Gut Feeling – 17.17

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The students Jessie and I had recruited weren’t soldiers.  They weren’t fighters, and for some this was their first altercation.  It showed.

I wasn’t a fighter, myself.  I knew how to hold a knife, I knew how to shoot a gun.  I knew how and where to hit people where it hurt.  But I wasn’t a fighter.  I was an opportunist, and I’d learned to parlay that into the knife holding, gun shooting, hurty-hitting.  That put me in an odd spot when I was now having to find and create opportunity while managing my people.

The gas cloud had spread to a point and stopped, forming a haze ten long paces wide.  Three fifths of the non-stitched enemies present had been affected in some way, coughing, sputtering, hands at burning eyes and orifices.  Another fifth, perhaps, had caught whiffs, but the effects stopped at one eye being closed, or a bit of coughing.

The stitched were backing away from the gas, and from the fear in many of their eyes, I could tell that a good share of them weren’t military grade.  Others were remaining stock still, or kept their reactions mostly in check.

That left me with a rough guess of there being a dozen experiments that weren’t incapacitated, a dozen combat-ready stitched and another thirty or forty general-use stitched.  We had them outnumbered, but only by about forty individuals.  That would change as the gas and its symptoms cleared up.

This wasn’t an easy assault, exactly.  They had undertaken some preparation before settling in.  There were places at the corners and ends of the street where fences had been knocked down, where something that might have been a shack had been pulled down, and a square of snow-less road that might have had a carriage perched over it when the real snow had fallen.  They had taken efforts to remove potential cover that anyone might use to mount an attack on them.

Had we been a matter of five people, we could have used the cover that remained, but as a mob of a hundred?

This was more Gordon’s bailiwick.  I missed that doofus.  All I could do was execute things as he would, and hope I didn’t futz it up too badly.

“Everyone with guns, fire on the group to the right!” I called out.  “Shoot!  Doesn’t matter if you hit, just-”

Someone fired.

“Just shoot!” I called out.

But with the exception of the one shot, the gunfire was delayed, hesitant.

I knew that was the way it was going to be from the moment it had opened.

“Keep shooting!” I called out, drawing my own pistol.  I’d stowed it on the opposite side of my body as usual, so the movement felt unnatural.  My damaged fingertips lacked full sensation, not helped by a layer of bandage and gloves pulled on over that, so that didn’t help either.  I aimed and I fired in the general direction of the people I’d indicated, who were stranded for the moment on the far right of the gas cloud.  The gun kicked in my hand, and as I continued running forward, I could smell the gunpowder and smoke of my own gun, and the traces of gas on the wind.

The group to the right was smaller than the group on the left, which I was leading the others in charging.  The group on the left was struggling more as the wind blew gas in their direction, but that wasn’t why I wasn’t prioritizing them.

The key in this, my lopsided approach, was directing the bulk of our initial fire on the less threatening group.  The rationale was that they were cut off from the others in volume and in sight.  To them, they were being attacked, the gas blocked off their view of friendlies, and they were already demoralized.  My hope was to turn that into a surrender.

“Bea!” I called out.  “You and delinquents, roof girls, Otis’ men, go right!  Force a surrender!  Don’t get too close!”

That left six experiments of varying types and a squadron of stitched.  The experiments didn’t have guns, but the stitched did.

Stitched typically had handlers, and the handlers weren’t present, that I could see.

An odd, ragtag defensive force, this.  My eye was on the door and windows, expecting someone to come tearing out to shout out an order to shoot.  There wasn’t one.

I was watching for an experiment to show leadership skills and turn out to be the leader for this group.  None did.  They were separate and independent, rough-looking men and women who had been through the wringer a few times before they had been experimented on and made into weapons.  They didn’t listen for orders, and didn’t even band together, not really.  Women with whips attached to their arms pulled the whips in, holding them in hands, ready to fling them out.  Men with fluid-filled sacs across their bodies shrugged out of coats, to have better access.  I saw men with heavy muscles and bodies covered in thick hair longer than some women had on their heads.

No leaders in their number.

But the stitched that weren’t looking entirely out of sorts changed their grip on their rifles, shifting their stances.  They didn’t look lost or leaderless.

I watched as one or two stitched turned, glancing at one of their number, who was coughing, drawing in a deeper breath.

Aiming, I fired the last two shots of my pistol at him.  The second of the two shots hit.

The handler had been a stitched.  Maybe high quality, a dead handler quickly revived so that his skills could be preserved, or an actual living handler dressed up like a reanimated dead man.

As his head rocked back, knocking against the wall behind him, face and wall now painted in fresh crimson, his stitched looked more alarmed.  Some of the soldier-stitched started moving of their own volition, making the call to aim at us.

“Shoot!” I called out.

I got two bullets fired at the stitched for my trouble.  It was an unenthusiastic response from my side, but that was, again, to be expected.  The nature of the mob was likely a problem, the shooters not having a clear shot because of friendlies in their way.

The stitched responded, a mere four of the forty-ish stitched shooting.  Of those four, some couldn’t see well because of the gas and its effects.

But it was bound to happen, that with our mob being dense, the stitched having some ability to aim, students to the right and left of me stumbled and went down.

That seemed to give the rest of the hesitant shooters permission to open fire.  The most soldier-like of the stitched were now the subject of our retaliatory, defensive fire.  The less soldier-like lacked leadership.

I hated the moment, the nature of those few passing heartbeats, the lingering image of the shot students tipping over before my forward movement and the rest of the crowd to either side of me blocked off my view.

It left me with a terrible, sick, angry feeling.  A lot of it was directed at myself.  The calculation, the fact that I was rationalizing that oh, only some would hit.  That I rationalized that chance of a shot being immediately lethal was low, even if internal damage might be massive with the way Academy-designed guns had bullets that were designed to bounce around their victims.  I rationalized that we were largely an army of the Academy educated.

I was rolling dice and playing with numbers and justifying, and even if I considered that the chances of an immediate, unavoidable death were in the single-digits, I was still making that call.  I felt like I could taste all of the poison of Wyvern on my tongue as I swallowed that.

But I had an army and there was no way to keep my hands entirely clean forever if I was going to use it as such, Helen needed help, and we needed someone with a black coat if we were going to accomplish what we needed to accomplish.  Failure here when morale was low would see students breaking away, looking to find their own way, which would be disastrous as the Academy cracked down, or they would join Cynthia and Mauer and face far worse numbers.

We crossed the rest of no man’s land, and the charge petered out.  Students shouted, brandishing rifles and weapons, and wary experiments backed up, whip-hands and meaty Bruno hands with long hair draping from them ready in case it became a melee brawl.

Both sides made movements as if they would throw themselves at the other, but lacked the courage to follow through.

“Surrender!” I called out.

A woman with a fifteen-foot tendril extending from her palm snapped her arm out in my direction.  It moved far faster and farther than expected, cracking the air where my head had been.  I was already moving, leaning out of the way, with the lean becoming a tilt, then a run.

I broke away from the front of my army, and threw myself into the gas cloud.

I couldn’t see in the thick gas, so I didn’t try.  My eyes were screwed closed, my breath held, and I moved through the clustered experiments blindly, shoulder bumping into one, then the other as I rebounded through them like a billiards ball.

Somewhere in the midst of it, I decided to be proactive and drew my knife.  I stuck people here and there, making more precise cuts when and where I was able to identify the shape of someone.

I brushed up against one of the long-haired individuals, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that the hair wasn’t hair at all.  It stuck to me and my clothes like briars, and it rasped as it pulled away.  Gas stung a patch of my cheek and temple in the wake of one such collision.

Another experiment was one with the external organs.  On collision, the organ popped, and the fluid drenched one of my sleeves.

I shucked off my jacket, a process that was complicated by my not wanting to drop my gun or knife, and by the presence of some kind of wriggling worms that had escaped the fluid sac when it had popped.  In my rush, occupied as I was, I bumped headlong into another long-haired bruno.  The collision was with what was likely the middle of his back, which was covered by a clothing, but I felt hair hook and pull on my sleeve and hair as an arm swiped in my direction.

In the rough center of the area, I found the speaker.  He had fallen to the ground and had only managed to rid himself of one half of the coat setup with grenades in the pockets.

I jabbed my gun into my waistband with enough force that the barrel likely gouged flesh, grabbed the coat, and pulled.  What didn’t immediately give, I slashed at.

I squinted, using light and shadow to try and make out the world, my eyes burning and tearing up, and I oriented myself to make my exit.  With some vague sense of where people were, I was able to move faster, departing.

The gas was already thinning out, but as I wrangled the remains of the coat setup that I’d collected, I was able to feel that one side was heavier than the other.

Not all of the canisters had deployed.  Between Helen and I, we hadn’t achieved full coverage in finding and activating all of the canisters.  I pulled the remaining pins, and I threw the coat into the midst of the enemy.  The still-active canisters didn’t have a lot of oomph driving the output, but it made for an expanding haze of fog, disorganization in their ranks as they tried to stay clear while maintaining battle lines.

I also managed to get some attention for myself.  I was content to step back into the smoke and move off to the side, while tentacles snapped out.  Not whip cracks this time, but lunging, reaching grabs.  One swiped across my shoulder, and I grabbed it, cutting it with my knife.

Now their attention was divided three ways.  Gas in their midst, however weak, me, and the army bearing down on them.

While I’d been absent, they had pushed forward.  Some of the tentacle women had grabbed some students and were dragging them closer by increments.  Four students were using bayonets to fend off a Bruno.

But those skirmishes were isolated.  Both sides were made up of people who wanted to live, with an exception of the stitched, who were trying to follow orders and losing ground to the chaos of the moment and the lack of their handler.  That desire to survive made for a more cowardly kind of engagement.  There was shouting, posturing, there were threats, and very few individuals were really stepping forward to act.

On the far left of the enemy group, well beyond my reach, some experiments went lunging for the guns of the fallen stitched soldiers.  A contingent of the Beattle rebels pushed forward, and it became a melee instead of a shootout.

I pitched my voice to make sure I’d be heard amid the guttural threats and low cries.  I tried to sound imperious.  “The next gas grenades go off in thirty seconds!  Surrender, kneel, and you don’t get gassed!”

Just as all but a few experiments were reluctant to truly throw themselves into the fray and risk their lives, there was an equal and opposite reluctance to give up the fight.

It had to feel horrible, to be caught in the middle, where there was so much uncertainty in surrender and mortal peril in fighting to win.

One of the tentacle women, as far as I could tell while half-blind, was being particularly persistent in trying to sweep the cloud of gas to find me.  She might have been one of the ones I’d cut.

I timed my exit so that I could duck under one of the sweeps and emerge right in front of her before she could pull her tendrils in and assault me.

My knife-tip, by intent, hit her sternum, hard.  I held it there, between her breasts, not far from her heart, and intoned the word, “Surrender.”

She brought her arms in, hands seizing me, tentacles following, reaching around my head.

I brought my arms up, pushing the knife with both hands, the blade scratching sternum and clothing, sliding up, and finally finding the soft flesh of neck.  The thrust parted flesh from the hollow of her throat to the point where her chin met her neck.  The tail end of the thrust might have severed a major vein.

I watched, wary, studying those nearby as the woman tumbled to the ground.  One of the tendrils caught on my vest and my injured shoulder as it pulled away, and I was able to keep my face still as it did so, but I wasn’t able to avoid my leg buckling and my grip on the knife faltering.  I only barely managed to keep from dropping it.

The experiments closest to me hadn’t lunged to attack at the show of weakness.  I fixed my grip, and the bloated fluid-sac experiment I was looking at at the time backed away a step.

I took one hand off the knife, and gestured at him, motioning him down.

He sat down with force, plopping himself down on the road.

People wanted to live.

The one effective surrender was cause for a domino effect.  Just as one person pulling the trigger gave others permission to shoot, one surrender gave way to another, and then another.

The experiments that were most hostile and dangerous pulled away, forming a separate group, and they drifted closer to the retreating non-soldier stitched, the laborers and filler, the dumb muscle.

That was it.  I hurried over to the coats and grenades, and, grabbing them, I hurled them in the direction of the hostiles.

The first canisters were only just running out, as new ones were flaring to life.  They backed away from the expanding cloud of gas, and then retreated wholesale, running away.

“Don’t hurt the ones who surrendered,” I said.  It wasn’t an order meant for the ears of my people, but for the ones who had given up the fight.  “Tend to the injured.  Greens, I want you to surround the building, make sure our professors aren’t running away.  Don’t chase or engage, but give us a shout if there’s a problem.”

I watched as Mabel’s group, minus Mabel, went to do as I’d bid.

Some of our people had been hurt.  I looked over our group.

“Who’s hurt?” I asked.

I heard a smattering of names, none of whom I recognized.  I heard a litany of injuries.  Shot, head injury, some medical slang that was probably ex-students retreating into comfortable, easy terminology.

“Nobody died?” I asked.

There was a pause.

“Marcus isn’t doing well, but he should pull through,” I heard.  “Some of the others are fighting over who gets to work on him.  Davis took over.”

“Good,” I said.  “You did good.”

They had, in a way.  Not perfect, a lot of hesitation, a lot of fear, but…

“You showed guts,” I said, as if talking to myself.  “That was good.”

I saw a smile on one injured person, head injury, and before I could take in more, Jessie and some of the locals were approaching.

“That was bloodier than I thought it would be,” the older man said.  He’d gone a little white, while I was probably the opposite.

“There are a lot of answers to that statement,” I said.  “But short answer is yes, it was unexpectedly bad.  Longer answer is they forced it to be, by how they laid things out.  The only approach was one that saw us collide with the defensive force they had in place.”

“You could have chosen not to fight,” he said.

“I think…” I said, and I paused, coughing, blinking, taking a moment to endure the lingering effects of the gas on me.  My skin burned with every brush of the air.  I was fairly covered up, but my face felt flushed, my skin hurt, and I was probably as red as a robin’s breast.  I stopped coughing and stayed where I was, thinking.

“No answer?” he asked.

“More that I’m trying to politely word this, knowing you still have some faith about the Academy and the Crown,” I said.

He stiffened a little at that.

The students around me were watching the exchange.  Some of them hadn’t heard the opening conversation between me and the man.

“How about this?” I asked him.  “Come inside.  Join me for a conversation with the professors who set that giant on your city.  Don’t tell them who you are.  Just listen in.”

“Why?” he asked.

Jessie spoke up, “Because if you hear what they say when they’re not talking to the public, you might well change your mind about us having to fight.”

The gas behind me was clearing up.  I could see Bea’s group, and I could see the experiments.  They had largely been pacified, the fight gone out of them as they struggled to see, breathe, and endure the pain of their skin burning.

“Alright,” the man said.  “If it means answers, I’ll listen.”

“It doesn’t mean answers,” I said.  “In the seventeen years I’ve been on this earth, I’ve spent more than half of them looking for answers to questions.  At first it was in the Academy’s service, then it was against the Academy.  I have more questions than when I started.  I don’t want you to not come, but I don’t want to lie to you either.”

“You’ll get answers to this question, maybe,” Jessie said.  “About why they acted here.”

“I’ll listen in and decide for myself,” he said.

I pointed at some people.  Helen was among them, hanging back in the midst of the group.

Helen wasn’t supposed to be alive, at this juncture, so it was risky to have her with us, but I knew she’d be upset, insofar as she got ‘upset’ in the conventional sense, if she didn’t get an opportunity to participate.  The minor play with the speaker and the Radham badge wouldn’t satisfy, I suspected.

She had her hood up, and she allowed me a small smile as she approached.

I’d picked the able bodied, rather than faces I knew.  And I’d picked Helen.  Jessie came too, as a matter of course.

I still had the bitter taste in my mouth, and gas was only a part of it.  I didn’t like this situation, this city, this attack on the Academy’s part, or this confrontation with Cynthia on one side of it.  I didn’t like the tone of it, or the way they had positioned themselves.

I didn’t like that there were a few things that weren’t connecting.

Our rebels kept an eye on the experiments while we entered the building.  It was Jessie, Helen and I who led the way, Jessie on the right, Helen on the left, and me at the lead.

The building was square, four rooms each taking up an equal share of space.  Stairs led up to the second floor.  Once we’d checked that nobody was situated on the ground floor, we made our way up the stairs.

The older man trailed behind in the company of our rebels.  He seemed to buy that we could do what we’d talked about doing, and that we could make effective use of the speaker, and I suspected Jessie had built up something of a rapport while in his company.

Helen reached out and stopped us while we were only partway up the stairs.

“What is it?” Jessie whispered.

She reached out and touched our throats.  Her hands, still suffering for the damage to her body, twitched.

It took me only a second to realize that she was intending for me to feel the twitch.

“H-h-h-h-h-h-” I made the sound, whisper quiet.

She exhaled, mirroring me.  A shuddering exhalation.  Then she inhaled.

Odd breathing.

“How many?” Jessie asked.

Helen raised her hand, then knocked it against my arm.  She was presumably doing something similar for Jessie.  Tap-tap, pause, tap-tap.

“I, uh, don’t have the tap code anymore,” I murmured.  “Or if I do, I’m not remembering the numbers these days.”

“Three,” Jessie said.  “Three people.”

Helen nodded.

I wasn’t jealous, exactly, but a part of me felt deeply disappointed that I couldn’t claim to be someone who understood Helen when all other communication failed.

We crept up, this new information in mind.  Making our way down the hallway, we reached the master room on the second floor.  The rooms lacked furniture, but for this one, which had a table and a loveseat, set a distance apart from each other, as if purely an afterthought.  There were papers on the table, and there were three individuals in the room.  Two stood, slouching, and the third sat on the arm of the loveseat.

All three wore coats.  Two grey, a man and a woman, and a man in a black coat.

I could hear their breathing now, and I could read their stances, postures, and expressions.  The agitation with seemingly no outlet or momentum to it, the spittle flecking lips, the way they stared off into space.  One held a fireplace poker and periodically let it swing left and right, like a pendulum, as if to remind himself of the heft of it.

I gestured.  Fight.  Drug.

Combat drugs.  They had dosed themselves.

Not looking to run, only to fight.

They had to make this difficult, didn’t they?

I gestured, communicating.

Jessie would take one, I would take one, and Helen and the rest could take the third.

Helen knocked my hand aside as I articulated the last bit.

Helen.  Group.  Together.

She knocked my hand aside, then she gripped it.

I still really didn’t like how weak her grip was.

She took Jessie’s hand too.  She held our hands up, and squeezed again, with far too little strength.

I could piece it together, at least.  She was using tap code as she squeezed, and Jessie and I let our eyes meet.

Trust.  Lambs.  I knew what Helen was saying.

I nodded, somewhat reluctantly.

If I’d been able to speak without our whispers potentially drawing the attention of the three people in the other room, then I might have said that trusting the Lambs to perform was one side of the equation.  The other side was that we each knew each other’s strengths and limitations, and we covered for them.

She was going to get hurt, and I wasn’t sure how much she had in her, at this stage.

Painstakingly, I communicated everything to the rest, with pen and scrap paper that Jessie supplied.

I would be the bait.  It was a role I was comfortable in.

Positioning myself at the top stair, making sure that everyone was ready, stationed in rooms off to either side of the main hallway, I whistled.

“No, no, no, no…” the man in the other room spoke.  “No!  You’re not taking me alive!  You’re not carving me up and making me a stitched, no!”

He appeared in the doorway.  “No!  I’m a professor, damn it!  I’m a professor!”

His voice reached a fever pitch.

“You’re going to have to kill me!” he screeched.

He wheeled around, and he opened fire, shooting into the room Helen was in.

Trust, I thought.

I whistled again.

He shot, this time at me.  His reaction times were amped up, and he wasn’t a bad shot either.

Come closer.

He kept firing, and with quick, deft motions, he reloaded.  I could see his shadow as he crept closer.  A sword in one hand, held close to his leg, a pistol in the other.

“Not making me a stitched!  Mommy and daddy said that I’d be made a stitched if I was bad, but I’m a professor now!  They said so!”

I was worried the others would panic.  That they would attack him, or react in fear of him shooting into their rooms.

Come closer.

He made it halfway down the hallway before I saw a glimpse of him, and he saw a glimpse of me, perched on the stairs below.  I’d anticipated it, and he still had the reaction times to nearly clip me.

“I’ve got a pretty black coat, and no matter how much blood gets on it, it never shows,” he said.  “Never shows, no, no, no.”

At least the local we’d brought along was getting an earful.

The other two entered the hallway.  The grey coats.

They were as quiet as the one in the lead was quiet.

“Mauer burns you at the stake, Fray will drown you, and Cynthia shoves her spear up your ass until it comes out the mouth,” the man in the black coat said.  “And all the lesser rebels have their special little torments.  Not for me, no, no.  If I die, we die together, that’s how the Crown does it.”

The two in the grey coats moved far enough along the hallway for the trap to spring.

The maneuver was coordinated.  The extras I’d brought along, people I’d known were brave enough on the battlefield to pull triggers or actually get involved in a fight, well, I hadn’t been able to assign them to Helen alone, so I’d told them to support all three of us as much as they could without getting in the way.

Jessie struck with surgical precision, going after the woman in the grey coat with the fireplace poker.  Her movements were remembered rather than practiced, deft, keeping her low to the ground, and the knife she planted in her target’s midsection served to catch her right at the core of the body.  The grey-coated woman was in the midst of bringing the poker around to hit Jessie, using the end closest to her two hands rather than the hooked tip, and the injury and impact together took the strength out of the hit.  Jessie was able to roll with the hit; maybe she would bruise, but it was far better than a cracked skull.

Helen, for her part, was almost the inverse.  She found a good moment to act, but the action was clumsy.  She threw herself at the man at the tail end, and she landed low, tangling herself up in his legs.

She lacked the strength to stay firm while tripping him up, but she didn’t utilize strength.  She positioned herself, so that her seven stone body was in places the man’s legs wanted to be.

He sprawled, and a knife slid away from his hand as he did so.  Helen crawled toward his upper body as he lay on his back, reaching up and over for the weapon.

Meanwhile, I simply rushed the man with the gun.  He turned to pay attention to what was happening behind him, and as he did so, I threw myself up the stairs with both hands and feet, and I pulled him back onto the stairs and onto me.  He landed partially across my good shoulder and back, and I helped him in a tumble down the stairs, grabbing his collar as I did so so I could control his fall.

Just like that, it was more or less over.  Combat drugs, yes, combatant, no.

It would make them inconvenient to deal with in the coming hour or two, however.

I just wished I had a better feeling about this whole scenario.

I made sure to collect the gun and others followed me down the stairs.

Passing custody of him to the rebels I’d brought along, I hurried up the stairs.

Helen sat astride the man’s collarbone and on top of one of his arms.  Her back bent in an impossible way, so her face was very close to his, and her tongue had stabbed into his mouth and down his throat, while he made gagging sounds.  He was trying not to vomit as she used her tongue to provoke his gag reflex.

Her arms were limp at her sides, her legs folded at either side of his shoulders.  It was only weight and a low center of gravity that she used.    He moved his hand, pulling at her, reaching for the tongue, and she interfered, batting at his hand with hers, until he finally managed a grip.

Her counter was to let him grab her tongue, hauling nearly a foot of it out of his mouth, and meanwhile, she deployed her next attack.  She heaved, vomiting what seemed like a bucket of blood on his face, nose, and into his open mouth.

His struggles took on a different tone.  He clutched at her, tried to push her off, and tried to turn his head so he could spit out the blood.  Her knees and inner thighs hugged either side of his face.  His breath formed bubbles in the pool of blood.  I heard a gasp as he managed to somehow find a way to breathe with a long length of tongue and a bucket of blood on his face.

Helen, for her part, simply heaved again.  It was bile, this time.

His hand reached for his waistband.

“Knife!” I called out.

He grabbed the knife that was at his waist and under his shirt, and he drew it.  The others near Helen weren’t fast enough to grab it before the man stabbed her.

He coughed or gagged, and there was a spurt of air exploding through the thick fluids.

Helen took the stabbing in stride, arching her body up and away so the knife pulled free of the man’s hand.  She left the knife embedded in her side, and grabbed it with one hand.

He fumbled blindly for the knife, and found only her hand.  He grabbed her wrist, trying to pull it away, and she let him, moving her body to control the positioning of everything while being quick to grab the knife handle before he could.

“I told you you’d get hurt,” I told her.

I saw her visibly sigh.

“Satisfied?” I asked.

She didn’t immediately respond.

I had one eye on the man we’d brought along, who watched the scene in abject horror.

“Jessie, Mister Bystander.  We should have a word with the professor.”

“The stab wound?” one of our rebels asked.

I’d wanted to go, and now we’d have a short discussion, and we wouldn’t go.  Slightly annoying.

“She made sure it was placed so it was almost exactly where she got shot earlier,” Jessie said.  “Presumably under the assumption that the damage is already done.”

Helen, her tongue still buried in the pool of blood and bile, and in the man’s face, nodded.

The man in the grey coat coughed again, and then the amount of fluid increased, bubbling up.  Vomit.

The fight slowly went out of him, and I could watch Helen’s back as she visibly relaxed, a weight lifted off of her shoulders, something proven, a fear resolved or a problem solved.

She had needed this, I supposed.

She turned to look at me over one shoulder, through the curtain of hair, as she slurped her tongue back into her mouth.  She spat the fluids onto the floor to the side of the man’s head.

“Satisfied,” I said, making it a statement this time.

She gave me a nod.

We left her behind as we descended the stairs.

The students had moved the professor away from the stairs and against the wall.  He still struggled with the strength of someone on combat drugs, but there were three of them, and it looked like one of his hands was injured.

I wanted to say something pithy, show off a little, and ensure that the bystander’s mind could be taken off of the scene upstairs.

But I looked down at the professor, and I felt that deep unease that had been sitting with me for a little while now.

I stooped down, reaching forward, and my injured shoulder with the flesh carved away seized up.  It took me a second attempt to grab the man’s chin.  I moved my fingers over his mouth before he could spit on me, and dug my fingers in there for leverage, staring.

“What is it?” Jessie asked.

“Look at him,” I told her.  “What do you see?”

She bent down so she was on my level.  She tilted her head one way, and then the other.

“Symmetrical.”

“Is that what I’m seeing?” I asked.

She moved her hand, holding it up so it was flat, dividing his face to the left and right sides.

Then, abrupt, she moved forward and pulled his head down, so his chin touched his collarbone, and ran her fingers through his hair.

“No real part,” she said.  “No whorl.”

“I don’t understand,” the bystander said.

“He’s not a professor,” I said, straightening.  “He’s an experiment.  Clone, vat baby, they dressed him up as a professor, gave him pretensions of being one, and gave him a supply of combat drugs to cloud the picture.  The soldiers outside…”

“An odd bunch,” Jessie said.

“United only in that they were expendable,” I said.  “It’s a trap.  The entire thing.  Neph, the giant… he’s too big a target to pass up.  He finds them or they find him.  The city… it’s entirely unimportant, it’s expendable too.”

“They want him to lose the fight against Cynthia,” Jessie said.

“Or against us, or Mauer, or Fray,” I said.  I looked at the bystander.  “We need to evacuate the city.  Now.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.16

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

It took a group of grown adults some concerted effort to drag the speaker off to one side.  They collectively propped him up so he lay across several stairs.  One of his eyes was already hurt enough it couldn’t open, his nose had been smashed and the blood that had flowed from it painted a thick stripe down his lower face, and every breath he took in made his hand clench as he bore the pain.  He looked as though he weighed at least twenty stone, where I weighed seven.

“Alright, I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m listening,” one of the members of the crowd said.

I might’ve hoped that someone else would have spoken up.  This guy looked like he was sturdily built and worn around the edges by mid-level manual work, drinking, and smoking.  The distribution of dust and faint stains on his clothing suggested he wore an apron much of the time.  A baker, butcher, or the like.  I could see why he spoke first among this crowd, if he was a face that a lot of people had run into and interacted with.

That wasn’t what had me concerned.  It was that I’d seen a glimpse of the crowd stomping on, kicking, and using improvised weapons to thrash the speaker.  My impression of this man was very heavily shadowed by the expression on his face.  It had been red where his trimmed black beard hadn’t covered it, contorted, and gleeful.

I waited, giving weight to things, leaving room for others to speak up.  I didn’t want to have this dialogue with the mad baker.

“You said you needed him,” an older man said.  He wasn’t an old man, but he’d passed his middle years a few years back, and his hair was touched with a thick daubing of grey.

“I did,” I said, seizing on the second speaker.  I made sure to devote a share of attention to the mad baker so I didn’t effectively ignore him.  “That giant over there is fighting with a group of rebels.  If one side wins, then the window of opportunity is most likely going to close.  We want and need to find the people who are managing the reins.  That fellow you were beating up a minute ago is our best bet for finding them.”

“And who are you?” the mad baker asked.

“He’s Sylvester Lambsbridge,” Jessie said.  “I’m Jessie Ewesmont.  Sylvester’s claim to fame is assassinating the Baron Richmond of Warrick.”

That got a few raised eyebrows.  I saw a smile creep across the mad baker’s face.

“I don’t like how this is being handled,” the older man said.  “These… monsters, shouting at us to stay put, stay inside, while the giant knocks over buildings that we know have people inside.  I can understand why others are upset-”

“Pissed,” the mad baker said, his voice dangerous.  “Don’t mince it.”

“Pissed,” the older man said, in a way that suggested he didn’t like the foul language.  “But I don’t know if I agree with or can condone the murder of a noble.”

“You might change your tune if you saw what life was like for those in Warrick,” I said.

“I might,” he said, “But I didn’t.”

Well, he was what I’d looked for.  Someone more level-headed in the midst of the mob.  He was dissenting, and others were looking more restless, the mad baker included.

“That’s entirely fair,” I said.  The key was to sound calm, reasonable.  I had a small army at my back, and this guy had been standing off to one side in the midst of a mob, angry enough to be standing here, not so angry he was stomping a helpless experiment to death.  “For the record, I don’t want to have a long discussion.  That giant’s probably going to come looking for us, if the rebels don’t win and follow up felling the giant and start burning the city to the ground.  If at any point you make up your mind, let us know, we’ll move along.”

“Uh huh,” the man said.

“I don’t mind the noble killing,” the mad baker said.  “It’s been a long time coming, and the Baron was always a nut.”

“He was,” I said.  “But that wasn’t wholly the reason I went after him.”

“What was the reason?” another man asked.  He looked more like a banker.

Another level head.

“He threatened Sylvester’s family,” Jessie said.

“That doesn’t sound like a strong reason.  The deaths of nobles has caused a lot of grief,” the older man said.  “This could be part of it.”

“That’s bullshit,” the mad baker said.

“The nobility exists for a reason.  Nothing stands on its own,” the older man said.  “One pillar has been shaken, not even destroyed, and we’re seeing the ramifications.  Lunatics coming out of the woodwork, crime, plague, civil war.”

“Whole tracts of the middle and western Crown states being sterilized,” the mad baker said, sounding angry again.  “Let’s not forget how this started.”

“I’m not here to have a long discussion,” I said.

“The sterilization was a mistake stemming from miscommunication,” the older man said.  “One caused by initial stirrings of war.  The Red Shepherd.  Who later went on to kill the Duke, someone we counted on to keep us safe.”

“You’re talking about Mauer,” I said.

“That’s the name.”

“Listen,” I said.  If this discussion continued, the mad baker would steer the conversation, argue the failings of the Crown, and the discussion would be dragged down into the mud.  My route to success lay in arguing with the people I disagreed with here.  “All the stuff you’re talking about, I’ve been there.  I’ve had long conversations with Mauer, with Fray, I’ve had Cynthia of the Spears pull a gun on me.  I’m here for this.  I’m offering you a chance to make it end.  Give that experiment to me, I’ll find the people who turned that giant on this city, and then I’ll do my damndest to make it go away.  Or I’ll stop the people who want to burn the city down.”

“We only want to save lives,” Jessie said.

“It’s what I was doing when I went after the Baron,” I said.  “I saved a lot of lives when I ended his reign over Warrick.  They would’ve lived long, productive lives in that city, but those existences were condemned ones.  Waking nightmares, shadowed by waking monsters custom-designed to each family.  Trust me when I say that those long lives would’ve been worse than short lives ending in grisly death.  That was a herculean task.  This, right here, is absolutely something I and my people can do.  If you need justification or proof, you can follow us, you can listen in, and you can leave or intervene at any time.  If you need to find an outlet for your anger, my opening offer stands.  You can join us.”

“No, I don’t think I’ll join you,” the older man said.

As expected.

“I might,” the mad baker said.

Also as expected, unfortunately.

“Joining isn’t the important thing.  Do you want to ride along?  Do you want to see things with your own two eyes?” I asked the older man.  I glanced at the banker, then glanced at the mad baker.  “If you have any doubt about my abilities, if you want to second guess me and the Crown’s role…”

“If it matters,” Gordon Two spoke up, “I can say that all of us standing by Jessie and Sy are doing it for a reason, because he’s good at this and we believe in what he’s doing.”

Not all, I thought.  The dissent in the ranks.  And that’s not the question at hand.  It’s whether they have the courage.

“If we step aside and give you this monster so you can try to use him to go after his makers, what’s to say you and those youths behind you won’t just ignore me?  What can I do against… however many of you there are?”

“Eighty to a hundred,” the banker said.

“Collateral,” I said.  “Pick any one of us.  They’ll be your hostage.  We move in two groups, each in sight of the other.  You can watch from a distance.  The person you pick can comment and explain, or you can send someone over or beckon someone to you, and we’ll send someone to make sense of things.  Anything hinky happens, you can exercise your best judgment.”

The older man frowned, looking us over.

I spread my hands.  “If you’re not comfortable with the idea, say the word.  We’ll find another one of these guys and leave you to it.”

The distant fighting was disjointed.  There was a flare of dust and smoke that rose in a sudden plume over the skyline.  The sound of it followed two seconds later.  After the sound and several long moments, the wind blew.  Not the shockwave or the ripple of the impact, but a reaction to a large-scale change in environment and air pressures.  A building or giant had fallen.

“I’m insane if I say yes to this.”

“You were a bystander in a mob of angry civilians,” I told the older man.  “This is more sane, more focused.  It’s a surgical strike that solves the problem.”

“The anger was a more organic thing,” the older man said.  “Talking to each other, one thing leading to another.  Didn’t feel wrong.  Premeditation makes it worse somehow.  Doing this in the shadow of talking about murdering nobles?  Feels a lot worse.”

“Alright,” I said.  I gestured, turning to go.  It took a little bit of time for the gesture to translate into orders, lieutenants calling instructions down the line.  I wondered if Cynthia did drills or if she faced the same delay between decision and action when coordinating her people.  Mauer had some delay, but I suspected his communication was effective enough that he could shout jump and people would jump because he was that convincing.

Fray didn’t manage armies so much.  She… preferred to put pieces in place and create an engine, or a greater organism.

I’d hoped to do that.  But I wasn’t Fray.  I was something else.

The mad baker, as I’d termed him, was moving like he was joining us.  I didn’t want him, not really.

“Hold on,” the older man called out.

I held on, gesturing.  The Beattle rebels stopped.

“I’ll come.  I can’t speak for everyone, but if I stay here, I don’t change anything.  If I come, at least there’s a chance I can have a say, right?”

“That’s the idea,” I said.

“He doesn’t represent me,” a woman said.  “But I’ll come too.”

Slowly and surely, the group began to form, people stepping forward.

As they peeled away, a path of sorts emerged, a way to the speaker.  I gestured, and Jessie turned to indicate some people.  Bea’s people.  Some of our stronger ones, and the thug, who looked like he’d been one of Otis’.

As one, they worked to haul the speaker to his feet.

He was beaten, battered, bruised, and he looked surly.  His hair had been immaculately styled in a look that was most often worn as a wig, not as an actual hairstyle, curled into a roll at the brow, he had a baby face, and he had a lot of mass, which mostly amounted to being loaded to bear with special organs and then given a frame that could carry it all.  His clothing had a weave that became a checked pattern when the light hit it, all fine clothing, but durable.  I wished I could have taken some of it for myself, but it was hardly going to fit.  Jessie, Mabel, Gordon Two and I could all have crammed together into his outfit.

“Get somewhere safe,” I told the people who were lingering.  “Keep an eye on things.  They’re only going to get uglier, and when they do, it’s going to happen fast.  That giant will cross half the city before you can get out of your house with the bare essentials.  The rebels will… I don’t even know, but it could be fire, it could be forced conscription.  Trust your instincts.”

The banker was among the group who were staying behind.  I could see his expression change, hardening at the thought of each of the scenarios.

“Good luck,” I told them.

“I’d wish you luck, but I’m not sure you deserve it,” the banker said.

“Yeah,” I said.

It took only a short time to sort things out.  The older man and the woman who had been second to join discussed briefly among themselves before nominating both Jessie and Davis as their hostages.  Interesting that they’d chosen two of the most put-together members of our group, the tidiest, neatest ones.  Jessie was the ironed blouse and skirt pleats, the stockings, the jacket with crisp lines, her hair in one braid.  Davis was neatly parted hair and a suit shirt and slacks combination that would have been a decent Academy uniform if it had only had more white. 

The mad baker was an outlier in this city, I suspected, someone who was only here because certain menial service and labor jobs were necessary to keep things running and attend to the life that existed beyond what I was growing to think was a backbone of business, international banking, and information.  The more level-headed members of this particular mob, the ones that represented the local color, they’d identified best with Jessie and Davis, saw them as the most valuable hostages to take.

That group crossed the street, and I could see Jessie talking to the group, explaining, outlining.  She was moving her hands as she talked, and as she did, she was gesturing.  It was perfect, because it meant we could maintain an ongoing dialogue.

There was something magical about being on the same page as someone, to have thoughts and ideas and not even having to say or do something specific to have other people act as an extension of those thoughts.

With four able-bodied men supporting the speaker and keeping him moving, the speaker stumbled ahead.

“Careful,” I said, as I watched him.  “We don’t know if he has anything up his sleeve.”

He was focused for the moment on putting one foot in front of the other, being wrestled and jabbed this way and that.  He wasn’t a fighter, and for the moment, he looked confused.

I could vaguely recall an encounter some years ago, when the Lambs had all been together.  Mary had been there.  We’d preyed on the relative innocence and gullibility of another experiment’s mind.

Had it been Fray’s stitched?

The speaker tripped, and only the support of the people who were holding him keeping him from outright falling flat on his face.  He sagged, and we had to pause while they righted him.

He glanced at me, and I saw something sharper than I would have ever seen on Fray’s face.  Not a cunning, human sharpness, but the look of an animal that was weighing its options.

“Heads up!” I called out.  I clapped my hands to my ears, backing swiftly away.

There were three venues of attack here.  One was self-destruction, another was noise, and a third was a combination thereof.

A moment later, the speaker opened his mouth.

He made the first real sound I’d heard from him, a noise like the horn of a large ship or cry of a train, loud enough to make the ears hurt, to disorient, and unending, a lone note held indefinitely.

With that noise, he made a hundred people stagger, and the remainder of two hundred hands that hadn’t followed my cue went to protect ears.  I had no idea how many knees buckled.

I saw Otis’ thug draw a gun, and I lunged, reaching out to stop him from aiming it at the speaker.

I could adapt to the noise better than some, because adapting was part of what I did.  Helen barely seemed to care about it, holding only one hand to one ear, more in the sense that she didn’t want both ears to adapt to the sound.

Someone near me reacted badly enough to the volume of the speaker that they began to dry heave.

Sensory destruction.

The people who had been supporting him backed away, and the speaker dropped to his hands and knees.  He had to know that doing this would see him shot or disposed of.  But he would do a degree of damage to us before he went.

Helen moved, approaching him.  I met her eyes, and we communicated in that instance.

The coordination, the magic of thinking and having others act as an extension of that thought with barely any communication, it wasn’t limited to me being at the center.  Helen wanted to act, and I could follow her line of thinking to the conclusion.

I gestured, urging others to back away, to get clear of the worst of the sound.

Leaving Helen and the speaker alone together.  A full city block away, Jessie was gesturing.  I could only barely make out the signs.

She didn’t want me to leave Helen like that.  Helen was weak.  Helen couldn’t communicate.

With nobody holding him and the rest of us stumbling a solid fifty paces away, many with eyes screwed shut and hands at ears, the speaker was free to lurch, trying to get to his feet.  He had to expect someone would find the wherewithal to shoot him in the back.  But he would act in service to the Academy that had created him and the Crown he’d been a voice for, and he would do it in the simplest manner possible.

His attempt to move from being on hands and knees to a standing position was interrupted when Helen walked into him.  Her mass was a fraction of his, but the timing was effective.  He bowled her over, dropping again to hands and knees, while she landed on her rear end, her face a short distance from his.

He was still making that infernal noise.

Jessie gestured, suggesting a course of action.  I could try disabling him.  Like Helen, he had organ clusters.  Jessie’s suggestion was the kidney area, and I suspected there was some trace of Academy science she had picked up that was informing the decision.

It wasn’t a bad suggestion, but Helen had dibs on this one.  I gave her a minute.

Too generous by forty seconds.

Twenty seconds or so passed, and the noise stopped.

While the rest of our people were recovering, some still staggering as though their middle ears were in tatters, I found my feet.  The mental adjustments were much the same as the ones I’d made in the wake of Jessie’s fertilizer explosion at the ground floor of the flower place, so they were fresh in my mind.

As I approached, I could see Helen holding one hand to the side of the speaker’s feet.

“And him?” the speaker asked.  His voice was deep, and it sounded alien amid the cacophony of noise that had erupted in the silence after his one-note noise.  A chaotic storm of phantom sounds to offset the lone sound he’d produced.

Helen nodded, smiling.

I watched the speaker process, juggling complicated emotions as he lay there, Helen just in front of him, and me off to one side.

“So be it.  I am sorry.”

Helen shook her head, glancing at me, and I picked up the slack where she was unable to speak.  “You did exactly what you were supposed to.”

“What do I do now?” he asked.

“You cooperate,” I said.  “But don’t look too happy about it.”

Others were only just starting to recover.  Some were creeping cautiously closer, wary of the noise starting again.

“How?” Gordon Two asked, his voice too loud.  I motioned for him to keep it down.

“That’s going to draw attention,” the Treasurer said.  He winced, working his jaw.  “I think I have hearing damage.”

“That can be fixed,” I said.

“My own voice sounds like it’s far away,” he said.  “Fuck.”

“And you’re right.  That’s a concern, drawing attention,” I said.  I turned to the speaker.  “Will it?  Will they come for you?”

“I don’t know,” the speaker said.  There was a deliberate disconnect between is tone and the expression he decided to put on his face.  He wasn’t very good at frowning.  “I don’t think so.  They might if they’re close, or if the mission changed.”

“How?” Gordon Two asked, for the second time.  “I keep telling myself I’m not going to be caught off guard, I won’t be surprised, you guys do things I’d normally think are impossible, but… how?”

“Magic,” I said.  “Helen magic.”

I offered Helen a hand, and even though I wasn’t in the best shape myself, I did have it in me to help her to her feet.  She offered me a brief curtsy of thanks in exchange, before clinging to me for balance.

“That’s really not an answer to my question,” Gordon Two said.  “That’s not a thing.”

“But it absolutely is, isn’t it?” I asked.  “The magic… it’s important.  We had Berger, we traded him for a Helen.  Look.

They looked.  I was indicating the crowd of students behind us.  The ones who had retreated and fallen, who had felt the impact of that noise the speaker had produced.  Their ears hurt and their senses had been rattled, and now all was fixed.  The speaker was under our thumb.  As several of our strongest recruits moved up and helped haul the speaker to his feet, he pulled away from their grip some, but he didn’t have a lot of fight in him.  Again, he wore that weird trying-too-hard scowl.

He’d been made and trained to smile and dispense warnings, not to frown and express proper displeasure.

So recently touched by the event, they now watched as we got the situation in hand once again.  I gestured for us to move, and the lieutenants passed on orders.

They would wonder.  Gordon Two was a good barometer for what the greater collective was thinking.

Wondering and wonder were two sides of the same coin.

I gave Helen a squeeze, and I signaled the go-ahead.

Reluctantly, cautiously, the speaker began to give us direction.  This way, that way.  Then he would need to stop to think or use a keen ear.

With his restrained cooperation, now, we were able to head straight for what we were after.  The wind blew cold, boots tromped without rhythm on the ground, and distant explosions and crumbling buildings marked the ongoing conflict halfway across this odd, prim, artificial little city.

“How are your injuries, speaker?” I asked.

“Speaker?”

“Do you have another title or name?”

“A letter and a number.  The ones who made us sometimes like to dress us up and give us masks and titles if we earn them.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Would it be bad if I offered you something?  We need you for a little bit longer.  We can’t have your injuries or the elements causing any problems down the line.”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Gordon Two-”

“That’s not my name, but alright.”

“There’s some people from Davis’ group that have supplies.  Some are medical, but there should be blankets and jackets for in case we ran into anyone who needed it while we were running around, if they didn’t decide to pack light.  I need you to grab some stuff, if possible.  We’ll get this guy warm.  Can you double check if we have anything we can use?”

“Sure,” Gordon Two said, giving me a curious look.  “I’ll ask.”

“I’m fine,” the speaker said.  “I’m built to endure.”

Helen reached up, and laid a hand on his upper arm.  He looked down at her, confused.

“Consider this us giving you your own mask and title.  To me, you’re speaker.  You need a token of your time with us.”

He looked concerned, but with Helen’s hand still on his arm, he seemed willing to let it lie.  “Alright.”

I gestured, to make sure that Gordon Two knew.

“Speaking of titles, do you want one?” I asked the speaker.

“No.  I don’t not want one either.  I do my job.  I keep the Crown’s good citizens safe.  I serve, and I am satisfied.  I belong to a unit, and we march in step.  If I die in pursuit of my duty, I know it is right.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think maybe that’s not so different from my own experience, way back when.  My experience was more nuanced, don’t get me wrong, but not so different in the end.”

He gave me a curious look.  I opted not to elaborate.

“We’re close,” he said.

And we were.

Whatever this was, it didn’t feel like what the speaker had called marching in step.  It looked as though they had scraped the bottom of the test tubes and disposed of the detritus here.  I could see a horde of stitched, and a host of men and women who looked surly, all of whom had been augmented or modified.  All guarded the perimeter, sitting out in the cold, the bundling against the cold weather serving to hide the full extent of their modifications.

Men and women with broken veins from head to toe, with hands modified to blend flesh and technology to give them massive claws.  They would have more technology beneath the sleeves of their coats and shawls, to give them the strength to use those claws.

There were women with whips built into their arms, with digits at the end, thorny in a way that looked like they attached to flesh.

Men and women who were bloated, with what looked like organs externally attached to their bodies.  The connection to the body looked tenuous, to the point that I wondered if the organs could be detached and thrown, or if they were meant to be broken.

The stitched weren’t all military issue, either.

It was chaotic, the assortment.  Every time I looked, I saw more things that needed attention and watching out for.  They were collectively on guard, protecting a building.

We came to a halt, pausing to figure out how to approach this next part.  Gordon Two arrived, and he arranged the coats and blankets across the speaker’s shoulders and back.  Draping coats in place, he began buttoning the buttons of one coat through the slits of the next, so they formed a blanket of their own.

It was ingenious, and it even seemed to please the speaker.  He seemed content in this limbo, while our own people peeked, and rumors were passed back, ideas and sentiment finding whispered voices in the midst of all of this.

Many of the Beattle rebels were armed, but they weren’t eager to fight, and fighting this looked to be a mess.

“What now?” the speaker asked, under his breath.  I imagined he thought he was being subtle.

It didn’t particularly matter, but it helped if he thought he was being subtle.

I glanced a ways back, watching Jessie and our audience watch us.

She was gesturing, asking if I wanted help.

I signaled a no.

“What now?” I asked.  “We’re letting you go.  And you’re going to pass on a message.”

“You’re letting me go?”

“You’ll go back to your people,” I said.  “All you have to tell them is that the battle is over, it’s been decided.”

“It’s not my job, to pass on messages like that, not internally,” the speaker said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “In fact, it makes more sense if you’re the one that delivers the message.”

“I should give your coats back,” he said.

“No,” I said.  I moved past Helen, who drew closer to him, and I adjusted his regalia of coats, fixing the pockets where they were supposed to be buttoned, fixing the lines.  “No, keep them.  But you should hurry.  Go to your people before my people get restless.  Pass on the message.”

He frowned, and this time the frown was real, because he wasn’t trying.

But he rose to his feet, and glancing back at Helen and I for a moment, he then picked up speed, jogging back toward the others.

“So,” Gordon Two said.  “Are you going to explain Helen’s magic?  Is this a thing she does?”

“She simply told the truth,” I said.

“She can’t talk,” he pointed out.

Helen stuck out her tongue at him.

“Yeah, well, In the meantime…” I said.  I indicated the speaker.

“I know how this magic works,” he said.

The speaker had been stopped by the guards at the perimeter.  That was what was supposed to happen in these cases.

“Sixty second fuses?” Gordon Two asked.

“Or as close as you could get,” I said.

I might have felt ashamed at exploiting our temporary recruit, but the canisters loaded into his pockets were of a less lethal variety, and he’d been meant to endure.  Gas billowed from around him, and in his confusion, he span around, which only helped distribute the stuff.  He might have cried out loud in his alarm, but the gas choked him, which also served to silence that voice.

His unique clothing had been custom made to fit him.  The odd weights in the pockets and the bulky nature of the raiment went unnoticed for an experiment that was unused to such things.  He was large enough he wouldn’t reach behind his back.

All that had remained was to pop the canisters and set the timers going.  Helen and I had both done it between us.

The cloud expanded, and in the midst of it all, the core group of the experiments and stitched guards that had gathered to meet this unexpected visitor were disabled, left reeling.

I got the attention of my people with a raised hand, paused for dramatic effect, and then I gestured.

Attack.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.15

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“You’re not coming,” I said.

“Am too,” Helen said.

I had my jacket off and was wearing only my shirt, which was unbuttoned.  The sink in the apartment was the small oyster-shell variety, with only a thin lip around the edge, and in the process of performing my own maintenance, washing up and medical care, I’d balanced roughly thirty objects on the edges.  Moving and getting the things I needed was a bit of an exercise, but the exercise helped keep me sharp, as did the pain.

The bullet I’d taken to my fingers had split the right side of my ring finger and the left side of my middle finger, shattering and dislodging the nails.  The fact that it had split meant it could be knit together.

“I’m coming,” Helen said.  She sat on the toilet, which had the lid down, while Gordon Two worked on final touches.  “I’m restless and I didn’t get to do much of anything before getting shot.”

Which was my fault.  She didn’t sound accusatory, but then, Helen only sounded accusatory if it served her ends.  She was being sweet now, which was a dangerous pairing with her feeling restless.  I wasn’t sure how to communicate that to Gordon Two, or to the other student who’d followed the pair in, a young lady who was sticking to one corner.  She had likely been invited to help Helen with things that a male attendant couldn’t, but that role had to wait.

I wasn’t going to ask.  I’d retreated into the bathroom and taken to my own medical care to sort out my thoughts, and partway through they had found me, started to quiz me, and now there was a whole discussion happening.

I’d joked with Jessie about being like parents, and in this, not getting ten straight minutes of peace ever, we’d definitely hit the mark.

It had been more than ten minutes, between a rinse of my face and hair, looking after my back and shoulder as best as I could, scrubbing off blood, smoke, and dirt, and then finally tending to my hands.  Doing them any earlier would have meant risking getting the bandages on the fingers wet or dirty.  They’d get that way anyhow, but…

Well, I didn’t have a good answer to that.

“Syyyyyy,” Helen cooed.

“I’m thinking,” I said.

“You’re thinking too much,” she said.

“You’re weak,” I said.  “A small dog could beat you in a fight.”

“You’re weak too, Sy, and you’ve always been weak.  Even though you’re better than you were.  But you’re hurting too.”

I gestured for her to ease up.  I didn’t want bystanders to focus too much on my failings.  She gestured agreement.

“All other things aside, you want me to come.  I want to come.  This is easy.”

“That’s an awful lot of things we’re putting aside,” I said.

“But there’s a lot of things to not put aside, like if you leave me behind, then you have to worry about me.”

“Do I?”

“Do we?” Gordon Two asked. “Wait, why do we have to worry about her?”

“I’m trying to be good,” she said.  I could see part of her expression in the mirror.  She was wearing a very dangerous, sultry expression.  “But a young lady has needs, Sy.”

“Uh,” Gordon Two said.  He took his hands off of her.  “Uncomfortable.”

“You’re fine, hon,” Helen said.

“Are you threatening me?” I asked.  “Us?”

“No,” Helen said.  Perfunctory, simple.  “Needs.  The difference between needs and wants is that wants are optional.  Needs can be postponed but never wholly denied.  Ignoring them wounds the body, mind, or spirit.”

“Yes, yes,” I said.  “And you need to murder people, or your spirit will wither.”

“What?” Gordon Two asked.

“Hmm.  It might be more complicated than that,” she said.

“Mind?” I asked.  “Body?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “The lines get blurry.”

“Well,” I said.  “In the interest of nourishing body, mind and spirit, I could try swaying you with promises of sweets.  It might take some doing to detour and stop at the right place, but- no?”

I’d read the expression on her face as I glanced up from my sutures in progress.

“No,” she said, firm.

“But sweets are equivalent to murder,” I said.  “They go in the same bucket.  A bloody, sexy bucket.”

“What?” Gordon Two asked. “Wait.  Slow down.  What?

“If you’re confused and wary right now, then asking questions isn’t going to help,” I said.  I raised my eyebrow as I checked with Helen, peering through the mirror.  “I’m right about the sexy sweet blood bucket?”

Maybe I’d gone too far.  I’d been teasing Gordon Two as part of the discussion, but the girl in the corner had eyes as wide as saucers.  I needed to find a way to bring things to ground and keep them from crawling away from me.

Then Helen spoke.  “They substitute for each other, but they aren’t the same thing.  I can give you a cube of sugar and you can let it melt on your tongue, but it’s not going to be anything like a full meal, is it?”

The act of juggling thoughts about the conversation with Helen, figuring out how to pull things back to avoid scarring the girl in the corner, keeping at least one part of my brain focused on the greater game plan with the professors that were managing Helen’s brother and simultaneously suturing my fingers all ran together.  The trains of thought found themselves on a collision course, and I consequently managed to jab myself with the suturing hook, sticking it right into a part of my finger where I was trying to avoid adding to the nerve damage.

Something off, something wrong, then the pain of stabbing myself, and I wheeled around, no longer viewing the room through the mirror.  I only barely managed to keep from toppling the castle of medical supplies and toiletries I’d erected on the sink’s edge.

The room was empty.

No Helen, no Gordon Two, no girl in the corner.

The pain of the hook in my hand was making my hand shake, which played off of my confusion and alarm by almost emulating a kind of physical reaction.  I’d mastered my poker face long ago, learned to hide erratic breathing and shaking hands, and the artificial imposition of the same effect formed an emotional tunnel, past walls and defenses long established.

I was bothered and my hand shaking made me far less able to take it in stride.  I pushed the hook through, my eyes still scanning the small bathroom, and finished up my finger.

Think.  Get centeredEvaluate reality.

The number of faces and individuals lurking in my head was growing.  Secondary people and people I couldn’t even name, if they existed at all.

I had- what had I done before stepping into the bathroom?  I was bothered by the dissent.  I’d put on a cool face, tried to be reassuring, and assured everyone, from lieutenants to Jessie to Pierre and Shirley that we needed to be patient.  Patience, and we’d have an in.  Patience even though Helen wasn’t well.

Then I had stepped away, on the pretense that I wanted to wash and get tidied up.  I’d wanted space.  As much as I clung to the Lambs and the idea of the puppy pile, I’d woken up to gunshots and Lambs, then immediately moved to maneuvering that scenario, maneuvering among my people, settling Helen, ensuring that we made camp alright, that fears and worries were being assuaged and hopes fostered.  Little things, like how I’d spotted Rudy and Possum in the crowd.

The day had been a storm of that, and the night before had been surgery and torture.  I’d needed a moment, and I hadn’t even gotten it, because my brain hadn’t allowed me it.

I was worn thin.  New faces were using the opportunity to creep in.

They were getting better at catching me off guard.

I finished up my fingers, then pulled on gloves, enduring the pain and the pressure.  I met my own eyes in the mirror, and then fixed my hair, insofar as it could be fixed.

Helen and I had talked about the mind, body, and spirit.  I could look after the body and hope it helped on the other two fronts.  I made sure to drink some water, then double checked I’d washed away the blood and bandaged the wounds, reducing the appearance of scrapes and sorted out my appearance.

This was a show.  I had to represent myself well to my people, because a strong image would help forestall dissent.

I’d finished tending to hair, skin, and what lay beneath, as best as I was able.  Clothes were next.  I took off my shirt, throwing it out, and wore only my jacket and slacks, so my wounds would be better covered up.

I’d expected to have to walk to my room and collect some clothes from my luggage.  Jessie, however, was at the end of the hall, a fresh set of clothes in her hands.

“Good timing,” I said.

She smiled.

I snapped my fingers, adding, “But if you’d walked with a brisker step, you could have peeked.”

“Get dressed,” she said.  “I’m already anxious about delaying this much.”

“Is Helen doing that badly?”

“Helen appears to be stable,” Jessie said.

“Stable is good,” I said.

“Helen is capable of bleeding and not bleeding at her whim, she can projectile vomit blood if she so chooses, and she can use muscle strength to hold many of her wounds closed.  She is a consummate actor.  She might look stable, but she decides her appearance at a whim.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Alright.  Give me a second.”

I took the clothes and got dressed.  It was interesting to see what Jessie had picked out.  The clothes were crisper, the shirt had a cut with a more pronounced collar, the vest was meant to be worn with a suit jacket, but had been collected independently.  She had also included one of my other jackets, a fresh pair of black slacks, and clean socks.

She offered me a steadying hand as I got changed.  I pulled my boots back on, straightened, and swept my hands down my front.  Green shirt, black vest, black slacks and shined black boots.

“I feel like a magician.”

“Good,” Jessie said.

“Is that your thing?  Should I add it to your list of things?  Magicians on trains and sleeping dragons that can knock buildings down?”

She reached up and pressed a lock of hair down where I’d tried to oil it back.  “You’re joking a lot.  Is that Helen’s influence or is it anxiety?”

“You talked to Pierre.”

“He did mention something, but that’s a very small fraction of what I’m asking.”

I shrugged, glancing back at the corners of the bathroom.  “Nah.  Things are getting crowded in the ol’ noggin.”

“New ones?”

I shrugged.  “We can talk about it later.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Yeah.  What’s big Neph doing?”

“Bleeding.”

My eyebrows went up.  “Do tell.”

“Cannons, it sounded like.”

“I missed that!  Okay, that’s what we were waiting for,” I said.  I pulled on the jacket.  It did make for a flattering cut with the vest and shirt.  “Everyone’s ready that’s coming?”

“Should be.”

I suspected that Jessie had been trying to get me into a different frame of mind with the outfit.  To perform.  To show off.  I made the mental adjustments, paying attention to how I stood and how I acted as I descended the stairs rapid-fire, taking her hand in my own.

It was eerie to see Gordon Two and Helen together, talking.  Rudy and Possum were near Shirley.  Multiple eyes were on Jessie and I as we entered the room.

“Big Neph is hurting,” I said.  “That’s our opening.  It shakes the bug box.”

“I’ve stopped trying to keep up with the terms,” Gordon Two said.

“Okay, I’ll simplify,” I said.  I felt energized now.  These were people I liked.  Helen looked as lively as she had since being shot, but from what I could gather, she remained mute.  This was alright as a fresh starting point.  “Cynthia turned her attention to the biggest target.”

“Cynthia, to the best of our knowledge, is still underground, while the giant is trying to dig her up,” Jessie said.

“Cynthia, Cynthia’s people.  They’re coordinated enough they can be considered an organism,” I said.

“Interesting phrasing,” Davis said.

“Point being,” I said, “Is that she and her people are preoccupied with Neph.  Neph is preoccupied with them.”

Helen raised a hand, then indicated me, pointing.

“And as Helen so kindly points out, yes.  Neph was sent here for a reason.  He has Cynthia’s scent.  There’s nothing saying he doesn’t have mine or Jessie’s.  But mostly mine, since Jessie doesn’t officially exist and her alter-ego is dead.”

“Both of them, even,” Jessie said, quiet.

“Helen did not just communicate all that,” the Treasurer said.

Helen moved her hands, nodding emphatically while indicating me.

“She says I’m right,” I said.  Helen nodded.  Jessie’s eye-roll was dramatic enough that my mind supplied an imagined grating sound of eyeball on eye socket.

“I keep telling you guys,” Gordon Two said, “Best thing you can do is roll with it.”

“So let’s see,” I said.  “Gordeux, you’re in?”

“That’s not actually my name, but yes,” Gordon Two said.

“Treasurer?” I asked the square-faced young man.  He had lines of acne at the edges of his face that marked where skin oils had collected around masks.  There was a name for that look that I hadn’t quite placed.  I had teased Lillian about it before.  His hair had been cut recently, and had been cut rather short for the winter.

He dipped his head in assent.

“Who else?  Davis?  You’re here because…”

“I’m coming.  Please.”

“Even a please?  You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said, with no room for doubt.

“Alright,” I said.  I floundered for a moment.  It would have been nice to have him stay and keep arguing against dissolution, but my focus for the moment was on the performance.  We’d collected Professor Berger and we’d given up that trophy in exchange for Helen.

We needed another concrete win.  A trophy, and a step forward in progress.  We needed a professor, one who could patch Helen up.

“And…”

“Wad,” one of the thugs said.

“And Wad.  I like the name,” I said.  “Good to have some muscle.  That leaves… well, Helen’s coming, I take it.”

“What?” Jessie asked.  “No.”

“Yes,” I said.  Helen nodded yes, emphatically.

“You’re going to have to explain this one to me,” Jessie said.

“We had a long discussion about it,” I said.

“No you didn’t,” Gordon Two said.

“We did.  She was stubborn, but she won me over,” I said.  Helen paused, then nodded.

That got the two of us suspicious looks from several people present.

“I’m not sure about this,” Jessie said.  “On several levels.”

“She didn’t join us to be relegated to the sidelines.  We’re better unified.”

Jessie bit her lip.

“We’re better unified,” I said, again.

“We magnify each other’s strengths, but we magnify weaknesses and character flaws too,” Jessie said.  “You’ve only really improved with the fighting since breaking away from the Lambs.”

“I’m…”  I’m still fairly abysmal on a level playing field, I thought.  “Yeah.  True.  But short of Ibbot, who knows her as well as I do?  And he only focuses on the meat.  Which I admittedly have no clue about.  I get her.  I get that she needs this.  We unify, we cover each other’s weaknesses and magnify each other’s strengths.  It’s better with her out there.”

Helen stood.  She wasn’t in proper working order, but she had been tidied up, and some careful arrangement of hair and fresh clothes had done a lot to make her look better.  She didn’t look strong.

She wrapped me in a hug.

“See?” I asked.

“I see that the two most manipulative members of the Lambs are teaming up against me,” Jessie said, “Playing things up for sympathy and making it so I look like the bad one if I insist she stays.”

Helen and I both nodded with a great deal of force.  We hadn’t coordinated, but we did the exact same thing in near-perfect synchronization.

“Alright,” Jessie said.

I nodded.

As a group, we entered the apartment building’s lobby.

This… it marked a kind of important divide.  The students waited as a congregation, with Mauer standing by, watching.  Not all of the three hundred students were present.  Some had no doubt done the heavy lifting to get bags inside, some would be sleeping after not having slept the night before, they would be taking baths.

But others were staying away because their faith had been broken or bent.  I noted Valentina’s absence.

Even in this crowd, there were people at the fringes who weren’t ours.  They were rebels, which put them in our camp, but they weren’t yet ready to make the sacrifices and take the risks.

I couldn’t really recognize faces, but I could recognize them by sentiment.  Without pinning any particular example to any particular students, I could say that the students on the fringes who looked less enthusiastic were the ones who had done the least amount of work possible, who’d taken to drinking or figuring out how to brew drinks, who had made party drugs and pushed the line with our few rules enough that they had mandated attention and warnings.  I saw a fair number of delinquents and rooftop girls.  I saw some lower-ranking members of the student council too.  They included all types.

A dozen, maybe two dozen?

They counted the easygoing among them, and the easygoing often made friends easily.  They counted the strongly opinionated among them, and the opinionated were rallying points for those with like feelings.

Mabel sat off to one side.  As students rose to feet or made their way toward us, our army of sorts, she remained sitting.

Her smile looked like she was trying to reassure me, saying that she would stay behind, she would wrangle people.

But with a full hundred students joining us and migrating outside, we were leaving a fractured group behind.  I worried Mabel would be outnumbered.

I gave her a brief wave as we left, and a salute to the rest of the room.

Stepping out of the dark hallway and into the street was a shock.  From darkness to sunlight reflecting off of scattered white surfaces and puddles, from a muted warmth to a bitter cold.  Cramped confines to the open city.

We were far enough away from Neph that the view of the giant’s movements and the sounds of what was going on were disconnected.  I could see the puff of explosions on his naked chest, the smoke rolling away from him.  The muted sound of explosions were like the clap of thunder following a lightning strike, though with far less reverberation, far less reach and volume.  It was only now that we were outside that I was truly aware of it.

There were gunshots too.  I knew that the various rebel factions had equipped themselves with some specialized arms.  Cynthia had favored exorcist rifles at one point.  I wasn’t sure they would do much damage to Neph, but the guns I was hearing were powerful enough to be heard at a considerable distance.

There were crowds out in the street, as we got out of the more secluded neighborhood.  People had vacated buildings, feeling as though things were far enough away that they could make a getaway to the outer parts of the city.  It meant traffic and it meant groups of people trying to load essential provisions onto carriages and carts.

Neph wasn’t putting up a very dramatic fight, but he was large enough that even an explosive cannon round caused only a moderate amount of damage.  I couldn’t see the individual wounds, but I could see discoloration where wounds were grouped and where fluids drooled out of wounds.

If Helen could take several bullets and stay standing, I wasn’t sure this would be that successful.  He’d been built for warzones, probably for targeting enemy leaders and destroying them in an unignorable manner that could demoralize whole armies, and his toughness would be designed.

Except that the damage kept targeting the same areas.

This wasn’t Cynthia’s first go-around when it came to giant-slaying.  To use weapons of a sufficient magnitude, scrambling clear of an enemy that could cross a street in a single awkward stride, setting up position in the right areas to fire another battery, it took skill, effort, and a good strategic brain.

“Who’s winning?” the Treasurer asked.  He was hanging further back, with the group, Davis beside him.

“Would be nice if both sides killed or crippled one another,” I said.

Helen gasped.

“Well, it would be ideal if the big guy over there smashed Cynthia’s group to a fine paste and then fucked right off instead of coming for us.  As is, we’ll plan for the worst and if the ideal happens then we can celebrate.  How’s that?”

She sniffed, then reached out to pinch my arm.  Her grip wasn’t sufficient to penetrate my coat.

I wondered how much stamina she really had.

“Keep an ear out,” I told her.  “We’re looking for the speakers, the experiments who were shouting instructions to people on the street.”

She nodded.

“And while we’re talking,” I said, my voice quiet, “If you were to use a metaphor where you talked about me eating sugar as being a hollow, artificial, unfulfilling substitute for eating a real meal, I’d be right to think something was wrong, yeah?”

She paused, giving me an odd look with an ordinary eye and a bloodshot one.  Then she nodded.

“Yeah.  Would have to be a mental safety net, my brain telling me something was off.”

Again, she digested that.  After a long moment of just walking, the arm she’d used to pinch me now resting on my shoulder as she periodically drew on me for balance and support, she gave me another nod.  It was as if she’d thought hard about it and decided I was on the mark.

She pointed, and I moved my hand, gesturing.

Behind me, Gordon Two, Davis and the Treasurer all relayed instructions, making sure that the crowd of a hundred bodies kept up and were paying attention.

Jessie was the one to gesture, and this time, it was the sign for weapon.

Of the small army we had flocking behind us, one in eight or so had guns.  Others had knives.

In the distance Neph toppled another building, waging his war against Cynthia’s people.  His success and failure were our clock.  One way or another, if Cynthia lost or was routed, there was a chance he would gravitate toward us, which would be bad, or he would return to his handlers, which would make taking action a thousand times more difficult.  If Cynthia won, well, we had to worry about her going back to the last place she’d seen us, and that would put her in close enough proximity to our people that moving hundreds would be risky.

There was commotion nearby.  We inched closer, me gesturing for quiet, for our army to stay back.

Civilians.  Angry civilians.  They had gathered, throwing one of the round ‘speakers’ to the ground, and they were beating the everloving snot out of the fellow.  Some were using hand-held weapons.

“Stop!” I hollered.  Some smoke inhalation from earlier in the day gave my voice a rougher edge.

They were angry, they were scared, and in the heat of the moment, they stopped what they were doing, leaving the experiment to bleed.

They turned their hostility toward me.

Jessie gestured, and I knew what the gesture was.

“We need him,” Jessie said, very diplomatically.

I could see those words rile the crowd.  But as our rebel army formed at our back, the rising anger was given pause.  It made it easier to speak, and it made it easier to speak with weight.

“We’re going after the people who caused all this,” I said.  “He’s going to lead us to them.”

Helen moved closer to me.  She posed a little, smiling, looking dangerous in posture and expression.

Ah, she wanted to play it that way?

“Want in?” I tried.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.14

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Helen’s brother stood straight for the first time in a while, finally visible over the shorter buildings.  His mouth was slack, his eyes wide enough to reveal the whites even from a good ways away.  He arched his back so his belly stuck out, his arms down and away from his body, and he began writhing, rocking his upper body left and right.

“What’s that about?” Jessie asked.

Helen was sitting in a chair, with three of our student doctors tending to her.  Her back was to the wall next to the window, but the window was in arm’s reach.  She raised a hand and tapped the window clumsily.

“Hey Helen,” I said. “Want me to interpret?”

She moved her hands in an abstract way, as if trying to reassure me.  I was reminded of the doctors at the Academies who worked with clay to figure out the shape and ratios needed for a new creation.

One of her eyes looked up at me to double check I was paying attention, then tapped her collarbone with one fist, only barely missing the young lady who was investigating one of the bullet holes through her ribcage.

“You want to be clear… no.  You’re clear, you’re sure?”

She made a low, pleased gurgling sound in her throat, then, hands in stiff claws, she swiped the window.

“You’re positive that he’s… scratching.”

She pointed her hands up.

“Scratching the sky.”

She paused, looked down at her body, then looked up at me and reached for my chest.  The other, intact Helen that only I could see was doing much the same from the other direction.  I could follow the trajectories and figure out the destinations.

“Nipple,” I said, quickly, before she could get a grip on me.  Even if she was weakened, I wasn’t about to let Helen of all people flip my nip.

I was really glad I had the translation thing down as well as I did, because her hand dropped away, leaving me intact and pain free.  Bullet dodged.

“Oh, I see.  Have to say it with the right tone of voice.  Ahem,” I said.  I adopted a prim, Helen tone of voice, like she liked to do when she was being ridiculous.  “It’s really quite obvious.  In my expert opinion, he’s trying to scratch the sky with his nipples.

Helen moved her arms carefully so as not to interfere with the multiple ex-students working on her, and she managed a light applause.

“Yes,” Jessie said.  “Absolutely, that’s what he’s trying to do.”

“He’s stiff,” I said. “He was hunched over and working hard, tearing up the road, and he just stood up and ooh, ouch, it hurts, but oh, not used to being mobile and active, he wonders how he’s supposed to deal with this?  Not socially conscious or used to his own body at all, so…”

I spread my hands.

“…So he tries to scratch the sky with his nipples,” Jessie said.

I smiled.

Helen’s brother remained where he was, bending over backward, barely balanced, his arms dangling behind him, facing skyward.  He wriggled for a moment more without righting himself, and then made a noise that carried over the city.  A moan.

Helen reached out.  I caught her hand and squeezed it.  “He’s just grumbling.”

She gave me a weaker squeeze back.

The ex-student who was working on Helen’s stomach sat back in the chair.  He rubbed at his damp forehead with his forearm, his hands bloody to the wrists.  I handed him a damp cloth from the bowl.

“Thank you,” he said.  Helen was sitting in the chair, her sweater cut off and her blouse unbuttoned, though the shirt hung so it covered her breasts.

“Thoughts?” I asked him.

“Terrifying,” he said.

Helen gurgled.

“That’s one thought,” I reminded him.  “Without a second or third, it’s hard to mark out the points, draw a line and figure out where the thought is going.”

“Uh, yeah,” he said.  He looked at the other two students, both girls, who were working on the side of Helen’s face and her leg, respectively.

Jessie spoke, “Terrifying because you’re not confident, because Helen is a marvel of science, because…”

“All of the above?  I had my doubts when you asked for the the best neogenesis students in the room, but that call was right on the mark.  I’m pretty good with this stuff, I worked in a lab with graduate doctors putting together life from scratch.  Soups, vats, artificial uteri, blends, picks, mashes, top-downs, bottom-ups, display pieces.  Hell, I even got to watch over shoulders from the beginning as the G.D.s did a human lookalike from scratch.  He couldn’t do anything except sit in a chair and look pretty, but it gave me a sense of what goes into this.”

“Narcissus?” the ex-student who was digging bullet fragments out of Helen’s leg asked.

“Narcissus two.”

“I never heard about the second one,” she said.

“Yeah, well, it was less groundbreaking.”

“We need you to piece her together enough that she’s stabilized,” I said.  “Just long enough that we can find someone with the skills to do a more comprehensive fix.  Can you do that for us?”

The student had a look in his eyes that reminded me of Lillian.  I’d seen it when she was focused on her external muscle project.  I’d probably worn it myself countless times.  His thoughts were on the work, the science, the ratios and chemical names and the obscure names for components of a nonhuman body flying through his head.

“All those things I mentioned?  The soups, the containers, the top-down, bottom-up, take this working piece from this project and graft it to that one?”

“All those things,” I said, echoing him.

“All of the above,” he said.  “It’s all in play.  It’s like… I’m trying to think of how to explain this to ignoramuses.”

Excuse me?” I asked.

Mr. All-of-the-Above startled at the tone.  “Oh!  No, no, I didn’t mean that as an insult, only that you don’t know Academy science.  You’re ignorant in that you don’t know.”

“Quit while you’re behind,” the girl who was working on Helen’s face said.

“Okay,” he said.  “Sorry, Sylvester.  Sorry Jessie.”

“It’s fine,” I said, making a hand gesture that he should keep going.  “Explain it to the ignoramus.”

He was flustered enough he couldn’t quite seem to gather the thoughts necessary to make a good analogy.

“If I had to take a stab at it,” the girl working on Helen’s face said, “If you gave me a maths problem, I could do it.  I’m pretty good at maths.  But there’s enough at work here that it’s like asking us to go through a maths textbook, front to back, there are a few curveballs slipped in here and there that might even qualify as end-of-term projects, and you’re asking us to hurry through it.”

I pursed my lips.

“We might need equipment,” Leg-girl said.  “There’s something in the hip I’d have to grow a replacement for if it’s even replaceable.  I think its an endpoint for one of three distinct systems that control how it moves.”

“She,” Jessie said, voice firm.

“She.  Sorry.”

“We’re being particular and sensitive because we’re tense,” I said.  “Helen needs to come out of this okay.”

“Three systems, you said?” Mr. All-of-the-above asked.  “Hydraulic, pneumatic…”

“And voltaic, I think,” Face-girl said.

“Yeah,” Leg-girl confirmed.  “The hip thing, I think it’s a hydraulic sub-system.  Fluid-driven, with fluid being drawn to key points or released, to tense or relax other parts or exert strength.  If one key point fails, others take up the slack in the hydraulic system.  If the hydraulic system fails due to damage to too many key points, then the pneumatic and voltaic systems take over.”

“Except too many systems have taken too much damage,” Face-girl said.

Off in the distance, Helen’s brother had righted himself.  He was being less careful about the city now, it seemed.  He gripped a clocktower and was in the process of toppling it.  It was sturdy in construction, but the only horizontal pressure it was supposed to endure was a stiff wind, not one of the world’s largest humanoids pushing on it.

“Is she running purely off of voltaic strength?” All-of-the-above asked.

Helen shook her head.

The clocktower toppled.  The resulting crash was most likely audible to just about everyone in the city.  The building rumbled as though Big Neph had showed up and was shaking it.

Each of the three young doctors stopped what they were doing, eyes wide.

“It’s fine,” I said.  Helen was tapping her chest, where a gaping hole stood out over her heart.  “Helen is saying the heart-driven system is in working order.”

“What?”  All-of-the-above asked.  “No, honey.  You have a few heart-like structures and supporting structures, but the hydraulic system is most definitely not working.”

Helen made a ‘ptah’ noise, then looked up at me, rolling the one eye I could see through the blood-sticky hair.

“Be good,” I told her.

She looked at Jessie.

“You might as well show them,” Jessie said.  “So long as it won’t kill you.”

“Oh, is that how this works now?” I asked.  “You ask dad and he says no, and so you ask mom?  And since when am  the reasonable, conservative one in this pair, Jess-”

Helen went limp, head lolling back, and blood began pouring out of her wounds anew, with one or two arterial spurts in places where there shouldn’t be arteries.

The overlapping shouts and cries of distress of the ex-students drew attention from elsewhere, or perhaps they’d heard the crash of the falling building and were coming to alert Jessie and I.  Four or so of them crowded at the door and on seeing Helen, they panicked.

She stopped the bleeding on her own and began the process of pulling herself together, righting her head and sitting up straighter.

It took a moment for the ex-students to gather themselves.  The one at Helen’s leg spoke first, in a very quiet voice.  “I would recommend not doing that again.  You know yourself better than we do, apparently, but that put a lot of stress on an already stressed hydro.”

“Oh,” Mr. All-of-the-above said.  “Oh lords.  Wait, if that’s the hydraulic setup doubling as cardiac while being entirely capable of functioning at standstill, is the pneumatic-”

Helen gurgled, already nodding.

“And voltaic?” he asked, indicating his head with one bloody finger.

Helen nodded.

He made a face like he was in pain.  The other two ex-students didn’t look very happy either.

“Thoughts?” I tried again.

“Bad news is I don’t think I’ve ever been this out of my depth, and I’ve sat an exam for a course I hadn’t actually attended the lectures for.”

“You can bullshit exams,” I said.  “We need a liberal application of bullshit here.  Just enough to postpone the final results.”

“No,” he said.  “No.  I failed that exam.  I ended up at Beattle, remember?”

“Okay, but this isn’t an exam,” I said.  “This is-”

“-Worse,” Mr. All-of-the-above said.

“I can barely wrap my head around how she works,” Face-girl said.

Mr. All-of-the-Above wiped at his hands anew with another wet cloth.  “But, in the interest of being positive, there’s good news.”

“Do tell,” I said.  “Please.”

“It looks like she knows something about how she works.”

Helen nodded.

Mr. All-of-the-above smiled, “Even a nod here and there can help.  She might be the equivalent of next year’s maths textbook when we haven’t even finished this year’s, but she can let us know if we’re going the right direction.  That’s good thing number one.”

I liked his positivity.  I didn’t want to admit it out loud, but it was positivity I was sorely in need of.

“Good thing number two?  She’s sturdy.  Hot beans, is she sturdy.”

“Ptah,” Helen made the sound.  “Tch.  Tch.”

“Helen says you shouldn’t call a young lady sturdy, sir,” I translated.

Helen clapped her hands again, and Jessie rolled her eyes.

“I think I can pull this off with her help,” Mr. All-of-the-Above said.  He paused.  “Maybe.”

“Yeah?” I asked.  I looked at the other ex-students.  The two girls looked a little less positive, but they felt able to give me confirmation.

Jessie visibly sagged with relief.  I took a deep breath for what felt like the first time since morning.

“But if we don’t get some more knowledgeable attention trained her way soon, this is going to be a lot less pretty,” Mr. All-of-the-Above said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I moved closer to the window, one side of my body touching one side of Jessie’s.  Feeling the stiffness in my back as I positioned my head, I rested my chin on her shoulder, reached up, and placed her blonde braid so it laid on top of my head.

We looked out at Big Neph, who was treading heavily through the rubble he had created with the toppling of the clocktower.

“At least we have an idea of where to look,” Jessie said.

“Mm hmm,” I murmured.

“We should wrangle our people,” she said.

“Already thinking about how,” I said.

“Good,” she said.

I lowered my voice so only Jessie could hear me.  “That said, I want nothing more right now than to get Helen fixed, then to crawl into the biggest, fluffiest bed with the heaviest covers with you right next to me, and stay there for longer than necessary.”

“That sounds nice,” she said.  She made her voice very small, so we wouldn’t be overheard.  “Just to sleep, though?”

“We’d have to talk, of course,” I said.

She twisted around, so my chin no longer rested on her shoulder, and she gave me the over-the-glasses librarian look.

I was already grinning, mocking her with my expression, making it clear I wasn’t being serious.

She extended her arm, and hooked my elbow with hers.  I caught on right away, and we walked to the door of the room together.

“You do have obligations,” she said.

“Rebel group to coordinate, Crown States to save, Infante to topple…”

“You owe Mabel a bath,” Jessie said.  We were out of earshot of the others.  “You promised and you’re overdue.”

“Ah, right,” I said.  Then I raised an eyebrow.

“She and I talk,” Jessie said, before I could even ask the question.  “She doesn’t want to overstep or get in the way, so she comes to me and asks.”

“That’s good.  I like her.”

“I know you like her.  I like her because she’s honest, forthright, and sharp enough to not completely fall behind.  She took good care of you when you had the plague crawling across you, and that earns a lot of points in my book, because you’re important to me,” Jessie said.

I reached up and picked up the braid that normally draped over one of Jessie’s skinny shoulders, and fixed its position.  I let my finger brush her neck.

I liked how put together Jessie was.  The glasses, the hair, the clothing, it was all done with deliberation.  She smelled like the hair products and soaps girls used, faintly floral, and I knew the smell had been carefully chosen, after an analysis of all the scents she’d come across in her lifetime as Jamie the second and then as Jessie.

She took her time responding, letting me focus on her for the moment.  When she finally spoke, she said, “So give her her bath, because she deserves it.  Invite her to sleep in the ridiculously fluffy bed with the heavy covers with you and me.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jessie said, reaching up to put a hand on either side of my neck.  “Because you only ever sleep well if you sleep in a puppy pile.  You were content in Tynewear, you were at ease, sitting on that windowsill with our music playing and tea beside you, but you didn’t truly relax.  You don’t stop unless you have a collection of people relaxed and in close proximity to you.  That’s just your warped psychology.”

“Probably,” I said.  I let my forehead rest against hers.

“Now put that psychology to work, Sy,” Jessie said.  “Tend your flock.  I remember some things Ibbot said about Helen, and I remember bits and pieces about Lillian’s work on her.  I’ll try to provide guidance.  If we need you, I’ll come get you.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

We broke away from each other, and I glanced back at Helen before heading down the hall.

We hadn’t settled in the apartments, in the end.  The concern was that Cynthia’s people would backtrack and find us.  I wasn’t sure the fear was especially valid, but we had a few hundred ex-students and scattered gang members with their individual fears and concerns.  A token effort to move a few streets down went a long way.

Students had settled in various rooms of the building.  The buildings at the periphery of the city had been evacuated, many people had taken their most prized possessions with them, and it was relatively easy to move ourselves in, simply to borrow beds, couches, loveseats and cots.  In the effort to be conscientious, we’d tried to occupy only the empty apartments and the ones where people had clearly moved out, but having three hundred bodies made that impossible to fully guarantee.

The various group leaders were supposed to be keeping tabs on their people and keeping their individual groups to set areas, but the lines had blurred over the last several months; it was hard to truly say who belonged where.

To get any sense of where three hundred people in two separate buildings were, I needed to find people like Bea, Davis, Gordon Two and Mabel.  I had been distracted by my own need for medical attention and Helen’s situation, so I’d dropped the ball, and needed to figure out where it had rolled off to.  I looked for open apartment doors and listened for conversation, hoping that a combination of the two would mean finding some students who were willing and able to point me toward one of my lieutenants.

“…not saying the perks are bad or that I regret going, but how old is he?  Fifteen?  Sixteen?”

“Thereabouts.”

Seventeen, actually, I thought.

Students were talking, and I’d found myself eavesdropping.

“Listen, I know I don’t know everything.  But I think about the people I saw in the three different Academies I attended at, and there were some damn smart kids there.  Whip smart, enough it scared me.”

“Your point being?”

“That they were still kids.  I’m not saying he doesn’t pull some good stunts.  I’m not saying Jessie doesn’t have her moments either.  I’m just saying that they’re not quite adults.”

“Sedge was good.  I liked Sedge.  It was better living than I thought it would be.  Would have liked more time in the city, but I totally got that there were logistics issues with that.”

“Okay, not denying that.  But Sedge felt like something they stumbled on and took credit for.”

“I don’t agree.”

“You don’t?”

“No.  There have been a lot of things you could say that about.  Things I know you have said things about.  But I think it’s far more likely that they know how to stumble.  They know where to look.”

“Maybe.  Maybe.  Really stressing the maybe here.  Except even if that was true, is that what we want?”

“I’m happy to wait until we see the results of the big play.”

“I was happy to wait, but I heard Valentina’s pitch, I got a good look at how Cynthia’s Spears operate, I can’t help but think that if Valentina was on the level and the Spears were open to new recruits, I wouldn’t mind something more directed.”

“Directed?”

“They know what they want.  They have drive, passion, they’re angry.  They give me the impression they surgically target, they do the job well, and they come back in one piece with their enemies heads in a bag.  Sylvester and Jessie-”

“Won.  They came out ahead.”

“They say they did.  And I probably believe them.  But there’s always the question mark, isn’t there?  How much is our leader telling the truth?  How much is he pulling our strings?  There’s not as much direction there.  There’s not a lot of definition.  He has some old ties to the Academy and knows his stuff, okay.  He has ties to the kids we saw-”

“Same thing.”

“Kind of.  Vagueness, right?  Ambiguity.  He’s got ties to Fray that people talked about at first and now nobody really wants to say anything straight out about it, Sylvester and Jessie are running the show and people are mostly fine with it, but… it feels like they operate on instinct, in grey areas, making a lot of moves that are supposed to make sense later.”

“They have a good track record, don’t they?  Or is this going to be another ‘they say’ thing?”

“I don’t know.  But when they came limping back and started a conversation with those Spears that Davis and Valentina had us surrendering to, well, they were limping and bleeding.  They run on instinct and if you gave me the choice between the two things, maybe I’d rather not be limping and bloody because instinct didn’t go far enough.”

“You want to be a soldier?”

“I joined because fuck the Academy.  Fuck the Crown.  Fuck them.  Fuck them for making me disappoint my mom and aunt and sister.  Fuck them for not handling the plague properly, fuck them for the constant wars.  All that fucking, it needs some thrust.  Point me at some moving bodies and let me make them stop moving.  I want that, and all I’m saying is that if the offer was given to me right now, I might think about joining the Spears.”

“Yeah, maybe.  You make a decent case.  Why only ‘might’?”

“Well, the Spears look like they have an awful lot of spears and not enough spear-holders, if you know what I mean?  We’ve got more skirts over here, and some of them are even school uniform skirts, which are the best ones.”

“Ah huh.”

“What?  I’m a guy!  I’m supposed to indulge.  You’re supposed to indulge.”

The conversation continued, but it quickly veered into the topic of ‘indulging’, and the biologically improbable interpretations of the act, as told by two people who had never indulged.

My thoughts lingered on the criticisms, with the lingering being deep enough that I was unaware that Pierre had been standing at the other end of the hallway for some time.

I passed in front of the open door, not glancing within, and I could hear the pause in conversation as they glimpsed me.  I ignored them and joined Pierre.

“Point me to my lieutenants?” I asked.

“Can do,” he said.  “How is miss Helen?”

“Odds are better than expected, so long as we can get some prompt access to a black coat with the right qualifications,” I said.

“Good,” Pierre said.  We descended the stairs to the lower floors of the building.

“Did you catch that conversation?” I asked.

“Some,” he said.  “I think it’s the nature of young men and women to wonder who they are and where they belong.  I would blame that basic nature before anything else.”

“Maybe,” I said.  A few of the criticisms still felt a touch too on point.  “How widespread is this sentiment?”

A lot of other people might have waffled, asked clarifying questions.  Pierre didn’t.

“One in ten or one in fifteen, if I had to guess,” he said.  “Valentina is one of them.  I would be more worried about the fact that they’re finding listening ears.”

“Alright,” I said.  “We’ll find something for them to do soon.”

“I think a lot of people had complaints, but during the honeymoon phase, they kept them in check,” Pierre said.  “I saw this happen with previous employers.  Gangs.  One bad event gives a lot of people permission to voice doubts they had been keeping to themselves.  This scare was that.”

“I just don’t like the fact that the doubts exist, and I don’t like the idea that they’d rather be with Cynthia,” I said.

“Only a small and vocal few, mind you.”

“Even so.”

“Even so, yes.  These things often blow over, Sy,” my talking rabbit said.

“But not always,” I said.

“No, and rarely in a tidy fashion,” Pierre said.

“We’ll find something for them to do soon,” I said, again.  “As soon as Helen is in at least partial working order, we move.”

“She’s coming?” Pierre asked.

I looked at Helen, who was walking down the stairs with us, not a drop of blood on her, her smile sunny.  “You coming?”

“Yes,” Helen said.

“She’s coming,” I said.  “She wouldn’t want to be left out in circumstances like this.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.13

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I had gone to a lot of trouble to build my first phase of an army, all individuals with reasonably respectable backgrounds and some degree of know-how.  It had required planning, subverting the gangs of a small city, subverting Fray’s plans, and then weeks and months of acclimatizing the students to life beyond the academy.  Months more work still remained to do.

“I can’t believe they lost,” I said.

“Surrendered,” Jessie said.

“I’m so disappointed,” I said.

I surveyed the situation.  The area we’d left our people in had seen some sparse gunfire and some fires that had already petered out.  We were in the process of creeping up on a row of apartments where our guys’ carriages were still parked outside, only half of the bags still mounted on them.

“Against a tenth their number,” I said.

“There’s no evidence of that,” Jessie said.  “There’s no telling what their numbers are.”

Our guys were inside and we could only see glimpses.  Their guys were mostly inside, with a few standing guard.

Helen draped over Jessie, who was helping her to walk.  Helen wasn’t lifting her head, and our improvised medical care had her wrapped up awkwardly in several places, but she was an oddity, a creature that only a very select few could really work on.  That was what made me worry.

Halfway across the city, her brother was hunched over, only his shoulders and part of his back visible over the skyline.  Now and then he moved, producing a horrendous crashing sound.

“I wonder if he’s having fun,” I asked.

Helen smiled through the curtain of blood-stained hair that covered her face, moving her head to try and look up at her brother.  She couldn’t seem to see him with the way she slouched forward and then let her head droop, conserving energy.

Her resilience in the face of multiple gunshots was giving me a newfound respect for what her brother must be like.

“Does he enjoy things?  Does he have good days?  Imagine the Lambs with him in tow.  There’s Evette, there’s Jessie, then you’ve got Ashton, Gordon, Helen, Lillian, and-”

“You’re leaving yourself out?  And including me as a girl?”

“Just imagining hypotheticals.  So you’ve got the core group, and the dice fell down differently and so there’s no Sylvester, maybe throw Hubris in there from an earlier point of view, because I like the idea that the real Evette would come up with something like that as part of her problem solving mindset, and so Gordon gets Hubris as a puppy that grows with him.  Because I really think he took to that dog and other-Gordon deserves to have him for longer.”

“That’s a nice thought, Sy,” Jessie said.  Helen nodded.

“And then you just stick Neph in the group.  Subtlety out the window.  Gordon’s got Hubris and sends him to go attack the bad guy.  Nope!  Neph strikes, attacking with his sleeping dragon.”

“And the nice glowy what-if is ruined,” Jessie said.

“They could totally have a rivalry, even.  Because Gordon would need to have one with someone to be happy and healthy.”

“Okay, Sy,” Jessie said.  “You’re getting off track.”

“It makes for interesting thoughts on which lines the group breaks on.  Is it the unconventional thinkers, with the Ibbot siblings and Evette on one side, and the rational, serious types with Gordon, Ashton, Jessie and Lillian-”

Jessie covered my mouth with her hand.

“You’re always a little fuzzy around the edges when you come back from the brink, Sy,” she said.

“Mmph,” I said.  Then I gestured.  Lies.

“It’s true,” she said.  “You get a little bit wobbly.  Minor blood loss and exhaustion might be helping to keep you wobbly.  But those are our people in there.  We made pledges to them.”

I nodded, Jessie’s hand clamped against my lower face.

“Of the last forty-five times we’ve been in a situation like this, me asking you to be serious, with good reason to be serious, you’ve only listened half the time.  It’s actually very close to fifty percent, which… really says a lot.  Are you actually going to be serious?”

I stuck my tongue out, and as slowly as I was able, I licked the palm of the hand that was clamped over my mouth.

I did get the faint break in composure I was looking for.  A flash, too brief for my battered senses to even fully assess before they were gone, then a glance away, as if she was disappointed in herself for giving me that.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, her hand dropping away.

“It was either that, or I was going to gesture something like ‘big sleep dragon’.”

“We don’t really have a gesture for dragon.  Lizard-beast?”

I gestured.  Man.  Meat.

Her composure broke for real.  She was so caught off guard that she snorted a little.  She pushed her glasses up to cover her face with her hands.

“It sounds quiet,” I said, getting serious.  “No sound from inside, except maybe the patter of talking.  We’ll know more as we get close.  The gunfire was brief, it really does look like a surrender, like you said.  What can see through windows suggests that they’re calm, not agitated.”

“We should still focus,” Jessie said.

“I don’t know about you, blushing and thinking about Helen’s brother’s pendulum, but it’s an established fact that I can think about multiple things at once and it’s usually pretty good thinking.”

“Yeah?  Then regale us with your brilliant idea, sir.”

“I don’t have the slightest of clues how to tackle this.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“This is your turn to step up, say you know the building layout and we’ve got this.”

“In a strange city, with no prior experience?”

“That’s where you say that you recognize the building design, it’s by so-and-so an architect, he builds things certain ways, and so we know there’s going to be an access point here and here and there.”

“I don’t have anything.  But I’m going to read up on architects, if I get a chance.  There can only be so many tall building designers.”

Helen reached out, waving a hand in front of us.

Her hands moved, and I could see the concerted effort she was making to get shaking fingers into specific shapes.  The more effort she put in, the more her fingers seemed to shake, until they locked up.

She remained like that for a long moment, hands in claws, head bowed and face covered by hair, before I reached out to take her hands.  Her head moved, resting so it lay sideways on Jessie’s shoulder.

“You want to say something?” I asked.

Helen nodded, her head still sideways.

The phantom Helen, intact, stepped to the fore, Fray’s arms around her shoulders, a possessive embrace.

Think like Helen thinks.  I can finish the sentences of any of the Lambs.  The other Lambs have changed some, but I can figure her out like this, can’t I?

Her hand pulled free of mine, and as if it were heavy, she lifted it, indicating a direction.

As if answering, her brother tore up the next part of the street.  I could hear the distant avalanche of falling construction as he let it all settle.

“Okay,” I said.

She indicated the building that Cynthia’s soldiers and our rebels were gathered in.

“Right.”

Then, with uncooperative hands, she reached for the side of her skirt.  There was a pocket hidden among pleats, and a small weight in the pocket.

My mind skipped along possibilities.  Both Mary and Helen often kept some money in the same leather fold that had the badge we’d been given ages ago, that bore the Radham crest and the short message and signature that gave us a degree of access.

Had given.

The intact Helen held up the badge, indicating the emblem.

“Radham,” I said.  Helen nodded.  I then eyed the other Helen, who beat bloody Helen in touching her throat.  “Buildings and cities are lifeforms.  They need air, water, food of a sort, they need a spine.”

Helen was nodding with as much energy as I’d seen from her since she got shot.

“The building has its own veins and arteries, airways.  You want to use the airways?”

Helen nodded.

“I’ll have you know that those airways are almost always half-filled with dust, they have nails sticking through everywhere, and half of them have ecosystems to keep them clear of rodents and pests.”

“But it’s a way of accessing them,” Jessie said.

Helen made a clumsy gesture.

“And Helen thinks it’ll be a healthier, more robust system, because it’s a taller building,” I said.

“I’m halfway convinced that you’re just making this nonsense up and saying Helen said it because I trust her sincerity more than I trust yours,” Jessie said.

I made my best ‘innocent’ face.

Jessie brushed at my face with her hand.  “Don’t do that.  Put that away.  It’s creepy.”

I smiled and looked up at the building.  It was tall, it wasn’t especially pretty, and it didn’t look like it did a fantastic job of being utilitarian either.

“Our kids deserve some sacrifice, huh?” I asked.

“They gave up their old lives,” Jessie said.  “They deserve more than just some.”

“How long do you think we have to wait until the next shift comes to relieve the guys standing outside?” I asked.

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Jessie said.

“Guess,” I said.  “And come on.  We want to be ready when they do.”

“It’s already been a while, but it wouldn’t be too trivial a length of time.  I’d have to guess ten minutes.  Fifteen at most.”

“I bet it’s one,” I said.  “Want to bet who’s more right?”

We crossed the street from a point they couldn’t easily see us, and then we made our way closer to the building.  I mentally counted the seconds, and gestured clearly as the time limit hit.

I was off by twenty seconds.  We spotted the soldiers guarding the side door of the apartment building, and the relief guard stepped out to greet them as we took stock of their number.

I’d figured a minute because I had seen soldiers checking their watches with increasing frequency, because they weren’t lighting up new cigarettes, and because they were increasingly antsy, as if they were only feeling the cold now that there was a very short time before they could go inside.

Three soldiers to a door.  Their job was less to shoot and more to keep watch and make sufficient noise to alert the rest if trouble came up.  That posed us the task of going through them to get inside.

“You should wait here,” I told Helen.

She shook her head.

“I know you aren’t going to.  But you should,” I told her.

She made her hands into claws, scratching them in the general direction of the soldiers.  I wondered if that was perhaps a little overly optimistic.  She barely had it in her to stand straight, let alone fight.

Three was doable, in a specific set of circumstances.  We needed the drop on them, we needed them to be unarmed, or we needed them to be out of earshot of any reinforcements.  Preferably two of the three.

“Helen,” I said.  “Can you give me a cat noise?”

She barely moved, but my version of Helen gave me a theatrical-quality unimpressed look.

“Fine.  Can you give me a dying cat noise?” I asked.  “Those are the best ones.”

Helen opened her mouth, and she managed to produce a sound that resembled an old cat in a screw press; it was tortured, ragged, and yowly.

I motioned for her to stop, and I listened, waiting.

As predicted, the soldiers commented on the sound.  They were concerned, they didn’t want to leave their post, but a sound like that bore investigating.

I wanted to draw them out, to create a window where they could be ambushed or where we could slip past.

Then I heard one of them say it.  “Get some of the others from inside.”

I sighed.  This wouldn’t be easy.

All in all, it had taken us far too long to find a chink in the defenses, prodding and testing the waters at three different entry points.  At the last one, the side door at the opposite end of the building to the one we had tried first, we ended up waiting until one of them was distracted before making our move.  When one had stepped off to the side to take a leak, we got the attention of the remaining two.  One had stepped inside, and Jessie and I had each taken one of the other two before the three of us slipped inside, just ahead of the incoming group of reinforcements.

They were careful, organized, and they had patrols throughout the ground floor of the building.  But Jessie had enough of a sense of how these places were designed that she’d been able to lead us to the utility closet with access to the access door.

The access door featured a hatch in the floor that would lead down to whatever beast in the cellar was providing the voltaic power to keep the building lit, probably.  The hatch in the ceiling led to the air ducts, which kept heat and airflow available in the various large apartments.  There were few enough doors that I suspected that one apartment had nearly the same footprint as any small, one-level house.

Valentina was talking.  The student council vice president, she was good at talking, at the emotional appeal, the marketing end of things.  It sounded like she and her former superior on the student council disagreed on something important.

Davis sounded as heated as I’d ever heard him as he responded, “Is this how we’re supposed to forge a path ahead, now?  We abandon anything that doesn’t show the slightest sign of working out?”

Yes,” Valentina said.  “Yes, absolutely yes.  What do you expect, Davis?  Sylvester and Jessie are brilliant, but they were never people I expected to be working with in five or ten years.  This is a stepping stone.  Just like time in the Academy was.”

“You see us with them in five years?”

“Maybe!  Listen, Davis- no, Davis, listen to me, don’t turn your back.  Listen.  The seas are stormy out there.  We’re individual ships without a port to call home.  If our current employers aren’t up for keeping us fed, sheltered, safe, and giving us an opportunity to grow and learn, then we go someplace with someone who can.”

“That’s disingenuous.  You’re arguing to your audience, not me.”

“Explain,” the Treasurer cut in.

“She buried the appeal to safety in there.  All of you are feeling pretty darn unsafe right now. That’s alright, that’s natural.  But what we’re doing, going rebel, it was never going to be safe.  Now that’s finally hitting home, and I’ll be first to admit it’s lousy, but this was the deal with the devil I and every single one of you happened to sign.  We knew this day would come.  Anyone who pretended different was lying to themselves.”

“I have heard Sylvester admit a half dozen times that he doesn’t expect to live another two or three years.  The deal with the devil was that we would make ourselves available to Sylvester and Jessie so long as they made themselves useful enough to deserve us.  It was always going to be transient.”

“Can I break your confidence?” Davis asked.

“About?”

There was a pause.  I began to crawl further along the wooden ventilation shaft, feeling my way to avoid the nails and carcasses.

The pause, I realized, was Valentina and Davis having a brief whispered conversation.

“Enough of that,” I heard a man say.

“It wasn’t meat to be in confidence,” Valentina said, at normal speaking volume.

“It was a private conversation, I wanted to be sure,” Davis said.  “You told me you fell in love with Sedge and what it represented.  That you felt happy.  Our bosses provided that.  That’s worth something.  It’s worth us not turning around and immediately jumping ship.”

“They have guns.  I don’t want to get shot at, I don’t want anyone that I’ve gotten to know to get shot at.  I fell in love with Sedge because of the people who occupied it, because of the freedom it represented.  I’m grateful to our employers for giving us that venue and giving us some direction, but what made Sedge Sedge wasn’t that.  We did it.  Collectively.”

“You’re pulling a ‘queen and all her subjects’ on me.”

“What’s this?” another student asked.

“Appealing to loyalties of the crowd,” the Treasurer said.

“Ah.”

It looked like our students were defecting, or enough were defecting that it was impacting how the enemy was handling them.  Cynthia’s soldiers had to have seen us enter the city.  They had adjusted and moved their forces, and moved against our people as we were getting sorted out.  But the forces here were now holding position, which meant they expected company to arrive.

“A gun to my head counts for a lot.  I don’t know about you,” Valentina said.  “But if they’re willing to give us work and shelter and do what Sylvester and Jessie were willing to, I’m willing to accept the gun as a motivator and do what I might be willing to do otherwise.”

“That rebel group that’s sitting in the other room is ninety-nine percent male.  Beattle, by virtue of association with all-girl’s schools, has a disproportionate fifty-fifty balance.  Do the math, Valentina.  They won’t necessarily want you for your brains.”

“That can be taken two ways, Davis.  Both are unflattering.”

“Hold up,” the Treasurer said, talking over Davis’s response.  “Stop.”

“I phrased that poorly,” Davis said.

“You did,” Valentina said.

“Why don’t we give someone else a chance to raise their voices?”

The discussion continued, with Mabel taking the floor.  I moved on, with Jessie and Helen following behind.  I could guess how most of the conversation would unfold, who would go where, and how things might flow from that point.

The surrender hadn’t been enticing enough.  The prospect of recruiting several hundred students had been.  I wasn’t sure who had fought for it or against it, but they had made the offer and now all bets were off.  Valentina and Davis were debating things with students as an audience.

But they weren’t the voices I wanted or needed to listen to.  The real danger was the rebel group that inhabited the building.  They were the ones who were holding our people hostage.

The trick was to navigate the vents until we found a point where we could overhear the rebels.  It made for a lot of crawling through ducts, two fingers on one of my hands in bad shape, my shoulder protesting at my being bent over.

I’d offered Helen a chance to sit out, and she hadn’t.  I could most certainly do my share while she was struggling.

We found a spot where acoustics brought noise into the vents, a crossroads between multiple vents, with the next best thing to an open space in the middle of the chosen sector.   A ladder extending up was especially useful, because it provided headroom.  Helen, Jessie and I sat there, Jessie in the middle.  Helen clung to her and draped over her, and Jessie turned away from Helen to fixate on my shoulder, undoing sodden bandages.

I called out, using those same acoustics to speak out to this entire part of the building.

“Cynthia is dead or dying.  The woman crawls desperately through the drains, and the giant is tearing up the street as fast or faster than she can move.  She will make a mistake.  She will get tired.  Your leader will die, if she isn’t dead already.”

All chatter had died down.

Someone in the enemy ranks shouted out, “Where are you?”

I was tempted to give a joke answer, but then Jessie pre-emptively elbowed me.

I elbowed her back.

“Cynthia is your lowest priority,” I spoke.  “There’s a group of your people due east of here.  They sent you ahead, or you reported to them.  Franz led that particular group.”

I let the words hang.

There was more shouting and there were more attempts to provoke a direct response from me.  Some even called out for me to show myself.

That could come later, if they were especially uncooperative.

“Franz is dead,” I announced.  I paused, to give that reality some gravity.  “The others… paralyzed.  Eyes lost from sockets.  It was messy and wholly deserved.  I focused on disabling them.  Smoke inhalation will have helped.  The building is made of treated wood, so it wasn’t burning well, last we saw.  There are two places you could be, and they aren’t here.”

There were more shouts, more threats.  There were several gunshots, aimed at the ceiling.  From our vantage point, we could see down the length of most of the ducts.  None of the shots seemed to penetrate the ducts themselves.

They could come in after us, was the big threat, but that was a tricky proposition for all involved.

“I’ve told you what I did to the others.  That was for hurting a friend of mine.  Use your imagination to figure out what I’ll do to you if you kill anyone important to me.”

I heard more gunshots, and the timing was such that I was pretty sure that it was a response to my threat.

Jessie pointed, however, and I could see the faint light that was coming into one of the long ducts near us, a faint shaft of light spearing up.

Shooting at us, not at the kids.

It was too difficult, with what went into sturdy buildings like this one.  I could hear the frustration in the words they exchanged, even if they had been closer or louder so I could make sense of it.

“Cynthia is desperate, a giant on her heels, and she’s resorted to crawling through ice cold water in the drains.  Franz’s group burns.  Every second counts.  You can go if you let us slip the noose.

“Never forgive,” I heard a voice.  One of Cynthia’s diehards.

“Then try forgetting, not forgiving.  This whole embarrassing rebel-on-rebel episode has to stop.”

There were more responses, more shouts, many vulgar.

I could sense the change in tone though.  I could hear the conversation between groups.

“Killing me gets you small fame and a small bounty,” I said.  “Then because you chose this, you chose to tie my hands and force me to act, you’re left  leaderless.  No Franz, no Cynthia.”

It was, in a way, a turning of tables.  They had been exploiting much this situation with our own rebels.

All that said and done, the best thing to do was to be quiet.  Opposing discussions continued and intermingled in a way that mirrored the debates I’d heard between Davis and Valentina.  They started talking about the people who should go, if anyone went.  Following that, the if disappeared, they started talking about more people going.

I closed my eyes, my role done, and rested my head Jessie’s shoulder, my hand on her leg.

We gave them time, and they used it to make their decision.  They’d known something was wrong, I suspected.  The communication and coordination was too great.

When I emerged, I found the area empty.  They’d left our people alone and vacated the area.  A mutual truce.

They were soldiers, but they were soldiers of a stripe that needed someone to follow.  Threatening the loss of Cynthia gave them pause.  Taking Franz would take away more security.  With the first and second in command out of the picture, there wasn’t much to be said and done.

The congregation of Beattle rebels emerged from the rooms they had been sequestered in.

I met Valentina’s eyes, and she looked away.

“It was good,” I told her.  “Good bluff.”

“That was a bluff?” Mabel asked.

It wasn’t a bluff, but I wasn’t about to say it.  If she was going to stick around after making a vehement case against going, I needed to give her the chance to save face.

She smiled, and it wasn’t a sure smile, and I smiled back, with roughly the same confidence.

Something would have to be done longer-term.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.12

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I was sitting down and surrounded with ruin and smoke, and I couldn’t remember exactly how I’d arrived in that position.  My memory wasn’t that bad; the mental image of Helen being shot was clear enough that I knew it hadn’t disappeared outright.

I couldn’t focus my eyes on any individual point, which was another sign that something was wrong.  It was a kind of double vision that closing one eye didn’t help, the world coloring outside lines.  Parts of me that were safely nestled inside me hurt.

But the thing that helped me put two and two together was the fact that my ears were ringing and sounds were distorted, I could hear a voice clearly.  Mauer, speaking like Mauer tended to speak, and he sounded clear as a bell.

The Mauer that kept me company didn’t tend to speak.

“…bring into justice both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed…”

I had heard the man rally people, but I had only ever really heard one of his sermons, and that had been years ago.  I wasn’t picking this up strictly from that.  Other memories, other details.  This wasn’t Mauer any more than Evette was the real Evette.

“…take revenge, my dear friends…” Mauer proclaimed.

My eyes widened.  I couldn’t yet wrangle my vision and thoughts enough to make sense of the battlefield, but I could see a solid kind of movement that wasn’t smoke, people, and I could move toward them.

Something had detonated, and it had detonated closer to the far end of the room.  The fire, the smoke, the pain, it was all fallout from that single event.  Jessie.

“…leave room for wrath, for it is written: it is yours to avenge, and you will repay!”

Eyes still wide, staying wide even with the stinging touch of smoke,  I put the pain out of mind.  I made my body move, and this was a thing I had done before, a thing I would do one last time.  I crawled and I felt the creak of floorboards beneath my hands, where they were supported only at one end.  My weight made them threaten to break in half dumping me into whatever lay below.

It was cold, for all the smoke.  Cold, despite the red glow of fire.  The winter air was blowing in, a wind stirred by the difference of hot air within and cold air without, trying to find reconciliation.

“All of us growl like bears, and moan sadly like doves,” Mauer said, his voice dropping lower, for gravity.  He was a very clear image in a distorted, senseless world, and the mention of doves made me aware of Fray.

Fray was harder to see in the smoke, especially as she wore black, but I could see Helen from the shoulders down, and I had to look a distance over to see where Fray stood, because Fray never appeared alone.  Copious amounts of blood dripped down to stain Helen’s simple white dress.  I could have looked up to see Helen’s face.  I didn’t.

“…we hope for justice, but there is none.  For salvation, but it is far from us,” Mauer intoned.

There were others nearby, and most of them were reeling as much or more than I was.  I didn’t have my knife, but the first person I happened across was suffering more than I was.  He had a gun, and he didn’t have the strength to keep me from taking it from him, an act that took two fumbling tries.

“Whuh,” the man spoke, and he sounded very far away.  “We need to get out.”

“Give me your hands,” I said.

“What?” he asked, voice drowned out by other sounds that I realized were figments of auditory trauma, ringing and a sound like a perpetual avalanche.

“Hands,” I said.

He didn’t fight me as I reached for one of his arms, hauled it across his chest, and then took the other hand, raising it up.  He cooperated, even, to bring them up, as I took hold of them, entangling his fingers in my own.  I tugged on them, and he took that as encouragement.  Struggling to even gather his senses, it was an anchoring point, something to help him get centered and work toward.  He managed to sit up, and moved his legs around to where he could maybe prepare to stand.

“…For man is born for trouble, and sparks fly upward,” Mauer said.

I used my foot to block his legs from moving the full way around.  Then, forcing my brain to focus, using all of the practice I’d had over the years to seize control of my brain and put it to the one task of dealing with the current confusion, I lined up the gun, and I fired it so it penetrated both of the man’s wrists with one shot.

If I hadn’t already been nearly deaf, my own gunshot would have

I had to drop to one knee, falling on top of his legs, to keep him from kicking me or getting away from me as he screamed, arms flying back and away, flinging blood and gore into the air in an arc.

I had to work far harder to line up a shot to destroy his ankles.  I wasn’t sure, but I might have only damaged one ankle.

“I’ll do to them as they have done to me,” Mauer said, right in my ear.

“I get it,” I said.

“I’ll pay them back for what they did,” he said, his monstrous arm settling on my shoulder, fingers digging into flesh.

“I get it,” I said, again.  “Enough.”

One of his wrists shattered by a bullet, the man on the floor in front of me clubbed me across the face with one arm.  With the state of the arm, I imagined it hurt him more than it hurt me.  He certainly screamed like it.

Breathing hurt.  I wasn’t sure if it was the sudden, bitter influx of cold air, the smoke, emotion, or something else, but it made for a bitter sort of intake of breath.

The screaming was drawing attention of the others.  Someone fired a gun, more a warning shot, or something meant to provoke a response.

I brought the pistol to the man’s face, pointing it at his jaw.  I could take that too.

“Count your bullets,” Mauer said.  “Plan.”

I counted.  Four bullets remained.

Rather than shoot, I brought the handle of the gun down on the man’s mouth.  I heard and felt teeth break.  The screaming quieted, but the moans of pain and alarm were almost as loud.  I brought the gun down again, smashing one lip and several already broken teeth.  He tried to turn his head, to spit out the first taste of blood and the pieces of broken teeth that had fallen back into his mouth, and I grabbed his jaw with one hand, wresting it back so it faced up, facing me.  The wrapped-up fingers at the end of that hand protesting from the fierceness of my grip, and they protested again from the secondary vibration as I hit the man’s face again, splitting his upper lip to the nostril.

He raised his arms, shielding his face with the parts that weren’t damaged, and I swung.  The pistol’s grip struck the parts of his arm that the earlier bullet had already ruined, and he pretty quickly abandoned that line of defense.

My perception of the world veered in a direction, and I toppled onto the floorboards, eliciting a protest.  He had flipped over, and my balance wasn’t entirely there.  I was gaining more focus, I’d been able to aim, but I wasn’t at my best.  It took me a second of staring at the four limbs and one head in front of me to figure out how it was put together as a person.

Another second to figure out how I wanted to take it apart as a person.

I reached for hair, gripped it, and pulled it back, before smashing it into the floorboards.  It didn’t knock the man out, but a combination of the blow and the earlier smacks with the butt end of the gun served to reduce nose and mouth to a bloody ruin.  He lay there, eyes open and staring, bleeding, unable to use two arms and one leg, and I was able to convince myself that even if I wasn’t satisfied, I was ready to move on.

I swayed as I rose to my feet.  My lack of balance threatened to topple me, and so I made myself fall strategically.

With every second that passed, I was gaining control of my faculties.  The problem was that the opposition was also recovering.

Two men had fallen in a pile.  I reached for weapons first, grabbing one gun, clumsily pushing a knife out of reach of either of them.  The clumsy part was that I’d put it out of my own reach too.

The more alert of the two men said something, but between Mauer’s ramblings in the background, the noises in my ears and the creaky-crackle of wood declaring a dangerous lack of structural integrity, I would have only really been able to understand the man if I’d been listening and focusing.

I wasn’t listening.  The time for that had come and gone.  I could remember the looks on their faces as I’d talked to Franz.  The stubbornness.  I’d underestimated it.  Was I supposed to believe it was gone now?  That only now, confronted with a tangible danger, they were willing to compromise?

I aimed my gun and fired, putting a bullet through the soft flesh of stomach of one man, so it would exit and penetrate the soft stomach of the one he was lying on top of.

He fought, using the time where pain brought clarity but shock prevented the pain from immediately debilitating him.  He fumbled for and reached for the knife, failed to get it at first grasp, and then, laying on his side, he kicked out at me.

With one bent arm, I protected myself.  Then I struck out, a pistol gripped in each hand.  One hand went for the bullet wound, the other went for whatever was vulnerable.  A punch aiming and failing to get beneath the leg to go for the genitals, a punch for the wound, a punch at the soft side of his stomach.

In the midst of the scuffle that followed, him bigger and stronger, me capitalizing on his existing injury and every further weak point I was able to create, I climbed on top of him, using my body to keep him from reaching down, and endured a brief battering of his hands clubbing my back before getting in position to drive my knee into the wound, hard.

He curled up around my legs, possibly in an attempt to stop me, possibly in an attempt to protect the wound.

He went still, very possibly taking an opportunity to breathe, to find respite, to think.

I took that opportunity for myself, using the stillness and the fact that he wasn’t rocking me this way or that to point the gun at where his spine was.  I was fairly sure that the placement wouldn’t stop his heart and breathing, but would end the use of his lower body.

The one he’d been lying on top of had been knocked senseless in more ways than just the one.  While the man behind me hollered in stark horror, I climbed on top of the third man and made sure the senselessness was permanent in at least one regard.  I smashed his face with the butt-end of the empty pistol, aiming for the eye socket.

By the fifth blow, my hand was going numb from the secondary impact of the shock.  I switched hands.

He didn’t even fully rouse as I made sure that his eyes were unrecoverable, that he’d need top of the line surgery before he even got that far.

There weren’t any others on this part of the floor that were moving.  I moved between the prone and supine bodies, shooting to paralyze.

The smoke was thicker, the sounds of people around me were clearer, and it was getting easier to move and balance.

I knew that fire was burning somewhere, but it wasn’t spreading with enthusiasm.   The smoke would be a better danger.  The explosion had destroyed part of one exterior wall, and as the wall had come down, the floor had split.  Now the vast majority of the others, Helen included, were down on the first floor, along with the part of the floor that had collapsed.

Periodically, however, one of them would fire a gun.  They weren’t leaving, and that told me something.

The floor had folded, half of it now forming a steep incline.  Where floorboards had broken, some broken boards stuck up like fangs, forming a kind of uneven barrier toward the middle of the room – one that was hard to use as cover to wage a war on those below, because it would’ve been cover that consisted of parts of the surrounding floor.  Trying to get too close threatened to see me tumbling through broken floorboards.

But I took hold of one of my victims, the smallest paralyzed one, and despite his very limited struggles, I was able to drag him a part of the way across the floor.

The smoke was bad now.  Every breath felt like I was drawing in salt, letting that salt settle on wounds.

I didn’t want to get in the way of any gunfire from below, so I got the man as far as I could, then lay down on the floor, kicking him and pushing with my feet.

He teetered over the edge, then rolled down the slope.

I could hear the people below.  There were a few more gunshots, flying up to strike ceiling and roof above.  Many of the bullets created tiny circles of daylight that illuminated broad shafts of smoke, disappearing and reappearing as heavier plumes of smoke appeared across them.

“Lamb!” one of them called out.

I remained silent.

“You should answer,” Mauer said.  “I would.”

That’s where you and I are different.

“I know you’re up there!” the soldier cried out.  “Lamb!”

I took hold of a piece of floorboard that looked as though it had splintered in the middle, and tore it free.  There were nails still in it, of a more old-fashioned type, not the kind that stitched would put together; they were more like long, narrow wedges.

“Lamb, the smoke might attract the giant, if it doesn’t get other attention.  Crown soldiers, whatever else they’ve got up their sleeves.  It’s done.  You win.  We’ll cooperate.  Whatever you want.  But that gun you’ve got up there.  Put it away.”

Again, I remained silent.

Silence had its uses, and I didn’t trust myself to speak.

I knelt, wavering a little, my ears still a cacophony of nonexistent sound, and checked my gun was out of ammunition.  I then disassembled it in part, tossed the chamber across the room, and then tossed the remains of the gun down.

“Are we going to pretend there’s no other guns up there?” he called out.

I didn’t respond.

Smoke continued to pour forth.  People down there were coughing, and I was suppressing my own coughs.  The orange light of flames was dying out, not growing, but the side effect of that was that the chill was eating into me.

My back was to a little table that served as a kind of storage chest and a table for the armchair that had been there.  That same armchair now rested uneasily on broken floorboards that speared out horizontally.

The people I’d broken and dismantled were still gasping, making pained noises, and struggling to escape, when the closest thing to a real way out was a window none of us could easily reach, followed by a drop resembling one from a third story building, probably onto jagged rubble.  The lot of them were paralyzed from the waist down or with all four limbs disabled.  Some weren’t moving at all.

“I’m going to guess,” the man below called out, “That you throwing Brian down here was meant to be a message.  You don’t want to talk for whatever reason.  Right ho.  But don’t go thinking that Franz spoke for all of us, or that we thought he was just.  He was in charge, we obeyed.   You know Cynthia, you saw Franz.  Crossing them would end us.  We have to obey, yeah?”

“If you don’t respond,” Mauer said, “they’re going to be pushed to desperation.”

Good.

“Your funeral,” Mauer said.  He settled into a more comfortable position, sitting across from me.  Fray still stood off to the side, hugging Helen.

The men down below were chatting.  A tense discussion about possibilities, threat, and about the screams they’d heard.

“Are you feeling biblical, Sylvester?” Mauer asked.  He wasn’t a complete image like the Lambs were.  He wasn’t someone I could coordinate with.  When it came to the Lambs, I could finish their sentences.  I could write their sentences, figure out how they would act and operate, even when they weren’t there.

“Biblical,” I murmured the word.

“You heard those fragments of verse from somewhere, for me to dredge up and parrot back to you,” Mauer said.  “Interesting, what sticks with you.  You know you’ve made other reference before, scant as it was.”

I could hear rocks being moved down below.  Part of the stairwell had collapsed, their path to the exit was clearly blocked, and so they wanted up and out.

They simply had to get past the gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper wasn’t feeling particularly merciful.

I could hear boards creak and protest.  I could hear the scuff as boots sought traction on flooring that now acted more like a wall, a steep uphill slope.

Emerging from my safer spot, I looked for and saw the first of the hands reaching up, over, and out for a handhold.

There were four of them, all climbing in concert, at separate points.

I brought the plank down, swinging, stabbing the first hand with the nails at the end and affixing to the floor.

The remainder, I simply opened fire on, targeting hands and arms, or in the rare case I was able to move close to the collapsed portion without risking being shot at, I aimed at feet.  I disabled rather than kill, with one possible exception for the young soldier in an oversized military coat that brought his head down and forward as I was squeezing the trigger.  It might have been a graze and it might have been something that shattered his forehead and leaked some of the contents of his skull out over his face.  I only saw the spatter of blood and I saw him fall.

“You lunatic!” the soldier from before called out.

Not wholly wrong.  I’m seeing things.

“Hearing things,” Mauer amended.

The one I’d nailed to the floor was struggling for a handhold.  He wanted to reach a point where he could reach over and pull the plank free.

My back and shoulder were aching and my shirt was sticking there in a way that suggested frank blood.  The bandage had slipped, the sealing broken, no doubt.  The cloth tatters that protected my two ruined fingers were already slipping loose.

With that in mind, I was slow and careful as I got my hands on the chest-cum-teatable.  I opened the door on the side and let the bottles tumble out, and then I hefted it.

The guy at the edge where the floor was broken was scrabbling for a better grip or a foothold.  He found it in the same moment I hefted the little three-foot-by-two-foot-by-three foot table.  It landed atop the nails.  One or two would have been knocked aside, twisting in his hand.  The others would likely have been driven deeper.

Whatever footing he’d had, he lost it.  His body weight tore at the nails, to the point that I thought his hand would rip free, tears forming between the nails and the spaces between his fingers.  From the looks of it, the flesh caught and bundled up, forming something more tenacious and hard to tear as it gathered.

“What do you want!?” the one below called out.

“What do you want?” Fray asked me, from behind me, where she stood in smoke and shadows, near one of the places the smoke was pouring out from damaged roof.  “What are you fighting for, Sylvester?”

You asked me that in the beginning.  I don’t remember everything, and I forget a lot, but I remember that.

“What do you want?” the de-facto leader hollered, voice ragged.  He broke down into fits of coughing.

Smoke settled, to an extent.  Yes, it rose, it was getting steadily worse, there weren’t enough holes in the roof and walls to let it escape.  Breathing was a chore.  But they weren’t having a jolly time of it down there.

“If you do this, we all die!  You included, Lamb!”

“I don’t think that’s what you want,” Fray said.

“You need us as much as we need you!”

No, I thought.

There was a long pause.

“Do you want the girl?”

I remained silent.  I kept my eyes fixed on Mauer, my gun in hand.  I watched the soldiers I’d dispatched crawl and struggle on the floor.  One was still nailed to the floor, the rest of him dangling from that ruined hand.

A little snippet of hell, this.  Not quite hellish enough, but I’d have to decide on some ways to patch that up.

“If you want the girl, we can bring the girl.  Just give us a ceasefire.  Give us something.”

I considered for long moments.  I stared Mauer down.

Reaching out with the pistol, I used the butt end to rap the floor.  Knock.  Knock.

“That a yes?” the man called out.

I knocked again.  I didn’t want to talk, my voice strangled with smoke and emotion.  I didn’t want to talk anymore for the time being.

There was more discussion.  I had the impression that smoke and circumstance was the driving force in their decision to accept.

I could hear the order.  The command to dig, to ‘find her’.

Then the change in tone of conversation.

“We got the body,” the leader said.

I knocked once.

“Coming on up,” he said.

Helen’s hands had been tied, and it seemed very fitting that even now, unbreathing, she embraced one of the enemy.

I ignored her, and stooped over the new leader of Cynthia’s soldiers here, and I checked him thoroughly before allowing him to climb the rest of the way up.

He was followed by several others.  Three men, each of whom I patted down, each of whom coughed and looked around at the work I’d done, at blood and fragments on the floor.  One made a move toward the man I’d nailed to the floor, and I moved to get in his path, standing ten feet apart from him.

“Leave them for now,” the de-facto leader said.  He wore a helmet that covered much of his face.

I suspected it would be back to business as normal as soon as I was dealt with.  They could do that at any time.  The only things I had going for me was a familiar with dark, smoky places, and an ability to endure pain and get moving faster.  I’d already spent the second coin.

“There’s more down there,” the leader said.  He looked up.  “We’ll have to use the window up there.  We get your friend’s body up and out and you’re satisfied, yeah?”

I nodded once.

It took his friends to help him.  I watched, cold, as the leader was lifted up to the beam that now hung, connected at only one end.  It made for an uneasy tightrope walk of sorts to the window Jessie had escaped through.

They’d get in my way.  I couldn’t just ask to be helped up like their new squadron leader had.  I couldn’t even try gun, because the climb up required both hands.

No.  Something simpler.  I would get their help without asking.

One used the boost provided by the other two to reach for the beam.  The other two glanced momentarily at me.

I ran, and it wasn’t a pretty run, or a fast one.  The smoke meant I wasn’t taking in enough oxygen.  I was distracted, and my balance was still a little off.  The effect of the bomb blast or whatever it had been made every part of me hurt.  My shoulder was bleeding through whatever cracks had formed in the seal and gaps in bandage.

But I ran, choosing to run through plumes of smoke, to better surprise.  I ran, setting foot where I was pretty sure the support struts ran under floorboards, marking the breaking point where long floorboards had broken in two.  The action meant I made less sound.

By the time they realized I was making my move, I was in close.  I ran along the back of one and up to the back and shoulders of the other, who was busy climbing up.

His instincts were good.  The moment something was wrong, a sudden weight on his back, he let go of the beam,dropping.

But in moving my feet to try and find footing to climb up the rest of the way, I’d set foot on the side of his face and his shoulder.  I was able to launch myself skyward and catch the beam.

The men on the ground immediately set to looking for weapons.  One ran to the edge and shouted for a gun to be thrown up.

I could have aimed and shot at them to buy myself time, but I didn’t trust my balance at this time.  No.

I ran along the beam the soldier with Helen was still walking unsteadily on.

He turned, and he held Helen draped over one shoulder so she served as a partial shield.  I could see the blood.  Too much blood.

“Not going to let you pass,” he said.

A figure moved behind him.  Sensing her or feeling the movement along the beam, he lashed out, smacking her across the face, and then grabbed her.  It was a clumsy maneuver, but there wasn’t much space between Jessie and the window.  She had to reach out to catch the side of the window.

“Do you want to lose another?”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want to lose any more.”

My eyes were downcast.  I could see Fray and Mauer in the midst of black smoke.  Helen stood a distance away.

“Jump down,” he said.  “Jump down, I’ll toss this one down onto the floor down there instead of out the window.  They’ll decide what to do with all of you.”

“I think I burned that bridge,” I said.  “Besides, you’re missing the most important part of this.”

“Fuck you, Lamb,” the soldier said.

Not quite the ask and answer I’d hoped for.  Still…

“You hurt my friend,” I said.  “In terms of me, that means your friends down there suffer.  I have no more patience for any of this.  It means you suffer.  You don’t get to go easy.  Understand?”

“Fuck yourself,” he said.  He looked down at his buddies, who had guns now.

Guns and half-decent shots at me, but with a risk of collateral damage to their buddy here.  Smoke didn’t help, nor would it help if they were feeling as unsteady as I had been.

“That’s in terms of me.  Suffering.  Justice.  But in terms of her…

He turned his head, looking more at Jessie.

“Other her,” I said.

Helen, head still lolling, slipped her arms free of the restraints and wrapped her arms around his head and neck.

Panicking, the man reached up, and he tore her arm away from his neck.

He’d broken her grip.

Helen’s grip.

What followed was frantic.  Helen slipped and nearly fell, grabbing the beam instead.  Jessie helped catch Helen before she could lose her grip on the beam too, and I charged forward.

Between the two of them, each with some form of hold on the soldier, we bulled him off of the beam.  My sole contribution was to stumble into the two of them, getting them and myself out of the window.

The window swung outward.  Jessie held it and Helen, Helen held Jessie, and I held onto both.  We collided, all three of us, with the wall as the window swung out.  My shoulder flared with pain, Helen looked like she was slipping, and Jessie had the burden of the two of us.

But Jessie had her own kind of tenacity.  She didn’t lose her grip, and her grip was what was essential.  That and the structural integrity of the round window.  Slowly, surely, she transferred the two of us to handholds.

It was glacially slow for us to climb down.  Jessie, meanwhile, took care of the latter part of the revenge.  A bit of alcohol, a match, and the beam that served as the lifeline was set on fire.  She quickly made her way down.

Once that was done, we all collapsed in a heap at the foot of the building, which in itself had collapsed from a cube into a kind of triangular cylinder.

“Helen,” I said.

Helen, hair draped across her ruined face, sticking where there was blood, managed to produce a bubbling of blood and spittle at her mouth, the bubbling expanding, then collapsing.  She didn’t have the strength to even lift her head.

“Sorry I forgot Rick and dropped the ball there.”

She spat, a ‘pff’ of blood and drool.  Dismissive.

“It was what it was,” Jessie said.  “There was no negotiating our way out of that.  You could’ve done everything right and still failed.  Cynthia occupies that kind of space.”

“Fuck,” I said.

“I did what I could with the fertilizer bomb.  Things weren’t labeled, I had to guess, assume the two of you hadn’t moved from where you were.”

“We hadn’t,” I said.

Helen formed another expanding froth of bloody bubbles at her lips, participating in the conversation.

“Having fun there?” I asked.

I thought I saw something that might have once been a smile, in that bloody mess that was her face.

“She never occupied quite so much of our collective attention as Fray or Mauer,” Jessie said, quiet.  She reached out and stroked Helen’s head.  “But she’s not to be underestimated.  She has her own kind of strength and leverage.”

“Fuck her,” I said.  “She needed to be put down a long time ago.  I hope Helen’s brother wins.”

Helen bubbled some more.

“Yeah.  For now, we get Helen some help.  Let’s go look after our people.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.11

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The fact that Cynthia’s people knew where the others were and what they were up to was a pretty good sign that Franz here was telling the truth.

I’d grown too attached to that crowd.  The idea of them being on the bad end of a group like Cynthia’s was unpleasant, to say the least.  They served as my surrogate Lambs in many ways, and the idea of bad things happening to Lambs was always something that concerned me as much or more than any risk to myself.  That was very much why there had been multiple rules and many a reminder about who could sacrifice themselves and when.

“That’s all very unfortunate,” I said.  “I hope your people end up alright at the end of it.”

“Sure,” Franz said, sounding like he wasn’t buying the bluff at all.

Helen tightened her grip on Franz a fraction.  Her legs were folded tight around the red-haired clone’s neck.  They constricted, tightening on the young woman’s neck.  Helen’s voice was calm as the clone’s eyes widened, one hand going up to Helen’s leg, “Carm, honey, stop talking.  I can hear you.”

There were people outside.  If the clone had communicated anything, then the enemies we were dealing with now might have reinforcements.

We’d walked right into the hornet’s nest, and now we didn’t even have the queen hostage.  We only had one of her top soldiers.

“Let’s talk cooperation,” I said.

“I think if I cooperated, then Cynthia would have my head,” Franz said.

“If you don’t cooperate, then Helen would have yours.”

“Could be,” Franz said.  He looked eerily relaxed, considering his situation.  I was willing to bet that it was fifty percent bluffing and fifty percent that he wasn’t wholly there, emotionally.  He added, “Worse ways to go than being embraced by a pretty girl.”

“What if I told you I wasn’t a girl?” Helen asked.  “I’m not even human.”

She extended her tongue as she finished the sentence.  People with guns tensed.

“You’ve got-” Franz started.  He stopped as he saw the end of Helen’s tongue in his field of vision, when her head was beside and a little bit behind his own.  “Tits.  You smell like a girl.”

“Mm,” Helen murmured.  She arched her back a little bit.

I couldn’t wholly see, but I could guess, by the way she was moving.  She had flexed her ribs, opening up her ribcage, and now the points were likely digging into Franz’s back and side.  I could see at one point where a rib was digging into his ribs, starting and halting as it tried and failed to find purchase.

He was in a position where he couldn’t even look and see what was happening, exactly.  It made him less certain than he’d been, with strange appendages prodding and grabbing at him while he tried to focus on me.

“You okay, sir?” one of the bystanders asked.

“I’m just fine,” Franz said.

Helen’s tongue moved closer to his face, draping itself along cheekbone.

“I think that’s up for debate,” I said.  “As is Helen being a good way to go.  But let’s put that aside.  Cynthia is running.  Consider her out of the picture until things settle down.  If we take you out of the picture and you retaliate and kill us, or vice versa, what happens to your soldiers here?  I know you guys probably have a chain of command, but I somehow don’t see your guys doing well and keeping to the mission.  There’s a reason so many rebel groups hinge around personalities.  They disintegrate if they don’t have a face.”

“We’re a little-” Franz started.

Helen’s tongue moved, the tip shifting up to his eye, then abruptly slipping past eyelid and between eyelid and socket.

He twisted his head as much as he was able to with Helen’s hand and arm around his neck.  He didn’t escape the tongue.

“Stop that!” one soldier called out, raising his gun.

Helen mumbled something, then turned her eyes toward me.  She shifted her grip, so she was holding Franz with one hand and one arm, the other hand free, and gestured.

“She can’t stop,” I said.  “It’s a liability of sorts.  She backs off, or she takes her prey.  So… this is how this goes.  We should move this along.  You were saying, Franz?”

“We’re more tenacious than… that,” Franz said.

The tongue was moving in the space of his eye socket.  Helen made a small choking sound, and freed up a little bit more of her tongue, extending it further into the socket.

It was putting him off his game.

“Here’s the deal,” I said.  “We have a mutual enemy in the Crown.  I’m as ready to take them on as any of you are, and we’ve been building up our numbers to mount a proper attack.  I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, past murder attempts and threats can be left by the wayside where they belong, provided Cynthia is willing to.  You guys can call off your buddies, Helen and I go rescue Cynthia, and we collaborate.”

“We tried the collaboration thing.  It’s not-”

Franz stopped.

“Sir?” the soldier from before asked.

“Eyeballs can be replaced,” Franz said.  He looked at me with the one eye that wasn’t fixed in place.

“I don’t understand,” the soldier said.

“She has leverage on my eye.  If she wants to tear it out, let her.  I’ll live.  I’ll find a replacement.”

I saw the micro-movements of Helen’s hand as she tensed her grip.  Her fingers were digging into the side of Franz’s neck, gripping it for purchase.  There was an artery there, and she wasn’t wholly stopping all flow, but I had reason to believe she was constricting it.  It wasn’t quite enough constriction to cause symptoms like numbness and a drooping face, but it had a good chance of impairing him, making it harder to put words together and string together thoughts.

“You can cooperate with us,” I said.  I could transition this argument into the kind of course I might take with less intelligent opposition.  Hammering in facts, expecting they couldn’t refute.

“I’d sooner order you be-”

Using her tongue, Helen pulled out his eye.  It wasn’t a quick jerk, a sudden hauling of the eye and connected detritus free of the socket.  The eye bulged as the widest point found its way past the lids themselves, and then seemed to grow larger still as pressure was put on it from behind, the eye pulling free.

It was slow, excruciating, and Franz grit his teeth, lips contorting against teeth and gums in the same way a hand might scrabble against a wall in vain hope of finding purchase, finding a place to grab on that would allow escape or relief.

“He said don’t shoot,” one soldier told another.

“But-”

“But he’s tenacious,” I said.  “Don’t you see?”

My own hostage moved slightly.  I pricked his neck with the knife to remind him I was paying sufficient attention.

Franz, meanwhile, endured the slow, tearing disconnection of eye from head, individual components stretching out to their limits and then snapping or rending apart.  Fluids flowed out of the socket, vitreous and crimson.

Franz was a veteran.  He’d likely dealt with horrible things before.  He might even have been tortured, once.  He was a tough one, and I was now getting the impression that it was a toughness he had to prove.  Not to the room, but to himself.  It was the kind of trait that drove a good student to study harder, because being a student was so ingrained in their personality that going against it would have meant a blow to their very being.

The flip side of that observation, however, was that for the student who put so much of themselves into that identity, if the identity was taken away, the person usually crumbled.  The top students who had a bad semester quickly became rooftop girls or delinquents, looking to experience everything they had been missing.

Could the defenses of an emotionally numb soldier and leader be penetrated?  Would the dam breach, the emotion flooding out?  Would he snap?

Helen claimed the eyeball and almost a foot of extraneous material that trailed behind it.  She drew it into her mouth, and she bit down, very intentionally making a wet sound in the man’s ear.

“You can just buy a new eye as a replacement.  I’ve been there,” I said.

His hand shook a fraction as he held it against the eye socket.

“Indeed,” he managed, after a momentary delay.  He’d needed a second to gather composure.

Behind him, standing in the crowd, I could see Mauer.

What did the crowd want?  They wanted to be validated.  They looked up to their leaders, the faces of their faction, and they wouldn’t intervene so long as Franz here had a chance to show his muster.

This was a balancing act.  It was a standoff shooting, and pulling the trigger first meant getting shot, barring exceptional circumstance.  Manipulation was key here, and the power remained almost entirely with the rest of the people in the room.

People were coming up the stairs.  The stairwell itself was already packed with people, so the incursion more or less stopped there.

“There’s the reinforcements,” Franz said.  He was hunched over as much as Helen would let him hunch over, one hand to his eye.  He raised his voice.  “Ho, reinforcements!”

This was bad.  I’d been aware I was working with a time limit, but there hadn’t been much I could do.

“Seems like they’re tied up,” I said, when the discussion carried on in the stairwell with no response for Franz.

“Seems,” he said.

“Work with us,” I stressed.  Hammering in the same point, ignoring the fact that he’d tried to refute it.  Helen was carefully listening for every one of his objections, refusals, and any sign that he was about to say or do something like order his men to shoot us.  The treatment of his eye had been one step among several in an effort to interrupt him and throw him off his game.

There was a secondary hand being played here by our Helen.  I wasn’t sure it was the best hand to play, all considered, but it was one that suited her.  Most living creatures, if reprimanded with enough consistency and effect, would develop an aversion to whatever it was they were doing. Most parents didn’t get the opportunity to be perfectly consistent, and other parents didn’t have a clue, so many children slipped the leash.

Embraced by what he’d described as a very attractive girl, Franz was being sternly reprimanded in the form of losing his eye and being clawed at by Helen’s ribs.  It took willpower to press on when each attempt was punished so, and future attempts promised to escalate.

I could see it in how he was taking his time to formulate a response.

Finally, he spoke.  “We’ve tried the cooperation thing before.  Didn’t work out.  I don’t think we’re interested in trying again.”

Returning stubbornly to the same track as before.  That was a peril when it came to limiting the blood flow to the man’s brain.  If we made him stupider with the application of pressure, then there was a chance he might not be smart enough to see the merit in what I was saying.

“Really now?” I asked.  “What’s your alternative?  They have their sights on Cynthia.  This is only going to be one of several major projects they employ to handle your rebellion here.”

“We’ve dealt with worse.”

“Than that?  Giant project miff or whatever he’s called?  No.  We were supposed to be among the old ‘worse’ you dealt with, and we pretty successfully killed Cynthia’s favorite scientists and set her on fire.  Everything she was building, everything she was, being the classy lady at an event with aristocrats, clandestine meetings with other rebel leaders, whatever, she was tops at what she was doing, and after the horrendous burns she became a… I don’t know.”

“Vengeful,” Franz said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Vengeful.  And that’s a tricky quality in a leader.  Leaders need to be passionate, yeah, but they also need to form connections, establish trust, be honest, show respect for their subordinates and respect the enemy, and they need to put something of themselves into the cause.  I’m worried Cynthia misses enough of those marks that it’s problematic for you all.”

“She’s never done us wrong,” Franz said, stubborn, looking more focused in the moment than he’d looked earlier.

“I’m arguing she’s doing you wrong at this very moment, if she’s urging you all to self-immolate instead of cooperating and building something.”

“Sy,” Helen said.  She had retracted her tongue.

“Helen?”

“I think we’re running into a problem we’ve run into before.  One you’ve run into before.  It sounds very familiar.  Rick.”

“No codes,” a rebel soldier said.

“It’s not a code,” Helen said.  “I’m talking about someone we used to know.”

“I don’t remember a Rick,” I said.

I could see Helen react with mild surprise at that.

“No codes!”

The soldier sounded ticked enough that I really believed he would shoot us if we pushed it.

Not that there was any code I was aware of.  No, I suspected this was, going by Helen’s reaction, something that was supposed to be fairly blatant.

I wracked my brain for ideas on who Rick might be.  Past opposition, people we had crossed paths with during jobs, the mice in Radham, the other orphans, the doctors who worked with us, the politicians in Radham.  It had to be someone Helen and I were both in a position to know, which was why I kept going back to Radham.

There was no Rick, no emotional reaction to Rick, good or bad.  A nonentity in the Sylvester brainscape.

“None of that,” Franz said.  His words weren’t as crisp as before.  He didn’t sound as confident, either, but I wasn’t sure if that was a direct relation to he pressure Helen was putting on him or an indirect one.  He was slower to pick up and release sentences, too.

I needed to change course, assuming that Helen was warning me.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure what course to take.  I’d been so sure I would be able to hammer him down, especially as we taxed his faculties, but now Helen was saying no?

Jessie was gone at least.  That was promising.

Fine, I’d change tacks, and knowing that these guys were aggressive and militant, I could try to paint the right picture.

“Listen,” I said, my voice firmer.  I’d continue to press, to make use of the emotional and mental battery.  “I was Academy, once, but they took my friends from me.  They took my freedom, and they took most of the years of my life from me.  I’m not going to say I have more right to be pissed at them, but I’m pretty pissed.  We do have common ground there.  I want to rescue Cynthia and free you guys to work against Crown and Academy, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re not letting me.”

“Sy-” Helen started.

“I’m not letting you,” Franz said, and he drawled a bit, “Because we’re not nice people.  We don’t turn the other cheek we don’t forgive.  You crossed us once, and so we’re going to remove you.  Tha world keeps turning, and people shout and they cry out for justice, and it gets drowned out in the wave of news about this new transplant or that new surgery, about wonder drugs and warbeasts, and about wars overseas and twisted tales about rebellions here, only as told by the Crown.  D’you unnerstand what I’m saying?”

Helen was looking at me, as if waiting for my signal to distract the man or debilitate him.

I worried that if we pushed things too much further, we might get shot.

I worried that whoever this ‘Rick’ was that I was supposed to avoid, I’d bumped right into him, and if any dam had breached with waters flooding out, then it wasn’t helpful.

I gestured for Helen to ease up on the guy’s throat.  I didn’t need him delirious from having his oxygen supply intermittently limited.

“It’s about having a voice?” I asked.  If I couldn’t dissuade him, if he wanted a voice, then I would give him one, lead him on, buy time.  It wasn’t great, it wasn’t perfect, but it gave Jessie an opportunity.  “Making a statement?”

“It’s about having a damn impact for once,” he said.  “We all get caught up in their flow.  The games they play.  Do you know what the most important things are?  The thing that drives them and that drives all of us?”

“Power,” I said.  “Control.  And everything that those two things aren’t.  Not giving up power, not letting others dictate our paths.  Having an agenda, a belief system.  Being free enough to have control of our own destinies.”

“No,” he said.  “No, all of that sounds pretty.  But it’s not what it is.  I think, we think, that it comes down to history.  Deciding it, writing it.  Power and control might give them the ability to hold the pen to the history books and ensure nobody else gets their hands on pen or book, but that’s not the important thing.  It’s having a legacy.  Having made a manifest difference.”

“And in a vain, desperate attempt to try and shout loud enough to get words printed in a book nobody will read, you’re-”

More people appeared in the doorway.  Too much attention was on them, not on me.

“They’re all Ricks,” Helen said, her voice soft.

“You need to switch to a reference I remember and understand when I clearly don’t get it,” I told her.

The focus was on the door, the people were chattering, and Franz was in Helen’s grip, his attention focused on everything that was going on over there.

There weren’t many guns pointed at us.  I thought about making a break for it.

The crowd parted.

“She escaped into the storm sewers,” the man at the door said.  He warily eyed Helen, myself, and the various hostages we’d collected.  “The monster is tearing up the ground and trying to dig out the pipes wherever she’s going, and she’s crawling for most of it, most of that crawling through or over ice water, but she’s alive and in better shape than she was.  Thought you’d want to know, sir.”

Franz smiled a little, and seemed to relax a touch.  “I did.  I’m glad.”

I glanced at Helen.  There weren’t many escape routes.  Several required reaching the beam that extended across the room and I wasn’t sure we could manage that.

“Should I be saying goodbye, sir?” the man at the door asked.

“Don’t know yet,” Franz said.  “But probably.  Where’s Macuff?”

“The captain is outside.  He’s looking after Daisy.  They’re doing something that’s making her head spin.  To do with sound.  Captain Macuff says that means they’re probably close.”

Jessie.

“Which means there’s another one,” Franz said.  “At least.”

His eyes widened, and I could see the expression beyond them, the realization, and the decision.

“Shoot-” he started.

Helen snapped Franz’s neck and killed the ghost, and in the doing, she managed to move Franz so he formed a limited human shield, protecting her, her arms going to her head.

I cut my hostage’s throat, dimly aware that we were surrounded by at least thirty armed men with combat expertise.  In the same motion I’d flicked the knife through vitals, I swung my arm out and put it in the back of the nearest thug.  I threw it at a third thug, to only moderate effect, and dove for the gun of the first man I’d killed, who was still in the process of dying, blood flooding out of his brain, which was giving him dopamine spark dreams of white and peace, to ease him into oblivion.

I knew how it was so very little, so very late.  I knew that Helen was the bigger target.  Even before I could reach for the gun I wanted to retrieve, people were stepping forward and making the choice to shoot.

Even among thugs of this caliber, so desperate for a voice and an impact, most were reluctant to actually pull the trigger and kill a child, even one so monstrous as Helen.  She wore an innocent, scared expression well.

It would haunt me for a long time, I imagined, that it was an expression she was wearing when they pulled triggers and started putting bullets in her, penetrating her heart, stomach, arm, both legs, and face.

Whoever Rick was, I hoped he wasn’t the type to laugh or rub my nose in this.

The other Lambs emerged in full force, Evette included.  Fray and Mauer stood on either side of me, Mauer nearer the crowd, and Fray nearer the Lambs.

They would help steer me through the muderous rage.

I opened my mouth to roar my defiance, and the building summarily split in two, and this was right and just.  I didn’t care how it happened, only that it reflected the feeling in my heart, the pain of a few stray gunshots that caught me and only grazed me.  As fire and smoke tore through the air around me, I was already hurling myself in the direction of the enemy.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.10

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A few things were immediately clear.  We were outgunned, outnumbered, and out of immediate options.  They knew exactly where we were, and we knew where the gunshots were coming from, generally speaking.

I’d reflexively moved for the nearest piece of cover when the first gunshots fired, dragging Jessie and Helen with me.  That cover consisted of a propped up  sign, grown wood rather than carpentry, painted with a leaf, signifying some kind of herbalist or floral shop.  The good thing was the sign itself was solid enough that bullets hit it dead on and didn’t punch through, or passed through one panel and struck the panel we were leaning against.  It worked fairly well as cover went.

The first downside to come to mind was that the sign, by dint of its construction, was composed of two panels with a hinge at the top end.  As solid and heavy as the special wood was, I couldn’t help but imagine that enough impacts would make the other panel inch closer to us, feet scraping on the road, until the sign folded and tipped over, leaving us exposed.  Was it likely?  The sign was broad enough the three of us could cluster behind it with only one of our shoulders sticking out the side, the wood was thick.  One of those inching losses of ground might require two rifle shots to hit at the same time or in quick succession.

Which sounded fine until I went back to considering just how many shooters there were and just how outgunned we were.  They weren’t chancing anything, and the sheer vehemence of the response added up to another mental tickmark in the ‘Cynthia’ box.  She and her people weren’t fond of Lambs.

So that was a thing.  Our cover was sturdy, as signs went, but it was still a sign that wasn’t anchored to the ground.  Then there was the fact that the sign was on legs.  The gap was such that someone would have to lie on the ground to aim for the space, but it didn’t preclude a chance ricochet hitting the cobblestone road and bouncing up to catch one of us in the rump or lower spine.

Then there was the fact that not every hit was dead center or to the most solid part of the sign.  The bullets caught the edges and the edges splintered, which meant our cover was being whittled away, which in turn meant-

“Sy!”

I winced at the sharp sound of a bullet catching the sign an inch from my ear.  My ear rang from the sound, my vision going funny in one eye.  I had to concentrate to bring my senses back under control and to put the ringing out of mind.  “Yes, Jessie.  Hello.  Why are you greeting me at a time like this?”

“You’re acting-”

Jessie was momentarily drowned out by the din of gunfire and the noise of bullets bouncing off of cobblestone and building faces.

“-lost in your own head,” she finished.  “Focus.

I focused.  “Ten gunmen?  Twelve?”

“Do you know or are you guessing?” Jessie asked.  “You sound like you’re guessing.”

“Same thing, these days,” I said.

Conversation was momentarily interrupted by a series of shots.  Some sounded different than others, and I felt the signboard move behind me.

“That’s not true,” Jessie said.  “But we’ll talk about that after.”

“They’re flanking us,” Helen said.  She pointed.  “Running footsteps.”

They were coming around to our right.  If they got into position there, they’d be able to shoot at us and we wouldn’t have the benefit of cover.

Most would be happy to have us pinned down, our cover being shredded.  But these guys are taking advantage of the fact we can’t move to take another position where they can shoot us.

The sign sat at the edge of the footpath.  Three long strides would get us to safety, but there were too many bullets flying, and taking those kinds of strides meant standing up first.  With three of us, the chance that we’d make it there was simply too small.

“-seconds,” Helen said.  Gunshots had drowned out the first sound.

She held up her fingers in the gesture-language countdown.  Five, four-

And then the enemy would be in cover.

I drew my knife, and I slammed it into the sign, my fingers wrapping around the edge of the sign to keep the sign in place.  Wouldn’t do to let it fold and fall down at this critical juncture.

A bullet caught the board just where I was holding it.  My hand flew away, splinters and blood, and I twisted away.  I might have lost my balance and gone from a crouch to a face-down sprawl on the street if Jessie hadn’t caught me.

“-Two,” Helen said.  “One-”

Jessie’s fingers tightened on my shoulder and arm.

With my damaged hand, no idea how bad it was, I reached out and grabbed the knife.

Funny thing was, the use of the knife was supposed to keep me from having to reach out with my hand.  Embedded as best as I could get it into the dense wood, it served as a handle, a point of leverage.  I drew my pistol and rather than use it, held the barrel and hooked the handle around the edge.

“Go!”  I called out.

I hauled, pulling on the gun and knife to drag the sign.  Helen managed to reach down and grab the lower leg and help while maintaining a near-run.  We moved our cover.

I saw Helen’s head start to turn, her hand going up.  I reacted before she was even finished the initial movement- I’d been waiting for the signal from her.

The flanking gunmen had reached their position, according to Helen’s ears.  I moved the gun, catching the other lower leg with the hook of the handle, and threw myself across Jessie, pulling the sign so it came around to protect us from the flankers.  We’d covered enough ground that there was only a minimal gap between us and the nearest wall.

The flanking soldiers opened fire.  The vibrations of the bullets hitting the sign made it hard for me to hold onto the knife.  A crack formed, reaching from the halfway point of the sign to the hinge, and I could see daylight through it.  From the lean of the sign, one of the legs had broken away.

We retreated as best as we could, until we reached what I’d thought was an alleyway.  In reality, it was an alcove, a recess in the building face for trash to be piled up for carting away later.  There were reams of wet paper that smelled like damp earth and likely had a gritty texture reminiscent of it.

There was an access door, but there was only room for one person to get in there.

“Go,” I told Jessie.  “Get the door open.”

She made a pained face, then nodded.

When she lurched for cover, then made her way to her feet, I could see the gouge in one of her legs.  One bullet had gone under the sign after all.

If I’d known she had caught a grazing hit from a bullet, I wouldn’t have told her to do it.  But Helen couldn’t pick locks, to the best of my knowledge, and that meant it had to be one of the two of us.  I wasn’t sure about myself.  I investigated my hand.

The bullet had hit the signboard where I was grabbing it.  It had passed between two fingers of my right hand, catching both, shattering both fingernails, exposing the white of the bone of the knuckle of my middle and ring fingers, and doing a degree of damage to flesh that I couldn’t really judge, given the blood that was pouring out of the wound.

I kept my back to the sign, which continued to rock with intermittent gunfire, and I wrapped a handkerchief around my injured fingers, wadding it in between the fingers before tightly binding them.

The patter of gunfire changed.  I frowned.

“They’re coming,” Helen said.  “The group that opened fire first.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “The others just got the message.  They’re shooting to keep us pinned down, but they don’t want to hit friendlies.”

“We’re open,” Jessie said, before disappearing through the door.

Helen ducked through, and I was the last one to exit, tearing my knife free before I did so.  We closed and locked the heavy braced door behind us.

“They’re coming,” Helen said.  “They have ghosts.”

Ghosts.  The clones of Percy’s design, using aspects of the cannibalized ‘Whiskers’ experiment.  Echolocation and coordination.  They had been mass-produced for a short period, and then a steady extermination campaign on the Academy’s part had coupled with Percy’s death to bring the project to an end.  Now the remaining Ghosts were scattered among rebel factions, the vast majority of the ghosts favoring Cynthia’s.  Given their talents, I had to imagine they were serving as scouts and listening ears for whichever squad or team they served with.

I wondered if there was a story as to why they kept appearing alone when they’d been pack creatures on our first encounter with them.  Was it a natural fact of their developing individuality?  They ceased to synchronize with their kin?

“Sound disrupts them,” Jessie said.  “Confuses their echolocation and spatial senses.”

“For a short time,” I said.  I looked at our environment.

The store sold plants and flowers, all potted and of a sort that made it look more like the flowers were strictly for gardens, not for gifts.  The shop itself was closed, with artificial tubing reaching from a water tank to the innumerable pots, providing water to them in quantities that depended on the thickness of the tubing.

With the shop closed, curtains had been pulled across the windows, allowing only a dull, filtered light to pass through. Metal fences of a sort had been pulled across the door and display windows.  It didn’t look like the metal fences were there to stay- they only existed to keep thieves out.

It also served to limit our access to the display windows at the front of the store.  We couldn’t use that glass to disturb the ghosts.

“…For now, we should focus on get somewhere safe,” I said.  “How’s your leg?”

“I can’t run.”

“Got it.  Can I see?”

“They’re here,” Helen said.  “They’re surrounding the building.”

I didn’t wait for a response from Jessie.  I dropped to one knee, and I checked the wound.  The bullet had caught the calf muscle, passing right through.

I used a pair of shears from the shop and a bit of my sleeve to create a quick makeshift bandage.  I tied it in place as best as I could.

“Hm?” Jessie asked.  “We need to go, Sy.”

I straightened, holding my hand up.  I’d collected what I could of the blood that had run down from the injury to her foot and into her boot.

Rather than try to squeeze blood from my fist, I flicked my hand in the direction of the back door.  Flecks of blood were scattered in that direction.

“Up?” Helen asked.

“Up,” I confirmed.

“Rooftops don’t lend themselves to an exit that way,” Jessie said.  “And I think they’re keeping an eye out.”

“Yeah,” I said.

We needed hiding spots.

We needed to deal with the ghosts, and there was a distinct lack of glass available.

The second floor was residential, the apartment of the people who ran the shop.  It was all made up of bedrooms and bathrooms, with a staircase at the far end of the hall leading up to a third floor.

I checked the doors and found some locked.  Finding one open bedroom, I hauled the door open.  I saw the window, and started toward it.

Helen caught my arm.

“Lemme go,” I said.

“There are soldiers on the ground,” she said.

“Lemme go,” I said, again.

She let go of me.  I headed into the bedroom, collected the nearest heavy object, a hand-brush with metal backing, and hurled it through the window.

Gunshots fired.  Soldiers and rebels on the ground that had been waiting to coordinate or something kicked the doors and windows in, storming into the building.

The cages at the door and windows on the first floor rattled.  They were meant to deter theft, however, and not to stop an all-out siege.

Others would be coming through the side door we’d used.  The door was heavy enough it would resist a good kicking, but they were determined, and they no doubt had resources.

I kept my head down, grabbed two pieces of glass, and used one to jam the door shut as I closed it, working it into the doorframe.  I handed the other to Jessie.

She began scratching, and, with luck, we were no longer in the sights of the ghosts.  They wouldn’t hear us and their handlers, hopefully, would hang back.

Downstairs, the barriers came crashing down, and the soldiers stormed the building.  I could hear other damage and destruction as they pushed things aside and crowded their way through the building.

We headed upstairs.  The third floor, in a weird transposition of normal building layouts, housed the kitchen and living room.  There were windows, large enough to let light in, but they were high up.  A wooden beam ran from one end of the building to the next.

Helen gestured, and I provided the boost, cupping my hands so the injured fingers wouldn’t be a problem.  Or so I thought.  As Helen set her foot down, her weight coming down on my hands, the pain flared, and my knees buckled.

I set my teeth, adrenaline helping, and then nodded for her to try again.

This time, I was able to boost her up the wall to a handhold.  From the handhold, she was able to climb up to the beam.

Helen was a strong climber, her grip indefatiguable and tenacious.  Once she was on the beam, she was able to use her feet to grip it and flip herself upside down.  Her skirt reversed direction, flopping down, but the circumstance was tight enough that none of us cared.

Jessie had trouble jumping up to grab Helen’s hand, and we needed to minimize how much time we were spending not scratching glass, so I helped her up, hands on her hips, launching her up.  She climbed Helen rather mercilessly until she had a vantage point to stand, one hand on the beam and one foot on the side of Helen’s neck.  She pulled the glass free of her belt and began scratching it again.

There was a poetry to the scene, I observed.  Helen with her skirt upside down, Jessie in a compromising position skirtwise with me directly beneath her… I would’ve liked to joke about it.  Alas, no time.  Another day, with luck.

I jumped up and grabbed Helen’s hand with my good hand.

Rather than have me climb her, Helen maneuvered and contorted her way to raise me up to the beam and help me onto it.

We had an exit, presumably.  I wasn’t sure I trusted it.

“There are still soldiers outside?” I murmured.

“Yes,” Helen said.  “I can hear footsteps and murmuring.  There’s one ghost in the building and one outside.  I can hear them too.  They’re noisy.”

A  Lara-Nora dynamic, possibly.  Coordination between groups.

“Would they have a clear shot at us?” I whispered

“Not clear.  But they would get shots,” Helen whispered back.  “But it’s better than staying here.”

I bit my lip.  I wasn’t so sure.  I didn’t want to press our luck.

“Layout of buildings isn’t good,” Jessie whispered.  “We don’t have a lot of maneuverability out there.”

Helen shook her head, golden curls thwapping back and forth across her face.  “I looked before we went inside.  We can jump over to the house with the cute chimney, climb that roof and then we can run along the house with the cock’s comb.”

“Cock’s what?” I murmured.  “No, not important.”

Jessie was more on point.  “We don’t have anywhere to run after that, Helen.  I’ve pieced together the layout.  It doesn’t go anywhere.”

“The other option is staying here,” Helen retorted.  “If we do that then we die.  I like my plan better.  There are ways.”

The soldiers had planned this, to an extent.  It wasn’t a comprehensive plan, done hours in advance.  No.  If I had the gist of this right, then they had shot the Crown’s speaker, the experiment that was shouting for people to stay indoors.  Seeing people move from cover to cover like we had been doing wouldn’t be wholly unbelievable for civilians, but I had to wonder if our reaction to the sound of the gun had been cause for them to realize we were a threat.

At which point they’d realized we were Lambs.

I missed the days we were a clandestine project.

“We stay,” I said.

“What?” Jessie asked.

“They expect us to leave, so we stay.  There isn’t much light.  We’re in the shadows up here.  Use the glass, Jessie.  Helen, you and I, we attack.”

Jessie started scratching the glass.  Helen and I shifted position, and Helen took partial custody of Jessie, wrapping one arm around her.

They would come up the stairs.  They would look up.

I tried to wrap my head around the scene, then stabbed my knife into the beam at an angle.

Damaged, bandaged fingers gripped the beam, my other hand gripped the knife handle while I prayed the blade wouldn’t break and the tip wouldn’t pry free.  I bought good knives, but…

My body stretched out along the length of the beam, hugging it, but I didn’t perch on top of it, because doing so would mean being in plain view of anyone coming up the stairs.  Instead, I clung to the side, my calf, foot and knee hugging the surface.  I was hugging the side as much as I could without anything dangling or being visible beneath.

Helen mimed me and did much the same, but she used her hands and feet, and she supported Jessie, helping to hold Jessie up, while Jessie scratched the glass.

My throbbing fingertips and the damage to my back made themselves felt within seconds.  I could hear the tromping footsteps, and I was aware of the first people making their way up, checking.

“There’s a window,” one said.  “Did they leave?”

“They can’t have gone far.  Carm and Daisy are still having fits like they do when we use the sharpening wheel.”

I was trembling now.  It wasn’t a lack of fitness.  It was that pain and damage I’d sustained was forcing parts of me to work in ways and degrees they hadn’t before to compensate for what would’ve been a decent amount of strain on any other day.

More boots.  They were gathering below.  Checking, chattering.

“Where’s the boss?”

“He’s with Carm.”

“What do we do?  Tear this place apart?  Look for their hiding places?”

“Sounds like a start.”

Oh, they were staying for a bit, then.

Problem was, it wasn’t a question of if I was going to slip and fall.  It was a question of when.  I didn’t have it in me.

I looked at Helen, then at Jessie, who was doing a fine job of etching the glass without making audible noise.  I looked the other way, at Mauer, who stood on the beam I was hanging onto.

It was as if he was standing on my hand, grinding down on the injured fingers, intensifying the pain beyond what I would’ve felt if he wasn’t participating.

There were three people directly below me.  I wondered if I could set up my landing so I could stab one and cut another two before they realized what was happening.

I was pretty sure I couldn’t.  Not with my back being injured.  Not with my fingertips ruined.

The knife moved a hair, and the pressure on my fingertips increased.

I looked over at the others, ready to signal them.  What I saw, however, was that Jessie was no longer scratching the glass.

She wasn’t scratching the glass, meaning the ghosts were in the know.  Ghosts being in the know meant they’d alert the people who needed to know, which meant-

A long shot.  Throwing a rope to thread an anchor.

“Heads up!” a voice called out.

I peeked, and I only did so because every eye turned away from where we might be.  The man who came up the stairs was wearing a military coat.  It wasn’t in the long style favored by Academy military, but short enough the belt was visible, double-breasted, with four large buttons.  He was young, as his sort went, thirty or so, but had the wear and tear of a man twice his age, in scarring and pockmarks and old burns, with a bit of hair at one side of his head that parted funny, as if it had grown in different around an old wound.  He had a beard that mingled blond hair with a chestnut brown, making him look as though he was prematurely greying, and it wasn’t a good beard, more the kind grown out of happenstance and necessity than out of the fact that his face produced good hair.  Scraggly on the cheeks and thicker at the chin.

He had a clone on his arm.  One of the ghosts of the redheaded variety.  ‘Carm’, I presumed.

In moving my head down to look around the post, I’d put too much pressure on my hands and back.  I tried to move back to a comfortable position and I found myself lacking the strength or the robust, uninjured muscle.

I dropped.  I landed on my feet, took a half-second to get my bearings, and then put a knife to the throat of the most important looking man in arm’s reach.

I wasn’t sure, on seeing all the people stare my way, that his importance ranked even among the top five or ten of the fifteen men and one woman present.

I could have sworn.

But I’d served as the distraction.  Helen had found her perch, leaving Jessie where she was, and now Helen jumped.

Not a pounce.  A jump, almost lazy, skirt flapping, hair freeing itself of the close curls and pins Helen had used.

The ghost reacted, and being a ghost, she reacted fast.  It was only in the last second that the ghost winced, head turning away, and Helen was free to crash into both Carm and the man in charge.

They went down in a heap, all three together, and with Helen in the mix, I knew before I even saw the outcome that she had this in hand.

Guns were pointed at Helen, and blades were drawn.  More blades and guns were pointed at me.

But Helen had their leader by the jugular, her legs holding the ghost by the throat.

“Sylvester Lambsbridge here.  That would be Helen G. Ibbot embracing you right now.”

“Good afternoon,” Helen said.

“I’m Franz,” the man with the beard said.

“Can we talk, or are you going to follow Cynthia and refuse all negotiation?” I asked, my voice carrying through the open space and past the crowd of thugs and soldiers.

“I’m tempted to refuse,” Franz said.

“Even if you die?” I asked.

“That’s why I said I’m tempted.  I’d like to be the leader who holds to his word.”

I made a point of not looking at Jessie.  She was a good card to hold in reserve.

“Where’s Cynthia?” I asked.

“Dead,” the man said.

“Dead?”

“The giant has her scent.  She ordered us to leave her while she deals with it.  It tracks her wherever she goes, and it can move faster than a horse runs by walking.  If we can’t find a way to kill it, she’s gone.  If she isn’t gone already.  We haven’t been able to find a way.  If we get too close, it reacts to the lingering scent of her on us.”

“Designed to rip out the power structure in entirety,” Helen observed.

“What if I was willing to offer my help in saving her, in exchange for our freedom and safety?” I asked.

“You could,” the man said.

Cagey.  Why, when I was offering something essential?

Did they not like Cynthia?  Was an accidental death a good end that wouldn’t tear their organization apart?  Or was there something more at play?

“You made a move,” I said.  A vague statement that opened doors and made me sound smart a hell of a lot more than it made me sound stupid.  In this kind of game, assuming someone was up to something was simply a fact of life.

“Yeah,” Franz said.  “I made a move.  We found the rest of your little army.  Our people are in the process of marching and tracking down your people, while they’re busy unpacking their things and getting settled.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The assembled Beattle rebels pulled together, a crowd forming at the hilltop to stare at the spectacle.  Jessie, Helen and I stood off to one side, away from crowd and the babble of conversation.

Helen’s older brother moved slowly, as if in a daze, his head hanging, jaw slack, raising one foot, moving it a fair ways down the length of the street before bringing it down again.  With the movement of the leg, smaller objects were obliterated, wagons or booths or other things of similar scale kicked to splinters.  Overhanging architecture was scraped away, snow and moisture sprayed.  The footfall made snow and water flow off of every rooftop near the giant, momentarily blurring the sharper edges and lines of the structures.

His arms limp at his side, he remained where he was, having just completed one lunging step, one leg bent at the knee, the other extended behind him.

“Why did Ibbot give him a…?” Jessie started.  She didn’t finish the sentence, leaving things more implied.

“Figures that you’d fixate on that,” I said.

“Why does it figure?” Jessie asked.

“It sort of figures.  I mean, if it was a she-giant and it had she-bits and a chest, you’d be poking fun at me.”

“Entirely true, but that’s because you’re a lech,” Jessie said.

I gasped in mock horror.

“Just because he’s equipped with a…”

“Tackle?” Helen supplied.

“Was looking for something more polite.  But fine.  Just because he’s equipped with a tackle that could very easily be used to knock a house down, it doesn’t mean I’m interested.  That’s not how it works.”

“Isn’t it?” I asked.

“It really isn’t.  And can I just stop and bemoan the fact I’m now enduring the company of the two most easily distracted Lambs?  Nobody answered why he’s even…”

Jessie had trailed off again.

“So bestowed?” Helen offered.

“Bestowed to begin with,” Jessie said.

“Aesthetic?” I asked.

Jessie made a face.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s not aesthetic,” Jessie said.

“Excuse me?” Helen asked.

“Wait one second,” I said.  “Wait wait wait.  If I step in here and say that technically there’s nothing wrong with the picture being presented, beyond the house-destroying potential, is that a point in my favor against the lech allegations, in that I can be fair to both genders-”

“You’re still a lech,” Jessie said.

I mock-gasped again.

“I’ll remind you two that that is my brother you’re talking about and disparaging,” Helen said.  “And I think he’s aesthetically sound.”

“Can’t argue that point,” I said.

Jessie made a face, then asked, “Will my memory be indelibly tainted if I ask just how many-”

“Homewreckers?” I jumped in.

“-homewreckers you’ve been exposed to?”

“It very likely will,” Helen said.  “But in the interest of not injuring your brain-”

“Thank you.”

“-I’ll just say that I’ve seen babies, and stitched, and warbeasts, as some of the less brain-injuring examples.  My big brother’s slumbering dragon-”

Jessie snorted.

No, Jessie,” I jumped in.  “You’re supposed to be the deadpan, serious one.”

“-Is fine!” Helen protested.  “You two interrupt each other and me constantly.  It’s rude.”

In the distance, Helen’s big brother dragged his back foot forward.  He balanced poorly on it as he set it down and to fix his balance he immediately followed with a movement of the other foot, finally stabilizing by planting his two feet far apart.

It looked like he was trying to avoid treading on and through buildings.  I wasn’t wholly sure, but it didn’t look like he had been entirely successful.

“Perhaps we’re too fixated on this,” Jessie said.

“You’re just upset because Helen and I are on the same page, while you’re on the other side of the aisle, disparaging her brother’s slumbering dragon.”

Jessie tried and failed to avoid laughing again.  She moved her glasses up and pressed one hand to her face.

“So rude,” Helen chided Jessie.  “It’s certainly nothing to laugh about.”

“It’s really nothing to laugh about,” I said.

“It’s so inefficient!” Jessie protested.  “Why even tack it on?”

“You have no reason to believe it’s inefficient,” Helen said, stern.  “You haven’t seen it in use.”

That was Jessie’s cue to raise her hands to her ears, fleeing the scene.  I jumped forward, throwing my arms around her and catching her in a hug from behind, keeping her from absconding.

“Let me go!  No!  She says things and I get mental pictures and they never go away!”

“They’ll go away in a few months when your slate is erased and you functionally die, alright?” I asked.

Jessie ceased struggling.

“But it’s torture in the meantime,” Jessie said, still with the lilt of a joke in her voice.  I hadn’t killed the mood with my own joke in poor taste.

“Well suck it up,” I told her.  I settled my chin on her shoulder, the side of my face pressed against her ear.  One of my eyes was closed because her braid was in my face.  We were both looking at the scene.  “Actually, don’t suck-”

Don’t,” Jessie interrupted me.

“Fine.”

“Let’s drop this topic before the two of you find new and fun ways to mentally scar me.”

“Alright,” Helen said.

“I’d just like to point out,” I said.

“No poin-”

My arms still around her, I gave Jessie a squeeze.

“-ting,” she said, with less enthusiasm.  “Dang it.  You’re going to insist on tormenting me with this one, aren’t you?”

“I’m just going to say that it’s winter.  This particular slumbering dragon is probably more than halfway inside its cave, as slumbering dragons are wont to do when it’s cold.”

“Okay, Sy.  I get it.”

“This isn’t even the full magnitude of the dragon,” I said.  Helen nodded in solemn agreement.

“I get it, Sy.”

I started to pull back, ready to get serious, and Jessie reached up to hold my arms in place.  My arms still encircling her, I gave her a squeeze, and I continued to watch.  If she wanted to stop for a moment, I wasn’t about to complain.

“Armpits,” I said, as we watched Helen’s big brother get his bearings, sway, and then take another step, careful to tread only on roads.

“Armpits?”

“Lift up your arms,” I said.

Jessie did.  I moved my hands, and as she lowered her arms, my hands were tucked beneath them, sandwiched between arm and body.

“Thank you,” I said.

“If my hands get cold, I’m going to borrow your body parts.”

“Do,” I said, into her ear.

With my arms where they were, I could feel where the blood was pumping through the brachial arteries and into her arm.  I could feel the change of her heartbeat, the change in her breathing.

I liked that I got a reaction that way.

The giant slowly turned, until his back was to us.

I could hear the others react, a general murmur of complaint across the assembled Beattle students.

As I looked around, I could see that Pierre and Shirley were hanging close by.  Shirley was giving me an amused sort of look.

She was close enough to have heard a lot of the interplay and teasing.

All the while, Helen’s brother was still moving ponderously.  He brought his hand down.

Up to this point, we hadn’t seen him do much more than damage property and scatter wood here and there where it had been in his way.  Accident more than design.

This was design, intent, a blatant attack.  The hand came down, and it plunged through a roof and into the interior of a building.

Pulling his hand free, Helen’s brother checked it, found it empty, and plunged it into the building again.  This time, he simply tore the hand through stone and wood.  It didn’t look easy, and even with his immense size, he had to shift his weight and ensure his feet were braced right before he pushed his hand the rest of the way through the structure, up until the point that the building no longer held together.  Dust and debris rose up in a cloud as the building came down.

The commentary, gasps and other feedback had mostly died out at this point.  We watched from a considerable distance away as Helen’s brother scraped fingers through wreckage, stirring up more mess and debris.  He raised his hand, investigating the contents, and I could see the bodies there.

He cast them away, sending them flying as if they’d been launched by a trebuchet, and then resumed rummaging.

Joking was over.  The deaths were real, there were stakes, now.  I pulled away from Jessie and took a second to ensure I was ready to act the moment I was done talking.

“Heads up!” I called out.  I had the attention of the Beattle rebels now.  “If you’re down to help, hands up, step forward.  The goal here is to see what we can do about him, trying to steer him or use him.  If we can even steal him, get him away from here, we force them to react.  They won’t let a weapon fall into our hands.  It’s a diversion of resources.  Either it’s something we can capitalize on here, or we move fast and we move hard, and it’s something we capitalize on elsewhere.  But it starts with this.”

There were a few nods here and there.  Not as many as I might have hoped for, but Ibbot’s creation was intimidating, to put it lightly.

“The ones who aren’t helping, you set up shop at the fringes.  Find a location for us to camp out and get supplies, shouldn’t be too hard if they’ve recently evacuated.   Station guards, make sure you’re able to get clear if the giant starts marching in your direction.  We need a location to fall back to, and depending on how this big guy works, we might have to flee a bit, regroup, flee again.”

There were more nods at that.  It seemed most of our people were looking at the giant and doubting their ability to tackle him.

“All together for the time being,” I said.  “We’ll split up shortly.”

There was shuffling as bags that had been set on the frozen roadtop were collected.  Students with hats had removed them because they were perspiring so much, while others were putting on hats, because their ears were cold.  Things had to be hurriedly retrieved or stashed away before straps were hauled up to shoulders, backpacks lifted and positioned with straps criss-crossing the chest, and medical bags rattling with their individual pill counts.  Not everyone had bags, but the ones who did looked particularly miserable.

Looking back at the path, the wagons were following.  They’d be with the second group, while we took our initial stab at things.

We set down the hill, and for a mob of students with tired legs and heavy bags, the faint slope down was precarious.  The ground was compacted, hard, and frozen over, the people traveling over it not as sure footed as they ought to have been.  Some fell, and they fell hard.  It became a collaborative effort to make the way down the slope and into the city.

“Helen,” Jessie said.  I was holding Jessie’s hand to stabilize her.  My own collaborative contribution.

“Yes?”

“Can you tell us about your brother?  You’ve met him?”

“Once, a long time ago.  When I was new and he wasn’t that old.  I was half as tall as I am now, and he was half as big as he is now.  Because I was new, Professor Ibbot brought me everywhere, socializing me as we went.  He checked on his projects and on the people maintaining them, and I got to come see and come say hi.”

“Does he know you?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so.  But then again, he isn’t awake much.  He sleeps in an embryonic sac in Lake Southwold, just a ways from New Amsterdam.  He was awake when I saw him, but I think he was feverish, which was why we were there.”

“History is good, but we need constructive answers,” I said.  “Strengths?  Abilities?  Weaknesses?”

“Oh.  He’s big.”

“Be serious, Helen,” I said.

“His project name is Nephilim One.  If you look at his stomach, he has a bit of a belly.  That’s a hidden compartment.”

“Control compartment?” I asked.  “Is it where the people guiding him are?”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so,”

“Okay,” I said.

“His vision and hearing aren’t every good.  There are a lot of pieces of him that you or I would think are weak, but Professor Ibbot knows all about the weak points of the body.  He knows any would-be giant slayers will want to blind the giant, hamstring them, target the ankle or catch them when they are asleep.  But there are things under the surface that make this harder.  Sub-dermal armor, reinforcement.  The senses are a lie.”

“Lie?” Jessie asked.

“He’s covered in body hair.  He uses the hair to taste the environment.  He’s a bloodhound.  A very big bloodhound.  They give him a scent or something else to go on.  Then he hunts.  He walks and stops to sniff, then walks more.  When he finds someone, he smooshes them.”

“Smooshes?” Jessie asked.

“Like a bug, guts spilling out, but they’re important people, not bugs.”

“That’s a problem then,” I said.

“It’s a massive problem,” Davis said.  The student council president was following behind us.  He was joined by other notables and project leaders.  Bea, Fang, Mable, Valentina, and Pierre.  “I don’t want to get crushed.”

“Smooshed,” Helen corrected, very firmly.

“That’s not why it’s a problem,” I said.  “It’s a problem because if this is true, if the big guy, Project Nephilim is a bloodhound, like Helen remembers, then he’s more or less under his own control.  I’m assuming he’s not down for conversation?”

“No,” Helen said.

“He won’t follow gestures or codes or signals?  There’s no good way to communicate a new order or get him to stop?”

“They use chemicals,” Helen said.  “That gets him to a place, usually a place where he can get his face close to the ground and smell it.  Bedrooms, bloodbaths, piles of dirty laundry.  He takes a deep breath and he can smell those things like a shark smells blood in the water.”

“He’s after someone now,” I said.

“I think so,” Helen said.  “Either that, or he’s acting very strange.”

“Okay.  Streets are empty.  Why?”

“Giant stomping around,” Jessie said.

“But he’s stomping around over here.  Why aren’t people on the other end of this city running?”

“Hard to say.”

“Then that’s what we’re looking for.  We split into groups.  We scout, investigate, and see if we can’t find something critical.  If they have a way of communicating with the entire city, maybe they’re using it to communicate with Nephilim One.”

“I don’t think so,” Helen said.  “That’s not how Neph works.”

“The Crown, as a rule, wants control.  Would they really do something like this, where they release something this big and give up all control?”

“Neph isn’t the Crown,” Helen said.  “Neph is Ibbot.  The same creator as me.  Think, Sy.”

I pressed my lips together at that.

She wasn’t wrong.  If Neph came from the same roots, the end result could be the same.  A being with the same kind of fundamental logic, a basic system of understanding the world, built-in loyalty, and questionable attachments.

We’d reached the base of the hill, the outer periphery of the city.  It wasn’t too large a city, which made the presence of ‘Neph’ that much more startling.  If I had to guess, the population was three or four hundred thousand.  It wasn’t small, it certainly wasn’t a mere town, but it lacked the trappings of some larger cities I’d seen, and I couldn’t see anything of sufficient stature to suggest a local academy, large or small.

There were more hotels and apartment buildings than actual houses, all done up in stone or brick with builder’s wood.  The taller buildings themselves used builder’s wood liberally and in unique styles, creating architecture that twisted as it rose skyward.  These precarious constructions were what made every movement of Helen’s brother a tense thing, movements of the lumbering giant too close to a building that was twisted enough that it looked like a broken arm, heavy footfalls around buildings that didn’t seem wholly balanced.

It was too clean a city in my estimation.  The signs of industry and agriculture, of glitz, glamour, of purpose were painfully absent.  I could see businesses, but they didn’t stand out.  There were elements of the military by way of sturdy buildings at the harbor and here and at strategic locations, but the military wasn’t active in this crisis, which dampened that particular flavor.

It made me think that this was a city that dealt primarily with the business of business.  With bookkeeping and records and hiring and firing, with whole apartment buildings of people very possibly treating this city like a waypoint before they moved to fill gaps or responsibilities elsewhere.

There was more to it, I was sure.  Getting deeper into the city would reveal more.  I wasn’t sure, however, if it mattered.

I was more concerned with Helen’s big brother.

‘Neph’ was standing straight, his hands full of rubble and bodies.  He held it up as if barely aware of it all, and he stared at some fixed point deeper into the city.

Something had caught his attention, and he addressed that something by hurling the fistfuls of rubble and detritus and bodies at that something.

Again, the notion of the trebuchet came to mind.  The throwing motion of an arm with that range and that kind of power built into it was something to behold.

‘Neph’ leaned back, swaying, and then lunged forward.  He pounced as if he were pretending to be a cat or as if he were diving into deep water, both hands moving forward and together to meet at the same point, the target he wanted to utterly destroy.  We weren’t in a position to see the result, so there was only the mental image, and what I could see was the way he effectively body-flopped onto the city, arms stretched out in front of him.  Whatever had been beneath or in front of his hands was likely gone now.

“We spread out,” I said.  “Groups of two or three.  Fan through the streets.  Most of you should know the signals by now, for relaying alerts and warnings.  If you don’t know, pair with someone who does.”

It sounded easy, but the logistics were harder.  Jessie had been able to pick up some idea of how the city was laid out, and the trick was to have everyone move in rough parallel, while avoiding the streets which would merge into others, creating wasted effort if one group was forced to merge into another or fall well behind.

Jessie, Helen and I took the central path.  It was arguably the safest when it came to being surprised or targeted from the flanks, but it also gave us the chance to react fastest if one of the others reported something.

Pierre had come along, and that was our saving grace in this.  He was a man who could outrun a horse on a good day, and while the winter had slowed him down a hair, both in leaving him slightly more out of shape and in making the environment more dangerous for running on two feet, it was still speed that counted for a lot.

We moved as four core groups, with Pierre a free agent that checked on each group before looping out ahead.

We made it a good way down the road before we saw Pierre hiding, his back to a wall, a finger pressed to his mouth.

He gestured, and it served to let us know that the others had already been alerted.

He gestured for us to come, and we went to his side.

“Remain within your homes!” the voice boomed.  It was loud and oppressive.  If Helen’s brother had been a third of the size and inclined to speaking with an aristocrat’s fine articulation and nuance, this might have been the volume I expected.  “Those seen running about may be shot or they may draw the attention of the Nephilim Project!”

There was the control I’d been looking for.

“Be patient!  All will return to normal soon!”

Back to normal, but for the massive property damage and the loss of lives, it seemed.  Still, it made a degree of sense.  There was a degree of manipulation in that people naturally gravitated toward what they knew and understood.  People wanted to go back to normal.  I’d offered normalcy as a bargaining chip when attempting to get people to cooperate.  Some were even very willing to do abnormal things if ‘normal’ was in the cards for the future.

We joined Pierre, and we crept forward to investigate the source of the booming voice.

The source, as it turned out, was an experiment.  He wore a stylized suit and a wig, and his facial features were clearly altered.  He was rotund to the point that it had to be design, a sphere or near-sphere literally encased within him.

“Praise be to the Crown!” the experiment boomed out.  He was moving away.

Beside us, Pierre relaxed a bit.  He glanced around, then said, “I’ll check with the others.  A moment.”

He was gone a second or three later.

Praise be to the Crown, I thought, trying on the words the experiment had used.  I didn’t believe them in the slightest.

“This is workable,” I said.  “The announcer experiment got his marching orders from someone.”

“He did,” Jessie said.

“I can hear another one,” Helen confided.  “Maybe two.  I think one of the two is a woman.”

Multiple announcers, then, addressing multiple parts of the city.

This wasn’t accidental.  The whole setup was premeditated.  The task had been carried out with a goal in mind.

“We can trace him back to the Academy people who ordered him to come here, we can co-opt or beat them, and through that we might be able to stall, stop, capture, or redirect big brother Neph.”

“He’s not much older than me.  If we could train him properly, we could make him an honorary Lamb,” Helen said, smiling.

“A project for another time,” I said.  “at this point, I just want to get through today.  I think we should track the announcer.  Let’s see where he goes in the meantime.”

The others nodded.

We moved to follow, tracing the announcer’s steps, and as we did so, we were careful to fan out, moving from cover to cover while also staying out of sight of Neph, lest he decide to throw something at us or chase us down.

He stopped to preach the importance of staying indoors and out of sight.

“We still don’t know what he’s pregnant with,” Helen said.

“Pregnant?” I askd.

“His potbelly.  He’s storing something.  Sometimes it’s food and water and vitamins, but sometimes it’s a weapon.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Jessie said.  “Thoughts later.  For now, we should see if this guy is going deeper afield or if he’s retreating to headquarters.”

“Agreed,” I said.

It seemed we wouldn’t get our answer.  As we waited for him to finish his loud rant, a lone gunshot rang out.

What followed was chaos.  Our lead to the Crown forces had been taken from us, and as if to add insult to injury, more deafening gunshots sounded, targeting us.

We shrank behind cover, and my mind was going a mile a minute.

‘Neph’ had been set against an enemy.  It wasn’t Fray, and that left two possibilities.

Only one was really this hostile to us.

It’s been a long, long time, dear Cynthia, I thought, without much love in my heart.  Cynthia had been the de-facto leader of the rebel coalition for a stretch, before Mauer had gotten his claws in and strife had divided the groups.  She had been the angriest and most bitter of them, and, most critical when it came to our current issue, the least willing to cooperate with anyone, let alone Lambs.

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Gut Feeling – 17.8

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I waited, my back to the doorframe, listening.

A question from Mabel.  A muted response.

I counted ninety long seconds before I heard Mabel’s boots scrape and shuffle.

She exited the room, wearing another improvised quarantine suit.

“Alright?” I asked.

I wasn’t sure if I was asking if she was alright or if the situation was.

“I don’t think I want to do that ever again,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Sorry.”

She shook her head.  The makeshift quarantine suit was all raincoat fabric and tape, and it didn’t move as her head did.  “It needed to be done.  It was the nicest way to end her pain, and I don’t mind that it was me.  But between last night and this, this morning, I’m almost as emotionally exhausted as I’ve ever been.”

“We’ll have to see what we can do about fixing that,” I said.  “How do you normally shore things up when they’re crumbling?”

“Hm?” she asked.

“What?” I asked.

“No, just… weird wording.  I think I usually wait.  Rest.  Or I just push forward until I get to a good stopping point.  End of a shitty day of class, or the next weekend where I don’t have a lot to do, or the end of a tough semester.”

“How well does that work for you?” I asked.

“Well enough, I think,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I think this is going to sit with me for a long time.”

I invited her into the hallway, glanced within, and then closed the door.  I picked up my tools, and I started removing the doorknob.

“It’s allowed, letting it sit with you for a while.”

“Uh huh,” Mabel said.

“It’s a way of respecting her,” I said.  “You carry that with you.  It’s good if someone passes and life gets a little harder, if there’s a weight and a ripple that extends outward.”

I pulled the doorknob out.  I put it in the toolbox.

“You’ve been involved in a lot of lost lives,” she said.

I looked down the hall.  They hadn’t been there before I started looking, but they were there by the time my head finished moving and my eyes found the shadows to either side of the window.  Jamie, Gordon, and Hubris.

“I carry them with me in other ways,” I said.  I collected a hammer and a few long nails from the toolbox.

“Oh, you mean the phantoms,” Mabel said.  “I was thinking of other deaths.”

I looked her way.

“In your tenure as a Lamb?”

Oh.  The people I’d killed.

That was a thing too.

“I carry them too, I suppose,” I said.

“Sorry if I made things queer, bringing attention to that.”

I shook my head.  “I’m a queer fellow.  I hear you talk about things like how you unwind from emotional exhaustion, and I don’t know what to say.”

“No?” she asked.

I drove the nail into the door at an angle, so it penetrated both one edge of the door and the frame itself.  With the amount of my back and shoulder that had been carved away, it was a bit of a task to drive the nail home.

“I don’t know that I get emotionally exhausted.  I get emotional, I get exhausted, but when push comes to shove, and my feelings are tested and fail the test, it’s my brain that breaks more than my heart.”

“I think that’s a reflection of heartbreak, Sy.”

“You might think differently if you were there,” I said.  “It might be what happens when you have the right tools-”

I paused to made sure I drove the next nail in straight.

“-to dodge the worst of the heartbreak and go down another path.  I have lots of fun tools like that.”

“I see.”

“Rest and time don’t do much for me, either.  Time heals all wounds, but you have to let it, and I’m not willing to let it.  If you’re a Sylvester with a brain like clay under running water, you can shape that brain, sure, but you’ve got to make the choice.  That painful memory of that person you cherish, do you let it go?  Or do you make the effort to keep that memory clear and safe from being washed away?  Do you keep etching it in and reinforcing it?”

“You etch.”

“Yeah.  I etch,” I said.  Still holding the hammer, I grabbed a small paint can, pried off the lid, and stuck my fingers inside.  I finger-painted letters on the door.  “As best I can.”

Plague, my letters wrote.

I made a mark below the warning, using fingerprints and smears to form something akin to a leaf with a curling line beside it, then crouched a bit before finger-painting another message.

Edna-Joan Eccles.

“How did it go?” I asked.  “That quote that Edna’s friend from the animal team said?”

“I was busy getting my suit taped up.  I barely heard what you were all talking about, and the girls were crying.  I thought you would remember.”

“You’re putting far too much stock in my brain.  Something beastly?”

“Um.  Wasn’t it something like, ‘roar, my beast friend?'”

“Sure,” I said.  “Beast?”

“I think it’s a play on best friend, and because she liked animals and warbeasts?  She was really excited about the pheromone warbeast we were going to be working on, even though she wasn’t project lead.”

I was already painting the letters before Mabel had finished talking.  “It’s an especially large shame then.  I like people who are passionate about what they do.”

Mabel nodded, but she didn’t verbally respond.

It took a while to write even the short sentence, one stroke at a time.

“There,” I said, when I was done.  I set the can of paint down without closing it, and abandoned the tools where they were.  An oily rug helped me get most of the paint off of my hand.  I didn’t fuss too much over getting perfectly clean.

“I wish I could take her somewhere she could be properly buried,” Mabel said.  “Shit.  I never used to be sentimental.”

“She was fused to the chair and floor,” I said.  “It’s not worth the risk to you.”

Mabel nodded.  Again, her quarantine suit obscured the motion.

“Burial is a funny thing, too, the more I think about it, but I think that’s mostly personal perception.  Come on, let’s get out of here.”

I discarded the rag with paint.  My hand had the oily residue and traces of paint in the cracks, the wear and tear and the lines emphasized.  Scratches new and old, abrasions and calluses all stood out with the paint highlighting them.  My fingers stuck to each other.

“What makes burial a funny thing?” Mabel asked.

“It’s a little odd to imagine a burial for someone like me, but that’s me, not for someone like her,” I said.  “Otis and some others got buried and if we had more people with quarantine suits and a clear way to get her out of here and out to a new burial plot, I’d be all for it.”

“You don’t want to be buried?  You’re dancing around the subject.”

“My memory is bad, but I feel like I’ve never really sat down and imagined myself being lowered into a burial plot, never imagined myself getting a funeral.  It’s kind of absurd, isn’t it?  I’ve thought about dying and I’ve known I was going to die for a long time, but the scene probably never struck me.”

“I don’t think it’s absurd at all,” she said.  “You’re… a victim of queer circumstance.”

“Sure,” I said.  “We can go with that.”

“If not a burial plot, then how does it end?”

“Violent ends.  Get myself into trouble I can’t get out of.  Fed to warbeasts, beheaded, shot…” I said.  I looked for and found Gordon in the crowd, sticking near Jessie and Helen.  “Cremation would be a nice way to go, but suffocation or drowning are up there.”

“You’re being morbid,” Mabel said.

“Uh huh.  Trying to scare you off at this point,” I said.

“My dad was unbalanced, spiteful, and self-involved.  He lost one wife after another, and after that, he had no forgiveness in his heart for anyone.  Especially not me.  It still took losing my last shot at the Academy for me to walk away.  You’re going to have to try harder if you want to scare me off.”

There were things I could say about that, but I had a feeling they would end in bitter words.

I took hold of her elbow as we made our way down the stairs to the ground floor.  With oversized boots and the alternating constriction and abundance of room that came with the makeshift quarantine suit, she was a little wobbly.  She fared well enough that I doubted she needed me, but she wasn’t complaining at the gesture, either.

As we ventured outside, we could see the rank and file of the Beattle rebels, the additions we’d picked up in our travels, and the older gang members.  They’d gathered, and the carriages and wagons were all loaded down with supplies and bags.  Some of our people were still lashing bags and containers down.

Jessie raised an arm, waving.  I waved back.

She gestured a question, and I gave the go-ahead.

The signal was given, the wagons started off, and with a few words from Jessie, the leaders of individual groups got their contingents moving.

I drew a knife from my back pocket and set about cutting the tape and peeling Mabel out of the quarantine suit.

The damage and bandages at my back limited my range of movement, particularly with my right arm, while Mabel was limited by the fact that she had taped herself into the suit and it was hard to untape herself with gloves on.

“Sorry if I made things awkward,” she said.

She hadn’t been wearing the quarantine suit for long.  A five minute walk between buildings, time inside the dormitory, walking up a flight of stairs and down the hall, seeing to Edna Joan, and then exiting the building.  But the outfit wasn’t one that breathed, by design.  She practically steamed with the body heat that had been contained within.

No, ‘awkward’ was helping Mabel out of her outfit while her team of chemists and greenhouse gangers watched her and the collection of Pierre, Shirley, Jessie and Helen watched me.  Moisture beaded her skin, made her hair stick to her neck.  She wasn’t wearing heavy clothes with the quarantine suit, her clothing choice barely different from underclothes, and the clothes she was wearing were sticking to her.

She was standing with an orientation that meant the onlookers couldn’t really see her face.  She had been crying, but with the mask and suit on, she hadn’t been able to wipe away the tears.  The moment her arms were free, the upper half of the suit hanging from her waist, she brought her hands to her face, wiping sweat, tears, and hair back and away.

I was very aware that her back arched a little with that, and that her chest stuck out unconsciously in my direction.  But I was also aware that people were watching me and her and wanted to see if I would look, and I played at being the gentleman.

I moved around behind her, very conscious of how the sweat caught the light, or how one tiny rivulet of sweat traced the line of her shoulderblade.  I pulled off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders.

“You don’t need to do that,” she said.

“You’ll get cold,” I said.

You’ll get cold, and you’re recovering from surgery.”

“You’ll get cold, and you’re drenched.  It’ll cut through you in a moment if the wind blows the wrong way.  Wear the jacket until you have your own.  If you start off a long hike by freezing yourself to the bone, someone is going to have to give up a much-needed seat.”

“Alright,” Mabel said.  “I’ve learned better than to argue with you.”

“Good,” I said.

“But your jacket is going to stink,” she said.  “I haven’t had a chance to shower today, I was roasting in that quarantine suit, I’m drenched, as you put it.”

“Oh, the horror.  No.  Girl sweat is a good smell.”

Mabel made a face.  “Gross.”

“It’s the way it goes,” I told her.  “Left leg.”

She lifted her left leg, and I helped cut where the waders were taped to the boots.  I repeated the process for the right leg.

She put her hands on my shoulders for balance as she kicked off the waders.

Together, we got her to the members of the greenhouse gang, who had her actual boots, winter jacket and clothing in custody.  One of them already had a towel ready to hand to her, which immediately went to her damp hair.

“Walk with us?” she asked.

“I need to catch up with Jessie and Helen,” I said.  “Strategy and grander plans.  I want you and some of the others to join in the discussion, but let us cut through some of the initial gristle and grit first.  We’ll tackle some stuff first, then make it a wider discussion.”

“Okay,” Mabel said.  I could hear the disappointment.

“It really is more stuff you don’t want to hear.  In the meantime, you guys should talk while you walk.  Discuss the possibilities of the arm and skin I’m gifting you.  How you’ll figure out what you can use, tests you can run, whichever else.  Tap other groups if it keeps them busy and if you don’t fall too far behind.  But see what you can do?”

“We’ll try,” Mabel said.  “We don’t have a lab, so I can’t make promises.”

“And keeping in mind you’ve been running around and helping on my behalf for the better part of the day, I’ll see what I can do to thank you by arranging a warm bath for you after we get to our destination.”

I subtly gestured midway through saying it, making sure the other Lambs didn’t see.  Mabel didn’t give any indication she’d seen.

“Warm bath?” one of Mabel’s Greenhouse Gang kids asked, eager.

“You peasants get to fight over the tubs only after the inner circle are through with them,” I said.  I gestured again as I said, “Mabel gets first go.”

“No need to spoil me,” she said.

“There’s no need, but I’m liable to do it anyway,” I told her.  “You did good work.  I’m hoping for more.  But either way, discuss, plan, plot.  Then you and I-”

I gestured again, striving to drive the point home.

“-will discuss what your group figured out and is proposing.”

I was pretty sure she saw that last gesture.  I was also pretty sure she didn’t understand the meaning.

“I’ll be tired tonight, and I think you’re underestimating how tired you’ll be.  A surgery like the one you had last night will take a lot out of you.”

I gestured.

“We’ll see how it goes, then,” I said.  “No commitments.  But I think you’d be surprised at my stamina.”

“I think waiting and seeing is the best approach,” she said.  “And I’m sure you’re very capable.”

I smiled, gesturing subtly at the same time.

“…And I’m suddenly remembering that you’re the person to trust when it comes to this sort of thing,” she said.  “And I’m reconsidering.  If you think you’ll be up for it.”

“I definitely think I’ll be up for it,” I said.

No blushing, barely any betrayal that she’d realized what I was really going for.

Her eyes were one of the first things I had noticed about her, the attention to detail and memory.  I wondered how many times she’d seen the gestures before making the connection.

“I’ll look forward to it, then,” she told me.

I gave her a mock salute, collected my coat, and made my way to the others.  I could tell they were rearing to go before they fell behind the pack.

I’d told Mabel that I needed to get some things sorted out before I invited her to chat with us.  I was about to deal with those things.

“So adorable,” Helen said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Your pupils are dilated,” Jessie said.  “Your breathing is different.”

I rolled my eyes more emphatically, moving my head in a little circle for added emphasis.

“It was very gentlemanly of you to give her your jacket,” Shirley said.

“Not you, Shir,” I said.  “Don’t you join in.”

“It’s hard to resist,” Shirley said, offering me a pouty little moue that used the best of her pixie face and build and her large eyes.  Helen mirrored her movements.

“Helen is already a bad influence on you,” I remarked.

The mass migration was underway.  The light teasing continued, and we made our way out of Sedge and onto the back country roads.

There were enough people in our rank and file that it posed logistical issues.  The tromp of boots on wet dirt road meant that by the time the stragglers reached the same point, the ground was a mire.  Wagons churned up ground that should have been solid and hard with the cold.

The jokes and jabs stopped after a bit.  The carriages were loaded down enough that when they did reach softer ground, weight pulled them into the mud.  People started to appear at the sides of the road, as if to offer help, but our numbers discouraged a straightforward approach.

Bandits.  I wanted to talk to some, but the way things were demanded constant and careful attention.

They lingered, ominous, and I made sure to talk to the group leaders, ensuring we conveyed the right message, that we didn’t have any weak points.

Mentally, I could see the bandits making the mental decision to attack us in the late evening, after most of us had gone to bed.

The show of strength was enough for the time being.

I took Jessie’s hand, and I did it for reasons entirely unrelated to the bandits who wanted to attack us and divest us of our gathered possessions.

As all of this went, it was good.  The people, the task at hand, the possibilities, and that dim possibility that Helen had floated of something inspiring and devastating to our enemies.

I liked that in particular.

If I had quizzed Jessie for information before making promises to Mabel, I might have been told that even if we were brisk, it would take twelve hours to reach our destination by way of walking.  I might have been discouraged.

We didn’t walk.  Halfway through the afternoon, just as the sun was starting to set, we had happened across a farm.  The farmer had been willing to accept well over twice the value of his horses, carriages and spare wood in exchange for his cooperation.

Spirits were considerably higher now that anyone walking could get a turn sitting on the back of one carriage.

Helen found her way back from a conversation with Pierre.

“Helen,” I said.  “Question, Jessie and I were discussing.”

“Mm?”

“Did you ever envision a casket funeral for yourself?”

“I think if I would be in a position to get one, I’ll get taken to pieces in autopsy for my creator,” she said.  “So no.”

I nodded.  I was aware that Helen was preparing her breakfast as though she had no imagination at all.  Route and routine.

“What about a casket funeral for me?” I asked.

It was Jessie who answered.  “If you somehow earn a casket funeral for yourself, Sy, for one thing, I’m going to be ticked, because that’s not allowed.  We don’t die if we can help it.”

“Fair,” Helen said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“No throwing yourself suicidally into madcap situations with only half formulated plans,” Jessie said.  “If you can promise me that, I’ll play along with the mad plan.  I’ll help you execute it with precision.”

“Deal,” I said.

It might have been poetic for that moment to be the one where we crested the hill and found ourselves faced with the next scene, a fresh image of the Crown states.

Instead, it took another ten minutes of trudging, every part of my lower body and some parts of my upper body hurting from the exercise, before we reached the hill, so to speak.  The trees overhead knit into arches above our heads.  The arches blocked our view.

But we made it beyond the arches.  We had a clear view of the sky.

“Oh my gosh,” Helen said.  “He’s not supposed to be here!”

‘He’ was a man, as it happened.  He was naked, leathery of skin, with ragged hair and mustache.

“Don’t tell me,” I said.

“Well, I could listen and not tell you, which is boring and anxiety-inducing,” Helen said.  “Or I could break the news, and then we can discuss what to do about this.”

“What news?” Davis asked, as he happened to draw closer to us, the walking rear guard of the caravan now catching up to us on the cliff-edge, looking across the city.

Looking at the naked man.

His face contorted with emotion, his body moved as if he wasn’t familiar with it, and he acted groggy.

One of the superweapons.  He stood taller than the tallest skyscrapers in the city sprawl, and the city held close to eighty-thousand people.  Taller than a building ten stories tall.  He moved among most buildings like someone my size might have walked amid scattered books in my living room.  His joints were overlarge, he was brutish, crude, and ugly, with some resemblance to a neanderthal, and yet, somehow, he was art.  Beauty in audacity.

“He was a project that stretched the upper bounds of size limits, ratios, and weight distribution.  He’s one of the three largest non-waterborne creations on the planet,” Helen said.  “And he’s Ibbot’s work.  My half brother.”

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