Taking Root 1.7

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“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.”

I did.

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 sighed.

“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…”

I paused.

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.

All show.

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.

Gordon paused.

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.

I sighed.

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.

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90 thoughts on “Taking Root 1.7

  1. I’m kinda conflicted. On the one hand, I want to say I love Sylvester’s dialogue and that it really reveals a lot about his character. On the other hand, I don’t really believe a word that comes out of his mouth

    • I think he mixed truth in with a fair dollop of fiction. Like any good liar does. Lillian isn’t original to the team, nor one of them, for example. Evette may actually have been slated for some of the role he suggested, but probably not most of it: it was too well tailored to act as a bogey and distraction for the presumed adversary they’re facing.

      • Also… thinking about it: he didn’t disclose much that couldn’t be deduced from what will already have been observed — not all of it fully true. He said Helen is an actress. True enough: but, he’s too damn wary of her for that to be her primary role. You do, however, need to act well to get close enough to spy on or assassinate a target. 😛

        Keep some of the rest of what he said in mind, but remember to apply salt.

  2. I don’t quite understand the logic behind the perceived plan. If the Kids are Clones with prebuilt behaviors, how does that fit in with what’s actually happening? The kids are killing their parents, right? It seems like a big waste of time to make kids just to murder the parents and disappear. Also, how do they have parents? These people had children made up for themselves?

    • My best guess is that killing the parents is not the end goal. It’s a bonus, but the end goal is people with power not being able to trust their own children, or the school for that matter. And that would be a sever blow to the Academy’s power and reputation.

      This can only be done if the child-killers are believed to be the true child. For that, it’s probably better to dispose of the real body long enough ago that there is no risk of it being discovered at the same time. And if it’s discovered before (and the clone shenanigans are exposed), well the primary goal of destroying trust is still achieved.

      • And if people find the bodies and realize that the existing ones are clones, just arrange for the dead bodies of a whole bunch of new clones to be found…

  3. Whee, called it on the clone suggestion! Though I have to wonder why the creator didn’t just make her fanatically devoted to his goals while setting up her behaviors so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.

    Mary was more than a bit sloppy on her technique here, I think. Firstly, she let Sly sit down; the fact that he wanted to do it was more than sufficient reason to deny it. Secondly, she interrogated him without a way to determine if he was telling the truth, so of course he lied.

    • Secondly, she interrogated him without a way to determine if he was telling the truth, so of course he lied.

      Isn’t that literally all interrogations? You try to find information and then need to decide on what’s accurate and what’s useful.

      • Yes and No. In a well run interrogation, you ask questions you already know the answers to. This determines the validity of the information from the person you are interrogating. At the same time you intersperse the questions with one you don’t have answers to while making the subject believe you know the answers. After the first few times you call them on lies they start to believe there is no point to lying. Once they are consistently telling the truth you can pull out information you did not previously have with some confidence of its veracity.

        • However that may not be obvious to everyone, and there is nothing indicating Mary should have naturally thought of that.
          Also, there’s probably not that much she knew in the first place, and Sly was careful enough to not tell her anything that was reasonably something she knew to be false. On top of that, he volunteered some easy-to-verify information (the trap) that she probably did not have in the first place, which I guess would be a good way to gain trust.

    • “I have to wonder why the creator didn’t just make her fanatically devoted to his goals while setting up her behaviors so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.”

      We have clear indications that meddling of that sort is not an exact science, especially when dealing with the brain.

    • Though I have to wonder why the creator didn’t just make her fanatically devoted to his goals while setting up her behaviors so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.
      Sounds like the sort of thing that’s a lot trickier than just making her really, really like and trust him. It should be easy enough to take avian imprinting instincts or something like that and turn them up to 11; adding in fanatic instincts, which nothing of the sort exists in nature to base it off of, sounds harder.

  4. I think this whole murder business is a very convoluted plan designed to draw out and eliminate The Moth Gang.

    Mrs. Hayle was upset that Mr. Hayle spent more time working than with her. She hatched up this plan to design kids to murder their parents, knowing that Mr. Hayle would send the group out to investigate. The Moth Gang is then supposed to be eliminated.

    With his major project shut down, Mr. Hayle would 1, pay for neglecting her and 2, rearrange his priories.

  5. I am a little confused. So, is Mary a clone? If so, what happened to the original Mary?

    Also, I reckon Sylvester and the others are kind of stiched in the brain rather than vat grown?

    • If the Mary we see is a clone…well, she might have a second life as some kind of Stitched thing she was used as raw materials for, but more likely she’s been dumped in some obscure body of water.

  6. So, going by what Sy said, Lillian is just like the others? Sy says she is new. Maybe she was just recently (no more than a year, say) modified to be like Sy et al., but still part of the original plan, rather than being a normal (or non-modified, to be sensitive) person who got added to the group.

    I’m very confused about who “the boys” are and why we haven’t seen them. Are they supposed to be Ed’s group? I get the impression that Ed isn’t a bad seed, because it seemed as though he was lied to in order to bring Sy to Mary.

    I don’t understand either the motivation of Mary or the bad seeds. “I really want to make my master happy so I am going to kill myself and burn my family”. If the explanation is simply that the children are coocoo in the head so they’ll do whatever their master want, that seems like a fair enough explanation. But I feel as though I am missing something. Is there a reason for the children to want their putative parents dead? And don’t they realise that they can’t keep making their creator happy if they die? I guess I gotta reread the chapters.

    • As Sy mentioned early on in Twig, Lillian isn’t one of them; like Evette, he was lying. Four in the group/gestalt, with Lillian as medical backup.

      We have seen ‘the boys’, they (or some of them) were the ones looking through the window, in shadow, while fighting Ed. Mary was speaking about ‘the boys’ as though she was speaking about people affiliated with Ed, but she was actually talking about the other bad seeds.

      Yes, I strongly recommend reading the chapters more carefully. In this chapter, Sy directly suggested to Mary that the suicide is pretty much hard-coded in; they’re kept loyal to their controller by love, told that they’re going to kill their originals’ parents (who would have noticed that they weren’t behaving like their real children sooner or later anyway) and get their inheritance as an orphan and live happily with the approval of their controller–and then, when they see the faces of their targets, murder-suicide starts automatically with no way to resist. Puzzled by what’s gained by keeping them at the school so long first, though.

      • Why use a timed bomb instead of a directly controlled detonator? Because it obscures who planted the bomb, since that could happen any time before. Also, leaves you time to cover your trails before the bomb goes off and anybody is looking.

        But lets see it from a different angle: perhaps it is proving a point. Its a special project, most likly from an intitution similar to the Academy, since vat-growing children takes a lot resources, especially in those numbers. Perhaps a competing/enemy faction? How is the geopolitical situation?
        The point, or rather concept, to be proven here is that it is feasible to “inject” a vat-grown assassin clone into the environment of the original, and hold its time long enough to cover the trail to the assassin-grower. I can picture the project proposal to get the funding.

  7. I’m not entirely sure I understood the ‘escape route’. The fire down the chute, particularly–was that fire coming down the chute /after/ Mary went into it, singing her? Normally, would it have singed her, then ignited the coal and burnt her up inside? If before she went in, then again why, and why didn’t she stop it from doing so beforehand?

    (I thought at first that she planned to dispose of herself as well in the furnace, but apparently not…)

    • The coal chute goes up, not down (they are in the basement). She climbed up it and then lit the coal dust on fire to stop them following her.

    • It seemed like it was fire that must have shot out after she went through, and that if the door hadn’t been closed the fire would have ignited the coal right outside the chute door.

    • I believe it was a trap that Mary had placed beforehand and triggered as she crawled through the chute. It prevents people following her and potentially could ignite a blaze in the furnace room.

  8. A final thought for now, on the first student: ‘Autopsies didn’t indicate any particular chemicals or abnormalities’. I would have thought that there would be some fairly striking differences between a normally-aged child and a vat-grown clone, unless some pretty amazing work was put in to mimic the effects of aging.

    On the one hand, easy to imagine that their level of work could fool a standard autopsy for us; on the other hand, hard to imagine that a standard autopsy for them wouldn’t be far more advanced and thorough than ours.

    • Sy may not be bang on the money: they may come from vats, but also incorporate a lot of the original in some way that isn’t typical for either a clone or a stitched. After all, it’s not like he’s got anything beyond Mary’s knowledge or reactions to go on.

      Nothing says that Mary is right to think she came from a vat… Or, that she didn’t pull a fast one on him. We’ll have to see. [shrugs]

    • I don’t think there would be any particularly obvious differences for clones. If grown from a single cell, they’d basically have to undergo normal aging at an accelerated rate. Granted, by default they wouldn’t have any signs of old injuries.

    • Well, that depends on how widespread making minor alterations to yourself is, especially among the relatively wealthy and students with access to bioengineering. I don’t think that students at the academies would necessarily give their friends extra fingers if they passed out drunk at a party…but it wouldn’t surprise me if things like that happened sometimes.

  9. I am honestly impressed. I’ve never seen a PoV character bullshit his way out of a situation like this before, and I genuinely cannot tell when he was lying and when he wasn’t. This whole chapter was a blast.

  10. The Avengers comes to mind immediately:

    “I’m in the middle of an interrogation here, this moron is giving me everything.”

  11. Hm. Mary is specialized-designed for one task. Sy is built to be part of a gestalt, but that gestalt is missing two people. I wonder if he might want to fill in the hole in the group with Mary? It’s not perfect, but she’s professional, paranoid, and manipulable…

  12. So Lambbridge kids are human, but modified. With shortened lifespans. Yeah, the academy doesn’t have such good ethics does it. So all they are truly concerned with is making monsters? Oh this is not going to end well at all.

    • In fairness, orphans don’t have a particularly high life expectancy either, in that time. There’s a very good chance that they’d just have died of starvation instead. The orphanage presumably depends on the Academy for funding, after all. That said, this obviously doesn’t make human experimentation okay.

      • Factoring in his wanting to see the expiration dates, I think that’s one of the things Sy was being honest about.

    • I’m not sure if they have shortened lifespans per se. I got the impression that the issue was project timelines. As soon as the project is considered “over”, they are disposed of. Don’t get me wrong, I think that they most likely just have shortened lifespans, but I also got this alternative interpretation.

      • That actually would actually make things worse. That means they are murdering children for this project. And no, orphans having not so good life expectancies is not a defense. Just try using “He would have died pretty soon anyways in the grand scheme of things” as your defense in a murder trial.

        Granted not everything is clear yet, but I am suspecting the Twig world is going to get pretty messed up.

  13. Very interesting. If the original children were conceived with the help of science (IVF or similar), then the doctor involved with that could very easily clone them, grow them in a vat, and raise them up as his creatures. They could then at some point kill the original children and take their place in their family. This could give their creator access to a variety of connections and information. The killing of the parents and clones are either come kind of revenge plot or perhaps the family/come just reached the end of their usefulness. However, the visibility of the pattern seems intentionally high, which seems to indicate trap. Maybe a rival? Moriarty vs. Sherlock?

  14. I’m officially putting my money on Sly for being the most dangerous member of the Gang. At least until we finally see Helen show her true colors, instead of just wearing masks. But Sly’s social manipulation in this chapter was top notch.

    He started with being “interrogated” at gunpoint, and not only made it out of the situation in one piece but also got way more information out of Mary than she did from him. Not to mention that the last lines give the distinct impression that he at least started to turn Mary.

    Super memory and peak physical ability are both nice, but being able to talk your way out of a certain-death situation while simultaneously learning more about the shadowy puppeteer and making your would-be executioner question her loyalties is downright impressive.

  15. So it’s clear that Evette was one of the “nonviable” projects, right? I mean, he even says that she’s there in spirit. Meaning that Sy had already failed in his self-appointed quest to keep the others alive at least one (assuming he’s telling the truth about that, but I think he might be).

    Living until they’re twenty is better than I expected, given how old they are now, but I suppose that it makes sense in-universe. I predict that we’re going to either go a long ways between arcs or have some major timeskips.

  16. This just makes me like Sy even more… it’s amazing how well he can manipulate the situation with words and read his ‘interrogator’. Reminds me of someone who also likes attacking by talking/tattling at her enemies… He mixes the truth and lies well enough so that it’s impossible for Mary to distinguish between the two. Although from what he got from her, I’m guessing she wasn’t willing to shoot Sy at the end, but that contradicts her killing readiness that Sy had been seeing. Or maybe Mary planted one of the assumptions Sy made, and wants that assumption to get to the gang through him.

    Also, Twig is up on topwebfiction! http://topwebfiction.com/?for=twig

      • If you hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have noticed — I was looking for a banner like the one on these pages. Also, Citadel has an interesting setup — the day new posts are published, you have to vote to read them. Or you can wait a day or so and read them without voting.

        • That’s…a bit cold. Still, it’s an interesting story so far. A bit more worldbuilding and exposition in the early chapters (I’m partway through 3.2) would be nice, but if it leads somewhere good I won’t complain.

          • Do you mean that you found my comment on my experience to be cold or that you find Citadel’s setup to be cold?

          • Neither—the “you have to vote to read this when it comes out” thing seems a bit…I couldn’t think of a word to precisely articulate my thoughts, so I went with “cold”.

  17. Belated thought: Evette being the fifth of the six, is/was the sixth Ralph Stein, mentioned earlier in 1.2–alive, but not functional as part of the group? (And why two names, rather than one like the others?)

    If so, though, then why is he left alive? Are ‘appointments’ needed for life, or for functionality/usability? And/Or is Sylvester the only person who has ‘appointments’?

    ((And, the time he had two back-to-back, what is their nature that a single appointment couldn’t just be twice as long or twice as hard? Hmmm.))

    • If it’s any sort of actual medical procedure, doubling up doesn’t necessarily work. Any chemicals used will probably not work twice as well when twice as much is injected, and in fact would probably just kill him. And it would take some time for everything to return to normal so they could safely start a new one.

      • I’m guessing that they’re more of an analysis sort of procedure. Except that, this being Frankenstein 1921, they don’t have any MRI to scan his brain with, so they’re doing something horrible like opening his skull up to check on the alterations they made when he was a newborn.

  18. I don’t think I’ve said it yet on this fic, and I know I don’t comment much, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m reading, and I’m really interested. I like this a lot, probably more than Pact, possibly more than Worm. If I do end up liking it more than Worm, you can take it as proof positive of your improved writing, because super powers are pretty a favorite subject of mine to read about.

      • Links at the top/bottom of the post are hardcoded in, meaning I have to manually do it at chapter’s conclusion. If and when I forget or am busy (typically the latter), there may be a day or two where it doesn’t get done. Last night I mainly wanted to get to sleep, as I’m traveling today. Will add it in while I’m on the train.

  19. Things are picking up – I like it. One thing to add: The expression “taking fla(c)k” wouldn’t make sense in a setting before WW2 or that steers clear of it altogether; it’s an anachronism.

  20. I am loving how manipulative Sy is, very Tattletale-esque. And I love how his worst nightmare is Helen, someone he cannot read or manipulate.

    Quick question, the nickname seems to jump between Sy and Sly. Is this intentional?

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