“Mary, I won’t talk to you while you’re being like this.”
“I’m scared! I’ve never been scared! And you’re not answering my questions, which-”
“-isn’t making me feel any better!”
I shifted positions and settled back, now that I knew I was close enough to hear, the box of notecards in my lap, the contents thoroughly soaked. The words were muffled by the intervening wall and window, but I could make them out and differentiate the speakers. The man, who I was assuming was Percy, was speaking in a very careful, measured tone.
Mary was displaying more emotion in a given word than I’d seen from her during my entire discussion with her.
The rain streamed over me, and I pushed my hair straight back, away from my face, glad that it was so very wet that it didn’t just spring back into the most inconvenient position. I was soaked through, and imagined that the spot at my back where the file was tucked into my waistband was so wet that the print from the pages was staining my skin.
It wouldn’t, but I still imagined it.
Where my skin was new on my arms and various points on my body, I could feel the cold of the rain like rough circles of ice. The passage of a single droplet left an ache singing through my nerves for seconds after it was gone.
I shifted over, so the section of the room that jutted out to frame the window was tight against one of my arms and the slight overhang of shingles provided a bit of shelter. It helped.
The puppeteer spoke, “Mary. I told you to be ready for anything, that the Academy was almost guaranteed to respond. You did very well to discover them as early and accurately as you did. I’m proud of you for accomplishing that.”
“It wasn’t anything special. A group of kids shows up all at once? Just had to keep an eye on them. The boys-”
“The boys,” he said, and he gave the word a different tone in the process. He was apparently noting the phrasing.
“They did most of the work there, finding the group from the Academy.”
“I’m still proud of you, Mary,” he said. There was a pause, uncomfortable and long. I had to fight the urge to peek in the window. The puppeteer resumed, his voice low and soothing, as if talking to an infant “Deep breath now. In… and out. There we go. Tears wiped away, hair fixed up, and you’re not so flustered. Do you feel a little better?”
“We knew they would send someone or something. I warned you to be prepared for anything.”
“I thought it would be… one of those tools you hear the Academy talking about. The Dog and Catcher, or the man with the hands. Something like that. I was expecting to have to deal with monsters, I didn’t…”
“You didn’t…?” the puppeteer asked, trailing off much as Mary had.
“I wasn’t prepared for them to be like that.”
My eyebrows were already up.
The Dog and Catcher were well known enough as they could be seen around town, but I was surprised that ‘the man with the hands’ had come up. That would be the Hangman file from the Academy, and that file was pretty damn confidential. Enough so that even I hadn’t known about it until I’d started to wonder what special project the Tackhouse had put together and went out of my way to get the file.
Had the little clones here been similarly busy during Mothmont’s excursions to the Academy?
“You’re very much alive, Mary, which you might well not be if it was another individual or group from the Academy. I’m quite grateful for that fact.”
“I don’t know how to move forward, and I don’t like standing still when I’m not sure where I stand. The boys-”
“Your brothers are your brothers, nothing else. You were born from the same womb. Have I spent half as much time in their company as I have in yours?”
“No,” Mary said.
“You look like you still have doubts,” he said.
“I’m okay,” Mary said. “About the children from the Academy-”
“Don’t change the subject. Do you have doubts, Mary?”
“Try to voice them. I’d like a chance to answer them.”
“I feel as though, if I had to guess, you might have told them that they were special, and you only spend time with me because I need the extra practice and training.”
“No, Mary. No, no no,” he said. I could hear the huff of a heavy sigh. “I’m so caught off guard by the idea that I don’t even know what to say.”
“I knew it was unfair,” Mary said, and her voice was so quiet I could barely hear it. “There isn’t a right answer, nothing you could say that would make me feel better. So I wasn’t going to say anything. It’s poison they put into my head, and I don’t want the poison to bleed out into this. Us, our family, our home.”
“Tell me. Share your worries when they come up. I know that what we’re doing here is a lonely exercise. I rely on you and your brothers to be my hands, while I continue to refine my work. I hope you can rely on me in the same way.”
Her reply was so soft I couldn’t hear it.
“Good,” he said. “That’s what I like to hear.”
“What do we do?”
“Your brothers are in the dark?”
“We fix that, first. I’m glad you came to me, but as special as you are to me, I do care about your brothers.”
“We can’t do anything about this unknown member of the group. From your description, I imagine she’s better suited against specific threats that are vulnerable to a chemical or counteragent.”
“I thought about that. She can’t do anything without communication, either. The members of the Academy children have to give her information to work with, if she’s going to do anything to find us. If we wait and watch, they’ll eventually lead us to her.”
I wanted to laugh. The irony.
“The boy, Gordon, he was a physical threat?”
“I don’t know if you could call him that. He’s stronger than he looks. He shoved his way through a locked door. Sylvester, the one I talked to, he said Gordon was the one to watch out for. Described him as being a jack of trades, or something like that. Physical prowess.”
“The one to watch out for. Do you believe him?”
“No. Not completely. But he said Gordon would come for you, if they identified you.”
“They will, and he will, I think,” the puppeteer said.
“I don’t want that.”
“Nor do I. But I don’t see any way around it. This is how the Academy operates, and just as we can’t cry over the rain, which we cannot change, we cannot cry about the Academy being what it is.”
“I like the rain,” Mary said, and her voice was a hair louder than it had been.
I was sitting beside the window, to the point where I was looking across it rather than into it, but the square of orange where the glass had caught the light from within changed as Mary’s head and upper body blocked some of it.
She was only two feet from me, and she didn’t even know it.
I shifted one hand to cover the spot on my arm where it was sensitive, the cold almost unbearable. Unfortunately, the backs of my hands had suffered as much as anything, and the cold rain touched them just as sharply.
The light shifted again. The puppeteer had drawn closer to the window as well.
“A moment ago you said you were afraid. For the first time?”
“Fear is rooted in the unknown. I think that is why great minds tend to find such an unreasonable confidence in the process of plumbing it. They face the unknown, they conquer it, and they diminish it until it no longer holds sway over them, and they continue to charge onward.”
“When you say great minds, do you include yourself?”
“I would,” Mary retorted, without hesitation.
“You’re biased. Someone could say I’m clever, and I might agree with them, but I wouldn’t say I’m great. We’re getting sidetracked.”
“I wasn’t planning on sharing this with you. It’s not because I was hiding anything, but because I didn’t see the need. But if it helps you forge through the unknown, there’s a need. I may not know who they are, but I know what they are. Or is it the other way around?”
“The Academy children?”
“Yes. More than a decade ago, I was involved with the Academy.”
“The system and structure were different. For a time, the amount of space outpaced the glut of students. They opened the doors and let some in.”
“I was one such individual. Not a true student. I didn’t pay a tuition, and I didn’t ever harbor delusions of being a graduate, a teacher or a professor. They left us scraps, told us that when classes weren’t full we could fight between ourselves to take the additional spots. We could use the libraries, and we had to put in a certain number of hours in service to the Academy. Each and every one of us knew that if a paying student walked in the door, one of us would be leaving in that same heartbeat. Those of us who endured it did so because we were hungry for it.”
“Why were we hungry, or why did we do it?” the puppeteer asked.
“Why did you do it? How could you stand being second class citizens?”
Does that rub you the wrong way? Do you think that if people knew what you were, that they would put you a rung lower than any ‘true’ human? Think you derivative? A curio?
“We were told that we were training to be assistants. To know our way around the labs and the books and to know what needed stirring and how often, or to be effective sounding boards for the real great minds, when they were talking their way through a problem. Every seat we were able to claim for ourselves was another dollar we were worth.”
“It’s weird, hearing you talk about the Academy like this. You hate them.”
“I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t value the knowledge or the education. I got my position at Mothmont. Everything they promised came true.”
“But we’re getting off topic,” he said.
“That’s not what I was asking.”
“I’m giving you a different answer to a different question. Listen, I managed to barter my way into a seat for a class, I think it was called ‘The Applied Mind’. We were given projects. Brainstorming, application. Students had to work in groups, and I was paired with another non-student student. He lost his position in the school, leaving me entirely on my own. My project was amateurish, more concept than anything close to a proper execution. But I got to sit through the entire class and I got glimpses of the work others did. They kept it quiet, but they couldn’t completely silence twenty-five students out of a class of sixty. The timing made too much sense, with the first appearance of certain special projects.”
“You’re talking about the Academy children? They’re the work the other groups did?”
“Yes, I think so. You’ve already told me some of it. I moved on to another year of classes, and I heard through word of mouth that the project had fallen through, not enough viable results. Died in the womb. I saw how despondent some of the students were, and I believed it. I heard the department was getting cut back a great deal, and I believed that too. I still do. I paid attention for two more months, and then my seat was taken.”
“They’re not just a special project, but a secret one?”
“One of several. But, based on everything you’ve shared with me, those details I could process in the rare moments you stopped for breath, I remain suspicious these Academy children are a failed project.”
“Only a suspicion. The funding is spent, the department was cut back, but several of the projects lived, and it costs relatively little to keep an ongoing project operating. Perhaps other failures were given a second chance because it was inexpensive. It would explain the group being larger than it should. Thus, we would have a failed project maintained as long as there is spare change to keep it going, made use of whenever an appropriate situation comes up.”
“He said something about being injured, and it was recent. I don’t think we’re the first job they’ve done lately.”
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t a niche project,” he said.
“I was there for the conception, the brainstorming, and the discussions. All I took away was that it wasn’t a roaring success, and a great many people were disappointed. I don’t think I retained anything else that’s noteworthy… well, one thing, of course.”
“You, Mary. Your brothers. You were my project. The seed of the idea was born then. It sat with me for a few years, until I had the means to make it happen.”
Mary was silent.
“You were a gamble. You still are, but back then, I remember losing sleep. I tried to put two projects forward, but I only had so much time to dedicate to the task. I had to make a decision. Would I follow the instructions to the letter with an inferior idea, or would I present you, knowing that you were novel as an approach, but doomed to be dismissed for not fitting to the rules?”
“He said- Sylvester said that the Academy prizes innovation.”
“Yes. He’s right, and that idea is probably why I decided to do what I did. I thought a great deal about what happened back then. What I’d do differently, given a second chance. Then I decided to see it through, and I did it on my own, which is something they can never forgive me for.”
“Because they want control,” she said.
“Yes. As much as they prize innovation, they prize control more. A mind that runs away with ideas is cherished there, so long as it remains there. Within or with the Academy. Here? Past arm’s length? Not something cherished, but despised. That’s our enemy.”
“A little less of an unknown,” Mary said.
“Yes. Now you know why they’re doing what they’re doing. You have a sense of who they are. A failed venture. Does that take some of the fear away?”
“Your hand,” he said. There was a pause. “Look at that, it’s as steady as a rock. Arm yourself, conceal the weapons, but bring enough to arm your brothers. I’m going to the school, and you’re coming with me.”
“You’re going to the school?” she asked, and she sounded anything but calm. I heard sounds as she followed the instructions, all the same.
“Where do you think I should go?”
“Anywhere but the school.”
“You don’t think they’ll find me? Or that they might have sent other resources after us? I’m safest in your company, in the cover of the crowd, or where I can use my power as a member of the school faculty. I’ll have all three of those things at the school for as long as I’m there, which won’t be for long. You can’t communicate with your brothers for as long as the Academy children know your face. Leave that much to me.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t. You were always my most careful one.”
“You’re going ahead with this?”
“I don’t see any other way to do it. Trust me, Mary. I gave you a wealth of talents, but I’m not without my own. This is something I can manage.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt. I’m not as afraid for me, but my fear for you is enough that I can barely think straight!”
“Please. You made me, you raised me, I’ve never refused to obey. I’ve done everything you asked. Let me have a say just once.”
“You would have me abandon your brothers?”
“You said they weren’t that viable. They know what they have to do. If they make it, they’ll fulfill their mission. Let’s go. Leave, take the notes, drain the tanks, burn the house to erase the evidence. The Academy won’t catch up to us if we’re quick about it.”
“I won’t do that.”
“You said it was about me and you. That I’d be by your side as the elder sister to all the viables. Do this for me, prove it. Prove that.”
“If I sacrificed your brothers to save my own skin, you would always suspect that I would do the same to you.”
“No. I wouldn’t, I promise. Please, don’t make what he said true. Prove that you’re right. Prove it!”
There was a frantic edge to the words, now.
In stark contrast, the puppeteer’s voice was low and drawn out, voicing multiple syllables I couldn’t put together into a word. A nonsense utterance with a cadence to it.
Mary had fallen silent.
An imprinted phrase? Planned, crafted as something that wouldn’t be repeated in everyday conversation.
I heard noise, but from the heavy footsteps and creaks, I took it to be him and him alone. Papers rustling, a thud, steps disappearing into another room, very possibly downstairs.
Almost a minute passed before his return.
“Take it,” he said. “Drink. Keep drinking… there. You’re dehydrated and tired. It’s been a long night. Finish collecting the weapons and tools, we’re leaving as soon as I have my coat.”
“I-” Mary started. “I don’t-”
Far more hesitant than she’d been a minute and a half ago.
What exactly had happened?
And was it something I could use?
I shifted my position, grabbing the rain-slick windowsill and leaning out and over, to glimpse the front face of the large house, locating the front door.
I slid as much as I crawled, dragging myself across the rooftop, beneath the window’s field of view, to get to the other side, and it was even more awkward a process with the box of notecards still occupying one of my hands.
My uniform was filthy, and it wasn’t just muck and dirt, but with the crawl over the shingles it was a muck and dirt that had been driven into the fabric. I took care finding Percy’s notecard in the dark, then tucked it into a pants pocket. The rest of the notecards I clamped between my teeth.
I waited, listening as the puppeteer resumed speaking. “I need you to focus. It’s been a long night, but my well being and your well being depend on your ability to watch our backs. Remind me why you’re my best work.”
“Yes,” she said, and the word was warm with pride at the same time it was just a little faint. Whatever he’d done to her, she was still reeling from it.
I made sure my position was secure, then snapped off the end of a shingle, where rain and weather had worn it down to the point where it was soft, hanging over the gutter.
I did the same for the next length of shingle, though it required a little more work.
Each piece was as thick as eight or so pieces of paper put together, two fingers’ width wide, and of varying lengths, all gritty like sandpaper.
Each piece of shingle went into the box.
I scooted along further, pausing now and again to listen, hearing nothing. More shingles went into the box, but it wasn’t much larger than a brick, and I soon reached the point where the shingles were being wedged in rather than dropped in.
It was true I wasn’t good in a fight, but that didn’t mean I didn’t occasionally have my moments.
The trick was to avoid making it a proper fight, per se.
I rolled my shoulders, and found they were still stiff. My arms were cold.
The door opened below me, and in my eagerness to react, I very nearly launched myself forward, over the gutter, and two stories down to the ground.
I hefted the weight of the box that had held the notecards. It wasn’t so heavy. Five, six pounds. A little larger than a brick, and about as heavy.
While Mary was reeling from whatever the puppeteer had done to her, she might be slower to react. I had to gauge my options, trust my ability, see them step away from the door after the puppeteer had locked it.
I got my first glimpse of the man. Tall, hair slicked back from a widow’s peak, casually forming what looked like two horns, pointing at some area behind the back of his head. Streaks of grey reached back from his temples. His mustache-less facial hair swept forward much as his hair swept back, the point of the beard extending the chin of an already long face. His jacket was long and clung to his body, adding to his apparent height and very lean build. It was in the style of a lab coat without actually being a lab coat, very fashionable, and black. It said as much about the man as anything else.
All put together, he was meticulous. It was the first and last word that sprung to mind.
I’d heard his confidence as he talked about how he’d fend for himself at the school. I knew how hard it might be to get to him, or to catch up to him once he tapped the available resources and made his escape to some other town.
Mary hadn’t quite believed him when he’d said he would be okay.
Which was why I brought the box back, and smashed the window with it.
I saw him stop, turning. Mary turned too, but it was a slow reaction.
I’d seen Gordon in a good fight. There were moments where I’d seen him throw a punch as his opponent turned their head, so it made the hit worse. The opposite of rolling with the punches. I’d fallen in love with the image and tried to emulate it in a fistfight and been kicked in the ribs several times over for my trouble.
In this case, it was pure accident, but he made it happen. His head turned to look up at me, and the brick-ish box of shingles had already left my hand. He brought his face straight into it.
I saw spatters of darkness that might have been blood, and I saw his ass hit the wet footpath leading between the door and the road.
I wanted to crow my victory to the night sky, to laugh at the success my ribs had suffered for just months ago, but that might have ruined the effect.
Better to stay a small, dark, dirty, drenched shape on the roof, and see if I could re-awaken little Mary’s fear all over again. Fear of me, and fear for her puppeteer’s safety.
I saw her crouch, caught between keeping an eye on me and helping the puppeteer.
She had weapons, I knew. She could throw a hatchet, and knives weren’t out of the question.
In a throwing contest, she was liable to win.
I had to turn up the pressure. The moment this became a contest of skill or strength, she would win.
I reached into the broken window, disappointed that the lights were off, and felt inside until I found a wine bottle with only a few gulps left in it. I hucked it at them.
Mary put herself between Percy and the bottle, hunching over so it smashed against her shoulder. The top end disappeared into the grass at the boundary of the property.
The irony being that if she hadn’t put herself in the way, the course would have led to me missing entirely.
I found a book and threw that, but it opened in mid-air, drifting off course. It landed a few feet to their left, my right.
“I’ll kill you,” she said, her voice carrying over the patter of the rain.
“Try it,” I said, blindly fumbling for the next thing I might be able to throw. “Come after me. We can play hide and seek, and the moment you lose track of me, it’ll be because I’m busy slitting his throat.”
I held up the letter opener.
She didn’t need to know that it wasn’t particularly sharp. She just needed to know that I was armed.
But the gesture was a mistake, because it gave her a window to act, where she didn’t need to shield the puppeteer. I didn’t even see her palm the knife, and her entire body moved with the throwing motion.
Not entirely surprised, I swung lazily to one side, holding on to the top of the window frame, moving over to the other side.
She was already readying to throw again. Two knives at once?
I swung again, hoping to irritate her into making a mistake. I badly underestimated how good she was. The first knife hit the window frame a quarter-foot in front of my face. A slightly faster swing, and it would have hit me.
The second knife… I didn’t feel or hear it land, and the lack of sensory awareness fed straight into that ‘prey instinct’ that Jamie and I had discussed.
A sense that something was wrong.
She’d pretended to throw two at once, but had held back the other. Before I’d fully processed the fact that I’d almost swung right into the knife’s path, she was throwing it in a simple clean, crisp motion. No choreographing, no putting her entire body into the throw. The sort of thing I could very nearly miss if I wasn’t paying enough attention.
She’s aiming for-
The half formed thought was enough to make me let go of the window frame, falling and sliding until both of my feet landed in the gutter, the back of my head banging against the windowsill.
The knife buried itself into the spot where my hand had been. While I’d been moving from side to side, my hand had been staying in place, keeping me from falling.
This time I was paying attention to what her hands were doing. They traced the bottom of her uniform top and the fingers curled inward, holding what was presumably another throwing knife.
I grinned at her. “I saw that. Not quite subtle enough.”
“Don’t waste them,” the puppeteer said, raising one hand to the side of his face, then removing it, revealing a mess of blood on the fingers. “He’s baiting you.”
“He’s a bastard,” she said.
“I never pretended to be anything but,” I said. I reached up for a grip on the windowsill, and found a large piece of glass. I whipped it at her.
She blocked it much as she had the bottle, flinching as it broke. One of the eyes she’d closed remained closed after she lowered her arm.
“Go, we gain nothing by staying. I can walk,” I heard the puppeteer say. He rose, and Mary was quick to put her entire body under one of his arms, helping him to stand and put a few more steps worth of distance between us.
“What about the lab?” Mary said, looking up at me.
“It’s as good as gone,” the puppeteer said, mumbling some of the sounds. The hit to his face seemed to have caught his cheekbone and nose, but that was somehow impacting his speech, too. The skin was badly split, and it looked ragged enough that a shingle’s edge might have caught it. An impact and a sawtooth edge.
I’d got him good, it seemed.
That wasn’t the sort of thing that made me want to shout my glee to the heavens. The satisfaction was colder, quieter.
“You don’t have all your work,” Mary said.
“I have enough to start over. If he wants to destroy it, he can destroy it. Survival is paramount, and that includes yours, Mary.”
Hearing him, I almost believed it, and I would have if I hadn’t heard his special word and noted the aftermath.
I pulled another piece of glass free of the window itself, where it was only hanging on because of the paint. I wasn’t strong enough to give it proper distance without putting so much into the throw that I’d lose all accuracy. They were too far back, standing on the street now. Mary and her hobbling puppeteer.
She was glaring at me through one eye, the other staying shut.
They turned, Mary watching me out of the corner of her eye, supporting the puppeteer as they retreated in the general direction of the school.
I counted the seconds between each over-the-shoulder glance she gave me.
One, two, three… glance.
One, two, three… glance.
One, two, three, fo- glance.
One two three, glance.
One, two, three, four, pausing for breath, a long stare back in my direction.
One, two, three, four, glance.
The moment she turned away, I moved. To one side, to break line of sight, putting the corner of a building between us, then down the face of the building. It was a reckless, haphazard descent, one where I fell more than I descended, stopping myself now and again with a grab at a window shutter or a bit of branch.
Providing the moths a flame to follow was one thing. Creating a desire and filling it, destroying the prey at the conclusion.
It was another to leave your enemy only one path, and follow them along it.
I wasn’t strong. I might never be. Gordon could have brained the man with the shingle box. Hell, even Helen could’ve. Jamie could have done more damage, but probably would never have hit. I’d hurt the puppeteer, at the very least. Mankind had a long and involved history of being hunters, following a wounded beast for miles.
He’d already been intent on getting to Mothmont and gathering the boys, his three other killers. Now it was the only place nearby that he had access to where he could tend to his injured face.
Nine in ten chance he would do that. One in ten chance that the blow to his head would leave him relying on Mary.
It meant I didn’t need to follow, exactly. That carried its own risks, when little Mary was so very good at throwing things at people. Better to lag behind, to watch my flanks and move with appropriate care and caution.
If I happened to catch up with them, there was nothing I could do to capitalize on the situation. If I stayed back, out of sight, then she had to wonder, and that wondering was a very useful tool. It made every decision she made more difficult, with more variables to consider. Every step of the way, she had to watch her back.
Approaching the school, I found my way to the same alcove where the coach had stopped to drop me off, and peered around the corner.
The puppeteer was alone, his keys rattling as he stood at the locked gate.
I immediately whirled around, looking, searching.
No Mary in sight.
You want to play that game, Mary? I thought.
I’d really hoped that her bond to her creator would mean she stayed close to him, even as he got to the school. But she was sticking to the plan. I couldn’t go for the man without risking that Mary would step out and kill me, much as she’d promised back at Percy’s home.
I’d angered her enough that she was going to kill me very, very thoroughly, if she got the chance.
I could go straight for the puppeteer, but that was a gamble. Was Mary close? Hiding? Would she intercept me? She had a couple of inches on me in height, she had been trained, honed, and I wasn’t positive I could outrun her if it came down to it.
I didn’t like that gamble.
The man was still working to find the right key when the gate opened.
It was the headmistress.
“Mister Percy!” she exclaimed. I looked through the window and thought it was a vagrant. What happened!?”
“I was feeling better,” he said, mumbling. He coughed and spat, “Thought I’d check how things were. A thug on the street waylaid me.”
“Good mercy. Get yourself inside. We’ll get you patched up.”
I heard the gate shut and click. That was my mark to go, double checking for a murderous Mary, then heading to the same window I’d used to exit the building, slipping inside.
My shoes had hard soles. I slipped them off. Comfort was secondary to moving quietly.
If I could get past Mary to reach Percy, I won. If Mary could get to any of us, possibly excepting Gordon or very possibly Helen, it was over. We’d never get the advantage over them with one of ours down and out. If she could reach her group, they’d have an overwhelming advantage. If I could reach mine… well, we’d be a group, and I could share what I knew. In a situation as tenuous as this, their combined strength beat out ours.
Lopsided, as games went. Her with her arsenal of knives and whatever else, me with my letter opener and the knowledge that she was scared, though she was only willing to show it to her maker.
Who, as he’d endeavored to communicate to her, wasn’t to be discounted as a player of our dark little game.
I smiled to myself as I darted off into the recesses of the building.