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FORTY-TWO

They reached the foot of the mountain before half-day. The pathway, a switchback zigzagging down the eastern face of the mountain, was too steep for horses; in places it wasn’t a path at all. A hundred meters above the station a portion of the mountain seemed to have been carved away; a pile of rubble lay below. They were above a narrow box canyon, the station obscured to the north by a wall of rock. A hot, dry wind was blowing. They climbed back up, searching for another route as the minutes ticked away. At last they found a way down—they had drifted off the path—and made their final, creeping descent.

They approached the station from the rear. Inside its fenced compound they detected no sign of movement. “You hear that?” Alicia said.

Peter stopped to listen. “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s because the fence is off.”

The gate stood open. That was when they saw a dark hump on the ground, beneath the awning of the livery. As they moved closer the hump seemed to atomize, breaking apart into a swirling cloud.

A jenny. The cloud of flies scattered as they approached. The ground around her was darkened with a stain of blood.

Sara knelt beside the body. The jenny was lying on her side, exposing the swollen curve of her belly, bloated with putrefying gas. A long gash, alive with squirming maggots, followed the line of her throat.

“She’s been dead a couple of days, I’d say.” Sara’s bruised face was wrinkled against the smell. Her lower lip was split; her teeth were outlined with crusted blood. One eye, her left, was swollen with a huge, purple shiner. “It looks like someone used a blade.”

Peter turned to Caleb. His eyes were open very wide, locked on the animal’s neck. He’d pulled the neck of his jersey over the lower half of his face, a makeshift mask against the stench.

“Like Zander’s jenny? The one in the field?”

Caleb nodded.

“Peter—” Alicia was gesturing toward the fence. A second dark shape on the ground.

“Another jenny?”

“I don’t think so.”

It was Rey Ramirez. There wasn’t much left, just bones and charred flesh, which still exuded a faint smell of grilled meat. He was kneeling against the fence, his stiffened fingers locked in the open spaces between the wires. The exposed bones of his face made him appear to be smiling.

“That explains the fence,” Michael said after a moment. He looked like he might be ill. “He must have shorted it out, holding on like that.”

The hatch was open: they descended into the station, moving through its darkened spaces, room by room. Nothing seemed disturbed. The panel still glowed with current, flowing up the mountain. Finn was nowhere to be seen. Alicia led them to the back; the shelf that hid the escape hatch was still in place. It was only when she opened the door and he saw the guns, still in their boxes, that Peter realized he’d feared they’d be gone. Alicia pulled a crate free and opened it.

Michael gave an admiring whistle. “You weren’t kidding. They’re like brand-new.”

“There’s more where this came from.” Alicia glanced up at Peter. “Think you can find the bunker on those maps?”



They were interrupted by footsteps banging down the stairs: Caleb.

“Someone’s coming.”

“How many?”

“Looks like just one.”

Alicia quickly doled out weapons; they ascended into the yard. Peter could see a single rider in the distance, pulling a boiling plume of dust. Caleb passed the binoculars to Alicia.

“I’ll be damned,” she said.

Moments later, Hollis Wilson rode through the gate and dismounted. His arms and face were caked with dust. “We better hurry.” He paused to take a long drink from his canteen. “There’s a party of at least six behind me. If we want to make it to the bunker, we should leave right now.”

“How do you know where we’re going?” Peter asked.

Hollis wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. “You forget. I rode with your father, Peter.”

The group had gathered in the control room; they were loading gear as fast as they could, whatever they hoped to carry. Food, water, weapons. Peter had spread the maps over the central table for Hollis to examine. He found the one he wanted: Los Angeles Basin and Southern California.

“According to Theo, the bunker was a two-day ride,” Peter said.

Hollis frowned, his brow furrowed as he studied the map. Peter noticed for the first time that he’d begun to let his beard come in. For a second, it felt to him as if it were Arlo standing there.

“I remember it as more like three, but we were pulling the carts. On foot, I’d say we could do it in two.” He bent over the map, pointing. “We’re here, at the San Gorgonio Pass. The time I rode with your father, we followed this road, Route 62, north from the Eastern Road, Interstate 10. It’s quaked out in spots but on foot that should be no problem. We overnighted here”—again he pointed—“in the town of Joshua Valley. About twenty kilometers, but it could be as much as twenty-five. Demo fortified an old fire station and laid in supplies there. It’s tight, and there’s a working pump, so we can take water if we need it, which we will. From Joshua it’s another thirty clicks east on the Twentynine Palms Highway, another ten due north across open country to the bunker. A hell of a walk, but you could do it in another day.”

“If the bunker’s underground, how do we find it?”

“I can find it, all right. And believe me, you’ve got to see this place. Your old man called it the war chest. There’s vehicles, too, and fuel. We never could figure out how to get one running, but maybe Caleb and the Circuit can.”

“What about the smokes?”

“We never saw much of any through this stretch. Doesn’t mean they aren’t there. But it’s high desert, which they don’t like. Too hot, not enough cover, no real game that we ever saw. Demo called it the golden zone.”

“And farther east?”

Hollis shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. The bunker’s as far as I ever went. If you’re serious about Colorado, I’d say our best bet is to stay off I-40 and work our way north to Interstate 15. There’s a second supply cache in Kelso, an old railroad depot. It’s rough terrain through there, but I know your old man got at least that far.”

Alicia would ride point; the rest of the group would follow on foot. Caleb was still signaling the all clear from the roof of the station as they loaded up their gear in the shade of the livery. The jenny was gone; Hollis and Michael had dragged it to the fence.

“They should be in sight by now,” Hollis said. “I didn’t think they were more than a few clicks behind me.”

Peter turned his eyes to Alicia. Should they go look? But she shook her head.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, with an air of finality. “They’re on their own now. Same as us.”

Caleb descended the ladder at the rear of the station and joined them in the shade. They were a group of eight now. Peter was suddenly aware how depleted they all were. None of them had slept at all. Amy was standing close to Sara, wearing a pack like the others. She was squinting with a kind of fierce bravery in the sunlight, beneath an old visored cap somebody had found in the supply room. Whatever else was true about her, she wasn’t used to the brightness. But there wasn’t anything he could do about that now.

Peter stepped away from the awning. He counted out the hands; seven hours until darkness fell. Seven hours to cover twenty-five kilometers, on foot, across the open valley. Once they started, there would be no turning back. Alicia, her rifle slung from her shoulder, swung up onto Hollis’s horse, a huge, sandy-colored mare built like a house. Caleb passed her the binoculars.

“Everybody ready?”

“You know,” Michael said, “technically, it’s not too late to surrender.” He was standing next to his sister, awkwardly holding a rifle across his chest. He looked at their silent faces. “Hey, it was just a joke.”

“Actually, I think Circuit has a point,” Alicia declared from atop her mount. “There’s no shame in staying. Anybody who wants to should speak up now.”

No one did.

“All right then,” Alicia said. “All eyes.”

He wasn’t cut out for this, Galen decided. He just wasn’t. The whole thing had been a huge mistake from the beginning.

The heat was killing him, the sun like a white explosion in his eyes. His ass was so sore from riding he wouldn’t walk for a week. He had a screaming headache, too, where Alicia had clobbered him with the cross. And nobody in the party was listening to him. Nobody was doing a goddamn thing he said. Hey, guys, maybe we should close it up a little. We might want to slow down. What’s the goddamn hurry?

“Kill them,” Gloria Patal had said. This little mouse of a woman, scared of her own shadow as far as Galen could tell, but from the looks of things, there were whole sides of Gloria Patal that he had never seen before. Standing at the gate, the woman was seething with rage. “Bring my daughter back here, but kill the rest of them. I want them dead.”

The girl had done it, that’s what everyone was saying, the girl and Alicia and Caleb and Peter and Michael and … Jacob Curtis. Jacob Curtis! How could that half-wit Jacob Curtis be responsible for anything? It made no sense to Galen, but nothing about the situation did; sense was no longer the point as far as he could tell. Not at the gate where everyone had gathered, all of them shouting and waving their arms; it was as if half the Colony wanted to kill someone, anyone, that morning. If Sanjay had been there, he might have been able to talk a little sense into people, get them to calm down and think. But he wasn’t. He was in the Infirmary, Ian said, babbling and weeping like a baby.

That was about the time that the crowd had gone to get Mar Curtis and dragged her to the gate. She wasn’t the person they really wanted, but there was nothing to be done about it. The crowd was going wild. A pitiful scene, the poor woman who’d never had a bit of luck in her life, who didn’t have an ounce of strength to resist, hustled up the ladder by a hundred hands and thrown over the Wall as everyone broke into cheers. It might have ended there, but the crowd was just getting started, Galen could feel it, the first one had simply given them a taste for more, and Hodd Greenberg was yelling, “Elton! Elton was with them in the Lighthouse!” And the next thing Galen or any of them knew, the crowd was rushing to the Lighthouse and under a storm of cheers they hustled the old guy, the blind old guy, to the Wall. And they threw him over, too.

Galen, for his part, was keeping his mouth shut. How long before somebody said, Hey, Galen, where’s your wife? What about Mausami? Was she part of this too? Let’s throw Galen over next!

Finally Ian had given the order. Galen didn’t see the sense in going after them, but he was the only Second Captain now, since all the other Seconds were dead, and he could tell Ian wanted to maintain at least the illusion that the Watch was still in charge. Something had to be done or the crowd would be throwing everyone over the Wall. This was when Ian had taken him aside and told him about the guns. Twelve crates of them, behind a wall in the storage room. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other about the Walker, Ian said. Your wife is up to you. Just bring me those fucking guns.

They were a party of five: Galen in command, Emily Darrell and Dale Levine in the second slot, with Hodd Greenberg and Cort Ramirez bringing up the rear. His first command outside the Wall, and what did he have? That idiot Dale and a sixteen-year-old runner and two men who weren’t even Watch.

A fool’s errand, that’s what this was. He released a heavy sigh—loud enough for the runner Emily Darrell, riding beside him, to ask him what was wrong. She had been the first to volunteer for the ride, the only one from the Watch besides Dale. A girl with something to prove. He told her, Nothing, and let it go at that.

They were almost through Banning now. He was glad he couldn’t make out much in the way of detail, but the glimpses he got as they rode through town—you couldn’t not look—creeped him to the bone. A bunch of caved-in buildings and dried-out slims roasting in their cars like strips of mutton, never mind the smokes, who were probably skulking around somewhere. One shot. They come from above. The Watch drilled those words into your head from the time you were eight years old, never once letting you in on the big secret, what nonsense it all was. If a smoke dropped down on Galen Strauss, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He wondered how much it would hurt. Probably a lot.

The truth was, the way things were, the whole Mausami thing finally felt over. He wondered why he hadn’t seen that before. Well, maybe he had and just hadn’t been able to bring himself to accept it. He didn’t even feel angry. Sure, he had loved her. Probably he still did. There would always be a place in his mind where Mausami was, and the baby, too. The baby wasn’t his, but still he found himself wishing it were. A baby could make you feel better about just about anything, even going blind. He wondered if Maus and the baby were okay. If he found them, he hoped that he’d be man enough to say that. I hope that you’re okay.

They approached the ramp to the Eastern Road, riding in two lines. Flyers, his fucking head was pounding. Maybe it was just the knock Alicia had given him, but he didn’t think so. His whole vision seemed to be collapsing. Funny motes of light had begun to dance in his eyes. He felt a little sick.

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts he didn’t realize where he was, that he’d reached the top of the ramp. He paused to take a drink. The turbines were out there, somewhere, spinning in the wind that was pushing into his face. All he wanted was to get to the station and lie down in the dark and close his eyes. The dancing specks were worse now, descending through his narrowed field of sight like a glowing snowfall. Something was really wrong. He didn’t see how he would be able to continue; someone else would have to take the point. He turned to Dale, who had moved up behind him, saying, “Listen, do you think—”

The space beside him was empty.

He swiveled in his saddle. No one was behind him. Not one rider. Like a giant hand had plucked them, mounts and all, right off the face of the earth.

A wave of bile rose in his throat. “Guys?”

That was when he heard the sound, coming from beneath the overpass. A soft, wet ripping, like sheets of damp paper being torn in half, or the skin being pried off an orange fat with juice.

 



Date: 2015-02-03; view: 192


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