The syringe was fancy, glass with silver leaf at the ends and at the plunger. The glass had turned smoky where it had once been clear, and only the faintest trace of the original contents were still inside. Thicker around than any three of my fingers put together. It probably cost twenty dollars, if not more. A good week’s wages.
Somewhat vindictively, I pulled out the plunger until I had the weight balanced, put my fingers on it, and sent it spinning wildly on the desk, periodically rustling scattered papers or sending them floating over the desk’s surface, riding a thin layer of air. Traveling across the desk, it struck an identical syringe, eliciting a pair of high, sweet songs from the ringing glass.
It didn’t break. Shame.
I stepped over to the window, my feet kicking up more papers as they might stir leaves in the fall. I was at ‘the Hedge’, the colloquial term for the wall that encircled the Academy. A great deal of the wall wasn’t large or tall at all, but it rose in places, and the corner of the Academy closest to Radham had a hospital built into it. Through the hospital, students bought their turns at getting training and locals bought care. The view was of the wall itself, the Academy on one side, Radham on the other.
About the only thing that was the same about the two places was that it was raining. A light rain, but enough that just about everyone had their hoods up. The boys and girls on the Academy side moved as though they were all in a hurry. They were all tidy, hair well looked after, white uniforms clean. Their bookbags had flaps over the top to keep the rain out, and the buckles that kept the flaps in place each had the university’s symbol on it, a full-face helmet in profile framed by red leaves and ribbons.
Almost but not quite a badge of office.
Outside, watched from a distance, people moved as though they were mired in tar. They found their way eventually, but there was no clear direction, even in a city that had been built with a plan in mind.
I didn’t enjoy looking, but there wasn’t much else to be done. I’d read the books, I’d read the various papers, and I’d slept. Seven days I’d been cooped up here.
I felt a chill, and rubbed my hands over my bare arms. My skin had been replaced where the enzyme solution had devoured it, and while the pigmentation was very slightly different if I looked for it, it remained sensitive, not yet used to heat and cold, to the rubbing where seams of clothing touched it, or to idle scratches. I kept my shirt off, but that meant being colder, and though it was dawn and spring had sprung, it was gloomy outside.
I held the back of my hand up to the edges of the window, letting the sensitive skin feel the movements of the air. Slowly, so as not to disturb the air with my own movements, I moved my hand along the point where the window glass met the frame.
I felt the point where the breeze came through as though ice had touched the new skin. Pulling my hand away, I tore the end off one page of paper and popped the paper into my mouth before setting the syringe to spinning at full speed once again.
The syringe rattled as I got the motion wrong, and the rattle prompted the papers under the cot to rustle. Not because I’d moved or because I was going anywhere.
Periodically, someone came to talk to me. I was already figuring out their schedules. Going by the time of day and the schedules I’d observed over the past week, they were past due to arrive.
Being past due meant they were up to something. I was tense, chewing on the little bit of paper, listening past the patter of the rain on the window and the sound of the syringe spinning on the desktop.
I could hear the murmur of speech, too far away and muted to make out.
I recognized Mr. Hayle’s voice.
“-Or worse than before?” I could make out the tail end of the sentence.
“More or less the same, professor. But as intractable as he gets, his behavior differs from month to month. This time, he wanted to be alone. Very much so.”
“I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that it followed so quickly off the back of another incident, or the pain he was experiencing. Make a note. If we’re bringing another student on board to oversee the Wyvern file, that would be a good way to bring them up to speed while doing something constructive.”
There was a pause, pronounced, then a knock on the door.
I didn’t respond right away. Reaching up to my mouth, I pulled the wad of paper out, then jammed it up against the gap in the window where it was leaking cold air.
“I’m here,” I said.
The door opened. It only opened a few inches before it hit the toppled bookcase that barred the way. The rest of the floor was carpeted in scattered papers, fallen books, and various folders.
I angled my head to one side, and saw Mr. Hayle do the same, peering through the gap. He looked at me first, then the bookcase.
“How are you?” he asked.
“My head hurts,” I said. It did. It hurt in a very different way than my body had. My body had been effectively burned by the enzymes, and burns hurt more than just about anything. My brain, however, it felt like it had been poked, prodded, beaten and kicked into the dirt, then made to do a marathon after the fact. The burn only hurt the parts that were burned. This was the sort of pain that made everything hurt, and promised more pain every step of the way for the rest of the journey.
A hollow, empty, tired hurt.
“I can well imagine. How in the world did you pull over the shelf?”
What he was asking was how a boy who weighed four point seven stone could pull over a floor-to-ceiling solid wood bookcase with half the books still on it. Mr. Hayle might not have been able to knock it down in the prime of his youth.
“I pushed the upper corner,” I said. “Then I dropped a book into the gap so it couldn’t go rock back to where it was. Pushed again, dropped more books in. Kept at it, and eventually it tipped.”
“You scared the wits out of some of my colleagues. They thought a part of the roof had fallen in.”
“We thought something had escaped,” a woman’s voice in the hallway said. “It was like someone had kicked an ants nest, people scurrying around to find out what had gone wrong.”
I couldn’t resist smiling a little at that.
Hayle smiled, though only half was visible through the gap in the door. “Ah, there we go. Your expression was so cold I thought we’d somehow lost you, Sylvester. I don’t suppose you could think up a way to lift the shelf back into place?”
“Probably,” I said. “I could get started soon. It would take a while.”
“I was hoping to have you out of there sooner than later,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, without missing a beat. I knew I sounded hostile, cold as he’d put it. I didn’t care.
“Your… the Lambsbridge gang has asked for you. I myself would appreciate your help.”
My eyebrows went up.
“I might see if Douglas here can-”
“Why?” I cut him off.
“Why do they need my help?”
“That, Sylvester, is a question I’m more than happy to answer, but I don’t feel like detailing it all through a door.”
I frowned, reaching up to scratch my head, looking around.
Hopping up onto the back of the bookcase, I approached the door, examining the frame and the door itself.
“As I was saying,” he said. “I could ask Douglas to try pushing on the door-”
I seized one of the syringes, paused to set the other one to spinning, just for the heck of it, and headed over to the cot.
“-he should be strong enough to move the bookshelf, don’t you think, Lacey?”
“I think so, professor,” the woman on the other side said.
“Now that I think about it, my concern is damaging the door.”
“It should be okay, I think.”
“Okay, Douglas, come here…”
When I glanced up, Mr. Hayle wasn’t looking through the gap. It was probably awkward to keep in that position, right up against the door.
I put my bare shoulder under the bottom of the cot, using my whole body to lift it up. The metal of the cot’s frame was cold against my back. I set the syringe on the floor and slipped to one side to let the cot drop. The leg came down to break the glass.
The noise made something under the bed move, flying out to the corner by the door and bookcase.
“Stop, Douglas. Sylvester,” Mr. Hayle said. “What was that?”
“Allow me one minute,” I said, absently, picking my way past the pieces of glass.
“I’m sure Douglas could get you out. I’m not sure what you’re doing there, but if we could minimize the damage and the explanations I have to give my colleagues that are working here in the Hedge, I would appreciate it.”
“Damage is done,” I said. If only to the syringe. I shifted my position, lifted up the cot again, and repositioned the plunger-end of the syringe. “I’ll be fifty seconds.”
I imagined him repressing a sigh. All I heard, however, was a, “very well.”
A doctor using a syringe had to put their fingers into two metal loops just by the plunger. My target was the loop. I moved out of the way, and let the leg of the cot fall.
I twisted and worked the loop until the metal gave way, then raised the cot again.
Using my hands, I folded the broken bit of metal in two, for a long length of metal. I collected a fallen medical text, and it was heavy enough I could barely hold it in one hand.
Placing the long bit of metal on the underside of the hinge, pointing up, I gave it a solid whack with the book.
The pin that held the hinge together popped up.
Another whack made it pop out.
The other hinge was high up enough that I had to stand on my toes to reach it, even with the bookcase under me.
I gave it the same treatment, and the pin came free.
“Okay,” I said, swiftly backing up, “Done. Push.”
I very nearly stepped on the glass from the syringe, before arresting my movement. My leg and bare foot stayed up, and I caught my balance, tipping over, twisting, and then throwing myself at the desk with the still-spinning syringe on it, just to have something to grab.
Around that same moment, someone pushed on the door. Without the hinges, it simply tipped forward and fell onto the back of the bookcase.
Mr. Hayle was there, wearing his uniform, including the black lab coat with a hood, and I spotted the red headed woman in the white lab coat, who I knew only as Lacey. Shapely, thirty or so, and wholly dedicated to her work. Unfortunately. I suspected the first-name-only was supposed to endear her to me, but it really didn’t.
“I’m glad you’re okay, Sy,” she said, her voice soft. Trying too hard to be gentle.
Mr. Hayle picked his way past the door, stepping onto the back of the bookcase, apparently intent on surveying the damage.
“Sir,” Lacey said, suddenly sounding concerned rather than gentle.
“There were two glass cases in the room. They were inhabited.”
Mr. Hayle froze.
“The snake and spiders?” I asked. “They’re around here somewhere. Something was under the bed. It’s pretty close to you.”
“They don’t concern you?” Mr. Hayle asked.
I shook my head, then wished I hadn’t. It made the general kicked-into-the-dirt pain in my head come back.
“I won’t come any further then. If you’d find a shirt and come out?”
I nodded. I collected my shirt from the bed and pulled it on.
All things considered, he seemed remarkably at ease over the damage I’d done. I wondered who the office belonged to.
“Walk with me,” he said. “Douglas, please listen to Lacey as she instructs you about putting the shelf back in place and catching the smaller animals. Lacey? Bring him to my office in the tower when you’re done.”
“Yes sir,” Lacey said.
She reached for me while I passed, and I jerked my shoulder to strike her hand away rather than let it rest on me in anything resembling reassurance.
Mr. Hayle hadn’t missed it.
I buttoned up my shirt while we walked. I was wrinkled, my hair greasy and sticking out at the ends. I might have looked feral.
“You don’t like her.”
“I could tell you she’s a lovely, vibrant young lady, but that’s not the question, is it?”
“I didn’t think so. Let it be what it is, then. Tell me, honestly, do you feel up to working?”
“I’m rarely honest,” I said.
“Then give me a convincing lie.”
“Yes, sir. If they need my help, I’ll give it.”
He frowned a little.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“The night I dropped you off, I gave them a task. It is perhaps the most important job that the Lambsbridge project has been given. One only your particular group can do.”
He’d had my attention. Now he had my curiosity.
He probably knew me better than I was willing to admit, if he was getting to me this quickly.
That, or my defenses were down, and I was giving him more clues than I’d intended.
“I positioned them at the Mothmont ladder school to investigate a problem, and they’ve run into a block. No forward progress.”
“If I’d known I’d be going to school I don’t think I would have helped you move the door.”
“Then let me tell you why you opened the door. Three weeks ago, a student at Mothmont killed his father, then himself. The victim was a Crown State Senator. Autopsies didn’t indicate any particular chemicals or abnormalities. Nine days ago, we had another incident.”
“Another Mothmont student.”
“Yes,” he said. He paused as we passed a pair of students in grey lab coats. Graduates. The red and silver of the Radham Academy crests they wore on their breasts were stark against the muted fabric.
“Hello, professor,” the girl of the pair greeted Mr. Hayle.
“Good morning, Heather, good morning, Daniel,” he replied. We continued walking. When they were out of earshot, he resumed his explanation. “A house burned with four individuals inside. Charred bodies of a lawyer, his wife, and his politician brother were autopsied, and trauma suggests they were cut with the intent of disabling, limiting their movements so they couldn’t escape the fire. Ankles, knees. The daughter of the lawyer was found in a separate room, a Mothmont student herself, but the cuts were different. A day later, there was a third incident. The day I appeared at Lambsbridge to talk to you.”
“Three makes a pattern.”
“The third incident saw the son murdering his father, grandfather, and mother, the father and grandfather were, again, prominent. Military. He set fire to the crime scene and sat in the midst of it to burn up.”
“What was the murder weapon? Do they know?”
“The father and grandfather were killed with a sword that had hung over the mantlepiece, both were in their beds. The mortician believes the mother fled and tried to fight back. She had defensive wounds and a weapon of her own in hand. She lost the fight.”
She lost. That was interesting unto itself.
“You’re sending us after killer children,” I observed.
“I would call them assassins rather than killers. You understand the concern here?”
We’d reached the end of the hallway. Mr. Hayle opened a closet and retrieved my cloak and shoes from within. I started pulling my outdoor clothes on. “It doesn’t look good.”
“No, Sylvester, it doesn’t. Mothmont was made and supported by rich and powerful individuals with the premise that younger students would graduate from there and move on to the Academy. If they couldn’t pass the entrance exam, they would continue their studies at Mothmont until they could. Only the best in teachers, facilities, and students.”
“Except for the parent murdering part,” I noted.
We began our way down. There were more students in the stairwell, four men clustered at one window, smoking, two women sitting on the stairs below. Both scooted over as we came down.
One of the women smiled at me as I descended. Twenty and beautiful and wearing a white lab coat that suggested she was still a student. Almost an older Helen without the Helen-ness. When I met her gaze, my expression flat, her smile dropped off her face.
Mr. Hayle spoke in a low voice, his head turned to make sure nobody above us was listening in as we continued down the spiral stairs. “Being different tends to draw attention, whether it’s being inferior or being superior. Mothmont, being superior, has clearly fallen under someone’s eye. We would like this to stay out of the public’s eye. The only reason it hasn’t, I believe, is that the third incident happened halfway across the country. Given a fourth incident or time for rumors to spread…”
“…The cat would be out of the bag. I get it.”
“This isn’t quite like any of the tasks I’ve given the Lambsbridge project, but it’s one I feel you’re suited for. That said, it is sensitive, Sylvester. Lives are on the line, the people who know and are paying attention matter, and the reactions if others found out could be disastrous.”
“I get it,” I said, again. I knew I was more irritable. I had the information I’d wanted, and now I was finding myself slipping back to the point I’d been: feeling the ache in my head and resenting everything for existing.
“Each major department was given a share of funds to go toward major projects. Rather than devote my funds into one project, I devoted them to six very different projects. The plan was for the six to form a whole.”
“It’s unfortunate that only four of you proved viable, but you’ve turned out well, you each show more and more promise as you develop, but you remain one member of a unit. A gestalt. Your group is feeling your absence, and they feel it strongly enough that they went out of their way to ask for you.”
“I’m touched,” I said. I wasn’t lying about that, but my thoughts were more on the fact that I’d get to rub it in their faces. They needed me. I could be smug about it.
We reached the first floor. He held the door for me, and we passed through, heading straight for an office.
The grey-coat doctor that had given me fresh skin greeted us, exchanging brief pleasantries with Mr. Hayle before getting down to brass tacks. I shouldn’t spend too long in the sun until a few weeks had passed. Never mind that the sun rarely showed its face around these parts.
My thoughts were already on the situation at Mothmont. I was a week behind the others, and time was already proving to be of the essence.
It wasn’t Mr. Hayle that dropped me off, but his student Lacey. One of three students assigned to me. It made for a very quiet, uncomfortable ride to Mothmont. I did my utmost to make it uncomfortable for her, glaring at her.
To her credit, she seemed to have difficulty meeting my eyes.
“Professor Hayle suggested I take you to get your hair cut,” Lacey said, summoning some courage and meeting my gaze. “So you’re more presentable.”
“It isn’t long.”
“It’s long enough to get untidy very easily,” she said. “It wouldn’t take long.”
“No,” I said.
“No,” I said, again. “Don’t suggest it again. There’s a reason I want my hair like it is.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, raising her hands. “I understand. How about food? You barely ate at all after you locked yourself in the office.”
“I ate plenty,” I said, meeting her eyes. “You didn’t find all the spiders that had been in the glass case, did you?”
She was stricken with a paralyzing sort of alarm at the idea.
She seemed to shake it off, and she managed a titter of a laugh. “You’re messing with me.”
I looked out the window, and very casually remarked, “It’s sort of disgusting when a woman as old as you are tries to giggle and act like a little girl.”
I didn’t look at her to see her reaction. That would have taken away from the effect. My peripheral vision suggested she’d reacted as if I’d slapped her full-on in the face.
“Don’t talk to me like we’re friends,” I said, still not looking at her. “I’m your job.”
“You seem to have civil conversations with professor Hayle, Sy- Sylvester.” She’d switched to the long form of my name at the last second.
“Yeah,” I said. I met her eyes. “I respect him, if nothing else.”
Three students had hands-on roles with the Wyvern project. With me. I had no idea how many were peripherally involved. Looking at Lacey, one of the three students, I couldn’t see any trace of a smile on her face. The look in her eyes was a mixture of dislike and pity.
Pity. And she wondered why I hated her as much as I did?
“I see,” Lacey said. “Understood. Can I ask-“
I tensed a little, leaning forward with my hands on my knees, and I heard the hitch of hesitation in her voice. A momentary pause.
“-Why now?” she finished. “I won’t say there haven’t been incidents in the past, but why are you suddenly taking issue with me today?”
“You can ask,” I said, and I left the statement hanging.
She turned her head, looking out the window I’d been staring out of a moment ago. Apparently she wasn’t too surprised at the non-answer.
“Every day for the last week, you knocked on the door, you tried to talk to me, to reassure, to offer food, sheets or clothes.”
“And you wanted to be left alone?” she asked.
“I did, but that wasn’t it. Give a man a gun, tell him to shoot his neighbor or he gets shot. The first man we put in this situation does it without a care. He pulls the trigger. The second man cries and moans, he begs his neighbor for forgiveness, then he pulls the trigger. The third man cries and moans, begs for forgiveness, and pulls the trigger, and the fourth man takes a bullet because he won’t bring himself to do that.”
“The second and third men are the same?”
“Oh. Right. The first and second man went home and went to sleep and rested easy,” I said.
She worked through it aloud, summing up, “First shoots without a word, sleeps easy. Second man asks for forgiveness, shoots, sleeps easy. Third man asks for forgiveness, shoots, but doesn’t sleep. The fourth dies because he won’t shoot. You’re going to tell me the first man is the best of the four?” Lacey asked me.
I gave her a disgusted look. “No.”
“The third, then. You’re implying I’m the second? It’s a pretty massive, incorrect assumption on your part, Sylvester, if you think I sleep easy,” she said, and there was a touch of heat in her voice. I’d upset her a little.
“No,” I said, calm. “I didn’t say anything about someone being better or worse. They can face the situation any way they want to. They’ve got a gun to their head, it’s their choice. You? Maybe you’re like the second man, maybe you’re like the third, but you definitely don’t have a gun to your head. If you’re being nice to me, it’s for your benefit, not mine.”
I leaned back, turning away from her, my attention returning to the window.
Human nature. If I’d simply said it, one line, one sentence, she wouldn’t have listened. But I’d gotten her thinking, pulled her in, and then forced her to face it.
The remainder of the coach ride to Mothmont was blissfully silent.
Mothmont turned out to be an interesting building. Four stories with a steep, slanted shingle roof, it took up a third of a city block, it had no yard that I could make out. The walls were eggshell pale, and the ivy that crawled across the brickwork was dark, almost leafless. It wasn’t in an end of town I’d frequented, but even among nicer buildings with gargoyles that spat out water from the gutters and built-in stables for stitched horses, it stood out as something prominent.
A woman was waiting for me by the arching entrance that led into the building.
Lacey didn’t say a word as I left the coach, pulling my hood up to shield off the rain.
“Sylvester, I take it?” the woman asked. She was buxom, the word was, businesslike in a pink jacket and short dress, brown hair curled at the sides, with a touch too much makeup.
“You have manners. Good. I’m the headmistress. Let’s have a look at you.”
I pulled down my hood.
Somehow she didn’t look particularly pleased. I was a little scruffy.
“Come, inside,” she said, guiding me with a hand at my back.
She led me in past the front office, pointing me to the boy’s bathroom.
“Uniform on the chair by the sink. Take a moment to wash your face before getting dressed. I’ll bring you a comb so you can tidy your hair.”
I nodded, and I did as she asked.
The uniform turned out to be white. White slacks and a button-up shirt with short sleeves and a straight, stiff-necked collar. The white of it was likely a nod to the Academy.
I hated white. I’d seen too much of it, and it didn’t suit. My hair was black, and even with grease or glue or whatever else I put into it, the ends would curl up and it would find a way to break loose.
I made myself as presentable as possible, knowing it wouldn’t last.
I stepped out of the bathroom and presented myself to the headmistress. She knelt before me and smoothed out some of the clothing, picking at one piece of lint.
“It suits you,” she lied. “You look like a young gentleman.”
Two lies in two breaths, straight to my face. I almost liked her.
“It’s lunch time. You can introduce yourself to the others. The afternoon classes are all dedicated to biology. On Fridays, we visit the Academy. Now, a boy named Jamie was staying at the orphanage. Do you know him?”
“You’ll be in the same classes as him, and you’ll sleep in the same quarters. You should find him sitting under the tree in the yard, I think.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“This is strictly temporary, you understand?” she asked. “I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
“I understand, ma’am,” I said.
She straightened, looking down at me. “Mrs. Earles believes you might be motivated to try harder, seeing what we have to offer.”
“I think I will, ma’am,” I said.
“Go on, then,” she said.
I went. A woman stood by a gate, opening it to let me through.
The building formed a square, with the yard in the center, the precious pupils safe within. A glass was erected with trees grown to support it at the corners, keeping those beneath dry. The glass roof itself crawled with vines and small flowers.
Youths aged seven to fifteen were gathered within, many playing, or gathered in groups. Blankets were laid out here and there for them to sit on, so they wouldn’t get their uniforms dirty.
Just as the students of the Academy had possessed a refined, polished air, these students looked proper.
It didn’t take me long to find the others. Gordon was in the company of the boys, a larger group. Helen was among the girls. Jamie was under one of the trees at the perimeter, book and pen in his lap. He’d seen me before I saw him, and was on his feet in a moment.
Lillian, I found off to one side, with an obese girl and a taller, skinny, buck-toothed man who looked to be about fifteen. Gordon whistled, sharp, and got her attention. She quickly said her goodbye to her two friends.
Gordon took one look at me, and I saw genuine worry in his eyes. “You had an appointment.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We’re supposed to be there for each other when it counts.”
“You didn’t know it was coming. I didn’t either,” I said. “At least I don’t have to worry about it for another thirty days.”
He looked unimpressed.
“You’re intolerable after an appointment,” Jamie said.
“I’ll try to be intolerable in a useful way,” I answered. “Let’s get down to it. I heard you got stuck.”
“Wait, before any of that, did you come alone?” Gordon asked.
I frowned. “I got dropped off by Lacey.”
“Damn,” he said.
“We’d hoped Hayle would come too,” Jamie said. “I thought he’d be more concerned at our lack of progress.”
I looked between the two, confused.
Gordon frowned. “Look, we’re more than stuck, Sy. We’re in danger.”
“They know who we are. They’re onto us,” Helen said, and her voice was soft and entirely unconcerned. That wasn’t to say there wasn’t cause for concern. It was just Helen.
“Five attempts on our lives in the last seven days,” Jamie said. “And the way we figure it, that means they’re either very, very clever…”
“Or rogue elements from the Academy,” I said.
“Talk to us,” Gordon said. “Let’s hear your ideas, fresh eyes, before we start giving you reason for bias.”
“Alright,” I said. “Knowing what little I do, I don’t think the kids are killers. I don’t think they’re assassins, either. They’re tools.”
Gordon nodded. The others were still.
“The killings are steadily improving in quality. That suggests the kids are the weapons, and the killer is out there,” I said. “and I think you know that already.”
“We do,” Gordon said.
“What you don’t know, and why I think you’re stuck, is that you’re too prone to patterns. You have your own way of doing things, but it’s too rigid, when your enemies are hiding in the shadows. You need to shake it up.”
“You have an idea how, I imagine.”
The pain in my head was going away by the second.