The Twelve #2(6)
Author:none

    41

    The three of them were rescued the next afternoon by a DS patrol sent to look for them when the tankers failed to arrive in Kerrville. By this time, Peter, Michael, and Lore had left the hardbox and returned to the scene of the attack. The blast had gouged out a wide crater, fifty yards at least; heaps of twisted wreckage lay spread over the adjacent fields. Oily smoke poured forth from still-burning pools of petrol, smearing a sky already inhabited by a cloud of airborne scavengers. Bodies, charred to blackened crusts, mingled with the debris. If any of the grisly remains belonged to their attackers, it was impossible to tell. All that was left of the mysterious gleaming truck were a few sheets of galvanized metal, proving nothing.
    Michael was a wreck. His physical injuries—a dislocated shoulder he had rammed back into place against the wall of the hardbox, a sprained ankle, a gash above his right ear that would need stitches—were the least of it. Eleven oilers and ten DS officers: men and women he had lived with, worked with. Michael had been the one in charge, somebody they trusted. Now they were gone.
    “Why do you think he did it?” Peter asked. He was speaking of Ceps; during their long night in the hardbox, Michael had told Peter what he’d seen in the side-view mirror. The two of them were sitting on the ground at the edge of the river; Lore had moved upstream. Peter could see her squatting by the water, shoulders shaking with tears she didn’t want them to witness.
    “I guess he thought there was no other way.” Michael squinted upward, watching the circling birds, though he seemed not to be really looking at anything. “You didn’t know him like I did. There was a lot to the guy. No way he’d let anybody be taken up. I only wish I’d had the guts to do it myself.”
    Peter could read the pain and doubt in his friend’s face: the disgrace of the survivor. He had known this emotion himself. It wasn’t the kind of thing that ever left you. “It wasn’t your fault, Michael. If the blame is anyone’s, it’s mine.”
    If his words were any comfort, Peter couldn’t see it. “Who do you think those people were?” Michael said.
    “I wish I knew.”
    “What the hell, Peter? A truckload of virals? Like they were pets or something? And that woman?”
    “I don’t get it, either.”
    “If it was the oil they wanted, they could have just taken it.”
    “I don’t think that’s what they were after.”
    “Yeah, well. Neither do I.” A ripple of anger tensed his body. “One thing I do know. If I ever find those people, I’m going to make it hurt.”
    They spent the night with the search party in a hardbox east of San Antonio and arrived in Kerrville the next morning. Once inside the city, they were separated into different chains of command: Peter to Division Headquarters and Michael and Lore to the Office of the Domestic Authority, which oversaw all ex-murus assets, including the Freeport oil complex. Peter was given time to clean up before his debriefing. It was midday, the barracks mostly empty. He stood in the shower for a long time, watching the greasy soot swirl down at his feet. He knew himself well enough to understand that the full emotional impact of events hadn’t quite sunk in. Whether this was a weakness or a strength he could never decide. He knew he was in a lot of trouble, but this concern seemed petty. Most of all, he felt sorry for Michael and Lore.
    He dressed in his cleanest fatigues and made his way to Command, a former office complex adjacent to city hall. When he entered the conference room, he was startled to see a face he knew: Gunnar Apgar. But if he’d expected any word of reassurance from the man, it quickly became evident that none was forthcoming. As Peter snapped to attention, the colonel shot him a cold glance, then returned his attention to the papers resting on the long table before him—no doubt the report from the DS patrol.
    But it was the second man of the three that gave Peter the most pause. To Apgar’s right sat the imposing figure of Abram Fleet, general of the Army. Peter had laid eyes on the man only once in his life; it was tradition that the GA administer the oath of induction for all Expeditionary. There was nothing physically remarkable about the general’s appearance—everything about him communicated an almost perfect physical averageness—yet he was who he was, a man whose presence altered a room, seeming to make the molecules of air vibrate at a different frequency. The third person seated at the table Peter didn’t recognize, a civilian with a trim gray beard and hair like brushed wheat.
    “Have a seat, Lieutenant,” the general said. “Let’s bring this to order. You know Colonel Apgar. Mr. Chase is here as a representative of the president’s staff. He will serve as her eyes and ears in this”—he hunted for the correct phrase—“unfortunate development.”
    For over two hours, they pounded Peter with questions. The general did most of the talking, followed by Chase; Apgar was largely silent, occasionally scribbling a note or asking for clarification. The tenor of the whole thing was disquietingly peremptory, as if they were trying to ensnare Peter in a contradiction. The underlying suggestion seemed to be that his story was a cover-up for some man-made catastrophe for which Peter, one of only three survivors, including the convoy’s head oiler, bore the blame. Yet as the grilling continued, he began to sense that this suspicion was hollow, a front for some deeper concern. Again and again they returned to the matter of the woman. What was she wearing, what did she say, how did she look? Had there been anything odd about her appearance? To each of these repeated probings, Peter related the order of events as accurately as he could. She was wearing a cloak. She was remarkably beautiful. She said, You’re tired. She said, We know where you are. It’s just a matter of time. “We,” the general repeated. We who? I don’t know. You don’t know because you don’t remember? No, I’m positive. She didn’t say anything else. Round and round, until even Peter began to doubt his own account. By the time it was over—his questioning came to a close with an abruptness in keeping with its hectoring tone—he felt not just emotionally but physically exhausted.
    “A word of warning, Lieutenant,” the general concluded. “You are not to discuss what happened on the Oil Road, or the contents of these proceedings, with anybody. That includes the surviving members of the convoy and the search party that brought you in. The determination of this body is that for reasons unknown, one of the tankers exploded, destroying the convoy as well as the San Marcos bridge. Is that clear?”
    So, the truth. What had happened on the Oil Road was not the whole story; it was a piece of a larger puzzle the three men were trying to wedge into place. Peter stole a glance at Apgar, whose expression communicated only the manufactured neutrality of someone obeying the orders of his superior.
    “Yes, General.”
    Fleet paused, then continued with a note of caution: “One last matter, Jaxon, and this is also to be treated with the utmost confidence. It seems that your friend Lucius Greer has escaped from detention.”
    For an instant Peter doubted that he’d heard the general correctly. “Sir?” He darted his eyes toward the others. “How did he—?”
    “That’s not known at this point. But it seems very likely he had help. The same night Greer went missing, one of the sisters left the orphanage and failed to return. A DS at the western pickets reported seeing two people leaving on horseback just after oh three hundred hours. A man—Greer, obviously—and a teenage girl, wearing the tunic of the Order.”
    “Are you talking about … Amy?”
    “So it would seem.” Fleet hunched over the table. “Greer is not my first concern. He’s an escaped prisoner, and he’ll be dealt with. But Amy is a different matter. Though I’ve always regarded your claims about her with considerable skepticism, she is nevertheless an important military asset.” Fleet was looking at Peter with renewed intensity. “We know you visited both of them before departing for the refinery. If you have anything to say, I suggest you say it now.”
    It took Peter a moment to parse the question’s meaning. “You think I know about this?”
    “Do you, Lieutenant?”
    Peter’s mind wrestled with three ideas simultaneously. Amy had broken Lucius out of jail; the two of them had fled the city, their destination unknown; the general suspected him of being an accomplice. Any one of these would have been enough to knock him flat; together, they had the effect of focusing his thoughts on the immediate problem of defending himself. And, rising in the back of his mind, was a new question: what did Amy’s disappearance have to do with the woman on the Oil Road? Surely the three men before him were wondering the same thing.
    “Absolutely not, General. They didn’t tell me anything.”
    “You’re certain? I remind you, this goes into the record as your official statement.”
    “Yes, I’m certain. I’m as amazed as you are.”
    “And you have no idea where the two of them might have gone?”
    “I wish I did.”
    Fleet regarded Peter for another moment, his face set. He looked toward Chase, who nodded.
    “Very well, Jaxon. I’ll take you at your word. Colonel Apgar has relayed your wishes to return to Fort Vorhees as soon as possible. I’m inclined to grant that request. Report to the duty officer at the motor pool, and he’ll give you a space on the next transport.”
    Suddenly this was the last thing Peter wanted. The general’s intentions were clear: Peter was being banished to guarantee his silence.
    “If it’s all right, sir, I’d like to return to the refinery.”
    “That’s not an option, Lieutenant. You have your orders.”
    A thought occurred to him. “Permission to speak freely, sir.”
    Fleet sighed heavily. “My understanding is that’s what you do, Lieutenant. You might as well get it over with.”
    “What about Martínez?”
    “What about him?”
    Apgar quickly met Peter’s eye. Tread carefully.
    “The man in the cave. ‘He left us’—those were his words.”
    “I’m aware of that, Jaxon. I’ve read the report. What’s your point?”
    “He wasn’t where he was supposed to be, either. Maybe Greer and Amy went searching for him.” He looked at each of the three men in turn, then together. “Maybe they know where he is.”
    A frozen moment followed. Then, from Fleet: “It’s an interesting idea, Lieutenant. Is there anything else?”
    Just like that, the idea had been put aside. Or maybe not. Either way, Peter sensed that his words had hit the mark.
    “No, sir.”
    The general’s eyes darkened with warning. “As I said, you’re not to discuss these matters with anyone. I don’t think I have to tell you that any indiscretion would not be looked on kindly. You’re free to go, Lieutenant.”
    “I’m sorry, Sister Peg is away for the day.”
    Sister Peg was never away for the day. The defensive posture of the woman in the doorway made it plain: Peter wasn’t getting past her.
    “Will you at least tell Caleb I was here?”
    “Of course, Lieutenant.” Her eyes darted past him in the manner of someone conscious of being observed. “Now, if you will excuse me …”
    Peter returned to the barracks to pass a restless afternoon on his bunk, gazing at the ceiling. His transport would be leaving the next morning at 0600; he had no doubt that such a swift departure was by design. Men came and went, banging through the room in their heavy boots, yet their presence scarcely registered in his consciousness. Amy and Greer—where could they have gone? And why the two of them together? How could she have broken him out, and how had they made it past the sentries at the portal? He scoured his memory for anything either of them had done or said to indicate they were planning such an escape. The only thing he could come up with was the strange serenity that had radiated from the major—as if the walls that caged him were inconsequential, their substance illusory. How could that be so?
    It was a mystery, like everything else about the last thirty days. The whole thing left the impression of figures drifting just beyond the barriers of a heavy fog, there and not there.
    As the empty hours wore on, Peter’s thoughts were borne back to his evening among the sisters: his time with Caleb, the boy’s youthful energy and cleverness; the joy in Amy’s face as she turned from the oven to see him standing there; the quiet moment they’d shared as he made his departure, their hands touching in space. The gesture had felt entirely natural, an involuntary reflex without hesitation or resistance; it seemed to have risen from both a deep well inside him and someplace far away, like the forces that propelled the waves he loved to look at, curling onto the beach. Of all the events of the last few days, their moment in the doorway stood most vividly in his recollection, and he closed his eyes, replaying it in his mind. The warmth of her cheek against his chest, and the bright force of her embrace; the way Amy had looked at their joined hands. Do you remember when I kissed you? He was still hearing these words in his mind as he fell asleep.
    He awoke in darkness; his mouth tasted of dryness and dust. He was surprised he’d slept so long; he was surprised he’d slept at all. He was reaching to lift his canteen from the floor when he noticed a figure sitting on the adjacent bunk.
    “Colonel?”
    Apgar was facing him, his feet resting on the floor, hands braced on his knees. He took a long breath before speaking. Peter understood that the man’s presence was what had awakened him.
    “Listen, Jaxon, I didn’t feel right about what happened in there today. So what I’m about to tell you is just between us, is that understood?”
    Peter nodded.
    “The woman you described was seen once before, years ago. I didn’t see her myself, but others did. You know about the Massacre of the Field?”
    Peter frowned. “You were there?”
    “I was just a kid, sixteen. It’s not something I talk about. None of us do. I lost my parents and my little sister. My mother and father were killed outright, but I never knew what happened to her. I suppose she was taken up. To this day, I still have nightmares about it. She was four years old.”
    Apgar had never told Peter anything so personal; he’d never told him anything personal at all. “I’m sorry, Colonel.”
    The pain of this memory, and the effort that went into telling it: these were plainly written on the man’s face. “Well, it was a long time ago. Condolences noted, but that’s not why I’m here, and I’m sticking my neck out telling you any of this. If Fleet found out, he’d have my commission. Or send me to the stockade.”
    “You have my word, sir.”
    Apgar paused, then began again: “Twenty-eight souls were lost that day. Of those, sixteen, like my sister, were never accounted for. Everybody knows about the eclipse. What they don’t know is that the virals were hiding in the hardboxes, like they knew about it in advance. Just before the attack began, a young DS officer in the tower reported seeing a large truck like the one you described waiting just beyond the tree line. You see where I’m going with this?”
    “You’re saying it was the same people.”
    Apgar nodded. “Two men saw the woman. The first was the DS officer I mentioned. The other was a field hand, the foreman of the North Ag complex. His wife and daughters were among those lost that day. His name was Curtis Vorhees.”
    Another surprise. “General Vorhees?”
    “I expected you would find this interesting, especially given his friendship with Greer. Vorhees signed on right after the massacre. Half the leadership of the Second Exped came from that day. Nate Crukshank was the other DS in the tower. I’m sure you recognize the name. Did you know he was Vorhees’s brother-in-law?”
    Crukshank had been the commanding officer at Roswell. The sudden alignment of players felt like pieces snapping together. Peter recalled his days with Greer and Vorhees at the Colorado garrison—the two men’s warm, easy friendship, and the stack of charcoal sketches Greer had shown him after the general had been killed. Vorhees had drawn the same image again and again, a woman and two little girls.
    “What about the first DS? Who was he?”
    “Well, that’s a name everybody knows. Tifty Lamont.”
    This made no sense. “Tifty Lamont was DS?”
    “Oh, Tifty was more than that. I owe that man my life many times over, and I’m not alone. After the massacre, he signed on with the Exped too, a scout sniper, maybe the best there ever was. Made captain before he busted out. Vorhees, Crukshank, and Tifty went way back. I don’t know the story, but there was one.”
    Tifty Lamont as Expeditionary, an officer even. From everything Peter had heard about the man, this fact seemed completely incongruous. “So what happened to him?”
    “Tifty?”
    “The man’s an outlaw.”
    A new look came into Apgar’s face. “I don’t know, Lieutenant. You’d have to ask him. That is, if you could find him. If, say, you knew somebody who knew somebody.”
    A silence caught and held. Apgar was looking at him expectantly. Then:
    “How many people did you say were in this colony of yours in California?”
    “Ninety-two.”
    “Ninety-two souls, gone without a trace. Pretty puzzling, if you ask me. Doesn’t exactly fit the typical MO of a viral attack. Put the sixty-seven at Roswell into the mix and you’ve got close to two hundred people pretty much vanished into thin air. And now Amy takes off, just when this woman reappears and effectively severs our oil supply. I could see why the brass would be concerned. Even more so when you consider the fact that the only other living soul who’s seen this woman is … what was the term you used?”
    “An outlaw.”
    “Exactly. Persona non grata. A politically touchy situation, to say the least. On the one hand, you have the military, who want nothing to do with the man. On the other, you have the Civilian Authority, which can’t, at least not officially. Are you with me here, Lieutenant?”
    “I’m not much for politics, sir.”
    “That makes two of us. Bunch of people covering their asses. Which is why we find ourselves where we are. Just the sort of circumstances that would benefit from a third party. Somebody with a history of, let’s say, personal initiative, who can think around the corners. I’m not alone in this opinion, either. Certain confidential discussions have been had in high places. Civilian, not military. Apparently, being your CO makes me an expert on your character. Yours and Donadio’s.”
    Peter frowned. “What does Alicia have to do with this?”
    “That I don’t know. But I can tell you two things, and the math is up to you. The first is that nobody’s heard from Fort Kearney in three months. The second is that Donadio had two sets of orders. I was only privy to the first, which came from Division and were just as I told you. The second came in a sealed pouch from Sanchez’s office, eyes only.”
    “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t they want you to know what her orders were?”
    “An excellent question. Just who knows what seems to be the crux of the matter. There seems to be a certain interest in questions of confidentiality, and it doesn’t only apply to you. So Fleet wants you out of the picture, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But just between us, Fleet and Sanchez haven’t always seen eye to eye, and the chain of command isn’t as clear as you might think. The Declaration leaves a lot of room open to interpretation, and things can get pretty murky. This business of the woman on the Oil Road isn’t a matter of, shall we say, general consensus among military and civilian authorities. Nor is Martínez, who, as you succinctly put it, wasn’t where he was supposed to be, just when Amy somehow breaks Greer out of the stockade and takes off. All very interesting.”
    “So you think Martínez is part of this.”
    Apgar shrugged. “I’m just the messenger. But Fleet has never been what you might call a true believer. As far as he’s concerned, Amy is a distraction and the Twelve are a myth. Donadio he can’t argue with—she’s obviously different—but in his book, that doesn’t prove a thing. He tolerated the hunt only because Sanchez made such a fuss it wasn’t worth the fight, and what happened in Carlsbad is his opportunity to finally shut it down. There are those who believe different.”
    Peter took a moment to digest this. “So, Sanchez is going behind Fleet’s back.”
    Apgar frowned ironically. “I wasn’t aware I’d said anything of the kind. Talk like that would be above my rank. Be that as it may, I would consider it a personal favor if you could assist me in locating the appropriately resourceful individual to connect a few dots here. Know anybody who fits the bill, Lieutenant?”
    The message was clear. “I think I do, Colonel.”
    “Excellent.” Apgar paused before continuing: “Funny thing about that transport. The damnedest coincidence, actually. It seems the paperwork has been misplaced. You know how these things are. Should take about forty-eight hours to sort out, seventy-two at the outside.”
    “That’s good to know, sir.”
    “I thought you might share that opinion.” The colonel slapped his knees. “Well, it seems I’m needed elsewhere. I’ve been assigned to a presidential task force to deal with this … unfortunate development. Don’t know how much I can contribute, but I go where I’m told.” He rose from the bunk. “Glad you got your rest, Lieutenant. Busy days ahead.”
    “Thank you, Colonel.”
    “Don’t mention it. And I do mean that literally.” He looked at Peter again. “Just be careful with him, Jaxon. Lamont is nobody you want to cross.”
    They rode through the night and into another. They were east of Luling now. They had no map but didn’t need one; Interstate 10 would lead them straight to Houston, into its jungled heart. Greer had been there once before—just the outskirts, but they’d told him enough. The city was an impenetrable swamp, a miasma of tree-tangled muck and sodden ruins, crawling with dopeys. If they didn’t get you, the alligators would. They cruised the befouled waters like half-submerged boats, many having grown to gargantuan dimensions, their powerful jaws endlessly searching. Huge clouds of mosquitoes blanketed the air. Your nose, your mouth, your eyes: always they were looking for the body’s door, seeking out the soft spots. Houston, what remained, was not a place for humankind; Greer wondered why anyone had ever thought it habitable to begin with.
    They would face that soon enough. Now they found themselves in a prairie land of tall grasses and thickets, reclining mile by mile toward the sea. This far to the east, the highway hadn’t been cleared. It seemed more suggestion than structure, its surface cracked and subsumed under washes of heavy clay soil. Graveyards of ancient cars frequently blocked the way. Few words had passed between the two of them since their departure: conversation was simply not necessary. Across the days, Greer had sensed a change in Amy, an aura of physical distraction. She was perspiring heavily; at times he caught her wincing, as if in pain. But when he expressed his concern, the girl peremptorily dismissed it. I’m fine, she insisted. It’s nothing. Her tone was almost angry; she was telling him not to press.
    As darkness fell, they made their camp in a clearing within sight of a ruined motel. The sky was clear, the temperature falling, calling forth dew from the air. Greer knew they were safe for the night; in Amy’s presence he was in a zone of protection. They unrolled their bedrolls and slept.
    He awakened later with a start; something was wrong. He rolled to the side and saw that Amy’s bedroll was empty.
    He did not allow himself to panic. A gibbous moon had risen as they’d slept, slicing the darkness into spaces of light and shadow, a landscape of menacingly elongated forms and pockets of blackness. The horses were obliviously chewing on a stand of weeds. Greer removed the Browning from his pack and moved cautiously into the gloom. He willed his eyes to parse shape from shape. Where had she gone? Should he call out to her? But the silence of the scene and its hidden dangers forbade it.
    Then he saw her. She was standing just a few yards from their encampment, facing away. The rhythms of conversation touched his ears. Was she speaking to someone? It seemed so, and yet there was no one.
    He approached her from behind. “Amy?”
    No reply. She had given up her murmuring; her body was absolutely still.
    “Amy, what is it?”
    She turned then to face him with a look of mild surprise. “Oh. I see.”
    “Who were you talking to?”
    She gave no answer. She seemed to be only partially present. Was she sleepwalking?
    Then: “I suppose we should go back.”
    “Don’t scare me like that.”
    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She flicked her eyes downward at the gun. “What are you doing with that?”
    “I didn’t know where you’d gone. I was worried.”
    “I thought I made myself clear, Major. Put it away now.”
    She walked past him, headed back to camp.

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