Fear Page 2

“It’s weakening,” Abana said.

“Maybe.”

The three of them, Connie, Abana, and George (the parents of Sam, Dahra, and E.Z.) left the trailer. The California National Guard’s grandly named Camp Camino Real stood on the landward side of the highway, in a vacant stretch of land just a quarter mile from the southern boundary of the Bowl. It was an array of two dozen trailers and sheds laid out with military precision. More permanent buildings—a barracks, a motor pool, a maintenance building—were under construction.

When Camp Camino Real had first gone up it was all alone on the lovely, windswept heights above the beach. But since then the Courtyard by Marriott had been completed, as had the Carl’s Jr. The Del Taco had just sold its first burrito a few days ago, and the Holiday Inn Express had opened one wing while construction continued on the rest.

There were only two media satellite trucks left, parked by the side of the highway. But they rarely got any on-air time anymore: the country and the world had largely lost interest, although about two thousand tourists a day still made the trip up the highway to the viewing area, parking all along the highway for a mile or more.

A handful of souvenir vendors still made a living from canvas-awninged stalls.

George climbed into his car and drove off without a word. Connie and Abana lived here now, sharing a Winnebago with a privileged parking spot overlooking the Pacific. They had a nice gas barbecue donated by Home Depot, and every Friday evening she and Abana would have a cookout—burgers or ribs—with the media people and whatever Guardsmen or soldiers or highway patrolmen happened to be around and off duty.

The two women walked across the highway from Camp Camino Real and sat in lawn chairs turned toward the ocean. Connie made coffee and brought a cup to Abana.

“Do we hold a conference call on this?” Abana asked.

Connie sighed. “The families will want to know.”

The families. That was the term settled on by the media. At first they had referred to them as “the survivors.” But that had implied the others, the children, had died. Even at the start the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, had rejected that idea.

Out at sea a coast guard cutter rode on gentle waves, guarding the watery perimeter of the anomaly. A grief-crazed family member had driven a boatload of explosives into the side of the dome months earlier. The resulting explosion had had no effect on the Bowl, of course.

“I was just getting to the point…,” Connie began.

Abana waited and sipped her coffee.

“I was getting to the point where I was starting to think I needed to get back to something else. You know? Like maybe it was time to move on.”

Her friend nodded. “And now this. This weakening. This one-point-six-percent change.”

“And now, and now, and now,” Connie said wearily. “Hope is cruel.”

“Some guy, some physicist at Stanford, says if the barrier ever does come down it could be catastrophic.”

“He’s not the first to say that.”

“Yeah, well, maybe not. But he’s the first to have a Nobel Prize. He thinks the barrier is some form of protective coating over an antimatter sphere. He’s worried it could set off an explosion big enough to annihilate the western half of the United States.”

Connie made a dismissive snort. “Theory number eight thousand seven hundred and forty-two.”

“Yeah,” Abana agreed. But she looked worried.

“That’s not going to happen,” Connie said firmly. “Because what’s going to happen is that the barrier is going to come down. And my son Sam and your daughter, Dahra, are going to come walking down that road.”

Abana smiled. She finished their long-worn joke. “And walk right past us to get a burger at Carl’s.”

Connie reached for her hand. “That’s right. That’s what’s going to happen. It’ll be, ‘Hey, Mom, see you later: I’m going to go grab a burger.’”

They were quiet for a while. Both women closed their eyes and lifted their faces to the sun.

“If only there had been some warning,” Abana said.

She’d said it before: she regretted having argued with her daughter the morning before the event.

And as usual the response was on the tip of Connie’s tongue: I did have warning.

I had a warning.

But this time, as every time, Connie Temple said nothing.

ONE

65 HOURS, 11 MINUTES

SHE WORE A pair of jeans and a plaid flannel shirt over a black T-shirt several sizes too big.

A leather belt made two turns around her waist. It was a man’s belt, and a big man at that. But it was sturdy and bore the weight of the .38 revolver, the machete, and her water bottle.

Her backpack was dirty and the seams were all frayed, but it sat comfortably on her thin shoulders. In the pack she had three precious vacuum packs of dehydrated macaroni liberated from distant campsites. Just add water. She also had most of a cooked pigeon in a Tupperware container, a dozen wild green onions, a bottle of vitamins—she allowed herself one every three days—as well as pencil and paper, three books, a small bag of pot and a small pipe, needle and thread, two Bic lighters, and a spare water bottle. There was also a medicine pouch: a few Band-Aids, a mostly used tube of Neosporin and a dozen precious Tylenol, and infinitely more precious tampons.

Astrid Ellison had changed.

Her blond hair was short, hacked off crudely with a knife and without benefit of a mirror. Her face was deeply tanned. Her hands were calloused and scarred from the innumerable small cuts she’d gotten from prying open mussels. One fingernail had been torn completely off when she slipped down an abrupt hill and ended up saving herself only by clawing madly at rocks and shrubs.

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