The Passage Page 90

Now it was morning. Michael felt himself pushed forward as the vehicle decelerated. Beside him, Amy's eyes shot open; she rolled into a sitting position and drew her knees to her chest once more, her gaze fixed on the door.

The truck drew to a halt. Caleb scrambled to the window and peered outside.

"What do you see?" Peter had risen to a crouch; his hair was matted with dried blood.

"There's some kind of structure, but it's too far away."

Footsteps on the roof, the sound of the driver's door, opening and closing again.

Hollis was reaching for his rifle.

Peter put a hand out to stop him. "Wait."

Caleb: "Here they come-"

The door swung open, blazing their eyes with daylight. Two backlit figures stood before them, clutching shotguns. The woman was young, with dark hair shorn close to her scalp; the man, much older, had a soft, wide face and a nose that looked punched and a few days' growth of beard. Both were still encased in their bulky body armor, making their heads seem strangely undersized.

"Hand over your weapons."

"Who the hell are you people?" Peter demanded.

The woman cocked her shotgun. "Everything. Knives, too."

They disarmed, sliding their guns and blades along the floor in the direction of the door. Michael didn't have much more than a screwdriver left-he'd lost his rifle in the dash from the hotel, never having fired the damn thing once-but he handed it over anyway. He certainly didn't want to get shot over a screwdriver. While the woman collected their weapons, the second figure, who had yet to utter a word, kept his gun trained on all of them. In the distance, Michael could make out the shape of a long, low building set against a bulge of barren hills.

"Where are you taking us?" Peter asked.

The woman lifted a metal pail from the ground and placed it on the floor of the truck. "If you have to piss, use this." Then she slammed the door.

Peter slapped the wall of the truck. "Fuck."

They drove on. The temperature was rising steadily. The truck decelerated again, turning west. For a long time the vehicle bounced violently; then they began to climb. By now the air in the cabin had become intolerably hot. They drank the last of their water; no one had used the pail.

Peter pounded on the wall that separated them from the truck's cab. "Hey, we're roasting back here!"

Time passed, and passed some more. No one spoke; just breathing was an effort. It seemed that some terrible joke had been played on them. They had been rescued from the virals only to be cooked to death in the back of a truck. Michael had begun to drift in and out of a state that felt like sleep but not exactly. He was hot, so hot. At some point he realized they were descending, though this detail seemed trivial, as if it pertained to some other person.

Gradually the fact seeped into Michael's awareness that the vehicle had stopped. He had been lost in a vision of water, cool water. It was pouring over and through him, and his sister was there, and Elton too, smiling that off-kilter smile of his. Everyone was there, Peter and Mausami and Alicia and even his parents, they all were swimming in it together, its healing blueness, and for a moment Michael willed his mind to return to it, this beautiful dream of water.

"My God," a voice said.

Michael opened his eyes to a harsh white light and smell, unmistakable, of animal dung. He rolled his face toward the door and saw a pair of figures-he knew he had seen them before but could not say when-and standing between them, brilliantly backlit so that he seemed almost to hover, a tall man with steel-gray hair, wearing what appeared to be an orange jumpsuit. "My God, my God," the man was saying. "Seven of them. It's beyond belief." He turned to the others. "Don't just stand there. We need stretchers. Hurry."

The pair jogged away. The thought reached Michael's brain that something was very wrong. Everything seemed to be happening at the far end of a tunnel. He could not have said where he was or why, although he also sensed that this knowledge had abandoned him only recently, a feeling like deja vu in reverse. It was a kind of joke but the joke wasn't funny, not at all. Some large, dry object was in his mouth, fat as a fist, and he realized this was his own tongue, choking him. He heard Peter's voice, a labored croak: "Who ... are ... you?"

"My name is Olson. Olson Hand." A smile lit up his wind-chapped face, only it wasn't the silver-haired man anymore, it was Theo-it was Theo's face at the far end of the tunnel-and that was the last thing Michael saw before the tunnel collapsed and all thought left him.

He did not come to so much as slowly surface, ascending through layers of darkness over a period of time that felt both short and long, an hour turned into a day, a day turned into a year. Darkness yielding to a widening whiteness above him, and the gradual reassembly of consciousness, distinct from his surroundings. His eyes were open, blinking. No other part of him seemed capable of movement, just his eyes, the damp plink of his lids. He heard the sound of voices, moving over him like the songs of distant birds, calling to one another across a vast expanse of sky. He thought: Cold. He was cold. Wonderfully, amazingly cold.

He slept, and when he opened his eyes again, some unknown interval of time having passed, he knew that he was in a bed, that the bed was in a room, and that he wasn't alone. Lifting his head was out of the question; his bones felt as heavy as iron. He was in some kind of infirmary, white walls and white ceiling, angled beams of white light falling upon the white sheet that covered his body and beneath which, it seemed, he was na**d. The air was cool and moist. From a place somewhere above and behind came the rhythmic throb of machinery and the drip of water falling into a metal pan.

"Michael? Michael, can you hear me?"

Seated next to his cot was a woman-he thought it was a woman-with dark hair short as a man's, and a smooth brow and cheeks and a small, thin-lipped mouth. She was gazing at him with what appeared to be intense concern. Michael felt as if he'd seen her before, but his sense of recognition stopped there. Her slender form was draped in a loose-fitting orange costume that seemed, like everything else about her, vaguely familiar. Behind her was some kind of screen, obscuring his view.

"How do you feel?"

He tried to speak but the words seemed to die in his throat. The woman lifted a plastic cup from the table by his bed and held the straw to his lips: water, crisp and cold, distinctly metallic in taste.

"That's it. Sip slowly."

He drank and drank. How amazing, the taste of water. When he had finished, she returned the cup to the table.

"Your temperature's down. I'm sure you'll want to see your friends." His tongue felt slow and heavy in his mouth. "Where am I?"

She smiled. "Why don't I let them explain that to you?"

The woman disappeared behind the screen, leaving him alone. Who was she? What was this place? He felt as if he'd been asleep for days, his mind adrift on a current of disturbing dreams. He tried to remember. Some fat woman. A fat woman breathing smoke.

His thoughts were broken by voices and the sound of footsteps. Peter appeared at the foot of his bed. His face glowed with a grin.

"Look who's awake! How are you feeling?"

"What ... happened?" Michael croaked.

Peter took a seat by Michael's bed. He filled the cup again and held the straw to Michael's lips. "I guess you don't remember. You had heatstroke. You passed out in the truck." He angled his head toward the woman, who was standing to one side, silently observing. "You've already met Billie, I guess. I'm sorry I wasn't here when you woke up. We've all been taking shifts." He leaned in closer. "Michael, you've got to see this place. It's fantastic."

This place, Michael thought. Where was he? He pointed his eyes toward the woman, her serenely smiling face. All at once the memory coalesced in his mind. The woman from the truck.

He flinched, knocking the cup from Peter's hand, sending water splashing all over him.

"Flyers, Michael. What's the matter?"

"She tried to kill us!"

"That's a bit of an exaggeration, don't you think?" He glanced at the woman and gave a little laugh, as if the two of them were in on some private joke. "Michael, Billie saved us. Don't you remember?"

There was something troubling about Peter's good cheer, Michael thought; it seemed completely out of step with the facts. Obviously he was very ill; he might well have died.

"What about Lish's leg? Is she all right?"

Peter waved this concern away. "Oh, she's fine, everybody's fine. Just waiting for you to get better." Peter leaned toward him again. "They call it the Haven, Michael. It's actually an old prison. That's where you are now, in the infirmary."

"A prison. Like a lockup?"

"Sort of. They really don't use the prison itself much anymore. You should see the size of their operation. Almost three hundred Walkers. Though I guess you could say we're the Walkers now. And here's the best thing, Michael. Are you ready? No smokes."

His words made no sense. "Peter, what are you talking about?"

Peter gave a puzzled shrug, as if the question wasn't interesting enough to warrant any real thought. "I don't know. There just aren't. Listen," he continued, "when you're up on your feet, you can look for yourself. You should see the size of the herd. Actual beef cattle." He was grinning at Michael vacantly. "So what do you say? Think you can sit up?"

He didn't, but something about Peter's tone made him feel that he should at least try. Michael eased himself up on his elbows. The room began to tip; his brain sloshed painfully inside his skull. He fell back down again.

"Whoa. That hurt."

"That's okay, that's okay. Just take it easy. Billie says a headache's perfectly normal after a seizure like that. You'll be back on your feet in no time."

"I had a seizure?"

"You really don't remember much, do you?"

"I guess I don't." Michael breathed steadily, trying to calm himself. "How long was I out?"

"Counting today? Three days." Peter glanced at the woman. "No, make that four."

"Four days?"

Peter shrugged. "I'm sorry you missed the party. But the good news is that you're feeling better. Let's focus on that."

Michael felt his frustration boiling over. "What party? Peter, what's wrong with you? We're stranded in the middle of no place. We've lost all our gear. This woman tried to kill us. You're talking like everything's fine."

They were interrupted by the sound of the door opening and a burst of cheerful laughter. Alicia, on crutches, swung around the screen. Trailing her was a man that Michael didn't recognize-fierce blue eyes, a chin that looked like it had been chiseled from stone. Was Michael hallucinating or were the two of them playing some sort of chase game, like Littles?

She stopped abruptly at the foot of his bed. "Circuit, you're up!"

"Well, look at that," the blue-eyed man declared. "Lazarus, back from the dead. How you doing, pardner?"

Michael was too startled to respond. Who was Lazarus?

Alicia turned to Peter. "Did you tell him?"

"I was just getting to that," Peter said.

"Tell me what?"

"It's your sister, Michael." Peter smiled into his face. "She's here."

Tears sprang to Michael's eyes. "That's not funny."

"I'm not joking, Michael. Sara's here. And she's perfectly all right."

· · ·

"I just don't remember."

Six of them were gathered around Michael's bed: Sara, Peter, Hollis, Alicia, the woman they called Billie, and the man with the blue eyes, who had introduced himself to Michael as Jude Cripp. After Peter had told Michael the news, Alicia had left to retrieve his sister; moments later she had burst into the room and flung herself upon him, weeping and laughing. It was all so completely inexplicable that Michael hadn't known where to begin, what questions to ask. But Sara was alive. For the moment, that was all that mattered.

Hollis explained how they had found her. The day after their arrival, he and Billie had driven back to Las Vegas, to look for the Humvees. They'd reached the hotel to find a scene of total destruction, a smoking mound of rubble and twisted girders. The whole east side of the building had collapsed, filling the street with a mountain of debris. Somewhere beneath this lay the Humvees, smashed to pieces. The air was thick with soot and dust; a rain of ashes coated every surface. The fires had leapt to an adjacent hotel, which was still smoldering. But the building to the east, where Hollis had seen the viral taking Sara, was intact. This, as it turned out, was something called the Eiffel Tower Restaurant. A long flight of stairs led to the structure at the top, a large round room encircled by windows, many broken or missing, that looked out on the demolished hotel.

Sara was curled under one of the tables, unconscious. At Hollis's touch she seemed to rouse, but her eyes were glazed, unfocused; she appeared to have no notion where she was or what had happened to her. There were scratches on her face and arms; one of her wrists seemed broken from the way she held it, cradling it in her lap. He lifted her into his arms and climbed down the eleven flights of darkened stairs and into the smoke. It wasn't until they were halfway back to the Haven that she had started to come around.

"Is that really how it happened?" Michael asked her.

"If he says so. Honestly, Michael, all I remember is playing solo. The next thing I knew I was in the truck with Hollis. The rest is a big blank."

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