“I’m sorry, Peter,” said Olson Hand, “I can’t keep track of all your friends.”
Peter had learned that Michael was missing just before sunset. Sara had gone over to the infirmary to check on him and found that his bed was empty. The whole building was empty.
They had fanned out in two groups: Sara, Hollis, and Caleb to search the grounds, Alicia and Peter to look for Olson. His house, which Olson had explained had once been used as the warden’s residence, was a small, two-story structure situated on a patch of parched ground between the work camp and the old prison. They had arrived to find him stepping from the door.
“I’ll speak with Billie,” Olson continued. “Maybe she knows where he went.” He seemed harried, as if their visit had caught him in the midst of some important duty. Even so, he took the trouble to offer one of his reassuring smiles. “I’m sure he’s fine. Mira saw him in the infirmary just a few hours ago. He said he was feeling better and wanted to have a look around. I thought he was probably with you.”
“He could barely walk,” Peter said. “I’m not sure he could walk at all.”
“In that case, he can’t have gone far, now could he?”
“Sara said the infirmary was empty. Don’t you usually have people there?”
“Not as a general matter. If Michael chose to leave, they’d have no reason to remain.” Something dark came into his face; he leveled his eyes at Peter. “I’m sure he’ll turn up. My best advice would be to return to your quarters and wait for his return.”
“I don’t see—”
Olson cut him off with a raised hand. “As I said, that’s my best advice. I suggest you take it. And try not to lose any more of your friends.”
Alicia had been silent until now. Suspended on her crutches, she bumped Peter with her shoulder. “Come on.”
“It’s fine,” she said. Then, to Olson: “I’m sure he’s okay. If you need us, you know where to find us.”
They retreated through the maze of huts. Everything was strangely quiet, no one about. They passed the shed where the party had been held, finding it deserted. All the buildings were dark. Peter felt a prickling on his skin as the cooling desert night descended, but he knew this sensation was caused by more than just a change in temperature. He could feel the eyes of people watching them from the windows.
“Don’t look,” Alicia said. “I feel it too. Just walk.”
They arrived at their quarters as Hollis and the others were returning. Sara was frantic with worry. Peter related their conversation with Olson.
“They’ve taken him somewhere, haven’t they?” Lish said.
It seemed so. But where, and for what purpose? Olson was lying, that was obvious. Even more strange was the fact that Olson seemed to have wanted them to know he was lying.
“Who’s out there now, Hightop?”
Caleb had taken his position by the door. “The usual two. They’re hanging out across the square, pretending they’re not watching us.”
“No. It’s dead quiet out there. No Littles, either.”
“Go wake up Maus,” Peter said. “Don’t tell her anything. Just bring her and Amy over here. Their packs, too.”
“Are we leaving?” Caleb’s eyes shifted to Sara, then back again. “What about the Circuit?”
“We’re not going anywhere without him. Just go.”
Caleb darted out the door. Peter and Alicia exchanged a look: something was happening. They would have to move quickly.
A moment later Caleb returned. “They’re gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
The boy’s face was gray as ash. “I mean the hut’s empty. There’s no one there, Peter.”
It was all his fault. In their haste to find Michael, he’d left the two women alone. He’d left Amy alone. How could he have been so stupid?
Alicia had put her crutches aside and was unrolling the bandage from her leg. Inside, secreted there on the night of their arrival, was a blade. The crutch was a ruse: the wound was nearly healed. She rose to her feet.
“Time to find those guns,” she said.
Whatever Billie had put in his drink, the effects hadn’t worn off yet.
Michael was lying in the back of a pickup, covered with a plastic tarp. The bed of the truck was full of rattling pipes. Billie had told him to lie still, not to make a sound, but the jumpy feeling inside him was almost more than he could bear. What was she doing, giving him a concoction like that and expecting him to lie perfectly still? The effect was like shine in reverse, as if every cell in his body were singing a single note. Like his mind had passed through some kind of filter, giving each thought a bright, humming clarity.
No more dreams, she’d said. No more fat lady with her smoke and smell and awful, scratchy voice. How did Billie know about his dreams?
They’d stopped once, just a few moments after they’d left the infirmary, which they’d exited through the rear. Some kind of checkpoint. Michael heard a voice he didn’t recognize, asking Billie where she was going. From under the tarp Michael had listened anxiously to their exchange.
“There’s a broken line out in the eastern field,” she explained. “Olson asked me to move these pipes around for the crew tomorrow.”
“It’s new moon. You shouldn’t be out here.”
New moon, Michael thought. What was so important about the new moon?
“Look, that’s what he said. Take it up with him if you want.”
“I don’t see how you’re going to make it back in time.”
“Let me worry about that. Are you going to let me through or not?”
A tense silence. Then: “Just be back by dark.”
Now, sometime later, Michael felt the truck slowing once again. He drew the tarp aside. A purpling evening sky and behind them, in the truck’s wake, a boiling cloud of dust. The mountains were a distant bulge against the horizon.
“You can come out now.”
Billie was standing at the tailgate. Michael climbed from the truck bed, grateful to move at last. They had parked outside a massive metal shed, at least two hundred meters long, with a bulging convex roof. He saw the rusted shape of fuel tanks behind it. The land was lined with railroad tracks, heading off in all directions.
A small door opened in the side of the building; a man emerged and walked toward them. His skin was covered in grease and oil, so much that his face was practically black with it; he was holding something in his hands, working at it with a filthy rag. He stopped where they were standing and looked Michael up and down. A short-barreled shotgun was holstered to his leg. Michael remembered him as the driver of the van that had brought them from Las Vegas.
The man moved forward so their faces were just inches apart and peered into Michael’s eyes. First one eye, then the other, shifting his head back and forth. His breath was sour, like spoiled milk. His teeth were lined in black. Michael had to force himself not to pull away.
“How much did you give him?”
“Enough,” Billie said.
The man gave him one more skeptical look, then stepped back and shot a jet of brown spit onto the hardpan. “I’m Gus.”
“I know who you are.” He held up the object for Michael to see. “You know what this is?”
Michael took it in his hand. “It’s a solenoid, twenty-four volts. I’d say it comes off a fuel pump, a big one.”
“Yeah? What’s wrong with it?”
Michael passed it back, shrugging. “Nothing I can see.”
Gus looked at Billie, frowning. “He’s right.”
“I told you.”
“She says you know about electrical systems. Wiring harnesses, generators, controller units.”
Michael shrugged again. He was still reluctant to say too much, but something, some instinct, was telling him he could trust these two. They hadn’t brought him all this way for nothing.
“Let me see what you’ve got.”
They crossed the railyard to the shed. Michael could hear, from inside, the roar of portable generators, the clang of tools. They entered through the same door the man had emerged from. The interior of the shed was vast, the space illuminated by spotlights on tall poles. More men in greasy jumpsuits were moving about.
What Michael saw stopped him where he stood.
It was a train. A diesel locomotive. And not some rusted derelict, either. The damn thing looked like it could actually run. It was covered in protective metal plating, three-quarter-inch steel at least. A huge plow jutted from the front of the engine; more steel plates were riveted over the windshield, leaving only a thin slit of exposed glass for the driver to see by. Three boxy compartments sat behind it.
“The mechanicals and pneumatics are all up and running,” Gus said. “We charged the eight-volts using the portables. It’s the electrical harness that’s the problem. We can’t pull a current from the batteries to the pump.”
The blood was racing through Michael’s veins. He took a breath to calm himself. “Do you have schematics?”
Gus led him to a makeshift desk where he’d laid out the drawings, broad sheets of brittle paper covered in blue ink. Michael looked them over.
“This is a rat’s nest,” he said after a moment. “It could take me weeks to find the problem.”
“We don’t have weeks,” Billie said.
Michael lifted his face to look at them. “How long have you been working on this thing?”