The Passage Page 72

The only way to find out for sure was to read the data on the chip. And the only way to do that was to solder it hard to the mainframe's memory board.

It was a risk. Michael was hard-soldering a piece of unknown circuitry to the control panel itself. Maybe the system wouldn't see it. Maybe the system would crash and the lights would all go out. Probably the wisest course would be to wait until morning. But by this point he was moving forward on sheer momentum, his mind clamped onto the problem like a squirrel with a nut in his teeth; he couldn't have waited if he wanted to.

He'd have to take the mainframe off-line first. This meant shutting down the controllers to run straight off the batteries. You could do this for a while but not for long; without the system to monitor the current, any fluctuation could flip a breaker. So once the mainframe was off-line, he'd have to work fast.

He took a deep breath and called up the system menu.

Shut down?

He clicked on: Y

The hard drive began to spin down. Michael darted from his chair and shot across the room to the breaker box.

None of the breakers moved.

He got quickly to work, pulling the motherboard free, placing it on the counter under the magnifier, taking up the hot iron in one hand and the strip of solder in the other. He touched it to the tip of the iron-a waft of smoke curling in the air above it-and watched as a single drop descended toward the open channel on the motherboard.


He tweezered the chip; he had one shot to get this right. Gripping his right wrist to keep it steady, he gently lowered the chip's exposed contacts into the solder, freezing it in place for a count of ten while the bead of liquid solder cooled and stiffened around it.

Only then did he let himself breathe. He slid the board back into the panel, locked it in place, and booted the mainframe back up.

In the long minute that followed as the system came back online, the hard drive clicking and whirring, Michael Fisher closed his eyes and thought: Please.

And there it was. When he opened his eyes he saw it, sitting in the system directory. UNKNOWN DRIVE. He selected the image and watched as the window sprang open. Two partitions, A and B. The first was tiny, just a few kilobytes. But not B.

B was huge.

It contained two files, identical in size; one was probably a backup of the other. Two identical files of such immensity it simply boggled the mind. This chip: it was like the whole world was written inside it. Whoever had made this thing and put it inside the girl, that person was not like anyone he knew; they did not seem to be from a world he was part of. He wondered if he should maybe get Elton, ask him what he thought. But the snores coming from the back of the hut told him this would be a waste of his energy.

When Michael opened the file, as he did in due course, he did it almost furtively, one hand raised before his eyes, which were peeking through his fingers.


A lucky stroke: approaching the Infirmary, Peter saw a single Watcher standing guard. He marched straight up the steps.

"Evening, Dale."

Dale's cross hung loosely at his side. He sighed with exasperation, cocking his head a little, giving Peter his good ear. "You know I can't let you in."

Peter craned his neck to look past Dale through the front windows. A lantern was glowing on the desk.

"Sara inside?"

"She left a little while ago. Said she was getting something to eat."

Peter held his ground, saying nothing more. It was a waiting game, he knew. He could see the indecision moving through Dale's face. At last he huffed in surrender and stood aside.

"Flyers. Just be quick about it."

Peter stepped through the door and moved back into the ward. The girl was curled on the cot, her knees tucked against her chest, facing away. At the sound of his entry, she made no movement; Peter guessed she was asleep.

He positioned a chair by the cot and sat with his chin in his hands. Under the tousle of her hair, he could see the mark on her neck where Sara had cut away the transmitter-a barely detectible line, almost completely healed.

She roused then, as if to meet his thoughts, and shifted on the cot to face him. The whites of her eyes were moist and full, shining in the lamplight that leaked through the curtain.

"Hey," he said. His voice felt thick in his throat. "How are you feeling?"

Her hands were pressed together, buried to her slender wrists in the crevice between her knees. Everything about the way she held her body seemed conceived to make her appear smaller than she was.

"I came to thank you, for saving me."

A quick tightening of her shoulders under the gown. You're welcome.

How strange it was, speaking this way-strange because it wasn't so strange. He had never heard the sound of the girl's voice, and yet he did not feel this as a lack. There was something calming about it, as if she had put aside the noise of words.

"I don't suppose you feel like talking," Peter ventured. "Like maybe telling me your name? We could start with that, if you want."

The girl said nothing, indicated nothing. Why would I tell you my name?

"Well, that's okay," Peter said. "I don't mind. We can just sit here."

Which was what he did; he sat with her, in the dark. After a time, a slackness came into the girl's face. More minutes passed, and without any further acknowledgment of his presence, she closed her eyes again.

As Peter waited in the quiet, a sudden weariness came over him, and with it a memory: of a night, long ago, when he had come into the Infirmary and seen his mother watching over one of her patients-just as he was doing now. He couldn't remember who this person was or if, in fact, the memory was several memories, folded over one another. It could have been one night or many. But on the night he recalled, he had stepped through the curtain and found his mother sitting in a chair by one of the cots, her head tipped to the side, and knew she was asleep. The person on the cot was a child, a small form hidden in darkness; the only light came from a candle on a tray by the bed. He moved forward, not speaking; no one else was in the room. His mother stirred, tilting her face toward him. She was young, and healthy, and he was glad, so glad, to see her again.

Take care of your brother, Theo.

-Mama, he said. I'm Peter.

He's not strong, like you.

He was jarred by voices outside and the clatter of the opening door. Sara strode into the ward, the lantern swinging from her hand.

"Peter? Is everything okay?"

He blinked into the sudden blaze. It took him a moment to reassemble his sense of where he was. He had slept only a minute, and yet it felt like longer. Already the memory, and the dream it had produced, were gone.

"I was just ... I don't know." Why was he apologizing? "I think I must have dozed off."

Sara was busying herself with the lantern, moving a wheeled tray to the side of the cot, where the girl was sitting up, an alert and watchful expression on her face.

"How'd you talk Dale into letting you in?"

"Oh, Dale's all right."

Sara sat on the girl's cot and opened her kit to reveal what she'd brought: flatbread, an apple, a wedge of cheese.


The girl ate quickly, polishing off her meal with darting bites: first the bread and then the cheese, which she sniffed suspiciously before tasting, and finally the apple, right down to the core. When it was gone she wiped her face with the back of her hand, smearing juice over her cheeks.

"Well, I guess that settles it," Sara declared. "Not the best table manners I've ever seen, but your appetite is normal enough. I'm going to check your dressing, okay?"

Sara untied the gown, drawing it aside to expose the girl's bandaged shoulder while leaving the rest covered. With a pair of shears, she snipped the cloth away. Where the bolt had entered, tearing skin and muscle and bone, all that remained was a small pink depression. It reminded Peter of a baby's flesh, that soft freshness of new skin.

"All my patients should heal so fast. No point in leaving those stitches in, I guess. Turn around so I can do the back."

The girl complied, swiveling on the cot; Sara took up a pair of tweezers and began pulling the sutures from the exit wound, dropping them one by one into a metal basin.

"Does anybody else know about this?" Peter asked.

"About the way she heals? I don't think so."

"So nobody else has been in to see her since this afternoon."

She clipped off the final stitch. "Just Jimmy." She pulled the girl's gown back over her shoulder. "There you go, all set."

"Jimmy? What did he want?"

"I don't know, I assume Sanjay sent him." Sara shifted on the cot to look at Peter. "It was kind of strange, actually. I never heard him come in, I just looked up and there he was, standing in the doorway with this ... look on his face."

"A look?"

"I don't know how else to describe it. I told him she hadn't said anything, and then he left. But that was hours ago."

Peter felt suddenly rattled. What did she mean by a look? What had Jimmy seen?

Sara took up her tweezers again. "Okay, your turn."

Peter was about to say, My turn for what? But then he remembered: his elbow. The bandage had long since worn down to a filthy rag. He guessed the cut was healed by now; he hadn't looked at it for days.

He sat on one of the empty cots. Sara took a place beside him and unwrapped the bandage, releasing a sour odor of stale skin.

"Did you bother keeping this thing clean at all?"

"I guess I forgot."

She took hold of the arm, bending closely with the tweezers. Peter was aware of the girl's eyes, intently watching them.

"Any news from Michael?" He felt a jab of pain as she tugged the first suture. "Ow, be careful."

"It would help if you held still." Sara repositioned his arm, not looking at him, and resumed her work. "I stopped by the Lighthouse on the way back from the house. He's still working. Elton's helping him."

"Elton? Is that so smart?"

"Don't worry, we can trust him." Her eyes flicked upward with a troubled glance. "Funny how we're all talking like that, all of a sudden. Who can trust who." She gave his arm a pat. "There, move it around a little."

Balling his hand into a fist, he pumped his arm back and forth. "Good as new."

Sara had stepped to the pump to clean her tools. She turned and faced him, drying her hands on a rag.

"Honestly, Peter. Sometimes I worry about you."

He realized that he was still holding his arm away from his body. He awkwardly dropped it to his side. "I'm fine."

She raised her eyebrows doubtfully but said nothing. That one night after the music, Arlo and his guitar and everybody drinking shine; something had come over him, a sudden, almost physical loneliness, but then, the moment he kissed her, a puncturing jab of guilt. It wasn't that he didn't like her, nor that she had failed to make her interest less than plain. Alicia was right, what she'd said on the roof of the power station. Sara was the obvious choice for him. But he couldn't will himself to feel something he didn't. There was a part of him that simply didn't feel alive enough to deserve her, to offer in kind what she was offering him.

"As long as you're here," Sara said, "I'm going to go look in on Hightop. Make sure somebody remembered to feed him."

"What do you hear?"

"I've been inside all day. You probably know more than I do." When Peter said nothing, Sara shrugged. "I expect people are divided. There's going to be a lot of anger about last night. The best thing would be for a little time to pass."

"Sanjay better think twice about doing anything with him. Lish will never stand for it."

Sara seemed to stiffen. She drew her kit from the floor and hung it on her shoulder again, not looking at him.

"What did I say?"

But she shook her head. "Forget it, Peter. Lish is not my problem."

Then she was gone, the curtain shifting with her departure. Well, Peter thought, what to make of that? It was true that Alicia and Sara couldn't have been two more different women, and nothing said they had to get along. Maybe it was simply the case that Sara blamed Alicia for Teacher's death, which would hit Sara harder than most. It was sort of obvious, now that Peter considered it. He didn't know why he hadn't thought of it before.

The girl was looking at him again. She gave a quizzical lift of her eyebrows: What's wrong?

"She's just upset is all," he said. "Worried."

He thought it again: How strange it all was. It was as if he could hear her words in his head. Anybody who saw him talking like this would think he'd lost his mind.

Then the girl did something he hadn't expected at all. Aroused by some unknown purpose, she rose from her cot and moved to the sink. She primed the pump, three hard pushes, and filled a basin with water. This she carried back to the cot where Peter sat. She placed it on the dusty floor at his feet and took a cloth from the cart and sat beside him, bending at the waist to dip the rag in the water. Then she took his arm in her hand and began to dab the place where the sutures had been with the moistened cloth.

He could feel her breath on him, breezing over his damp flesh. She had unfolded the cloth against her open hand to increase the surface area. Her gesture was more thorough now, not a cautious dabbing but a smooth, even stroking motion, rubbing the dirt and desiccated skin away. An ordinary kindness, to wash his skin, and yet completely surprising: it was full of sensation, of memory. His senses seemed to have gathered around it, the feel of the washcloth on his arm, her breath on his skin, like moths around a flame. As if he were a boy again, a boy who had fallen and scraped his elbow and run inside, and she was washing him clean.

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