Michael Fisher, First Engineer of Light and Power, was sitting in the Lighthouse, listening to a ghost.
That’s what Michael was calling it, the ghost signal. Peeking from the haze of noise at the top of the audible spectrum—where nothing, as far as he could tell, should be. A fragment of a fragment, there and not there. The radio operator’s manual he’d found in the storage shed listed the frequency as unassigned.
“I could have told you that,” said Elton.
They’d heard it the third day after the supply party’s return. Michael still couldn’t believe Theo was gone. Alicia had assured him that it wasn’t his fault, the motherboard had nothing to do with Theo’s death, but still Michael felt responsible, part of a chain of events that had led to the loss of his friend. And the motherboard—the worst part was, Michael had practically forgotten all about it. The day after Theo and the others had departed for the station, Michael had successfully cannibalized an old battery flow control for what he needed. Not a Pion, but enough extra processing power to squeeze out any signal at the top end of the spectrum.
And even if he hadn’t, what was one more processor? Nothing for Theo to die for.
But this signal: 1,432 megahertz. Faint as a whisper, but it was saying something. It nagged at him, its meaning always seeming to dart away from his vision whenever he looked at it. It was digital, a repeating string, and it came and went mysteriously, or so it had appeared, until he’d realized—okay, Elton had realized—that it was coming every ninety minutes, whereupon it would transmit for exactly 242 seconds, then go silent again.
He should have figured that out on his own. There really was no excuse.
And it was growing stronger. Hour by hour, with each cycle, though more so at night. It was like the damn thing was moving straight up the mountain. He’d stopped looking for anything else; he just sat at the panel and counted off the minutes, waiting for the signal to return.
It wasn’t anything natural, not at ninety-minute cycles. It wasn’t a satellite. It wasn’t anything from the battery stack. It wasn’t a lot of things. Michael didn’t know what it was.
Elton was in a mood, too. The ain’t-it-great-to-be-blind Elton that Michael had gotten accustomed to after so many years in the Lighthouse—that Elton was nowhere to be found. In his place sat this dandruffy grump who barely uttered hello. He’d clamp the phones to his head, listening to the signal when it came, pursing his lips and shaking his head, maybe say a thing or two about needing more sleep than he was getting. He could barely be bothered to power up the lights at Second Bell; Michael could have let enough gas build up to blast them all to the moon, and he had the feeling that Elton wouldn’t have said word one about it.
He could have used a bath too. Hell, they both could.
What was it? Theo’s death? Since the supply party’s return, an anxious hush had settled over the whole Colony. The thing with Zander made no sense to anyone. Stranding Caleb on the tower like that. Sanjay and the others had tried to keep it quiet, but gossip traveled quickly. People were saying they’d always known there was something a little off about that guy, that all those months down the mountain had done something to his brain. That he hadn’t been right since that thing with his wife and the baby who had died.
And then that peculiar business with Sanjay. Michael didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Two nights ago he had been sitting at the panel when suddenly the door had swung open and there was Sanjay, standing there with a round-eyed look on his face that seemed to say: Aha! That’s it, Michael had thought, the earphones still clamped to his head—his crime couldn’t have been more obvious—I’m dead meat now. Somehow Sanjay found out about the radio; I’m going to be put out for sure.
But then a funny thing happened. Sanjay didn’t say anything. He just stood in the doorway, looking at Michael, and as the silent seconds passed, Michael realized that the expression on the man’s face wasn’t quite what he’d thought at first glance: not the righteous indignation of crimes uncovered in the night but an almost animal dumbfoundedness, a blank amazement at nothing. Sanjay was wearing bedclothes; his feet were bare. Sanjay didn’t know where he was; Sanjay was sleepwalking. Lots of folks did it, there were times when it seemed half the Colony was up and cruising around. It had something to do with the lights, the way it was never quite dark enough to really settle in. Michael had taken a turn or two himself, once awakening to find himself in the kitchen, smearing his own face with honey from a jar. But Sanjay? Sanjay Patal, Head of the Household? He hardly seemed the type.
Michael’s mind was working fast. The trick would be to get Sanjay out of the Lighthouse without waking him up. Michael was concocting various strategies for this—he wished he had some honey to offer him—when Sanjay suddenly frowned sharply, cocked his head to the side as if processing some distant sound, and shuffled rigidly past him.
“Sanjay? What are you doing?”
The man had come to a halt before the breaker panel. His right hand, which hung loosely at his side, gave a little twitch.
“I don’t … know.”
“Isn’t there,” Michael ventured, “I don’t know, someplace else you have to be?”
Sanjay said nothing. He lifted his hand and held it before his face, turning it slowly back and forth as he gazed at it with the same mute puzzlement, as if he couldn’t quite decide whom it belonged to.
“Bab … cock?”
More footsteps outside; suddenly Gloria was in the room. She, too, was wearing her bedclothes. Her hair, which she tied up in the daytime, fell halfway down her back. She seemed a little out of breath, having evidently run from their house to follow him. She ignored Michael, who by now felt less alarmed than embarrassed, like an incidental witness to some private marital drama, and marched straight to her husband’s side, taking him firmly by the elbow.
“Sanjay, come to bed.”
“This is my hand, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replied impatiently, “it’s your hand.” Still holding her husband by the elbow, she glanced toward Michael and mouthed the word “sleepwalking.”
“It’s definitely, definitely mine.”
She heaved a sigh. “Sanjay, come on now. Enough of this.”
A flicker of awareness came into the man’s face. He turned to look about the room, his eyes alighting on Michael.
The earphones were gone, hidden under the counter. “Hey, Sanjay.”
“It seems I have … taken a walk.”
Michael stifled a laugh; though what, he wondered, had Sanjay been doing at the breaker box?
“Gloria has been good enough to come after me to take me home. So that is where I’m going to go now.”
“Thank you, Michael. I’m sorry to have disturbed you in your important work.”
“It’s no problem.”
And with that, Gloria Patal had led her husband from the room, taking him, presumably, back to bed to finish whatever it was he’d started in his restless, dreaming mind.
Now, what to make of that? When Michael had told Elton about it the next morning, all he’d said was, “I guess it’s getting to him like the rest of us.” And when Michael had said, “What it? What do you mean by it?” Elton had said nothing at all; he seemed to have no answer.
Brood, brood, brood—Sara was right; he spent far too much time with his head stuck down the hole of worry. The signal was between cycles; he’d have to wait another forty minutes to listen to it again. With nothing else to occupy his mind, he called up the battery monitors on the screen, hoping for good news, not finding it. Bell plus two, a hard wind blowing all day through the pass, and the cells were below 50 percent already.
He left Elton in the hut and went to take a walk, to clear his mind. The signal: 1,432 megahertz. It meant something, but what? There was the obvious thing, namely that the numbers were the first four positive integers in a repeating pattern: 1432143214321432 and so on, the 1 closing out the sequence, which reloaded with the 4. Interesting, and probably just a coincidence, but that was the thing about the ghost signal: nothing about it felt like a coincidence.
He came to the Sunspot, where often there would be people milling about well into the night. He blinked into the light. A single figure was sitting at the base of the Stone, dark hair tumbling over her folded arms, which rested on top of her knees. Mausami.
Michael cleared his throat to alert her of his approach. But as he neared, she glanced his way with only passing curiosity. Her meaning was clear: she was alone and wanted to stay that way. But Michael had been in the hut for hours—Elton hardly counted—chasing ghosts in the dark, and was more than willing to risk a little rejection for even a few meager crumbs of company.
“Hey.” He was standing above her. “Would it be okay if I sat?”
She lifted her face then. He saw that her cheeks were streaked with tears.
“Sorry,” Michael said. “I can go.”
But she shook her head. “It’s all right. Sit if you want.”
Which he did. It was awkward, because the only way to sit properly was to take a place beside her, their shoulders practically touching, his back braced by the Stone as hers was. He was beginning to think this hadn’t been such a great idea after all, especially as the silence lengthened. He realized that by staying he had tacitly agreed to ask what was bothering her, even, perhaps, to find the right words to comfort her. He knew that being pregnant could make women act moodily, not that they weren’t moody to begin with, their behavior at any given moment as changeable as the four winds. Sara made sense to him most of the time, but that was only because she was his sister and he was used to her.
“I heard the news. I guess, congratulations?”
She wiped her eyes with her fingertips. Her nose was running, but he didn’t have a rag to offer her. “Thanks.”
“Does Galen know you’re out here?”
She gave a dismal laugh. “No, Galen does not.”
Which made him think that what was bothering her wasn’t just a mood at all. She had come to visit the Stone because of Theo; her tears were for him.
“I just … ” But he couldn’t find the words. “I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry. We were friends too.”
She did something that surprised him then. Mausami placed her hand on top of his, twining their fingers together where they rested at the top of his knee. “Thank you, Michael. People don’t give you enough credit, I don’t think. That was exactly the right thing to say.”
For a while they sat without speaking. Mausami didn’t withdraw her hand but left it where it was. It was strange—not until this moment had Michael truly felt Theo’s absence. He felt sad, but something else, too. He felt alone. He wanted to say something, to put this feeling into words. But before he could, two more figures appeared at the far end of the plaza. The pair came striding toward them. Galen and, behind him, Sanjay.
“Listen,” Mausami said, “my advice is, don’t let any of Lish’s shit get to you. That’s just how she does things. She’ll come around.”
Lish? Why was she talking about Lish? But there was no time to consider this; Galen and Sanjay were suddenly towering over them. Galen was perspiring and breathing hard, as if he’d been running laps around the walls. As for Sanjay: the befuddled sleepwalker of two nights ago was nowhere to be seen. Standing in his place was a scowling figure of pure paternal self-righteousness.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Galen’s eyes were pulled into an angry squint, as if trying to bring the image of her into focus. “You’re not supposed to be out of the Sanctuary, Maus. You’re not.”
“I’m fine, Gale.” She banished him with a wave. “Go home.”
Sanjay shouldered forward so he was standing above the two of them, an imperious presence, bathed in the lights. His skin seemed to glow with his fatherly disappointment. He glanced down at Michael once, casting his presence aside with a quick clenching of his generous eyebrows—dashing, with this single gesture, any hope Michael might have had for some light-hearted acknowledgment of the other night’s events.
“Mausami. I’ve been patient with you, but that is at its end. I don’t understand why you have to be so difficult about this. You know where you’re supposed to be.”
“I’m staying right here with Michael. Anybody who thinks different will have to take it up with him.”
Michael felt his stomach drop. “Listen—”
“You stay out of this, Circuit,” Galen snapped. “And while we’re at it, what do you think you’re doing out here with my wife?”
“What am I doing?”
“Yeah. Was this your idea?”
“For godsakes, Galen,” Mausami sighed. “Do you know how you sound? No, it wasn’t Michael’s idea.”
Michael became aware that everyone was looking at him now. That he’d come to find himself in the middle of this scene, when all he’d wanted was a little company and fresh air, seemed like the cruelest trick of fate. The expression on Galen’s face was pure burning humiliation; Michael considered whether the man was, in fact, capable of doing him real harm. There was something vaguely ineffectual about the way he carried himself, his attention always seeming to lag a step behind the goings-on around him, but Michael wasn’t fooled: Galen had a good thirty pounds on him. On top of which, and more to the point, Galen viewed himself at this moment as defending something like his honor. Michael’s knowledge of male combat was limited to a few childhood skirmishes in the Sanctuary over not very much, but he had swapped enough punches to know that it helped if your heart was in it. Which Michael’s certainly wasn’t. If Galen could actually manage to aim a blow, it would all be over fast.
“Listen, Galen,” he began again, “I was just taking a walk—”
But Mausami didn’t let him finish. “It’s all right, Michael. He knows you were.”
She rolled her face to look at him; her eyes were swollen and heavy-lidded from crying. “We’ve all got our jobs to do, right?” She took his hand again and squeezed it, as if to seal a bargain between them. “Mine apparently is to do as I’m told and not be difficult. So for now, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Galen reached down to help her to her feet, but Mausami ignored him, rising on her own. Still glowering, Sanjay had stepped back, his hands on his hips.
“I don’t see why this has to be so hard, Maus,” Galen said.
But Mausami acted like she hadn’t heard him, turning away from the two men to face Michael instead, still seated with his back against the Stone. In the glance that passed between them, Michael could feel the diminishment of her surrender, the shame of marching to her orders.
“Thanks for keeping me company, Michael.” She gave him a sad smile. “That was nice, what you said.”
Sara, in the Infirmary, was waiting for Gabe Curtis to die.
She had just returned from riding when Mar had appeared at her door. It was happening, Mar said. Gabe was moaning, thrashing, fighting for breath. Sandy didn’t know what to do. Could she come? For Gabe?
Sara retrieved her med kit and followed Mar to the Infirmary. As she stepped through the curtain into the ward, the first thing she saw was Jacob, awkwardly leaning over the cot on which his father lay, pressing a cup of tea to his lips. Gabe was choking, coughing up blood. Sara moved quickly to his side and gently took the tea from Jacob’s hand; she rolled Gabe onto his side—the poor man weighed almost nothing, just skin and bones—and with her free hand reached to the cart to retrieve a metal basin, which she tucked under his chin. Two more hacking gasps: the blood, Sara saw, was a rich red, and spotted with small black clumps of dead tissue.
Other Sandy stepped from the shadowed recess behind the door. “I’m sorry, Sara,” she said, her hands fluttering nervously. “He just started coughing like that and I thought maybe the tea—”
“You let Jacob do this by himself? What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s the matter with him?” the boy wailed. He was standing by the cot, his face stricken with confused helplessness.
“Your dad is very sick, Jacob,” Sara said. “No one’s mad at you. You did the right thing, helping him.”
Jacob had begun to scratch himself, digging the fingernails of his right hand into the scraped flesh of his forearm.
“I’m going to do my best to take care of him, Jacob. You have my word.”
Gabe was bleeding internally, Sara knew. The tumor had ruptured something. She ran her hand over his belly and felt the warm distention of pooling blood. She reached into her kit for a stethoscope, clamped it to her ears, pulled Gabe’s jersey aside, and listened to his lungs. A wet rattle, like water sloshed in a can. He was close, and yet it might take hours. She lifted her eyes to Mar, who nodded. Sara understood what Mar had meant when she’d said that Sara was Gabe’s favorite, what she was asking her to do now.
“Sandy, take Jacob outside.”
“What do you want me to do with him?”
Flyers, what was wrong with the woman? “Anything.” Sara allowed herself a breath, to steady her nerves; it was not a time for anger. “Jacob, I need you to go with Sandy now. Can you do that for me?”
In his eyes Sara saw no real comprehension—only fear, and a long habit of obedience to the decisions that others made for him. He would go, Sara knew, if he was asked.
A reluctant nod. “Okay, I guess.”
“Thank you, Jacob.”
Sandy led the boy from the ward; Sara heard the front door opening and closing. Mar, sitting on the opposite side of the cot, was holding her husband’s hand.
“Sara, do you … have something?”
It was not something that was ever discussed in the open. The herbals were all kept in the basement in the old freezer, stored in jars stacked on metal shelves. Sara excused herself to go downstairs and retrieved the ones she needed—digitalis, or common foxglove, to slow the respiration; the small black seeds of the plant they called angel’s trumpet, to stimulate the heart; the bitter brown shaving of hemlock root, to numb the awareness—and set them on the table. She mortared them into a fine brown dust, poured it onto a sheet of paper, and, angling this over a cup, dumped the mixture into it. She put everything away, swept the table clean, and ascended the stairs.
In the outer room, she put water on to boil; the kettle was already warm, and soon the drink was ready. It had a faint greenish cast, like algae, with a bitter, earthen smell. She carried it into the ward.
“I think this will help.”
Mar nodded, taking the cup from Sara. Part of their unfolding understanding was that Sara would only provide the means; she could not do the rest.
Mar gazed into the cup’s interior. “How much?”
“All of it, if you can.”
Sara positioned herself at the head of the bed to lift Gabe’s shoulders; Mar held the cup to his mouth, telling her husband to sip. His eyes were still closed; he seemed completely unaware of them. Sara was worried that he wouldn’t be able to manage it, that they had waited too long. But then he took a first, tender sip from the cup, then another, pecking at it steadily like a bird drinking from a puddle. When the tea was gone, Sara eased him back down onto the pillow.
“How long?” Mar wasn’t looking at her.
“Not long. It’s quick.”
“And you’ll stay. Until it’s over.”
“Jacob can never know.” Mar looked at her beseechingly. “He wouldn’t understand.”
“I promise,” said Sara.
And then, just the two of them, they waited.
Peter was dreaming of the girl. They were under the carousel, in that low-ceilinged prison of dust, and the girl was on his back, breathing her honeyed breath onto his neck. Who are you, he was thinking, who are you, but the words felt trapped in his mouth, bunched inside it like a woolen rag. He was thirsty, so thirsty. He wanted to roll over to see her face but he couldn’t move, and it wasn’t the girl on him anymore, it was a viral, the teeth were sinking into the flesh of his neck and he was trying to scream for his brother but no sound came and he began to die, one part of him thinking, How strange, I’ve never died before. So this is what it’s like.
He awoke with a start, his heart thumping, the dream dispersing at once, leaving in its wake a vague but poignant impression of panic, like the echo of a scream. He lay motionless, reassembling his sense of where and when he was. He arched his neck to look out the window over his bunk and saw the lights shining. His mouth was bone dry, his tongue swollen and fibrous-feeling; he’d dreamed of being thirsty because he was. He fumbled for the canteen on the floor beside his cot, lifted the spout to his mouth, and drank.
Caleb was sleeping in the bunk beside him. Peter counted four other men in the room, snoring piles in the shadows. All had come in without his once awakening. How long since he’d slept like that?
Now, lying in the dark, he felt the first stirring of antsiness, a low-grade hum of physical impatience that seemed to have taken up a permanent residence in his chest since his return up the mountain. The obvious course was to report for duty on the catwalk. But Soo had made it clear that she wouldn’t have him on the Watch until at least a few days had gone by.
He decided to go see Auntie. He hadn’t told her about Theo yet. Probably she knew, but still he wanted her to hear the news from him, even if the information was repeated.
Sometimes it was possible to forget all about her, over in her little house in the glade. Oh, Auntie, people would say when her name came up, as if they’d only just remembered her existence. And the truth was, the old woman got on surprisingly well without much help. Peter or Theo would chop wood for her, or do small repairs on her house, and Sara might assist her at the Storehouse. But her needs were few, as she kept a large vegetable and herb patch in the sunlit plot behind her house, which she still managed to tend with virtually no aid from anyone. With the exception of her gardening, which she performed from a seated position on a stool, she spent most of her days inside her house, among her papers and mementos, her mind adrift in the past. She wore three different pairs of eyeglasses on a tangle of lanyards around her neck, alternating between them for whatever task she was attending and, except in winter, went barefoot everywhere she walked. By all accounts, Auntie was close to a hundred. She had married, or so it was said, not once but twice, but because she could never have children of her own, her life span seemed a natural marvel without purpose, like a horse that could count by stamping its hooves. No one could quite figure out how she’d survived Dark Night; her house had weathered the quake with very little damage, and in the morning they had discovered her sitting in her kitchen drinking a cup of her famously awful tea, as if nothing had happened at all. “Maybe they just don’t want my old blood” was all she’d said.
The night had cooled; the windows of Auntie’s cottage were glowing faintly as Peter approached. She claimed never to sleep, that day and night were all the same to her, and in fact Peter could not recall a time when he’d failed to find her up and working. He knocked at the door and opened it a crack.
“Auntie? It’s Peter.”
From deep within he heard a shuffling of paper and the scrape of a chair on the old wood floor. “Peter, come in, come in.”
He stepped into the room. The only light came from a lantern in the kitchen, a hammered-on shack attached to the rear of the house. The space was densely cluttered but neat, the arrangement of furniture and other objects—books in towering piles, jars of stones and old coins, various knickknacks he couldn’t even identify—appearing not merely considered but possessing the intrinsic orderliness of having occupied their current position for decades, like trees in a forest. In the doorway to the kitchen, the old woman appeared, waving him in.
“You’re just in time. I’ve made some tea.”
Auntie had always “just made tea.” She brewed it from a mixture of miscellaneous herbaceous jetsam, some of which she grew and some of which she merely picked along the paths. She had been known, out walking, to make a slow, long bend to the ground to pluck out a nameless weed and pop it straight into her mouth. But drinking Auntie’s tea was simply the price one paid for her company.
“Thanks,” Peter said, “I’d be glad to take some.”
She was fussing with her glasses, picking out the right pair. She found them and slid them onto her weathered, nut-brown face—her head possessed a slightly shrunken appearance, as if the physical reductions of advanced age had moved from the top down—and located him with her eyes, smiling her toothless smile, as if then and only then had she become convinced that he was whom she believed him to be. She was clothed, as always, in a loose, scoop-necked frock of quilted fabrics, bits and pieces harvested from any number of other dresses over the years. What was left of her hair formed a vaporous tangle of white that seemed not so much to grow from her head as float in its vicinity, and her cheeks were sprayed by spots that were neither freckles nor moles but something in between.
“Come into the kitchen with you then.”
He followed her shuffling, barefooted progress down the narrow hallway to the rear of the house. The space was small, crowded by an oak table that left barely enough room to maneuver and oppressive with the heat of the stove and the steam that rose from a battered aluminum teapot resting atop it. Peter felt his pores opening with sweat. While Auntie went about her pouring, Peter raised the sash of the room’s lone window, allowing a breeze to trickle in, and took a chair. Auntie carried the pot to the table, where she placed it on an iron trivet; at the sink, she primed the pump and rinsed out a pair of mugs, which she brought to the table also.
“And to what do I owe this come-by, Peter?”
“I’m afraid I have some news. About Theo.”
But the old woman waved this away. “Oh,” she said, “I know all about that.”
Auntie sat across from him, straightening her dress on her bony shoulders as she stretched out her legs beneath her, and poured the tea into cups through a strainer. It had a thin, yellow color, like urine, and left behind in the strainer small, disturbingly biological bits of green and brown, like smashed insects.
“How it happen?”
Peter sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“I ain’t got nothing but time for stories, Peter. As long as you care to tell them, I got ears to hear by. Go on now, tea’s ready. No point letting it get cold.”
Peter took a scalding sip. It tasted vaguely like dirt, leaving behind an aftertaste of such bitterness it didn’t even seem like food. He managed a respectful swallow. On the table at his elbow was her book, the one she was always writing in. Her memory book, she called it: a fat, hand-stitched volume wrapped in lambskin, the pages covered with the tiny print she wrote in, using a crow feather and homemade ink. She made her own paper as well, boiling sawdust into pulp and forming sheets on squares of old window screens. Peter knew she was hard at work when he saw pages of this material stiffening on a line behind her house.
“How’s the writing going, Auntie?”
“It never ends.” She offered a wrinkled smile. “So much to put down, and me with nothing but time on my hands. What all that happened. The world from before. The train that brought us here in the fire. Terrence and Mazie and all those ones. All of it, I just write it down as it comes to me. I figure if there weren’t no one to do it but one old lady, then that’s what they’ll get. Someday someone will want to know what happened here, in this place.”
“You think so?”
“Peter, I know so.” She sipped, smacking her colorless lips, and frowned at the flavor. “I reckon that needs more dandelion than I put in it.” She pointed her eyes at Peter again, squinting through her glasses. “But you didn’t ask that, did you? What all do I write in there, wasn’t it?”
Her mind was like this: doubling back, forming strange connections, dipping into the past. She spoke often of Terrence, who had ridden with her on the train. Sometimes he seemed to be her brother, sometimes her cousin. There were others. Mazie Chou. A boy named Vincent Gum, a girl named Sharise. Lucy and Rex Fisher. But these wanderings through time could be interrupted, at any moment, by intervals of startling lucidity.
“Have you written about Theo?”
Auntie’s eyes drifted a moment. “He told me he was going down to the station. When he coming back?”
So, she didn’t know. Or perhaps she had simply forgotten, the news blending in her mind with other such stories.
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” Peter said. “That’s what I came to tell you. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t go being sorry now,” she said. “The things you don’t know would fill a book. That’s a joke now, ain’t it? A book. Go on now. Drink your tea.”
Peter decided not to press. What good would it do the old woman to hear about one more person dying? He took another sip of the bitter liquid. If anything, it actually tasted worse. He felt a little burble of nausea.
“That the birch bark you feeling. For the digestion.”
“It’s good, really.”
“No it ain’t. But it does the trick all right. Clean you out like a white tornado.”
Peter remembered his other news then. “I meant to tell you, Auntie. I saw the stars.”
At this, the old woman brightened. “Well, there you go.” She quickly touched the back of his hand with the tip of a weathered finger. “There’s something good to talk about. Tell me now, how they look to you?”
His thoughts returned to that moment on the roof, lying on the concrete next to Lish. The stars so thick above their faces it was as if he could brush them with his hand. It seemed like something that had happened years ago, the final minutes of a life he’d left behind.
“It’s hard to put into words, Auntie. I never knew.”
“Well, ain’t that a thing.” Her eyes, pointed to the wall behind his head, seemed to twinkle, as if with remembered starlight. “I ain’t seen them since I was a girl. Your father used to come in just like you’re doing now and tell me all about them. I saw them, Auntie, he’d say, and I’d say to him, How they doing, Demo? How those stars of mine? And the two of us would have a nice visit about them, just like we’re doing now.” She sipped her tea and returned her mug to the table. “Why you looking so surprised?”
A quick frown of correction; but her eyes, still lit with an inner brightness, seemed to be laughing at him. “Why you think he wouldn’t?”
“I don’t know,” Peter managed. And it was true: he didn’t. But when Peter tried to imagine this scene—his father, the great Demetrius Jaxon, drinking tea with Auntie in her overheated kitchen, talking about the Long Rides—he somehow couldn’t. “I guess I never realized he told anyone else.”
She gave a little laugh. “Oh, your father and me, we talked. About a lot of things. About the stars.”
It was all so confusing. More than confusing: it was as if, in the space of just a few days—since the night the viral had been killed in the nets by Arlo Wilson—some fundamental precept of the world had changed, only nobody had told Peter what this change might be.
“Did he ever tell you … about a Walker, Auntie?”
The old woman sucked in her cheeks. “A Walker, you say? Now, I don’t recall anything about that. Theo see a Walker?”
He heard himself sigh. “Not Theo. My father.”
But she had given up listening; her eyes, pointed at the wall behind him, had gone far away again. “Now, Terrence, I believe he did tell me something about a Walker. Terrence and Lucy. She always was the littlest thing. It was Terrence who made her stop crying, you know. He always could do that.”
It was hopeless. Once Auntie went off like this, it could be hours, even days, before she came back to the present. He almost envied her, this power.
“Now, what was it you wanted to ask me?”
“That’s okay, Auntie. It can keep.”
She lifted her bony shoulders in a shrug. “You say so.” A silent moment passed. Then: “Tell me something. You believe in God almighty, Peter?”
The question caught him short. Though she’d spoken of God often, never had she asked him what he believed. And it was true that looking at the stars from the station roof, he’d felt something—a presence behind them, their vast immensity. As if the stars were watching him. But the moment, and the feeling it gave him, had slipped away. It would have been nice to believe in something like that, but in the end, he just couldn’t.
“Not really,” he admitted, and heard the gloom his voice. “I think it’s just a word people use.”
“Now, that’s a shame. A shame. Because the God I know about? He wouldn’t give us no chance.” Auntie took a final sip, smacking her lips. “Now you think on that some and then tell me about Theo and where he gone to.”
The conversation seemed to end there; Peter rose to go. He bent to kiss the top of her head.
“Thanks for the tea, Auntie.”
“Anytime. You come back and tell me your answer when it comes to you. We’ll talk about Theo then. Have us a good talk. And Peter?”
He turned in the kitchen doorway.
“Just so you know. She comin’.”
He was taken aback. “Who’s coming, Auntie?”
A teacherly frown. “You know who, boy. You known it since the day God dreamed you up.”
For a moment Peter said nothing, standing in the door.
“That’s all I’m saying now.” The old woman gave a dismissive wave, as if shooing a fly away. “You go on and come back when you ready.”
“Don’t write all night, Auntie,” Peter managed. “Try to get some sleep.”
A smile creased the old woman’s face. “I got eternity for that.”
He showed himself out, stepping into a breath of cool night air that brushed his face, chilling the sweat that had gathered beneath his jersey in the overheated kitchen. His stomach was still churning under the spell of the tea. He stood a moment, blinking into the lights. It was strange, what Auntie had said. But there was no way she could have known about the girl. The way the old woman’s mind worked, stories all piled on top of stories, the past and present all mixed together, she could have meant anyone. She could have been talking about someone who’d died years ago.
Which was just when Peter heard the shouts coming from Main Gate, and all hell began to break loose.