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The Passage

Wolgast had been to the Compound only once, the previous summer,
to meet with Colonel Sykes. Not a job interview, exactly; it had
been made clear to Wolgast that the assignment was his if he wanted
it. A pair of soldiers drove him in a van with blacked out windows,
but Wolgast could tell they were taking him west from Denver, into
the mountains. The drive took six hours, and by the time they
pulled into the Compound, he’d actually managed to fall
asleep. He stepped from the van into the bright sunshine of a
summer afternoon. He stretched and looked around. From the
topography, he’d have guessed he was somewhere around
Telluride. It could have been further north. The air felt thin and
clean in his lungs; he felt the dull throb of a high-altitude
headache at the top of his skull.

He was met in the parking lot by a civilian, a compact man
dressed in jeans and a khaki shirt rolled at the sleeves, a pair of
old-fashioned aviators perched on his wide, faintly bulbous nose.
This was Richards.

“Hope the ride wasn’t too bad,” Richards said
as they shook hands. Up close Wolgast saw that Richards’
cheeks were pockmarked with old acne scars. “We’re
pretty high up here. If you’re not used to it, you’ll
want to take it easy.”

Richards escorted Wolgast across the parking area to a building he
called the Chalet, which was exactly what it sounded like: a large
Tudor structure, three stories tall, with the exposed timbers of an
old-fashioned sportsman’s lodge. The mountains had once been
full of these places, Wolgast knew, hulking relics from an era
before time-share condos and modern resorts. The building faced an
open lawn, and beyond, at a hundred yards or so, a cluster of more
workaday structures: cinderblock barracks, a half-dozen military
inflatables, a low-slung building that resembled a roadside motel.
Military vehicles, Humvees and smaller jeeps and five ton trucks,
were moving up and down the drive; in the center of the lawn, a
group of men with broad chests and trim haircuts, naked to the
waist, were sunning themselves on lawn chairs.

Stepping into the Chalet, Wolgast had the disorienting sensation
of peeking behind a movie set; the place had been gutted to the
studs, its original architecture replaced by the neutral textures
of a modern office building: gray carpeting, institutional
lighting, acoustic tile drop ceilings. He might have been in a
dentist’s office, or the high-rise off the freeway where he
met his accountant once a year to do his taxes. They stopped at the
front desk, where Richards asked him to turn over his handheld and
his weapon, which he passed to the guard, a kid in cammos, who
tagged them. There was an elevator, but Richards walked past it and
led Wolgast down a narrow hallway to a heavy metal door that opened
on a flight of stairs. They ascended to the second floor, and made
their way down another non-descript hallway to Sykes’

Sykes rose from behind his desk as they entered: a tall,
well-built man in uniform, his chest spangled with the various bars
and little bits of color that Wolgast had never understood. His
office was neat as a pin, its arrangement of objects, right down to
the framed photos on his desk, giving the impression of having been
placed for maximum efficiency. Resting in the center of the desk
was a single manila folder, fat with folded paper. Wolgast knew it
was almost certainly his personnel file, or some version of it.

They shook hands and Sykes offered him coffee, which Wolgast
accepted. He wasn’t drowsy but the caffeine, he knew, would
help the headache.

“Sorry about the bullshit with the van,” Sykes said,
and waved him to a chair. “That’s just how we do

A soldier brought in the coffee, a plastic carafe and two china
cups on a tray. Richards remained standing behind Sykes’
desk, his back to the broad windows that looked out on the
woodlands that ringed the Compound. Sykes explained what he wanted
Wolgast to do. It was all quite straight forward, he said, and by
now Wolgast knew the basics. The Army needed between ten and twenty
death-row inmates to serve in the third-stage trials of an
experimental drug therapy, codenamed Project Noah. In exchange for
their consent, these men would have their sentences commuted to
life without parole. It would be Wolgast’s job to obtain the
signatures of these men, nothing more. Everything had been legally
vetted, but because the project was a matter of national security,
all of these men would be declared legally dead. Thereafter, they
would spend the rest of their lives in the care of the federal
penal system, a white-collar prison camp, under assumed identities.
The men would be chosen based upon a number of factors, but all
would be men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five with no
living first-degree relatives. Wolgast would report directly to
Sykes; he’d have no other contact, though he’d remain,
technically, in the employment of the Bureau.

“Do I have to pick them?” Wolgast asked.

Sykes shook his head. “That’s our job. You’ll get
your orders from me. All you have to do is get their consent. Once
they’re signed on, the Army will take it from there.
They’ll be moved to the nearest federal lock-up, then
we’ll transport them here.”

Wolgast thought a moment. “Colonel, I have to

“What we’re doing?” He seemed, at that moment, to
permit himself an almost human-looking smile.

Wolgast nodded. “I understand I can’t be very specific.
But I’m going to be asking them to sign over their whole
lives. I have to tell them something.”

Sykes exchanged a look with Richards, who shrugged.
“I’ll leave you now,” Richards said, and nodded
at Wolgast. “Agent.”

When Richards had left, Sykes leaned back in his chair.
“I’m not a biochemist, agent. You’ll have to be
satisfied with the layman’s version. Here’s the
background, at least the part I can tell you. About ten years ago,
the CDC got a call from a doctor in La Paz. He had four patients,
all Americans, who had come down with what looked like Hantavirus
– high fever, vomiting, muscle pain, headache, hypoxemia. The
four of them had been part of an eco-tour, deep in the jungle. They
claimed that they were part of a group of fourteen but had gotten
separated from the others and had been wandering in the jungle for
weeks. It was sheer luck that they’d stumbled onto a remote
trading post run by a bunch of Franciscan friars, who arranged
their transport to La Paz. Now, Hanta isn’t the common cold,
but it’s not exactly rare, either, so none of this would have
been more than a blip on the CDC’s radar if not for one
thing. All of them were terminal cancer patients. The tour was
organized by an organization called ‘Last Wish.’
You’ve heard of them?”

Wolgast nodded. “I thought they just took people skydiving,
things like that.”

“That’s what I thought, too. But apparently not. Of the
four, one had an inoperable brain tumor, two had acute lymphocytic
leukemia, and the fourth had ovarian cancer. And every single one
of them became well. Not just the Hanta, or whatever it was. No
cancer. Not a trace.”

Wolgast felt lost. “I don’t get it.”

Sykes sipped his coffee. “Well, neither did anyone at the
CDC. But something had happened, some interaction between their
immune systems and something, most likely viral, that they’d
been exposed to in the jungle. Something they ate? The water they
drank? No one could figure it out. They couldn’t even say
exactly where they’d been.” He leaned forward over his
desk. “Do you know what the thymus gland is?”

Wolgast shook his head.

Sykes pointed at his chest, just above the breastbone.
“Little thing in here, between the sternum and the trachea,
about the size of an acorn. In most people, it’s atrophied
completely by puberty, and you could go your whole life not knowing
you had one, unless it was diseased. Nobody really knows what it
does, or at least they didn’t, until they ran scans on these
four patients. The thymus had somehow turned itself back on. More
than back on: it had enlarged to three times its usual size. It
looked like a malignancy but it wasn’t. And their immune
systems had gone into overdrive. A hugely accelerated rate of
cellular regeneration. And there were other benefits. Remember
these were cancer patients, all over fifty. It was like they were
teenagers again. Smell, hearing, vision, skin tone, lung volume,
physical strength and endurance, even sexual function. One of the
men actually grew back a full head of hair.”

“A virus did this?’

Sykes nodded. “Like I said, this is the layman’s
version. But I’ve got people downstairs who think
that’s exactly what happened. Some of them have degrees in
subjects I can’t even spell. They talk to me like I’m a
child, and they’re not wrong.”

“What happened to them? The four patients.”

Sykes leaned back in his chair, his face darkening a little.

Excerpted from THE PASSAGE © Copyright 2011 by Justin
Cronin. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights

The Passage
by by Justin Cronin

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345504968
  • ISBN-13: 9780345504968