After much thought and a lack of outright rejection from the peanut gallery, I’ve opted to dub these weekly posts, #TwoChaptersTuesday. Hopefully, the hashtag is self-explanatory. (Why I’m using a hashtag on a website, on the other hand, might be less so.) Anyway, now that we’ve met our main characters, it’s time to dig a little deeper into who they are, and what exactly is going on with Old Baltimore. If you want to re-read previous chapters (or arrived at this page without having done so), you can start over with Chapters 1 and 2 here, and then follow the links at the bottom of each post to progress through the story.
And now, on with the tale. Remember; feedback is always welcome!
The Stars That Sing
That spring, visits to the Hill—and William’s library—became just another part of Sammie and CJ’s daily schedule; morning chores, mid-day meals, a round of foraging across their pod’s territory and finally, before night could fall, an excursion to the no-go zone that straddled the territory markers for Pods 24 and 25.
William was always there when they arrived, the wrinkles in his face and skin seeming to multiply with each passing day. Usually, they found him reading, but he was quick to put his own book aside to direct CJ to more novels or to answer Samara’s questions about the territories he’d visited beyond the city.
“It’s not good,” he’d told Sammie on one such visit. “Several day’s march to the north, they’d kill any of us just for the color of our skin. Steel and his people impose a sort of order, I suppose, but it’s one that has no place for people like us. Go south, past the wreckage of the district, and you’ll find territory that hasn’t known peace since the Break. Every few years, a new warlord rises to take power from their predecessor, only to end up being deposed themselves soon after. Each time, it’s the common people who pay the price.”
“What about the west?” Samara had asked.
William shrugged. “The further you get from the coast, the fewer people you find. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not. Go far enough and you hit mountains. Keep going and you might find water again.”
“And the Free States?”
That question brought the old man up short, the lines about his eyes deepening to bottomless ravines as he squinted over at Samara. “Now, how does someone in Old Baltimore hear of the Free States?”
Sammie shook her head, braids and beads dancing. “Some of Lord Legion’s guards were talking about them when they didn’t know I was listening. Do they really exist?”
“You’ve been there?”
“No.” It was William’s turn to shake his head. “Place like that may seem like paradise from a distance, but the Free States have problems of their own. Enemies on all sides… Capes filling the skies, waging battle against other Powers…” His crooked teeth made a sudden reappearance. “Too much excitement for an old man like me.”
They’d continued talking for a bit, but CJ had turned his attention back to the book in his hands. Whatever the Free States might be, they were thousands of miles away from Old Baltimore. He had better things to do than listen to stories about a place he’d never see.
One day, their afternoon foraging went longer than usual, and Sammie and CJ didn’t make it to the library until well after dark. They found William’s light—something he called a lantern—in its usual room, but the man himself was nowhere to be seen. It was another half-hour before they stumbled across an old metal ladder, poking up through a large hole in the building’s dilapidated ceiling. They found William up on the roof, lying flat on his back with his hands clasped behind his hairless head.
CJ wanted to go back downstairs, where the light and his books were waiting, but Samara dropped down next to the old man, straightening her long legs in front of her and leaning back on bony elbows. With a sigh, CJ brushed away some pine cones and took a seat next to them both. Spring had started to give way to the humidity and heat of a typical Old Baltimore summer, but the night air was crisp and cool.
William gave no sign that he had noticed their arrival, his breath puffing out slowly and evenly, his dark eyes gazing into the distance.
“What are you looking at?” Sammie finally asked.
“I’m not looking at anything, young Samara. I’m listening.”
Sammie and CJ both paused for a moment, but neither could hear anything beyond the usual. “Listening to what?”
“Everything and nothing.” He finally spared them a glance, then waved a hand at the darkness. “There’s a music to the universe, you know. It never stops, and it’s never silent.”
CJ frowned. “I don’t hear any music.”
“Neither did I, for the longest time.” William closed his eyes, and turned his head back to the sky. “But it’s there, if you can just learn to listen. A drumline echoing up from the earth, like a heartbeat at the center of the world. A melody of notes, dancing through the trees on tomorrow’s breeze, questioned and answered by the tiny harmonies of life unfolding in unique bursts of sound. And the stars…”
“What about them?”
For a long moment, William was quiet. CJ thought he might have drifted off to sleep, as he sometimes did, but eventually he spoke again, his deep voice quiet and almost reverent.
“Most of them are distant and silent things, quiet and ever-watchful,” he finally said, “but a few of them… a very few… long ago, they learned to sing.”
After another long pause, the old man looked their way. The night was too dark to see his face, but they could hear the smile in his words. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you, Cornelius James?”
That was precisely what CJ thought, but he just shrugged.
“Maybe I am,” said William agreeably. “When you reach a certain age, I confess it’s hard to tell.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” decided Samara, peering up at the distant stars. “I just wish I could hear them too.”
“You know he’s nuts, right, Sammie?”
“I don’t know anything of the sort,” said Samara, reaching back to help CJ over the wall. Ironically, leaving the no-go zone was always more difficult than entering it.
“He hears things that don’t exist. That’s the definition of crazy!”
“If you say so. That hasn’t stopped you from coming with me though, has it?”
CJ felt his cheeks go hot. “I go there to read. You don’t even do that. Instead, you spend hours talking to a crazy man. Why?”
“Maybe what I’m looking for can’t be found in books,” she finally muttered, a few blocks later, when they were safely in the heart of their pod’s territory once again.
“And what’s that?”
She stopped, her face hidden by a dark curtain of braids. Her voice was quiet and serious; just hearing it gave CJ a chill. It was the voice of an adult, a pod leader maybe, not the girl he had grown up with. “A way out.”
It took another block for him to find his own voice, and when he did, it was small and strained. “Why would you want to leave me?”
Even with the illumination of a glow torch on the nearest street corner, Samara’s fist was a dark blur—barely seen and impossible to avoid before it thumped into CJ’s shoulder. “A way out for us, you dummy.”
“Cornelius James, what do you think will happen to us if we stay here in the city?”
“Eventually, we’ll grow up and become adults.”
He shrugged. “I guess we’ll either join Lord Legion’s guard or become pod leaders. I’m sure we can find some way to stay together.”
“We both know only Powers join the guard,” said Samara. “And they don’t have a choice in the matter.”
That wasn’t the only thing they both knew, but the other thing was something they never spoke of, something they’d silently agreed to never speak of. CJ met Samara’s eyes and felt that shared knowledge pass between them, like a vibrant river of energy.
“As for pod leaders,” she continued, “there are fifty of them in all of Old Baltimore, but the pods they lead each have at least a couple dozen members.”
“So what do you think happens to all those pod members when they become adults, if they can’t become guards, and there are only a handful of pod leader positions available?”
“I…” Cornelius James swallowed. “I don’t know.”
“Me neither. We’re told they go away, but nobody seems to know what that actually means.”
“Maybe they serve Lord Legion in his castle. Or… maybe they’re sent out of the city? As spies or scouts?”
“Maybe. Either way, the more we know about what’s out there, the better chance we have of surviving it.”
CJ felt a rush of shame. Samara had spent the past month planning for the future while he’d been wasting his time reading a bunch of old stories about rings and magic. That ends now, he decided. I’m not a child anymore.
“I’ll do whatever I can to help,” he told Sammie.
She reached out and squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry, CJ. We’ll figure something out.”
“I know we will. But still…”
“I still think he’s crazy.”
Cornelius James reacted to the worry in Samara’s words without even thinking, dropping down into a crouch so that the Hill’s wild foliage swallowed him whole.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice quieter than a whisper, barely sufficient to reach her, even though she was a mere two feet away. He hadn’t seen or heard a thing.
“Rotors, I think.” The look she gave him was full of concern. She glanced up the hill and frowned, hands unconsciously tightening around the long, paper-wrapped package she was carrying. Whatever that package was, she’d brought it back from afternoon foraging. “Let’s take the long way around and come up from the side instead.”
He nodded, swallowing nervously, and followed the older girl away from the path they’d broken on earlier visits and into the depths of the Hill’s overgrown jungle. As they walked, he took pains to make sure to follow Samara’s footsteps exactly. Despite the preponderance of undergrowth and vegetation, they made it to the top in silence.
On the Hill, in front of the library’s broken door, stood William, leaning heavily on his cane. And ten feet above him, rotors whirring steadily, was an Eye.
Like most of its kind, the Eye was a grotesque and misshapen blob; leathery skin and circuitry wrapped around a preponderance of cameras. Lenses pointed in all directions, reflecting the late afternoon sun. Above and below the main body were the two rotors, adjusting automatically to the wind that never quite left Old Baltimore’s streets.
CJ was so shocked at the sight of that Eye, seen up close rather than high in the sky, that he almost missed the fact that it wasn’t alone. Instead of rotors, the second Eye had a dozen metal legs sprouting directly from its fleshy body. It had scaled the wall of the library and now dangled upside down from the building’s broken roof, its single, enormous lens fixed upon William’s unprotected back.
There were no weapons in sight, which meant nothing at all. Cornelius James knew the Eyes could defend themselves. Even worse, a Hand was probably already on its way.
CJ looked to Samara for a plan, but she was as wide-eyed as he was, the almost-forgotten package clutched tight to her skinny chest. After almost a month, they’d let themselves believe that William wouldn’t be found… that Lord Legion had ceased to care about his city’s so-called no-go zones.
The presence of the Eyes that day was proof that they’d been wrong.
Then, something else happened that they could never have expected: the Eye spoke.
“You have been found trespassing in a secure location, citizen. You have ten seconds to explain yourself.” Its voice was flat and inhuman, absent of emotion, and overly precise in its enunciation.
If William was scared, he didn’t show it, leaning on his cane, the lines about his eyes multiplying as he squinted up into the sun. “What is there to explain? This was always one of my favorite places in the city. Mom’s too.”
In a flash, the flying Eye descended even further. When the voice came again, it sounded different. Still inhuman… still cold… but there was a sliver of surprise, barely audible above the whirring rotors.
The old man’s smile appeared and then disappeared just as quickly. “Lincoln.”
“I do not go by that name anymore.”
“So I’ve heard.” William cocked his head. “You really prefer Legion?”
“It is what I am. What I have become.”
A third Eye swooped out of the sky, a dozen feet from where Samara and CJ were hiding. This Eye had only a single rotor, but several fleshy tendrils swung below the misshapen body, each ending in a serrated metal blade. CJ glanced to Samara to see if they should fall back, but she stayed still, hidden within the underbrush, and fixated on the encounter taking place before them.
“I heard you were dead,” the first Eye continued. “Twenty years ago, in a small town in Kansas. And again twelve years ago, in Alabama. Yet here you are.”
“Here I am,” agreed the old man.
“This is my home.”
“Not anymore, it isn’t. Not for forty years.”
“Forty-two,” said William, “and I’ve found time has a way of changing things.”
“Not everything. Not this.”
“These, for example,” said William, ignoring the Eye’s response. “What happened to the chrome and steel units you used to favor?”
“The addition of an organic component improves operational efficiency by almost sixty-five percent.”
“Still, you have to admit the old ones weren’t nearly as hideous.”
“Baltimore is my city, old man. If you think you can change that—”
“I’m not here for trouble, Lincoln. I simply wanted to come back, one last time.”
He nodded his bald head to the multi-rotored Eye. “I know that thing of yours has more than just cameras. What do its sensors tell you?”
The hovering Eye brought additional lenses forward to focus on the old man. When the voice came again, it was hard. “If you think I am going to help you—”
“There are some things even a Technomancer can’t fix.” William shrugged. “I came to say goodbye. To this place, this city, and the ghosts that we knew. Is that so difficult to accept, Lord Legion?”
There was a long pause, silence broken only by the whirring of rotors and unseen gears. “Three weeks,” said the voice at last, “and then you leave, or I will tear you apart and this place with it. I’ve heard the stories, William, but trust me when I tell you that they do not begin to compare to what I have become.”
Without waiting for a response, the Eye shot up into the sky, followed by its single-rotored cousin. Last of all, the many-legged Eye retreated into the woods and was lost from sight.
For a minute, there was nothing but silence on the Hill, silence and an old man lit from the front by the setting sun. Then William sighed, shook his head, and limped back inside.
They found him settling into his favorite seat.
“You know Lord Legion?” demanded CJ.
“I’m not sure that I do. I know the man he used to be though.”
“Lincoln.” There was something close to disappointment in Samara’s voice. “And who was Lincoln?”
William’s smile flickered in the darkness like the flame from his lantern, dying long before it reached his eyes.
“A long time ago, he was my brother.”