“Catch,” Mary said.
Something flew at me. I couldn’t see it in the darkness, and it bounced off the door by my head.
I figured out where it had bounced off to and collected it. I felt it rather than looking at it. A key.
“Without turning around, lock the door. If it opens or if you try anything funny, I shoot.”
I did as instructed.
“That was a little too fast,” she said. “Stand with your back to the door. Try the knob.”
I did. I turned the knob to the side, tugged on the door, turned the knob all the way to the other side, and then tugged on it again. The door rattled against the frame.
“I stand corrected,” she said. “Toss me the key.”
Unlike me, she did manage to catch it, but she had the benefit of the light from the furnace. She held it up to the light, examining it.
While she wasn’t looking directly at me, I glanced around the room. There was a workbench with tools on the far end of the room, and she sat on the corner of it, legs dangling and not reaching the ground. She wasn’t wearing her uniform, but a sweater, cloak and hood, and a skirt with stockings and boots. The gun was in her lap, pointed at me, and other weapons sat within arm’s reach. A hatchet, hammer, and the knife she probably planned to use if it came down to it.
By contrast, there was nothing of substance near me. I was uncomfortably close to the furnace, but the door didn’t quite face me, so I got the heat without the benefit of the light that streaked across the room in lines. The space around the furnace was kept clear, so fire wouldn’t catch. A coal-operated monstrosity of a thing. There was a pile of the fuel in the corner, a sliding door on the chute where the coal was deposited.
We’d voiced our suspicions aloud, that they would strike at us and then disappear to finish their missions. I had a sense of what her escape route was.
I started to slide to the floor.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Stop.”
I stopped halfway, legs bent, back flat against the door.
“I was sitting down,” I said.
“I don’t trust anything you do. Certainly not this,” she told me. The way she phrased certainly was good. Very proper, enunciated like a girl raised by the best teachers.
“You’ve made it clear that I’m going to die,” I said, holding my position. “I didn’t expect it this soon, but I’ve always figured it was going to happen. If there’s a chance I get to die sitting down, just after an interesting conversation, I consider it a pretty good end.”
She moved her head, and the light from the fire danced across her face with the motion. “This isn’t a conversation. It’s an interrogation.”
“Now I’m the one who stands corrected.”
I thought I saw her expression change. A frown.
Had she caught me mirroring her? Was she aware of what mirroring was?
“May I sit?” I asked.
“Feet apart, hands where I can see them,” she said.
I obeyed on both fronts, but I didn’t drop to the floor. “But can I sit?”
“That was implied. With your back to the door, please.”
“Implications are dangerous when you have a pistol pointed at you,” I said. I slid the rest of the way down, keeping my hands up. I rested my wrists on my knees, palms toward her, fingers spread.
I took a second, rolling my shoulders.
She didn’t say or do anything. She remained in the shadows.
“I’m stiff,” I commented. “I just spent three hours or so sitting on the end of a bed. I had a trap rigged, was going to pull it down on top of anyone who came in through the door. Except it turned out to be Ed.”
“He was in one piece,” Mary observed.
“For the same reason I didn’t tell him what you really were. Doesn’t serve a point, only gets him killed. If it works somehow, I’m still up shit creek. Cat out of the bag.”
“You’re very calm, Sylvester,” Mary said. A sudden change of subject. “Why is that?”
“Like I said, I’m not too surprised I might die. You know, about a week ago-”
“No stalling for time,” she told me.
“It’s relevant, I promise,” I said. Several seconds passed without a word from her. I started up again, “About a week ago, Professor Hayle from the Academy’s neurology department gave me a ride to the Academy. Do you know why?”
“Keep going, Sylvester,” she said. “Don’t ask me questions to try and squeeze details from me.”
“If you were really merciful, you’d tell me. It’s a kind of torture, making me go to my grave without all of the answers.”
“I’m only offering mercy because it’s the only thing I’m willing to give you in exchange for information,” Mary told me. “You were saying?”
“I was hurt. I got myself hurt on purpose, contrived to be in Professor Hayle’s coach and get him out of the coach, so I could take a peek at his files. On me, on Gordon, on Helen, Jamie, Lillian, and Evette.”
Nothing in her expression or body language changed.
Was she ignorant? Did she not know that that wasn’t the real composition of the group? They didn’t have particulars? Or was she very good at hiding her tells?
I had to assume she was competent, and couldn’t push my luck without getting a bullet in the leg for my trouble.
“It was a lot of trouble, but there was a reason I went that far. I needed to find out what they weren’t telling us. I wanted to find out how long they expected us to last.”
“In terms of life expectancy. Or project expectancy. There’s more glory in breaking new ground than there is in refining someone else’s work, and the entire setup of the Academy is all about innovation more than doing good work. We’re a casualty of that.”
“You and the others,” Mary said.
“We, Mary,” I said. I angled my head down until the angle of the light from the fire was enough to be especially bright in my eyes. I couldn’t see Mary as well, but I knew that she’d see the reflection. “You too.”
“We’re not talking about me,” she said. “Go on.”
I moved my head back, shrugging. “Most of us weren’t going to live to see twenty. Barring outside intervention.”
My hands moved to indicate her, the outside intervention in question.
“My concern isn’t with your life expectancy. I know exactly when you’re going to die.”
“I haven’t even told the others the numbers,” I said. “Promised Gordon I would fill him in later, but the opportunity never came up. How do you tell someone-”
“Sylvester,” Mary said, unamused.
“Okay. Okay. New projects. You know how the departments portioned out cash for various measures? We got funding as a special project. Got it better than some. Six individual cases, each managed with an entirely different approach. If you want to know what you’re up against, that’s it. I don’t like Professor Hayle, but he gave us money, and he tried for the gamble. Longer-term approach than some of the other special projects, and with less than twenty years before most of us expire, that’s saying something.”
I shrugged. “There are some big names on the other projects. Do you know Doctor Ibott? Of course you know Ibott.”
“Details about you, and your group. Please don’t test me, Sylvester.”
“Hayle has been fighting to keep his department afloat, while others get regular injections of cash to keep innovating. He gets a lot of criticism because in this age of innovation and immediate results, we’re taking too long to show anything demonstrable. Their word, demonstrable. If you pronounce it right, you could fit ‘monster’ in there.”
I smiled, while Mary didn’t look amused in the slightest.
“We’re meant to develop into something monstrous over time. Most of us. Each member of the group with a role, a defined identity, and a specific set of skills, crafted using entirely different means. What you’re dealing with… we’re good, but we’re not there yet.”
“Defined identities,” Mary echoed me. “You called yourself a villain, back in the dining room.”
“I’m the black sheep, or the black lamb, Mary. Gordon is the multi-talented hero, Helen the actress, Jamie the bookworm and record keeper, Evette is the problem solver who steps out from the background to deliver answer and solution in one fell stroke, and Lillian is a student on the verge of becoming the teacher, eventually to become master, surpassing professors in her mastery of the Academy science. Me? I’m only the bastard.”
Were the sharp contrasts between light and shadow playing tricks on my eyes, or had Mary’s expression changed?
Sorry, Evette. I hope it’s some consolation that you’re here with us in this sense, if nothing else. A phantom enemy they have no details on.
“It was smart of you to come after me first. Go for the weak link. That’s a good instinct you have.”
“Something tells me you aren’t a weak link, Sylvester.”
I shrugged. “We’re opposites, aren’t we?”
“I’m supposed to cover the gaps for the others. You… you’re very specialized. You were prepared for one task. Anything else is peripheral. I’m built to be part of a composite whole. You… you’ve got the boys, but you don’t have them. There’s no support. You’re among kindred but you’re alone.”
My eyes were adjusting to the gloom. I could see how she wasn’t moving. Both hands held the pistol.
She didn’t move a hair. Only the licks of fire from the furnace illuminated anything.
“You don’t know me,” she said.
This far into our dialogue, I had a sense of her. Before, I might have had to guess. Now I was suspicious that this was a willful lack of movement. She was trying very hard not to give me anything.
I shrugged. “I know more than you think. You don’t trust your… should I call them fellow experiments?”
“I think you’re taking your own experiences and transplanting your experiences onto me.”
“Do you? If you think I don’t trust the others with my life, you couldn’t be more wrong,” I said. I clenched my hands, kneading the upper palms with my fingers to crack them, knowing full well that she was on the alert, that it would distract and force her to divide her focus between watching and listening. “You, on the other hand, are paranoid. Exceedingly careful. Locking the door, taking the extra measures you are, keeping more than enough weapons in arm’s reach. You made the boys a part of your plan, but you don’t trust them to have your back.”
“You keep saying that. ‘The boys’. I know you’re trying to make me let something slip. Keep trying and-”
“Bull,” I cut her off. “You want to know how we operate? This is part of it. Every single thing you do, even this? We can use it. We can pick it apart and unravel it. Every action you take, you tip your hand in one way or another. There’s no other girl. The boys were a group. Ed said they were distracting whoever was walking the halls. They, plural.”
“Ed’s friends, you mean?”
I shook my head. “Ed and his closest buddies didn’t sit with us at dinner. The rest like Gordon enough they wouldn’t pull something like that. It was your fellow experiments. The boys. They operate as a group. But while they shared the task of distracting the man, you have nobody else with you. Dealing with unknown quantities, you could have had another girl there with you, standing in the shadow, ready to use the same escape route.”
I gestured toward the closed chute beside her.
“You showed yourself, acting the individual, taking point. You showed off while doing it, that line about enjoying our meals. That tells me you did it voluntarily, to stand out. There’s no other girl in this narrative. You stand alone, Mary Elizabeth Coburn, and you know it.”
She looked down at the gun. “I feel like shooting you now.”
“That reminds me, just in case you feel like shooting me all of a sudden. When you do it, can you do me a favor? Shoot me in the heart?”
She looked up at me.
“I always thought my head would be what went first. I’d kind of like to stick it to fate.”
“Not knowing what you are, I’m not sure I’m willing to risk it. For all I know, you’re a human they grew in a jar.”
“I’m real. Woman-born,” I said. “An adjustment made after the fact, so my head works in a slightly different way. A shot to the heart will kill me. But maybe one to the heart, watch me die, then finish me off with one to the head? As one experiment to another, it would be very much appreciated.”
“You’re a fatalistic little shit, aren’t you? That’s really not an act, huh?”
“I said we were opposites, before. Even our positions here make for a pretty good contrast. You up high, armed to the teeth. Me down below. Roasting. My weakness is my head. Yours-”
“It strikes me,” she said, interrupting me, affecting an arch tone of surprise, “that I’m sitting here, and it truly feels like I’m the one being interrogated. For the past minute or two we’ve barely talked about you in any meaningful capacity.”
That was the kind of epiphany that was punctuated by the pull of a trigger.
I’d hoped to lead into it more, but…
“If I were him, I would have told you that you were special,” I said.
She didn’t pull the trigger.
“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. I even dropped my head down to look at the floor, so she didn’t have to worry about me studying her in the darkness. “I’m just going to talk out loud. You’re alone. You’re smart enough and you have free reign enough that you have to know what happened to your predecessors. Word gets around a school like this, and you’ve shown you can connect the dots.”
I continued, “That leaves a question. How does he keep you in line? How does he convince you that you’re safe, that you won’t go the same way the others did? My line of thinking is that he tells you that out of all the tries, you worked. This on top of whatever story he’s concocted, that he’s equipped you to kill your parents and that nobody will suspect you, the orphan. You’ll get the inheritance and everything ends happily ever after.”
Still no bullet.
“You believed him. You still do, because you have no other choice but to face the grim reality. That your lifespan is measured in hours. He tells you to do what you can to deal with us, as discreetly as possible, and then go deal with your parents. The emetics would be his idea, but this thing with getting me in this room and having the furnace going, it’s all very well done, you put effort into it. You’ll put effort into dealing with your parents…”
You put the effort in because you think he’ll praise you. You’ll be his triumph. His girl. You love him, as a parental figure or as anyone at the start of their journey to adulthood can be infatuated with an adult.
We’re opposites in that respect too. You love your creator.
“…And you’ll end up exactly like the others, unable to move while the family home burns up around you,” I said, instead. Attacking her relationship with the puppeteer would get me shot. I raised my head to look at her. I couldn’t quite make out her face in the gloom. “How does he do it, Mary?”
“I thought I didn’t have to say anything,” she said.
Her words were empty of inflection, like Helen’s sometimes was.
I got it wrong?
“I’m trying to help you, you stupid little twit!” I said, clenching my hands again. “He did something to make you sharper, to put ideas in your head, so that you’d walk the path he drew out in front of you. I want to know so I can stop you from walking off the cliff that’s waiting at the end!”
“You seem to be forgetting something, Sylvester,” she said. She hopped down from the edge of the workbench, and used a free hand to smooth out her dress and fix her cloak at the shoulder, the pistol never leaving me. “Did you think that if you kept saying ‘oh, I’m going to die, I’m going to die, you’re going to kill me’ like it didn’t matter, getting me to let my guard down, that you could turn it around? Start talking like I’m going to let you live and change my mind on that level?”
“No, actually, you’re quite wrong on that count,” I said. “I really didn’t. But it’s really kind of telling that you thought that. Did you get that idea from him? Is that how he thinks, and the sort of thing he pays attention to?”
She shook her head.
But it wasn’t a shake of negation.
Mary was losing her faith. If there was anything I could do to keep her from stepping closer to me and pulling that trigger, it was giving her something to hold on to.
“You’re right that I’ve been interrogating you. Thinking aloud and watching your reactions. I can tell that you care about him, and you wanted to do this, right here, for him. I can give you what you want.”
I can tell that you care about him. If she was human at her core, finally having a confidant for feelings that had been under lock and key had to count for something.
“A bullet in your head? A clean disposal?” she asked. “A job well done?”
“I won’t tell you where Evette is. But I can tell you who to watch out for. You can tell him, and he’ll be pleased. With you.”
She switched to a two-handed grip, aiming at my chest.
No way she’d shoot, now.
I decided to push my luck further. “I have a condition.”
She let out a titter of a laugh. Cultured through and through.
“Don’t go home. Don’t go visit your parents. If I’m right, then you’ll find that all the work the puppeteer has done has made it automatic. You’ll see their faces and all at once you’ll be like a stitched, going through the motions with a very limited capacity, but all of the sharpness the puppeteer gave you. Execute mom, execute dad, and then burn up yourself with all the rest of the evidence. If I’m wrong, you lose nothing. You can take the information I gave you, you can communicate the details to the puppeteer, get a rare compliment that means ever so much to you, and then go kill your parents another day.”
“Delaying gives you a window of opportunity to act against us. If I communicate with him, that’s a chance for you to identify him. I’m not that easily manipulated.”
“No you aren’t,” I agreed. “But you’re wrong about my motivations. Years ago, back at the beginning of my becoming Sylvester, I stole my file. I found out about the expiration dates. That it was so common a thing that it’s a pre-typed line in the documents that go with being an experiment. I decided that I’d dedicate myself to helping the others. If I can keep them alive longer, or support them, I’ll do that. But I think my best bet is to prove that Professor Hayle’s secret project was a success. Because then they’ll want to keep us alive, they’ll dedicate more to us.”
“What does that have to do with this?”
“You’re similar to the others. To me, as much as I talk about us being opposites. I want to keep you alive because you’re kindred. Not kin, but a bird of the same feather. Your success is our success, even if we’re on opposite sides. Even the puppeteer’s success is, in a way.”
“I’m starting to regret letting you talk at all.”
“Because I hit the mark?” I asked, hopeful.
“Because that’s the biggest load of goatshit I’ve ever heard,” she said.
With the back of my head against the door, I could hear the sound of footsteps. Heavier, running.
No! I thought, even as I kept my expression still.
Not now, I thought. You damn idiot. You’ll force her hand and get me shot.
The footsteps receded. Going the wrong direction. I resisted the urge to sigh in relief.
I was now forced to rush it. I couldn’t keep stringing her along, offering her bait to keep her from pulling the trigger.
“Gordon is the one you should watch out for. Investigating? He’s still learning. Acting, disguise, infiltration? He’s okay at the third, in terms of sheer agility and ability to get places, but the rest are points he needs to shore up. But when they figure out who the puppeteer is, and they just about have, it’s Gordon who will handle the man. You can tell the puppeteer that.”
“Assuming I tell him anything.”
You have to, I thought. Evette is too dangerous as an unknown.
“Assuming you tell him anything, yeah,” I agreed.
The footsteps resumed. There was a murmur of voice.
Gordon was too fast, and the others were at the bottom of the stairs.
For gods sake, at least be quiet.
I heard a statement, quick and quieter than the ones prior. Then silence.
They’d seen the light from the furnace under the door, or they’d heard something.
Now they were coming.
“Do what you have to,” I said. “But know that whatever you do, the moment you go home to fulfill your last order, you’ll be a statistic to the puppeteer, and nothing more. You’ll revert to the instructions he gave you, and in the midst of it, you’ll be completely and utterly alone.”
The expression in her face went cold. Angry. A killer’s eyes. I believed her, that she didn’t have an iota of mercy in her when it really came down to it. Her world had been reduced to her and her creator.
“In the meantime, Mary, keep in mind that there are others like you out there. Including me, at least until you pull that trigger.”
The best way to lie was to believe the lie. Not that I was lying, but the idea connected to the next.
The best way to surprise someone was to be surprised as well.
The door smashed into the room with a force that sent me from my seat at its base to the center of the room.
Gordon pushed aside the remnants of the door. It looked as though he’d dislocated his shoulder, from the way he held his arm.
Mary, holding the gun, seemed momentarily caught between finishing me off while I lay two feet from her and dealing with the boy that was half-again her size and apparently capable of throwing himself through a door.
She decided in the same instant Gordon moved. The pistol wheeled on him, and he threw himself between the wall and the furnace. The bullet flashed where it hit the edge of the furnace.
She spent five shots in total, and then aimed at me. I covered my face.
I heard the bullet, but didn’t feel it.
She reached to the table to seize the hatchet, and moved toward me.
Taking me hostage with a hatchet? She was careful enough to sharpen it.
That would be ideal, but the others wouldn’t let her do it. There were benefits to acting alone, I supposed.
Instead, I pointed at Gordon.
He was already emerging from behind the furnace. She heaved the weapon at him, an expert motion, sending handle spinning over axehead. He ducked back behind the furnace for cover, while the axe struck the wall right where his head had been.
She leaped over my legs on her way to the coal chute, throwing the door open.
Gordon moved to follow.
I heard a rasp.
“Nope!” I called out. Non-sequitur, but it was what my brain produced in the moment.
Fire appeared within the chute.
Our golden boy kicked the chute door closed before the fire could touch the pile of coal at the chute’s base.
Leaving Mary to make her well-planned escape.
I let my head sink back to rest against the floor. Above me, at the doorway, I could see the others standing on either side of the door, peering into the room.
“What did you get from her?” Helen asked.
“How are you doing, Sy?” I asked, injecting plenty of sarcasm into my voice, “How did you do it, Sy? Are you okay?”
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“What did you get from her?” she asked, again.
Gordon offered me a hand in getting to my feet.
“I think she’s vat grown,” I said. “When pressed, the first thing that popped into her head was a person grown in a bottle. That’s where I’d lay my money.”
“Vat grown?” Gordon asked. “Made from scratch? No, that would be next to impossible, if they’re supposed to resemble the kids they ended up replacing.”
I nodded. “Clones. Possibly with implanted behaviors. Probably something plugged in for imprinting to their creator and a reversal of the typical love for your parents.”
“We can work with that as a starting point,” Jamie said.
“We have a lot to work with,” I said, looking down at the mark the bullet had made in the floor when she’d fired at me.
Too far away to be anything but a deliberate miss.