Theo had shifted on his mount to face Mausami. "Galen's right, Maus. I can't let you ride."
"Oh, what does he know? He's been trying to get me off the Wall all year. He can't do this."
"Galen's not doing it," Alicia interjected. "I am. You're off the Watch, Maus. That's it, end of story."
Behind them, the herd was coming down the trace. In another few moments they'd be subsumed in a noisy chaos of animals. Looking at Mausami, Peter did his best to imagine her as a mother, but couldn't quite. It was customary for women to stand down when the time came; even a lot of the men did when their wives became pregnant. But Mausami was a Watcher, through and through. A better shot than half the men and cool in a crisis, each movement calm and purposeful. Like Diamond, Peter thought. Quick when she needed to be quick.
"You should be happy," Theo said. "It's great news."
A look of utter misery was on her face; Peter saw that her eyes were pooled with tears.
"Come on, Theo. Can you really see me sitting around the Sanctuary, knitting little booties? I think I'll lose my mind."
Theo reached for her. "Maus, listen-"
Mausami jerked away. "Theo, don't." She averted her face to wipe her eyes with the back of her wrist. "Okay, everybody. Show's over. Happy, Lish? You've got your wish. I'm going." And with that, she rode away.
When she was out of earshot, Theo folded his hands on the horn of the saddle and looked down at Alicia, who was wiping a blade on the hem of her jersey.
"You know, you could have waited until we got back."
Alicia shrugged. "A Little's a Little, Theo. You know the rules as well as anyone. And, frankly, I'm a little irritated she didn't tell me. It's not like this could stay a secret." Alicia gave the blade a quick spin around her index finger and pushed it back into its sheath. "It's for the best. She'll come around."
Theo frowned. "You don't know her like I do."
"I'm not going to argue with you, Theo. I already spoke with Soo. It's done."
The herd was pressing upon them now. The morning light had warmed to an even glow; in another moment Morning Bell would sound and the gates would open.
"We'll need a fourth," Theo said.
Alicia's face lit up with a grin. "Funny you should mention that."
Alicia Blades. She was the last Donadio, but everyone called her Alicia Blades. Youngest Captain Since The Day.
Alicia had been just a Little when her parents were killed on Dark Night; from that day it was the Colonel who had raised her, taking her under his wing as if she were his own. Their stories were inextricably bound together, for whoever the Colonel was-and there was considerable disagreement on this question-he had made Alicia into the image of himself.
His own history was vague, more myth than fact. It was said he had simply appeared one day out of the blue at Main Gate, carrying an empty rifle and wearing a long necklace of shimmering, sharp objects that turned out to be teeth-viral teeth. If he'd ever had another name, no one knew it; he was simply the Colonel. Some said he was a survivor from the Baja Settlements, others that he had belonged to a group of nomadic viral hunters. If Alicia knew the real story, she'd never told anyone. He never married and he kept his own company, living in the small shack he'd constructed under the east wall of discarded scraps; he declined all invitations to join the Watch, choosing to work in the apiary instead. It was rumored that he had a secret exit that he used to hunt, sneaking out of the Colony just before dawn, to catch the virals as the sun rose. But no one had ever actually seen him do this.
There were others like him, men and women who for one reason or another never married and kept to themselves, and the Colonel might have slipped into a hermit's anonymity if not for the events of Dark Night. Peter had been just six years old at the time; he couldn't be sure if his memories were real or just stories people had told him, embellished by his imagination over the years. He felt certain that he remembered the quake itself, though. Earthquakes happened all the time, but not like the one that had struck the mountain that night as the children were preparing for bed: a single, massive jolt, followed by a full minute of shaking so violent it seemed the earth would tear itself apart. Peter remembered the feeling of helplessness as he was lifted up, tossed like a leaf in the wind, and then the shouts and screams, Teacher yelling and yelling, and the great rush of noise and the taste of dust in his mouth as the west wall of the Sanctuary collapsed. The quake had hit just after sunset, taking out the power grid; by the time the first virals breached the perimeter, the only thing to do was light the fireline and retreat to what was left of the Sanctuary. Many of those killed had been left trapped in the rubble of their houses to die. By morning, 162 souls had been lost, including nine whole families, as well as half the herd, most of the chickens, and all of the dogs.
Many of those who survived owed their lives to the Colonel. He alone had left the safety of the Sanctuary to search for survivors. Carrying many of the injured on his back, he had brought them to the Storehouse, where he made a final stand, holding off the virals through the night. This group included John and Angel Donadio, Alicia's parents. Of the nearly two dozen people he rescued, they were the only ones to die. The next morning, covered in blood and dust, the Colonel had walked into what remained of the Sanctuary, taken Alicia by the hand, declared simply, "I will take care of this girl," and walked back out with Alicia in tow. None of the adults present in the room had been able to summon the energy to object. The night had made an orphan of her, as it had so many others, and the Donadios were Walkers, not First Family; if somebody was willing to see to her care, this seemed like a reasonable bargain. But it was also true, or so people said at the time, that in the little girl's compliance they had felt the workings of fate, of something no less than the settling of a cosmic debt. Alicia was meant, or so it seemed, to be his.
In the Colonel's hut under the Wall and, later, as she grew, in the training pits, he taught her all the things he'd learned out in the Darklands-not just how to fight and kill but how to give it up. Which was what you had to do: when the virals came, the Colonel taught her, you had to say to yourself, I'm already dead. The little girl had learned her lessons well; at the age of eight, she had apprenticed to the Watch, quickly outdistancing everyone in her skills with bow and blade, and by fourteen she was on the catwalk, working as a runner, moving up and down between the firing platforms. Then one night a pod of six virals-they always traveled in multiples of three-came in over the south wall just as Alicia was headed down the catwalk toward them. As a runner, Alicia wasn't supposed to engage-she was supposed to do just that, run, and sound the alarm. Instead she got the first one with a throwing blade, dead on through the sweet spot, drew her cross, and dropped the second one in midair. The third she took with a knife close in, using his weight to shove it under his breastbone as he fell upon her, their faces so close she could taste the breath of night washing over her as he died. The remaining three scattered, back over the Wall and into the dark.
No one had ever taken three like that, single-handedly. Certainly not a fifteen-year-old girl. Alicia stood the Watch from that day forward; by the time she was twenty, the rank of Second Captain was hers. Everyone expected that when Soo Ramirez stepped down, Lish would be the one to take her place as First. And ever since that night, she'd worn three blades at all times.
She told Peter about it late one night under the lights, the two of them standing the Watch. The third viral: that was when it happened, when she'd given it up. Though Alicia was Peter's commanding officer, they had formed a bond that seemed to make the question of authority moot. So he knew she wasn't telling him to make a point; she was telling him because they were friends. Not the first or second, she explained, but the third. That was when she knew, absolutely knew, that she was dead. And the strange thing was, once she knew this, drawing the second blade was easy. All her fear was gone. Her hand found the knife like it wanted to be there, and as the creature fell upon her, all she'd thought was, Well, here you go. As long as I'm headed out the door of the world, I might as well take you with me for the trip. Like it was a fact, like she'd already done it.
The herd had departed by the time Alicia returned on her mount, a small canvas bag and a canteen of water slung from the saddle. Alicia had no proper home to live in; there were lots of vacant houses, but she preferred to bunk in a small metal shed behind the Armory, where she kept a cot and the few things she owned. Peter had never known her to sleep more than a couple of hours at a stretch, and if he ever went in search of her, the Armory was always the last place to look; she was always on the Wall. She was carrying a longbow, lighter than a cross and more comfortable on horseback, but she wore no guard; the bow was just for show. Theo offered to cede first position to her, but Alicia declined, taking Mausami's spot at the rear instead. "Don't mind me. I'm just out to take the air," she said, guiding her mount into the slot next to Arlo. "This is your ride, Theo. No point in confusing the chain of command. Plus, I'd rather ride with the big fellow back here. All the talk keeps me awake."
Peter heard his brother sigh; he knew Theo found Alicia overbearing at times. She should worry a little more, he had said to Peter on more than one occasion, and it was true: her confidence bordered on recklessness. Theo turned in his saddle, looking past Finn and Rey, who had offered only wordless indifference through the entire scene. This was Watcher business, who rode with whom. What did they care?
"That okay by you, Arlo?" Theo asked.
"Sure thing, cuz."
"You know, Arlo," Alicia said, her exuberant mood lighting up her voice, "I always wondered. Is it true that Hollis shaved his beard so Leigh could tell you apart?"
It was commonly known that as young men the two Wilson brothers had swapped girlfriends more than once, allegedly without anyone being the wiser.
Arlo gave a knowing smile. "You'd have to ask Leigh."
The time for talk was over; they were running late as it was. Theo gave the order, but as they were approaching the gate, they heard a shout from behind:
"Hold up! Hold at the gate!"
Peter turned to see Michael Fisher jogging toward them. Michael was a First Engineer of Light and Power. Like Alicia, he was young for this job, just eighteen. But all the Fisher men had been engineers, and Michael had been trained by his father straight out of the Sanctuary. No one really understood what the engineers did-Light and Power was by far the most specialized of all the trades-beyond the fact that they kept the lights on, the batteries humming, the current coming up the mountain, a feat that seemed both as remarkable as magic and also completely ordinary. The lights, after all, came on, night after night.
"I'm glad I caught you." He paused to catch his breath. "Where's Maus? I thought she was riding with you."
"Never you mind about it, Circuit," Alicia called from behind. Her mount, a chestnut-colored mare named Omega, was pawing the dust, eager to ride. "Theo, can we please just go?"
A flicker of exasperation crossed Michael's face. At such moments, his eyes pinching under his thatch of blond hair, his pale cheeks reddening, he managed to look even younger than he was. He said nothing but instead reached up to pass Theo the object he'd brought with him: a rectangle of green plastic with shining dots of metal decorating its surface.
"Okay," Theo said, turning it in his hand to examine it, "I give up. What am I looking at?"
"It's called a motherboard."
"Hey," Alicia called, "watch your language."
Michael turned toward her. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to pay a bit more attention to how we keep the lights on."
Alicia shrugged. Her mutual antagonism with Michael was a matter of record; the two of them squabbled like squirrels. "You push a button, they come on. What's to understand?"
"Enough, Lish," Theo said. He tipped his eyes toward Michael. "Just ignore her. You need one of these things?"
Michael pointed to the board to show him. "See this here? The little black square? That's the microprocessor. Never mind what it does. Just look for these same numbers if you can, but anything that ends in a nine ought to work. You could probably find the exact same one in almost any desktop computer, but roaches eat the glue, so try to find one that's clean and dry, no droppings. You might try the offices at the south end of the mall."
Theo examined the board once more before depositing it in his saddlebag. "Okay. This isn't a scavenging trip, but if we can fit it in, we will. Anything else?"
Michael frowned. "A nuclear reactor would come in handy. Or about three thousand cubic meters of negatively ionized hydrogen in a proton exchange stack."
"Oh, for godsakes," Alicia moaned, "speak English, Circuit. Nobody knows what the hell you're talking about. Theo, can we just please ride?"
Michael shot Alicia one last look of annoyance before returning his eyes to Theo. "Just the motherboard. Get more than one if you can, and remember what I said about the glue. And Peter?"
Peter's attention had wandered toward the open gate, where the last of the herd was still faintly visible as a cloud of dust in the morning light, flowing up and over the hill toward Upper Field. But it wasn't the herd he'd been thinking of. He'd been thinking of Mausami, the look of panic on her face when his brother had reached out his hand-as if she'd been afraid to let him touch her, that this would be too much to bear.
He shook the image away and returned his gaze to Michael, standing below him.