Wren lay on his bed, watching the dust particles float above him in the pale light that came in through the high slot window. The first rays of dawn. Almost time to go.
He had it all figured out. At least as best as he could. The night before, he’d carefully given his guardians some casually vague and different ideas about where and with whom he’d be spending his time that morning. As long as everyone thought someone else was watching him, it ought to buy him a little time. It wouldn’t work forever, of course. At some point two of them would run into each other, each thinking Wren was supposed to be with the other. After that it would be just a matter of time for it to all fall apart. But there was a chance they’d think there had just been some kind of mix-up, and maybe they’d spend a little time looking for him before anyone guessed what he’d really done.
It was an old trick he’d learned from his time in the governor’s compound, and though he usually ended up getting caught at some point, it’d almost always bought him at least an hour or two of peace and quiet. Wren hoped he could get that much of a head start, if not more.
Mama would be frightened, of course. And probably furious. The whole team would be. Wren didn’t even want to think about what Swoop would say. Or do, if he ever caught him. But there was no other way. None of them would ever let him go back to Morningside on his own. And he couldn’t let them come with him. It was too dangerous for them, though they’d never admit it.
He’d thought about talking to them about it. About telling them what he thought was going on and what he had to do to stop it. But he was afraid that once he mentioned it, not only would they not let him go back, they’d be extra careful and always be watching him. Or they’d delay him, and try to make plans they thought were best. And Wren knew without a doubt that Asher was searching for him, and that anywhere he stayed for any amount of time was in danger. Even now he wanted to convince himself that maybe if he just talked to the right person, they’d agree that he was right. Able, maybe, or Wick. But in his heart he knew he’d never convince anyone. They still called him “Governor”, but it’d been a long time since anyone had treated Wren like he had any sort of say.
And so he’d decided to keep it a secret. Just long enough to get away. He had to. There was no choice. If Asher was in the machine, then someone had to figure out a way to get him out. And there was no one else that could do it but Wren.
He already knew the way. Wick had shown him where they were, and the fastest way to get back to Morningside. And he was confident he could make it in one day, as long as he started out early enough. The trickiest part would just be getting out.
His bag was already packed at the foot of his bed. It had still been mostly packed anyway, since he hadn’t ever unpacked it after they got back from Ninestory. He tried not to think too much about how that had turned out. And yet, he knew it was just the beginning. Unless he did what he had to do.
He reached beneath his pillow and slipped his knife out from under it. It’d become less of a weapon to him. More of a… well, Wren didn’t quite know the word for it. There was strength in it, somehow.
It was time. Even just thinking about it, Wren’s heart started pounding, and he felt a little like he was going to throw up. He slipped out of bed as quietly as he could, and started putting on his boots. He’d slept in his clothes, so getting dressed wouldn’t be a problem. Carefully he moved his pack and coat right over next to the door. Now the tricky part. Saying goodbye to his mama.
Wren tucked his knife into its sheath on his belt, and wiped his hands on his shirt. He knew if he didn’t wake his mother up before he slipped out, she’d come looking for him as soon as she woke up. But getting out of the room with his stuff once she was awake might be tough, too.
He crept to her bedside and for a moment just watched her sleeping. She was on her side, facing the wall, breathing deeply and steadily. Wren’s throat went tight, and he clenched his hands into fists. He took a deep breath, exhaled through his mouth, hoping that would loosen the lump. Reached out and gently tapped her on the shoulder.
She didn’t stir. He tapped again.
“Mama,” Wren said, a little louder than a whisper, and his voice came out sounding like he was about to cry. Cass reacted instantly, twisting in her bed and sitting up partially, her eyes wide for a long moment. Then she settled back and turned more completely around towards him, supporting herself on her left arm.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she said, voice heavy with sleep. She reached out and squeezed his arm. “You OK?”
“Yeah,” he said, and his voice felt steadier. “I’m going to get something to eat.”
She blinked at him through unfocused eyes. “It’s early.”
He nodded. “I can’t go back to sleep.”
“OK,” Cass said. She rubbed one eye with the palm of her hand. “Let me get dressed.”
“No, it’s OK, Mama. I can do it.”
She looked at him for a moment. “You sure?”
Wren tried to give a casual nod, like it was no big deal, but felt like he couldn’t remember how to make a casual face. She yawned and blinked several times. Her left eye watered.
“You should sleep, Mama,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Alright, baby,” she said. “I’ll get up in a little bit. I think I’m still feeling the effects of whatever Mouse gave me.”
“It’s fine,” Wren said. She looked at him again a little harder than he liked, but then she gave him a little smile. He leaned over and kissed her cheek, and gave her a big hug. He tried not to hold her for too long, but once he’d started, it was hard to stop. “I love you.”
She kissed him back and held him with one arm. “Love you too.”
With one final squeeze, Wren let go and stepped back. He stayed by her bed for a moment, waiting for her to lie back down, but she didn’t. He turned and went to the door. Glanced back over his shoulder. She was still watching him. He gave her a little smile and a wave and opened the door. When he turned back to pull it closed, she was still up on her arm. He’d hoped he could slide his pack through without her noticing, but there was no chance of that now. He pulled the door to, but held on to the handle, and counted to ten. Then decided to make it twenty.
Then very slowly, he pushed the door back open, just wide enough for his pack to fit through. He leaned in and glanced around the edge of the door. Mama was back on her side again, facing the wall. Wren eased down and carefully caught hold of the top of his pack. Lifted it as slowly as he could. The sound of the material sliding up off the floor seemed far louder than it should have. Wren held his breath.
“You need something, baby?”
Wren froze. Then glanced up. Mama was looking over her shoulder again, right at him.
“Just forgot something in my pack,” he said. It sounded weak coming out of his mouth, but it was the best he could come up with. She continued looking at him for the span of a long breath. And then nodded, and laid her head back down on the pillow.
Wren pulled his pack through and closed the door quietly. It hadn’t gone quite as planned, but at least she hadn’t seemed to notice he was taking his coat too.
It was deathly quiet in the hallway. As he slipped his coat on, the rustle seemed to echo. He didn’t want to risk zipping it up, and he decided just to carry his pack by the handle on top, at least until he got out into the entryway. Wren crept down the hall as softly as he was able. He tried not to walk too quickly, but every step he got farther away from his room felt like the one that was going to get him caught, and he couldn’t help but pick up the pace. The turn towards the entrance was just ahead on the left. Once he made that turn, he’d almost be home free.
As he came around the corner, though, Wren was surprised to see another figure at the far end of the hallway. He tried to jerk back before the other person saw him, but it was too late. His sudden motion must have drawn attention. Wren hovered at the corner of the hall, trying to figure out what to do, what to say. Careful footsteps were headed his way. Just going to get something to eat, he’d say.
“Wren?” the person whispered. “Wren, it’s mmm-me.”
Painter. Wren peeked back around the corner to find him standing about halfway down the hall, hunched over like he was trying to hide a little. Painter had his coat on too, and his pack was on the floor. Wren eased all the way around the corner.
“What’re you doing?” Painter asked, still whispering.
“Just… I was going to get something to eat.”
Painter’s eyes flicked to the pack in Wren’s hand and then back. “Outside?”
“No,” Wren said, “I just…” His words ran out. He set his pack down. Painter came closer and knelt down in front of him.
“I’m g-g-glad you’re up,” Painter said. “I wanted to say goodbye. To you, I mmmm-mean.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“Back to Morningside.” Wren stared back at Painter, not sure what to say. “D-d-don’t try to talk me out of it, my mmm, my mind’s made up.”
“For Snow, Wren. I need to fffind my sister.”
Wren nodded, but he couldn’t decide whether this was good news or bad. He’d anticipated having to set out on his own. He’d tried to prepare himself for it. But the idea of having someone go with him made the whole thing seem so much more possible. Yet, at the same time, he didn’t know what complications it might raise. If he and Painter were both missing, how long would it be before the others came looking for them?
“You’ve always buh… been great to me, Wren. Whatever happens, I hope it all g-goes well with you.”
Wren still hadn’t figured out what to say. Should he just let Painter leave, and then sneak out behind him? Painter nodded and got to his feet.
“See you again ssss-sometime,” Painter said. “I hope.”
“OK,” Wren said.
Painter nodded again and smiled a little. He turned and walked back down the hall with careful steps. As he passed his pack, he snagged the straps and slung it up onto his back. He was just about to the end of the hall when Wren finally made his choice.
“Painter,” he whispered as loudly as he could, “Wait.” Painter stopped and turned partially around to look at him. He picked up his own pack and walked quickly down the hall. “I’m going back too.”
Painter actually flinched at the words. Maybe he’d been expecting Wren to try to convince him not to leave, or just to say a better goodbye.
“No, Wren,” Painter said. “I appreciate the thought, but I can’t l-l-let you do that.”
“You’re not letting me do anything, Painter. I have to go back. Because of Asher.”
“What are you tuh, talking about?”
“It’s my dad’s machine. I have to get back to it.”
Painter’s expression changed at the mention of the machine, and Wren couldn’t blame him. The memories of that machine, that room, were still too fresh and far too vivid for Wren’s liking. He could only imagine how Painter must’ve felt.
“Your mmmm-mom is going to freak out.”
“That’s why I have to go alone,” Wren said. “Or with you.” Painter shook his head slowly. Wren felt something rising up within him, born of frustration. “I’m going, no matter what. I know the way. You can come too, or you can go on your own. But don’t get in my way. There’s too much at stake.” His voice came out louder than he meant for it to, but it seemed to have the effect he wanted. Painter stopped shaking his head.
“They’re gonna come after us,” he said.
“Your mom will k-k-kuh… she’ll kill me.”
“I won’t let her.”
Painter looked at Wren for a long moment, and then finally nodded. “OK.”
They both shouldered their packs, and Wren led the way cautiously towards the front entry. It was darker there. The lights were off, and the morning light was weak and pale through the high grated windows. Wren didn’t know how Painter had been planning to get out on his own, but he felt pretty sure that he’d be able to unlock the door and gates himself. Hopefully there weren’t any alarms on any of them. They crept through the front room.
“You boys are up early,” came a voice from one corner behind them. They froze in place. Swoop. Wren turned around slowly, and saw him sitting there, propped against the far wall. “Goin’ somewhere?”
Wren’s mind went completely blank, and all the bravery he thought he had leaked right out. It seemed like the kind of time that a brain might go into overdrive and come up with a good excuse, or even a bad one. But in this case, Wren couldn’t think of a single thing, couldn’t even think of thinking. He just stared.
“We’re g-g-going back,” Painter said. “And you can’t do anything to ssss, to stop us.” Wren was surprised at the edge in Painter’s voice. He actually sounded like he meant it.
Swoop chuckled. “That’s probably not true.” He got to his feet. He seemed bigger than usual. “Today’s not the day, buddy. We’ll get back to Morningside eventually.”
“We’re going now,” Painter said. Swoop’s expression changed. He’d seemed amused before. Not so much now.
“You sound pretty sure.”
Swoop just stared Painter down with that look of his, the one that kind of made you feel like you were lucky that he was still allowing you to live. And then his eyes slid over to Wren, like Painter wasn’t even part of the conversation anymore. Or even in the room.
“What’s going on?”
Painter had already blown any chance they had of convincing Swoop they weren’t really planning to go anywhere further than the gate. And there was no way Wren could come up with a lie that Swoop would believe. So Wren sighed and did the thing he didn’t want to do. He told the truth.
Wren did his best to explain what he believed was happening with Asher and Underdown’s machine, the path he planned to take, and why he didn’t want the others to try to come back with him. If everyone returned, Wren was sure there’d be a fight. The guards might even attack them on sight. But if it was just him, he felt sure that they wouldn’t do anything worse than lock him up somewhere, probably in the governor’s compound. And maybe once he explained what was happening to the Weir, they’d understand their own danger. If not, well, at least he’d be close enough to the machine to try to do what he needed to. And if Asher came for him, at least Mama would be safe.
Swoop listened to everything Wren had to say without any noticeable emotion. When he was finished, Swoop continued to look at him for a long moment.
Then, “You really think there’s something you can do.” It sounded like a statement, but it was a question. Wren nodded. “It’s a terrible plan.”
“Wick says a plan is just a list of stuff that never happens anyway.”
Swoop cracked a half-smile at that. He actually seemed to be thinking about what Wren had said. That was more than Wren had hoped for. He decided to push.
“If you’ve ever thought of me as your governor, Swoop, please believe me now. I have to go back. Let us go.”
Swoop worked his jaw. “You givin’ me an order?”
“I’m asking you.”
Swoop shook his head. “Are you giving me an order, sir?”
It still took Wren a second to understand what he was saying. And then he got it. “Oh. Yes. I order you to let us go.”
“Gamble, Swoop,” he said. “…No, everything’s fine. Just wanted to let you know Painter and the governor are with me… Yeah, check. I’ll explain later.”
He’d said it so casually Wren wasn’t exactly sure what he’d meant. “So, you’re going to let us go?”
“I’m gonna take you there myself.”
“No, Swoop, you can’t…” Wren started, but Swoop raised his eyebrows and gave him a look that made him stop mid-sentence.
“Give me five minutes to gear up.”
“Swoop, I don’t know what they’ll do to you if you go back. And I don’t think I’ll be able to stop it.”
He shook his head. “That’s my home,” Swoop said. “Earned in blood. I don’t reckon anybody has say over whether I get to keep it.” He held up his hand with all five fingers up. “Five minutes.”
Swoop headed out of the entryway back down the hall with his aggressive pace. Painter and Wren stood awkwardly waiting, neither really sure what had just happened or what it would mean. Wren had to admit he felt a lot better about the trip, knowing Swoop would be along too. And maybe he’d be able to convince Swoop to hang back as they got closer to Morningside, at least long enough for Wren to get an idea of what might happen.
It didn’t even take a full five minutes before Swoop was back and all geared up.
“Governor,” he said. “After you.”
Wren led the way out through the door of the building. As they stepped outside, the morning air chilled Wren almost instantly. The sky above was steel grey and heavy with clouds, and there was a stillness to the air that made Wren think of snow. Their breaths came out in cloudy puffs. Wren pulled up his hood and jammed his hands in his coat pocket.
“Your mama’s gonna kill me,” Swoop said.
“And me,” Painter said.
“I assume you got a plan for the gates?” Swoop asked.
Wren nodded and stepped towards them. They were large and heavy, but the locks that held them fast were simple encoded devices, easy to see. Wren stretched out through the digital and unlocked them. Painter pushed the first open, and then closed it behind them. Swoop got the second.
“Make sure you lock ’em back,” Swoop said as they passed through. Wren didn’t even need to turn around to do it. Together, with Wren leading the way, the three of them set out into the cold grey dawn.