Taking Root 1.4

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Our conversation had to stop for a moment when a group of boys veered our way, kicking a ball between them.  They circled the tree that was holding up one corner of the glass roof, then headed off toward their makeshift goals.

“The lunch hour is going to end before too long,” Jamie said.  “We should hammer out details.”

“Sy’s idea, making sure we’re all on the same page…” Gordon said.  “Okay, that makes sense.  Sy?”

“Hold on.  I can change details based on where you guys are at.  Fill me in, quick.”

“Okay.  As far as everyone here knows, including the headmistress and the rest of the faculty, I’m the son of a butcher mogul, Helen is the daughter of a diplomat, and Jamie is the orphan son of a military captain who died and left him some money.  At Jamie’s suggestion, the story is that we were all staying at the orphanage as a matter of convenience before our enrollment at Mothmont.  Favors were called in, whatever.  It’s happened before, given the ties between Lambsbridge and Radham Academy, and it’s not going to surprise anyone.”

“I’ve been here before,” Lillian said.  “Before I was a student at the Academy.  Teachers know me, they like me.  We leaked the idea that I was suspended, and the rules of Mothmont mean I can come back here whenever, to get some classes in, use facilities or brush up.  I might have to explain to my parents, but I think it’s okay.  Nobody’s asked how I know you guys, but I don’t think it’s a problem.”

“I suggested the ‘ties to the orphanage’ thing because I recognized faces among the students, and those faces have probably seen us out and about as a group,” Jamie said.

“Overall, we have a cover,” Gordon elaborated, “Nothing so questionable that anyone’s going to raise questions.  But people have a way of taking things at face value, and this situation hasn’t really bucked the trend.”

“Except for the attempts on your life,” I said.

“Except for that.  But there aren’t any holes in what we’re saying that should have raised suspicions,” Gordon said.

I nodded.  “Mr. Hayle filled me in on most of that, but it’s good to have the details.  He said he was intentionally vague about who I was, so I could adapt as the situation required.  He did say that it was a special favor from the orphanage to work me in later than the rest of you.”

“Really,” Gordon said.  He smiled a little, “Why would the orphanage be so eager to get rid of you?”

“Because I’m intolerable,” I replied, smiling back.

“Going by the fact that we’ve been seen together, and we’re being seen together now, who are you, and how do we know you?” Gordon asked.

I shrugged, and I was reminded of just how uncomfortable the uniform was, and the spots where it was rubbing against the new skin.  “I’m an orphan.  We were about the same age, I offered to show you around town.”

“That won’t go over well,” Gordon said.

“I’m betting it won’t,” I said.  “Scrubby kid with messy hair from wrong side of the tracks.  I’ll stick out.”

“Which is your plan,” Gordon concluded.

“In part.  But before that… what have you done so far?  What angles have been covered?”

“Oh, you know me,” Gordon said.  “It’s only been a week and I’m almost the best student in my class, best at sports, and most can’t even bring themselves to hate me for it.  I’ve been mingling with the top dogs among the boys here.  Helen’s done the same for the girls.  Between the two of us, we’ve been able to get the word on who the victims were, as well as keep an eye out for who the potential victims might be.”

“Anything conclusive?”

“Less than I’d like.  We’ve asked for extra help to get up to speed with our classes, and that’s let us keep an ear to the ground when it comes to the faculty.  There’s a chance that the person turning children into murder weapons is one of the teachers.”

“Only a chance?”

“Every weekend, students go to the Academy.  Get a taste of it, keeps them invested in Mothmont.  Split up into groups based on interest and age.  Students who were extra good get special lessons with professors.”

“That’s… messy,” I said.  “Too many things to cover.  You didn’t visit me?”

“I was recovering from being poisoned,” Gordon said.  “Lillian was hovering, making sure nobody had reason to get too curious about me.  That left only Helen and Jamie, and they were busy following up on likelies.”

“Poison, huh?  I wasn’t expecting that.”

“That was the most successful attempt out of the three, two for me, one for Jamie.  One object fell from the roof, almost caving Helen’s head in, and Jamie very nearly got pushed in front of a fast moving coach while he was on his way to the Academy.  Helen saved him.”

I nodded slowly.  “No sightings?”

“They’re careful.  And they’re a they, we’re pretty sure.  Plural.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Starting to get a more complete mental picture.”

My eyes glanced over the collection of youths around us.  Would there be overt signs?  They couldn’t be too obvious, or the others would have noticed.

Without knowing more about how the murders were being done, I didn’t know what to look for.  We were surrounded, and letting our guard down could be dangerous.

Jamie, maybe thinking I was still hurt that they hadn’t come for me, commented, “I looked for you at the Tower, poked my head into Hayle’s department, to check the labs to see if you were around, and because I wanted to ask a quick question about Gordon and the poison.  I got word on where you were, but I didn’t have much time to look around.”

Hm.  I probably would have been where Jamie looked for me if I hadn’t barred myself in the office after my appointment.  Live and learn.

The Tower, Mr. Hayle’s department opposite end of the Academy campus from the Hedge where I’d been, was largely focused on research and development regarding the brain.  Widely viewed as a dead end, the department had defaulted to handling a lot of information storage, memory banks, and files.

If Jamie had been there… I spoke my thoughts aloud, “Jamie went to the Tower because… you guys were thinking about mind control?  Something to do with the brain?”

“We were thinking it could be some neurological manipulation,” Jamie said.  “Helen was looking into hormones and drugs at Claret Hall.”

Claret Hall being the center of campus, where students gathered and ate, where key administration facilities were available, and where some of the key elements of the campus and core classes were taught.  If all aspects of Radham flowed from the Academy, then all aspects of the Academy flowed from Claret Hall.

“And you didn’t find anything,” I said.  “If you had, you would have told me.”

“Nothing meaningful,” Jamie said.

I nodded.

Gordon’s head turned.  I followed his gaze.  Students were still playing, gathering in groups, but his focus wasn’t on the students.  “More teachers appearing around the doors.”

“Trouble?” I asked.

“In a way.  We’re out of time.  Lunch is over.  If you’re going to fill us in, now’s the time to do it.”

“We’re close enough to the door that people will see us,” I observed.  “Everyone but Helen, keep an eye on the crowd.  Don’t be obvious about it, but keep an eye out for hints.”

“What am I doing?”  Helen asked.

A shrill whistle drew the attention of the various students.  It sounded again.  A teacher was signaling for others to come indoors.  Hordes of students began moving toward the doors.  Some lingered, like we were, and some were quickly wrapping up their games.

“Fix my hair,” I instructed Helen, “Give me a kiss on the cheek or something, be tender about it.”

“I like you?” Helen asked.

“You’re a big sister to me, but actually acting like a normal big sister.  It can be misinterpreted.”

She hadn’t quite adopted her deadpan expression, but as I gave my order, her expression changed.  She smiled, and it was warm.

“Your hair is a mess,” she said, and her voice matched her expression.  She reached up and fussed with it, running her long fingernails against my scalp as she fixed it up a bit.  Probably better than I could have if I’d had a comb and more time.  She fixed the hair that went from the center of my hairline to my temple, brushing it up and more out of the way, and then let her hand linger, a quarter second too long.  “You should focus more on appearances.”

“I should,” I said.  “There’s time to learn.”

“I can always teach you the particulars,” she said.  “If you’re able to keep yourself in one piece long enough.  I’m glad to see you’ve been put back together.”

She gave me a rub on the arm where I’d been burned, then leaned close to kiss me on the forehead.

Again, her face remained closer to mine for just a heartbeat longer than it needed to.  With the proximity, I couldn’t help but think that I found her scarier than I’d found the snake charmer’s experiment.  I knew it was purely my imagination, but I imagined it was how I’d feel if I was dropped in a tiger’s enclosure at the zoo, the resident sitting the same distance from me.

Still, I smiled.  “I like me being in one piece too.”

I didn’t look, but I was very aware that of the large group that was filing into the door, a great many boys were paying a great deal of attention to the exchange.

“In we go,” I said.  “Keep an eye out.”

We joined the crowd.  Gordon took up the rear, guarding our backs.

I only realized at the last second that him watching our backs was a bad thing.  A hand reached out in my peripheral vision, and Gordon caught it.

“Woah there, Bruno,” a boy our age said, “Ease up.”

Gordon let go of the hand.  “Calling me names, now?”

“Just poking fun.  I’m a pal, Gordon.  Relax,” the boy said.  He pulled his hand free of Gordon’s grip.

The boy was dark haired, with dark brown eyes, but very much of the same type as Gordon.  Big, healthy in stature and build without showing a hint of being fat, handsome, and confident enough that he was probably one of the top dogs.  Between me and Gordon in size, a couple inches taller than me, an inch shorter than Gordon.  Twelve or so?

He smiled at me.  “Who’s slick here?”

“Sy.  Sylvester if you want to be polite,” Gordon said.  “Showed us around before we made our way to Mothmont.  Sylvester, this is Ed.  Ed is a good guy to know if you want to know people.  We’ve been hanging out.”

“Nice way to put it.  You mentioned you’d figured out where things were,” the boy said.  “Hi Helen, Lil, and Ja- James?”


“Jamie.  Sorry.”

We were moving with the rest of the crowd, heading into the school proper.  I was very aware of those who were moving past me.  If they were as brazen as the others had insinuated, I wasn’t sure a knife wouldn’t find one of us while we were part of this press of bodies.

“Tell me about yourself, Sy,” Ed urged me.

“Nothing to tell,” I said.  “I’m nobody important.”

Reel him in…

Ed laughed, but it was a laugh for his own benefit, and probably for the others who were watching from a distance.  “You don’t get into Mothmont without being important somehow.”

“Got in on an ask,” I said.  “I’m from the orphanage.”

“Yeah?” he asked, and there was interest in his voice, with a hint of something else.  The question had more than basic curiosity backing it.  “How’s that work?”

“Someone liked me, I guess,” I said.  I shot Helen a smile.  She smiled back.

“That’s not really an answer, buddy,” he said, but there was a bit of a push to the statement.  Insistence.  Not just that, but really, ‘buddy’?  He was acting like he was an adult and I was the kid, but he only had a few inches on me.  It irritated, and I was feeling particularly irritable.

“Only answer I’m going to give,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

I saw a flicker of annoyance on his face.  He blew a bit of air through his lips, “Pff.  I was just being friendly, there’s no need to brush me off.”

“I’m not brushing you off.  I’m hinting that you’re butting your nose in where it isn’t wanted.”

Ed laughed, again, and I could hear a distinct difference between the laugh now and the laugh just a few seconds ago.  Tighter at the edges.  More forced than natural.

We were in the hallway between various classrooms, and the crowd was thinning out, which made me feel a little less worried for my own skin.  The classrooms each had windows between the class and the hallway, and the window frames were grown, large pieces of broken glass collected with what looked like tree branches growing to hold them in place, glass effectively filling the gaps between each branch.  Past those windows and the classrooms, I could see the yard and the street beyond the school.

Things were so clean.  Bright, crisp, all polished and white-painted wood.  I didn’t like it when things were this done-up.  It felt dishonest.  Nicer people tried to make something look, the less I trusted it.

A place as nice as this, trying to be classy?  Murderous students felt like the least of its problems.

“Sy’s usually like this,” Gordon said, “Don’t worry about it, Ed.”

Ed was smiling, but it was a forced smile in the same way the laugh had been.  “I’m not worried, really.  I just have to wonder about the company you keep.”

“Wonder?  Why?” I asked.  Keeping him talking, talking on his feet.  I was more comfortable with a fast-moving conversation than most.

“You’ve been given a rosy opportunity like this, kid like you in a place like this, me offering a hand in friendship, and you snub me?  Not wise, limiting yourself like that.”

“Kid like me, huh?”  Force him to justify, put myself apparently off balance, trying to adjust, adapt…

“Kid like you.  Of less established breeding, no offense.”

He totally meant offense.  It killed me that he was giving me a golden line like that and I couldn’t give it what it deserved.  I had to go easy.

“No offense taken,” I said, smiling.  There was a teacher not too far away, watching the children in the hallway, making sure her students made their way to her class without dallying.  I gave my response, smiling at him. “It’s funny.”

He didn’t seem to comprehend.  Now I had the reins of the dialogue.  He was forced to ask.  “Funny?”

“Someone clearly inbred talking about my breeding.  It-”

He grabbed me by the front of my uniform and shoved me against the wall, hard.  Some students around us gasped, stopping in their tracks or forming a loose circle around us.

The teacher had noticed, and was heading our way.

“Woah there, Bruno,” I echoed him from earlier.

He pulled me away, then shoved me against the wall again.

Then there was laughter.

Helen.  She had one hand to her mouth, and in her attempts to stifle a giggle, she ‘accidentally’ snorted.

Ed stared at her.  There was something raw in the look.

Whatever else he was, he was still only twelve or so.  He could be good with words, handsome, smart, whatever else it took to be one of the top dogs of Mothmont, but he was new to liking girls, and he was very conscious of his other friends, who were hanging back, watching.

“Sorry,” she told him.  “Really, Edward, I’m sorry.  But you have to admit Sy’s line was funny.”

I love you, Helen, I thought.  She’d figured out my angle and here she was, supporting me perfectly.

The teacher was forging his way through the ring of students.  Ed had noticed, and he had to save face.  Had it not been for Helen, he might have socked me one in the stomach and left it be until later.  But he couldn’t very well hit me without going against her.

He was cornered.

“This isn’t over,” he said.  “We’re going to continue this later.”

“Are we?  Easy to say, but so many chicken out.”

He leaned close and whispered, “After classes, in the corner of the yard, where the two trees will give us some privacy,” he said, making a show of letting go of my uniform.

“I’ll believe it when I see you there,” I murmured my response.

The teacher broke through.  Ed pulled away, hands in the air.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked, stern, one hand on her hip.

“Nothing,” I said.  “All good.”

“All good,” Ed joined in.  “Just playing.”

She gave us a curious look.  “Get to your classes.  Mary, Eliza, I see you talking there, get to your desks, I’m starting the lesson soon.”

Her attention was already elsewhere, gathering up and ordering around kids she knew she had clout with.  The rest fell in step.

“I’m disappointed, Gordon,” Ed said.

“We can talk later?” Gordon asked.  “Don’t want bad blood between us.”

“Maybe, sure,” Ed said, but Gordon wasn’t his focus here, or even second in his focus.  The boy left, turning his back to Helen and me as he rejoined friends, hands in his pockets.

Lillian and Helen hurried to their next class, Helen shooting me a smile.

“When you set your mind to it, you’re remarkably good at getting people to hate you,” Gordon said.  “Poor sap.”

“Me or him?”

Him,” Gordon said, sounding offended at the question.  “You and Helen teaming up on him.  Why’d you go and do that to him?  You knew you’d get someone’s goat by having Helen be gentle to you, and you did, and then you twisted the damn knife.  If you wanted to verify that he wasn’t one of the people who were trying to kill us, you could have asked me.”

“Oh, I wasn’t thinking that,” I said.

“What were you thinking, then?”

“They say when you go to prison, you should murder someone or join a gang.  Idea is that you want to figure out the pecking order and fit yourself into it somehow.”

“Uh huh,” Gordon said.  He glanced around, noting that the number of students in the hallway had thinned out pretty dramatically.  We were almost alone, and the students that were around were hurrying.  “This isn’t prison.”

“The hell it isn’t.  But that’s beside the point.”

“Then why bring it up?” He was quick to retort.

I sighed, “I’m establishing the pecking order.”

“Sy,” he said.  He put both hands on my shoulders, leaning close.  “I hate to say it…”

“You love to say it.”

“In all the years I’ve known you, watching you from the beginning, I have never ever known you to win a fight.  Or even put in a good showing.”

“I didn’t say I’d be at the top of the pecking order,” I protested.

Gordon stepped back, and he looked at Jamie.

“To be fair, he didn’t,” Jamie said.

“We just got him back, and we’re going to have to send him right back to the Academy for more medical care,” Gordon said.

“It won’t be that bad,” I protested, again.

“What are you shooting for, Sly?” Jamie asked.  “Gotta fill us in.”

“You guys stalled because you’re too safe.  Were you watching the crowd?”

“Yeah,” Gordon said.  Jamie nodded.

“Anyone paying too much attention?  Trying not to look like they were looking?”

Gordon shook his head.

“A few faces caught my eye,” Jamie said.  “I can point them out later.”

“We shake things up, see what happens,” I said.  “What moves, what doesn’t, what doesn’t move like it should.  We pay attention to what comes next, and we might get clues.  I just happened to draw everyone’s attention, and whoever was paying attention to you lot is paying extra special attention to me now.  I’m betting they’re confused.”

“I suspect the only person who really gets how you think is you, Sy,” Gordon said.

“Helen gets me,” I said.

“Helen is-” Gordon started.  “Yeah.”

“I get it too.  But you should be ready.  You might be a target, Sy,” Jamie said.

“I know.  I expect it.  You guys have been worrying about knives in the back or poisonings up until now, it’s only fair I have my turn at it.  The way and timing of their response is going to be important, so keep your eyes open.”

Gordon and Jamie nodded.

We were getting dirty looks from teachers that were just starting their classes.

“Pass it on to the girls?” I asked.

“I will,” Gordon said.  “Watch yourselves.”

I nodded.

Jamie and I resumed our trek to our class.

“He’s not good at this,” Jamie said.  “This kind of task.”

“Yeah,” I said, glancing back at Gordon.

“His talents don’t really lend themselves to it.  Maybe one day, but not today.”

“This is more my domain,” I said.  “Helen’s.  Yours to a lesser degree.”

Jamie nodded.

“Speaking of your domain, what’s the scoop on the guy I just picked a fight with?”

“I don’t know.  He’s not in our classes.  Gordon’s kept an eye on him, I haven’t had a reason to.”

I frowned.

“You’re not worried, are you?”

“I figured if I had a few choice attacks I could fire his way, I could position myself better.  I don’t want to be at the very bottom of any pecking orders.”

“Uh huh,” Jamie said.  “I’ll find out.”

Jamie’s long hair was pulled back into a sailor’s ponytail, low and resting against the neck, which wasn’t how he normally wore it.  It was nearly invisible with his collar up.  I reached out and flicked it with my finger.

He jabbed me in response, which prompted me to bump his shoulder with my own, almost sending him into the nearest classroom door.  He did the same to me, to less effect.

The exchange continued for a few seconds, until he stopped all at once. “Stop, we’re at the class.  They’ll see.”

I immediately fell back into a regular walk, pulling my uniform top down.  Still in the hallway, we had to walk by the tree-branch window that ran along the length of the classroom to reach the door.  Jamie pushed his glasses up his nose and fixed his ponytail.

When he was all fixed up, I surreptitiously gave him a jab in the side of his stomach with one of my fingers.

“I’ll get you for that,” he murmured.  He opened the door.

“You’re late,” the teacher said.

“The headmistress said Jamie should show me around,” I said.

The woman pursed her lips.  “I see.  Take your seats, please.  You can sit by Jamie…”


“Sylvester.  Thank you.  Get the notes from Jamie later.  For now, just sit and follow what you can.”  She walked over to her desk and made a note on what I assumed was an attendance list.

I was very aware of the subtle smiles or glances from various students.  Ones that had seen Ed pushing me up against the wall, knowing full well that I’d been stretching the truth.  My eye quickly traveled over the boys and girls that weren’t smiling.

I wouldn’t be able to remember the particulars, which ones looked like they were trying too hard not to look at me, or who weren’t.

Jamie would.

“Now, back to what I was saying.  Wollstone’s ratios are used in seventy percent of what you’ll be doing if you go on to attend the Academy.  The golden ratio, seen here, could be said to be the precursor to what would eventually be Wollstone’s nine ratios.  With a few quick measurements, we can quickly divine which of the nine ratios is used for a given organism’s physical structure or composition, and working backward, so long as we can keep to the ratio, we can trust that the organism has the fundamental supports for life.

For example, if you’ll turn to page seventy-five, we can see where the fundamental pattern of a cat is outlined.  Keeping to Wollstone’s ‘wise’ ratio, we can discern which parts of the pattern apply to specific parts of the cat.  Now, it gets more complicated when we decide to alter the pattern, or the how of it, but you should begin to have a glimmer of how a ratio can be used as a shortcut to understanding…”

My forehead hit the desk.  I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep.

To his credit, Ed did know how to throw a punch.  He knew how to throw ten.

To my credit, I managed to stay on my feet until the tenth punch.  I didn’t manage to deliver anything substantial in the meantime, but I wasn’t curling up into a ball and crying uncle.

The group of students around us was smaller than I would have liked.  The Lambsbridge orphans, Ed and Gordon’s friends, and Helen’s group.  Girls for Ed to impress.  Maybe it would make up for my baiting him, if he got to look good in front of some girls.

Landing at the base of the tree, I took a second to catch my breath.  I raised a hand to make Ed stop.

“You done?” he asked.  “You’re not going to say anything about my family again?”

“I didn’t say anything until you-“

I saw him bringing a fist back, ready to hit me again.

I opened my mouth wide, wincing at the feeling at the corner of my jaw.  Tight.

In the process, I saw a movement in the corner of my eye.

There weren’t many windows that offered a good look at the scene.  Three trees had been planted at one corner of the yard, between the glass roof and the building, and they blocked the view from many of the nearby windows.  They also served to keep most of the rain off us.  Only the girls were wearing hoods and jackets, and I was getting dirty, but not muddy, which was better.

We hadn’t been obvious about our fight, and anyone who had a reason to watch was going to be part of this crowd.  But, still, three boys had paid enough attention to us to know the fight was happening, and had found one vantage point inside where they could peer past the gaps in the branches and watch what was happening.  One, thirteen or so, was standing in a way that let the curtain block the lower half of his face.  The other was far younger, nine or ten, and was leaning forward, hands folded on the windowsill, peering over the bottom of the window to look down at me.  The third was somewhere between the two in age, and hung far enough back to be hidden in the gloom of an unlit classroom.

The look in their eyes was clear enough.

As curious as we were about the murderous children, they were curious about us.  They couldn’t know me well enough to know how I operated.  Even Mr. Hayle didn’t, and he’d practically designed me.

Ed jabbed me in the middle with the toe of one shoe.  “Eh?”

“We’re good,” I said.  “Sorry about saying you’re inbred, Ed.”

He didn’t look appeased.

I glanced toward the classroom again.  The boys were gone.

“Come on,” Gordon said.  “Let’s get you looked after.”

I nodded.

“Saw them,” I murmured, as he helped me limp on.


“Inside.  Three boys.  I can give Jamie partial descriptions.”

“Three boys,” Gordon mused.  “That’s not good.”

“Poisonings are usually done by women,” Helen said, as she joined us.  “Meaning we’re dealing with four.”

“At least,” I agreed.

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114 thoughts on “Taking Root 1.4

  1. Typo thread:

    because because I recognized faces
    because I recognized faces

    You’re a big sister to me, which you are, but here you’re acting like a regular big sister.
    I sort of get this, but the sentiment is hard to follow.

    “Got in on an ask,” I said. “I’m from the orphanage.”

    people who was trying to kill us
    people who were trying to kill us

    timing fo their response
    timing of their response

    • One more:

      I looked for you at the Tower, poked my head into Hayle’s department, checked the labs for you, and to ask a quick question about Gordon and the poison.
      last verb, ‘to ask’ isn’t in past tense like the rest.

    • More typos:

      – “The Tower, Mr. Hayle’s department opposite end of the Academy campus from the Hedge where I’d been” – missing verb

      – “Some lingered, like we were” -> should be “like we did”

      – “Nicer people tried to make something look, the less I trusted it.” -> should maybe be “The nicer people” or “The more people ried to make something look nice”; on first read, I thought the sentence was about “nice people”

    • “That was the most successful attempt out of the three, two for me, one for Jamie. One object fell from the roof, almost caving Helen’s head in, and Jamie very nearly got pushed in front of a fast moving coach while he was on his way to the Academy. Helen saved him.”

      I’m seeing a problem with the math here. Three poisoning attempts, not assassination attempts, maybe? It needs to be clearer, I think.

    • The pronoun of the teacher that breaks up the hallway fight briefly changes to male in the paragraph where she draws close enough for Ed to see.

      • Would like to second this complain. See:

        There was a teacher not too far away, watching the children in the hallway, making sure her students made their way to her class without dallying.

        The teacher was forging his way through the ring of students.

        “What’s this?” the teacher asked, stern, one hand on her hip.

    • “Nothing so questionable that anyone’s going to raise questions. But people have a way of taking things at face value, and this situation hasn’t really bucked the trend.”

      The use of “questionable” and “questions” is redundant, and the paragraph is confusing overall. I believe that the general gist of it that their cover isn’t watertight, but that it’s innocuous enough to pass casual inspection?

  2. I kind of get the impression that Sy and Helen show their affection for one another by faking affection due to their emotional disconnectedness. Which is adorable.

    I’m not sure how “twelve-year-old” Ed sounded, but then, I haven’t been around twelve year olds in a while, much less ones that are mad scientists in training.

    • I get the impression you need to feed Helen a character sheet and/or cue card before she can emote at all.:/ How much of herself she can put in… Well, we’ll have to see. But, I honestly doubt she even can.:/

      She’s like the anthropomorphic personification of compartmentalisation.😐 With hints of method acting.

  3. “They say when you go to prison, you should murder someone or join a gang.”
    Worm-reference right there, nice. =D Looks like Sy is starting to establish some bad guy image of himself right off the bat. Picking a fight on his first day, sleeping in class, being late… The question is, what’s genuine and what’s the act? ^^

  4. 1.) Seeing these kids interact is bringing back flashbacks to my childhood. Without all the murdering though.

    2.) Theory Time:

    – Helen and Gordon were built to be the eventual pinnacle of their respective sex. Both in mentality and in physicality.

    – Sy and Jamie were built as the pinnacle of mental attributes of people: understanding of people and storing/using knowledge respectively.

    – Lilian is the handler assigned to the group much like the other students. It’s another reason why Sy dislikes her as she probably volunteered for this.

    • Lillian is not Lacey.

      Lillian is a kid and a member of the Academy, apparently accepted young in return for working with the Orphans.

      Lacey is the ‘grad student’ working on the Wyvern project Sy chewed out in the last chapter.

    • …I thought that Sy disliked Lacy, who is a completely different person from Lilian? I mean, Sy doesn’t seem to like Lilian, and certainly considers her an outsider, but I don’t think he feels quite as much animosity towards her.

    • There were supposed to be six Lambsbridge kids, and I think they were probably based on
      character archetypes:
      -Gordon would be the high performance physical/social type, the Glorious Leader, and Alpha Male. Good with people, good at sports, good at fighting.
      -Jamie would be The Scholar. Going by his place on the playground (to the side, reading a book,) he’s not really a highly social type, but I imagine he’d get along with the quiet, bookish types.
      -Sylvester, or (appropriately,) Sly, is obviously The Trickster. His specialty is provoking people, hiding things, and figuring out why and how others hide things. He’d get along with troublemakers, if he got along with anyone.
      -Helen I highly doubt was intended as Gordon’s counterpart, despite how well can play the role. In point of fact, I suspect she’s Sylvester’s. Her entire shtick seems to be how she’s fully programmable, and by default she’s a psychopath. That strikes me as espionage spec if I ever saw one, but I’m not sure about the name. Saboteur? Femme Fatale? Actress. She’s The Actress.
      -I would guess that the failed two were girls, and one of them was supposed to be the Artist, but I’m not sure about the other one. The Queen, perhaps.

  5. I’m really loving the group interactions. Sy and Helen, as well as Jamie and Sy in particular in this chapter. To be honest I just love the whole group. I hope the school setting stays constant, at least for a while. Really looking forward to seeing more of their ‘specialties’.

    • As the headmistress said, this is temporary. I’m not a fan of school settings in general, as I find them confining, but I would like to explore it to some extent.

      • You have the talent to make any setting interesting, but I’m glad you don’t plan make the group spend much time in a school setting, It is kind of an over-used setting nowadays.

  6. This plan seems to be premised on the idea that the killers will react to them in a way that’s visibly out of the ordinary. That does not strike me as an entirely safe assumption, because there’s mental alteration about.

    • Whatever alterations they may have, they’re clearly not psychic. They need information on our protagonists before they can effectively plot another murder attempt, which means they have to be actively collecting said information. Sy is trying to capitalize on the tool-assassin-kids not knowing anything about him by providing them with a chance to see him in a fight.

      • I’m not entirely confident it’ll work that way, depending on how exactly whatever-it-is works and how far the school is into Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The students may not actively be aware they’re supposed to kill the team and only get their minds overridden when a chance comes up, since the attacks so far would not require much prior planning. Even the poison might have been readily available. It is also entirely possible that a huge chunk of the student body is already compromised and thus don’t need to behave suspiciously to collect information.

        Since it does seem to have worked, I guess they are actively aware. Remains to be seen if it’s a small group, or if literally everyone who showed up to orientation is affected and the guys in the room are a distraction.

  7. We are getting more hints as to composition here. Gordon and Helen are the ‘popular’ archetypes: good-looking and socially adept. Helen registers on Sy’s radar as dangerous (the tiger analogy) but has been mentioned as having flat affect more than once, so she is not a classic psychopath. She is also manipulative, catching on to Sy’s mind games quickly, so perhaps a ‘femme fatale’. Jamie draws and registers faces easily, so he is the artist. Sy is of course the mastermind.

    Interesting that brain research is regarded as a dead end, considering that’s apparently what produced the six (now four) kids. In addition, if I had to guess at what turned the Mothmont kids into weapons, mind control comes fairly high on the list. The autopsies didn’t show “any particular chemicals or abnormalities” but the second and third bodies at least were partially burned, which might hide some minor evidence. There is usually a missing or slightly misplaced clue in Wildbow’s works that prevents real identification until the reveal, but given the setting, we have the usual parade of suspects:
    —brain leech, messes with perception and/or emotion (counter-evidence: the attacks suggest physical enhancements)
    —brain leech, messes with nerve signals to the muscles
    —clone, with the actual students being kidnapped (counter-evidence: the bodies left behind are most likely not clones due to the rather high standards of required copy fidelity that would be required)
    —clones, with the actual students still alive and running the murder ring (counter-evidence: see above, also assumes the students are willing to forgo their inheritances)
    —someone else of about the same size kills the parents, then the actual students are shown the scene, told they are the likely suspects, are given a short-acting depressant, and convinced to kill themselves (counter evidence: assumes unidentifiable chemical, contrary to evidence)
    —reverse waldo – clamps onto the body and physically forces actions
    —clue is wrong and some form of short-lived or undetectable poison is involved
    —all scenes are set up – the kids aren’t really the killers (counter-evidence: difficult)

  8. Hey wildbow, great work on pact! I’m enjoying twig so far as well.

    Twig doesn’t seem to have navigation links at the top of the chapter pages, so you have to scroll all the way down to go forward or back (at least in my version of Chrome on OS X 10.10). Do you think you could add those in?

    • Yeah, sometimes takes me a bit, as I don’t do it until I’m done, and sometimes finish and then take an hour to get settled or unwind before responding to typos and doing table of contents & adding in the links manually.

      • Ugh, you named her Helen? And made her wear a skirt?!

        Are you trying to kill women’s rights?!

        Oh god you named one of the male character’s Godorn?! And he’s super athletic too?!

        Way to strain the readers necks by raising the goal posts for personal achievement!

        • Well, to be fair, window didn’t name the character, Mr. Hythe (or whatever his name did), and that’s the person who was created by wildbow. ;p

    • I was just coming to say that it was odd of Helen to assume that. Poisons are weapons, that anyone with the know-how can use. Of course, assuming more accomplices than are immediately apparent, especially in a case of multiple murders, is just good sense.

  9. You know, I really appreciate Twig starting up two weeks before Bloodborne’s release. I know it’s just a coincidence, but it’s definitely making the wait more tolerable.

    And then I can read Wildbow’s stories *and* play Bloodborne, and that would be just golden. Well, in between studying and stuff.

    • It’s great that you mentioned that because I’m already drawing (premature) parrallels between Bloodborne and Twig. However, I think that I’m just being influenced by the parallels that I drew between Pact and Dark Souls.

  10. Whaaa… the chapter is over already? Whyyyy :<

    Wildbow, really, I have fallen in love with the architecture. The idea of "growing" parts of your buildings is so new to me, and so amazing.

    Helen scares me… And don't worry about your skin, Sy. You can get new one!

    I find it interesting that the teachers only have clout with their students. Schools here don't work that way.

    Finally… memory banks? What the what? I think that is the most impressive thing we have learnt in this chapter. Sure, controlling people is a huge thing, but I think being able to take people's thoughts or memories out and storing them is more impressive. I assume this is the case, because it seems silly to call paper storage a "memory bank".

  11. This story has been promising so far, but I feel that in this chapter it’s really taking off.

    I love getting good examples of each character’s strengths. Each of the protagonists seem nuanced and important. I’m really, really excited to see more of how they work together, playing off of each other’s strengths.

    • He, as they said, is not useful in this situation because his expertise is in combat, leadership, and generally getting shit done, whereas Sy’s specialty is manipulation/social skills, Jamie’s specialty is memory/information processing, and Helen’s specialty is interpersonal management/emotional skills.

      In the situation they are in, it is not until they find out what the children are being controlled with that they can go guns blazing at whatever is causing this, which means Gordon has nothing to do in the meantime.

      • With your logic it would also explain why Sy sees Helen as the scariest of the group.
        Side note, it did not escape my notice that Sy’s thought calling the guy inbred was going easy on him. What a character.

        • Something tells me that if he wanted to he could trigger a severe existential crisis for most people with only a few words.

          He strikes me as the kind of weapon that doesn’t need anything but words to send your world crashing down around you.

  12. Really enjoying your work so far. I wasn’t able to really maintain my interest in Pact like I had with Worm, but the pacing for Twig seems on point as of yet.

    Does Helen have a personality or is she pure automaton? I’m trying to imagine what she does in her free time and all I can see is her starting at a wall for hours.

  13. So I’m starting to formulate what I think each of the kids is in their group. Basicly each has a specialty, a function. This makes them very good at their specialty, but very bad at other things. And that is a potential flaw. The more seperated they are the worse they are. As a group they are very good at their jobs. But because they only do the one thing well they suck at anything else. So my thoughts, subject the revision.

    Sy- The brains. He’s the one who takes the information and processes it, and makes the plans. Downside is he sucks at a direct role, and cannot win a fight at all. He makes the others stronger, but isn’t any good in a direct confrontation, needing Gordon and Helen for that. A Wildbow protagonist who only looses fights. That’s new.

    Jamie- The Eyes. He observes and gathers information. However he can’t corralate it too well on his own, and can’t really use it and plan. He has to hand off what he knows to Sy.

    Gordon- The heart. The part that is supposed to hold the group together, and give it strength. Able to get others to like him. Probably not too bad in a fight but not as good as…

    Helen- The Killer. Judging from Sy’s reactions to her I think Helen is the most lethal of the kids. The one who is a killer, and who when the time comes to act is directed to end it. Sy is a bit nervous about her because he thinks she can end him, and in the right circumstances would.

    • It would make more sense in this situation for Sy to lose the fight, knowing he was being watched by others… right?

      I don’t think Gordon’s group “glue” is required with the group dynamic…though it doesn’t seem to have been tested… and we still haven’t had revealed to us how the group got together, nor what Sy wants…

  14. Also, could it be that this early on we have the negative “Wonder Group” (TM Patent Pending)?
    Four nefarious children lovingly created for the express purpose to oppose our darling protagonists at every turn? Nega Sy is super obvious about everything, Evil Helen just kind of trips everywhere and can’t stop picking her nose, Reverse Gordon keeps almost getting them killed by leading them into traps and Un-Jamie is a complete amnesiac.
    Sworn enemies with polar characteristics, truly an unconquerable masterstroke!

  15. I am getting very curious about the other 2 children that didn’t end up being viable.

    I’m also rather curious about how the other three see their group.

    • I’m willing to wager a large (imaginary) sum that one or both of them are still active and simply not a part of this group, and that they will show up again in the story.

  16. Heh. Just noticed something. Don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I keep mapping the kids to the Hogwarts houses.

    Anyone else seeing it?

    • Gordon Gryffindor, Jamie Ravenclaw, Sy Slytherin, Helen… Slytherin’s Monster, and Lillian Hufflepuff?

      (HPMOR ref: Sy Headmaster!)

      • Gordon Hufflepuff, Helen Gryffindor, Jamie Ravenclaw, and Sy Slytherin.

        Wait a minute. Aren’t “bookworms” generally depicted as caterpillars? And Jamie is project Caterpillar.

        • No, Gordon is definitely a Gryffindor, his code name is Griffin for god’s sake.
          I would say Gordon Gryffindor, Sy Slytherin, Jamie Hufflepuff, and Helen Ravenclaw.

          • Gordon might be Gryffindor, Sy Slytherin, and Jamie Ravenclaw, but Helen is by default a psychopath, which would probably land her in Slytherin, and she’d switch houses depending on her role at the moment.

          • Note (no spoilers, just a note) she hasn’t been confirmed as not having feelings, merely as being a perfect actor. This might be semantics from an outside observer antagonist’s perspective, but it sure as hell isn’t for a psyhologist. Not saying if you are wrong or right on her being a psychopath though, but it wasn’t confirmed or degbunked on the point you made this comment.

  17. Pleased to get these details about Jamie’s strengths.

    Curious about what it is that Sylvester /does/ (‘how he operates’)… *smiles*

  18. Well, it’s still early to say but I’ll probably be a huge fan of Helen. She’s my favourite of the quartette by far (approximately 1.5 fars, actually).

    • Well, she is the only female that the protagonist approves of (barring the older headmistress), so if you were a teenager who identified with the protagonist then Helen is really the only available female in the story to approve of so far.

  19. Cause multiple ongoing problems in a school situation where the only plausible agents that could be sent in are themselves school-aged, and cause those problems so that there’s absolutely no trace of any profit motive? Seems like a situation tailor-made to bring these particular kids into it. So, why would someone want to?

    I’d suspect revenge as a motive. Maybe the perpetrator was someone who survived (maybe the snake guy managed to pull out his knife, cut his way out of the creature, used his fully-functioning not-at-all-destroyed lab to regrow his own skin like what was done with Sy, and is out for revenge)? Maybe it was a friend of someone who was arrested/killed.

    Maybe it’s the two nonviables, somehow escaped, and who desire to kill their potential competitors.

    Maybe it’s Sy himself. If the group can demonstrate their value, and Sy (or whoever) can delay research back at the Academy enough that the group couldn’t be easily replicated, then perhaps their expiry date can be pushed back further, or ignored, or the group can figure out how to remove any “deadman” triggers implanted in them so that they can run off and be free? Maybe this is the first step in creating an “oh no, they all died in an untraceable manner, oh well, no point in searching for them because they’re all obviously dead.” Sy is obviously an untrustworthy narrator, only in that he doesn’t reveal everything to us, so we can’t rule him out as the ultimate perpetrator.

  20. I’m looking forward to the team interactions in Twig. Besides Sy, Helen looks particularly interesting. Her talent seems to lie in something like acting, and I very much enjoy such characters. (Manga recommendations about actresses: Skip Beat and Glass Mask.) Her behavior also reminded me a bit of Blake’s brief adventure with glamour, which was one of my favorite scenes in Pact.

    In any case, I’ve been enjoying Twig a lot. Thanks, Wildbow!

    Finally, I do want to mention that I loved these two lines in particular: “He totally meant offense”, and “This isn’t prison.”“The hell it isn’t.”

    • Yeah. If you’re good at it (which I was) school just gets you into college. If you’re great at it, school gets you into a good college. If you’re bad at it, i can definitely see it seeming like a prison.

      • No, it doesn’t matter how good you do in school, the fact is that (at least in america) the only real difference between schools and prisons is that the people being detained are children and they are not there 24/7. They both have strict schedules, cameras everywhere, guards patrolling the hallways, and you are not allowed to leave either until they say you can.

        These similarities become far more exaggerated as you get into the schools in ghettos where it might be hard to tell the difference between the building meant to educate children in and the building to punish criminals in.

      • I think I need to clarify/revise my position.

        By “good” I don’t mean just academics. If you looked at my grades in college, you’d wonder why I’m taking a break. Much of my success in school came from the fact that I didn’t even have to put up with a tenth of a percent of what Taylor went through. Is this due to some skill? If that was the reason, I’d be the one who had to go home crying every day. Am I lucky? Hell yes. Am I thankful? Nowhere near as much as I should be.

  21. Hmm, mind control is almost a certainty, the story is being written by the guy who came up with Bonesaw and Mannequin and the setting somewhat Lovecraftian. Nope, no chance of a horrorifying horror story here.

  22. I’m liking this so far, but just in general not really a fan of master manipulator/schemer archtypes as main characters. Almost always feels very contrived to me, but sometimes it can work (worked in Lies of Locke Lamora for example). Anyway, I hope Twig continues to find a good balance — keep up the good work!

  23. I’ve been following your work for nearly a year now, and I finally wanted to comment to say how stoked I am about this new story. Love the setting and the characters so far and I’m looking forward to following one of your stories from its very beginning (as much as I like binge-reading to catch up). Anyways, thanks for producing such interesting material and I can’t wait to see this one through.

  24. Sy continues to be something of a mystery. The way he oscilates between being genuinely affectionate and caring for his teammates and feeling really distant from them strikes me as…odd. (eg. Feeling nice about Helen when working on Ed, but being afraid of her when her act is up. Being touched at being asked for, but also planning on rubbing their faces in the fact that they *need* him.) There’s also the fact that his programmer, Hayle, expects him to think of the Lambridge gang as family, and Sy thinks of them as a gang. Considering the fact that the kids were almost certainly programmed to like each other, to work as a group, I suspect that the oscilations are a sign that Sy’s programming is unstable.

    More information about the abilities of the group. Jamie is the library of the group, there to store and retrieve information, (and maybe also to take in seemingly unrelated information to make a stronger conclusion, like a psedo Tattletale). Helen is the infiltrator of the group, the one best equipped to create fake personalities and covers for any given situation. Sy is a schemer, and also the information seeker to Jamie’s library. He makes situations where useful information falls out, Jaimie memorizes the data for later use. Gordon is the charismatic one, the person there to convince large crowds and civilians to do x, y, and z. He’s also the group’s main guardian, going out of his way to make sure that his less careful teammates make it home in one piece.

    My best guess for the source of the killings is that it’s the result of some sort of surgically implanted thing that triggers violent compulsions under the right conditions. The earlier chapter mentioned that the killings were being refined over time, which means that the means can be adjusted on the fly with relative ease. This means that it’s probably not, say, a brain parasite or poison that hits the murder button the first time someone familiar enough enters the subject’s line of sight. To be honest, if it weren’t for the total lack of radio waves in the setting, I would suspect some sort of remotely controlled drone. Sense that’s out of the picture, I’m thinking that at least one stage of the device forces the victim into a state of high suggestibilty where you can refine the trigger and resulting rampage- say, to wound everybody and set the house on fire rather then just killing them. Or even something simpler still, to just dump this vial into that person’s dish…

    • Sy might be unstable… Or suffering an unforseen conflict between otherwise innocent-looking “command lines” he’s having to deviate to juggle with. He’s supposed to be the somewhat distant Machiavellian-type, almost-sociopath… yet, they’ve bolted “love your group” on top? Did they not spot the problem?:/

    • So far, I actually like him a bit better than Taylor. My estimation of him will probably drop when he does something mean to someone who doesn’t deserve it. To paraphrase the great Handsome Jack:

      “There’s no excuse for being a jackass. Unless you’re kinda funny about it, in which case, it’s totally fine.”

  25. I don’t think anyone has commented — Helen appears to have faster reflexes and/or better peripheral awareness. She avoided the falling object that would have caved her head in and she saved Jamie from the carriage/horses.

    However, I think the description is off. The story said, “That was the most successful attempt out of the three, two for me, one for Jamie. One object fell from the roof, almost caving Helen’s head in, and Jamie very nearly got pushed in front of a fast moving coach while he was on his way to the Academy. Helen saved him.” Shouldn’t that be, “… the most successful attempt out of the three, one for me, one for Jamie, and one for Helen.” It seems like Gordon is counting the attempt made on Helen’s life as an attempt made on his own life.

  26. Does anyone want to bet that Sy and co. will get framed for the murders somehow? Or one murder, to get them sent away?

    • That’s a good hypothesis. Especially if the group (and the group needs a name) is here because the murders were set up in such a way that the group’s presence would be necessary, and since I’ve already speculated that the group may be behind what happened, someone else in-story may also believe that.

  27. (After tracking down and rereading the Boil two snippets, I now appreciate the ‘ratios’ lesson-part here! It makes it much easier to understand what was being referred to there, e.g. about a patient’s ratios (or applicability to the ratios) that a care-provider had to try to memorise…)

    • Coming back from the future to reread the beginning… I don’t think I’m spoiling anything important if I say it’s in-world slang for someone with enhanced muscles that I don’t think comes up again until 8.x. I didn’t note its use here on first reading, and on rereading am surprised to see that it was established this early.

      Basically Ed was calling Gordon a thug.

  28. I am enjoying this so far, Wildbow, but noticed a odd choice of words.

    “the wrong side of the tracks.” is a term to indicate that someone comes from a bad part of town. I think it is based on the fact that only the poor would live near railroads, close to physical work and intolerable noises and smells associated with trains and their cargos.

    It seems very likely that trains, or something like them *could* exist here, but with the existence of voltaic creatures, and the way everything seems to have a bent towards the organic rather than the linear, I’m not sure there will be “tracks” in the same way there are in this world. I could easily be wrong, however. I haven’t caught up yet. I wanted to let you get a few chapters in before I started.

    If I’m right, and there aren’t trains or train analogs that use tracks and divide cities the way train tracks and the industries around them did in the days when rail was king, then perhaps the phrase might need adjustment to ‘the workingman’s side of town’ or some other universe-appropriate term to indicate the ‘bad’ side of town. ‘The Mulch’ seems like an apt derogative term that might be used to describe the side of town that smells bad, but is necessary to the city. I know it’s a little thing, but the possible anachronism leapt out at me a bit.

      • Aye but the phrase also postdates early trains. Trains weren’t an urban blight until the late 1800’s

        It’s not a big deal, but I figured I’d poke Wildbow about it. There could well be trains in this world, and they could divide cities into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of town.

        • They may not have had “trains”, but they had tracks as early as the 1500’s in Germany, according to Wikipedia, for horse-drawn loads. This quote purports to be from 1805, “A good horse on an ordinary turnpike road can draw two thousand pounds, or one ton. A party of gentlemen were invited to look upon the experiment, that the superiority of the new road might be established by ocular demonstration. Twelve wagons were loaded with stones, till each wagon weighed three tons, and the wagons were fastened together. A horse was then attached, which drew the wagons with ease, six miles in two hours, having stopped four times, in order to show he had the power of starting, as well as drawing his great load”

          i figure that, wherever they lay down tracks within a city, train or not, they’re pretty much going to lay them close to the dividing line between the good/medium and the bad parts of the city. Anyone with money isn’t going to want to live near the tracks, and laying down fresh tracks in good neighborhoods is going to upset a lot of people and cost a lot more money than running a line through cheaper buildings/real estate. So you’re going to want to lay down tracks in bad/poor areas, but as close to the better areas as you can, so there’s generally going to be a poorer side and a richer side.

          You’re going to want to get as close to the better areas as possible because 1) it’ll cut down on the cost of transport (goods will likely flow much more readily to/from the good side). Also, 2) there’s going to be a gentrification force acting on the main roads to/from the good side to any stations, and there’s going to be spillover that’ll further reinforce the good/bad sides. As more wealthy people travel to/from the station, their pathways are going to be upgraded, because people with money don’t want to see that trash on the road, or have to associate with riff-raff while they get their business done. The road to any station on the other side, though, likely won’t be gong through gentrification, though. So I think the phrase “the wrong side of the tracks” is probably much older than trains, possibly.

          • All the phrase pages I found entries for it in indicate that the term started in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. It’s really not a big enough deal to argue about.

  29. Stats:
    Slyvester: Strength OK, Constitution ^Average, Dexterity ^Average, Intelligence ^Average, Wisdom Genius, Charisma Average

    Jamie: Strength Average, Constitution ^Average, Dexterity Average, Intelligence Genius, Wisdom ^Average, Charisma Average

    Gordon: Strength Genius , Constitution Genius, Dexterity Genius, Intelligence OK, Wisdom OK, Charisma ^Average,

    Galatea: Strength N/A, Constitution N/A, Dexterity N/A, Intelligence N/A, Wisdom N/A, Charisma N/A

    Yesss, now I just have to make a game!

  30. Maybe I misread the scene, but did the teacher who was shooing kids inside for class switch genders?

    Male: “The teacher was forging his way through the ring of students.”

    Female: ““What’s this?” the teacher asked, stern, one hand on her hip.

    She gave us a curious look. “Get to your classes. Mary, Eliza, I see you talking there, get to your desks, I’m starting the lesson soon.”

    Her attention was already elsewhere, gathering up and ordering around kids she knew she had clout with. The rest fell in step.”

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