Three crouched atop the Vault as the final traces of day seeped from the heavens, unveiling the first stars. Clouds were rolling in, backlit by a half-moon on the wane, tinted red from the residual glow of the electric embers of the city beneath. The Weir cried to one another, some from a distance, others less so, the echoes reverberating through the steel and concrete sprawl. Three had learned to judge those calls, or rather not to misjudge them. Magnified by overpasses, twisted by alleys, muffled by high-rises. Misreading the sounds of the hunt could prove fatal. Or worse.
Jackson hadn’t been eager to let Three back out of the Vault so close to twilight, but the kid knew better than to argue for long. And the fight had gone out of him anyway, once Three had explained. Now, out here on top of the Vault, the temperature was dropping steadily. A light wind swirled out of the surrounding alleys and moaned softly through the skeletal maglev structure, streaming like water over the top of Three’s freshly shaved head. He thought briefly about grabbing one of the old blankets he’d brought with him, but decided against it. The chill kept him alert, and comfort was an enemy.
After an hour of waiting, Three allowed himself to sit rather than crouch. He massaged his calves, hoping to ease the burn. Sleep stalked.
Not now, he insisted. When it’s done.
He had assured Jackson that the Weir had lost interest in breaching the Vault, and he’d been more right than he’d known. Though he could hear their sporadic croaking, he had yet to see even a hint of one below. Clouds masked the moon, making darker the night and heavier the looming silence of the cityscape. He could barely make out the outline of the old rusted, V-shaped piece of scrap metal he’d dragged near the front gate, with his two firebricks inside.
Three drew his pistol, flicked open its cylinder with practiced ease, considered the single shell within. Walking to Greenstone, of all places, with one shell in the pipe. As far as he was concerned, shooting was rarely a good answer to a problem. But when it was, it was usually the only answer. He shook his head with a smirk and flicked the cylinder shut, before sliding the weapon back into its well-worn holster. A few more slugs probably wouldn’t be the difference between living and dying out here. Probably.
A shuffling noise from below caught Three’s attention, and his senses snapped alert. He rose to a crouch and peered into the darkness beneath him. For a long moment, there was nothing more. No noise, no movement, no blue-glow aura that always emanated from approaching Weir. Three remembered just the night before, at how Dagon had appeared without warning. He slipped a hand to the grip of his blade. Instinct crackled. Something was there, in the darkness. Watching.
Three released the short sword, slowly took up his bundle, shifted away from the front of the Vault. Gradually he eased his way to the left side of the squat building, silently worked towards the edge. He carefully wrapped his bundle inside one of the blankets and then passed one end under an arm and the other over the opposite shoulder, tying the makeshift satchel securely upon his back. Then, there at the edge, he waited. There again, the shuffling sound. Footsteps. Definitely approaching. They sounded heavy for a Weir, shuffling rather than pattering as he was accustomed to.
Three lowered himself over the edge, spidered his way down the wall. Slowly. Silently. When he reached the bottom, the shuffling had stopped again. He dropped to a low crouch, forced himself to move with painstaking care, towards the front of the Vault. An inch at a time. His held his mouth slightly open to ensure even his breathing made no sound.
The shuffling began again, and Three could tell now it was just around the corner. Just at the front of the Vault. But moving away. Then a pause. Then shuffling again, towards the Vault. Then a pause. Three came up out of his crouch and slid around the corner. There, in front of the Vault, a hulking Weir stood with its blue-glow eyes fixed on the gate.
“Gev,” Three said aloud.
The Weir’s head snapped in his direction, its eyes rapidly scanning for him, sliding over him without seeing. Three stood his ground, studied the thing before him. This thing that had once been his friend. Three didn’t know how many weeks had passed since Gev had been taken, but apart from the electric blue light flooding out of its eye sockets, the Gev-Weir looked virtually unchanged.
It flexed its hands, squawked a burst of organic-digital noise. Its eyes still roving.
The Gev-Weir hunched down, as if to pounce. But Three knew he was safe from its searching gaze. He eased a hand back and slipped his blade from its sheath. Somewhere deep in his heart, a hope that he hadn’t even realized he’d carried died. A hope for recognition. But there was none, and Three knew his friend was gone.
“I’m here, old friend,” he said quietly.
As he spoke, he threw his arms out wide. The Weir reacted to the sudden, sharp movement, and launched itself toward him in a frenzy. But Three’s calmness remained. And just before the Gev-Weir was upon him, he whirled to one side and whipped the tip of his blade expertly through the back of its neck, just at the base of the skull, severing the spinal column in a single, swift stroke, without beheading it. The blue-glow eyes doused instantly. The Gev-Weir collapsed headlong in a weighty heap and was still.
Three flicked the acrid fluid from his blade, and returned it to its sheath. Then he untied the blanket from his shoulder, and unrolled it on the ground. With great effort and care, he lifted Gev’s body and laid it upon the blanket, and then knelt alongside.
Three arranged Gev’s heavy hands over his heart, and then placed his own on top of them. They were cool to the touch, the flesh rough but not yet the rubber-like texture that death so often brought. If Three hadn’t just slain his friend, he could’ve convinced himself that Gev was merely asleep. Three covered Gev’s face, and then wrapped the blanket tightly around the body. He did the same with the remaining blankets, and then heaved Gev’s massive frame up over his shoulders.
He strained to carry the body over to the scrap metal pyre he’d hastily formed, but once there, he laid his friend as carefully as he was able into the V-shape, atop the firebricks. Three stood and regarded the tightly-bound form of his longtime friend. He felt that he should say something meaningful, but discovered he had no words to speak. There seemed to be none worthy of so final a moment. So in silence, Three ignited the firebricks. In seconds, they grew white-hot and soon flames of many colors engulfed Gev’s remains, spreading golden-orange sparks heavenward.
And with the task at hand completed, Three lay down on the cold concrete beside his friend and wept.
A light knock on the door roused Cass from a depthless sleep. She remained still, drew a long breath, waited for her mind and body to synch. Wren was curled next to her, his breathing even. Undisturbed. The knock came again. She checked her internal clock. Twenty-two minutes to sunrise. No sign of Three.
“Mama, Jackson’s knocking,” Wren whispered. Awake after all.
Cass sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Tested them, glad to discover she could move without pain. It’d been a long while since she could say that. She padded over to the door barefoot and cracked it open.
“Sorry to wake you, Miss Cass. But, Three’s about ready to get moving.”
“He’s upstairs already?”
“Yeah,” he answered, then paused. “Sorta.”
“I haven’t seen him yet. He just asked me to make sure you guys were up and ready to go around now.”
“OK, we’ll be up in a few.”
Jackson nodded, but lingered at the door. He tugged at an earlobe, unconsciously from the looks of it. He was nervous about something.
“Need any help?” he finally asked. “I can carry your gear up, if you like.”
“No, that’s alright. Just need to get dressed.”
“I don’t mind waiting.”
Cass sighed to herself. She guessed he was lonely, that he was having mixed emotions about their leaving. Might as well give the kid something, however small.
“OK, give us a minute.”
Cass closed the door and switched on the light. Wren was already sitting up, legs dangling off the side of the bed, blond hair sticking up like a halo. His sea-green eyes shone wet as he squinted against the light.
“How’d you sleep, baby?”
“Good,” he answered. He rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand. “This bed is nice. I wish it fit in my backpack.”
“Me too. But when we get to Morningside, we’ll each have our own bed. Own rooms, even.”
She smiled as her son slid to the floor, wishing she believed that they’d make it to Morningside, that there would be an end to their flight, to the pursuit. Wren sidled next to her, wrapped his arms around her leg. He seemed taller than he’d been last night. She dropped a hand on his back, squeezed him against her leg in a one-handed hug.
“Come on, we should get moving.”
Cass helped Wren pull a heavier overshirt on over the top of his thinner long-sleeved shirt. As his head popped through the top, she found him staring her in the eye with a look of serious concern.
“Do we have to have different rooms?”
Cass felt her heart turn in her chest.
“No, baby,” she said, kneeling to his height and drawing him close. “No, we can stay together. We can always stay together.”
Her eyes welled. She squeezed tight, continued to hold him as he stood with his arms at his sides, empty sleeves limp and dangling. For a long moment, he just let her hug him.
“You’re squishing me.”
She smiled at that. Wiped her eyes quickly before letting go.
Cass helped her son pull his arms into the sleeves of his overshirt. He lost a sleeve in the process and the two worked together to fish it out, and to pull the inner sleeve back down his arm.
“Go ahead and get your coat on, then hop up on the bed,” she said. “I’ll help you with your boots.”
As Wren wrangled himself into his new coat, Cass changed out of the shirt she’d slept in and into clean clothes that almost felt new. Slipping into the less-worn garments energized her, as if she were putting on armor for the journey ahead. She slid her feet into thick socks made for hiking, and then sank them into her boots, and buckled them up. She stood and felt strong.
Wren was already up on the bed again and Cass helped him put on his new boots. Boots without holes. Boots that fit. He dropped off the edge of the bed to his feet, and they stood together, ready to travel. Scavengers though they were, Cass couldn’t help feeling rich. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d had everything they’d needed, and some to spare. Looking at the packs by the door, the ones Three had so painstakingly gathered and organized, she realized that for the first time since she’d left RushRuin, she actually felt prepared.
Cass took Wren’s hand, and moved to the door. She swung it open and jumped a little when she saw Jackson standing there. She’d completely forgotten he was waiting.
“All set?” he asked.
“Let me just get your gear.”
Jackson pushed in and wrestled all three packs onto his shoulders, refusing any of Cass’s attempts to help. He didn’t seem to have much trouble with Wren’s pack, or her own, but it took him nearly a full minute to pull Three’s pack off the ground, and position it securely on his back. It was only as the three made their way up the twisting staircase that she realized this was a show of strength on his part. She didn’t understand it, but she said nothing.
They moved up past the Commons, all the way to the flat, concrete entrance where the Gate stood. Still, there was no sign of Three. Jackson trudged to the gate and, red-faced and sweating, slung the packs to the ground just in front of the looming steel plate.
“Is Three meeting us here?” asked Cass.
“I’d guess so. He didn’t really say.”
Jackson moved over to the hand-crank, and paused to check the time.
“Should be good,” he said to no one in particular. And then he began to crank. The early purple light of dawn spilled in beneath the gate, splashing across the floor and sweeping over their feet, carrying with it a rolling wave of morning air, sharp with the scent of cold frost. In its midst, a shadow stretched.
And as the Gate rose to height, Cass recognized the figure standing beyond: Three.
“Ready to move?” he asked, with typical grim nonchalance.
“Did you spend the night out there?” Cass asked, in disbelief, knowing full well the answer to her own question. Which was good, because he ignored it anyway.
“We’re going to have to keep a pretty good pace. Sooner we get started, the better we’ll do.”
“Then let’s go.”
Cass swung her pack up onto her back, and clipped the harness around her waist. It fit her well, and though she was surprised at the weight, once it was in place, it was so well-balanced she hardly noticed it. Wren’s was much lighter. She didn’t even try to lift Three’s.
Three strode in, and hoisted his pack without any apparent strain. As he buckled in, he spoke to Jackson, though he didn’t look at him.
“I’d feel better if you came with us, kid. Hate to leave you behind.”
Jackson shuffled towards the three, but lingered several feet away.
“I’d probably just slow you down,” he replied. “Besides, I gotta be here to work the gate for anyone else who might show up, yeah?”
He smiled unconvincingly. If he didn’t believe it himself, Cass couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just come along.
“Please, Jackson?” Wren said. “Please come with us.”
“We’d be happy to have you,” Cass added. “Really.”
Jackson blushed at that. Dropped his gaze to Wren, and ruffled his hair. Shook his head. He shifted on his feet. Still nervous.
“I can’t. But come back any time.”
He glanced up at Cass as he said the last bit, then quickly away. Sheepish. It clicked for Cass.
Oh, she thought. A crush.
“Go on,” Three said to Jackson. “Say something, kid. I doubt you’ll get another chance, and I don’t want you chasing after us once we leave.”
Cass glanced over at Three. He was straight-faced except for the slight downward turn of one corner of his mouth; a tiny expression Cass had learned to read as something of a suppressed smile. She guessed he’d figured it out a while ago.
Jackson just looked up at her again, and smiled awkwardly. He shrugged, uncertain of what to say, looked away, out through the gate into the city beyond. Cass walked over to him, took his jaw in her hand, and swiveled his face towards hers.
“Thanks, Jackson. For everything. You’re a true hero.”
Before he could respond, she kissed him quickly but firmly on the mouth. He stared at her, stunned, when she backed off. She could still feel his gaze as she joined Three and Wren. Something like amusement washed over Three’s face.
Cass took Wren’s hand in hers and waited.
“Say bye, baby.”
“Goodbye, little one.”
“We gotta move. Last chance, kid.”
Cass glanced behind her, saw Jackson shake his head. He was beaming.
“Alright then. Stay safe.”
“You too, Three. See you around, yeah?”
“Never can tell.”
Three turned and held out his hand, letting Cass and Wren lead the way out. They headed out into the open, and Cass felt a hitch in her chest. Some mix of exhilaration and fear. Not quite equal parts, but she couldn’t tell which she felt more strongly.
“Hey, pim me when you get to Morningside, yeah?” Jackson called from behind. “Let me know you made it.”
“Sure,” Three answered back over his shoulder. “I’ll have Cass do it.”
Cass didn’t turn around then. She just shook her head. When they had walked maybe a hundred feet, Three slid in next to her, leaned close. Spoke in low tones.
“Doubt you’ll ever see him again. But that kiss is gonna last him a looong time.”
He nudged her with an elbow, and then moved away a pace or two.
“Is he going to be alright?”
Cass noticed something behind those few words Three was willing to say on the matter. His usual stony gaze was shadowed by a slightly furrowed brow.
“You think it was a mistake to leave him behind?”
He let it hang in the air, as if that was all he was going to say. But just before she pressed him further, he added, “Might’ve been a bigger one to force him along, though.”
“He seems pretty sharp. If he survived that long with all the…” she trailed off, unsure of the diplomatic way to say it, “trouble… he was having, I’m sure he’ll be fine. I don’t think we need to worry about him.”
“Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, just say so.”
Three clenched his jaw, grimaced slightly. Frustrated with her, or himself, she couldn’t tell.
“Biggest footprints a man leaves behind are the people whose lives he crosses, intentional or not. And there’s no way to cover those tracks… I just hope he keeps his head down, at least for a while.”
With that said, Three lengthened his stride and was soon several paces ahead of Cass and her son. End of conversation. Cass shoved the implications of his words to the back of her mind and focused on keeping pace, the thought of pursuit too heavy to pick up so soon.
Before long, they’d fallen into Three’s natural broken rhythm, and begun their twisting but steady journey towards Greenstone under his ever-watchful eye. It was late afternoon on the third day of the journey when trouble came.