Lamb I (Arc 18)

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Mary stood atop the wall.  There were people on the other side, keeping their distance from the Academy’s vat beasts, which paced back and forth, shoulders brushing against the walls.

The beasts, by contrast, had been replaced recently.  They appeared similar to naked mole rats, but they had teeth, claws, and bone hooks at their joints that would have done any predator proud.  They were somewhat lopsided, and they had muscle to spare beneath their pink flesh.  They had sunburns, even though the rain from Radham reached the town.  Not technically warbeasts, they were mass produced in vats, expendable, entirely instinct rather than training.  They patrolled where there were scent markers, attacking anything that came too near, and they left a scent marker.  Once the first batch had been walked along the patrol route, they were collectively good to guard that route.

The haggard and dirty people didn’t look particularly scared of the beasts, which meant they had been there for some time.  They’d had time to get used to the things and learn how they behaved.

They’d also had time, Mary suspected, to get desperate.  Enough so that they’d started flirting with the idea of fighting the beasts.  There were many who were gathering poles for more tent construction, each pole sharpened on each end so they could be planted in the ground.

That’s the lie, anyway, Mary thought.

That lie was what kept the peace for the moment.  Refugee and Academy both pretended the sticks weren’t spears being stockpiled for future incident.  Both sides hoped for a resolution that didn’t have one.

The patrol of the vat beasts had turned grass at the base of the wooden wall to a thick soup of mud.  A hundred feet of grass separated the band of mud and the beasts from the refugees.  Trees had been chopped down and pieced together into haphazard shelters, and some material had been used to erect tents, but the omnipresent rain and the sheer number of refugees posed their own problems.  Tens of thousands of people were out there, Mary guessed.  Tens of thousands of people had to walk, they had to eat, and they had to go to the bathroom.  The ground level of the refugee camp was quickly becoming a sty, any ground not covered already by some form of shelter quickly becoming a stew of mud, shit and piss.

On the other side of the wall, Lillian was hanging back while a group of doctors talked with the town’s city council and prominent citizens.  The ground there was a wicker-basket weave of grown wood filling the plaza.  There wasn’t much mud at all, and the rain had washed away most of the dirt that had been tracked in when others had entered or exited through the gate.

Vats sat by the wall, as did the wagons that had brought them there, and the stockpiles of food and chemicals to sustain them.  More vat beasts were within, and yet more creatures sat near those.  A circus show of monsters and beasts lurking near where the food was handed out and where the overhang of the wall’s edge helped keep the rain off them.  They included all types, from the aquatic to the reptilian to mammals.  Most were hairless and mostly unclothed, and most were bipedal, drawing inspiration from their creators.

Mary’s thoughts touched briefly on what Sylvester and Jessie had said about the Block.  Her thoughts touched briefly on the vague image of this noble that supposedly shared blood and history with her, and the glass coffin the noble had laid within.

How many of those monsters had been human once?  How many others had been pieced together from components that were obtained from human donors?  Any one of them could have benefited from root cells, muscle transplants, or sections of brains, if not whole brains then molded with drug regimens.

Lillian was watching the beasts while the conversation played out next to her.

Mary wished Lillian wasn’t being so quiet.  She could see what Lillian was doing, but it wasn’t actively serving their purpose here.

Glancing up, Lillian met Mary’s eyes.  Her hand moved in a gesture.  I.  Eyes.

Then before she could communicate anything more, someone in the group said something to Lillian, taking up her full attention.

It didn’t seem urgent, whatever it was Lillian had been conveying.

Looking back in the direction of the refugee camp, she saw that one of the bystanders closest to her had his pants down.  He was actively jerking his hand back and forth, furiously enough that she thought he might hurt himself.

He pulled his hands away in a very dramatic way, raising them with middle fingers raised at her, and shouted.  The distance made his words inarticulate, but she could guess what he’d said.  He’d illustrated, in a way, with a forward thrust of his hips coinciding with each word.

He screamed over and over like a small child having a tantrum, rage and desperation boiling over.  When she didn’t react or move, he added variation.  She could almost read his lips, and pair that read with the distant cry.  Screw you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you all, screw yourselves…

Trying to get to her, to bother her, hurt her like he was hurting, even if it was through a kind of self abuse and humiliation.

She could be clinically empathetic, but she couldn’t quite bring that empathy home and feel it.  Things were the way they were.  She couldn’t do anything for him.

She would support Lillian, trusting that Lillian would make things better.

She fixed the hood of her raincoat, turned away, and walked down the stairs that led from the wall-top to the plaza below.  As she made her way down, she could see the full assortment of the Academy’s monsters.  Most existed for utility purposes, it looked like.  A solution for every problem.

The council was already starting to depart when Mary reached them.

“The general was saying we have a few days to figure things out,” the mayor said, his voice lowered a bit, so the rest of the city council wouldn’t hear as they walked away.  “He thinks the vagrants outside the wall are going to stir themselves up and try another attack, so we don’t have much longer than that.”

“We’ll see what we can do,” the lead doctor said.

“If they have a way into the city, we need to know about it,” the mayor said, insistent.  “There’s rumors that some out there are sick.  Not the red plague, but any sickness is bad when we’re already pressed in.”

“Rest assured, we have the situation in hand,” the lead doctor said.

The mayor didn’t look convinced.  “Let us know if you need anything.”

With those parting words, the man struck the wood-woven street with his cane and limped away.

It was telling that the group of Academy doctors were silent as the town’s council left the area.  They didn’t want to be heard.

Lillian glanced at Mary.  Mary moved her hand.  I see-know.

Lillian signaled.  We agree.

They’d both figured out the answer.

Speak, Mary urged.

Wait, was the response.

Mary pursed her lips.

“The Infante should be by before nightfall,” the lead doctor said, checking his watch.  “No more than two hours.  There are rumors that other populations have been crossing the burned acreages to reach black woods and collect the wood for use against the Crown.  He thinks, if there’s a trend, that it might occur here, close to Radham.  Don’t make me look bad.”

Mary and Lillian exchanged glances.

“We’ll check the vat beasts for drugs,” the lead doctor decided.  “If the vagrants are getting in, they have to be getting by the vat beasts somehow.  I can only imagine a rebel group with access to medicine using darts or drugging food for the beasts and slipping by.”

“Yes sir,” was the muttered reply.  Mary didn’t feel compelled to respond.

“Station some scratchers on the wall.  Turn their ears toward the vagrant mob.  See if they can’t hear and scratch out anything suspicious.”

“We’ll need to set up something to keep the rain off of them and their papers,” another doctor said.

Mary looked at the scratchers, which were sitting in the rain.  Their heads and ears seemed to make up half of their bodies, the rest of them spindly.  They resembled hairless cats  minus the tails, or hairless bats without wings.  They looked less fond of the rain than anything present, human faces on bestial bodies with long fingers, sulking as they sat slouching in puddles.

“Do it.  Recruit help if you have to, to get the materials or building done.  Requisition the writing supplies if we don’t have enough.  Volume of material is better than anything else, and if the mayor says we can ask if we need anything, we might as well see if he’s telling the truth.”

“I’ll handle that,” one doctor supplied.

The lead doctor nodded, folding his arms.  He drew in a breath, and in the process he managed to puff himself up a bit.  Finally, he relented and asked, “Any other ideas?”

Speak, Mary gestured, again.

Wait, Lillian gestured, before asking, “Can any of the experiments at the wall talk?”

“Some, I’m sure, if only barely,” the lead doctor said.  “Why?”

“If we haven’t asked if they’ve seen anything, I don’t think it’ll hurt.”

The lead doctor looked fairly unimpressed, but that wasn’t anything new.  “You’re here to lend your particular expertise, as Professor Hayle touts it.  I was hoping you’d impress me with something more concrete, miss.”

We know what the answer is, Mary thought, before gesturing again.  Speak.

“I’m confident in my abilities, doctor,” Lillian said.  She’d emphasized ‘doctor’ a touch, as if to make a note that she was using his title while he insisted on calling her ‘miss’.

He didn’t respond to that.  Instead, he looked at Mary.  “You have a guest, girl.”

Mary was surprised at that.  “Do I?”

“Your parent.  They’re at the north gate.  I was called away from other duties to receive the message and carry it to you.  They’re waiting for you now.”

“I see,” Mary said.  She saw the expression on the doctor’s face, put on her act as a young lady of Mothmont, and curtsied.  “I’m sorry for the trouble.”

“I already think very little of you two being here.  It’s dangerous, the vagrants could reach their tipping points and attack any day now, and you girls seem more interested in sightseeing, playing about, and apparently visiting with family.”

“Again, I’m sorry for the trouble,” Mary said.  She curtsied, and this time she kept her head down.

After a moment, the doctor sniffed.  “Get going.”

Mary turned to Lillian.  “If I may?”

“I’ll look into some things and meet up with you later,” Lillian said, as her hand moved.  Think.  Think.  Water.  Sleep.

Agree, Mary gestured.  Lillian would work on this some more, wash, and then nap.  They’d traveled overnight to get here.  It was overdue.

It still frustrated Mary, that Lillian was keeping quiet on something essential.  They’d come here to accomplish a mission, and it was an easy mission.  The refugees were being collectively driven out of town and city by the spread of black wood and plague.  This was one of many locations where the refugees had traveled in hopes of finding a new home, only to find a barrier.  Some refugees were slipping past, despite a population of vat-grown beasts that were supposed to be on watch, with senses that allowed them to feel the vibrations in the earth from tunneling.

Hayle had volunteered them, and they’d been happy to accept, really.  They had skills in investigation and infiltration.  Investigating infiltrators was second nature.  They had their mission.

The broader, larger mission was to build up Lillian’s reputation.  Getting her grey coat would require sponsorship and funding.  Each Academy had only so many labs, and an overabundance of specialists.  Lillian was positioned to get lab space, and even to use her ties to Hayle to have her own exclusive lab, but after some discussions over tea with Hayle, they’d decided that taking advantage of that connection in the now would potentially leave them short of political capital later.

Lillian needed to prove her worth in a way that gave her a history she could clearly point to.  References, completed missions and being a cog in the war machine that had won.

Both of them knew that the refugees were tunneling after all.  Lillian had seen something within the city that had helped her realize it.  Mary had seen from the wall how the refugees were setting up the spears, yes, but also that they were camouflaging the hole they were digging, while simultaneously guiding the flow of rainwater to better flood areas.

The tunnels would be waterlogged as a consequence, but the actual movement of earth and footfalls underground would be muffled.

Lillian knew and was staying quiet, when they could have challenged the annoying doctor’s perception, proven their worth, and finished the mission in record time.  If they could do that enough times, Lillian could make her name as a problem solver.

Mary was annoyed, frustrated, and a small part of that had to do with the condescension.

It was a bad tone as she found her ‘father’ by the north gate.  She found him at the gatehouse, talking to a military officer.  On seeing her, he broke away from the conversation, raising and opening an umbrella in the same motion.

He was a man who dressed well.  He liked the tailored suit jacket, the tie, and the triangle of a kerchief in the pocket of his suit, color matching that of the tie, though it was plain while the tie was patterned.  He wore round glasses with gold frames and kept his hair oiled and parted.  The look was old fashioned at the same time as the glasses, tie, and kerchief were bold decoration.

“Father,” she said.  “It’s a surprise to see you here.”

He reached her, and with the umbrella in one hand, he embraced her briefly with the other arm.  She allowed it, maneuvering so he wouldn’t feel the press of blades or weapons.

When the hug broke, he remained close enough that they could share his umbrella.  Mary lowered her hood.

“We made plans,” he said.

“I know.  I was called away.”

“As you often are,” he said.

She didn’t have a response for that.  It wasn’t that she was speechless or troubled.  It was that he was right and she didn’t really see the issue with that reality.

He sighed.  “We only ask for your company three or four times a year or so.  In recent years it’s been only twice a year.  Last year it was once.”

Mary thought again of the noble girl who shared her blood.  This man’s real daughter.

She had only maintained limited contact with her supposed parents, for appearances, at Hayle’s request.  They had maintained a concern that embedded programming would make her turn on them and on herself in a violent way, and it had taken some time to ensure that wasn’t the case, with the help of pictures and incidental exposure while she remained restrained.

It had been necessary to be sure, even after learning the truth about her trigger phrase and Percy’s intentions.

But she hadn’t gone to any lengths to do more than the bare minimum in seeing them.  It was an inconvenience.  Their depth of feeling for her made her lack of feeling for them an uncomfortable lack.

“The messenger brought your note, and I hurried to see if I couldn’t see you at the train station before you left.”

“We didn’t take the train,” Mary said.

“I know.  I found that out.  I went asking, and I heard you were here.  I heard… worrying things.”

“Things?” Mary asked.

He liked to be clean-shaven, without any facial hair, and even with the overcast weather and the shade the umbrella provided, she could see a muscle stand out as the corner of his jaw as he glanced away.

“If you asked girls at the dormitory, you should know they’re catty, they like their webs of rumor and deceit, to cut down the other girls.  Whatever it is they said.”

“I asked at the orphanage,” he said.  “Where you stayed so you could be closer to the school.  Are the webs of deceit cast by girls of the Academy that insidious, that someone at the orphanage a ten minute walk from the Academy’s doors would say the same things?”

“You were apparently busy.”

“I was,” he said, and that was very nearly a sentence on its own, but he continued, “…wanting to know my daughter.”

Mary glanced away.  She wondered what the noble lady had properly looked like.

She wondered if there was something she could say that would make this man stop trying to cling to her.

As she looked up at him, he held himself stiff, chin firm.

Her own chin was raised, held steady, so she could meet his eyes without wavering.

“I sent you to Mothmont because I believed it would provide you with opportunity,” he said.  “Because I work every day with wealthy and powerful men and I can see that there’s a divide, a chasm between me and them.  I am good at managing money, but I could do my best work every single day of my life and I wouldn’t ever be their peer.  I wanted Mothmont and the connections it gave you to at least give you the possibility of being great.”

“I know.”

“Things happened, unfortunate ones.  But in the midst of them you found a direction.  I trusted you to walk that path you chose.”

“Trusted.  Past tense.”

“I never fully understood what you were doing, and any questions were met by your insistence it was classified.  I’ve wrung my hands over it, talked with your mother.  We decided each time to trust you.”

“Have I betrayed that trust?”

“Have you?” he asked, not turning it around, but making it a genuine question.

“I think I would need to know the accusations before I can answer that question.”

“You and Lillian.  Spending too much time in each other’s company.”

“Mild, as accusations go,” Mary said.

His expression changed, hardening a bit, looking more wounded, making it more clear what he was meaning to say.

“No, father.  She has a boy she likes.  Gordon- you met Gordon.”

“He died some time ago, Mare,” her father said, his voice softening.  “And I could almost understand, almost, if it was your heart being tender after a loss, but…”

Mary held firm, remaining silent.

“…It’s been some time, and I haven’t known you to be tender for quite some time.”

“It’s something I’m not terribly good at,” Mary said.

“I wondered about you, but I trusted you,” he said.  “I want you to know that.  But I’ve heard things and stewed over them for the entire trip here.  I don’t know you and I’m unsure about the path you’re walking.  Girls and boys from multiple places remarked on you.  Saying that you share her bed.  That you’re her servant, following her around like a dog.  There was speculation you take combat drugs, that you’ve been experimented on-”

“That’s only venom from a nest of vipers, father.”

Convince me,” he said.  His knuckles were white as he gripped the umbrella.  The umbrella’s waver betrayed his.  “Please.”

It’s all because I’m not the girl you’re looking.  Percy was my father more than anyone.

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say,” she said.  “I can protest all day, but you’ll wonder all the same.”

“I don’t know where you’re going, I don’t know where you are.  I don’t know how you got this way,” he said.  He sounded oddly less plaintive, even as he pleaded.  “I don’t know you.”

She reached up, fixing her hair.  It was damp from some of the spatter of rain, and she pushed it up and away from her forehead.

“It’s classified,” she said.

“I-”

“-so I’m expecting you to be discreet.”

He shut his mouth.

“There was the incident in Mothmont.  I… was homesick.  I fell in with a bad group.”

That muscle at the corner of his jaw worked again.

“Should I continue?” Mary asked.  “If I carry on, I’ll upset you.”

“If you don’t, I’ll be more upset.”

Are you sure? she thought.  She spoke, “I partook in the mass poisoning.”

She studied his reaction.  She watched the thought process, as he tried to put it all together while still not having enough information.

“They’re the reason I’m… not tender.  Them but especially the man who led them.”

She thought about elaborating.  Calling that man a father figure.  The twist of the knife that would ensure she was never inconvenienced by this man again.

Lillian wouldn’t have wanted her to.

“My stay at the Academy was to watch over me, ensure I wasn’t a danger.  It’s why they didn’t let you visit.  Lillian is one of the few who know where I came from.”

“But the rest of it?  The classified jobs?”

“I was asked to accompany them because they were keeping an eye on the reverend Mauer.  Who you introduced me to.  Who was revealed as a secret rebel.”

Again, that muscle at the jaw.

“I knew enough that the Academy didn’t to be useful.  I’ve learned skills.  The only things they’ve done to me are to ensure I’m alright, even if I’m not tender and haven’t been for a long time.”

“So that’s what happened.  That’s where you were, all this time.”

“Yes.”

He looked, to a degree, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

“As to where I’m going, what lies at the end of this path?”

For an instant, she floundered.  Giving an answer that tied her too closely to Lillian was problematic.

“I want to teach,” she said.

“Teach?”  He sounded surprised at that.

When she answered, she spoke the words and knew they were true at the same time.  “I want to train a proper army, and I have for a long time.  The path I’m walking, I think I can get there.  I’m enough of a perfectionist that I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.”

“So you are my daughter after all.  The perfectionist.”

She felt uncomfortable at the idea, but she kept her mouth shut.

“I have more questions,” he said.  “About what happened at Mothmont.  Just what you’ve been up to.”

“They may have to wait.  If I can even answer them at all.”

He nodded.

“But for now?  I really do have a job to do.  And speed is of the essence.  I’m going to go.”

“If I stayed in town, could I see you again?”

“If you’re in town when the Infante arrives, you may find that the roads are closed and security redoubled,” Mary said.  “You should go soon.  I’ll see you later this year.”

He somehow didn’t seem very hurt by the bluntness.  It could have been that he valued being taken into confidence.  It could have been that he had largely come to terms with the distance between them.

Clinically, she could tell that his eyes were sad, his smile genuine at the same time.

“I don’t need to worry about you and Lillian?”

“She’ll run the Academy, and I’ll handle the military arm,” Mary said.  “She has that boy she likes, and I… just need time.”

Time being the integral component.  This dream might have been feasible, if only barely, but time was the thing she needed most, with more time giving her more room to accomplish it.  She would expire, sooner or later.

“It’s not what I envisioned, when I held you in my arms,” he said.

Again, Mary didn’t have a response for that.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Thank you,” she said, her voice soft.

They did need help.  They needed contacts and resources.  Maybe all of the discomfort and distraction involved with maintaining this family would prove useful.  Maybe.

“Hood up,” he said.  “Don’t get too wet.  Unless you want my umbrella?”

She shook her head, reaching up to lift her hood back into place.

They parted ways.

You deserve a better daughter, Mary thought.  Not a ghostNot an offshoot.

The line of thought about the teaching and training soldiers stuck with her.  It kept her company alongside less comfortable, easy thoughts that lingered from the conversation.

She had been happy to exist, to keep people she valued close.  She honed her skills and proved her worth and she was content in that.

At the same time, she had avoided thinking of the future, until pressed to paint one for her father.

It all would have been easier if she had ignored the man.  She might have, if the image of her counterpart didn’t nag at her, if her original self was dead five years ago, reduced to nothing and boiled away in a vat, instead of mere months ago, keeping company with nobles.

She valued how she was evaluated, liked being the best Mary she could be.  Seemingly effortlessly, someone else had surpassed her in that.

Yet talking to her father was supposed to fix that?  She didn’t like the way that idea rested in her head.

Lillian was supposed to be back at their temporary accommodations, stealing a nap before the Infante came.  There were things to be discussed and considered before then.  Mary would get the answer as to why Lillian wanted to wait instead of seizing the most political capital possible.

She felt restless.

The building was quiet, its other occupants out for the day, or at least entertaining themselves with books rather than music boxes and conversation.  Many refugees of higher standing had been allowed into the town, and many places were crowded, but this building had avoided the worst of it.

She unlocked the door and let herself in, looked at Lillian sleeping on the bed with a towel around her head.  Mary used every trick at her disposal to minimize noise.

The bathwater was still lukewarm, so she made use of it.

She wanted sleep more than she wanted anything else, so she was efficient.  She peeled off her clothes, damp even though she had been adequately protected by her raincoat.

Her fingers brushed over a hundred tiny scars, a dozen less tiny ones, and a half-dozen clusters or longer scars where she had been opened up.  Brown and black smudges grew here and there, or formed hard nodules.

She was a copy of another person, and she had spent the first few years of her life in a vat.  She had hit the ground running, growth-wise, development-wise, and even as her growth had been stopped, her body maintained a different clock, and her development had taken a fresh direction, with an overwhelming and eager focus on her training.

But cells copied themselves over and over again, and the combination of that reality and the odd clock she kept, with the copying of copying, it meant things were running aground, flaws finding reality.

There were times and places where her hands didn’t move quite the way she wanted, or where muscles caught.  She was careful to tell Lillian about each of them, and with Lillian’s care she was allowed to pursue her perfection again.

Lillian’s soap and toiletries rested on the bath’s edge.  On impulse, she left them alone, choosing the coarse lye soap instead.  She scrubbed herself until her skin was pink and tingling, then rinsed herself off.

She dressed light, so she wouldn’t rumple her clothes.  She would want to look good when the Infante arrived.

Lillian looked so tired, even in sleep.

The black coat remained the goal, it had to be.  But this job and jobs like it, they felt like small steps.  They needed to accomplish something more.

They needed to not wait when they had answers others wanted.  Not when time was so elusive.

Mary took a moment to tie her hair back with her ribbons, then climbed onto the bed.  She remained there, poised, on her hands and knees above Lillian.

Gently, she lifted Lillian’s hands, moving them out of the way.  Then she leaned down, touching her lips to her friend’s.

Soft, almost imperceptible.

Lillian reacted, exhaling softly, and Mary moved the towel to cover Lillian’s eyes as she made the kiss more perceptible, momentary touches instead of feather light ones.

Lillian, more awake, raised her head up, reaching, and Mary met that response with something substantial, then a touch of tongue.

It was about drawing it out.  A quarter of the way, each time.  Then as Lillian responded more, halfway each time.

Lillian arched her back, reaching up with her whole body, while her wrists were held down.

The progression, logically, meant the next step was a three-quarter one.  Body to body.  Instead of this, Mary moved her knee, placing it on the bed between Lillian’s legs, firmly, insistently pressing.  She could feel Lillian change the angle of her hips.

A part of her liked getting this right.  Like managing the perfect maneuver with the knife and wire, precise acrobatics.  It made her think of being in lockstep with Gordon, Helen, or Sylvester.

Lillian made the most delicate of moans, and that response merited another three-quarter-of-the-way-there response.  A kiss, a tightening of her grip on Lillian’s wrists.

In the midst of it all, the moment passed.  A change in the responses that each action got.  In the immersion she was maintaining.

Mary let go, and sat back.

Lillian reached up, taking hold of the damp towel that had been draped over her upper face, and pulled it down, clutching it to her chest.

“What gave me away this time?” Mary asked.

Lillian shook her head.  She was breathing hard, and she didn’t speak immediately.

Mary let herself topple over, lying on the bed to one side.  While she lay there, Lillian took her hand, fingers traveling over Mary’s fingers.  Fingertips traced calluses.  From handling knives and razor wire.

“They’re not his hand,” Lillian said.  Her voice was soft enough it crackled a little bit.  She sounded sad.

“Ah,” Mary said.  “I can do something about that.”

As she looked over at Lillian, however, she could see that her friend’s eyes were sad.

“Unless you want me to stop.”

Lillian shook her head, but she didn’t look sure.

“You look so sad, after,” Mary said.

“It’s nice to believe it, just for a few moments,” Lillian said.  “I don’t know if that’s a good thing.  Maybe I’m not letting it be a clean break.”

“I don’t know,” Mary said.

“I’m so twisted,” Lillian said.  “The Lambs are all twisted around, aren’t they?”

“I’m not the one to answer that, one way or the other,” Mary said.  “It’s more or less all I’ve ever known.”

Still holding Mary’s hand, Lillian knit the fingers of their hand together, staring at the hands, which were held up as they lay there.

They remained like that for several minutes.

“I don’t want to bore you,” Lillian finally said.  “Or for you to think less of me.”

“I’d never think less of you, not for something like this.  And I like the challenge.  Seeing how close I can get,” Mary said.  “But if you want to talk about irritating me… why did we wait?”

“I knew you were going to ask.”

Mary sat up, abrupt.  “I want us to progress.

“This is progress,” Lillian said.  “This is choosing our time to make a move with some wisdom.”

“You’re cautious,” Mary pointed out.  “You need to make bold moves.”

“It’s not that.  I knew almost right away that I’d need to wait a measured time.  I saw dirt patterns almost right away too, but still, no, if we act too soon, it’ll seem uppity, like we’re showing them up.”

“They don’t like you, or us,” Mary said.  “However you do it, they won’t like it.  All we’re doing by waiting is giving them the chance to find out the answer first.”

“With the track they’re on?” Lillian asked.  She shook her head.  “No, no.  This is right.  They won’t admit they’re impressed, but it gets us the most traction.  It’ll count for something.”

“I’d rather finish sooner,” Mary said.  “Move on to something more meaningful.”

Lillian huffed out a sigh.  There was some residual frustration in that huff.

“What?” Mary asked.

“And a part of me doesn’t want to say no, to people who want someplace safe to go,” Lillian admitted.  “I don’t want to be that kind of doctor.  I want to offer a better solution.”

Mary nodded.  She let herself fall back down, collapsing onto the pillow.

“I know, logically, it makes more sense to gain power so I can help people… but I wonder how many tell themselves that,” Lillian said.

“I was thinking about that, as a matter of fact,” Mary said.  “About where we’re going.  What we might do, if there’s time.”

Lillian turned her head.

Before she could respond, however, a knock rapped at the door.  Lillian jumped as she heard it, then sat up partway up as she recognized the pattern.

Tap code.

Lamb.

Mary reached over to the bedside table, and she drew her gun.  She had one knife under a pillow, and as she reached for that, Lillian slapped at her hand.

She would make do with the gun.

“Come in,” Mary said.

The door opened.  Jessie.  She wore a raincoat and a long skirt, and she’d chosen not to wear her glasses.  It wasn’t until she lowered her hood and moved her braid into place at one shoulder that she looked more like herself.  She drew glasses from her pocket and set them in place.

“Did something happen?” Lillian asked.  Mary didn’t miss seeing how Lillian unconsciously clutched at the sheets as she asked.

Jessie shook her head.

Then, with an entirely different kind of tension and fear, Lillian asked, “Did you hear?”

“Not so much.  I… surmised,” Jessie said.

While Lillian flushed, Mary stepped in to rescue her.  “Why are you here?”

“We want to gather the Lambs,” Jessie said.  “We’re pulling everyone together.”

“Why?” Mary asked.

Something about the look in Jessie’s eye was answer enough.

The desperation, the anger.  Mary had seen that on too many faces recently.  Jessie, at least, wasn’t re-enacting the desperation and anger that the man standing outside the wall had.

“The situation outside the gates is most of the answer, isn’t it?” Jessie asked.  “You know who’s really behind it.  We need to answer that.  Someone does.”

“There’s a lot of people responsible,” Lillian said.  “It’s too big a problem to tackle.”

“We’re in the middle of something big.  And we’re drawing a lot of people in,” Jessie said.

Lillian pursed her lips.

“And you won’t tell us more in case we don’t say yes,” Mary said.

Jessie shook her head.  “You didn’t become a Doctor to be complicit in that, Lillian.  I don’t think you became a Lamb to be complicit in it.  You wouldn’t have killed Percy one of the first times I met you, if you were willing to let this slide.  And don’t tell me if we’re patient that this will get better.  Because it isn’t getting better.”

Jessie’s tone was changing as she spoke.  That anger was there again.  It wasn’t really borne of empathy, though if Jessie resembled Jamie at all, she did have her share of empathy to spare.

No, it was an anger borne of a refrain.  Not enough time.  Repeated endlessly with periodic variation, as if enough insistence and the occasional variation could somehow break through and achieve the desired effect.

Mary had experienced some of that.  Something like it had spurred her to act and reach out to Lillian.

“I don’t-” Lillian started.  “Sy couldn’t come himself?”

“It didn’t work out that way,” Jessie said.  “Logistically.  We thought staying behind and keeping an eye on things would be hard… and he wanted to endure it himself.”

“Because he’s a moron,” Lillian said.

“There really was no good way to do this.  There’s no good way to move forward with our plan unless we have the Lambs all together.”

Lillian started to say something, and then she stopped.

Mary felt a sense of dread.  The current situation, the stall in the forward momentum, as they made the leap from getting Lillian’s white coat to getting the harder to define grey one.  The refugees outside the wall.  The Infante, and the problems there.

Missing Sylvester.  Missing the Lambs being together.

Lillian couldn’t give a firm answer because she didn’t have one.  If anything, Lillian was giving it serious thought.

Mary’s thoughts touched on her supposed father, inexplicably.  They touched on the idea he had helped her conjure up, of teaching soldiers.  Of wanting time, which the Academy could provide more than anyone else.

“What if I say no?” Mary asked.

Lillian looked at her, and Mary knew in the moment that they stood on different sides of the decision.

“Or if I need time to think about it?” Mary amended.

“There’s no time,” Jessie said.  “The Infante is coming.  You said it yourself, when you were talking to Mr. Cobourn, security will increase, roads will be closed.”

“We’ll manage,” Mary said.  “But don’t pull the oldest trick in the con artist’s book, and choose to have this meeting here, now, when there’s a time limit, and force a decision.”

“That’s not how I operate.  It just happened that way,” Jessie said.

“I agree with Mary,” Lillian said.  “I need time, too.  You’re asking me to put so many things behind me.  You know how hard I worked for my white coat.”

“I know,” Jessie said.  “But if we wait for the Infante, the city will lock down.  It means we aren’t meeting with Sy for a few more days, at a minimum, and that’s a lot to ask.  It means added danger.  At the very least, come out of the city with me.  We won’t be here, and that’s easier to explain away if you decide not to go.”

Lillian clutched the sheets again.  “No, Jessie.  Whatever you and Sy and Helen are brewing, you can’t just not be in touch for months on end and then suddenly show up and expect us to leave everything behind.”

“We were in touch.  We sent you a letter from Hackthorn.”

Lillian stopped in her tracks at that.

“Ah,” she said.  “I wondered about someone like her wanting to make Lambs.  I thought it would be a mockery, all appearances.”

Jessie shook her head.

“We’re in touch with the Duke,” Lillian said.  “We’re situating ourselves to help him stop what’s going on.  We’d be leaving him stranded.”

“We’ll rope him in too,” Jessie said.

“No,” Lillian said.  “It’s not that easy.  There’s Ashton and Duncan, and they’re complicated too.  I’m just worried if we do this badly, it’ll divide the Lambs again.”

“It sounds like you’re trying to find a reason to say no and it doesn’t sound like you’re convinced by any of them,” Jessie said.

“I have a thousand not-entirely-convincing reasons!” Lillian said, raising her voice.  “Everything I’ve done here has been not very convincing.  But it’s not like Sylvester offers better.  What you’re describing sounds terrifying.”

“What we need is terrifying,” Jessie said, and she said it in the calmest voice.  One that suggested that the anger and fear and the need for time were all answered in those five words.

And those five words spoke to something in Lillian too.  As much as she’d managed to fling herself into the ‘no’ side of things, she found herself straddling the fence.

Mary, not quite straddling that fence, moved her hand, situating the gun on her knee.

Jessie met her eye.

“We’ll need time to discuss,” Mary said.  “Go.  Please.  We’ll find you.”

“And if I don’t move?” Jessie asked.

Will I find that passion and strength and desperation, as my body gives up on me?  Mary wondered.  Maybe we’ll see.

She pulled the trigger, and as the room rang with the sound of the handgun firing, Jessie dropped to the floor, blood painting the door beside her.  Lillian’s yelp and her voice shouting into the midst of the ringing didn’t help matters.

Before Lillian was out of bed and all the way to her, however, Jessie was standing, one hand at the graze on her thigh.

“Give us just a little bit of time,” Mary said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Anger keeps you going,” Mauer said.  He kept his voice quiet and seductive.  “Sometimes it’s all you’ve got left to give.”

The very upper floors of the Academy building were burning now.  The inhabitants were stubbornly staying put.  The fire wasn’t really making its way down, but it still took a stern spine to remain in a burning building.

A stern spine or a degree of determination.

This was a problem.

“I think,” and I said the words carefully.  “I don’t have a problem going.  If I’m going to run into problems, it’s going to be stopping.”

I stood at the top of the stairs.  At the upper level of the Lady of Hackthorn’s torso, this staircase led to the head, which was a higher security storage area for materials.  Incidentally the place where I’d been deposited after being brought into the Academy.  I had a view of the upper floor of the torso, and windows and openings in the architecture also let me see along the length of her arms and where the one dormitory burned.

Mauer, Mary, Evette, and a few nondescript characters kept me company.

Below me, rebel forces moved at a run.  Hand gestures were commonplace with leaders and subordinate.  It was a good thing, because a lot of people were shouting.  The fire was a universal concern at this point.  One of the lady of Hackthorn’s arms was reaching out to touch the dormitory building.  If the fire spread, then that bridge could burn.  It made accessing the dormitory difficult to impossible.

If the dormitory couldn’t be accessed, that would be another kind of problem altogether.  We needed that fire put out.

We’d sequestered students in the dormitories, among other areas, knowing they might try something.  We’d searched them and searched their rooms, anything that might be used in biological or chemical warfare chief in our minds.

They’d gone for something more basic.  They’d lit a signal fire.

“There’s an obvious solution here,” Mauer said.

“Speaking of my having trouble stopping,” I said.  “Yeah, that’s the entire wrong line of thinking.  It’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Put that brain of yours to good use,” Mauer said.  “Consider all the options.”

“Killing an entire dormitory of kids is a sharp, jagged rock I’m supposed to hit way further on in my tumble down this mountainside,” I said.

“I guarantee you that this particular strategy is being driven by a few key actors,” Mauer said.  “Turn things around.  Think of how the Lambs interact.  One Lamb suggests the reckless plan-”

“Me,” I said.

“-and pushes for it to become reality.  You put your meat where your mouth is and take the associated risks yourself.”

“Only natural,” I said.

“Less than you’d think,” Mauer said.  “I’ve known generals and leaders who choose the dangerous road and make others take the risk, and I’ve known berserkers and monsters who take that path because it’s the only one they’ve been given, as a rule.  For you… and I would say for the students leading the rebellion in that particular dormitory, there’s a greater sense of what’s in play.  The plan takes on a special importance.  You and they put themselves into the plan, stake something personal in it.  Taking the lead is a way to force the hands of allies.”

“Manipulative,” Mary said, looking up from the blades she was sharpening.

“If you made someone else take the lead, they could abandon the plan or balk.  You know you won’t.  The students who came up with the fire there know they won’t.  That’s one side of the coin,” Mauer said.  “The other side draws on unity of the group.  They reluctantly accept the need for the plan, their comrade or comrades take the lead, and now they’re forced forward.  To hesitate is to let their ally charge in and die without support.”

“Like I said, manipulative,” Mary said.

“Which is all a roundabout way of saying…” I said.  I left the statement open for Mauer to finish.

“…You’ll only need to kill a small handful to wrest control of the situation back from the students there.”

I laughed at the audacity of it, loud and abrupt.  Rebels on the floor that weren’t actively in the middle of doing something stopped to look up at me.  I’d been sitting in the mostly unlit stairway, taking in the situation.  Now I had an audience, and this was more of a stage.

“Damn it, Mauer,” I said.  I smiled.  “Forcing my hand.”

“Entirely you, Sylvester,” he said.

Mary looked up.  “Are we doing something now?”

“Suppose,” I said.  I made my way down the stairs, fully aware that people would expect me to arrive with a plan in mind.  Having a deadline, even one that was a matter of seconds from now, it really helped me get my thoughts moving.

Evette stuck with me, but she was like glue at this point and was liable to be until the Lambs returned.  She was keeping her mouth shut, at least.  Mauer remained in the shadows of the staircase, happy to have planted a thought in my head.

“Sylvester,” Davis said.  “This is a problem.”

“Mail boat arrived and left without incident,” I said.  “I think they wanted to set the fire so the boat would see it while leaving, but it took too long with the rain.  I don’t think we have any boats due anytime soon.  There’s no need to panic.”

“I’m pretty close to panicking, Sy,” Davis admitted, at a volume that was just for me.  “The mail boat isn’t the only boat that comes.”

“We very rarely get a boat in the evening,” I said.

“Sometimes we do,” he said.

He was pretty close to panicking.  There was a point in fear, anxiety, depression, all of the negative emotions, where the person afflicted was almost captivated by the emotion, and argued with any attempt to pull them out of that state.

“Listen,” I said.  I put a hand on his shoulder.  “We have boats.  See if you can get anyone who can sail, Pierre will know if any of the people we picked up in Neph’s city have the know-how.  Get boats out there.  If we can get the word out there first, then we control the story, change expectations.  Tell them we’re smoking out a very intractable warbeast we were making into a fairy tale monster.”

Davis didn’t look very happy with that.

“If the boats’ searchlights are turned in the direction of Hackthorn, as if they’re keeping an eye out for the monster on the cliffside, it’ll sell better than most of the other explanations we give.  Quarantine raises questions and doesn’t wholly explain the fire.  Telling any degree of the truth is the sort of thing that gets reported to aristocrats, nobles, and other Academies.”

“Yeah,” Davis said.  He shoved his hands into his pockets, but the moment he did so, his foot started tapping, as if he couldn’t keep still.  He was frowning.

“Want me to take over?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow.

“I sort of expected you to jump at that and say yes.  It’s been three days of maintaining the siege from within, three days since Jessie and Helen left.  You’re giving me every impression you’re needing a relief.”

“I am.  I’ve had some people take over, but it’s during the quiet periods, and I’m not sleeping a lot.  I’m constantly worried something’s going to happen when I’m not looking.  Like this.

“Then take my offer.  Take a minute where you can put this whole thing in good hands.”

“I’m just-” he started.

“He’s not able to relax if it’s you,” Mary spoke in my ear.

“Alright,” I said, jumping in as she finished talking, so that I wouldn’t do the thing where I was pausing too long while listening to others.  I barely had time to feel stung by Davis’ opinion of me.  “Alright.  How about this, instead?  Let me take lead.  You back me up, since you know people and you can be the level head to balance me out.”

He still looked reluctant.

I glanced at Mary.  “You’re a perfectionist.  I get it.  It’s hard to give up control once you’ve invested yourself into this.”

“It’s not me, it’s you,” he said, again in a volume that was chosen so only I would hear.

Again, that stung a bit, even if I knew it was the case.  “I was in the middle of dancing around that particular reality, as a matter of fact.”

“You’re talking to yourself an awful lot,” he said.  “Your eyes track things that aren’t there.  I knew it happened sometimes, but it seems like most of the time now.”

“And it doesn’t inspire confidence,” I said.

“I’m in charge here because of a whole succession of times when I was forced to take the role, and a whole succession of other times where I volunteered to take it.  I’ve fallen into this role.  I know an awful lot of faces there, people I’d be putting at risk.  I feel a responsibility.”

“And that’s fine.  That’s good.  It’s a large part of why I respect you as much as I do,” I said.  “And nothing I want to do is going to contradict that.”

“Alright,” Davis said.  He sighed.  The near-panic wasn’t the only thing he was clinging to, it seemed.  He had to work to let go of his stance here.  A deeper-seated insecurity was in play here.

I could address that later.

“I need a bit of explosive,  a way to make smoke, some shackles, and I need you to get your people ready for me.  If and when there’s an opening, you’ll be able to take advantage and get that fire under control.  I’ll handle the rest.  No risk to your own.”

“Easy enough,” he said.

I walked over to the stairs that led further down into the body of Hackthorn, while Davis went to go get everything else in order.  From where I was at, I could see the bridge and the northern face of the dormitory.  Lights were on throughout, and students within were watching proceedings.

This wasn’t a duel with a great mind like Fray’s.  It wasn’t a contest where one side took the upper hand and felt secure.  There was tension on both sides.  A hundred boys and girls on both sides of things were close to crying, or to pissing or shitting themselves, they were so scared.  Scared about what was happening, what the future held.

It was a fight with the Academy, after all.  With the Crown, in a roundabout way.

“You’re keeping the army back.  Is it because of what I said before, about the ways different leaders handle reckless plans?”

Mauer was back, it seemed.

“Maybe this isn’t so reckless,” I said.  “In fact, this might be a nice way to stretch my legs, a casual way to keep my skills honed and stay active.”

“Maybe,” Mauer said.  He used his voice to give the word the perfect sort of emphasis, mocking but not mocking, but also emphasizing it in a way that highlighted how maybe that maybe was.

Then he was gone.

I wanted to smoke, but I doubted I had time, and the actual cigarette would be dangerous when handling explosives and when trying to be covert.  I didn’t like sitting still.  Smoking kept my hands busy and made me feel like I was more in this world.  It made me aware of the smoke in my lungs and the acrid smells, the sensations of touch.  The smoke that obscured my vision helped my eyes slide off the things I was seeing.

And all the other excuses.

“There you are,” Davis said.

“Here I am.”

“How much explosive do you need?” he asked.  He held a small wooden box so the edge of the box rested on his beltline.

“Not a ton.  Lemme eyeball it,” I said.  I peered over the edge of the box, and I claimed several sticks of dynamite.  I stuck them down the front of my pants, so they stuck up and out, then pulled my shirt down over it.

He handed me a canister.  I hooked it to my belt.  He provided the shackles.

“I’ll whistle,” I said.  “Keep an ear out.”

“I will,” Davis said.

“And if you want to make a commotion over at the other arm, move a lot of lanterns and lights over that way, even turn on lights in that direction, that might help,” I said.

I pulled off my shoes and socks, and popped the window open.

Going by the company, Helen, Mary and Evette were joining me on this excursion.

The wind was utterly merciless, and I was still indoors.  The rain wasn’t great either, but I at least had the benefit of the armpit and other structures above.  They’d avoided any outgrowth, garden or other things that might have given the illusion of armpit hair for the Lady of Hackthorn, but there were eaves and shelves that jutted out.  The water wasn’t so bad.  Not here.

It would be worse in other places.

I climbed outside, finding handholds and footholds as I went.  It took almost a full minute for me to make the transition from windowsill to being fully outside and situated on the wall outside the window.

“Are you going to be alright?” Davis asked.

I would have spoken, but my body was pressed tight against the wall, and I really did believe that speaking might involve motion and an expansion of my chest that would cost me my perch.  I gave him a smile instead.

It was slow going, and the clouds were heavy.  I could taste the smoke in the air from the fire blazing at the top of the nearby dormitory, and the water that ran down over me was cold.

As I made my way further under the armpit, I found one of the places where the water ran in a near-continuous stream down the wall.  A miniature waterfall.  The downward pressure of the water was one thing, threatening to wash me off and down.  But today was not the first or tenth time it had rained.  It had rained hundreds of times since Hackthorn had been erected, the water had found its way down this same path in varying intensities, and cracks that might have served as normal handholds had been eroded down to smoothed out indents.

“Keep your hips against the wall,” Helen said.  “It’s easy to overthink hands and feet and forget about the hips.”

In the gloom, barely visible, perched on another part of the wall, she swished her hips back and forth, water streaming off of her wet skirt.  Had she been anyone but Helen, it might have been tantalizing.

I drew my knife, and I stabbed it into one of the handholds that had been washed out.  I repeated the process, stabbing through the waterfall, and even with one arm in the downpour, the force of the water was enough that it almost tore me down and away.

After a few more stabs, I reached over, and dug my fingers into the gap I’d hacked into the dense, smooth wood-like material that formed so much of the Lady of Hackthorn.  The water was washing away the loose splinters, but there were less loose splinters.

I decided that splinters were fine because they were grip, and I pushed the pain out of my mind.

I hung from that notch I’d hacked out, stomach pressed against the wall, and swung around so I was most of the way through the waterfall, my back against the wall.  I made sure to follow Helen’s advice and keep my hips against the wall throughout.

Back against the wall, hanging by one hand, water pounding down on me, a good six hundred feet of empty air beneath me, I swayed for a minute, waiting for the wind to stop pulling at my feet and changing the direction of the water.

Once things seemed mostly settled, I very carefully transitioned the knife from my mouth to my free hand, and stabbed out blindly, aiming for the same general area.

It took a minute before I managed to land enough strikes in the same general area that I felt like I could get any fingertips into the notch.

It was a relief to get out from under the water.  I climbed up into the armpit, happy to find handholds now and again.

Any passage over the bridge would be noticed.  Under the bridge, I was entirely out of the light from the fire above.

The wood had cracks, knots, and seams.  They were growing pains.  On other parts of the Academy, they’d been places for scattered seeds to take root, and make the Lady of Hackthorn a little more green.  They served as places for ivy to find a hold.  Sometimes small birds nested in the spaces.

Now I moved along the underside of the bridge-arm, and the handholds I’d made use of earlier were still here, but the process of using them was different.  I needed to exert more strength, periodically needed to wedge fingers in.

Mary and Helen climbed with me, and in an abstract way, they were likely serving as a way for my brain to remind me how to climb, a way for me to track the handholds and footholds.  Where my head and hands went, I needed to note places for my toes to wedge in later, places for my feet and toes to press or hook in so my weight wasn’t hanging entirely by my hands and arms.

Mary climbed ahead of me, and from my vantage point, I could see more of her legs than I normally might.  Her clothes were wet and clung to her.  All practiced strength, grace and concise movement,  she was perfect Mary in that moment, and it was an utterly fantastic image that hit me in a rush.

I had a thought, imagining a situation where too much appreciation of Mary’s form might push my hips a prince’s span away from the surface I was clinging to.  The thought of me falling into the wind and darkness with a full fledged appreciation for Mary at the ready made me laugh out loud.

The moment gave me strength.  I moved with more confidence.

What could have been two or ten minutes later, in a timespan punctuated only by a hammering heart that wouldn’t slow down and a course of adrenaline, my feet slipped.

I dangled from my fingertips, my arms trembling with strain.  My midsection protested with what I was asking for it as I arched my body, bringing my feet back up to the surface above.

I was going to feel that tomorrow.

I continued my climb.  As the angle of the arm changed, I had a slightly less horizontal surface, one that was still dark and fairly dry.

I reached the dormitory.  A vertical surface.  The next best thing to a horizontal surface that was actually under my feet instead of over my head.

“What now?” Helen asked.

“Now, you might want to look away,” I said.  I shifted my hold on the wall, and I undid my fly.

“Sy!” Mary admonished me.

“Well, if you’re going to protest, you can look if you want,” I said.  “It’s cold though, so there’s less to look at than usual.”

“What are you even doing?” she asked, turning her head away.

“Being very, very relieved,” I said.  “Felt like I was going to piss myself a few times back there.  Might as well celebrate my victory over that particular feeling, yeah?”

Why?” Mary asked.

“Well, for one thing, I just haven’t had a chance to go in the past while, and now that the adrenaline isn’t suppressing normal urges to relieve myself, I really had to go,” I said.  I cleared my throat.  “For another thing, keeping in mind I’m halfway done-”

“Gross,” she said.

“-Or three quarters done.  Here we go.  One second.”

“I don’t need the moment by moment updates, Sy,” Mary said.

I zipped up.  “Yep.  That’s probably the most exhilarating leak I’ve ever taken.  Highly recommended.”

She made a sound I couldn’t make out.  I glanced at Helen, who hadn’t looked away or complained, who simply gave me a smile and one-shoulder shrug.

“I don’t understand how your mind works sometimes, Sy.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Well, few people can.  It’s an advantage,” I said.

“Getting back on track…” Mary prompted me.  “Why are we even here?”

“Well, for this, I wanted to thank Mauer for getting me to think about how the opposition here thinks.  They’re insecure leaders.”

“He compared you to these leaders, for the record,” Mary said.

“Shush,” I said.  “Come on now.  Don’t be peevy with me now.  They’re insecure leaders.  They’re worried that if they don’t control the situation, take charge, and take the lead, then their people might lose momentum or surrender.”

“Right,” Mary said.

“So… natural conclusion of that.  They’re managing the fire.”

“I can hear the chopping of wood,” Helen said.

I could, too.  It was distant, but the ‘thok, thok, thok’ noise could be heard past the bluster of wind, patter of rain and the hiss of water pouring down the side of the dormitory.

“Taking furniture apart,” I said.  “Or they’ll start taking parts of the dormitory building apart.  Most likely, the wood of the floors and walls are fire resistant, not fireproof.  But that’s not something that they need to control.  Their focus is on us.  They’re terrified of what unfolds if we attack, or if we deploy something.  They saw us use the gas in other parts of the Academy before we shuffled them over to the dormitory buildings.  So if they’re the type that has to lead from the front…”

I climbed.

I’d chosen the under-the-bridge route to keep out of sight, because they would have a hundred eyes watching the bridge to look out for potential attack, because it was sensible and because they were scared and emotion dictated the same.

Now my approach brought me up around the side of the bridge.  Unless they were outside or actively leaning out the window, which they wouldn’t be in this gloom, they wouldn’t see me standing right at the door.

I pressed my hand against the wall, visualizing.

If they were the type to lead from the front, putting themselves between ally and enemy, so their allies wouldn’t flee or surrender, then they would be by the door.  Standing guard not just against potential incursion, but against potential excursion.

I set a stick of dynamite into the wall above the door.  Then I took a moment to judge the construction, and decided against using the second stick.  Mauer’s urgings to kill were in the back of my mind, and I was happier with playing it safer.  I hung my jacket over the stick to keep it mostly dry, and lit the wick, which was now sheltered from the downpour.

Swiftly, I ducked down under the side of the bridge.  I clung to the exterior wall, with the idea of putting the thick and sturdy bridge and the fingers of the Lady of Hackthorn between myself and the imminent blast.  I was glad that the nature of the growth of the arm and bridge and its interconnection with the dormitory building gave me sturdy handholds.

The blast was more intense than I’d anticipated.  It wasn’t intense enough to send me flying, but it did knock me for a loop, my thoughts and senses rattled.

I gathered myself together as quickly as I could, and rose, climbing.  The blast had affected the ones sitting in chairs a short distance from the door, damaging thick exterior walls with the shockwave knocking them out of their seats and sending them sprawling.  They’d been hit worse than any of the others, and now some of those others had already rushed to the defense and aid of the two stunned individuals.

They didn’t even see me.  They’d taken it for a cannon shot or mortar rather than anything else, as far as I could tell, and the idea that an enemy might be right outside the door, on a cracked bridge, it didn’t even occur to them.

I threw the smoke canister, throwing myself into the room a moment later.

I disabled, rather than hurt or maim.  It was a fight in smoke and gloom, only a few moments after an unexpected explosion.  Nobody was about to open fire on what might include friendlies, and I suspected that even the students that were hurrying into the dormitory lobby to see what was going on were still unaware that there was even a person present.

I pushed away the helpful bystanders, grabbed the ones who had been sitting by the door, and hauled the first and most active of them back.

He didn’t have a sense of balance, and getting him to move where I wanted required only a few timely pushes and shoves.  He tumbled to the ground, and I used the shackles Davis had given me to connect him to the railing that ran along the bridge.

“There’s someone there!  They’re attacking!” A girl called out.

“There weren’t any alerts!”

“There’s one hundred percent someone there!  They got Eric and Neil!”

Feet tromped on floorboards.

I screamed, and I made it the scream of someone who was being hurt.  A gargly tortured person scream, or the scream of a person who’d just been stabbed.

“Neil!” the girl who’d spoken before shouted.

Guess I knew who she was sweet on.  Poor Eric.

The scream had given hesitation to people who had been relying on this pair for their forward momentum.

I grabbed the second of the pair and hauled them back.  They weren’t as responsive and they weren’t trying to climb to their feet, so I couldn’t direct their movement.  I had to drag, and I wasn’t strong enough to drag someone.  I got him a few feet, and then I noticed the smoke was clearing up.

“Where’s Tommyboy?”

“Tommy’s upstairs.”

That was another problem.  Small in the grand scheme of things.  I tugged again on the heavy lad, dragging him closer to the door, then finally got him close enough to his buddy’s ankle.

I wasted no time in immediately heading to the wall.  Every part of my fingers and feet protested, my stomach clenched into a knot as I made yet another climb.

Tommyboy or Tommy was the very first person they thought of when their leadership disappeared.

They were a trio, very likely.  They might have thought along the same lines we were thinking, in choosing to take shifts, to conserve strength, and play the longer game.  Tommy had rested so he’d be more alert later.

He’d have heard the explosion.  What had I seen inside?  I tried to think of the lobby and its layout, and to correlate that to what I knew was outside.

Damn my short memory.

I made my way to the first window.  It was shuttered, and the latch for the shutters were inside, but that was easy enough to fix.  A swipe of my knife through the gap lifted the latch.  I had a chance to peek through.

I saw Tommy run by, flanked by a small crowd of students.  The lobby was an open room with stairs running along one side, leading further up into the building.  Tommy made his way down to the lobby, and stood well back from the door as he stared at the scene – a destroyed door and slightly damaged frame and exterior wall, the other two shackled to the bridge outside.  It wasn’t no man’s land, but it wasn’t safe either.  To help them they needed to step outside, expose themselves to gunfire or other dangers.

There was a girl in an Academy uniform talking to Tommy, telling him about me, no doubt.  That something had been there in the wake of the explosion, pushing her away.

Their focus was on the outside.

I simply needed to be where they didn’t think I would be.

I drew my gun, mindful of what Mauer had said and taunted me of, shifted my position, and then broke the window with the gun handle.

Before they could react, I had my gun trained on Tommy, pointing at him through the window.

Slowly, he raised his hands in surrender.

“You’re going to put out the fire.  Whatever you can’t put out, you let die.”

I could feel the tension, see the people exchange looks.  So very many eyes were looking to Tommy for guidance.  It said a lot that his hands were already up.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice carrying to me.

Taking out these individuals was the lynchpin here.  Tommy raised his hands in surrender, and without the forward impetus of their leadership, everything in flux, the rest lost heart.

I signaled for Davis, with my best sharp whistle.  We had ears that would catch it.

“Some of the ships are staying out there,” Pierre said.  “I thought about being more stern about coming back, but I don’t do well with confrontation.  It feels unpleasant.  I don’t like being the one that’s staying put while others are moving.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Not the part about you being uncomfortable, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s good.”

“It’s a lot of resources we have to put in, to ensuring they have food, that they’re not overtired out there,” he said.  “It feels very spread thin.”

“It’s really fine,” I said.  “It’s about control, isn’t it?”

“You usually use that word as if it’s an epithet,” he pointed out.

“Well, look who’s paying attention.  But it’s really fine.  They want to play their part, have a role in this.  They’re keeping an eye turned outward, for external threat.  If it reassures them, let them.”

Pierre nodded.

We sat at the dining area above Lab One, below the top floor where I’d had a view of the fire and Davis’ efforts to organize his rebel soldiers.  This was the heart, a fantastic place to see just about all of the movement here and there through the center of the Academy.

Paul, formerly Poll Parrot, was sitting with other kids, eating.  He’d had too many surgeries in the last few days, and he looked drawn out, not enough body fat, but he was smiling, laughing.  He ate with one hand.  Even with good students and doctors turned to the task, we’d only salvaged one arm.  The other was a stump, and we would fix that soon.

He sat with Mauer, which was my own affectation, a younger parallel.  He ate with soldiers, which was his own affectation, a good indicator of his mindset, that the anger was still there, and the possible direction he might take from here.

There were others gathered.  Many of Ferres’ experiments had been glad to get their modifcations removed and undone.  Some of the more extensive ones had been harder to fix, put off until later, or until we had the resources.  We didn’t have a spare human face for Red Riding Hood.  No arm for Paul.

“Do you think I should go under the knife?” Pierre asked.

“Not my decision to make,” I said.

“Might be that I’m thinking about it,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

It had been so long that I’d known him, that I hadn’t asked.  I’d felt like I couldn’t.  That it would be crossing a boundary.

“If you told me to, I probably would, and I’d probably be happier for it,” he said.

“Maybe I like you the way you are.  Maybe you like you the way you are.”

“That’s true,” he said.

I saw some students come down the stairs.  It wasn’t an outright defection, but some of the students from the dormitory had changed their minds about things.  They were working for us in a limited capacity, with a strong guard.  Fearing for their security more than they likely ever had in their lives, they’d taken the security we offered over the security they had as prisoners.

“An Academy can’t run like this, you know,” Lillian said, from further down the table.  She’d seen me looking.  “With only a few hundred, when it needs more.  Even this small defection, it’s not enough.”

I agreed, but I didn’t want to go and talk to Lillian when I was sitting and eating with Pierre.  That would look curious, give others more reason to worry.

There was so much more to do.  Power and control.  The students we’d herded elsewhere were elsewhere as a group.  The were banding together, becoming factions unto themselves.  The fire at the top of the one dormitory was one thing.  There was another dormitory that was actively trying to fight back.  We had access to the Academy’s guns and arsenal, we had barricades and the warbeasts, chemicals for gas and more.  They had sheer numbers, and weapons of a medieval sort, improvised and fashioned using resources they’d had in the dorm.  Curtain rod spears, pokers, knives and clubs made from bedposts.

The others had wanted to gas them, but I was hoping that we could get them to expend their strength and stamina.  We needed to turn some of them.  Everything was about appearances here.

On the topic of appearances…  I watched Mabel hurry down the stairs, taking them two at a time, one hand on the railing so she wouldn’t take a spill.  She gave me a glance and a smile.

“She’s going to avoid me,” I said.

“Did things sour?” Pierre asked.

“No, not sour, exactly,” I said.  Mabel saw me and gave me a little salute.

I gestured.  Come.  Sit.

Brain work.  Mabel signaled.  Hands.

Research she couldn’t leave alone?

She didn’t glance back at me before hurrying on her way.

“Maybe I shouldn’t push it.  Just bothers me sometimes,” I said.  “People avoiding me.”

“I’ve experienced that too,” Pierre said.  “Sometimes it’s the way things are.”

I nodded.

Someone settled onto the bench next to me.

Bo Peep.  Twelve or so, dressed in borrowed clothes that were too large for her.

Reaching up and over, she took hold of my arm, hugging it.

“Hey critter,” I said.

Her head rested against my shoulder.

I shifted my position, and I hugged her closer.

“Still haven’t gone under the knife, huh?”

She shook her head.

“S’alright,” I said.  “Another time maybe.”

She shook her head again.

“No?”

“No,” she said.  Her voice had a bit of a croak to it.  Newly fixed vocal chords.  “No more surgeries.”

I looked over at Pierre.  His expression was unreadable, but his ears had an angle that made me think of worry.

Well, she wasn’t the only one who had expressed the sentiment.

“Well, would it bother you if I said that at least you have the best head of hair in the world, so if you’re going to keep it, it’s a pretty neat thing to keep?”

She shook her head, then said, “But it’s a head of wool.”

“I stand corrected,” I said.  She nodded in response, her head rubbing against my shoulder.

I wasn’t sure it counted for a lot, that she said she wasn’t bothered.  I could have told her pretty much anything, and she would’ve bought it.  I’d rescued them, and that counted for an awful lot.

I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, that I had their absolute trust.

“Did you just need a hug?” I asked her.  “Always an option.”

She shook her head, then seemed to remember that she had a voice, and that she wasn’t largely limited to head movements and gestures.  She stated a simple, “No.”

“No?  Not always an option?  Or you didn’t need a hug?”

“I wanted to say,” she said, and then she hesitated.  She pulled back a bit and looked up at me anxious.  “Can you stop talking?”

“Stop talking?” I asked.  My head went through all of the paradigms, trying to figure out the angle I was supposed to interpret that.  Did she want the hug, without words attached?  She was five or so years my junior and that wasn’t really a thing.  It was-

“Stop talking to them,” she interrupted my thoughts.  “People who aren’t there?”

I opened my mouth to respond, then stopped.  It hadn’t been an angle I’d considered.

No Lillian at the table.  That much I’d known.  But no Pierre either.

“It makes me uneasy.  It makes others uneasy too, and I don’t like them being uneasy with you.”

“It’s okay, Peep,” I said, jumping in before she could say any more.  “I get it.  I get it.  I’m sorry.”

She nodded, and then she hugged me tighter.

I gave her mop of wool a tentative, reassuring pat, and she nodded again, as if this was good.

Setting one elbow on the table, fingers pressed against my mouth, I used my other hand to stroke her hair while she sat next to me, clinging to me.

Sitting next to Paul, Mauer looked my way.

I thought of the conversation, about moving forward and about stopping.

I don’t think I can stop, I thought.  Let’s at least hope the others are moving forward.

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Enemy I (Arc 18)

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He walked slowly, taking in the scene.

He hadn’t walked slowly in a very long time.  It wasn’t how he operated.  It wasn’t what he was.  He always had a mission, if not several, and that mandated that he constantly be in motion, or that he be set in place, doing what the Crown needed him to do.

His memory was exceptional, his brains the best brains the Crown could provide.  When he turned those brains and that memory to the task of thinking back, trying to picture the last time he’d strolled, as one might stroll in a garden, he only found scenes he’d staged, scenes where he was conveying an image.  In those moments, his brains had been set to the task of focusing on the individual or individuals that he was strolling for, so it was never truly an opportunity to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

But it was important to convey that he was unruffled, whether to an ally who needed reassurance or an enemy who needed to know their enemy was invincible.

As he dug through his memories, he had to reach back to childhood to find a time and place where he’d truly focused on the moment and not the destination.  He’d been confined to a chair, legs missing, his upper body as much a series of containers and vessels for organ systems and ongoing work as it was actual body.  He’d pushed himself, while his team of doctors followed behind.

He couldn’t remember the why of that moment.  He’d been upset, angry at a relative, and he had wanted to think, so he had pushed himself out into the garden, and nobody had stopped him or wrested control of the chair from him.  It was curious, because it must have been a justifiable anger, but when he’d found himself in the garden, the anger had faded, and he’d been free to witness the moment.  Even now, he wasn’t sure what it had been about.

It was a very different sort of garden that the Infante found himself in now.

One hand raised, he held it up, and he watched as red petals blew in the wind, brushing his hand and fingers.  His fingers traced the growths that sprawled across the city.  A system of water absorption and transfer drew water from the coast and fed the plague growth that smothered the city.  At the water’s edge, tendrils like the ones that had snared the plague victims floated on the water’s surface, a film that was alternately pink and brown, depending on how the light caught it.  It might gain ground on that front if the ocean currents started to push a great deal of seaweed or other material toward the coast.

The ocean here didn’t smell like ocean, the city didn’t smell like city, and the countless dead who scattered the streets, buried under the carpets and tangles of red vines.  Here and there, dessicated bodies lay, mummified by the environment, faces pulled into mocking smiles by the retreat of skin and the pull of the vines that were still hooked into them.

Everywhere, red flowers carpeted surfaces.  From a distance, it looked like the buildings and streets were drenched in fresh blood.  From as little as ten paces away, they looked like flowers.  When he reached out to tear one free of the vine and held it before its face, the makeup of it looked more like a chimerical hybrid of a starfish and a snowflake.

No weeds grew, no birds roosted, no rodents or insects crawled through this very alive place, that whistled with the wind and gurgled with the movement of fluids.

Only his Professors kept him company, and they kept their distance, hanging back.  They wore quarantine suits and were accompanied by gargantuan stitched servants in shrouds, with modified quarantine masks.  The stitched were ten feet tall, and they shambled, bent over by the burdens they bore, laboratories packed into five hundred pound boxes.  They were wearing robes that trailed on the ground behind them, and their expressions were limited to what the sculpted masks.

The Infante walked with his hands clasped behind him, drawing in a deep breath.  His throat and lungs prickled with plague and the responses of the implanted countermeasures fighting it off.

His professors were the only souls around for a considerable distance around.  The plague ensured that no others were near to see or to study him as he moved through streets and past war-torn buildings without particular pattern.

They might wonder at what he was doing, but they would never voice any of it.

After investigating a series of alleyways, a narrow market street, and a winding street with empty crates stacked on either side, threatening to lose the professors that followed behind him, he stepped out onto one of the wider streets, stood in the middle, and stopped.

It gave him a chance to let them find him and catch up, and it gave him a chance to stop.  He could see the whole shape of this red-stained city, which hadn’t been a place of much worth before the plague had found root in it.

At one edge of the city, an Academy creation had crawled onto land and summarily died.  There was sufficient bacteria, algae, or other material clinging to it for the plague to have crawled up onto it, embracing it.  A great seaborne warbeast’s skull, returned to its original function as an anchor for a greater system of living material.

His deep breaths were mechanically powerful, forceful enough that if someone had clapped their hand over his mouth, he could have pulled the hand into his mouth with the power of the draw and even broken fingers in the process.

This was a principle that applied to every part of him.  It applied to his legs as his professors emerged, finding him, and he started forward once again.

A part of him felt like a child unfettered.  He breathed this air in the same way a child ate candy.  It was prescribed as bad for him by the people who looked after his well being, but so long as there weren’t too many watching he would indulge himself.  He felt it in his hands, and he felt it on his skin, countless spores trying to find root in his flesh.

He liked to understand his enemy.

He went where the ‘petals’ were thickest, and where the spores were heavy enough to appear as a fine red mist, that beaded on surfaces.  There were many red herrings, misleading areas where the plague had found root in burned buildings and where bodies of plague victims had been stacked three high by the unwitting.

His stroll came to an end after he had made his way from these dense areas and macabre scenes for nearly a hour.  He’d found what he’d come looking for.

In some places, the bodies were embraced by the red vines, a papery, dry skin drawn tight around bones and the networks of vines that stretched beneath skin.  In other areas, there had been bones, some pulled away from the bodies by the pull and spread of the plague growth.  In this particular garden, he had seen child and parent, a man and his dog, he had seen rodents aplenty.

But this was something else.  It wasn’t anything natural to the Crown’s earth or derived of its denizens.  The formation that peeked through a gap in a wall that the weather had cracked hadn’t even been fabricated, really, by any man.  It had fabricated itself.

The Infante had to reach out and pull down a wall that was newer and more sturdily built than many of the ramshackle constructions in the area.

The bones were marked, as if a thousand deep cuts had been made into each bone, some at angles from one another.  To do it by hand would have required wire to get into the crevices, and it would have required a hundred years.  There was no flesh to draw tight against these bones, for it had been burned thoroughly.  Quarantine chemicals had been thrown over it and catalyzed.  If anything had remained alive and functional, trapped within char and gristle, it had been sealed away from the world by the clear crystalline growths that had resulted.  A bug trapped in amber.

At least Mauer was thorough in his handling of this.

He looked back at his team of professors, and he raised one hand, bidding them to remain still.  He ventured into the space.

The thing was headless, but its central column had something akin to ribs, which would have supported other parts.  He thought of it as a rack, almost, with a play on words as he thought of the familiar torture device, and of ‘wrack’ and its root words in middle low german.  To stretch, to reach.

It yawned open and apart, the individual spires, growths, and complex geometries of the rack like teeth in a wide open screaming mouth, a man’s ribcage opened up and splaying apart when he was being serviced in surgery or being tortured in inventive ways.

A crown lying on its side, its tines spearing in the Infante’s direction.

“I would like to name you, but it’s not my place,” the Infante spoke.

“My antithesis,” the Infante spoke.

Much as it had been a long time since he had taken a walk to enjoy the journey, rather than to position himself at his destination, the Infante hadn’t spoken for a long time without a proper audience, without modulating his powerful voice and keying it to optimal effect.

“They made you a tool to prop up the desperate multitudes.  I was made and given the duty of constraining and punishing the few at the top who warrant it.  You destroy, you lash out blindly, and you salt the earth.  I create, I order, and I make the world fertile for future generations.”

He reached up, touching the encasement.

“You were temporary.  A stroke of lightning.  Your desperate action had ramifications that may well be felt for a thousand years or more.  Your plague is stubborn.  I will live for a century and exercise a power you never had, and yet I’m only one piece of a greater system, performing a role that history will forget.”

For an instant, he had the urge to reach up and turn his prodigious strength to tearing down the quarantine encasement, breaking one of those bones so that whatever lay within them could be exposed to the world again.  It would be a foolish action, and one that might well kill him, either at the hands of primordial parasites or by the swift reprisal of the Crown.  It would also be an action that was entirely his own.  It would be a legacy, even if it was a grim one.

Red flakes of the plague’s flower-like growths were collecting all around the Infante, obscuring what lay beneath them.

“If you thought to hurt us, know that you only made us stronger.  You’ve given us an excuse to shutter the windows, lock the doors, to burn it all down, and step away with intent to return to a clean canvas in the future.  In challenging us and trying to claim your own portion of this nation, you’ve been our greatest ally.”

He walked around the formation, touching different parts of it, studying the art of a creature that had painted itself.

“Not a reality uncommon for a nemesis or antithesis, I find, that paths run in parallel…” he said.

He trailed off.

He remained where he was, hands clasped behind him, and he contemplated the writing on the wall, very literally.

The creation had been injured enough that it could be made to stay still while it burned.  The burning had been followed with chemicals, which formed a solid and clear binding chemical.  After the binding chemical, walls had been erected with the creature at the center.

All Mauer’s work.  To do anything less would have been tempting fate.

But there was one wall that had been part of the adjoining building, and that wall had a message inscribed on it.  He had to push down part of the roof and exterior wall to allow sufficient light into the dark, enclosed space.  Once he had, he could reread the message and be sure he’d read it right the first time.

It named itself God.

The Infante had taken all of this for an indulgence, a step away from the normal routines and responsibilities.  His desire to know his enemies had brought him here, so he might find the source of the plague and look it in the eye.

Mauer likely hadn’t seen the connection between primordial and plague clearly, or hadn’t wanted to.  Few others knew enough of the full details while also knowing that a primordial could even do something like this.

The epitaph scrawled on the wall had taken all satisfaction out of the study of his enemy, and it had taken the pleasure out of the indulgence, leaving only the bitter aftertaste.

His conversation partner had kept a secret from him.

He turned away from the primordial’s corpse, walking in the direction of his professors.

“Have your stitched seal it in securely, with all measures we have.  Repair the walls and seal those as well,” he said, without stopping.

He walked with purpose once more, ruffled in a manner he couldn’t quite put a finger on.

The train whistled as it vented pressure.  Lugh sat on the horizon, stained red.  Tynewear was at another place on the horizon.  Where Lugh looked like diced chunks of raw flesh scattered in a pool of blood, the spires of Tynewear and the damaged walls of living wood that riddled the city made for an image more like blood-spattered stakes or knives gathered in a cluster.

They had paused at a crossroad.  At the point where the tracks turned sharply away from Lugh and toward Tynewear, as if repelled by the sprawling rebel city, Academy had set up a waypoint, and buildings had started to appear in the vicinity, complementing the Academy institutions and forces.  The intent had been that scientists working the plague cities could fall back here, a safe distance away.

Other cities had fallen to plague, and this stop was little used.

“I suspect we’ll have to take you apart, Lord Infante,” his chief professor decided.

The Infante turned his head to stare down the man.

“To be absolutely sure, My Lord.”

“I am hyperaware of my own function,” the Infante said.  “I can turn my mind’s eye inward and I’m aware of every component, of temperature and nutrition levels.  I am intimately aware of every weapon stored within me.  I am very much aware that the plague has not found root in me.”

“The exposure level you just endured was unprecedented, Lord Infante.”

“Others have faced the same,” the Infante said.

“If you mean the ones who now lie dead, then I have to protest, My Lord.”

“I will take that under advisement,” the Infante said.

Sensing something was amiss, the professor bowed and retreated, finding his own seat elsewhere on the train.

Another professor stepped onto the train and made his way through security.  He approached the Infante, bowing, and handed over a stack of letters and papers.

“Any news?” the Infante asked.

“Nothing of note, my lord,” the professor said.

The letters were important.  Plague and black wood had served to squeeze all who lived in the Crown States.  Refugees from plague-ridden areas flooded every city that hadn’t been caught by plague.  Black wood strangled the smaller towns and the hiding places, and it ensured that the Academy’s food supply was the only food supply.

Black wood would soon be employed without quarantine measures or acreages of burned land to suppress it.  The rebel factions would be blamed.

Plague, as was its penchant, would carry on.

He had done this before, in a half-dozen variations.  He did it efficiently and he did it ruthlessly.

The letters, for the most part, were the responses from professors and aristocrats, from lesser nobles of the lowest tier.  What was normally easy in practice was difficult here.  The chemical leashes had been given to a large share of the population, and some members of the upper class were strictly leashed in place.  The Crown had spread the necessary chemicals needed to keep the leashed alive throughout the Crown States, but putting that same thing into practice on the other side of the ocean was a far more difficult task.

There was very little elbow room in the Crown Capitol.  To bring thousands of individuals and maintain the leashes, putting all the necessary labs into motion to produce the right chemicals, it invited negative attention and potential disaster.

It posed a dilemma.  To rescue all people of note and invite problems from the capitol, or to leave them behind.  Leaving them behind meant potentially losing good people, or worse, it meant that if and when the Crown returned in the future, that there might be survivors angry enough to point the finger and ask why they hadn’t been invited to leave.

Killing them all was another sort of problem.

In this, he was the figurehead.  The Crown would take the blame if anything went wrong, when leash, chemicals, mass sterilization and the treatment of the vast public were really the province of the Academy.

Men in black coats bowed and scraped before him, and obsequiously they addressed him with honorifics and careful mind to his tastes.  But at the end of the day, when all else was said and done, the Academy ruled.

A farce really.  It was a farce he entertained and played a supporting role in, but a farce nonetheless.  Maddening.

The Baron Richmond had learned of the farce and had gone properly mad.  The Duke of Francis hadn’t.  It had played a role in the Baron being demoted to a lesser noble, the Duke taking a firm hand in broader procedure and operations on the Crown’s end of things.  Most others fared somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum.

He sorted through the mail, skimming each letter.  Chemicals in one side of his throat allowed him to track and remember the numbers used with the security measures on mail.  With each such letter with a number in the margins, he was able to verify that the sender had used the appropriate codes.

If resources would be expended to keep the right individuals on the other side of the ocean, then he had to be careful no to accept too many.  The letters contained refusals and carefully worded pleas.  Others were entirely oblivious to the true and imminent dangers of plague and wood, their attention rarely extending beyond their labs or homes.

He reached a letter from Professor Hayle.

A clever man, Professor Hayle, but one without a great deal of clout.

The nation was a sinking ship, and the rats were clamoring for a chance to exit safely.  It was an exit only the Crown was equipped to provide, a roundabout way of saying that it was an exit only the Academy could provide.

Professor Hayle, for all of his forward thinking, was electing to stay where he was.  He wanted to continue to run Radham.

With thought of Hayle came other thoughts.  The Infante continued his search through the mail.  A day of travel into Lugh and a day of travel out had allowed the mail to accumulate.

There was a possible breakthrough, by the woman professor of Hackthorn.  He would attend that.

And there was a letter with a black resin seal.

The message within was printed with a machine, and the Infante, again, had the means of deciphering it built into his neck.

The Duke of Francis communicates, but only to the Lambs.  They conspire.

The Infante leaned back in his seat, custom made to his frame and weight.  The source was a trusted one, a spy who kept and maintained a pet experiment, a crawler in walls.  The thing was blind, with an ear keener than most, and the spy was competent enough to cover the other bases and double check everything pertinent.  The message would have been next to impossible to forge when the forger had no idea of how it was deciphered.

There was merit to this accusation.  This was sound.

There was no need for a proper court or deliberation.  The Lambs had made themselves dangerous.  He would see to that before he saw to Hackthorn.

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Dog Eat Dog – 18.7

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The rain was starting to come down.  With it came an awareness that the reclining lady of Hackthorn had some very minor design issues.  Aesthetically, she was pleasing, structurally she was sound.  But the curves, valleys, the windows and jutting walls did not amount to a wholly ideal flow of water.  It was a stark contrast to Radham, which had been bent beneath the rain for decades, where the attempts to control and redirect the flow of water were somewhat haphazard and forced.  Eaves and the placement of gardens did an incomplete job of keeping bridges and balconies dry.

I walked over to one edge of the balcony, where a deluge of water streamed off of a shelf high overhead, forming a sharp spray as it glanced off of the wall to one side.  The eaves overhead didn’t block all of the rain, not at the far left corner, if I stood up against the railing.

I turned my face skyward, spray and rain drenching me.  The combined downpour was enough to make it difficult for me to raise my arms.

We’d spent what felt like forever in the black wood, and it had been two weeks with minimal rain, and it had been a minimal rain I hadn’t been able to properly experience.  Then we’d had a dry spell for our stay in Hackthorn.

Being able to actually stand in the downpour helped me get centered and feel cleansed in a way that no bath could accomplish.  Even if some of it was gutter overflow.

I waited until I grew cold enough to start feeling numb before stepping back under the eaves.  The others were gathered as I turned around.  Other Lambs, crowding the balcony.  Mauer, Fray, and people who felt painfully familiar, who I felt I should have recognized.

I opened the glass doors, stepped through, and closed them behind me.

“Sy!  If we’re going somewhere, I want to come,” Helen said.  “I didn’t come with you guys to be all alone.”

“It won’t be for too long,” I said.

“Any long is too long,” Helen said.  She turned to look at me, half of her face hanging off, long pins sticking out from between eyeball and socket, more pins wedged between muscle groups that were pulled so tight that the metal fixtures were bowing and bending.

“Stop moving,” Ferres said.  “Stop talking.”

“There are things to discuss,” Helen said, firmly.  “And there’s not a lot of time.”

I didn’t want to agree with Ferres, but I couldn’t shake the mental picture of Helen’s facial muscles moving, constricting, and the metal pins snapping in explosive and sequential fashion, each snap leading to two more, leaving her face a mangled ruin of torn muscle and broken pins.

There was a lot of power in those muscles.

“I want to invite Professor Crawford,” Jessie said.  She was standing at a table, penning out a letter.

“Him?” Ferres asked, turning.

“Justify it.”

The professor frowned.

“Crawford’s the brain brain, isn’t he?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Pioneer in neurophysical design.  And you’re dripping,” Jessie said.  She reached over to a chair, and threw a towel at me.  I caught it, and draped it over my shoulders, before starting to dry my hair.

I volunteered a justification.  “Emily’s immortality was one that came with consequences, mentally.  Ferres knows this, she volunteers that information, and says she’s sure enough of her work here that she’ll allow her work to be checked by one of the best people in the Crown States when it comes to brains.”

“Good,” Jessie said.  She looked at Ferres.  “What do I need to know about you and him?”

“Politically,” Ferres said, “He and I had drinks… it must have been eleven years ago.”

“Romantic drinks?” Helen asked.

“We sat at the same bar, after attending a speech.  We talked.  It’s hard to articulate just why my reaching out to him now would draw concern.  We had zero interest in one another.  No common ground.  If our conversation were a… I don’t know, a battlefield?  A sparring match?  It was one that saw both of us deciding the other was a non-threat.”

“Aggressive non-interest?” I asked.  “Enough that it’s a problem?”

“I’ve never had to say it aloud or give words to explain the social phenomenon among Professors,” Ferres said, as she worked on Helen’s face, setting another pin in place.  “Scar tissue blocking the pneumatic channel in the second complex levator anguli oris.  Remember that for me.”

“Noted,” Jessie said.  She had been writing when I stepped out onto the balcony, and was still writing now.  While working out what to write in the letter to Crawford, it looked like she was writing form answers and incomplete letters to others, with details to be filled in.

Ferres continued, “Rising through the ranks is a struggle.  It’s a crab bucket, and any attempt to climb out sees others dragging you down.  You learn to assess people efficiently to better find your way to the top of the bucket.  I sat with Crawford, and it was the briefest of jousts.  We talked about what we were working on, and in the doing, I sought to find out if he was a rival, or if he was useful, his knowledge a possible way of advancing my own work.  He wasn’t either.  We talked about who we each knew, and cross-checked each other against the web of interactions, key individuals, political gains and political threats.  He hinted at the romantic, in case we could partner up and work as a pair, but I already had no interest in that and turned him down.  So it went.”

Jessie spoke, “You believe you came to an agreement, based on your non-involvement with one another.  Asking for his company now would make him wonder why.”

“Exactly.  If he were more of a rival or an ally, my invitation would make more sense.”

“Don’t explain it?” I suggested.  “Leave him wondering?”

“He would ask questions,” Jessie said.  “He’s cautious, deliberate, he runs a lab with an aristocratic sponsor, he’s able to operate with relatively few power games.”

“The only solution would be to invite everyone,” Ferres said.  “That would be hard to justify.”

I leaned against the wall, towel in one hand while I rubbed my chin with the other.

“No,” Jessie said, to me more than to Ferres, as if she could read my thoughts.  “What if you’re trying to make this as explicitly unpolitical as possible?”

“I’m always political,” Ferres said.

“What if you’re retiring?  Stepping down from your position, leaving only this finding as a final legacy?”

“I don’t leave obligations unfinished, and I have commitments for the next two years.”

“Well,” I said.  “What if you don’t trust your hands any longer?  Or your eyes?  A motivation to seek out immortality and eternal youth.”

“Justification, but thin, and a long road to travel to draw this particular man in,” Ferres said.  “I might suggest instead reaching out to Professor Brad Austin.  He and I are rivals, he’s a close second to Professor Crawford in the field, and it’s far less of a reach.  He would come.  He wouldn’t ask why.  He would hope I was wrong and that I would make a fool of myself, while fearing I was right and that I would surpass him in every way.”

I glanced at Jessie.

Jessie nodded, and set to writing a fresh letter.  “How do you reach out?”

“No nonsense, no flowery language, except where necessary.  He is cordially invited to see my name placed in the annals of history.  It would delight me, put a little flourish on the penmanship of delight, if he would be present.  He’ll be present.”

“Noted,” Jessie said.  “Then the aristocrat John Loft?”

“Same as I would have addressed Professor Corder.  Pleasant, genial-”

“I remember,” Jessie said.  “Pess?”

“Pleasant will do.”

Jessie continued to rattle through names, making mental note.

The storm was picking up.  As the wind changed direction, rain hammered the glass doors I’d recently passed through.

“Does that free up the other side of your face?  Can you smile with just that side?” Ferres asked.

Helen smiled.  I could see a kind of light in her eyes as she did.

“I think we found the source of the lock, then,” Ferres said.  “I can restore your face.  It will take the entire night, but then we should be done.”

We didn’t have the entire night.  Not if we wanted to get ahead of the worst of the storm.  It was looking to be the kind of dark and stormy where crossing the wastes or the dark wood would be next to impossible.  Wading through a soup of black mud while trying to keep a lantern in hand, unable to see farther than the light could reach…

“We need to figure out what we’re doing tonight,” I said.  “Who goes where.  I was thinking I might go for a walk.”

As I said that, I gestured.  School.  Attack.

“Now? I thought you were putting that off,” Jessie said.  Her voice was very calm, curious, and unbothered.  The look in her eyes was focused.  She didn’t gesture, as her hands were full with writing implements and paper.

“Storm isn’t going to get any better.”  Time.  We had a deadline.

“You’re already dripping wet.  It’ll raise eyebrows.”

“I don’t think it matters,” I said.  Prepare.  Helen stay.

If Helen was staying, the best thing to do would be to ensure that at least the initial stages of the takeover went to plan.

Helen go, Helen gestured.

“Stop fidgeting,” Ferres said.  “If I slip with this incision the work tonight will take another hour.”

Helen stay with rebels.  With professor.  Medical, I gestured.  Jessie continued to write, her eyes moving between Helen and me.

Helen go, Helen gestured again.  I heard the Professor hiss with irritation.

There were three bases to cover and three of us.  It wasn’t the easiest thing to wrangle.  We could change the division, have one Lamb handle two tasks, but it made for a wobblier path.

One Lamb to reunite the flock, one Lamb to the Shepherd, and one Lamb to remain behind.

“I’m so restless,” Helen mused aloud.

“Is this another form of torture?” Ferres asked.  “Meticulous work with an unruly, talkative patient?”

“I’m so restless I could kill something,” Helen said, expanding on the thought.

Ferres’ work with the scalpel stopped.

“You’re being uncooperative, Helen,” Jessie said.

She managed her half-smile, using the part of her face that didn’t have skin and fatty tissues pared away and needles wedged into what remained.  “I’m in an uncooperative mood these days.  You know that.  It’s why Sy wanted to keep me with you.”

Ah, the latent threat.

“We’re all wrestling with our individual issues,” Jessie said.  “We push through.”

Helen rolled her eye, the other one held in place by the pins.

I wanted to say that this was Helen’s belated adolescence, but Helen had been and might remain a creature of countless adolescences.  Countless small shifts, leaps, rebellions and adjustments.

Helen might-

She reached up, pulled a pin out of her face, and while Ferres wasn’t looking directly at her, plunged it into Ferres’ eye.

-do something like that.

The professor dropped, screaming, hand at her eye.  The needle was already so slick with fluid that she couldn’t pull it out.

“I go,” Helen said, firmly.

“You go,” I said.

Jessie’s eyes were wide and her expression concerned as she looked at me.  She’d stopped writing.

Ferres’ screams continued.

“I go?” Helen asked, happy.

I looked back at Helen.  The screams continued in my ears even as Ferres remained where she was, standing by Helen, working on Helen’s face.

Just a very realistic simulation, when and where imagined Helen and real Helen had overlapped.

A very realistic depiction of how the scene might play out.  Not directly, but in the long run.

To Jessie, I’d jumped to a conclusion.  Jessie didn’t have the benefit of being able to see how Helen might act if left to her own devices here.

She’d said it outright, she’d laid out her boundaries.  I didn’t need a hallucination to tell me that Helen was a danger.  But I did need it to remind me of what the consequences could be, and how devastating a mistake could be.

“You go, I suppose.  You have to,” I said.

“I don’t like how you got when you were alone with Helen in the black woods,” Jessie said.  “She doesn’t keep you thinking straight.”

“It’s a bad riddle, isn’t it?” I asked.  “Like the sort that Hayle used to give us.  Scorpion, centipede, butterfly, all need to get from A to B, but leave one alone…”

“Am I the butterfly?” Jessie asked.  “Or am I the centipede?”

“Let’s not overanalyze it,” I said.

“Alright,” Jessie said.

Her eyes were downcast.  She fidgeted in a way that had nothing to do with gestures or signs, as she became very aware of the pen in her hands.

“I’ll be with Helen for most of it,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

“We’d go together through the black woods.  We’d part ways when she hunted Mauer and while I rounded up the Lambs, or vice versa, and whoever finished first would help the other.  A few days apart, if we were lucky.”

“While I stay here, managing things,” Jessie said.  Her voice was a notch quieter than before.  She fixed the volume as she said, “It makes the most sense.”

She didn’t want to stay.  She didn’t want to be alone.  She was trying to be brave, and I really wondered if she would break into tears right here and right now.

The rain found another direction, and it ceased drumming on the window.  The spray hissed as it hit the balcony outside, instead.

“Or we stay together,” I said.

Jessie spoke, “This is the crossroads we’re at, isn’t it?  We stay together, and we keep each other company while accomplishing nothing, or we enact our plan, but we’re separate.  There’s a very real chance that we part ways and it’s a forever goodbye.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I know I’m strong.  I hold up pretty well, most of the time.  But I didn’t do well while you were in the black woods.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Jessie had lost memories, but she had always lost them when alone.  It wasn’t a definitive thing that it had to do with her being isolated, but it was an indicator, a bad premonition.

It reminded me of Jamie, and Jamie’s experience along those same lines.

None of us wanted to be the one to remain behind.  Whoever remained behind might break.

That was what we were, now.

“What if…” Jessie started.

I knew how that question ended.

“…Three Lambs afield, leaving the pen empty?” I asked.

Jessie nodded.

“No sure way of knowing if the wolf will be laying in wait when we return,” I said.

“You’ve trained very nice, very capable rebels,” Helen said.

“We have,” Jessie said.  “But there’s a lot they can’t do.  We’d be asking five hundred people to maintain control over a population of fifteen thousand, give or take.  If they lost control, I don’t think we’d be able to regain that same control over a wary enemy.”

“And it wouldn’t be fair to them,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

There was no good way to handle it.

Mauer was standing by the door, attention keenly on the situation, eyes bright.  Evette was sitting on the bed, smirking.

Fray stood with Ashton, one hand on his head, messing up his hair, while he stared at us with a blank expression.

Ferres, meanwhile, was very, very still, as she listened.  The Hag of Hackthorn was terrified.  As terrified as she had ever allowed me to see, even.  She was hearing us talk, hearing things come to a head, and her Academy was at stake.

“Leave me behind,” I said.

“Alone?” Jessie asked.

“Not quite alone,” I said.  “The rebels are almost another Lamb, collectively.”

Jessie stared at me.

“And… you’ll be there,” I said.

“That’s what concerns me,” Jessie said.

“In a different sense.  Just… let me believe that you’re coming back.  That you’ll be back with the Lambs.  I can look forward to that.  It’s not something that leaves me empty and hollow.  It can keep me going.  I can tough it out.”

Jessie shook her head.

“Helen wants to be out and about, and if she’s in your company for most of it, she’ll be okay, right?”

Helen nodded.  Jessie looked more dubious.

“You’ve listened and watched with one eye as Ferres worked on Helen, haven’t you?  You can do further repairs for the other half of her face.”

“Possibly,” Jessie said.

“It’s not the worst thing if it’s not possible.  I’ll manage.  You two should go,” I said.  “I’ll entertain myself.”

“That’s another thing I’m worried about,” Jessie said.  “You being entertained.”

“It’s the best way forward,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

Helen’s hand snapped up, seizing Ferres wrist, where Ferres held the scalpel.  She smiled that half smile.

“You don’t need a scalpel to put my face back together,” Helen said.  “I’m leaving soon.  So please, if you would…”

Professor Ferres stared, still frozen.  Slowly, she let the scalpel tumble from her fingers and fall to the floor.  She reached over with her free hand, reaching into her kit to get the chemicals and tools needed to seamlessly close up Helen’s face.  Helen released her other hand, still smiling.

“I’ll get us started,” I said, standing.

Jessie nodded.  Her smile was a sad one.

I was still quite damp as I exited the apartment and ventured into the hallway.  Two of Bea’s people were standing guard.  I gestured at them, and they fell in step with me.

The torso of the reclining woman was the center of the university, the point from which all other elements flowed.  Core labs and exhibition halls made up much of the center portions, set so that other areas could look through windows or down from raised areas to view the ongoing proceedings.

Many students were gathered at tables and seats throughout one of the exhibition halls, which was in the process of being set for the young master’s birthday party, later in the month.  Stage decorations were partially grown and partially built.  In the meantime, until faculty came marching through at eleven thirty to midnight, it was where boys met with girls, where student workers and staff took off their shoes and talked.  Friends gathered and talked about work and about fanciful ideas and dreams.

The various leaders of my groups all met here too, passing messages between them.  Each and every last one of them was gathered here.  Shirley was sitting at one table, where she had been talking to Possum and Rudy.  Rudy was doing tons better, but he still needed crutches to get around, and the crutches rested against the table next to him.

The fact that I was drenched, still periodically dripping, it drew attention.  I appreciated that among my people, there were some that kept talking, conversing without much break in stride.  It might have been problematic if my arrival had been followed by utter silence.

My hand moved subtly, and a score of eyes watched it.

The movement of my hand gave the signal that they had collectively been waiting for for weeks now.

School.  Two fingers held high, hand in a fist.  Very close to the sign for ‘mind’.

Fall.  Pinky and thumb extended, swept down.

I watched as the Rank stood as a group.  They marched off.  They’d been content to hang in the background, mingling with Bea’s group.  But they’d been the Rank before they’d been hanging out with the Rooftop Girls, and as the Rank they’d brewed chemicals as a collective, for sale elsewhere.  Drugs chief among them.

Getting them placed right had been about ensuring that they had lab space, little oversight, and access to key parts of the Academy.  Posie in particular had been focused on the mechanical aspect of it.

Gas.  It would sweep through whole sections of the Academy.  It would take time.  That was a part of it that had to start sooner than later.

I gestured for the others to hold on, then took a seat at the table, moving a chair and spinning it around so I sat backwards in the seat.

“I suppose I’ll get us started,” Mabel said.  She sat at the next table over, with many members of her Green Team.

I really didn’t like that she stood just as I sat down.

“I’ll come with,” Shirley said.  Mabel nodded.  I could see that Shirley looked at ease, that she wasn’t running from, but running to.

I valued that a hell of a lot, when it felt like everyone was drifting away or moving away from me and that I had to fight to keep them close.

I still owed Shirley so much.

Mabel’s Green Team would be focused on Hackthorn’s right hip and leg.  The leg was the path down into the small town below Hackthorn, the passage to the cliffs.  Controlling it would be essential not only because it was a key chokepoint, but because it was a key place where food was stored, where the stables were.  Measures were already in place to ensure that there would be no warbeasts available to anyone who tried to hold Hackthorn against us.

Shirley was traveling in that same direction, but she would carry all the way down the leg, where she would talk to Pierre and our gang members, minus Archie, who was still posing as my father, an aristocrat of note.  The people who had evacuated the city when Neph had spread black wood over it were in Shirley’s company now.  The mad baker was somewhere among them, as was the old man.

“There was a good number of students in the labs the last I checked,” the Treasurer said.  He stood, and he gave me a two-finger salute.

The labs were easy.  A small team would see it quarantined.  It was a process that took time and careful attention to reverse, however.  I was reminded of the Bowels, of being locked within with Sub Rosa.

The Treasurer’s group would need to be reinforced.  Davis was meant to be second in command, in charge of that aspect of things when I wasn’t present.  I knew from his expression that he was fully aware that my absence meant he was being forced into a position of leadership again.

Every group had a place.  There were things to look after.

Bea was dressed in an Academy uniform with no jacket and an apron instead of a coat, was representative of the students who worked at helping keep things running.  Some were assistants to faculty.  Others delivered mail or ran errands.

Bea smiled, and she almost looked as if she enjoyed this on a level nobody else had indicated, except for me.

The Rooftop Girls had been rebels before they had been rebels.  At Bea’s behest, they would act within the next thirty minutes, turning on the faculty they had been working for.  A small share of that faculty would be sequestered away and imprisoned.

Cut the head off the dragon.

We’d marked out the reclining woman as someone else might dissect a body or quarter livestock.

Gordeux would be working as a liason between Davis and the Treasurer.  He’d overseen a handful of projects.  Warbeasts, chemicals.  They would be our attack dogs, watching bridges.  For a time, we would keep students confined to the dormitories, and the projects would help with that.

Other students in the exhibition hall were looking restless.  Too many of our people were marching off with a mission.  There was nervousness apparent throughout, and that nervousness communicated itself in little ways to the bystanders.

“You’ll need to control the room,” I told Davis.  “They’re getting anxious.”

Davis nodded.  He was hesitating.

But he gathered his courage, and he turned to one of his subordinates, who sat next to him.  A junior member of the student council, young.  In another world, if Beattle hadn’t fallen, the boy might have eventually succeeded Davis as student council president and gone on to lead the student council of Beattle, a nice little note in his record that would give him a leg up.

The boy ran off, to spread the word to the able bodied Beattle students and the other rebels we’d collected who were confident with guns.

I really hoped we wouldn’t have to use them.

Davis remained seated, thinking.  He wasn’t fond of the role, even if he was good at it, and for the time being, he was introspective, preparing himself for what would come later in the evening.  His job wasn’t pretty, and I was already planning to shoulder the bulk of the burden.  At our behest, Ferres had made sure that the Academy’s native security forces were at the perimeter, facing outward, in a manner of speaking.  Watching the wastes and the water, while trouble brewed within the heart of Hackthorn.

Davis’ group would see bloodshed before the night was out, handling that side of things, reinforcing groups as the native population of students fought in defense of their Academy and, for some, their homes.

The weather outside was whipping itself up.

Rudy had his hand over Possum’s.  Possum would be running the kitchen.  We had twelve thousand students in the school.  There were more people in the city below, running the essential services, the shops and more, but in keeping students sequestered and the situation under control here, keeping the masses fed would be a task.  Possum would tackle it, with Rudy encouraging and reassuring.

But that came later.  Possum’s job for the now was to wait.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “I’ll be back in two minutes.  Running an errand.”

Davis nodded, still introspecting.  I suspected he even knew where I was going.

A quick skip down stairs.  Past students who stared or looked concerned.  One even tried to call out, asking me why a dozen students had been hurrying downstairs.  I didn’t answer.

Lab One was lit by lanterns, the voltaic lights off.  Most of the lanterns were set up in one area.

Alvin was burning the midnight oil, it seemed, looking over notes and scripts.  He didn’t notice me as I approached.

I was tempted to slit his throat, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play violent when my hallucinations were already trending that way.  Not when Jessie and Helen were leaving me alone.

I pressed the knife to his throat instead.

“What?” he asked.  He turned his head just enough so he could look back and see my face in the gloom.  “Oh no.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I knew there was something off about you,” he said.

“I get that a lot,” I said.

“Stealing projects?  Spying on Ferres?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “Oh no, no.  Alvin, sir, you’re about to realize this is far, far worse.”

We were well ensconsced within the Academy, with staircases and hallways separating us from the exterior walls.  But the wind blew, and with it, the reclining lady shifted position.  The building creaked.

“I believe you,” he said.

“Walk with me,” I said.

With Alvin at knifepoint, I walked to the cells.  The children within the cells reacted to the light.  Faces appeared at the bars.

“Thank you for your patience,” I said.

Reaching into Alvin’s pocket, I produced the key.  I stuck it through one lock, opening it.

Goldilocks took the key I pressed into her hands, and went to the next cell.

“They’re supposed to be drugged,” Alvin said.

“They are,” I said.

“The drugs were in their systems.”

“Switched the usual drugs with sugar pills.  I gave them evening doses instead of the morning doses.  Haven’t gotten around to tonight’s.”

Alvin grew more and more tense as the number of youths and experiments around him grew thicker and thicker.  Some were irate.  Intense, hostile.

I could sense the anger, and I knew that Alvin could tell as well.  That this was a mob that had been sleeping a few moments ago, that was quickly stirring itself up.

Before anything could happen, I flung Alvin into a cell.  I slammed the door.

Poll Parrot looked even more dangerous in the gloom, his feathers crimson, his eyes a glare that suggested killing intent.  Others had more mixed emotion.  Faces that had tracks of tears on them, before they turned away or tried to hide their expressions.

Bo Peep flung herself at me, wrapping arms around me, soft wool pressing into my neck as she buried her head in my chest.

Others looked more lost and unhappy than they had been when they’d been resigned to their fates.

“Come on,” I said, barely sparing a glance for Alvin.  “Everyone stay together for now.”

Jessie and Helen were in Lab One when I emerged from among the cells.  I’d almost missed them, making sure that the littlest ones were being watched.  The three blind mice chief among them.

Jessie navigated the mob of children.

She gave me a kiss, and in the distance, I could hear the alarm bells going off.  The quarantine, the alerts that the academy was under attack.  Different parts of our hostile group would hear the sounds and use them as a cue to mobilize.

My hands went up, to hold Jessie, to draw her close and keep her for a little while.  Her hands went up too, fending me off.  She broke the kiss.

“If you hug me, I don’t think I’ll be able to let go of you,” she said.

I didn’t speak.

“Be sane when I get back?” she asked.

“I’ll try,” I said.  “I’ve got these guys to keep me company.  A box of bugs that’s been nicely shaken.  I’ll endure.”

Jessie nodded.  I thought I saw the glint of a tear in one eye.  With the lights off and the lanterns in the background, it was hard to tell.

“You have to do your part too,” I said.  “Be Jessie.”

“I’ll try.”

She stepped back, and as she pulled away, our inter-knit fingers pulled apart.  My arm fell to my side.

“Be good, Helen,” I said.  Though Helen had already faded into the gloom, following Jessie.

“Be good, Sy,” she echoed me.

I stood there, my hands tingling with what might be my last contact with Jessie.

Small hands found their way to my hands, clasping them, gripping them.  Other hands touched my forearms, and clutched at my shirt.

The Crown had made the Crown States small, so the nation was easier to control.  They had isolated, so it was easier to exert power over populations.  We’d simply taken advantage of that.  Now we did much the same, dividing and conquering that which had already been separated and left vulnerable.

We had turned Academy against Academy.  Students stolen and set against other students.  Faculty stolen, used against her own kind.

The nobility would be next on the chopping block.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.6

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“You changed her face,” Ferres said.

We were outside, standing on a patio where many students lunched.  It wasn’t the lunch hour, however, which meant that the only students who would be out here at this hour would be conspirators and students looking for a space to discuss a project.  The wind was brisk enough that none of them were near.

Our vantage point to see the scenery was fairly stellar.  The scenery itself wasn’t.  Wasteland and black woods as far as the eye could see to one side, and fog-shrouded ocean to the other.

“Implants, just under the skin,” I said.  “Quick, easy.”

“If I’d moved forward and called your bluff, then the implants would be found fairly quickly.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But you’re quick enough to see what happens if you don’t play along.  Your other students come under fire.”

I watched her, and even though I couldn’t read her expression well, I was wondering if she was calculating whether it was worth it to take that risk.

“Not just your favored students.  All of your students.  If I wasn’t in the room and you were free to act from the second Jessie or I gave the go-ahead to watching eyes or listening ears, you still wouldn’t be able to get ahead of what we have staged.”

“So you say.”

I smiled, tapped a cigarette out of the box, and hunched over, hand cupped, to light it in the brisk wind.  When I was done, I leaned on the railing, looking out at the wasteland.  Ferres remained close to her Academy, arms folded, back to the exterior wall.  The reclining woman of Hackthorn’s breasts jutted out overhead.  In judging their size, I realized that Ferres had modeled the breasts on her own, probably.  On her younger self’s, anyhow.

I looked away, watching dark clouds roll in.  It looked like a storm was on the way.

“Tell me,” I said.  “When you first thought you were going to join the Academy, did you tell yourself, hey, you’d cut open kids and use them to make art pieces for some aristocratic brat to play with?”

“A little reductionist, that.  That work allows me to fund and support research that does actual good.”

“If you want to play that game, the reductionist sword cuts both ways.”

“The children were doomed to begin with.  They’re better off.  They can choose if they get restored to normal by the junior students of my Academy or if they wear those modifications to their own advantage.  Others from the Block face far worse.”

“You Academy types love to focus on the physical and gloss over the emotional and mental.”

“I don’t know what an Academy type who focused on the emotional or mental would look like.”

“Mm,” I made a sound.  “Which is still sidestepping the point.”

“I do good work,” Ferres said.  “Be it with those children or in my research.  I know you grew up with close ties to a young lady that was also an Academy student.  Without me to help pave the way, she might not have found her place by your side.”

“Perhaps,” I said.

“I don’t want to sound as if I’m bragging, but do look at the big picture.”

“I try,” I said.  “And in that big picture, honestly, I think both I and the young lady might be in agreement that my side was a pretty crummy place to be.  You might not have done any favors, putting her there.  I’m kind of a bastard.”

“Ah.”

“I’m being facetious.  I do think you could have paved the way without, you know, so very many casualties.”

“How many casualties have you racked up, Sylvester Lambsbridge?”

“Eighty-three, directly,” I said.  “Nine thousand, seven hundred and twenty-one.  By the time I’m done with your Academy, I’ll likely have racked up an even ten thousand.”

“Ah.”

“I didn’t really keep count.  I just wanted to get the last word in.”

The door opened.  Jessie and Helen.  Jessie closed the door behind her and joined me at the railing, leaning with her back against it, her arm touching mine.  Helen remained closer to Ferres.

“Ferres was about to tell us things,” I said.

“I suppose I was.  What do you want to know?” Ferres asked.  “Eerie to suppose that my voicing that question aloud completely and utterly ends my career.”

“Don’t be silly,” Helen said.  “Your career was over the moment we ambushed you in your bedroom.”

I turned around, leaning against the railing beside Jessie.  I turned my head a bit so my smoke didn’t blow in her face.

Ferres frowned.  She made an odd mirror to Helen.  Older, not as natural a beauty, or not as unnatural a beauty, depending on the lens one viewed Helen through, but there were superficial similarities in how they held themselves.

I spoke.  “There’s a code you use when communicating with other professors, Academies, and nobles.  A higher level of security.”

“Is there?” Ferres asked.

I raised my eyebrow.

She sighed.  “There is.  For all that your abilities are vaunted, you Lambs haven’t been able to crack it, hm?”

“We know where the numbers are.  Stop gloating and just tell us what the numbers mean.”

“Implants.  Mine is under my left thumbnail.  It looks like blood but isn’t, it’s an agent with a specific chemical balance.  It takes two minutes with the lab in my office to extract and find out the current percentage.  They’ll check the date and time of any messages I send against the number in the margins, match it against the same chemical they have in their offices.”

“No bruising?” Jessie asked.  “I haven’t seen any physical markers.”

“That would defeat the purpose,” Ferres said.

“It’s all very complicated,” I said.

“They pushed for higher security after the infiltration of the communications office in Radham.  We did have measures before, but we had to change them when she went rogue.”

I elbowed Jessie.  “Home sweet home.”

“Was more a home for you two than for me,” Jessie said.

“Suppose so,” I said.  “You spent… what, less than half your current life there?”

“I think of Tynewear when I think of home,” Jessie murmured.  “Or of Sedge.  Home moves from place to place.”

With me, as it happened.  I leaned over to give her a kiss on the shoulder.

Professor Ferres’ tone was bitter enough to serve as a reversal in tone from the moment with Jessie.  “If I didn’t already wince at the mention of Radham because it’s where that cretin Ibbot works, I’d be doing it now.  Nothing but misery stems from there.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said.  “There’s plenty of misery everywhere.  All Radham got was a few little Lambs to help bring it to the surface.”

Ferres’ smile was thin and humorless as I looked back at her.  She said, “You Lambs, the rogue Mavis, Fray and the Red Shepherd.”

“True, that.  Cynthia too,” I said.

“She came from elsewhere,” Ferres said.

“She popped up in a few places, as did her colleagues,” Jessie said.  “It might be worth thinking about why they stopped in Radham when they did, for as long as they did, but I think we’re getting sidetracked.”

“We’ve dealt with our share of rebels rising and falling on the eastern half of the Crown States, especially in the wake of Fray’s stunt with the water supply, but the ones from your region have proven tenacious and especially irritable.”

“Whole tracts of the population being sterilized will act that way.  Being told you need a prescription to leave the region doesn’t help,” I said.

They were freely undoing the sterilization,  which would work for the current generation, and by the time the next generation cared, it would be normalized.

“All the same,” Ferres said.  “Especially irritable.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Blame the constant rain over there.”

“And tenacious,” Ferres said.

“Blame Fray for that.  She organized them.  For a little while, anyway.”

“I find myself wanting to express blame at a number of parties.  I could talk for days on the subject.  I won’t.  Reality is what it is, and I count the fact that I haven’t had to set foot in Radham as one of the very few mercies I’ve been afforded.  If the spread of the red plague has forced your lot into my corner of the Crown States, your collective leashes artificially extended by the Crown’s attempts to keep its population alive, then that’s something more I’ll have to endure.”

“You keep saying that,” I said, while making a mental note to see if there was any way I could get all of us or even just Ferres into Radham at a later point.  “Endure.  Endure.  Endure.”

“Well, I suppose I’ve reached my limit.  You’ve broken me, targeting Betty and my children.  I throw myself on your mercy.”

Why did she not sound wholly sincere as she said that?

The trump card again?

“You won’t get much mercy,” I said.  “You’ll get a bed, proper food, whatever else it takes.  Your children will be left alone.  That’s what you get for talking freely to us.  You know what happens if we catch you in a lie or half-truth.”

“I do,” Ferres said.  “Several possibilities played through my mind once I realized you had her.  I tend to look forward.  You would have made me decide.”

“Yes.”

“What to do to her, when.  To keep up the ruse.  More of my students would disappear?”

“If I had to, I would have let the drugs wear off.  Freed up her vocal chords.  Given you time for conversation with her.  If you proved particularly stubborn, I might have had you spend the night in the cell with her.”

“That would have sufficed,” Ferres said.

The wind picked up.  To my right, Mary’s skirt, ribbons, and hair blew in the wind, brushing up against my face and leg.

Helen’s body language was as expressive as her facial expression was cold.

Ferres was taking a moment to digest the idea, and I was working through just what needed to be hammered out.  Radham was sticking in my mind.

“Your file said you were gentle with children.”

I looked over at Ferres.  “Still caught up on that?”

“I’m fatigued, and I’ve surrendered.  Do me this small courtesy and sate my curiosity.”

“Sure, yeah.  I’m gentle with kids.  Is that gentle enough, given circumstances?  If there’s a two in three chance that I’m bluffing, you still can’t bring yourself to call that bluff.”

“I put it at a much higher chance than two in three, but you’re right,” Ferres said.  “Five in six chance, perhaps?”

I shrugged.  I didn’t want to betray that if I’d had to guess at my own willingness to cross a line, I might have given exactly that number.  There was a reason Lillian hadn’t looked at me all day.

“But you’re desperate.  All three of you are expiring,” Ferres said.  She paused, then sighed.  “It complicates what would otherwise be simple.  I’m at your disposal.”

“Good,” I said.  “Then we’ll need you to write several letters.”

“To professors and nobles throughout the Crown states?”

“Exactly,” I said.  I looked at Jessie.  “What’s the word?”

“Emily, Chance, and Lainie are willing to help if we need it,” Jessie said.

I gave Ferres a long look, trying to figure out the way forward for this.

“If you’re looking to me for answers or input, those are all names I don’t recognize,” Ferres said.

“The Baron Richmond’s fiancee,” I said.  “And her two traveling companions.”

“The import of this is lost on me, except that the Baron was closely associated with places where the plague originated.”

“An aristocrat’s daughter,” I said.  “Should be immortal, or close enough to it that it drew the Baron’s attention and wasn’t entirely refuted by his doctors.  Yes.  She lived in Lugh before leaving in the Baron’s company.”

“Immortal.  This is the carrot you’re dangling before them all, to draw them here?  I’ve acquired the Baron’s fiancee and through her I’ve stumbled on true immortality?”

“To draw them wherever,” I said.  “It’s a carrot we’re considering.  But there’s a flaw with that particular carrot.  Two, really.”

“Too connected to us?” Helen asked.

“Yep.  That’s the second flaw,” I said.

“And not enough people know the story about what Emily is and why the Baron was interested in her,” Jessie said.

“And there’s the first,” I said.

“Well, we’ve discussed this,” Jessie said.  “I already knew the answer.”

“Psh.”

“There are other possible discoveries, other than immortality,” Jessie said.  “Stable, controlled primordial life?”

“A discovery of the century, if a bit of an oxymoron, plausible.  As much as they might celebrate the discovery, however, my seeking it out would be sufficient excuse for them to execute me and erase my name from history.”

“A new ratio to complement Wollstone’s set?”  I asked.

Ferres snorted.  “If the people you were attempting to bait in were first year Academy students, perhaps.  The rest know better.”

“Revival of the dead with regenerated memories?” Jessie asked.

“Possible, but the road to that particular discovery is a long and narrow one.  True immortality is something that could be uncovered from a number of directions.  True revival would require dedicated focus, and that’s far removed from anything I’ve really dealt with.  A hard sell to claim I’ve done it.”

“Then… hm,” Jessie said.  She frowned.

“Shapeshifting?” Helen jumped in.  “Or deciding one’s own pattern?”

“If you mean a new discovery that’s noteworthy enough to draw attention, then we’re fifty years to a century away from that.  Anything else would be too mundane.  There’s a gap in our abilities and tools, and claiming I crossed that gap would be far fetched at best.”

“But not inconceivable?” I asked.

“Not inconceivable,” she said.

“Then we’ll put a bookmark by that page,” I said.  “And come back around to immortality, unless someone has a better idea.”

“For immortality, I’ve dabbled in such things,” Ferres said.  “Not extensively, but others know I’ve dabbled in it.”

“We know you’ve dabbled in it,” Jessie said.  “It’s why it came up in the first place as an idea.  We thought of Emily, formerly Candida Anne Gage, and the possibility of tying things together.  If we could assign some credence to your claim by saying she had fallen into your hands or willingly turned to you, and you were able to use her incomplete immortality to devise true immortality…”

“Then you draw in the important individuals you seek, for your nefarious purposes,” Ferres said.

“Which brings us to what we needed to get you onboard for.  The letters will need to be personal.  There will need to be a strategy as if you’re making a bid for power.  I don’t want to trip anyone’s prey instincts because you’re acting funny.”

“Prey instincts,” Ferres said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “So there’s a narrative we’re going to need to discuss and outline.  And in that narrative, I’m going to want you to draw the attention of certain notable individuals.”

“The Infante.”

“Him among many,” I said, smiling.

“I wouldn’t underestimate him,” Ferres said.

“You’ll tell me what I need to know about him, or where I can get information about him, using the bait of immortality.”

“Still with the two big flaws,” Jessie said.

“Maybe,” I said, I smiled, “Maybe…”

I rubbed my chin.

“You don’t need to drag this out,” Jessie said.  “You knew how to end that sentence from the moment you suggested we put a bookmark by pattern determinism.”

I dropped my hand from my face, and gave Jessie my best frown.

“Out with it, skipper.”

“You’re really no fun,” I said.  “I wanted to do the brilliant reveal, pace it out.”

She poked me in the stomach.

We don’t try to assign claim by trying to pretend Ferres got her hands on Emily Gage and figured it out from there.  We let someone else do it.”

“Someone else in the other Lambs sense?” Jessie asked.

“You did have Candy come visit us to let us know what was going on,” Helen said.

“Emily,” Jessie corrected.  “It was a name she chose, we should respect it.”

“Should we?” Helen asked.  “Should we really?”

“You respected mine.”

“Yes,” Helen said.  “But, and this is my counterpoint, Candy is the best name.  Because candy.”

Jessie shook her head.

“Involving the other Lambs makes people wonder if we’re involved,” I said.

Jessie and Helen nodded at that.

“Raises suspicions,” I elaborated.

“You’re thinking of someone,” Jessie said.  “Only other survivors of that scene that really matter are-”

“Mauer,” I said, jumping in before Jessie could finish the sentence and cut me off, because I wanted that reveal at the very least.

“You want to work with Mauer?” Jessie asked.  And in this, she was very much on the same page with Ferres.

“See?  That incredulity?  That’s why the Crown won’t immediately jump to thinking of us.”

“The Red Shepherd has been dangerously quiet lately,” Professor Ferres said.  “Or dead.”

Jessie glanced at me, “Not many places for him to hide.  The Crown States are being overwhelmed with black wood, red plague, and the cities that haven’t fallen are either under hard security with condensed forces and manpower from all of the evacuated Academies, or they’re remote, like Hackthorn.”

“Hackthorn is also filled to the gills with condensed manpower,” Helen said.  Her tone didn’t match her dead facial expression.  “The extra manpower is actually our rebels, though.”

Our hostage and the headmistress of said Academy didn’t look particularly impressed with that.

“Ferres,” I said.

“I prefer Professor Ferres, or my actual name, but yes?”

All doctors, specialists and professors were picky about that.  Always a good way to needle them.

“You get regular reports on the troublemakers, don’t you?”

“Twice a month at the minimum, with further reports as fast as the mail can reach me, any time there’s a significant update.”

“Mauer won’t be there, but I’m interested to know what measures the Academy is using to try and find him and deal with him.  We have an idea of where he should be, but given our isolation, he may have moved.  I’d like to minimize the running around…”

I trailed off.

Professor Ferres wore the face and body of a woman half her age, but as the conversation had continued and her reality had sunk in, it was as if the years were tracing themselves on her.  In posture, in expression, the way the light hit her face, her coat billowing out as if her body had no shape at all to it, she might as well have aged twelve years since stepping out onto the outdoor patio.  When the wind blew past her, she grimaced a little and looked another five or so years older as she bore the brunt of it, hair pushed out of order, her arms folded.

Like a witch out of the story books.  The pretty ones dressed themselves up like crones, and the crones dressed themselves up like maidens.

Not that sixty was a crone, exactly, but still.

She finally ventured an answer.  “I’ll show you the papers.  What’s mine is yours, it seems.”

“Very cooperative of you.  Helen, would you shadow her and ensure she gets there without incident?  I want a word with Jessie.”

“Of course,” Helen said.  She curtsied.

“We can have a conversation about your face once there,” Ferres said.  “I assume you don’t want to be seen interacting directly with me, so I suppose I’ll see you there.”

“Yes,” Helen said.  “Wonderful.”

Ferres turned to the door, still braced against the strong wind, and let herself back inside.

Helen moved to follow, hand on the door handle.  She paused.

“Problem?” Jessie asked.

“People are talking,” Helen said.  “I’ve been keeping an ear out.”

“I’ve heard some of it.  We’ll be careful,” Jessie said.

Helen nodded.  Then she was gone, keeping an eye on our Professor.

The dark clouds were getting darker.  At the very horizon, they were near-black, and the lines of where burned wasteland met dark wood and where dark wood met sky were nearly indistinguishable.  It was as if black treacle stretched in goopy lines from sky to ground, smearing the definition out of nearly everything.

Gordon was watching it all, with Hubris standing with paws up on the railing.  Mary had moved over to stand next to him.  The little Lambs were at the garden at the far end of the patio, Ashton included, while Evette said words I couldn’t make out and tapped her fingers on a branch with the tap code I’d gone and forgotten.

Lillian stood off to one side, in Fray’s firm grasp.  Keeping warm, I supposed.

I took that cue and put my arm around Jessie’s shoulders.  From there, I drew her into a hug.  She didn’t resist much as I pulled her to me.  She was warm, slender, and starchy, the last bit being the fault of the crisp Academy uniform she wore.

I had mixed feelings about the uniform.  Clothing of choice for my first love, third heartbreak.

“You wanted to talk to me alone?” Jessie asked.

“Yeah.”

“You know I’ve read her mail, I know more than she does, probably.”

“Probably.  But before we get into that, is the gig up?” I asked.  “What with what Helen was saying?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “But people are noticing that things aren’t making enough sense.  It’s bound to happen when you stick three hundred and twenty students in an Academy and expect them to keep a story straight.  I’ve overheard whispers from more suspicious Hackthorn students and seen too many people stop talking when one of ours enter a room.”

“How bad?”

“It’s inevitable that they’ll start talking and they’ll put the pieces together, if they don’t revolt entirely.  But that’s not going to be today or even tomorrow.”

“We could pull the trigger now.”

Jessie shook her head.  “Soon.”

“Soon, then,” I said.  “Alright.”

Her breath was warm against my shoulder.

Fray wasn’t embracing Lillian the way I was embracing Jessie.  It was stiffer, Fray upright, looking out into the distance.  Lillian stared at me.

“Cold,” Jessie said.

I hugged her tighter.  I could feel the warmth of her, but that warmth wasn’t what made me feel properly nourished.

“No.  I’m thinking about weather long term,” Jessie said.

“I’m thinking this moment with you is awfully nice, for the record,” I said.

“Well, I can’t think about multiple things at once quite as gracefully as you do, Sy, and there’s a lot to think about.”

I ‘tsk’ed with my tongue.

“We’ll get our ‘us’ time tonight.”

“Is that a promise?” I asked.  I made a pleased sound.

“We have time constraints.  The coming storm may limit our movements.”

I made a displeased sound.  Then I asked, “Which?  Are you thinking we’ll need to catch a boat?”

“Possibly.  Do we have the means of finding Mauer without getting on a boat?” Jessie asked.

“The man doesn’t want to be found.  But I don’t think he’s one to sit still and keep quiet, either.”

“Rumblings?”

“Something closer to what he tried in Radham, perhaps,” I said.  “Still moving steadily toward a goal.”

“Ferres’ papers suggest some noise, but it’s almost the inverse of ours.  To the Academy, Fray has all but disappeared.  No word, no rumblings, no suggestion of activity.  They’re nervous about it.  Mauer, meanwhile, has disappeared, and there are rumblings, but they’re having trouble pinning them down.  They’ve got experiments passing through every settlement, and there isn’t a single whiff of Mauer to be had.”

“And meanwhile, for us…”

“The animals Mable created and loosed before we reached Hackthorn are traveling this way and that, confounding the sniffers.  They’re dispersing our scent as well as some other pheromones usually reserved for when Academies want to control their warbeasts.”

I nodded, smiling a little.

“It might be better to do this with the shapeshifting,” Jessie said.  “Because if you want to push the immortality thing, involve Mauer…”

“…We might have to split up,” I said.  “Too many bases to cover to do it as a trio.”

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “I don’t think any of us are in a position to do terribly well on our own.  If any one of us have a bad day, on top of dealing with dangerous situations like Hackthorn being on the brink of erupting, or Mauer-”

“Or everyone else perking their ears up when a few of the most powerful Nobles and Professors start paying attention to something in little ol’ Hackthorn?” I asked.

“Or any of it.”

“Dang it, Lillian, not taking our offer,” I said.  “Would’ve made life easier if we had a few more Lambs.”

“We’re at the stage where we could reach out, but…”

“More splitting up,” I said.  “Not just a two-one split, but a three way split.  One set of eyes on Hackthorn, one on Mauer, and one voice reaching out to the Lambs.”

“We should go before those dark clouds hit, make sure our rebels know what they’re doing, fill Helen in,” Jessie said.  “Else it might be troublesome to get clear.”

Her arms were around me, my arms around her, her breath warm against my shoulder.  We didn’t hurry, much as we should.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Professor Ferres was a fantastic actress.  In some ways we had lucked out in picking her.  In other ways, that sword had two edges, and it made for some dangerous handling.  We’d hit her where it hurt, and the metaphorical sword was being drawn out now.

She acted like nothing was wrong as her favored students started their work in lab one.  Her favored students minus one, of course.

It was a beautiful thing, from a certain perspective.  I’d grown up around Helen, and I was strongly suspicious that Ibbot had been inspired by Professor Ferres when he had designed our winsome, woesome Lamb.  Long exposure to Helen, years of my own earnest attempts at acting and being up against some of the best around gave me a deep appreciation for Ferres’ act.  The face that betrayed nothing, the fact that she could smile and act as though nothing was wrong when she was battered, bruised, and tired?

Even if I hadn’t had an agenda, it might’ve been worth doing this just to see how someone capable approached the problem.

That, and I did have reservations about targeting a youth.  Betty was almost our age, but there were groups of mice that might have taken her in, had her circumstances of birth been different.  Pressure and the fact that I really didn’t like Betty had helped me cross my personal line in the sand and break my own rules on this.

Ferres didn’t miss a beat as she gave instructions, “The grafts for Itsy Bitsy are in the cold room.  Alvin, would you prepare to take Betty’s position in the surgical theater in case she doesn’t turn up?  I’ll send someone to check on her the moment I’m free.”

Not one glance toward Jessie or me.  It was good, considering that she had to suspect.

Jessie was talking numbers, rattling off equations as the others talked.  For all that Betty had complained that I didn’t belong here, there were no loud complaints about Jessie.  She hadn’t earned her place in the way that Betty, Alvin, Leland, Wilbert, and the other favored students had.  She’d dealt with no grueling tests, she hadn’t had to prove herself, but she was holding up her end now that we were here.  Everything she did was strictly by the book.  Literally.

Ferres continued to give instructions.  I was focusing almost the entirety of my attention on her while she was working to ignore Jessie and I.  I was noticing the tics and the tells, the little catches.  It had been day after day of being drugged overnight, of paralyzing chemicals, tense muscles, bedsores or tubsores, fatigue, and insufficient food.  Pressure, tension, dehumanization and likely a fair amount of fear as well.  All while doing an eerily good job of acting as if nothing was wrong.

“Leland, Wilbert, you’ve been mulling over the nightmare for two days now.  I’ve tried to be patient, but I need you two to step it up.”

“Yes, Professor, of course.”

“If you haven’t found a working solution by the end of the day, I’ll be taking you off that project and doing it myself, and I won’t be happy about it,” Ferres said.

Jessie started gesturing as she talked, punctuating reams of ratios and ten-syllable compound names with hand movements.

I’d already noticed what Jessie was tipping me off to.  Ferres was speaking faster, more aggressively.

It was minor, hard to pin down, but when it came to a formidable character like Ferres’, I was willing to take any cue I could.  With a grain of salt.

“We’ve been weighing a few ideas.  We could rush it, but you said you’d rather it was done well than fast.”

“I did say that,” Ferres said.  She paused, and her demeanor shifted slightly.  “What’s troubling you?  Carbon chain boundary?”

“I think we’re covered on that front.  It’s the fuel injection.  Leland thinks if we provide the fuel by way of channels in the shoulder and let it flow back, scar tissue and other buildup will block it.  I was suggesting a stronger scapular floor for fiercer contractions, push through the buildup, but Leland worries it would be too spurty.”

“I think you’re both right,” the Professor said.  “It wouldn’t do to have our antagonist spray flaming ejaculate all over our juvenile audience, and it could be quite the spurt if we tried to counteract the full buildup.”

“I, uh, yes Professor.  We agree.”

“How long would it perform?”

“Ten to fifteen minutes.”

“We’ll need twice that if we’re to hold to the script.  Two-line regimen of G.H.I., increase its diet, standing guard in case it becomes hostile.  Excise the upper portions of the ventral serratus if you have to to make room.”

“Room for?” Wilbert asked.

“You tell me,” Ferres said.  “Go for a walk, find Betty, figure out how she’s doing, and have three good ideas in mind by the time you’re back.”

Wilbert straightened.  “The girl’s dormitory?  But-”

“If anyone asks, I sent you.  Now don’t tarry.”

Wilbert nodded.  His departure fell just short of a proper run from the premises.  Academy students were sometimes like pigeons.  When one student scrammed, others would take off too out of herd mentality.  Looking silly for running on a thousand occasions was a fair tradeoff for the one time it meant getting a headstart against an ominous, onrushing cloud of gas or cloud of insects loaded to bear with fun drugs.  It was a rule in periods of peace to avoid running wherever possible.

Professor Ferres continued to assign tasks and lay out everything that needed to be done, keeping tabs on the various projects and suggesting adjustments.  Jessie gestured again, and I took note of the gesture.  Jessie was keeping time, marking the fact that Ferres was much quicker to do this than she had been on previous days and weeks.  Ferres was rushing, because she wanted to move on to other things.  To me and to her favored student, little miss Betty.

I walked over to the table at the far side of the circular room.  There were four exits to the room, with two being staircases on either side, one being access to the cells and storage rooms, and the last one being the access to the operating theater.

The table was closest to the operating theater, and I could see Alvin laying spider-limbs as long as my arms out on one table.  One of the children in the cells would be put under and go under the knife.  Lillian stood by the table, and her stare was accusatory.

I looked away from her and turned my attention to the papers on the table.  Each set of papers was bundled together into contained booklets, titles inked out on the front pages.  Names of the experiments.  Bo Peep, Itsy Bitsy, Poll Parrot.  There were others I hadn’t recognized right off.  The three youngest children that Helen had been snuggling with would be the three blind mice, after their surgeries were done.  One young lady would become the unicorn.

The books had terminology, codes, and shorthand throughout, and I could only deduce some of it.  Instilled instinct, compulsion, chemical triggers, training.  The individual lines, passages and behaviors were ranked by importance, reinforced by various factors.

If it was wholly up to the experiments doing what they were supposed to in order to enact their play, then making them stitched would have been enough.  But there were other factors.  These weren’t actors meant to play out a series of shows and stories the audience had seen countless times before.

They were toys.  The audience would interact, step in, and change the course of events.  Ferres was designing the various characters to appeal to a swathe of tastes and age groups.  That meant countless bases needed to be covered.  If the young master’s cousin found Bo Peep to their liking and wanted to play at tea with the girl, then Bo Peep was to oblige.

“You’ve taken my student, I gather?” Ferres asked.

I paged through Bo Peep’s file, not looking up.  Red pen had been used to label and mark out pages.  The section was simply titled ‘Story 3b.2: The Wolf Wins’.  The notes were scattered in intent, written by Ferres for Ferres, referencing people she had met and what she knew about the young master’s family.

“If you take all of them, then people will wonder.  It hurts you more than it hurts me,” the Professor said.

If there was a lull in the night’s entertainment, then the Big Bad Wolf would rouse and stalk its prey.  Red Riding Hood would be stalked by the wolf, which would speak and taunt her while staying out of sight.   Children in attendance could decide the outcome, by intervening, by cheering for one side.  The needed verbal cues, tones, and situational cues were marked out clearly, mapping out how this would come to pass.

If the young lads cheered for it, then there would be violence.  The Wolf would be emboldened, would close in, and Red Riding Hood would die a theatrical, gruesome, and very real death.  Then, depending on the collective response to that, other antagonists would step in while the wolf retreated to the background, having raised the stakes for the evening and kindled imagination, or the wolf would even take center stage, picking off characters one by one.  Bo Peep was number two to die, if the young boy at the center of the party willed it.

Red Riding Hood’s emotions would be very real in the midst of it all.  So would Bo Peep’s, if the party took that particular course.

Ferres wasn’t willing to discount that possibility, and she was putting considerable effort into planning for it, making sure the Big Bad Wolf was something that could be ridden.

I’d sat back and watched things for some time now, the idle bystander while Jessie and the other students worked on this project.  I’d read these scripts enough to have a general sense of the web of interactions and narratives that played out across them.  There were stories for grand violence, stories for intrigue, stories for heroism and valor, for being the gentleman that saved damsels in distress.  Ferres’ focus was to ensure that the young man at the center of the party received his highlight moment, whatever he chose to do.

“Are you ignoring me to get a rise out of me?” Ferres asked.

“No,” I said.  “I’m ignoring you because my attention is elsewhere.  The thing about having a shoddy memory is that I can put a book down and pick it up later and read it as if I’d never read it before.  Every time I read through these, I pick up something new.”

“I revise them regularly.  That might play a part.”

“It might,” I agreed.  I put the booklet down, letting it fall to the table with a slap of paper on wood.

Now that my attention was fully on her, Ferres seemed oddly composed.

She really wanted to push me on this, to ask about Betty, but she didn’t want to give up the appearance of power by asking a question she knew full well I wasn’t going to answer.  It would be groveling.

Still, I’d expected to see more weakness in her, a glimmer of something.

Why the rush through morning preparations then?  Why hurry through her tasks with other students if she wasn’t hurrying to any place in particular?  I’d expected a more heated confrontation, one where she might even have raised her voice at me.

“It started as something far smaller,” Ferres said.  “One scene, a speaking lion for a young girl who loved lions.  Child’s play, in both senses of the word.  But every prominent aristocrat wanted to top the last, grander displays, more involvement.  I received funding for my Academies and I was able to pursue the kind of work I wanted to do most.”

“At the expense of children,” I said, my voice low, “And let’s not pretend all of the children you bought off the Block were volunteers, whatever you told your students.”

“Very few were, I imagine.”

“Means to an end?”

“If the young master and his friends are bloodthirsty or if their military fathers egg them on, then they might call for blood and be applauded for it, and that will be the evening.  But it’s by no means a sure thing.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sure, whatever.”

“You don’t have to listen to me.  If you don’t like my answer, you’re in a position of power over me.  You could tell me to change my stance, you could threaten me or hurt me for saying something you disagree with.  Whatever you imagine.”

“I’m hardly going to do that,” I said.

“You’ve done it countless times over the past several weeks,” she said.

“Indirect hurt,” I said.  “I feel like actively slapping you or putting you in screws is a little bit too brutish for me.”

“Such a gentleman,” she said, and there was enough venom in those three words that some people on the other end of the room caught it and glanced our way.

“All of this can end, all you have to do is tell Jessie and I how to contact certain prominent professors and nobles, and help us keep abreast of any changes or developments in the big picture.  We’ll handle the rest.”

“Oh, I’ve little doubt you will, young sir,” she said.  “But the moment I tell you that, then I cease being useful to you.  You’ll infect my Academy with black wood and ships won’t even come to port if they think their hulls might suffer.  I’ll be one step among a dozen that see you do grievous damage to the Academy.”

“You’ll fall on the sword, suffer for the good of Academy and Crown?”

“I’ll endure,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.  “You keep saying that.”

She smiled.

Again, that look.  The calm in the face of the storm, from someone with very little to reach out and grab hold of.  I’d pushed her and I’d taken away a vital handhold, very possibly her favorite student of the now, and as weary as she was, her emotions frayed, she wasn’t faltering.

She should have been given more pause by this.  It was concerning, because she should have come across as more unsteady.  But something about her demeanor in this moment made me think that yes, I’d been right that she was fond of her student Betty.  Yes, this had bothered her.  Yet I harbored a suspicion that if I made her entire Academy and every soul in it disappear, she would still hold fast.

I was beginning to grow suspicious of why, now.

“Itsy Bitsy Spider needs his grafts,” she said.  “If you wanted, you could exert your power, twist my arm, and spare him the procedure.”

“I do want,” I said.

“But?” she asked.

“No but,” I said.  “Spare him.  Postpone it.”

Again, she smiled slightly.

Why was this a win in her book?  People would wonder, and wondering with the right voices finding the right ear would unspool everything for Jessie and I.  It was Jessie and I making a play against her and seeing her refuse to budge, while she made a miniscule power play and she made me concede ground.

A small price if it helped Itsy Bitsy.  I’d have to let others slide.  I knew that.  It would blow our cover and the whole ruse if we refused all operations and activities on Ferres’ part.

But right now I wanted to focus on Ferres and the current dilemma.

“Did someone mess up drug doses?” I heard the question from the far end of the room.

It was Leland.

“Why do you ask?” Ferres asked, stepping away from me and the table with the scripts.

“The cast members are dead quiet,” Leland said.  “I thought they had actually died, but they’re awake, they’re at the cell doors, and they’re just watching while I get them water.”

“Leave it be,” I said, under my breath.

I didn’t miss the fractional pause before Ferres replied to Leland, saying, “Leave it be.  I’ll check on them shortly.”

“It’s creepy,” Leland said.

“Focus on the nightmare, Leland,” Ferres said.  “I expect more, better answers from you than from your partner in crime, who should be coming back with at least three ideas.”

“Yes, Professor.”

Betty’s kidnapping had barely made Ferres miss a step.

Ferres grew distracted with the activities of the others, who were working on the nightmare and the giant.  She was in the middle of the room and in Jessie’s earshot, so I deemed the situation calm enough to exchange words with Jessie.

“She’s got something,” I said.

“Something?” Jessie asked.

“Ferres.  She’s got a card up her sleeve.  It’s the only thing I can think of that accounts for just how hard she is to crack.  I’m trying to play her as if she’s got only a few handholds left and she’s acting like she’s fine.”

“She could be very good at lying.”

“Or she’s got a card,” I said.  “Both are equally worrying.”

“What card could she possibly have that she wouldn’t have already played?” Jessie asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But if you’ll have a look-see…”

I turned to look through the glass at the stairs.  I’d noticed the people and the general commotion.

“…our card is playing out now.”

It was Wilbert, returning from his excursion to the girl’s dormitory.

Jessie and I hung at the periphery of the group as they approached.  Wilbert’s expression was severe.

“She left,” Wilbert said.  “She drugged her roommate to avoid any commotion, packed her things, and left in the dead of night.”

“Into the wasteland?” Ferres asked.

“By one of the postal ships,” Wilbert said.  “We don’t know how she got on, but she seemed confident she could if she needed to, going by the letter.”

“Do you have it?” Ferres asked.

Wilbert handed it over.

“What a shame,” the Professor said.  “A damn shame, with the worst possible timing.”

The effect was more profound on the other favored students than it was on Ferres.  Jessie and I stood close to one another, and we watched as she spoke, we watched her move, and we even saw her eyes grow moist.  Ferres as the warm individual.  Unlike Helen, I fully expected that the warm, living, emotional face was the real one, the cold persona the mask.

But emotions weren’t a weakness, not always.  Ferres wasn’t budging at all, and it was proving to be her best asset.

“They want to talk to you in the post area,” Wilbert said.

There we go, I thought.

“I’ll see to that.  Talk with Leland, get your plan straight.  I expect a thought out plan by the time I’m back.”

“I’ll come,” I decided.  My speaking drew several glares of the hostile ‘we didn’t ask’ variety.  I returned them with a smug smile.

The stairwell was full as students hurried to their morning classes.  I spotted Evette, and I saw Lillian again.  I saw a glimpse of Mauer, and I saw a multitude of friendly faces.  Students and workers seeded here and there.

“You’ve taken over the post system?” the professor asked.  “Is the plan to send poisoned envelopes to major figures?”

I remained silent, walking with her.

We were in the central building of the Academy, the core of the reclining woman’s torso.  The Academy’s post office was a short trip.

Getting service once we were there, even with one half of ‘we’ being the Professor, well, that was a different story.  We had to wait for the last of the mail to be hauled up by stitched crews and the one post worker on duty.

Rather than shove paper forms and the like for Professor Ferres to sign, the post worker simply opened the side gate and let us into the back.  The benefits of access.

I closed the door behind me as I stood in the entryway to the mail room.  Parcels and stacks of mail were already partially sorted, and stitched workers picked through mail before deciding where it was supposed to go.

It was a tableau of sorts, a scene where laborers worked and gave the illusion that they were doing something that they had been doing five minutes ago and would be doing every five minutes for years to come, if they were given a chance.  They sorted mail, questioned obstacles, and played it safe.

Sitting in one corner was the cage.  A young lady slept a drugged dream within it, her face a touch swollen.

“Is that supposed to be Betty?” the headmistress asked.

“We changed her hair and face,” I said.  “It wouldn’t do if the others recognized her.”

“Others?” Ferres asked.

“Your favored students.  Betty’s old colleagues,” I said.  “You had a fit of inspiration, didn’t you?  You’ll tell them you’re adding a new character to your performance.”

I wasn’t wholly sure, but I saw the first real crack in Ferres’ performance at that.  She covered it up well, but doing so necessitated looking away from me, hiding her expression for a moment.

“She likes fairies,” I said.  “Possible prey for the nightmare or the wolf, do you think?  Or for a smashing by a giant, for a visceral impact.”

I saw Ferres shake her head slightly.

“Don’t worry, Professor,” I said.  “Remember what you said.  The audience might call for blood, but that’s by no means a sure thing.  She could be fine.”

The crack ran deeper.

I saw the defeat reach her shoulders, as the strength in them subsided.  I wasn’t sure if she had properly let her guard down or surrendered a stray thought while she’d been our captive.  The momentary slump marked an occasion where I knew I had her.

Why then did I still feel she had a strategy to play?  One that she was so determined to hold back that she would surrender before she would use it?  An ominous backdrop for our ploy coming together.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.4

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I missed the rain.  Springtime in Radham had always been when the rain came down hardest, and there was something about letting it wash over me, over face and through hair, that really appealed to me.  It was almost the inverse of Wyvern, reaching inside of me to the very core of me and polluting me in a way that was as artificial as rain was natural.

Well, most rain.

A strong, cold wind blew past the dormitory window, only a portion of it actually passing inside.  I stood off to one side, using one eye to watch the students who were huddled in the dim dormitory hallway as I kept another eye on the window itself.  The wind that blew past my cigarette made the smoke roll off it in a thin horizontal line, everything beyond was pitch darkness.  It wasn’t overcast, but there was no moon.  I could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs far below.  I could smell the ocean.

Mabel approached me.

I tapped my box of cigarettes against my leg and held it out toward her.

“No thank you,” she said.

I changed the angle and tapped the box with a finger to have the cigarette disappear back inside.  “Want to share this one?”

“My dad would kill me if he knew,” she said.

Which was a yes.  I handed it over, turning my head toward the window to exhale.

She took one draw and handed it back.

“Not your usual brand,” she said.

“They make this one in-house.  Artsy fartsy students, spending all day dressed in white uniforms while following strict rules about sterility, maintenance, schedule, authority.  Some fit that, but others need to… breathe something that isn’t Academy air.”

“I’ve seen that group.  They dress civilian when they’re off the clock, listen to music, congregate in the area of the dormitories?”

I nodded.  I offered her the cigarette again.  Her arms were folded, and she raised a hand a little, refusing me.

“Are they like Bea’s group?” Mabel asked.

“No,” I said.  “They’re rule-followers more than rule-breakers.  I think they just evolved as an adaptation to the Academy.  Some people can go all-in on the Academy thing, and that’s their identity.  Others form a kind of two-headed identity, one face for Academy and the other for themselves.  Their self-identity doesn’t take away from their Academy identity.”

“Hm.  I think I was pretty all-in.  I don’t know if I would have stayed that way.  I didn’t know what to do with life except work harder,” Mabel said.  “Life would get in the way, and then I’d crumble.  I’d piece myself together in time for the next semester.  It got easier when I had an excuse to not go home for the mid-year and end-year breaks.”

“After you got to Beattle, I assume.”

“Yeah,” Mabel said.  “I could say I only had a week and a half off for each of the breaks, it took two days to travel out, two days to travel back.  It didn’t leave a lot of time.  Thankfully.”

“Did he visit?” I asked.  The sheriff.  Mabel’s dad.

“Some,” she said.  She looked down at my cigarette.  “Gim- me.”

I was already passing it over.

“Reading my mind,” she said.

“Not so much,” I said.

“You’re a step ahead of everyone.”

“Again, not so much,” I said.  “With Jessie, Helen, sure.  I know how they think.  The other Lambs, who you met briefly?  Same sort of thing.  More Mary and Lillian than Ashton, mind you.  But Ashton isn’t hard to figure out.”

“And me?”

“I know the key points.  My memory isn’t good- you know my memory isn’t good.  I forget things, as much as I don’t want to.  But I hold on to some things.  I don’t have enough of you to hold on to.”

I’d planned to add ‘yet’ to that last sentence, much as I’d planned the innuendo with the idea of holding onto her.  Seeing her stare out the window into the darkness, I decided against the ‘yet’, let the innuendo be on its own, without emphasis or a careful eye movement.

I continued, filling the silence, “Not analyzing you on that level.  Just paying attention.  I’m on edge, ready to pull a gun if I have to, so it shouldn’t be odd I can move a second faster to pass it to you.”

I’d left the statement open for further input, a chance for her to rebut, or to build on what I’d said.

She wasn’t responding, and she was taking her time with my cigarette.  Lost in thought.

“Want to come over tonight?” I asked.  “It’s gotta be about three in the morning right now.  Your choice if we just make it high quality sleep, all together, or if we just do without sleep altogether.”

“I’m not so comfortable doing that,” she said.

“If it’s about the old woman in the bathtub,” I said.  “We could put her to sleep with an injection, throw a sheet over her or something.”

I didn’t miss that she went straight to another puff on the cigarette after I dropped that thought.  There had been a pattern to how long she’d waited before drawing in a breath, too small a sample size to be perfect, but noticeable to anyone who paid enough attention to her.  That pattern picked up.

“Bad joke,” I said.  “Sorry.”

Now you’re reading my mind.”

“You’re clever, Mabel, you’ve got a fine eye for detail, but when it comes to flipping things around, I think anybody could tell what you’re thinking.”

“You might have too high an estimation of ‘anybody’, Sy,” Mabel said.  “It’s more about coming and going, I worry I’ll blow our cover.”

“I’m adaptable,” I said.  “As for the coming, we’d be making the most noise in the dead of night, I don’t think we’d be overheard, especially with the quality of the construction over there.  As for the going, Jessie, Helen and I have done fine.  Only person to see you go is the Hag of Hackthorn, and she’s not in a position to complain.”

“All the same,” Mabel said.

Someone in the cluster of students raised a hand.  I pointed, and Mabel handed me what remained of the cigarette before hurrying over.

I needed to teach my people to walk more quietly in spaces like this.  The dormitory building was grown, all builder’s wood, and the floor wasn’t planks, but a controlled outgrowth.  It was hard to make noise when there was something approximating a bisected tree trunk underfoot, as opposed to planks that bowed under a person’s weight, and Mabel still managed to scuff the floor with her shoes.

It went back to what I’d been thinking before.  As a pair of eyes, a lookout, an investigator, a reader, she was good.  Put her to task, she did good work.  Just about tops.  But as the person watched, as the investigated, the read, the person being worked on?  Room for growth.

I wondered if I was just thinking along those lines because I wanted to find fault.

She’d left me with barely anything of my cigarette.  I took one last pull to finish it off, then spat it out the window.

As a point of pride, I moved across the floor without a sound, being sure to position myself so I wouldn’t interfere too much with the amount of light in the hallway.  The human eye was sensitive, and even the slightest of changes in light level could trip prey instincts.

One of the people gathered at the door was a young male student, one of Mabel’s from the Green Team, or whatever they were calling themselves this week.  He’d started out as one of Bea’s, and against all odds, he’d become more of a proper and dedicated student now that he’d left the Academy than he’d been when he’d been part of it.

I was pretty sure he was sweet on Mabel, too.  Entirely fair.  She was neat.

That had absolutely nothing to do with the perverse pleasure I felt when my silent appearance made him jump.

There were five of them gathered.  Jessie sat with her back to the wall, sleeping in the middle of a mission.  The three students who were kneeling at the door were wearing quarantine masks.  One held a hose and a bladder that he palpated, another held something to the gap beneath the door while making sure the hose stayed in place, and the third was the fellow I’d just spooked.  He was mixing a chemical that was feeding into a ‘Y’ shaped join in the hose, bladder, feed assembly.  Mabel checked the levels, taking a drop of the mixture into a vial, which she shook before checking the color as best as she could by the dim light.

She gestured for the go-ahead.  Her subordinate turned the key that connected the fluid hose to the bladder.

At that same moment, a doorknob rattled down the hall, the door cracking open.  The cluster of students all froze, and I moved.

I crossed the hallway, darting to the door, staying low to the ground.  As the person within stepped out, I pressed a knife to their throat.

I took stock of them.  Him.  He looked to be a rather rough-edged young man, gangly, his hair long enough that oil and wax didn’t serve to keep it all in order.  He wore an undershirt and slacks, and had a proper shirt slung over one shoulder.  His eyes went wide as he realized what the knife was.

“I-”

I moved the knife, fast, the blade pressing against his lips.

Moving slowly, I reached over and closed the door as quietly as I could.

“Uh,” he whispered.

“Shhh,” I said.  “Quiet now.  You just had a bit of bad luck, is all.”

“Uh.”

I pressed the knife against his lips, harder, until I sensed that any further pressure would break skin.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ll come for a walk with me, while these guys do what they’re doing.  Then you’ll disappear.  Maybe for a little while, maybe for good.  It depends how much you cooperate.  How quiet you are.  Understand?”

I gave him my best reassuring smile.

Unwilling to nod and slice his lips open, unwilling to make a sound, he closed his eyes very deliberately, and then he opened them.

“Good,” I said.  I moved the knife to his throat.  “No noise now.  Come-”

“Sy,” I heard the whisper behind me.

Mabel.

“He’s one of ours.”

“Is he?” I whispered back.  I looked at the guy.

“Think so.  One of Bea’s?”

The flat of the knife point rested against his throat.  My grip on the knife was light, so I could swap hands or shift my hold at a moment’s notice, and I could feel the vibrations of his pulse making the knife move.

Slowly, he nodded.

I pulled the knife away.

“We’ve talked,” he said.

“Have we?”

“I went out with Bea after Fang did?  And we played cards in the big tent while on watch in the middle of the black woods?  I did the second shift?  Day two?”

“There were a lot of days, a lot of faces playing cards,” I said.  “Uh, did we talk about girls?”

“No.”

“Oh.  Well… that was a less than stellar guess.  Shucks.  Now I feel like a heel.”

“I… really don’t know what to say to that,” he whispered.

“Come on,” I said.

We joined the others.  The palpating of the bladder had resumed, and a little mixer or fan whirred at the ‘Y’-shaped connector.

“What were you doing here anyway?” I asked.  “It’s the girl’s dormitory.”

The young fellow looked startled at the question.  Then, slowly, a smile spread across his face.

“Right,” I said.  “Good night?”

His smile widened.  He had the decency to look sheepish.

“Almost ready,” Mabel said.  “I’m going to get clear.  Unless you want to let Jessie keep sleeping.”

“We need her,” I said.

“Then I’ll get clear.  Come on, Happy.”

Happy.  Right.

We’d brought a blanket and several canvas bags, and I’d draped the blanket over Jessie while everything got underway.  Supplies had been left on and around her.

I reached over and touched the underside of her chin, lifting it.

“If you were anyone but Sy, I’d have stuck you with a knife by now,” she said, as she woke.

I put the gas mask on her face for her, fixing everything in place.

“I can get away with a lot,” I said.  I set the blanket aside, then took her hands.  I hauled her to her feet.  Right at the last second, I pulled her off balance, making like I was going to drop her.

I caught her, hand at the small of her back, and flourished, the pair of us every bit the ballroom dancers.

Jessie drew her knife and made like she was going to stab me.  She stopped just shy of actually doing it.  “Not that much.  Not when I’ve just woken up.”

I grinned.

Mabel glanced back at us, as did Happy.  The others were pulling equipment aside.  The wadding at the base of the door was pulled away, and I could see the wisps of vapor.

I popped the door lock, which was of the mass-manufactured sort that assembly lines of stitched worked on, so easy to break that it really was there for show and propriety.

There were two students to a room.  Betty had divided the room up with a black-skinned girl who slept in a bed on the far side of the room, and from the looks of it, it really was more of a division than a sharing of the space.  There wasn’t a line of chalk or paint drawn down the center of the room, but it was absolutely clear which side of the room was Betty’s.  The gas was pea-soup thick, one student pulled a towel down from where it hung on the back of the door to keep more vapor from leaking into the hallway, and the other two looked to me for an a-okay for permission to illuminate the room.

“The gas isn’t flammable, right?” I asked.

“It’ll dampen the flames, but won’t put them out.”

I nodded.

The three students in the quarantine suits gathered the blanket, and they worked on rolling up Betty in the thing.  Jessie and I gathered the canvas bags and began methodically working through Betty’s space.  I packed up the clothes, three Academy uniforms with seven smocks, five days worth of non-Academy clothing that I suspected she hadn’t worn much, a seemingly disproportionately large number of underthings, and an even more disproportionate number of socks.  I swept all the jewelry into the bag.

Jessie worked through the bookcase.  She picked the books with cracked spines and wear and left the more pristine ones.  We worked swiftly to ensure the bags were neatly packed.  It was only enough possessions to fill half of a room and one small closet.

In the thick fog, it was the little personal touches that were easiest to miss.  A doodle from a notebook stuck between wall and windowframe, so it was close to the pillow while she slept.  Similar ones along her closet door, running from top to bottom.  Quotes of the motivational sort, drawings, cryptic research thoughts that had probably struck late at night and needed to be written down lest they be forgotten.

As her bundled form was carried out of the room, I moved my attention to the bed.

Betty here was a vague and flowery narrative in a number of senses.  She’d told herself stories about how the work she was doing was justified, but there were themes running through all of this.  A fantasy in the notes she wrote to herself.  ‘Create beauty’.  The fact that three out of four doodles were of fairies.

I lifted up the mattress, searching.  I reached into spaces between bed and bookshelf, searched under the bed, and then pulled out drawers, checking that nothing was stuck beneath and that there were no secret compartments.

“Sy,” Jessie said.  She held up the diary I’d been looking for.  Sitting on the bookshelf, within the folds of a larger book sleeve with no book.

If that had been found, it would have raised questions.

We erased the existence of Betty as much as we could.  I did a final sweep while Jessie stood at the desk, using Betty’s stationary, pen, and handwriting to pen out a letter.

“Going down to the city, don’t look for me?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “A post-boat leaves tonight.  She’s hitching a ride.”

“I worry about that,” I said.  “There’s a reason we didn’t boat in.  There’s security.  Oversight.”

“And Betty is determined and well connected.  We point the direction, people won’t know where she is, and they’ll have to assume she left by boat.”

I winced.

“You don’t think it’ll work?”

“It might.  I just worry about…”

I used my hands to gesture.  I tried to sketch out a shape.

“Diamond with a wizard hat?”

“There’s too many edges, too many angles others can come at it from.”

“There aren’t many places for her to go, Sy.  The boat timing works.  Anything else and they might look for her and realize she isn’t anywhere to be found.  It’s not like she’s going to hike the wasteland and black woods.”

“They won’t be able to verify with the boat?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “Not quickly enough to matter.”

“Then what’s the motivation?”

“Us.  You and me.  She doesn’t like what this has become, she’s mad at the professor.  She’s questioning the sheer number of rural folk and strangers who’ve been escorted through the black wood and allowed to take refuge at the foot of Hackthorn.”

“It’s going to draw attention to us.”

“We’re close,” Jessie said.  “Things are coming together.”

I cracked the window open so the gas could escape.  I checked the room one more time, walked over to Betty’s roommate, and checked the girl’s breathing and pulse.

Sleeping.

“You’re in a rush, Jessie,” I said.

“Yeah, Sy.  I worry about how much time we have.”

She means to say she worries how much time she has.

Or maybe she really does mean to say how much time we have.  As a pair.

“I just don’t want to cut corners and have things fall through at the last moment.”

“Yeah,” she said.

A smile touched my face, and I heard a sound from Jessie, through her mask.  A short laugh.

The same thought had hit us both at the same moment.  The role reversal.  Jessie being reckless, me being the rational one.

We bent down, and we collected the bags that hadn’t already been carried out by the others.

“And Betty’s gone,” I whispered, closing the door.

There was a larger group waiting for us outside.  We passed the heavy bags of books and clothes to others.

“Back to our rooms?” the Treasurer asked.  Even in the gloom, I could see that he was doing better.  He’d been solid, stoic, a reliable member of the team with a good head on his shoulders, especially when it came to his field of specialty, but seeing him now?  He’d filled out, he stood taller, and he looked more ready to take on the world.

Davis had perhaps gone in the other direction, but it wasn’t wholly bad.  He’d always been a pair with Valentina, and Valentina had moved on, alongside a small handful of others.  The showing and the whole situation with Neph and the black wood had done a lot to earn the faith of our people.  The change to Davis resembled someone who had gone through hard work and come out of it without an ounce of fat on him, but on a spiritual level.

Mabel had left with the others.

I’d wanted to finish my conversation with her.

“Not back to our rooms, I’m thinking,” Davis said.  “Not when everyone’s active and around.”

“No,” I agreed.  “There are things to do.”

I let Jessie do the gesture, and I watched as our people moved in response.  A dozen of our guys and gals who weren’t already seeded throughout the Academy.

The buildings of Hackthorn were like the fingers of a hand that held the great reclining woman up.  In the moonless night, she scintillated, countless labs and chambers with lamps and candles within now glowing orange, the light scattered among leaves and foliage that bristled along her skin.

At the base of that hand, however, the landscape was uneven.  The place wanted to be a city, but no two buildings were really seated on the same section of flat earth.  Even some buildings were staggered, the foundation split across two to four levels.

It did its darndest to be a proper settlement, but it was an individual, separate beast.  It served more as a spot of ugliness to offset the beauty and art of Hackthorn’s buildings and reclining woman than it did any other purpose.

All the roads were winding, stores remained open late, and it seemed like every other building was a place for students to meet for drink or food.  Like the smoking students, it was a way for students to breathe and escape the pressure.  It wasn’t a thing that a lot of Academies had.

It was presently late enough that half of those buildings had closed or were in the process of closing.  We walked past several places where windows were being shuttered and containers rinsed out outside, and we scarcely got a second glance.

The cafe we stopped at was closed.  I approached the door and knocked.

Shirley, Pierre, and a bulk of the refugees from the city where Neph had died were gathered within.  They sat at benches and tables and formed a cluster, and most of the light within came from the fires burning in the kitchen and at the other end of the building, at the end of the cafe’s dining area.

“You grace us with your presence,” a fat man said, with a fair bit of irony to the use of ‘grace’.

“Few are more graceful than we,” I said, holding Jessie’s hand, holding it up.

“How are we doing on the ground level?” Jessie asked.

Straight to business.

“We’re doing quite well,” Pierre said.  With the abundance of focus on the cosmetic, someone had tended to his head, and he looked far better.  Still ghoulish, but better.

“Are we seeded?” I asked.

“We’re seeded on the ground,” Pierre said.

I rummaged through the things I still had with me, and I found a small bag.

“Talk to me about distribution,” Jessie said.  “Military?”

“They wanted more bodies, what with things on the horizon,” the fat man said.  “We weren’t able to get many in, but we got some in.  Not going to have a regiment under your control if something goes south, but you could get information, or keys to the right locked door.”

“That might give us the control over weapons we need,” I said.  “Given timing and everything else.”

I brought the bag to Shirley, who stood in the threshhold between the dining area of the cafe and the kitchen.

“Politics?” Jessie asked.

“The groundskeeper’s stitched had an unfortunate accident, went to pieces,” the fat man said.  “He was forced to hire someone.  Pretty young lady who is entirely loyal to us.”

The groundskeeper, because having an actual mayor didn’t make sense, given the local dynamic.

“That’s thin, as seeds go,” I said.  Shirley had undone the bag.  It was a bit redundant, given that she was running this cafe, but I’d included some pastries, a trinket, and a little bottle of non-alcoholic blackberry cider that Jessie had said Shirley adored.

Shirley gave me a kiss on the forehead for that one.

Not that a little gesture like this was anything close to what I owed her.

“It’s thin, but they aren’t happy about all of us moving in and taking up space.  They don’t want to give us work.  I’m proud of that one,” the fat man said.

He had a tone of belligerence that suggested he was drunk, when he actually wasn’t drunk at all.  He was just loud and perhaps a little wanting when it came to inhibitions and delicacy.

“Factories, labor?” Jessie asked.

“We’ve got a lot going on.  They were happy to have the extra hands.  They stored a lot of lumber in advance of the black wood coming in.  Now they’re processing it.”

“Good,” Jessie said.  “Then, in case this boils down to a siege, we should talk food.”

“We’ve got tabs on the food,” Pierre said, speaking softly.  He clasped his hands in front of him.  “We made that a priority.”

“Good man,” I said, voice soft.  Pierre shot me a salute.

“If we can control that and not lose it when push comes to shove, we can win in the long run,” Jessie said.  “I’d rather not have it come to the long run, but I do like having that security.”

She was so focused on time.  It pained me a little.

“Then,” I said.  “Let’s talk about food in a different sense.  Let’s say there was an event.  Let’s say important people came.  Festival, celebration, a need to please.  If the high cuisine came in, needing to be stored, would we have a stranglehold on that as well?”

“I think we would,” Pierre said.

“Good,” I said.  “Then I think we’re moving forward nicely.”

“Are you thinking of the young master’s celebration?” Jessie asked.

“No,” I said.  I drummed my fingers on the table for a moment.  “No, I’m thinking of bigger fish.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.3

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“If you want it, you have to tell me.  Water,” I said.  I moved my hand, three fingers extended, in a horizontal direction.

Poll Parrot looked down at his wings.  No hands to gesture with.  I waited, expectant, as he moved his wings.

Finally, he extended a wing, twisted so only three of the pinion feathers at the tip extended.  He swiped it sideways.

I smiled, and he smiled back in a nervous way.  I gave him a little salute and backed away from the bars, saying, “Give me a moment.”

There was a sink at the far end of the little alley of cells.  I headed to it, glancing and paying attention to each of the experiments along the way.  Little Bo Peep got my attention, palm out, hand toward me.

She did the gesture for water, then touched her mouth.  Her facial construction was different, with a pronounced groove of the philtrum at her upper lip, a faint darker coloration there and at her upper lip.  Her hair was a shaggy growth of wool.

“Coming right up,” I said.

I rinsed and filled two cups.  Helen was just off to my right, reaching through the bars and playing some finger game with one of the smaller ones.

Bo Peep took her cup, then paused before gesturing.  Aggression.  Then she pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead, wincing.

“Headache?” I asked.

Bo Peep managed to nod at me while drinking from her cup.  Then she moved her hand.  Three fingers together, pointed up, she waggled her hand as she shook the tower to pieces.

It wasn’t the way a Lamb would’ve done it, but I quite liked it.

Given a chance, people were damned good at finding ways to communicate.

“Thinking, thought, brains.  Gone to ruin.  You can’t think clearly?”

She nodded.  She raised three fingers, separate this time.

“Can’t see clearly?  Senses fuzzy?”

She nodded.

“That’ll be the drugs.  Just like the ones they used to keep you from speaking or making noise.  When they stop experimenting on you and start getting you to practice, they’ll cut back on the drugs.  They might give you others, if they need you to be able to speak so you can act or sing, or to make you more compliant.”

She made the gesture for thinking, except she pointed it down, reversing it, and she made a confused face.

“What confused you?”  She couldn’t answer, so I tried the scattershot approach.  “Did I get something wrong?  Was it the mention of practice?  The drugs?  Do you want to know what the other drugs are?  The singing?  Making you compliant-”

At that last bit, she gestured again.  She used the other hand to drink more, greedily gulping water down, one eye watching me.

“Compliant.  It means obedient, doing what they want.”

The reversed ‘tower’ of three fingers flipped up.  Understood.

I reached through the bars and gave the three fingers a squeeze.  “Need anything else?”

She shook her head.  The mop of white wool flew left and right.

“Alright,” I said.  “Give me the glass back, or people will wonder how you got it.

She gave me the glass.  As I turned away, she reached for and grabbed my sleeve.

“Hm?”

She gestured.  Alert.  You.  Body.  Mind.  Alert.

The look in her eyes was dead serious.

I reached through the bars and brushed my hand down the bangs of her mop of hair and the front of her face.  “Stop fussing.  I’ll be fine.”

Fingers brushed down my sleeve and fingers as I withdrew my arm.  Prolonging contact.

Not because of any attraction, I was pretty sure.

Just a desire for a friendly face to stay a little bit longer.

I headed for Poll with his glass of water.  Mentally, I made a note that I would have to be careful, lest I develop a fondness or soft spot for any of them.  Bo Peep was a frontrunner, and the stylistic tie didn’t help.  I’d already run into that snag with Mary.

I put my hand and the other cup through the bars for Poll Parrot, and tipped the cup back for him so he could drink.

He snorted, and I moved the cup away.

Hand made a blade, I held it up at my sternum.  “Means I’ve heard you, I recognize you, I understand, or thank you.”

He did his best with his wing-arms.  He was like Avis in her outfit, but without the ability to lose the outfit, no hands hidden in the rigging of his wings.  Better to have him do his best and if all went according to plan, perhaps there would be an opportunity to teach him tap code later.

“Good lad,” I said.  I turned, showing others in earshot the gesture.

I heard Helen speak, and I saw her making the same gesture.  Passing it on to others who couldn’t see me, closer to the end of the hall.

He curled his wing, setting his jaw.  It was hard to track what I’d taught them, but I knew that I had taught them the core gestures that the Lambs had used to generate all of the rest.  It was fairly simple to work out what gesture he was attempting by process of elimination.

“That might not be so clear to the others.  Try your foot,” I said.

He shifted his weight to one foot.  He clenched his talon in a particular way.  Aggression, pain, force.

“Soon,” I said, echoing my statement earlier.  “And honestly?  I don’t plan to use you guys to fight.  I don’t want a battle in that sense.  Even in the best case scenario, if I had ninety percent control over the situation, I don’t know if you’ll be in cages, drugged, fresh from surgeries, or whatever else.  Okay?”

He didn’t look happy at that.  He clenched his talon again.  He struck at his chest with the leading edge of his wing, what I might otherwise have called his forearm.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  “Believe me, I know.”

He had been altered to be beautiful, and he was.  The ruby red and indigo feathers only accentuated the image.  He was twelve and he was very much an idealization of a boy his age.  If Lillian and Jamie had found something attractive in me when I was younger, then it was present in Poll.  He was fine boned and athletic, and could have been a ballet dancer in another course of events, and all of that stood in stark contrast to how very angry he was.

If I hadn’t grown up with equal parts beauty and bloodthirst, I might have been given pause by the image.

There was a stirring at the end of the hall closest to the entryway.  Rustling of arms against bars, movement, scuffs and light bangs.

“Want to help?” I asked Poll.

He nodded.

“Can I throw water at you?” I asked, showing him the cup.

He paused, then nodded.

I smiled, and I allowed my entire bearing to change.  I raised my chin, and I made the aggression gesture, hard, before throwing the water in his face.

Then I laughed, and it was a mocking, hard laughter.

I saw the shock on his face as he backed away, there was confusion and momentary hurt that hurt me in equal measure just for seeing it.  Then his eyes moved to my hand, which was still gesturing.

Feathers rustled, and he threw himself forward, kicking the bars, hard.

I’d pulled away just in time.  I continued laughing.

Now that I’d changed my position, I could see the approaching person the other prisoners had been reacting to.  One of Ferres’ favored students.  Betty, the girl of Ferres’ group, or she had been before Jessie turned up.  I turned to her with a smile on my face.

She wore a boy’s haircut, her hair considerably shorter than my own, combed in a part, but she wore makeup and white pearl earrings to match her Academy blazer and skirt.  Bold, modern, attractive, and very, very dangerous.

Poll backed away, then repeated the attack, hurling himself forward, kicking the bars with one taloned foot.

“Stop!” Betty barked out an order to Poll.  “You’re accomplishing nothing, and you’ll only hurt yourself.”

Poll stood there, and the anger I’d seen moments before was out in full force.  He panted, glaring, lines standing out in his neck, feathers bristling.  One of his talons clenched, the talon-tips digging at the floor of his cell.  His face dripped.

On seeing the young lady, Poll’s face contorted in what should have been a scream.  I could only barely hear the strangled squeak from his throat.

“Stop now, Poll,” the student said.  “You know the consequences.”

Poll stopped, still heaving for breath.  He coughed, having hurt himself in his attempt to scream, and he turned away, sitting down very forcefully on the floor of his cell.

“What are you even doing here?” Betty addressed me.

“I wanted to see how the sausage gets made,” I said, smirking.  “Call it morbid curiosity.”

“You’ve agitated them,” Betty.

“Only having a little fun,” I said.

“If your interference leads to problems with training them, it’s going to cause problems for everyone,” she said.  “It’s why access is supposed to be restricted.”

“If they’re cranky then give them more drugs,” I said.

“It’s not that simple.  We’re weaning them off for training in the coming week.”

“You’re clever,” I said.  I sauntered a bit as I approached Betty.  I gave her the most patronizing pat on the cheek as I could manage, “You’ll figure it out.”

She reached up to seize my wrist.

My condescending smile didn’t budge.

“You’re not that big,” she said.

“I’m big enough that I’m over here and the Hag of Hackthorn isn’t dragging me out herself,” I said.  “Like she said, politics.”

Her hand had tightened on my wrist when I said ‘hag’.  She was wholly in the professor’s corner.

“I can play that card too,” she said.  “My father is Harry Washburn.”

I moved my face closer to hers.  “I.  Don’t.  Care.”

“You should,” she said.  She was steeling herself now that I was invading her personal space again.  Her rebuttal didn’t have as much force behind it as it should have.

“Do you not know how to deal with someone who doesn’t shit their pants when you mention daddy, Bets?  Because that name drop might end a conversation with some commoner student, but I’m willing to carry that conversation to a proper conclusion.”

“There’s no conversation to be had,” she said.  She let go of my wrist, pushing my hand away.  “And there’s no conclusion.”

“You’ve been queen of every clique, you’re the top student type.  So tell me, why aren’t you attending one of the better schools, hm?”

“I chose this school.”

“Ah, so you felt inadequate elsewhere?  Did you have a scare somewhere along the line?”

The faintest of flinches.

I smiled.  “Better to be big fish of a medium-sized pond rather than risk attending at the Capitol proper and not measuring up.”

“You’re an embarrassment to the aristocracy,” she said.

There’s an insight into how your mind works,” I said.  “I say ‘not measuring up’ and you jump straight to embarrassment.  Is daddy embarrassed of you?  Come on, Bets.  Do you really think he’d put any effort in at all if he got a nice pleading letter from you?  How likely is it really that he makes the three day trip, hops on a boat and passes through the asshole of the reclining lady of Hackthorn?”

That might have struck too close to home, right there.  It was a cheap shot, really.  The vast majority of youths who were away from home and out of contact with mom and dad weren’t one hundred percent sure of their parents’ love.  Betty didn’t give me the impression of someone in the minority.

But there was a problem with the cheap shot that hit close to home.  Home was home, a place someone lived.  It was the familiar, and very often people were comfortable there, even if it wasn’t pretty or tidy.

“Listen,” she said, asserting herself in spite of everything I’d said, “You shouldn’t be here.”

Returning to the central argument.  She had the sense to do that, and avoid letting me drive things further away.  “And you’re here to escort me out.”

“No,” she said.  “No, you shouldn’t be here, in this Academy, in Professor Ferres’ classes, watching over your fiancee to make sure your family’s money is being well spent, throwing your weight around.”

Ah.

“If you stick to that mindset, you’ll find yourself floundering when you leave the Academy, if you don’t already struggle in that world, Betty.  The constraints of should limit only those who allow themselves to be limited by them.”

I paced as I talked, and in the doing, I was able to look down the length of the row of cells.  Helen was no longer at the end of the hall.  The door there was too obvious for her to have used.

“Tradition exists for a reason,” Betty said.

Helen’s absence was concerning.  Had she not been real?  If she wasn’t real, that meant I needed to get things in order for the grey coats.  It meant other things, but I didn’t want to touch on them.

“Hypocritical, that,” I said, absently, my mind not wholly on the argument.

“Hyp- what?”

“People are happy to push for tradition and forget what came before.  It was once traditional for violence to be the be-all and end-all.  It was once tradition for slavery to be commonplace, and for every man to face the possibility of being shackled.  It was once tradition, my dear hypocrite, for women to bow their heads and listen to the men, and if you wanted to stick to the shoulds and shouldn’ts, then women shouldn’t wear coats, be they white, grey, or black.”

Betty rolled her eyes.

“When it’s convenient, then?” I asked her.

“I don’t think I’ve ever hated someone as much as I hate you,” she said.  “You’re being reductionist.”

“And you’re being a hypocrite.  But by all means, cling to ‘should be’ when it serves you, and ignore it when it doesn’t.”

“The distinction is that tradition and establishment serve as a backbone.  We hold to them when they make us stronger as a whole.”

“When it’s convenient,” I said.  I extended an arm.  “Hey.  Look at this.  It used to be established that communities looked after their children, but hey, it’s convenient to imprison them, drug them, alter them.”

Them?” Betty asked, incredulous, indicating the cells.

“Hey, look at me,” I said.  I spread my hands.  “Not complaining.”

“You’re twisting things around,” Betty said.  “They volunteered.  The drugs mean they’ll forget all of this.  At worst, they’ll walk away richer with vague recollections of a fairy tale fantasy and the best party of their lives.  Everyone benefits.”

“Come on now,” I said.  “And the cells?”

“Expedience.  We can’t have children running around, especially with the drugs we pumped into them for surgery and to keep them compliant.”

“Is that what Professor Ferres tells you, or did you conjure up that particular shade of horseshit yourself?”

“It’s fact,” she said.  “Any operation looks ugly when you sneak a peek at the proceedings halfway through.  There’s no reason to expect this is any different.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t believe I’m missing time I could be spending with Professor Ferres to talk to you,” she said.  She looked at the youths in the cells, then shook her head.  “Don’t interfere with them.  Let them be.”

With that, she strode off, back to the central area of Lab One.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice softening.  I let the aristocratic bearing slip away, lowering the chin I’d been holding a notch too high.  I hoped the transition was obvious enough to the eyes watching to let on that I’d been acting.  I turned, looking at each of the prisoners I could see.  My voice was soft as I spoke, “I’m going to get you guys out of here soon.”

Three of the five prisoners nearest me made the gesture I’d shown to Poll Parrot.

Glasses still in hand, I walked over to the sink, putting them away, and I used the mirror over that sink to check my hair was fine.

I looked over at the cell where Helen had been playing with the children.

She was inside the cell.  The three smaller children were lying down, two with heads in Helen’s lap.

“Are you real?” I asked Helen.

“Yes,” Helen said.

“Wouldn’t you say that if you weren’t?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.  I’m very honest,” Helen said.

“You are, aren’t you?” I asked.  “Okay.  How did you get in there?”

“Squeezed through the bars.”

“Of course,” I said.  The bars that kept children who looked to be eight within their cell.

“I would have liked to be the aristocrat,” Helen said.  “I would have been better at it.”

“I’m really good at being a shitty person, though,” I said.

“Shhh,” Helen said.  “Let’s not talk like that around them.  They’ve been through so much.”

She ran her hand through the hair of one of the children with his head in her lap.  His eyes were open – he wasn’t sleeping.  Somehow I thought he wouldn’t sleep, that he might drink this up.

“You’ll be okay?” I asked Helen.

“I’ll visit everyone who’s hard to visit, and Jessie asked me to scout the armory.  She also asked me not to kill for fun, because people are getting concerned.”

“What things?”

“Stitched.  Experiments that make satisfying crunches when I squeeze them.”

“When I tell these kids soon, I mean it.  Can you hold back long enough if you know there’s something bigger coming up?”

“I can,” Helen said.

“Good.  Good.  And visit these guys when you’re free?  They’ll need a friendly face.”

Helen turned her cold expression my way.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

It didn’t look like she was going to get started with her day right this second, the children positioned where they were.

I turned around, gathered myself up into a more aristocratic bearing, and strode for Lab One.

I heard bone crunch and snap behind me.  Stopping in my tracks, I turned.

Blood sprayed, painting the wall of Helen’s cell.

I remained where I was, listening to the continued crunch, grind, snap of popping bone and gristle.  Here and there, there was another spatter of blood.  Some reached into the hallway by the sink and mirror.

I closed my eyes, holding my breath.

I couldn’t close my ears so easily.  I heard the wet noises, the dry noises, and the rustling, and my very agile mind filled in the blanks.

I pressed my hands to my ears, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen.  I wanted the sound to be all in my head and for the noises to continue with my hands over my ears at the same time I didn’t want to hear any of it at all.

But the sounds stopped.

I exhaled, and my breath hitched.  I opened my eyes at the same moment I pulled my hands from my ears.

Crunch.  A trickle of blood seeped into the hallway.

I blinked, and the blood was gone.  The noises stopped, replaced by Helen’s whisper-soft humming.

The children in the cells who weren’t looking at me were looking in Helen’s direction, listening.

My hands trembled, so I put them in my pockets.  I made sure my pose and posture were right, and I shot a smile at the nearest prisoners, reassuring them as best as I could.

Evette smirked at me as I walked past her.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said to her.

I left the cells behind, stepping out into Lab One.  Jessie had joined other students in working on the horse with the mane of nothing, set in a bed of scars.  When it was active and alive, the black horse’s mane and hooves would be alight with fire, its eyes glowing red.

Entirely impractical, but this was art.

“Is your curiosity sated, Simon?” Professor Ferres asked me.

Never,” I said.

“A shame you aren’t one of my students,” she said.

I smiled wider.  Careful there.

“I was about to leave to look after my prospective grey coats.  I was under the impression you wanted to join me?”

“I did,” I said.  “In fact, there was something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“You’re always particularly… engaged, after studying my work in progress,” she said.

“An operation halfway through,” I said.  That got me a glance from Betty, who had donned a mask and scrubs.

I looked over at Jessie.  “I’ll catch you later, hon?”

“When later?”

“After class,” I said.

“I’ll look forward to it,” she said.

I left her to it.  I joined the professor in heading upstairs.

“You’re tense,” I commented, once we’d reached a point in the flight of stairs where we weren’t in earshot of anyone.

“Somewhat,” the professor said.

“You’re thinking that you’re due for a meeting in your office with the prospective greys, and I would seem particularly out of place there.”

“You’re out of place here no matter the office or corridor, Sylvester,” the professor said.

“But see, I’m borrowing your power.  You could make the sky crimson over Hackthorn, and if you said it was fine, it would be accepted as fine.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

She gave a nod and a smile to a student who was descending the stairs.  Conversation paused for a moment, and then more students appeared, and the conversation came to an outright halt.

In those students, I saw a pair of mine.  They didn’t act like anything was amiss as they walked past me, but one did glance my way.

Ferres and I made our way up to the top floor.  As we reached it, I saw her bearing change, much in the same way mine had.

She was a little taller than me, and so she had been afforded a better view of the people on the top floor a moment before I had.  That, and I’d been watching her more than I’d been watching others.

The smile was gone, the geniality she’d offered her students stripped away.  She went cold in a way that wasn’t so distant from how Helen did it.  Because she was in the company of more common students, and because a heavyset man with fine clothes was there.

“Ibbot knew you once, didn’t he?” I asked.

“You know this.”

“Just asking.”

“He studied some of my ideas and even asked for my thoughts at one point while creating your friend with the injured face.  He didn’t use my thoughts, which would be helpful in the here and now, but that’s beside the point.  Yes, we’ve interacted,” Ferres said.  She sounded annoyed at the distraction.

“Yeah,” I said.

Seeing her go cold, adopting a crisper, administrator’s bearing, it was a good reminder that she was someone with deeper reserves.  She’d drawn something from less than a half hour’s time in the company of her favorite students, steeling herself, growing stronger.  She’d reached this position through merit and calculation, and none of that was gone.

I needed things from her.

We approached the aristocrat, and Ferres extended a hand.

He took it and kissed it.  I wanted to wince at that, but I would let it slide.

“Professor,” the aristocrat said.

“Good Sir,” she said, with no warmth at all.  “What brings you here?”

I could smell the touch of whiskey.

“He’s my father,” I said.

Ferres’ expression didn’t falter in the slightest.

“Son,” Otis’ sole surviving thug said, with the paternal warmth of a dissected frog.

I could smell more of the whiskey now.  I was suspicious he’d actually had some.  A method actor, it seemed.

“I see.  And what’s the reason for him being here?”

“He’s going to come along.  He’s drunk enough to barge in and both notable and eccentric enough to get away with it,” I said.

“I find myself wondering about this.”

“Say it with me, professor.  The sky is crimson.”

“The sky is crimson,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.  Then to my very confused father, I said, “Don’t worry about it.  You’ll watch her?”

“I’ll watch her,” he said.

“Is this the latest in the series of indignities you’re bestowing on me?” Ferres asked.  “Students will automatically link an old maid like myself with any man of roughly my age who I keep company with.”

“The horror,” I said.

“Is that the threat, then?  He’ll be my paramour, and my reputation is ruined, or you kill me?”

“Oh no, professor,” I said.  My eye moved through the crowd.  I saw more of mine seeded throughout.  Beattle students in Hackthorn uniforms.  The fact that students were giving the professor a respectful berth meant I could talk without too much worry of being overheard.  “Death is too merciful, isn’t it?  Father, you’re under strict instruction not to kill her, mind you.”

“Noted.  Son.”

He needed more acting lessons with Helen.

I looked up at Professor Ferres.  “If you cross me, I’ll give you Wyvern, professor.  It’s painful, you know.”

“Quite,” she said.

“But that won’t be the end of it.  I will make your mind malleable, and I will batter it with words.  I will play on your fears and your hopes, I will find your weak points, and I will create some.  Then I’ll give you a week to recover before doing it again, and again, and again.  I don’t have very long before I lose my mind entirely, and so this is my last real gambit.  If this plan fails, then I’ll spend all the time I have left ensuring you lose your mind too.”

Her expression was hard to read, but as she glanced away, she moved her shoulder, one of the sore ones from the long night in the hard tub, with minimal movement on her part.

“I will make you stupid, professor.  I will make your thoughts run in circles endlessly.  I will tear you down until you’re a whimpering child in a sixty year old woman’s body.  Pass on a message to the right person somehow, somehow avoid everything I’ve been putting into place for the past days and weeks, and I’ll still manage it.  And you’ll let me do it, with scarcely any resistance at all.”

“I’ll let you?” she asked.  Her curiosity sounded more intellectual than anything else.

“Because if I find you too hard to crack, on one particular night?  I’ll turn my attention to your co-conspirators.  To students and teachers you respect and admire.  And you’re too proud of what you’ve built here to allow me to do that for your benefit.”

She nodded, absorbing that.

“You’re going to not only tell me what I want to know about Crown and Academy, but you’re going to help me do it.”

“Perhaps,” she said.  “And I do see my prospective grey coats.  Do I have your leave to join them, Sylvester?”

I almost wanted to retort ‘perhaps’, but it was because the word had caught on my brain.

I waved her off, and she offered her arm to my father, who took it, walking with her to the grey coats.

It wasn’t a hallucination like the one I’d had near the cells, but I had a distinct mental picture of the students I’d seeded into the student body in an out-and-out war with the other students.  We were badly outnumbered, but the element of surprise was ours, our students were far more prepared to fight, and we were in the process of ensuring that the scales of that fight would be tipped in our favor, the weapons in our hands.

I really wanted that conflict to be at a time that suited us, not because someone had made a mistake or because the other side had gotten clever.

“Pierre wants to see you downstairs,” Davis said.  He’d approached me from the flanks.

I glanced at the student council president.  The student council president of Beattle, rather.  He wore a white coat.

“Problem?” I asked.

“Countless small problems.  I don’t know what exactly he wants you for.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Davis.”

“David.  Yes, what?”

“Are you free tonight?”

“Potentially.  Why?”

Because we need an in, and there’s not nearly enough time.

“I think the professor is about to have one of her favored students storm off and disappear on the next boat out.”

“I’ll gather some extra sets of hands,” he said.

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Dog Eat Dog – 18.2

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“The professor is ambulatory,” Helen commented, as Professor Ferres emerged from the bathroom.

The woman wore a towel and a black silk bathrobe.  She looked thirty, though I would have pegged her as being sixty or so, and she moved as though she was ninety, with shuffling steps and clear pain.  She had done up her hair in rollers and put on makeup, but it was an incomplete portrait.

“Did you sleep well?” I asked.

The professor ignored me.  Clutching the front of her bathrobe with one hand, she used the other to help her ease down into a kneeling position.  She pulled the drawer open, and she stopped, staring down.

“We moved in for the long term,” I said.  “It made more sense to have our clothes in the dresser.”

“I see,” she said.  She was quiet for a moment.  “Where are my clothes?”

“Linen cupboard,” I said.  “I did dust before I put them away, we can’t have you looking out of sorts.”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked like she was going to say something, and then defaulted to, “Can’t have that.”

She was slow in raising herself to a standing position.

“Your day starts at eight sharp,” Jessie said.  “Most students get their first glimpse of you by eight o’five.  You should hurry, or you’ll be behind schedule.”

“Noted,” the professor said.

She failed her first attempt at standing up, and fell to her knees, hunched over.

“If you’re shooting for pity, you won’t find any here,” I said.

“I’ve been sleeping in the bathtub night after night.  If any part of me presses too hard into a part of the bathtub, I bruise, I get sores.”

“Helen turns you,” I said.  “She should be, anyhow.”

“Every two hours,” Helen said.  “I give her a push or change her position.  I slosh water on her if she’s messy.”

I gestured, indicating Helen for the Professor’s benefit.

“Yes.  Less sores, but as you might imagine, the sleep quality leaves much to be desired.”

“Tell us what we need to know about the Academy and it’s operations and we’ll get you a cot.  You’ll get three square meals a day, and the only injections you’ll get will be the antidotes,” I said.

She turned her head, an she gave me a venomous look.  I gave her my best one back.

“I’ll endure,” she said.

“Then endure,” I said.  “And do it fast.  The clock is ticking, and if you don’t at least look like you’re in full control of your faculties and maintain business as usual, then we have to escalate.”

“As you’ve told me, again and again,” she said.  “Is this the same as what you were saying earlier?  Are you repeating yourself to try and batter down my mental defenses with repeated blows to the same points?  Are you like the Reverend Mauer or the Crooks of yesteryear?  Will you threaten me with your best attempts at hell on Earth?  Every day almost exactly the same but for the fact that it’s a little worse, hope just out of reach?”

Reaching up, she gripped the knobs of the drawers and she hauled herself halfway to her feet.  She panted.

“I don’t know the Crooks,” I told Jessie.

The professor hauled herself the rest of the way to a standing position and made her way to the cupboard with the bedsheets and towels.

Jessie supplied the answer, “Crooks as in shepherd’s crooks.  Young, clandestine religious group.  Mostly farmers.  The parents passed on religious knowledge in secret, very fervent in portraying the Academy and its doings as wrong and vile, much like the actual church in its last days.  They were found out, the parents were imprisoned, three of the worst offenders were executed.  The youths fled, spent a year staging covert strikes on the aristocracy.  They made a point of torturing anyone they got.”

“They were quite creative,” Helen said.

“They only lasted a year?”  I asked.

“Academy intervened, the Crooks made a move and failed in the face of overwhelming opposition.  The captured gave up the rest.”

“Ah,” I said.  “That’s a shame.”

“I wouldn’t say that.  They were a closer analogue to Cynthia than to Mauer.  Mauer has a mission, but the Crooks and Cynthia devolved.  No cooperation, not building anything, no beliefs.  Only wrath, rape, torture, drawing blood by any means necessary.  Even if innocents got caught in the crossfire.”

“They made pretty displays with the corpses and biblical passages,” Helen said.  “I wish I could have seen them.”

“Pretty displays or no, it sounds like it’s still a dang shame, just a shame on a different front.”

“Yes,” Jessie said.  “They were organized, they were capable, but pressing forward when you’re facing a force this daunting means having to dig deep inside yourself for more strength, more reserves.  They dug up something that was awfully ugly and in pain.”

“Why does that sound so familiar?” the professor asked.  She had found the clothes for the day in the linen cupboard.  “On an entirely unrelated topic, should I dress myself here, in plain view, so you can degrade me further, or should I step into the washroom so you don’t have to see the bedsores and bruises?”

“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Professor Ferres,” I said.

“If you intended to bait me with irony and force me to keep quiet as yet another form of pressure, then so be it.  I can endure that as well.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.  I waved her off.  “Helen, will you watch her?  Jessie and I will get ready.”

Helen nodded.

Jessie and I retired to the washroom.  We washed up quickly at the sink, scrubbing our faces and wetting our hair.  I dried my hair and then turned, hip resting against the sink as I faced Jessie.  My fingers combed through her wet hair and broke it into three plaits, which I set to braiding.  She, meanwhile, set to work with my hair, reaching over to a jar without looking and then setting everything in place.

It took more than a little coordination, but it was nice to bond, my fingers were quick with the braiding and my hair tended to stay in place better when Jessie did it.

“Remind me about her schedule for today,” I said.

“You should remember that much.”

“Except I don’t.”

“Do you not remember because I’m serving as your memory?” she asked.  “You shouldn’t lean on me that heavily.”

“It’s temporary.  I need to focus my brain on other things.  There’s a lot to coordinate.”

“There is.  I just worry.”

“I’m remembering.  I’m just remembering peripheral details.  I’m trying to stage the entirety of Hackthorn Academy in my head for the day everything goes to pieces.  I’m putting the main thrust of things aside, for you.”

“I’m going to have a bad day sooner or later, Sy.  You can’t go to pieces then.  You keep moving.  See things through.”

“I’ll try,” I said.  I reached up and scraped a bit of gunk that lingered in the corner of one of her eyes.

“Trying isn’t good enough.”

My hands still up near her face, I put my palms on her cheeks, holding her face, then kissed her.

Helen and the professor were talking in the other room, I noticed, now that our own conversation wasn’t overlapping them.

I paused mid-kiss, holding the edge of Jessie’s lower lip between my own, and turned my head a fraction toward the door.

Jessie pulled her lip free, then murmured, “Ferres said that the thing that bothered her most about this situation was that it was very possible she’d die at the hands of one of that cretin’s creations.  Ibbot’s.  Helen took offense.”

“Ah,” I murmured.  “How nice to know I have your full attention.”

“Speak for yourself, Sylvester.  I pick up on all of the background details.”

“Most, not all,” I said.  My fingers dropped from her face, and my hand went straight back up to find a loose thread on her nightgown.  I gave it an exploratory tug, and she batted my hand aside.  “Now I’ve got to ask, did you tell me the schedule and I completely forgot about it already, or did you forget?”

Jessie used scissors she had picked up from the shelf above the sink to snip the loose thread.  “She’s checking in with her pet students and bringing them as a cohort while looking after the master’s birthday party, then she’s meeting with a group of would-be grey coats about their ongoing projects, all followed by lunch, if there’s time.”

“We haven’t seeded the grey coats.”

“No we haven’t,” Jessie said.

“What’s the location?”

“Her office.  Which is actually quite inconvenient, because there’s traffic all around it.”

“Hiding under the desk?” I asked.

“Wrong kind of desk for that.”

“What if it was Helen?”

“Not even Helen.”

“We haven’t had many situations come up where we couldn’t seed, spy on proceedings, or verify everything was sufficiently crooked in our favor after she’d passed through.”

“Not any so far.  We talked about having her cancel a few days ago.”

“Did we?”

Jessie sighed.

I sighed in the same way she had, mocking her.

“Yes, we did.  Your instinct at the time was that things are too precarious for her to break pattern, graduate students are too invested in their projects to suddenly be ignored by the headmistress, she can’t delegate, and people would grumble.”

“And six abstract units of grumbling becomes one abstract unit of difficult questions.  My instincts sound about right, so I’ll trust them.”

“Any bright ideas?” she asked.  “And did you actually tie my hair in a knot to secure the braid?”

“It’s fancy,” I said, waving the end of the braid in her face.  “And pretty.”

“You’re the one that’s untying the thing.”

“Naturally.  And yes, I have bright ideas.  Not all are applicable to this situation, but give me my due.”

“If she passes on one message by way of the grey coat prospects, all of this falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I would have liked to have more control over this situation than we had.  There was a chance we could come out ahead if we happened to lose control, but I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to go there.  Blood would be shed, not all of it theirs.

“What are you thinking?” Jessie asked.  “You’ve got this tiny frown line between your eyebrows.”

“I’m thinking… I need to break her down more.  If she’s our puppet, I don’t want her pulling against the strings.”

“Break her down how?”

“I might scare her.”

“Whatever you need to do.  And the prospective grays?”

“We could take cards we aimed to play later and play them now, audaciously.”

“Is this a normal person’s take on audacious, or is it the take of a certain black haired, shorter-than-average gentleman who has normalized audacious, who is then calling this particular play audacious?”

“Shorter than average?”

“Don’t get hung up on labels.”

“It’s just heartless of you to make a point of it.  You called me a gentleman?”

“Don’t get hung up on words.  And focus.  If you lose track then I have to start this conversation over from the beginning.”

“You don’t ever have to do that.  Exaggerator.”

Focus.

“It’s something even I would call audacious, when I’m very comfortable with things the average person would call audacious.”

“Right.  If someone was to sketch out all of your thoughts as they were right this moment, how large a share of those thoughts are trying to find other solutions?”

“Um.  I think the share is the size of a large cat.”

Jessie gave me the look.

“They’re thoughts.  I’m not going to assign a number or percentage to thoughts.  They get away from me and then I sound wrong.  I don’t want to set myself up for failure.”

“Fine.  How large a share is already devoted to finding a way to make the audacious happen?”

“Take your pick of any animal large enough to sit on the medium sized cat and kill it in the process.”

Jessie sighed.

“Come on,” I said.

We stepped into the other room, and I headed straight for my pile of clothing.  Helen and the professor were still talking.

“-numbness?”

“No.  But the gnawing muscle makes a T-shape connection to the biting muscle and the T feels weak, and there’s an ‘x’ connection between the grimace muscle and the snake-mouth muscle group that’s pulling more than it should.”

“You need to make more sense, dear,” the professor said.

“You’re a terrible influence on her,” Jessie whispered in my ear.  Helen had turned her head.  She pushed her hair aside and drew lines on her cheek, illustrating.

The professor had done good work so far.  Helen looked almost like she always had.  Her face was intact, no damage apparent, no scars.  The only problem was that her expressions weren’t there.  Our perfect actress was struggling to act.  Her only face was the dead-eyed one from yesteryear.

“You two, take the bathroom while Jessie and I get dressed,” I instructed.  “Leave the door open.  I want to talk to you, Helen.”

“What about?” Helen asked, as the pair stepped into the bathroom.

“How is my father doing?”

“Your father is… coming together,” Helen said.

“I kind of want him today.”

“Your father would decline any invitations today,” Helen said.

“I kind of really want him today,” I said.  “What if he was drunk?”

“Your drunk father would possibly show his face for a short time, not staying for too long out of fear of embarrassing himself,” Helen said.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “Maybe he could be morose drunk.”

“Shall I fetch him when we’re done here?” Helen asked.

“Dab some whiskey behind his ears.”

“He’s a scotch man,” Helen said.

We dressed, with Jessie donning a uniform while I dressed up in the clothes she had set aside.  She made sure my hair was fixed, then gave me a peck on the lips.

The professor emerged from the washroom, donning her black lab coat.  She looked well put together, and except for some small issues in how she moved, nothing looked amiss.  Helen practically flew out of the Professor’s apartment.

“My dad was probably enjoying the good life, sleeping in,” I said.

“Probably,” Jessie said.

“He’s in for a rude awakening.”

The professor was quiet.  I saw her eyeing the stove.  Only scraps and scrapings remained.

“What time is it?” I asked Jessie.

“Seven fifty eight.”

“Two minutes to eat,” I told the professor.

There was no hesitation.  No grace, either, even for a woman who was normally immaculate.  She paid no mind to the fact that some fruit had bites taken out of it or that the pieces of meat too small to be worth picking out now sat in seas of congealing grease.

It was the eye of a surgeon in a moment of crisis, now turned to picking out the least bad pieces of food.  Her steady hand focused now on keeping any mess from dripping on her clothes, stripping meat from a length of bone.  She did what she could and then turned to the largest offerings.  A hunk of bread end-piece that I’d burned and left aside after toasting my bread, a glass of milk that had been mostly finished.  She alternated the two to get the bread down.

She didn’t finish either before Jessie cleared her throat.

Ferres hesitated, and for a moment, I wondered if her composure would break, if she would snap at us, or if she would abandon sense and go for the food.

Instead, she drew a handkerchief from her pocket, and she gathered herself together.  A lady in the non-noble sense, as if composure in the present could erase the desperation of moments ago.

She was in the midst of daubing at her face when her body rebelled.  She gagged, bending over, and froze, holding that position.

Twice more, she gagged, but managed to keep from retching.

Not the food so much as the gorging, if that could even be called gorging.

She straightened, resuming her act as the lady, and she gave us a nod.

We left the room as a trio.  It was a short trip down the hallway, and then we passed through a set of doors.

Spring air blew in our faces, but it was a mixed thing.  A breath of fresh air, but with a bad aftertaste.  Flowers and dewy grass and bitter death on the wind.

Hackthorn had been constructed with a particular aesthetic, because it was an Academy very focused on the aesthetic.  A project from many years past had been placed as the centerpiece of Hackthorn, and if it had ever been truly alive, it would have been a half woman, half spiderweb counterpart for Helen’s brother.  As tall as any building I’d seen, she was a connection of strands and shelves that supported one another, some shelves vertical and others horizontal, akin to a bookshelf, but always with the outer form in mind, and the outer form was that of a woman.  Akin to builder’s wood, but no external walls had been put up to guide the growth.  The story was that it had all been calculated in advance.

It was her crowning achievement, her master stroke.  She had pitched it as her specialist project and they had allowed it with the expectation she would fail.  Instead, she had stepped up the scale.  A work so impressive they had no choice but to give her a professorship, despite the fact that she was a woman.  To say no at that point would have risked her walking away and leaving the edifice to fall to pieces.

It hadn’t been her only play over the years.

Care had been given to the face, which turned skyward, and it looked like a pale woman’s face, eyes closed.  The shelves were now beds for plant life and growth, or walls had been put in place at the exterior, allowing for them to be used as pens or prison cells.  Bristling plant growth and walls formed her exterior skin, while trees that grew down formed her hair.  She draped back, with the buildings of the Academy itself as her recliner, and we walked along the bridge that was one of her arms, reaching out to the main Academy office and the apartments of headmistress and visiting dignitaries.

Even from a distance, I could see students and staff already at work with tending to this and that.

Green and thriving, against a backdrop of cliffs and ocean.

But looking in the other direction was something else entirely.  The walls of hackthorn, and then wasteland, out to the horizon.  Once forest, burned and then patrolled by beasts grown just for this purpose, who found everything that the blaze hadn’t utterly destroyed.

The black woods were only just barely visible in the distance, unable to reach Hackthorn with the wasteland of ash between us and it.

We were isolated, and entry to Hackthorn meant traveling through the woods and wasteland or it meant visiting by boat and ascending the cliffs to access Hackthorn by way of the reclining woman’s backside.

I’d gotten a good laugh out of Jessie the first time I had pointed that out.

The headmistress of Hackthorn smiled at students, and she greeted some by name.  That in itself wouldn’t have been surprising, as the students on this bridge were both early risers and notable students.  I could see the light in her eyes, and while I could see a weariness that hadn’t been there when we had first appeared in her bedroom, I believed that she was doing a good job of playing it off.

Students liked her.  They respected her.  They knew her in the sense that they could greet her.  We hadn’t stopped long enough for her to do it yet, but I knew she was willing and able to make small talk with them.  Each of those things was to her credit on its own and surprising when taken in tandem with one of the others.

But oh, that wasn’t what I was watching for.

No, it was when we stepped indoors again, off the bridge and into the armpit.  The labs.  Students were waiting.  Professor Viola Ferres’ select.  Her favored students, taken under her wing.

They were the closest to her, they were sharp, and they were very unhappy with our existence.

“First thing this morning, we make sure all is on track for the young master Baugh’s birthday celebration,” Viola Ferres said.  “First lab.”

She indicated with her hand, and the gaggle of students formed a herd around her.  Jessie and I walked side by side, joining them.  I could see her talking to the students.  More important than any of the students’ views or reactions to the professor was the professor’s reaction to her students.

She was built for this.  However much we ground her down and applied pressure, so long as she had this, I wasn’t sure I could truly break down her defenses.  We were positioned, we had laid out the groundwork for a move on the largest scale, but we lacked information, and so we groped in the dark.

Helen had taken too long.  We descended the stairs to the first lab.  It lay at the heart of the complex.  Students who ascended and descended the stairs to reach any other part of the facility passed by the lab, and in the doing, they passed by branch-framed panes of glass that looked at the work in progress.

Fairy tale monsters and monsters of fantasy done to scale.  The sea serpent and the maiden, the big bad wolf and red riding hood.  The larger members of the cast remained in the vast, open-concept laboratory with its arched ceiling.  The big bad wolf rested with the half-goat, half-fish of the zodiac.  A horse as large as any I’d ever seen stood with spine bared, burn scars on either side of the bloody schism where its mane was supposed to be.  Its bone of  tail flicked left and right as it ate from its feedbag.  A giant -hardly giant in comparison to Helen’s brother- slumped against the wall, using his long-fingered hands to shovel mountains of loose, dry cereals into a wide mouth.

Playthings.  Toys.

I didn’t mind those ones, not in particular.

I wandered, and I heard one of the members of the group comment at my wandering, though I didn’t catch the words, as my focus was elsewhere.  For all its fairy tale nature, all I could smell were sweat, blood, and offal.

“Leave him be,” Ferres said.

“I don’t see why he’s even here.  No offense, miss Montague.”

“I’ve heard all the complaints a hundred times already,” Jessie said.  She ignored the implicit meaning in his statement that he didn’t see why she was there either.

“I have as well,” Professor Ferres said.  “I’ll hear no more of it, unless you have other projects you’d like to be working on.”

“I- no,” the student said.

“It’s politics, Damian.  And forcing a superior to justify her politics is not good politics on your part.”

I didn’t listen to the rest.  Most of the members of the group had commented in some fashion already.  If everything was the way that it was supposed to be, she might even have welcomed the questions and challenges.  She was unconventional in a variety of ways, and her treatment of subordinates was one of them.

Even now, she was turning the topic around, talking about the delegation of tasks, and posing challenges to Jessie and her favored students.

I passed around a wall that blocked part of the lab off from view of the stairs.  Hidden in plain sight, a thousand students would walk by and look through the windows with excitement and wonder, but actual access to the lab was more limited.

Actual access to this area was rarer.  I had the keys to unlock the doors.

I passed by the cells.  They hadn’t all had cots before Jessie and I had arrived.  At our insistence, Professor Ferres had ordered them to protect her investment and work.

I passed by red riding hood, who would have been at home among any mouse of Radham or West Corinth.  No older than twelve, her face had been altered into something to resemble a deer or a rabbit.  An attempt at contrasting to the wolf.  Something had been done to her arms and legs.  To better enable her to run when and if the scene called for it, I supposed.

I walked past goldilocks, who was closer to my age, who had locks of actual gold.  Rapunzel reached out to touch the bars of her cell with one hand and a lock of hair.  Past Jack and past ones I couldn’t put names to.

We had sought her out because of her tie to Ibbot, and because Lillian had been taken with her.  A part of me had hoped the woman would vindicate Lillian’s opinion of her.  In some respects, she had.

In others, the complete opposite.  As bad as Ibbot, as bad as Hayle.  She was a major purveyor of the Block, an artist who worked with children.

Now playthings.  Toys.

I looked up and saw Helen standing in the shadows.  If she was here, so was my ‘father’.

I turned my eyes to the people in the cells.

“Soon,” I said, and even though my voice was soft, no less than thirty pairs of ears listened.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.1

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Before

I peered past my hand of cards to study the cards arrayed in a partial five-by-five grid on the stump.  The second column had a three, two, and a king down the middle with empty spaces at the top and bottom, and my hand had a three and two, among other things.  Two of a kind.

The chip count was good too.  I liked my numbers stacked at the top of the column.

I laid down the two, and then I laid down a nine.

“Pair,” I said.  My voice was muffled by my mask.

“You should have a three in your hand,” Jessie said, her voice similarly muffled.

She wore a quarantine mask, a tube running to a tank which rested on the log beside her.  Every breath was a hiss, but it was barely audible with the way the wind blew.  She had donned a kind of robe for her quarantine outfit, everything strapped in and then taped.  Her hair peeked out of her hood, and it was already stained black on one side.

“Helen has the three,” I lied.  I indicated Helen.

“Helen has the joker,” Jessie said, indicating with one gloved hand.  Helen wore a similar quarantine outfit.  She had painted hers with what might have been a clown face, though black dust had erased most of that, and she had also attached a hook to each glove and foot.

“Then call her a joker and be done with it,” I said.

Jessie sighed audibly, the noise carrying with the wind.  The sheet we had erected to help keep the wind from blowing away the cards was flapping violently.

Jessie put down a full house using the top right and to left corners, using my two.  She put down her chit.  She indicated Helen, hand extended, “Joker.”

Helen laid down the joker and a nine.  “Naught,” she said.

Jessie sighed audibly again.

“I get to make a rule,” Helen said.

Jessie’s hand remained extended toward Helen as she looked at me.

“What’s the rule?” I asked.

“Ummm,” she said, her voice picking up a burr as the filter of her mask caught the lower register of the ‘mmm’.

“You don’t need to pretend,” Jessie said.  She put her face in her hands, as much as the mask would let her.

“I get Sy’s dessert,” Helen said.

“No, no,” I said.  “You’re supposed to make a rule that benefits me as a bribe to later get my dessert.”

“Low hands win, then,” Helen said.

Jessie shook her head, mask still resting in gloved hands.

“Low two, two pair, and low five,” I said.  I collected the chits I had bet on the rows and columns.

The quarantine setup muffled noise, but there was no muffling the noise of the forest around us.  Trees rocked back and forth in the wind, branches scraping against branch.  The wind hissed as it carried flecks and particles of black, rolling clouds of the stuff that made seeing anything difficult beyond our wind-proofed area.  Branches of a hundred trees all around us cracked and snapped as if they were being systematically broken by a small army and yet more branches knocked and clacked together with a deep, hollow clatter.

The leaves had fallen from the trees and formed a thorny carpet on the ground, the living wood crumpling leaves as it sought leverage, before growing out into briar-like clusters of reaching branches and twigs.  The trees themselves had been sucked dry of every nutrient as the wood grew on them, the existing branches breaking as the wood twisted and pulled on them mid-growth.  In appearance, they best resembled trees mummified in black leather and caked in black dust.

Jessie was shuffling the cards as best as she was able with the gloves on.

“We could mix it up with the next rule change,” I said.

“I think I’m done with cards for a long, long while,” Jessie’s voice was hollow as it came through the filter.

The wind changed direction, and we collectively tensed, my hands moving toward the stump, which had no cards on it.  The wind wasn’t strong enough to blow the chits away, but it was strong enough to carry a cloud of black dust into our campsite.  Tents flapped and the ridges of the stump’s rings caught the dust, infinitesimally small details marked out in stark clarity by the fine powder.

All around us, black builder’s wood encased trees and then twisted them into pieces within the black shell as it grew thicker.  The splintered wood became another in for the invader, and it crept in before expanding again, causing once-straight trunks to twist even further.  Only the relative strength of the black wood kept the entire forest from toppling.

But gaps between trees and between branches grew slimmer, the charcoal-black forest floor and the trees absorbed the light that managed to filter through the clouds.  It felt increasingly claustrophobic.

“It’s only been three days for you,” I finally said.  “I kind of wanted to keep you for longer.”

Jessie sighed again.

“If you want, we could go into the tent,” I said.  “Get out of the suits, I could give you a hand washing your hair.”

Jessie shook her head.

“Sure,” I said.  I would’ve been lying if I said I wasn’t a little put out by that.

“I mean, it sounds nice, really nice,” Jessie said, pausing in the calculated shuffling to look up at me.  “But…”

She trailed off.

“It’s fine.  All good, Jessie,” I said.

She nodded, and she resumed shuffling.

“The other Helen baked me a treat,” Helen said.  “I told myself I would wait until tea time, but the anticipation is delicious.  I might actually be drooling and-”

She jerked, wriggling in her seat.

“-getting my arm through the sleeve and up to my face-”

She wriggled more, then relaxed.  “-is hard.  There.  Not much drool.”

“You’ll get some of my dessert too,” I said.

“Stop!  Gee whiz fuck, Sy, you’ll get me going again.  I think I’m going to keep my hand here for the time being.”

“We’ll see what we can do soon,” I said.  “Get your face fixed up proper this time around.”

Another professor, another two steps forward, one step back. 

“Soonish,” I said.  Soon.

Gordon and Fray moved through the trees.  As if to remind me of the deadlines.  It was a minute before we could put cards down, and I tried not to focus too much on the figures in the trees.

The wind settled down, and Jessie leaned forward.  She laid out the cards in a three-by-three, then dealt out the rest of the cards.

“Opening gambits,” she said.

We stacked our chips at different points on the perimeter.  Mine were green, Helen’s red, and Jessie’s blue.

I looked at my hand of cards, and saw how grimy they were.  Every movement of branch against branch produced some, every twist and grind grated it, producing air-light flakes ranging from leaf-sized to the finest of specks.

I held my fanned-out hand so that the faces of the cards caught more of the dust, picked out two, and laid them out.

“Helen’s rule still stands.  Before that was Sy’s rule about the king of hearts, Sy’s rule about the king of diamonds, Sy’s ‘old maid’ rule, and my lunch rule, and Sy’s rule of three winners,” Jessie said.

Jessie made her play, Helen made her play, and then Jessie announced, “Add to your gambits or make new ones.”

I stacked more chits on the thing.  Looking down at my cards, finding them sufficiently dusty, I began using the edge of one card to scrape dust, moving it.  I tried to look very interested in the state of the board to take focus off of what I was doing, then placed down two more cards.

The round continued, with Jessie getting the much-coveted royals setup.

“Flush,” I said, as I got my next turn.  I slapped down my cards.

Jessie turned a black-dusted mask toward me.  Her expression was hidden, which was a damn shame, but I could very easily guess what that expression was.

“Have you been keeping that up your sleeve the whole time?” Helen asked.  “Why are there two aces of spades?  Did you have another deck?  I’m confused!”

Jessie reached down and touched my ace of spades.  The spade smudged, revealing the club beneath.

The wind hissed, the trees cracked and audibly splintered within their black casings, and branch knocked against branch with heavy, hollow knockings.  Jessie stood from her seat, and the wood cracked and snapped as it broke away from the seat of her robe-like quarantine suit.

“Sorry,” I said.

She shook her head, standing there.

“I can’t see your face, so it’s hard to calibrate.  I thought you’d smile and call me something unkind.”

“I’m about to do something uncharacteristic and stupid,” Jessie said.

“Please don’t,” I said.

“But I hate this place.  I hate this forest,” she said.  She hung her head.  “I hate the lack of color, I hate the lack of anything.  I hate that I can smell the stale death of every living thing that died here.  I hate the waiting, I hate the fact that I can’t breathe, I hate the quarantine suits, I hate constantly changing the filters, I hate this place so much I could cry.”

“Crying can be good,” Helen said.

“Crying can be good, but you shouldn’t inflict this situation on yourself if it makes you that miserable,” I said.  “I hate the idea of you crying if it’s not because of me.”

Jessie hiccuped a laugh at that.

“Come on,” I said.  “Back to the tent with you.  Hair wash and sponge down, I can massage and tend to any places the quarantine suit is pressing at you.”

“I’m spending more and more time in the tent.  It’s only been three days and six hours.  I’m already sleeping three-quarters of every day.  At this rate, by tomorrow I’ll be in the tent all the time, sleeping for five-sixths of the time, and then what’s the point?”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said.  “Read, rest, keep the tent nice, then when I get back in through the airlock I can be all, ‘honey, I’m home!’ and stuff.”

Jessie looked skyward.

“Gee,” I said.  “I’m really not hitting the mark today, am I?”

Still looking skyward, Jessie said, “You can’t see my face right now, Sy, but I want you to imagine my most disapproving look, and then up it by a factor of two.”

I bit back my witty banter and teasing.  It wasn’t the time, and I wasn’t hitting the mark.

“Are you going back, Jessie?” Helen asked.

I leaned forward, “You do a good job watching over our guys.  I’d be sorry to see you go, but I’d really be happy knowing you were watching over things, keeping the peace.  There’s nobody I trust more than you.  I might even trust you more than I trust myself.”

“If I go back then I miss you guys,” Jessie said.  “And I end up worrying, because the last time I checked on you, Sy, Helen was taking a break to see if she could hunt deer at the edge of the black wood while wearing a quarantine suit-”

“Which I can,” Helen said, waving the hook she’d attached to her quarantine suit.

“-and you were having long, intensive conversations with Mauer.  You didn’t even recognize me.”

“I recognized you,” I said.  “I wouldn’t not recognize you.  But maybe I didn’t think you were real.  Sometimes they get crafty.”

“Sometimes they get crafty.  Yeah.  That makes me feel a lot better about leaving you on your own.”

“I’m managing,” I said.

“Are you?” Jessie asked.  She paused, very deliberately.  “How sure are you that I’m real?  Right now?”

“Right now?  Geez.  Well, you and Helen come as a package deal, because you’re interacting and they aren’t quite that canny.  Sometimes they wedge themselves into ongoing conversations, like Fray did back in Sedge, but honestly-”

“How sure?” Jessie asked, no-nonsense.

“Mostly?” I asked, sounding less than mostly sure.

Jessie looked to Helen.  “Help me out.  Please?  Give me something to work with.”

“I’ll watch him more carefully,” Helen said.  “I promise.”

“You’ve been here for eleven days, you two.  I can barely tolerate it for three.  Most of the others can’t even do a full day before their nerves start fraying.  I’m worried about you two.”

“Helen’s as happy as a clam,” I said.  “And I’m staying because I have to stay.  If I’m not available when this all comes together then there’s no point.  So I keep going because if I stop then it makes all the suffering that led up to it worthless.”

“I am as happy as a clam,” Helen said.  “I caught a deer, I have cake, I have you two.”

“I’ll rephrase.  I’m worried about you, Sy.  I hate not being able to talk to you, I hate these woods, I hate the black dust-”

In the workings of my head, something clicked.  Transference.  She was accusing me of losing my mind when…

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

“-the-  what?”  she asked.  Then she startled  a bit, before clenching her fists, “Because I was hiding it from you, you dolt.”

Helen was looking at me.  I spoke before she asked the question, “Dropped a memory.”

“And I know three is a completely arbitrary number, but I feel like three is it,” she said.

“You could have told me,” I said.  “Us.  You could have told us and you should have told us.  So don’t call me a dolt, you nubmunch.”

“I- heh,” Jessie started.  “Stop trying to make me laugh when I’m working myself into a state here.”

“You should have told me, nubmunch.”

“I would have, but I don’t want to give you added stress when you’re doing this.”

“Well, it hardly helps if you’re just wrestling with it on your own and I suddenly can’t figure you out, between all the distractions and you acting funny.  You end up suppressing everything until you snap.  Stop bottling.”

“Okay,” she said.  And then she stopped talking.  A moment passed.  She added, “We’re sitting here, waiting for the perfect timing, and I’m trying not to think about the mail Jamie read that crossed General Ames’ desk that talked about travel being suspended for certain locations, or additional countermeasures, or the fact that if they’re doing this textbook, we don’t have very long before they start releasing Academy-grown monsters into these woods.  I worry that this all goes wrong in a second, or worse, that this is how we while away the little time we have.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “Helen would probably even get a kick out of us being attacked by Academy experiments.  Might do to see if we can’t set up traps, now that I think about it.  Something to occupy ourselves with.”

“Helen’s only at seventy-five percent,” Jessie said.  Her posture changed slightly.  I imagined she closed her eyes, and now that I had connected to the fact that she had dropped a second memory, my mental model of her was making a lot more sense, with less surprises.  I’d thought it was me, after being out here too long.

“Seventy-five percent of a Helen is still pretty gosh-darn amazing,” I said.

“Thank you.”

“It is,” Jessie said.  “But…”

She stopped talking, and I saw her hand shake a little as she balled the gloved hands into fists.

Ah, here we went.

Well, what were the odds it would be a problem?  It wasn’t like we’d seen another living thing that wasn’t one of us for the last week and a half.

Jessie screamed, top of her lungs.

The scream reached through the forest, and it was oddly muted, even without accounting for the mask, the hose, or the filter.  In an ordinary forest, the hard surfaces of trees would have bounced back the sound, but the sheer amount of dust caked on every surface and the thickness of the dust in the air dampened the sound.

I wanted so badly to hug Jessie, tight as possible, to speak into her ear, to say something reassuring and intimate and make it better.  I ached to do it.

I could see Lillian, and I knew that on a level she represented compassion, but a part of me still ached for Lillian’s absence.  I could see Ashton.  It was almost as if the scream was bringing the others out.

All I could do was stand, wood breaking away where it had been striving to attach me to my seat, leaving jagged spikes and splinters where it had broken.  I walked over to Jessie with the branches snapping and breaking beneath my boots, and took her hand.

The forehead of my mask clacked against hers.

She stopped screaming.  No longer taking the background to Jessie’s anger and frustration, the hissing wind and pained creaking and breaking of trees resumed.

“I hate this,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“If it turns out that my scream screwed all of this up, gave us away, then they’ll probably mutiny.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But you needed to scream.”

“I don’t like being weak.  I don’t like being this frustrated.”

“You’re too damn stoic all the time,” I said.  I made the masks clack against each other again.

In the distance, a tree branch broke and fell.

“Incoming,” Helen said.

It took a minute for ‘incoming’ to reach us.  Two of our rebels, all in quarantine suits.

“All good!” I called out.  “Don’t shoot us!”

They stopped running.

“Sorry,” Jessie said.  “Losing my mind in here.”

“How’s the watch shift?” I asked the two rebels.

“Mind-numbing,” the larger of the two said.  “Already looking forward to whoever’s coming to relieve us.  I dropped my watch in the dust and branch bits beneath the perch and it took me fifteen minutes to find.”

I scuffed the ground with a boot. I couldn’t even see dirt beneath the detritus I’d kicked aside.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Tell you what.  You two walk Jessie back.  I’ll take watch with Helen.”

“Yeah?” the smaller one asked.

“Yeah,” I said, emulating his accent a touch.  “Go on.”

Jessie hesitated.

I pushed her arm, “Go on.  We’ll be fine.”

“I’ll send some people to keep you company,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’ll talk after.  Get caught up.  Cover all the bases.”

She nodded.

I wanted to give her more support than I could here.

Helen and I left the cards behind and we began the trudge to the perch.

We climbed the tree we had nailed rungs to, and we took our seats in a thicker cluster of branches.

It wasn’t until we were settled that I noticed one of Helen’s sleeves was still floppy, no arm in it.  The hook swung like a pendulum.

“Are you stuck?” I asked.

“Noo,” Helen said, implying she was.  “But no, really, I’m fine.  Thank you, sir.”

“You’re very welcome, madam.”

A solid fifteen minutes passed in relative silence.  Helen started humming, playing with how her filter was making her voice buzz a bit around the edges, and I joined in with my own variation.  Somewhere along the line, I started playing with my hand over the end of the air hose, near the filter, which I probably shouldn’t have been doing, but it allowed for some interesting stop-starts.

I could track the time by way of the watch that had been hung from a tiny spike of wood near my head.  Fifty minutes passed, as we went back and forth, elaborating.  Then we both trailed off.

Five minutes passed before Helen spoke.

“I spy with my little eye… something black and dusty.”

I pointed.  “Funny shaped branch over there.”

“Yes.  Then… I spy with my little eye, something black with only a little bit of dust.”

I pointed.  “I think it’s a dead thing in a tree that had leaves fall on it and made it crispy-ish.”

“How long before you get one wrong?” Helen asked.

“I can see about three more interesting things.  So… until you pick something boring.”

“Oh?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Well then,” she said.  “I hear, with my little ear-”

“-a particularly crackly bit of wood?”

“Something creaky that isn’t a tree,” she said.  “That’s pulled by a warbeast.”

I perked up.  “Really?”

“No,” she said.

I deflated.

“But yes,” she teased.  “Really.”

I perked up again.  “Well peel my cat and call me a bastard.  How far away?”

“Not far,” Helen said.

“Well dang,” I said.  “Just one?  If it’s more, I’m going to need to see how fast I can catch up to the others and if we can get back in time, maybe further down the road.”

“Just one,” Helen said.

“You’re sure.”

“Positive,” she said.

“I actually feel bad,” I said.  “And I don’t feel bad about much.  Jessie’s going to be so annoyed she missed this.”

We climbed down from the tree, and we lowered ourselves into the shrubbery.

Helen’s gestures, partially masked by the gloves, gave me a good indication of when to expect them.

The wagon appeared, a rhino-like warbeast with two horns bigger than I was on its head and a chin-spike below trampled the fallen leaves and branches that buried the road, and it pulled a heavy wagon behind it.  Industrial strength everything, from the heavy duty wagon itself, almost a rolling vault, with heavy wheels.  The thing was meant to plow on.  If it broke down, then the lone driver wouldn’t be able to fix it.

As it rolled past us, we pounced.  I latched onto the side, and Helen grabbed on next to me, before tumbling down, disappearing beneath the front of the wagon.  Any scratching or scrabbling on her part was drowned out by the noise the wagon made as it rolled over innumerable branches, leaves, and the fragile carpet of builder’s wood that knit them together.

Five.  Four.  Three.

The man screamed.

Right then.  My models of Helen weren’t that great either.

I tried to make up for the time differential by moving faster, a little more haphazardly, gloves and boots slipping on the dust-caked surface.  The worst that could happen was that I might slip, fall, and roll under the wheel.

I managed to avoid that, grabbed the seat, and hauled myself over.

Helen had pierced his hand with her hook, latching on, and had grabbed him with one hand.  He was using his free hand to fumble for a gun that was positioned in a spot which was really meant to be reached for with the hand that Helen currently held.

I threw myself forward, stomach skidding on the dusty seat, and reached him just as he pulled the gun free.

I batted the gun out of his hand before he could get a grip on it.  It was lost, off to the side, in a sea of branches and dust.  I might have said that people two thousand years in the future might find it, but I somehow couldn’t picture it.  Not the people part of it.

The resulting scuffle was short.  Helen asserted her grip and adjusted the hook, and I seized his other arm in one of my own, and once we had him secure, the fight mostly went out of him.

His breath wheezed through the air filter.

“You have options, Mr. Driver,” I said.  “Most of them are pretty good.”

I could see him taking that in.

“This gets a lot more pleasant if you cooperate,” I said.  “There isn’t a friendly face for a hundred miles around.  All you need to do is talk to me.”

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“They expecting you on time?”

“Give or take an hour,” he said.  “Horny Anne here is very regular, but the road isn’t.  We sink into the soft spots.”

“Good,” I said.  “Good, that’s just the kind of answer we need.  Do you have a horn?  Anything that would make a lot of noise?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Trumpet.  It fits onto my air filter.”

He fumbled at the side of the wagon.  Helen took one hand off of him to grab the trumpet, showing me.  She pressed it between her body and the side of the wagon and began fumbling with her air filter.

“Good,” I said.  “Perfect.  Is there anyone further back down the road?”

“No,” he said.  “Like you said, not a friendly face for quite a distance.”

He sounded a little bit depressed about it.

Good.  Perfect.

“If you’re lying, then we do something terrible, you know that right?”  I asked.  The rush of the capture, after so much dang waiting, it was making me heady, and that translated into me sounding almost excited at the prospect of doing something terrible, which was great.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I know it.”

I nodded.

“Now let’s talk security measures.  Anything I need to know before we borrow your wagon and take it to its destination?”

“Ah,” he said.  He paused.

“Ah?”

“I’m telling you this in good faith,” he said.  “Pay isn’t good enough, I love my Crown and country, but I like living too.  So I want you to know I could’ve stayed quiet and you mightn’t’ve noticed.”

I would have noticed, I thought.

“Out with it,” I said.

“It’s in my forearm.  Metal, grafted to the bone.  They have seahorse-eye things that look through my arms and read the numbers.  Has to be the right metal too.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds about right.”

“This was my last trip,” he said.  “Ever since this black shit started springing up everywhere, it’s misery distilled.  Of course something like this happens when I tell myself it’s my last trip before I find another way to make money.  Of course.”

“You’re fine,” I told him.  “We’ll try to minimize the damage.”

“Tooting,” Helen said.

I raised my eyebrows behind my mask, and then winced as she raised one hand, trumpet attached to the end of her hose, and blew.

It wasn’t a lips-on-trumpet noise, but something more artificial, a braying note that changed as she adjusted the keys.

The sound carried.

Helen took her time before stopping.

“Dam-”

Helen made a smaller ‘bwat’ sound.

“Damage?” the driver asked.

“Well,” I said.  “Can’t trust you to take me where I want to be without saying anything, so… best way to go about this would be to borrow your arm.”

“Uh.”

“Then we can keep you for a while, we’ll reunite you and your arm as fast as we can, and then you’re sort of complicit, or we let you go and you can go home, and maybe you get pity points, but you also have to scrounge up to get a replacement arm, and that’s a whole mess, and there’s a third option where you kick up a stink and we put you down.”

“Uh,” he said.  “I’d kind of like my arm back sooner than later.”

“Perfect!” I said.  I was still fairly excited at the victory.  “Perfect, good.  That even means I can share the dirty details on what we’re up to, and I can ask you questions without having to mask what I’m asking.  Let’s talk about your cargo, and what they tend to do with it when you arrive.”

“Are you going to hurt people with this?” he asked.  “Is it going to be another one of these black wood bombs?  Inside the city?”

“No,” I said.  “And if you want, you can watch what we do.  We’re just going to take a barrel we’ve got stashed away somewhere not too far away, and it’s got a label on it that’s of the type that makes people want to keep it sealed-”

“Stow it somewhere dark with a lot of ventilation,” Helen added.

“-and I can tell you, it’s going to be me, her, and one other person in that barrel,” I said.  “We just want into the city, Mr. Driver, and they’re being rather ridiculously paranoid about letting people in or out.”

“You want in the city,” he said.  “What does that matter?  What’s that going to do?  Who’s that going to hurt?”

Present

I woke, and my arm was numb.  It spawned a dozen small moments of terror as I wondered if Wyvern had prematurely started to physically affect me.  There was a pressure on my chest, too.  The numb left arm and the pressure coupled with an almost nauseous twist of my stomach made me think heart attack.

But it wasn’t.  It was Jessie, lying beside me with her head on my shoulder.  The covers were thick, down-filled, and heavy, and the two of us were relatively small given the massive size of the four-poster bed.

I almost hated to get up when I had this.  This was entirely new.  I knew part of it stemmed from insecurity, but having Jessie this close wasn’t so usual.

Her hair was so messy, and I was just about the only person who got to see it like that.  She had dents on her nose where her spectacles usually sat, and she had scars reaching around her neck and at her chest where her nightgown didn’t wholly cover her, and I knew that again, I was one of the rare few that got to see it.

Moving glacially slowly, I began to extricate myself, moving the pillow, trying to get it so her head transitioned to the pillow.  She was a fairly light sleeper, all considered, so it took extra caution and carefulness.

I didn’t manage it.  Jessie stirred and woke up.

She smiled, and that smile was nice to see.

“Tried not to wake you,” I said.

“You did a terrible job,” Jessie said, yawning.  She stretched.

I reached over, grabbing her stretching hands, and stretched myself, waving her arms one way and the other, while she collapsed back on the pillow, rolling her eyes at me.

“Come on,” I said.  I tugged on her hands.  “Up.  We’ve got so much to do.”

“All day, every day,” Jessie said.

I let go of her hands, and we both rolled off of opposite ends of the bed.

There was a folded towel on the dresser, and I grabbed it, slinging it over one shoulder before pausing at Helen, who had curled up in an armchair, contorting herself.  Her face was only partially fixed.  I nudged the chair, being careful.

I trusted Helen when she was awake and in full control of her faculties.  I didn’t trust sleeping Helen.  Sleeping Helen had broken my hand two weeks ago.

Helen didn’t wake so much as she transitioned smoothly from rest to animation.  She uncurled and stepped off the chair, heading straight for the little kitchen in the corner of the room, to prepare tea and likely to raid the pantry for breakfast cookies.

All good.  There was a lingering feeling of dread at this point, of Jessie waking up blank, or Helen being even more troublesome on being woken, even pouncing from the chair, but this?  This was perfect.

I walked into the adjunct bathroom, which was far too white for my liking.  I walked past the woman in the tub, moved a bowl beneath the sink, washed my face, and fixed my hair as best as I could without wax or oils.

I took a minute or two to preen while the washbasin filled up, before I turned my full attention to the woman beside me.

Her eyes were wide enough to show the whites, and they looked in different directions, which was a nice touch, I thought.  Her mouth was ajar, her breathing shallow, and she sat there like a broken doll.  Her hair was in disarray, normally short and carefully curled, a natural brunette, and her nightgown was soiled at the lower parts.  She had relieved herself in both senses at some point in the night, and it left a runny trail that painted a line in the direction of the drain, but hadn’t actually made it all the way down.

Collecting the bowl of water, which proved heavy, I carried it over to the tub, and I splashed it into the tub.  It got all of the urine and only some of the other mess.

“Good morning,” I told her.

She didn’t respond.

“This can end at any time,” I said.  I put the bowl back under the sink and set it to fill again.  Grabbing a spare towel, I threw it over the woman’s head, and then began relieving myself in the toilet.  “You don’t get anything by being stubborn.”

I finished up, pulled the chain to flush, and used the bowl of water to wash the rest of the mess down the drain of the tub.

Opening the medicine cabinet, I got the small case of syringes out.  There were three.

“I know the spinal injection goes in the spine, but I get the rest confused.  Muscle relaxant, it goes in the muscle of the leg or buttock, antidote, it goes in the bloodstream.  Or is it the other way around?” I asked.

“You say that every morning, Sy,” Jessie said, from the other room.

Every morning,” Helen echoed.

“You guys are no fun.  I’m doing it for effect.”

“I think you’re the only one that appreciates that effect,” Jessie said.

I made sure there was no air in the syringe, then jammed the muscle relaxant in the woman’s throat.  I depressed the syringe.  I left it there while I stuck the other syringe into her leg.

“You get to live another day,” I said, leaving the second of the syringes in place.

The syringe that went into the base of her skull, however, needed more caution.  I inserted it as gently as it warranted.

“There,” I told her.  I plucked the syringes out, and I cranked the tub on.  “Now get yourself cleaned up.”

I stepped out of the bathroom, and I joined the others as they prepared breakfast.

Tea, and bacon, and eggs, and mystery meat.  I used a hot ring to toast bread directly.

“That’s a fire hazard,” Jessie pointed out.

“Yes, but I really like toast,” I said.  “Do we have butter?”

“I remembered the butter,” Jessie said.  “Give me some credit.”

We carried on, and Jessie stepped away to get our clothes sorted out.  I was letting her pick my outfits, which she seemed to like, and it seemed today was a waistcoat.

A knock at the door made us all freeze.

“Mail!” the voice on the other end called out.  “Leaving it outside!”

Jessie signaled.  High Building Girl Queen.

Rooftop girl queen.  Bea.

Checking first on the woman in the tub, making sure she hadn’t gone and drowned on me, I saw that she had enough wherewithal to sit up straighter and grip the sides of the tub.  I closed that door, then quietly slipped out into the hallway.  Jessie and Helen made more noise in the kitchen to cover me.

I moved quickly and quietly as I hurried to catch up with Bea.  She startled as I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Sy,” she said.

“Bea,” I said.  “Everything going smoothly?”

“Smoothly enough.  There’s some mutterings, people wondering about new faces, but… better than I thought.”

“Good,” I said, smiling.

She gave me a soft, one-note chuckle.  “They were talking to me about it.  As if I’ve been here for longer than I have.  They were complaining about newcomers.”

“Mailroom is invisible, and it implies status and trust,” I said.  “None of this is accidental.”

Bea nodded.

“Keep things on the down-low, don’t try to push people to tell you anything, but do listen.  We’ll meet later and I’ll tell you how to get people to want to confide in you.”

“Okay,” Bea said.

“And while we’re at it?  Tomorrow, if there’s any mail that looks official-ish, you can knock and insist she sign for it.  There’s probably something that looks like it should be signed in the mailroom, but make an excuse to see her face to face and show her your face.”

“Okay.  Why?”

“You’re going to build up trust.  At a later date, if things go smoothly, which they probably won’t, we’ll want to give her opportunities to try and get a message out.  You’ll be that opportunity.”

Bea nodded.

“Happy mailing,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.  “Really what I wanted to do with my Academy know-how.”

I scooped up the mail on my way back into the room, and very carefully closed the door behind me.  Helen and Jessie were conversing at the stove.  I listened, and I could hear the splashing of the tub.

I picked through the mail and found what I was looking for.

“Here we go,” I said.  “Took its time.”

Both of the others turned to me, expectant.

“And she said no.  Politely, but it’s a no.”

Both looked a touch crestfallen.

“It might have been a hard sell, pushing the Lambs thing,” Jessie said.

“Might’ve,” I said.  “I thought my read of Lillian was that she’d say yes, even or especially with that in mind.  I wonder if things went badly somehow, or if she got another offer, or…”

“There could have been a hundred different factors,” Jessie said.

“Dang it,” I said.

I sighed.

“Sorry,” Jessie said.

“Probably wouldn’t have worked out that neatly anyway,” I said.  I put the stack of Professor Ferres’ mail to one side.  “Now.  What are the priorities for our Academy today?”

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