The Passage Page 4

Tim was plenty ticked off, because he only gets to be a captain. I wouldn't know a captain from Colonel Sanders, so it's all the same to me. It was Claudia who really kicked up a fuss. She actually threatened to pack up and go home. "I didn't vote for that guy and I'm not going to be part of his damned army, no matter what the twerp says." Never mind that none of us voted for him either, and the whole thing really seems like a big joke. But it turns out she's a Quaker. Her younger brother was actually a conscientious objector during the Iran War. In the end, though, we calmed her down and got her to stay on, so long as we promised she didn't have to salute anyone.

The thing is, I can't really figure out why these guys are here. Not why the military would take an interest, because after all, it's their money we're spending, and I'm grateful for it. But why send a squad of special ops (they're technically "special reconnaissance") to babysit a bunch of biochemists? The kid in the suit-I'd guess he's NSA, though who really knows?-told me that the area we were traveling into was known to be controlled by the Montoya drug cartel and the soldiers are here for our protection. "How would it look for a team of American scientists to get themselves killed by drug lords in Bolivia?" he asked me. "Not a happy day for U.S. foreign policy, not a happy day at all." I didn't contradict him, but I know damn well there's no drug activity where we're going-it's all to the west, on the altiplano. The eastern basin is virtually uninhabited except for a few scattered Indian settlements, most of which haven't had any outside contact in years. All of which he knows I know.

This has me scratching my head, but as far as I can tell, it makes no difference to the expedition itself. We just have some heavy firepower coming along for the ride. The soldiers pretty much keep to themselves; I've barely heard any of them even open their mouths. Spooky, but at least they don't get in the way.

Anyway, we're off in the morning. The offer of a pet snake still stands.


From: [email protected]

Date: Wednesday, February 15 11:32 p.m.

To: [email protected]

Subject: See attached

Attachment: DSC00392.JPG (596 KB)


Six days in. Sorry to be out of touch, and please tell Rochelle not to worry. It's been hard slogging every step of the way, with dense tree cover and many days of constant rain-too much work to get the satcom up. At night, we all eat like farmhands and fall exhausted into our tents. Nobody here smells very nice, either.

But tonight I'm too keyed up to sleep. The attachment will explain why. I've always believed in what we were doing, but of course I've had my moments of doubt, sleepless nights when I wondered if this was all completely harebrained, some kind of fantasy my brain cooked up when Liz became so sick. I know you've thought it too. So I'd be a fool not to question my own motives. But not anymore.

According to the GPS, we're still a good twenty kilometers from the site. The topography is consistent with the satellite recon-dense jungle plain, but along the river, a deep ravine with cliffs of limestone pocketed with caves. Even an amateur geologist could read these cliffs like the pages of a book. The usual layers of river sediment, and then, about four meters below the lip, a line of charcoal black. It's consistent with the Chuchote legend: a thousand years ago the whole area was blackened by fire, "a great conflagration sent by the god Auxl, lord of the Sun, to destroy the demons of man and save the world." We camped on the riverbank last night, listening to the flocks of bats that poured out of the caves at sunset; in the morning, we headed east along the ravine.

It was just past noon when we saw the statue.

At first I thought maybe I was imagining things. But look at the image, Paul. A human being, but not quite: the bent animal posture, the clawlike hands and the long teeth crowding the mouth, the intense muscularity of the torso, details still visible, somehow, after-how long? How many centuries of wind and rain and sun have passed, wearing the stone away? And still it took my breath away. And the resemblance to the other images I've shown you is inarguable-the pillars at the temple of Mansarha, the carvings on the gravesite in Xianyang, the cave drawings in Cotes d'Amor.

More bats tonight. You get used to them, and they keep the mosquitoes down. Claudia rigged up a trap to catch one. Apparently, bats like canned peaches, which she used as bait. Maybe Alex would like a pet bat instead?


From: [email protected]

Date: Saturday, February 18 6:51 p.m.

To: [email protected]

Subject: more jpgs

Attachment: DSC00481.JPG (596 KB), DSC00486.JPG (582 KB), DSC00491.JPG (697 KB) Have a look at these. We've counted nine figures now.

Cole thinks we're being followed, but won't tell me by who. It's just a feeling, he says. All night long he's on the satcom, won't tell me what it's all about. At least he's stopped calling me Major. He's a youngster, but not as green as he looks.

Good weather, finally. We're close, within 10K, making good time.

From: [email protected]

Date: Sunday, February 19 9:51 p.m.

To: [email protected]


From: [email protected]

Date: Tuesday, February 21 1:16 a.m.

To: [email protected]



I'm writing this to you in case I don't make it back. I don't want to alarm you, but I have to be realistic about the situation. We're less than five kilometers from the grave site, but I doubt we'll be able to perform the extraction as planned. Too many of us are sick, or dead.

Two nights ago we were attacked-not by drug traffickers, but bats. They came a few hours after sunset while most of us were out of our tents doing the evening chores, scattered around the campsite. It was as if they had been scouting us all along, waiting for the right moment to launch an aerial assault. I was lucky: I had walked a few hundred yards upriver, away from the trees, to find a good signal on the GPS. I heard the shouts and then the gunfire, but by the time I made it back the swarm had moved downstream. Four people died that night, including Claudia. The bats simply engulfed her. She tried to get to the river-I guess she thought she could shake them off that way-but she never made it. By the time we reached her, she'd lost so much blood she had no chance. In the chaos, six others were bitten or scratched, and all of them are now ill with what looks like some speeded-up version of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever-bleeding from the mouth and nose, the skin and eyes rosy with burst capillaries, the fever shooting skyward, fluid filling the lungs, coma. We've been in contact with the CDC but without tissue analysis it's anybody's guess. Tim had both his hands practically chewed to pieces, trying to pull them off Claudia. He's the sickest of the lot. I seriously doubt he'll last till morning.

Last night they came again. The soldiers had set up a defense perimeter, but there were simply too many-they must have come by the hundreds of thousands, a huge swarm that blotted out the stars. Three soldiers killed, as well as Cole. He was standing right in front of me; they actually lifted him off his feet before they bored through him like hot knives through butter. There was barely enough of him left to bury.

Tonight it's quiet, not a bat in the sky. We've built a fire line around the camp, and that seems to be keeping them at bay. Even the soldiers are pretty shaken up. The few of us who are left are now deciding what to do. A lot of our equipment has been destroyed; it's unclear how this happened, but sometime during the attack last night, a grenade belt went into the fire, killing one of the soldiers and taking out the generator as well as most of what was in the supply tent. But we still have satcom and enough juice in the batteries to call for evac. Probably we should all just get the hell out of here.

And yet. When I ask myself why I should turn back now, what I have to go home to, I can't think of a single reason. It would be different if Liz were still alive. I think for the past year some part of me has been pretending that she'd simply gone away for a while, that one day I'd look up and see her standing in the door, smiling that way she did, her head cocked to the side so her hair could fall away from her face; my Liz, home at last, thirsty for a cup of Earl Grey, ready for a stroll by the Charles through the falling snow. But I know now that this isn't going to happen. Strangely, the events of the last two days have given my mind a kind of clarity about what we're doing, what the stakes are. I'm not one bit sorry to be here; I don't feel afraid at all. If push comes to shove, I may press on alone.

Paul, whatever happens, whatever I decide, I want you to know that you have been a great friend to me. More than a friend: a brother. How strange to write that sentence, sitting on a riverbank in the jungles of Bolivia, four thousand miles away from everything and everyone I've ever known and loved. I feel as if I've entered a new era of my life. What strange places our lives can carry us to, what dark passages.

From: [email protected]

Date: Tuesday, February 21 5:31 a.m.

To: [email protected]

Subject: Re: don't be dumb, get the hell out, please Paul,

We radioed for the evac last night. Pickup in ten hours, which is the nick of time as far as everyone's concerned. I don't see how we can survive another night here. Those of us who are still healthy have decided we can use the day to press on to the site. We were going to draw straws, but it turned out everyone wanted to go. We leave within the hour, at first light. Maybe something can still be salvaged from this disaster. One bit of good news: Tim seems to have turned a corner during the last few hours. His fever's way down, and though he's still unresponsive, the bleeding has stopped and his skin looks better. With the others, though, I'd say it's still touch and go.

I know that science is your god, Paul, but would it be too much to ask for you to pray for us? All of us.

From: [email protected]

Date: Tuesday, February 21 11:16 p.m.

To: [email protected]


Now I know why the soldiers are here.

Chapter THREE

Situated on four thousand acres of soggy East Texas piney woodland and short-grass prairie, looking more or less like a corporate office park or large public high school, the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a.k.a. Terrell, meant one thing: if you were a man convicted of capital murder in the state of Texas, this was where you came to die.

On that morning in March, Anthony Lloyd Carter, inmate number 999642, sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of a Houston mother of two named Rachel Wood whose lawn he had mowed every week for forty dollars and a glass of iced tea, had been a resident of the Administrative Segregation Block of Terrell Unit for one thousand three hundred and thirty-two days-less than many, more than some, not that in Carter's sense of things this made a lick of difference. It wasn't like you got a prize for being there the longest. He ate alone, exercised alone, showered alone, and a week was the same as a day or a month to him. The only different thing that was going to happen would come on the day the warden and the chaplain appeared at his cell and he'd take the ride to the room with the needle, and that day wasn't so far off. He was allowed to read, but that wasn't easy for him, it never had been, and he had long since stopped fussing with it. His cell was a concrete box six feet by ten with one window and a steel door with a slot wide enough to slip his hands through but that was all, and most of the time he just lay there on his cot, his mind so blank it was like a pail with nothing in it. Half the time he couldn't have said for sure if he was awake or still sleeping.

That day began the same as every other, at 3:00 A.M., when they turned on the lights and shoved the breakfast trays through the slots. Usually it was cold cereal or powdered eggs or pancakes; the good breakfasts were when they put peanut butter on the pancakes, and this was one of the good ones. The fork was plastic and broke half the time, so Carter sat on his bunk and ate the pancakes folded up, like tacos. The other men on H-Wing complained about the food, how nasty it was, but Carter didn't think it was so bad on the whole. He'd had worse, and there were days in his life when he'd had nothing at all, so pancakes with peanut butter were a welcome sight in the morning, even if it wasn't morning in the sense of being light out.

There were visiting days, of course, but Carter hadn't had a visitor in all the time he'd been in Terrell except for the once, when the woman's husband had come and told him that he'd found Christ Jesus who was the Lord and that he'd prayed on what Carter had done, taking his beautiful wife away from him and his babies forever and ever; and that through the weeks and months of praying, he'd come to terms with this and decided to forgive him. The man did a lot of crying, sitting on the other side of the glass with the phone pressed to his head. Carter had been a Christian man himself from time to time and appreciated what the woman's husband was saying to him; but the way he spoke the words made it seem like his forgiving Carter was something he'd chosen to do, to make himself feel better. He certainly didn't say anything about putting a stop to what was going to happen to Carter. Carter couldn't see how saying anything on the subject would improve the situation, so he thanked the man and said God bless you and I'm sorry, if I see Mrs. Wood in heaven I'll tell her what you did here today, which made the man get up in a hurry and leave him there, holding the phone. That was the last time anybody had come to see Carter at Terrell, two years ago at least.

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