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ORPHANAGE OF THE ORDER OF THE SISTERS, KERRVILLE, TEXAS
Later, after supper and evening prayer, and bath if it was bath night, and then the final negotiations to conclude the day (Please, Sister, can't we stay up a little longer? Please, one more story?), when the children had fallen asleep at last and everything was very still, Amy watched them. There was no rule against this; the sisters had all grown accustomed to her nighttime wanderings. Like an apparition she moved from quiet room to quiet room, sidling up and down the rows of beds where the children lay, their sleeping faces and bodies in trusting repose. The oldest were thirteen, poised at the edge of adulthood, the youngest just babies. Each came with a story, always sad. Many were thirdlings left at the orphanage by parents unable to pay the tax, others the victim of even crueler circumstances: mothers dead in childbirth, or else unwed and unable to bear the shame; fathers disappeared into the dark undercurrents of the city or taken outside the wall. The children's origins varied, yet their fates would be the same. The girls would enter the Order, giving their days to prayer and contemplation and caring for the children they themselves had been, while the boys would become soldiers, members of the Expeditionary, taking an oath of a different but no less binding nature.
Yet in their dreams they were children-still children, Amy thought. Her own childhood was the most distant of memories, an abstraction of history, and yet as she watched the sleeping children, dreams playfully flicking across their slumbering eyes, she felt closer to it-a time when she herself was just a small being in the world, innocent of what lay ahead, the too-long journey of her life. Time was a vastness inside her, too many years to know one from the other. So perhaps that was why she wandered among them: she did it to remember.
It was Caleb whose bed she saved for last, because he would be waiting for her. Baby Caleb, though he was not a baby anymore but a boy of five, taut and energetic as all children were, full of surprise and humor and startling truth. From his mother he had taken the high, sculpted cheekbones and olive-hued complexion of her clan; from his father the unyielding gaze and dark wonderings and coarse black cap, shorn close, that in the familial parlance of the Colony had been known as "Jaxon hair." A physical amalgamation, like a puzzle assembled from the pieces of his tribe. In his eyes Amy saw them. He was Mausami; he was Theo; he was only himself.
"Tell me about them."
Always, each night, the same ritual. It was as if the boy could not sleep without revisiting a past he had no memory of. Amy took her customary position on the edge of his cot. Beneath the blankets the shape of his lean, little-boy's body was barely a presence; around them, twenty sleeping children, a chorus of silence.
"Well," she began. "Let's see. Your mother was very beautiful."
"Yes," Amy replied with a smile, "a beautiful warrior. With long black hair worn in a warrior's braid."
"So she could use her bow."
"Correct. But most of all she was headstrong. Do you know what that means, to be headstrong? I've told you before."
"Yes. But in a good way. If I tell you to wash your hands before dinner, and you refuse to do it, that is not so good. That is the wrong kind of stubborn. What I'm saying is that your mother always did what she believed was right."
"Which is why she had me." He focused on the words. "Because it was ... the right thing to bring a light into the world."
"Good. You remember. Always remember you are a bright light, Caleb."
A warm happiness had come into the boy's face. "Tell me about Theo now. My father."
She laughed. "All right, then. Your father. First of all, he was very brave. A brave man. He loved your mother very much."
"True, he was sad. But that was what made him so brave, you see. Because he did the bravest thing of all. You know what that is?"
"To have hope."
"Yes. To have hope when there seems to be none. You must always remember that, too." She leaned down and kissed his forehead, moist with childlike heat. "Now, it's late. Time for sleep. Tomorrow is another day."
"Did they ... love me?"
Amy was taken aback. Not by the question itself-he had asked this on numerous occasions, seeking assurance-but by his uncertain tone.
"Of course, Caleb. I have told you many times. They loved you very much. They love you still."
"Because they're in heaven."
"Where all of us are together, forever. The place the soul goes." He glanced away. Then: "They say you're very old."
"Who says so, Caleb?"
"I don't know." Wrapped in his cocoon of blankets, he gave a tiny shrug. "Everyone. The other sisters. I heard them talking."
It was not a matter that had come up before. As far as Amy was aware, only Sister Peg knew the story.
"Well," she said, gathering herself, "I'm older than you, I know that much. Old enough to tell you it's time for sleep."
"I see them sometimes."
The remark caught her short. "Caleb? How do you see them?"
But the boy wasn't looking at her; his gaze had turned inward. "At night. When I'm sleeping."
"When you're dreaming, you mean."
The boy had no answer for this. She touched his arm through the blankets. "It's all right, Caleb. You can tell me when you're ready."
"It's not the same. It's not like a dream." He returned his eyes to hers. "I see you too, Amy."
"You're different, though. Not how you are now."
She waited for him to say more but there was nothing. Different how?
"I miss them," the boy said.
She nodded, content for the moment to let the matter pass. "I know you do. And you will see them again. But for now you have me. You have your uncle Peter. He'll be coming home soon, you know."
"With the ... Expe-dishunary." A look of determination glowed in the boy's face. "When I grow up, I want to be a soldier like Uncle Peter."
Amy kissed his brow again, rising to go. "If that's what you want to be, then that is what you'll be. Now, sleep."
"Did anyone love you like that?"
Standing at the boy's bedside, she felt the memories wash over her. Of a spring night, and a wheeling carousel, and a taste of powdered sugar; of a lake and a cabin in the woods and the feel of a big hand holding her own. Tears rose to her throat.
"I believe that they did. I hope they did."
"Does Uncle Peter?"
She frowned, startled. "What makes you ask that, Caleb?"
"I don't know." Another shrug, faintly embarrassed. "The way he looks at you. He's always smiling."
"Well." She did her best to show nothing. Was it nothing? "I think he is smiling because he's happy to see you. Now, sleep. Do you promise?"
He groaned with his eyes. "I promise."
Outside, the lights were pouring down: not a brightness as total as the Colony's-Kerrville was much too big for that-but, rather, a kind of lingering dusk, lit at the edges with a crown of stars above. Amy crept from the courtyard, keeping to the shadows. At the base of the wall she located the ladder. She made no effort to conceal her ascent; at the top she was met by the sentry, a broad-chested man of middle years with a rifle held across his chest.
"What do you think you're doing?"
But that was all he said. As sleep took him, Amy eased his body to the catwalk, propping him against the rampart with his rifle across his lap. When he awoke he would possess only a fragmented, hallucinatory memory of her. A girl? One of the sisters, wearing the rough gray tunic of the Order? Perhaps he would not awaken on his own but would be found by one of his fellows and hauled away for sleeping at his post. A few days in the stockade but nothing serious, and in any event, no one would believe him.
She made her way down the catwalk to the empty observation platform. The patrols moved through every ten minutes; that was all she had. The lights spilled their beams onto the ground below like a shining liquid. Closing her eyes, Amy cleared her mind and directed her thoughts outward, sending them soaring over the field.
-Come to me.
-Come to me come to me come to me.
They came, gliding from the blackness. First one and then another and another, forming a glowing phalanx where they crouched at the edge of the shadows. And in her mind she heard the voices, always the voices, the voices and the question:
Who am I?
Who am I who am I who am I?
How Amy missed him. Wolgast, the one who had loved her. Where are you? she thought, her heart aching with loneliness, for night after night, as this new thing had begun happening inside her, she had felt his absence keenly. Why have you left me alone? But Wolgast was nowhere, not in the wind or the sky or the sound of the earth's slow turning. The man he was, was gone.
Who am I who am I who am I who am I who am I who am I?
She waited as long as she dared. The minutes ticked away. Then, footsteps on the catwalk, coming closer: the sentry.
-You are me, she told them. You are me. Now go.
They scattered into the darkness.
SEVENTY-SIX MILES SOUTH OF ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO
On a warm September evening, many miles and weeks from home, Lieutenant Alicia Donadio-Alicia of Blades, the New Thing, adopted daughter of the great Niles Coffee and scout sniper of the Second Expeditionary Forces of the Army of the Republic of Texas, baptized and sworn-awakened to the taste of blood on the wind.
She was twenty-seven years old, five foot seven, solidly built in the shoulders and hips, red hair shorn close to her scalp. Her eyes, which had once been only blue, glowed with an orange hue, like twin coals. She traveled lightly, nothing wasted. Feet shod in sandals of cut canvas with treads of vulcanized rubber; denim trousers worn thin at the knees and seat; a cotton jersey with the sleeves cut away for speed. Crisscrossing her upper body she wore a pair of leather bandoliers with six steel blades ensheathed, her trademark; at her back, slung on a lanyard of sturdy hemp, her crossbow. A Browning .45 semiautomatic with a nine-shot magazine, her weapon of last resort, was holstered to her thigh.
Eight and one, was the saying. Eight for the virals, one for yourself. Eight and one and done.
The town was called Carlsbad. The years had done their work, sweeping it clean like a giant broom. But still some structures remained: empty husks of houses, rusted sheds, the becalmed and ruined evidence of time's passage. She had spent the day resting in the shade of a filling station whose metal awning somehow still stood, awakening at dusk to hunt. She took the jack on her cross, one shot through the throat, then skinned it and roasted it over a fire of mesquite, picking the stringy flesh from its haunches as the fire crackled beneath it.
She was in no hurry.
She was a woman of rules, rituals. She would not kill the virals while they slept. She would not use a gun if she could help it; guns were loud and sloppy and unworthy of the task. She took them on the blade, swiftly, or on the cross, cleanly and without regret, and always with a blessing of mercy in her heart. She said: "I send you home, my brothers and sisters, I release you from the prison of your existence." And when the killing was done, and she had withdrawn her weapon from its lethal home, she touched the handle of her blade first to her brow and then her chest, the head and heart, consecrating the creatures' deliverance with the hope that, when that day should come, her courage would not fail her and she herself would be delivered.
She waited for night to fall, doused the flames of her fire, and set out.
For days she had been following a broad plain of lowland scrub. To the south and west rose the shadowed shape of mountains, shoulders shrugging from the valley floor. If Alicia had ever seen the sea, she might have thought: That's what this place is, the sea. The floor of a great, inland ocean, and the mountains, cave-pocked, time-stilled, the remains of a giant reef from a time when monsters unimaginable had roamed the earth and waves.
Where are you tonight? she thought. Where are you hiding, my brothers and sisters of blood?
She was a woman of three lives, two befores and one after. In the first before, she had been just a little girl. The world was all lurching figures and flashing lights, it moved through her like a breeze in her hair, telling her nothing. She was eight years old the night the Colonel had taken her outside the walls of the Colony and left her with nothing, not even a blade. She'd sat under a tree and cried all night, and when the morning sun found her, she was different, changed; the girl she'd been was no more. Do you see? the Colonel asked her, kneeling before her where she sat in the dust. He would not hold her for comfort but faced her squarely, like a soldier. Do you understand now? And she did; she understood. Her life, the meager accident of her existence, meant nothing; she had given it up. She had taken the oath that day.
But that was long ago. She had been a child, then a woman, then: what? The third Alicia, the New Thing, neither viral nor human but somehow both. An amalgamation, a composite, a being apart. She traveled among the virals like an unseen spirit, part of them but also not, a ghost to their ghosts. In her veins was the virus, but balanced by a second, taken from Amy, the Girl from Nowhere; from one of twelve vials from the lab in Colorado, the others destroyed by Amy herself, cast into the flames. Amy's blood had saved her life, yet in a way it hadn't. Making her, Lieutenant Alicia Donadio, scout sniper of the Expeditionary, the only being like herself in all the living world.