The Passage Page 52

At the time, it might have made sense. Michael could see how that was possible. The Army knew where to find them, and there was only so much food and fuel to go around, so much room under the lights. But not now. Not with the batteries the way they were, the lights about to fail. Blackness and screaming and dying, et cetera.

It wasn't long after Michael's conversation with Theo, not more than a few days as he recalled, that he had happened upon the old logbook-"happened" being not quite the correct word, as things turned out. It was the quiet hour, just before dawn. Michael had been sitting at the panel in the Lighthouse like always, minding the monitors and flipping through Teacher's copy of What to Name the Baby (that's how desperate he'd become for something new to read; he'd just made it to the I's), when, for some unknown reason, restlessness or boredom or the discomfiting thought that if the winds had blown a little differently his parents might have named him Ichabod (Ichabod the Circuit!), his eyes had drifted upward to the shelf above his CRT, and there it was. A notebook with a thin black spine. Standing there among the usual whatnot, tucked between a spool of solder and a stack of Elton's CDs (Billie Holiday Sings the Blues, Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, Superstars #1 Party Dance Hits, a group called Yo Mama that sounded to Michael like a bunch of people yelling at each other, not that he understood the first thing about music). Michael must have looked right at it a thousand times, and yet he couldn't remember seeing it before; that was curious, the thought that gave him pause. A book, something he hadn't read. (He'd read everything.) He rose and took it from its place on the shelf, and when he cracked the spine the first thing he saw, inscribed in a precise hand, an engineer's hand, was a name he knew: Rex Fisher. Michael's great (great-great?) grandfather. Rex Fisher, First Engineer of Light and Power, First Colony, California Republic. What the hell? How had he missed this? He turned the pages, crinkled with moisture and age; it took only a moment for his mind to parse the information, to break it into its components and reassemble it into a coherent whole that told him what this slender, ink-filled volume was. Columns of numbers, with dates written in the old style, followed by the hour and another number Michael understood to be the frequency of transmission, and then, in the spaces to the right, short notations, rarely more than a few words but heavy with suggestion, whole stories folded into them: "unmanned distress beacon" or "five survivors" or "military?" or "three en route from Prescott, Arizona." There were other place names, too: Ogden, Utah. Kerrville, Texas. Las Cruces, New Mexico. Ashland, Oregon. Hundreds of such notations, filling page after page, until they simply stopped. The final entry read, simply, "All transmission ceasing by order of the Household."

A glow was paling the windows by the time Michael finished. He doused the lantern and rose from his chair as Morning Bell began to peal-three solid rings followed by a pause of identical duration, then three more in case you didn't get the message the first time (it's morning; you're alive)-and crossed the mazelike clutter of the narrow room with its plastic bins of parts and scattered tools and dirty dishes in teetering piles (why Elton couldn't just eat in the barracks Michael had no idea; the man was just flat-out disgusting), stepped to the breaker panel, and powered down the lights. A wave of weary satisfaction washed through him, as it always did at Morning Bell: one more night's work accomplished, all souls safe and sound to face another day. Let's see Alicia and her blades do that. (And wasn't it true that when he'd lifted his face to see the logbook, it had been the image of Alicia in his mind that had distracted him? As it sometimes-often-did? And not just Alicia but the specific picture of sunlight flaring her hair as she had stepped from the Armory that very evening, Michael moving down the path toward her, unseen? An image that was, as he considered it again, quite striking? All this despite the fact that Alicia Donadio was, in point of fact, the single most annoying woman on earth, not that there was such a vast field of competitors?) He returned to the panel and moved through the steps, flipping the cells to charge, turning on the fans and opening the vents; the meters, which stood at 28 percent across the board, began to flicker and rise.

He swiveled to look at Elton, who appeared to be dozing in his chair, though it was sometimes hard to tell. Waking and sleeping, Elton's eyes were always the same, two thin strips of yellow jelly, peeking through slitted eyelids of perpetually tearing dampness that never quite managed to close. His pale hands were folded over the curve of his belly, the earphones, as always, clamped to the sides of his scaly head, pumping out the music he listened to all night. The Beatles. Boyz-B-Ware. Art Lundgren and his All-Girl Polka-Party Orchestra (the only one that Michael sort of liked).

"Elton?" No answer. Michael turned his voice up a notch. "Elton?"

The old man-Elton was fifty at least-startled to life. "Flyers, Michael. What time is it?"

"Relax. It's morning. We're down for the night."

Elton screwed himself up in his chair, setting the hinges creaking, and drew the earphones down into the folds of his neck. "Then what you wake me up for? I was just getting to the good part."

Next to the CDs, Elton's nightly forays into imagined sexual adventure constituted his major pastime-dreams of women, conveniently long dead, which he would recount to Michael in excruciating detail, claiming that these were actually memories of things that had happened to him in his younger days. It was all bullshit, Michael figured, since Elton hardly ever set foot outside the Lighthouse, and to look at him now, with his dandruffy head and tangled beard and gray teeth clotted with the remains of a meal he had probably eaten two days ago, Michael didn't see how any of it was even remotely possible.

"Don't you want to hear about it?" The old man gave his eyebrows a suggestive wag. "It was the hay dream. I know you like that one."

"Not now, Elton. I ... found something. A book."

"You woke me up because you found a book?"

Michael scooted his chair down the length of the panel and placed the log in the old man's lap. Elton ran his fingers over the cover, his sightless eyes turned upward, then drew it to his nose and gave a long sniff.

"Now, I'd say that would be your great-grandfather's logbook. Thing's been floating around here for years." He passed it back to Michael. "Can't say I've read it myself. Find anything good in there?"

"Elton, what do you know about this?"

"Couldn't say. Things do have a way of popping up right when you need them, though."

Which was when Michael realized why he hadn't seen the book before. He hadn't seen it before because it wasn't there.

"You put it on the shelf, didn't you?"

"Now, Michael. Radio's forbidden. You know that."

"Elton, did you talk to Theo?"

"Theo who?"

Michael felt his irritation mount. Why couldn't the man just answer a question? "Elton-"

The old man cut him off with a raised hand. "Okay, don't get your gaps in a twist. No, I didn't talk to Theo. Though I'm guessing you did. I didn't talk to anyone, except for you." He paused. "You know, you're more like your old man than you think, Michael. He wasn't a very good liar, either."

Somehow, Michael wasn't surprised. He slumped down into his chair. Part of him was glad.

"So how bad are they?" Elton asked.

"Not good." He shrugged; for some reason, he was looking at his hands. "Number five is the worst, two and three a little better than the others. We've got irregular charge on one and four. Twenty-eight this morning across the board, never over fifty-five by First Bell."

Elton nodded. "So, brownouts within the next six months, total failure within thirty. More or less like your father figured."

"He knew?"

"Your old man could read those batteries like a book, Michael. He could see this coming a long time ago."

So there it was. His father had known, and probably his mother too. A familiar panic rose within him. He didn't want to think about this, he didn't.


He took a deep breath to calm himself. One more secret for him to carry. But he would do what he always did, pushing the information down inside himself as far as it could go.

"So," said Michael, "how exactly do you build a radio?"

Radio wasn't the problem, Elton explained; it was the mountain that was the problem.

The original beacon had run off an antenna that stood at the peak of the mountain; an insulated cable, five kilometers long, had run the length of the power trunk to connect it to the transmitter in the Lighthouse. All taken down and destroyed by the One Law. Without the antenna, they were hopelessly blocked to the east, and any signal they might have picked up would be overwhelmed by electromagnetic interference from the battery stack.

That left two choices: go to the Household and ask for permission to run an antenna up the mountain; or say nothing and try to boost the signal somehow.

It was, in the end, no contest. Michael couldn't ask for permission without explaining the reason, which meant telling the Household about the batteries; and to tell them about the batteries was simply out of the question, because then everyone would know, and once that happened, the rest wouldn't matter. It wasn't just the batteries that Michael was in charge of; it was the glue of hope that held the place together. You couldn't just tell people they had no chance. The only thing to do was find somebody still alive out there-find them with a radio, which would mean they had power and therefore light-before he said another word to anyone. And if he found nothing, if the world really was empty, then what would happen would happen anyway; it was better if nobody knew.

He got to work that morning. In the shed, piled among the old CRTs and CPUs and plasmas and bins of cell phones and Blu-rays, was an old stereo receiver-just AM and FM bands, but he could open that up-and an oscilloscope. A copper wire up the chimney served as their antenna; Michael refitted the guts of the receiver into a plain CPU chassis, to camouflage it-the only person who might have noticed an extra CPU sitting on the counter would be Gabe, and from what Sara had told him, the poor guy wasn't ever coming back-and jacked the receiver into the panel, using the audio port. The battery control system had a simple media program, and with a little work he was able to configure the equalizer to filter out the battery noise. They wouldn't be able to broadcast; he had no transmitter and would have to figure out how to build one from the bottom up. But for the time being, with a little patience, he'd be able to scoop out any decent signal from the west.

They found nothing.

Oh, there was plenty to hear out there. A surprising range of activity, from ULF to microwaves. The odd cell phone tower powered by a working solar panel. Geothermals still pushing juice back into the grid. Even a couple of satellites, still in their orbits, dutifully transmitting their cosmic hellos and probably wondering where everybody on planet Earth had run off to.

A whole hidden world of electronic noise. And nobody, not one single person, home.

Day by day, Elton would sit at the radio, the headphones clamped to his ears, his sightless eyes turned upward in their sockets. Michael would isolate a signal, clear out the noise, and send it to the amplifier, where it would be filtered a second time and pushed through the phones. After a moment of intense concentration, Elton would nod, maybe take a moment to give his crumby beard a thoughtful rub, and then proclaim, in his gentle voice:

"Something faint, irregular. Maybe an old distress beacon."

Or: "A ground signal. A mine, maybe."

Or, with a tight shake of the head: "Nothing here. Let's move on."

So they sat through the days and nights, Michael at the CRT, Elton with the earphones clamped to the sides of his head, his mind seemingly adrift in the leftover signals of their all-but-vanished species. Whenever they found one, Michael would record it in the logbook, noting the time and frequency and anything else about it. Then they'd do it all again.

Elton had been born blind, so Michael didn't really feel sorry for him, not on that score. Elton's being blind was just a part of who he was. It was the radiation that had done it; Elton's parents were Walkers, part of the Second Wave to come in, fifty-odd years ago, when the settlements in Baja had been overrun. The survivors had walked straight through the irradiated ruins that had once been San Diego, and by the time the group arrived, twenty-eight souls, those who could still stand were carrying the others. Elton's mother was pregnant, delirious with fever; she delivered just before she died. His father could have been anyone. No one even learned their names.

And for the most part, Elton got along fine. He had a cane he used when he left the Lighthouse, which wasn't all that often, and he seemed content to spend his days at the panel, making use of himself in the only way he knew how. Apart from Michael, he knew more about the batteries than anyone-a miraculous feat, considering the fact that he'd never actually seen them. But according to Elton, this gave him an advantage, because he wasn't fooled by what things merely appeared to be.

"Those batteries are like a woman, Michael," he liked to say. "You've got to learn to listen."

Now, on the evening of the fifty-fourth of summer, First Evening Bell about to sound-four nights since a viral had been killed in the nets by the Watcher Arlo Wilson-Michael called up the battery monitors, a line of bars for each of the six cells: 54 percent on two and three, a whisper under 50 on five and four, a flat 50 on one and six, temperature on all of them in the green, thirty-one degrees. Down the mountain the winds were blowing at a steady thirteen kph with gusts to twenty. He ran through the checklist, charging the capacitors, testing all the relays. What had Alicia said? You push the button, they come on? That's how little people understood.

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