Cass bounded down the hall ahead of him, faster than he remembered ever seeing her move; she’d reacted nearly instantly to the scream. No, not scream. Screams. Two voices, one unholy shriek. It hadn’t occurred to him before that he had no idea where Jackson might take Wren. Now he couldn’t understand how he’d been so foolish.
The pair raced past the medical apartment and leapt down the stairs that led towards the primary living quarters. Cass hit the landing so hard she nearly fell, but managed to maintain her frantic momentum and streaked down the central corridor. Three skidded to a halt, dropped to a knee. Listened; strained.
A sound, at the edge of hearing. He whirled and headed down a side passage, hunched, trying to steady his breathing as he searched. There again. A faint sob. The corridor dark. Doors sealed. But the muffled cry growing more apparent with each step. Near the end, a dull orange glow seeped from underneath a door.
In three strides he was there, propelling his whole mass into the door, throwing it open so hard the doorframe separated from the wall. Then, froze. Scanned. Cass skidded into the room while Three tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
“Wren!” Cass shrieked.
She flew to her son, flinging herself around Three and onto the boy who lay crumpled on the floor, fetal, at the side of the bed. Hands over his ears. A bright, thin trail through his fingers: blood.
Three’s eyes swept the rest of the room, saw the sole of one of Jackson’s feet poking out from behind the bed. He prowled cautiously around the edge, one hand moving instinctively to the handle of his blade, though he doubted there’d be any need for it. Wren was the one softly sobbing. Jackson, so far, hadn’t stirred.
“Baby, what happened? What happened?” Cass was pleading with Wren, cradling him to her, voice trembling with fear. “Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?”
Three rounded the bed. Jackson was there, lying in an awkward pose, one leg bent behind him with the other outstretched. Eyes open, but unseeing. Mouth slightly agape. Didn’t seem to be breathing. Three relaxed, released his grip on his weapon. Shook his head. Wren was going to have to do the talking.
“Wren,” Cass continued, “Wren, baby, please, talk to me.”
Three moved to them, took a knee, looked into Wren’s face. The boy’s eyes were open, and they rose to meet Three’s. He was scared, confused, but he didn’t seem hurt. Cass was frantic. Three stretched out his hand and took her shoulder, firmly, to steady her.
“You OK, kid?”
Wren nodded, took his hands from his ears but didn’t offer anything more. There was a wet smear along the side of his face where the cut on his hand had reopened, but from what Three could tell, he didn’t seem to have any new injuries.
“Can you tell us what happened?”
Wren pulled away from Cass enough to sit upright, and wiped his eyes.
“Wren—” Cass said. Three caught her eye and shook his head. After a long moment Wren spoke quietly, like he was recounting a bad dream.
“I was sleeping. And I heard some people talking. But when I woke up, it was just him.” He lowered his head. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“Come on, let’s get you out of here,” Three said, standing and offering his hand. Wren stood on his own, Cass accepted the help. “Go on up to the Commons, maybe your mom could take a look at that hand. I’ll be there in a few.”
Wren nodded, trudged out of the room, careful to avoid looking in the direction of Jackson’s body. As Cass moved by him, Three caught her arm, leaned in close.
“Can you check, make sure his signal didn’t slip?”
She nodded and followed her son out. Once they were gone, Three returned to Jackson’s side and crouched. Whatever the boy had done didn’t seem to be external. There were no obvious bruises or even scratches. Jackson’s leg position suggested he had been bedside and fallen slightly backwards, but mostly straight down. More than anything, it looked as though he had simply collapsed where he stood. Whatever Jackson had done had made Wren feel threatened, that much was certain. Beyond that, Three was at a loss. He looked into Jackson’s staring eyes. Poor kid, to have survived the Weir only to be dropped by a harmless looking five year-old. He reached out and shut Jackson’s eyes. At least he’d be at rest now. Finally.
Three ran his hand over his own head, over his stubbled face, pinched the bridge of his nose. One less person to worry about. But troubling questions to answer. Was it even safe to travel with the boy now? He exhaled loudly, stood to his feet. Dropped his neck to one side to crack it. Froze.
On the floor below him, Jackson’s eyes had opened again.
Back in the Commons, Cass dabbed Wren’s tiny hand with a medpatch, watched the foam seep into the wound, cleansing and sealing it. Wren winced at the sting, but held as still as he could. Neither had spoken since they’d left the room. They both stared intently at the hand until the tiny scouring bubbles had all but died away.
“There,” Cass said. “OK now?”
Wren wiggled his fingers, closed his hand into a fist.
“It’s cold. And tingly.”
“That means it’s working, sweetheart.”
The questions were eating her up inside, but she didn’t want to push him if he wasn’t ready to talk. From what she could tell, Wren wasn’t hurt at all. Scared maybe, but mostly, she could see now, frustrated. His mind was at work, replaying the events, trying to understand what exactly had happened and not being able to piece it together. He stared absently at his hand.
“How about something to drink?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“For what, baby?”
“I killed that man, didn’t I? I killed Jackson?”
Cass put her hand along her son’s cheek, felt it warm, soft.
“I think so.”
“He was real nice to me.”
She was dying to know what had happened, but just leaned forward, kissed his forehead, put her head to his.
“He was nice to all of us, sweetheart. But that doesn’t mean he was good.”
“He was good, Mama,” Wren answered. “It was the other ones I didn’t like.”
Jackson’s eyes swam, focused, shifted to Three. And in the next instant, Three was on him, blade in hand, opposite forearm across Jackson’s collarbone, pinning him to the ground. Jackson squirmed weakly under Three’s weight.
“Wait wait wait, it’s OK, I’m alright!”
“C’mon, you’re chokin’ me here!”
“What did you do?”
“Me? Ask the kid!”
Three shifted his forearm upwards, where Jackson’s neck met his shoulder. Nerves pinched, blood-flow halted.
“Gah! Get… get off, I’ll explain!”
Three raised up, grabbed a handful of Jackson’s shirt, and hauled him up on to the bed. He didn’t sheathe the blade.
Jackson sat for a moment, rubbing his neck, working his shoulder, swinging his leg. He glanced around like it was the first time he was seeing the room. Pupils dilated. Movement stopped.
“What’re we doin’ here?”
“You tell me.”
“Why’d you bring me here?”
“I didn’t. This is where we found you. This is where you brought Wren.”
Jackson shook his head in disbelief. Then settled back, as if remembering.
“Not me. Whit.”
Three had no idea who Whit was, but nothing about the way the kid said it suggested he was lying. He was telling the truth. Or at least what he believed was true.
“This is Whit’s old room.”
“He still around?”
Jackson chuckled humorlessly. “No. Not anymore.”
There was more to the words than Three understood. He waited, knowing the silence was more likely to get answers than any questions he asked.
“That kid… Wren. What is he?”
“How do you mean?”
“I dunno,” Jackson said with a shrug, shaking his head. “He… something he did. He fixed me.”
“What ‘others’, sweetheart?”
“It wasn’t just him. I mean Jackson was the only one, but there were others. Inside. I think they wanted to hurt us.”
“And they tried? To hurt you?”
“He was right there, when I woke up. Standing there with a pillow. But he felt wrong, Mama. There was something wrong with him. I didn’t want to hurt him. I just wanted the others to go away.”
Wren was starting to get upset again, reliving whatever terror Jackson had put him through. Cass picked him up, pulled him into her lap, rested his head on her chest.
“It’s not your fault, Wren. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He sniffled. Crying, though she could tell he was fighting it. Trying to be brave.
“It’s alright, baby. It’s not your fault.”
“Then why does it keep happening?”
“That’s what I’m tellin’ you,” Jackson said. “They’re gone. The kid did something to me, and they’re all gone.”
Three sheathed his blade, and dropped into the only chair in the room. As far as he could tell, Jackson was telling the truth. Whatever Wren had done had actually been a good thing, hard as it was to believe. Three looked at Jackson, still sitting awkwardly on the bed. Afraid to move too much for fear of what Three might do.
“Relax. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“So you believe me?” Jackson asked, shoulders visibly relaxing.
“Doesn’t make sense. But nothing has, since I met those two.”
Jackson scooted back up the bed, rested his back against the headboard, pulled his feet up under him cross-legged. He placed his hands in his lap, then picked them up again. Looked them over.
“I’m in bad shape, yeah?”
“You could use a bath, sure. We gonna be OK to stay here tonight?”
Down here, underground, with all the activity, Three realized he was losing sense of time. But he guessed there wouldn’t be time enough to pack up and get to a wayhouse in the light they had left.
“Yeah, of course. You can stay as long as you like.”
“Doubt that,” Three said, getting to his feet. “I’m gonna go check on the girl and her kid. Why don’t you take some time, get cleaned up. Gimme a chance to…”
He wasn’t even sure what all he needed a chance to do. Think. Rest. Prepare. He had important work tonight.
“They thought I was dead, yeah?”
“Yeah. Better let me break the news. I think everybody’s had enough shock for the day.”
Jackson nodded, understood.
“I’ll be up later.”
Three nodded in response and then left Jackson to look after himself.
They were sitting together in an oversized Temprafoam chair, cuddling. Cass looked up with anxious eyes when Three entered. He grabbed a chair and dragged it up next to theirs. They’d both been crying.
“You alright?” he asked, though he himself wasn’t even sure who he was talking to. Cass nodded, and he guessed that was good enough.
“So, Wren. Jackson’s alright.”
Mother and child both looked stunned, though Wren seemed more relieved, more hopeful than Cass did.
“You didn’t hurt him. In fact, I think you helped him.”
“He’s… he’s OK?” Wren pressed.
“Better than OK, kid. Whatever was wrong with him before, you fixed.”
Cass and Wren exchanged a look. Three waited expectantly. Finally Cass explained.
“Wren said there were ‘others’. He thought maybe he’d made them go away.”
“Sounds about right. Whatever happened, Jackson’s up and about down there. Gettin’ cleaned up. And we’ve got some work to do. You remember where the Treasure Room is?”
The last was addressed directly to Wren, who nodded his head emphatically.
“Then why don’t you show me around.”
Wren led the way down the twisting stairs, eager to get another glimpse of the so-called Treasure Room. Cass and Three trailed behind, and as the trio entered a corridor, Cass felt Three’s hand close firmly around her forearm, drawing her close. He leaned in, eyes still on her son.
“We’re not done talking yet,” he said in a low voice.
“I know,” Cass answered, nodding.
“How long till you need to dose again?”
“About negative eighteen hours.”
He grunted a wordless curse. Wren padded ahead oblivious.
“Do you still have any more of your synth?” she asked, wishing she hadn’t sounded so needy.
“Not enough. Your body’s already figured out that ain’t what it really needs. And at the rate you’re burnin’, same dose would be half as effective. Less.”
He let go of her arm, pulled away. Shook his head. He was thinking it through, and it didn’t seem as though he liked the conclusions. But he’d found ways before when there’d been no way. She hoped he could do it again. No. Believed it.
“Here it is,” Wren said.
Three motioned Wren on in. “Lead the way, soldier. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”
Wren smiled, puffed up by Three’s words. Cass didn’t understand it, but she couldn’t deny that Wren was reacting differently to Three, now. Normally her son would shrink from attention; with Three, he seemed to revel in it no matter how small.
She moved to follow Wren inside the Treasure Room, but Three stopped her with a hand light on her belly.
“No way we’re gonna find quint between here and Greenstone. Any other chems buy you some time?”
“Duff would work, if it’s just to maintain. I can’t boost off it, though. And Trivex, if the dose is big enough.”
“If we don’t have any luck here, I’ll have to raid medical.”
Cass just nodded. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she’d already done that. He stared for a too-long moment. Hand still on her stomach.
“We’ll figure it out, girl.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than her. She nodded again.
“Oh, cool,” a voice called from inside. “Mama, look at this!”
Three held his hand out in an “after you” motion. Cass slipped in and found Wren standing at one of the many low tables, holding up a clear flexiglass ball, perfectly round, perfectly smooth.
“What is it?” Wren asked.
She’d never seen anything like it before.
“I have no idea, sweetheart.”
“It’s a strobe. Old miltech. Thing’s probably older than your mom is.”
“How does it work?”
Three walked over to Wren, dropped to a knee. It suddenly struck Cass how often Three did that, and how rarely other adults did. The man making himself the same height as her son. Almost equals. Three held his hand out, and Wren dropped the ball into it.
“You take it like this,” Three said, wrapping one hand horizontally around the ball, as if it were a drink. “Then, you press the top and bottom, like this.” He motioned with the thumb and middle finger of his other hand, pinching the air, but not actually activating the device. Then he handed it back.
“Like this,” Three said. He helped form Wren’s tiny hand around the strobe.
“How do you know what’s the top and what’s the bottom?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Three answered. “It knows how you’re holding it. Then, pinch.”
“Can I try it?”
“Sure, just close your eyes first. If it’s still workin’, it’s bright as a star.”
Wren closed his eyes, and Three guided the boy’s other hand into position, shielding his own eyes with his shoulder.
“Might wanna look away, Mama,” Three said.
Cass had just barely shut her eyes when her lids suddenly flared in white-blue, dazzlingly bright.
“It still works!” Wren shouted, as if trying to be heard over the brightness. The strobe pulsed, a stabbing flash followed by a momentary reprieve. Cass turned her back and was amazed to discover she could still see the flashing reflecting off the walls, even with her eyes closed.
“How do you turn it off?” she called over her shoulder.
There was no verbal response, but a moment later, the pulsing stopped. She turned back, after-images floating in her vision.
“Can I keep it?” Wren beamed.
“Ask your mother.”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. Jackson might want to hang on to it.”
Wren looked disappointed. Three cocked his head slightly, dipped his eyebrows. Two against one.
“Alright. For now,” she said, relenting. “But let’s make sure Jackson doesn’t mind.”
“Mind what?” Jackson said quietly from the door. Instinctively, Cass stepped to shield Wren from him. She felt Three move beside her, calm, as he stood and smoothly moved to the midpoint between Jackson and her. He faced them both, leaning back against one of those sturdy tables, like a careful negotiator refusing to take sides. Making himself the bridge, Cass thought. Or maybe setting himself in place to be the wall, if it came to that.
Cass could only see half of Jackson sticking into the Treasure Room. He hadn’t committed fully to coming inside yet. From what she could see of him, though, it was clear he’d spent some time getting himself cleaned up. He’d bathed, put on fresh clothes that actually seemed to fit him, maybe even cut his hair. His fingernails were trimmed to a normal length, and for the first time he actually seemed to be standing still. She hadn’t really noticed it earlier, but now that she saw him it occurred to her just how much he had fidgeted before. He lingered in the doorway, seemingly uncertain as to whether or not he was welcome.
“If there’s something you want, you can take it. That’s what it’s here for.”
“How you feelin’?” Three asked, though it sounded more like a statement.
“Good. Real good.”
Cass felt Wren close behind her. He slid up next to her, pushed himself between her hip and arm, so that her hand naturally fell to his shoulder.
“Hey,” Three said, “you have any old blankets?”
“Sure. Most of that type of stuff’s in that back corner.”
That one threw Jackson for a second, and Cass too for that matter. Not a whole lot of use for open flames these days.
“Uh, maybe,” Jackson answered. “If so, probably around the same place as the blankets.”
“You can come in, you know,” Three said. “Your place more than ours.”
Jackson half-smiled at Cass, then looked to the floor as he came in and slowly circled around one of the many tables. He hadn’t cut his hair after all, just pulled it back in a loose knot at the base of his skull. Cass noticed he was careful not to look at Wren.
“If you’re headed to Greenstone, you should probably load up, yeah?” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find too many friendly shops down there.”
“But… you’re coming too, aren’t you?” Wren asked, pulling away from Cass’s side. Jackson glanced at Wren and smiled, though there was no cheer there.
“No, little one, I don’t think so.”
Cass looked to Three, wondering if he’d talked to Jackson about it before, but Three had already moved towards the back of the Treasure Room, and was scanning the various tables laid out there.
“It’s… I mean, is it safe for you to stay?” she asked.
“Safe enough, I would guess. It’s been OK so far.”
Three began rummaging through the scraps on one table, but called back over his shoulder.
“Not sure it’ll stay that way, kid. Might be safer if you move with us.”
“I can’t, Three. The Vault is home. Plus, you never know when some more travelers might come through, yeah? Be a shame if there wasn’t anyone here to let ’em in.”
“Did travelers come through before…?” Cass asked, but trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence without sounding callous.
“Before the attack? Yeah, every few weeks, here and there,” Jackson answered. He picked up a biochem battery off one of the tables, rolled it over in his hand absentmindedly. “The Vault’s out of the way and mostly out of view. It’s always been an OK spot to make a trade, and a good spot to rest.”
He shrugged. “Nobody asked questions, too much, except Gev.” He went quiet for a moment, and Cass didn’t feel like she should respond. After a moment, Jackson set the battery down and continued. “Always had a good sense for people, you know? He kept this place pretty quiet and calm. Turned away the troublemakers, and kept an eye on the rest of us.”
“Not all the troublemakers, the way he’d tell it,” Three said from his corner. “Used to say you were a handful.”
Jackson cracked a sad smile, remembering.
“More like two.”
Three stopped his rummaging, turned to address Jackson.
Jackson looked over to him.
“He thought a lot of you, you know. Always called you a good kid.” Jackson nodded, but dropped his gaze. Ashamed of something he’d done, maybe, or overwhelmed by Three’s words; Cass couldn’t tell. “And you said it yourself, Gev had a real good sense of people. You are a good kid, no matter what you may or may not have done.”
“It’s a nice thought, but you don’t know what I’ve done.”
Three returned to his rummaging, but wouldn’t let Jackson have the last word.
“Doing and being are two different things, Jackson.”
Jackson didn’t respond, but Cass saw his shoulders sag, like long-borne tension had suddenly released. He was quiet for a long while.
Cass found Wren sitting cross-legged on the floor, right next to her feet, rolling his new strobe from hand to hand, staring at it as if there were some swirling color and light within it. To her eyes, it was simply a clear ball, but she knew that Wren’s eyes often saw far more than hers.
“What are we looking for?” she finally called.
“Four days to Greenstone. Take what you need.”
They’d spent the better part of the afternoon scouring the Treasure Room for supplies for their trip, which Three organized now. Jackson had led them all to a long-unused apartment; sizeable, furnished with a large bed, a couple of chairs, and its own bathroom facilities, which pretty much made it the honeymoon suite of the Vault. Three’d laid all their supplies out across that bed. Warmer clothes, sturdier shoes, better backpacks, food that would travel well. And as requested, a few old blankets, and a pair of firebricks, though he wouldn’t be packing those. They’d have to start at first light and travel hard to make it to the next wayhouse, and he didn’t trust the others to pack their own bags.
He’d asked about ammunition, of course, but there’d been none he could use. Of course. A lot of inert shells, which he had plenty of already. A handful of small-time pocket protectors, 1-kJ jobs for back alleys and gamedives. Nothing for serious work. Jackson had offered an 18-kilojoule shell he’d been keeping with him in his “safe place”, but it was too small to fit the chamber on Three’s pistol and wasn’t worth cracking open for parts.
It hadn’t been all bad news, though. Jackson had managed to turn up a single jector of Trivex in an old trauma kit that had fallen down behind one of the tables nearest the wall. The jector’s flexiglass casing was frosted with ages-old dust, and without doubt the chems were past peak potency, but the dose was almost enough to cover the trip to Greenstone. In a stroke of actual good luck, the same kit had contained three minijectors worth of the syntranq Somalin. Three’d run the numbers four separate times to be sure. Full jector of Trivex tonight, let Cass’s system spin up on it while she slept. Mini of Somalin every 18 hours or so to slow the burn. If they kept up the pace, and didn’t have any major shocks along the way, it just might be enough. It was almost enough to make Three think they were getting a little bias from the System. Almost.
Cass had gone with Jackson and Wren back to the Commons to scrounge up some “real” food while Three took care of organizing their packs. Running solo, organizing had never been much of an issue. Wits, water, and weapons. The Essential Three of the open, in proper order. Everything else was fluff. As the saying went, if you’d survived out in the open long enough to get truly hungry, you’d already outlived your life expectancy. But traveling with those two, well… they had a lot of fluff. He loaded as much as he could in his own harness, knowing every extra kilogram he could grit out was one less for the woman and boy to wrestle with. He’d tried to keep everything they might need close at hand, but he realized he had no way to know what they might want close at hand. This wasn’t his way.
He shook his head. Kid’s dad is in Morningside, and the girl’s dying. Seemed like every answer he got just raised more questions. Who was Wren’s father, and how long had it been since she’d seen him? Did he know he had a son? What did Wren know about his dad? And what did Wren know about Three? He’d said something about Three being “just pretend”, which sounded too close to something Three didn’t want them to know. And then there was Cass… dying how? How soon? Of what?
We’re all dying, girl. All of us, all the time. What makes you special?
He heard the trio coming down the corridor, and busied himself with securing the packs and moving them to the floor. He rolled the blankets around the firebricks and placed those on top of his harness, out of the way.
“You can stay up here with us, you know,” Cass said, as they entered the room. “We really don’t mind.”
Jackson shook his head. “I appreciate it, Cass, but I just… I think I’ll sleep better down there.”
Cass flopped Wren up on to the bed, helped him pull his shoes off.
“They’re not trying to get in here anymore,” Three added. “I watched them myself.”
Wren scrambled up towards the top of the bed. Three noticed the boy still had the strobe in hand. Cass sat on the foot of the bed, mild observer to the conversation. She was exhausted, in pain, fading. And still her primary concern was her son. Something like admiration stirred in Three.
“Well, I dunno what it is. But I feel safe there, yeah? They didn’t find me when they were… that night. No reason to risk it.”
“Only thing different down there’s the water, kid.”
Jackson looked puzzled. So did Cass.
“The water’s different?”
“Your ‘safe place’. It’s under the central water exchange for the Vault.”
Three shrugged. “Something about all the water, rushing through the pipes. Makes it hard for ’em to see. Impossible, sometimes.”
Obviously news to Jackson. But Three saw the wheels turning in Cass’s eyes. Thinking back to the storm water system, no doubt. If he wasn’t careful, she was going to learn all his tricks.
“But if they’re not coming in, they can’t see you anyway,” he continued. “So no need to sleep on a wet floor.”
Jackson regarded Three for a moment, then glanced to Cass. Stared for a moment, as she was looking elsewhere. She caught his eye, raised an eyebrow. He looked back to Three too quickly. Eyes dilated. Slight flush in his cheeks.
Three smiled to himself. Looked like Cass had picked up another would-be suitor.
“Yeeeaaah… I just don’t think I’m ready for that. Not yet.”
“Suit yourself. But grab some blankets or something. Only thing’s gonna change that room is you broadcasting out of it.”
“Yeah… yeah, I guess that can’t hurt.”
He reached for the blankets on Three’s pack.
“Oh. Oh, yeah, I’ll just pull ’em from next door. You’ll wake me before you go, yeah?”
“Course, kid. I’ve still got the morning to convince you you’re coming with.”
“Heh, right. Alright. Night, Wren,” Jackson’s eyes moved to Cass, held like they were taking a long last drink.
“Night, Jackson,” Wren answered, voice already distant and thick with impending sleep. Cass waved limply from the foot of the bed.
“See ya, Three.”
Three nodded. Watched as Jackson backed out, pulled the door to. Cass bent double and unbuckled her boots, slipped them off. Rolled her ankles, massaged her feet. Three watched her for a moment: small, tucked in on herself, with such fragile beauty his heart burned.
“Hey,” he said.
She rolled her head his way, eyes bloodshot, lids heavy. Smiled so genuinely, with such unexpected warmth; dawn breaking through a hurricane night. Three found he’d stopped breathing.
“Hey back,” she said, voice low. No more than a meter away. She locked eyes with him: deep brown, dancing, golden. Vulnerable. She leaned back, propped herself on outstretched arms, lithe, feline in her movement. Cocked her head. “You gonna fix me up or what?”
Three held. Evaluated. Wren’s breathing was deep, steady. Cass just sat there, staring back at him with those dark, depthless eyes. He stepped to her, brushed the hair back from her face. Traced her jaw with the back of a finger.
Cass lowered herself to the bed, slid her hands behind her head. Three planted a knee next to her, the inside of his leg firm against her ribs. Leaned over her. Wordlessly, he unfastened the first, then second clasp of her shirt. Lay back the left side. Her smile had melted into an amused smirk, but she never broke eye contact.
Three started at her collarbone. With his fingertips, he traced from the notch at the top of her breastbone, out to her left shoulder and back, stopping about three-quarters of the way to the slender curve of her neck. Her olive skin was warm, impossibly soft. Now he ran his fingertips downward, sliding along the inside of her breast. She watched from stillness.
He found a rib, placed a finger from his left hand there. Reached with his right into one of the many pockets of his pants.
“I hate to hurt you.”
“I’m glad it’s you.”
She let her eyes fall closed. Drew a breath.
Three took the Trivex jector from his pocket, placed its pepperbox-tip just above his finger, in the soft notch between Cass’s ribs. Aimed directly at her heart.
Cass exhaled. Nodded. Inhaled. He fired. The jector hissed softly, punching its chems through the surface down deep into the center of her bloodstream. Cass’s eyes clenched so tightly a tear streamed, but she made no sound. The jector fell quiet. Cass exhaled. Three instinctively placed his hand on her chest, just above the jector. She dropped a cool, damp hand atop his. Opened her eyes, fixed him with a steady gaze.
“Come on, cowboy. Just four more to go,” she whispered. She patted his hand. He nodded, watched her close her eyes again. Didn’t ask her this time, just fired again. When it was done, she barely paused.
Three didn’t want to jolt her again so soon, but he knew better than to ask. He fired the third dose. Three was no stranger to jectors, having had to dose himself during some of the more unpleasant times he’d endured. He’d also been stabbed, shot, jittered, slashed, and burned. Given the choice of the six, dosing from a jector ranked third.
“Go, do it.”
Cass was trembling now under his hand, heart hammering against her ribcage. Sweat beaded on her exposed skin, as if a heavy dew had fallen across her. Three leaned closer, brushed her hair back from her damp forehead. Ran his hand over her scalp, soothing, and knowing the pain in her chest was overriding every other sense.
“Last one. You’re doing good.”
She nodded, but didn’t speak.
“Need a break?”
She shook her head, furrowed her brow. She didn’t want questions, she wanted to get it over with. He dosed her the fifth and final time. The jector hissed out the last of its chems; a single dose intended to shock a still heart to beating, to trigger adrenals to flood the bloodstream at full capacity. Three knew quint was the emperor of high-speed chems, but he’d also seen a man’s heart explode from a double dose of Trivex. This little sister had strength beyond measure. He gently closed her shirt, refastened it.
“We’re done, girl. Let’s get you some rest.”
“I don’t…” she whispered, mouth parched. “I don’t usually let people call me ‘girl’.”
Three smiled as he stood. He scooped Cass up off the bed, cradled her like an overgrown child. She didn’t resist. He walked around the bed and laid her gently beside her sleeping son.
He hovered over the pair, thought back to that first day. The first time they walked into his guarded, disciplined, secure world. And he wondered at just how far out from that world they’d brought him.
Three switched off the light in the room, tugged off his shirt, and decided he was going to allow himself a long, cool shower.
Cass could tell from watching him that he’d assumed she and her son were sleeping. He’d already startled her once walking naked by the open bathroom door, and now Three seemed to be oblivious to any notion of being watched, which was surprisingly uncommon for the man. The Trivex was working its way throughout her body, juicing long-starved muscle fibers and nerve endings. She lay motionless not for fear of being discovered, but because every joint, muscle, and nerve stung with icy vengeance at the slightest provocation. But here, with Wren cuddled next to her, she was warm, and comfortable, and safe. For the first time in far too long. Her body was deathly tired, and she knew sleep would come soon. It just hadn’t found its way to her yet. Outside, twilight was descending.
She watched Three in the dim orange light of the single bathroom bulb. Studied him, really. For all the miles they’d covered, and the trust she’d developed in him in spite of herself, she still knew so little of the man. He stood at the small basin in the bathroom, methodically shaving his head. His face. Careful, practiced strokes. Using a gleaming-edged knife not unlike the one Wren had cut his hand on. No, not methodical. Ritualistic. Preparation.
He wore no shirt, and from her vantage, Cass could see the rope-like muscles of his back, shoulders, arms. Not bulky, like those splicejob showboys. Just authentic, well-used, well-formed, like they’d been doing work for fifty years and would continue for twice that much more. “Go muscle”, she’d heard Ran once call it, “not Show muscle”. She’d seen more genetically perfect physiology before. But the history that Three wore upon him was more fascinating by far. His back and shoulders were a tapestry of crisscrossed scars punctuated by the occasional dark stain of ink where a masterful calligraphist had inscribed captivating ideograms upon his flesh, in lines vertical and horizontal, in circles, in spirals. She wondered at their meaning.
Three set his blade aside on the basin and splashed water over his face and head several times. After the final splash, he stepped back from the basin and knelt upon the floor, feet behind him, head slightly bowed. Cass watched as his breathing slowed to such a point that she began to wonder if he had ceased breathing at all. Several minutes passed, and his stillness amazed her. For a moment, she wondered if he had perhaps fallen asleep, and if he had indeed even intended to do so. She couldn’t remember having seen him sleep at all since the beginning.
Three rose like a liquid shadow, grabbed his shirt and blade, and switched off the light. A very faint residual glow emanated from panels placed around the room, like the softest of moonlight, intended no doubt to create an atmosphere that encouraged sleep while staving off the fears that a pitch-black room made of concrete might otherwise inspire. In it, Cass could just make out Three’s movements across the room to their loaded packs. The man was utterly silent, like a dark mist driven about by an unfelt breeze. It suddenly occurred to her that she might well just be dreaming the whole event.
He crouched, then rose soon after with a bundle in his arms. He moved to the door.
“Hey,” Cass whispered.
Three halted. But didn’t turn.
“Hey back,” he answered finally, in a low voice. He waited. Waited for her to say anything more. That seemed to be his way.
“I know your secret.”
He was silent for a time. Still. Cass felt sleep’s heavy approach. She wondered briefly if she’d actually said anything at all.
“I doubt that, girl,” he finally replied. “But we’ll talk when I get back. Maybe we can start being honest with each other.”
Three opened the door, and the dim light from the corridor framed him. Cass saw he had slipped on his vest, with his pistol and short curved sword in place. And she thought she could make out a bundle of what looked like blankets in his hands.
“Where are you going?”
Three inhaled, held his breath. She saw his shoulders go up, draw back. Frustration? No. Steeling himself.
He exhaled. Checked the blade at his back. Shifted.
“To see a friend.”
And was gone.