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Code to Zero


The Jupiter C missile stands on the launch pad at Complex 26, Cape
Canaveral. For secrecy, it is draped in vast canvas shrouds that
hide everything but its tail, which is that of the Army's familiar
Redstone rocket. But the rest of it, under the concealing cloak, is
quite unique.

He woke up scared.

Worse than that: he was terrified. His heart was pounding, his
breath came in gasps, and his body was taut. It was like a
nightmare, except that waking brought no sense of relief. He felt
that something dreadful had happened, but he did not know what it

He opened his eyes. A faint light from another room dimly
illuminated his surroundings, and he made out vague shapes,
familiar but sinister. Somewhere nearby, water ran in a

He tried to make himself calm. He swallowed, took regular breaths,
and attempted to think straight. He was lying on a hard floor. He
was cold, he hurt everywhere, and he had some kind of hangover,
with a headache and a dry mouth and a feeling of nausea.

He sat upright, shaking with fear. There was an unpleasant smell of
damp floors washed with strong disinfectant. He recognized the
outline of a row of washbasins.

He was in a public toilet.

He felt disgusted. He had been sleeping on the floor of a men's
room. What the hell had happened to him? He concentrated. He was
fully dressed, wearing some kind of topcoat and heavy boots, though
he had a feeling that these were not his clothes. His panic was
subsiding, but in its place came a deeper fear, less hysterical but
more rational. What had happened to him was very bad.

He needed light.

He got to his feet. He looked around, peering into the gloom, and
guessed where the door might be. Holding his arms out in front of
him in case of invisible obstacles, he made his way to a wall. Then
he walked crabwise, his hands exploring. He found a cold glassy
surface he guessed was a mirror, then there was a towel roller,
then a metal box that might be a slot machine. At last his
fingertips touched a switch, and he turned it on.

Bright light flooded white-tiled walls, a concrete floor, and a
line of toilets with open doors. In a corner was what looked like a
bundle of old clothes. He asked himself how he got here. He
concentrated hard. What had happened last night? He could not

The hysterical fear began to return as he realized he could not
remember anything at all.

He clenched his teeth to stop himself crying out. Yesterday ... the
day before ... nothing. What was his name? He did not know.

He turned toward the row of basins, Above them was a long mirror.
In the glass he saw a filthy hobo, dressed in rags, with matted
hair, a dirty face, and a crazy, pop-eyed stare. He looked at the
hobo for a second, then he was hit by a terrible revelation. He
started back, with a cry of shock, and the man in the mirror did
the same. The hobo was himself.

He could no longer hold back the tide of panic. He opened his mouth
and, in a voice that shook with terror, he shouted, "Who am

* * *

The bundle of old clothes moved. It rolled over, a face appeared,
and a voice mumbled, "You're a bum, Luke, pipe down."

His name was Luke.

He was pathetically grateful for the knowledge. A name was not
much, but it gave him a focus. He stared at his companion. The man
wore a ripped tweed coat with a length of string around the waist
for a belt. The grimy young face had a crafty look. The man rubbed
his eyes and muttered, "My head hurts."

Luke said, "Who are you?"

"I'm Pete, you retard, can't you see?"

"I can't-" Luke swallowed, holding down the panic. "I've lost my

"I ain't surprised. You drank most of a bottle of liquor yesterday.
It's a miracle you didn't lose your entire mind." He licked his
lips. "I didn't get hardly any of that goddamn bourbon."

Bourbon would explain the hangover, Luke thought. "But why would I
drink a whole bottle?"

Pete laughed mockingly. "That's about the dumbest question I ever
heard. To get drunk, of course!"

Luke was appalled. He was a drunken bum who slept in public

He had a raging thirst. He bent over a washbasin, ran the cold
water, and drank from the tap. It made him feel better. He wiped
his mouth, then forced himself to look in the mirror again.

The face was calmer now. The mad stare had gone, replaced by a look
of bewilderment and dismay. The reflection showed a man in his late
thirties, with dark hair and blue eyes. He had no beard or
moustache, just a heavy growth of dark stubble.

He turned back to his companion. "Luke what?" he said. "What's my
last name?"

"Luke ... something, how the hell am I supposed to know?"

"How did I get this way? How long has it been going on? Why did it

Pete got to his feet. "I need some breakfast," he said.

Luke realized he was hungry. He wondered if he had any money. He
searched the pockets of his clothes: the raincoat, the jacket, the
pants. All were empty. He had no money, no wallet, not even a
handkerchief. No assets, no clues. "I think I'm broke," he

"No kidding," Pete said sarcastically. "Come on." He stumbled
through a doorway.

Luke followed.

When he emerged into the light, he suffered another shock. He was
in a huge temple, empty and eerily silent. Mahogany benches stood
in rows on the marble floor, like church pews waiting for a ghostly
congregation. Around the vast room, on a high stone lintel atop
rows of pillars, surreal stone warriors with helmets and shields
stood guard over the holy place. Far above their heads was a
vaulted ceiling richly decorated with gilded octagons. The insane
thought crossed Luke's mind that he had been the sacrificial victim
in a weird rite that had left him with no memory.

Awestruck, he said, "What is this place?"

"Union Station, Washington, D.C.," said Pete.

A relay closed in Luke's mind, and the whole thing made sense. With
relief he saw the grime on the walls, the chewing-gum trodden into
the marble floor, and the candy wrappers and cigarette packs in the
corners, and he felt foolish. He was in a grandiose train station,
early in the morning before it filled up with passengers. He had
scared himself, like a child imagining monsters in a darkened

Pete headed for a triumphal arch marked Exit, and Luke hurried
after him.

An aggressive voice called, "Hey! Hey, you!"

Pete said, "Oh-oh." He quickened his step.

A stout man in a tight-fitting railroad uniform bore down on them,
full of righteous indignation. "Where did you bums spring

Pete whined, "We're leaving, we're leaving."

Luke was humiliated, to be chased out of a train station by a fat

The man was not content just to get rid of them. "You been sleeping
here, ain't you?" he protested, following hard on their heels. "You
know that ain't allowed."

It angered Luke to be lectured like a schoolboy, even though he
guessed he deserved it. He had slept in the damn toilet. He
suppressed a retort and walked faster.

"This ain't a flophouse," the man went on. "Damn bums, now scram!"
He shoved Luke's shoulder.

Luke turned suddenly and confronted the man. "Don't touch me," he
said. He was surprised by the quiet menace in his own voice. The
official stopped short. "We're leaving, so you don't need to do or
say anything more, is that clear?"

The man took a big step backward, looking scared.

Pete took Luke's arm. "Let's go."

Luke felt ashamed. The guy was an officious twerp, but Luke and
Pete were vagrants, and a railroad employee had the right to throw
them out. Luke had no business to intimidate him.

They passed through the majestic archway. It was dark outside. A
few cars were parked around the traffic circle in front of the
station, but the streets were quiet. The air was bitterly cold, and
Luke drew his ragged clothes closer about him. It was winter, a
frosty morning in Washington, maybe January or February.

He wondered what year it was.

Pete turned left, apparently sure where he was going. Luke
followed. "Where are we headed?" he asked.

"I know a gospel shop on H Street where we can get free breakfast,
so long as you don't mind singing a hymn or two."

"I'm starving, I'll sing a whole oratorio."

Pete confidently followed a zigzag route through a low-rent
neighbourhood. The city was not yet awake. The houses were dark and
the stores shuttered, the greasy spoons and the newsstands not yet
open. Glancing at a bedroom window hung with cheap curtains, Luke
imagined a man inside, fast asleep under a pile of blankets, his
wife warm beside him; and he felt a pang of envy. It seemed that he
belonged out here, in the predawn community of men and women who
ventured into the cold streets while ordinary people slept on: the
man in work clothes shuffling to an early-morning job; the young
bicycle rider muffled in scarf and gloves; the solitary woman
smoking in the brightly lit interior of a bus.

His mind seethed with anxious questions. How long had he been a
drunk? Had he ever tried to dry out? Did he have any family who
might help him? Where had he met Pete? Where did they get the
booze? Where did they drink it? But Pete's manner was taciturn, and
Luke controlled his impatience, hoping Pete might be more
forthcoming when he had some food inside him.

They came to a small church standing defiantly between a cinema and
a smoke shop. They entered by a side door and went down a flight of
stairs to the basement. Luke found himself in a long room with a
low ceiling-the crypt, he guessed. At one end he saw an upright
piano and a small pulpit; at the other, a kitchen range. In between
were three rows of trestle tables with benches. Three bums sat
there, one at each table, staring patiently into space. At the
kitchen end, a dumpy woman stirred a big pot. Beside her, a
gray-bearded man wearing a clerical collar looked up from a coffee
urn and smiled. "Come in, come in!" he said cheerfully. "Come into
the warm." Luke regarded him warily, wondering if he was for

It was warm, stiflingly so after the wintry air outside. Luke
unbuttoned his grubby trenchcoat. Pete said, "Morning, Pastor

The pastor said, "Have you been here before? I've forgotten your

"I'm Pete, he's Luke."

"Two disciples!" His bonhomie seemed genuine. "You're a little
early for breakfast, but there's fresh coffee."

Luke wondered how Lonegan maintained his cheery disposition when he
had to get up this early to serve breakfast to a room full of
catatonic deadbeats.

The pastor poured coffee into thick mugs. "Milk and sugar?"

Luke did not know whether he liked milk and sugar in his coffee.
"Yes, thank you," he said, guessing. He accepted the mug and sipped
the coffee. It tasted sickeningly creamy and sweet. He guessed he
normally took it black. But it assuaged his hunger, and he drank it
all quickly.

"We'll have a word of prayer in a few minutes," said the pastor.
"By the time we're done, Mrs. Lonegan's famous oatmeal should be
cooked to perfection."

Luke decided his suspicion had been unworthy. Pastor Lonegan was
what he seemed, a cheerful guy who liked to help people.

Luke and Pete sat at the rough plank table, and Luke studied his
companion. Until now, he had noticed only the dirty face and ragged
clothes. Now he saw that Pete had none of the marks of a long-term
drunk: no broken veins, no dry skin flaking off the face, no cuts
or bruises. Perhaps he was too young-only about twenty-five, Luke
guessed. But Pete was slightly disfigured. He had a dark red
birthmark that ran from his right ear to his jawline. His teeth
were uneven and discolored. The dark moustache had probably been
grown to distract attention from his bad teeth, back in the days
when he cared about his appearance. Luke sensed suppressed anger in
him. He guessed that Pete resented the world, maybe for making him
ugly, maybe for some other reason. He probably had a theory that
the country was being ruined by some group he hated: Chinese
immigrants, or uppity Negroes, or a shadowy club of ten rich men
who secretly controlled the stock market.

"What are you staring at?" Pete said.

Luke shrugged and did not reply. On the table was a newspaper
folded open at the crossword, and a stub of pencil. Luke glanced
idly at the grid, picked up the pencil, and started to fill in the

More bums drifted in. Mrs. Lonegan put out a stack of heavy bowls
and a pile of spoons. Luke got all the crossword clues but
one-"Small place in Denmark," six letters. Pastor Lonegan looked
over his shoulder at the filled-out grid, raised his eyebrows in
surprise, and said quietly to his wife, "O! what a noble mind is
here o'erthrown."

Luke immediately got the last clue-Hamlet-and wrote it in. Then he
thought, How did I know that?

He unfolded the paper and looked at the front page for the date. It
was Wednesday 29 January 1958. His eye was caught by the headline

Cape Canaveral. Tuesday: The U.S. Navy today abandoned a second
attempt to launch its space rocket, Vanguard, after multiple
technical problems. The decision comes two months after the first
Vanguard launch ended in humiliating disaster when the rocket
exploded two seconds after ignition. American hopes of launching a
space satellite to rival the Soviet Sputnik now rest with the
Army's rival Jupiter missile.

The piano sounded a strident chord and Luke looked up. Mrs. Lonegan
was playing the introductory notes of a familiar hymn. She and her
husband began to sing "What a Friend we have in Jesus," and Luke
joined in, pleased he could remember it.

Bourbon had a strange effect, he thought. He could do the crossword
and sing a hymn from memory, but he did not know his mother's name.
Perhaps he had been drinking for years and had damaged his brain.
He wondered how he could have let such a thing happen.

After the hymn, Pastor Lonegan read some Bible verses, then told
them all that they could be saved. Here was a group that really
needed saving, Luke thought. All the same, he was not tempted to
put his faith in Jesus. First he needed to find out who he

The pastor extemporized a prayer, they sang grace, then the men
lined up and Mrs. Lonegan served them hot oatmeal with syrup. Luke
ate three bowls. Afterwards, he felt much better. His hangover was
receding fast.

Impatient to resume his questions, he approached the pastor. "Sir,
have you seen me here before? I've lost my memory."

Lonegan looked hard at him. "You know, I don't believe I have. But
I meet hundreds of people every week, and I could be mistaken. How
old are you?"

"I don't know," Luke said, feeling foolish.

"Late thirties, I'd say. You haven't been living rough very long.
It takes its toll on a man. But you walk with a spring in your
step, your skin is clear under the dirt, and you're still alert
enough to do a crossword puzzle. Quit drinking now, and you could
lead a normal life again."

Luke wondered how many times the pastor had said that. "I'm going
to try," he promised. "If you need help, just ask." A young man who
appeared to be mentally handicapped was persistently patting
Lonegan's arm, and he turned to him with a patient smile.

Luke spoke to Pete. "How long have you known me?"

"I don't know, you been around a while."

"Where did we spend the night before last?"

"Relax, will you? Your memory will come back sooner or

"I have to find out where I'm from."

Pete hesitated. "What we need is a beer," he said. "Help us think
straight." He turned for the door.

Luke grabbed his arm. "I don't want a beer," he said decisively.
Pete did not want him to dig into his past, it seemed. Perhaps he
was afraid of losing a companion. Well, that was too bad. Luke had
more important things to do than keep Pete company. "In fact," he
said, "I think I'd like to be alone for a while."

"What are you, Greta Garbo?"

"I'm serious."

"You need me to look out for you. You can't make it on your own.
Hell, you can't even remember how old you are."

Pete had a desperate look in his eyes, but Luke was unmoved. "I
appreciate your concern, but you're not helping me find out who I

After a moment Pete shrugged. "You got a right." He turned to the
door again. "See you around, maybe."


Pete went out. Luke shook Pastor Lonegan's hand. "Thank you for
everything," he said. "I hope you find what you're looking for,"
said the pastor.

Luke went up the stairs and out into the street. Pete was on the
next block, speaking to a man in a green gaberdine raincoat with a
matching cap-begging the price of a beer, Luke guessed. He walked
in the opposite direction and turned around the first corner.

It was still dark. Luke's feet were cold, and he realized he was
not wearing socks under his boots. As he hurried on, a light flurry
of snow fell. After a few minutes, he eased his pace. He had no
reason to rush. It made no difference whether he walked fast or
slow. He stopped and took shelter in a doorway.

He had nowhere to go.

Excerpted from CODE TO ZERO © Copyright 2000 by Ken Follett.
Used by permission of Signet Book, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
All rights reserved.

Code to Zero
by by Ken Follett

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Signet
  • ISBN-10: 0451204530
  • ISBN-13: 9780451204530