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The Passage

The Passage

Page 28

Grey had drawn the lucky straw: all he had to do was mop the halls and empty the trash, then babysit Zero for the rest of the shift, to see if he ate anything. From the storage closet he fetched his mop and supplies and got to work; by midnight he was done. Then he went to the door at the end of the first corridor, ran his card through the scanner, and stepped inside.

The room, about twenty feet square, was empty. On the left side, a two-stage air lock led into the containment chamber. Going through took at least ten minutes, more on the return trip, when you had to shower. To the right of the air lock was the control panel. It was all a bunch of lights and buttons and switches, most of which Grey didn't understand and wasn't supposed to touch. Above it was a wall of reinforced glass, dark, which looked out on the chamber.

Grey took a seat at the panel and examined the infrared. Zero was kind of huddled in the corner, away from the gates, which had been left open when the last shift had brought in the rabbits. The galvanized cart was still there, sitting in the middle of the room, with its ten open cages. Three of the rabbits were still inside. Grey looked around the room. The others were all scattered about, untouched.

At a little after one A.M. the door to the corridor opened, and one of the techs stepped in, a large Hispanic man named Pujol. He nodded at Grey and looked at the monitor.

"Still not eating?"

"Uh-uh."

Pujol made a mark on the screen of his handheld. He had one of those complexions that made it look as if he hadn't shaved even when he had.

"I was wondering something," Grey said. "How come they don't eat the tenth one?"

Pujol shrugged. "How should I know? Maybe they're just saving it for later."

"I had a dog who did that," Grey volunteered.

Pujol made more marks on his handheld. "Yeah, well." He lifted one broad shoulder in a shrug; the information meant nothing to him. "Call the lab if he decides to eat."

After Pujol left, Grey wished he'd thought to ask him some of the other questions on his mind. Like, why rabbits at all, or how Zero stuck to the ceiling like he sometimes did, or why just sitting there had begun to make Grey's skin crawl. Because that was the thing with Zero, more even than with the rest of them; being with Zero felt like being with an actual person in the room. Zero had a mind, and you could feel that mind working. Five more hours: Zero hadn't moved an inch since Grey had gotten there. But the readout below the infrared still gave his heartrate at 102 bpm, same as when he was moving about. Grey wished he'd thought to bring a magazine to read or maybe a crossword book, to help him stay alert, but Paulson had rattled him so bad he'd forgotten. He also wanted a smoke. A lot of guys snuck them in the john, not just the sweeps but also the techs and even a doctor or two. It was generally understood that you could smoke there if you had to and weren't gone more than five minutes, but Grey didn't want to push his luck with Richards, not after their run-in in the elevator.

He leaned back in the chair. Five more hours. He closed his eyes.

Grey.

Grey's eyes flew open; he sat upright.

Grey. Look at me.

It wasn't a voice he was hearing, not exactly. The words were in his head, almost like something he was reading; the words were someone else's, but the voice was his own.

"Who's that?"

On the monitor, the glowing shape of Zero.

I was called Fanning.

Grey saw it then, like somebody had opened a door in his head. A city. A great city thrumming with light, so many lights it was as if the night sky had fallen to earth and wrapped itself around all the buildings and bridges and streets. Then he was stepping through the door and he felt and smelled where he was, the hardness of cold pavement under his feet, the dirt of exhaust and the smell of stone, the way the winter air moved in channels around the buildings so there was always a breeze on your face. But it wasn't Dallas, or any other city he'd ever been to; it was someplace old, and it was winter. Part of him was sitting at the panel on L4 and another part was in this other place. He knew his eyes had closed.

I want to go home. Take me home, Grey.

A college, he knew, though why would he think such a thing, that this was a college he was seeing? And how would he know this was New York City, where he'd never been in his life, had seen only in pictures, and that the buildings around him were the buildings of a campus: offices and lecture halls and dormitories and labs. He was walking along a path, not really walking but somehow moving down it, and people were flowing past him.

See them.

They were women. Young women, bundled in heavy woolen coats and scarves tucked up tight to their throats, some with hats pulled down over their heads, rich handfuls of young hair flowing like shawls of silk from under these compressive domes onto their smoothly rounded shoulders, into the cold air of New York City in winter. Their eyes were bright with life. They were laughing, books tucked under their arms or pressed to their slender chests, talking in animated voices to one another, though the words were nothing he could hear.

They're beautiful. Aren't they beautiful, Grey?

And they were. They were beautiful. Why had Grey never known this?

Can't you feel them, walking past, can't you smell them? I never get tired of smelling them. How the air behind them sweetens as they pass. I used to just stand and breathe it in. You smell them too, don't you, Grey? Like the boys.

-The boys.

You remember the boys, don't you, Grey?

He did. He remembered the boys. The ones walking home from school, sweating in the heat, bookbags sagging from their shoulders, their damp shirts clinging to them; he remembered the smell of sweat and soap of their hair and skin, and the damp crescent on their backs where their bookbags had pressed against their shirts. And the one boy, the boy trailing behind, now taking the shortcut down the alley, the quickest way home from school: that boy, his skin bronzed from the sun, his black hair pressed to the back of his neck, his eyes cast down at the sidewalk, playing some game with the cracks so that he didn't notice Grey at first, the pickup moving slowly behind him, then stopping. How alone he seemed-

You wanted to love him, didn't you, Grey. To make him feel that love?

He felt a great, sleeping thing lumbering to life inside him. The old Grey. Panic swelled his throat.

-I don't remember.

Yes you do. But they've done something to you, Grey. They've taken that part of you away, the part that felt love.

-I don't ... I can't ...

It's still there, Grey. It's just hidden from you. I know, because that part was hidden in me, too. Before I became what I am.

-What you are.

-You and I, we're the same. We know what we want, Grey. To give love, to feel love. Girls, boys, it's all the same. We want to love them, as they need to be loved. Do you want it, Grey? Do you want to feel that again?

He did. He knew it then.

-Yes. That's what I want.

I need to go home, Grey. I want to take you with me, to show you.

Grey saw it again, in his mind's eye, rising up around him: the great city, New York. All around him, humming, buzzing, its energies passing through each stone and brick, following unseen lines of connectedness into the soles of his feet. It was dark, and he felt the darkness as something wonderful, something he belonged to. It flowed into him, down his throat and into his lungs, a great, easeful drowning. He was everywhere and nowhere all at once, moving not over the landscape but through it, into and out of it, breathing the dark city that was also breathing him.

Then he saw her. There she was. A girl. She was alone, walking the path between the school buildings-a dormitory of laughing students; a library of quiet hallways, its wide windows fogged by frost; an empty office where a lone cleaning woman, listening to Motown on headphones, bent to rinse her mop in a wheeled bucket. He knew it all, he could hear the laughter and the sounds of quiet studying and count the books on the shelves, he could hear the words of the song as the woman with the bucket hummed along, whenever you're near ... uh-uh ... I hear a symphony-and the girl, ahead on the pathway, her solitary figure shimmering, pulsing with life. She was walking straight toward him, her head tipped against the wind, her shoulders lifted in a delicate hunch beneath her heavy coat to tell him she was holding something in her arms. The girl, hurrying home. So alone. She had stayed out late, studying the words of the book she held to her chest, and now she was afraid. Grey knew he had something to tell her, before she slipped away. You like this, is that what you like, I'll show you. He was lifting, he was rising up, he was falling down upon her-

Love her, Grey. Take her.

Then he was ill. He rocked forward in his chair and in a single spasm released the contents of his stomach onto the floor: the soup and salad, the pickled beets, the mashies and the ham. His head was between his knees; a long string of spittle was swinging from his lips.

What the hell. What the goddamn.

He eased himself upright. His mind began to clear. L4. He was on L4. Something had happened. He couldn't remember what. An awful dream of flying. He'd been eating something in the dream; the taste was still in his mouth. A taste like blood. And then he'd puked just like that.

Puking, he thought, and he felt his stomach drop-that was bad. Very very bad. He knew what he was supposed to watch for. Vomiting, fever, seizures. Even a hard sneeze out of nowhere. The signs were everywhere, not just in the Chalet but the barracks, the dining hall, even in the johns: "Any of the following symptoms, report immediately to the duty officer ... "

He thought of Richards. Richards, with his little dancing light, and the ones named Jack and Sam.

Oh crap. Oh crap oh crap oh crap.

He had to move fast. No one could find it, the big puddle of puke on the floor. He told himself to calm down. Steady, Grey, steady. He checked his watch: 02:31. No way he was waiting another three and a half hours. He got to his feet, stepping around the mess, and quietly opened the door. A quick peek down the hall: not a soul in sight. Speed, that was the thing; get it done fast and then get the hell out. Never mind the cameras; Paulson probably had that right-how could somebody be watching every minute of the day and night? In the supply closet he got a mop and began to fill a bucket in the sink and poured in a cup of bleach. If anybody saw him he could say he'd spilled something, a Dr Pepper or a cup of coffee, which he wasn't supposed to have, though people did. He'd spilled a Dr Pepper. Couldn't be sorrier. That was what he'd say.

He also wasn't really sick, he could tell, not the way the signs made it sound. He was sweating under his shirt, but that was just the panic. As he watched the bucket fill and then hoisted it, reeking of chlorine, from the deep well of the sink, his body was telling him so in no uncertain terms. Something else had made him toss, something in the dream. The sensation was still in his mouth, not just the taste-a too warm, sticky sweetness that seemed to coat his tongue and throat and teeth-but the feel of soft meat yielding under his jaws, exploding with juice. Like he'd bitten into a rotten piece of fruit.

He yanked a few yards of paper towel off the dispenser, got a hazard bag and gloves from the cabinet, and carted it all back to the room. The mess was too big just to mop it, so he got on his knees and did his best to soak it up with the towels, pushing the bigger pieces into clumps he could pick up with his fingers. He put it all into the bag and cinched it tight, then spread water and bleach over the floor, working in circles. There were some chunks of something on his slippers and he wiped those off, too. The taste in his mouth was different now, like something spoiled, and it made him think of Brownbear, whose breath got like that sometimes; it was the only thing bad about him, how he'd come back to the trailer reeking of week-old roadkill and stick his face right up close to Grey's, smiling that dog smile he had, his gums pulled back at his molars. Grey couldn't hold it against him, Brownbear being just a dog, though he didn't like that smell one bit, and not in his own mouth like it was now.

In the locker room he changed quickly, shoved his scrubs in the laundry bin, and rode the elevator up to L3. Davis was still there, leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on the desk, reading a magazine, his boots bobbing to some song playing on little earphones tucked in the sides of his head.

"You know, I don't know why I even look at this stuff anymore," Davis said loudly over the music. "What's the point? I'm never getting off this iceball."

Davis dropped his feet to the floor and held up the cover of the magazine for Grey to see: two na**d women in a winding embrace, their mouths open and the tips of their tongues just touching. The magazine was called Hoteez. Their tongues looked to Grey like slabs of muscle, something you'd put on ice in a deli case. The sight sent a fresh current of nausea churning through him.

"Oh, that's right," Davis said when he saw Grey's expression. He plucked the buds from his ears. "You guys don't like this stuff. Sorry." Davis sat forward and wrinkled his nose. "Man, you stink. What is that?"

"I think I ate something bad," Grey said cautiously. "I gotta go lie down for a while."

Davis flinched with alarm; he pushed away from the desk, widening the gap between them. "Don't f**king say that."

"I swear that's all it is."

"Jesus Christ, Grey." The soldier's eyes were wide with panic. "What are you trying to do to me? You got a fever or anything?"

"I just tossed is all. In the can. I think maybe I ate too much. I just need to get off my feet for a bit."

Davis took a second to think, eyeing Grey nervously. "Well, I've seen you eat, Grey. All you guys. You shouldn't shovel it in like that. And you don't look so hot, I'll say that. No offense, but you look like crap. I really should call this in."

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