“We can’t—” Cass panted, “What’re you doing? We can’t go out there! Not now!”
Three whipped back, stared hard into the airlock where Cass and Wren huddled together. He spoke calmly, in low tones, but an animal ferocity lurked behind the words.
“Inside those walls, there’s nowhere left for you. Out here, with me, you have a chance.”
He watched her shift, glance around the inside of the airlock, look to Wren. He was right, and he knew she knew it. They couldn’t afford to debate.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “Now.”
Three turned, started on his way. “If you want to see the sunrise,” he called over his shoulder, “stay with me.”
He didn’t bother to look back. She and the kid would catch up. Or, if not, they wouldn’t be his problem anymore. He shook his head at that. They weren’t even his problem now, or wouldn’t be if he hadn’t inserted himself into whatever trouble they were in. He’d killed two men for them already, though, and he was past trying to figure out which side of the law they were on. They were on his side now, or he was on theirs. Whatever side it was, he had to believe it was the right one.
Footsteps hurried up behind, and Three couldn’t decide if he was glad to hear them. He’d have to wait and see, figure it out later, once he could tell for sure whether or not this was the thing that was going to get him killed.
The trio pressed on in silence, through the battered asphalt streets and concrete alleyways, gray labyrinthine walls pockmarked by uncounted years of neglect and decay. The day’s final rays of sunlight filtered low through the crumbling architecture, highlighting the particles that swirled in the approaching evening’s breeze, dust of the bygone: man’s only truly lasting legacy to the world. Three moved with a steady, urgent pace, one that Cass and Wren fought to keep. As long as they kept it, though, he didn’t care how much they struggled.
As the last glimpse of the sun finally dipped below the horizon, Three halted at an intersection, eyes searching north, then south, then north again. They had to be close. But close wouldn’t count once the sky was dark. His mind raced, trying to remember the details, while his eyes scoured their surroundings for any sign of what he was looking for.
“What is it?” he heard Cass say, her voice floating somewhere distant, background to his thoughts. “Why are we stopping?”
Three glanced up, found the maglev line, rusted and sagging, running back towards the enclave. North, he decided. Better to pick one and hope than to stand idle, indecisive.
He moved on again, northward, as the sky deepened its blue above them, and burned fiery orange at the horizon. Fifty meters. A hundred. Two hundred. Still no sign. He’d guessed wrong. They couldn’t make it now, not before…
There. Through an alley, he saw it. He checked the sky. Fifteen, twenty minutes. Maybe less.
Three broke into a jog, heedless of the distance he was opening between himself and the others. He found the entrance to a small concrete building; short, squat, with its heavy steel door hanging rusted on it hinges. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cass huffing down the alleyway to catch up, Wren bouncing along piggyback, arms tight around her neck. Three set to work, alternately knocking rust from the hinges, and shoving inward on the door.
“What is this place?” Cass asked, lowering Wren to the ground. Her breathing surprised Three with its steadiness, its relative ease. They’d covered a lot of ground, for someone of her stature. He wondered how long she’d been carrying the boy, chastised himself for not noticing earlier. Only one set of footsteps instead of two. Should’ve caught that; heard it.
He didn’t bother to answer her. She’d see soon enough, and every second he spent explaining was another second lost. He knocked another layer of rust off the bottommost hinge, and threw himself into the door. It shrieked in the gathering dusk, the scream of disused metal, and bent inward an inch, perhaps two. Again, Three rammed his shoulder into the rusting steel. Again, an inch, no more. He turned, put his back against it, strained, teeth-gritting, felt the frozen hinges crack, but hold. He closed his eyes, willed the door to open, to no avail.
Then, next to him, firm, strong, warm against his shoulder — Cass. Her shoulder buried into the door, feet planted. Together now. Her strength surprised him. The door shrieked again: four inches, now eight. Cool, damp air flowed out from the heavy darkness within. Three and Cass reset themselves, readied for a final shove. Wren joined in, tiny hands spread on the door, hip-level to Three. Together, they forced the door open to nearly a foot. As the screeching echoes died away, a new call answered: shrill, distant, electric.
Cass spun, faced Three. He saw fright there, complete and constricting horror. She seized his arm, nails biting into his biceps even through his coat. They were too late. The Weir were abroad. Hunting.
A second digital scream sounded, still distant, but unmistakably closer. And a third, calling in answer. Three had brought the woman and her boy out here to protect them. And that was what he meant to do. He pried Cass from him, gripped her forearms in his fists.
“Listen,” he said, looking hard into her wet, vacantly staring brown eyes. There was no recognition there. “Hey! Hey!”
Cass’s eyes cleared, fixed on his.
“You can still make it. You and the boy. Get in there.”
He pushed her towards the opening, and then caught Wren by the shoulder, and shoved him to her.
“Go on, boy. You’ll fit.”
Wren stared wide-eyed at Three, at the darkness yawning from the doorway, at his shaken, trembling mother.
Another shriek, echoing down the alleyways, closer; much too close this time.
“Go, Wren, go, now baby,” Cass said, pushing Wren into the gap in the door. “I’m right behind you.”
Wren slipped in without effort, tiny frame instantly swallowed by the black void waiting inside. Cass followed, though not as easily, wedging herself in, struggling through. The entryway was narrow enough without the frozen gate blocking the way, and Three watched as Cass curved herself around the door with shuffling side steps. Finally, she was in. She disappeared momentarily, then peeked her head back around the door.
Three remained in place, just holding out his hand to her.
Cass looked down at the chemlight laid across his palm. Her eyes darted back to his, understanding. She shook her head vigorously, but he cut her off, twisting the top of the light, igniting it, thrusting it towards her.
“Take it! Follow the stairs all the way; all the way to the bottom,” Three spoke rapidly now, directing, commanding. “Once you’re there—”
Back down the alley, a pair of electronic shrieks called, responded. Fifty meters away, or maybe twenty. The way sound bounced through the cement corridors made it hard to know for certain. Three saw Cass start to slip again.
“Hey, are you listening?”
She refocused, nodded.
“When you’re at the bottom, follow the pipes to the first alcove you find, get in it, and kill the light.”
He felt her hand on his, half-closed around the chemlight.
“What about you?” she asked. He glanced back down the alleyway, back the way they had come. At the far end, a faint blue light shone, sweeping, searching. He looked back to Cass.
“If I don’t get to you by sun-up, head north.”
He slipped his hand out from under hers, and pushed her gently back. Then, grasping the door handle, Three pulled with adrenaline-fueled strength, and sealed Cass and Wren inside.
As the rolling echoes from the slamming door died off, Cass found herself standing in a pool of pale yellow light at the top of a cement landing, with Wren wrapped tightly around her leg. For a moment, she considered pressing an ear to the door, but the urgent directions sprang to mind, and she thought better of it. She reached down, and took Wren’s hand.
“Come on, baby,” she soothed, annoyed at the tremble in her own voice. “We need to head down… there.”
She held the chemlight out, saw steel-grated stairs, rust-coated but sturdy, trailing off into the darkness below. The pool of light illuminated no more than the first five steps, and she wondered just how far “down there” really was.
“Can you carry me?” Wren asked. He seemed surprisingly unconcerned, and that made Cass feel stronger.
She knelt; let him scramble up on her back again. His warmth was comforting.
“Here, you hold this,” Cass said, handing Wren the light. “Hold it out in front, so we can see where we’re going.”
“Like a maglev,” he replied, almost cheerful.
Cass allowed herself a half smile, as she stood, hooking her arms under Wren’s legs, and adjusting him on her back. She was almost jealous of his apparent fearlessness, even knowing it was born of ignorance.
“I’ll be the train,” she said, “and you can be the driver.”
“OK…” said Wren hesitantly, swallowing hard. Cass looked back, saw him staring down into the blackness below. “But not too fast.”
Maybe not as fearless as she’d thought, or perhaps hoped.
“Slow and steady, baby. We’ll keep it on the rails, alright?”
He tightened around her, she felt him nodding against her back. He held the light at arm’s length, showing the few steps ahead and no more. Cass took a deep breath. Slow and steady. Together, they began their descent.
The gloom was heavy, cool, damp; smelled vaguely of earth, and dust, and water. An urban cavern. But one full of energy, as if the darkness that enshrouded the pair were itself alive, eager to consume the meager light they wielded, to embrace them, and perhaps devour them as well. Each step brought a creak or groan of steel, stairs long-unused reawakening to their purpose for the first time in unmeasured years, or even decades. A narrow handrail marked the edge. Cass pressed her shoulder to the wall opposite, mistrusting the protection the rail seemed to promise, and fought the resistance she felt emanating from further below, the timeless fear of the unknown. Forward, onward, downward she drove herself, despite the growing temptation to return to the relative safety of the landing above.
Fifteen stairs down, the steps turned abruptly left, ninety degrees. After another fifteen, another ninety-degree left. This became the pattern as Cass descended, with Wren fidgeting upon her back. The air grew cooler and damper. Cass wondered how far below the streets they’d come. And she wondered where the man that brought them here was now. She hoped he was still alive. Had to believe he was, no matter what the odds against it were. She realized for the first time she didn’t even know his name.
“I’m tired,” Wren said, softly. “Can we stop?”
“How much longer?”
Cass continued on, legs and knees aching, wondering for herself how much farther they had to go. Internally, she checked global-time. 19:07 GST. Outside, somewhere high above them, night had settled fully. One foot in front of the other; automatic now. They’d been descending for nearly half an hour, though at their current, cautious pace, Cass had no idea what distance they had traveled. Not nearly as far as it felt, that was certain.
She felt Wren’s grip around her shoulders slacken, his head bump down on her back. His arm, stretched out in front of her, began to lower slightly, slowly.
“Wren,” she said, quietly. She hated the way her voice sounded in the utter silence, as though speaking drew unwanted attention from the darkness, or whatever might be lurking hidden within it. “Wren?”
Wren’s small hand continued to lower, grip relaxing on the chemlight. Cass reached up instinctively to catch it. Without her arm supporting his leg, Wren slipped sideways on her back, jolted suddenly awake. The chemlight flew from his hand, danced on Cass’s fingertips.
For a breathless second—
—she almost thought she’d caught it.
Instead, it clattered to the stairs, bounced, skittered to the edge. And fell. Cass watched in horrified silence as the pale yellow light shrank into the void, and disappeared, swallowed by the blackness. She never did hear it hit the bottom.
For a time, neither of them spoke, or moved, in the utter darkness that encased them. Then, Cass felt Wren’s slight shudders, knew he was sobbing, silently, mortified. She swallowed her own panic, anger, disappointment.
“It’s alright, baby. It’s OK.”
Carefully, she knelt, feeling the wall to her side to maintain her sense of direction, and swung Wren around, embracing him. Reassuring him; feeling hopeless herself.
“It’s OK, Wren. I shouldn’t have made you carry it all that way. Don’t cry, sweetheart, it’s not your fault.”
He buried his face into her shoulder, hot tears falling on her neck. She caressed his head, ran her fingers through his hair, soothed him; screamed inside. She dared not turn around, couldn’t face the ascent, but her heart revolted at the idea of continuing further down without any way to see what might lie ahead. What if the stairs had given out down below? And who knew what creatures might have found their way in and made their nests in here? Cass’s mind exploded with the possibilities, none of them pleasant.
In the end, she couldn’t bring herself to continue on without some sense of where they were, or where they were headed. Even with the risk it posed, it seemed like the best option of very few. Cass shut her eyes, accessed distant satellites high above the earth, pinpointed herself, identified their current location. She’d already done all she could to mask her signal. Hopefully, no one would notice the query.
Within seconds of finding herself in the world, she had blueprints. They were in the storm-water system, seventy meters of one hundred below the surface. According to the schematics, the concrete floor lay thirty meters further down, a junction between miles of pipes and ducts, each carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of water back and forth from collection points to treatment centers and on to distribution. The entire system was automated, and apparently remained functional, even now. Knowing where she was somehow soothed Cass, stole some of the menace from the darkness. She felt strengthened.
Only for a moment. Somewhere, high above, the silence was rent by the piercing shriek of steel. Cass knew in an instant. Someone, or something, had breached the door. She wanted to believe it was the man, coming to get them. The dread in her heart told her it wasn’t.
“Come on, baby.”
Cass swung Wren up on her hip, adrenaline coursing, heart pounding. In the complete blackness, she took the steps down, two at a time. Knowing they were closer to the bottom than the top gave her some courage, but she knew how slowly she’d taken that first stretch. There was no way to tell how quickly whatever it was would descend.
Around and around they twisted, Cass plunging her feet down into darkness, hoping with every step that there would be a stair below to meet them. Then. Finally. Concrete. They hit bottom so quickly, she stumbled to a knee on her second step, expecting to find another stair instead of level ground. A pale yellow light shone weakly not far away.
The chemlight. Miraculously, it hadn’t broken in the fall. Cass scrambled to it, seized it, raised it high to get her bearings. Follow the pipes, he had said. To the first alcove.
A long concrete corridor, smooth and rounded, tunneled from the base of the stairs, off into apparent oblivion. Along the wall, oxidized pipes stacked atop each other, some merely as wide as Cass’s arm, others large enough for her to have crouched inside, had there been a way to enter them. They were beaded with moisture, much as Cass was, despite the coolness of the air. She pressed on in the dim light, searching for a break in the wall.
Wren’s arms tightened around her neck, and he pressed his mouth to her ear, speaking in a ragged whisper.
“Mama… Mama…” the boy choked out, like a child caught between wakefulness and nightmare. “It’s coming!”
Cass could hear the fear in his labored breathing, felt it herself, in her bones, like a great grasping claw just at her heels. She didn’t dare look behind. She jogged on, trying to keep the balance between silence and speed.
Behind them, a strange sound. A flapping sort of echo, like bat’s wings. Or bare feet upon the stair.
There. Just ahead, on the right. A break in the wall. The first alcove.
The pipes continued on, passing over top of the niche. By ducking down, Cass found she and Wren could slip in behind them, though once they did, she couldn’t see the point. It was a dead end, only six feet deep; deep as a grave, and no more. But it was all they had. She took Wren to the far wall, as far back as they could go, sat him down on her lap, between herself and the wall, switched off the light.
Cass fought to quiet her own breathing, to calm her thumping heart. The blood in her ears made it impossible to be sure whether or not those were footsteps in the corridor. In the next instant, she had her answer.
An evil croak, a mixture of loudly exhaled breath and digital static, echoed down the concrete tunnel. Instinctively, Cass cradled Wren to her, buried his face in her breasts. He clung to her with trembling hands. Silence. Then, again, the harsh electronic cry. This, now, followed by shuffling steps, growing louder, closer. Cass’s mind scrambled for options, to think of anything she might have to use as a weapon. Realized she had none.
A faint ice-blue glow began to spread at the entrance of the alcove, so faint at first Cass wasn’t sure she could see it. Slowly, gradually, it intensified, until there was no mistaking it. The shuffling steps continued.
The man had brought them out from the safety of the wall, sent them here, sent them here to die. And she had let him. Cass bent her head, silently pressed her lips to Wren’s damp hair, kissed him goodbye. She took the slightest trace of comfort in knowing that at very least, Asher would never take Wren.
The footsteps ceased. The entryway was bathed in soft white-blue light, slowly, faintly pulsing. The inhuman cry sounded again, shocking, intense in its proximity, and Cass realized a Weir was standing at the entrance, its blue-glow eyes roving to find them, searching. Through a gap in the pipes, she caught a glimpse of the pinprick orbs, smoldering in their sockets. Her heart caught in her throat, chest constricted in terror.
Shuffling steps resumed. It moved on, further down the tunnel, croaking every so often. Light faded, and eventually sound vanished as well, leaving Cass and Wren clinging together in the uncertain safety of the alcove. Neither dared to speak. They hardly dared to breathe.
Finally, after a time, Cass allowed herself to believe they were alright. She checked the time again: 19:29 GST. Just twenty-two minutes had passed since their pitch-black flight down the stairs. It was going to be a long night. Wren leaned heavily on her, limp, breathing with the deep rhythm of exhaustion. Cass shifted her weight, brought her coat up and around them both, leaned her head back against the wall.
But sleep wouldn’t come. Not for her, not here in this place. She fought the urge to turn the chemlight back on, though the promise of its meager light seemed like water to parched lips. The blackness began to work on her mind, making her see things, hear things she knew weren’t there, couldn’t be there. Fedor, Kostya. Asher. Asher and his hounds, hunting them, finding them, seizing Wren, and taking him back. She couldn’t let that happen. She wouldn’t let that happen.
Cass accessed the satellites again. The man had told them to head north when the sun rose. But she didn’t know why, or what they should be heading for. She scanned, just pulses at a time, always releasing connection after a few seconds and siphoning a new one to avoid trace. North. Miles and miles of urban wasteland. Nothing surprising there. She panned the internally displayed image, eyes open, seeing the image projected onto her corneas, not the darkness beyond. Nothing stood out, no exceptional towns, no safe houses, no signs of life. Unless… She isolated; zoomed.
A soft white-blue glow engulfed her. The Weir had doubled back.