Three sat cross-legged on the floor, staring down the empty corridor, letting the hollowness fill him until he could taste it. He wanted to feel rage, wrath, a burning righteous fury to unleash upon the Weir when next they met. But here, now, in this heavy, silent hallway where the air barely dared to stir, he felt nothing. The emotions he had expected to surge and seethe were as dead as the shell of this underground city.
Loss was nothing new. He’d lost more than a few acquaintances out in the open, and even a couple he’d have dared to call friends. But Gev? If there was anything like family left in the world for Three, Gev had been it. And he’d never seen the Weir hit anything on this scale before. Gev, the Weir… Dagon. Too much to process.
And Cass. She’d played him, and he’d let her. He’d killed for her, nearly died for her, even left and come back for her. Even now he didn’t know why. Or wouldn’t admit that he did. He’d seen women and children plenty of times before, in the shelters, in the gutters, never thought of them as anything more than human debris. But these two… he felt something for them, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, identify it. Pity? Compassion? Was it the boy? Or his mother? He found her intensely frustrating. And even more fascinating. Such a small thing to be so fierce. He cursed himself for getting involved, for taking responsibility for someone else’s mistake. And all the while he felt that he’d never had a choice.
Cass and Wren were somewhere upstairs, in the top third of the Vault, high above him. At Three’s direction, Jackson had taken them to the Vault’s medical apartment, where they could get cleaned up and reconnected. He knew they needed that time together, to be close again, to know the other was alive, and safe, and real.
And he knew every minute he sat in the disquieting silence of these vacant catacombs was another minute lost. Standard procedure dictated that any action was better than none. But Three couldn’t shake the feeling that in this case the wrong action would be impossible to correct. It was chess, and he was running out of room to maneuver. His mind churned, rushing from one thought to the next, trying to sort through the collision of events. Searching for the solution. For an escape.
If Dagon had reported their location, it was possible that RushRuin was already on the way. But Dagon had crossed through the open by night, during the Weir’s peak hunting hour, without any apparent concern of being tracked. That gave Three a critical piece of information: Dagon must be disco’d. Which meant he had to do all his communicating the old fashioned way, face-to-face rather than via pim. That was some comfort, as Dagon couldn’t just tail them and constantly update the rest of the crew as to their location. It was equally troubling, though, to know that Dagon had tracked them precisely to their hiding point by purely physical means. Up to that point, Three had known they were being followed, but had assumed that it was the woman or the boy whose residual signal was giving them away. But now he couldn’t be sure. If Dagon was off-grid and a hound, he was a master tracker that even Three might not be able to shake. How exactly he had done it was a mystery. Three hated mysteries.
There was some calculated risk in lingering at the vault. By his way of thinking, with the time it took for Dagon to return and report their location, RushRuin would assume Three and his companions were on the move again. And even if they did send someone to the Vault to check, chances were Three had a better shot at picking them off or slipping them entirely here than in the open.
His thoughts flashed back to the early morning hours, outside the gate. Gev, his friend. Or rather, the husk of him, inhabited now by something completely other. Three wondered how many of the Vault’s old inhabitants were dead, and how many had instead been cored. And he wondered if there was any real difference between the two.
Jackson he’d known tangentially, remembered him as the kid who liked to wander. Gev had spoken of him often, usually complaining about his recklessness but always with a hint of fondness, like the proud uncle of a mischievous nephew. He seemed decent enough. A bit scattered, but clever enough to survive on his own for however many days or weeks it’d been since They had come.
And Three wondered for the first time if he’d have to add Jackson to the list of dependents. It seemed likely. Surely the kid wouldn’t want to remain behind, no matter where Three decided to lead them. As if there were anywhere left this side of the Strand that RushRuin wouldn’t follow.
He shook his head, trying to clear the scattered thoughts. Took a final deep inhalation, resigned himself to the fact that he’d have to rejoin the others sooner or later. The fatigue was getting to him. Tonight they would remain at the Vault. At first light, they would set out again, somewhere, and he knew that for every step by dangerous step of the journey they’d undertaken, what they had accomplished was nothing compared to what lay ahead.
Cass wondered what Three was up to. He’d disappeared a couple of hours before, saying he needed to scout out the rest of the Vault, leaving Jackson to look after her and her son. While he was away, Cass had bathed in crystal clear water that ran hot, hotter than she could stand. It’d been so long she’d almost forgotten it was possible to feel clean. Jackson had provided her and Wren both with clothes, worn but comfortable. And after she’d bathed Wren, Jackson had led them to the Commons, a section separating the entrance and work areas above from the living quarters below, and given them hearty rations in generous portions. Now, meal completed, feeling contented in nearly every way possible, Cass sat back in her chair with Wren on her lap, and for the first time really took notice of her surroundings.
The room was large enough for a hundred or so people to find places to sit, with tables of various sizes and shapes and salvaged chairs gathered into small knots and clusters. If not for the obvious scavenger atmosphere, the room wouldn’t have been out of place in any number of the outpost towns that Cass had been through before she’d left RushRuin, or after. But it had a cavernous feel now, with places for so many occupied by so few. And clean. Almost sterile. For all the trauma the Vault must’ve endured, it was strangely tidy. Jackson had kept busy.
Wren drove his shuttlecar back and forth along the oval flexiglass table making soft, rumbling engine noises. Jackson watched from across the table, fixated on the toy but eyes unfocused, distant. He’d certainly proved to be an almost overwhelmingly generous host, but there was an edge about him that Cass couldn’t place. Something wild lurked behind his youthfulness. The fitful attempts at small talk always trickled to nothing; Jackson seemingly content to sit in silence, and Cass unsure of what questions were safe to ask.
The bath and food had done her well, but the gnawing hunger of her nerves was growing steadily, and she could feel her eyes dancing in their imperceptible rhythms. At least she hoped they were imperceptible. Three’s synth had been surprisingly effective at preventing her cells from imploding, but it was becoming painfully apparent that the dose had been a substitute and not the real thing. Her limbs burned with pinprick fire, angry, like long-compressed nerves reawakening. Occasional flashes of pain shot through her tongue without warning, stainless-steel pangs without apparent cause or reason. She figured another two days. Maybe less.
“How long have you known Three?” she asked, rousing Jackson from his daze.
“Couple years, I guess. Maybe longer. Hard to say. He was always just sort of there, then not, if you know what I mean.”
“Strange one, that. Gev always had good things to say about him, but he always made me nervous. Not in a bad way, like he was going to hurt anyone or anything. Just kind of. I don’t know. Doesn’t feel right, yeah?”
“He isn’t real,” Wren said, still pushing his shuttlecar back and forth along the table.
He said it so matter-of-factly, but the comment hit Cass like a concrete wave. Wren had only ever described one other person that way before.
“What do you mean, sweetheart?”
“He’s just pretend. You know, like Dagon… sorta. Except not so weird.”
Jackson looked at Cass with questioning eyes, looking for any clue as to what her son meant.
Cass shook her head, processing. “Just someone we used to know.”
“Just someone who’s still lookin’ for you.”
His voice came from some corner, unexpected, startling. Jackson flinched visibly at Three’s sudden words. How long he’d been standing there, none of them knew.
“Guess I should knock.”
“Doubt it’d help,” Cass answered. “You sneak too much.”
Three half-shrugged a shoulder and approached, grabbing a chair and sliding it to the head of the table. He sat heavily, nodded to Jackson, rested his eyes on her. Studying. Cass tried to hold his gaze, but felt herself wilting. Every time she looked into those dark eyes she felt she was telling him everything she’d ever done.
“Jackson gave us a tour,” she offered. “You wouldn’t believe the Treasure Room—”
“We need to talk,” Three interrupted, more forcefully than she’d expected, almost impatient.
Three didn’t take his eyes off hers, just watched and waited. Like he had a lot to say, and didn’t know where to start. Or like he knew a secret.
“You guys want to work this out alone?” Jackson said. “I can take Wren—”
“Might be a good idea,” Three replied.
“No,” Cass answered. “You can go if you want Jackson, but Wren stays.”
Three and Cass stared at each other. Wren had stopped playing. Jackson just sat with both palms on the table, unsure whether to stay or leave. Three let a tense breath go by, then another. She wasn’t going to back down. The last time he’d separated them had nearly been catastrophic.
“Fine,” he said at last.
Three paused, gathered himself. She’d never seen him like this before.
“We’re in real trouble,” he said. No one seemed surprised. But no one had anything to add, either.
“When I agreed to bring you out here, it’s because I figured whatever heat you’d gotten into, you and the kid could wait it out here at the Vault. Best guess was that you got into owing some chemist more than you could pay. But it’s not like that, is it?”
Cass shook her head slowly, but didn’t offer any more. Didn’t even take her eyes from his. He pushed.
“This… whatever it is. It’s not gonna go away on its own. And they’re not gonna stop looking for you. Ever. That about right?”
“So. Is there anywhere left in the world for you to go that they won’t find you?”
For the first time, Cass let her eyes leave his, dropped them to the table. She felt her shoulders slump reflexively. Three had asked her the one question she’d been asking herself for however long it’d been since she started running.
“I don’t know who they are, but they wouldn’t come looking for anyone out this far, yeah?” Jackson asked. “I mean, why would they?”
“That’s a fine question. Cass. Why would they?”
She didn’t look up from the table. Didn’t answer.
“It’s my fault,” Wren said, in his quiet voice.
“It’s OK, Mama. I don’t mind.”
Wren looked at Three, then away, like he was ashamed.
“It’s me. I did something bad.”
Cass kissed the top of Wren’s head, hugged him.
“No, baby, you didn’t do anything wrong…”
Three remained motionless. Didn’t even seem surprised. Cass took over the explanation.
“You know Wren is,” she paused, searched for the word, “special. We were on a job. My crew, I mean. Kostya, Fedor, Dagon, we were all on it. And it was a tough one, tougher than most.
“Tough because we didn’t have much time to get it done, and there was this guy, this… individual, who wouldn’t cooperate. He was the key to everything. And I tried to get him to help us, I really did. But he wouldn’t listen. He kept saying we didn’t know who he was, what he could do, kept telling us what he was going to do to us… so one of ours went to work on him. Hard.”
She closed her eyes, hated dredging up the terrible past. Who she’d been. What she’d done. And what she’d made her child part of.
“Wren shouldn’t have been there. I didn’t want him to be there. But he was, and Asher…”
She caught herself, stopped. Glanced up at Three. She’d said more than she’d meant to.
“He was hurting him,” Wren continued. “Real bad. I didn’t mean to.”
“I don’t know what he did,” said Cass, almost whispering. “None of us do. But Wren made Asher stop. Stopped him. Long enough for the target to ship. We couldn’t finish the job. After that, Asher wouldn’t leave Wren alone. He wanted to know what Wren had done, how he’d done it. And Wren, you know, he just doesn’t know sometimes… but he just kept at him, and I couldn’t protect him forever… so we left.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Wren said. “It was an accident.”
Cass hugged him again.
“I know about RushRuin,” Three said. Cass silently cursed herself for slipping up, revealing Asher’s name. If Three knew about RushRuin, he’d know what they were capable of. And there was no way he’d stick around to help them now. “And I know they’re not in the business of running Sec/Nets.”
“I never said they were.”
“Said it or not, you let me believe it. Just as bad.”
She didn’t argue the point.
“Who’s RushRuin?” Jackson asked. Cass had almost forgotten he was there.
“Brainhackers,” Three answered, eyes still on Cass. “Some of the best.”
“The best,” Cass said. “I don’t know another crew that does the kind of damage they do.”
“And you’re one of them?” Jackson said, obvious awe in his voice.
“Was. I don’t do that anymore.”
For a moment they all just sat in silence. Jackson stunned by the truth, Cass relieved to have admitted it, and Three trying to figure out what it all meant.
“Bottom line,” Three said at last, “I shouldn’t have brought you out here. Not without knowing the facts.”
Cass felt stung, though not surprised.
“So you’d rather us be dead? My son and me?”
“I shouldn’t have gotten involved, Cass,” he said with a shrug. Never one for diplomacy. “But because I am, I’m telling you I shouldn’t have brought you out here, to the Vault. If I had known what you were running from, there might have been better options.”
“If you had known what we were running from, you wouldn’t have helped us.”
“I’m not gonna lie to you, girl. When you walked into that bar, you were just some skew with some kid you couldn’t take care of. Same story, seen it a thousand times. And you’re right, if I had known, no way I would’ve put my life on the line for you. But—”
If she hadn’t been so tired, she would’ve stopped herself. At least that’s what she let herself believe. As it was, Cass slapped Three across the face, hard. He took it, didn’t even try to stop her. He worked his jaw, tested the inside of his mouth with his tongue.
“But,” he continued, seemingly unfazed, “none of that makes any difference now. Right now, we’re together, and we gotta figure out how to keep it that way.”
Cass wasn’t sure what he was saying. Or didn’t want to let herself believe that maybe, hope against hope, he was saying he wasn’t going to leave them, even now, even knowing what they were really up against.
“You really gotta stop hittin’ me.”
Cass chuckled in spite of herself. It all seemed suddenly ridiculous, that she should be sitting here, in this place, with these people. She was weary, weary beyond imagining, but she was with her son, and right now it was enough. She was instantly sorry she’d hit Three, but couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“When you left, where’d you think you’d go?” Three asked.
For whatever reason, she didn’t care anymore. If Three knew about RushRuin, he might as well know everything. She owed him that much.
For a split-second, Cass almost thought she saw something like surprise on Three’s face. Jackson was more obvious.
“Morningside?” he said, looking like he might fall backwards out of his chair. “That’s on the other side of the Strand!”
“Yeah, I know where it is, Jackson.”
“But… that’s… there’s no way you’d ever make it.”
Cass glanced at Three, tried to gauge his reaction. As usual, nothing. He sat in stony silence, though his eyes were lively, active. Wheels turning.
“I mean… Fourover, Swingbridge, there’s plenty of big towns to get lost in this side of the Strand. What’s Morningside got worth the risk?”
She thought, weighed the options. She’d given up trying to guess Three’s way of thinking, or motivation. No real reason to hold back.
And somehow, once again, Three had made a decision without ever having had a choice. He was kidding himself if he thought he could leave Cass and Wren behind to fend for themselves. It might’ve been a mistake to get himself involved, but that was one mistake he could live with. Leaving these two alone to face Dagon, and Fedor, and this Asher, whoever he was, wasn’t a mistake he was willing to make.
It made some insane sort of sense. At least, tactically.
Jackson chimed in.
“Why don’t you just hide out here? There’s plenty of everything you need. You try to cross the Strand, there’s no way you’d make it.”
“There’s no way they’d expect us to try, either.”
The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like the best way, the only way, to escape. He’d crossed the Strand before, once out, once back. He could do it again.
“There’s a train, still runs out of Greenstone.”
“Greenstone?” Jackson cried. “That’s just as bad! Maybe you could do it, but no way you could take them. No way.”
Jackson was growing agitated, Three noticed. He chalked it up to loneliness. The kid had been through a lot. They were probably the first people he’d seen since the Weir had come.
“Easy, kid,” Three said, shooting Jackson a glance. He looked over at Wren, who was staring blankly at his shuttlecar. “Mister Wren, you alright?”
Wren looked up through glassy eyes, and nodded.
“You look like you could use some sleep.”
“I’m OK,” Wren said, immediately suppressing a yawn.
“Cass, how about you let your boy get some rest, while you and I work out details?”
He framed it as a question, though it wasn’t a request. Cass picked up on the tone, seemed to understand. Nodded.
“I’m not sleepy, honest,” Wren said.
“I know, sweetheart, but it’d be good if you could lie down for a bit. We’ll have to leave soon, and I don’t know how long it’ll be before we’ll have a real bed to sleep in again.”
Cass kissed Wren on the top of the head.
“I don’t wanna take a nap.”
“Just rest then, OK? You won’t miss anything, I promise.”
Cass looked to Jackson, who was bouncing his legs up and down, anxious, restless. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
“Jackson, you think you could sit with him? So he’s not alone?”
Jackson glanced around the room, sucked his top lip, nodded.
“Sure. Yeah, sure, no worries,” he said, standing and offering a hand to Wren. “C’mon, little one. We’ll let your mom sort it out, yeah?”
Wren nodded, slid out of Cass’s lap, and took Jackson’s hand. Cass squeezed Wren’s shoulder as he moved away. The two walked to the nearest exit, brothers in exile. Just before they disappeared, Cass called after them.
Three watched Cass as her son disappeared. Corners of her mouth taut in that mix of emotion mothers so often feel as they watch their children leave a room: pride, love, warmth, sadness.
“He’ll be fine.”
“I wish I could believe you.”
Jackson sat in a low Temprafoam chair at the foot of the futon where Wren slept soundly. A small lamp shone golden-orange in the corner, casting the room in a dull tribute to sunset. Jackson looked at Wren curled there, oblivious to the world in the way only children can be. Kid hadn’t gotten much sleep, he guessed, and he couldn’t really blame the boy. So young, separated from his mama, trapped in a pitch-black urban cavern with a probable lunatic. Now that he thought about it, Jackson had to admire Wren for taking it all as well as he had.
He shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t belong.
The voice was in his head, but it wasn’t his own. He wasn’t sure whose it was, or what it was doing there. But it was angry. They’d been starting earlier lately. And there seemed to be more of them than there’d been when he first got back. Or did he just think that? Not like he’d been keeping notes, or counting names.
Make them leave. They’ll only make more trouble for us.
Jackson tried to ignore it. Sometimes that worked. He watched Wren’s easy breathing. The contented look on the boy’s face. Tried to imagine what his life had been like up to now, figured he couldn’t even guess. His mama was pretty beat up. And gorgeous.
She could be ours. She should be ours. We saved her.
And the man, Three. Gev’s friend. He’d come and gone as he pleased, seemingly content to wander in the open without any apparent obligations.
He doesn’t deserve her!
Jackson wasn’t sure what had brought the three of these people together, or who this RushRuin was that was chasing them. It didn’t really matter. If the boy were gone, and the man, who would she have to turn to?
Us! She would stay with us!
No, she doesn’t belong!
We could make her belong! She could be one of us!
He straightened the blanket that covered Wren. The boy was blond and pale, vibrantly pale in a way that made him seem more alive, more healthy, than anyone had right to be in this world. Jackson would’ve said angelic, if he’d believed there could be any such thing. And he had a sudden urge to smash the boy’s face.
“No!” Jackson said aloud, to himself. The voices shrunk back at the sound of his, but only for a moment. Wren shifted.
The boy. The man. Gone. We could console her. She could stay with us.
He wanted desperately for the voices to stop, for Cass to stay, to be his own again, to give the voices what they wanted. His eyes clenched with the strain. Tears streaked. Pain.
“All I have to do,” he said to himself, “is nothing. Just. Do. Nothing.”
Jackson balled his hands into tight fists, felt his nails bite into his palms, his knuckles burn with the tension. This wasn’t the first time. But it hadn’t been this bad before. There seemed to be more of them. Angry.
You know how!
Yes, do it! Make her ours!
We deserve it!
It’s easy! The boy is sleeping, he won’t fight!
Too much. Jackson stood. Crept to Wren. Leaned over him. The boy so peaceful. Beautiful. A stained-glass window of all that was right and missing in the world. Unfair.
Jackson’s hands moved of their own accord.
They’d made as much of a plan as they could. They’d leave at first light, and make for Greenstone. How they’d manage to get on the train, if it was even possible, they’d figure out once they got there. One thing at a time.
Without thinking, Three reached out, ran his thumb along Cass’s cheekbone, gently. Felt her tense under his touch. But not flinch. He knew he should pull his hand back. Didn’t. Her eyes flicked to his, searching.
“We gotta get you some rest, girl.”
“If that’s all you’ve got, save it,” she said.
She swatted his arm with a backhand as he withdrew. Three found himself half-smiling without knowing why.
She blinked, slowly. Shook her head. She’d lied about her burn rate, he knew. She was holding it together well, all things considered, but he could see it. The paleness of her lips, the dancing pupils, the tremble of her hands that she tried to conceal. They’d have to find her quint again, no doubt. Shouldn’t be a problem in Greenstone, if they made it that far. But it’d be nice to know just how long they had before she needed her next hit.
“Anything else you wanna tell me?”
Her eyes dropped, brow furrowed. She placed both hands on the table, palms down. Drew a breath.
“They want my son…” she started. No surprise there. Cass paused, lingered. Traced a small circle on the table between them. Three waited. Willed her to own up.
Come on girl, let’s have it all. How long till your next dose?
The circles on the table got smaller, slower. Then, without looking up, she told him the rest of the story.
“They want my son,” she repeated. “And I’m dying.”
Somewhere, far below, an inhuman cry echoed.