12

“I think he’s dying!” Private Ames shouted. “I think the kid’s dying!”

Sergeant Groh knelt beside Ames and peered through the dirty slot at the bottom of the Dome. Ollie Dinsmore was lying on his side with his lips almost pressed against a surface they could now see, thanks to the filth still clinging to it. In his best drill sergeant’s voice, Groh yelled: “Yo! Ollie Dinsmore! Front and center!”

Slowly, the boy opened his eyes and looked at the two men crouched less than a foot away but in a colder, cleaner world. “What?” he whispered.

“Nothing, son,” Groh said. “Go back to sleep.”

Groh turned to Ames. “Unbunch your panties, Private. He’s fine.”

“He’s not. Just look at him!”

Groh took Ames by the arm and helped him—not unkindly—to his feet. “No,” he agreed in a low voice. “He’s not even slightly okay, but he’s alive and sleeping and right now that’s the best we can ask for. He’ll use up less oxygen that way. You go get yourself something to eat. Did you get any breakfast?”

Ames shook his head. The thought of breakfast hadn’t even crossed his mind. “I want to stay in case he comes back around.” He paused, then plunged. “I want to be here if he dies.”

“He’s not going to for awhile,” Groh said. He had no idea if this was true or not. “Get something out of the truck, even if it’s only a slice of bologna wrapped in a slice of bread. You look like shit, soldier.”

Ames jerked his head toward the boy sleeping on charred ground with his mouth and nose cocked to the Dome. His face was streaked with filth, and they could barely see the rise and fall of his chest. “How long do you think he’s got, Sarge?”

Groh shook his head. “Probably not long. Someone in the group on the other side already died this morning, and several of the others aren’t doing well. And it’s better over there. Cleaner. You have to prepare yourself.”

Ames felt close to tears. “Kid lost his whole family.”

“Go get yourself something to eat. I’ll watch until you come back.”

“But after that I can stay?”

“The kid wants you, Private, the kid gets you. You can stay until the end.”

Groh watched Ames double-time to the table near the helicopter, where some food was laid out. Out here, it was ten o’clock on a pretty late-fall morning. The sun was shining and melting off the last of a heavy frost. But only a few feet away there was a bubble-world of perpetual twilight, a world where the air was unbreathable and time had ceased to have any meaning. Groh remembered a pond in the local park where he’d grown up. Wilton, Connecticut, that had been. There had been golden carp in the pond, big old things. The kids used to feed them. Until one day when one of the groundskeepers had an accident with some fertilizer, that was. Goodbye fishies. All ten or a dozen of them, floating dead on the surface.

Looking at the dirty sleeping boy on the other side of the Dome, it was impossible not to think of those carp… only a boy was not a fish.

Ames came back, eating something he obviously didn’t want. Not much of a soldier, in Groh’s opinion, but a good kid with a good heart.

Private Ames sat down. Sergeant Groh sat with him. Around noon, they got a report from the north side of the Dome that another of the survivors over there had died. A little boy named Aidan Appleton. Another kid. Groh believed he might have met his mother the day before. He hoped he was wrong about that, but didn’t think he was.

“Who did it?” Ames asked him. “Who wound this shit up, Sarge? And why?”

Groh shook his head. “No idea.”

“It makes no sense!” Ames cried. Beyond them, Ollie stirred, lost his air, and moved his sleeping face once more to the scant breeze seeping through the barrier.

“Don’t wake him up,” Groh said, thinking: If he goes in his sleep, it’ll be better for all of us.

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