“You’re bleeding,” Lillian noted, touching my chin.
“Someone shoved a door into me,” I said, glancing back at Gordon.
“You’re welcome,” Gordon said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate the rescue. The sentiment, anyway.”
Now it was his turn to shoot me a look. I was going to say something, but Lillian grabbed my chin, lifting it up. She patted at it with a pad that smelled like something burnt.
“We almost missed you,” Jamie said. “We went to the yard, then we were going to split up from there. I didn’t think you’d be straight down from the dorm room.”
“I saw the smoke at the chimney,” Gordon said. “I thought it was the kitchen, but Jamie knew the layout better than I did, and we found our way down here.”
“Good as my memory might be, I’m not in top form when I’ve just woken up. We went to the wrong end of the hall. There are multiple furnaces for different sections of the building.”
Slow to get things moving, I thought.
“I feel terrible I almost fucked up,” Jamie said. “It would have been better to follow you first, then gone to get Gordon.”
“They would have seen you and adjusted the plan,” I said. “This would have gone worse if it was the two of us instead of just me.”
“How’s that?” Gordon asked.
“She could have hurt Jamie to pressure me, or done it the other way around. Being alone, I could build a rapport.”
“You could have gotten shot,” Jamie said.
“When push came to shove, she missed. I think there was a reason she missed.”
“More than her being pressed for time?” Jamie asked.
I nodded. “She’s been imprinted with set behaviors, but she’s still human, with hopes and fears. Right now, she’s uncertain, very possibly more than she’s ever been in her whole life. Her creator more or less had a monopoly on how she behaved. Grow a child in a vat, imprint them with behaviors that fit the grand plan, stick them in school to surround them with people to mimic and model themselves after, step in now and again to reinforce, shape behavior and train. I’m the first real challenge to her reality. I’ve got her questioning things.”
“You make me question my reality,” Gordon said.
“Ha ha,” I said. Lillian examined my hands, turning them face-up. She had to squint to see, but she put the powder on the bases of my palms, where I’d scuffed them on the floor during my fall.
“What’s the next step?” Jamie asked.
“Sy’s call,” Gordon said.
“I gave her ideas and things to worry about. I don’t think she’s going to check in with her compatriots here. It would increase the chance of running into us a second time.”
“You don’t think she’s confident about their abilities?” Gordon asked. “She threw that hatchet like a pro.”
“She’s confident in her abilities. But that’s not where I hit her. It’s called dissonance. You believe one thing deeply enough that it’s central to your identity. Then something, me, steps in to challenge that belief. It’s a hell of a leap of faith to go from believing something and understanding how much of the world works, to saying ‘I don’t know’. Some deny, and you can get stupid-as-hell behaviors from those who see something plain as day but deny it because it conflicts with something they believe. Some get angry, some distract themselves until they can figure out how to deal with it… but very few will turn around and throw themselves headlong into more questions. More dissonance.”
“If she’s not going to her old friends-” Jamie started.
“Which would force her to face the questions,” I cut in.
“Or coming after us-“
“Risks even more questions,” I added.
Jamie frowned at my interruptions. “She’s going another place, another route. Who is she? How does she operate? Will she try to escape her worries by fulfilling her mission?”
“I told her that if she tries, she might well lose herself to her imprinted behaviors. I don’t think so. She’ll want answers, I think we should track her and get some answers for ourselves.”
“She just covered her trail pretty well there,” Gordon said. “Is it even possible?”
“It’s possible,” I said. “We know where she’s going. She’s going to pay a visit to her creator.”
“Which would be great if we knew who he was,” Jamie said.
“It would,” I said. “It’s not going to be in the school. If it was another kind of project, maybe it could be hidden, but if I’m right, and these are clones grown in tubes, then it’s too big a task. Even ignoring that, she’s trained. That takes time, and it takes space. You need room to swing weapons around or practice your aim with a pistol. A school with thirty members of faculty and over a thousand students isn’t going to give you that.”
“Off-campus, can’t be too far away,” Jamie said. “How often would this training happen?”
“Training, instructions, shaping behavior,” Gordon said. “I’d guess once a week? Can’t say.”
“If they are vat-grown,” Helen said, “Then they’d need training on other fronts. How to be human, basic niceties. How to use silverware, how to talk… it might not take too long, but they need to be able to pass.”
“A house,” I said. “That’s more what we’re looking for than where.”
“With a kitchen, clothes…” Helen said.
“Room to move around,” Gordon said. “It’s not a small house with walls shared with anyone else. Neighbors would get suspicious and complain about the noise just as much as anyone else.”
“And,” Jamie said, “There’s the question of how you make a child act well enough like their former self to pass muster with the child’s own parents.”
Gordon frowned. “I really don’t want to run away with the wrong idea here. If we go chasing after a wild goose, we might not get another opportunity to get them. How sure are you, Sy?”
I leaned against the wall. Lillian finished checking me over, and moved over to Gordon. She began unbuttoning his shirt.
“How sure? Um. It fits. The little detail thing that Jamie was oh-so-recently trying to get me to focus on.”
“He wasn’t there for that conversation,” Jamie said.
“No,” Jamie said, very patiently.
Gordon grunted as Lillian pushed his shoulder back into the socket. She had him go through a range of motions, extending his arm and moving it around.
“Well, Jamie was talking about the little things that we don’t necessarily pay attention to, that still register in the subconscious. I made a point of calling Mary an experiment, part of my trying to build a rapport with her. She never called me out on it or sounded uncomfortable with the idea. I don’t think she’s ever had illusions about being anything else. She paid a lot of attention when I talked about roles, identity, labels. Part of that is going to this school, but part of it is that she’s acting out a role, and has been for a long time. Whatever’s going on with her, it runs deep.”
“One student died and was autopsied,” Gordon said. “The rest burned. Wouldn’t a clone turn up on autopsies?”
“Moment I heard about the remainder being burned, I thought maybe they missed something in the first autopsy, and our puppeteer went out of his way to risk a second close call. But I don’t know for sure whether it would show up.”
After a pause, we collectively turned to Lillian.
“It depends on a lot,” she said.
“That doesn’t tell us anything,” I said.
“Don’t be a butthole, Sy,” Jamie told me.
I rolled my eyes.
“If he tried to accelerate growth, which he must have, then there’s a good chance something would show up. There are chemical ways to promote aging. Hormones, substances, alter the seventh ratio. But those substances turn up, and they have effects. Any drug is like a puzzle piece. We flood the body with puzzle pieces of a particular shape, and intend for those pieces to fit into a specific place and enact a specific function, but you can’t stop it from connecting to other sites, enacting other functions. It’s how we get side effects. We control it with how we deliver the medication and other factors, and some of the best graduates of the Academy have it down to an art, making it so one drug only affects one thing in one way, but that’s a delicate balancing act. That’s without getting into the fact that a badly made clone might be more prone to wear, tear, and side effects.”
“Is our guy that good?” Jamie asked. “Enough to have the aging drugs down to an art, hiding symptoms from an autopsy?”
“We don’t know,” Gordon said. “But if what Sy said is true, I’d say he isn’t. He has one area of focus and he’s giving his all in pursuing it.”
“Okay,” Lillian said. “The second method is more complimentary, then. Altering the fundamental pattern of the clones. Humans mature at an exceptionally slow rate. We saw people try this a decade ago in the Indian Empire. Crown scientists tried to make a slave class that grew to maturity, with a specific level of intelligence. Domesticated humans, strong, playful, good natured, attractive, and obedient. If I’m not mistaken, they tried a lot of things, including imprinted behaviors.”
Like Mary? I raised my eyebrows. “How did it go?”
“How do you think it went, Sy?” Gordon asked. “Do you see slaves everywhere?”
“That’s not saying it didn’t work,” I said.
“It’s pretty damn indicative,” Gordon said.
“Guys, guys,” Jamie cut in. “Focus. Please. We need to figure out a direction to go, here.”
“It involves other problems,” Lillian said. “Like the drugs and hormones, it’s an art unto itself. It requires precision of a different sort, and a broad kind of knowledge. There’s prior work to draw on, other projects that tried similar things, but there would be signs of the attempt that would crop up in an autopsy, unless the work was perfect. Change one thing in the pattern, and it has ripple effects throughout the organism’s development and makeup.”
“I didn’t realize it was that difficult,” Helen said.
“Oh my god. It really, really is,” Lillian said, eyes wide, the incredulity she wasn’t voicing clear in her expression.
“Again, if our puppeteer was that good, why the hell isn’t he already employed by the Academy and earning a small fortune for his talents?” Gordon asked. A rhetorical question.
Many of us were nodding.
“Got any more suggestions, Lillian?” Jamie asked. “Because this is good. Very useful. But I don’t think it’s screaming ‘this is our guy’.”
“For accelerating aging? Those would be the best routes,” Lillian said. “There are others, but I think I’d be wasting our time.”
“Then we’re stuck,” Gordon said.
“No. Not exactly. There’s a third possibility,” Lillian said. “Maybe more, but I’m only thinking of three. It kind of complicates things.”
“Go on,” Gordon said.
“Don’t,” Lillian said. “Don’t accelerate the aging. If you need them to age, you make them age by letting time pass.”
“Mary is twelve,” Gordon said. “He’s had this plan in the works for twelve years?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. “Except not exactly.”
I opened my mouth, and Jamie shot me a look. I closed my mouth before he called me a butthole again for my poking fun at Lillian.
“I said it complicates things,” Lillian said. “Because our ‘puppeteer’ could strike a balance. Some natural aging. Some hormones or changes to the pattern. The more he relies on real time passing, the less he needs to accelerate the process. Maybe this project has only been in the works for nine years, or six.”
“Meaning there could be clues,” Gordon said, “Ones that slipped through in the autopsy.”
“More time to develop them,” Helen said. “Either he inserts them while they’re young, where a half-socialized clone might go unnoticed amid rabid and rambunctious first graders, or he waits and he observes their real counterpart, and he trains the clones to mime the behaviors in his off-hours.”
“Yeah. We were wondering why he picked Mary,” I said. “Her parents don’t seem important. But if this project has been in the works for a while…”
“Maybe we should be looking at who they were,” Gordon finished for me. “Or who they were supposed to become. Our puppeteer was taking stabs in the dark, this could be a stab that missed.”
“I can look into that end of things, given time,” Jamie said.
“We might not have a lot of time, but go for it,” I said. “After you direct me to wherever student records are stored.”
“By the front entrance. Below the front office.”
“Good,” I said. “Great. I’m going. It’s better if I’m not here. Assuming Mary hasn’t communicated anything to her fellow clones, they’ll assume I’m dead. Play it up, act upset and distressed. Stick together, try to keep them distracted and occupied. Best case scenario, they’ll still think I’m dead and I can catch them off guard when I’m back.”
“If you do, don’t try to fight them,” Gordon said, his expression blank.
“They’re trained, I know,” I said.
“That, too,” Gordon said.
I frowned, but I was already heading toward the stairs, so I turned on the spot, switching to walking backward, if only to make my expression as clear as possible.
“Lillian,” I spoke up.
She looked at me, a crease between her eyebrows. Annoyance, worry?
“That Academy know-how you just dropped on us? That was good. Smart stuff.”
If anything, the crease between her eyebrows deepened. Her mouth moved, the start of a frown.
I didn’t see the rest of it. I headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time, very nearly silent. I ducked low and peered into the darkness to check the way was clear. Only when I was on the move again did I spare Lillian’s expression another thought. I’d given her a compliment, and she’d reacted like I’d slapped her in the face.
Dissonance, I realized.
The school’s prison-like elements turned out to make being stealthy remarkably difficult. The rooms were large and every single one, bathrooms excepted, had a window, either facing out into the street or inward, at the yard. I couldn’t very well turn on the lights without the room illuminating and risking that people half of the Academy’s rooms could see through their windows.
My movements through the front office, thus, were done with the benefit of and detriment of darkness.
The doors, I had to assume, were locked. At the same time, people were far worse about attending to windows.
Water ran down over me and through my hair while I scaled the wooden branches and twigs that grew into and around the masonry. It was far finer than the usual, not quite branches but not so thin as to be ivy, it was thorny, to discourage children in the yard from climbing on it, but it was still a place where I could find handholds, if I was careful to do it.
All the same, I was left bleeding in no less than five places; I couldn’t always see the thorns in the dark.
I reached the window and teased it open. I slipped inside, then closed it behind me.
Glancing outside, I didn’t see any lights going on, suggesting that a faculty member might have seen the dark shape scaling the paler wall.
Jamie had told me that the records were kept beneath the front office, and my experience with the headmistress had suggested the office’s location. Rather than go straight for the records, I found myself in the room between the front entrance and the principal’s office. Typewriters sat on desks where the secretaries were stationed, benches lined one half of the room, and desks and cabinets of papers and supplies filled the other half.
The principal’s office, once I found it with its name plate on the door, proved to be unlocked. I was glad I didn’t have to go out and back in again.
The interior of her office had a desk and chair, cabinets, some pictures meant to impress parents more than please herself or her students. There were prominent faces I couldn’t name depicted on the wall. Gradutes of Academies. A ‘this could be your student in ten years’ thing.
But I knew that however good she was, few people remembered every detail about every single one of the people who worked under them. If some of her staff slept in the building, some slept out, she still needed a means of contacting them.
I found a box of notecards, filled with teacher’s names and mailing addresses. I took it with me.
Humans were complex creatures. Add the rewriting of patterns, augmentations, grafts, revival, drugs, and everything else, and ‘human’ became an awfully unclear term. Every new discovery meant the introduction of things that had never been done or discovered before, more things that muddied the waters.
Or bloodied them.
My ‘gang’ was muddy and bloody both, but they were fairly simple, with defined roles. Here, in this, I was the odd one out. If all five of the other projects were successes, I might never have been given the go-ahead. It was sobering, to know that the foundation and excuse for my being rested on the backs of two corpses.
Two who were like me.
I’d been asked, once, how I could predict people as I did. Jamie, I think, had raised the subject. My answer had been simple.
Humans as a species were like a collection of bugs in a box. Left alone, it was hard to predict how they’d move, or the patterns that would form.
Shake the box, and it generated chaos. Maddened, they would seek to escape, butting their heads against barriers. They would turn on their closest neighbors and strike out. Even seek to kill. In their frenzied movements, they were very predictable.
Jamie had been very quiet after that response of mine.
But it was true. It worked on many levels. Force people into darkness, then offer them a light, and they were a moth to a candle flame.
The darkness that surrounded Mothmont wasn’t my darkness. It was meant to work against me.
But it was darkness I could use. The headmistress was worried, and I very much doubted she was sleeping after so many of her students fell ill. Many of them had rich and powerful parents. She’d been driven into a corner.
Taking a blank piece of paper from the drawer of her desk, I placed it on the top, and I penned out a simple statement with a fountain pen.
The Academy would like for you to please order a quarantine. Your students are to be fully examined in the wake of their illnesses, regardless of whether they fell ill. Take care that it includes one and all, and that it is by members of the Academy.
None of the blame in this lies with you. Provided you speak of this letter to no-one, you have nothing to worry about. All will be well.
Giving the moth her candle flame.
The only way this situation could go sour was if something happened to my group, or if more of the puppeteer’s Bad Seeds decided to make a break for their families.
The quarantine would keep that from happening and it would force our adversaries into a corner. If there was something they were trying to hide from an autopsy, they might well be uncomfortable with a full physical examination.
The only danger was that she might not listen.
Let it never be said that I couldn’t have fun.
I opened the fountain pen and took a second to work it out. There was a syringe by the ink bottle.
I hated needles.
But I didn’t hate them so much that it would stop me.
I took a minute to empty the pen with the syringe, and then took another minute to refill the syringe with blood from a thorn-puncture in my palm.
I penned out an illegible signature in blood.
Let her think about that.
I locked the door,then locked all but one of the windows. Removing a shoe to wipe at the drips of water on the floor, retreating while I covered my tracks, I found my way to the remaining window and drew out a bit of thread from my sleeve and cut it with a letter opener, which I pocketed. I carefully looped it around the latch-end, leaving more than enough slack – there was a good foot between my hand and the loop that sat around the latch’s arm. Only tension keeping things from falling to mess and disaster. Pointing up, the latch was unlocked. A simple turn meant it fit into a waiting cradle, and resisted attempts to open the window.
I climbed out of the window, then eased the window shut. Pulling on the thread with the knot, I worked the latch down, until it sat in the cradle.
I pulled on one end of the thread, and worked it out of the gap in the window.
Let her wonder who at the Academy would be leaving her a message signed in blood, in a room with all means of entrance and egress properly locked and sealed.
Hopefully while she was wondering she wouldn’t be telling herself she couldn’t risk the quarantine.
I headed down one floor, sticking myself with a few more thorns on the way. I was thoroughly soaked by the time I reached the set of windows on the ground floor.
The letter opener slid between windows to lift a latch. I let myself into the records room.
The benefits of an organization being as hoity-toity as Mothmont were that they kept good records. I had what I needed in two minutes. Mary Cobourn. I tucked it into my waistband behind my back, and pulled my shirt down to cover it.
I exited through a window opposite the one I’d entered, stepping out onto the street beyond Mothmont.
The rain poured down on me and the notecards. I didn’t care.
She had them categorized. Staff was a category.
Of that staff, two thirds were women.
I found myself fumbling through the cards that remained, wishing Jamie were around.
Jamie would know the names of streets better than I did, even in an unfamiliar end of town.
Still, we knew they were close. If these students were paying regular visits, they had to be slipping away in the evenings, or when others were making their special visits to the Academy.
House, I thought.
I placed two cards back in the box when the addresses suggested apartments.
Another card, McCairn’s, proved to be too far away. Poor bastard probably had to travel a ways every morning and night.
Unless he was staying at the Academy like he had tonight. Either way, I felt confident in ruling him out.
Richards, Harper, Mason, Kelly, Caldwell, Percy, and Blankenship.
I moved at a quick pace through the rain, favoring the parts of the street where the lamp-light didn’t shine. The only soul who saw me was a large man that was walking a near-empty cart of bodies through the streets, ringing a bell with a low tone. Coin for bodies. The area here was too nice for it to be lucrative, compared to areas closer to the orphanage where people couldn’t pay their way out of being sick. I guessed he probably only did a walk-around once a month or once every few weeks. Often only at night, because of the reactions the wagons drew in public.
If our puppeteer wasn’t entirely alone, there could well be a few adventurous sorts who might do the reverse transaction, lightening the wagon.
I considered for a second, then caught up with him.
It was so very human of him to be startled by my sudden, quiet appearance. I thought for a second he might have messed himself, but the smell came from one of the bodies.
He seemed immune to the smell. He wore a heavy rain-cloak that trailed down all the way to his calves, and was thin, with lanky hair suggesting he perhaps didn’t eat most nights.
Maybe he was doing his rounds here because others had edged him out of another territory.
“Has any one person delivered a number of children your way?” I asked.
“Children?” He frowned.
“Boys and girls, about my age, or a little younger.”
“Dunno,” he said.
I badly wished I had some coins to spare.
“These street names,” I said. I held up cards, pointing. “Where are these?”
He gave me some quick directions.
“Any with big houses?”
He shrugged. “Most. Why?”
“Work with me, I’ll make it worth your while.”
I remained still and silent, hoping that he might come around if I was serious enough.
He didn’t. At the end of the day, I was only a child, half-drowned in the heavy rain.
“Out of my way if you don’t want to get run over,” he said.
I stepped closer, and I stuck the letter opener into his crotch. Not hard enough to pierce anything, but enough to let him know there was a point to it.
I didn’t say or do anything. I remained where I was, a blade held close to a part no man wanted to lose.
I waited, once more, not moving or making a noise, hoping he would come around this time.
My hand went up, holding the soaked cards with their running ink. He caught my wrist, and for a second I thought he had me.
I pushed the point a little deeper, and his entire pelvis moved back. I was careful to keep the blade in place. I suspected the point might have hooked on a tag of skin, incentivizing him to stay right where he was.
There was a growl to his voice as he said, “Trellis is closest further down that way. Then Yarrow, a little to the right, then in same direction, then Olds which is a hard right. You’ll see the other two streets if you stick to Olds. Biggest houses on Yarrow.”
I nodded, “Let go of me, now.”
I twisted away, withdrawing my letter opener, and splashed off into the rain.
Trellis was dark. The buildings looked more like apartments than anything else.
Yarrow was where I found my prize. Mr. Percy’s residence.
The lights weren’t on, but there was a candle flame on the second floor, and as ever, the branches were inviting in how they offered me places for my hands and feet.
I got as close as I could to the window where I’d spied the candle flame, where it rose from a steeply sloping roof, and I listened.
“…the boys!?” Mary’s voice rose at the end, a question.
There we go, I thought.
And she was using the words I’d given her, using my labels.
I sat back and listened.