Michael announced that he had a surprise to show Peter. They walked to the armory, where Michael retrieved a shotgun, then to the motor pool for a pickup. Michael clipped the shotgun into a stand on the floor of the cab and told Peter to get in.
"Where are we going?"
They drove out of the compound, then turned south on a cracked blacktop that ran parallel with the water. A salty wind gusted through the truck's open windows, taking the edge off the heat. Peter had seen the Gulf only a couple of times; its ancient span, too huge to hold in his mind, unfailingly took his breath away. Most entrancing were the waves, long tubes gathering size and momentum as they approached, falling in a curl of brown foam at the water's edge. He couldn't take his eyes off them. Peter knew he could sit on the sand for hours, just watching the waves.
Stretches of the beach were swept clean, while others still bore the evidence of catastrophe on a grand scale: mountains of rusting metal twisted into incomprehensible shapes; beached ships of every size, their hulls bleached and pitted or else stripped to the struts, tilted on the sand like exposed rib cages; ridges of undifferentiated debris, pushed inshore on the tide.
"You'd be surprised how much stuff still washes in," Michael said, gesturing out the window. "A lot of it comes down the Mississippi, then curves along the coast. The heavy stuff's mostly gone, but anything plastic seems to last."
Michael had veered off the road and was now driving close to the water's edge. Peter stared out the window. "Do you ever see anything bigger?"
"Once in a while. Last year, a barge still loaded with big containers washed in. The damn thing had been drifting for a century. We were all pretty excited."
"What was in them?"
They came to an inlet and turned west, following the edge of a tranquil bay. Ahead was a small concrete structure perched on the water's edge. As Michael brought the truck to a halt, Peter saw that the building was just a shell, although a sign in the window still read, in faded letters, "Art's Crab Shack."
"Okay, I'll bite," Peter said. "What's the surprise?"
His friend smiled mischievously. "Leave that smoke poker here," he said, gesturing to the Browning strapped to Peter's thigh. "You're not going to need it."
Wondering what his friend had in mind, Peter deposited the gun in the glove compartment, then followed Michael to the rear of the building. A small dock on concrete piers, perhaps thirty feet long, jutted out over the water.
"What am I seeing?"
"A boat, obviously."
A small sailboat was tied up at the end of the pier, gently bobbing in the swells.
"Where did you get it?"
Michael's face shone with pride. "A lot of places, actually. The hull we found in a garage about ten miles inland. The rest we cobbled together or made ourselves."
"Lore and me." He cleared his throat, his face suddenly flustered. "I guess it's pretty obvious-"
"You don't owe me an explanation, Michael."
"I'm just saying it's not quite what it looks like. Well, maybe it is. But I wouldn't say we're together, exactly. Lore's just ... well, she's just like that."
Peter found himself taking perverse pleasure in his friend's embarrassment. "She seems nice enough. And she obviously likes you."
"Yeah, well." Michael shrugged. " 'Nice' wouldn't necessarily be the first word I'd choose, if you know what I mean. To tell you the truth, I can barely keep up with her."
As Michael stepped aboard, Peter suddenly became aware how meager the boat looked.
"What's the problem?" Michael asked.
"We're actually going to sail that thing?"
Michael had started busily coiling lines and setting them in the bottom of the hull. "Why'd you think I brought you out here? Quit your worrying and get in."
Peter cautiously lowered himself into the cockpit. The hull moved strangely under him, responding to his weight with a sluggish shift. He gripped the rail, willing the boat to stay still. "And you actually know how to do this."
His friend laughed under his breath. "Don't be such a baby. Help me raise the sail."
Michael quickly ran through the basics: sail, rudder, tiller, mainsheet. He cast off the line, scrambled aft to the tiller, did something to make the sail abruptly fill with air, and suddenly they were off and running, streaming away from the dock with astonishing speed.
"So what do you think?"
Peter nervously eyed the receding shoreline. "I'm getting used to it."
"Here's a thought," Michael offered. "For the first time in your life, you're in a place where a viral can't kill you."
"I hadn't considered that."
"For the next couple of hours, you, my friend, are out of a job."
They tacked across the bay. As they moved into deeper water, the color changed from a mossy green to a rich blue-black, the sunlight ricocheting off the irregularities of its surface. Under the tightness of the sail, the boat possessed a more solid feel, and Peter began to relax, though not completely. Michael seemed to know what he was doing, but the ocean was still the ocean.
"How far out have you taken this thing?"
Michael looked ahead, squinting into the light. "Hard to say. Five miles anyway."
"What about the barrier?"
It was generally held that in the early days of the epidemic, the nations of the world had banded together to enforce a quarantine of the North American continent, laying mines all along the coastlines and bombing any vessels that attempted to leave shore.
"If it's out there, I haven't found it yet." Michael shrugged. "Part of me thinks it's all bullshit, you want to know the truth."
Peter eyed his friend cautiously. "You're not looking for it, are you?"
Michael didn't answer, his face telling Peter that he had hit the mark.
"So is doing what you do. And even if the barrier exists, how many mines could still be floating around out there? A hundred years in the ocean would eat just about anything. And all the debris would have set them off by now, anyway."
"It's still reckless. You could blow yourself to bits."
"Maybe. And maybe tomorrow one of those cooking towers will launch me into outer space. The standards for personal safety around these parts are pretty low." He shrugged. "But that's beside the point. I don't think the damn thing was ever there to begin with. The whole coast? If you include Mexico and Canada, that's almost two hundred and fifty thousand miles. Impossible."
"What if you're wrong?"
"Then someday I may, as you say, blow myself to bits."
Peter let the matter drop. A lot had changed, but Michael was still Michael, a man of insatiable curiosity. They were moving through the inlet into open water; the breeze had picked up, casting jeweled waves over the bow. Something in his stomach dropped. It wasn't just the lurching of the boat. So much water, everywhere.
"Maybe just this once you could keep us close to land."
Michael adjusted the sail, stiffening his grip on the tiller. "I'm telling you, it's a whole other deal out there, Peter. I can't even explain it. It's like all the bad stuff just drops away. You really should see it for yourself."
"I should be getting back. Let's save it for another time."
Michael glanced at him and laughed. "Sure," he said. "Another time."
Alicia made her way northward, into the wide-open countryside. The Texas Panhandle: a landscape of limitless flatness like a great becalmed sea, wind drifting over the tips of the prairie grasses, the sky immense above her in its autumnal blueness, the encircling horizon broken only by the occasional creekside stand of cottonwoods or pecans or long-armed willows, their melancholy fronds bowing in submission as she passed. The days were warm but at night the temperature plunged, weighing the grass with dew. Using fuel from caches spread along her route, she'd complete the journey in four days.
She arrived at the Kearney garrison on the morning of November 6. It was as Command had feared when the resupply convoy had failed to return: not a living soul remained to greet her. The garrison was an open grave. The echoes of the soldiers' dying cries seemed to hover on the air, locked into the windswept stillness. Alicia spent two days loading the desiccated remains of her fellows into the bed of a truck and carrying them to the place she had selected, a clearing on the banks of the Platte. There she lay them in a long row, so they could be together, doused them with fuel, and set them alight.
It was the following morning that she saw the horse.
He was standing just beyond the barricades. A blue-roan stallion, his long, masculine neck bent to graze upon the heavy grasses at the edge of the parade ground-his presence unaccountable, like a single house left untouched by a tornado. He stood eighteen hands at least. Cautiously Alicia approached him, palms upturned. The animal seemed prepared to spook, nostrils flaring, ears pinned back, one great eye roving toward her. Who is this strange being, it was saying, what does she intend? Alicia advanced another step; still he did not move. She could feel the wildness that coursed in his blood, his explosive animal power.
"Good boy," she murmured. "See? I'm not so bad. Let's be friends, the two of us, what do you say?"
When an arm's length separated them, she eased her open palm beneath his nose. His lips pulled back, revealing the yellow wall of his teeth. His eye was like a great black marble taking in the sight of her. A moment of decision, his body tense and alert; then he lowered his head, filling her open hand with the warm moistness of his breath.
"Well, I think I just found my ride." The animal was nuzzling her hand now, bobbing his head. Flecks of foam stood at the edges of his mouth. She stroked his neck, his glossy, sweat-dampened coat. His body was like something chiseled, hard and pure, yet it was his eyes that radiated the full measure of his strength. "You need a name," Alicia said. "What shall I call you?"
She named him Soldier. From the moment she swung up onto his back, they belonged to each other. It was as if they were old friends, long separated, who had found each other again; lifelong companions who could tell each other the truest stories of themselves but who could also, if they chose, say nothing at all. In the empty garrison she lingered three more days, taking stock, planning the journey ahead. She sharpened her blades to their finest point. Her orders were in her pouch. To: Alicia Donadio, Captain of the Expeditionary. Signed: Victoria Sanchez, President, Texas Republic.
On the morning of November 12 they rode out, headed east.
One bridge over the Missouri still stood, fifty miles north of Omaha, at the town of Decatur. They reached it on the sixth day. The mornings were glazed with frost, winter in the air. The trees had given up their bashfulness, showing their bare limbs. As they made their approach Alicia sensed in Soldier's gait a notch of hesitation: The river, really? They came to the bluffs; below them, the water churned in its broad course. Eddies swirled upon its face, dark as stone. A quarter mile north, the bridge traversed its width on massive concrete pilings, as if bestriding the river on giant legs. Yes, Alicia said. Really.
There were moments when it seemed that this decision had been hasty. In places the concrete surface had fallen away, revealing the churning waters below. She dismounted and took Soldier by the reins. Painstakingly, every step fraught with the possibility that the bridge would collapse under them, they threaded their way across. Whose stupid idea was this? Soldier seemed to ask. Oh, yours.
On the far side they halted. It was just evening; the sun had begun its descent behind the bluffs. Alicia's rhythms had reversed: on foot, she would have been free to sleep during the day and travel at night, her habit. But not on horseback. Alicia lit a fire on the bank of the river, filled her pan, and set it to boil. She took the last of her stores from her saddlebag: a fistful of dried beans, paste in a can, a wedge of hardtack dense as a rock. She was in the mood to hunt but did not want to leave Soldier alone. She ate her meager supper, washed her pot in the river, and lay down on her bedroll to watch the sky. She had discovered that if she looked long enough, she would see a shooting star. As if responding to her thoughts, a bright streak blazed across the heavens, then two more in quick succession. Michael had told her once, many years ago, that some were leftover creations of mankind from the Time Before, called satellites. He had attempted to explain their function-something to do with the weather-but Alicia had either forgotten what he'd said or else tuned it out as yet another instance of know-it-all Michael lording his intelligence over other people. What had stuck in her mind was an abstract sense of them, their marriage of light and force: unaccountable objects of unknowable purpose that swung around the earth like stones in a sling, locked in their trajectories by counterbalancing influences of will and gravity until they gave up their trials and plunged to earth in a blaze of glory. More stars fell; Alicia began to count. The more she looked, the more she saw. Ten, fifteen, twenty. She was still counting when she fell asleep.
The day broke fresh and clear. Alicia slipped on her glasses and stretched, the pleasurable energy of a night's rest flowing through her limbs. The sound of the river seemed louder in the morning air. She had saved some hardtack for breakfast. She polished off half and fed the rest to Soldier and rode on.
They were in Iowa now; their journey was halfway done. The landscape changed, rising and falling in loamy hills with a slumped appearance and, between them, flat-bottomed valleys of rich black soil. Low clouds had moved in from the west, tamping the light. It was late afternoon when Alicia detected movement from the ridgeline. On the wind, a scent of animals; Soldier could sense it, too. Willing herself into stillness, Alicia waited for the source to reveal itself.