Cass surveyed the weary faces around the table. The Council had gathered yet again, this time before dawn, and patience was thin. Though saying they’d gathered was misleading, since they hadn’t ever departed after the chaos that erupted during Wren’s address. That had been intended to soothe fears and tensions. Instead, it had ignited them. Or rather, certain elements had chosen that particular moment to ignite them. Looking around that table, Cass couldn’t help but wonder who among them could be trusted. At the moment, she felt like there were none.
It took all the discipline Cass could muster to force herself to sit there, in yet another meeting, listening to these people talking to one another. That seemed to be all they ever did anymore.
She looked at Wren, seated on her right at the head of the table, his eyes vacant, ringed underneath with dark half-circles that gave him a bruised look. He sat staring, unfocused, at his hands folded in his lap, either listening intently or completely lost in his own thoughts. She hoped he’d at least be able to keep his eyes open.
“Bottom line is, we’re losing control,” Hondo said. He wasn’t even bothering to try to sound diplomatic. “That little protest was just the beginning. We’re lucky we were able to put it down so quickly.”
“It’s not luck to have a strong show of force prepared ahead of time,” Aron said.
“Regardless. We don’t want people to start thinking they can take matters into their own hands. Once that starts, it won’t stop until the whole city’s in ruins.”
“What about a curfew?” Vye offered. “Just until things cool down.”
“Too dangerous,” Aron said. “We don’t have the manpower to enforce it, not if it’s challenged. The last thing we need is all these people figuring out we can’t control them.”
“I think a curfew is a must. At least a start. We could pull the guards off the wall,” Rae said. “Use them to beef up the presence in the city, especially around the hotspots.”
“And what about the Weir, Rae?” Hondo snapped. “You think they’ll just wait till we get back before they try again?”
“There’s no reason to think they’ll try again,” Connor said. Aron looked at Connor sharply.
Connor added, “I mean, not necessarily.”
“I agree with Connor,” Vye said. “The Weir haven’t been a real concern for a long time. I don’t think we should assume there’s a reason to worry about them more now.”
“You weren’t there, Vye,” Cass said. “There’s reason enough.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” Aron said. The tone of his voice changed; lower, less sharp, more thoughtful. It made Cass uncomfortable. “Maybe they haven’t been enough of a concern.”
“If you’ve got a point,” Hondo said, “make it.”
“All this drama we got going on inside the walls of our city, over what? Some people don’t like some other people. So what? That’s always been. But it’s like people forget why we have the wall in the first place.”
“And what?” Rae said.
“Maybe they need a reminder.”
Hondo barked a humorless laugh. “What’d you have in mind, Aron? Leave a gate open overnight?”
“I don’t know exactly. But something to shake these people up. Remind ’em what’s out there. And remind ’em who it is that keeps ’em safe.”
Rae shook her head dismissively. “This isn’t even worth discussing, Aron. Out of the question.”
“Well, hold on, Rae,” Connor said. “There’s no harm in talking it through.”
“Just a means to an end,” Aron said with a shrug.
Cass didn’t like where the conversation was headed, but at the same time she felt like the longer she let it go, the more insight she could get. Wren hadn’t budged.
“This is insane. You’re talking about terrorizing your own people,” Rae said.
“I’m talkin’ about gettin’ on top of a dangerous situation, Rae. I don’t see any good choices right now, just a bunch of bad ones. And maybe keepin’ people a little scared is worth it if it keeps ’em in line.”
“If we don’t do something, the city’s going to destroy itself,” Vye said quietly. “Drastic times, drastic measures.”
“I’m not talking about doing nothing. I’m talking about not doing something we know is fundamentally wrong! And when have drastic measures ever turned out well?” Rae said.
“What about the machine?” Connor asked. The Council went quiet at that. Even Wren looked up at the mention of Underdown’s device.
“What about it?” Cass said. Connor’s eyes went to Wren. The implication wasn’t lost on anyone.
“No, absolutely not,” Rae said. “I can’t believe you’d even think that was a possibility. We should’ve destroyed that thing long ago.”
“Well, we didn’t,” Hondo said. “And I for one am not sorry. It might be useful someday.”
“It might be useful now,” Aron added.
“I can’t believe this,” Rae said, standing up. “Has it really come to that? Have we really come to the point where we’re looking at Underdown’s tyranny as a model for how to govern?”
“Argue with his methods all you want,” Aron said. He was leaning back in his chair now, picking at a fingernail. Relaxed. Like his mind was made up. “One thing you can’t argue is results.”
“I’m not going to sit here and even pretend to entertain something as despicable as what you seem to be implying. Am I the only one in here who thinks this is crazy? Cass, surely you don’t agree…” Rae said.
Of course Cass didn’t agree. Of course she couldn’t condone ruling by fear. Of course there were other options. But what were they? She didn’t know, not immediately, but she did know that no matter what other course they might be forced to pursue, her son wasn’t going anywhere near Underdown’s machine. Cass opened her mouth to respond. But North raised a hand and stopped her.
“I would hear our governor’s words before those of his mother,” North said. “Let the boy speak.”
Wren had been watching the discussion bounce around the table ever since Connor had mentioned the machine. He looked at her now, eyes searching hers for an answer.
“Your own thoughts, Governor,” North said. He leaned forward and placed his hands on the table, focusing his attention on Wren and, in doing so, directing the rest of the Council to do the same. Now, Wren fixed his gaze on North. For a long moment, Wren sat silently. But Cass could tell from the look on his face that he knew what he wanted to say, he just hadn’t figured out the exact words yet. Finally, he sat up a little straighter.
“I think anything built on a lie is bound to collapse eventually. Seems like the truth always finds a way to break out. That’s why I’m governor now and my father isn’t. And as governor, I can’t be part of deliberately deceiving the people.”
Pride swelled in Cass’s heart. She still didn’t know exactly how she would’ve answered, but she felt like Wren had said it better than she could have anyway. She quickly turned her attention to the rest of the Council members, just catching the tail end of a glance Hondo had thrown in Aron’s direction. Aron either didn’t notice, or didn’t react. Connor had a little smile on his face. North, as usual, was unreadable, and Vye was just looking at Rae, who was still standing.
Rae nodded and drew a calming breath. She was just starting to take her seat again when Wren continued.
“But I know I’ve made some decisions that have caused a lot of problems. I’ve always tried to do what I think is the right thing for the city. But I know I’ve been wrong. So, if the Council can agree on what’s best, I’m willing to do what you think is necessary. But I won’t lie to the people. And I won’t use the machine.”
North sat back and placed his hands in his lap, impassive.
“Well,” Hondo said, “that’s all fine. But where does it get us?”
The Council as a whole sat in restless thought. From the look on Aron’s face, Cass could tell he was still thinking it through, and she found herself wondering what he’d meant by “something to shake these people up”. Wondering if the attack on Wren was the kind of thing Aron had in mind.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the door to the Council Room opened and Able slid in. He stood by the entryway and motioned to her.
“Yes, Able,” she said. “What is it?”
You need to come see this, he signed. He looked troubled.
“Can it wait?”
He shook his head.
“Ladies, gentlemen, I’m sorry, but I’ll need to excuse myself for a moment–”
Able held up a hand, and then signed, All of you.
“Somethin’s up,” Aron said. They all rose and followed Able, who led them from the Council Room. By the entrance, a guardsman stood pale and sweating, clearly shaken. Cass guessed he’d brought Able the message.
Able took them out through the front entrance. The sun was just over the horizon, the air cool and damp and clean. A beautiful morning after so dark a night. The daylight overpowered Cass’s sensitive modified eyes; she covered her face with her veil, filtering out the wavelengths that confused her vision. She could see a small crowd gathered at the main gate of the compound. The gate was still closed, and the knot of people seemed to be in a stir over something near the top of the wall. There was a large blackened lump there, suspended from the archway; a large bundle of rags, or a few bags of garbage, or some kind of–
Cass grabbed Wren by the shoulder and turned him around. “Don’t go any closer, Wren. Don’t look, baby.”
Vye cried out and covered her face with her hands.
“Well,” Aron said, “I reckon that’s gonna change things.”
Bodies. Or what was left of them. They were black from burning, hacked, some missing limbs. Three, Cass guessed, maybe four of them, tied together and strung from the main gate of the governor’s compound.
“Able,” North said, touching the man on the shoulder. Once Able was looking directly at him, he added, “Help me cut them down.” Able nodded, and together they scaled the gate.
Aron stepped forward and approached the citizens assembled on the other side. “Go on!” he shouted, waving the crowd away. “Ain’t you got any respect! Get outta here!”
“Rae,” Cass said, “would you mind taking Wren back inside?”
“Sure, Cass, I’ll look after him.” She didn’t look at Cass when she said it.
“Governor?” Rae said, playfully formal with a gentle smile. “Would you kindly escort me back to the hall?”
Wren nodded and started towards the main building, but paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Mama?”
“Yes…?” She managed to cut herself off before calling him sweetheart.
“I need to know who they are.”
He nodded and took Rae’s hand. Cass watched them until they got to the top of the stairs and disappeared through the front entrance. She could trust Rae… she was pretty sure she could trust Rae.
When she looked back at the gate, Aron had climbed up on a crossbar to help North and Able. The crowd was mostly gone, with the exception of two or three stragglers who continued to stare, but from a greater distance. A few guards lingered nearby, some keeping watch, some waiting to receive the bodies. Vye was on her knees with her hands in her lap, glassy-eyed and staring at the sunrise. Hondo paced back and forth, giving orders no one followed — while Connor, pale and glistening with a sickly sweat, just stood below with his hands held uselessly in the air as if helping by projection.
With great effort the three managed to lower the remains to the ground in as respectful a way as anyone could. Hondo stood over them with his arms crossed, shaking his head. Connor went completely white and gagged, and then wandered off to a nearby planter to vomit. Cass approached and helped the others separate the bodies as best they could and lay them out next to each other.
Aron swore softly to himself, started to say something else, then just repeated the oath again.
There were four. So marred she couldn’t identify who they were… who they’d been. Except for one. One she recognized, his body intact, his face untouched by flames. And not by accident.
She crouched next to him, smoothed back his hair, thick and tacky with blood. It was Luck. He had once been a Weir, like her. And like her, Wren had somehow brought him back. Restored his mind, though not his body. He was one of the Awakened.
And now, he was a message.
Wren sat on the end of the bed, too tired to cry anymore. He was empty. Totally and completely empty. He wanted to be sad. Wren knew he should be angry. He thought maybe he should be a little scared, too. But he didn’t feel any of those things. Luck was gone, and all Wren could feel was responsible. It’d been his fault. Not directly, of course, he knew that. But he also knew that somewhere along the way he’d made a decision, or maybe a series of decisions, that ended here, with another person that he cared about dead.
“I shouldn’t’ve luh-left him out th-th, out there,” Painter said. He was sitting in a chair by the door of Wren’s room. Or rather, of Cass’s room, where Wren was staying now.
“It’s not your fault, Painter,” Wren said. “Whatever happened, I don’t think you could’ve stopped it.”
Painter shook his head. “Luck smiled tuh-tuh… he smiled too much. Always trying to g-g-get people to like him. He p-p-p… probably didn’t even fight back.”
“I’m glad you were here, anyway. I’m glad you’re here now.”
Painter nodded, but he didn’t look at Wren. He was staring out through the flexiglass door that led to the balcony, out at the night sky. The moon had been up for a couple of hours. Wren hadn’t seen Mama since that morning.
“I just don’t understand,” Wren continued. “I don’t understand how anyone could do that to a person.”
“Because we’re not puh-people, Wren.”
Wren wanted to tell Painter he was wrong — tell him that he shouldn’t think of himself as anything other than a person. But whether it was because Wren was so tired, or maybe because he wasn’t sure he believed it himself, Wren found he couldn’t argue. If he had known this was how things were going to happen… it took so much effort, so much energy. It hurt him to wake them. If all it caused in the end was more pain, was it even worth it?
“Can I ask you something, Painter?” Wren asked.
Painter looked over to him. “Of course.”
“Are you sorry that I brought you back?”
Painter seemed to think about it for a moment, but Wren couldn’t read his expression. “Are you?”
“Then me nnn-neither.”
“It’s just… it’s like when I made them let everyone inside the city. I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know it was going to cause so much trouble.”
“That was the ruh-ruh-right thing, Wren. Trouble’s got nnnn…” Painter struggled with the word. He snapped his head to the side in frustration. “Nothing to do with it.”
“It’s harder for you, though.”
Painter shrugged and went back to looking outside. “They’re affff-fraid of us.”
“They shouldn’t be.”
“Yes, they should.” He said it quietly, almost to himself. The door clicked and whirred, and Painter stood up quickly to face it. Wren got to his feet as it was opening.
Wren didn’t wait for her to get any further into the room before he wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his cheek into her stomach. Cass kissed him on the top of the head and placed her hands on his back, squeezing him against her legs in an awkward kind of hug.
“Hey, baby,” she said. She sounded exhausted. “Can I get in the door?”
Wren let go and backed up so she could enter the room. She closed the door behind her and then knelt down and held out her arms. “There, now let me get a proper hug.” Wren stepped into her embrace and hugged her neck. She squeezed him so tight it was almost hard for him to breathe.
“Painter,” Cass said. “Thanks so much for staying with him. Sorry it was so long.”
“It was no problem, Miss Cass. Anyt-t-t-, any time. Any news?”
Cass gave Wren a final squeeze and then stood up. She took off her veil and tossed it in the chair next to the door, then unbuckled her jacket. “Curfew’s in place, we’ve got a lot of extra enforcement on patrol.”
“What about…” Wren couldn’t bring himself to say the names. “…the bodies?”
“Turns out it was only two Awakened. Mez was the other.”
Mez had been among the first few of the Awakened, an older man who’d spent most of his time outside the wall. He’d never really settled into Morningside, and hadn’t kept much contact with Wren or Cass. Wren was still sorry for his death.
Cass said, “The others — we’re not sure about yet. It’s hard to get any information out of people after last night. What about you guys?”
Wren replied, “We’ve mostly been here. Just trying to stay out of the way.”
Cass nodded. “Probably the best idea right now. Painter, anything I can do for you?”
Painter shook his head. “Pretty tired. Think I’m just guh-guh-going to go to b-bed.”
“You’re up with the team?” she asked him.
“They treating you well?”
Painter nodded again. “When they’re around.”
“Yeah,” Cass said. “Been a busy few. Not sure when they’ll be back tonight.”
“Finn gave me his rrr-room.”
“Oh, good. Won’t wake you then. Well, thanks again, Painter. You’ve been a huge help.”
Cass leaned forward and gave Painter a hug. From the look of it, Wren could almost imagine it was the first time Painter had ever been hugged. He stood there with his arms at his sides almost rigid, leaning slightly back. When she let go, he gave an embarrassed smile and then opened the door.
“See you tommm-morrow.” He went out and closed the door behind him.
“I don’t think Painter’s getting enough hugs,” Cass said. “What do you think?”
“Probably not,” Wren said. He sat back down on the bed and scooted back so his feet were dangling. Cass plopped down next to him and put her arm around him.
“Tough day,” she said. He nodded. “Did you eat anything?”
“Hey,” she said, turning his face towards her. “I didn’t get to say this earlier, but I’m proud of what you said at Council this morning.”
This morning. It seemed like a week ago. And what did it matter what he’d said? What Wren said hadn’t stopped anyone from killing Luck. It hadn’t even decided anything.
He said, “I’m tired, Mama.”
“Me too, baby.”
“Can you lie down with me?”
“Sure, sweetheart. Come on. Why don’t we both get changed?”
Cass stood up and started pulling the covers down on the bed, while Wren tugged his arm out of the sleeve of his shirt. Even the idea of putting on pajamas seemed daunting, and Wren stopped when he got the one sleeve off. His arms felt like they were full of concrete. Maybe Mama could help. They were interrupted by a knock at the door. She sighed and walked over to it. “Probably Painter.”
Cass opened the door more quickly than usual, and Wren could tell from her reaction it wasn’t Painter. From his angle in the room, though, he couldn’t see who it was.
“Gentlemen. You need me for something?” she asked.
“Can we come in?” said a voice in the hall. It sounded like Connor.
“Wren was just getting ready to go to sleep. Can we talk in the hall?”
“It’s better if we don’t,” said a second voice. Uncle Aron. Wren put his arm back in the sleeve of his shirt. Cass stood her ground at the door, seemingly reluctant to let them in. Wren wondered if she was worried about him.
“It’s OK, Mama,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
She looked over at him, and Wren could tell from her expression that something else had been making her hesitate. Cass bit her bottom lip just a tiny bit, thinking it over.
“It won’t take but a minute,” Connor said.
“Alright,” she said, backing up so they could enter. “Just for a minute. Otherwise it’ll have to wait until morning.”
“Thanks,” Connor said as he came in. He gave Wren a little nod and smile. Aron followed after. He didn’t smile. Cass closed the door. Aron remained next to it, with his hands folded in front of him. Connor came further in, between Cass and Wren, but closer to Wren. Wren got a bad feeling.
“What’s this about?” Cass asked.
“Things are lookin’ bad out there, Cass,” Aron said. “We’ve got the entire guard turned out, and I’m not sure it’s enough to keep the peace.”
“Word’s out about what we found this morning,” Connor added. “We’re trying to get everyone to stay inside, but there’s been some scuffles by the West Wall already.”
“Why there?” said Cass.
“Dunno,” Connor said. “Could be something to do with the uhh, the Awakened that got killed. Could be just people thinking they can get away with anything now. Either way, it’s not good.”
Wren couldn’t put his finger on it, but he felt really anxious. Something wasn’t right. Something about the way Aron was looking at Cass, or something about the way Connor was talking. He seemed nervous.
“Mama,” Wren said, “where’s Able?”
She seemed distracted too. Maybe trying to figure out what he was trying to figure out.
“Able and his merry little band of hellwalkers are out there keeping the Weir away from the wall,” Connor said. He didn’t even bother trying to sound anything other than dismissive.
“You’ve got them stationed on the wall?” Cass asked. The governor’s elite bodyguard was certainly capable of manning the wall, but that hardly seemed like the best use for them.
“No,” Aron said. “They’re outside.”
“On whose order?” Cass asked.
“Mine,” said Connor.
“Then who’s guarding the compound?” she said.
“We’ve got our hands full trying to keep the city in one piece, Cass,” Aron answered.
“Then maybe you should leave.”
Mama must’ve picked up on something because she managed to get a hand on Aron before Wren heard the thump, but the next thing he knew Connor had grabbed his arm and jerked him off balance. Mama had fallen backwards to the floor, but she was up on a knee, trying to get back to her feet — when Aron pointed a black box-like thing at her, and there was that thump again, and then two more thump thump, and Mama fell back and was still. And Wren tried to scream, but Connor had a hand over his mouth, and had his arms pinned to his sides; and no matter how much Wren fought, he couldn’t get free, and the whole time Connor was in his ear. “Shhhhhh. Shhhhhhh. It’s OK, Wren, it’s OK, shhhhh.”
But it wasn’t OK, Mama was on the floor not moving and Aron was putting the box back inside his coat, and he looked angry.
“Don’t fight, don’t fight,” Connor said. “Your mom’s fine, she’s just going to sleep for a while, OK? She’s not hurt, OK?”
Wren felt like he couldn’t breathe, and Mama was just laying there. And Aron was walking towards him now.
“She ain’t hurt, kid,” Aron said. “But we got a trace on Able and Gamble and the whole team, so don’t you think about trying to call for help, or else we will hurt her, you understand?” Aron grabbed Wren’s face and looked him in the eye. “Do you understand?”
Wren nodded, or at least did the best he could with Connor’s hand over his mouth.
“Don’t scream or fuss, you hear? We’re not out to hurt anybody, but we will if we have to.”
“I’m going to let you go, OK, Governor?” Connor said. “You won’t scream or try to run away, right?”
Wren wasn’t sure if he was supposed to nod or shake his head since Connor had asked him two questions, but he decided it was safer to nod. Agreement always seemed safer. Connor took his hand off of Wren’s mouth, but didn’t let him go.
“You said it yourself,” Connor said, so close Wren could feel his breath. “You said it yourself, you said you’d do whatever was necessary, right? Right? Well, here it is.”
Aron said, “You’re gonna do just like we say, Wren. I know you don’t understand right now, but you will. You’ll see we’re doin’ the right thing.”
“What’d you do to Mama?” Wren asked.
“She’s just asleep,” Connor said.
But Aron was pulling the box out of his coat again. He held it out for Wren to see. “It’s just a dislocator, see? No permanent damage.”
Wren had seen those before. A lot of the guardsmen carried them to deal with troublemakers. From what he knew, the projectiles they fired just spammed the target’s datastream, overloaded it, made people shut down, and left nothing more than a deep bruise. But that was normal people. He had no idea what would they might do to someone like Mama.
“We’re gonna take you somewhere now,” Aron said. “Don’t make trouble for us.”
“I won’t,” Wren said.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Wren,” Connor said.
Wren wanted to ask why, if everything was going to be fine, they’d just shot his mama and were keeping such a tight grip on his arm, but he knew better. He’d been through something like this before, back when Asher had caught him and Three. And Able and Swoop had been training him for this sort of situation. Best to go along, until the opportunity presented itself. And it would.
Aron moved to the door and cracked it open, checking outside before committing to opening it all the way. He nodded to Connor and motioned for them to follow. The hallway was deserted, and that was a bad sign. If there were any guardsmen left in the building, they would probably be on Connor and Aron’s side anyway.
It didn’t take long for Wren to figure out where they were headed. They took him along halls that he hadn’t been through in a long, long time. To a room he hadn’t been in since… not since Three had died and his mama had come back. Aron led the way, and Connor half-dragged Wren along, apologizing the whole time, constantly telling Wren it was all for the best.
“We just want you to try, OK?” Connor said. “We just want you to see what you can do. It really is for the best. We all just want what’s best for the city, OK?”
They took him through what was once a kind of throne room. The room where Wren’s father had sat and held court and handed down his judgment. Already Wren could hear the faint hum. Wren wasn’t exactly sure why they were making him come to the room itself. And it occurred to him that for all their plans and schemes, they still didn’t even have a basic idea of how it really worked. Underdown’s machine might as well have been magic as far as they were concerned.
Aron unlocked the door and stepped back. Connor pushed Wren inside. Even without the lights on yet, Wren could make out the shape of the thing. Underdown’s machine. The device Underdown had constructed to tap into the minds of the Weir, or whatever it was. The way he’d called them, and forced them away. The way he’d controlled them, as a means to control his people.
Aron followed them in and activated the lights. The machine stood before them in the center of the room, emitting a hum that would’ve been soothing to anyone who didn’t know what it’d been made to do. It didn’t look like much. It was about Wren’s height, maybe just over four feet tall and about half again as wide. Mostly smooth with a couple of panels and a few lights that were all darkened. Only now did Wren understand that the machine had never been shut down. Maybe they didn’t even know how.
“We just want you to try,” Connor repeated. He seemed more nervous now, even more than he had when they’d first come in Mama’s room.
“Try what?” Wren asked. He was being honest. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know what your dad could do with this,” Aron said. “We want you to do the same thing.”
“I never even met my dad.”
“Don’t talk back to me, boy,” Aron said sharply. “I helped make that wall. And I helped make your father. I’ll make you too, if it’s what it takes to keep this city alive. But don’t you think for one second I’ll hesitate to tear you down, either, if that’s what it takes.”
Wren had never seen the machine before, let alone tried to interface with it. But Aron and Connor didn’t seem all that concerned with facts or excuses.
And he understood that if they thought he was doing anything other than what they wanted, there was no telling what they might do to Mama. So, for his mother’s sake, Wren closed his eyes and put his hands on the machine, and tried to see what his father had seen. And he knew without a doubt: there was terror inside that box.