This was what I lived for. Literally speaking.
I knew my enemy now. I knew where she was weak, where she was strong. I knew how dangerous she was, and through all of that I could make assumptions about the others in the school. I might have preferred to know where she was and interact with her from a safe vantage point, but this was the next best thing.
I knew that the best way to handle this would be to get to the puppeteer, Mr. Percy, and deal with him before anything else. He was hurt, my odds weren’t that bad. Once he fell, the others would fall. I knew that Mary knew the same thing, and would react accordingly. She knew I knew, and I knew that.
I liked these games, when the system broke down. It was no longer about how good we were at predicting and planning. We were both just good enough that we wouldn’t get ahead of the other by that alone. It was about understanding the other, and I had the edge there.
The yard was dangerous. Too wide a space with no cover. Mary’s space.
That left me the school itself, hallways and classrooms for places I could navigate without exposing myself. If I made it far enough, then I’d be in the back of the school, with the dorm rooms, showers, kitchen, and the boiler rooms in the basement.
The Lambsbridge gang would be back there, I was fairly certain.
I stopped where I was, beside a classroom door that was already open, something to keep me out of sight while not getting in my way. The only light that filtered through was from outside, passing through windows on the outside that fit older styles, square and proper and framed, illuminating bits of the classroom, then touching the windows inside the hallways, where it was all broken glass secured in place with custom-grown branches. The light that reached me was faint and mottled, like the light that might filter through a heavy forest canopy.
I couldn’t move forward until I knew how Mary would react. Who was she? How would the others read her, assuming I’d filled them in on the particulars?
She’s dangerous, she prefers to stay at arm’s length. Throwing weapons, pistol, poison. It’s not just a fear of you, it’s how she is, I imagined Gordon telling me.
Helen might say something like: The puppeteer raised her with care and a great deal of control. A special trigger phrase to keep her compliant if she started to slip the leash. He waited to use it, so it wouldn’t have been a common thing. Remember everything we said about why he raised them at Mothmont. Control and a firm hand. Somewhere he could be close to them and steer them.
Except not in so many words.
Jamie was a hard one for me to guess. I couldn’t slip myself into Jamie’s shoes and imagine what he’d say because Jamie would be the type to call up some obscure set of details. He had a good memory, while mine was below average. But Jamie would also have a sense of the building layout. He could sketch out a quick map in that book of his, I could stare down at it, put all the pieces together, and start to imagine where Mary might have entered the building, where she might have positioned herself.
I tried to imagine the building as well as I knew it, but it wasn’t a complete map, and parts of it were nebulous, the scale not quite right. I couldn’t draw a sharp picture, not a crisp image that stayed still in my mind’s eye.
Then there was Lillian. Not an Academy project, except she was, in a way. She’d grown up with the Academy in mind, had spent some time at Mothmont, and went on to be one of the Academy’s younger students. Her family wasn’t so wealthy that she would thrive regardless of what happened. She’d had to throw herself into her studies, into our activities, just to secure her future. The Academy had its claws in her.
Lillian would share something about the science of the clones. Maybe explain how the trigger phrase worked.
…Or, now that I thought about it, she might surprise us and say something very human. Something like, she was so cold around you, but she let her guard down around him. She even cried.
I imagined that as the moment I could pull the pieces together and get an idea of where Mary might be lurking. I could formulate a plan and enact it. But imagination was only imagination, and as much as it helped to put myself into others’ heads and look at things from set angles, I was missing pieces of it. Jamie’s map, the extra tidbits that I could never come up with on my own.
But I still had an impression of where Mary was, even if I couldn’t pinpoint the exact location. Given how much she cared about the puppeteer, how afraid she was of me, there had to be a comfort zone. A certain range she might wander, where she could potentially keep an eye out for me while still watching him.
My head slowly turned. End of the hallway. Either one of the classrooms on either side, the last classrooms at that end of the hall. Everything beyond that was offices. More likely to be locked tight, too close to him, not close enough to observe me.
The yard? I’d called it her territory. She could look in the windows just as well as I could look out, and it gave her a lot of range of movement.
I started to imagine a Mary at each of those points. A phantom image lurking in shadow, just out of sight.
The puppeteer was her weak point. When he was strong, he could give her strength, centering her. When he was weak or in danger, she cracked. The brick I’d thrown at him had been aimed at her, in an abstract way. That in mind, I was willing to bet that she was devoting more thought to how to protect him than how to catch me if I tried to break away and run.
Strings extended from him to the phantom Marys. An abstraction of the fundamental hold he had on her. They were strings that could snap, if given cause, but there was a resistance. Tension. Anything she did would always, always be prefaced by a concern for him. A momentary worry.
That was the tool I had to use.
I could make out a heavy, low sound further down the hallway. A large object being set down, a book being dropped.
What are you doing, Mary? I wondered.
The phantom images were suddenly busy. Enacting various scenes and scenarios. Mary, anxious, making a mistake. Mary intentionally making a sound to distract, then slipping closer toward me. Mary setting a trap, a deadfall or a heavy object that held down a tripwire, impossible to see in the dark.
It was very possible that she didn’t just have weapons. Poison, wire, any number of things could be stowed away in and around her uniform. I liked traps, but they were hardly exclusive to me alone.
It was an approach that let her actively protect the puppeteer while keeping the right position respective to me and the man.
If that was what she was doing.
I was visualizing her at the end of the hallway, or in one of the adjacent classrooms. I wasn’t thinking about the yard.
I raised myself up, head snapping over to look into the window of the classroom beside me, past desks and chairs to the window that looked out into the yard.
Between the rain and the branches, there was no way to tell if she was there, moving around to circle behind me, or if it was just weather and gloom playing tricks with my eyes.
Think twice, Sy, I told myself, going back to thinking about Mary being at any one of the positions in a quarter-circle around me. Right classroom, hall, left classroom, yard.
This is why Gordon gets on my case, I thought. Spend too much time thinking, miss my chances.
She was watching, apparently secure in the idea that she’d spot me or confirm my location if I made a break for it. I needed to disrupt that security.
Need to make a noise someplace I’m not.
I looked, peering into the windows, searching the classrooms around me.
Books could be slid across the floor. A small object could be thrown to break something, but both were crude, obvious. I wasn’t strong enough to throw or slide either all that far, the sliding book would make too much noise and the broken glass would be too cliche.
My eye settled on a shape at the back of one room, barely visible as a silhouette against the vague light that made it in from outside, even against the paler background of the wall.
I darted across the hall, low enough to the ground that I had to put my hand down to touch the floor for balance and to keep my nose from smashing into the tile.
My heartbeat picked up as I made it into the classroom, moving amid desks and chairs. There were windows, yes, but the only exit that didn’t threaten to cut me to shreds on the way through was the door I’d just passed through. If Mary appeared in the doorway, I might well be done for. Even if I did make it through a window, I wasn’t sure she couldn’t catch up to me.
The only defense was to do it fast and do it quiet.
I headed to the corner of the room furthest from the door.
Teacher’s desk. Nothing of importance.
But beside the teacher’s desk, next to the window, there was a globe, resting on a stand, fixed in place at the poles so it could spin. The colors were rich, even in the gloom. A third of the globe was dominated by a rich crimson, each etching of place name topped by a crown. The independent countries were marked out in their own colors, paler, less saturated, scattered and patchwork.
I took it down and pried it free of the stand with the letter opener, then made my way back to the door.
I was paranoid enough of emerging to find Mary standing just outside the door that I raised the globe a bit to shield myself from an impending stab or pistol shot.
But she wasn’t there.
I glanced down the length of the hallway, then set the globe rolling in the direction of a door that sat slightly ajar, leading to a more distant classroom.
I watched it roll, glancing back periodically to make sure she wasn’t sneaking up on me.
It touched the door. The door moved, creaking slightly, clicking.
I ducked back to cover, hiding just inside a classroom, between the door and the shelf.
Closing my eyes, straining my ears, I counted to twenty.
When the time was up, I took a peek around the corner.
The globe had moved.
I moved in that same heartbeat, toward the globe, low enough to the ground that I couldn’t be glimpsed through the windows, glad for once that I hadn’t grown since I was nine.
As much as I was trying to find her and identify her location, she’d been doing much the same as I had. I had little doubt she’d watched me break into the school from a window, tracked my general location, maybe even spotted me as I made my way through the school itself.
She had made a sound, but I’d been able to afford staying still. Not a good thing, not entirely safe, if it was a precursor to her coming after me, but the ball was more in my court.
I’d made a sound, it forced her to react. Staying where she was risked that I’d go after her ‘brothers’. Or that I might loop around and find another angle to use in going after the puppeteer. Or anything.
But seeing the globe, knowing it was a ruse, it forced a decision. She had to figure out where I really was. Was it a ruse, or was I leading her one way while slipping through to go after the puppeteer?
Given a fifty-fifty chance with no clue otherwise, the strings pulled her back to the puppeteer.
I passed the globe and the door it had touched, and felt a cool draft. The excuse for the globe’s movement. She’d slipped in through the window, had used it to make her exit, or both.
I rounded the corner to the west side of the school, moving as fast as I could toward the dormitories and the Lambsbridge gang.
Even just approaching the boy’s dormitory, I could smell the sickness. Over a thousand students periodically venting fluids out of every orifice. Looking through windows, across the corner of the yard, I could see that many lights were on in hallways, though not necessarily in the rooms themselves. Staff doing patrols and making sure the students were alright.
I couldn’t quite see with the trees in the corner of the yard, but I saw motion. Fast motion.
The other Lambsbridge members. Running away or giving chase?
I only had a half-second to make the call, picking up speed, making noise as I ran. A glimpse through two sets of rain-covered windows, past branches and leaves.
I saw Helen’s eyes, and I saw Gordon’s.
The focus, the killer instinct.
I picked up speed, running faster. My feet were bare and wet, partially from water that had dripped off the rest of me, and the tile was slick. I managed to keep my footing, but there were one or two points where I wondered if I was going to slip. Approaching the bend, where my hallway met theirs at the corner of the dormitory, I could hear them.
As we intersected, I spotted the smallest of Mary’s ‘brothers’, eight or so years old, with two knives in hand. Red haired, flushed in the face, but with a very cold look in his eyes. Those same eyes widened as I sprinted his way.
Almost unconsciously, he switched his grip on one knife around, so the blade pointed down.
I dropped to the floor. Still soaked with the rain, I slid on the tile.
He leaped, to avoid tripping on me, and I grabbed one foot. It slipped from my grasp, but I’d put him off balance. He flopped over, belly hitting the floor.
Spry little bastard. He was already on his feet when Gordon caught up with him. Without slowing, Gordon slapped one knife-hand to the side, caught the other wrist, and slammed the kid into a wall.
The kid went limp. Gordon held his wrist, letting him dangle.
The kid’s eyes opened, and he jerked his other knife hand, pointed at Gordon’s middle. Helen’s foot went out, pinning it against the wall.
“Damn,” the kid said. I thought I might have seen a glimmer of fear in his eyes, but Gordon hauled him away from the wall, then cracked the kid’s head against it, hard. He paused, watching, then did it again.
The knives fell from the boy’s hands.
“Lillian, got something to put him under, just in case?”
Lillian did. She hurried forward, pulling her bag around in front of her to retrieve a syringe. She squirted out almost half of it before jamming it into the boy’s stomach, depressing it.
“No interrogation?” I asked, as I picked myself up.
“This is the second we caught up to,” Jamie said. “First was uncooperative enough that I don’t think Gordon is willing to entertain this one.”
As if to explain, Gordon turned and lifted up his shirt. A bandage was already showing some blood.
Helen and Gordon let the tyke drop to the floor. Gordon collected the knives, offered one to Helen, who shook her head, then stuck both into his belt.
“They’re better than I am,” Gordon said.
“At?” I asked. “Fighting?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Wouldn’t say that. Using a knife? Throwing something? Definitely better. Fighting? Eh. Brawling? Definitely not.”
“No real-world knowledge,” Jamie said, looking down at the boy. He looked up at Gordon. “No visiting seedy parts of town to trade money or drink for some lessons from the meanest guys around.”
“But they’re still really, really good,” Gordon said. He looked at me. “How’d it go?”
“Mr. Percy, our puppeteer, uses sounds to make them compliant if they get antsy,” I said. “He’s here, with Mary.”
“Percy,” Jamie said. He paused to consider, then nodded. “Okay.”
“Attended the academy without being a student. He knows of the Lambsbridge project, but doesn’t know the particulars. Still no idea on greater motivation or plans. He’s hurt, getting medical care.”
“Hurt?” Lillian asked.
“Brick smashed him in the face out of nowhere,” I said. “Puzzling.”
Gordon was on one knee, searching the little kid. He collected four knives and a small sack with a weight inside, which he examined.
“Blackjack?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. He tossed it to me.
I gave it a look-see, then pocketed it. “Our headmistress got a letter in her office, recommending that she call the Academy, discreetly, to ask for a thorough search and examination of the student body, keep everything locked down. I didn’t expect her to be up and about this early, but it works. Puppeteer is here, kids are here. The noose is in place.”
“They only need a push, then,” Helen murmured.
I matched her flat stare with a grin. “I love you, big sister.”
Her expression unchanged, she reached over to rap the top of my head with her knuckles.
Gordon tied the kid’s wrists and ankles, then hefted him, folded over one shoulder. Gordon was big for his age, the kid was small, but Gordon made it look effortless, which was something else altogether.
“Which way?” Gordon asked.
“Mary was that way,” I said, pointing down the way I’d come. “Puppeteer is in or near the front office. The third boy is… up to you to figure out.”
He shook his head. “Last we saw, he was near the kitchen, sent this one after us, we were busy staying out of the way while the little one used all his bullets trying to gun us down.”
“The others had guns?”
“Have,” Jamie said. “The oldest one has a gun, still.”
Gordon started walking, and the rest of us fell into an easy formation around him.
“Um, have to backtrack a bit, but I wasn’t keeping up with the discussion,” Jamie said. “You said the quarantine was arranged. They’re searching the entire student body?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Ideal world, we won’t be here,” I said. “Even if we are, we can adapt. But I wanted to pressure them, and this does that.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I’m not good at adapting,” Jamie said. “Less than you three, anyway.”
“Sly is right, though. The pressure we’re putting on them is a good thing,” Gordon said. “That said, the ten year old very nearly killed me, this one was hard enough to keep from slipping away, let alone catch. Helen wouldn’t put up a fight, and you, Jamie or Lil would die in two seconds flat if any of them got within arm’s length of you.”
We were making our way past the kitchen. The smell of vomit was thicker here, not just because we were close to the place the poison had first taken hold, but because we were between both dormitories.
“I hate it when people call me Lil,” Lillian said.
I made a mental note of that, storing it for future use.
Gordon did the opposite and apologized, “Sorry, Lillian. What are we thinking we do with the oldest clone, Mary, and the puppeteer?”
“Separate them, pick them off one by one,” Helen said.
“Mary is devoted to her creator,” I said. “And the last one-”
“The teenager,” Jamie said. “Oldest of the clones. Physically the strongest, presumably the most trained.”
“You don’t have eyes on that one?” I asked.
“No,” Gordon said. “We’ve glimpsed him, but he was leading this trio. Keeping his distance.”
I chewed on my bottom lip for a second. “Doesn’t work. I don’t see it. They’re going to band together.”
“I agree,” Gordon said. “I’m betting he knows his fellows are down, or he will when we turn up. He’ll stick with Mary, and both of them will stick with their puppeteer.”
“Brothers,” I murmured.
“They’re Mary’s ‘brothers’, to Mary and the Puppeteer. Mary is their sister. It’s a little family unit.”
“I notice you called Helen a sister,” Jamie said. “Interesting.”
“One isn’t related to the other,” I said.
“I seem to recall you going on at length about the intricacies of the human mind,” Gordon said. “Everything impacts it on some level or something like that.”
“Okay,” I said, “Whatever. Let’s joke around about Sy really wanting a family, deep down inside. Mary’s situation has made me realize it’s what I really want. It’s a yearning even.”
Hands settled on my shoulder. Prey instinct, wham. It took me a moment to realize it was because I saw Gordon, Jamie, Lil, and the smallest clone, but I didn’t see Helen.
Her arms wrapped around my shoulders from behind, and she hugged me tight, before leaning forward to give me a peck on the cheek. Too perfunctory to be anything serious.
I didn’t move a muscle.
“I’ll be your big sister if that’s what you really want,” she said.
“Sarcasm,” I said, still not moving. “I’m not sure what we are, but I don’t think ‘family’ is exactly it, and I’m really truly okay with that.”
She pulled away, giving me a rap on the head as she stepped over to Gordon’s side. I caught a glimpse of a wry smile on her face as she gave me a sidelong glance. For my benefit. Her way of letting me know she’d been joking too.
“We’re the Lambsbridge orphans,” Gordon said, as Helen leaned against the wall beside him, raising her hand to fix the placement of a strand of hair. “That’s all we need to be.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“But,” Jamie cut in, “part of being the Lambsbridge Orphans is doing our job.”
“Which brings us back to the ‘how’,” Gordon said. “You guys think you can hold your own and keep one of them busy while I confront the other? I’m not sure I can take the older one.”
I shrugged. “Don’t have to ‘win’. Assuming the headmistress reached out to the Academy, which I do assume, it’s all a matter of time.”
“What if you’re wrong?” Gordon asked.
“I’m never wrong,” I said.
The sudden burst of protest that came from every corner and every mouth overlapped to the point that I couldn’t pick out individual words.
“Point-” I started. I was talked over.
I rolled my eyes. I was pretty sure at least half of them were doing it to try to be funny.
“Point taken,” I managed.
“Get it all out of your system?” I asked.
“It’s late, our sleep was interrupted, we’ve been on edge all week,” Gordon said. “Thanks for that. The laugh helped.”
I stuck my tongue out at him.
I studied them. Most were in uniforms, though Jamie was wearing pyjamas with shoes, an odd combination. He’d left our room too quickly to get dressed first. I’d never changed into my pyjamas, myself.
Gordon was hurt, and it showed a little in how he held himself and his expression, and Helen was a little rumpled, though unharmed. Lil, oddly enough, seemed more together and comfortable than I’d seen her in a long time. Maybe ever.
She saw me looking and hugged her bag of medical stuff to her chest, glaring at me over the top of it.
“You’re home,” I said.
She didn’t move, but the glare became a more perplexed expression.
“This. It’s where you belong. Or the Academy is, and this is a close second.”
She didn’t reply immediately. Her eyes moved, taking in the surroundings.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Sorry we’re not sticking around for longer,” Gordon said.
“I’m okay being anywhere I don’t have to worry about getting poisoned or stabbed,” Lil said.
“Just an hour or two more,” Gordon said. “If Sy’s not wrong about the quarantine.”
“Trapping ourselves in here with skilled murderers,” Jamie said, “What could go wrong?”
“Corner the rats and hope they don’t bite too hard,” I said.
“Speaking of,” Gordon said. His voice had dropped, which helped complete the thought.
We were further from the more lit dorms, now. In less secure territory. If we made it around to the front office, I would be very close to having completed a full circuit around the building.
The conversation was, I supposed, our way of touching base, leveling each other out, propping each other up. Helen was being selective in what she said, letting me know she was glad to have me back in her peculiar way, but she didn’t need reassurance in the same way.
The attitudes of the individual members of the group changed as the surroundings did.
“We got the last two by moving around as a group,” Gordon murmured. His voice was lowered so he wouldn’t give us away. “They were trying to keep us away from any place we could arm ourselves or hole ourselves up. Cornered the first one in the kitchen. Second one was faking sick. Jamie figured him.”
“They’re going to be ready for us to come as a group,” Gordon said.
I nodded again.
“We may not be able to keep them from running if they want to run, even if they don’t have a trap.”
I exaggerated my nods until I lost my balance, and bumped into him. He elbowed me.
“This is serious.”
“Don’t get shot,” I said, echoing Jamie. “Give me a chance to talk to them. Mary is off-balance enough I think I can get to her on a level. She’s pissed because I threw a brick at the man who brought her into this world.”
“That’s harder if they’re all together,” Gordon said.
“I don’t know how up to talking the puppeteer is,” I said. “Again, brick to face.”
“You keep saying that like you’re proud,” Jamie said.
“It was a beautiful throw.”
“So you are proud,” Jamie said, voice quiet.
“Yeah,” I breathed the word. “Gordon couldn’t have done better.”
“You’re the filthiest liar,” Gordon murmured, smirking.
“Can we stop talking?” Lil asked.
The hallway turned, and we came face to face with a scattered group of youths.
Gordon drew a knife, but Helen’s hand reached out, stopping him from going any further.
They were ordinary kids. Miserable kids in pyjamas who looked like they’d died and been brought back as stitched. These would be the especially sick ones who needed help, ones who, if the metallic smell to the bodily fluids was any indication, had been so violently ill that blood was involved.
We were near the infirmary.
“Next door on the right,” Jamie murmured.
Gordon gave him a tight nod.
Gordon and Helen edged closer to the door, while I ducked low, to peek past their knees.
Mary, unarmed, standing in the middle of the brightly lit room, ribbons removed, hair in relative disarray.
Gordon was fastest to grasp that something was wrong. He shoved Helen backward, and Jamie caught her. I reacted too, backing away, not entirely sure why until Gordon turned the other way.
The room opposite.
A pistol went off, the bullet striking the doorframe where Gordon’s head had been. It was almost too loud in the hallway where there was nothing to absorb the sound, the sound bouncing off the walls, an echo that played off the ringing in my ears.
The sick children around us screamed, panicking. They leaped up from chairs and the floor of the hallway.
The screams continued as the children got in our way and obstructed our movements. One tried to hide between me, clutching the back of my shirt, and made it hard for me to rise to a proper standing position.
It was a moment of stupidity that left me mostly in the front of everything as our third boy stepped out of the room he’d been hiding in, pistol in hand. He wore a uniform, but he had a cloak and hood on over it, possibly to conceal himself better in the dark.
For all my talk about effective use and prediction of bugs’ movements when the box was shaken…
“Oy!” Gordon shouted. “Got your kid brother here!”
I saw the hesitation. The pistol’s barrel slid away from me as his focus turned to Gordon and the youngest clone.
I started to move, ready to kick up and try to knock it away or out of his hand, but the kid behind me still clung to me, and I immediately knew I wouldn’t make contact.
For an instant, I thought we hadn’t accounted for all the clones, but then he made a small sound of fear. Human frailty, not maliciousness.
Gordon was heading for cover, still carrying his burden, turning his body and running almost sideways so the littlest clone was more between him and the gun-wielder. The gun moved, wholly focused on Gordon.
One shot rang out, and the clone moved to reload.
Did Mary warn him that I’d said Gordon was most dangerous?
I made my escape, grabbing the kid who’d clutched me and dragging him behind, even though it slowed me down.
The third shot was aimed at me. It hit the same boy I was trying to rescue, leaving me to stumble as my grip broke.
Helen grabbed me and pulled me around the corner. We were right at the bend in the hallway where the hallway at the southern part of the school met the long hallway from the eastern part.
The commotion broke up. The children who’d been sitting there waiting for their turns in the infirmary had mostly fled. Two were apparently too sick to move while bullets were flying, and the third lay there with a bullet hole in him. The one who’d clutched me. Younger than I’d expected, going only by the strength of his grip.
I exhaled slowly. Gordon was across the hall, in a classroom, ass on the ground, back to the wall, the littlest clone propped up beside him, still unconscious. The others were behind me.
Unconscious and whatever else. Being knocked out didn’t mean waking up okay after a set amount of time. It could mean serious brain injuries.
“I have to ask, for context,” I started.
The pistol fired yet again. I saw the puff where it had hit the corner.
It was a ball pistol. One shot, firing balls of lead or whatever else. It wasn’t efficient, in terms of the number of bullets it spat out, range, velocity, or whatever else. Where a bullet from a high-end gun passed through your enemy, these guns were meant to fire a small metal sphere into the other guy’s body, where it could bounce around and tear up their insides. A good killer would make the bullet count, and the damage done by these particular weapons meant that Academy trained doctors would have a far harder time patching them up.
“Context,” I started again. “Does the Puppeteer read you bedtime stories at night?”
I heard Mary speak, and she sounded very tired. “Don’t answer. He’s trying to get to us, or trying to buy time.”
“Oh, Mary! How are you doing?” I called out. “They really like using you as bait, don’t they?”
“I volunteered,” Mary said. “My plan.”
“Funny how that works,” I said. “You’d think the puppeteer would work harder to convince you that you should stay alive, if you’re that special to him.”
“Puppeteer?” the older clone asked.
“Don’t listen to him,” Mary said.
“You responded,” he pointed out.
“Mm,” Mary said.
I could imagine her expression. Not very happy.
“I’m curious, Mary, why did you change your mind? You sounded so insistent about not wanting the puppeteer to put himself in danger by coming here. Then he said his magic words and, well, can you clarify? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Magic words,” she said, her voice soft.
“You’re special, Mary, he was going to make something of you, right? Big sister to all the new clones of the next generation. Why would he do that, trying to control you? Maybe if he came out, I could hear his explanation.”
“He’s-” the older clone started. He stopped short.
I frowned, staring down at the ground, trying to picture why.
“We’re not going to put him in harm’s way,” Mary said. “You’ll have to get through us to get to him.”
“Basically what I was going to say,” the older clone said.
“He puts you in harm’s way,” I said. “What part of this is fair?”
“It’s none of your business,” Mary said.
“It’s exactly our business! It’s what we do. We do it to make money. The definition of business.”
I couldn’t see either of them. I was talking to thin air, which was worse than it had been trying to talk to Mary in the furnace room.
“You’re the cleanup crew for a corrupt and distorted organization. Child soldiers and killers.”
“I think any argument you could make against our group would apply double for your puppeteer,” I said.
“Think so? You don’t know us,” Mary said.
Something was off.
For someone recommending avoiding talking to me, she was doing an awful lot of it.
I raised a finger, pointing at the corner of the wall. Very slowly, I moved my fingertip. I glanced back at Jamie and Helen, then over to Gordon.
I got nods in response. They got it. Gordon leaned back, out of sight.
Mary was distracting us while the other clone approached down the length of the hall.
We didn’t have guns. Much less guns intended to rip someone up inside.
“I know you, Mary,” I said. “I get you. We’re the same.”
She faked a laugh.
I held the blackjack and letter opener, poised to throw the first and stab with the second. The other clone had to be close. He could well have his back to the same corner I was crouched beside. Close enough to smell, if the smell of blood and puke hadn’t made the use of my nose impossible.
“Laughing, you don’t see it? Tell me, did you have breakfast with him, Mary?” I asked.
“Often enough? In the way you really wanted?”
That was my cue. I threw myself forward, out into the hallway.
Gordon was still mid-air, having leaped through one of the tree-branch and broken-glass windows that separated classrooms from the hall. Glass and bits of wood danced around him, his knees pulled up to his chest to clear the wall beneath the window.
Not anything I’d expected, but it was something.
My shoulder hit the ground. I’d planned to stab if he was close enough. He wasn’t, so I threw the blackjack. A little weight in a long, semi-rigid bag for smacking someone over the head. It served as something to distract, to buy Gordon a fifth of a second as our teenaged assailant reacted.
Gordon collided with him. In the midst of the collision I saw the two pistols the eldest clone was armed with, saw Gordon reach for just the one, twisting it around in the clone’s hand so the barrel pointed at the boy, the trigger finger slipping away from the trigger.
Our Gordon. A hero on paper, skilled, strong, fit. But if anyone took him for noble, they’d be wrong. A noble person didn’t take advantage of inches of height difference to slam their forehead into someone’s mouth.
The older clone shoved Gordon away. He raised his pistol in the same instant Gordon did. One aimed at the other.
Slowly, I found my feet, rising beside Gordon.
The glass had cut him on the way through. That didn’t happen in the books.
“You had two guns,” Gordon said.
“Was going to shoot both ways,” the clone replied.
“We’re not here for you,” Gordon said. “We’re here for the puppeteer.”
“That’s not his name,” Mary said.
“It’s a good enough name,” I joined in. “You can’t deny he has control over you. He pulls your strings, he decides what you do. Uses you as bait.”
“And they don’t use you?” Mary asked. “You’re not tied to them, these other orphans? Would you give them up to save your skin? Oh, wait, you don’t care about your skin. Expiration dates, huh?”
I saw Gordon’s gun waver a fraction.
“Yeah, you forgot to tell them, huh?”
“Was going to at the conclusion of this,” I said.
“You described yourself as a villain. You’re a liar, a cheat, a thief, a grubby killer.”
“Yet,” Gordon chimed in, “I believe him.”
Mary didn’t have a quick response for that.
“When I was asking about breakfast, about the little things that count,” I said. “I was really asking if you felt loved, if you truly loved your… father, or whatever you see him as, or if it’s just something ingrained in you.”
“I think that’s my cue?” a voice said. Not a confident one.
A female voice.
The headmistress emerged behind Mary.
Her hands clutched a piece of paper.
My thoughts moved so fast that they were a jumble.
“La, re, tu, la, sun-”
I found my conclusion.
Left alone with the headmistress, the quarantine, our puppeteer had figured out what I’d done.
“They are not on your side!” I called out. “They are not with the Academy, Headmistress!”
He’d turned it around.
The eldest clone reacted, pulling the trigger. Gordon’s reaction was a fraction of a second later, off-balance as he reeled from getting hit. The clone was hit in the shoulder.
The look in his eyes went beyond cold, and had become something else entirely. Dead, empty, hollowed out.
That was how he had them kill the parents. A kill phrase, a letter they were to read at a set time or something sent to the home.
Gordon fell, and the clone barely staggered, heedless of pain and injury.
Helen wasn’t a fighter, and the rest of us didn’t stand a chance.
The puppeteer was a manipulative bastard, one that could well be on his way out, and he might well have beat us with one fell stroke.