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The Passage

The Passage

Page 50

"When did you find it?" he asked, amazed.

"Last season. I got bored one night and started poking around. I figure it's some kind of escape route left by the Builders. The stairs go straight to a crawl space on the roof."

Peter gestured toward the crates with his lantern. "What's in those?"

"That," she said, smiling mischievously, "is the best part."

Together they dragged one of the crates out onto the floor of the storeroom. A metal locker, a meter long and half as deep, with the words U.S. MARINE CORPS printed on the side. Alicia knelt to undo the hasps and lifted the lid to reveal six sleek black objects, cradled in foam. It took Peter a few seconds to understand what he was seeing.

"Holy shit, Lish."

She passed him a weapon. A long-bore rifle, cool to the touch and smelling faintly of oil. It was shockingly light in his hands, as if made of some substance that defied gravity. Even in the dim light of the storage room he could detect the lustrous gleam in the finish of the muzzle. The guns he'd seen were all little more than corroded relics, rifles and pistols the Army had left behind; the Watch still kept some in the Armory, but as far as Peter was aware, all the ammunition had been used up years ago. Never in his life had Peter held anything so clean and new, untouched by time.

"How many are there?"

"Twelve boxes, six guns apiece, a little over a thousand rounds. There are six more crates up in the crawl space."

All his nervousness was gone, replaced by a lusty hunger to use this wonderful new object in his hands, to feel its power. "Show me how to load it," he said.

Alicia took the gun from his hands and drew back the bolt and charger. Then she took a magazine of bullets from the box, shoved it into place in front of the trigger guard, pushing forward until it caught, and gave the base two hard taps with her palm.

"Aim it like a cross," she said, and turned away to demonstrate. "It's basically the same, only with a lot more kick. Just keep your finger off the trigger unless you mean business. You'll want to, but don't."

She passed the rifle back to him. A loaded gun! Peter raised it to his shoulder, searching for something in the room that seemed worthy of his aim, and finally selected a coil of copper wire on the far shelf. The urge to fire, to experience the explosive force of its recoil in his arms, was so strong it required an almost physical effort to push the thought away.

"Just remember what I said about the trigger," Alicia warned. "You've got twenty rounds per magazine. Now, load this one so I know you know how."

He traded the loaded rifle for a new one. Peter did his best to recall the steps: safety, bolt, charger, magazine. When he was done he gave the clip two hard taps, as he had seen Alicia do.

"How's that?"

Alicia was watching him appraisingly, holding her rifle with the stock against her hip. "Not bad. A little slow. Don't point it down like that, you'll blow your foot off."

He quickly raised his barrel. "You know, I'm a little surprised. I thought you didn't believe in these things."

She shrugged. "I don't, not really. They're sloppy and they're loud, and they make you too confident by half." She passed him a second magazine for his waist pouch. "On the other hand, the smokes believe in them just fine if you do it right." She tapped a finger against her sternum. "One shot, through the sweet spot. Closer than three meters you have a little slop, but don't count on it."

"So you've used these guns before."

"Did I say that?"

Peter knew better than to press. Six crates of Army rifles. How could Alicia possibly resist?

"So whose guns are they?"

"How should I know? As far as I can tell, they're the property of the United States Marine Corps, just like it says on the box. Quit asking questions and let's go."

They reentered the hatch and began to climb. He felt the temperature rise with every step of their ascent. Ten meters up they reached a small platform with a ladder. In the ceiling over their heads was another hatch. Alicia rested the lantern on the platform, reached overhead on tiptoes, and began to turn the wheel. They were both sweating hard; the air felt almost too thick to breathe.

"It's stuck."

He reached up to help her. With a rusty squeal, the mechanism released. Two turns, three; the hatch dropped open on its hinges. Cool night air tumbled through the opening like a current of water, smelling of desert, of dry juniper and mesquite. Above, Peter could see only blackness.

"Me first," Alicia said. "I'll call you up."

He heard her footsteps moving away from the opening. He listened for more but heard nothing. They were up on the roof somewhere, no lights to protect them. He counted to twenty, thirty. Should he follow her?

Then Alicia's face appeared above him, floating over the open hatch. "Leave the lantern there. It's all clear. Come on."

He ascended the ladder and found himself in a small crawl space, with pipes and valves and more crates stacked along the walls. He paused, letting his eyes adjust. He was facing an open door. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.

He stepped into the stars.

It hit him in the lungs first, shoving the breath from his chest. A feeling of pure physical panic, as if he'd stepped onto nothing, onto the night sky itself. His knees bent beneath him, his free hand scrabbled at the air, searching for something to hold on to, to give himself a feeling of form and weight, the working dimensions of the world around him. The sky above was a vault of blackness-and everywhere, the stars!

"Peter, breathe," Alicia said.

She was standing beside him. He realized that her hand was resting on his shoulder. In the dark Alicia's voice seemed to come from very close and far away at once. He did as she said, letting deep gulps of night air fill his chest. Bit by bit his eyes adjusted. Now he could make out the edge of the roof, spilling into nothingness. They were in the southwest corner, he realized, near the exhaust port.

"So what do you think?"

For a long, quiet moment, he let his eyes roam the sky. The longer he looked, the more stars appeared to him, pushing through the blackness. These were the stars his father had spoken of, the stars his father had seen on the Long Rides.

"Does Theo know?"

Alicia laughed. "Does Theo know what?"

"The hatch. The guns." Peter shrugged helplessly. "All of it."

"I never showed him, if that's what you mean. I'm guessing Zander does, since he knows every inch of this place. But he's never said a word to me about it."

His eyes searched out her face. She seemed different somehow, in the dark: the same Alicia he had always known, but also someone new. He understood what she had done. She'd saved it for him.

"Thanks."

"Don't go thinking this means we're friends or anything. If Arlo had woken up first, it'd be him standing here."

That wasn't true, and he knew it. "Even so," he said.

She led him to the edge of the roof. They were facing north, across the valley. Not a breath of wind was blowing. On the far side, the shape of the mountains was etched into the sky as a dark bulk pushed up against a shimmering rim of stars. They took positions, lying side by side with their bellies pressed against the concrete, still warm with the heat of the day.

"Here," Alicia said, reaching into her pouch. "You'll want one of these."

A night scope. She showed him how to fix it to the top of the rifle and adjust the gain. Peter placed his eye to the viewfinder and saw a landscape of shrubs and rocks, all washed in a pale green light, with a pair of hatched crosshairs bisecting his view. At the bottom of the scope he saw a readout: 212 METERS. The numbers rose and fell as he swept the rifle back and forth. Amazing.

"You think they're still alive?"

Alicia took a moment to answer. "I don't know. Probably not. It can't hurt to wait, though." She paused again; there wasn't much else to say on the subject. Then: "You think I was too hard on Maus today?"

The question surprised him. As long as he'd known her, Alicia had never been one to second-guess herself.

"Not the way it worked out. You did the right thing."

"She's a loss. You can't say she isn't."

"It doesn't matter. You said it yourself. Maus knows the rules as well as anyone."

"I'd rather keep her than Galen." She groaned. "Flyers. That guy. What the hell could she see in him?"

Peter lifted his face from the scope. The sky was so thick with stars it was as if he could reach out and brush them with his hand. He'd never seen anything so beautiful in his life. It made him think of the oceans, the names in the book like the words of a song-Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic-and about his father, standing on the edge of the sea. Maybe the stars were what Auntie meant when she spoke of God. The old God, from the Time Before. The God of Heavens who watched the World.

"Do you ever ... " Alicia began. "I don't know, think about it?"

Peter shifted to face her. Her eye was still pressed to her scope. "Think about what?"

Alicia gave a nervous laugh-a sound he'd never heard her make. "You're going to make me say it? Pairing, Peter. Having Littles."

He had; of course he had. Almost everybody paired by the time they were twenty. But standing the Watch made it hard-up all night, sleeping most of the day or else walking around in a daze of exhaustion. But when Peter faced the question squarely, he knew that wasn't the only reason. Something about the idea simply did not seem possible; it applied to others, but not to him. There had been girls for him, and then a few he would have described as women; each had occupied a few months' time, working him up into such a state that they were, briefly, most of what he thought about. But in the end he had always drifted away or found himself, inexplicably, directing them toward someone he thought of as more suitable.

"Not really, no."

"What about Sara?"

A feeling of defensiveness rose up inside him. "What about her?"

"Come on, Peter," Alicia said, and he heard the exasperation in her voice. "I know she wants to pair with you. It's no secret. She's First too, it would be a good match. Everyone thinks so."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"I'm just saying. It's obvious."

"Well, it isn't obvious to me." He paused. They had never spoken like this before. "Look, I like Sara fine. I'm just not certain I want to pair with her."

"But you do want to? Pair, I mean."

"Someday. Maybe. Lish, why are you asking this?"

He turned his face toward her again. She was looking through her scope across the valley, slowly sweeping the horizon line with her rifle.

"Lish?"

"Hold on. Something's moving."

He rolled back into position. "Where?"

Alicia quickly lifted the barrel of her rifle, pointing. "Two o'clock."

He pressed his eye to the scope: a solitary figure, darting from one stand of scrub to another, a hundred meters past the fence line. Human.

"It's Hightop," Alicia said.

"How do you know?"

"Too small to be Zander. Nobody else out there."

"He's alone?"

"I can't tell," Alicia said. "Wait. No. Ten degrees right."

Peter looked: a flash of green in the scope, skipping like a stone over the desert floor. Then he saw a second, and a third, two hundred meters and closing. Not closing: circling.

"What are they doing? Why don't they just take him?"

"I don't know."

Then they heard it.

"Hey!" The voice was Caleb's, high and wild and full of fear. He was up and running toward the fence, waving his arms. "Open the gate, open the gate!"

"Flyers." Alicia rolled to her feet. "Come on."

They raced back to the crawl space; Alicia quickly opened one of the containers stacked by the hatch. She withdrew a pistol of some kind-short, with a fat, snub-nosed barrel. Peter had no time to ask. They ran back to the edge and Alicia pointed it up and over the turbine field and fired.

The flare shot skyward, dragging a hissing tail of light. Peter instinctively knew he shouldn't look but he couldn't stop himself, he looked anyway, his vision instantly seared by the image of the flare's white-hot center. At its apex the flare seemed to stop, suspended in space. Then it exploded, bathing the field in light.

"We've bought him a minute," Alicia said. "There's a ladder down the back."

They slung their weapons over their shoulders; Alicia descended the ladder first, taking it like a pair of poles, her feet not even touching the rungs. As Peter scrambled down, she shot another flare, arcing it over the station toward the field. Then they ran.

Caleb was standing on the far side of the metal gate. The virals had scattered, back into the shadows. "Please! Let me in!"

"Shit, we don't have a key," Peter said.

Alicia shouldered her rifle and aimed it at the panel. A burst of fire and noise; a shower of sparks poured forth as the panel shot from its pole.

"Caleb, you'll have to climb over!"

"I'll fry!"

"No you won't, the current's off!" She looked at Peter. "You think it's off?"

"How should I know?"

Alicia stepped forward and, before Peter could say anything, pressed her palm to the fence. Nothing happened.

"Hurry, Caleb!"

Caleb curled his fingers between the wires and began to climb. Around them the shadows flattened as the second flare completed its descent. Alicia withdrew a fresh flare from her waist pouch, loaded the pistol, and fired. Up and up it sailed, riding its tail of smoke, and burst above them in a shower of light.

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