Cass had made some early attempts to start idle conversation, but by mid-afternoon, the trio had fallen mostly silent, save for the sound of their footsteps on the dusty concrete. They pushed northward through the decaying sprawl, passing countless buildings; towering headstones in an unbroken urban graveyard, empty shells of life disappeared. Many shone with dull or flickering light from signs or rooms, half-lit by technology that long outlasted its creators and carried on ignorant or indifferent to their absence. Three kept a steady pace, slowing rarely, stopping less, and only when Cass or Wren absolutely required it. He himself seemed tireless.
Cass couldn’t help but wonder at the intensity of Three’s focus and concentration. Even after these hours, his eyes constantly roamed, scanning, searching out tracks of previous travelers, signs of passing scavengers, or worse. At first, Cass had thought it obsession on the verge of paranoia. Then Three had steered them clear of the first of the traps.
“Deadfall,” he’d said, flicking his head towards what looked to her like any of the other innumerable piles of scrap metal and abandoned scaffolding they’d already passed without concern. As they worked their way around it, though, Cass looked closer, saw the thin filament running across what had been their path, saw what it would’ve triggered had they tripped it.
“Why would anyone do that?” she’d asked.
“People gotta eat.”
“Yeah, but what could you catch out here? A Weir?”
Three shook his head grimly. It took a moment for Cass to understand. That’s when she’d stopped trying to make conversation.
The journey had been a slow, long march, punctuated by Three’s occasional forced breaks, when he would insist she and Wren wait together while he scouted ahead. Once in a while he would point out what had caught his attention: a steel-cable snare, or a deadly spring trap, one time even an improvised explosive. More often though he would just reappear, gather Wren upon his back, and wordlessly return them to their march, making any necessary adjustments to their path.
According to the satfeed, Cass calculated they’d covered just over twenty miles since they’d left the storm-water system. She was hesitant to check it too often though, for fear of attracting unwanted attention from those that might be skimming the stream for her. Still, she couldn’t help but take occasional peeks, in hopes of finding their destination. Three would say nothing more about it other than that she’d see it when they got there. And judging from the topdowns “there” could be anywhere. Or more likely, nowhere.
“How you doing?”
Three’s voice jarred her from her latest search.
“Uh, fine,” she lied, flashing a thin smile. “Tired.”
“Not much farther.”
Though relieved to hear it, Cass was puzzled. There wasn’t a town, or enclave, or even a fortified structure that she could see for miles around. But she was too weary to consider much. A weakness had come upon her before noon, one that seeped from her muscles down into the marrow of her bones, hollowed her arms and legs. Her fingers trembled and twitched. Every step took effort, and she longed for a chance to sleep. The last of the quint was burning out.
At one time, long ago, quint had been a tool, chems for synapses and reflexes that helped her do the job. These days, it was as essential to her body as water, or air. And she had none.
“Alright,” Three said, kneeling and letting Wren slide from his back. “It’s going to take me a minute. Wait right here.”
Before Cass could respond, Three was off and headed towards a nearby derelict building. He stopped of his own accord, and turned back, drawing his pistol as he returned. He held it out to Cass.
“Just in case.”
Cass took the weapon, felt its heft: weighty, but balanced. It felt almost alive to her, like some once-wild beast, now controllable but hardly tame.
“You know how to use it?”
She nodded, slowly. It’d been some time since she last held a gun of any kind, and never one of such magnitude.
“If you don’t, say so.”
“I do,” Cass said, “I just don’t want to have to.”
“You won’t,” Three replied, with a bare hint of reassurance. “But, just in case.”
He dropped a hand on Wren’s head and ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Be right back.”
Cass watched Three go back to the building. He surveyed it for a moment, and then leapt suddenly up its side, finding some handhold higher up that Cass couldn’t see. He scaled it expertly, precise but swift, fluid, as if climbing a ladder up to the third floor, where an empty-framed window gaped. Three disappeared inside.
For a while, Cass and Wren stood watching the window.
“Are we going to do that too?” Wren asked.
“No, sweetheart,” Cass answered, sounding more certain than she was. “I don’t think so.”
In truth, she was waiting for Three to reappear, to lower some kind of ladder or anything that might make the climb easier. Cass scanned the building, tried to see what about it might make it any safer, or even different, from the countless ones they’d passed along the way. Nothing stood out. It was as gray, drab, and run down as any of the others.
Minutes stretched. Wren sat down on the ground and tugged his shuttlecar from a pocket. He made soft whooshing noises as he ran it in lazy circles over his legs. Cass watched him for a while, smiled to herself, almost envious of his ability to find moments of childhood in nearly any circumstance. Moments which were far too rare, she thought sadly. Wren’s stomach growled loudly, and Cass’s heart sank; eyes welled. They hadn’t eaten in over a day. Wren hadn’t once complained.
He glanced up at her, smiling slightly.
“That was a big one.”
Cass laughed in spite of herself, felt a tear drop to her cheek as she bent down to kiss the top of her son’s head.
“Yeah, it really was.”
“You think Mister Three will be back soon?”
“Soon, I’m sure.”
Wren went back to his shuttlecar, flying it, driving it, crashing it, and Cass stood over him, scanning for any signs of Three. She ran her thumb back and forth on the grip of the pistol, absentmindedly feeling the checkering, trying to ignore the unrelenting weariness that clung to her, dragged her downwards, tempted her to lie down right there and sleep for a week, or forever.
Cass shook herself, inhaled. Then caught her breath. There was a scuffling sound, like shuffling feet, coming from the building. No, not footsteps. Something like claws on metal, like a giant rat on a sewer pipe.
“Three?” she called. There came no answer.
Wren stood up, and hooked an arm around her leg.
The sound continued, grew louder. Not from the building. From under it. Grinding. Wren squeezed.
Cass checked the pistol, readied it, took it in both hands. There. Near the front corner of the building, by the alley. The concrete itself, or rather the ground beneath it, shifted, lurched. Something was coming.
Cass raised the weapon; aimed it. The ground lifted, raised, separated cleanly as if cut by a laser. A shape emerged from the hole: hooded, coated in gray dust, unnaturally silent, a ghost rising from its grave. Cass’s finger involuntarily tightened on the trigger.
“Really?” said the shape. The figure laid back its hood. Three. Of course.
Cass lowered the pistol immediately, felt her face flush hot.
“Told you you wouldn’t need it,” Three said flatly, though something in the tone suggested a smile behind the words. “Sorry. Took longer than I expected.”
He waved them over to the opening in the cement. Cass gathered herself and shepherded Wren over to where Three awaited them. When she reached the opening, she was surprised to find a set of steep metal steps, leading down under the street.
“Come on,” he said, “you first.”
Three held out a hand to her. She took it in hers, and he steadied her as she descended. Cass reached the bottom more quickly than she had expected. She found herself in a tight corridor, perhaps six feet in height and half as wide, smooth-walled and warm.
“Here,” she heard Three say from above. “Elevator for you, Mister Wren.”
Wren’s feet appeared in the opening, dangling in mid-air and descending slowly, body stretched and arms over his head as Three held his wrists above. Three made whirring noises as he lowered Wren, and Wren floated down into his mother’s arms laughing. Cass couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard him do that.
“Got him?” Three called down.
Cass felt Wren’s weight settle on her as Three released him, and in the next moment, Three dropped lightly to his feet in front of her, bypassing the stairs entirely.
“Straight ahead,” he said, nodding down the narrow hall. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Above them, the opening in the concrete shrank to nothingness, sealed magnetically, without sign or trace of ever having opened. The hall was faintly lit in a bluish-hued glow that nevertheless seemed somehow warm, and Cass realized the light was coming from the end of the hall, perhaps ten or fifteen meters away.
She carried Wren down the corridor to the end, where it turned sharply and opened out into a room. It was simple, Spartan in its furnishing, almost monastic. The floor was concrete, smooth and gray. A pair of small metal-framed beds with thin mattresses sat pushed to the matching gray wall on the left, separated by a thin screen. Across from the beds sat a simple table, and two mismatched and worn chairs. An alcove ran off to one side; within it sat a waste-recycler, and a jerry-rigged filtering system that Cass guessed served as a shower. There was a drain in the floor. Through a small doorframe without any door there was another, compact room, more of an oversized closet than anything. Cass set Wren down, and poked her head into the room. Metal shelving lined the walls wherever there was space, stocked with all manner of supplies. Piles of clothes, worn but in decent condition, military rations, shoes, lengths of synthrope, biochem batteries, water canisters. Wren just stood there taking it all in, mouth slightly open.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“Wayhouse,” Three answered, emerging from the entryway. “Not much to look at, but should be safe enough for a day or two.”
“Is it yours?”
“For now, yeah.”
As usual, Three wasn’t really answering her question, and it annoyed Cass. She felt light-headed, empty, the room seemed to tilt ever so slightly to the left. Three must’ve read her.
Cass nodded, closed her eyes.
“I just need to rest.”
What she needed was quint, and soon. She couldn’t think about it now though, her brain was too foggy with fatigue and hunger. She’d figure it out. She always had before. Wren slipped up next to her, and took her hand. It felt small in hers.
“Before you sleep, let me show you something.”
“Can’t it wait?” she asked, opening her eyes.
He took her by the arm, firmly, but with care. Supporting her more than leading her. Wren trailed along beside her, eyes roving.
“Let me show the ways out. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
Three ignored the question.
“You saw the way we came in. There’s a button to the right of the ladder. Just press it, and you’re out.”
He led them back to the storage room, and it didn’t take Cass long to scan the whole thing. All available wall-space was taken up by the metal shelving, each heaped with a packrat’s nest of unsorted supplies. She glanced up at the ceiling, looking for any sign of a hatch or other entry, but found none.
“Right here,” Three said.
He stretched out his hand, fingers extended to form a triangle with the three longest, and pressed them against the wall, just above and beside where one of the shelves was braced. Cass saw what looked like tiny cracks in the cement wall, and realized that they were in fact markings, indicating invisible pressure plates where Three now pressed.
A whir and click sounded from below, and Three stepped back as a segment of the floor smoothly retracted, revealing another set of steep stairs, like the ones from the first entry.
“Down there, it’s a short corridor, then a branch, left and right. Both ways lead out. To the left is how I got in. It’ll take you up to the third floor of the building that’s above us now. The right goes out through the basement of the neighboring building.”
Cass nodded faintly. If she didn’t rest soon, she knew her body would shut down and force the issue. She swallowed hard, feeling a bilious gurgle in the back of her throat. In front of her, the floor panel slid back into place.
“You can open it?”
Cass nodded again.
Her hands were trembling, impossible to hide now. Still, she ran her fingers across the plates, triggered the hatch.
“And here’s the other!” Wren called from behind.
Cass hadn’t even noticed him slip off. She and Three turned to find the boy just outside, crouching near the entry of the supply room. He was beaming, like he’d just found the most well-hidden Easter egg.
“Where does this one go?”
Three stepped out, and Cass followed. A panel in the wall to the right of the supply room entrance had disappeared, leaving behind a three-foot tall corridor that trailed off into darkness. Three knelt and peered into it. He grunted.
“I have no idea,” he answered, flatly.
It took a moment before Cass realized this was the first time Three had seen this route before.
“How’d you open it?”
“It just kinda happened.”
“It opened itself?”
Wren shook his head.
“So you pressed something?”
The boy shook his head again.
“Then how’d you find it?”
Wren shrugged again, looked down to the floor, shrinking into himself as if he’d done something wrong. Cass moved to him, put a hand on his shoulders.
“It’s alright baby. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine,” Three said gruffly, “if you can’t tell me how to close it again.”
“I’m sorry,” Wren said, voice quivering. “I just… I just…”
“Just what?” Three pressed.
“That’s enough,” Cass snapped.
“Felt it…” Wren finished, trailing off.
“Wren, it’s fine. You didn’t do anything wrong, sweetheart, OK? Why don’t you go sit on one of those beds and take your shoes off?”
She directed his shoulders with her hands and steered him gently towards the beds, and patted him on the bottom as he went. Then she turned back to Three, and lowered her voice.
“Listen,” she said, quietly but smoldering. “In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Wren’s very sensitive. Especially to how people talk to him. You watch what you say.”
Three just stared back at her without emotion, his dark eyes boring into hers. She saw the muscles in his jaw work, teeth clenching. But he didn’t reply. Just turned to look back down the corridor.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said finally. Then disappeared down into the half-height hallway.
Cass stood there with her hand on the wall, gathering herself.
“I can’t get my shoe off.”
She sighed to herself. So weary.
Cass turned to face Wren, saw him with his right foot at an awkward angle, stuck in the upper part of his boot. Only a child could figure out how to get a foot stuck in shoes that were too big for him. She started to walk over to him, to help get him free.
Instead, everything went black.
Her first thought on waking was that she’d fallen onto a bed of coals. From hip to breast her right side seared with pain, though try as she might, she could not will herself away from it. Darkness coated her vision, an oily blackness filled with disease. Voices floated there, muted, distorted.
“…a blanket, water…”
The words were harsh, commanding. Cass felt the floor give way beneath her. Falling. Pain clinging like a web.
She landed in an arctic lake, subterranean, its blackness complete. Surrounded, drowning, but somehow able to breathe. Silence. Nothingness.
A roaring wind blasted her ears. Scalding. She was trapped, cocooned in agony. She fought to free herself, struggling, thrashing to no avail. Iron shackles clamped her wrists, biting her skin, crushing her bones. A weight pressed down on her, smothering. Forcing the air from her lungs. Compressing her ribcage, preventing inhalation. Though blind, she felt the blackness returning. Closing in. Stalking. Overtaking.
Naked, under a night sky. Glimmers of light streaked, stars falling from heaven. Beautiful. Deadly. A storm of glassy shards plummeted, showered her, pierced her flesh like needle-point icicles. She screamed, but her voice sounded far away. She twisted to escape, but some steely trap encased her, held her tightly beneath the impaling rain. Too much to bear. Consciousness slipped out of reach, never fully grasped.
A gentle breeze soothed her skin, her forehead, her cheeks. A wetness brushed across her lips, and Cass opened her eyes. Asher loomed over her with his wolfish grin, a steel cup in his hand. Cass tried to pull away, but had no strength. He leaned down, pressed the cup to her lips. She fought, clenched her teeth, tried to shake it away. A viscous fluid flowed over her lips, down her throat, acrid, bitter. Her body tried to reject it, but the liquid seemed alive, crawled its way into her belly, nested in her gut. Asher stood, and smiled until his face ripped. Within the crimson wounds, something wet wriggled. Blackness swallowed her.
Something cold in her hand. Small, but soothing, life-giving. A beacon. Calling her. It pulsed, grew warmer, lent her strength. Blue light glowed, faintly electric, peaceful. She warmed slowly, steadily, and the light brightened. A shape appeared at the center of the light, and Cass smiled to herself. Wren. He was there with her, bringing her light in the darkness. His mouth moved in slow motion, as if saying her name, though he made no sound. She called to him, but the words felt foreign, or too big for her mouth. She heard herself moan, and in that moment, the light shattered. A thousand sparkles of blue-hued glass exploded and faded into the darkness, and once again she knew no more.
Something moved in the darkness.
A pressure on her forehead, a brush of flesh across her cheek. Eyelids fluttered. She saw.
Three’s face filled her view, his dark eyes piercing, his breath splashing hot over her lips. At her waking, he did not smile. Instead, he retreated.
In the next instant, Wren was upon her, arms around her neck, sobbing. Cass swung a weak arm across his shoulders, let it fall heavily over him. She felt like she should say something to him, anything, but her tongue was a lump of sandy rubber in her mouth. She tried to remember when she’d last had a drink. Hours? Days?
She remembered the bitter fluid creeping into her belly, felt a surge of panic. Scanned her surroundings. The metal bed, the gray concrete walls. Asher couldn’t have gotten to her. A dream, a nightmare. Nothing more.
Three reappeared, a canister of fresh water in his hand. He knelt, gently pulled Wren off Cass and spoke something to him too softly for her to hear. Wren nodded and with a quiet but hopeful look to his mother, disappeared on the other side of the screen. Three returned to her side, slipped a hand under her head and carefully lifted her. As cool water splashed over her parched lips, Cass realized for the first time that she felt no pain. The water rushed cold through her throat straight into her veins, cathartic, washing away the fever, the chills, the black disease within. Her body demanded that she drink forever, but Three pulled the canister away, and laid her back. His fingers were strong; his hand seemed to linger on her neck after he pulled away.
“How do you feel?” he asked, in his usual direct, flat tone. He didn’t sound like a man who had just coaxed life back into a dying woman.
“I should be dead,” she answered.
“You would be, if it wasn’t for your boy.”
He held the water canister out to her: a simple test of her strength. Cass took it, surprised at the hollowness in her arms.
“Quint’s evil stuff,” he said. As she sipped, he got up from his knee and sat on the foot of the bed. “I wouldn’t have pegged you as one to run something like that.”
It was the first time she’d heard Three say anything that sounded even slightly judgmental. He raised a shoulder in a barely perceptible half-shrug.
“Good thing Wren knew.”
“Where’d you find more?”
“I didn’t. I made a synth.”
She waited for more. It took a raising of her eyebrows to prompt him.
“It won’t boost you like quint, but it should keep your cells from imploding. Probably have to drink it every few days though.”
In a flash, Cass remembered choking down the acrid ooze, and realized only part of her nightmare had been imagined.
“What’s in it?”
Three shook his head.
“You don’t wanna know, girl.”
Cass sipped more of the cool water, and already found herself feeling refreshed, more alert. On a whim, she rolled up to an elbow, started to sit up. Three shot a reflexive hand out to steady her. After a few wobbly moments, he let go, and they sat together in uncertain silence. Then he spoke, in even lower tones than normal.
“What’s your burn rate?”
Cass shrugged, bought herself some time with another swig of water. She didn’t want to lie, but she couldn’t tell him the truth.
“Fifty a day, I guess,” she slipped it out between drinks, hoping it sounded casual. “Maybe a little more.”
“That’s what, tab every eight days?”
“Depends on the grade, but yeah, that’s about right.”
In reality, Cass was burning at nearly twice that just to maintain; far more if she boosted. Three looked at her with the usual hardness, but if he suspected she was lying he didn’t show it. She paused, made herself take a breath before changing the subject, not wanting to seem eager.
“I, uh…” she paused, genuinely now, uncertain. “I don’t know what all you had to do to, uh…”
Cass wanted to be eloquent, felt that there should be much more to say than she could think of, but in the end, she just decided to keep it simple.
“Sure,” Three said, still with a hard look in his eye. “And since we’re all friends and neighbors now, you wanna tell me who’s after you?”
His directness surprised her, though she knew it shouldn’t. So far, she hadn’t seen him any other way. This just wasn’t the change of subject she’d been hoping for.
“Just some people from my past. Got involved with them when I was young, and they don’t want to let me get uninvolved.”
“Can we do this later? I’m pretty tired. I think I need to lie down again.”
“In a minute.”
There was an edge to Three’s voice now, like the soft, deep rumble of a dog that doesn’t want to bare its teeth, but wants you to know it’ll go there if you push it. The room seemed a lot smaller all of a sudden.
“Six,” she answered with a weary sigh, knowing there was no use in resisting. Then corrected herself. “Well, I guess it’s just five now.”
“What were you workin’?”
It was becoming an interrogation. And Three’s penetrating eyes made her fear how much she’d give away, no matter how little she actually said.
“What do you mean?”
“Fedor, Kostya, you, the kid.” Three held up a finger for each name as he said them. “Two genies, a chemic, and your boy. I’ve never seen anything like him before, but he’s some kind of something, for sure. That ain’t people from your past, that’s a crew. So what were you workin’?”
“Security,” she said. Then for some reason, she continued. “At first, anyway. I was just a kid when we started, I didn’t know what it was going to turn into—”
Three cut her off.
“Look, I don’t care about who you are, where you’re from, or whose pocket you picked in your youth. All I want to know is what I’m up against. Get me?”
Cass nodded, hoping he didn’t see how much his words had stung her.
“What kind of security? Sec/Net?”
If he hadn’t offered it, she would never have thought he’d buy that, but since he’d said it first, she just nodded.
“Awful lot of muscle just for tapping Sec/Net.”
“You wouldn’t think that if you’d met our clients.”
Three grunted. Then sat in tense silence. He stared into her eyes so intensely it almost hurt, but Cass didn’t dare look away. It was almost unbearable. At any second, she was certain she would tell him everything, and he would do what anyone with even a hint of brain would. Run.
Instead, he was the first to break the silence.
“You’ve been masking?”
“And you taught the boy how to?”
Cass shook her head, and for the first time saw Three surprised, almost lose control. He raised his voice in frustration.
“So what’s the point of hiding you, if they can track your kid—”
“He taught me.”
Again, they returned to silence. Three looked away, down at the floor, processing. Cass just sat there, afraid to move for fear of attracting his attention again. Finally, he spoke, though now he didn’t look at her.
“When you’re ready, we’ll push on north. I know a spot, pretty off-grid,” he said, standing to his feet. “If we make it, we’ll figure out where to go from there.”
Three started to leave, but Cass reached up and touched his hand, stopping him. Still he didn’t look to her.
“How long was I… have we been here?”
“Six days,” he answered.
He lingered for a moment, but when she said nothing else, he walked off, around to where Wren had gone. Moments later, Wren bounded back and curled up beside her, a wolf cub nestling against his mother. Cass hugged him tightly, letting his warmth and touch soothe her. She felt tired, but healthily so, as if she’d fought a long battle, and deserved respite. She lay back, and Wren repositioned, snuggled on her shoulder, and together they slept a deep, restful, dreamless sleep.
Three sat on an overturned plasticrate in the supply room, rocked back on one edge with his feet up on a low shelf. Methodically, meticulously, he ran a gritstone along an edge of an eight-inch piece of scrap metal he’d found on some dusty shelf. Shaping it. Sharpening it. His hands moved with practiced precision.
Three small piles lay neatly arranged on the floor: supplies collected and carefully assessed for their weight, durability, and usefulness. He’d taken only what they’d need. Inwardly, he chuckled humorlessly. This wasn’t his way. Hopelessly entangled with the weak and wounded. He’d already done what he could for the woman. Another day or two, and she’d be strong enough to walk. And he’d done what he’d said he’d do. He’d gotten them safely out of the enclave, away from the crew that was chasing them. For now.
He looked at the back wall, where the hidden pressure plates waited. So simple. Stand up, walk down those stairs, move on. On to the next thing. Like always. This wasn’t his way.
He set the gritstone and scrap metal on the shelf behind him and stood. Silently moved to the main room, crept to the bed, stood over the woman and boy. Her color was better, her breathing steady. Both lay on their sides, the mother with a protective arm draped over the son. Peaceful.
They’d have everything they needed. He moved back to the supply room, quietly packed a harness with a few traveling essentials: water, food, an extra chemlight or two. As was the custom, honor code of travelers, he’d exchanged some of his own valuables for those he took. Not one, but two of his shells. Exorbitant for what he’d taken for himself, but he felt it only right to pay for the woman and her kid. He’d brought them in, after all. That left him three in the cylinder, one in the pocket. Three shook his head. He’d have to do something about that soon.
He leaned his head to the side, left ear almost touching his shoulder, and cracked his neck out of habit. He didn’t know why he was still standing there. In his gut, he already knew he’d made his decision. With a full exhalation, he reached down and picked up the harness, slung the straps over each shoulder, adjusted the weight of the two broad pockets that rested on either hip.
Move on. To the next thing. He’d done enough.
Three strode to the shelf at the back wall, fingered the secret plates, stepped back as the floor opened up and offered his escape. The blackness beneath him seemed inviting. His chance to return to a life in the background, in the shadows, without notice. And he stared into it. What was he waiting for?
He glanced back at the door to the supply room. Listened. Heard the deep and steady breath of Cass and Wren. A woman and a boy. Just some other people trapped in the same dying world.
With a silent and half-hearted goodbye, Three slipped like a wraith into the darkness below, and disappeared.