Station Eleven (Page 22)
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen Star Trek: Voyager,” August said hopefully. “That episode with those lost Borg and Seven of Nine?”
“Remind me,” Kirsten said, and he brightened visibly. While he talked she allowed herself to imagine that she remembered it. A television in a living room, a ship moving through the night silence of space, her brother watching beside her, their parents—if she could only remember their faces—somewhere near.
The Symphony stopped to rest in the early afternoon. Would the prophet send men after them, or had they been allowed to leave? The conductor sent scouts back down the road. Kirsten climbed up to the driver’s bench of the third caravan. A dull buzz of insects from the forest, tired horses grazing at the side of the road. The wildflowers growing by the roadside were abstract from this vantage point, paint dots of pink and purple and blue in the grass.
Kirsten closed her eyes. A memory from early childhood, before the collapse: sitting with a friend on a lawn, a game where they closed their eyes and concentrated hard and tried to read one another’s minds. She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle. Charlie, where are you? She knew the effort was foolish. She opened her eyes. The road behind them was still empty. Olivia was picking flowers below.
“A little farther,” the conductor was saying, somewhere below, and the horses were being harnessed again, the caravans creaking into motion, the exhausted Symphony walking onward through the heat until hours later they set up camp by the roadside, the ones who remembered the lost world thinking longingly of air-conditioning even after all these years.
“It just came out of a vent?” Alexandra asked.
“I believe so,” Kirsten said. “I’m too tired to think.”
They’d walked for all but five of the eighteen hours since they’d left St. Deborah by the Water, through the night and morning and deep into the afternoon, trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the prophet. Some of them took turns trying to sleep in the moving caravans, others walking and walking until their thoughts burned out one by one like dying stars and they fell into a fugue state wherein all that mattered or had ever existed were these trees, this road, the counterpoint rhythms of human footsteps and horses’ hooves, moonlight turning to darkness and then the summer morning, caravans rippling like apparitions in the heat, and now the Symphony was scattered here and there by the roadside in a state of semi-collapse while they waited for dinner to be ready. Half the Symphony had set off in pairs to hunt rabbits. The cook fire sent a plume of white smoke like a marker into the sky.
“Air-conditioning came out of a vent,” August confirmed. “You’d press a button, and whoosh! Cold air. I had one in my bedroom.”
Kirsten and August were setting up tents, and Alexandra, whose tent had been set up already, was lying on her back staring up at the sky.
“Oh,” Alexandra said. “So it was electricity, or gas?”
August looked at the tuba, who was sitting nearby with his daughter half-asleep in his arms. Olivia had announced that she was too tired to wait for dinner, so he’d been telling her a bedtime story about a mermaid while Lin set up their tent.
“Electricity,” the tuba said. “Air conditioners were electric.” He craned his neck to see his daughter’s face. “Is she asleep?”
“I think so,” Kirsten said. This was when she heard the exclamation from the third caravan—“What the f**k,” someone said, “goddamnit, what is this?”—and she stood up in time to see the first cello haul a girl out of the caravan by the arm. Olivia sat up, blinking.
“A stowaway.” August was grinning. He’d been a stowaway himself once. “We haven’t had a stowaway in years.”
The stowaway was the girl who’d followed Kirsten in St. Deborah by the Water. She was crying and sweaty, her skirt soaked with urine. The first cello lifted her to the ground.
“She was under the costumes,” the first cello said. “I went in looking for my tent.”
“Get her some water,” Gil said.
The conductor swore under her breath and looked off down the road behind them while the Symphony gathered. The first flute gave the girl one of her water bottles.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said, “I’m so sorry, please don’t make me go back—”
“We can’t take children,” the conductor said. “This isn’t like running away and joining the circus.” The girl looked confused. She didn’t know what a circus was. “Incidentally,” the conductor said to the assembled company, “this is why we check the caravans before we depart.”
“We left St. Deborah in kind of a hurry,” someone muttered.
“I had to leave,” the girl said. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll do anything, just—”
“Why did you have to leave?”
“I’m promised to the prophet,” the girl said.
The girl was crying now. “I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “I was going to be his next wife.”
“Jesus,” Dieter said. “This g*****n world.” Olivia was standing by her father, rubbing her eyes. The tuba lifted her into his arms.
“He has more than one?” asked Alexandra, still blissfully ignorant.
“He has four,” the girl said, sniffling. “They live in the gas station.”
The conductor gave the girl a clean handkerchief from her pocket. “What’s your name?”
“How old are you, Eleanor?”
“Why would he marry a twelve-year-old?”
“He had a dream where God told him he was to repopulate the earth.”
“Of course he did,” the clarinet said. “Don’t they all have dreams like that?”
“Right, I always thought that was a prerequisite for being a prophet,” Sayid said. “Hell, if I were a prophet—”
“Your parents allowed this?” the conductor asked, simultaneously making a Shut up motion in the direction of the clarinet and Sayid.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Were you spying on me in St. Deborah?” Kirsten asked.
The girl shook her head.
“No one told you to watch us?”
“No,” she said.
“Did you know Charlie and the sixth guitar?”
Eleanor frowned. “Charlie and Jeremy?”
“Yes. Do you know where they went?”
“They went to the—to the Museum of Civilization.” Eleanor said museum very carefully, the way people sound out foreign words of whose pronunciation they’re uncertain.
August whistled softly. “They told you that’s where they were going?”
“Charlie said if I could ever get away, that’s where I could find them.”
“I thought the Museum of Civilization was a rumor,” August said.
“What is it?” Kirsten had never heard of it.
“I heard it was a museum someone set up in an airport.” Gil was unrolling his map, blinking shortsightedly. “I remember a trader telling me about it, years back.”
“We’re headed there anyway, aren’t we? It’s supposed to be outside Severn City.” The conductor was peering over his shoulder. She touched a point on the map, far to the south along the lakeshore.
“What do we know about it?” the tuba asked. “Do people still live there?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“It could be a trap,” the tuba murmured. “The girl could be leading us there.”
“I know,” the conductor said.
What to do with Eleanor? They knew they risked accusations of kidnapping and they had long adhered to a strict policy of non-intervention in the politics of the towns through which they passed, but no one could imagine delivering a child bride back to the prophet. Had a grave marker with her name on it already been driven into the earth? Would a grave be dug if she returned? Nothing for it but to take the girl and press on into the unknown south, farther down the eastern shore of Lake Michigan than they’d ever been.
They tried to engage Eleanor in conversation over dinner. She’d settled into a wary stillness, the watchfulness of orphans. She rode in the back of the first caravan, so that she’d be at least momentarily out of sight if anyone approached the Symphony from the rear. She was polite and unsmiling.
“What do you know about the Museum of Civilization?” they asked.
“Not very much,” she said. “I just heard people talk about it sometimes.”
“So Charlie and Jeremy had heard about it from traders?”
“Also the prophet’s from there,” she said.
“Does he have family there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell us about the prophet,” the conductor said.
He’d come to St. Deborah by the Water not long after the Symphony had left Charlie and Jeremy there, the head of a sect of religious wanderers. The sect had moved into the Walmart at first, a communal encampment in what had once been the Lawn and Garden Department. They told the townspeople they’d come in peace. A few people were uneasy about them, this new population with vague stories about travel in the south, in the territory once known as Virginia and beyond—rumors held that the south was exceptionally dangerous, bristling with guns, and what might they have done to survive down there?—but the new arrivals were friendly and self-sufficient. They shared their meat when they hunted. They helped with chores and seemed harmless. There were nineteen of them, and they mostly kept to themselves; some time passed before the townspeople realized that the tall man with blond hair who seemed to be their leader was known only as the prophet and had three wives. “I am a messenger,” he said, when introduced to people. No one knew his real name. He said he was guided by visions and signs. He said he had prophetic dreams. His followers said he was from a place called the Museum of Civilization, that he’d taken to the road in childhood to spread his message of light. They had a story about setting out in the early morning and then stopping for the day only a few hours later, because the prophet had seen three ravens flying low over the road ahead. No one else had seen the ravens, but the prophet was insistent. The next morning they came upon a collapsed bridge and a riverside funeral, women singing, voices rising over three white shrouds. Three men had died when the bridge fell into the river. “Don’t you see?” the prophet’s followers said. “If not for his vision that would have been us.”