The Passage Page 46

Even Peter hadn't known what to believe, until six days ago.

Now, standing on the catwalk in the fading light, Peter found himself wishing his mother were still alive, as he often did, to talk about these things. She'd taken sick just a season after their father's final ride, the onset of her illness so gradual that Peter had at first failed to notice the raspy cough from deep in her chest, how thin she was becoming. As a nurse, she had probably understood only too well what was happening, how the cancer that took so many had made its lethal home inside her, but had chosen to hide this information from Peter and Theo as long as she could. By the end not much was left of her but a shell of flesh on bone, fighting for a single taste of breath. A good death, everyone agreed, to die at home in bed as Prudence Jaxon had. But Peter had been at her side through the final hours and knew how terrible it had been for her, how much she'd suffered. No, there was no such thing as a good death.

The sun was folding into the horizon now, laying the last of its golden road across the valley below. The sky had turned a deep blue-black, drinking up the darkness that was spilling from the east. Peter felt the temperature drop, a quick, decisive notch of cooling; for a moment everything seemed held in a thrumming stillness. The men and women of the night shift were ascending the ladders now-Ian Patal and Ben Chou and Galen Strauss and Sunny Greenberg and all the rest, fifteen in sum, crosses and longbows slung over their backs-calling out to one another as they thumped and clanged down the catwalks to the firing posts, Alicia barking orders from below, sending the runners scurrying. A small comfort, but real enough, the sound of Alicia's voice; it was she who had stood by Peter through all the nights of waiting, leaving him be but never venturing far, so that he'd know she was there. And should Theo return, it would be Alicia who would ride down the Wall with Peter, to do what needed to be done.

Peter drew in a deep breath of evening air and held it. The stars, he knew, would soon be out. Auntie had spoken often of the stars, as his father had-spread out over the sky like glowing grains of sand, more stars than all the souls who had ever lived, their numbers impossible to count. Whenever his father had spoken of them, telling the stories of the Long Rides and the sights he'd seen, the light of the stars had been in his eyes.

But Peter was not to see the stars tonight. The bell commenced to ring again, two hard peals, and Peter heard Soo Ramirez calling from below: "Clear the gate! Clear the gate for Second Bell!" A deep, bone-shaking shudder below him as the weights engaged; with a shriek of metal, the doors, twenty meters tall and half a meter thick, began to slide from their walled pockets. As he lifted his cross from the platform, Peter made a silent wish that morning would find it unfired. And then the lights came on.

Chapter TWENTY

Log of the Watch

Summer 92

Day 41: No sign.

Day 42: No sign.

Day 43: 23:06: Single viral sighted at 200 m, FP 3. No approach.

Day 44: No sign.

Day 45: 02:00: Pod of 3 at FP 6. One target breaks off and attempts the Wall. Arrows released from FP 5 + 6. Target retreats. No further contact.

Day 46: No sign.

Day 47: 01:15: Runner Kip Darrell reports movement at fireline NW between FP 9 and FP 10, unconfirmed by Watch on station, officially logged as no sign.

Day 48: 21:40: Pod of 3 at FP 1, 200 m. One target makes approach to 100 m but retreats without engagement.

Day 49: No sign.

Day 50: 22:15: Pod of 6 at FP 7. Hunting small game, no approach. 23:05: Pod of 3 at FP 3. 2 males, 1 female. Full engagement, 1 KO. Kill at the nets made by Arlo Wilson, assist to Alicia Donadio, 2nd Capt. Body disposal referred to HD. Note to HD crew to repair split seam toehold at FP 6. Received by Finn Darrell for HD.

During this period: 6 contacts, 1 unconfirmed, 1 KO. No souls killed or taken.

Respectfully submitted to the Household,

S. C. Ramirez, First Captain

To the extent that any singular occurrence may be meaningfully placed within a local framework of events, the disappearance of Theo Jaxon, First Family and Household, a Second Captain of the Watch, could be said to have been set in motion twelve days prior, on the morning of the fifty-first of summer, after a night in which a viral had been killed in the nets by the Watcher Arlo Wilson.

The attack had come in the early evening from the south, near Firing Platform Three. Peter, stationed at his post on the opposite side of the Colony's perimeter, had seen nothing; it wasn't until the early-morning hours, as the resupply detail was assembling at the gate, that he received a full recounting.

The attack was in most ways typical, of the kind that occurred nearly every season, though most often in summer. A pod of three, two males and one large female; it was thought by Soo Ramirez-and others were in agreement-that this was probably the same pod that had been sighted twice over the previous five nights, prowling near the fireline. It often happened this way, in discrete stages, spread over several nights. A group of virals would appear at the edge of the lights, as if scouting the Colony's defenses; this would be followed by a couple of nights of no sign; then they would appear again, closer this time, perhaps one breaking away to draw fire but always retreating; then, on a third night, an attack. The Wall was far too high for even the strongest viral to mount it in a single leap; the only way for them to ascend was along the metal seams between the plates, employing these slender cracks, caused by the inevitable shifting of the plates, as toeholds. The firing platforms, with their overhanging steel nets, were positioned at the tops of these seams. Any viral who made it this far was usually fogged by the lights, sluggish and disoriented; many simply retreated at this point. Those who didn't would find themselves hanging in an inverted position under the nets, giving the Watcher on station ample opportunity to shoot them in the sweet spot with a crossbow or, failing this, to take them on a blade. Only rarely did a viral make it past the net-Peter had seen this occur only once during his five years on the Wall-but when one did, it invariably meant the Watcher was dead. After that, it was simply a question of how weakened the viral was by the lights and how long it took the Watch to bring him down, and how many people died before this happened.

That night, the pod had made a run straight for Platform Six; only one, a female-a detail Peter always found it curious to note, since the differences seemed so slight and served no purpose, as virals did not reproduce, as far as anybody was aware-had made it as far as the net. She was large, a good two meters; most distinctively, she possessed a single shock of white hair on her otherwise bald head. Whether this hair indicated that she had been old when she was taken up, or was a symptom of some biological change that had occurred in the years since then-the virals were thought to be immortal, or something close to it-was impossible to say; but no one Peter knew had ever seen a viral with hair before. Scrambling up the seam, a channel no wider than half a centimeter, she had quickly ascended to the underside of the platform. There she turned, leaping away from the Wall, into space, and grasped the outer edge of the net. All of this had unfolded in at most a couple of seconds. Suspended now, hanging twenty meters above the hardpan, she had rocked her body like a pendulum and, with a quick tucking motion, vaulted out and over the net, landing on her clawed feet on the platform, where Arlo Wilson had shoved his cross against her chest and shot her, point-blank through the sweet spot.

In the lifting morning light, Arlo related these events to Peter and the others with vigorously specific detail. Arlo, like all the Wilson men, liked nothing more than a good story. He was not a Captain, but he seemed like one: a large man with a heavy beard and powerful arms and a genial manner that communicated confident strength. He had a twin brother, Hollis, identical in all respects except that he kept his face clean-shaven; Arlo's wife, Leigh, was a Jaxon, Peter's and Theo's cousin, which made them cousins, too. Sometimes in the evenings, when he wasn't standing the Watch, Arlo would sit under the lights in the Sunspot and play guitar for everyone, old folk tunes from a book left behind by the Builders, or go to the Sanctuary and play for the children as they readied for bed-funny, made-up songs about a pig named Edna who liked to wallow in the mud and eat clover all day. Now that Arlo had a Little of his own in the Sanctuary-a mewing bundle named Dora-it was generally assumed that he would serve at most a couple more years on the Wall before standing down to work some other, safer job.

That it was Arlo who had gotten credit for the kill was a matter of chance, as he himself was quick to point out. Any one of them could have been stationed at Platform Six; Soo liked to move people around so much you never knew where you might be on a given night. And yet there was more than luck involved, Peter knew, even if Arlo's modesty prevented him from saying so. More than one Watcher had frozen in the moment, and Peter, who had never taken a viral close in like that-all his kills had been dozers, shot in broad daylight-couldn't say for sure that it wouldn't happen to him. So if there was luck involved, it was everyone's good luck that it had been Arlo Wilson who had been there.

Now, in the aftermath of these events, Arlo was among a group who had gathered at the gate, part of the resupply detail that would travel to the power station to swap out the maintenance crews and restock supplies. The standard party of six: a pair of Watchers front and rear and in between, on muleback, two members of the Heavy Duty crew-everyone called them wrenches-whose job was to maintain the wind turbines that powered the lights. A third mule, a jenny, pulled the small cart of supplies, mostly food and water but also tools and skins of grease. The grease was manufactured from a mixture of cornmeal and rendered sheep fat; already a cloud of flies had gathered around the cart, drawn by the smell.

In the last moments before Morning Bell, the two wrenches, Rey Ramirez and Finn Darrell, went over their supplies, while the Watchers waited on their mounts. Theo, the officer in charge, took first position, next to Peter; at the rear were Arlo and Mausami Patal. Mausami was First Family; her father, Sanjay, was Head of the Household. But the previous summer, she had paired with Galen Strauss, making her a Strauss now. Peter still couldn't quite figure that. Galen, of all people: a likable enough guy, but when it came down to it, there was a vagueness about him, as if some essential substance inside him had failed to harden completely. As if Galen Strauss were an approximation of himself. Maybe it was his squinty way of looking at you when you spoke (everyone knew his eyes were bad) or his generally distracted air. But whatever it was, he seemed like the last person Mausami would choose. Though Theo had never said as much, Peter believed that his brother had hoped, someday, to pair with Mausami himself-Theo and Mausami had come up in the Sanctuary together, been released the same year, and apprenticed straight to the Watch-and the news of her marriage to Galen had hit Theo badly. For days after the announcement he'd moped about it, barely uttering a word to anyone. When Peter had finally raised the subject, all Theo would say was that he was fine with it, he guessed he'd waited too long. He wanted Maus to be happy; if Galen was the one to do that, so be it. Theo wasn't one to talk about such things, even with his brother, so Peter had been forced to take him at his word. But even so, Theo hadn't looked at him as he'd spoken.

Which was Theo's way: like their father, he was a man of compact expression who communicated with silence as much as with words. And when, in the days that followed, Peter recalled that morning at the gate, he would find himself wondering if there had been anything different about his brother, any indication that he might have known, as their father had seemed to know, what was about to happen to him-that he was leaving for the last time. But there was nothing; everything about the morning was as usual, a standard resupply detail, Theo sitting atop his mount with his customary impatience, fingering the reins.

Waiting for the bell that would signal their departure, his mount jostling restlessly under him, Peter was letting his mind drift in these thoughts-it was only later that he would come to fully understand their bearing-when he lifted his eyes to see Alicia headed their way on foot from the Armory, moving at a purposeful clip. He expected her to stop in front of Theo's mount-two Captains conferring, perhaps to discuss the night's events and the possibility of mounting a smokehunt, to chase out the rest of the pod-but this was not what happened. Instead she moved straight past Theo to the back of the line.

"Forget it, Maus," Alicia said sharply. "You're not going anywhere."

Mausami looked around-a gesture of puzzlement that Peter perceived at once as false. Everyone said Maus was lucky to have taken her looks from her mother-the same soft, oval face, and rich black hair that, when she undid it, fell to her shoulders in a dark wave. She carried more weight than many women did, but most of it was muscle.

"What are you talking about? How come?"

Alicia, standing below them, rested her hands on her slender hips. Even in the cool dawn light, her hair, which she wore tied back in a long braid, glowed a rich, honeyed red. She was, as always, wearing three blades on her belt. Everybody joked that she hadn't paired yet because she slept with her blades on.

"Because you're pregnant," Alicia declared, "that's how come."

The group was stunned into a momentary silence. Peter couldn't help it; turning in his saddle, he let his eyes fall quickly to Mausami's belly. Well, if she was carrying, she wasn't showing yet, though it was hard to tell under the loose fabric of the jersey. He glanced at Theo, whose eyes betrayed nothing.

"Well, how about that," Arlo said. His lips curled into a broad grin inside the pocket of his beard. "I wondered when you two would get around to it."

A deep crimson had bloomed across Mausami's copper-colored cheeks. "Who told you?"

"Who do you think?"

Mausami looked away. "Flyers. I'm going to kill him, I swear it."

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