“And go where?” Cass asked.
“It would be better if I did not know,” North answered. “No one can steal information I do not possess.”
The concept struck Cass as both impossible and inevitable. How could they leave Morningside? And yet how could they stay? Members of the Council had gone from quietly attempting assassination and sabotage to a brazen assault. The only logical escalation was open revolution. And there was no telling how far or wide or deep the conspiracy had spread. Connor oversaw the entire contingent of guardsmen. Any one of them might be involved. All of them could be, for that matter.
And Aron. One of the few remaining elders. If he had their blessing, then Wren’s was truly a hollow power in the city. She thought back to the conversation with her son in the courtyard, just a few days before. The idea of leaving the city had seemed like a fantasy then. How quickly life could change.
“We can’t just leave. Wren most of all,” Cass said. “If he disappeared, there would be utter chaos.”
“Not if we conceal it. Security has already been tightened. We will simply spread word that the Governor must remain within the compound for his safety. No one need know otherwise.”
Cass tried to think it through, though her mind was fogged with fatigue and stress. A week, maybe two. Just long enough to get clear of the immediate danger. So much would need to be rebuilt over the coming months, but North was right. Ensuring Wren’s physical safety was their highest priority, and there was nowhere inside these walls they could trust for any length of time.
North leaned forward and touched Cass’s hand. “I do not mean exile, Lady. Only a temporary retreat, until we can be certain of your safety again.”
“Gamble,” Cass called. “What do you think?”
Gamble hopped off her table and approached. She didn’t sit at the table though, just leaned over it, with both hands on the back of a chair. “I think getting you out of the city is the smartest thing to do for you and your son. That’s my one and only concern. All the rest of it, I can’t say.”
“It might not be a great plan,” North said. “It might not even be a very good one. But I fear if we wait for a better one, it will then be too late.”
“It’s not really a plan, sir,” Gamble said. “But I agree. I think we move you to a secure location, and figure the rest out from there.”
“Gamble,” Cass said. “You do understand I’m not asking you to come with us?”
“Doesn’t matter if you ask us or not, ma’am,” Gamble said. “We’re coming.”
“Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but this isn’t what you signed up for.”
“Cass, what we signed up for was to do whatever it takes to keep you both safe. There’s not one of us that would let you walk out there on your own, whether you wanted us to or not.”
“We spent a lot of time out there on our own before we came here, Gamble.”
“And now you don’t have to.”
Cass didn’t know what to say. The circumstances were so far outside the boundaries of their professional duties, she couldn’t possibly expect them to stand by her side. But Gamble made it sound like she couldn’t expect anything less.
“Once you leave, you’ll have to assume we’re all traced,” North said.
“It’s alright, we’ve got Finn–” Gamble said, but cut herself off. She stood up straight, and Wick and Able both reacted in the same instant.
“What is it?” Cass asked.
“Alert just went out over wide broadcast,” Gamble explained. “They found the bodies.”
Swoop appeared from the back room a few seconds later, looking even more intense than usual.
“You want me back out front?” Wick asked.
“Stand by,” Swoop said.
“Do they know we’re gone?” Cass asked.
“Didn’t say, but we better get ahead of the curve on that,” Gamble answered. Then she added, “Finn, Gamble… need you to bounce a message…”
“Sir, you need to leave,” Swoop said to North.
“I don’t think we’re quite done–” North said.
North looked at Cass, but there really wasn’t any question. Swoop didn’t stand on ceremony and he certainly wasn’t above throwing a Council member out in the street if he thought it was necessary. And even as big as North was, there wasn’t much doubt Swoop could do it. North got to his feet, and Cass stood at the same time.
Gamble was still talking to Finn. “Let the guard know that the governor and Lady Cass have been moved to a secure location… yeah, wide net but scattered, I don’t want anyone localizing it.”
“Good luck, Lady,” North said. “Give me three days, and then check in.”
“Thank you, North. Watch yourself.”
He bowed his head slightly, and then turned towards the front door.
“This way, sir,” Swoop said. “We’ll go out the back.”
North nodded and returned, and Swoop escorted him into the back room. Gamble waited until they’d left the room to start talking again. “City’s going into lockdown, no doubt about that,” Gamble said. “If we’re going to get you out of here, we need to do it soon.”
“How soon?” Cass asked.
“Depends on where we’re headed.”
Gamble looked at Cass.
“I think Wren knows a place,” she said.
“Better go wake him then.”
Cass nodded and went upstairs to Painter’s room. She knocked softly on the door and then opened it and peeked in. Painter was sitting up on the floor, his eyes glowing back at her. Wren was snoring softly. Painter got to his feet and motioned her in.
“Sorry to wake you,” she whispered. “I need Wren.”
“Wasn’t asleep any, ennnn, anyway,” Painter whispered back.
Cass entered the room and sat down on the bed next to her son. He was asleep on his stomach, slightly sweaty, mouth open. She rubbed his back.
“Wren,” she said softly. His eyes floated open immediately, but otherwise he remained completely still. An old habit she had trained him in. “Baby, we need you downstairs.”
He sniffed and rubbed his eyes and then nodded sleepily. He sat up and stifled a yawn.
“Do you want me to carry you?” Cass asked.
He shook his head and got to his feet.
“Should I come tuh-too?” Painter asked.
“Yeah,” Cass answered. “I think you better.”
They all returned to the main room together. Gamble had gathered Swoop, Able, and Wick around her in conference.
“What’s going on?” Wren asked.
“We’re leaving,” Cass said.
“Back to the compound?”
“No, baby, we’re leaving the city.”
He looked up at her with his big sea-green eyes, still glassy with sleep. There was surprise on his face, but a little smile formed on his lips, one he tried to suppress.
“Where are we going?” he asked, and she could hear hope in the question.
“Somewhere safe,” Cass said. “Where no one will find us. Do you know a place like that?”
Wren let himself smile then, and nodded.
“Then we need you to tell Wick where it is.”
“I have it marked,” he said. “Should I just ping it to you?”
“No, hold on,” Wick said. And then he said, “Hey, Finn.” He waited a moment, and then said, “I need to pull a grid off the Governor. Can you hook him in secure…? Alright, check.” He looked back at Wren. “Finn’s going to patch you in to our secure comms channel. Just to be safe.”
Wren nodded and waited. A moment later his eyes lit up, and he said, “Yes, I hear you… OK… Just like normal, though…? OK.”
Wren looked at Wick, who nodded. “Got it. Thanks, Finn.” And then Wick’s eyes rolled up slightly, almost like he was looking at the ceiling, and his brow furrowed for several seconds. “Whew, looks like that’s all the way out on the edge of the Strand.”
“Not sure how safe that’s gonna be.”
“It’s safer than you’d think. I stayed there for a few weeks. Before I came here.”
“What do you think, Wick?” Gamble asked.
“Yeah… yeah, I reckon it’d work. Probably see trouble coming from a mile off out there.”
“Alright, how long?”
“We did it in a day,” Wren answered.
“But in a straight shot?”
Wren nodded. “I think so.”
“Yeah,” Wick said, “I could see that. Maybe eight hours or so straight. But we’re going want to take a long way, I think.”
“Agreed,” Gamble said. She must’ve seen their confused looks, because she looked at Cass and Wren and added, “In case they send trackers out.”
“Alright, I’ll work it out,” Wick said. “Gimme, I dunno, an hour?”
“You can have forty-five minutes. Less if someone comes knocking,” Gamble said. Cass had always admired Gamble, but she’d never really seen her in this role before. Watching her bring a plan together was truly impressive. “Swoop, what about gear?” Gamble asked.
“How many days?”
“Might be tough if the compound’s all stirred up.”
“You can take food and drink from here,” Mister Sun said from across the room. He was standing in the doorway of his side room. Kit was behind him, looking over his shoulder. “Take all you need.”
“Thank you, Mister Sun,” Gamble said. “That would make things a little easier.”
“Anything is yours, my friend.”
“Alright, Swoop, Able, get back to the compound, strip out what you can. You don’t have to empty the cage, but think long-range profile.”
“You got it,” Swoop said.
“There’s no telling how long we’ll be out there. Where’s Mouse?” Gamble asked.
“Out on watch,” Swoop said.
“Round him up and take him with you. I want to keep Finn and Sky posted up until we leave.” Swoop nodded. “And I don’t think you should come back here. We’ll have to rally up somewhere.”
We’ll take the tunnel, Able signed. Meet you outside.
“If you can do it without compromising it, yeah.” Gamble held up one finger to her teammates and then said, “Sky, you have your linerunner with you? Alright, check.” And then she was focused on the group again. “Alright, yeah, plan on that. If you’re sure it’s clear, take the tunnel out. We’ll go over the wall and rally up. Wick will find us a spot, and let you know. Questions?”
Cass surveyed the team; they were all switched on, ready to move. It didn’t seem to faze them in the slightest that they were talking about heading outside the wall for some unknown length of time. They were just focused on the job. Not a single one had asked why.
“Alright, let’s roll it up. Check with Finn and Sky to see what they need, and then get out of here. I want to be outside the wall by… oh-three-hundred GST. Forty minutes.”
“On it,” Swoop said. He and Able swiveled and headed towards the back room.
“Thought I had forty-five,” Wick said.
“Less every minute you fuss,” Gamble replied.
“I’m just going to sit back there,” Wick said, pointing to the far back corner. He moved to a table, and Cass saw him throw a little wave at Kit as he passed by. Kit didn’t wave back, but she smiled a little and looked at the floor.
“Governor,” Gamble said, “Painter, and Miss Cass, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get your help pulling some supplies together.”
“Sure,” Cass said, “of course.” Wren and Painter both just nodded.
“This way,” Mister Sun said. He headed towards the back room and motioned for them to follow.
“What about me?” Kit said. “Do I need to stay?”
Gamble stopped and looked back at her. “Yes, ma’am, I’m afraid so. Just until we’re gone.”
“What do I do in the meantime?”
“Keep Wick company,” Gamble said, flashing a smile.
Sky watched the streets below with an anticipation that bordered on nervousness. Patience usually wasn’t a problem. But knowing they were planning to leave made every minute they had to wait seem that much more painful. Each extra moment they stayed inside the city brought a chance that they might be discovered, and the way things had been going lately, there was really no telling what might go down if that happened. He’d never had to hide from his own people before. And the thought of things going sideways, of having to shoot their way out… he shook his head. It wouldn’t come to that. He wouldn’t let it.
He checked the time. 02.48 GST. Gamble had said she’d wanted to be outside the wall by oh-three-hundred, and unless she was planning to make them all sprint to the closest point, they were running late.
“Sky, Finn,” Finn said over the channel. “How’s your angle on the east side of the building?”
Sky checked. He didn’t have a full view, due to an overhang from another building. “Partially obstructed. What’s up?”
“Maybe nothing.” That didn’t sound promising. “Just picked up a little traffic spike from somewhere out that way. I can’t see anything over there though.”
“Alright,” Sky said, “stand by, I’ll check it.” He drew up his rifle and swept the area with his optic. As far as he could tell it was clear. Ever since the three-man patrol had quit poking around and moved on, they hadn’t seen another soul in the streets. “I can’t see anything down there from here, Finn. You want me to reposition?”
“No, that’s alright. Just keep an eye out.”
“Check.” Finn was the cautious type, so it might very well have been nothing. But that didn’t really make Sky feel any better.
They had reconvened in the main room, and laid out supplies in a few meticulous piles across several of the tables. It’d taken them longer than Gamble had anticipated, mostly because Mister Sun’s storage room wasn’t arranged with efficiency in mind. It was clear she was becoming increasingly anxious to get moving.
Cass had dumped the contents of her go-bag out to see what she could contribute. She couldn’t help but feel a little proud when Gamble had complimented her on her preparedness. Cass didn’t mention how much she’d learned from her first flight into the open.
“Alright, I think we’re good enough,” Gamble said. She was doing one final survey of the supplies. “Anything we don’t have, we’ll just have to make do without. Let’s get all this loaded up and get moving.”
Cass quickly repacked her go-bag and reorganized it so she could fit as many of the new additions as it could carry. Mister Sun had provided them with a couple of large storage sacks as a temporary solution until they could meet up with the others and redistribute everything more evenly. Painter and Wren were loading one, while Gamble worked on another.
“Wick,” Gamble said, “we’re out of time.” Then to the others, “Don’t worry about trying to keep it organized. The piles were just to make sure we had enough for everyone. Wick?”
“Yeah, I heard you,” he answered from the back of the room. Cass noticed Kit had joined him at the table. She was sitting across from him, resting her head on her folded arms. “I don’t have a full route worked out yet, G. It’s a tricky run.”
“You got us a place to stay for the night?”
“I think I found a spot, yeah, but–”
“Then figure out the rest on the way, we need to move.”
“You know I hate that.”
“You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” Gamble switched over to the team’s channel. “Sky. Finn. We’re wrapping it up in here, make ready to move.”
Wick exhaled in obvious frustration, but he bounced up out of his chair and helped the boys finish stuffing the supplies in their storage sacks. Neither Wren nor Painter had spoken much since Cass had brought them downstairs. They both looked exhausted, though neither of them had complained at all throughout the entire process. The boys slipped their coats on, and Mister Sun buzzed around making last-minute gestures of good will, trying to be helpful and reassuring any way he could. Wick grabbed one of the supply sacks, and Gamble took the other, and with Painter they started towards the back door. Mister Sun lingered by the entrance to the back room, half in and half out, seemingly at a loss for what more he could do.
Wren came over to Cass and stood waiting for her. She saw him check something in his belt, realized it was his knife. He zipped his coat up over it.
Cass tossed her coat on, and made a final check on her pack. Everything seemed to be in order. She slung the single strap up over her head, onto her right shoulder, and then adjusted it tight across her body. She bounced up and down a couple of times to check it for weight and balance.
“We’re really going to do it, aren’t we?” Wren said. His smile was gone, but he didn’t seem afraid.
“Yeah, baby,” Cass answered. She put a hand on his shoulder, and then bent down and kissed the top of his head. “Like old times.”
He reached up and placed his hand in hers. “Not too much like, I hope.”
“Not too much.”
They joined the others at the back door. Gamble lined them up against the wall, and stood in front of them, quickly scanning each of them head to toe, like she was taking inventory. Cass felt a surge of nervous energy. It’d been lingering in the background ever since they’d started making preparations. But now that everything that could be done had been done, now that they were standing at a door, ready to cross the threshold, it was like she’d given herself permission to actually feel the strange mix of emotions. Anxiety certainly, maybe some fear, but also an underlying sense of exhilaration. Maybe life inside the compound had taken more of a toll on her than she’d realized.
“Alright, listen up,” Gamble said from the front of the line. “We need to stay light and fast out there. Wick’s going to lead the way, then I want Cass, Wren, Painter, in that order. That clear?”
They all nodded.
“Just keep your eyes on Wick, go where he goes, don’t worry about the people behind you. Whatever else happens, your job is always to stay with Wick. What’s your job?”
“Stay with Wick,” Wren said.
“Stay with Wick,” Gamble repeated. “Once we walk out that door, I don’t want any talking. We’re going to cut straight across to the nearest point on the wall, and then follow it north to the first set of stairs.”
“How will we g-g-get through the guh-, through the gate?” Painter asked.
“We won’t,” Gamble said. “We’re going over.”
“Over the wall?” Wren asked, with a little awe in his voice.
“Yeah. But we’ve got to get there first, so say your goodbyes, and let’s get moving.” Then, “Sky, Finn, we’re thirty seconds to go.”
Cass waved Mister Sun over and she and Wren both hugged the little man. Kit floated into the back room, tugging at her fingers and looking concerned.
“Thank you for everything, Mister Sun,” Cass said. “We really have no way to repay you for all your kindness.”
“Be safe,” he answered, “and that will be payment enough.”
“Kit, I’m sorry you got stuck in all this,” said Cass. “I hope you understand.”
“I do, Miss Cass, and I’m sorry for any trouble I’ve caused.”
“You were no trouble at all. We’ll just have to trust you to forget everything you saw tonight.”
“Maybe not quite everything,” Kit said, and she looked at Wick then with a sly little smile. “But you can count on me, Miss Cass. You know I’d do anything for you two.”
“How many?” Gamble said abruptly. It took a second before Cass realized she wasn’t talking to any of them. And then she was. “Mister Sun, do you have any other exits besides this and the front door? Preferably something inconspicuous?”
Mister Sun shook his head. “I’m afraid not, my friend.”
“What’s up?” Cass asked.
“Guards in the street again,” Gamble said.
“Same ones as before?” Cass asked her.
“Unknown. But there are more of them this time.”
Wick set his bag of supplies on the floor. “Give me two minutes’ headstart,” he said. “I’ll run interference, try to draw them away from the back so you guys can slip out.”
“Negative,” Gamble said. “I need you to get these people to the right place. I’ll go.”
“Wait,” Cass said, “if it’s the guard, can’t you just go pull rank on them?”
“I wouldn’t trust it, ma’am,” Wick said. “If one of us goes walking out there to talk, they’re gonna guess you’re nearby. And if someone’s looking for you…” He shook his head. “It’s gotta be me, Gamble. No offense, but I’ve got a better chance of shaking them.”
“I said no, Wick. I can’t spare you. And I need Sky and Finn running the wings, so that leaves me.”
“I’ll do it,” a quiet voice said. Everyone looked around. It was Kit. “I’ll do it,” she said a little more strongly.
“I appreciate it, ma’am,” Gamble said, “but it’s too dangerous.”
“What do you need? Just some kind of distraction?” Kit asked.
“It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“Is it really?” Kit said. “Sounds to me like you just need somebody to make enough of a fuss — around the front door — to let you guys slip out the back.”
“Ma’am, we don’t know why those people are out there, or what they’re looking for, or what they might do if they saw someone leaving. For all we know, they might shoot you on sight.”
“So it’s OK for you to get shot, but not me?”
“I’ve been shot before.”
“Well, you can’t afford to get shot now. And I’m faster than I look.”
“It’s true,” Wick said. “She almost got away from me.”
“Almost,” Gamble said. But Cass could see it on her face already. If the girl was willing to try, it just might be the best option, and Gamble was considering it. “There are six of them out there.”
“Let me help,” Kit said. “Please. I can do this for you.” She wasn’t pleading. Just calmly stating a fact. “Maybe it’ll make up for me stumbling in here in the first place.”
“Understand this isn’t something for you to try,” Gamble said. “It’s something you must do. If you go out there and get caught and bring down a bunch of reinforcements on us, it’s going to go badly for a lot of people.”
“They won’t catch me.” Gamble just looked at Kit with that level stare of hers, evaluating. “They won’t,” Kit said again.
Gamble clenched her jaw for a long moment. Then she finally dipped her head forward slightly. “Straight out the front, cross into the alley, don’t look back. Do you know where you’re running to?”
“Pick a place. Somewhere away from the compound where you can get lost.”
Kit thought for a moment, and then nodded. She said, “OK, I know one.”
“And a backup.”
“The backup is only for if you get cut off. You got it?” Gamble asked.
“Yeah, I got it.”
“If we had more time I’d have you pick two more.”
“I won’t even need the backup,” Kit said.
Gamble kept looking at her, but said, “Sky, our guest is going to give us a hand… yeah… yeah, she can do it. Front door. Anybody tries to get a bead on her on her way out, you drop him.” And then to Kit, “You sure you want to do this?”
Kit nodded with confidence, but she licked her lips as if they’d just gone dry.
“Alright,” Gamble said. “Pull your hood up. And run like all hell is on your heels.”
One of the trickier parts of Sky’s job was keeping track of all the targets; not just how many and where they were, but how they were armed, their estimated skill level, who was in charge. If the team was ever forced to engage, it made everyone’s jobs easier if they knew who the biggest threats were and where the bad guys were getting their orders from before the shooting started. Cleaning up the Weir was a lot easier. One was pretty much as good as another when it came to target selection.
“Finn, you still got two back there?” Sky whispered over their secure channel.
There were two clicks in the channel, the sound of Finn quickly opening and then closing his broadcast without speaking. The bad guys were so close he didn’t want to risk answering.
“You in trouble? Gimme one for yes, two for no.”
A pause. Then: Click. Click.
Right now, there were six guardsmen prowling around the perimeter of Mister Sun’s Tea House, and Sky didn’t recognize any of them from before. In fact, he didn’t recognize any of them at all. He had eyes on four of them standing in a knot about thirty meters up the street from the Tea House. Two others had approached and disappeared around the back side. A few moments later, those two emerged from behind the building.
“Alright, I’m clear,” Finn said. “I think those two were doing a quick high-low.” Checking for entrances above or below street level.
“That’s a lot of attention for the night.”
“Might just be following up from before.”
“That’d be nice. You think so?” Sky asked.
Sky had already identified the head man in charge, which he just dubbed Headman; one of those close-crop haircuts, square-jawed, perpetually angry guys who was so emphatic he had to use a fully opened hand to point at things instead of just a finger. Two of the other guards had coilguns, small sidearm-style jobs that usually went to low-grade officers. And at least one was toting something heavier. The last two were a couple of grunt-level foot soldiers, each carrying a stunrod.
Three officers and a specialist meant something more than just the average foot patrol. This was a unit. And they were loaded for bear.
Sky adjusted his optic and scoped each target in order of importance; Headman, Heavy, Coilgun A, Coilgun B, Footie One, Footie Two. If they were a seasoned team, he’d have to drop half before they broke. If he was lucky, he might just have to take the first two. He never counted on being lucky.
The six guards broke into three teams. Headman and Heavy stayed back while each Coilgun paired up with a Footie and started spreading out on either side of the building. But they were keeping some distance. Sky got the impression that they might be there more for observation and containment than an assault. Or they might be an advance force, staging before the rest of them got there.
“Gamble, Sky,” he whispered over comms. “I don’t think this is gonna work, Ace.”
“Nice timing,” she answered.
Sky flicked his eyes to the front door. A split-second later it slid open, and he saw a figure standing in the entrance. Straggler. Kit. She had her hood back up. Gamble had updated him about her, but as he watched her come down the stairs, Sky stood by his original assessment; she definitely walked like a dude. Why was Kit walking?
Coilgun A and Footie Two were the pair of guards closest to the front, and they reacted almost immediately, shouting and gesturing at Kit, Coilgun A with his hand on his holstered coilgun. She just kept right on walking, head down, like she had nowhere in particular to be. Sky scoped in on the Headman. He and Heavy hadn’t done anything yet, but they were intent on the situation. The other pair of guards had stopped in their tracks, but they were still far enough around to one side that there was no way Gamble and the others would be able to slip out unnoticed. Sky looked back to find the guard had his coilgun out now, pointed at Kit, and she had her hands up.
“What exactly were you expecting her to do?” Sky asked.
“Run. Why, what’s she doing?”
“Pretty much the opposite.”
Kit lowered herself to her knees, and then placed her hands behind her head. Footie Two had the stunrod out. He eased his way toward her while Coilgun A kept her covered. Sky was too high up to hear what was going on, but from the body language it looked like they were talking back and forth. Was she giving them up?
“She’s talking, Ace. She’s talking to ’em.”
Footie Two had stopped about six feet away from Kit, and he turned back to look at Coilgun A. Coilgun A turned back and motioned towards the Headman. He and Heavy started approaching. Sky started sighting in again. Headman, Heavy, Coilgun A. Hopefully the grunts would just scatter and at least they’d get to go home.
“Finn, can you get a bead on those two around the side?” Sky said.
“Stand by,” Finn answered. This was exactly how it wasn’t supposed to go. Both sides just doing their jobs, and people ending up dead for it. “Yeeeah, I can get ’em if they don’t move too much more your way.”
“Check, I’ll pick ’em up last if I have to.”
“We going?” Finn said.
“Alright, on your shot.”
Kit laid back her hood, and then pointed away up the street, back towards where Headman had been standing. What was she doing?
“Sky, status,” Gamble said.
“Bad, getting worse,” Sky said.
And just as the last word was leaving his mouth, Kit was in motion. It was tough to follow exactly what happened after she closed in on the grunt, but somehow she ended up with the stunrod. There was a burst of shouting and commotion, and Heavy stumbled back a couple of steps. Sky snapped his weapon up and sighted in on Heavy, just as the guard was shouldering his weapon. But something made Sky hesitate, something almost reflexive, too fast to consciously process. If Heavy had wanted to fire, Sky had just given him the chance. But neither of them had pulled the trigger.
And now Sky saw why. Footie Two and Coilgun A were both on the ground, out cold, and Kit had an arm around Headman’s neck, using him as a shield. She had the stunrod held up right in front of his face, and he’d gone real quiet. Heavy was tracking her with his weapon, but Kit was doing a good job of keeping the Headman between them. She started backing slowly up, towards the alley across the street from Mister Sun’s.
“I’m losing ’em,” Finn warned. He was losing his shot on the other two. But that was actually good news. It meant they were moving towards Kit, which meant they were moving away from the back door.
“I think she’s actually gonna pull this off,” Sky said. It wasn’t going anywhere near according to Gamble’s plan, but if Kit could just get clear…
“Sky, what’s going on out there?” Gamble said.
“Get ready to move,” Sky said. “On my call.”
Kit was walking backwards slow and steady, maybe fifteen steps from the alley. Twelve. Ten. Coilgun B had his gun out, but his angle was worse than Heavy’s. Footie One just kind of stood there, slightly behind Coilgun B, looking lost. Headman must’ve been talking, judging from the look on Heavy’s face, but Kit just kept retreating towards that alley. Sky was going to lose her once she made that corner, but he didn’t want to risk repositioning at such a critical moment. He just kept on Heavy, watching the man’s face through that optic. Heavy was intense, grim. A total pro. Just waiting for his opening.
“Let her go, man,” Sky whispered. “Let her go.”
If Sky could’ve talked to her, he would have told Kit to just keep backing down that alley until she could make a lateral move. Dump the Headman and take off before Heavy got a clean shot. Unfortunately, Sky couldn’t talk to her.
The Headman went limp, and then violently ragdolled forward, straight at Heavy. But Heavy leapt sideways and dropped to a knee, and got two shots off before Sky could reacquire him.
“Sky?” Gamble called.
“Go, Gamble, move!”
The other two guards rushed over to the fallen Headman, and Coilgun B knelt beside him, checked for a pulse. From the looks of it, Kit had hit him with the stunrod and then tossed or kicked his body at Heavy. Heavy was still on one knee, at least. Kit was gone, somewhere down that alley. No way to tell from where Sky was whether she’d been hit or not. Judging from the fact that no one was chasing after her though, he had a pretty good guess.
“Sky, Finn,” Finn said. “Precious cargo is away. We need to roll out, brother.”
“Alright, check,” Sky answered. He gave one last look at Heavy, still in his sights. It’d be so easy. But now it’d just be revenge. Heavy stood slowly and advanced cautiously into the alley, weapon still shouldered. “Sky moving.”
Wren was trembling, but he couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, or the nerves, or a combination of the two. He felt it mostly in his chest, and no matter how hard he squeezed his arms into his sides, his ribcage just kept on vibrating like he had some kind of machine stuck inside. He pulled the hood up on his coat. It made it a little harder to see what was going on around him, but maybe that was OK. Wren was just focused on keeping near Mama anyway. And Wick. His job was to stay with Wick.
He hoped Kit was OK. He’d heard the shots, of course. But everything had happened so fast after that, and no one had mentioned anything, and he wasn’t supposed to talk or ask any questions. He’d always liked her, even though Wren didn’t know her very well. She’d been one of the first he’d Awakened, even before Mez, and she’d been the easiest to help. And now Mez was dead, and Luck, and now maybe Kit too. It seemed especially cruel, to him; like life had been twice stolen from them. The hollow promise of a second chance, snatched away.
The heavy quiet still seemed eerie, like the silence that falls after some background noise everyone had grown accustomed to suddenly goes away. And everything they did seemed too loud in it. Their footsteps, the jangle of their gear, even their breathing. Wren found himself breathing through his mouth, just to try to keep quiet.
The air was cold enough that he could just see his breath every once in a while, if he was looking for it, and there was enough light to see. For the most part, though, Wick was leading them through back alleys and narrow passages where the street lamps were fewer and the shadows were darker. If Wren had ever been down any of these paths, he certainly didn’t recognize them now. He wasn’t even sure which direction they were headed, except he assumed they were getting steadily closer to the wall. Wren also realized he had no idea how long it’d been since they’d left the Tea House. It seemed like they’d been walking a long time, way longer than it should’ve taken. But he remembered traveling with Three, and how sometimes when you were scared and tired, a few minutes could seem like an hour. And right now, Wren was a little scared, and really, really tired.
He bumped into Cass without even realizing he’d lost focus. Apparently they were stopping. A few steps ahead, Wick was crouched low, whispering something that Wren couldn’t make out. Wick turned around and motioned for them all to get low. Straight ahead looked like a brick wall, so they were either at an intersection of alleys, or a dead end. They waited in silence for several minutes, or what seemed like it anyway. Wren heard Gamble whisper, and then a few moments later Wick did too. Talking to each other, probably. It was strange, the way they communicated. Wick had called it their secure channel, but Wren didn’t know how it worked. It wasn’t like pimming, exactly, and somehow it didn’t feel the same. It sounded funny; tinny, with static. Low signal, low profile. Maybe it was something they had developed to avoid attracting the Weir when they were out beyond the wall.
Gamble and Wick took turns, whispering back and forth a few times, and then Gamble came up from the back of the line and crouched down next to Wick. Wren couldn’t help but wonder if something had gone wrong. They hadn’t seen any patrols, or really anyone for that matter, since they’d left Mister Sun’s. Whether that was because Wick was such a good pathfinder, or because Finn and Sky were out there somewhere helping guide them around, Wren wasn’t sure. But this was the first time they’d stopped in one place for this long. Wren’s legs were starting to go to sleep.
Finally, Wick moved forward and disappeared around a corner, but Gamble turned to face them and held up a hand, signaling for them to wait. She seemed to be listening intently for something. After another minute or two, she nodded.
“Alright, check,” she whispered. “Wren first.”
Wren didn’t like the sound of that. Gamble pointed at him, and then motioned for him to join her. He walked to her bent double, and his legs were all tingly from the long wait. When he got to her, she put a hand on his shoulder and her lips right next to his ear.
“We’re going to cross one at a time,” Gamble whispered. “Wick’s waiting around the corner. I want you to go first, OK?”
“Here, look.” She leaned Wren out a little so he could see around the corner. They were in a small T-intersection, and beyond it there was a wide stretch of open ground ending at the wall. Almost there. Gamble let him stand up straight again and then said, “Just run straight across. Wick’s waiting right on the other side, OK?”
“OK. You want me to run?” he asked.
“Yep, the quicker the better.”
“OK, Wick,” she whispered, “Wren’s coming across. Let me know when it’s safe.”
She smiled at him while they waited, but Wren wondered what she meant by when it’s safe. Did that mean it wasn’t safe now? Or were they just double-checking to make sure it was clear? He was still thinking that when she said, “OK, go, Wren!”
And the next thing he knew he was running, running out of the alley, and running across that wide stretch, and once he was in the open, it seemed a whole lot wider than it had before. And he knew he should just look straight ahead, but Wren couldn’t help it. He glanced to the side, just for a second.
Just for a second.
Maybe there was a crack in the concrete, or maybe the surface wasn’t as level as it looked. Maybe he was just too tired. Wren hardly had time to notice he had tripped before he felt his palms skid and his chin slam into the ground. The impact left him stunned and disoriented. There was a funny taste in his mouth, and Wren’s hands felt like he was holding fire. Everything was completely dark. Why couldn’t he see? And there was a funny drumming in his ears. It took him a few seconds before he realized what it was.
Someone was running towards him. Wren was just lifting his head when he felt hands grabbing at his coat. Someone was picking him up. Running with him. He almost called out, but then he could see again, and Wren realized that his coat had gotten twisted and he’d been looking into his hood. And then they were at the base of the wall, and he was on his feet and someone was in front of him.
“Are you OK?” he whispered. “Wren, are you OK?”
It was Wick. Wick had come to get him.
Wren nodded. “I fell,” he said.
Wick smiled. “I saw.”
“I’m sorry, Wick.”
“Yeah, he’s fine,” Wick said, and then, “It’s OK, buddy. No harm done. Except maybe your chin there.” Wren touched his chin and it stung. His fingers came away wet.
Wick said, “We’ll get Mouse to take a look at you when we see him. You still got your teeth?”
“I think so.” Wren checked the inside of his mouth with his tongue and found a place that felt funny inside his cheek, like there was a piece of food stuck there that wouldn’t come off. “I think I bit my cheek.”
“Yeah, that was a good tumble. When we get where we’re going, maybe I’ll teach you how to roll, huh?” Wick smiled again and clapped Wren on the shoulder once. “Hang tight while we get the others across.”
Wick gently moved Wren closer to the wall, and Wren knelt down again, feeling stupid. He watched silently while Painter came across, and then Cass, and finally Gamble.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?” Cass asked.
He just nodded because he didn’t want to talk about it, even though his chin really hurt and the place in his cheek felt gross.
“Wick, go,” Gamble said, and then mercifully they were off again and no one had a chance to talk about the fall anymore. They moved along the wall and found a set of stairs that climbed in a switchback. Wren expected that they’d have to take them slowly, but Wick actually accelerated as they went up, and when they reached the top, Wren understood. Sky was already there waiting for them.
“Finn?” Gamble asked, and Sky just pointed over the wall. “Alright, good. Wren, come on, you’re up.”
Wren didn’t know what that meant, but he stepped over to Sky like he was instructed. Sky had on some kind of harness that Wren hadn’t seen before, and there was a loose loop of strap hanging off the front.
“Legs through here,” Sky said as he crouched down. The next thing Wren knew, a couple of pairs of hands were helping him get his legs in the right place, and then Sky stood up, and Wren went with him. “Hold on tight, Mister Governor,” Sky said. “And you might not want to look down.”
Sky sat back on the parapet and swiveled around. Wren had figured out what was going to happen, but he was still trying to work out exactly how — when Sky lurched, and it felt like the world turned upside down, and Wren shut his eyes and forgot everything but hanging on. There was a whizzing sound that started high and then got lower, and it felt like they were falling in slow motion. And then there were hands grabbing at him again, and Sky chuckled and said, “You can open your eyes now, sir.” Finn was there, and they were on the ground again, but outside the wall.
It took a few moments to get Wren unhooked from Sky. Once Wren was clear, Sky went back over and put a foot on the wall, and then all of a sudden went floating right back up, kicking off and bounding his way to the top. Wren watched him the whole way up, and he finally saw the thin cable that was connected somewhere high above.
“Oooh, what happened to your chin?” Finn said. “You bang it coming down?”
Wren shook his head. “I fell. Before.”
Finn nodded. “We’ll get Mouse to take a look at it.”
Wren couldn’t help smiling at hearing it again. “Wick said that too.”
“Yeah, well… he manages to get things right every once in a while.”
The whizzing sound started again, and Wren looked up. The others came down in a different arrangement, clinging to Sky’s back with their legs around his waist and their arms hooked around his chest. It didn’t look comfortable for anybody, but nobody said anything. Wren figured they were all just glad to reach the bottom.
Gamble came last, and once everyone was down, Sky had them move away from the wall. When they were clear, he fiddled with some kind of device near his waist where the cable was attached, and the line went slack and fell. The device whirred and the cable retracted into it. Wren didn’t get to see exactly how it all worked, because Wick had already started moving out, and Mama had pulled Wren along to keep pace.
The group formed up with Wick leading the way; and Finn and Gamble slightly ahead and to either side of Cass, Painter, and Wren. Sky caught up and trailed a little behind, forming the final point in a protective diamond around them. It was a few moments before it really sunk in for Wren.
He’d been so intent on the danger they faced in escaping Morningside, he’d actually felt relief once they’d touched down outside the wall. For a brief time, he had forgotten what lay ahead. But not for long. As they moved together into the dead cityscape, and the great wall of Morningside faded behind them, it dawned on Wren that they were leaving the realm of men — and walking straight into the arms of the Weir.