The sprawling city shell changed in small but perceptible ways as they followed their wandering south-easterly path. Fuzzy as she was from the Somalin doses Three insisted she take, Cass nevertheless felt that her awareness of her surroundings was growing sharper from the time she’d spent with Three. Wherever they went, he seemed utterly in the Now; never reflecting on what came before, or thinking of what might be ahead. Just fiercely, aggressively, rooted in the instant.
Cass worked to cultivate a similar mindset, to push the inconsequential past from her thoughts, to chase the imaginary, unknowable future from her daydreams. And over the course of the past few days, she’d noticed details in the world around her that had escaped her before. Some were of little value, such as the subtle changes in architecture, or shifts in the concentration of the residual signals that still haunted the abandoned buildings. Others were more important, like the widening of streets that offered less concealment, or the decrease in functioning tech that signaled the likely presence of scavengers, whether past or present. Even as the winds and temperature blurred the lines between late autumn and early winter, Cass felt more alive, more in tune, than she had at any time before.
And so it was, though Three had said nothing, that Cass knew from the shift in his demeanor that danger was near. They’d been making good time up to that point, but he’d slowed the pace, taken to narrower alleyways. They were moving forward, but in lines far less straight.
“What’s going on?”
Three waved vaguely towards an alley as his eyes roved the wide road ahead. Cass caught the barest glimpse of three figures moving along parallel to them.
“They were headed the opposite way when we passed ’em the first time.”
Cass hadn’t even seen them before, but the fact that Three had, came as less of a surprise than it once would have.
“And there were four of ’em.”
She felt the icy pinprick of fear stab at her heart. She couldn’t boost off Trivex, and worse, Three had dosed her with Somalin, a tranquilizer, to slow her burn rate. She felt like she was moving at half speed: a poor quality if it came to a fight.
“What do we do?”
“Keep your eyes open. And keep moving.”
He led them out of one alley, then down a corridor formed by one sagging high-rise leaning into another. Pace slow, but deliberate, like an icebreaker through a frozen sea. He seemed to be looking everywhere and nowhere all at once, eyes taking in everything without focusing on any one thing in particular. Cass pulled Wren close to her side, kept a hand on his shoulder. He’d gone quiet, sensing the danger even before she’d spoken to Three.
Ahead, Three halted, held out a hand behind him to stop them as well. His head swept slowly back and forth. Cass strained to hear any warning sound, but there was nothing, save for the soft sighing of the late-autumn breeze through the twisted steel branches bending above them.
Cass felt Wren pull away from her, and looked down to see her son creeping carefully to Three. He placed a hand on Three’s elbow, and Three bent down so the boy could whisper in his ear. Three glanced up to windows on their right as he nodded, then pushed Wren gently but firmly back towards his mother. Wren clung close to Cass then, his head pressed against her hip, making himself as small as possible. Cass cursed herself silently for her helplessness. Worse, for the danger her helplessness presented for Three. She longed for quint, not because her body craved it, but because she wanted desperately to stand at his shoulder, strong and capable, not behind him, like some creature to be protected, or pitied.
“You might as well come on down from there, brother,” Three called suddenly, in a booming voice that echoed within their confines. “We’re not here to hurt anyone.”
After a few seconds, something shifted in one of the windows, and Cass realized it was a man standing up out of the shadows.
“You can call your friends, too.”
The man disappeared from view. In front of her, Three slipped his pack off and set it on the ground, then stepped a few paces away from it. Cass felt the air go electric. The familiar feeling she’d learned to trust as a sign of imminent danger. The sign she’d used as the signal to boost.
“Three…” she said, without knowing why. Ahead of her, he seemed simultaneously relaxed and coiled as a steel spring. Stance wider, one foot slightly ahead of the other.
The man from the window emerged from the building, and as he did so, the other three swung into view from the end of the alley behind them. From the looks of it, the man from the window was the pack leader. He was round but solidly built, greasy hair in a ring around his head where he wasn’t balding. A coil of leather hung at his waist, some kind of whip, she guessed. He smiled as he approached, but not in friendliness. It was the smile of a predator who’d cornered its prey. A gap showed where one of his front teeth should’ve been.
“Out for a bit of walks, are we? On our way to a visit?”
Three moved closer to Cass and Wren, blocking them from the leader’s view.
“Just passing through.”
The other three men continued to close in, casual.
“Ones don’t ‘pass through’ without paying the toll.”
“Didn’t realize there was one, or I would have. I’ve got some food. Couple of batteries. What’s the price?”
The three men were close now, and Three pushed Cass and Wren around to his side, shielding them as much as possible from the group. Cass noticed the leader lick his lips, his eyes roving around her waist, searching her out hungrily, burning with naked lust. Her stomach turned in revulsion. If she’d been able to boost, she would’ve forked the eyeballs out of his skull.
“Not for sale. And it’s probably best if you all just move on, and let us do the same.”
The other three men flanked their leader, formed a semi-circle with Three at its center.
“Not for sale, because we ain’t payin’,” said one of the pack, a gangly redhead with a patchy beard. “That one’s ours now. You can move on, or you can die.”
“Gonna have us a good time either way,” added another, this one with a strip of stained cloth tied around his face as a mask. “Before and after.”
“That’s not gonna work,” Three answered. Steady, controlled. But Cass could hear the fire. Four of them. Three was good, but no way he’d handle them. She unclipped her backpack.
“Hey, come on fellas,” she said. “I’m sure we can work something out here.”
The pack looked to her as if her words were an unwelcome intrusion on some black business deal. The leader seemed almost amused. He opened his mouth to say something, but instead of words, a strange crackling hiss spilled out from the leader’s throat. Blood burbled at the corners of his lips. Three was in motion.
As the leader staggered backwards, clutching his throat, Three was already upon the redhead. The redhead was doubled over, his head caught in Three’s vice-grip hands, being used as a human shield to prevent the other two from closing the distance. Three jerked the redhead in one direction, then violently back the other, twisting as he did. There was a sickening snap, and the redhead ragdolled into the gurgling leader. Three didn’t seem to be in any hurry, and his expression had not changed.
The masked man was next in line, and Three met him halfway, stomping the man’s shin just above the ankle. It rolled and snapped, as Three twisted and connected with a perfectly placed hammer-fist just at the hinge of the masked man’s jaw. Cass saw his eyes rolling back before he’d finished falling.
The fourth and final man seemed frozen in place, his hand drawn back with some sort of jagged club, and his eyes wide with fear. Three took one long stride and then buried his boot sole-first into the man’s hip socket, folding him like a jackknife. The man fell backwards but still Three closed, grabbing the man’s head at the top of his skull between his hands. Three drove downward with all his weight as the man impacted the ground, and Cass heard the cascade of pops as some unknown number of the man’s vertebrae shattered. The man slumped awkwardly forward, his jaw slack.
The pack leader had just gained a knee by the time Three turned back to him. He stretched out a hand in a silent plea for mercy, but Three had none to give. Three drew up to his full height and then plummeted his fist and all the power of his body into the leader’s temple, his knuckle so expertly placed that Cass knew the man would never again wake. The leader’s skull bounced dully off the concrete, and all was still.
It was over in six, maybe seven seconds. Cass was no stranger to violence, but the scene she had just witnessed was like nothing she’d seen before. The warmth drained from her body, and suddenly, the safety she’d felt with Three melted away. She had killed before, out of necessity, but she was no killer. But he had just violently disassembled four men with his bare hands. Just as casual as he was now, lifting his pack and rebuckling his harness. Same practiced fluidity, same apparent ease. Same load on his conscience. Zero.
“Come on,” he said, lightly grabbing Cass under an elbow. “We gotta move.”
His touch repulsed her, and she reflexively pulled away. He blinked at her, not understanding.
“You killed them… all…” Her voice sounded far away. He quickly scanned the four bodies.
“Maybe, maybe not. I don’t have much patience for their kind.”
She couldn’t process it. Whatever these unfortunate men had been looking for, surely it hadn’t been worth their lives.
“No patience for beggars? For scavengers?”
Three’s eyes narrowed, and Cass wondered what she’d missed.
“Slavers, girl. And they weren’t interested in you. Or me.”
Cass flashed back to the minute before, replayed the scene in her mind. The pack leader staring at her. No, not at her. At Wren, clinging to her. She glanced to the leader’s crumpled heap, at the coil of leather at his waist. Not a whip, she saw now. A leash.
Her eyes suddenly burned, and a sickness crept into her gut. A despair she couldn’t name settled over her. What hope would there be for her son, when she was gone?
“Cass,” Three said. “We need to go.”
He didn’t reach out to her then. Just turned and started on his way without even a glance back. After Three had gone a few paces, Cass felt Wren’s grip around her leg slacken, and he pulled away.
Cass wondered if there was really even hope for them now, if Morningside was anything more than a desperate dream. Wren stood, staring up at her with his storm-green eyes. She nodded. Drew a deep breath. Focused on the Now. It was all she could handle. And together, she and Wren fell back into Three’s shadow, trailing long behind him in the low afternoon sun.
“But you were so… fast,” Wren said in a hushed voice. In awe. In fear. Cass sat on the small bed, back to the wall, watching in silence as Three taught her son.
“Not fast,” Three answered. “Quick. You learn to see a man’s intent, you’ll be the quickest.”
The two of them were in the central room of the wayhouse. Three was on a knee, arms resting across his leg, face to face with Wren. Cass had resisted the idea at first, but after the event that afternoon and Three’s description of Greenstone, she’d given in. So she just watched, as Wren got his first lesson in self-defense.
“A man’s eyes will tell you everything he wants to do,” Three continued. He shot Cass a quick look. “A woman’s, too.”
Wren was intense, focused, soaking it all in.
“And his hands will be the ones doing it. So, eyes, and hands. Hands and eyes. Learn to watch those, you’re already ahead of ninety-nine percent of folks out there.”
Wren nodded slowly. Three reached out, and took Wren’s hand in his, positioned the tiny fingers, adjusted the grip. The dose of Somalin clouded everything, made Cass feel like she was dreaming.
“OK,” Three said. “Show me. Real slow.”
For a few moments, the two just stared at each other. Then, Three moved at half-speed, reached out slowly, grabbed Wren by the shoulders. Just as his hands made contact, Wren’s right hand came up clutching the unsharpened knife Three had fashioned for him. He jabbed slowly, once, down towards Three’s arm.
“That’s good. But you can do better. Don’t wait. And don’t stop with one. Move as soon as you see trouble, and keep poking holes until you can’t find any more places to poke. Got it?”
Wren nodded again. Cass wondered numbly what kind of mother she’d become. But the reality that she wouldn’t be able to protect him forever was weighing heavily. Maybe this was the best way. If not the best, maybe the only.
“One more time. Just relax, you’re doing good.”
Three slapped Wren on the shoulders a couple of times. Smiled. Wren smiled in spite of himself. Three reset. Again, the man and her son stared at each other. Then, quicker this time, Three moved to grab Wren. And to Cass’s amazement, Wren moved almost simultaneously, bringing his little blade up and darting it onto Three’s biceps, forearm, then shoulder, neck.
“See, look at that. You’re a natural, kiddo. A real warrior.”
Three tousled Wren’s hair, and Wren smiled again, stared at his feet. Cass saw her son’s smile slip away. Three noticed it too. More than noticed it. Interpreted it.
“Not fun though, huh?”
Wren shook his head.
“Doesn’t feel very good?”
Wren shook his head again. Spoke quietly.
“I don’t like it when people get hurt.”
Three dropped a hand on Wren’s shoulder. Squeezed it.
“Hey. Hey, look at me.”
Wren looked up.
“That’s good. That’s really. Good. OK?”
Wren nodded. “OK.”
“OK. Ready for a break?”
Wren nodded again. He looked to Cass. “Can I play, Mama?”
“Sure, sweetheart,” Cass said.
As Three stood, Wren held out the little knife to him, but he waved it off.
“That’s for you. You hang on to it.”
“Would you mind keeping it for me? Just… for now?”
Three paused for a moment, but then smiled, and nodded.
Wren gave Three the knife, and then clambered over to a small table nearby. Three walked the few paces to Cass, as she watched her son pull the strobe out of his pocket and place it on the table. He laid his head down on one arm, and stared at the clear ball as he rolled it gently back and forth. She wondered what invisible thing he saw in it.
Three sat down next to Cass, and leaned against the wall with her.
“I know you don’t like it,” he said. “I hope you understand it.”
“I wish I didn’t,” she answered. “But I do.”
For a long while, they just sat together, watching Wren at the table. Cass wondered what Three was thinking, what he might say. Though as long as they’d been together, she couldn’t remember a time when he’d really started a conversation.
“I had a kid sister once,” he said abruptly.
Something stirred in Cass’s heart, some mix of surprise, confusion, and sudden compassion. She didn’t know how to respond, so she didn’t. After a while, Three added.
“So… I don’t have much patience for their kind.”
Cass watched him, noticed he was carefully intent on Wren.
His head dipped forward, a hint of a nod. Another long silence followed, Three lost somewhere deep inside himself. Grim. And Cass wondered just how much loss Three had suffered in his lifetime. He resurfaced after a while, back to business. The brief window of emotion once again sealed off.
“We’ll hit Greenstone tomorrow,” he said as he stood. “You should both get some rest.”
He was sliding into his harness again.
“What about you?”
“Gonna take a quick look around. Back in a few.”
He moved to the door, activated the hatch above. Waited as the skeletal ladder extended itself to the floor. But before he left, Three looked back over his shoulder and caught Cass’s eye. Winked. And even after the hatch had sealed behind him, her heart remained warm.
It’d been three days since Cass had left with her son, and with the man Three. And though he hadn’t thought it possible, Jackson was starting to feel like the Vault had grown too big, too empty. Maybe he should’ve gone along with them after all. He trudged up the stairs, anxious. Today, he’d decided to walk the perimeter, for no reason other than to get out.
As he climbed, he noticed the air growing colder, a draft flowing in from the upper floors. When he reached the top, Jackson was aghast to find the gate already raised, the cold gray morning light spilling across the smooth concrete floor. And there, in the middle of the room, a man sat cross-legged.
He was short but stout with muscle, head shaved bald. His almond-shaped eyes were closed in quiet meditation, and he remained so still that had Jackson not known any better, he might’ve believed the man had always been there.
Jackson froze. He couldn’t see them, but he knew in his gut there were others. Travelers weren’t all that unusual. But they didn’t usually let themselves in.
“Jackson, isn’t it?”
The voice came from his left, and Jackson jumped at its sound, at how close it was. Jackson looked, saw him standing there, leaning against the wall. Jackson figured they were about the same age, though this guy was definitely the better dresser. He was tall, draped in a long black coat of some expensive fabric. Smiling. Seemed friendly enough.
“That’s a way to make friends, yeah?” Jackson said. “Might’ve tried knocking, yeah?”
“Sorry, we weren’t sure if anyone was still here to answer.”
“No, but we have some mutual friends.”
Two others appeared at the entrance. One a tall, pale man. The other the most impossibly beautiful woman Jackson had ever seen. The man sitting on the floor still hadn’t moved. Jackson’s chest went tight. Bad things were at play.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you, but there’s no one left here but me. Been a few weeks since…”
“Oh, our friends weren’t residents. They were just passing through. Past couple of days.”
Jackson tried his best to look thoughtful, then shook his head.
“That may be, but I don’t think I can be much help. I’ve been locked up in here the past week or so.”
The young man straightened up off the wall, smoothed the wrinkles out of his coat.
“You don’t think you can be much help?”
“I doubt it. Ever since the Vault got wrecked I haven’t been much for going out, yeah? But if you got questions, I’ll try to answer ’em. Ask away.”
The young man smiled. “That won’t be necessary.”
And with that, Jackson suddenly felt as though a great black cloud descended upon him, forced its way through his skull, enveloped his brain. A sudden stab of electric fire raced through his nerves, seared his mind, blinded his eyes. Someone screamed. Pain surged, as if all the blood in his veins had been displaced by boiling water. And as Jackson felt his mind ripping from its anchors, he realized the scream was his own.