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The Passage

The Passage

Page 48

"My sister asked me to give you a message," Michael said.

"Sara did?"

"Just, you know," Michael said, and gave an awkward shrug. "Be careful."

The distance to the power station was forty kilometers, nearly a full day's ride. Within an hour of leaving, the group fell silent, even Arlo, lulled by the heat and the prospect of the day ahead. Portions of the roadway down the mountain were washed away, and they had to stop and lead the animals by hand across these sections. The grease had begun to stink, and Peter was glad to be riding up front, out of the plume of its smell. The sun was high and hot, the air breathless, without the slightest breeze. The desert floor shined below them like hammered metal.

At half-day they stopped to rest. The HD crew watered the animals, while the others took positions on a rocky outcrop above the cart, Theo and Peter on one side, Arlo and Alicia on the other, to scan the tree line.

"See there?"

Theo was using the binoculars and pointing toward the shadow of the trees. Peter held a hand over his eyes against the glare.

"I don't see anything."

"Be patient."

Then Peter saw it. Two hundred meters distant, a barely detectable movement, no more than a rustling, in the branches of a tall pine, and a gentle shower of needles, floating down. Peter drew in a breath, willing it to be nothing. Then it came again.

"He's hunting, keeping to the shade," Theo said. "Squirrel, probably. Not much else around here. He must be one hungry son of a bitch to be out in the day like this."

Theo whistled a long, windy note through his teeth to signal the others. Alicia turned sharply at the sound; Theo pointed two fingers at his own eyes, then a single outstretched digit toward the tree line. Then he held up his hand, cupping it in the shape of a question mark: Do you see it?

Alicia replied with a closed fist. Yes.

"Let's go, brother."

They clambered down the rocks and rendezvoused at the cart, where Rey and Finn were sprawled over the grease bags, chewing on hardtack and passing a plastic jug of water between them.

"We can draw him out with one of the mules," Alicia said quickly. With a long stick she began to draw in the dirt at their feet. "Switch out the water for grease, move her down a hundred meters closer to the trees, see if he takes the bait. He probably already smells it. We set up three positions, here, here, and here"-she scratched these in the dirt-"and catch him in the cross fire. Out in the sun like that he'd be easy."

Theo frowned. "This isn't a smokehunt, Lish."

For the first time Rey and Finn looked up from the cart.

"What the hell," Rey said, "are you serious? How many are there?"

"Don't worry, we're moving out."

"Theo, there's just the one," Alicia said. "We can't just leave him there. The herd's only, what, ten clicks?"

"We can and we will. And where there's one, there are others." Theo arched his eyebrows at Rey and Finn. "Are we ready to move out?"

"Who cares?" Rey rose quickly from the floor of the cart. "Flyers, nobody ever tells us anything. Let's get the hell out of here."

Alicia regarded them another moment, her arms crossed over her chest. Peter wondered how angry she was. But she'd said it herself, at the gate: chain of command.

"Fine, you're the boss, Theo," she said.

They continued on their way. By the time they reached the foot of the mountain, it was midafternoon. For the last hour they'd descended in full view of the turbine array, hundreds of them spread over the flats of the San Gorgonio Pass, like a forest of man-made trees. On the far side, a second line of mountains shimmered in the haze. A hot, dry wind was blowing, ripping away their words the moment they were uttered, making any conversation impossible. With each meter of their descent the air grew hotter; it felt like they were riding into a smithing furnace. The road ended at the old town of Banning. From there, they'd head inland along the Eastern Road, another ten kilometers to the power station.

"All eyes, everyone," Theo called over the rush of the wind. He took another moment to scan ahead with the binoculars. "Let's close it up. Lish on point."

Peter experienced a quick flash of irritation-he was in second position, the point was his to take-but let the feeling pass without comment; Theo's choice would smooth things over between him and Alicia, and by the time they got to the power station, they'd all be friends again. Theo passed her the binoculars; Alicia heeled her mount and rode briskly ahead an extra fifty meters, her red braid swinging in the sun. Without turning, she held up an open hand, then dropped her palm so that it was parallel to the ground. A thin, birdlike whistle from between her teeth. Clear. Forward.

"Let's go," Theo said.

Peter felt a quickening in his chest as his senses, dulled by the monotony of the long ride down the mountain, revived, bringing him into a heightened awareness of his surroundings, as if he were viewing the scene from several angles at once. They rode forward at an even pace, their bows at the ready. No one spoke except Finn, who had climbed down from the cart and was leading the jenny by hand, murmuring calming words to her. The course they followed was little more than a sand track, rutted from years of use by the carts. Peter felt, like a tingling at his extremities, each bit of sound and movement from the landscape: the soft howl of wind through a broken window; a bit of flapping canvas caught on a tipping utility pole; the creak of a metal sign, its words long since scoured away, tossing to and fro above the fuel pumps of an old garage. They passed a pile of rusted cars, half-buried and twisted in a heap; a block of houses, piled with dunes that reached nearly to their eaves; a cavernous metal shed, bleached and pitted, from which issued the cooing of pigeons and, as they moved downwind, the fetid cloud of their droppings.

"All eyes, everyone," Theo repeated. "Let's get through here."

They moved in silence into the center of town. The buildings here were more substantial, three or four stories, though many had collapsed, carving open spaces between them and filling the street with mounds of undifferentiated debris. Cars and trucks were parked at haphazard angles along the roadway, some with their doors standing open-the moment of their drivers' flight frozen in time-but in others, sealed away beneath the blasting desert sun, were the dried-out corpses known as slims: raggy masses of bones folded over the dashboards or pressed against the windows, their shriveled forms virtually unrecognizable as human beings except for a tuft of stiffened hair still tied with a ribbon, or the glinting metal of a watch on a skinless hand that still, after nearly a hundred years, clutched the steering wheel of a pickup truck sunk to the tops of its wheel wells. All of it unmoving and silent as the grave, all just as it had been since the Time Before.

"Gives me the creeps, cuz," Arlo murmured. "I always tell myself not to look, and I always do anyway."

As they approached the highway overpass, Alicia pulled up sharply. She turned, one hand raised, and rode briskly back to them.

"Three dozers underneath. They're hanging in the rafters on the back side, over the culvert."

Theo absorbed this news without expression. Unlike the viral they'd seen on the mountain road, there was no question of taking on a whole pod, certainly not this late in the day.

"We'll have to go around. The cart can't make it without a ramp. Lish? Agreed?"

"No argument. We close up and go."

They turned east, tracing the course of the highway at a distance of a hundred meters. The sun stood four hands; they were cutting it close now. It would be slow going over open ground with the cart. The next entrance ramp was two kilometers away.

"I hate to admit it," Theo said quietly to Peter, "but Lish had a point. When we get back, we should put together a hunting party and clear out that pod."

"If they're still there."

Theo was frowning pensively. "Oh, they'll be there. A single smoke bagging squirrels is one thing. This is something else. They know we use this road."

What the smokes knew and didn't know was always a question. Were they creatures of pure instinct, or were they capable of thought? Could they plan and strategize? And if the latter was true, didn't it follow that they were still, in some sense, people? The people they had been, before they were taken up? A great deal was simply not understood. Why, for instance, some of them would approach the Wall, while others would not; why a handful, such as the one they had seen on the road, would hazard the daylight to hunt; if their attacks, when they came, were simply random occurrences or triggered by something else; the distinctive manner in which they moved, always in groups of three, the actions of their bodies coordinated each to the others, like phrases of a rhyme; even how many there were out there, prowling the dark. It was true that the combination of the lights and walls had kept the Colony secure for most of a hundred years. The Builders seemed to have understood their enemy well, or at least well enough. And yet watching a pod moving at the edge of the lights, appearing out of the night to patrol the perimeter before departing to wherever it was they went, Peter often had the distinct impression of watching a single being, and that this being was alive, soulfully alive, no matter what Teacher said. Death made sense to him, the body joined to the soul in life, ceasing together in death. His mother's final hours had taught him as much. The sounds of her last, ragged breaths, and then the sudden stillness: he knew that the woman she had been was gone. How could a being continue with no soul?

They reached the ramp. To the north, at the base of the foothills, Peter could discern, through a haze of airborne dust, the long, low shape of the Empire Valley Outlet Mall. Peter had been there plenty of times before, on scavenging parties; the place had gotten pretty picked over through the years, but it was so vast you could still find useful stuff. The Gap had been cleared out, and J. Crew too, as had the Williams-Sonoma and the REI and most of the stores on the south end near the atrium, but there was a big Sears with windows that offered some protection and a JC Penney with good exterior access so you could get out fast, both still containing usable things, like shoes and tools and cooking pans. The thought occurred to him that he might go looking for something for Maus, for the baby, and maybe Theo was thinking the same thing. But there was no time for that now.

Standing above the sand at the base of the ramp was a sign, bent with the prevailing winds:

nt sta e 10 E

P lm ings 25

In io 55

Alicia rode back to them. "All clear underneath. We better get a move on."

The roadway was in passable shape; they were making good time again. A broiling wind was tearing through the pass. Peter's skin and eyes felt scorched, like kindling on the verge of combustion. He realized he hadn't urinated since they'd stopped to water the horses and reminded himself to drink from his canteen. Theo was scanning ahead with the binoculars, one hand loosely holding the reins. They were close enough now that Peter could see the turbines with enough detail to discern which were turning, which not. He tried to count the ones that were but quickly lost track.

The shadow of the mountain had begun to fall over the valley as they moved off the Eastern Road. At last they saw their destination: a concrete bunker, half-submerged in the valley floor, ringed by tall fencing charged with enough current to set anything that touched it aflame, and behind that the power trunk, a great rust-colored tube that ascended the mountain's eastern face, a wall of white rock forming a natural barricade. Theo dismounted and took the leather lanyard that held the key from around his neck. The key opened a metal panel on a post; there were two such panels, one on each side of the fence. Inside was a switch to control the current, another to open the gate. Theo killed the current and stood back while the gate swung open.

"Let's go."

Adjacent to the station was a small livery, shaded by a metal roof, with troughs for the horses and a pump. They all drank greedily, letting the water stream down their chins and pouring handfuls over their sweat-soaked hair, then left Finn and Rey to see to the animals and went to the hatch. Theo withdrew the key once more. A thunk of metal as the locks freed, and they all stepped inside.

They were met by a blast of cool air and the basal hum of mechanical ventilation. Peter shivered in the sudden chill. A single bulb in a cage provided the only illumination to the flight of metal stairs that took them down below ground level. At the bottom was a second hatch, which stood ajar. Beyond it lay the turbine control room, and, deeper still, a barracks and kitchen and rooms for storage and equipment. At the rear, accessible by a ramp leading to the outside, was the stable where they overnighted the horses and mules.

"Anybody home?" Theo called out. He nudged the door open with his foot. "Hello!"

No reply.

"Theo-" This was Alicia.

"I know," Theo said. "It's weird."

They stepped cautiously through the hatch. Across the long table in the center of the control room lay an assemblage of guttered beeswax candles and the remains of a hastily departed meal: tins of paste, plates of hardtack, a greasy cast-iron pot that looked like it had contained some kind of meat stew. None of it appeared to have been touched in a day or even longer. Arlo waved his blade over the pot, and a cloud of flies scattered. Despite the whir of the fans the air was close and rank, thick with the smell of men and hot insulation. The only light, a pale yellow glow, came from the meters on the control panel, which monitored the flow of current from the turbines. Above them the station's clock told the hour: 18:45.

"So where the hell are they?" Alicia asked. "Am I missing something, or is it almost Second Bell?"

They moved through the barracks and storage areas, confirming what they already knew: the station was empty. They climbed the stairs and stepped back into the late-day heat. Rey and Finn were waiting under the shade of the livery's awning.

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