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The Passage

The Passage

Page 12

Now, not long before sunup, the Mississippi Border Checkpoint appeared ahead of them, a twinkling village of lights in the predawn darkness. Even at this hour, the lines were long, mostly tanker trucks headed north to St. Louis or Chicago. Guards with dogs and Geiger counters and long mirrors on poles moved up and down the lines. Wolgast pulled in behind a semi with Yosemite Sam mud flaps and a bumper sticker that read: I MISS MY EX-WIFE, BUT MY AIM IS IMPROVING.

Beside him, Doyle stirred, rubbing his eyes. He sat up in his seat and looked around. "Are we there yet, Dad?"

"It's just a checkpoint. Go back to sleep."

Wolgast pulled the car out of line and drew up to the nearest uniform. He rolled down the window and held up his credentials.

"Federal agents. Any way you can wave us through?"

The guard was just a kid, his face soft and spotted with pimples. The body armor bulked him up, but Wolgast could tell he was probably no more than a welterweight. He should be back at home, Wolgast thought, wherever that was, snug in bed and dreaming of some girl in his algebra class, not standing on a highway in Mississippi wearing thirty pounds of Kevlar, holding an assault rifle over his chest.

He eyed Wolgast's credentials with only vague interest, then tipped his head toward a concrete building sitting off the highway.

"You'll have to pull over to the station, sir."

Wolgast sighed with irritation. "Son, I don't have time for this."

"You want to skip the lines, you do."

At that moment, a second guard stepped into their headlights. He turned his h*ps to their vehicle and unslung his weapon. What the f**k, Wolgast thought.

"For Pete's sake. Is that really necessary?"

"Hands where we can see them, sir!" the second man barked.

"For crying out loud," Doyle said.

The first guard turned toward the man in the headlights. He waved his hand to tell him to lower his weapon. "Cool it, Duane. They're feds." The second man hesitated, then shrugged and walked away.

"Sorry about that. Just pull around. They'll have you out fast."

"They better," Wolgast said.

In the station, the OD took their credentials and asked them to wait while he phoned in their ID numbers. FBI, Homeland Security, even state and local cops; everybody was on a centralized system now, their movements tracked. Wolgast poured himself a cup of sludgy coffee from the urn, took a few halfhearted sips, and tossed it in the trash. There was a No Smoking sign, but the room reeked like an old ashtray. The clock on the wall said it was just past six; in about an hour the sun would be coming up.

The OD stepped back to the counter with their credentials. He was a trim man, nondescript, wearing the ash gray uniform of Homeland Security. "Okay, gentlemen. Let's get you on your merry way. Just one thing: the system says you were booked to fly to Denver tonight. Probably just an error, but I need to log it."

Wolgast had his answer ready. "We were. We were redirected to Nashville to pick up a federal witness."

The duty officer considered this a minute, then nodded. He typed the information into his computer. "Fair enough. Raw deal, they didn't fly you. That must be a thousand miles."

"Tell me about it. I just go where I'm told."

"Amen, brother."

They returned to their car, and a guard waved them to the exit. Moments later they were back on the highway.

"Nashville?" Doyle asked.

Wolgast nodded, fixing his eyes on the road ahead. "Think about it. I-55 has checkpoints in Arkansas and Illinois, one just south of St. Louis and one about halfway between Normal and Chicago. But you take 40 east across Tennessee, the first checkpoint is all the way across the state, at the I-40 and 75 interchange. Ergo, this is the last checkpoint between here and Nashville, so the system won't know we never went there. We can make the pickup in Memphis, cross into Arkansas, bypass the Oklahoma checkpoint by driving the long way around Tulsa, pick up 70 north of Wichita, and meet Richards at the Colorado border. One checkpoint between here and Telluride, and Sykes can handle that. And nowhere does it say we went to Memphis."

Doyle frowned. "What about the bridge on 40?"

"We'll have to avoid it, but there's a pretty easy detour. About fifty miles south of Memphis there's an older bridge across the river, connects to a state highway on the Arkansas side. The bridge isn't rated for the big tankers coming up from the N.O., so it's passenger cars only and mostly automated. The bar-code scanner will pick us up, and so will the cameras. But that's easy to take care of later if we have to. Then we just work our way north and pick up I-40 south of Little Rock."

They drove on. Wolgast thought about turning on the radio, maybe getting a weather report, but decided against it; he was still alert, despite the hour, and needed to keep his mind focused. When the sky paled to gray, they were a little north of Jackson, making good time. The rain stopped, then started again. Around them the land rose in gentle swells like waves far out to sea. Though it seemed like days ago, Wolgast was still thinking about the message from Sykes.

Caucasian female. Amy NLN. Zero footprint. 20323 Poplar Ave., Memphis, TN. Make pickup by Saturday noon latest. No contact. TUR. Sykes.

TUR: travel under radar.

Don't just catch a ghost, Agent Wolgast; be a ghost.

"Do you want me to drive?" Doyle asked, cutting the silence, and Wolgast could tell from his voice that he'd been thinking the same thing. Amy NLN. Who was Amy NLN?

He shook his head. Around them, the day's first light spread over the Mississippi Delta like a sodden blanket. He tapped the wipers to clear the mist away.

"No," he said. "I'm good."

Chapter FIVE

Something was wrong with Subject Zero.

For six days straight he hadn't come out of the corner, not even to feed. He just kind of hung there, like some kind of giant insect. Grey could see him on the infrared, a glowing blob in the shadows. From time to time he'd change positions, a few feet to the left or right, but that was it, and Grey had never seen him actually do this. Grey would just lift his face from the monitor, or leave containment to get a cup of coffee or sneak a smoke in the break room, and by the time he looked again, he'd find Zero hanging someplace else.

Hanging? Sticking? Hell, levitating?

No one had explained a goddamn thing to Grey. Not word one. Like, for starters, what Zero actually was. There were things about him that Grey would say were sort of human. Such as, he had two arms and two legs. There was a head where a head should be, and ears and eyes and a mouth. He even had something like a johnson dangling down south, a curled-up little seahorse of a thing. But that's where the similarities stopped.

For instance: Subject Zero glowed. In the infrared, any heat source would do that. But the image of Subject Zero flared on the screen like a lit match, almost too bright to look at. Even his crap glowed. His hairless body, smooth and shiny as glass, looked coiled-that was the word Grey thought of, like the skin was stretched over lengths of coiled rope-and his eyes were the orange of highway cones. But the teeth were the worst. Every once in a while Grey would hear a little tinkling sound on the audio, and know it was the sound of one more tooth dropped from Zero's mouth to the cement. They rained down at the rate of half a dozen a day. These went into the incinerator, like everything else; it was one of Grey's jobs to sweep them up, and it gave him the shivers to see them, long as the little swords you'd get in a fancy drink. Just the thing if, say, you wanted to unzip a rabbit and empty it out in two seconds flat.

There was something about him that was different than the others, too. Not that he looked all that different. The glowsticks were all a bunch of ugly bastards, and over the six months Grey had been working on Level 4, he'd gotten used to their appearance. There were little differences, of course, that you could pick up if you looked hard. Number Six was a little shorter than the others, Number Nine a little more active, Number Seven liked to eat hanging upside down and made a goddamn mess, Number One was always chatting away, that weird sound they made, a wet clicking from deep in their throats that reminded Grey of nothing.

No, it wasn't something physical that made Zero stand out; it was how he made you feel. That was the best way Grey could explain it. The others seemed about as interested in the people behind the glass as a bunch of chimps at the zoo. But not Zero: Zero was paying attention. Whenever they dropped the bars, sealing Zero on the back side of the room, and Grey squeezed into his biohazard suit and went in through the air lock to clean up or bring in the rabbits-rabbits, for Christsakes; why did it have to be rabbits?-a kind of prickling climbed up his neck, like his skin was crawling with ants. He'd go about his work quickly, not even really looking up from the floor, and by the time he got out of there and into decon, he'd be glazed with sweat and breathing hard. Even now, a wall of glass two inches thick between them and Zero hanging so that all Grey could see was his big glowing backside and spreading, clawlike feet-Grey could still feel Zero's mind roving around the dark room, trolling like an invisible net.

Still, Grey had to say it wasn't a bad job on the whole. He'd certainly had worse in his life. Most of the time all he did was just sit there through an eight-hour shift, penning his way through a crossword and checking the monitor and logging in his reports, what Zero ate and didn't eat and how much of his piss and shit went down the drain, and backing up the hard drives when they maxed out with a hundred hours of video footage of Zero doing nothing.

He wondered if the others weren't eating, either. He thought he'd ask one of the techs about that. Maybe they'd all gone on some kind of hunger strike; maybe they were just tired of rabbits and wanted squirrel instead, or possum, or kangaroo. It was funny to think it, given the way the glowsticks ate-Grey had let himself watch this only once, and that was one time too many; it had practically turned him into a vegetarian-but he had to say there was something fussy about them, like they had rules about eating, starting with the whole business with the tenth rabbit. Who knew what that was about? You gave them ten rabbits, they'd eat only nine, leave the tenth just where it was, like they were saving it for later. Grey had owned a dog once who was like that. He'd called him Brownbear, for no particular reason; he didn't look especially bearish, and he wasn't even really brown but kind of a mellow tan color, with flecks of white on his muzzle and chest. Brownbear would eat exactly half his bowl each morning, then finish it at night. Grey was usually asleep when this happened; he'd wake up at two or three A.M. to the sound of the dog in the kitchen, cracking the kibble on his molars, and in the morning, the dish would be sitting empty in its spot by the stove. Brownbear was a good dog, the best he'd ever had. But that was years ago; he'd had to give him up, and Brownbear would be long dead by now.

All the civilian workers, the sweeps and some of the technicals, were housed together in the barracks at the south end of the compound. The rooms weren't bad, with cable and a hot shower, and no bills to pay. Nobody was going anywhere for a while, that was part of the deal, but Grey didn't mind; everything he needed he had right here, and the pay was good, right up there with oil-rig money, all piling up in an offshore account with his name on it. They weren't even taking out any taxes, some kind of special arrangement for civilians employed under the Federal Emergency Homeland Protection Act. A year or two of this, Grey figured, and as long as he didn't piss away too much at the commissary on smokes and snacks, he'd have enough socked away to put some serious mileage between himself and Zero and all the rest of them. The other sweeps were an okay bunch, but he preferred to keep to himself. In his room at night, he liked to watch the Travel Channel or National Geographic, picking places he'd go when this was all over. For a while he'd been thinking Mexico; Grey figured there'd be plenty of room, since about half the country seemed to have emptied out and was now standing around the parking lot of the Home Depot. But then last week he'd seen a program on French Polynesia-the water blue like he'd never seen blue before, and little houses on stilts sitting right out over it-and now was giving that some serious consideration. Grey was forty-six years old and smoked like a fiend, so he figured he had only about ten good years left to enjoy himself. His old man, who'd smoked like he did, had spent the last five years of his life in a little cart sucking on a tank, until he'd done the big face-plant just a month before his sixtieth birthday.

Still, it would have been nice to get off the grounds every now and then, even just to have a look around. He knew they were in Colorado someplace, from the license plates on some of the cars, and every now and again somebody, probably one of the officers or else the scientific staff, who came and went as they chose, would leave a copy of The Denver Post lying around; so it was no big secret, really, where they were, no matter what Richards said. One day after a heavy snowfall, Grey and some of the other sweeps had gone up to the roof of the barracks to shovel it off, and Grey could see, rising above the line of snowy trees, what looked like some kind of ski resort, with a gondola inching up the hillside and a slope with tiny figures carving down it. It couldn't have been more than five miles from where he stood. Funny, with a war on and the world the way it was, everything in such a mess, to see a thing like that. Grey had never skied in his life, but he knew there'd be bars and restaurants too, out there beyond the wall of trees, and things like hot tubs and saunas, and people sitting around talking and sipping glasses of wine in the steam. He'd seen that on the Travel Channel, too.

It was March, still winter, and there was plenty of snow on the ground, which meant that once the sun went down the temperature fell like a rock. Tonight a nasty wind was blowing too, and trudging back to the barracks with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his chin tucked into the neck of his parka, Grey felt like his face was getting slapped a hundred times over. All of which made him think some more about Bora-Bora, and those little houses on stilts. Never mind Zero, who apparently had lost his taste for fresh Easter Bunny; what Zero ate and did not eat was none of Grey's business. If they told him to serve eggs Benedict on toast points from now on, he'd do it with a smile. He wondered what a house like that would cost. With a house like that, you wouldn't even need plumbing; you could just step to the rail and do your business, any time of the day or night. When Grey had worked rigs in the Gulf, he'd liked to do that, in the early morning or late at night when no one was around; you had to mind the wind, of course, but with a breeze pushing at your back, few pleasures in life compared to taking a leak off a platform two hundred feet over the Gulf and watching it arc into the air before raining down twenty stories into the blue. It made you feel small and big at the same time.

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