Of course Cass had heard of it, seen scans of it, even projected to it once. But there at its very edge, confronted by the sheer, inexorable scale of it all… she found herself sitting without being able to recall ever having sat. She didn’t know how it had come to be known as the Strand, who had first named it so, but seeing it now in person made it seem there was no other name it could be called. It was as if some great ocean of destruction had rolled its unyielding tide through the city and then, upon its terrible recession, left behind only a shoreline of concrete sand and crushed humanity.
Even Three stood silent, despite the urgent pace he’d set before. He stared out over the vast, broken plain with tears in his eyes. Wren moved to Three’s side, and the man placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Cass scanned the horizon, its gray, fractured features rounded by wind and rain and time. It seemed endless. And impossible to cross. She understood now why Three had taken the risk of Greenstone and the Bonefolder. Without the train, the chances of making it to Morningside seemed farther away than ever before.
“We’ll never make it,” she heard herself say.
“It’s not impossible,” Three answered. “Difficult, but not impossible. I’ve done it before.”
She glanced up at him. He was still surveying the terrain, but his eyes were clear now. Purposeful. Already he was looking for solutions. And, she hoped, finding them.
“Forty miles across, if you keep straight. Miss your mark, it can get a whole lot farther. I’ve heard of Runners who’ve made it through in under five hours. But I’ve heard of a lot more who don’t make it through at all.
“Out there, there are no wayhouses. No maglevs. No functioning water systems. The Weir own the Strand, and there’s no place to hide.”
“Which part of that was supposed to be the good news?”
“Just want you to understand what we’re about to do. If there’s any good news, it’s that the Weir don’t much expect to find people in their stomping grounds. If we move quickly, keep quiet, and get lucky, we’ll make it.”
“I’ve never known you to trust much to luck,” Cass said.
He turned and went down on a knee, facing them both. “They track you by your signal. That’s what they see. In a way, it’s what they smell. Everywhere you go, you leave a trail they can follow. And will follow.”
Looking at Three there, kneeling by the edge of the Strand, it suddenly clicked for Cass. She’d come to suspect it based on fragments she’d picked up: Wren’s comments about not being able to feel Three, about him not being real, the strange markings and scars on his back, the ease with which he seemed to be able to take life. Now she understood how he could walk the open, day or night.
“But they can’t track you,” she said. “Because you’re disconnected.”
It was punishment of the cruelest sort, usually reserved for repeat offenders or, as in Dagon’s case, those deemed too dangerous to remain part of society. They called it sanitizing. Though, these days, the State wasn’t necessarily the only one with the power to unplug someone. Not that there was much of a State left.
His eyes met hers; held steadily. He didn’t seem surprised at all that she knew, or had figured it out. And she could see she was right. He shook his head slightly, but as was his way, he didn’t elaborate. “We’re losing daylight. We’re gonna push for an hour. Then we’re gonna find a place to hide.”
She wondered again just how deep and dark this man’s past really was. And she couldn’t help but wonder now if all he’d done for them had really been for himself. Some kind of atonement for deeds he’d never mention, and she’d never imagine.
“Running low profile, like you are, is gonna help us. But one active pulse, they’ll be on us. And we’ll never shake ’em. So both of you lock it down from here on out. Don’t try to gips a path, don’t pim anyone, don’t even check the time. We clear?”
Wren nodded. Cass stood, and gathered herself.
Three gained his feet and looked at her for a long moment in a way that made her suddenly self-conscious. He placed a hand on the top of Wren’s head, drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Then turned and faced the Strand.
“Stay close, stay quiet. And just maybe we’ll slip through.”
The bottom of the sun was just hovering above the horizon when Three found a place for them to stop. It couldn’t have been more than an hour, but Cass was already exhausted. The dust of the Strand was like soft gray sand; fine, and shifting under foot. She couldn’t face the idea of another thirty-something miles of that kind of travel. Wren was riding on Three’s back, having been unable to keep the pace that Three demanded. But now Three let Wren slide down off his back, and waited for Cass to catch up the few steps.
When she approached, he leaned close, spoke in low tones.
“We’ll stop here for the night.”
There were a few burned out and collapsed structures, none more than nine feet tall. One in particular, though, actually had two walls standing and a third fallen over the top that almost made something like a shelter.
“You don’t want to push on a little further?” she asked. “See if there’s something a little more…” She trailed off, not being able to find the word.
Three shook his head.
“Better to dig in here. There may be something sturdier another mile in, but it won’t do us any good if we’re staring at it when they come.”
Wordlessly, he went to work, and they spent the next twenty minutes tunneling a small nest for themselves back in the darkest corner of the shelter, and filling in holes where they could with debris. Cass suspected hiding would do little good out here. She eventually realized Three was going to so much trouble in an effort to give them an impression of safety, even if there was none to be had. By the time they’d finished working, they had a fully enclosed space with a narrow entrance. It would be a tight fit.
Three threw their packs down first, and then had Wren climb into the urban nest on top of them. Once Wren was inside, Three crouched at the entrance and reached inside, rustling Wren’s hair.
“You get some sleep, Mister Wren. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us tomorrow, OK?”
“OK,” Wren said. He nestled down as best he could atop the packs and lay on his side; curled, still, eyes open.
“Hey,” Three said. Wren looked at him, moving only his eyes. “You got your knife in there?”
Wren didn’t nod or take his eyes off Three. He gently rocked back just enough to show his tiny fist beneath his body, already clutching the grip of the blade Three had made for him. Three nodded, and Wren rolled back into his previous position, and stared at the wall.
“I’m gonna talk to your mama for a minute, alright?”
Wren just nodded. He blinked once, long and slow. Three stood and tugged Cass away from the entrance.
“How’re you doing?” he asked.
Cass shrugged. “Tired. But I’m fine.”
“You good to boost if you have to?”
She nodded. “I’m still running the first stack jCharles gave me. Still got a couple of shots left in it if I need them.”
“You won’t need ’em,” he said, too quickly. “Just wanted to be sure you were set.” He looked at her for a long moment, as if he had more to say. But then, he just added, “Alright. Let’s get you in there.”
He turned back towards the little shelter, but Cass stopped him with a question.
“Three, what’d you do?” she asked. He stopped. Just stood there for a moment. Still, the way only he could be, like he’d just turned to stone. Or had always been. “To get disconnected, I mean.”
He turned slowly, with a grim look. Wrestled. With the confession, she assumed.
“Whatever it was, I can handle it. You can tell me.”
“I know,” he said. He stared at the ground for a long breath, then inhaled sharply through his nose. Held. Then looked up, and answered.
“To be disconnected, you gotta be connected in the first place.” That took Cass by surprise. There was no way Three was old enough to have been born before they’d gone genetic, before connection had become inherited, like brown eyes, or high cheekbones.
“I… don’t understand.”
“You’re not supposed to, Cass. No one’s supposed to.”
“What, both your parents were sanitized or something?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, stepping closer. “I don’t know who my parents were.” He looked to the ground, then away to the horizon. Another step closer. “But I’m not what you think.”
“Then tell me what you are, Three. Tell me who you are.”
He turned his shoulder to her then, leaned against the broken wall, slid down it until he was seated. And suddenly he looked desperately weary. After long moments of silence, Cass sat down next to him.
“Back… before,” he started. Then, he raised a hand and swept it over the Strand. “Before. I was born into a very particular family. Raised for a very particular reason.”
She sat in silence, sensing that Three was fighting himself. Wanting to tell a story, his story, one that he’d kept secret for perhaps as long as he’d been alive.
“I lied before,” he said. “When I told you I had a sister. There was a girl, but she wasn’t my sister. I loved her like one. At least, I loved her the way I’d guess you might love a sister. We grew up together, in the same House anyway.”
He put a curious emphasis on the way he said house, as if it meant more than the building in which he’d grown up.
“We grew up together. We were the same. And they taught us, they trained us, to do certain things, to be certain things. When everyone in the world is connected… well, I guess there were uses for people like me. But then the world changed, Cass. And my House fell. And all those things we’d been trained to do didn’t matter anymore. Not in the same way. And they didn’t help me protect her. Not when I needed to most.”
He went quiet after that, and still, and the sun continued to slip below the horizon. After a while, he broke the silence.
“How long do you have?”
Cass understood the question, wondered how long he’d been wanting to ask it.
“A few months, I’d guess. Give or take.”
“Nothing to do?”
She shook her head. “It’s the quint. A body can only run so hot for so long.”
“Not even genework? Nerve replacement?”
“No. Believe me, I’ve looked. But no. When I went chemic, I knew what I was in for. But when you’re fifteen, living to thirty seems like forever.”
“That how you got hooked up with RushRuin? Pulling speedruns and security?”
Her turn now. It was only fair. She took a breath, and started in.
“It wasn’t RushRuin when I got started. There was a man, and I was young and scared. He wasn’t nice, but he was strong. And he liked me, so I let him.”
She hadn’t thought back to those early days in a long time. It seemed like someone else’s life.
“Called himself Zenith,” she said, with a scoff. All these years, it still sounded ridiculous. “Thought he was the ‘true peak of man’. He put a crew together, and let me tag along as his showpiece, used me when it suited him. Wasn’t too happy when I turned up pregnant.”
“And this is the guy you’re taking Wren to?” He sounded skeptical. Maybe a hint of shock, or anger.
“No, he wasn’t Wren’s father,” she replied. Hesitated. But they were being honest now, and it somehow felt right to tell the whole story. “He was Asher’s.”
Three didn’t respond, not verbally, but she could feel the realization sweep over him.
“Asher’s your son,” Three said. His tone even, controlled.
“Wren’s brother,” she added. “Well… half-brother.”
He made no further comment, and Cass suddenly felt compelled to fill in the blanks. “Zenith’s crew was pretty good in the small-time, back when we were running standard jobs. Sec/Net stuff mostly, identity spoofing sometimes. That’s when I started dosing. Making myself useful, you know.”
She didn’t say it, but she couldn’t forget the terrifying nights she’d withstood from Zenith, just to keep Asher safe.
“Eventually, we started getting attention from some big players, and Zenith brought in people like Jez, and Fedor and Kostya. They were fresh on the scene then, but they’d already dusted off some important people.”
“And that’s when you started the brain gigs?”
Cass shook her head. “Not until Wren’s father showed up. He was light years ahead of everyone else. Not just in our crew, everyone. The whole scene. As far as he was concerned, Sec/Net was doing things the hard way. He’d figured out how to go straight to the source. Right into someone’s head, find what you need, get back out.
“He was elegant, though. His way was to do the job so no one even knew he’d been there. Zenith hated him from day one, but he knew a moneymaker when he saw one.” Cass paused. She hadn’t really thought back to those times, not in a long while. Back to when she was young, and he swept in and changed her life. Old feelings stirred like autumn leaves rolling. “He was good. And he was a good man. That’s when we went big time. RushRuin. After a couple of runs, Ran and Dagon came on board. The Mountain and the Grave. They were at the top of the game back then. Freelancers. Everybody wanted them, and they came to us.”
“One big happy family.”
“Not Zenith’s. And he knew.”
“Everybody did. Except the father.”
“He left you there? With Zenith?”
“There was a… disagreement. He couldn’t stay. I couldn’t leave.”
“So your new man walked. And Zenith did what?”
“Got what was coming. Finally got too rough with me one night. Dagon was there.”
She grimaced at the image. The pain. The flood of relief. And regret. Three hadn’t looked at her since she’d started the tale. He was busy studying the horizon. Only the top quarter of the sun remained. She could see behind his eyes though, that he was busy putting the pieces together, processing.
“And Asher runs the show now,” he said. “It didn’t bother him that Dagon killed his father?”
“He was running jobs by the time he was ten. At first, because Zenith made him. But after I had Wren, he… changed. Started asking, begging to run jobs. Even ones Zenith wouldn’t take. Sometimes, Asher would do them anyway. After Dagon… after Zenith was gone, he just sort of took over. Didn’t miss a beat. Like he’d been groomed for it. And everyone seemed OK with it.”
“I was never OK with any of it.”
“He’s after Wren,” he said. “Because Wren is… Wren is something else entirely.”
“Wren shut him down, Three. Locked him out. At age five. No one else has ever been able to do that. And Asher can’t live without knowing how Wren did it, and Wren…” Tears started coming now, thinking about her boy, lying in a hole in the middle of the Strand. All because he didn’t want to see someone hurt. “That’s my baby he’s after. My baby. He doesn’t know how he did it, he can’t tell Asher what he wants to know. And Asher won’t stop… it’s an obsession. A disease. He wants to take my boy apart.”
“They’re both your boys.”
It stung to hear him say that, but he didn’t seem to have intended it to be anything more than a factual statement. Or maybe he was, for the first time, processing out loud. He looked to her, as if he suddenly realized how that had sounded. Placed a gentle hand on her forearm. She wondered that such rough hands could touch that gently.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
“No, it’s OK,” Cass said, wiping the tears off her face. “It’s true. Technically. But Asher ceased to be my son years ago. He’s more like his father now. And he wants everything his father had.” She dipped her head, looked straight into his eyes. “Everything.”
Three seemed to understand. But nothing seemed to shock him. She guessed he’d seen too much of the world to be surprised by any depths of depravity anymore.
“So we get to Morningside, and you find Wren’s father, and then?”
Cass was surprised to feel her heart drop under the weight of the question. Up until a few weeks ago, she’d been unable to imagine any other person in the world she could trust Wren to, once she was gone.
“I guess we hope he’s still as good a man as he once was.”
Three just nodded again. The sun’s final orange rays were tinting red now.
“Alright, girl,” he said. Her heart stirred when he called her that. “Let’s get you some rest, and we’ll see about getting you to your man.”
He stood, and lent her his hand, helping her to her feet. They stood close for a moment. He looked down deep in her eyes; she felt he was searching for something, and found herself wishing she knew what it was. Right now, she felt like she would tell him anything. Then he stepped back, moving out of her path to the shelter.
“It might get a little noisy tonight. But don’t worry. I’ll be watching over you.”
Cass only nodded in response, but somehow hearing those words, in that voice, with that certainty, gave her hope, comfort. She moved to the shelter, and worked her way in through the narrow opening. Wren was already fast asleep. As she settled herself in beside him, she heard Three moving near the entrance, and then it was suddenly dark.
“Three?” she called in a forced whisper. Orange light reappeared, and he looked in through the opening.
“Are you coming in?”
He shook his head. “I’m going to seal you in. Cover you up completely, just to be safe. I need to be able to see what’s going on.”
“Will you sleep?”
He smiled. “Later.” He started to cover over the entrance again, and then paused. “Hey, Cass. Wren’s dad. What’s his name?”
It struck her as an odd time for the question. Especially since he hadn’t seemed interested before.
“Underdown,” she answered. His expression wavered momentarily in some passing cloud of emotion. Then he smiled again, and nodded, and covered the entrance, and all was dark.