gate.

They had the twelve now, thirteen counting Fanning. Richards's job was done, or nearly. The order had just come through. Project NOAH was graduating to Operation Jumpstart. In a week, they'd be moving the sticks to White Sands. After that, it would be out of Richards's hands.

The ultimate bunker busters. That's what Cole had called them, way back when, when it was all just a theory-before Bolivia and Fanning and all the rest. Just imagine what one of these things could do, say, in the mountain caves of northern Pakistan, or the eastern deserts of Iran, or the shot-up buildings of the Chechen Free Zone. Think high colonic, Richards: a good cleaning out from the inside.

Maybe Cole would have wised up eventually. But in his absence, the idea had acquired a life of its own. Never mind that it violated about half a dozen international treaties that Richards could think of. Never mind that it was just about the stupidest idea he'd ever heard of in his life. A bluff, probably; but bluffs had a way of being called. And did anyone seriously think, for one goddamn second, that you could contain one of these things to the caves of northern Pakistan?

He felt bad for Sykes, and not a little worried. The guy was a wreck, had barely come out of his office since word had come down from Special Weapons. When Richards had asked him if Lear knew, Sykes had given a long, wretched-sounding laugh. Poor guy, he'd said. He still thinks he's trying to save the world. Which, the way things are playing out, might need saving after all. I can't believe this is even on the table.

Armored trucks would transport the sticks to Grand Junction; from there, they'd be moved by train to White Sands. As for Richards: once everything had been brought to its proper conclusion, he was giving serious consideration to buying property in, say, northern Canada.

The sweeps would be the first to go. The techs and most of the soldiers, too, starting with the ones who were the most screwed up, like Paulson. After that day on the loading dock, Richards had checked his file. Paulson, Derrick G. Age twenty-two. Enlisted straight out of high school in Glastonbury, Connecticut; a year in the sands, then back stateside. No record, and the guy was smart; he had an IQ of 136. No question he could have gone to college, or OCS. He'd been on-site now for twenty-three months. He'd been disciplined twice for sleeping on watch and once for unauthorized use of email, but that was all.

What bothered him was that Paulson knew, or believed he did; Richards had sensed it right off. Not in anything Paulson had done or said, but in the look on Carter's face when Richards had opened the van's door-like the poor guy had seen a ghost, or worse. Nobody except the scientific staff and the sweeps set foot on Level 4. With nothing else to do but stand around in the snow, a certain amount of idle conjecture among the enlisted was inevitable, loose talk around the mess table. But Richards had the feeling in his gut that whatever Paulson had said was more than just gossip.

Maybe Paulson was dreaming. Maybe they all were.

If Richards was dreaming these days, it was about the nuns. He hadn't cared for that part very much at all. Way back when, so long ago it seemed like a different life entirely, he'd gone to Catholic school. A bunch of withered old bitches who liked to slap and hit, but he'd respected them; they meant what they said and did it. So shooting nuns went against the grain. Most of them had just slept through it. But there was one who'd woken up. The way she opened her eyes made him think she'd been expecting him. He'd done two of them already; she was the third. She opened her eyes in bed and he saw, in the pale light coming through the window, that she wasn't some dried-up seahorse like the others but young, and not bad-looking. Then she closed her eyes and murmured something, a prayer probably, and Richards shot her through a pillow.

He'd come up one nun short. Lacey Antoinette Kudoto, the crazy one. He'd read her psych workup from the diocese. Nobody would believe her story, and even if they did, the chain was broken in western Oklahoma with a bunch of dead cops shot by rogue FBI agents and a ten-year-old Chevy Tahoe you'd need tweezers and about a thousand years to reassemble.

Still, he hadn't liked shooting that nun.

Richards was sitting in his office, watching the security monitors. The time stamp read 22:26. The sweeps were in and out of Containment with the rabbit carts, but nobody was having any of it. The fast had started with Zero but had spread to the others since Carter had shown up, maybe a couple of days after. This was a puzzler, but in any event, if Special Weapons had its way, the sticks would all be eating soon enough. By which time Richards hoped he'd be ice-fishing on Hudson Bay or digging out snow for an igloo.

He looked at the monitor for Amy's chamber. There was Wolgast, sitting at her bedside. They'd brought in a little portable toilet with a nylon curtain, and a cot where he could sleep. But he hadn't slept at all, just sat in the chair by her bed day after day, touching her hand, talking to her. What he was saying, Richards didn't care to know. And yet he'd find himself watching them for hours, almost as much as he watched Babcock.

He turned his attention to Babcock's chamber. Giles Babcock, Number One. Babcock was hanging upside down from the bars, his eyes, that weird orange color, shooting straight at the camera, his jaws quietly working, chewing the air. I am yours and you are mine, Richards. We are all meant for someone, and I am meant for you.

Yeah, Richards thought. Fuck you, too.

Richards's com buzzed against his waist.

"This is the front gate," the voice on the other end said. "We've got a woman out here."

Richards examined the monitor that showed the guardhouse. Two sentries, one holding the com to his ear, the other with his weapon unslung. The woman was standing just outside the circle of light around the hut.

"So?" he said. "Get rid of her."

"That's the thing, sir," the sentry said. "She won't go. She doesn't look like she has a car, either. I think she actually walked."

Richards was looking hard at the monitor. He saw the sentry drop the com to the ground and unsling his weapon.

"Hey!" Richards heard him say. "Get back here! Stop or I'll fire!"

Richards heard the pop of his weapon. The second soldier took off running into the dark. Two more shots, the sound muffled through the com where it lay in the mud. Ten seconds passed, twenty. Then they stepped back into the light. Richards could tell from their body language that they'd lost her.

The first sentry retrieved his com and looked up into the camera.

"Sorry. She got away somehow. You want us to go look for her?"

Jesus. This was all Richards needed. "Who was she?"

"Black woman, some kind of accent," the sentry explained. "Said she was looking for someone named Wolgast."

He didn't die. Not right away and not as the days went by. And on the third day, he told her the story.

-There once was a little girl, Wolgast told her. More little even than you. Her name was Eva, and her mother and father loved her very much. The night after she was born, her father took her from her bassinet in the room at the hospital where they were all sleeping and held her, her bare skin against his own, and from that moment on she was inside him, really and truly. His girl was inside him, in his heart.

Somebody was probably watching, listening. The camera was over his shoulder. He didn't care. Fortes came and went. He took her blood and changed her bags, and Wolgast talked, through the hours of the third day, telling it all to Amy, the story he'd told no one.

-And then something happened. It was her heart. Her heart, you see-he showed her the place on his chest where this was-began to shrink. While around her, her body grew, her heart did not, and then the rest of her stopped growing too. He would have given her his heart if he could, because it was hers to begin with. It had always been, and always would be, hers. But he couldn't do this for her, he couldn't do anything, no one could, and when she died, he died with her. The man that he was, was gone. And the man and the woman couldn't love each other anymore, because their love was nothing but sadness now, and missing their little girl.

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