Cass realised that Finn must’ve picked up on something, because he moved before anyone else did. He grabbed a handful of Wick’s coat and dragged his little brother backwards almost into Gamble’s lap. Sky tensed up and withdrew from the edge of the recess.
There was a brief exchange of whispers between Wick, Finn, and Gamble, and then Finn was moving again. He motioned emphatically to Wren and Painter, shepherding them towards Cass. When they reached her, Finn moved down the corridor with careful steps, heel-toe, heel-toe, his weapon at his shoulder and his eyes no doubt focused on his aim point.
Sky was the next one in, and once he was past them, he motioned for them to follow. Painter went first. Wren stayed locked to Cass’s side.
Gamble came in behind them, and Wick was last in again. Cass instinctively started guiding Wren into one of the alcoves, but Gamble grabbed her shoulder.
“Stay where I can see you,” she whispered.
Cass nodded and hunkered down against the right side of the corridor, with Wren in front of her. She realized they were in essentially the same formation as they’d been in the alley earlier in the night. But this time, once Wick was in position, he had whipped the strap of his pack over his head and laid the cumbersome bundle on the ground behind him, along the alley wall, and then brought his weapon up. Wren pressed into Cass, and she drew him close.
When the first call came, its volume and proximity shocked Cass. Without a doubt, a Weir was not far from where they’d been standing just moments before. The answer, however, was far worse. A second Weir responded from the opposite end of the corridor. Cass tightened her hold on Wren.
Wick shifted backwards smoothly, silently, perfectly balanced — almost like he was on rails. He looked back over his shoulder and pointed to his eyes with two fingers, then held up his index finger, and then finally pointed towards the right of the alley entrance. It wasn’t difficult to interpret. He’d seen one, right around the corner.
Gamble bowed her head and held a hand in front of her face, and made a sound like an uneven exhalation or broken sigh. It took a moment before Cass realized she was whispering. Gamble looked back around Cass, and Cass followed her gaze. Sky was motioning with his hand; two fingers up, and then a signal Cass guessed meant moving this way.
Gamble gave an exaggerated nod, and then ducked her head and held her hand up again. She whispered something, but it was so low and breathy there was no way Cass could make out the words. The Weir on Sky and Finn’s end of the alley called out again. Much closer. On Wick’s side, Cass could actually see the shine from the Weir’s eyes at the entrance.
Wick eased his weapon down and reached behind him with his left hand. With a slow but steady pull, he drew a long-bladed knife from a sheath along his lower back. In the heavy silence, Cass could hear the Weir breathing around the corner, an eerily lifeless sound like wind through rusting pipes. Gamble made a little noise. And then many things happened at once.
There was a shuffling sound behind Cass, and the electric howl of a Weir was cut short by the hum of Sky’s rifle, followed quickly by a muffled burst from Finn’s weapon. In the same instant, Wick launched out of the alley and intercepted the Weir on his side just as it reached the corner. His left arm pumped like a piston as he drove the creature backwards, out of view. There was a heavy impact, and Cass knew Wick had slammed the Weir to the ground. Gamble flashed up with her weapon at the ready, moving towards Wick — and covering the distance with such practiced intensity it almost looked casual, even in its terrifying speed.
Cass snapped her head around and saw Sky and Finn violently rushing the other corner together, moving as a single entity. Then, all was still and silent. For a brief few seconds, it felt like all the world was holding its breath.
And then a chorus of electric shrieks sundered the night from every direction.
Gamble came flying back around the corner and caught Cass by the arm, pulling her to her feet. Wick followed closely after. He slowed only long enough to snatch the supply bag off the ground and throw it over his shoulder, then swept past the rest of them towards the other end of the corridor.
“Swoop, abort alternate, alternate is compromised. We are moving to contingency,” Gamble said, in an emotionless tone at complete odds with the chaos. She ushered Cass, Wren, and Painter all towards the far end of the alley where Finn and Sky were.
Cass grabbed Wren’s hand. “I say again, alternate is compromised, proceed to contingency. Warpath, warpath, warpath.”
Cass didn’t know what “warpath” meant exactly, but she had a pretty good guess; they were in trouble. As they exited the corridor, Finn grabbed Painter and locked him close to Finn’s side, controlling Painter’s movement. Sky covered their escape, his rifle pointed back down the hall. Cass heard it hum once and then quickly again as they raced across the open space and into the alleys across the street.
No one was concerned about how much noise they were making now. Wick plunged into an alleyway and Finn was right behind him, dragging along Painter with one hand and keeping his weapon at the ready with the other. Gamble kept a hand on Cass’s shoulder. Her grip was firm, and though it didn’t feel like she was forcing Cass any particular direction, she left no doubt where she intended everyone to go. Cass squeezed Wren’s hand in hers.
They weren’t running exactly, not even jogging really, but they moved so aggressively that Cass found herself occasionally having to surge forward a few steps to keep up. Wren kept up as best he could, though he stumbled several times and would have fallen at least once, if Cass hadn’t been holding his hand. After the third time, she finally just picked Wren up and carried him, doing her best to keep her gun hand as free as she could.
Further down the alley, a Weir hurtled around the corner and charged straight at them. Wick didn’t even break stride. He fired three times, pop pop pop, and hopped over the Weir’s body as it skidded towards his feet. Cass hazarded a glance over her shoulder and noticed Sky was nowhere to be seen.
“Eyes forward,” Gamble said, her voice even but full of intensity. “Just keep moving.”
“Where are we going?” Cass called.
“Wherever Wick takes us,” Gamble answered, and then switched over to comms. “Swoop, we’re in contact, what’s your location?”
Wick disappeared down an alley to the left and Cass heard a flurry of gunfire. Finn stopped at the intersection and pushed Painter up against the wall.
“Easy!” Painter said, but Finn didn’t seem to hear him. He braced his rifle against the corner of the wall and squeezed off two shots as Wick backed his way out, firing his weapon as well.
It happened so fast that they were already moving again before Cass reached them.
“Not that way,” Wick said as he resumed their initial path, leading them on without hesitation. Cass hazarded a glance down the left turn as she passed and saw four or maybe five Weir sprawled there, and one clambering over the bodies.
“There’s another–” she cried, trying to warn Gamble, but Gamble’s weapon was already up and firing.
“Wick,” Gamble said without missing a beat, “find us a place to button up.”
Wren clung tightly to Cass with his arms and legs, and kept his head buried in her shoulder. Not out of terror, though, or not just out of terror. She could tell he was doing his best to keep himself stable, taking some of his weight off of her arm so she could move better.
Up ahead, Wick exited the alley and slowed. Finn caught up and forcefully guided Painter into position between the brothers, one on each side. They moved together then, covering opposite directions. Cass cleared the alley and found that they were crossing a wide street. For the moment, there were no Weir in sight. Across the street, there was another row of decaying buildings. Wick made for a squat two-story structure. It had only one door and a small slot window at street level, both yawning with darkness.
When they reached the entrance, Finn and Wick left Painter just outside and steamrolled in, snapping their weapons around in precise movements as they made sure the room was clear. Their red lights danced across the walls and made it look like a fire was burning low inside.
Cass caught up and Gamble quickly directed them all inside. The first room was large and open, with a wide and partially collapsed staircase running up the left side, and a doorframe in the back wall. There red lights played along the walls of a hall, where Wick and Finn were rapidly searching for any threats. Wick’s pack was in the middle of the room, on the floor. Gamble slung hers there as well.
“Cass,” she said, pointing at the base of the staircase. “Anything moves up there, kill it. Boys, over here.” Cass moved to the bottom of the stairs and went down on a knee, aiming the jittergun up into the darkness at the top of the stairs. Painter and Wren followed Gamble’s directions and moved to a corner in the back of the room, furthest from all the entrances.
“Floor’s clear,” Finn said as he re-entered the room, “but there’s a back door in one of the rooms.” He turned off the light on his rifle.
“Wick,” Gamble said. “You’ve got the hall.”
“I’m on the hall, check,” Wick answered. He stayed in the front room, but crouched down near the back where he had a tight angle through the doorframe into the hall.
“Upstairs?” Finn said.
“Cass has it,” Gamble said. “I need you guns front.”
Finn moved closer to the front entrance, though he remained well inside and to one side of the door. Gamble slid over to the opposite direction, so they were covering opposing angles through the entrance.
“Where’s Sky?” Finn asked.
“On the way. Wick, you bounce the location?”
“Yeah, they’ve got it.”
Cass couldn’t see what was going on outside the building from where she was, but the Weir were making a lot of noise calling and answering. Their cries and howls filled her with dread. And out there, somewhere, Sky was alone. Cass couldn’t imagine what he must’ve been feeling. Or what Gamble must’ve been going through. Not that she was showing any signs of concern.
“Swoop? Gamble, what’s your situation…? We had to hole up. You get Wick’s bounce…? If you can, yeah.”
“Here he comes,” Finn said.
“Understood,” Gamble said, though Cass couldn’t tell if she was responding to Finn or still talking to Swoop.
“Come on, come on,” Finn said to himself. And then, a few seconds later, slightly louder, “Sky’s coming in.” He lowered his rifle, and Gamble pointed hers at the ceiling. Moments later Sky ducked in through the entrance. As soon as he was through, both Gamble and Finn brought their weapons back on target.
“Sorry, Ace,” Sky said, breathing heavily. “Had to do some extra legwork.”
“You bring any with you?” she asked him.
“Not immediately. Left a little trail for them headed the opposite direction. Might buy us a couple minutes.”
Sky slid in next to Gamble, taking over her position. “Glad you’re safe,” she said.
“Me too,” he answered.
Gamble moved further back into the room, putting herself between the door and the boys.
“Finn is front,” Gamble said. “Wick is back. Cass is stairs.”
“Check,” Sky said. Coordinating, Cass figured. So if Gamble told everyone to move to the back, they all knew which way she meant.
They sat in silence after that, tensely. Three minutes passed. Five. Maybe as many as ten. Cass’s arms grew tired, and she lowered them to rest on her knees. If anything had been upstairs, it likely would’ve come down by now. Even so she stayed focused on the staircase, just to be safe. The stairs bent to the right, preventing her from seeing all the way to the top, but a portion of the upper steps had collapsed, which gave Cass a better view than she would’ve had otherwise.
After a time, unless Cass was mistaken, the Weir began to quiet. It was subtle at first. More pauses between calls. Longer delays. And then they started to seem farther away. Maybe they’d thrown them off the trail after all.
Finn made a soft hissing sound. Cass glanced over and saw him holding up one finger. She wondered if anyone else could see it in the darkened room, but Gamble’s whisper answered that question.
“How far?” she asked.
“Thirty meters,” Finn answered.
“Hold fire. See if it moves on.”
Cass hated not being able to see what was going on. The slot window wasn’t far from her. But she knew Gamble was counting on her to watch the stairs, and she fought back the urge to sneak a peek.
“What’s it doing?” Gamble asked after a minute.
“Just standing there,” Finn said. “But it’s looking this way.”
And then it made a sound that sent chills racing down Cass’s spine.
“Spshhhh. Naaaah.” The same noise they’d made the night they attacked the wall. It was shockingly unlike the Weir’s typical cries. They were some unholy mix of electronic and raw animal sound. As uncanny as those were, this new cry was different, more disturbing; almost as if a piece of machinery were trying to form words.
“Not again,” Sky said.
“Hold,” Gamble said.
“Count?” Gamble asked.
“Still just the one.”
Cass watched the others, trying to get a read on the situation. Everyone was focused, intent on their areas of responsibility. Wick might as well have been oblivious to what was going on through the front door, even though Cass knew he was completely aware; he just kept his eyes fixed on that back hallway. Wren and Painter were still huddled together in that corner. Cass noticed Wren had his knife out.
Some instinct kicked in, and Cass quickly looked back at the stairs and at the same time brought the jittergun up. There was a soft glow reflecting, and through the gap she saw clawed fingers closing to grip the top stair.
Cass did her best to emulate what she’d seen the others do. She hissed and held up one finger, keeping her eyes on the Weir’s hand she could still see. What was it waiting for?
Wordlessly, Gamble glided over to her side, and Cass pointed at the hand. Gamble shook her head. She couldn’t see it, unlike Cass.
It didn’t matter.
“Back hall, back hall,” Wick called, and then he was firing, and Cass saw the fingers flex on the stair.
She squeezed the trigger just as the Weir pounced down the steps, and caught it with a full burst before it touched the ground. It landed in a wet heap and slid down the stairs towards her, but in the next instant a second Weir was on the steps, and she fired again. It fell backwards, flailing wildly. Gamble fired a burst from her weapon and the second Weir went still.
Wick was sending a steady but measured stream of death down his hall, pop pop pop pop-pop, and Finn fired two shots out the front.
“Help on the hall,” Wick called, and Sky was there in a second, standing behind Wick’s crouched form and adding his firepower.
Gamble ducked under Cass’s gun and moved up two steps. Then Gamble leaned forward and braced herself with one hand to get a better look up the stairs, and then fired off two quick bursts.
“They’re coming in through the roof!” she called, and then bounded up four more steps.
“Help front,” Finn said.
“Sky moving front,” Sky called, and he dashed across the room. Finn was standing right at the door, calmly firing. Sky slid on his knees and started shooting.
“Cover,” Finn said. He ejected the magazine from his rifle and smoothly replaced it with a fresh one. “I’m up.” And he went right back to firing.
“Back hall,” Wick called again. “I’m low.”
“Cass, help Wick,” Gamble said.
Cass flew across the room and took up a position just as she’d seen Sky do a few moments before, leaning over Wick so she could shoot over top of him without impeding his movement. There were several dead Weir strewn in the hallway, all in awkward positions, and three more were charging towards them.
It was a tight angle. Cass fired and saw the doorframe splinter as the burst from her weapon tore through it and into the first Weir. Wick fired twice, and Cass followed with another burst, dropping the last Weir.
“Cover,” Wick said, “keep it covered, Cass.”
“Covering,” Cass answered. And she killed another Weir that tried to round the corner.
Wick swapped magazines on his weapon and had it back up and running in under two seconds. “I’m up.” He emphasized the point by firing off four rounds and dropping another two Weir. There were enough bodies piled in the hall now that other Weir were stumbling and clambering over their fallen. But still they came, heedless of the death that awaited them.
“Gamble,” Sky called. “Get back where we can see you!”
If she answered, Cass couldn’t hear it over the shrieks of the Weir and the gunfire echoing in the cavernous room. The jittergun was starting to get warm in her hand. She wondered how much ammunition she had left.
“Gamble!” Sky shouted.
“Here!” Gamble answered. Cass glanced at the staircase and saw Gamble backpedaling down the steps, firing controlled bursts the whole way. “We’re gonna lose the stairs!”
“Finn?” Sky said.
“Go!” Finn yelled.
“Sky, moving to stairs!” Sky called, and as he moved to help his wife, he let his rifle drop on its sling and transitioned to his sidearm. Cass couldn’t tell what it was, but it was loud.
“Swoop, we’re in the heat!” Gamble said, still firing her weapon. A Weir tumbled down the stairs and Sky shot it twice more. “Where are you?” Then to Sky, “Back, get back off the stairs!” And then “Swoop, say again!”
Since Cass wasn’t dialed in on the channel, she had no idea what Swoop’s response was. But there was a sudden eruption of gunfire from the front of the building, and Finn gave a little whoop.
“There you go,” Finn yelled. “Get on ’em, son!”
“Check, we’re rolling out front side,” Gamble called. “Front side, watch my ping! Finn, stairs!”
“Finn moving to stairs!” he said, moving instantly and stepping into position as soon as Gamble was clear. Gamble strode across the room, snagged her pack off the floor and threw it over a shoulder. Pulled the boys to their feet, shepherded them towards the front door.
“Cass, with me,” she said. “We’re going out the front. We’re coming out!”
Cass fired a final burst and then turned and closed in on Gamble, who was already ushering the boys through the front door.
“Run, boys, run,” Gamble said as they made it to the street. She got them pointed in the right direction, and they both took off. She hesitated, waving Cass on, and then giving her a quick slap on the shoulder as she passed.
The street was littered with dead Weir. Three figures were rapidly approaching: Swoop, Mouse, and Able. Painter and Wren reached them first, but Cass wasn’t far behind.
Able lowered his weapon and caught Wren, and swung him up to carry him. Mouse took charge of Painter.
“Stay right behind me,” Swoop said when Cass reached him. “Right hand on my left shoulder, stand behind me and to my left.”
“Check,” Cass answered, and she slid around behind him into position exactly as directed. Back down the street Gamble was still standing at the entrance, directing the others in their evacuation. Sky was already out, heading their way. Then Finn backed out, but he stopped just outside and kept firing back into the building. A few seconds later, Wick came out backwards in a crouch, dragging his pack with one hand and squeezing off bursts from his rifle with the other. When he was out, both he and Finn went full throttle and unleashed a non-stop torrent of fire.
Gamble pulled something off her vest and tossed it underhanded through the entrance. Then the three of them broke in a full-out sprint towards the rest of the team. A few seconds later a lightning flash silently erupted inside the building, momentarily dazzling Cass’s eyes. Nothing else came out afterwards.
“Get lost?” Gamble said when she reached Swoop.
“Bad directions,” Swoop answered. “Worse neighborhood.”
A Weir stumbled out from the building, wounded or dazed or both. Sky’s rifle hummed and dropped it before it’d gone three steps.
“Cover our withdrawal. Peel back, Swoop’s the anchor. I’ve got the cargo,” Gamble said, and she matched her words with hand signals.
“Check,” Swoop said. He hunched over and brought his weapon up, covering the building. Finn, Wick, and Sky jogged and quickly lined up on a diagonal behind Swoop with about five yards between each of them.
“Cass, you’re with me,” she said. Mouse and Able were already moving with Painter and Wren. “I’m not going to hold on to you, but I need you to stay right behind me.”
“Got it,” Cass said. She lined up behind Gamble, just off her right shoulder. Gamble started guiding her away from the building.
A few moments later, Cass heard Swoop open up with his heavy weapon behind her, a long sustained burst. She looked back and saw him get up and start towards them, and as soon as he had passed Finn, Swoop slapped him on the shoulder and Finn started firing, full auto. A few Weir had come out, only to get cut down by the gunfire. Even so, the sheer volume was disconcerting given how precise and methodical the team usually were with their weapons.
“Keep moving, Cass,” Gamble said. And then she added, “They’re bounding back. Should keep the crowd from following.”
Then Cass understood. Swoop and his team were making a rolling retreat, with the front man providing suppressive fire for a few seconds, and then running to the back of the line while the next man took over. It gave the others time to put some distance between them and the concentration of Weir that had gathered around the building.
Gamble caught up with, and then passed, Mouse and Able, and took point. She kept them all moving steadily, but set the pace quite a bit slower and more cautious than when they’d been headed for shelter. Eventually the gunfire ceased behind them, and a minute or two later the rest of the team rejoined them.
“All clear?” Gamble asked when Wick caught up. She kept her voice low, but it wasn’t a whisper. That seemed encouraging.
“Yeah, last couple of bursts were just for fun. I don’t think we got them all, but I’m pretty sure the survivors finally got the hint.”
“Get us back on track. And try not to run us into any more trouble.”
“Yes, sir,” Wick said, and he jogged up to the front. Gamble dropped back a little, putting Mouse and Able ahead of her, while Finn and Sky moved out wider to either side of the group. Swoop fell in next to Gamble.
“Left a big mess back there,” he said. “Somebody comes lookin’, there’s not gonna be much doubt what happened.”
“We’ll just have to hope the Weir clean up after themselves,” Gamble answered. “Or that nobody comes looking.”
“Anybody hurt?” Swoop asked.
“Don’t think so. But we better give everybody a once-over once the sun’s up.”
At the mention, Cass noticed that the sky was already growing grey above them. She guessed they had another forty-five minutes, maybe an hour at most, before the Weir would withdraw. After what they’d just survived though, that seemed like a lifetime.
“Be nice to get this gear spread out then too,” Swoop added.
“You need me to carry something for you, cupcake?” Gamble said.
“Nah,” Swoop answered. “I just worry about Mouse.”
“What’s wrong with Mouse?” Cass asked. Gamble and Swoop both looked at her, and then at each other. Gamble smiled with one corner of her mouth.
“Soul of a poet trapped in a barbarian’s body,” Swoop said.
Mouse looked back over his shoulder with a disapproving eye. It might have been their deadpan delivery, or maybe she was more tired than she realized. Or it might have been that Cass’s mind couldn’t comprehend any sort of light-heartedness so soon after the ordeal they’d just survived. Whatever the case, it took her longer than it should have to recognize they were actually joking around.
“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “I didn’t realize you guys got issued senses of humor.”
Swoop actually chuckled at that, and Cass thought that might have been the first time she’d ever heard him laugh.
“Careful, Miss Cass,” Sky said. “People might start thinking you’re one of us.”
“I might be tempted to take that as a compliment.”
“And that’s how we know you’re not one of us,” Mouse said over his shoulder.
“Alright, quiet time, kids,” Gamble said. “Swoop, rear guard. Eyes and guns up. We’ll break at sunrise.”
Swoop gave a nod and dropped back, and just like that, everyone was back to being switched on. Still, the briefly playful moment stuck with Cass and took some of the edge off the silent march. Ahead of her, Able was still carrying Wren. Her son had fallen asleep with his head on Able’s shoulder. Though there were still distant calls and cries from the Weir, Cass felt herself relax. For some reason, she felt safer out in the open with these people than she had in the days back inside Morningside.
Wick led them confidently on. They had a few sudden changes in direction, and on one occasion they’d all crowded into a narrow courtyard and waited silently for a number of minutes. But for the most part — as the sky grew ever lighter grey above them and the stars disappeared — they faced no great danger.
Gradually the grey shifted to pale hues and the sounds of the Weir lessened, until a thin line of orange heralded a new dawn, and with it the retreat of the Weir. The team pressed on in weary silence until the sun was fully up and the horizon was vibrantly ablaze. Cass dug her veil out of her pack and covered her face to take the edge off the sharp morning light. Soon after, at long last, Gamble called for a halt and the group moved into a small protected courtyard and shed their gear.
“Get some rest,” Gamble said. “I’ll take first watch.”
The team piled most of their supplies in the center of the courtyard, and then found places to get comfortable, have some food, and maybe grab a little sleep. Able laid Wren gently down in a shaded corner. Wren woke up briefly, but Cass came and sat with him, and he fell asleep again in her lap.
“You take a break, Ace,” said Sky. “I’m good for another few hours at least.”
“Negative. I need you sharp… You’re cranky when you’re tired.”
Sky stared at her like he was thinking of a reason to protest, but Gamble gave him a look that let him know he wasn’t going to win.
“Wake me up in forty-five minutes,” Sky said.
“I mean it.”
“OK,” Gamble said. He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. When he turned away from her, Gamble gave him a swat on the backside. Sky stretched out on the ground by all the gear, using one of the bags as a backrest. It didn’t take him very long to doze off.
Painter was curled up on the concrete next to the courtyard wall, sound asleep, with his head on his arm. Able was eating by himself. Cass wondered how tired his arms and back were; he’d carried Wren the entire way, despite multiple offers from others to take over for him.
Wick and Finn were rehydrating, talking quietly and occasionally laughing to themselves. Swoop had disappeared for the moment. Mouse moved around the courtyard, checking on everyone. When he reached them, he encouraged Cass to make sure she and Wren both got some food and water in them before too long.
“Easy to forget you can get dehydrated in the cold,” he said. “And out here, everybody needs to take extra good care of themselves.”
Cass drank some water to reassure Mouse and promised she’d make sure Wren was well looked after when he woke up. Once he’d done a quick evaluation of the rest of the team members, Mouse joined Able across the courtyard. Gamble wandered over to where Cass was with Wren, and crouched next to them.
“How you holding up, Miss Cass?” she asked, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb Wren.
“I’m doing fine, Gamble. Thanks. How are you?”
Gamble dipped her head in a casual nod. “Right as rain. We’ll need to cover about another fifteen klicks today. Kilometers, I mean. But we’ve got about nine hours of daylight, so we can afford to rest for a while.”
“Are you going to take a break?”
“Yeah, in a couple of hours maybe.”
“Not in forty-five minutes?” Cass asked with a smile.
“Like I said… Sky’s cranky when he’s tired.”
“I don’t mind taking a shift, if you’ll let me. I wasn’t always a lady of the court, you know.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know. But I think we’ll be alright,” Gamble said. “I probably don’t need to stay up myself, but we don’t leave things to chance. Plus, the boys won’t sleep if they think no one is on guard. They’ll all just lie there listening for trouble.”
“You’ve got a good team, Gamble.”
“The best. But you’re a pretty good fit yourself, Miss Cass.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well, you did forget a move call right there at the end. Otherwise, pretty tight for your first time out.”
Cass almost said it hadn’t been her first time out, but just smiled instead. She thought back on what it’d been like for her, back when she’d been part of a crew. “Is it hard for you?”
“Well… six men, you’re the only woman…”
“We’d have more,” Swoop said from behind them. “But we’re the only ones that can keep up with her.” He was just re-entering the courtyard. “Perimeter’s good. Doesn’t look like anyone’s been through this way in a while.”
“Check,” Gamble answered. “Go crash out. I want you on graveyard tonight.”
“I’m good, G. I slept a couple of days ago.”
“Get some sleep, Swoop, or I’ll put Wick on graveyard with you.”
“She’s a cruel mistress,” Swoop said to Cass. He moved off and found a spot to rest as ordered.
“He’ll sleep maybe an hour, and then he’ll insist on staying up all night,” Gamble said. “Sometimes I’m not sure he’s human.”
Cass smiled a little sadly. “I used to know someone like that.”
“You should rest too, Miss Cass. We’ll be plenty safe.”
Gamble nodded again and crossed the courtyard to exchange quiet words with Mouse and Able. Cass’s eyes felt dry and a little too big for their sockets, and she thought she might just close them, even though she didn’t feel all that sleepy. She didn’t even notice when she started dreaming.
Wren felt something heavy on his back and gradually became aware of someone saying his name. It took conscious effort to get his eyes to open, but he eventually managed it. The brightness surprised him and made him squint. Someone was crouched next to him. Someone big. Several seconds went by before Wren remembered where he was and what was going on. Mama wasn’t there, though. He’d been using her lap as a pillow, but now her bag was under his head instead.
“Wren, buddy, can you wake up for me?” Mouse said. It was Mouse’s hand on his back. Wren forced himself to sit up, even though it seemed like gravity had tripled since he’d fallen asleep. “Sorry to wake you, but we’re going to get started here again in a little bit, and I wanted to take a look at your chin before we do.”
Wren nodded and yawned and rubbed his eyes. He thought about looking around to find his mom, but it felt better to keep his eyes closed, so he just sat there with them shut while Mouse looked him over.
“I’m going to clean it up, OK, bud?” Mouse asked.
Wren nodded again. A few seconds later, a cold shock made him grimace and pull away.
“Sorry, it’s probably going to sting a little.”
“It’s OK.” Wren clenched his jaw and tried to hold still while Mouse cleaned up the wound and assessed it. By the time Mouse had finished, Wren was much more awake but no more ready to start walking again.
“Seems like you’ve been getting roughed up a lot lately,” Mouse said. “You keep it up, I might start making you do this yourself.” He smiled and clapped Wren on the upper arm, knocking him a little sideways.
“Sure thing, bud.”
It was about 11.00 GST by that point, and the morning had warmed pleasantly; still cool with the breeze, but good weather for long walks. They’d stopped for almost four hours, which seemed like a long time to be stopped, but not very long to sleep. Cass brought him some food and water, and Painter sat with him while he ate. Wren was glad of the company, even though neither of them spoke much. The rest of the adults were busy repacking the final bits of gear. They must’ve unpacked everything and redistributed it all while he’d been asleep, because everybody’s loads looked a lot more even now, and the two storage bags from Mister Sun’s were empty.
Once all the bags were prepped, Gamble came over to them carrying a couple of smaller packs. She set them on the ground in front of them. He’d never seen her so loaded down before. In addition to her pack, she was wearing a harness with multiple pockets across her midsection, along her hips, and even a couple of smaller ones that ran up the shoulder straps. They all bulged with hardware, though Wren didn’t know what much of it was for. Except the ammo. Seemed like Gamble had a lot of that. Though when he looked more closely, he noticed a couple of the magazines were empty. Not as much as he’d thought. Her short weapon hung across her chest on a sling, her jittergun was strapped to her thigh, and a long heavy-bladed knife dangled from her belt. Wren hadn’t noticed it until now, but all of them had blades of some kind, in addition to their other weaponry.
“You fellas about set?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Wren answered. Painter nodded.
“OK. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today. I know you’re tired, but once we get where we’re going, we should all be able to rest a good while. You up for it?”
Wren got to his feet. “Yes, ma’am,” he repeated. Painter was a little slower to rise.
“Good. These are for you.” She slid the packs towards them with her foot. Able came over and joined them while Wren and Painter picked up the packs and put them on. At first, Wren was surprised by how heavy his was when he lifted it. Once he got it onto his back, however, he was even more surprised at how comfortable it felt. There were clasps at the waist and across the chest that Gamble fastened for him. The weight was noticeable, but didn’t drag at Wren the way he had expected. Then Able helped him adjust the straps to make it even more secure and evenly distributed.
“Each of you has a buddy,” Gamble said, while they were adjusting their packs. “Painter, you’re with Mouse. Wren, Able’s yours, of course. While we’re out here, your job is to stay with your buddy, OK? Go where he goes, do what he tells you to. Anything you do, you do with your buddy. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Wren said again. Painter just nodded.
“Alright,” she said. And then louder, “Alright, let’s spin it up, boys.” And everybody else started slinging their packs on with practiced fluidity.
Wren noticed there was a black tube attached to his pack that came over his left shoulder, with a funny looking knobby ending. It was clipped to the shoulder strap.
“Able, what’s this for?” he asked.
Water, Able signed. He unclipped it and held it up in front of Wren’s mouth. Wren took it. Squeeze this between your teeth to drink.
Wren put the knobby end of the tube in his mouth and bit down on it slightly. A surprising gush of water flowed out and made him choke and splutter. Most of it ended up down his chin. When he looked up at Able, Wren could tell he was trying really hard not to laugh.
It takes a little practice.
Wren wiped his mouth and chin on the sleeve of his coat and then clipped the tube back in place. After that, they joined the rest of the team in the middle of courtyard, and they all set off together.
The team spread out into its familiar formation. Wick led the way, Finn and Sky pushed out to the sides, and Swoop brought up the rear, forming an outer ring of defense around their protectees. They set a steady pace, but Wren found that it was not difficult for him to keep. He was thankful. Sometimes when he traveled with adults, they seemed to forget that he had to take two or three steps for every one of theirs. Most times.
The team maintained focus as they passed through the empty urban ruins, speaking rarely, eyes constantly scanning. Even so, it seemed to Wren like they were almost relaxed. Though once he thought it about it, it kind of made sense. They were used to being out at night when deadly things were literally out hunting for them. Probably walking through the ruins in the daylight was a pleasant change. And even if there were bad people out here, it didn’t seem likely that anyone would be dumb enough to try to start something with a group so obviously well-armed.
As it was, they saw no one else the entire day. They took a handful of short breaks along the way, but for the most part they made good progress with very little trouble. Only once did Wick decide to change direction and lead them in a detour. Wren wondered how it was that Wick never seemed to be at a loss for which way to go. It was almost like following someone around their own neighborhood. He rarely stopped to think, and when he did it was never for long.
By the time the sun was sinking towards the horizon, they’d reached their destination: a burned-out, partially collapsed structure. Wren actually wouldn’t have thought it was safe to go inside of if Wick hadn’t strolled so confidently through the gaping hole in the front. Even though the ceiling sagged enough in the middle, enough to make Wren nervous, Wick took them all inside and then did something with his hand to a place on the rear wall. A few moments later, there was a clicking sound and what looked like one of the exposed concrete support beams swung gently open. There was a metal staircase leading upwards into darkness.
It was a wayhouse, cleverly hidden within the failing structure. Wren gave another look at the bulging ceiling.
“It’s safe,” Finn said, seeing his concern. “It’s actually reinforced, though you can’t really tell from here. Clever bit of work, really.”
They all filed in. Wick came in last, closing the door behind him. The air was a little stale, but not foul, which was reassuring. Wren noticed the door made a rubbery sort of sound when it shut, like it was vacuum-sealed.
It turned out there weren’t actually that many steps. Someone activated the lights, and Wren was surprised at the size of the room at the top of the stairs. From where he was standing, it looked far too shallow for all of them to fit, and Mouse had to hunch down to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling. Swoop, Sky, Finn, and Mouse paired up and disappeared from view, two to the left and two to the right.
When Wren reached the top, he saw that the room was actually very wide, spreading out maybe four times wider than it was deep, with the staircase right in the middle. The four men had split off to check the wayhouse, he realised. Wren could see them moving quickly down the halls on either side.
There were no real rooms that he could see; just one long corridor with a few short walls jutting out every so often to form stalls. To his right, the feet of several sets of steel-framed bunk beds poked out from several of the stalls. Off to his left, the place opened out a little more, and Wren assumed that was probably where the dining area and bathrooms were. He hoped there were doors on the bathrooms.
“It’s clear,” Swoop called as he came back towards the rest of the group. “Looks like we’ve got the place to ourselves.”
“Anyone been through recently?” Gamble asked.
“Doesn’t look like it.”
“Doesn’t smell like it either,” Wick said. Wren looked up at him. “That’s actually a good thing. I’ve been in a couple that were fuuunky.” He held the word out for extra emphasis.
“Give it till morning,” Swoop said. “We ain’t exactly a bunch of sweet-smellin’ petunias.”
“Speak for yourself,” Sky said. “I’m as fresh as a baby’s bottom.” He tossed his pack on the floor in the stall closest to the entrance. “I call top bunk.”
“Just make sure it doesn’t squeak,” Finn said as he moved by, further down the corridor. Gamble kicked his backside as he passed. The others started making themselves at home, laying claim to various stalls by slinging their packs down. Gamble shepherded Cass, Wren, and Painter along the hall towards the beds. She stopped them at one a few down from the entrance.
“I’d like to put you two in here,” she said, indicating Cass and Wren. There wasn’t much to it. A set of bunk beds with thin mattresses, bare concrete floor, bare concrete walls. There was a single light fixture in the middle of the low ceiling. “And Painter, if you don’t mind, we’ll put you right next door with Mouse.”
Painter nodded. He looked exhausted. His goggles were down around his neck, and Wren could see the dark rings under his eyes, so dark they almost looked like bruises. Wren realized he couldn’t remember the last time Painter had actually spoken.
“Painter, are you OK?” Wren asked.
Painter looked at him and nodded. He inhaled deeply, like it was an effort. “Just r-r-really tuh-, really tired.” He gave a weak smile, but Wren got the impression there was something else going on.
“You go right ahead and sleep if you want,” Gamble said. “We’re here until morning.” Painter nodded again and wandered to the next stall over. “Same for you two. Rest and recover as much as you can, but feel free to do whatever you like. Just don’t leave.” She said the last part with a smile.
“Thanks,” Cass said.
Swoop passed by, on his way further down the hall. “I’m gonna rack out for a few.”
“Good,” Gamble said, and then a moment later called after him. “Make sure you eat something too.”
“You’re startin’ to sound like Mouse,” Swoop called back.
The remainder of the day was unremarkable for Wren. He and his mother ate some of their rations together in the dining area, on a wobbly steel table with mismatched chairs. Afterwards, he was so tired he just wanted to sleep. Cass helped him get ready for bed, which pretty much amounted to taking off his shoes and spreading his coat out on top of the mattress. Cass said she didn’t want Wren lying directly on that old thing. She kissed him on the forehead and then went and removed some things from her pack, so she wouldn’t wake him later. As Wren watched Cass, he saw her partially withdraw something and look at it for a moment.
She didn’t pull it all the way out of the pack, but he recognized the grip of Three’s pistol. She’d brought it along, even though he knew she didn’t have any ammunition for it. Maybe for her it was like his knife was to him. He didn’t really expect to use it, but he was glad to have it.
Cass glanced up and caught Wren looking at her. She smiled a little sadly and pushed the pistol back down into her pack, and finished whatever it was she had been doing. Then she came over and kissed his cheek again, and then switched off the light in their stall.
Wren wondered briefly if all the other lights and activity would make it hard for him to fall asleep, and that was his last thought before drifting off.
Painter awoke with the distinct feeling that someone had just called his name. His heart was hammering in his chest, and his forehead was covered with a light sweat. He lay still with his eyes open, listening for whoever it was to speak again. The lights were all out. He could hear Mouse on the lower bunk below him, breathing deeply. All else was quiet, still.
But the feeling remained. As if someone had been there, whispering his name right in his ear to wake him. And it almost felt like someone was standing there. When Painter looked around the room he saw nothing unusual. But there was a sense of presence, of someone else, close. It filled him with a creeping dread.
His sleep had been troubled by dark and twisted dreams, though he couldn’t remember any of the details when he tried. Maybe it was just a lingering sensation from those. His subconscious trying to process the unbelievable chaos and pain of the past few days. Painter tried to remind himself that he was safe here, that no matter what was going on outside, he was secure in here. He was with good people, people who were capable of protecting him, and who had even shown their willingness to do so. Even so, the darkness remained, clinging to his mind like an oily shadow.
There was a sudden flutter through Painter’s mind, a black tide of rippling thought. Foreign, incoherent, forced into his brain. He instinctively clapped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. Pressure grew, as if a band had been stretched around his skull and was being gradually drawn tighter, tighter, tighter until it was almost unbearable. Painter gritted his teeth and wanted to scream, but found he couldn’t even draw a breath.
And then just as suddenly as it had come, Painter felt an almost physical pop inside his head, and the pressure evaporated. And in its place was a tiny, quiet thought.
They should fear.
Painter opened his eyes and took his hands from his ears. He found he could breathe again. Everything was the same as it had been just moments before. Even Mouse’s breathing seemed completely undisturbed. And the feeling of a presence in the room was gone. Everything was fine. Except for Painter.
He sat up slowly in the bed, which turned out to be a good thing because his forehead touched the ceiling before he remembered how low it was. The room seemed smaller than it should have. A growing claustrophobia pressed in around Painter, almost to the point of overwhelming him. He slid off the bunk and crept out into the hall, trying to steady his breathing. There just didn’t seem to be enough air.
It would be an easy thing, to sneak out. He could be quiet when he wanted. But he shouldn’t. It might be dangerous. It might draw attention. And who knew how the others would react if they woke and found Painter gone.
Would they care?
Another stray thought that felt like it came from outside himself. But the question lingered in his mind. Would they? Protecting him wasn’t their job. He was just a tag-along. An accidental burden. Maybe it’d be easier for everyone if he just slipped away.
He crept further down the hall towards the staircase with careful footsteps. Past Wren and Cass, past Wick and Finn, past Sky and Gamble. Painter wouldn’t leave them. Not like this. But he needed to get out, out into the night air, where he could breathe and think — and get his mind back clear and under control. The night was drawing him, whether he wanted it to or not.
At the stairs Painter paused and looked back down the hall, wrestling with himself. It felt wrong somehow. But why should it? He wasn’t their prisoner, no matter how much they treated him like one. He wasn’t one of those weak citizens, either. They didn’t know what he was truly capable of, none of them did. If they had any idea, they would fear him. Maybe they should fear.
“Trouble sleeping?” The voice came from behind him, startling Painter, and he felt himself jump. He turned and found Swoop standing there, leaning against the wall, staring back at him without expression. And Painter came back to himself, and all his dark thoughts dissipated.
“Y-y-yeah,” he said. Listen to yourself! You can’t even speak! What had he been thinking? He felt almost as if he’d been sleepwalking. “Weird dreams.”
Swoop didn’t react in any noticeable way. He didn’t even blink. Just stared steadily right into Painter’s eyes.
“Just needed to mmm-mmm, to move a little,” Painter said. “But I’m OK now… I’m gonna, I’m gonna go b-back to buh-bed.”
Swoop dipped his head in a hint of a nod. Then after a heavy pause, he added, “Night.”
Painter turned and walked back down the hall to his bunk, feeling Swoop’s gaze on him the entire way. He stole a sidelong glance once he reached the stall, and caught a glimpse of Swoop out of the corner of his eye. Still standing there watching him.
It was unsettling. Painter climbed back up onto the bunk and, as he tried to get comfortable again, he wondered if maybe he’d been wrong to think he wasn’t a prisoner.
Swoop gave it another minute or so, after the kid had gone back to his bunk. Just to be sure. And when he was sure, and only then, he holstered the sidearm he’d been holding behind his back.
The sounds of people moving around drifted into Wren’s consciousness well before he opened his eyes. For a time he lay there listening, half-pretending to be asleep — just to see how long he could get away with it. The bunk hadn’t been particularly comfortable and he’d gotten cold in the middle of the night, but, knowing another long day of walking was ahead, it felt good to just lie there. Wren wished he could store up that feeling, so he could draw on it later after he’d been on his feet for hours, and still had more to go.
It would be hard work. Even if his legs hadn’t still been tired and sore from the day before, it would’ve been tough. But he was excited about getting to see Chapel and Lil and all their people again. To finally show Mama the compound, and to eat real food, and to live in a community without walls, even if it was just for a few days. That excitement, though, was mixed with nervousness.
Wren had always meant to go back before now. But after Mister Carter had died… well, it hadn’t seemed right somehow, for Wren to go back when that great man could never return. He didn’t know how everyone would react. There was no doubt they would welcome him, and everyone with him. It was Chapel’s way to be welcoming. But Wren wondered how different their relationship would be.
And Mama. He hadn’t thought about that until now. How would he explain Painter and Mama to Chapel? Most likely, he’d have to go ahead of them and prepare everyone. He’d have to mention that to Gamble and Wick, to make sure they didn’t get too close before they had a chance to announce themselves.
Wren opened his eyes and lay still. The overhead light was still off, though lights were on elsewhere in the wayhouse, enough for him to see. His mama was crouched down, quietly rummaging through her pack. He couldn’t tell if she was putting things in or taking them out, but she was taking care not to wake him.
“Hi, Mama,” he said. She glanced up at him and smiled.
“Hi, sweetheart. Did I wake you?” she asked.
Wren shook his head. “What time is it?”
“Is everyone else up?”
“Everyone but Painter. We thought we’d let you two sleep as long as you could. Did you sleep well?”
“I slept OK. Not as good as at home.” It seemed strange to him that he thought of Morningside as home. He sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
Cass nodded. “I always have trouble sleeping in new places. Hungry?”
“Let’s see what we can find for you to eat.” She stood and picked him up off the bed and held him for a few seconds. Wren squeezed her shoulders. “Want me to carry you?” she asked.
“No, I’ll walk.”
She gave him a final squeeze and then eased him to his feet. They walked together down the long corridor back to the eating area. Sky was sitting on the lower bunk in his stall, checking his rifle. He gave a little wave as they passed.
When they reached the dining area, they found Swoop and Gamble there talking in low voices. Wren didn’t catch what they were saying, but he noticed they were quick to end the conversation and change the subject when he came in the room.
“Morning, Governor,” Gamble said. “How’re you feeling?”
“Sleepy?” she said with a smile. “You slept almost twelve hours!”
“Didn’t feel like that much.”
She winked. “I know what you mean.”
“I’m gonna check on Wick and Finn,” Swoop said. Gamble gave him a little nod, and he bent forward in a partial bow. “Governor. Lady.”
Wren slid into a seat at the table and rested his head in his hands while Cass found some food and water. To eat, there was some kind of dark-colored bar that was tough to chew and slightly gritty, that supposedly was going to give him lots of energy for the day. It didn’t taste very good. But Mister Sun had snuck one of his pastries in too, and they’d saved it for him.
“Do you want to split it with me?” Wren asked his mama. She was just sitting there watching him eat.
“Thanks, sweetheart, but no, it’s for you.”
“I don’t mind.”
“No, baby, you go ahead.”
He ate part of it, and Cass kept sitting there, watching him with a little smile on her face.
“Are you sure? It’s tasty.”
“Oh, OK,” she said. “Just a bite.”
Wren held it up for her, and she took a bite off the corner of it.
“Save anything ffff-for me?” Painter said from the hall.
“Oh, hey Painter,” Cass said. “No, sorry. We ate all our rations first thing this morning.”
He stood in the hall staring with a slightly puzzled look on his face. Painter still had the circles under his eyes, Wren noticed.
“I’m joking,” Cass added. “Are you OK?”
“Oh,” Painter said. “Yeah. Just tuh, tuh, just tired.”
“Here, have a seat,” she said. She got up from the table and went to get him some food. Painter eased himself onto one of the other chairs, almost like it hurt him to do it.
“Sore?” Wren asked.
Painter nodded, but he kept his eyes on the table in front of him. Wren got an uneasy feeling. Painter seemed different somehow. Or he felt different. Wren couldn’t figure out what it was, though. It’d been a tough few days for all of them, but maybe Painter most of all. Maybe that’s all there was to it. Or maybe it was nothing more than Wren’s own frazzled nerves, making him worry about things that weren’t there.
“I think you’re really going to like Chapel’s place,” Wren said. “It’s different from anywhere else. And the people are really nice.”
Painter nodded again. After that, Wren stopped trying to make any conversation. Cass reappeared with food and water for Painter, and then left them on their own while she helped the others prepare to leave. It wasn’t unusual for Painter to keep to himself, but as they sat together in silence, Wren couldn’t escape the feeling that Painter was purposely shutting him out.
It was only a few minutes after Painter had finished eating that Gamble popped her head in and told them to get ready to move again. The boys went back to their stalls and gathered their things. Within ten minutes, they were all heading back down the stairs together and back out into the open.
A heavy fog waited for them when they stepped outside. It was cool, not cold, but the mist seemed to go right through Wren’s coat and straight to his bones. He pulled his hood up and drew it down around his face. Everything was shrouded in a gentle rolling grey and as they pushed out into it, Wren felt almost like they were intruding on some sacred ground. As if the broken city had finally found rest in the misted silence, and every one of their magnified footsteps threatened to disturb its peace.
The others seemed to sense it too. They hardly ever talked, and when they did it was in near whispers. Wick led them on, occasionally disappearing briefly from view in the swirling mist.
By midday much of the fog had melted away, but the sky remained grey and heavily overcast, in the all-day sort of way where it might rain any moment, or not at all. Mama wasn’t wearing her veil, and Painter didn’t even need his goggles. They stopped for lunch and a brief rest. Gamble had them up and moving again well before Wren was ready.
It was hard to keep track of time on the colorless march. But Wren guessed it was midafternoon when he found himself recognizing parts of their surroundings, without being able to remember ever having noticed them in the first place. A buckled overpass, a series of cracked and crumbling concrete pillars, a sunken building. Landmarks from some forgotten corner of his mind.
“We’re close,” Wren said. “I think you should wait here, Mama.”
Gamble called for the team to halt and conferred with everyone. Wick guessed they had about a five-minute walk left to reach the compound. It was decided that Gamble, Wick, and Able would escort Wren to the compound to scout it out. Once they’d explained everything to Chapel, they’d notify the others to join them. The two groups split up and Wren’s team headed towards the compound.
Wren was more tired than he could remember being in a long time, but he felt excitement the closer they got. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed Chapel, and Lil too — until the idea of seeing them again had become more than a dream, and was moments away from becoming a reality.
It was quieter than he’d expected. Much quieter. A distant sense of dread pricked his mind. Wren tried to ignore it. The compound was just ahead, beyond a little rise in the terrain. Probably the wind was carrying the normal sounds of life away in the other direction. Chapel would be there. Chapel and Lil. Everything would be just as he remembered.
But as they crested the rise, even as his mind denied it, Wren’s heart went sharply cold and he found himself running, running towards those low walls, with Gamble shouting after him to stop. And then Able caught him, but Wren barely felt it because he was screaming in wordless agony, with tears soaking his face and blinding his eyes.
It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be, but it was.
Chapel’s compound lay before them in ruins.