13

By two o’clock all of the exiles were coughing except—incredible but true—Sam Verdreaux, who seemed to be thriving in the bad air, and Little Walter Bushey, who did nothing but sleep and suck the occasional ration of milk or juice. Barbie sat against the Dome with his arm around Julia. Not far away, Thurston Marshall sat beside the covered corpse of little Aidan Appleton, who had died with terrifying suddenness. Thurse, now coughing steadily, was holding Alice on his lap. She had cried herself to sleep. Twenty feet further on, Rusty was huddled with his wife and girls, who had also cried themselves to sleep. Rusty had taken Audrey’s body to the ambulance so the girls wouldn’t have to look at it. He held his breath throughout; even fifteen yards inland from the Dome, the air became choking, deadly. Once he got his wind back, he supposed he should do the same with the little boy. Audrey would be good company for him; she’d always liked kids.

Joe McClatchey plopped down beside Barbie. Now he really did look like a scarecrow. His pale face was dotted with acne and there were circles of bruised-looking purple flesh under his eyes.

“My mom’s sleeping,” Joe said.

“Julia too,” Barbie said, “so keep your voice down.”

Julia opened one eye. “Nah sleepin,” she said, and promptly closed the eye again. She coughed, stilled, then coughed some more.

“Benny’s really sick,” Joe said. “He’s running a fever, like the little boy did before he died.” He hesitated. “My mom’s pretty warm, too. Maybe it’s only because it’s so hot in here, but… I don’t think that’s it. What if she dies? What if we all do?”

“We won’t,” Barbie said. “They’ll figure something out.”

Joe shook his head. “They won’t. And you know it. Because they’re outside. Nobody outside can help us.” He looked over the blackened wasteland where there had been a town the day before and laughed—a hoarse, croaking sound that was worse because there was actually some amusement in it. “Chester’s Mill has been a town since 1803—we learned that in school. Over two hundred years. And a week to wipe it off the face of the earth. One fuckin week is all it took. How about that, Colonel Barbara?”

Barbie couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Joe covered his mouth, coughed. Behind them, the fans roared and roared. “I’m a smart kid. You know that? I mean, I’m not bragging, but… I’m smart.”

Barbie thought of the video feed the kid had set up near the site of the missile strike. “No argument, Joe.”

“In a Spielberg movie, it’s the smart kid who’d come up with the last-minute solution, isn’t that right?”

Barbie felt Julia stir again. Both eyes were open now, and she was regarding Joe gravely.

Tears were trickling down the boy’s cheeks. “Some Spielberg kid I turned out to be. If we were in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs would eat us for sure.”

“If only they’d get tired,” Julia said dreamily.

“Huh?” Joe blinked at her.

“The leatherheads. The leatherhead children. Kids are supposed to get tired of their games and go on to something else. Or”—she coughed hard—“or their parents call them home for dinner.”

“Maybe they don’t eat,” Joe said gloomily. “Maybe they don’t have parents, either.”

“Or maybe time is different for them,” Barbie said. “In their world, maybe they only just sat down around their version of the box. For them the game might only be starting. We don’t even know for sure they’re children.”

Piper Libby joined them. She was flushed, and her hair was sticking to her cheeks. “They’re kids,” she said.

“How do you know?” Barbie asked.

“I just do.” She smiled. “They’re the God I stopped believing in about three years ago. God turned out to be a bunch of bad little kids playing Interstellar X-Box. Isn’t that funny?” Her smile widened, and then she burst into tears.

Julia was looking toward the box with its flashing purple light. Her face was thoughtful and a little dreamy.

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