The apartment was a whirlwind; explanations colliding with improvised plans and haphazard packing. Mol was busy in the kitchen, preparing some fragrant dish that Cass thought couldn’t possibly be finished before they had to leave.
“You just left? They just let you walk right out the front door?” Cass demanded.
jCharles threw a bundle of chemlights across the room to Three, and chuckled. “Shoulda seen the look on that old crow’s face when you turned around. I think she got stuck trying to calculate the odds of you actually doing what you were doing.”
“Any more time we spent in there was time we weren’t usin’ to get to you. The drop? They let you keep the money for charity?”
“It was recommended I take both.”
“Recommended? You still got any of that goo?” Three asked Twitch, mid-sentence, then switched back. “This is serious Cass, how many were there, how many did you leave, and in what state?”
She flipped through the high-def images in her mind, like a reel of still frames, perfectly preserved. Even the pattern the blood-spit spray made out of the Limper’s mouth when his head hit the table.
“Seven total. Two dead, one stunned, two unconscious, one crying, one screaming.”
jCharles shot her a concerned look.
“Tyke crying, Jantz the screamer. I took a little meat out of his leg, but he’ll be fine. They’re both alright. Big fans of yours, too, by the way.”
He nodded, but didn’t smile. “I’d heard. Here,” he threw three packets from the storage room over to Three. “Probably tastes terrible by now, but it should still get you there. Four ounces, three times a day.” Then back to Cass. “They set you up?”
Cass shook her head. “I think the Bonefolder got to them after you’d made the deal. Saw an opportunity.”
“Opportunity’s her game.”
“The ones you left unconscious?” said Three.
“One was Tyke’s friend, I’d guess. About the same age, had a backpack. When it all went down, he just stood there with his mouth hanging open. The other, not sure. Servorganic arms at least. Not sure if he was Tyke’s hired man, or Bonefolder’s.”
“Big guy? Fake greenman outfit?” jCharles asked.
“That’s the one.”
“Unconscious, or dead?”
“Not sure, but I’d have to guess unconscious. I dropped him pretty hard, but I didn’t stop to check.”
jCharles flicked a look to Three.
“Problem?” Three said.
“Bonefolder’s nephew. She lets him handle the easy jobs. Might’ve been kinder to put him down.”
The quiet voice captured the chaos, stole the energy from the room.
“Yeah, sweetheart?” Wren stood next to the couch, looking tiny, lost. Verge of tears.
“I don’t think I can leave again.”
Cass crossed to him, sat on the couch, pulled him close.
“Baby, what’s the matter?”
The others held still, just observed, afraid to disturb the delicate balance of the moment. Wren just shook his head.
“Are you tired?”
“No,” he answered, quietly.
“Did you take a nap while I was gone?”
“Maybe you should lie down for a—”
“No!” he barked, with the sharpest tone Cass had ever heard from him. She slid back involuntarily. “I don’t wanna lie down, I don’t wanna a nap! I wanna stay here! I don’t want to leave!”
And then he broke into sobs, deep, soul-shaking sobs, and Cass wrapped her arms around him, and he stood there with his arms at his sides, just weeping. Cass saw Mol, realized she’d come from the kitchen, hovering. Wanting to help, not wanting to interfere. Cass caught her eye and motioned to the back room, and Mol nodded.
Cass gently lifted Wren up, and laid his head on her shoulder as he let it all out, weeks of terror and confusion and exhaustion. She took him to the back room and as she was closing the door, she saw Mol there, watching them the whole way, a sad look in her eye. Compassion. Longing. Cass motioned to her, for her to join them. At first, Mol refused, but jCharles nudged her, and she finally relented; joined the mother and child in the room. They sat on the bed together, Cass on one side, Mol on the other, with Wren tucked between. And they let him cry and cry, and would let him continue until he had no more tears to give.
The kid had stopped squalling almost an hour ago, and Three was anxious to get moving. They were losing daylight by the minute, and he feared that once the Bonefolder got word she had neither the woman nor the child, a plan B was bound to come knocking.
“Hey.” jCharles was sitting in his oversized chair drinking a cold beverage of questionably high chemical properties.
“We got you all loaded up?”
jCharles took a pull, let it settle in his mouth. He swallowed, and then exhaled, mouth open, a vaporous sigh.
“So. Where do we go?”
jCharles shook his head. “There’s got to be something else. Something we’ve missed.”
“Wanting to have missed something doesn’t mean you have. Bad options aren’t so ‘bad’, when they’re ‘only’.”
“I’ll go with you to the steam tunnels…” said jCharles, trailing off.
“You’ve done too much already, Twitch. The Bonefolder’s gonna come looking for you, and you can’t say I’m not to blame for this one.”
jCharles made a dismissive noise and waved his hand. “Bonefolder’s got her friends and turf, but there’s a reason she doesn’t do business downstairs. You don’t worry about ol’ jCharles.”
“She won’t come after you for this?”
“She might have some power. But me? Me, I have influence.”
“This is serious, Twitch, I need to know.”
jCharles sat forward, suddenly serious. “She moves on me, the networks she uses to run all her gigs suddenly disappear. In fact, just planning a move on me would guarantee I know about it ahead of time. So, no. No, she’ll sit over in her little palace sipping her little drink, and she’ll go looking for some other way to keep those books balanced.
“But don’t you let her people catch you in town. She snags you and whisks you off, no way I’ll be able to track you down before she’s done with her work.”
“Well, I appreciate it, Twitch. You’re a good man. And a better friend.”
“Don’t make it a goodbye.”
“’Fraid it’s gotta be.”
jCharles stood, and the men embraced awkwardly, but sincerely.
“I can come as far as the steam tunnels. Maybe even a little further out.”
jCharles was grim, but there was a paleness at the corners of his lips, extra clicks in his words that signaled a dry mouth. Even the bravest men feel fear.
“No, Twitch. Stay here, with Mol. Stay here, and you love her with all you got.”
jCharles nodded. And then, there seemed to be no more words. Three gave a little nod. Turned to his loaded pack. Checked his harness, his pistol, his blade. Everything was ready to go. Whenever it was time.
“Mol’s gonna want you to get one last good meal in, you know.”
“Hurt her feelings if you don’t let her.”
Three glanced out through the window, but couldn’t get a good gauge on the sun, because of the random buildings stacked in the way.
“Hey, what time you got?”
jCharles accessed the global. “14:31 GST.”
About that time, the door to the back room open, and Wren stepped out, with Mol close behind, her delicate hands on his shoulders. He looked a little embarrassed, as children often do after a good cry. Mol nudged him forward.
“Twitch, Wren had something he’d like to ask you.”
Wren took a timid step forward, and Three saw now he had a book in his hand. The one Mol had been reading to him earlier.
“Mr jCharles, sir. Would you be interested in trading this book, for this?” He stretched out his other hand. Three recognized the sphere that filled that tiny palm. The mil-spec strobe he’d picked up back at the Vault.
jCharles bent over, and made a good show of examining both pieces, as if comparing quality. He stood, and thought. Took a swig on his beverage. Cass came out of the back room as the appraisal continued. Then at last, he bent low again.
“I’m sorry, young master Wren. Can’t do it.”
Wren was obviously disappointed, but he took it like a professional. “OK, thank you for considering it.”
Wren moved to put the book back on the shelf, even in the right location, but jCharles interrupted him.
“I said I wasn’t interested in trading, young sir. You can’t trade for a gift.”
Wren turned back, obviously hopeful, but not quite understanding.
“You go ahead and take it, sweetheart,” Mol said. “It’s yours. We want you to have it.”
Without reservation, Wren wrapped himself around Mol’s waist, nerve-rig and all, and squeezed, and smiled. “Oh, thank you so much.”
And to everyone’s great surprise, he rushed right over to jCharles and hugged his leg just as ferociously. “Thank you so much, Mr jCharles.”
“Easy kid, you break my leg off, I might just take it back.”
Mol kissed Wren on the head as she passed him, and made her way to the kitchen. Whatever it was she’d prepared smelled delicious, and was apparently moments away from completion.
“You guys can stay for another twenty minutes, right? If you eat fast?”
Three surveyed the scene. Wren, so hopeful, Cass trying to look ambivalent, but clearly hoping for a good last meal. jCharles with his head inclined that one way he did it to let you know you weren’t really being given a choice.
“Yeah, alright. But let’s be quick about it.”
They all bustled together then, setting the food out, finding enough chairs to fit around the tiny table. And once everything was set, Mol stood at the head of the table, and encouraged everyone to hold hands. The only one comfortable with the idea besides Mol was jCharles, but they figured it out.
Mol bowed her head and said, “Sweet Lord, we thank you for all your many goodnesses to us, and we’re mindful of all the blessing you’ve bestowed upon us with these friends, old and new, and we ask your hand be upon them as they go out, and we ask you bring ’em right back to us again. Amen.”
Then she set to serving up something from a large pot that was reddish-brown, and thick, and almost smelled like it had real onions in it. Real, out-of-the-ground onions, not the vat-grown ones that tasted like some chemical engineer’s idea of how an onion should taste.
“It’s not much, I know, but Twitch found an old onion bulb long ago, and believe it or not, he managed to nurse that thing back to health enough to pop us out an onion every now and again. I thought this was a special enough occasion to break out the good stuff.”
“You ever had a real onion before, Wren?” jCharles asked.
“No, sir. I didn’t know they grew…” he trailed off, suddenly distracted.
“Well, you are in for a real treat, then, buddy.”
Wren didn’t respond. He was staring at the wall, at the window, at nothing.
“Wren,” Cass said, but she already knew. His eyes went wide.
“Leave, we have to leave!” He was up out of his chair, backing towards the wall.
Three reacted instantly, pouncing to his gear, swinging on the harness, the pistol, the blade, the coat, the pack, like a whirlwind. He was fastening his coat while Cass was still moving to grab her pack.
“What’s going on?” Mol asked, up, half-crouched out of her chair.
“Something bad,” Three answered. “We gotta go, Mol. Thanks, as always, for everything.”
He didn’t approach her, so she came to him, and wrapped her arms around him. Tight.
“You be careful out there. And you come back,” she said. Then lowered her voice. “You come back to me, Three. I mean it.” And kissed his ear as she drew away.
“Wren, come on baby,” Cass called to him, and he skittered to her, accepted his coat and pack. Eyes searching, wired.
“Twitch,” Three said.
Cass and Mol embraced, warmly, like sisters at parting.
“I left something for you in the storage room. It’s nothing really, just a little thanks. We can’t ever repay you.”
“OK. Yeah, we’re going.”
“You sure you know the way?” jCharles asked.
“Yeah got it.”
“Travel safe. Stop by on your way back through, let us know you got it sorted.”
Three made eye contact with jCharles, and in their own way, they said their goodbyes. And with that, Three, Cass, and Wren, were once more on their way.
With the afternoon sun draining from yellow to golden, the trio set a quick pace, and stayed huddled together.
“Stay tight to me, keep your eyes open. They might make another try at us.”
“What about the greenmen?”
“Can’t trust ’em now, either.”
They pushed hard, walking as fast as they could without running, less concerned about attracting attention than they were about getting out. Their path led them in the direction of Downtown, but veered off at an angle that eventually led them to some sort of outdated, non-functional industrial sector that seemed to be nothing but pipes for the sake of pipes. The place was completely deserted, and smelled strongly of human waste.
“Steam tunnels,” Three said, as if that explained it.
“What are they for?” Wren asked.
“Some busted geothermal system. Right now, they’re for getting out.”
Three scoured various endcaps, and found one about the size of an adult at full crouch.
“Let me know if you see anyone around.”
While the others kept watch, he twirled the caps in three specific areas, and then stepped back. There was a click, and a whine, and the endcap slowly swung to a side. Before it was even fully open, Three shoved his pack in first.
“We’re going in there?”
“All the way,” Three answered, as he pushed his way in. Beyond the pool of light that fell within the first six inches of the pipe, it was like looking into a starless outer space. A depthless dark, so complete its end could be an inch from your face, or a thousand miles distant.
“Come on, we don’t want anyone seeing us headed in here.”
Cass helped Wren up, noticed his frantic eyes. Remembered the last time he’d crawled in a dark tunnel and ended up separated from his mother and held captive.
“It’s alright, baby, we’re with you the whole time. Three in front, me in back. We’ll make sure you’re fine.”
Wren didn’t respond, but he climbed in as well, pushing his pack ahead of him as Three had done. Cass was the last one in. The pipe wasn’t quite high enough for her to move on all fours properly. After the first few meters, she discovered if she lay on top of her pack, she could pull both the bag and herself along at the same time, instead of in two stages.
Thankfully, after a few minutes in the impossible dark, a yellow-green light flared. Three lit a chemlight and tied it to the back of his coat. As they crawled for what seemed like hours, it never occurred to Cass that the chemlight didn’t shine forward, but backwards. It was for their benefit only.
They continued in silence of voice, escorted by the eerie echoes of their scraping progress down the “tunnel”. The air was coolly damp, reminiscent of the storm drain tunnels that Three had first led them to. Cass hoped Wren wasn’t too cold, but dared not ask for fear of the cacophony it would create.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Three spoke.
“This is it.”
There were movements, and grindings, and a muffled curse, and then a thin ring of light, which grew, and grew into a tiny sun all of its own. And as Cass’s eyes adjusted, she saw the exit. Three pushed out first, then turned and pulled Wren out with him, and set him by his side. He pulled Cass’s pack out, and then held out his hand and steadied her as she slipped out of the pipe.
Then the three stood together on a little shelf of soft gray dust, and the weight of the history of a world gone wrong settled on them with all the gravity and terrible awe of a cataclysm. There, before them, lay the Strand.
Another meeting had been hastily arranged, shortly after the disappearance of the man some called Three, but that the Bonefolder insisted upon referring to as “Mr Walker”. No sign of the woman or child he had been travelling with either. It was in fact, a work of chance that this meeting had come together at all, that the man standing in front of the Bonefolder at this very moment had just happened to overhear a tale that led him to this place. A tale of a particular chemdrop gone awry. A tale of a woman, and perhaps a child. And it was in this meeting that this gentleman fully intended to have his way.
The Bonefolder sat in her usual place, with her usual steaming cup of brown fluid. The bartender leaned against his bar nearby, carefully intent. Poised for action, it seemed. The big bodyguard behind the Bonefolder stood as one might expect a butler to do so. However, this particular big bodyguard had all the classic signs of a juicer, and it would be foolish to assume the vast graft-musculature on his frame was purely for show. Two lazy gun hands flanked the Bonefolder, trying to look important, but mostly revealing themselves to be poor maintainers of their weaponry and thus, likely, undisciplined in the practice of their craft.
The final gun hand, however, strutted about as though he was the spokesman for the group, broadcasting his opinions on how business should be undertaken, particularly on account of what had befallen several of his associates in a previous matter.
“Sent ’em tied up NAKED. My pardon, ma’am, but it’s true, that’s what they did, and it’s not right. It’s not right to shame good men for trying to uphold some sense of honor and justice in this world.
“And then this fella here. Walking in like he’s some kind of prince with all his finery, and his entourage, thinking he’s going to presume upon our charity to see him through to his destination. Well it just makes me mad, ma’am, to see disrespectful youth speak to you in that manner.”
The Bonefolder sipped her tea, as per usual. Up. Sip. Blink. Hold. Down. Adjust.
“I’m sayin’ we’re done with these types. This isn’t a shuttle service we’re runnin’ here, this is a privately-owned transit system now, no matter what the old laws say. The Bonefolder saw to it that the line got back to running, and it’s hers to do with as she sees fit. And coming in here with that attitude and that smile, like you’re going to charm something from us? From her? Son, I tell you what I know, if you don’t start showing some respect in here, I’ll take you out in the street myself and let your friends learn a real good lesson in manners at your expense.”
“Thank you, Domino, we do appreciate your passion and concern, if not your manner of speech.”
“Yes, ma’am. I just don’t like ’em, ma’am.”
“Yes, thank you, child Domino,” she said with a gentleness that felt somehow firm as a slap. She adjusted herself upon her chair, and addressed the visitor. “We’re afraid this Mr Walker has caused some consternation amongst some of our associates. We cannot guarantee that Mr Walker and his friends will in fact go to Morningside. As long as you understand that our agreement is based solely upon transportation to the destination, with no guarantee whatsoever that Mr Walker will be found there, we believe we can afford you and your colleagues passage by way of our train. Under certain, highly profitable business arrangements.”
“Certainly, of course,” Asher said, leaning forward to rest his hands on the back of the chair he’d been offered. He let his eyes casually sweep the upstairs balconies. No surprises there. Good. Had to be sure, since he was the only one they’d let inside. “I understand that you’d like to maximize your potential upside with this arrangement. I’m just not certain that the quoted price is optimal.”
The loudmouth started up again. “Whatever price that gets you on our train is optimal, partner. Every time she goes out, that’s a risk on us. And I haven’t heard nothin’ yet out of your mouth that says what you can do for us.”
Asher scanned the room with his easy smile. “You know, you’re right, sir. I’m sorry, I have been rude. My apologies.” He bowed just the right amount to seem gracious, and not at all condescending. “Please allow me to elaborate on exactly what is that I can do for you.”
Asher smiled warmly. Waited. The Bonefolder smiled slightly. He watched her intently. Smile. Wait. She raised her tea cup. Took a sip. Her eyes closed.
And Asher revealed himself, awesome and terrible. The bartender was first, as Asher stretched out across the electromagnetic mist and seized him through the cortex, driving a single command through his nervous system like an iron spike.
Like a river suddenly dammed, the bartender’s brain simply stopped responding and left him a body with no mind.
The Big One was the easiest. Asher hacked his adrenals, and dumped them all at once while activating the man’s chem stores. There was a dull thump inside the Big One as his heart exploded.
The two gunmen at the table got a generic treatment, deserved for their laziness. Asher pierced their minds and locked their muscles into one-hundred percent contraction, simultaneously cutting off their breathing, their heartbeats, and any chance either of them had to scream.
And finally, the mouthy gun hand. Asher penetrated the man’s mind and crackled its own signals across it, throwing the gun hand into a very specific seizure: one which would guarantee he would choke to death on his own tongue.
The Bonefolder opened her eyes from her long blink. Set the cup on the table. Adjusted the handle. Oblivious that the men who were only now beginning to fall around her were already dead.