Gordon had one arm, while Lillian was dividing her focus between supporting my other arm, keeping us moving and trying to examine me. It made for some uncomfortable stumbling and fumbling around, including some grazing touches of the burns, but I didn’t want her to stop doing any of it. I bit my tongue and inside cheek and endured it, blinking my eyes to try to generate the tears I needed to clear my vision. I was mostly effective.
Jamie was waiting outside, his book under one arm, our shoes and boots in the other hand. All the laces had been tied together, making for only one knot that he had to hold to carry them all.
The bundle dropped from his fingers and landed in a puddle. I spotted my left shoe, on its side in the puddle.
“You’re hurt!” Jamie said.
“You just got my shoe wet,” I said. I started to point, then winced as skin pulled where the enzymes had eaten away a spot on my arm. I held back a cry of pain. My arms had taken the brunt of it. There wasn’t a spot on the back of my arms where I could have laid a hand flat without touching something the enzymes had devoured. Some of the burns eclipsed my hands in size, and my arms weren’t large. My skin looked like a sock that was as much holes as it was fabric, and the flesh beneath was angry, a scalded red, with blood seeping out from crevices.
More burns on a similar scale speckled my neck, one cheek, my side, my legs, and one foot. My clothes had absorbed the worst of it, elsewhere, only droplets reaching through.
“I saw through the window, but I didn’t realize how bad it was,” Jamie said. “I thought you all had everything in hand, but then Sy fell, and I wasn’t sure if I should go for help-”
“My shoe,” I commented, managing to point this time around. Fixating on one thing made it easier to handle the pain. The wounds themselves didn’t hurt, but the edges burned like fire.
“Sy didn’t fall. He took a fall. Wording,” Gordon said.
Jamie’s expression switched from confusion to an accusing glance. Thinking that Gordon might be wrong didn’t even cross his mind.
“Why?” Jamie asked. “You got yourself badly hurt, you twit.”
“Did I?” I tried to exaggerate the surprise in my voice, and all the pain-relief chemicals that my body was dosing me with made me sound even more exaggerated, my voice almost breaking. I added some sarcasm for good measure, “Oh. I hadn’t noticed. Thank you.”
Lillian spoke up, “It’s nothing too dangerous. I don’t like some of these spots on your side, but I don’t think you’re going to die from it. Not soon.”
“Not soon. That’s the best we can hope for,” I said.
Jamie looked closer at one of the wounds. With Gordon still supporting me and both Jamie and Lillian fussing, there were a few more accidental touches of the burns. One of the touches didn’t actually hurt so much, but I played it up, flinching and letting a gasp out, if only to get them to stop.
“Don’t let him distract you,” Gordon said. “He’s trying to dodge the ‘why’ question.”
“I’m trying to hurry this along,” I said. “Priorities. Can I get medical attention? Pretty please?”
“Still dodging the question,” Gordon observed.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Wait. Jamie needs to pick up my shoe, which is getting soaked through, then we can go. Maybe since Jamie won’t stop touching me to make sure I’m okay, Jamie and Lillian can make sure I walk okay?”
Gordon looked me over, suspicious. “You’ll tell us on the way, then?”
“Assuming there’s something to tell,” I said. I felt the burning at my wrist get worse, and my little noise of pain wasn’t intentional. I reached for my wrist, and Lillian slapped my hand away like I was a kid going for the cookie jar. For her benefit, I said, “Hurts.”
“Good,” she said, sounding like a cross between the bossy older sister and a schoolteacher. “Maybe you won’t do that again.”
She wiped at my arm, clearing away blood where it had welled out from the center of the burn. Where the blood had run through the edges of the scar, the trickle had left a faint pink line. Spreading the enzyme around.
“Sy,” Gordon said.
“Gordon,” I cut him off.
There was a pause. I hesitated to call it tension. He wanted me to come to my senses, I wanted to wait long enough for his concern for my well being to override his curiosity, which was bound to happen sooner or later. Tension implied something being stretched to a limit, but we were both being patient.
I felt the burning sensation at my side getting worse. From a six to a seven on the scale, and I was the one who caved, in the end.
“I promise I’ll tell you after,” I said.
He seemed to consider, rolling his head to one side, then the other.
“Fine. Jamie, take over?” Gordon said. “Seems to want you for some reason.”
“Jamie is shorter, I don’t have to stand on my tip toes while he’s holding me up,” I explained.
Gordon transferred his hold on me to Jamie, who had to transfer his hold on his book to the other arm.
“And he’s nicer,” I added. Jamie rolled his eyes.
“Did you lock the windows?” Gordon asked, ignoring me. The question was aimed at Helen, who had emerged from the door behind us.
I turned my head to see Helen’s nod. She and Gordon worked to slide the door closed. The movement of the wheel through the rut spat water at our legs.
“Let’s hope it stays put,” Gordon said.
“I thought we decided that it wouldn’t go anywhere after eating,” Lillian said. “Carnivore eating habits. Hunt or scavenge, eat, rest, rouse, repeat.”
“It was hungry enough to eat two meals. Probably going through a final growth spurt,” I said. “Let’s not rule anything out.”
“Okay,” Lillian said, right beside me, and I was genuinely surprised at the note of anxiety in her voice, how it had cut the word short. “We can leave now.”
Very nearly but not a question. A plea?
I suspected it was fear, but that suspicion sat askew in my head. Lillian had experience with that stuff. She’d had hands on experience with creatures and experiments at the Academy. More restrained than that one had been, but the idea of the unrestrained experiment wasn’t enough to justify the thought. It was probably well fed enough that it would ignore any meal that didn’t walk right into its open mouth.
Or lay there struggling as the snake charmer had.
There we are, I thought. The snake charmer. I could remember Lillian shielding her eyes. The anxiety had more to do with the reminder of the man and the way he’d left this world. If he had left it. There was a chance he was still in there, alive and slowly dissolving.
Gordon had collected the bundle of shoes but hadn’t handed them out. Which was fine. My feet were muddy, and I had a burn on the top of my foot that would have made wearing the shoes hard. The burn announced its presence every time I stepped in a puddle.
It wasn’t a particularly short walk back, and I was content to keep my mouth shut. If I started talking, I might have started grunting or making noises in response to the pain. If I started whimpering, then Gordon might have started reminding me that I’d done this to myself.
Instead, I focused on the future. The snake charmer had been handled. Were questions possible? What about my injuries?
“We’re close to King,” Jamie said, interrupting my thoughts. I realized Helen and Gordon were talking, with Gordon doing the lion’s share. I’d tuned it out.
“Yeah,” I noted.
“Busy street means head down,” Jamie said, very patient. He tugged on the front of my hood, so it could shroud my face in shadow. “Hood down. We don’t want your face to scare the locals any more than usual.”
I couldn’t help but smile wide at that.
The main street was framed on both sides by taller buildings, a great many of them being apartments. People sat on steps beneath the overhang of their porches, smoking, and the occasional light glowed from within rooms above.
The plant growth that supported the structures reached overhead to meet and mesh. An arch, to introduce us to the main street proper. King Street. It was a thick crowd, even in the late afternoon, the sun setting. Men and women in raincoats, with umbrellas, walking on either side of the road.
Lillian and Jamie stopped supporting me quite so much. I started to teeter over a bit, and Jamie caught me at roughly the same point I stuck a leg out to catch my balance myself. I hadn’t realized how heavily I’d been leaning on the others, or how dizzy I felt.
Horses pulling coaches outnumbered cars at a nine to one ratio. Of those horses drawing coaches, only one in five were truly alive. The remainder were stitched, their hides patchwork, seams joined by thick black thread or by metal staples with burns where they touched flesh. Were I able to see beneath the heavy raincoats, I would have seen the thick metal bolts that had been screwed into points down their spines.
Live horses were an affectation, really. There was a convenience to them, as they didn’t suffer from the water in this city where it always rained, they could be taken out hunting, and they had personalities. A horse could be a member of one’s family. There was a lot to like.
But the stitched horses, voltaic horses if you asked someone who knew what they were talking about, they were cheap, they didn’t get tired, and rather than food, they could be kept going by connecting wires to the bolts on their backs and waiting. When a stitched horse had done its work for the day, it could be placed in what amounted to a long closet.
There were no rules for the road, but everyone found their way. Most people here knew most others. A lack of courtesy today could be paid by a lack of cooperation from others tomorrow. That wasn’t to say there weren’t idiots or disagreeable types who others paid no mind to, but it largely worked.
Like the branches and plant growth, it amounted to a planned chaos. The exact shape and character of branches couldn’t be decided in advance, but the key elements were given attention, the problematic ones pruned. The squat apartment buildings didn’t have room for even stitched horses, which meant every essential service had been put within walking distance. Pubs, grocers, tailors, barbers and the like.
I raised my eyes. Looking down the length of King, I could see it rise at a gradual incline, until it touched the perimeter of the Academy itself. Radham Academy, to be specific. All things flowed from it, all things flowed to it. I imagined the same went for any Academy. Stick one somewhere, and people would collect to it like flies to a carcass. The advances and work that went hand in hand with an Academy would bleed out in a very similar way. First to the city as a whole, then to surrounding regions.
Jamie grabbed the tip of my hood and tugged down, forcing me to look at the ground in front of me. I’d been showing too much of my face.
We moved as a huddle, and with our heads down and hoods up, we weren’t much different from half of the streets’ occupants. My burns didn’t earn me a second glance, because I scarcely warranted a first one. I suspected that Gordon had chosen where he stood with the idea of shielding me from others’ sight, for added assurance.
I liked the thought. It made me wonder if any other people in the crowd were in similar straits.
Ahead of us, a large shape loomed. It looked like the offspring of a deer or rabbit might, if their offspring was squeezed out too early. No larger than one of the cars on the street, it was pink, with stretched skin, the translucent eyelids appearing bruised with how they let some of the darkness of the black eyeballs beneath leak through. Its head sat crooked, forcing it to see the way forward with only one of its two wide set eyes. Its mouth hung open.
Most prominent, however, were the legs. Not much thicker around than my leg, half again as long as the tallest man on the sidewalk was tall, the four legs ended in points, a single claw to each leg. Saddlebags were strapped to saddlebags to form chains that draped the thing like a peculiar sort of jewelry.
As the coaches and cars on the road made way and cooperated, so did the people on the sidewalk. This however, was motivated by discomfort and fear. Men and women gave the thing almost the entire sidewalk to itself.
A woman led it on a fine chain, holding an umbrella overhead, though the creature’s mass already helped shelter her from the rain. She was barely entering into her twilight years, but only the pale color of her once-blonde hair suggested as much. Her face and body were young, and her clothes looked expensive, though they tended toward the simple.
I very nearly tipped over again, as Jamie let go of me and stepped forward to obscure the woman’s view of me.
Feeling as wobbly as I did was more than a little concerning, and a delay was the last thing I wanted.
“Hello Mrs. Thetford,” Helen greeted the woman, smiling.
“Helen,” Mrs. Thetford said, tugging on the chain to make her packbeast stop in its tracks. Her expression changed from an easy smile to shock. “Look at you! You look like something the cat dragged in!”
How apt, I thought.
“It’s Sylvester’s fault,” Helen said. “He pushed me and I got wet.”
Of course she invents a lie that makes me look bad. I made a point of hanging my head, to better conceal my injuries. I could see the crowd passing around and to either side of us.
“Sylvester, for shame,” Mrs. Thetford said, and she used my name as a rebuke, and the way she said ‘shame’ even made me feel a bit abashed over the deed I hadn’t committed. “You really should be nicer to girls.”
“He really should,” Helen said, and her tone was perfect. Just a little bit smug, chiding, but not so much of either that Mrs. Thetford would think less of her.
“And you,” Mrs. Thetford said, reaching under Helen’s hood to comb Helen’s hair back with long fingernails. “You should give some thought to keeping better company. I know you’re loyal to your so-called brothers and sisters, but you could do so well if you devoted some time to others. Your caregivers have very nearly polished you into a diamond, and it would warm my heart to see you finish the transformation.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Helen said, smiling, pretending to be a little shy. Not a lot, but enough to be humble. “It means a lot that you think so well of me.”
“If you decide that you would like to become more of a lady, I would be more than happy to introduce you to some people who could teach you the finer points. Music, dancing, etiquette. The same goes for you, Gordon. You’re evidence that Helen here isn’t a simple fluke. It would take more doing, but I think we could turn you into a proper gentleman with some tutoring.”
“I might take you up on that offer, ma’am,” Gordon said.
“Do! You should,” the older woman said. She brushed Helen’s cheek with her fingers. “You’re a dear. I would have you for myself, if I hadn’t already had my fill of raising children.”
“For now, if it’s alright, I’ll have to content myself with getting home before it’s dark. I’m looking forward to getting dry again,” Helen said, sticking me with a look.
“Of course! Now I feel bad for keeping you. You know where to find me if you would like those lessons.”
We hurried on. Rather than take the long route around to the sides, we passed under and between the legs of the packbeast that was carrying Mrs. Thetford’s shopping.
By the time we’d flowed back into the crowd, almost invisible, Helen’s expression had gone flat again, her eyes cold. The smile was gone.
She saw me looking.
“Are you upset?” she asked.
“Why would I be upset?”
“I blamed you.”
“I always get blamed. I’m used to it.”
She seemed to take that at face value.
I might have pursued conversation, but it would have been purely for self gratification, and I was feeling less and less like talking. My brain had apparently decided that the easiest way to handle what I was feeling was to declare that all of me hurt, and certain parts of me hurt enough that I was reconsidering my ‘one to ten’ scale of pain. If I focused on any one part of me too much, it quickened.
All of that in mind, I was very glad to see the orphanage.
The building was perched in an odd spot, beside a creek and a stone bridge that was thick with grown-in vegetation. The land by the riverbed was stony, uneven, and threatened to be damp, discouraging building efforts, but the building itself had been here long before the Academy, serving as a home for shepherds when Radham had only been a few buildings set around a crossroads.
That it had withstood the test of time was either pure luck, or the person who had mortared the stones together had known what they were doing.
One floor tall, with a stone exterior, it lacked the reinforcing growths that marked so many nearby structures. The only wood came from a tree in the backyard. A short stone wall encircled the property, only three feet tall, and the height both served as a way of keeping the smallest children on the property and was paradoxically welcoming. I couldn’t approach it without wanting to hop up onto it.
Toward the back of the property, I could see that Ralph Stein was in the process of walking the top of the wall. The route went from the right side of the gate, over to the right of the house, alongside the riverbank, around the back of the house, under the tricky bit where the tree’s branches hung over, up the left side of the house, and then over to the left side of the gate. All on the weather-rounded, uneven stones that made up the wall’s top, virtually always in the rain.
My focus wasn’t on that.
My focus was on the black coach parked to the left of the house, beneath the overhang in the roof. The horses were wearing black raincoats, utterly still. Their driver stood beside them, smoking.
My eye didn’t leave them as we made our way down the steps that had been set into the slope. Each one of the stone stairs had seen enough traffic and years that they’d been reshaped, as if buckling faintly under thousands of footfalls.
Gordon pushed open the door. Lillian and Jamie helped me through.
We stopped in our tracks at the sight of a man in the front hallway.
If it had a brain and a nervous system, the parts could be used for making a stitch, or voltaic creature. The quality of that stitched was indicated by the placement of the stitches that gave them their name. Poorer work or a stitched that had been ‘repaired’ often involved joins in visible or inconvenient places. Across the face, or across the joints, where they interfered with function. A good stitch had the joins and scars kept just out of sight, under the chin, or in places where clothes could cover the work.
The figure that stood guard by the door was the most human-like stitched I’d ever seen. Tall, broad-shouldered, the parts had been selected for size and raw power. But for stitches visible just past the cuffs of his jacket, I might not have known. He wore a suit under a hooded raincoat and carried a pistol at his hip.
He was, in two short words, a problem.
I smelled tea, and I heard very little commotion. If I hadn’t seen the coach outside, I could have put two and two together to figure out that we had a guest.
“That would be the children,” Mrs. Earles said.
The others properly put away hoods, cloaks, shoes and boots before toweling their feet to a reasonable state of clean and dry. Lillian bent down and had me lift up my feet one by one to dry them.
“Thank you,” I murmured.
“It’s what I’m here for,” she murmured back.
One by one, we headed around the corner from the front hall, into the sitting room. The room itself had homey touches, and was very much Mrs. Earles. It was her perch in the evenings, the part she made her home. The knick-knacks and decorative carvings, still, were placed well out of reach of errant hands, on the mantlepiece above the blazing fireplace and on various shelves and bookshelves.
My eyes scanned the shelves and bookshelves. Searching.
Mrs. Earles didn’t give off the image of someone who ran an orphanage. She’d struck me more as the assistant to that sort of someone. Managing one child had a way of turning women into mothers, wearing away at certain things while exaggerating others. Even with help, managing sixteen should have pushed her to an extreme in some respect. Something in the vein of a tyrant or a defeated woman, a woman who turned to vice to escape stresses, or a saint. But she wasn’t any of those things.
A part of me wanted to think of her as a mother, but she wasn’t. She didn’t pretend to be. She ran Lambsbridge, she kept us fed and sheltered, and she was quick to use the threat of a smack to keep us in line. Even though I’d been a recipient more than once, I could appreciate that she didn’t hesitate in that respect. I had to live with fifteen others, and if they were allowed to run rampant, I faced more grief than I did dealing with the occasional rap to the knuckles.
Mr. Hayle, by that same token, was almost but not quite my father.
He frowned as he saw me, immediately taking in details that more than a hundred people in the busier part of the city had failed to spot.
“I’ll make sure you don’t have eavesdroppers,” Mrs. Earles said, disappearing.
“Thank you,” Mr. Hayle said, without turning to look at her.
We stood in the entry to the sitting room, while he examined each of us, silent.
He was an older man. Sixty or so, as far as anyone’s age could be pinned down with certainty. He hadn’t prettied himself up or taken advantage of Radham Academy’s resources to remove wrinkles or revitalize his hair. His hair was grey and waxed back away from his face, and his wrinkles cut so deep into his face that I could have imagined them as cross-hatching done with a scalpel. He wore a doctor’s coat indoors, the fabric thick, dyed black so that it wouldn’t show any blood stains. His gloves had been pulled off, and the ends were sticking out of one pocket. A collection of files were already tucked under one arm.
“The other children are accounted for. I’ll be in the kitchen, where I can intercept anyone coming your way,” Mrs. Earles said.
“Thank you,” he said.
She retreated, leaving us alone.
“I was planning on a longer meeting,” Mr. Hayle said. “To look at Sylvester, he might not be able to stand for the duration. Is he stable?”
“I’m stable,” I said, at the same time Lillian said, “He is.”
Mr. Hayle frowned. “What happened to you? No. Hold off on that. If you’re stable, let’s cover the essentials. Tell me, how was it?”
Gordon answered. “Our target’s second experiment is in one of the warehouses, off to the southeast of King. Sleeping off a meal, we’re hoping. It’s there, with all of the notes. As for the target, he’s…”
“In his experiment,” I said, managing a smile.
Mr. Hayle didn’t smile back. “I don’t understand. Clarify?”
“Dead,” Gordon said. “Swallowed.”
We collectively uttered a chorus of ‘nos’ and shook our heads. I glanced at the back of Jamie’s head, saw the faintest hesitation before he joined us in shaking his head.
“What happened to Sylvester?”
“The snake charm- ah, our target, he arrived, forcing us to hide. He found me in my hiding spot, purely by chance, and took me hostage. Sylvester distracted him, and was splashed with-”
“Enzymes,” I said.
“Splashed with enzymes, during the altercation that followed.”
“I did what I could,” Lillian said, “Neutralized the spread with counteragents our target had on hand.”
Mr. Hayle nodded. “Good. Lillian, I believe this marks your third assignment with the group?”
“Would you do another?”
I didn’t miss the hesitation on Lillian’s part.
I tried to view things through her eyes. Seeing the man get swallowed. The horror.
“I would, sir,” she decided.
“Good. You’ll continue to have my support at the Academy, then. If you don’t find all doors are open and all resources available to you, let me know. Your tuition will continue to be waived.”
“Thank you sir.”
“That takes care of the, ah, what did you call him? The snake charmer? Now, unless there’s anything else, I should look after Sylvester there.”
There was a jumble of ‘no sir’s from the others.
He crossed the room, and the others were quick to get out of his way. I used the opportunity to move to one side, further into the sitting room, and scanned the shelves.
Mrs. Earles didn’t keep matches close to the fireplace, and she didn’t keep them where the smaller children could get them.
Even for me, it would require that I stand on my toes and reach high overhead.
The problems that came with being small.
Mr. Hayle was talking while he found and put on his boots. “I do want to have a longer discussion. I’ll need to rearrange my evening, which will take me at least an hour. Add the time it takes to deliver Sylvester… hm, it would be late. Too late?”
“The younger children will be in bed. I could ask Mrs. Earles,” Gordon said.
“No. I’ll be by in the morning. I only considered tonight because I thought you’d want to know how Sylvester was. I can send someone your way, if you’re willing to keep an eye out the window for them. A quiet, short visit to pass on word.”
“Please, sir,” Gordon said, sounding far more solemn than I’d have expected.
“I’ll see to it. Thank you for another job well done. Sylvester?”
I was out of time.
With a wall between myself and Mr. Hayle, each of the others positioned to see, I reached up to the shelf, and felt my burns stretch, eliciting a tearing sensation, and a fresh renewal of pain.
I closed my fingers around the matchbook, then collapsed against the wall, panting.
“Moved too fast,” I said.
Mr. Hayle gave me a sincere look of concern as he did up the buttons of his coat and took his umbrella from his stitched bodyguard.
“Let’s get you looked after,” he said. He paused. “No shoes?”
“Burn on my foot,” I said.
“Carry on, then.”
I discovered that stopping and then moving again was quite possibly the worst thing I could have done. Every burn felt fresh. The movement of my arm was the worst of it. The stitched bodyguard helped me, even going so far as to lift me bodily to my seat. All the same, by the time we reached the coach, I was sweating bullets from pain alone.
The coach’s interior was red, the windows stained to reduce the light that came in, and something that looked like a glowing orange minnow swam in a bowl overhead, casting light on the interior.
The driver steered the stitched horses around. Before long, we were on King Street, heading for the Academy.
“It’s rare that I have a chance to talk with one of you,” Mr. Hayle said. “Can I see your arm?”
I offered it. He probed the edges of the injury.
“I suspect you’ll resist, out of loyalty to your… brothers and sisters? Is that how you think of them?”
“Friends. Gang,” I said. I swallowed hard. “Sometimes I think of them as siblings. What am I resisting?”
“Giving me information. Can you tell me if they’re doing alright?”
“Yes,” I said. “They’re doing everything they’re supposed to do.”
“Is that so? Something tells me you wouldn’t tell me if they weren’t.”
I smiled a little. “What makes you think that?”
“I’ve watched you grow up these past few years. I’d like to think I know you.”
I nodded. I forbade myself from looking outside the window.
“Not up to talking?”
“Not sure what to say, sir.”
“Tell me about the snake charmer.”
“Yes sir. Um-”
A crash shook the coach.
I could hear shouts. Mr. Hayle’s coach came to an awkward stop, lurching, then jerking to the left before finally going still.
He twisted in his seat, and slid a panel to one side. “John?”
There was a pause. The driver replied, “Water. Knocked me off my seat. One of the voltaic horses got drenched. It’s gone quiet.”
“Water?” Mr. Hayle asked. He frowned. “I’ll be right out.”
I remained where I was, very much in pain after the sudden movements.
“Douglas,” Mr. Hayle said. “Look after Sylvester. Be ready to come outside at a moment’s notice.”
“I understand,” Douglas said, the words clumsy in a way that was hard to define. Too precise, the local accent rounded off at the edges. I suspected it would be worse if it was a more unfamiliar phrase.
The door of the coach closed.
One, two, three.
I forced myself to sit up.
I opened my eyes.
Naturally, going outside, Mr. Hayle hadn’t taken his paperwork.
When problem solving, the simplest answer shouldn’t be discounted.
I reached for the files.
The bodyguard reached out, blocking my hand with his.
“That is not yours,” he said. The words were clumsier than his ‘I understand.’
If it was a human bodyguard, and not one that had died and been reanimated, rendered very simple and loyal in operation, I suspected I could have manipulated him or sent him out of the coach.
Stitched were easier in some ways, harder in others.
I pulled the matches out of my pocket.
I struck it.
He didn’t flinch.
Reduced to very primal, simple function, they were supposed to have reactions to fire. Nine times out of ten, it was fear. One time out of ten, it was violent and destructive rage.
The quality of this stitched was top notch. Had Mr. Hayle or the person he bought the stitched from somehow solved the problem?
“Put that out,” the stitched told me.
I reached out, bringing the match closer to him.
He didn’t move.
“Put that out,” he said, more firmly.
I moved my hand, and he remained where he was.
No, the problem hadn’t been fixed. But they’d found a step forward.
He was frozen.
I’d hoped to distract and disturb him enough that he’d forget his instructions and let me snatch up the files. This, however, worked. Still holding the match up, the whole of his attention focused on it, I grabbed the stack of folders.
I returned to my seat.
Before I could open the folders, the door opened.
Mr. Hayle studied me, his expression blank.
I froze, caught red handed. Well, the red hand was the burn, but-
“And it all makes sense,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Sylvester,” he said, climbing up into the coach and taking his seat, “You know why I made you.”
“Each of you. My colleagues in other departments have made weapons, monsters, they’ve made viruses and more, with the understanding that there may very well be a need for these weapons.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“My focus, as you very well know, is on,” he reached over, and he tapped me on the forehead. “The brain.”
“And I was dumb just now,” I said. “Failed project?”
“No,” he said. “No. I made you. Like I said, I know you.”
“If it helps, I’m starting to believe you, sir.”
“It would be stupid of me to make you for a purpose and not expect you to fulfill that purpose. Mistakes here and there are to be expected, and your mistake here was expecting me to be dumb. You’re still developing, and each of you are still being refined in your own ways.”
“Why didn’t you ask for the files?” he asked me.
“Because you might have said no, and you would have known I wanted them,” I said. “And because I think people are more genuine when you catch them off balance.”
“Something to keep in mind,” he said. “And I suppose I’m getting too predictable, if you were able to arrange this.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Take a look,” he said.
For a telling second, I thought the files would be empty, that he might have checkmated me.
But I paged through them, and I found them filled with pages of data, notes, design, and more.
Helen, project Galatea.
Jamie, project Caterpillar.
Gordon, project Griffon.
Sylvester, project Wyvern
I found the fourth file. The one I’d wanted.
I glanced over the first page, then closed it, nodding.
“Why?” Mr. Hayle asked. “All that for a glance?”
“Expiration dates, sir.”