Cass had traveled through more of the mummified carcass of the world than 99.9% of the remnant populace, but somehow she had never noticed before just how much everything looked the same. Gray or brown, concrete and rust, punctuated by flickering sparks of tech still happily humming with some internal purpose; gaudy, like Christmas lights on a gravestone. Maybe it was the exhaustion from the travel, blurring everything into one dreary, colorless smear, but most likely, she thought, it was some sort of newly acquired way of seeing things. Seeing them as they actually were, in the real world, rather than what they had been, before, as told by their lingering swirl of residual signal. Something learned from Three, perhaps. Or maybe just a fanciful musing from her weary mind.
She glanced at the sky above, framed from her vantage on either side by empty, towering high-rises. A vibrant orange, filtering to a muted purple, boxed in by the ever-present cold and lifeless gray. No, she was the one in the box… the sky was up there, gloriously free. She felt a twinge of envy, though she knew it was ridiculous to be jealous of the heavens. They simply were, as they had always been. Unchanged by the events that unfolded beneath. Cass shook her head with a humorless chuckle, wondering how exhausted she must be to be thinking that way.
They had held up well. By any sane person’s standards, she and Wren had made a heroic effort, a feat of nearly inhuman strength and endurance, to travel so far in their condition. Even at the best of times, running at full strength in Asher’s crew, she’d never traveled this far in the open in a single day. But compared to Three, she felt like they should’ve covered twice the distance. The man was tireless. He walked a few paces ahead of her, steps still even, strong, and sure, even though he had added her backpack on top of his own harness, and was now carrying Wren on his back as well.
Their pace had quickened significantly in the last two hours or so. Three insisted it was because he knew the area was safer than the others they’d passed through, but Cass couldn’t help but feel he was risking more than he would admit. And she understood. In another thirty minutes or so, it wouldn’t matter how much ground they had covered if they weren’t locked safely inside somewhere.
Three disappeared around a corner into yet another narrow, rusting alley, and Cass followed with one trudging step at a time, one foot in front of the other, willing herself onward. Exiting the alleyway, Cass found herself at a wide road. An old maglev line, bowed in the middle, ran overhead. And just across the road sat a squat block of concrete, more like a bunker than a building, with a heavy steel gate implanted in its middle. The Vault.
Three hesitated at the edge of the road, glanced skyward. Cass edged to his side.
Three nodded with a furrowed brow. She noticed the slash across his throat was bleeding again.
“So, shouldn’t we be going in?”
Three nodded again. But he didn’t move. Just stood there, scanning the road, the building, something, everything; Cass wasn’t sure what.
“Sooo… why aren’t we?”
Three shook his head, let Wren slide down off his back.
He unbuttoned his coat, and eased his pistol out of its holster. Flipped open its cylinder, snapped it shut again with a flick of his wrist. Without looking at her, he pushed Wren gently back against her legs, held the gun out for her to take. Cass dropped a hand on Wren’s shoulder, took the heavy weapon with the other.
Cass felt tears come to her eyes as she watched Three glide out across the road and make his silent way to the Vault. She let them fall without knowing or caring why they came. She was spent, depleted of all her body had to give and beyond, with a weariness she felt down through the middle of her bones, deep into her heart. If there was something wrong here, at the Vault, after all they’d done to reach it, she felt she’d just as soon sit down and let the Weir come for them rather than take another step.
“What do you think it is, Mama?”
Wren’s voice sounded small.
“I don’t know, sweetheart.”
“Maybe he’s just being extra careful.”
“That’s probably it.”
“My feet are sad.”
“Mine too, baby. Mine too.”
Across the street, Three moved from place to place, sometimes within view, sometimes not. Cass wondered what he was looking for, what he was seeing. She felt like she could see it all from where she stood: a concrete bunker, impenetrable save through its one entrance, which was securely blocked by the lowered steel gate. And if he truly had friends inside, it seemed like he could just let them know they were outside. But Three was nothing if not cautious and thorough, and she had to trust there was a good reason they were still in the open with the sun slipping beneath the horizon.
After about five minutes, he motioned for them to join him and quickly. Cass steeled herself, took Wren’s hand, and crossed.
“What now?” she asked when they reached him. She handed him his massive handgun, glad to be rid of the thing.
“Yeah, why don’t we just get them to open it? I thought you said the gatekeeper’s a friend of yours.”
Something in Three’s tone concerned Cass. His demeanor had changed; darker now. If she didn’t know better, she’d almost say he sounded worried.
“I don’t understand.”
Three didn’t say anything. Just pointed to the bottom of the gate, nearest to where they were standing. Meanwhile his eyes were busy scanning around the top.
At first, she didn’t see anything. Concrete. Steel. No way in. The fatigue and frustration were getting to her. Why Three couldn’t just tell her what was wrong, she couldn’t fathom. The man’s aversion to words was quickly becoming his least attractive quality.
Cass opened her mouth to tell him to spell it out for her, but caught herself. She saw it now. A gap, maybe three inches wide, at the base of the gate. It wasn’t sealed, looked more like it had fallen than been lowered. She bit her lip to keep the tears back.
Three turned, put a knee in front of Wren, rested his hand on her son’s shoulder.
“How you feelin’, Mister Wren?”
“Tired,” Wren shrugged.
“How’s your hand? Hurting any?”
Wren held up his bandaged hand. Blood showed through the fabric. He shook his head. Cass knew he was trying to be tough, trying to impress Three.
“I’ve known grown men who would’ve given up a long time ago. You’re a soldier. A real soldier.”
Wren half-smiled at that; embarrassed. Honored. Three was building him up for something, Cass figured.
“Think you could help us out here?”
Cass didn’t know why Three was taking so long to get to the point. Maybe he just didn’t feel comfortable asking Wren for help directly. She jumped in.
“Can you get this door opened up for us, sweetheart?” she asked.
Three looked up at her briefly, shook his head.
“That’s a no go. Engines that drive the gate are older than I am. Mechanical, not electronic.”
“What do you want him to do then?”
Three looked back at Wren, then pointed up above the gate, to the left side. About nine feet up, there was a small grate, maybe two feet wide and a foot and a half tall; much too small to be a point of entry for anyone. Except perhaps a child.
“Do you see that vent up there?”
Wren looked up, back at Three, nodded. Cass cut the conversation off.
“No. No way. You’re not sending him through there.”
Three ignored her.
“It’s big enough for you to fit. Can you crawl through, and open the gate from the inside?”
“Did you hear me?” Cass said. “He’s not going in there.”
“I’m talking to your son,” answered Three, forcefully. Cass was so stunned she didn’t know how to respond. Three didn’t take his eyes off Wren. “Can you do that?”
Wren shrugged, apparently torn between Cass’s words and this man who called him a soldier.
“I think so, maybe.”
“Don’t tell me what you think,” Three said in a firm voice. “Tell me if you can.”
Wren looked up at the vent again, and then back at Three. Cass noticed her son did not look at her. He just nodded.
“I can do it.”
Three stood up and took off his harness.
“Three,” Cass said. “No. I’m not going to let you send him in there by himself. There’s no telling what’s in that thing. He could get hurt.”
Three pulled a chemlight out of his vest and ignited it, attention still focused on Wren.
“If he doesn’t go, he’ll die.”
Three had a way of making choices seem nonexistent. Cass struggled to think of a better alternative, any alternative, while Three went on prepping her son, as though she had no say in the matter. He gave Wren the chemlight, drew something from his vest which he held hidden in his hand, all the while talking Wren through the steps.
“Once you get the cover off, crawl to the nearest vent. You may have to turn left or right once or twice, but it shouldn’t be too far before you can drop down. If anyone’s in there, ask for Gev. Can you remember that?”
Wren nodded. Cass gave up trying to prevent it, just watched the exchange, noticed how attentive Wren was, how eager.
“And if you don’t see anyone, look for two engines. Big engines. There’s a lever on one side. Just pull it, and the gate should open up. Can you do that?”
“I think—,” Wren stopped himself. “Yes.”
“Who are you asking for?”
“Alright, I want you to take this.”
Again Three knelt, holding out his hand. Across his palm, lay one of the knives Cass had seen twice before; once in the wayhouse where Wren had cut his hand, and again during Three’s fight with Dagon.
“He certainly doesn’t need that—” she protested. Wren flicked his eyes to her, but Three paid her no mind.
“This is very sharp, and very dangerous. You understand?”
Wren nodded. Three lifted Wren’s unbandaged hand and pressed the handle of the knife into it.
“You’ll need it to open the vents. Do a good job, it’s yours.”
Wren nodded solemnly while he gazed at the simple, elegant blade, as if it were an ancient sword being passed down from some great and mighty warrior-king.
“Listen,” Three caught his eye again. “You’ll do it. I already know. You ready?”
Wren nodded again. Confident. Cass wanted to say something, anything, to change their minds, but nothing seemed forceful enough, meaningful enough, to override whatever had just taken place between Three and her son. Something in Wren’s face had changed, so subtle, so slight only a mother would notice. But there was some measure of strength there now that hadn’t been there before, as if Three had given some of his own for Wren to carry with him. Wren didn’t even look at her as he stepped closer to the wall.
“Hey, one last thing,” said Three. “Give your mom a kiss.”
Wren obeyed, shuffled over to Cass. She knelt, hugged him, received his little wet kiss on her cheek.
“Be careful, sweetheart. Don’t get hurt.”
It sounded wrong to her, somehow, like telling a soldier in the arctic to remember his mittens, but she couldn’t stop herself from saying it. He pulled away before she was ready for him to go.
“Always kiss the lady goodbye,” Three said, easily swinging Wren up onto his shoulders. “So she remembers you.”
Wren scrabbled up to a standing position on Three’s shoulders. His head just below the vent, he reached up with his knife and jammed it into the seam between metal and concrete. He pulled hard on the handle, but the vent wouldn’t budge.
“Work it back and forth, little bit at a time… yeah, yeah, that’s the way.”
Wren worked the blade and the vent inched away from its concrete base. After a few moments, it swung suddenly free, catching him off-guard. He swayed backwards, but caught the lip of the vent, balanced himself.
“Be careful, baby.”
“Mom. I am.”
It was the first time Cass remembered Wren calling her anything other than Mama.
“Alright, soldier. In you go.”
Three had Wren step up on to his hands, then boosted him higher. Wren stretched his hands into the opening, scooted in up to his shoulders.
There he hesitated, and for a moment Cass thought, hoped even, that he would back out, say he couldn’t do it, that they’d have to find another way.
“It smells bad in here.”
“You won’t be in there long.”
Three’s eyes flicked skyward, judged the ratio of blue to purple. The first stars were just visible.
“Quick as you can.”
With that, Cass watched as her baby son scuffled and shimmied his way into a dark shaft, headed into the unknown, alone, without her, and she was frightened.
Three stepped back, watched Wren’s small feet kick their last way into the opening, and disappear from view. He and Cass stood in silence for a few moments. Then, wordlessly, with the slightest glance and nod, Three patted her shoulder twice, and squeezed it once.
“He’ll be alright.”
“If he’s not, I’ll kill you myself.”
For once, Wren was thankful for his size. The airshaft, or whatever it was he was in, was bigger than he’d first thought, big enough for him to move pretty freely in. But the darkness made it seem tighter, more confining. The yellow-green chemlight splashed out in all directions, and didn’t show nearly as far ahead as Wren wished it would. There was a very slight breeze, more draft than anything, but it was hot, and the smell from inside was getting stronger. Wren couldn’t place it as any one thing. It just reminded him of being sick.
It’d seemed so easy, so possible when Three had told him about it. A simple crawl, a drop, a lever to pull. Nothing he hadn’t done playing in any of the places he’d been with his mother, even more so when he’d been out with Ran and Dagon. But here, now, alone in the dark, he just felt afraid. Something about the darkness just changes when grown-ups aren’t in it with you.
He glanced back at the entrance, now a hole of waning light small enough to hide behind his thumb. Mister Three had said it wouldn’t be far, but how far was it? Not far to him sometimes seemed like a really long way to Wren. Wren started to wonder if maybe he’d passed the way out already, if maybe he should try to turn around, or crawl backwards. But Mister Three had said to be quick, and Wren already felt like he’d taken too long.
He crawled on a little further, and suddenly felt a change in the subtle draft. A swirling, like wind colliding. He stretched the chemlight forward as far as he could. And his heart fell.
Mister Three had said there might be a left or right turn. He never said there might be both, in the same place.
Wren was at a T in the ductwork, blackness stretching off to his left and right without hint or clue as to which way he should go. A coldness crept up inside, and he looked quickly back to the entrance, hoping maybe it was closer than he remembered. It wasn’t. In fact, it was harder to see it now; smaller, darker. Night was falling. A quiet sort of dread crept into his heart.
He wanted to call out, call for his mommy to tell him what he should do, but felt somehow that he shouldn’t, that now that he was inside, he needed to be quiet. And pimming her was a no-no: Asher would be looking for that, and that’d be even worse than not masking, since it’d make them both easy to find. Should he crawl back? Tell them he was lost?
No, he didn’t want to make Mister Three mad. There was no telling what he might do if he got mad. Or disappointed. He’d said he was a soldier. Soldiers probably didn’t call for their mommies, and they probably weren’t afraid of the dark. Tears came to his eyes.
Wren gripped his knife tighter, held the blade up, looked at it. He was a soldier. He was a soldier.
“I’m a soldier,” he whispered, as the first hot tear streaked his face. “I’m a soldier.”
For some reason, he just decided to go right. It felt better somehow. He took one last look at the entrance, and then moved on. And once the decision was made, he found it suddenly easier to move, to crawl faster. To quit crying. It’d been a fleeting glimpse of the entryway, but Wren knew now that time was short. The Weir would be out soon. And Mama was counting on him. Mister Three was counting on him. He wouldn’t let them down.
He crawled on, elbow after elbow, and in another minute or so, he nearly passed over top of the very thing he’d been looking for. Another vent. A way out. Below him, and smaller than the one he’d come in through, it nevertheless looked like his best and only option.
Wren scooted back, tried to get some leverage on the fitting, but it was no good. A couple of minutes of trying to wedge the blade into the seams didn’t work. In the end he took to stabbing the vent over and over, each strike echoing sharply throughout the Vault beyond, and sending a chill up his spine. Finally, the metal bent outward, making a hole big enough for him to slip through.
For a time, he sat listening, straining for any sound of human life below. Then, he scooted forward, and peered downward into more of the same deep blackness that he’d just crawled through. He remembered back when Mister Three had hidden them before, back in that big wet place, when he’d dropped their chemlight down the stairwell. It’d been an accident then. Now, it seemed like a good idea.
Wren reached through with the chemlight, then let it fall from his hand, watched as it floated into nothingness, and then clattered suddenly, and rolled to a halt. Its meager light pooled on what looked like a smooth concrete surface. It didn’t seem that far down. Too far to go head first, though. Wren dragged himself forward over the vent, then, once his feet were clear, dropped them through the hole and scooted backwards.
He had intended to lower himself slowly down until he was just hanging from the edge, and then drop. Something didn’t go right. It happened too fast, about when his waist went through the hole, and all of a sudden he was slipping and falling, and something punched him in the arm and chin, and then his feet hit before he was ready, and he fell to his hands and knees on cool, hard concrete.
It took a second for Wren to figure out he’d hit the ground, and that he was where he meant to be. His arm felt funny. And his chin was burning. Really burning, like he’d put it on the stove. He tried really, really hard not to cry. But he couldn’t help it.
Through the tears he picked up his chemlight, held it high, tried to figure out where he was. Then, there was a sound. A sort of scuffle. A mouse running through paper, or a raven’s sudden flight. Wren froze. Strained. Gripped his knife so hard it hurt. Again, the sound. Coming from slightly behind him, over his right shoulder. Then a scraping, metal on metal.
An arctic wave of panic rushed over Wren then, as every nightmare creature he’d ever imagined exploded in his mind, there, trapped in the room with him, and he holding the only light. He wanted so desperately to scream, but his only thought, his one lone rational thought was to be still, and he clung to that thought. Be still. Be still. Be still.
Again, a rustling. No closer. And this time, followed by a voice.
“Wren?” it called. It sounded small, tinny, strange. “Wren, baby, are you in there?”
“Mama! It’s me, I’m here!”
“Where are you, sweetheart?”
“I don’t know,” he called. He wasn’t even trying anymore. The tears fell freely. “Mama it’s all dark!”
“Come to me, Wren. Just come to my voice.”
He moved towards the voice he knew and loved the most, each step making it sound fuller, warmer, more and more like Mama.
“Keep coming, baby. You’re real close.”
Finally, in the last few steps, Wren could barely make out a stripe of pale purple light slipping in. The gap in the gate. He dropped to his knees, set the chemlight on the floor, and stuck his hand through.
“Here Mama, I’m here.”
He felt her strong hands close around his, warm, certain.
“Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
Another voice now.
“The engines. Can you see ’em?”
“No, sir. It’s all dark.”
“Wren, are you OK?”
He laid the knife down by his side, wiped the tears away with his free hand. He still had a job to do.
“Yes, Mama, I’m OK. I’m OK now.”
“Wren, you’re on the left side of the gate,” Three said, louder. He must’ve been kneeling near the gap now. “If you follow the gate over to the other side, the engines should be right there.”
“OK. I’ll find them. Hang on.”
Wren stood up, picked up his chemlight, followed the gate across the room, running his other, empty hand along it more for comfort than direction. Mama and Mister Three were on the other side of that gate. Eight inches away. Everything was fine.
He reached the end of the gate, where steel met concrete, and held the light above his head again. A few paces away he saw the beginnings of some kind of machinery: old, brown, massive. Had to be the engines.
“OK, Mama, I found them!” he yelled.
And in the next instant, froze again, as the echo from his voice trailed off. He felt it.
Something was there, moving in the darkness. Closing.
No faint rustle now. Just a steady, slow pat… pat… pat, like bare feet carefully placed. There was no hope for control now. Wren screamed.
Absolute terror seized him, a waking nightmare.
“Mama! Something’s in here! Mama!”
“Wren! Wren!” she called, hysterical. “Wren!”
Back, back, he slid back to the wall, down to the corner, hugged his knees. The knife, his knife, he’d left it on the floor across the room, just now when he needed it most. And the patter never stopped, never sped up. It just came closer, closer, closer.
In his panicked fright, Wren threw the chemlight at the sound, watched it sail and clatter away, bouncing off some block of rounded, rusted metal. Clamped his hands over his ears, screaming for his mama to come get him, knowing there was no way she could.