Wren pulled the hood of his coat down more snugly over his head, hiding his face in the shadow it cast. Not against the cold. He was plenty warm even in the winds that swirled from seemingly every direction here among the tall buildings. But with his hood up, he felt stronger, ready for whatever came next. Mama was walking a few steps behind him. She said she was fine, but Wren knew she wasn’t. She wasn’t sick, exactly, but he knew she wasn’t well. She needed her medicine, and soon. And until he could find it for her, it was up to him and Three to keep her safe.
Ahead, Three’s face was hidden in the depths of the hood of his coat, but Wren could picture his expression; the same one he’d seen for the past three days. Focused, eyes slightly squinting as they actively searched out the paths ahead. Wren furrowed his brow, imitated Three’s hard stare. After a minute or two, it kind of gave him a headache. He crammed his hands deeper into his pockets. In his right pocket, his fingers dabbled between the strobe and the practice blade Three had made for him. The cord-wrapped grip of the knife was rough against his skin. He wrapped his hand around the cool, seamless sphere of the strobe light. Pictured the swirl of tiny galaxies he imagined it could contain. Like having a star in a cage.
They walked on in silence for some time, but it wasn’t long before Wren noticed a pressure, steadily growing, in the air, in his chest. And it just kept growing. The crush and churn of crowds. The silent hum, the motionless vibration of hundreds, if not thousands, of others, moving, thinking, being; broadcast across the invisible spectrum of signal that Wren felt without understanding. He squeezed the strobe. Dropped back, slipped his free hand into his mother’s.
“We’re close now, Mama.”
And as though by speaking he had summoned it forth, there in front of them the first towers of Greenstone loomed. Hidden briefly when Three weaved through an angled side alley, they reappeared in full view at the end of the narrow corridor, and Wren gasped involuntarily. At the end of the alley where the three travelers stood together, the asphalt and concrete fell away in a gentle slope down into a wide basin where Greenstone stood, strong as an island mountain. Its high walls were mounted by small guard towers at regular intervals, punctuated every so often by massive watchtowers bristling with powerful lights and mounted weapons. Wren could see movement along the top of the wall: men on patrol.
“It’s like a castle,” Wren said.
“Or a prison,” his mother answered.
“Started as one, became the other,” said Three. “Still not sure which it is now.” Three turned and dropped to one knee, placed his heavy hand on Wren’s shoulder. “When we get in there, most important thing is to act like we know where we’re going. You start looking around like you’ve never seen the place before, people are gonna start asking questions, and they might not be asking us. We don’t want to stir up any traffic out of here.”
“What’s the plan?”
“First thing is to find a place to stay out of sight.”
He turned his back to them, surveyed the fortress below.
“Walk like you own it,” he said.
As he strode down the hill, Wren wondered who exactly Three had been talking to.
He hated to admit it, even to himself, but as Three led Cass and Wren towards the gate, a knot of fear grew in the pit of his stomach. Greenstone had proven to be a useful waypoint on many of his previous jobs, but for as many times as he’d visited, he still never felt he had control inside those walls. Too many variables, too many unknowns. The greenmen did an impressive job of maintaining security and some semblance of order, but it was understood that certain criminal elements were given run of their respective territories, as long as they kept their business relatively quiet. In reality, the bad guys outnumbered the good. It was just that the good guys were what kept Greenstone running. Not an uneasy peace. More like surface tension. Step too hard or too quickly, and you were gone.
Navigating that environment was tricky enough on his own. But with Cass around, and a kid in tow… Three shook his head, wondering if he was taking them all to their deaths. Or worse. Still, there wasn’t much to be had in the world that couldn’t be found somewhere in Greenstone, especially if you were paying Hard for it. At least they wouldn’t have to worry about locating quint for Cass for much longer. Here, even the premium chems were about as hard to find as a vein on a juicer.
Thirty yards from the gate, he was still considering options, few as they were. They were running on a knife’s edge of risk. This wasn’t his way. He was used to working the numbers, knowing the angles, controlling the game. Risking everything, but leaving nothing to chance. But since he’d picked these two up, it was all fast and loose. It was bound to catch up with them at some point. And there wasn’t much better a place for it than Greenstone.
Walk like you own it, he told himself. Nobody’s gonna stop you as long as you look like you know what you’re doing.
As they approached the main gate, a pair of greenmen stepped out from a small shelter. The big one held out a hand, motioned for them to stop.
“Afternoon,” Three said.
“Sir,” the big one replied. Professional, not friendly. “Where you comin’ in from?”
“Here and there.”
The second greenman stepped around to one side, his hand resting on some gunmetal chunk of tech on his belt. Three couldn’t identify the weapon exactly, but he got the gist. Something mean. The big greenman looked the three travelers over, face neutral.
“You gonna make trouble for me?”
“How long you plannin’ to stay?”
“Three days, maybe.”
“You bringin’ any contraband with ya?”
The greenman gave a fleeting smile at that.
“Yeah,” he said. The two greenmen exchanged a glance. Three reached deep, forced stillness. Greenmen were hard men: hard to read, hard to anticipate, hard to kill. Three realized the anxiety he felt over Cass and Wren was clouding his judgment of the situation. What was the glance? Was it “Get ready” or “What do you think”? The other greenman shifted on his feet, adjusted the Whatever It Was on his belt. Was he getting ready to draw? Did he even have to draw it to use it?
The muscle in the big one’s jaw was working. His eyes were level, probing. Taking too long. Something was up. Could Dagon have beat them here? Three slowly flexed his left hand and rotated his wrist, releasing the small blade from its secret housing, its grip sliding silently into his hand. The greenman’s high collar had steel fixtures; might deflect the blade. Have to go for the eye. Shield, draw, fire. One shot, make it count.
Then the big one nodded.
“Alright. You folks have a real nice stay.”
Three blinked, exhaled. Hoped no one noticed.
He pulled Cass and Wren ahead of him, nudged them along. As they passed the guards, Three quickly produced a pair of nanocarbon chips from his vest, and discreetly tipped the greenman a generous hundred Hard. Not required, but always appreciated.
“Cute kid,” the second greenman said, as the two guards headed back to their post. “Keep him close.”
Once they were inside, Cass dropped back a pace, and leaned in close.
“What was that?”
“Don’t talk. Just stay with me. Stay right with me.”
Three reached down and took Wren’s hand in his, drew the boy close to him, right up against his leg. Cass fell in a pace behind, but tight. And Three locked his gaze forward, powered his way towards his destination, doing his best to look like he was on his way to kill the man responsible for leaving this woman and child alone in the world. And trying to forget just how close he’d come to killing two of the good guys.
Cass followed as closely as she dared without stepping on Three’s heels. Fought to keep her eyes focused forward, her face grim, as if she’d been through these streets a hundred times before. For the first time, she had seen Three rattled, and that terrified her. Was it this place? Or had something happened with the guards that she’d missed? There was an electric edge, a lightning crackle around the fringes of each breath, that told her danger was on their heels here. Maybe all around.
She realized her fists were balled tight. Forced them to relax. She risked a glance around. It was different here. The buildings, the layout, the people. Greenstone was uniquely itself in the midst of a sea of sameness outside its walls. At its base, it was purely institutional: a cold gray concrete uniformity. Built for function. For control. Regular angles. Squares. Boxes. Bunkers.
And yet, life here had sprung up wild; lavish decorations covered every front, every window. Lights, paint, scrap welded into art. Some garish, some elegant, some shocking, some breathtaking. As if the populace, forced into a sterilized conformity, had rebelled in explosive individual expression. Celebrated it, even.
The people themselves, far from the rough-hewn and downtrodden survivors she’d expected, sported outfits of bizarre experiments in fashion. Tech as clothing. Faces tattooed into digital oblivion. A woman covered from head to toe in a color-swirling translucent plastifabric garment stood in apparent conversation with a small Asian man, naked from the waist up, who had circuitry embedded just beneath the surface of his skin in patterns like veins and arteries, giving the impression that if cut, he might bleed light.
Three strode purposely through the crowds, which were much denser than Cass had anticipated. It took nearly ten minutes to reach their destination. And to Cass’s eyes, the destination didn’t seem to be worth the walk. It was a narrow building that looked like it’d been wedged between the two on either side well after the other two had been built. The door was blacked out, and only about three-quarters the width of a normal door, and the front of the building was painted in a Japanese cartoon-styled motif, with a wild-looking samurai; shirtless, a piece of straw dangling from his lip, sword held high above his head, and a bottle of a well-known brand of Irish whisky dangling from his belt. A hand-written sign lay propped against the wall, apparently having fallen off the door and never repaired. Scrawled in red paint both in neo-kanji and common English, it read “Samurai McGann”. A dull, pulsing beat sounded from within.
Three paused, turned, and gently pushed Wren into her care.
“Keep to yourself in here. Clientele’s a mixed bag.”
“There isn’t a better place we can go?”
“Lotta connections run through here,” he answered, shaking his head. Then, after a moment, added, “And I need a drink.”
He pushed open the door, and the droning sound grew louder. Cass realized it was some fusion-style of music. And she wasn’t sure she liked it. She picked Wren up, and followed Three inside.
If Three had been worried about Cass getting them noticed, the fear seemed unfounded. As far as she could tell, no one in the place had even looked their way when they came in. The Samurai McGann was pretty clearly a bar of some kind, but beyond that it was tough to judge what exactly its business amounted to. There were tables, mostly occupied though not full, as well as hard-wire jacks and terminals for various transactions of questionable nature. Three found a booth off to one side of the place, and directed Cass and Wren in that direction. As she removed her pack and Wren’s and stashed them in a pile, Cass kept an eye on Three. He approached the bartender, had a brief conversation, and then came over and joined them. He slung his heavy pack onto the bench and dropped into the seat across from Cass.
“Where’s your drink?” she asked.
“Later. Gonna try to take care of some business first.”
Cass cradled Wren in her lap. His eyes were wide, drinking in the fresh assault on his senses, but he seemed to be in good spirits.
“Got any food here?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know you want it. Let’s see how things shake out first.”
Three was just turning to look back over his shoulder when there was a flash of motion. Three’s head went down, the muzzle of a jittergun pressed hard into the side of his face. He went still, and Cass’s heart stopped cold in her chest. It’d happened so fast.
Then, there was laughing. And the man with the gun was sitting at the table, grinning like a skull, and Three was half-smiling, shaking his head.
“Gettin’ slow in your advanced age there, Numbers,” the man said, apparently amused. “You get my letter?”
“No, Twitch. Still hasn’t come yet.”
An old, running joke apparently.
“Family man now?”
“Cass, her son Wren,” he said, motioning to each in turn. “Friends of mine.”
The man extended his hand, the stubby jittergun now safely in a holster he wore high on his belly, right next to its twin.
“jCharles,” he said. He was tall, thin, with sharp features. Quick movements, but precise, like he could start and stop at the exact point he wanted to, but move at top speed in between. Almost mechanical. Cass couldn’t help but wonder just how fast he could draw those jitters.
Cass shook his hand, as did Wren when it was offered.
“How long you in for?” jCharles asked, apparently to Three, though he was still looking at Cass.
“No longer than we have to be. We need some things.”
jCharles nodded, checked over his shoulder to the bar, and made some vague motions. The bartender nodded. jCharles turned back to Cass, smiled.
“My place. If I’d known you were coming, I would’ve cleaned up a bit.”
“What’s the word on q-dose?” Three asked.
Straight to business.
“Tabs or jector?”
Three looked to Cass, prompted her.
“No worries. Couple hours maybe.”
“And how about these?”
Three placed a closed fist on the table, opened it slowly. jCharles swept whatever it was into his hand, swift as a magician. He smiled and winked at Cass again.
“Spatz¸ brother. Thirties?” he said. Then grimaced, glanced at Wren, then back at Cass. “Sorry, I have a filthy mouth.”
Then to Three, slipping the item back to him. Cass figured it was an empty shell from Three’s pistol.
“I don’t think I can help you there. Eighteens I can do pretty easy. Maybe a couple twenty-fours at best.”
Three nodded, seemed to be expecting that. Cass suddenly felt a pang of guilt over her reckless firing outside the Vault, and wondered just how precious a resource she’d wasted. Far more than she’d realized, that much was certain.
The bartender swung by and dropped off four beverages. Three small mugs of a golden-brown viscous liquid for the adults, and something aqua and fizzy for Wren. It smelled vaguely fruity.
“Can I try it?” he whispered.
Wren leaned forward, and sipped out of the straw. His eyes lit up almost immediately.
“Good, huh?” jCharles said. “Made that one up myself.”
Wren nodded, and then sat back against Cass. Shyness setting in. Probably exhausted.
“And the big favor,” Three said.
“We need on the train.”
jCharles actually looked stunned by that. He let out a low whistle. “That’s quite a shopping list, brother.” He shook his head. “I can try to arrange a meeting, but that’s about the best I can do. Afraid you’re gonna have to talk to Bonefolder yourself for that one.”
“You can arrange it?”
“I said I can try to arrange it. No promises.”
“Try hard. It’s important.”
“Yeah, I’d guess so,” jCharles glanced at Cass and Wren again. A different look in his eye now. “Where you stayin’?”
“Nowhere yet,” Three answered. “Just rolled in.”
“Alright, I’ll set you up,” said jCharles. He swept up his mug, downed the contents, and then slammed it on the table as he stood. He moved like an animation skipping frames. “Drop upstairs if you want, Mol’s in. I got some business to attend to this afternoon.”
Three nodded, waved slightly, and jCharles was gone. Cass waited for Three to elaborate, but of course he didn’t. Finally, she prompted him.
“So… Bonefolder? That doesn’t sound like something we want to do.”
Three just nodded. Took a sip of his drink, grimaced, shook his head.
“Sit tight for a sec. I’m gonna go see Mol, let her know we’re here.” He stood, scanned the bar. Then added, “And do not chug that.”
Cass and Wren sat silently, Wren occasionally leaning forward to sip his drink. The Samurai McGann was a busy place, people coming and going, but mostly minding their own business. So it was strange when Cass saw the man by the door, staring at them. She didn’t recognize him, and he looked away quickly. Though there was something vaguely familiar about his eyes. As he walked out, she noticed he walked with a limp, but thought nothing more of it. It wouldn’t be until much later that she would place him.