Taking Root 1.5

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I watched as Jamie used a pen to sketch out a rough image.

“Head was narrower.  Taller than wide,” I commented.

“Most heads are.”

“That looks round.  Also, he didn’t look sinister, but he didn’t look interested either.  It was cold.”

“Like Helen sometimes looks?”

I considered.  “No.”

“You, then.  On a bad day, after an appointment?”

“I don’t know what I look like after an appointment.  They don’t usually let me have access to reflective surfaces, and I’m not usually gawking at myself, either.”

Jamie leaned back in his chair, and his head bumped my chest, where I was leaning over the back of the chair.

He remained where he was, looking up at me.  “You had a look in your eyes like all the joy had gone out of the world.”


“No,” Jamie said.  “Um…”

He turned a page in his notebook.

On the fresh page, he began to sketch.  He was using a fountain pen that flowed fairly freely, but his hand moved with some speed and dexterity.  It was interesting to see, because Jamie wasn’t a strong artist.  He made my eyes too small, the position slightly wrong, paused, then went back, expanding, making the top of the eye into my eyebrows, and drawing my eyes at a larger size.  It was a rough sketch, and it was a sketch that showed my face in heavy shadow, the lines noticeable, thick.

At first I took it for a caricature, exaggerating my features, but Jamie wasn’t good enough to do that.  The hair was drawn in messy, framing it all, and the lines marked my cheeks as being more gaunt, with thin cross-hatching for the shadows in the recesses, I realized that it wasn’t a recent picture, that my eyes were larger in proportion to the rest because it was a picture of me, years younger.

Near the beginning.

Drawing from memory, rather than talent.

I leaned forward, and it was as though I were looking into a mirror cast in paper.  My eyes were narrow, my lips thin and slightly parted, and all the features of my face and ears were fine to the point of being sharp.

Jamie was already putting down notes below and to the side of the image.  I glanced at the first.

Drawn for a discussion with Sly, during the Case of the Bad Seeds.

“Case of the bad seeds,” I commented idly.

“Placeholder,” he said.  He was already going on to write more.  Normally I wouldn’t have been able to resist reading over his shoulder, but I found I couldn’t keep my eyes off the image for long.  The eyes were just scratches of black ink, almost hidden in the shadows that had been etched around them, but they took up much of the focus.

“This was… that time I had to do two appointments, back to back?”  I asked.  Only time my cheeks would have been that hollow.

Jamie didn’t respond, but his pen moved, indicating a line he’d just jotted down.  He tapped his fountain pen against paper, leaving three blotchy dots in the margin.

From memory: Sly in the Tower, after he ran away.  Before he recovered from one month’s appointment, he had to do the next.

Reading the line, I suddenly felt excruciatingly uncomfortable, and the hour-old bruises from my encounter with Ed weren’t why.  Feeling so restless I couldn’t bear it, I turned away from Jamie, his chair, and his book, and I paced across our little dorm room.  Two beds each with a chest at the foot, one desk, and one bedside table between the beds with drawers for us to share.  Mothmont was fancy, but not so fancy that we each got a palace.  Real estate mattered, if nothing else.

“We didn’t think we’d get you back,” Jamie murmured.  “We suspected you were lost.

“That’s not it,” I said, forcing my voice to sound different from how I felt.  I worried I didn’t sell it very well.  “No.  It’s not like Helen is, and it’s not like that, okay?  That’s not the look they had.”

“Okay,” Jamie said, sounding very normal, placid, and very calm.

Though I didn’t like it, I was finding the conversation helped me to clarify my interpretation.  “They weren’t lost.  There was emotion there.  They were human, but they weren’t nice humans.”

“You’re not a nice human sometimes,” Jamie remarked.

I shot him a look.

“Only saying, Sly, only saying.”

“I looked at them, and I knew they were the sorts who’d stick their parents with something sharp and then light up the family home.  Or try to drop a piece of masonry on someone they didn’t like.”


I narrowed my eyes, making the look darker and more intense.

He seemed to give up, pulling his hands away from the page, slumping back.  “Yeah, Sy.  Got it.  But if you can’t tell me how they looked all murderous, I’m not sure I can draw it.  I’m not sure I can draw them in the first place.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Don’t fret about it.”

“Think you’d recognize them if you saw them?”

“If I saw them?  No.  They were standing in shadow.  If I talked to them, maybe.”

“There are one thousand, two hundred students at Mothmont, give or take, ranging from year one to year twelve.  It’s going to take you an awful long time to talk to them all.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I was still on the far side of the room.  Three sets of my uniform had been provided, alongside a little cloak and hood for the rain and an umbrella, all stacked neatly on the chest at the end of the bed.  My bedside drawer had a new comb, bottle of toothwash, washcloth, and a new set of books.

Nothing that was mine.  I didn’t like it.  The office back at the hedge with the grille on the windows and the bookcase blocking the door had felt less like a cell than this.

There, I’d been free to be me.  Here, I was being made to conform, just like some of the fruit I’d seen grown at the Academy, placed inside molds that would shape their growth.  Fruit shaped like certain animals, or like human faces.

Were our murder-children in that same situation?

I frowned.  “I’m thinking…”

“Yeah?”  Jamie twisted in his seat, elbow over the back of the chair.

“Why here?” I asked.

“Resources are available, on multiple fronts.  You’ve got access to children, you’ve got access to tools and starter labs.  Maybe things go missing, maybe it gets put back at the end of the day?”

“Maybe,” I said.  “One way or another, something is going on with their heads.  Either they’re being made to do something they normally wouldn’t, or they’re not them, and something more nefarious is going on.”


“There are parasites that induce suicidal behavior in the host as part of the life cycle.”

“Sure.  Transoplasma Felidae.  Feverish behavior and a compulsion to drown oneself.  Weaponized version was Transoplasma Necis, but that saw reams of people biting off their own tongues to choke on the tongue or aspirating the blood.  Well known enough.”

“I’ll take your word for it.  Maybe the students we’re talking about have a parasite in their heads, something that’s making them act funny.  Maybe we’re dealing with the parasites and not the children themselves.”

Jamie seemed to consider a moment.  “Raises questions.”

“You ask, I try to justify.”

“Why do they care about us?”

“They’re complex.  Pre-set instructions.”

Jamie shook his head.  “I don’t buy that someone capable of that would be here and not at the Academy, making a fortune.”

“Then they’re paranoid.  Like they’re rabid, they’re wary of everything.”

“Why us?”

I started to come up with an explanation, then dismissed it.  Felt weak, like too much of a reach.  “What if it made them suggestible?  Broke down the walls in their heads, left them open to receiving instruction?  Get access to the children, slip them something that leaves them open to being influenced.”

“We’d see it in their behavior,” Jamie said.

“What?  That they’d be willing to take orders?  Follow the rest of the sheep?  We’re in a school, Jamie,” I said.


“A highbrow school.  Look, I’m not sold on the parasite idea.  But we’ve got an awful lot of children here, ones that might be more vulnerable to whatever, or of an age where some symptoms might be easier to hide.  Maybe the fact that we’re all fitting into some cookie cutter archetype is an advantage for our puppeteer in the background.  If their little experiments feel disoriented?  Have lost memories?  If their behavior is a little outside the norm?  All our ‘bad seed’ has to do is imitate their peers.”

Jamie was nodding, already thinking the idea through, rounding it out, “If they act too far out of line, then the faculty steps in, gets them to shape up.  If that fails…”

“What happens when someone futzes up and doesn’t look like they’re going to straighten out?”

“Detention,” Jamie said.  “Or a talk with the headmistress.  You don’t think she’s the one doing it?”

I rolled my head to one side, then the other.  “I talked to the woman.  I didn’t get that sense out of her.”


I gave Jamie an annoyed look.

“It’s good to think about why,” Jamie said, his voice quiet but not meek.  “You have a good sense of things, but it’s important to identify the details that are feeding into that sense.  You see little details, and your brain picks them up and puts them into storage, while your conscious mind doesn’t register them.  Prey animals use that low-level awareness a lot, figuring out that a predator could be nearby, and we still have traces of that prey thinking.”

“I don’t see myself as a prey animal,” I said, smiling.

“The idea is sound, Sy.  We all use that sense to some extent, but you’re a little better than most.  You can train it, but training it starts with being aware.  Think about your surroundings, pay attention to the details, and-”

A knock sounded at the door.

“You two decent in there?” Gordon asked, voice muffled by the intervening door.

“Am I ever decent?” I asked.

The door opened.  But it wasn’t just Gordon, which surprised me.  He was accompanied by a boy, narrow in build, with thick eyebrows and wiry black hair cut a finger’s width from his head.  It didn’t look like one of the boys that would be in Gordon’s cadre.

“We ran into each other at the door,” Gordon said.

“I know him,” Jamie said.  “Book trade?”

“Yeah,” the boy said.  He held out two dime novels.  “Read them?”

Jamie glanced at the novels, “Yes.  But it’s fine.  I’ll trade.”

He opened a drawer in the desk, pulling out five more dime novels.  “Doll Man and the song of the moon?”

“Read it.”

“Doll man and the revenge of the swarm queen?”

“That’s out?”  The boy stuck out his hand.  Jamie dutifully handed over the book, no more than a hundred pages.

“I liked this one,” Jamie said, “But you might want to wait until there’s more material.”

“What’s that?” the boy asked.

“Huh?” Jamie asked.

I turned, and I started to cross the room, before I saw Gordon moving in the same direction.  He was faster, and he was closer.  I deferred to him.

Before Jamie was able to process just what had grabbed the boy’s attention, Gordon touched the cover of Jamie’s notebook and flipped it over.  It slapped closed and slid a bit across the desk.

Jamie put a hand out to stop it.

“That’s Jamie’s journal,” Gordon said.  “You don’t read someone’s journal, pal.”

“Oh,” the boy said.  He turned a little pink.  “Didn’t know, sorry Jamie.”

“It’s okay,” Jamie said.

“That picture was something.  Scary, if I can say so,” the boy said, turning to look at me.  “That was you?”

“You don’t comment on someone’s journal if you happen to get a look at it, either,” Gordon said, his voice firm.

The boy’s face turned even pinker.

“Mickey,” Jamie said, offering a bit of relief where I would have pressed the advantage. “Take a look.”

Jamie held the other three little novels so they fanned out.  A lady in white and a rat crawling out of the darkness, a man with a bird mask, and a handsome young man with a dog accompanying him through a forest.

“What’s that last one?” Mickey asked.

Jamie pulled it away before Mickey could grab it.  “When we stopped by the Academy last weekend, you see anyone go off in a very small group?”

“Very small?”

“More than three, less than ten.”

“Uh.  Some special students got instruction with professors, or got to sit in on classes.  Top of certain classes, or something.  But they were alone.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Okay, thanks anyway,” Jamie said.  He put the books down, then handed over the one Mickey had expressed interest in.  “Barber John and the dark forest monster.”


Gordon stepped out of the way while the boy headed back to the hallway.  He closed the door behind him, and stood with his back to it.  “Asking questions like that can draw attention.”

“I’m very careful about who I ask,” Jamie said.

“Okay,” Gordon said.  He seemed to take that at face value.  He didn’t mention Jamie’s lapse about the book.

Gordon and I wouldn’t go after Jamie for that any more than any of the others would come after me for my behavior after an appointment.  We had our strengths, and we had our individual weak points.  If everything was working as it should, we covered the weak points and highlighted the strengths.

That meant accepting that sometimes Jamie had enough stuff in his head that he was a little slower to get things rolling when surprised.

If I’d been on the ball, I would have reminded Jamie, but my head hurt.

“It’s time for dinner,” Gordon said.  “Thought I’d check in.”

“Still alive,” I said.  “No surprise murders.”

Gordon’s expression didn’t twitch.  “What do you think?”

“We were thinking maybe the structure of the school is being used to shape or correct behavior where it might go off rails,” Jamie said.  I cleared my throat, and Jamie amended his statement to say, “Sy thought so.  It makes some sense.”

“Something to watch out for?” Gordon asked.

“Quirks in behavior, students pushing the limit and getting pushed back in line by the group,” I said.  “And it might be worth seeing who is in charge of correcting the students when they get too problematic.”

Gordon nodded.  “Our mad doctor or doctors act the role of the murderer, the children are the murder weapon, and that weapon needs to be kept controlled and concealed.  The school is a setting for it.  That still leaves questions.  Who, how, why.”

“Who is the murderer, how are they doing this with the students, and why are they doing it?  What’s the motive?” Jamie asked.

“How, also, are they giving orders?” Gordon asked.  “The students here got orders to kill us.  When?  What form did it take?”

“Food for thought,” I said.  I perked up.  “Speaking of food…”

“That was contrived,” Gordon said.

“Brain feels sluggish, and I haven’t had an actual meal in…” I counted on my fingers, then paused, stuck.  “When did we eat, before the snake charmer?”

Gordon blinked.  “At that point, I think the question is academic.  Have you had water?”

“I had some water, yeah,” I said.

He frowned.  “If you hadn’t, I’d wonder how you were still standing.  Let’s slap a feedbag on that face of yours, Sy.  And you wonder why you’re short.”

I grabbed the comb from the bedside table and hucked it at his head.  He caught it, which didn’t surprise me.

We collected ourselves, getting our things.  Jamie picked up his notebook, tucking it under one arm.  The pen was capped and slipped into a breast pocket.  Gordon was all set up, and all I needed was a bit of protection from any rain.

The school was arranged into a square, with the yard in the middle.  The front entrance sat at the southern wall with the front office, infirmary and other administrative rooms.  The west and east sides of the square had classrooms.  The more interesting area was the northern end, furthest from the entrance.  Here, we had the dorms, boys at the west corner, girls at the east.  The two sides of the dorms were separated by the teacher’s quarters and washrooms on the upper floors, and a spacious dining room on the lower floor.  I supposed the idea was that it made mingling harder.

The dorms were ordered by year, with the older students on the upper floors, and being right in the upper-middle of the range of ages, we were left to make our way down on our way to the dining room.

My eyes searched the crowd, looking for a familiar face or feature.  I’d told Jamie I wasn’t sure if I could place them, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  Kids milled around us.

“Ed was asking about you, before your little tussle under the tree,” Gordon commented.  Keeping the conversation to stuff we could talk about freely.


“I’m trying to phrase it so I don’t hurt your feelings, Sy,” Gordon said, sounding as condescending as he was able.  “Because if I was honest, I’d have to say you didn’t just embarrass yourself.  You embarrassed all of us.”

I jabbed him.  He took it without flinching.

“I’m guessing that, following your usual pattern, you’re going to get in trouble, ostensibly to see how the justice system of Mothmont operates?”  Gordon asked.

The question could be taken two ways.  Anyone hearing would think I was a troublemaker, which wasn’t wrong, but he was asking if I’d see which faces or individuals might be tied to the correction of errant students.  Or errant ‘bad seeds’, as the case went.

The maneuver had other uses.  If our opposition here was less graceful, they might well get themselves into trouble, just to follow me or keep an eye on me.  Simply paying attention to see who acted and reacted after I got myself into trouble could reveal a great deal.

But my answer to Gordon was a, “Not just yet.”


“Still waiting to see what happens after my brawl with Ed.”

Jamie, trailing a bit behind us, snickered audibly.

Gordon openly scoffed.  “Brawl.  You got beat, Sy.  I was talking to some of the others, and Ed actually got worried when someone suggested that you might be a real scrapper, growing up in the orphanage.  I nearly split something, trying not to laugh.”

“Ha ha,” I said, without humor.

We reached the end of the dining room, and the girls were filtering in through the door on the far side.   It was nice, very spacious, all long tables of dark wood, benches, with the two sides separated by a buffet style table.

The kitchen was visible, a recessed area, with the chefs busy at work over various stoves.  Students aged twelve to sixteen were wearing aprons, carrying food out.  Racks of bread, bowls of salad and empty glasses were placed on the table, while larger pots of food were placed on the buffet table, beside stacks of plates.  Stew, soups, and portions of meat.

From the smell in the kitchen, they were already working on dessert.

I took it all in, studying it.  The system.

Gordon leaned close, murmuring, “Put yourself into their shoes.  How many ways can you see, to poison someone?”

“Pre-assigned seats?” I asked.

“No, but they’ll call us together by homeroom for a roll call soon,” Jamie said.

“Make sure all the students are present and accounted for,” Gordon elaborated.

Dust the glasses with something, poison the silverware, deliver the poison while serving water, refresh the bread bowl or salad, drop something in the food while we go from the buffet to our seats, or simply take advantage of the bumps and shoves that come with being in a crowd of hungry students to stick us with a needle.

“Seven off the top of my head.”

“Lillian and I counted out twelve ways they could’ve gotten me, looking back in retrospect,” Gordon murmured.  “Jamie and Helen added one each once they got back from the Academy.”

“Kind of takes the joy out of eating for the first time in a week,” I murmured.

“You shouldn’t eat too much on an empty stomach anyway,” Jamie said.

I made a face, but I didn’t take my eyes off the crowd.  I saw Helen and Lillian on the other side.  Helen had a bevvy of girls around her, and she was playing it up.  Lillian stood off to one side, talking to a teacher.

Oddly in her element, in a very not-the-way-she-acts-at-home way.

“Incidentally,” I said, still looking over the crowd for a glimpse of the boys I’d seen through the window.  I didn’t see any telltale signs, and I certainly didn’t see them together as a group.  “What do we do if I happen to spot a possible culprit?”

“Signal me and Helen.  We’ll go after him.”

I nodded.  “Easier if you’re together.”

“We’ll sit together as a group.”

“Okay,” I said.

Sure enough, we were called to specific tables by our homeroom teachers.  They read our names off of lists, and then gave the official go-ahead to get food.

I held back out of the way while everyone stampeded for the buffet table, or ran over to reunite with friends.  Nobody returned to the seats they’d been in for the nightly attendance, and the teachers didn’t enforce anything.  There were striations by year and groupings of cliques, but no divisions beyond that.

Helen approached with a group of her friends, while Gordon went to go talk to his clique.  The teenagers had all gathered around the buffet table and were screening out the kids, claiming first pick, but Gordon’s group looked set to take up the first gap that formed.

I appreciated that he going out of his way to stay in our line of sight, allowing us to watch his back.

“Sy, was it?” one of Helen’s older friends asked.  An attractive brunette with her hair in a short bob.  She’d hiked up her skirt just a fraction beneath her uniform top, so the bottom of the skirt was higher, revealing more of her very nice looking legs.

I realized I’d been caught looking, and met her eyes without a trace of shame or guilt, “You can call me whatever you want, so long as you give me your name first, and maybe the number of your dorm room.”

She smiled, amid some ‘oohs’ from other girls in the group, then gave me a pat on the head.  “That was a good try, and it might have worked, but you’re a little too young for me, and I like the idea of a man who can stand up for me.”

“You saw my duel with Ed,” I spoke my realization aloud.

“I did,” she said.  “I’d offer some comforting words, but the less that’s said, the better.”

“I could say I let him win,” I said.

“Did you?” another girl chimed in, interest piqued.  Blonde, like Helen, but more pixieish in many respects.  Helen could have been an actress or a model, but this girl made me imagine a ballerina, in build and how she was more expressive in general movement.

“No.  But I could say I did,” I said.

“Whatever convinced you to pick a fight with Ed Willard?” the brunette asked.

“Some people are born to be the hero of a story,” I said.  “I was born to be the villain.  I see the charming, good looking, obnoxiously noble type of guy and I feel compelled to start a battle I’m doomed to lose.”

“Does that include monologues while you’re winning and standing over the bloody hero?” another girl asked, a smile on her face, suggesting she was well versed in that sort of thing.  Not many girls read the books and dime novels meant for boys.

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “You saw my poor showing earlier.  I haven’t gotten that far.”

I heard a few chuckles and smiles, and belatedly realized that I’d effectively and accidentally drawn the attention of Helen’s entire clique.  Heads at other tables and the buffet line were turning, looking at me as some of the more attractive girls in our grade were grouped around me.

“Okay, wait, I have to poke a hole in your story,” a girl closer to Helen’s and my age declared.  She was a brunette too, but wore her hair longer, with white ribbons that complemented her school uniform.  “You say you don’t get along with good guys, but you get along with Helen’s friend Gordon, don’t you?  If anyone’s noble, it’s him.”

“Oh, Gordon’s a villain at heart,” I said.  “I don’t know if he knows it yet, but there’s a scoundrel in there just screaming for an excuse.”

“How would you know that?” she asked.

“Because when I was showing these guys around, I saw them with all sorts of people, sometimes in the rougher parts of town.  I’ve seen Gordon here, all nice and ordinary, and I’ve seen him go toe to toe with people you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, and they walked away respecting him.”

A half dozen pairs of eyes turned Gordon’s way.  He caught sight of a crowd of girls giving him serious looks and looked about as bewildered as if I’d drawn a gun on him.

Miss Ribbons wasn’t looking though.  She was focused on me, her right eyebrow raised.  “I’m not sure I believe you.”

Pixie-blonde chimed in, turning from Gordon to Ribbons, and then to me.  She put her hands on her hips.  “Are you being a good friend and trying to get us interested in your fellow over there?”

“Maybe,” I said, smiling.

“It’s good if you’ve given up on making yourself look good, because that ship sailed hours ago,” Miss Ribbons commented.

“That’s cruel,” another girl said.  “I quite like Sy, here, and it’s noble of this little villain to play up his friend.”

With the words ‘I quite like Sy’, she put her arms around me, giving me a hug.  I very nearly ducked out of her grip, but a quick glance at each of her hands suggested that they were empty, with no weapon or needle in evidence.  Given the difference in stature, the girl being three years my senior, it pulled the side of my head right into her bosom.

A nearby teacher loudly cleared his throat, and my new friend pulled her arms away, raising her hands as if she were being held up.

“Believe it or not,” Helen said, still smiling, acting very much the young coquette, “Sy isn’t lying.  For once.  What he said about Gordon was true.”

That line spawned more conversation, but my focus was on Gordon.  He navigated his way through eager young students, holding four plates in two hands.  He looked a little wary of joining the group, with so many eyes on him.

“What’s going on?” he asked, once he was close enough to ask.

“Just talking,” Helen said.

“Healthy lad,” the girl who’d hugged me said, indicating Gordon’s plates.

“For my friends,” Gordon said.

Lingering paranoia made me study her expression for any hint of danger.  Had she powdered her shirtfront with a poison that could be inhaled?

Gordon handed us our individual plates, one for me, Helen, Lillian and Jamie, then asked, “Is anyone in dire need of a meal?  I was going to go back to serve myself, but I can get more plates.”

The short-haired brunette raised her hand, smiling way too much at Gordon.

“That’s one,” he said.

“I’m getting waved over,” Miss Ribbons said.  “I need to take over for a friend and start serving.  She’s been in the kitchen all day.”

“Good girl.  Talk to you later,” Helen said.

“Enjoy your meals,” Miss Ribbons said, before dashing off.

I watched her retreat, zig-zagging through the crowd on the way to the kitchen, hair and skirt bouncing before she reunited with the friend she’d mentioned.

She glanced back, looking at me.

“I do think Mary likes Sy,” Pixie-blonde said.

“Does Sy like Mary?” another girl asked.

“I’m going to sit,” Helen said.  “Come sit with us, Sy.  I don’t think these girls are going to let you go, like this.  They’ve got their claws in you, and I don’t think they’ll let you go.”

Claws?” a girl asked, archly.

Helen, doing her part to keep us together in a very natural seeming way.

It took time before everyone had a plate and food.  My focus was on the crowd, keeping only enough attention on the conversation to keep up with it.  Where were the dynamics?  What were the possible approaches for attack?

I was exceedingly aware of the state of my food.  On such an empty stomach, I couldn’t afford to get poisoned.  We already knew our enemies were aware of us, so I didn’t mind being a little guarded.  One girl commented on it, even, and I explained it away as a casualty of being from the orphanage.  That, in itself, spawned more discussion.

Jamie and Lillian seemed content to be in the background.  Jamie was taking it all in.  If something happened, he’d be able to tell us who was where.

Had I been familiar with the dynamic and the situation, I might have been more on point, aware of when it all started to go wrong.  It tied into what Jamie had said about the prey instinct.  Taking in the subconscious details, things that one’s mind and attention weren’t picking up on.

Changes in volume, shifts in tone.  The behavior of people at the fringes and in the background.

Little boys who were hunched over their plates.

It only clicked when I saw that dessert was being served, and that the cooks and serving girls were looking a little nonplussed.  I paid attention to what they were sensing with their own prey’s instinct.

That dessert was being placed on the table, and very few students seemed inclined to go get it.

Looking around, I saw expressions of pain.  People squirming.  Not a lot, but as I watched, I saw it was getting worse.

I dropped my knife and fork.

“Don’t eat,” I said.

Helen, Gordon, Lillian, and Jamie dropped their utensils.

They didn’t settle for poisoning us.

They poisoned everyone.


“Oh,” Erma, the pixie-haired blonde said.  “I thought I felt full, but now-”

She raised a hand to her mouth.

“Just nausea?” Lillian asked.  She got a nod.  “Feverish?  Does it hurt?”

Whatever she was feeling, I didn’t experience it.  My friends didn’t either.

Maybe a handful of people had escaped it, whatever it was.

My mind was going a mile a minute as I took it in, tried to figure out the approach.

What was the goal, the plan?

They’d hit everyone, but missed us.  Was it an accident, luck on our part, Gordon being safe?

“The teachers are affected too,” Gordon said.

“It doesn’t seem to be serious,” Lillian said.  “It’ll get explained away as a stomach thing.  Something improperly cooked, perhaps.”

As if to answer her statement, someone threw up.  It seemed to set off a chain reaction.  People were rising from their seats, hurrying out of the dining hall.

“The entire school is going to be shut down,” I said.  “Everyone in their beds for at least the next few hours, if not the next day.”

Everyone.  It’s not a frame, or they would have left the teachers alone, done more to set us up.  Again, I have to wonder… why?

My eye fell on Miss Ribbons.

I felt the uneasiness, watching her.  I saw the look in her eyes.  Just the same as the boys had been.

I jerked my head, and the others looked, following my gaze.  Miss Ribbons was already making a hasty exit, pulling off her apron.  If anyone asked, I bet she’d say she was going to the nurse.

“Nobody to look after us, or keep us out of trouble,” I commented.

Locking down the school.  They were largely free to roam, or to feign being sick until our backs were turned, but I suspected it wouldn’t be so easy or safe for us.

They’re making a play, and we’re still completely in the dark about what they are and what they’re doing.

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126 thoughts on “Taking Root 1.5

  1. Of course they give all their cases adorable nicknames. Of course they do. Adorable little kid detective experiments.

    From what Sy says, I’m thinking that it’s not that he’s enhanced to go without eating so much that he was fed intravenously during his appointment. Otherwise they’d all be skipping meals entirely, what with the poisonings.

    I like Jamie reminding Sy that yeah, instinct is good, but you also need to decipher the reasons behind instinct. One smart kid to another kid who is smart in different ways.

    • I don’t think he was fed intravenously. I remember the woman in the carriage commenting that Sy was refusing some of the meals that she tried to bring him.

      I’d say it’s more likely that they don’t really have a human physiognomy, or at least that Sy at least is able to block out the impulse to eat, and that he really is starving now.

      • It read to me that he needs to eat, but not nearly as much as other people. The way Gordon remarks on him having water implies that he can go for long periods (up to a week) without that as well, though apparently not without cost.

        • Perhaps they’re simply able to go to the normal human limits of endurance. If I were going to create some sort of soldier, and I was tweaking their brains, then the ability to go to the normal human limits without the normal mental anguish that usually comes with that is something that I’d probably see as a useful trait.

    • Yeah, really digging the interplay between the pack they’ve got going there. If I had to guess, Sy’s designed to cause chaos, provoke a reaction. Gordon is designed to corral the various people in the pack. Helen is kind of calibrated to get in with certain groups. I can’t figure out the rest yet, and I suspect they also have different combat roles.

  2. I’m really liking getting the opportunity to learn the Gang, their personalities hand the group b dynamic.

    Still trying to figure out the significance if Sy vs Sly. Any thoughts?

    a man with a bird mask

    Heh heh heh

    • Or they’ve found a completely innocent young girl that’s wants to disassociate herself from the obvious incompetency of the previous shift, who ended up giving everyone food poisoning.

      • I don’t know, she had “that look” in her eyes. Not ‘that one’, though it would make for some interesting crack fic.

        “The room filled with groans and the sounds of vomiting; implemented by Miss Ribbons whom I had only just met. Surrounded by her victims and narrowly avoiding the fate meant for us, there was a stirring in my chest that I knew wasn’t poison but I felt could be just as deadly.

        My own groan was added to the chorus around us. More complexity was the last thing this case needed.”

    • Which is of course useless if the behind-the-scenes man’s MO involves mind control and memory loss
      …point being, we’ll see. It is a lead, at least.

  3. Sly: “Quick Gordon, the game is a foot!”

    Gordon: “Who talks like that?”

    Anyways, this was an interesting chapter. All the periphreal students (Miss Ribbons, Hug Girl, Pixie Girl, and Book Boy) were given just enough character to be eye-catching and it was fun to see Sy play up the adorable little squirt angle that catches everyone’s hearts and eye.

    Seeing the group interact and cover their weaknesses was another treat, as their dialogue felt very organic and natural.

    There’s still a lot of questions in the air and some theories being thrown about, but the upcoming action is putting that in my periphreal for now.

  4. Now, I understand that the Gang’s “unique” perverted their sensitivities so that they don’t think and act (while not in character) like young children they are.

    What I wonder about is the rest of the kids. Has technology of The Twigverse twisted the roots of People in general? Do other kids think and talk in a matter unfitting of children like the gang, or could it possibly be an effect of children with ties to the Academy?

    Disclaimer: I’m tired? This may actually be an incoherent piece of rambling. Not sure.

    • I quite liked the conversations that the Wonder Gang had with the other kids. It had a natural ebb and flow to it, and Gordon talking to Mickey also had a kind of reprimanding of a younger sibling vibe to it.

      • I liked the conversations as well. It was fun and smooth, but doesn’t necessarily feel like the dialogue of 11 and 12 year old children. It’s obvious in Sylvester’s narration and when the gang converses amongst themselves.

        My question had more to do with the other children. From the little bit we’ve seen, I can’t tell if that’s a standard for other children associated with the Academy, or if they’re still speaking like kids. I suppose I’ll have to see some more externo group conversation.

        • Keep in mind that it’s a different generation. Children didn’t (and in this AU/AH, don’t) have a language of their own, and were expected to act and talk like adults in many respects.

          • That’s fine, no criticism there. My (clumsy) question was basically about trying to get a feel for this world and the standards. Thanks for the response.

          • What’s the comparable year again? 1910 or 1810? Anyway, during the 1800’s, in the USA, the “age of consent” varied from 10 to 16, depending on which state and which year you were looking at, according to http://classroom.synonym.com/age-marriage-us-1800s-23174.html

            It’s only been fairly recently that people have focused on this “childhood” part of life. Back in both 1810 and 1910, 11 and 12-year olds were expected to speak intelligently and properly.

            Sy and friends (and the group needs a name) could be very close to achieving their age of consent/adulthood, perhaps.

          • Have to say I agree with the fact they don’t talk like children.

            It struck me particularly last chapter, and was pretty evident this chapter as well. It’s not just the language, it’s also the maturity in their thought processes, the way they act in such a reasoned manner. Generally in younger children there is a lot of imitation of those they respect going on, but they don’t have the context of knowledge to really understand why they act that way. Here they felt like they did. Like last chapter of the guy Sy picked a fight with, when he says it “wasn’t wise” to snub him, and the reasoning behind it. It felt adult.

            Just a minor nitpick though, any my personal opinion. For all that I enjoyed the dialogue and felt it flowed well.

      • The Wonder gang is now the official group name. On April First, they will solve the mystery, hop in their green van, get a talking dog and go around solving mysteries.

        Thank you Tibor.

    • >Has technology of The Twigverse twisted the roots of People in general?
      I’m guessing not by THAT much. The Academy mostly sees brain research as a dead-end area, which suggests that the protagonists are the cutting edge of mind enhancement technology. And whatever was done to them seems to come with some drawbacks, given the talk of “expiration rates” and whatnot.

  5. All and all, I am really enjoying the feel of the dynamic of the group, and more to the point Sy’s noticing of the dynamic of the group. Just little things like Sy noticing Gordon’s efforts to let them watch his back, Helen coming in to back him up, and even the way that Jamie is noted as holding back to just observe and keep tabs on the goings on.
    I also really appreciate the fact that Sy is not a good fighter. It’d be so easy to make him into the kind of super spy esque character who was only playing the role of the victim. The fact that being physically adept is Gordon’s province and another part in the balancing out of the group is a nice touch that really keeps everything even and cohesive.
    Heck, I don’t know if I am projecting this what with the prior knowledge that there should have been 6, but I even get the sense that there are parts of their dynamic that could be filled out just a little broader. Almost as if there should be someone better able to bridge the gap and act as support for them. That’s just me though.

      • Yeah they are highly specilized, which is both a strength and a weakness. They absolutly need each other to be able to cover each others weaknesses. Sy has got the investigation moving along, but as we see he is absolutly doomed in direct combat. Anybody dispenses with the cloak and just comes after him with a dagger when the others aren’t there, he’s doomed.

        • Fighting poorly is just part of the persona that he keeps up. There’s no way that someone who’s that good at reading people, and who’s as dexterous as we saw when he swung himself down by the roof and was catching little lips with his finger and landing on tiny edges on his toes, and strong enough to hold himself up so easily with his fingers, and all the other little bits that we’ve seen so far, is really that poor of a fighter. He’d at least be able to dodge better than we saw and could probably go Mohammed Ali on them — turtle up, dodge/take the blows, wear them down until they start getting tired, then rip ’em a new one when they’re tired enough to not be able to fight back as effectively. Sy just wants people to think he’s a poor fighter.

          • I get the impression that Sly isn’t very physically strong. And being able to read people/situations and the flexibility/athleticism to perform planned maneuvers doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of reaction times you need to really be a good speed-fighter.

          • Gordon said that he’s never ever won a fight, ever. I don’t think he’d be that motivated about keeping up the persona, especially with the other kids needling him about it. I’d guess he’s dexterous but slow, and only strong compared to his flimsy body weight.

          • “Gordon said that he’s never ever won a fight, ever. I don’t think he’d be that motivated about keeping up the persona, especially with the other kids needling him about it.” Which is itself suspicious. Never, ever? I could see it being a mental block of some kind, but otherwise I think it’s more like the movie, “The Prestige”, a very long-running con.

          • Which is itself suspicious. Never, ever?

            In my experience, 11 year-olds tend to not win serious fights, especially against adults (and even teenagers)

          • There were Uhznaf naq unrtf naq enprf jvgu jvatf nybat jvgu evghnyf naq nypurzl. V’q fnl gur frggvat jnf snagnfl vs jr’er gb ynory vg.

            Iirc, at the time, there was some backlash because many people didn’t like the main character. I found the political dealings of the court quite interesting. Things took a big turn in the final (released) chapter and it looked like Peer was shaping up into something quite awesome.

            Then Wildbow moved onto the next sample.

          • Speaking as someone who didn’t like Caspar, I found him a gutless worm of a teenager who reminded me unpleasantly of myself. I really liked the world, though. Folk Hero killed their god, so their church services center on getting someone, anyone, please, to answer their prayers.

        • They got taken down? Why? I’m personally against the removal of content on the internet, even if Wildbow doesn’t want to feature them prominently anymore the chapters should still be available somewhere…

          • Boil had misleading details, invites misinformation or comparison/contrast that leads to misinformation or false impressions. I’ve already seen how fanon can get conflated or twisted into something that I then have to fight to correct. Alternate canon/facts in prior drafts can do the same thing. On top of that, there are elements I maybe want to use/rework and don’t necessarily want fresh in the collective audience’s mind as they’re going back to reread Boil snippets with Twig in mind. Just an unhealthy dynamic, overall.

            Boil served its purpose, 99% of the people who were going to read it have read it (barely any views as of late – something like 10 total views for those chapters between November and the time I took the snippets down), and those who would be going back to read it would potentially be picking up misleading or false details (stuff I may be reworking in Twig).

            TL;DR: Would rather have Twig assessed standalone rather than in constant comparison to a concept draft, there are details in there I plan to use.

            I took down the others because just taking down Boil prior to starting Twig would’ve given away the reveal.

  6. I think I’ll be liking this a lot more than Pact.

    The writing has definitely improved, too, and I also liked the reference to Worm

    • Agreed. This seems to have some of the best qualities of Worm already: intriguing, unique characters, a good mix of action and drama, and the precarious balance between broken-supernatural and realistic-supernatural.

  7. It seems unlikely that this mass poisoning was in response to Sy. For one thing, that sort of thing is likely to take time to set up. So it was probably already planned to deal with the three (four?) known problems.

    But the gang managed to avoid it. Accident or deliberate? I am guessing that making them ill would make them weaker and would therefore be a desirable goal. Since they didn’t get ill, I guess it was the gang’s precautionary measures at work.

    On a different note, did the two missing members of the group fail on their own, or did academy infighting kill them off? Potential future back-story!

    • It seems fairly unlikely their safety measures would work on a mass poisoning. Either they somehow wound up taking the antidote, or their alterations include limited protection against poisoning.

    • It sounded like the other two members of the group “weren’t viable”… meaning they probably died in utero or at a very young age. Although of course I could be wildly wrong.

      • Or were culled in some other way. I interpreted it as Mr. Hyde (or whatever his name is) had “removed” them. Whether they stayed removed or got away or were repurposed or what… we don’t know yet.

    • My first thought when I realized they hadn’t been harmed by the poison was to wonder why they hadn’t acted like they were. Appearing to be unaffected makes them stand out.

      The murder children appear to be curious about them. Maybe this is a test?

        • Sy has already ruled out a frame job:

          “It’s not a frame, or they would have left the teachers alone, done more to set us up. Again, I have to wonder… why?”

          • Sy’s reasoning. ‘How’ depends on the ‘why’, and since he doesn’t know the ‘why’, how can he rule out that framing is part of the intended results?

      • It sounded like not everyone was displaying symptoms (maybe some were naturally resistant, some weren’t that hungry), so they were free to take a couple minutes to assess. Also, an attempted framing (or even just pointing them out) would work both ways – assuming the culprits decided they didn’t want to be poisoned.

  8. I’m getting a Ivchenko/Johann Fennhoff vibe from what is implied happening to the Projects from their ‘appointments’. “Now I need your complete focus. Do I have that?”

    This scene springs to mind:-

    And sooner or later I’m pretty sure someone is going trigger their obedience with something along the lines of, “Take a deep breath. Calm your mind. You know what is best. What is best is you comply. Compliance will be rewarded.”

  9. You know, since wildbow’s on his third work by now (cue Rule of Three joke) perhaps it would be worth it to make a Creator page on TVT for him.

  10. I liked the toothwash (and lack of a toothbrush)!

    I just realised that Gordon hasn’t yet held Sy to his promise about explaining why he let himself get hurt (or heard about the expiration dates). Has he forgotten, or is he going to bring it up once they’ve safely dealt with the current mission, or once Sy has recovered from his appointment and is feeling better for that sort of talk..?

    • He let himself get hurt so that he’d get taken to the academy to be healed so that he could get access to their project files in the coach on the ride there. The other members of the group were told off screen or intuitively understood because they backed him up when he tried to get the matches (to occupy the stitch) without anyone seeing. This is why he asked the little boy in the first chapter to dump water on a coach and voltaic horses— to create an opening.

      Sy has some hecka complex plans.

      • It’s entirely possible they didn’t understand at all. They may have learned from experience to support his covert actions even if they are in the dark about the endgame.

        • Not really,most of the plan was based on pre-existing patterns,which would require a very highly unlikely situation to alter…or the proffessor understanding them,which was what happened.

  11. If I was the villain in this case, I would make everyone but my targets sick so it would look like they are the culprits, which would get them into trouble with the administration. It would serve as a reason to isolate them from the rest of the students one way or another.

    Avoiding getting sick like the rest of the students draws attention to them they don’t really want.

    • That’s true, but like Sylvester points out, in that case they could have done more to set them up and left the teachers alert and not sick so that they would take notice instead of being distracted by illness. It’s likelier that this is a setup for a disruption of school services followed by a concerted attack.

  12. The poisoning results are really, really suspicious. For mass poisonings, the best thing to do would be to just poison the serving dishes at the buffet, then let everyone take a share. They got their food after a significant number of people had already been served, so it can’t be that they got their food before it was poisoned.

    There are two possible explanations that I see here. The first is that this outcome was a deliberate effort on the part of the “bad seeds” where they un-poisoned the gang by adding an antidote or neutrilizer to their dishes specifically. In this case, their motives would be to either set up an elaborate framing, infect the gang with their biotech (or to infect everyone else! The nausea may just be a cover for other, more nefarious effects), or even just to gather information, similar to Sy’s “shake things up and see what comes out” method.

    The other explanation was that they were poisoned, but are immune because of their enhancements. This would mean that the assassins now have a massive, massive clue as to the true nature of the gang. Which is bad.

    Jamie’s comments about how he suspected Sy was lost make it sound like being “lost” has a very significant meaning to them. Given the spacing and connotation, I’m assuming it has to do with mentality and mental states. Maybe it’s what happened to the other two experiment kids.

    • I first thought it was the second explanation, which would also explain why Sy’s functioning so well when he hasn’t eaten in a week, but then there’s Lillian, who’s normal, which throws the theory off. Unless she puts antidotes into everything. There’s also the point the Gordon got poisoned, but it could have just been a very strong poison.

      • It feels like selectively giving them the antidote would be on the overcomplicated side. Since they’re using brainwashing or something and it’s apparently not detectable even with autopsy, the murderchildren are expendable and they could just be caught after poisoning the group or down it themselves to avoid capture.

    • Whatever the reason, their opponents WILL make a move.

      You want to know what would be funny and probably won’t happen? Maybe there are two groups trying to solve the mystery, and the poisoner actually spiked themselves so the two groups would go after each other. Then, once the dust cleared, they could finish off the groups, and go about their brainwashing business.

  13. I propose that the gangs name could be Sy Kids. They would start out trying to rescue Doctor Hayle from an evil scientist, then the next story would be them getting trapped on a mysterious island with amalgamations of different animals. Then the third one would be in 3D and be shitty.

  14. I really hope that the Wonder Gang’s handler is looking at the paper trail to see what all the murder-kids have in common. Maybe they all have the same teacher. Maybe they went to detention a lot. The point is, there’s a paper trail The Professor has to follow.

  15. This is where it started to pick up for me. I absolutely loved Sy losing his fight, and the dialogue this chapter is fantastic.
    Also, man with bird mask, I see you the horror short story protagonist.

  16. I feel like whe Helen says “I don’t think these girls will let you go, like this. They have their claws in you and I don’t think they’ll let you go”, its somewhat redundant as she has just stated the same thing twice.

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