The ascent was slow and painful for Cass, every upward movement sending shockwaves through her damaged body. She couldn’t imagine how Three must’ve been feeling. He made no complaints, but there was no doubt the climb was taking its toll, even on him.
Not a machine after all, she thought.
Sweat poured, soaked through his coat where she was laid across his shoulders. Muscles strained, trembling slightly. Pauses between movements grew longer. Three seemed to be gearing himself up for each effort. Cass had no idea how far they had left to climb. It was tough to judge their height from her vantage point, where she felt lost somewhere between sideways and upside-down. She thought about giving it another try herself. Her mistake had only almost cost them one life. A mistake now would cost at least two, and probably a third, later. But she knew her body was spent. Her head was swimming, and occasional waves of nausea were washing over her with increasing frequency and strength. Three had asked her to be still, and that was something she absolutely could do.
Glancing down to judge their distance, Cass was surprised to see she could still make out details far below despite the darkness. The street underneath them was tinted in a faint blue, not unlike moonlight. It took her groggy mind a few seconds to realize what that meant, to replay her fall and what had caused it.
Two shapes moved in the darkness, their electric starlight eyes roving. A muted burst of white noise from one. A soft answering call from the other in that otherworldly, organic static. Almost like the quiet whuffing of wolves in the night. Cass wondered briefly if that was how they whispered.
To her surprise, Three thrust upwards to a new position. He must have known the Weir were in the street below. Apparently far less concerned by them than she was. Cass only then realized she was holding her breath. The Weir crept along beneath them, and continued out from under the maglev line, picking their way cautiously in the direction of the Vault. Soon enough they were lost in the night.
Three jolted again, driving upwards, and something round and hard thudded off the top of Cass’s head with a dull, metallic thunk. A broad and throbbing pain radiated through her skull, down her spine, and into her toes. She squeezed her eyes shut, saw stars, bit off the cry that tried to escape her lips.
“I am so sorry,” Three hissed. “You OK?”
Cass realized he’d bounced her head off the underside of the maglev line. They’d reached the top.
“Fine,” she whispered, still not opening her eyes. Another wave of nausea washed over her, the strongest yet. She hoped she didn’t have a concussion.
“Can you pull yourself up?”
Cass shifted slowly, carefully, and saw that they were just underneath the main line, where a gap about two feet wide allowed access to the top side of the track. In answer to Three’s question, she reached up and dragged herself up through the gap. Flopped on her belly. Pulled leaden legs along behind. And lay still.
Three joined her a few moments later, lying on his back, drawing deep breaths. For a while, the two of them just lay there, recovering. The wind was colder up here; more constant, more biting. Cass rolled to her back, shoulder to shoulder with Three, eyes still closed as she fought off the vertigo.
She felt him shift closer, press into her, felt his warmth against her arm.
“Hey,” he said, close now. “Take a look.”
Cass couldn’t tell from his tone what she’d see when she opened her eyes. When she did, she gasped. Above her, the sky was afire.
Stars. More than she’d ever seen; beyond counting, beyond even imagining. Like a spray of diamonds cast across a sea of velvet. Light, wispy clouds glowed from a half-moon, blending some stars into a milky translucence and highlighting the burning intensity of those out of the clouds’ reach.
Instinctively, Cass stretched out a hand as though she could feel them, or collect them. And instantly thought of Wren, longed for him, knew how awestruck he would’ve been to see what she now saw.
“I wish Wren…” she started, and couldn’t finish. She shut her eyes again, felt tears roll, chilling her cheeks in the wind.
“He’ll see ’em one day,” Three whispered. “Promise.”
Cass didn’t respond. She thought back to Wren’s two word pim, wondered what it meant. Maybe he was hiding. Or in danger. Or worried about Asher discovering their location. Why had she ever let him go?
“Come on. Let’s get you out of this wind.”
Three rose to his knees.
“Give me another minute.”
Cass was too tired to lie. She nodded without thinking.
“Repeater probably. You’ll get used to it after a while.”
She had no idea what he meant, and it took too much effort to talk so she didn’t ask. Just another minute. Her injuries and nausea and exhaustion mingled into some unholy perfection of personal pain. But she could force herself up in another minute. Maybe two.
She didn’t have to. Without permission or fanfare, Three scooped her up off the ground and carried her down the line, cradling her like an overgrown child.
“I can walk,” she said, fidgeting in protest.
“I don’t know. Pretty sure you got heavier since we got up here.”
He kept walking.
“Put me down, Three. I can manage.”
He dropped her legs, and helped her upright. Cass made a show of adjusting herself, as if he’d somehow mishandled her and maybe owed her an apology.
“Where are we going?”
Cass looked around and sighed. They were standing at the edge of what looked like a very short tunnel. Six concentric rings of gray steel stacked tightly together along the track, forming an enclosure around the rail about nine feet tall and twice as long. It seemed to be emitting a faint, low hum, just at the edge of hearing; one that seemed imagined if you listened for it, but obvious if ignored. Cass ran a hand along its smooth curving surface. It was cool to the touch, not the cold she expected.
“This is a repeater?”
“Yeah,” Three answered. “Something about the magnets. Weir don’t like ’em.”
Nausea swept over Cass again, the strongest yet, and she thought for a moment she might actually faint. She leaned her head against the repeater wall until it passed.
“I don’t think I like them either,” she said, more to herself than Three. Cass leaned back and looked again at the repeater, the rail itself. Thought about the general state of disrepair. “I’m surprised this thing is still… doing whatever it does.”
Three shrugged in the moonlight.
“Me too. Lucky.”
“How’d you know it was running?”
Cass thought that over briefly.
“Well, what would’ve happened if it’d been dead?”
His tone was his characteristic brand of flat, matter-of-fact. Somehow understated, yet completely honest. Cass reflected back to their climb and wondered if maybe she’d been wrong, if maybe he really was a machine after all.
“Come on,” he said. “Might as well get comfortable. Not much left to do tonight except sleep.”
He walked down into the middle of the repeater, where it was darkest. Cass followed along one pained step at a time, her body ceasing to give her any localized sensations and having resorted to one generalized mass of hurt. She lowered herself to the ground, sat cross-legged, leaned her back against the repeater wall, surprised by how much she could still see with the moon- and starlight filtering in from both open ends. It might’ve been comforting if not for the void in her lap, where Wren usually slept. She felt empty.
Three slid in next to her.
“We’ll be safe here, don’t worry.”
He swept something heavy over her, covering from her shoulders down over her legs. It was damp, but extremely warm. His coat.
“Sleep. I’ll keep an eye on you.”
Deep down, Cass felt she should make some sort of protest, to remind Three that she didn’t need him or anyone else watching out for her. But deeper still, she knew that was fast becoming a lie. She let her eyes fall closed, and welcomed the embrace of dreamless sleep.
Three’s eyes snapped open, but careful discipline kept the rest of him as still as death. He counted to ten before shifting his gaze to check the periphery, letting his ears do the preliminary work. Nothing seemed immediately out of place. At some point, Cass had slipped sideways into him, and was now sleeping soundly with her head on his shoulder and a hand tucked just inside his elbow.
It hadn’t been a sound that had awakened him, but he felt the pumping adrenaline as if someone had called his name, or smashed out a nearby window. Instinctive alarms were screaming in his head.
Slowly, Three shifted his head ever so slightly to the right, just enough to take in the full view of the line leading off that direction. It was clear. Now, just as slowly, just as carefully, back the other way, checking left. He stopped. Someone was standing on the track.
Three waited. Judged. Let his mind run the calculations. Not a Weir. The idea was so bizarre, so preposterous, that he wondered briefly if he were still asleep, dreaming, or maybe hallucinating. But his gut told him he was wide awake, seeing what he was seeing. The silhouette of a man standing patiently on the tracks, maybe ten meters from the repeater, as if he’d been there all night.
Somewhere in an alley far away and far below, a Weir cried out in some unknown and unknowable emotion, if Weir could in fact be said to have emotion. The silhouette turned its head slightly in the direction of the sound, revealing a brief profile. It turned back as Three’s brain worked to identify the intruder from that momentary glimpse of features, and he noted from the movement that whoever it was, they were staring right at him now.
Thin, angular. Something in the posture seemed familiar. Three’s hand floated almost of its own accord up to the thin slash on his throat as it clicked.
There was no telling how long he’d been out there. Waiting. And there was no reason for him to be there other than because he had tracked them to their hiding place. If that was the case, why hadn’t he crept in and killed Three in his sleep? Taken Cass? If Dagon could evade the Weir at the height of their activity, that made him even more dangerous than Three already considered him. More dangerous than anyone Three had known before. And if Dagon had found them, what did that mean for the others? Were they waiting outside as well, ready to ambush him?
No. Something within told Three that the right thing was to go out to him. It didn’t make sense, but none of it did anyway. Dagon had some strange sense of honor, or some personal code. Three didn’t know much about the man, but he felt certain that whatever was about to happen, it wasn’t a trap. At least, no more a trap than confronting the deadliest foe he’d ever met could be.
Three slid carefully out from under Cass, propped her gently with the backpack as a pillow, and crept up to his feet. Dagon didn’t seem surprised as Three walked out to meet him. Three prepared himself, drew a deep breath, forced his body into a relaxed readiness. He cracked his neck as he walked the final steps, hands slightly stretched out to his sides, showing he was unarmed. For now.
As Three closed the distance, Dagon moved forward a few steps almost as though the two were old friends meeting again for the first time in a long while. Close enough for Three to see his half-smile. Close enough to whisper and be heard.
“Sorry if I woke you,” Dagon said, still smiling. “I was trying to be quiet.”
“Me too. Guess it’s not a bad thing. At least in these parts.”
Three didn’t respond. Just waited. Silence had a way of drawing more out of people than any question ever would.
“Is Haven in there?” asked Dagon. “Cass, I mean.”
“Would you believe me if I said no?”
Dagon chuckled quietly, shook his head.
Three didn’t know why Dagon used different names, but he guessed correctly that he meant Wren.
“If I said no for that one?”
“I guess I wouldn’t believe you either.”
Again, Three just waited. The whole situation was surreal, like some sort of collision between alternate realities. Dagon didn’t belong here. But then again, neither did Three. None of them did. And certainly this didn’t seem like the time or place for small talk.
“What’s your name?” asked Dagon.
Dagon grunted. Then extended a hand.
“Three, I’m Dagon.”
Three hesitated, evaluated. But everything seemed sincere, genuine. He took Dagon’s hand, shook it firmly. A strange tradition that somehow managed to survive in a world where real, physical contact was practically indistinguishable from the virtual kind.
“I remember you, Dagon. We traded a couple of tokens of friendship last time we met.”
Dagon smiled. There was a strange kinship between them, though Three couldn’t place it. Few enough men in the world were left who could travel the way Three did, out in the open at night. Here stood another. Maybe that was all it was.
“Is she alright?”
“Hanging in there.”
“You taking good care of her?”
“I doubt she’d see it that way.”
Three understood now. Dagon loved her. And he guessed the feeling wasn’t mutual. That explained Dagon’s turmoil, his need to find her, to bring her back, and his wish to let her go, for her to be free.
“Let her go, Dagon.”
He seemed surprised at Three’s words, maybe slightly embarrassed, his secret revealed in the barest of exchanges. Dagon dropped his eyes, looked off over the side of the rail at the Vault below.
“Pathetic, isn’t it?”
A moment of silence. Then Dagon shook his head.
“But no. I can’t. Asher won’t do anything else until he has her back, and that’s not good for business.”
“Cracking Sec/Nets for Cutters really worth her happiness to you?”
Dagon’s reaction seemed even stronger: surprise, but also a hint of amusement.
“Sec/Net? Is that what she told you?”
Three didn’t answer. But he felt that cold wave wash over him that told him he’d been played for a fool. Worse. He’d let himself be played as one.
“Maybe things aren’t all I thought,” said Dagon. “You really don’t know who we are? Who Asher is?”
Three just stared him down. Dagon let out a low whistle.
“Brother, you just might want to sit down for this one then.”
“I’d rather not.”
“As you like… you ever heard of RushRuin?”
Before he knew why, Three felt it in the pit of his stomach. Utter dread. Some part of his brain kicked on automatic, rifled through backlogs of jobs he’d done, people he’d brought in. There was a glimmer of vague recognition. A passing familiarity. And recognition came. Older, maybe outdated, maybe a rumor. A dangerous crew, well outside his line of business.
Dagon snorted at that.
“Professionally speaking, we offer ‘thought acquisition and recovery’. But yeah, brainhacking gets it too.”
It was coming back to him now. A job two or three years old. Some nanokid in the heart of Fourover got his hands on a piece of tech he shouldn’t have. Ten grand alive, three dead. By the time Three had tracked him down, RushRuin had already gotten to him, which was saying something. Mostly just a bag of meat and bones left. They’d taken back the tech and ripped out whatever the kid had known about it, along with pretty much everything else he’d ever learned in his short life. Three had brought him in anyway, and managed to wrangle five thousand out of the agent in charge.
“Still working out of Fourover?”
“We go where we like these days.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but Three was rattled. Something hadn’t been sitting right with him since the wayhouse when it came to Cass. He’d known she was holding something back, but he’d assumed it had more to do with her chems than anything else. But this? This was way bigger, way deeper than anything he could’ve predicted.
“I wish you hadn’t killed Kostya. Asher might’ve let you off since you didn’t know. But Fedor…” Dagon shook his head, sincerely sorry for Three. “Well. That was his brother, you know?”
Three fought to maintain control. Stillness.
“So now what?”
“I guess I go back and tell Asher where I found you. And you keep running.”
“Not really my style.”
“Well. You might want to make it yours. You seem like a good man.”
Three thought it through. He could try again. Try to drop Dagon while he was relaxed. But the last time he’d thought he’d gotten the drop on him had almost cost Three his life. It didn’t seem like Dagon had any intention of fighting him. At least not here. Not now. And Dagon likely could’ve killed Three while he slept. Somehow attacking him now seemed dishonorable.
“There aren’t any good men left, Dagon.”
Dagon just nodded. Then stepped back, turned, and began walking away. After a couple of steps, he turned back, raised his voice just enough to be heard.
“Best of luck to you, Three. I’m sure we’ll see you again.”
And with that, Dagon walked back down the maglev line, more casual than cautious, and faded into nothingness, even to Three’s eyes. To the east, the barest hint of gray was beginning to show at the horizon.
Three had never so dreaded the breaking of dawn.