By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

13. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, pp. 613-675

The PassageIX. The Last Expeditionary
Sara writes in her journal to report that the newly talkative Amy has explained that she had asked Babcock not to kill Theo in the ring: "He's full of bad dreams. I thought it would be best to use my please and thank you." She also explains that she had been told how to blow the coupler between the engine and the boxcars by Gus, who had telepathically communicated to her after he fell from the train but before he died.

They reach another town where they find a store called Outdoor World that's full of the kind of supplies they need. They continue north on Highway 15, making by Peter's estimate about 25 kilometers a day. They encounter a forest fire and take shelter, and a few days later find the bodies of virals who had been trapped in the fire.

In an entry ten days later, Sara reports that she has decided to marry Hollis, but they decide not to tell the others yet. They come upon a farmstead that seems undisturbed and is well-stocked with supplies. There are four graves nearby. Peter estimates it has been abandoned for ten to twenty years. He wants to move on before the winter sets in, but Theo and Mausami decide to stay there. They make better time without them. Amy has a bad dream about a man who "keeps on dying and can't stop," but she falls asleep again without telling them who the man again.

They reach Colorado, where Amy begins to take the lead. One day in a forest they come across a strange smell and see up in the trees "dozens of long strands of small, white objects, bunched like fruit." Suddenly, they spring the trap and a net gathers them all up. A group of soldiers appears out of the forest and takes them to their garrison. Major Greer, a man of about forty, tells them that they're not prisoners but "under protection." The garrison is surrounded by a high timber fence and contains a number of military vehicles. What turns out to be the flag of Texas flies over it. 

Greer explains that what was hanging in the trees over the net, the source of the bad smell, was garlic, which the "dracs," as they call the virals, love. As they pass into the garrison, Peter notices that the soldiers were all looking at the women in their party.  Everyone snaps to attention when the general appears and gives the order, "You are not to look at these women. You are not to speak to them, or come near them, or approach them, or in any way think you have anything to do with them, or they with you." He leads them, along with Greer, into his tent, where there is a map of their expeditions from central Texas. One route goes through Oklahoma and into Kansas, and the other through New Mexico and then north just across the border into Colorado, where they are now.

He introduces himself as "Brigadier General Curtis Voorhees, Second Expeditionary Forces, Army of the Republic of Texas" and tells them that as long as they stay they're under his authority. In six days they will be leaving to join up with the battalion at Roswell, New Mexico, and suggests that they join them. From there, they will be sent to Kerrville, Texas. He also explains that they are "a volunteer force. To join the Expeditionary is to do so for life, by blood oath, and each of these men is sworn to die." The problem with having women in the garrison is, "A man will happily die for his friends, but a woman -- a woman makes him want to live." When Peter tells the general that they intend to continue their way, Alicia interrupts him.

Alicia, standing at attention, says, "General Voorhees. Colonel Niles Coffee of the First Expeditionary sends his regards." And she introduces herself as the Colonel's "adopted daughter.... Private Alicia Donadio, First Expeditionary. Baptized and sworn." To Peter she explains that when the Colonel arrived at the colony and claimed her in the Sanctuary, she had promised not to reveal his identity or her allegiance. The general calls Greer into the tent and tells him who she is. "Sworn is sworn. The men will have to learn to live with it. Take her to the barber" -- all the members of the force have their heads shaven. Alicia reassures Peter than he can continue his mission without her.

It rains for five days, during which Peter tells Voorhees and Greer all about Amy, the signal they were following, the colony, Theo and Mausami, and the Haven. Peter urges them to send an expedition to the colony, mentioning the bunker at Twentynine Palms, but Voorhees says it would be next spring before they could do it. He also says it reminds him of a community, Homer, Oklahoma, that the Third Battalion came across where there were twelve hundred people who had never even heard of the virals. They were offered transport to Kerrville but refused. And when the Third Battalion returned later, the community had vanished. But there were no bodies left behind. "Everything neat as a pin, dinner dishes sitting on the table."

What interests Voorhees the most is that Peter's group managed to make it all the way from California to Colorado. "Thirty years ago, when Kerrville sent out the First Expeditionary, you couldn't walk a hundred meters without tripping on a drac." Peter asks if this means the virals are dying off, but all the general will say is that "something's different. Something's changed.... The cities are still crawling, with all the empty buildings, but there's plenty of open countryside where you could go for days without seeing one."

Texas seceded because the federal government was trying to bomb the virals into extinction. Most of the cities are gone, and Houston is a petrochemical swamp. The Gulf of Mexico is "a chemical slick" from all the oil platforms. California's secession led to an all-out war, in which the federal government forgot about Texas because of its inability to fight on two fronts. And the NATO alliance tried to control the spread of the virus by bombing the coasts and mining the borders. No one seems to know about the rest of the world. Some think that the virus never made it to the other continents, but others think that the desire for American resources, including the gold at Fort Knox and the stockpile of military ordnance and nuclear weapons was too strong to resist. "Chances are, they took the virus back with them."

Discouraged, Peter talks to Hollis and Michael in the mess tent, still undecided whether they should go with the soldiers or continue their journey. Michael has made friends with some members of the motor pool and tells them that it's "movie night." The mess hall is rearranged and a projector and screen are set up. Sara and Amy also sneak in to watch. The movie is Dracula, which explains why the soldiers call the virals "dracs." Peter has never seen a movie and is caught up in the story. When he learns that Dracula "must sleep each night in his native soil," Peter wonders if that's why the ones who are "taken up" seem always to return home, and whether the story "wasn't a made-up tale at all but an account of something that had actually happened."

But the movie is interrupted by the return of Blue Squad, which had gone on patrol outside. Alicia, who was among them, reports that they discovered a "hornet's nest" of virals in an abandoned copper mine. As the camp prepares for an assault on the nest, Peter goes to Greer and volunteers to go with them. Greer turns him down, but tells him that when he saw Amy he remembered being a sick child in an orphanage, and that once he had a fever dream in which Amy was there with him. And that if they don't succeed in this mission, Red Squad has orders to take them all to Roswell, but won't stop them if they decide to leave.

Three days later two of the squads appear, led by Greer. Alicia isn't among them. Greer tells Peter that it was a disaster. Then two more squads, but still no Alicia. "Everyone told the same story: the bomb exploding, the ground tearing open beneath them, the virals pouring forth, everyone scattering, lost in the dark." Voorhees is not among them either. Finally Alicia appears with a Corporal Muncey, whose hands are bound. He has been bitten and infected, and asks that Alicia be the one to kill him.

They have lost forty-six men, including Voorhees, and Greer, now in charge, promotes Alicia to lieutenant.
They prepare for departure. Peter tells Hollis that he should join the convoy with Sara, whom Greer has allowed out of seclusion so she can nurse the wounded, and that Sara probably won't go without Michael, who has become an important part of the motor pool. He and Amy will go on with their mission. Peter also tells Greer of his plans and bids goodbye to Alicia. Greer gives them his horse and a duffel bag full of weapons.

[This is an odd aside, perhaps, but this bunch of soldiers from Texas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, reminds me of something that I've wondered about all along: the absence of religious belief in the post-viral world. Greer uses "Jesus" as an epithet, but otherwise there's no evidence that religion, or even the texts and doctrines on which religion is based, has survived in any formal way. Intentional omission?]

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