The Passage Page 97

"Well, it's a lousy deal, if you ask me," Alicia cut in. Her face was hardened with anger. "I've heard enough. These people are collaborators. They're like pets."

Something darkened in Olson's expression-though his tone, when he continued, was still almost eerily calm. "Call us what you like. You can't say anything I haven't said to myself a thousand times. Mira was not my only child. I had a son, too. He would be about your age if he had lived. When he was chosen, his mother objected. In the end, Jude sent her into the ring with him."

His own son, Peter thought. Olson had sent his own son to die.

"Why Jude?"

Olson shrugged. "It's who he is. There has always been Jude." He shook his head again. "I would explain it better if I could. But none of that matters now. What's past is past, or so I tell myself. There's a group of us who've been preparing for this day for years. To get away, to live our lives as people. But unless we kill Babcock, he'll call the Many. With these weapons we have a chance."

"So who's in the ring?"

"We don't know. Jude wouldn't say."

"What about Maus and Amy?"

"I told you, we don't know where they are."

Peter turned to Alicia. "It's them."

"We don't know that," Olson objected. "And Mausami is pregnant. Jude wouldn't choose her."

Peter was unconvinced. Even more: everything Olson had said made him believe that Maus and Amy were the ones in the ring.

"Is there another way inside?"

That was when Olson explained the layout, the ducts above the catwalks, kneeling on the floor of the garage to draw in the dust. "It will be pitch-black for the first part," he warned, as his men were passing out rifles and pistols from the cache taken from the Humvee. "Just follow the sound of the crowd."

"How many more men do you have inside?" Hollis asked. He was filling his pockets with magazines. Kneeling by an open crate, Caleb and Sara were both loading rifles.

"The seven of us, plus another four in the balconies."

"That's all?" Peter said. The odds, not good to begin with, were suddenly much worse than he'd thought. "How many does Jude have?"

Olson frowned. "I thought you understood. He has all of them."

When Peter said nothing, Olson continued: "Babcock is stronger than any viral you've ever seen, and the crowd won't be on our side. Killing him won't be easy."

"Has anyone ever tried?"

"Once." He hestitated. "A small group, like us. It was many years ago."

Peter was about to ask what had happened. But he heard, in Olson's silence, the answer to this question.

"You should have told us."

A look of abject resignation came into Olson's face. Peter realized that what he was seeing there was a burden far heavier than sorrow or grief. It was guilt.

"Peter. What would you have said?"

He didn't answer; he didn't know. Probably he wouldn't have believed him. He wasn't sure what he believed now. But Amy was inside the ring, of that he was certain; he felt it in his bones. He popped the clip from his pistol to blow it clean, then reinserted it into the handle and pulled the slide. He looked toward Alicia, who nodded. Everyone was ready.

"We're here to get our friends," he said to Olson. "The rest is up to you."

But Olson shook his head. "Make no mistake. Once you're in the ring, our fights are the same. Babcock has to die. Unless we kill him, he'll call the Many. The train will make no difference."

New moon: Babcock felt the hunger uncoiling inside him. And he stretched out his mind from This Place, the Place of Return, saying:

It is time.

It is time, Jude.

Babcock was up. Babcock was flying. Soaring over the desert floor in leaps and bounds, the great joyful hunger coursing through him.

Bring them to me. Bring me one and then another. Bring them that you should live in this way and no other.

There was blood in the air. He could smell it, taste it, feel its essence coursing through him. First would come the blood of the beasts, a living sweetness. And then his Best and Special, his Jude, who dreamed the dream better than all the others since the Time of Becoming, whose mind lived with him in the dream like a brother, would bring the ones of blood that Babcock would drink and be filled by it.

He mounted the wall in a single jump.

I am here.

I am Babcock.

We are Babcock.

He descended. He heard the gasps of the crowd. Around him, the fires blazed up. Behind the flames were the men, come to watch and know. And through the gap he saw the beasts approaching, driven on the whip, their eyes fearless and unknowing, and the hunger lifted him up in a wave and he was sailing down upon them, tearing and ripping, first one and then the other, each in its turn, a glorious fulfillment.

We are Babcock.

He could hear the voices now. The chant of the crowds in their cages, behind the ring of flames; and the voice of his One, his Jude, standing on the catwalk above, leading them, as if in song.

"Bring them to me! Bring me one and then another! Bring them that we should live ... "

A wall of sound, ascending in fierce unison: " ... in this way and no other!"

A pair of figures appeared in the gap. They stumbled forward, pushed by men who quickly stepped away. The flames rose again behind them, a door of fire, sealing them inside for the taking.

The crowd roared.

"Ring! Ring! Ring!"

A stampede of feet. The air shuddering, hammering.

"Ring! Ring! Ring!"

And that was when he felt her. In a bright and terrible burst, Babcock felt her. The shadow behind the shadow, the tear in the fabric of night. The one who carried the seed of forever but was not of his blood, was not of the Twelve or the Zero.

The one called Amy.

Peter heard it all from the ventilation shaft. The chanting, the panicked cries of the cattle, and then the silence-of bated breath, of some terrible spectacle about to unfold-and then the explosion of cheers. Heat was rising in waves to his belly and, with it, the choking fumes of diesel smoke. The shaft was just wide enough for a single person crawling on his elbows. Somewhere below him, gathering in the tunnel that connected the ring to the prison's main entrance, were Olson's men. There was no way to coordinate their arrivals, nor to communicate with the others stationed in the crowd. They would simply have to guess.

Peter saw an opening ahead: a metal grate in the floor of the duct. He pressed his face against it, gazing downward. Below the grate he could see the slats of the catwalk and farther still, another twenty meters, the floor of the ring, wrapped by a trench of burning fuel.

The floor was covered in blood.

On the balconies, the crowd had taken up its chanting again. Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring! Peter guessed he and the others were positioned over the east end of the room now. They would have to cross the catwalk in full view of the crowd to reach the stairs to the floor below. He glanced back to Hollis, who nodded, and lifted the grate free, pushing it to the side. Then he freed the safety on his pistol and crawled forward so that his feet straddled the vent.

Amy, Peter thought, it's nothing good, what's down there. Do what you do or we're all dead.

He pushed himself off, dropping feet first through the opening.

He fell and fell, long enough to wonder: Why am I always falling? The distance to the catwalk was more than he'd expected-not two meters but four or even five-and he hit the metal with a bone-rattling bang. He rolled. The pistol was gone, squirted from his grasp. And it was as he rolled that he glimpsed, from the corner of his eye, a figure below: wrists bound, body slack with submission, wearing a sleeveless shirt that Peter recognized. His mind grabbed hold of this image, which was also a memory-of the smell of pyre smoke on the day they'd burned the body of Zander Phillips, standing in the sunshine outside the power station, and the name stitched over the pocket. Armando.


The man in the ring was Theo.

His brother wasn't alone. There was someone else beside him, a man on his knees. He was stripped to the waist, slumped forward on the ground so that his face was obscured. And as Peter's vision widened he realized that what he was seeing on the floor of the ring was the cattle, or what had once been the cattle-they were strewn in pieces everywhere, as if they had been situated at the heart of an explosion-and crouched at the center of this heaping mass of blood and flesh and bone, its face bent to bury itself in the remains, its body twitching with a darting motion as it drank, was a viral-but not like any viral Peter knew. It was the largest he had ever seen, that anyone had ever seen, its curled bulk so immense that it was like some new being entirely.

"Peter! You're in time to watch the show!"

He had come to rest on his back, useless as a turtle. Jude, standing above him, wearing a look that Peter had no name for, a dark pleasure beyond words, was aiming a shotgun at his head. Peter felt the shudder of footsteps coming toward them-more orange-suited men racing down the catwalks from every direction.

Jude was standing directly below the vent.

"Go ahead," Peter said.

Jude smiled. "How noble."

"Not you," Peter said, and flicked his eyes upward. "Hollis."

Jude lifted his face in time for the bullet from Hollis's rifle to strike him just above the right ear. A misty bloom of pink: Peter felt the air dampen with it. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the shotgun released from Jude's hands, clattering to the catwalk. A large-butted pistol was tucked at his waist; Peter saw Jude's hand grope for it, blindly searching. Then something released inside him, blood began to pour from his eyes, a pitiful weeping of blood, and he dropped to his knees, flopping forward, his face frozen in an expression of eternal wonderment, as if to say: I can't believe I'm dead.

It was Mausami who killed the operator manning the fuel pump.

She and Amy had entered from the main tunnel just before the crowd arrived and had hidden under the stairs that connected the floor of the courtyard to the balconies. For many minutes they had waited, huddled together, emerging only when they heard the sound of the cattle being driven in, the wild cheers exploding above. The air was broiling, choked with smoke and fumes.

There was something terrible behind the flames.

As the viral tore into the cattle, the crowd seemed to detonate, everyone pumping their fists, chanting and stomping their feet, like a single being caught in some great and terrible ecstasy. Some were holding children on their shoulders so they could see. The cattle were screaming now, bucking and tearing around the ring, racing toward the flames and backing away in confusion, a mad dance between two poles of death. While Mausami watched, the viral sprang forward and snatched one by its hind legs, lifting upward with a deep cracking sound, twisting until the legs came free, then flinging them through the air to slap against the cages in a spray of blood. The creature left that one where it was-its front legs twitching at the dirt, struggling to pull its ruined body forward-and seized another by the horns, applying the same twisting motion to break its neck, then shoved its face into the stilled flesh at the base of the animal's throat, the viral's whole torso seeming to inflate as it drank, the steer's body contracting with each of the viral's muscular inhalations, shriveling before Mausami's eyes as the blood was pulled from its body.

She did not see the rest; she'd turned her face away.

"Bring them to me!" a voice was calling. "Bring me one and then another! Bring them that we should live ... "

" ... in this way and no other!"

That was when she saw Theo.

In that instant, Mausami experienced a collision of joy and terror so violent it was as if she were stepping from her own body. Her breath seized up inside her; she felt dizzy and sick. Two men in jumpsuits were pushing Theo forward, driving him through a gap in the flames. His eyes had an empty, almost bovine look; he seemed to have no idea what was happening around him. He lifted his face to the crowd, blinking vacantly.

She tried to call out to him, but her voice was drowned in the foam of voices. She looked for Amy, hoping the girl would know what to do, but couldn't see her anywhere. Above and around her the voices were chanting again:

"Ring! Ring! Ring!"

And then the second man was brought in, held at the elbows by two guards. His head was bowed, his feet seemed barely to touch the floor as the men, supporting his weight, dragged him forward and pitched him onto the ground and darted away. The cheers of the crowd were deafening now, a wash of sound. Theo staggered onward, scanning the crowd, as if someone there might be bringing help. The second man had brought himself upright on his knees.

The second man was Finn Darrell.

Suddenly a woman was standing before her: a familiar face, with a long pink scar stitched to the cheekbone like a seam. Her jumpsuit bulged with the belly of her pregnancy.

"I know you," the woman said.

Mausami backed away, but the woman gripped her by the arm, her eyes locking on Mausami's face with a fierce intensity. "I know you, I know you!"

"Let me go!"

She pulled away. Behind her, the woman was frantically pointing, shouting, "I know her, I know her!"

Mausami ran. All thoughts had left her but one: she had to get to Theo. But there was no way past the flames. The viral was almost done with the cattle; the last lay twitching under its jaws. In another few seconds it would rise and see the two men-see Theo-and that would be the end.

Then Mausami saw the pump. A huge greasy bulk, connected by long trailing hoses to a pair of bulging fuel tanks, weeping with rust. The operator was cradling a shotgun across his chest; a blade hung on his belt in a leather sheath. He was facing away, his eyes, like everyone's, trained on the spectacle unfolding beyond the fluttering wall of flame.

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