Wren lay curled in a ball, arms tucked together, legs drawn in, his hands used as a pillow. Shivering, half or less from the cold, the rest from fear. Exhausted as he was, he just couldn’t sleep. Not really. He’d dozed off for stretches of a few minutes here and there for the last hour, or two, or ten. But the concrete and an erratic but persistent dripping sound always woke him. He had no idea how long they’d been in “the safe place”, and he was too afraid to check GST ever since his mother’s pim. Almost immediately after she’d sent it, his captor-companion had shifted and grunted in the darkness, as though the pim had woken It. And even though it may have been pure coincidence, Wren couldn’t bring himself to risk streaming anything else. Not until he knew it was morning.
Wren picked up his hand, moved it slowly towards his face until his palm bumped the tip of his nose. Pitch-black. Why had he thrown his light? And his knife. The two things that Mister Three had given him, both gone. And the thing he wished most was gone was still there. He could feel it. Even in relative silence, the It had a wild edge; its soft breathing sounded more animal than man. Wren wondered when It would wake and what it would do when it did.
And Wren thought of his mama. Wondered where she was. Her pim hadn’t sounded scared, or hurt. Just worried. But that wasn’t unusual. Mister Three was with her, and that probably meant she was OK. Maybe he’d found a way in before it got dark. Or maybe a safe place to hide. He seemed like he knew how to stay safe even at nighttime. Mister Three seemed like he could pretty much do anything.
The sudden sound of Its voice startled Wren, and he jumped badly. It wasn’t whispering, and Wren realized that the It was most likely a He. Wren couldn’t bring himself to answer in anything but a whisper.
“I don’t think he’s here.”
“Oh…” He said. There was a long pause, and finally He made rustling sounds that Wren took to mean he was sitting up. “Did you sleep, little one?”
Wren didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want to offend anyone either.
“A little bit.”
“I’m sorry it’s not more comfortable. But it’s safe, yeah?”
“Is it morning?”
“Early still. I don’t think the sun’s up, but it should be very soon.”
The He sounded nicer, or at least less scary. Less confused. They sat in silence for a few moments longer. Then the He sounded like he was getting to his feet.
“I’m sorry if I scared you. Last night, I mean. Night is a bad time for me. A bad time.”
From the sound of His voice, Wren could tell the other had turned and was walking away from him. There was a click and suddenly a blue-white light flared. Dull and dim by usual standards, it momentarily dazzled Wren’s eyes. He squeezed them tightly shut against the glare. And then wondered whether or not he actually wanted to open them again. In the long darkness, he’d almost forgotten that the person-thing that had carried him downstairs was more than just a voice. He knew when he opened his eyes, He would be standing there.
“You OK?” He asked.
Wren couldn’t answer. He hugged his knees.
“Hey, you’re OK, little one. Nothing’s going to happen to you now.”
Wren heard Him approach, felt Him kneel down. A hand on his shoulder, gentle, soothing. Wren risked a peek.
The first thing that struck him was how young a face it was that stared back down at him. Not a boy, certainly, but maybe not quite old enough to be a man yet. He kind of reminded Wren of Asher, at least age-wise. His face was grubby and gaunt; greasy, dark hair hung in long curls to his shoulders. He didn’t seem mean, or even unkind. Mostly, he just needed a bath.
“My name was Jackson,” he said, then shook his head, corrected himself, “is Jackson. What’s yours?”
Jackson held out his hand: fingers tipped with long, dirty nails.
“Hi there, Wren.”
Wren took his hand and shook it timidly. Jackson smiled.
“Been a while since I’ve had company.”
Wren nodded. Jackson stood, and helped him to his feet. Wren glanced around, checked out what the so-called safe place looked like. No surprise, it was concrete: concrete floor, concrete ceiling. He guessed the walls were concrete too, though they were mostly obscured by rows and rows of dark pipes, stacked atop one another. That explained the dripping sound. Water pooled in a back corner, where the elbow joint of one pipe leaked slightly. The room was smaller than he’d expected, though when he thought about it he couldn’t figure out why he’d ever imagined it’d be larger. As far as he could tell, it was some kind of hub for the Vault’s water system, a miniaturized version of the storm water system Mister Three had hidden them in their first night outside.
“Can I see my mama now?” Wren asked. Jackson grimaced.
“I hope so. I can’t open the gate, though. Not yet. It isn’t safe.”
Wren felt the tears clawing their way up his throat. He was cold and tired and hungry and there was nothing he wanted more than just to sit in his mama’s lap and fall asleep knowing she was safe, and he was safe, and everything was going to be OK. Jackson moved alongside him, dropped an arm over his shoulders.
“Come on, kiddo. Let’s get you something to eat, and then we’ll find your mom, yeah?”
Wren wiped his eye with the back of his hand, and nodded, and let Jackson lead him out into the darkness of the Vault.
Cass felt sleep slipping away from her without being able to recall ever falling asleep. As always, her first instinct was to reach out and check on Wren. It took a moment for her brain to catch up, to replay the events of the night before, to remind her of their situation now. She thought back to his pim, wondered if he was still hiding somewhere, or scared, or hurt. She resisted the urge to pim him again, to tell him she was coming to get him right now.
Her eyes floated open. She was lying on something lumpy, still covered in Three’s coat. He was nowhere to be seen. Cass tried not to panic. She couldn’t imagine he’d go to all the trouble to get her through the night, only to leave her in the morning. Well, she could imagine it, which was the problem. She forced herself not to. Judging from the graying light, dawn wasn’t far off.
She sat up, tried to work the kinks out of her muscles. Twisting to one side brought a shooting pain that reminded her of her fall. She ran a hand under her shirt and gingerly checked the injury with her fingertips. Massive abrasion, deeply bruised, but as far as she could tell nothing was broken. A slow, careful, deep inhalation. Pain, but not broken-rib pain. She’d be alright.
Cass got to her feet, stood uneasily for a moment, letting the blood circulate. Back down the rail, she saw a form laid out on the tracks. Still as death. It had to be Three.
Her heart went cold. Surely she would’ve woken up if there’d been any trouble? And Three didn’t seem like the kind to get taken by surprise. Cass crept out of the repeater and moved down the line on legs that felt noticeably stronger than they had the night before. Sleep had done her good. She could probably push it out another day or so before she’d need another hit of the synth, assuming they didn’t have another thirty miles of ground to cover.
As she drew closer, Three’s silhouette shifted slightly; he glanced her way, then returned to his previous position. He was watching something down below the rail. Cass slid in next to him, lying across the track as he did. He pointed towards the Vault, near the gate. She looked that way, scanned for what he was seeing.
A Weir. A big one. Bigger than any Cass had seen before. And well-preserved too, from what she could tell. Though it was tough to see much detail in the weak light, across that distance, Cass almost could’ve mistaken it for a man, if not for the telltale blue-glow eyes. It just stood there, staring at the gate as if waiting for it to open. After a long moment, it turned slowly and walked a few paces away. Then, it swiveled right back around and returned to its original position, precisely the same spot, and stared at the gate again. The Weir cycled this behavior twice more before Cass spoke.
“What’s it doing?” she whispered.
“Stuck in a loop, I’d guess.”
“Looks like it wants to get in.”
“You think it knows Wren’s in there?”
“I think he wants to go home.”
Cass puzzled at that. She’d never thought of the Weir as having homes.
“What do you mean?”
Three didn’t answer. Just sat there, watching the Weir as it shuffled away, then back again.
He inhaled deeply. Held it. Released slowly. Controlled.
“That’s my friend…” he finally said. “That’s Gev.”
As Jackson led him by the hand through the corridors and along the catwalks, Wren was in awe of the Vault. In the darkness of the previous night, he’d imagined it as a squalid urban cave. Now he was surprised to see it was not much different from most of the other places he’d been; just under the ground instead of above it. There were rows and rows of rooms, deep and wide, that the previous tenants had personalized the way one might expect a row of houses to have been.
They’d found food just a few rooms down from the safe place. And not just scraps, as Wren had expected. A huge storehouse, with rows and rows of shelves each piled with varieties of rations. After they’d eaten, Jackson took Wren through “the District”, which, he explained, was the residential area comprising the three lower levels of the Vault. Now, however, they were on their way to see what Jackson called the Treasure Room.
“Here we go,” Jackson said, flicking on another light and tugging on a thick steel door. It slid open with a deep rumbling groan, and Jackson let Wren go in first.
The room was the largest he’d seen yet, even larger than the food storehouse. And it was packed nearly wall-to-wall with what seemed to be long tables, deeply set. Wren approached one and laid his hand on it. He saw now it was more like a very shallow crate, maybe five inches deep, than a table. And on top of almost every table was a well-organized pile of just about anything you could hope to find in the outside world. Clothes, tools, old mattresses, scrap metal, chemlights; Wren understood why Jackson called it the Treasure Room.
“So yeah,” Jackson said, still in the doorway. “This is it. Pretty much my life’s work, I guess.”
“Where’d you get it all?” Wren asked in a quiet voice.
“Well of course I didn’t get all of it. But that’s what we did, me and the people who used to live here. Just go out in the morning, come back with what we could find. It’s getting harder these days, but there’s still a lot out there to be harvested.”
“What do you do with it?” Wren asked, running his hand over a dark brown coat.
“We use it, little one…”
He trailed off for a moment, smile fading, eyes clouded. Wren looked up from the coat, noticed Jackson.
“Are you OK?”
Jackson just stared.
His eyes cleared, and he shook his head slightly, forcing a smile again.
“Sorry. I said we, but I guess it’s really just me now. Well, actually… there is ‘us’, at least for now.”
“Where did they go?”
“All your other people?”
Jackson’s eyes dropped to the floor, jaw clenched. He shook his head.
“I don’t… little one. Away,” he replied in a low voice. “Taken.”
Jackson shrugged, wiped his nose with the palm of his hand.
“Hey, you like that coat? You can have it if you want it.”
Wren looked back down at the coat. It was the neatest looking coat he’d ever seen. It was brown, with a hood, and had tons of zippers and pockets on it, and even secret pockets on the inside.
“You should take it,” Jackson said. “Looks like it might fit you pretty good. If not this year, maybe in a couple anyway.”
“That’s OK,” Wren said, hand sliding back to his side. “I don’t want to take your things.”
Jackson laughed good-naturedly.
“That’s what it’s here for. No way I’m gonna be wearing it anyway. Go on, take it. It’s in a lot better shape than yours is.”
“Well…” Wren paused, thought through it. It really was a great coat. “If it’s OK with you, then, thank you very much.”
“You’re very welcome. Come on,” Jackson said, turning and kneeling at the door. “Hop on. Let’s go see about your mom.”
Wren rolled the coat up as best he could under his arm in a hurry and jumped on Jackson’s back, piggyback style. Jackson stood and set off down a corridor to a staircase. Now, riding on his back, in such close proximity to Jackson, Wren felt a wave of anxiety wash over him. He couldn’t explain it, or find the right word for it; just images of wildness, and jostling crowds, and frustration, and fear. His skin crawled, and at last he couldn’t bear it.
“Can you put me down now?” he said quickly. “Please?”
“We’ve still got a few more flights to go—”
“Put me down! Put me down please!”
Jackson dropped quickly and let Wren slide off his back, then turned to face him. Wren dropped back two steps, and pressed his back against the wall.
“What is it, kid? What’s wrong?”
Wren felt the tears welling up, and he swallowed hard, trying to hold it together.
“What’s going on?”
“Are you sick?”
The question took Jackson back. He shook his head slowly.
“Not that I know of… why?”
“There’s something…” Wren took another step back down, afraid to say the words. “Something’s wrong. With you.”
Jackson gave a curious look at Wren. Studied him. Then, he sat down on the stairs and crossed his arms, resting them on his knees.
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Yeah, I know.”
“What is it?”
He didn’t answer for a while. Just dropped his gaze to his feet. Eventually he rubbed his face with both hands, ran them back through his greasy hair.
“The night they came…” he started. “I just needed a few minutes. You know?”
Wren waited, not sure where Jackson was going.
“I thought I was going to die. I knew I was going to die. So I shipped. I just needed a few minutes to do it. I hid in the safe place.”
Wren didn’t understand. People often shipped in the final moments of their lives, sending their consciousness off to a digital warehouse for preservation, effectively ending their own life.
“But… if you shipped, how can you be here now?”
“They didn’t find me. So I came back.”
He paused, sucked his teeth.
“But… I don’t think I came back alone.”
Jackson dropped his head into his hands, clenched his eyes tight. Pulled his hair back, tight.
“Night is a bad time for me.”
The two stayed silent for a time, Wren not sure how to respond, and Jackson seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Finally, Jackson was the first to speak. He stood.
“It’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you. Sometimes I just have trouble remembering which one is me. But I’m OK. Right now, I’m OK.”
Jackson stretched out his hand.
“Come on, little one. Let’s go get your mama.”
Three crouched at the entrance of the Vault, running his fingers along the edge of the gate where it separated from the wall. Eyes closed. Hunting for a mechanism or release that might activate the door. For now, he focused on solving the problem at hand, on reuniting Cass with her son. Once that was taken care of, then and only then would he let his mind consider the gathering storm that RushRuin surely presented for them.
His fingers brushed across a small, angular piece of metal just inside the gate. As he probed it with his fingers, he snuck a glance at Cass, standing nearby, wearing his coat. Chilled, pale; fragile. And somehow in her raw humanity, utterly captivating. Her eyes flicked to his, as if she felt his gaze. He didn’t look away.
“Any luck?” she asked.
Three shook his head, opened his mouth to explain he was unlikely to find any sort of way to open the gate from the outside. Instead, the sudden sound of straining steel. The gate shifted, rose in jerking steps. And suddenly, a gasp from inside, and a cry from without. A blur of motion. Cass on her knees, Wren in her arms, both sobbing. Inside the Vault, Three saw a gaunt young man operating a jury-rigged crank. The two nodded to each other. But for a time, it just didn’t seem right to speak. Even in this collapsed and decaying world, the reunion of mother and child demanded some semblance of reverence.
Three looked at the two of them, the delicate pair that he had brought out into the open. Without question, he was responsible for them now. And in a sudden flash he felt, without question, they were the mistake that would cost him his life.
And he wasn’t sure it was a mistake at all.