She was right, Lincoln realized. They were close to the highway, but traffic noise, music, sirens, all the usual city sounds, barely reached them.
They went down to breakfast. When they’d eaten, Lincoln was at a loss to know what to do. He went to the reception desk; the same woman was there.
He didn’t need to speak. She said, “They’re not quite ready for you, sir. Feel free to watch TV, take a walk, use the gym. You’ll know when you’re needed.”
He turned to his grandmother. “Let’s take a walk.”
They left the motel and walked around the stadium, then headed east away from the highway, ending up in a leafy park a few blocks away. All the people around them were doing ordinary things: pushing their kids on swings, playing with their dogs. Lincoln’s grandmother said, “If you want to change your mind, we can always go home.”
As if his mind were his own to change. Still, at this moment the compulsion that had brought him here seemed to have waned. He didn’t know whether the Steveware had taken its eyes off him or was deliberately offering him a choice, a chance to back out.
He said, “I’ll stay.” He dreaded the idea of hitting the road only to find himself summoned back. Part of him was curious, too. He wanted to be brave enough to step inside the jaws of this whale, on the promise that he would be disgorged in the end.
They returned to the motel, ate lunch, watched TV, ate dinner. Lincoln checked his phone; his friends had been calling, wondering why he hadn’t been in touch. He hadn’t told anyone where he’d gone. He’d left it to his parents to explain everything to Sam.
He dreamed again, and woke clutching at fragments. Good times, an edge of danger, wide blue skies, the company of friends. It seemed more like a dream he could have had on his own than anything that might have come from the Steveware cramming his mind with equations so he could help test another crackpot idea that the swarms had collected 30 years ago by Googling the physics of immortality.
Three more days passed, just as aimlessly. Lincoln began to wonder if he’d failed some test, or if there’d been a miscalculation leading to a glut of zombies.
Early in the morning of their fifth day in Atlanta, as Lincoln splashed water on his face in the bathroom, he felt the change. Shards of his recurrent dream glistened potently in the back of his mind, while a set of directions through the motel complex gelled in the foreground. He was being summoned. It was all he could do to bang on his grandmother’s door and shout out a garbled explanation before he set off down the corridor.
She caught up with him. “Are you sleepwalking? Lincoln?”
“I’m still here, but they’re taking me soon.”
She looked frightened. He grasped her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry,” he said. He’d always imagined that when the time came he’d be the one who was afraid, drawing his courage from her.
He turned a corner and saw the corridor leading into a large space that might once have been a room for conferences or weddings. Half a dozen people were standing around; Lincoln could tell that the three teenagers were fellow zombies, while the adults were just there to look out for them. The room had no furniture but contained an odd collection of items, including four ladders and four bicycles. There was cladding on the walls, soundproofing, as if the whole building weren’t quiet enough already.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lincoln saw a dark mass of quivering fur: a swarm of rats, huddled against the wall. For a moment his skin crawled, but then a heady sense of exhilaration swept his revulsion away. His own body held only the tiniest fragment of the Steveware; at last he could confront the thing itself.
He turned toward the rats and spread his arms. “You called, and I came running. So what is it you want?” Disquietingly, memories of the Pied Piper story drifted into his head. Irresistible music lured the rats away. Then it lured away the children.
The rats gave no answer, but the room vanished.
Ty hit a patch of dust on the edge of the road, and it rose up around him. He whooped with joy and pedaled twice as hard, streaking ahead to leave his friends immersed in the cloud.
Errol caught up with him and reached across to punch him on the arm, as if he’d raised the dust on purpose. It was a light blow, not enough to be worth retribution; Ty just grinned at him.
It was a school day, but they’d all sneaked off together before lessons began. They couldn’t do anything in town–there were too many people who’d know them–but then Dan had suggested heading for the water tower. His father had some spray paint in the shed. They’d climb the tower and tag it.