By Charles Matthews

Monday, October 18, 2010

11. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, pp. 495-539

The PassageVII. The Darklands
Peter, Amy, Alicia, Sara, Michael, Mausami and Caleb reach the power station and realize that the power to the electric fence is off. Near the gate is the body of a slaughtered jenny, and clinging to the fence is the burned body of Rey Ramirez, who shorted out the fence in a fatal attempt to climb it. Inside the station they find everything, including the guns, undisturbed. Caleb, who has been watching from the roof, shouts that someone riding a horse is coming: It's Hollis Wilson, who tells them that a party of at least six from the colony is in pursuit. They set out for the Marine depot at Twentynine Palms, which Hollis had seen on one of the Long Rides with Peter's father.

Galen Strauss is in the party pursuing them. Gloria Patal has ordered them to kill everyone except Mausami, and to bring her back. Galen is nominally leading the party, which consists of four others, but when they reach the freeway overpass at Banning he discovers he's alone. "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."

At Joshua Valley Peter and the others find an abandoned, boarded-up firehouse and, once they make sure it's not infested, decide to spend the night there. In it they find more weapons and a cache of military MREs -- Meals Ready to Eat -- which Hollis recognizes from discoveries they had made on the Long Rides. During the night, several virals appear and begin to try to break into the firehouse, but Amy gets up from her cot, goes to the door at which one of the virals is scratching, leans her forehead against the door and somehow makes it and the others go away and leave them alone.

The next day they make their way toward Twentynine Palms, passing a long line of stalled and deserted cars on the road. Finally they reach the bunker, which is built into the side of a mountain. Hollis, who has been there before, finds the way to open the gate. In the bunker, Sara finds notebooks and pencils and begins a journal. Michael and Caleb, she reports, are going to try to get a couple of Humvees in running order. Supplies of all sorts are abundant and the stock up. The only casualty is the horse, which runs off into a minefield and is blown up; when its body disappears in the night, they know that virals are nearby.

After almost two weeks at the bunker, Michael and Caleb have got two Humvees in running order and they set out for Las Vegas. At Kelso they find the fuel depot, but during the night are attacked by three virals, two of which they kill and the third runs away. They drive on to Las Vegas, arriving from the south. They make their way through the ruins of the city, encountering abandoned military vehicles, including an overturned tank, as they go. But as they try to find their way toward the airport for fuel, they keep encountering roads blocked with rubble. As it grows late, they decided to find shelter for the night, and spot a building that seems not to have suffered as much damage as the others. They break into the luxury hotel, where they smell "a tart chemical scent."

They find "slims," desiccated corpses and skeletons, in room after room, sitting at the gambling tables where they had died. There are fancy shops, too, and in one Amy picks up a snow-globe souvenir for the Milagro Hotel and Casino. Michael identifies the pervasive smell as methane. "Somewhere beneath the hotel was a sea of one-hundred-year-old effluent, the pooled waste of an entire city, trapped like giant fermentation tank." The stairwells are full of debris, but Hollis jimmies open an elevator shaft and they climb the cables to the sixteenth floor. Most of the rooms have slims in them, but they find a suite that's empty and decide to spend the night there. The room has a view of the Eiffel Tower across the street, which Caleb identifies from a book he once read, though nobody can quite understand why it's here and not in Paris.

The others try to get some sleep, but Peter and Sara are looking out of the window when Sara thinks she sees something on the Eiffel Tower. Amy enters the room and takes Peter's arm, pulling him away from the window as it explodes and knocks them down. A viral grabs Sara and disappears. Hollis rushes in and says he saw which way they went. They all go in pursuit, descending by the stairway and the elevator shaft and racing to the Humvees. But Alicia, who goes first, races back into the hotel lobby shouting for them to run -- the street is full of virals. They make their way down the corridors until they find themselves in the hotel kitchen. Peter, who has used up all his ammunition, grabs a copper frying pan, which he brandishes as a female viral starts to attack. Then she stops, mesmerized, Alicia tells him, by her own reflection. "Peter became aware of a new sound, coming from the viral -- a mournful nasal moaning, like the whine of a dog. As if the image of her face, reflected in the pan's copper bottom, were the source of some deep and melancholy recognition."

Peter realizes that the smell of the gas has grown stronger, and he tells Alicia to explode a grenade. They dash for the door as the grenade explodes and the building starts to go up. Both of them are bleeding from wounds caused by the explosion, but they start to make their way to the Humvees. Suddenly a vehicle appears: It has a kind of plow in front and is encased in wire, with a flamethrower on the roof. The truck says "Nevada Department of Corrections" on its side. A voice orders them to get in, and they find the others already there.

Theo is in a jail cell, dreaming of the fat woman smoking in her kitchen. He doesn't know how he got there or how long he's been there. The man who brings him food, but whom he can't see, knows his name and also knows about his dreams of the fat woman.

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