The woman was hysterical, and Three couldn’t really blame her given the situation. Wren had gone suddenly silent, and wasn’t answering her calls now. But they were on a knife’s edge, minutes from the waking of the Weir. Without the safety of the Vault, he was out of options. And without options, Cass wouldn’t survive the night.
She was on her knees, sobbing into the gap in the gate, calling for her son. Pleading for an answer. But the intensity was waning. Three knew she would be useless in searching for another way. There was always another way. Knowing that had gotten him this far, and he hadn’t come this far to stop searching now. He could feel his eyes sliding over details, instincts screaming to slow down, go back. But Cass’s cries were interfering, dulling his focus.
“Cass,” he called her gently. She didn’t respond. “Cass, come on.”
He reached down to take her arm, thinking to help her to her feet, but the instant he made contact, she sprang up, screaming again, right in his face.
“He’s gone! You killed him!”
She flailed at him, weak, pathetic blows that he didn’t even bother defending himself against. Behind the chaos, the storm of a woman that raged in front of him, a hint of sound caught his attention, something he felt more than heard.
“Cass,” Three said, his voice calm, even.
“You sent him to die!”
“Cass,” he said it again, firm, urgent; a warning, if she’d been listening.
“He’s gone! My son is gone!”
He didn’t have time for this, or to explain, so he did what came naturally. He punched her in the sternum, a sharp, shallow blow that stole the breath from her body, and crumpled her to the ground. There. Quiet. Controlled. He put a hand on her neck to keep her in place while he scanned, strained. Every sense stretched outward, seeking to disprove what he’d thought he’d heard. Knowing in his gut that he had. Yes, there again… he’d heard it. The faint, distant but unmistakable call of the Weir. The very first of them were out. More would follow.
Cass had fallen into a silent, shuddering sort of sobbing, and Three took advantage of her stillness. He took his hand from her, scanned everything he could think of: the gate, the vent, the alleyways, the maglev line… In all that surrounded them, there had to be something to use, some place to hide. But his mind kept sliding back to the Vault. It wasn’t an option, but it refused to remove itself as one. He fought to forget it, to force his eyes to see everything else.
Under normal circumstances, he never would’ve let it happen. But the stress, the exhaustion, the pressure… whatever the reason, he let himself forget about the woman for a moment. A mistake. She hit him from the side, a blur of movement in the waning light, and drove the edge of her hand into his neck, just under the jaw. Three’s vision jolted; blacked out for an instant. As he fell to a knee, he felt the pistol sliding clear of its holster. Her words flashed through his dazed mind, her promise that if anything happened to Wren, she’d kill him herself.
She got two shots off before he managed to grab her wrist, and the third round tore a chunk from the upper corner of the Vault’s reinforced exterior. As the rolling echo from the blasts rumbled into the distance, Three wrenched the gun from her, and threw her back to the ground. For a long moment, he just stood there, staring, jaw clenched tight, temples throbbing, fighting back the urge to do her some violence. She stared right back, smoldering, defiant; he had no doubts about her will or ferocity. But there was something else… a vulnerability he hadn’t expected. Resignation to a familiar fear. Acceptance of what was about to come. And he knew in that instant that this woman was no stranger to abuse.
For the first time, something inside Three cracked. He felt it without understanding it. And there wasn’t time to analyze it now. But he knew something had changed, and whatever it was probably wasn’t good news for him. Wordlessly, he slid his pistol back into its holster, and went back to the job at hand, trying to forget for the moment that he’d just lost three of his four remaining shells in a flash of unchecked emotion. Not to mention the unwanted attention those gunshots would surely attract.
At first he’d thought she’d meant to kill him, but he saw now that wasn’t the case. Near the left-hand lower corner of the gate, just where the gap was, were two new holes, no more than three inches apart, still glowing orange-red where the thirty-kilojoule rounds had bored through. If only Cass had asked, Three could’ve told her that wouldn’t work, but he felt a twinge of relief as he realized he didn’t owe his life to lousy shooting.
Another squawk sounded from somewhere in the gathering gloom. A melancholy, almost lonely cry that resonated far too well with their current circumstances. Three ran a hand over his bristly head, cracked his neck. The wind was picking up, and the autumn air had the promise of a colder-than-usual winter on its breath. He flexed his fingers, worked out a tightness he hadn’t noticed until now.
“Come on, girl,” he finally said quietly, turning back to her and offering his hand. “We’ll figure this out.”
Cass had her legs drawn up, hugging her knees. She stared off back the way they’d come, refusing to look at him. Despondent.
“We need to go.”
Out this far, the Weir were scattered, harder to predict.
She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t acknowledge him. But in a quiet voice, more to herself than to Three, she answered.
They were losing time they didn’t have.
“No you’re not.”
It was bad enough they were talking instead of moving. Cass was making it worse with long pauses between responses, as if the effort to speak was almost more than she could manage.
“Wren was all I had. No reason to go on if he’s gone.”
“And if he’s not?”
Still she hadn’t moved. Another uncanny howl echoed down the alleys, swirled in the chilling air. Three’s tone hardened.
“You’re his mother. If he was dead, you would know. He’s in there. And it won’t do him any good, waiting here to die. So come on.”
She didn’t look to him. But after a too long moment, she reached up, put her hand in his, let him help her to her feet. When he let go, her hand slid away with the barest hint of reluctance. Three told himself it was from her exhaustion.
“Where?” asked Cass.
Three put on his harness and slung the backpack over a shoulder, all the while scanning their surroundings a final time, searching for that other way. It was here. That voice inside was screaming that he’d seen it already, if he could just think. It was here. Just put it together.
No… not here. He’d passed it somewhere. Somewhere close. But what was it?
Finally, there was a spark of an idea, a floating scrap of conversation he’d overheard in some nearly forgotten place, some indeterminate time ago.
“Can you climb?”
Wren sat shoved hard into the cold corner of concrete and steel, desperately trying not to breathe. The scaly hand pressed over his mouth had a sour smell that made his stomach feel upside down and the hot breath on his face reeked of strong vapors that burned his eyes. In those last few terrifying moments, the chemlight had rolled away under some piece of machinery, leaving only the faintest glow pooling on the floor. All Wren knew of his captor was that it was human. He could at least feel that much.
Whoever it was shifted, placed its mouth right into Wren’s ear. Its breath tickled when it spoke.
“Quiet, little one,” it hissed. “Quiet, or we die.”
He wanted so badly to call out to Mama, to answer her calls, to let her know he was OK. But even if there hadn’t been a hand over his mouth, the fear in his throat would’ve stopped any sound he’d wanted to make. The thing was human, minimally. But it felt somehow… wrong. Being this close to It flooded Wren with an indecipherable sense, like hearing an argument in another language, unable to grasp the words but unmistakably getting the tone. Whatever was wrong with It, Wren felt simultaneously afraid of and sorry for It. It seemed wild, and lost.
“We’ll go to the safe place… it’s too late for the others. But you can live. If you are quiet.”
It shifted again, and Wren was glad when the hand slipped off his mouth. But in the next instant a strong grip seized him, and then he was being lifted up, awkwardly but not unkindly swung onto his captor’s back, and held securely in place by Its wiry arms.
“Quiet,” It reminded him.
It carried him away at the same unchanging pace as It had approached. Pat… pat… pat… Its bare feet following practiced steps across the concrete floor. Wren saw the yellow-green glow of the lost chemlight grow and then recede as they passed by and moved into some chamber beyond the entrance.
It stopped briefly, Its head swiveling slightly, Its rank whisper washing over him.
“I’m… we need to… I can’t always remember…”
It stopped Itself, exhaled in frustration, seemed to shake Its head as if to clear it.
“Safe first, then we’ll see. Then we’ll see.”
With that jumble of thoughts hanging in the air, It proceeded onwards. Whatever was carrying him walked differently than anyone else Wren had ever known. And he had gotten a lot of piggyback rides before. This one didn’t bounce very much. He almost felt like they were gliding, even when they started going down the stairs. His mama’s calls became muffled and duller, and drifted above him, and finally stopped altogether.
Without his mother’s voice, without that connection to her, Wren felt completely lost. He started sobbing, a silent, shaking cry, frightened of making any noise, but terrified of what might happen to him, and to his mama, and to Mister Three. He jammed his fist in his mouth, tried biting his fingers. Sometimes that worked.
“Don’t cry, little one,” It whispered. “I have a safe place.”
It was pitch-black, and the air was thick with the sickly odor that Wren had first smelled back in the vent, though it was much stronger here. Wren squeezed his eyes tightly shut. He bit his hand a little harder. Somewhere far above him, three rolling booms thundered.
“Too much noise,” It murmured. “That won’t do. It isn’t safe.”
Its arms released and Wren felt himself sliding slowly from Its back. When his feet touched the ground, he just stood there, hand in his mouth, crying and missing his mom.
“Lie down, little one, yeah? Sleep is quiet, and we stay quiet until morning. No noise and no stream, because they hear both. OK? Then we’ll see. I think maybe… maybe it will be the same again… the way it used to be. Maybe, in the morning. We’ll see.”
Wren heard It shuffle not far away and make noises he could only guess meant It was taking Its own advice and lying down. Without knowing what else to do, Wren curled into a ball on the cold concrete floor and bit into his knuckles, fighting desperately the urge to scream.
Cass stared up at the maglev line towering over her, at the twisted scaffolding, the flexing support structure, the tangled mass of metal… and the man perched like a hawk in the midst of it all, twenty feet from the ground. Three was up there, unnaturally nimble, a four-limbed spider in his web of steel, barely visible as the final traces of the day faded into night. He swore it’d be safe but he was checking it out nonetheless, having left her alone on the ground, cloaked in the night air with nothing more for protection. She couldn’t ignore the fact that he hadn’t left the pistol with her this time.
Even standing, it was hard to resist sleep. Cass’s body was near collapse, threatening to shut down without regard to her wishes if she didn’t willingly rest soon. The ache was back. The hunger, the thirst. The dull, glowing heat in the pit of her stomach and at the back of her throat that cried out for quint. Whatever synth Three had crafted, he’d said it’d last her a few days. It’d been less than two. And it was gone, already used up by her ever-accelerating burn rate. Her arms and legs shivered, though not from cold. She just had to endure, had to let him think the worry was getting to her, which was true enough. Worry for Wren made her head swim. But it was fear that kept her from telling Three the truth, fear that knowing she’d lied about her burn rate would lead him to question how else she may have misled him. And as much as Cass hated it, she needed Three now, needed him to get them through. She knew whatever it took to keep him on their side, she’d do without question or regret.
Three had been right, of course. In her heart, Cass knew Wren was alive. Frightened, certainly. Hurt, maybe. But alive. As a mother, it just wasn’t enough. She yearned for contact, for a touch, a glimpse of him, even a word. Just a word.
Cass glanced up at Three, thirty feet above her, all but invisible now. Far enough away. Even if he was monitoring her signal by proximity, he was too high to trace anything simple, and from the look of it, he was focused more on his climbing than on anything she was doing. She’d expressly forbidden Wren from pimming her, knowing that opening those channels carried too great a risk of exposing them both to Asher’s ever-watchful eye. It’d seemed like a smart rule before, when they were never apart even for a moment. But now, in the cold, in the dark, cut off from one another by some unknowable distance and who knew what else, the danger didn’t seem so great or so relevant. Not compared to the hope offered by the simple act of reaching out across that distanceless space where Wren was separated by no more than a thought.
In less than a breath, it was done.
A heartbeat. Another. And another. Long enough for her son to have responded, if he was alright. Fear grew in her with each passing moment, every second of silence conjuring new nightmares that might have befallen her child.
His message came through, clear, simple, like a thought of her own spoken in his voice. Reassuring and baffling at the same time. Somewhere in the distance, a crackling wail sounded.
Above her, Three hissed, calling Cass’s attention. Straining her eyes she could just make him out motioning to her, an urgent, forceful wave beckoning her to climb. She drew a deep breath, tried to steady herself. Worked her hands to ease the trembling. And started to climb.
The metal of the scaffolding was warmer than she’d expected, which was a welcome surprise. But after the first step up, with her full weight off the ground, she knew it was going to be a tough climb. Forty feet, maybe. It wouldn’t have been hard if she’d had her chems. Without them though, everything was hard: climbing, walking, breathing, thinking. Cass hoped sleep would fix some of her brokenness. Assuming sleep would come.
Five feet up. Thirty-five to go. She glanced up to the underside of the maglev line, but it was too dark now to locate Three. Maybe he was already on the top. She wondered what climbing would do for them out here. Maybe the Weir wouldn’t think to look for them up so high, though she doubted that. To her, it seemed that the Weir were led by something other than their eyes. She thought back to the night they’d spent in the cavernous storm water system outside the Enclave. When the Weir had passed her by once. Of course, it had come back. And so had others.
Hand up. Hold. Then foot. Reach. Stretch. Ignore the burning. Fifteen feet up. Still no sign of Three. Up here, she realized some of what she’d thought were support beams were actually just thick cables. Round, they were easy to grip, but their odd angles made her footing unsure. She did her best, forced herself to take her time despite the searing in her forearms, her back, her thighs. Even so, she never really felt completely in control.
Twenty-five feet above the ground now. Just twelve or fifteen more to go. Cass thought briefly about how they’d get down, then shoved the idea out of her mind. The thought of doing this again, not to mention backwards, was too much to process. And maybe too optimistic. Coming back down assumed they’d survive the night.
Below her a sudden croak sounded, startled her, made her lose focus just as she was mid-step, floating between foothold and handhold. Her foot slipped sideways on the cable beneath her, twisting her around out of reach of the grip she’d been reaching for, and she slammed her back into the edge of something hard. Above her, a shadow within shadows swept across the cables; she sensed it more than saw it. Three. He would save her. For a moment Cass dangled out in space, one quivering hand her only connection to the physical world. Then that too was gone.
She felt his fingertips brush hers as she slipped away into the darkness below. The first impact caught her across the back, knocking the breath from her lungs and throwing her forward. Another six feet down Cass slammed into a pair of cables where they met in an X. It bent her double with a searing pain across her belly, and the speed of her fall flipped her headfirst. In a flash of instinct, she managed to hook one elbow around the cable as she spun over the top. That probably saved her life. The cable bit deeply, but she slowed herself just long enough to make a desperate grab with her other hand. With a solid grip supporting her for a moment, her feet scrabbled and found stability on the scaffolding below. She readjusted, got two good handholds, steadied herself. Still alive, somehow.
Cass’s back muscles were still seized, and she fought to suck air into her lungs, if not to breathe at least to scream. She could hear above her now Three’s quick movements drawing closer, descending with such swiftness she felt certain at any moment he’d plummet past her to his own death. He reached her about the time she got her first breath.
Even in crisis, Three remained stoic. He continued down past her without a word, climbed in just underneath her with his shoulder near her waist. He shifted his weight, seemed to be testing for secure footing. Then, he pressed into her, his shoulder firm and sure against her stomach, raising her up and taking her weight from her hands and feet. The pressure sent fire coursing through her middle, and she bit into her lip to stifle a cry. Surely he didn’t mean to carry her.
“Arm around my neck,” he whispered, barely audible. Slowly, painfully, Cass draped her arm over the back of Three’s neck, along his left shoulder. He grasped her wrist, shifted her across his shoulders, distributing her weight as evenly as possible in a sort of fireman’s carry.
“Now,” he breathed, words hardly more than wind in the air, “be still.”
And with that, he began to climb.