For Painter, the first few minutes had been a strange mix of fear and giddiness. The fear had begun to melt away after he’d successfully crossed the first of the major streets in his path. The giddiness wore off soon after. And now, as he crouched in shadow a hundred and fifty yards from the compound, he found himself falling into something like quiet determination. It was almost shocking how familiar it was beginning to feel. Stealing through the night, probing for anyone who might cross his path. He’d done it so frequently before. Before. Only now he was avoiding them instead of hunting them.
A patrol moved down the street, just two guardsmen, and neither of them paying much attention. Painter watched them from his hiding place, his eyes lowered slightly to reduce their glow. The guards seemed soft, somehow. Sloppy. How had he ever feared them? How could they possibly be the ones charged with protecting their city? With protecting Wren? And Cass?
He had been afraid before, truly afraid, when they’d made their way to Mister Sun’s. Borderline panicked. Fearing the consequences of his actions. Not knowing what would happen if they were caught, nor if they escaped. How long would Cass let him stay with them after what he had done? And he’d feared for them as well. For Cass, and for Wren. Painter had feared making another mistake, something that would give them away, that would cause harm to those two and leave him with nothing.
But now, here, on his own, it almost felt like this was what he was made for. His altered eyes could see in the dark, and he could sense the digital pulse of the unaltered. Now that he had calmed himself, it felt right. It felt good. Fear was still there, lingering around the edges, but at his center anger remained, cold and righteous. And as long as he held to that, he knew the fear had no place to enter in.
The patrol moved on out of sight, and Painter slipped from the shadows across a small thoroughfare and into another alley. He paused there, in a nook where the corner of the building protruded in an architectural flourish. Morningside was eerie in its stillness, and out from beyond the wall, he could hear the occasional calls of the Weir, cold and electric. Calls that had once filled him with utter terror. But those sounds had lost that power over him now and free from fear he could hear a melancholy, almost musical quality behind them. Painter couldn’t help but wonder what might happen once he was outside the wall. He hadn’t left Morningside at all, even during the day, since Wren had brought him back. Could he walk among the Weir now? Would they attack Painter, or ignore him? Or maybe even accept him?
For just a moment, he felt the slightest pang of regret. For all the horror, the loss of self — the black harvest — amongst the Weir there had been in some strange way a sense of belonging that Painter hadn’t known before and was unlikely to ever know again. An involuntary shiver brought him back to the moment. No. No, there was nothing good or right about what he had been. But maybe now he could find a way to bring good out of what he had become.
Painter eased around the corner of the building and threaded his way amongst the structures that led towards the governor’s compound. Random patrols were bound to be fewer, this close to a secure location, but that also meant an increase in stationed guards. He’d have to keep his eyes open and his wits about him. His eyes. He held a hand up in front of his face, and judged the moonshine glow cast upon it. He’d been careful to avoid looking directly at patrols. But it was going to be far more difficult to keep his gaze averted when Painter had to scan the walls to locate the guardsmen posted there. And all but the laziest would surely notice the telltale shine gleaming from out of the darkness. Maybe he’d have it figured out by the time he got there. Most likely, he was just going to have to get lucky.
The final fifty yards posed no difficulty, and Painter felt he covered them far more quickly than he’d expected. Undoubtedly it was because he’d been counting on that time to grant him some revelation on how to gain entry. Naturally, there hadn’t been one. The compound stood twenty-five yards away across an open stretch of ground, well-lit and offering few places to find cover.
Cass had said the north-eastern gate was his best bet, since it hadn’t been used for months, but that didn’t guarantee it’d go unwatched. On the contrary, since one or more of Morningside’s disgruntled citizens had trashed the memorial a night or two ago, there was good reason to think there might be an extra guardsman or two stationed nearby. Painter circled around that direction anyway, swinging wide to avoid street lights where he could, and occasionally putting a building between him and the compound whenever he thought he might be too exposed. When the north-eastern gate was finally in view, Painter crouched low and cupped his hands around his eyes to shield their glow as much as possible.
On top of the wall he could see a faint electromagnetic swirl that indicated a guardsman that he couldn’t quite make out otherwise. Though he wasn’t seeing it, exactly. It was another sense that detected the guard’s residual signal, processed it into something Painter could interpret, and though seeing wasn’t quite right, he always felt like it had more to do with his eyes than anything else.
This was the testing point. The moment that would decide whether he would succeed or fail. Playing hide and seek with the patrols had been one thing. Walking out into the open during the night would present a similar challenge. But infiltrating the compound was something else entirely. Something he’d never done before in either of his lives.
He sat back on his haunches and tried to think it through. Somehow back at Mister Sun’s they’d skimmed over this part. Once you’re inside… almost taken it for granted. Painter had never been much of one to call the shots. That’d always been more of Snow’s thing.
Snow. Little sister, always in charge, always in control. She’d been the clever one, and confident. He smiled with bitterness at the memories. At first it’d just been easier to go along with her because she was such a bully. He pictured her as the chubby four year-old, full of fire — fearless and fearsome. Remembered the bruises on his own thin arms and shins. But Snow had changed after Dad had died. Still fearless and in charge, but tempered. Wiser, maybe, or at least less concerned about just getting what she wanted, doing it her way. But then doing it her way had gone from the easy thing to the right thing. At least most of the time. What would she have told him now?
You can’t do it, her voice said in his head. And Snow would’ve been right. The old Painter could never have done it. But that wasn’t him anymore. He was stronger now, faster. Surely there was something he could do.
You can’t do it alone, her voice came again — correcting his initial thought as if he’d interrupted her before she’d finished. That’s what she would’ve told Painter. It was a fault, Snow said, how much he took upon himself, how little he trusted others. And the beginning of a plan formed in his mind.
“Wren,” he pimmed, whispering into the night air and speaking to his friend a half-mile away.
“Painter, are you OK?” came the reply a few moments later, Wren’s voice somewhere inside Painter’s own head.
“At the c-c-compound,” Painter answered. “Do you know a wuh, a way to get the guards to… to… to broadcast?”
“Hmm… no, I don’t think so. Sorry,” he said. And then, “Hold on, let me ask my mom.”
There was a long delay before the response came. Painter’s calves were starting to burn. A pair of guardsmen wandered into view, and he shifted back.
“She thinks she can try something. Do you want her to do it now?” Wren said.
“Wait one sss-second.”
The patrol moved counter-clockwise around the governor’s compound, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry about it. Judging from the looks of things, Painter guessed no one had found the bodies yet. The guards moved on out of sight.
“OK, go,” Painter said.
Seconds ticked by. Ten. Fifteen. Thirty. Painter was just about to pim again when all of a sudden there was a shimmering flare on the wall, like mirage roiling off hot concrete. And then another. And another. One after the other, the guardsmen were responding to whatever Cass had done, actively broadcasting information through the digital and lighting up in Painter’s vision with each burst.
“OK, is anything happening?” Wren asked.
“Yes,” Painter answered. “Thhh-thanks. I see them now. Gotta go.”
“OK. Be careful.”
There were eight that Painter could see — four along the top of the wall, two by the gate, and another two somewhere deeper in the courtyard. It surprised him to see guards actually posted at the north-eastern gate, but it looked like they weren’t taking any chances. There was a gap, though, along the wall. Two guards stood close together, apparently in conversation, and that left them spaced unevenly. His opening.
Painter surveyed the street once more, saw it was clear. He sidled his way along the edge, towards the darkest corridor he could find, where two lights overlapped incompletely. The first ten yards would be the greatest danger. But the closer he got to the wall, the less chance there was that someone would be able to see him from above. Assuming they didn’t see Painter start his run. There were no guarantees, and sitting around any longer wasn’t going to improve his chances at all. It was tough to judge, but as best as he could tell, none of the guardsmen were looking his way. Time to try. He inhaled sharply and launched himself out of his hiding place.
Ducking his head and leaning forward, Painter sprinted directly towards the wall of the compound, running lightly on the balls of his feet to minimize the noise. Panic rose up the instant he stepped into the light, but he gritted his teeth and pressed on. Five yards in. Seven. Ten. He passed from the brightest segment into partial shadow, chances of success improving with every step. And then he was at the base of the wall, pressed flat against it, heart pounding more from the fear of getting caught than from any exertion. Seconds stretched. But no sounds of warning came to him. He’d made it.
Now, the fun part. Painter had never tried any extended climbing before and he hadn’t known what to expect. He was relieved to find that the wall wasn’t nearly as smooth as he’d originally thought. It was composed of steel panels joined together and there were slight gaps between the plates, barely wide enough for Painter to jam his fingertips into. That alone wouldn’t have been enough for any normal human. But Painter was no normal human. He extended his claws. And began to climb.
After a few test holds, he found that by angling his claws downwards into the seams he was able to hook in a relatively strong grip. It was his feet that caused him trouble. Cramming the toe of his shoe into a gap gave some help with balance, but was hardly enough to provide any push. His arms would have to do the work. He wrestled his way up four feet off the ground when his first slip came.
It happened so fast that he didn’t have any time to try to catch himself. Painter just fell straight down. His body reacted instinctively, legs bending to absorb the shock of impact. He landed lightly, thankfully, and after a few stunned seconds of frantic listening, it appeared that he’d managed to escape detection. Climbing seemed like an even worse idea now than it had just a minute ago, and it’d hadn’t seemed like such a great idea then anyway. But Painter couldn’t think of anything else to do, and the residual signal was starting to fade on the guardsmen. There wasn’t time to try something else.
On a whim, he pulled his shoes off, buckled them together, and jammed them down the back of his pants. It wasn’t comfortable by any means, but when he started climbing again he was glad to notice he had a much better feel for the wall without his shoes on.
Painter took it slower this time, making sure both feet had some sense of stability before he tried to move a hand up. It was hard work, though, hauling himself up the wall using almost nothing but arm strength. He kept his body pressed as flat against the wall as he could, feeling his way up rather than looking. The gaps were regularly spaced and it didn’t take long for Painter to get a rhythm established. Even so, every time he released one handhold to slide his way up to another, he felt at any second he could plummet right back down again.
His forearms began to burn, and it became increasingly difficult for Painter to keep his hands curled into the hooks that gave him the surest grip. By the time he was halfway up the wall, his claws almost felt like they were starting to tear away. But still he pushed himself. For Snow, and Luck, and Wren. For Cass. Hand up. Pull. Reach. Set feet. Hand up. Again and again and again. And then he slid his right hand up, looking for a seam, and found instead a corner.
The top of the wall.
Whether it was from surprise at having reached the top, or a sense of relief come too soon, Painter lost concentration for a crucial moment — and in turn lost his already precarious footing. He slipped sideways, dangling from one hand, and spun around backwards, wrenching his shoulder and elbow. For a sickening second, he felt his fingers sliding along the top of the wall. Losing grip. He was falling.
Something broke deep inside him, and the glowing ember of anger he had been nurturing kindled into a rage. And with rage came strength. Without knowing how, Painter found himself flipped back around, facing the wall again. He simply refused to fall. He reached, stretched, willed himself up high enough to get hold of the ledge. Then he scrambled up, rolled over the parapet, and flopped ungracefully onto the walk.
Painter lay panting there for several seconds, adrenaline, or something like it, coursing through his veins. His arms trembled and he noticed when he tried to close his hands into fists, he couldn’t do it. There was dark ichor around a couple of his fingertips where his claws had partially peeled back the nails. The buckle of one of his shoes was digging into his kidney.
And then Painter’s brain caught up with him, and he realized he was inside the compound, lying on top of the wall where four guardsmen were posted. He quickly rolled to his stomach and scanned. The two guards who had been talking were separated now, and one was moving his way. But just behind Painter, a set of stairs led down to the courtyard. He slithered on his belly, moving backward, until he reached the steps, and then turned and hurried down them, crouched as low as he could go.
It was dark at the bottom of the stairs, and when he reached the courtyard, Painter doubled back and pressed himself flat against the side of the stairs. He slid along until he reached the corner where they jutted out from the wall, then tucked himself into the alcove it created. There he sat down and put his face in his hands, and tried very hard to suppress the nervous laughter that threatened to bubble out. Relief mingled with disbelief; the hardest part was over. He was going to make it.
Painter slipped his shoes back on, took a moment to gather his thoughts and focus, and then slipped out into the courtyard. Not far now. Not far to the tunnel, and from there, to the outside. The outside. At night. A smile spread itself involuntarily.
Sky was tired. Not that tired was new or different, necessarily, tired was pretty much part of the job. He was just noticing it again, the way he did when there was a momentary lull. He was lying on his belly, four stories up, keeping watch for Swoop and Mouse while they searched a cluster of buildings not far from the wall. It was a clear night, with less than half a moon, and long shadows stretched from the buildings. The optic on his rifle could be set to amplify ambient light, but for the time being Sky had left it off, preferring to keep his eyes adjusted to the natural level of light. He suppressed a yawn.
The team had been going almost nonstop since the night before, prepping for security for the Governor’s big speech. And then afterwards, after the disturbance had threatened to turn into a full-blown riot, they’d sprung into action, plugging holes in the line and keeping a hard posture — to make sure anybody in the crowd that was thinking about firing that first shot knew good and clear they’d be dead before they got off a second.
Gamble and Swoop had done a masterful job of keeping the guard from breaking rank or popping off into the crowd, which was no small task. Fortunately the team’s reputation was intact, if a little overblown. At least, no one seemed to be up for testing it. Once they’d regrouped in front of the gate, the steam had gone out of most of the crowd, and they’d dispersed not too long after. A couple of kids got knocked around a bit — those that got all their bravery from the mob and realized soon after that individuals could still feel pain — but luckily everybody got to go home. Situations like that were ugly, no matter what, and they didn’t always turn out as well as that one had.
Still, something nagged at him about the way it had all unfolded. For all the reassurances of the Council, the disturbance hadn’t felt as spontaneous as they seemed to want to believe. Sky had been up high on overwatch and though he couldn’t point to any one detail as evidence, something about the big picture — the way the crowd had moved, or the number of simultaneous presentations of threat… it seemed coordinated. Orchestrated, even.
And they were out here now, instead of maintaining security for the Governor. Connor had been worried about another attack from the Weir, and most of the guard was busy enforcing the curfew. But sticking the team on the wrong side of the wall seemed like overkill. True, they’d ended up clearing one cell tonight already; three Weir had been prowling around close enough to Morningside that Gamble had decided to deal with them, just to be safe. But for the most part, the Weir were scattered and didn’t seem to be making any attempts at the city. And if something flared up on the inside, it was going to be tough to respond. Orders were orders. But things weren’t adding up the way they should’ve been.
“Sky, we’re clear in here,” Swoop said over the shared channel. “How’s topside?”
From his elevated position, Sky scanned the tops of the buildings Swoop and Mouse were moving through. No sign of trouble.
“Looks good,” he replied.
“Alright, check,” Swoop said. “We’re gonna push half a klick due west, then walk it back on the curve. You wanna go check on the boys?”
Sky said, “If you guys are good.”
“Yeah, we’re good.”
“Alright, Sky’s moving. I’ll be down for two minutes.”
“You can stay put,” Finn said, breaking in. “There’s only two things going on out our way.”
“Jack,” said Wick.
“And squat,” Finn finished.
“Keep the channel clear, gentlemen,” Gamble broke in, stern, serious, always on point. “Sky, move.”
“Yep, got it, Ace,” Sky answered. “Sky moving.”
Sky flicked his weapon to safe and got to his feet. He wasn’t on the roof, exactly, but since the top half of the building he was in had disappeared some time ago, he guessed it was close enough to count. Sky was headed for the stairs when he caught a tiny motion in his peripheral vision. Down there in the street. He instinctively brought his weapon to bear and dropped to a knee, scanning with both eyes open wide to see if he could pick up what had drawn his attention.
“Stand by,” Sky said. “Got some movement in the street.”
“You got eyes on?” Swoop said.
“You need us to come out?”
Sky surveyed the area below, slowly sweeping from right to left, and then back again. Nothing was immediately apparent. Maybe he’d imagined it. Tired eyes playing tricks. But patience was critical to his line of work, as was meticulous attention to detail. There was something about the corner of one building that kept drawing his eye. A slight bulge, where the outer wall sagged. Only he didn’t remember seeing it sagging before.
“Got eyes,” he said. “South of your position, two buildings down, south-west corner.”
“Can you ID?”
Sky adjusted the optic on his rifle, dialed the zoom in tighter. Even zoomed in, he couldn’t tell what exactly he was looking at. Maybe he was wrong, and it really was just debris. But his gut told him otherwise. A moment later, his eyes confirmed his instincts. The lump shifted and two pin-pricks of blue light peered around the corner of the building.
“Yep, it’s a Weir.”
As he watched, the Weir slinked along the outer wall of the building, moving towards Swoop and Mouse. It was cautious in its movements, moving only a few feet forward before stopping again. The Weir was so still that whenever it turned its eyes away from Sky’s direction, he had to keep blinking to keep it from melting into the background.
“Heading your way, real careful. Might have a read on you. You want me to take it?” Sky asked.
“Just one, as far as I can tell.”
The Weir shifted forward again, halving the distance to Swoop’s building. Sky tracked it, keeping the aimpoint steady on its center of mass. If they’d all been inside the city, safe behind the wall, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal to take the shot. But it was at range, and if he didn’t kill it instantly on the first shot, it was going to get loud. The team was used to running low profile, and they couldn’t afford to draw any more attention than they absolutely had to. Of course, if the Weir in the street had a line on Swoop and Mouse, others might be on the way already.
“It’s closing,” he warned. It moved again, faster this time. Stopped again. It had to know they were in there. Sky flicked his weapon off safe but kept his finger off the trigger. For now.
“Twenty meters from the door.”
The Weir scanned its surroundings again. It looked up, but not high enough. It didn’t spot Sky. There was something unusual about this one; an uncertainty of purpose, a hesitancy in its movement. But their behavior had been growing stranger and stranger of late. Maybe this was just another malfunctioning stray.
“We’re up a floor,” Swoop said.
“It gets inside, I won’t be able to track it.”
The Weir slipped forward again, and paused at the corner of the building. Even as Sky calculated the distance and the wind, something prickled in a corner of his mind. Was this one of the Weir he’d seen the night of their attack on the gate?
“Three meters,” Sky said. “I’m gonna lose it.”
“Alright, take it,” Swoop said. “Don’t miss.”
“Yep.” Sky moved his finger to the trigger, drew in the slack on it so the slightest bit of additional pressure would fire. Just under four hundred meters. Easy. He inhaled smoothly. Exhaled. Held. Waited for the moment between heartbeats.
“Hold that,” Gamble said. “I’m almost to your position.”
Sky allowed himself a breath, let the slack back out of the trigger, but kept his finger in contact and the Weir dead center in his optic. “You sure, Ace? I got the shot.”
“Yeah, I got it, babe. Ten seconds.”
The Weir down below moved to the door, but paused. So strange. Sky dialed in further, magnifying his target. Something about the silhouette. Familiarity out of context.
And then — like lightning from a clear sky — recognition. Gamble flashed into view almost at the same time that Sky called out, “Hold! Hold! It’s the kid! It’s Painter!”
The collision lifted the Weir… Painter — up off the ground, Gamble’s momentum rocketing him skyward and depriving him of any ability to counter her attack. Not a clumsy tackle; this was a relentlessly practiced technique to ensure a sudden and definite kill. Sky’s optic was zoomed in too close to track the outcome, but he didn’t need to see it to know what happened. He went numb. Why hadn’t he realized it sooner? And what was the kid doing outside the wall?
“You sure?” Swoop asked.
“Positive,” Sky answered.
After a few moments, Gamble said, “Yeah, I confirm. It’s Painter.” Swoop cursed. Sky backed his optic out and found his wife, crouched on top of Painter’s sprawled form.
“Is he dead?”
“Oughta be,” Gamble said. “But no, he’s not dead. Ain’t happy either.”
“What’s going on?” Wick asked.
“We’re on the way out,” Mouse said.
“Check,” Gamble said. “Able, I need you on security. Sky, sit tight.”
“Alright, check,” Sky said. The kid had been anxious lately, agitated, and with good reason. Seemed like a real bad time to be out stretching his legs, though.
There was movement in an alley near Gamble. Sky recognized Able’s fluid stride as he moved into position about five yards behind Gamble. He dropped to a knee, facing away from her, his head up and scanning for threats. A few moments later, Swoop and Mouse appeared in the building’s entryway. Swoop flowed out onto the street and mirrored Able, watching the other direction, while Mouse went directly to assess Painter.
It looked like the kid was sitting up now, at least. Sky surveyed the surrounding area from his perch, watching for any sign of danger. Several minutes passed amidst the cold night air and the occasional croak or call from a distant Weir, but nothing seemed to be heading their way
“Finn,” Gamble said. “Location.” Her words were clipped, direct.
“Want me to ping it?” he responded.
“Negative, comms only.”
“North-west of you, six hundred meters. About fifty meters east of the wall.”
“Stay put, we’re coming to.”
“Sky, you OK to move on your own?” she asked.
Sky chuckled. If anyone on the team was used to moving alone, it was Sky. “Yes, Mom,” he said. She hated when he called her that, but a little dig seemed appropriate after the question she’d asked.
“Alright, rally on Finn,” she answered. Her tone was flat, all business, like Gamble hadn’t even noticed the Mom.
Sky asked, “What’s going on?”
“Just move, Sky.”
Something was definitely wrong. Down below, Sky saw his wife helping Painter to his feet while the other three formed a protective triangle around them. As soon as Painter was up, they started moving as a unit. Sky kept watch over them until they disappeared down a distant alley. Once they were out of sight, he slung his rifle and headed down the exposed staircase. Down one flight, he drew his sidearm. Just in case.
The whole left side of Painter’s face throbbed and burned, and any time he took too deep a breath, it felt like every muscle in his back went into spasm. He was sitting on the floor, trying to track Mouse’s finger by moving only his eyes. The whole team had gathered and taken shelter in a nearby one-floor building, and Mouse had insisted on giving Painter a thorough once-over. Gamble had apologized five or six times, which had been nice. But it didn’t make his body hurt any less.
“Well, that sly son,” Finn said, almost to himself. And then louder, “Check this out. It’s a siphon. They hid it in a co-routine, off our secure channel.”
“For stupid people, Finn,” Sky said from the door, where he was keeping watch.
“The kid’s right. They’ve got a trace on. Never would’ve noticed it if I hadn’t gone looking.”
“Custom job?” Wick asked.
“Nah, it’s really not that sophisticated. Only clever bit was where they stuck it, which makes sense if Connor’s involved. Otherwise, it just looks like an off-the-shelf solution.”
“Aww,” Wick said, “and I was about to start feeling special.”
“Can you kill it without anyone noticing?” Gamble asked.
“Sure, easy,” Finn answered. “Now that I know it’s there. I can spin it off, let it run isolated.”
“What about following it back?” Swoop said.
Finn went quiet, eyes staring up into the corner of the room, as though he was seeing something else entirely.
“Alright,” Mouse said, patting Painter on the shoulder. “I don’t think there’s any permanent damage. How do you feel?”
“Like I fell out a fifth-story window,” Painter said.
“She must’ve held back on you, then,” Mouse said, winking.
“Yeah,” Finn said. “Yeah, I think I could follow it back, Swoop. Only problem is whoever’s on the other end might be watching. Could tip ’em off.”
“Any way to tell?” Gamble said.
Finn shook his head. “Looks like it’s got two listeners running. I can run ’em back, but no way to tell what might be waiting until I get there.”
“C-c-connor, and Aron, I bbb-bet,” Painter said.
“Not if they’re dead,” Finn said.
“So, could’ve been as many as four, then,” Gamble said.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Finn.
“You got it.”
Gamble approached Painter, and knelt in front of him. “How you feeling, Painter?”
“Still brrr, still breathing.”
“We need to get back to Cass and Wren, and we need to do it quickly. If you don’t think you can make it, I can leave a couple of the boys with you.”
“I c-c-can do it.”
“This isn’t a time to tell me what you think I want to hear.”
Painter answered by getting to his feet.
“Alright, then,” Gamble said, standing. “Pack it up, gentlemen, we’re moving out. Finn, are we scrubbed?”
“Yeah, channel’s clean.”
“Then I’ve got point. Swoop, Mouse, you’ve got the cargo.”
The team snapped into go-mode, wordlessly forming up. Swoop and Mouse took positions on Painter’s left and right. And a few seconds later, they were pushing out into the open, headed from a known danger into one unknown.