The Stars That Sing is a short story set in the same world as The Murder of Crows. It takes place on the opposite coast of what used to be the United States of America and presents an entirely new look at the Post-Break world.
The last storm of the season brought more than just sleet and misery to Old Baltimore’s broken streets, though it was a month before anyone realized it. Everyone knew strangers didn’t come to the city. Strangers didn’t slip past the thousand unblinking eyes that watched the surrounding territories or the unsleeping automatons that patrolled the streets themselves.
And yet somehow… one stranger had.
Perhaps the only unsurprising aspect of that entirely unexpected event was that it was Samara who found the stranger first. If Sammie was a Power, Mr. Greenwood had been fond of saying, her ability would have been finding things. Mostly trouble.
It had been three years since Mr. Greenwood went away, replaced by the unsmiling and wobbly-chinned Ms. Stevenson, but Cornelius James still thought of the tattooed pod leader’s words from time to time. That had been the moment he first realized that even adults didn’t know everything.
CJ was sprawled out on the bottom three steps in front of the rowhouse that served as one of their pod’s dormitories. He’d spent every morning out there over the past week, soaking up the sunshine that had been absent all winter. Maybe that’s why Samara knew where to find him.
Or maybe it was that non-existent superpower she didn’t have.
“CJ! Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”
Normally, that would’ve been enough to get CJ to his feet, but the stone steps beneath him were warm, the spring sun even warmer, and going anywhere at all just then seemed like way more effort than it was worth. Instead, he cracked one eye open and glanced up and over at his friend and pod mate.
Sammie was winded and a little flushed, but her dark eyes sparkled like the colored glass beads in her hair. She’d set aside her winter coat as soon as the weather turned, and her springtime uniform—the same short-sleeved tunic and pants everyone in their pod wore—left long swaths of scrawny brown arms and legs uncovered. In the span of a single winter, she’d grown a good six inches. Not only was she two years older than CJ… suddenly she was taller too.
“Cornelius James!” She put both hands on her hips and scowled down at him from above. “Come on!”
“I only finished chores an hour ago, Sammie,” he retorted. “I’m wiped out. Let’s sit and enjoy the sun. Whatever you’ve found will still be there this afternoon after foraging.”
She shook her head, thick braids wobbling back and forth. “I’m not so sure about that.” She paused and quickly glanced around before continuing, her voice suddenly quiet. “There’s someone in the no-go zone!”
That got both of CJ’s eyes open. “The Crater?”
“No.” Her voice dropped even further. “The Hill.”
“What?” He let out a low whistle. “What pod is dumb enough to let one of their people—?”
“He’s too old for a pod. Too old even for a pod leader.” Samara took a careful step down the cracked stone stairway, her voice now little more than a whisper. “And he’s not wearing colors.”
CJ frowned, glancing at the matching patches on their uniforms’ left breast pocket. Their patches told everyone which pod they belonged to. More importantly, they identified them as citizens of Old Baltimore and offered some limited protection from the things that traversed the streets and skies above the city. “Why would someone take off their colors?”
“I don’t think he did.” Her voice took on conspiratorial overtones. “I don’t think he ever had any to begin with.”
Cornelius puzzled over that for a moment, then his eyes went wide. “But that would mean—”
“Yeah.” Sammie didn’t smile often, but when she did, it reminded him of the brilliant flashes of light that sometimes split the night sky way down south at the harbor. “He’s an outsider.”
Maybe it was the idea of an actual out-of-towner that got him to his feet or maybe it was just the usual effect of seeing Samara’s smile up close. Either way, CJ was halfway up the steps when a new thought stopped him. “Wait… how do you know he’s on the Hill?”
She rolled her eyes. “I saw him there.”
“But that’s…” He frowned. Located squarely between their pod’s territory and Pod 24’s, the Hill was an overgrown mess of fallen buildings and ancient trees. Seeing anything at all from the outside was almost impossible. “Sammie, did you go into the no-go zone?”
“Well, duh.” She flipped her braids and scowled again. “And I’m going back there too. Are you coming with me or not?” She waited for his nod, and her smile reappeared, like the springtime sun after an overly long winter. “Then let’s go!”
She turned and darted off, all long limbs and infectious energy, and CJ, as he’d always done, followed close behind.
From the street, the Hill was a wild jungle of tangled foliage and towering trees, made even taller by the rise that gave the zone its name. Sometime after Lord Legion had taken over Old Baltimore, he’d built a wall around the area, and if the lack of any gates in that wall hadn’t been a clear enough message to keep out, the two Hands he’d dispatched to patrol its exterior had hammered the point home.
But that had been decades before Samara or CJ were born. The Hands had long since been recalled and put to other tasks, and after years of ice and snow and neglect, the wall was starting to crumble. Along the eastern perimeter, one of the great trees had fallen, tearing a path through wall and foliage alike. It was at that gap that the two now stood. Even at mid-day, the Hill was dark; creeper vines twisting up and around dying trees, as the ever-present wind sent unseen things scurrying deeper into the shadows.
“We’re going to get in so much trouble for this.”
“Only if we get caught. Which we won’t, if we hurry.” With a half-skip, Sammie placed both hands on the base of the broken wall and vaulted over its now ineffective barrier. She turned to give CJ a hand, but he was already scrambling up after her. With one glance back at the empty city streets—and an additional scan of the skyline, to make sure no Eyes had witnessed their intrusion, they dropped down to the other side of the wall.
“I don’t see him,” said CJ, inching back towards the exit. “Maybe he left.”
“Why would he be down here?” Samara wrinkled her nose, shooting Cornelius James the look that always said he was being dumb. “When I saw him, he was entering one of the buildings up top.”
“So how do we get up there?” The Hill wasn’t all that steep, but it was still a long climb, made more so by the underbrush that thickened the further you got from the wall.
“Just follow behind me. I’ll help clear a path.”
All told, it took almost ten minutes of climbing, and they were twenty feet away from the first building before CJ even realized it was a building. Thick stone walls were invisible beneath layers of ivy and the broken roofline was masked by surrounding trees. All but one of the exterior windows had been smashed in at some point, and the large door at the front hung from a single rusted hinge, like some giant had kicked it in.
Baltimore was a city of old and ruined buildings, from the burned-out rowhouses in their pod’s territory to the empty shells of manors just to the north, but in all his wanderings, CJ had never seen a building so clearly and irrefutably haunted.
Samara headed straight for the front door.
CJ hesitated for a moment, massive trees looming above him like thick-skinned Titans from the legends, and then hurried in after.
As grim as the exterior had been, the inside was somehow even worse. The pungent smell of some wild animal’s markings mixed with stagnant, strangely damp air, and the floor was more dirt than tile. Between the canopy of trees outside and the lack of functioning glowtorches within, the darkness was all-consuming.
“Sammie…” The last thing Cornelius James wanted was to look like a coward—not in front of a fellow pod member and especially not in front of Samara—but his mind was furiously conjuring up the things that could be hiding within that darkness, from monstrously large rats all the way up to the foreign Powers that Lord Legion and his forces stood vigil against. “I don’t see—”
“Shh!” Samara clapped a hand over CJ’s mouth, her long fingers warm and a little bit sweaty. Her whisper was barely audible even with her mouth next to his ear. “Sound carries in places like this. We don’t want him to hear us.”
CJ mimicked her whisper. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” He felt her shake her head. “But like I said, I watched him go inside this morning. He had a light with him.”
Another shake of her head, braids rustling. “Something else.”
“Well, I don’t see—” CJ’s voice trailed off. Now that they’d been inside for a little while, he was able to make out the general shape of their surroundings; the grand lobby with its multiple broken windows and the small mounds on its floor that were either nests or broken furniture. But even with his eyes having adjusted, the hall that led away from the far end of the room should have remained impenetrable shadow. Instead, it was the tiniest brighter than the entryway they stood in. When they peeked around the corner, they saw faint light spilling from a doorway, more than halfway down that hall.
Together, they crept forward, over and around the piles of debris that smelled like death and rot. The closer they came to the doorway, the more obvious the light became. Whatever its source, it was a pale and flickering thing, far weaker than the glowtorches that lit their dormitories and Lord Legion’s castle down by the harbor. CJ crouched down at the doorway’s edge and scooted closer, conscious of Sammie at his back, standing slightly above him. In one synchronized movement, as smoothly as if they’d practiced it for hours, they leaned forward to look into the light.
The stranger was short—maybe half a head shorter than Sammie, who had yet to reach her adult height—and dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and pants of thick, dark fabric. A wooden cane leaned against the shelves behind him. The top shelf held the light source, a contraption of rusted metal and glass, whose captured flame danced and cavorted like a Pyromancer’s animated pet. Its illumination was too dim to banish the room’s darkness, casting wild shadows against the far walls and their own rows of barely-seen furniture. Standing between the light and the doorway, the man was little more than a silhouette, a dark figure vanishing into the darker backdrop around him.
As they watched, the stranger made several shuffling trips back and forth, carrying items from the shelves that adorned the wall to a squat table in the room’s center. There was something wrong with the way he walked, but it wasn’t until his third pass before the flame that CJ realized the man’s right leg was stiff and straight, sometimes thrust out in front of him, sometimes dragging behind.
The stranger tossed something heavy down onto the growing pile atop the table and wheeled about for yet another trip to the shelves, but as he neared the doorway, he came to a sudden stop. His head dropped even as his shoulders hunched, and he breathed out a long, slow sigh.
“I wondered how long it would take you to come, brother.” His voice was deeper than CJ would have expected from his size, but oddly faded. Terrence’s voice had sounded like that the morning after he’d gotten into Mr. Greenwood’s stash of hooch and tobacco and spent the night screaming and dancing like an idiot.
Terrence had gone away after that. CJ didn’t miss him at all.
The man turned toward the door, his expression still lost in the shadows, and took a short step in their direction, dragging his other leg behind him. “Show yourself, Lincoln. We’re too old for games, you and I.”
That seemed like the perfect time for them to leave, but before CJ could back away, Samara stepped past him and into the light.
“Who’s Lincoln?” she demanded.
If the man was surprised by Samara’s appearance, he hid it well. He shrugged, the motion barely visible. “Someone I used to know, a very long time ago. But that is neither here nor there, I suppose. Well met, young lady. I’m William.”
“Samara.” Sammie nodded over her shoulder. “And that’s Cornelius James back there. You’re not supposed to be here, you know. The Hill is a no-go zone.”
“Is it now? Says who?”
“Ah.” William leaned against the table, drumming his fingers on its wooden surface. His hands were gnarled and crooked, like the tree roots they’d climbed over on their way up the Hill. “Did he say why?”
CJ frowned. Since when did Lord Legion give anyone his reasons for anything?
“I thought not.” William’s smile was wide and bright even in the half-lit room. “Did you know this used to be a school?”
“What’s a school?”
“What’s a—?” The man shook his head, muttering something under his breath. “A school is a place where people go to study and learn about the world.”
“This whole building was for learning?” To CJ, it seemed like a waste of space, but Samara sounded impressed.
“Not just this one building, Samara. Every building on the hill. They called it a university.” William carried his light source from the shelf to the table, then fiddled with one of the dials at the device’s base. The captured flame doubled in size, widening the circle of light that it cast. For the first time, he came fully into view.
Cornelius James gasped. “What’s wrong with your face?”
“CJ!” hissed Samara. “Be nice!”
William was the blackest man either of them had ever seen—darker than Samara… darker even than CJ, who Mr. Greenwood had often joked was seventy-percent shadow—but it wasn’t the color of his skin that had prompted CJ’s reaction. Nor was it the lack of hair or the thick black bushy eyebrows that jutted out over warm brown eyes. Instead, it was the thick network of lines that creased the man’s face. Horizontal indentations crossed his forehead and nose, while thinner lines branched out like spider webs from the corners of his eyes and mouth.
It was as if someone had crumpled his skin into a ball, baked it on a hot plate, and then pasted it back onto his skull.
“My face?” William shook his head, confused.
“All the lines.” CJ frowned.
The man ran a hand across his face, fingertips tracing its contours. “Have neither of you ever seen wrinkles before?”
“No.” His momentary fear forgotten, CJ leaned past Samara to get a closer look. “Are they some kind of tattoo?”
The man shook his head. “You know tattoos, but you’ve never heard of wrinkles.”
“Mr. Greenwood had a tattoo,” said Cornelius James. “Something about sleep…”
“And miles to go before I sleep,” said Samara. “Whatever that means.”
“It means your Mr. Greenwood is a learned man. I’d love to speak with him sometime.”
“You’re a few years too late for that.” CJ frowned. “He went away and now we’re stuck with Ms. Stevenson as our pod leader. She smells like onions.”
“I see.” William frowned, as if dissatisfied with the answer, then shrugged. “Wrinkles are not tattoos. They’re just something that happens to people with time and age.” He glanced from CJ to Samara. “If you think I’ve got a lot of them, you should have seen my grandmother.”
For the first time all morning, Sammie’s confidence deserted her. She shuffled uneasily to the side. “What’s a grandmother?”
“My mother’s mother?” As the two children continued to stare at him in confusion, William seemed to deflate. “You… don’t know what a mother is either, do you?”
“Is it like a pod leader?”
“I… maybe?” The old man shook his head and dropped into one of the chairs at the table, sending a cloud of dust into the air. “It’s only been forty years. How can so much have changed?”
“Forty-two and change,” said William, “yet somehow only the geography of the city remains the same.”
“You’ve been to Old Baltimore before?” asked Samara.
“Been here? I was born here.”
“You were really born in Old Baltimore?” Without being asked, Samara had taken a seat in one of the other chairs. As she studied the old man across the table, CJ couldn’t decide whether she was excited or disappointed.
“That’s right,” said William. “Not long after the Break.” He paused. “You two do know about the Break, right?”
“Everyone knows about the Break,” answered CJ. “And the killing that followed it here—”
“Not just here. Near as I can tell, it was damn near the whole world,” murmured William.
“—until Lord Legion rose to power and restored order.”
The old man paused and cocked his head. “That’s… one interpretation, I suppose.”
“What pod were you part of?” Sammie wanted to know.
“I don’t know what a pod is.”
CJ and Samara shared puzzled frowns. “It’s the people you’re raised with,” explained Sammie. “Fifty pods in Old Baltimore, each with a leader and twenty to forty members.” She tapped the patch on her chest proudly. “CJ and I are part of Pod 23.”
“And you stay with this pod all of your lives?”
Samara shook her head slowly. “Just until adulthood. Then—”
“Then you go on to serve Lord Legion or become a pod leader yourself,” finished CJ, peering at the old man suspiciously. “Wouldn’t you know all of this, if you really used to live here?”
“Like I said, Cornelius, it has been decades, and many things have changed. I left the city not long after your Lord Legion took power.”
“My name is Cornelius James. Not Cornelius. Cornelius James. Or CJ.” He scowled and turned to Samara. “We should go, Sammie. It’s almost time for afternoon rations.”
“I’m not hungry,” Sammie shot back. “You can go if you want.”
Cornelius James loved Samara with every ounce of his heart, but there were times he was convinced she’d been put on the planet just to cause him grief. “You can stay and risk getting spotted by an Eye if you want. Just don’t think I’m going to come and save you or anything.”
William raised an eyebrow. “An Eye?”
“One of Lord Legion’s creations,” answered Samara. “They watch over the city for him.”
“And the other machines, the larger ones that patrol the streets?”
“His Hands.” Sammie shivered. “If the Eyes are his spies, the Hands are his soldiers. Them and the human guards, I guess.”
“And you fear these creatures, Samara?”
“Only because she knows we shouldn’t be here,” said CJ. “Lord Legion’s army keeps order.”
“A laudable goal,” said William, “and I admit that Old Baltimore is far better off than some of the cities I’ve seen in my travels.” He patted one of the thick objects he’d piled on the table. “Of course, Rousseau would say it takes more than just order to make a fair and just government.”
“Rousseau. The author of this book.” He pulled down the object, and peeled back a leather-bound cover to reveal sheets of paper within, far less shiny than the pamphlets Lord Legion printed his edicts on.
After a moment’s pause, William frowned. “You’ve never heard of books either?”
“Heard of them,” admitted Samara, “but that’s the first one we’ve ever seen.”
“The… social… contract…?” puzzled out CJ.
“You’ve never seen a book, but you can read?”
“All of Lord Legion’s citizens are taught to read,” said CJ absently, trying to puzzle out the next few words. What did Jacques mean? “Being able to read his orders means we have no excuse for not following them.” He glanced from the heavy book in the old man’s hands to the other objects on the table. “Are all of these books? I didn’t know there were this many books in the whole world!”
“This?” William shook his head, crooked teeth flashing white against his night-black skin. “This is nothing, young man. The room we are currently in was once one of the administrative offices of the Milton S. Eisenhower library. Do either of you know what a library is?”
Sammie and CJ shook their heads.
“It’s a place built to hold books,” grinned the old man. “There are four other floors to this library, all of them underground, most of them intact, and every single one of them full of books.”
“Books like that one?”
“Philosophy and ethics?” William nodded. “Math and science and history too. There’s even a section for the classics of fiction.”
“Lost kingdoms. Buried treasures. Ancient evils.” William’s smile widened, warm and slow as apple-flavored nutripaste on flatbread. “Even pirates.”
And that was when CJ knew, despite the very real concerns he’d just voiced to Sammie, that he would be coming back.
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.”
“Lincoln and I were born a decade or so after the Break. Whatever stories you’ve heard, the reality was worse. A hundred times worse. Microwave flash-fried the Second United Congress when I was ten, and the whole nation just plain gave up. Looking back now, I think the old government would have fallen apart all on its own, but when the stories of what he’d done came out, it felt like someone had just flipped a switch, and turned off our hope.”
William shifted in his chair, the lantern painting his black face in shades of crimson and orange.
“After that, all anyone seemed to care about was getting their piece of the pie. We had new Powers popping up every few weeks; laying claim to the city and then disappearing almost as fast. The good ones didn’t have what it took to survive, the bad ones were too busy killing each other to worry about building something, and the crazy ones…” He shook his head. “They just wanted to watch things burn.”
“Mom died when I was fifteen. Lung cancer, we think, not that there was a doctor around to diagnose it. Five years after Microwave, and the whole city was a slaughterhouse. Something had to change.” He stared into the lantern’s flame, gnarled fingers spread out on the table in front of him, and shrugged. “We decided to be that change.”
“Lincoln had come into his power not long before that, and was already progressing from dancing toasters to automated lawn mowers. Wasn’t much of a leap from there to something that could kill a man. Anyway, we started small. Just a city block. Nobody thought we could even do that much, but we did. Killed anyone that stood in our way. Fought off the gangs that came to swat us down like bugs, and before you knew it, we controlled five blocks instead of one. Then twelve.”
“It took six years to take enough of the city that nobody was willing to stand against us anymore, and not a day of it was easy. Some stains seep into the soul and never wash clean. Some memories you can never grow old enough to forget. In the end though, Baltimore was ours. Lincoln’s bots patrolled the streets, and a handful of councilors managed each district, reporting to us. Maybe Rousseau would have called it tyranny, power bought with blood and murder, but it was a damn sight better than what we’d grown up in. No more people dying in the streets, no more roving war parties from the south. Peace. Finally.”
He paused and cleared his throat, and for another long moment, there was no sound but the lantern itself and the soft crunch of paper as Samara shifted her package back and forth.
“Then one day, Lincoln sent his robots to kill me.”
“What did you do?”
“I left. Not that day, of course, but when it became clear that the first attack hadn’t been some glitch. When one assassin became two, then five, I packed up what little I owned, and took off. Headed west.”
“You ran away?”
“You think I should have stayed and fought, CJ?”
“I guess I could have. Maybe I even should have. But I promised our mother I’d look after Lincoln. Half the reason I helped take over Baltimore was to make it safe for him. When he decided the city wasn’t big enough for the two of us…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Didn’t see much point in fighting him for it.”
“Now?” William’s crooked teeth flashed. “Now I’m just an old man trying to make his peace with the world. There’s a lot I don’t understand about what Lincoln’s done to the city, pods and all that included, but Baltimore’s practically paradise compared to most places I’ve seen. He’s kept the peace for four decades. I’m not sure I could’ve done that. Not sure anyone else could have.”
“It’s not so great,” said Sammie. “Your brother controls everything. We’re only safe as long as we do exactly what he says.”
“Yeah. That sounds like Lincoln.” He nodded to the books he’d long since put back on the nearby shelves. “Smarter men than me argued for centuries about the line between security and personal freedom without ever coming to a conclusion. All I know is what this city was like before we took control, and this is a damn sight better, ugly-looking Eyes and all.”
“So you’re just going to go away again?”
“Not this minute; I have three weeks after all. Plenty of time to get some reading in. To properly say my goodbyes to the places I once knew. But then?” He sighed. “Yeah.”
“Will you take us with you?”
“Sammie…” CJ shook his head, eyes wide, but Samara wouldn’t take her own eyes off the old man. She leaned forward to place one hand on the table, slender fingers just brushing against the other man’s swollen knuckles.
“Will you, William?”
“You and Cornelius James are better off here in the city.”
“Tell that to Pod 7!” she snapped.
“Pod 7?” William waited for an explanation that never came, then sighed. “Samara, the road isn’t a place for kids on their own.”
“We wouldn’t be on our own. We’d be with you.”
“For a handful of months, yeah. But then what?” William shook his head firmly, and pulled his own hands back to the edge of the table, out of reach. “I’m sorry, but no. Maybe if I were younger. Maybe if things were different.”
“Or maybe you’re not that different from your brother after all. Maybe you’re just better at pretending to care!” Samara surged to her feet, dislodging the package she’d brought with her. With a scowl, she scooped it up off the ground, and tossed it onto the table. “These were for you. Burn them if you want.”
As she marched towards the hallway door, William carefully unwrapped several layers of paper to find three long-stemmed tulips. Even in the warm light of the lantern, every petal was a gorgeous shade of blue.
CJ didn’t know a lot of swear words, but he mentally ran through all of them, one after the other, even as his eyes darted from the blue tulips to the old man who’d been given them. He held his breath, waiting for the inevitable reaction.
Instead, William simply gathered the tulips up in his worn, weathered hands. “They’re lovely, Samara. I’ll find a vase.”
“Whatever.” Sammie paused at the door to glance back over one shoulder. Her eyes were hard, glittering in the faint light of the distant lantern. “Are you coming, CJ?”
“I’ll see you around, Cornelius James” said the old man, his smile as kind as it was sad.
“I guess so.” CJ threw the old man a wave, then darted after his friend.
Samara didn’t get mad often, and even when she did, it normally blew over in a few hours, like the spring storms that came through Old Baltimore every now and then. Not this time though. CJ waited a full week before broaching the subject of returning to the library, and she still just about bit his head off. Maybe he could’ve waited a few more days for her to cool down, but for the first time in his young life, CJ was aware of time slipping away from him. William would be gone in two weeks, and who could say what Lord Legion would do to the Hill then, let alone all the books inside?
The next afternoon, CJ headed to the Hill on his own.
He was a block away when he spotted the Eye. It was the same dual-rotored creature that Lord Legion had spoken to William with, but this time, it was down on the street, hovering directly in front of the break in the Hill’s wall.
Cornelius James hunkered down in the shadow of a nearby boarded-up rowhouse. With all the Eyes’ cameras, sneaking past it would be almost impossible, and he couldn’t risk getting caught. William might have Lord Legion’s temporary permission to squat in the no-go zone, but CJ was willing to bet that permission didn’t extend to citizens.
After a moment’s consideration, he headed north instead. As soon as the Eye was out of sight, he cut back across the street to the Hill, but the wall there was tall and unbroken. Maybe he could have climbed it anyway with Samara’s help, but Sammie wasn’t there and she’d already made it clear that she wasn’t coming.
He stopped to think again, a frown upon his face. The Hill was the size of at least ten city blocks, and there had to be other places along the perimeter where its wall had crumbled. The problem was that most of that perimeter was beyond their pod’s territory. There hadn’t been open battle between the pods in years—not since the example Lord Legion had made of Pod 7—but each pod was free to defend their territory, and the pod to the west, Pod 24, was known for its brutality.
Worse than an Eye though? CJ shook his head. Nothing human was. There had to be a spot or two in Pod 24’s territory where the wall was passable. He’d just have to be careful finding it.
He was two blocks into Pod 24’s territory when he found a way in. The wall hadn’t quite fallen, but it had buckled inward, as if something had struck it high up, long ago. Whatever that object had been—be it a Hand or even one of those cars that had supposedly been a thing before the Break—was long gone, but the top of the wall leaned inward toward the Hill, forming a steep ramp.
At the base of the wall, CJ looked and shivered. A very steep ramp. There were gaps in the stone that might serve as handholds or footholds, but climbing it would be a damn sight more difficult than the breach in the eastern wall had been.
On the other hand, it didn’t have an Eye hovering above it either.
Very carefully not wishing Samara was there to help, he started the climb. It was every bit as difficult as it had looked from the street, but the handholds were plentiful, and before he knew it, he was his height or more off the ground. In fact, he was only a few spans below the lip of the wall when he heard the sound behind him; long and slow, like something being dragged across the cement. CJ froze in mid-climb, utterly exposed on his stretch of the wall. Several minutes passed in silent terror, but nothing lunged out at him from the shadows. Clinging to the wall’s broken surface with both hands, he couldn’t turn to face the street, but a quick glance over one shoulder showed nothing out of place. Whatever it was—if it had been anything at all—was gone.
Restarting the climb, with his arms now burning and any sense of momentum long since lost, was enough to make CJ regret ever stopping in the first place. By the time he reached the top of the wall, rolled over, and dropped into the overgrowth on the far side, he was filthy, drenched in sweat, and the owner of a half-dozen new scrapes and bruises. The only good news was the small tree he found just inside the wall. Its branches looked sturdy enough to support his weight, and they reached all the way to the wall’s edge. At least the way back out would be easier.
Cornelius James ran one hand through thick hair matted with sweat, spared a thought to wonder how he’d look if he shaved it bald like William, and then headed up the Hill.
They caught him on the way out.
CJ had shimmied out onto one of the larger branches of the tree he’d spied on the way in and swung from there to the wall. Gravity had done the rest, and he’d slid all the way down to the street before he was even aware he had company.
There were four of them, older and far larger than CJ. Members of Pod 24 weren’t given real names. Instead, they were assigned colors; Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Black. With more members than colors, there were often multiple members with the same name, differentiated only by the number that followed their designation.
All of that information went through CJ’s mind in a panicked flash as he straightened out of his crouch. He didn’t know the three nearest men—each twice his size and old enough that they should’ve long since been drafted into Lord Legion’s service—but he knew the boy in back, black hair styled into spikes, a ragged scar charting a path down one cheek to disappear into equally ragged stubble.
Red Two smiled to reveal yellow teeth filed down to points. “Look what we have here, my friends.” He swaggered closer, peering at Cornelius James through the wall of beefy muscle that entrapped him. “At first I thought it was some new breed of squirrel, but judging by the colors on his chest, I do believe we’ve caught ourselves a spy. Or a thief.”
CJ shuffled backwards until the stone wall was against his back. He had no shot at climbing it before they reached him, but he wanted as much space between him and the others as he could get.
“Well, which is it, little squirrel?” demanded Red Two. He’d cut his lips on his own teeth, sending blood trickling down his chin in tiny rivulets.
“Are you a spy or are you a thief? Because if you’re a thief, we might just let you live, as long as you handed over whatever it is you took from the Hill.”
“I didn’t take anything.” CJ scowled, keeping an eye on the other men. “You can search me if you want.”
“If you’re not a thief, then you’re a spy.” Red Two shook his head in mock sorrow. “What do we do to spies, boys?”
The nearest bruiser lunged for Cornelius James, but he’d seen the man coming and was already in motion. He ducked down and to the side, under the outstretched arm, and then squirted forward into open space. He was past the members of Pod 24 before they even realized he’d escaped, arms and legs pumping for all they were worth. With screams of rage, his attackers followed in pursuit.
CJ was small, even for his age, but there was one advantage he had over every member of his pod, even Samara.
He could run like the wind.
He was a block and a half from safety, running parallel to the Hill’s wall and increasing his lead over the older boys with every stride, when a fifth man stepped around the corner in front of him. CJ tried to duck past again but the newcomer didn’t reach with his hands. Instead, he swung out a long leg, kicking the younger boy’s ankles out from under him, and sending him crashing to the asphalt.
By the time CJ had made it back to his feet, they were on him.
Cornelius James saw the first punch coming, but with his arms pinned behind him, he couldn’t do a thing to avoid it. Red Two’s fist exploded into his stomach, and just like that, air was impossible to come by. He was gasping for breath when the second punch came in, this one blasting him below his left eye. If it hadn’t been for the men holding him, that one would have knocked him to the asphalt. As it was, his head snapped to one side, the eye swelling shut almost immediately. His nose hadn’t even been touched, but it was already aching like it was on fire, and he could feel snot and tears dripping down his face.
Red Two stepped in until his face was the only thing CJ could see. Saliva and blood sprayed in equal measure as he spoke, his dark eyes wide, his pupils tiny pinpricks in a sea of brown. “We kill spies, little squirrel. Kill them, eat them, and shit out their remains.” He turned to the man who had foiled CJ’s escape. “What do you think, Black? Should we cook this one or eat him raw?”
Black was a mountain of a man, his uniform doing little to hide a muscular and heavily scarred physique. His voice was a quiet rumble. “Just kill him, Two. Easier to carry. Easier to cook.”
“Or you could let him go.”
CJ’s eyes darted past Black to the figure who had appeared in the street as if by magic. Samara was alone, the setting sun painting her in silhouette even as it caught fire in the beads in her night-black braids.
“Sammie, run!” The words came out slurred and quieter than he had intended, but she heard him anyway, and answered with a firm shake of her head.
“Not without you.” She faced down the members of Pod 24, every one of them larger than she was. “You’ve all had your fun, and I’m guessing the boy has learned his lesson. Let him go and this can be the end of it.”
Red Two spun to face Samara, his smile widening. “And if we don’t, little girl?”
She swallowed, but stood tall. “Then I’ll take him from you.”
“I’m already bored,” decided Red Two. “Kill her. We’ll cook them both.”
The men not holding CJ stepped forward to do just that when a loud creak split the night, like a door whose hinges had never been oiled. It was followed quickly by a rumbling that vibrated up from the broken asphalt. Black stumbled and went down. In the twilight, CJ could barely make out the weeds that had thrust up through cracks in the asphalt like creeper vines to wrap about the man’s ankles. As the huge man hit the ground, additional weeds sprouted, binding his arms and hands, growing faster and faster until he was little more than a grass-covered mound in the middle of the road.
“What the fuck?” Red Two’s horrible mouth fell open in shock. He looked over at CJ just in time to see one of the Hill’s trees lean forward over the wall, its long branches reaching down like wooden limbs or tentacles. CJ fell to the street as the men who’d been restraining him were yanked into the air. A second, smaller, tree actually smashed through the wall to impale the last unnamed pod member with its own sharp and broken tree branch.
“Druid.” The word dropped from Red Two’s open mouth like a curse, as he spun back to Samara. The girl’s eyes were clenched shut, one long hand stretched out in the air, her entire skinny body trembling with effort.
The screams of the men hanging in the air ended sharply with twin cracks that could have been branches breaking.
Could have been but weren’t.
Red Two turned tail and ran. He made it five steps before the asphalt split beneath him, and a year’s growth of weeds dragged him down. Within moments, his struggles ended.
Sammie dropped to one knee, panting like she’d just run a mile.
“Sammie, what did you do?” Again, CJ’s words were slurred, and again Samara understood them anyway.
“What I had to, to save you.”
“But using your power in public…” CJ stumbled over, and for a brief moment, they clung to each other. “You know Lord Legion will come for you.”
“That’s why I had to kill them, Cornelius James.” Samara was ashen, shaking from more than just the use of her powers. Her dark eyes looked down at him, pleading for understanding. “Lord Legion won’t know if nobody tells him.”
CJ swallowed, but before he could catch his breath, before he could tell her about the Eye that was less than two blocks away, they both heard it: the sound of rotors spinning almost lazily above them.
In the sky, the Eye was little more than a shadow against the barely-visible stars. A handful of cold red lights indicated cameras in use.
“Run!” CJ managed. “Run now!”
CJ was the fastest runner in Pod 23, but Samara wasn’t that much slower, and she hadn’t just taken a beating either. They paced each other, her longer strides making up for his speed, racing back into their pod’s territory, cutting through the alleys they’d grown up in. All the while, the Eye paced them easily, making little effort to halt their desperate flight.
“Others are coming,” he realized between pants, “It’s acting as a spotter.”
“We need to split up.” Samara wasn’t much better off than he was, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. “Before they arrive. Cut through the buildings so it can’t see you. Meet back at the old dorm.”
Before CJ could say anything, she veered off.
Too tired to even curse, he did the same.
Thirty minutes later, CJ made it to the old dorm, one more broken shell of a building in a city full of them. Their pod had abandoned it years prior when its heating unit broke for the third and final time, and it was now home only to the city’s vermin. Like a shadow, he slipped inside, carefully sliding the door shut behind him to block out the light of the nearest glowtorch.
“Sammie? Are you here?” CJ’s voice was a whisper, but in the stillness, even that whisper carried.
There was no answer.
He crept through every room of the building, repeating his call, before realization set in. Samara hadn’t made it yet.
CJ had gone wide to the north during his flight, crossing over all the way into Pod 15’s territory before eventually curving back around. All told, he must have run fifteen blocks. Samara should’ve been there long before him… unless she had done the exact same thing he had; purposefully choosing as long and circuitous a path as possible.
That sounded like Sammie.
With a groan, CJ took a seat on the dusty, dirt-covered floor, and leaned against the wall. He’d left the Eye far behind, but didn’t know if he’d actually evaded it… or if it had followed Samara instead. If they were lucky, the Eye had arrived after the battle, and didn’t know which of them was secretly a Power… didn’t know which of them had been hiding that fact for years now to avoid being drafted into Legion’s guard. With all those active cameras, it was too much to hope that they hadn’t both been identified, but if luck stayed with them, they might be able to hide out for a few days. Maybe they could get word to William, and convince him to sneak them out of the city, now that there was no other option.
An hour into his wait, the curfew alarm sounded. An hour after that, CJ fell asleep. When he woke, the morning sun was streaming through cracks in the boards covering the house’s broken windows, his body ached like he’d been run over by a Hand, and Samara still wasn’t there.
They hadn’t been lucky after all.
Lord Legion had Sammie.
CJ was four blocks from the pod’s main dormitory when he started having second thoughts. The plan had seemed simple enough; tell Mrs. Stevenson that Samara had been taken, and convince the older woman to help. But pod leaders were chosen by Lord Legion—or someone in his government—and the position didn’t afford them any special privileges or security. Mr. Greenwood had found that out the hard way. What were the chances Ms. Stevenson would want to stick her neck out for Sammie… and even if she did, what were the chances she’d actually be able to help?
He came to a dead stop in the middle of the empty street. The pod leader couldn’t help Samara. But someone else could.
There was no sign of the Eye that had guarded the wall—and helped capture Samara—when CJ reached the Hill. He hopped the broken wall, and started up the slope at a full sprint, following the path Samara had made with her power more than a month earlier.
William was in his usual room, good leg tucked under the chair, his bad one stiff and straight to the side. His welcoming smile disappeared as soon as he took in CJ’s battered face.
“Cornelius James. What happened? Are you hurt?”
“I have some medical supplies—”
“I don’t care about my eye!” CJ interrupted. “Sammie was taken.”
William frowned, his brown eyes narrowing. “By who?”
“Lord Legion. We have to get her back!”
“Hold on there.” William marked his place in the book and carefully placed it aside. “What are you talking about?”
“When I left yesterday, I ran into some of Pod 24’s members. Sammie found them beating on me, and…”
“And she used her power.”
CJ stared at the old man. “You knew?”
“That she was a Power?” His smile was oddly crooked. “I’ve wandered this continent for more than four decades, CJ. I’ve seen many things, small and grand, but I have never, ever seen a blue tulip.”
“Oh.” CJ dropped his gaze. “I was wondering if you’d caught that.”
“I’m old, not blind. Not yet anyway.” William dismissed the matter with a wave of a weathered hand. “So, she used her abilities as a Druid to save you. What does that have to do with my brother?”
“Anyone with powers in Old Baltimore gets taken. Some of them show up later as part of the guard. Others…” He met William’s gaze again. “Nobody knows. That’s why Samara has been hiding her gift. That’s why we have to get her back!”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” His voice was gentle. “Change is a scary thing, but being a part of the ruling regime could be a fair bit safer for Samara than running the streets.”
“Like it was for you, you mean?” CJ scowled. Maybe Sammie had been right about the old man after all.
“It’s not the same thing at all. Lincoln was—”
“I don’t care! If Sammie wanted to join Lord Legion, she would’ve. Instead, he kidnapped her. I’m not going to just abandon her!”
“Of course you won’t,” William soothed, “because you are a responsible young man and a good friend. But Cornelius James… exactly what is it that you want me to do?”
‘Talk to him! Get him to let her go. You used to be brothers, right? Maybe he’ll listen to you this one time?” CJ blinked away tears, but couldn’t do a thing to keep his voice from cracking. “Sammie’s in trouble, and it’s my fault. Please help her. I’ll give you anything. Do anything.”
CJ swallowed, but nodded.
“Then I guess you can start by bringing me my cane.” William nodded to the far corner.
“And now?” asked CJ, when he’d handed it over.
“Now?” William levered himself to his feet, one hand on the cane, the other extinguishing the lantern and plunging the room into darkness. “Now, we go get young Samara back.”
They were a block south of the Hill when the first Eye swooped down from the sky to follow them. By the sixth block, there were three Eyes and CJ was wishing he’d gotten William a wheelchair instead of a cane. With the pace they were setting, it would take them forever to reach the harbor, and with every step, CJ could feel the target on their backs grow.
William didn’t seem to share his concern. He glanced up as a fourth Eye dropped from the clouds, shook his head slightly, and kept limping along. A handful of steps later, however, he slowed to a halt, and gave the newest Eye a longer look.
“What is it?” Every one of Legion’s Eyes was unique, yet there was a sameness that linked them all; cameras embedded in flesh that had been wrapped around legs or rotors or sometimes even engines. This particular Eye was no exception, for all that it had four rotors and two cylinders, protruding from its main body, which looked a lot like weapon barrels.
“Your former pod leader…”
“Yes. Mr. Greenwood. You said he had a tattoo, yes?”
William nodded to the Eye hovering above them. “Did it look like that?”
CJ frowned and looked closer, something he generally tried to avoid when it came to Eyes and Hands. Below the two barrels, just to the side of one of the rotors, someone had inked the words miles to go into the Eye’s body.
“I guess so?”
“CJ, this is important.” There was suddenly something scary and dark in William’s voice, something that made CJ stiffen and take a step away from the old man. “Would you say it looked sort of like that, or exactly like that?”
“Well, Mr. Greenwood’s tattoo had the whole phrase, not just three words of it, but otherwise…” CJ frowned. “Yeah, it looks exactly the same. What does that mean?”
William started walking again, his pace increasing, despite the cane. It was more than a block later that he finally replied, the words so soft CJ could barely hear them.
“It means I shouldn’t have left.”
Their escort of Eyes topped out at six, the last one arriving as they passed through the territories of Pod 16 and 9. Most of the neighborhoods were in the same state of semi-disrepair that CJ was used to, but here and there was evidence of recent demolition. A pair of old street signs still somehow remained upright even though the buildings behind them had been reduced to rubble. One of the signs read “St. Paul St”. The other, “E. Madison.”
CJ didn’t see a soul as they hiked south. Either the pods were still asleep or their members had seen the convoy of Eyes in the sky and wisely gotten out of the way.
Within forty or so minutes, they were well past any area of the city that CJ had seen before, but William followed the road without hesitation. The clicking of his cane on the worn asphalt played counterpoint to the hum of the Eyes’ circuitry and the whir of their rotors.
Half an hour after that, they reached the Harbor.
The buildings here were all new; gleaming edifices of glass and steel. The street-level windows were tinted black and reflective. CJ couldn’t tell if they were dormitories for the city guards, the factories where the Eyes and Hands were created, or… He shook his head. They could be anything, really. Only a handful of people in Old Baltimore knew what happened in the heart of Lord Legion’s domain, and he definitely wasn’t one of them.
Past the gleaming new buildings, they came to a wall, half again as high as the nearest rooftop and constructed of a black metal that seemed to absorb the light around it. For the first time in over an hour, William came to a stop. “This is new.”
“Lord Legion’s castle.” CJ’s words were a whisper, almost lost beneath the noise of the Eyes and the wind that had picked up as they neared the harbor. “It must be.”
“Lincoln always did think big.” William looked both ways and then nodded to the left. “Looks like there’s a gate over there.”
“Maybe this was a bad idea.” CJ had heard stories of the fortress at the harbor. Everyone had. He just hadn’t expected the real thing to be quite so intimidating. Suddenly, the idea of persuading Lord Legion to do anything at all seemed suicidal.
“Almost certainly. Does that mean you want to go back?”
CJ shook his head. Samara was somewhere in that castle, counting on him.
“Good man.” William reached out with his free hand and patted CJ’s shoulder. “Whatever happens, I need you to stay behind me and down. Can you do that?”
“What?” If it came to a battle, they were so dead that not even a Crow would be able to resurrect them. “I mean… I guess so, but why?”
William was already headed toward the gate, paced by his escort of Eyes. “Remember what I told you about the music of the universe?”
CJ frowned and thought back. “You said the planet had a heartbeat and some stars knew how to sing.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Or anything else, for that matter, CJ very carefully didn’t add. Maybe he’d have been better off talking to Lord Legion by himself.
“Only this, Cornelius James.” William looked back over one shoulder, and his dark eyes had gone cold and bottomless, like gaping holes into a place that had never experienced light or humanity. “The stars are not the only ones who sing.”
The entry to Lord Legion’s castle was twelve feet high, with a portcullis of the same light-devouring metal hanging above it like the teeth of an angry god, but it wasn’t the gate that brought CJ up short. It wasn’t even the fact that the old man he’d come to think of as a friend had disappeared somewhere over the course of the last thirty blocks, replaced by someone scarier than Red Two could have ever hoped to be.
No, what stopped CJ in his tracks was the fact that the gate was guarded. On either side of its cavernous opening was an equally large Hand.
Much like the vastly smaller Eyes that watched the city, every Hand was different. The one on the left was a hodgepodge of organic material and armor, nine feet tall and bristling with weaponry. The one on the right was larger even than the gate. In place of legs, it had enormous treads, and a bulbous armored midsection that hung slightly open, like a toothless mouth.
CJ had heard of Hands. He’d even seen a couple, when they were on their way back from eliminating Pod 7, but that had been from far away, through the dubious safety of an upstairs window. These were right in front of him, looming like hideous, destructive gods.
He was shamefully grateful when William motioned to him to stay put and stepped forward on his own. He wasn’t sure his legs would have willingly carried him closer to the Hands, not with every part of his brain screaming that he should run in the opposite direction.
William was ten feet from the gate when Lord Legion’s mechanical voice issued from the nearest Hand.
“That’s far enough.”
Obediently, the old man came to a halt. He eyed the Hand that had spoken. “I thought your flying creations were hideous, but these… you’ve outdone yourself, Lincoln.”
“I have already told you that I no longer answer to that name.”
“What are you doing here, old man? My generous offer of three weeks’ grace was not permission for you to start trouble.”
“I’m not here for trouble.” William’s voice was almost as empty as the Hand’s. “I am here for a girl.”
“The world is full of girls.”
“Samara. The Druid you brought in last night.”
“Ah.” This time, the voice came from the second Hand. “The Pod 24 fledgling, I assume. Strange how each pod leader, in their own way, insists on giving names to their charges.”
“Why wouldn’t they have names? They’re people, Legion. Samara has friends. Please, let me return her to them.”
“I think not.” The Hand rolled forward a pace, asphalt crunching beneath its treads. “I had almost given up hope on that particular strain. The female is the first to exhibit any trace of power. Her genetic material will be utilized for the next batch.”
“Is what this is all about? These pods? The lack of parents? What are you doing, brother?”
“I am bringing order to chaos. I am unlocking the secrets of the gifts we were given, and breeding my own strain of humanity. A better man to create a better world.”
“And these?” William waved a hand to encompass the Hands in front of him and the Eyes above. “Is this what you do with your failed experiments?”
“Nothing goes to waste, William. We each learned that lesson, living on the street, back before age and sickness stole your courage.”
CJ’s eyes went wide as the meaning of their conversation finally struck home. Every Eye… every Hand… part of them had once been a person? One of Lord Legion’s own citizens?
“How many people has it been?” pressed William, something like horror leaking into his empty voice. “Forty years, fifty pods, and other than the pod leaders, there isn’t a soul over twenty in Baltimore except for us. How many generations of people have died for your breeding experiments… or even just to increase the operating efficiency of these monstrosities by twenty percent?”
“Sixty-five percent,” the voice corrected. “Slightly more than that, but I am rounding down in deference to your deteriorated intellect.”
William was shaking his head. “What happened to you?”
“I succeeded. I took control of this city and brought order to it.”
“This isn’t order. We wanted to make the city safe. You’ve turned it into a petri dish.”
One of the six Eyes dropped down a dozen feet to hover between the two Hands. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Too weak to stay and fight. Too weak to do anything but run from me.”
William sighed, his shoulders sagging. “I didn’t run because I was weak, Lincoln. I ran because I was getting stronger. I didn’t want to kill you.”
Several of the Eyes settled into a semi-circle behind William.
“And now you can run again,” said Legion. “Go waste what little life you have remaining. You have six hours to reach the city’s border. After that, you will see just what my monstrosities are capable of.”
“I’m not leaving without—”
Crouched far behind the old man, forgotten by everyone involved, CJ was the only one who saw it coming. “William, look out!”
The old man ducked to the side, but the Eye behind him had already fired. The single shot struck him in the shoulder instead of dead-center, but even that was enough to toss him face first to the ground. He clutched that wounded arm, his muttered words too low to be heard.
It didn’t matter whether those words were curses or prayers. Cornelius James knew it was already over. In the pre-Break days, bullets had supposedly been simple projectiles. They traveled through you or ricocheted off a bone inside of you, and that was all.
Automatons weren’t the only things Lord Legion had improved upon over the past half-century.
From its point of impact, the bullet wound spread outward, like fire eating through paper, going from a pinprick to a hole the size of CJ’s thumb in the span of a second. The leader of Pod 7 had died to a bullet just like that; a single shot that devoured his entire body before he could take three steps. William had a second or two at most before it ate through his entire arm, a handful of additional seconds before…
CJ frowned. Impossibly, the wound had stopped spreading, leaving little more than a small hole through the old man’s shoulder. Even more astonishingly, William was moving.
It wasn’t until William lifted his head off of the street that CJ realized one other thing. The old man wasn’t cursing and he wasn’t praying.
He was singing.
Years later, when asked to tell the story of the Singer’s song, Cornelius James would fall back on a half-dozen well-worn adjectives; mournful, distant, and overpowering. He’d say the song sounded like it came from the sky and the earth at the same time, that the trees wove their melody and the stars sang with the old man as one universe gave way to another. He would weave his tale for the children, his own and others, and when he sent them away afterward, every one of them would be wide-eyed and excited, thrilled to once again hear the story of the last day of Old Baltimore.
None of them would know that every word he’d told them was a lie.
The truth was CJ couldn’t remember the song. He could remember the dry rasp of William’s voice, could remember the first deep notes that echoed through the air… but every moment after that was a still-frame in his mind, a slice of memory loosely connected to that which came before and that which came after.
The six Eyes spewed forth bullets and fire issued from the open mouth of the first Hand but nothing reached the old man, standing in the center of his song. Bullets passed through the song and simply disappeared. White-hot flames went colorless, then translucent, before finally fading entirely. Even the wind stopped tugging at William’s old and worn clothing.
His song swelled around him like an expanding bubble of music, reaching upwards, reaching outwards. The widening perimeter caught the nearest Eye, and just like the bullets it had fired, that Eye shimmered and faded and then was gone entirely. The other Eyes followed, and then William was stepping forward, and the Hands were moving ponderously, seeking to move aside even as they brought their heavy weaponry to bear.
The song grew, and both Hands were gone like they had never existed.
The portcullis slammed down to the asphalt, but the sound of its impact was lost in the song like everything else. William paused at the gate and looked back over at CJ, and for one moment, his song was again a quiet murmur; a lullaby from a universe only one man had ever seen. The old man’s eyes were empty scars of shadow, his mouth moving in ways biology didn’t allow, his face a bleak tapestry of endless desolation.
Somewhere beneath his fear, beneath the song that warped the world around them like a black wind tearing through the trees, Cornelius James found the courage to meet those mad, sad eyes, to look into the face that bore no resemblance to his wrinkled friend’s, and nod.
William returned the nod, and turned back to the gate.
The song rose in volume again.
The gate fell away, taking pieces of wall with it.
Still singing, the old man disappeared into the castle.
With William gone into the castle, CJ felt exposed standing in front of the gate that no longer was. He retreated to one of the shining steel and glass houses across the street, and found a doorway to hide in.
All around him, Old Baltimore rose to defend its master.
Dozens of Hands rolled, ran, or oozed down every street toward the castle, trailed by the merely human guards whose faces had gone white with fear and confusion. Eyes abandoned their unsleeping watch on the city’s border to streak through the air or along the rooftops. They filled the sky like ten thousand ravens, each successive wave dropping down into the castle’s unseen courtyard, firing a vast assortment of weaponry as they did.
William had been gone for twenty minutes and they were still coming, a horde that seemingly outnumbered the entire city’s human population.
CJ didn’t go into the castle. He stayed behind and quiet, like William had instructed. Because of that, he couldn’t say for sure how long the old man searched, or where he went, or even what words were said, if any, when the brothers finally met, face to face. He couldn’t even say what Lord Legion looked like, in the end, although he always made up something suitably grotesque for the little ones.
The only thing Cornelius James knew for sure was when it ended.
The first sign was the Hands grinding to a halt in mid-stride. Immediately after, Eyes began to rain from the sky, dropping like hail stones of flesh and metal as their rotors suddenly ceased to spin. Within seconds, the street was full of the broken shells of automatons. Within a minute, the only sounds were CJ’s own breathing, and, too far away to hear, yet too close not to feel, William’s song.
Then the song itself went quiet.
It was another forty minutes before William appeared at the gate. His cane was gone, and his good hand was wrapped around the shoulders of a young woman whose arms and legs were too long for her pod’s springtime uniform, whose hair was, for once, free of its braids, spreading outward like a cloud around her head.
CJ was ten feet away when his feet slowed of their own accord. He studied William’s face, looking for the true face of the Singer, but found only wrinkles, warm brown eyes, and a mouth that twisted into a smile almost too sad to hold its shape.
On seeing that smile, CJ rushed forward to hug them both. “Is she okay?”
“She’s tired,” answered William.
“But alive,” came Samara’s own voice, faint but firm.
“And you?” he asked the old man.
“The same, I guess.”
“Are you still going away, after all of this?”
This time, William’s smile had a trace of genuine warmth. “No, Cornelius James. I plan to stay.”
Twenty-seven months later, the people of New Baltimore met for a funeral. Members from every remaining pod gathered to say goodbye to William Green, a man who had saved the city, doomed it, and then, forty years later, saved it one last time before succumbing to the brain tumor that had brought him home.
The members of the newly-formed council led the eulogy. Samara was the last to speak. She told the crowd a story most of them had already heard, how she and CJ had first met William on the Hill. She told them of the vision the old man had once had for their city, a vision that their collective efforts were slowly transforming into reality, before finishing with a quote from one of the philosophy books she’d studied with William. At the very end, she looked for CJ, to see if he had anything to add.
Though there were few things he liked better than looking at and listening to Sammie, Cornelius James wasn’t in the crowd. In fact, he wasn’t at the funeral at all. He was almost a mile away, lying flat on his back on the roof of a decrepit old library, hands clasped behind his head. He was looking upward, past wisps of clouds disappearing into darkness, to a night sky slowly revealing itself. He was watching for the distant, dancing stars, looking for the few… the very few… who long ago had learned to sing.