Cass could feel the pressure building in the city, an emotional power grid straining under the load of fear, tension, and long-harbored mistrust never resolved. She looked out over Morningside in its troubled sleep, the night air around her almost brittle with cold. From her balcony she could see down the long, wide street, almost all the way to the western gate. The roadway was warmly lit by its innumerable lamp posts, though the walks were all deserted this deep in the night. It was still hard for her to sleep at any time, but most especially at night, the time for which her body had been rewired for optimal performance.
She had had great hopes once, in the early days of her Awakening. There had been horror from some, a hatred born of a lifetime of terror. That was to be expected. But kindness had surprised her, and compassion. And after she had taken to wearing the veil, she’d found more and more people were able to overcome their instinctive reactions and Cass had begun to believe that one day she might be accepted as human again.
And when Wren began rescuing others, a network of support had formed almost without any real effort; good, honest men and women of Morningside came forward and gave of their time and money to help the survivors build some sense of a new life, and maybe even come to terms with who they had become. People like Aron, and Mister Sun, and others throughout the city who’d offered places to stay, clothes to wear, jobs to do.
Of course it couldn’t have lasted. One or two, maybe the city could’ve absorbed them, thought of them as poor, wretched anomalies. But there were nearly thirty of them now. Too many to be ignored. Now, in some circles, they were seen more like wild animals that had strayed into civilization; no longer just a handful of damaged people looking for shelter.
Damaged. Rae had called them that once, in passing. Funny. Cass didn’t feel damaged. Different, certainly. But vibrant. Alive. Alive in a way she’d never felt before the change. Before the change, she’d relied on chems to speed her reaction times, to make herself faster, stronger. Now she felt all these things without needing the chemicals. Sometimes she wondered if the pathways that had been forged by her use of quint had been exploited by the Weir’s tampering.
There had been adjustments to be sure, new normals to learn, like how to see the world through her new eyes — or how to process the way Cass felt the presence of the people around her, sometimes even through walls — or how they exploded in light and… and something she didn’t even have a word for, whenever they accessed the digital. No, she didn’t feel damaged at all.
Out beyond the wall, Cass heard a Weir cry; a howl somewhere between a scream and a burst of static through organic vocal cords. At one time she would’ve been able to interpret it. Now it was just noise again. Even so, the sound had a different quality that she noticed but couldn’t quite identify. Another Weir answered the first, somewhere off to her left. But not far. And a third, closely following the second. Cass felt the hair on the back of her neck bristle, found herself alert. There was an attack coming. She knew it without knowing why.
As she turned back into the compound, her brain started peppering her with all the reasons she was wrong. There hadn’t been an organized attack in almost a year, not since they’d brought everyone inside the wall. The Weir had been scattered. Without Underdown’s control, they’d reverted back to their pack behavior; no longer a collaborative entity. They were more like scavengers than predators. They would never assault the city directly.
Except they would, and Cass knew it.
She streaked through her room and sprinted down the hallway towards the front entry, pimming Gamble, the captain of the governor’s Personal Guard, as she ran.
“Gamble,” Cass pimmed, sending the message through the digital directly to her, wherever Gamble was. “The Weir are at the west gate!”
She didn’t wait for a response. Cass saw Joris, one of the night guardsmen, flinch from down the hall as she approached. He raised a hand, but she couldn’t tell if it was to slow her down or to defend himself.
“Joris, the Weir are at the west gate!” she called. He still had his mouth open when Cass passed him. “Get the guard to the gate! The west gate!”
She called it over her shoulder, trusting that his training would kick in and Joris would know what to do. Out through the front doors, she leapt from the top stair and cleared the bottom one ten feet below without missing a step. Instinctively, she tried to boost before her brain reminded her she no longer had the implant, no longer needed the chemicals in her bloodstream. No longer had a bloodstream, for that matter.
Down the wide, empty street she sped, breathing quickly but easily. The cries of the Weir came more rapidly now, growing in number, converging to a single point. It was maybe six hundred yards from the governor’s compound to the western gate. Cass reached it in just under a minute.
There were stairs near the gate, leading up thirty feet above the ground to the top of the wall in a switchback. She took them two at a time and was almost halfway up when the first shockwave hit the gate. There was a sound like thunder, followed by scattered impacts, like rocks after a landslide. When Cass gained the top of the wall, she found one of the city’s watchmen staring down below, open-mouthed, frozen in fear.
“Hey!” she called, without thinking. The watchman’s head snapped around and, seeing her, his eyes went wide, and she saw him fumbling at his hip. “No, no, no, wait!”
But it was too late. He had the weapon up and pointed. It all seemed to happen in half-speed, but the distance was too great. As Cass closed the gap, she saw the leap of blue fire in the muzzle as she twisted her head and body, heard the snap of the round as it passed by. She spun, whipping a hand out and caught the watchman’s wrist as he fired the second time, sending another wild shot out into the night.
“It’s me, it’s Cass,” she shouted at him. The man stood paralyzed for the seconds it took for his brain to process what had just happened, and then his face melted from terror to pure dismay.
“Lady Cass, I’m so sorry, I thought–”
“I know! Did you hit the alarm?”
“The alarm?” He looked confused, like “alarm” was some word she’d just made up.
“Yes, did you hit it?” she asked.
“What?” he said. Cass could see the realization dawning in painful slowness. “No. I…”
Below, the gate boomed again, followed again by secondary impacts. Cass released the watchman’s wrist and gave him a firm shove towards the guard post. “Go, do it now! Go!” The watchman stumbled backwards, and then the shock finally seemed to wear off.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m on it!” He raced towards the post, and Cass ran to the edge of the wall and looked over. What she saw stole her breath.
The Weir were massed against the gate, dozens of them, in a writhing knot of flesh and claw. And as she watched, they fell back, scattering away from the wall. Then they turned again, and charged once more towards the gate. As one they collided into it, the few stragglers following closely behind and throwing themselves into the crush. They were trying to break through.
Cass felt the alarm charge up, an electric tingle just before the alert went out across the network to the City Guard. There was no blaring horn or screaming siren, no citywide notification of danger. The last thing the Guard needed in times of crisis was the mad panic of frightened citizens. Best to keep the sheep in their pens and let the sheepdogs do their work. Help would come.
Below her, the Weir continued their maddened surge, a near-human tide, momentarily receding, before racing forward again to crash against the iron gates. Cass couldn’t see the use. The gates were far too heavy, and securely barred besides. It was almost like watching a child throw a tantrum, a too-small fist landing meaningless blows. She wondered briefly if the other gates were also under attack, but footsteps on the stairs behind Cass caught her attention.
Gamble was the first to reach the top, jittergun in her hand and fire in her eyes. Her dark hair was in tight braids, and she pushed a stray aside as she jogged to join Cass.
“They coming through?” Gamble asked, breathing heavily from her sprint.
“No, gate’s secure and holding.”
Gamble leaned over the wall to see for herself. “What’re they doing?”
“I have no idea.”
More footsteps on the stairs, and Able appeared, followed closely by Gamble’s husband, Sky. Able, focused and intense, flowed past Cass and Gamble and took up a position further down the wall. Sky moved to the women at the edge of the wall, his long rifle pointed skyward but ready to deploy in an instant.
“What we got, Ace?” Sky asked.
“Forty, forty-five, I’d guess,” Gamble answered. “Not sure what they’re up to though.”
For a few moments, they just stood and watched in silence as the Weir continued their futile assault. Boom. Withdraw. Boom. Withdraw. A few Weir had fallen and lay unmoving at the gate, heedlessly trampled by each new wave.
“They sure hate that door, huh?” Sky said.
Swoop and Wick came up the stairs and fell in on either side of Sky and Gamble.
“You boys are getting slow,” Gamble said.
“Pff, you been here, like, thirty seconds,” Wick replied.
“Forty-eight. Where’s Finn?” she asked.
“Well, where’s Mouse?”
“On the way. Running slow on account of carrying the boy.”
“Not my boy,” Cass said, looking sharply at Wick. Surely Wren wouldn’t be so reckless.
“Uh… well,” Wick answered.
“Figured you wouldn’t want him coming on his own, ma’am,” Swoop said, his tone even, his face completely devoid of emotion. “And he wasn’t stayin’ put.”
“On account of being governor and all,” Wick added.
There was an awkward moment of what would have been silence, if not for the continued rage of the Weir below. Cass had to watch herself, to be careful not to undermine Wren’s authority with her mothering. But she’d been his sole protector for so long, it was hard to break old habits. To remember how much had changed.
“You want me to drop a couple?” Sky asked. He had his rifle shouldered now, sighting in on a target in the crowd below with easy grace, tracking it with unmatched fluidity. His weapon was all angles: long and thin with a flat top and an optic attached; his left arm was almost fully extended as he held a fore-grip, while his right hand, tucked in close to his body, kept the weapon in the pocket of his shoulder and pressed against his cheek. A precise instrument of death in the hands of an even deadlier man.
“What do you think, Cass?” said Gamble.
Cass thought for a moment. The crushed Weir at the gate hadn’t seemed to have any effect on the others. She didn’t see how shooting a few would be any different. And now that she knew some of them might be able to come back, she was less inclined to slaughter them without cause.
“Wait for Wren,” she answered. “We’ll see what he says.”
The watchman who’d nearly shot Cass a few minutes before finally returned and stood off to one side, stealing sidelong glances at Sky and Gamble and the others. It was rare for regular watchmen to get to see, let alone talk to, the governor’s elite bodyguard, and Cass could tell the young man was trying to work up the nerve to say something.
“Lady Cass,” he finally said. “The alert’s been sounded. My men should be here in just a few minutes.”
Cass smirked at his use of the phrase my men, as if he were an officer of rank. But she made no mention of it. “Thank you…?” she trailed off.
“Thank you, Espin. Good work.” It hadn’t really been good work, since he’d forgotten to do his job and nearly killed her, but she saw how it puffed him up and didn’t mind the lie. Espin looked at Swoop and smiled. Swoop’s flat expression didn’t change. Espin quickly looked away and bowed slightly to Cass.
“I’ll just uhhh… take up a position over here.”
“Actually, Espin, sorry to do this to you, but you can cancel the alarm. They’re not coming through.”
His shoulders slumped, and for a moment Cass thought he was actually going to protest. But in the end, he just nodded and jogged back towards the guard post, obviously embarrassed. Wick let out a little laugh that he didn’t quite cover with a cough.
Cass turned her attention back to the Weir. It was almost like watching a hand, spreading out its fingers and then sharply clenching them to a fist. Crazed. Or perhaps haywire. She wondered if any of the Weir ever short-circuited.
“Here they come,” Wick said, and Cass looked over her shoulder to see Finn at the top of the stairs with Mouse close behind, carrying Wren on his back. Finn was Wick’s older brother, though you could hardly tell they were related just by looking at them. Finn caught her eye and gave a little shrug.
“Hi, Mom,” Wren said, sliding off Mouse’s back. He said it a little too casually, the way he did when he knew he’d done something wrong and was hoping she wouldn’t notice. His blond hair was matted on one side and sticking up in the back, eyes still clouded by sleep. “What’s going on?”
“Well… since you’re here,” she said, hoping her look made it clear how displeased she was, “maybe you can tell us. Come take a look.”
Wren came over to her side, and she went down on one knee, offering the other as a step for him. He climbed up on it, using her shoulder for support as he did, and his heel dug into her quadriceps with a dull ache. When had he gotten so heavy?
“What do you think?” Cass asked.
She watched his face as Wren studied them for a moment. She waited for the sound of the next impact. But it never came.
“Alright, this is starting to give me the jibblies,” Sky said.
“What now?” Cass asked.
“They stopped,” said Gamble.
Cass took Wren off her leg and stood up to take a look.
“I can’t see, Mama.”
She picked him up and held him as they looked down over the wall together. The Weir were in a loose crowd, as if they’d begun to scatter and then abruptly stopped. Now they were just standing there, looking up at the wall. No. Looking up at Wren. And then one made the strangest sound.
Like a burst of thin hissing static, followed by wave of white noise, somewhere between a violent exhalation and a whispered howl. Cass had never heard anything like it before.
The same as before. Exactly the same, as far as Cass could tell.
They came in an even rhythm, almost like a chant. Some of the other Weir began shuffling together, gradually closing in around the one making the sound, like a dark pool spreading in reverse. Their eyes remained fixed on Wren. An evil shiver ran down Cass’s spine.
“That one’s begging for it,” Sky said, sighting in. “Ace?”
“Hold on,” Gamble answered. She looked at Cass.
“What do you think, baby?” Cass asked.
“Something’s not right, Mama.”
“Can you wake any of them?”
Wren surveyed the group below, and then shook his head with a sad look. Too far gone. Gamble gave a sharp nod in Sky’s direction. A half-second later his rifle hummed quick and low, and the chanting Weir fell violently backwards.
The other Weir didn’t even react. Some just stood around aimlessly, but those that were moving continued to gather together, closer and closer. A little over half of them, maybe twenty-five, slowly pressed together.
A new one took up the call now. And then another. Then a third. Sky’s rifle hummed once and quickly again, and two of them fell. Still no effect.
“Looks like some of ’em are busted,” Wick said. “Look at that one just turning circles.”
Sure enough, one Weir, separated from the others, was turning a slow circle; turn thirty degrees, stop, thirty degrees, stop, thirty degrees, stop. It really did look like a system glitch.
“Is it just me, or are some of them missing?” Finn asked.
Now that he mentioned it, the crowd did seem smaller. Cass was just about to say so when Able tore past her and she heard Swoop draw his sword. She turned.
The Weir were on the wall. On top of the wall. Rushing towards them. Cass dropped Wren to his feet, pulled him behind her, and the team switched on in an instant. Able and Swoop were already there, intercepting the first two. Gamble, Mouse, Wick, and Finn all snapped weapons up as they collapsed in a protective ring around Cass and Wren. Sky swung his rifle around, ready to drop any that got past Able and Swoop. To Cass’s surprise, she heard Sky’s weapon hum. One Weir fell further down the wall, a perfectly placed shot right between Swoop and Able.
It was over in almost the time it’d taken her to process it. Only three of them, quickly dispatched.
“How did they get up?” Gamble shouted. She leapt on top of the parapet and started leaning out, scanning back and forth, checking the wall. “How did they get up here?” Sky instinctively grabbed her by the belt with his left hand, still keeping his weapon shouldered, up and ready, with his right.
“Mouse,” Cass called. Mouse came quickly to her side, his weapon down but shouldered in case any other targets presented.
“Yes, ma’am?” he asked.
“Take Wren back to the compound, please. Wick, Finn, you too.”
“But, Mama–” Wren started to protest, but Cass wasn’t having it.
“No buts, Wren. You shouldn’t have been here in the first place.” She pushed Wren towards Mouse. The big man drew Wren in close, protectively. “Straight to the compound,” she added. “Lock it up.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mouse said. He slung his weapon, and gathered Wren up. “Wick, Finn, let’s move it out.” Only then did the two brothers roll fluidly out of formation and take up defensive positions on either side of Mouse.
“Don’t worry, Cass, we’ll get him there, no sweat,” Wick said as he moved by.
“I know,” she said. The three men departed swiftly with her son, and for a moment Cass felt an almost overwhelming desire to go with them. But Gamble let out a startled cry, and Cass knew she had to stay.
“Look at this!” Gamble said. “Sky, let go, I’m not gonna fall. You gotta see this.”
Sky lowered his weapon and leaned out over the wall as best he could. He didn’t take his hand off his wife. “Yep. Jibblies.”
Cass climbed cautiously up on the parapet next to Gamble and followed the other woman’s arm to where she was pointing with her jittergun, about thirty yards further down the wall. At first, Cass couldn’t tell what she was seeing. It looked almost like an enormously thick rope dangling the wrong way, from the ground up and not quite long enough to reach the top. Then her eyes picked up an arm here, a leg there. With horror it all clicked in her mind. Some number of the Weir had piled on top of one another, clinging together to form something like a pillar of flesh; a grotesque circus act, or twisted sculpture of the dead. It might have been comical if it hadn’t been so horrifying. Another Weir was climbing, using its claws and mindlessly shredding its companions as it made its way up.
“Cut it down,” Cass said.
Gamble didn’t even reply. She just pulled Sky’s hand free and jogged down the length of the parapet. By the time she made it to the Weir-pillar, the climbing Weir had nearly reached the top. Cass heard the jittergun buzz as Gamble opened up with it. The climbing Weir fell back and plummeted to the ground, followed closely by its collapsing companions; their bodies thumped, dull and wet far below.
“I sure hope I wake up in a couple minutes and find out this was all a bad dream,” Sky said. After a moment, he added, “Real bad.”
Gamble’s gun ripped the air in two more short bursts, and then it was quiet. It was only then Cass realized the Weir had stopped making their eerie call. She turned back to where the crowd had once been and found all but one had disappeared. The last of the three chanters now stood alone, utterly still and staring. Staring at Cass. As if it had been waiting for her attention.
Sky’s rifle hummed again, and the Weir collapsed in a pile.
“I’m about done with that,” he said. Cass couldn’t help but agree. But she knew that sound would haunt her for a long time to come.
About halfway between Cass and Gamble, Able and Swoop were working together to dump the dead Weir over the wall, outside the city. They’d take care of it in the morning, if the bodies were still there. More than likely, other Weir would come and reclaim them, as was their way. Gamble, walking back along the top of the parapet, stopped and crouched by them for a moment and exchanged a few words.
“I sure wish she’d get away from that edge,” said Sky.
“I think she does it just to make you nervous,” Cass replied.
“She does. And it does.”
Gamble hopped down off the parapet and returned to Cass and Sky. She slid in next to her husband, and wrapped an arm around his waist, looking softer. He kissed the top of her head in such a casual motion it almost looked like reflex.
“Bad news, Cass,” she said. Sky leaned his rifle against the wall and dropped an easy arm around her shoulders. The two of them just seemed to fit together. “The kid at the post…”
Gamble nodded. “They must’ve gotten him on his way back from shutting down the alarm.”
Cass closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. That was on her. She’d sent him off by himself. Careless. More blood on her hands.
“Hey, no way you could’ve known,” Gamble said, reading her thoughts. “For as long as this city’s stood, I have never known them to top the wall. They just don’t do that.”
“Until now,” Cass answered.
Cass felt unspeakably weary. Heavy arms, heavy legs, heavy heart. There was still so much to do.
“Miss Cass, you go on back to the compound,” Sky said. “We’ll finish up here, and we’ll take good care of Espin.”
“No, I should handle that. He’s my responsibility.”
“Go on, Cass,” Gamble said. “Go take care of your boy. You should be together right now.”
Cass leaned around to check on Able and Swoop, but Sky put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“We’ve got this.”
Cass thought it over. It didn’t feel right to leave these people here on the wall without her. But nothing felt right about this night anyway. “Alright. Thank you.”
Gamble reached out and squeezed her arm, and then smiled, warm and understanding. Cass nodded to the couple, and then turned and headed down the stairs with leaden legs. The way back to the compound seemed twice as far, the air twice as cold, as she made her way through the still empty streets of Morningside. An entire city slumbering under an illusion of safety.
Her mind raced with the mounting threats she had to face, both within the city and without. They were no closer to solving the mystery of Wren’s attacker, and Luck’s murderers were still unidentified. The Weir were changing. The regular guardsmen had never shown up. Not a single one. Discipline had crumbled. No doubt that too would change, come morning. Morning. The whole way back, Cass couldn’t help but wonder what new terror the dawn would bring.