Taking Root 1.10

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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.

Ad infinitum.

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.

What else?

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.”

I nodded.

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.

“Us included?”

“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.”

Jamie frowned.

“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.

They stopped.

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.

We obeyed.

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?”

A pause.

Glass shattered.

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.

“-ro, ta.”

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.

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72 thoughts on “Taking Root 1.10

  1. Typo thread.

    How would the others read her, assuming I’d filled them in on the particulars.
    How would the others read her, assuming I’d filled them in on the particulars?

    arms length
    arm’s length

    fifty fifty chance
    usually fifty-fifty chance

    Thanks for the that.
    Thanks for that.

    pyjamas (several)
    usually pajamas

    • One tried to hide between me, clutching the back of my shirt,

      Likely behind, or a wall or something left unmentioned.

    • Typos:

      – “We’re the Lambsbridge orphans,” vs. “part of being the Lambsbridge Orphans”

      – “One tried to hide between me” -> That sounds rather difficult.

      – “Puppeteer” is also sometimes capitalized, sometimes not.

      Otherwise problematic: “Given a fifty-fifty chance with no clue otherwise”

      Mary has two *options*, but they need not be equally probable. How much probability she assigns to either case depends on what she predicts Sy to do, but it’s most likely not going to be fifty percent for either case.

      • Yeah, pajamas is American and pyjamas is the original British spelling. I believe Wildbow is Canadian and for the most part Canadian English sticks to British spellings.

  2. Typo:
    “…her all that far, and

    My eye settled…”

    The paragraph needs an ending?
    This is superb suspense, and I’m wondering if you’ve got a list of villain tropes for Sy to use. Well, “We’re the same, you and I” – check.

    • Unless that was intentional and meant to represent Sy’s mind jumping to something and retrospectively devoting more attention to it.

  3. That’s almost solfege syllables. If we say that there are a few differences by culture (for instance, in Modern English ut was changed to do and si was changed to ti), then the phrase corresponds as follows:
    la 6
    re 2
    tu te/ta 7- (lowered 7th) or maybe ti 7
    la 6
    sun sol 5
    ro do 1
    ta te/ta 71 (lowered 7th)
    With the differences listed.

    • It would be advantageous to map commands to particular notes, if only to enable a command to be given through a wider variety of means. Also, it would better allow debugging. Have some pitchpipes, or tuning forks, play some notes, see that a particular command is carried out.

      ABC Music Notation — not sure where I could post it so that others could listen as well. I could convert it to MP3 if there was somewhere to host it.
      T:Percy’s Command, or the broken question
      The first part sounds like something baroque, then it ends on a question?
      I interpreted tu as ti, or a 7th note from the “key” (which I took as C by default), and ta as ta or a lowered 7th (b flat/a sharp).

      Just an explanation, all ABC songs start with an X field for multi-tune files. T is the title, K is the key of C. M is the meter, 4/4 time signature. L is the note length, with a value of 4, a letter is interpreted as a quarter note. The speed of each quarter notes is about 85 beats to the minute, or about a seventieth of a second for each note. Then the notes are listed _B is b-flat.

    • No, Percy learned of what was going on, claimed to be the secret Academy operative, then is either gathering his stuff to leave or already made his escape. He needs the kids killed, and since he told an obvious lie to the headmistress, if he wants to keep this quiet then he needs her killed too. So he used his “secret operative” status to get her to read the paper if the conversation was really going sour or something, and he hopes that everyone will die.

        • I mean, to be fair to her, Sy is a pretty believable villain. His repeated attempts to mess with Mary’s head are cool, but they don’t sound particularly heroic. And he managed to go through the whole thing without mentioning the murders, or that his group works for the Academy. I think Mary probably has the headmistress thinking that they work for a rival organization.

          Admittedly, she should probably have started thinking twice when the clone started firing wildly into the crowd and killed one of her students. Not too hard, though, if she knows the kind of people she works for.

  4. This is going to be a turning point for Mary. A command phrase just turned her brother into a mindless killing machine. Maybe she’ll get shot, realize the error of her ways, use a phrase on her brother, or take him out as she dies. Maybe she’ll just be dumbfounded but this will be the final crack in the facade.

    Maybe the same phrase does the same thing to her. That would be bad.

    I wonder if the headmistress can fight or has any little weapons secreted about her person, just in case? Maybe Lillian has some sort of hypno-counter-command spray in her bag.

  5. Really liked how we got to see more of Sy’s thought processes. Also, for some reason I expected Helen to be at least decent at fighting, but looking back she’s only described as an actress by Sy. Anyways, loved the interaction between them! Just your average friend group of orphan kids, going off to hunt down some killer clones.

    Guessing that at the end, the puppeteer got to the headmistress quickly and lied to her about his clones in order to get her to read the paper. Not that clear, but it’ll probably makes sense in the next chapter. Wonder how the kill phrase affected Mary, or if she has a different kill phrase. Also, how’s the headmistress going to react when she sees how deadly at least one clone got? But the puppeteer probably just countered that by feeding her lies about how the gang are dangerous somehow.

    Another thing: Sy hasn’t grown since he was nine? But then later it’s mentioned that Gordon’s big for his age. Guessing that’s part of their physical enhancements, and maybe Sy’s growth was stopped just so he’s able to get into small places.

    • That getting into small places theory makes a lot of sense. I’ve been wondering for a while now if Sy’s growth was stunted. My theory was that it was done more to limit his options – helps discourage him using a more direct approach to help push him towards finding more.. subtle ways of getting stuff done, more in line with his other modifications.

      I think it makes a lot of sense for the academy to be matching physical modifications to the mental ones. We already know it’s been done to Gordon to an extent, with his strength etc., and I’m willing to bet that both Helen and Gordon’s appearances has been altered. I wonder what, if anything, was done to Jamie.

      • Now that we know he’s stuck at nine years old, I guess that means no shipping. Not that it’ll actually stop it mind you.

        • Well technically, he’s just physically stopped growing at nine. His mind has still been maturing and stuff, most likely…

          • Which is probably what Helen was referring to. “I’ll be your big sister if that’s what you really want,” she said, thinking to herself, “Until you grow up and want me to be more.” 😉

          • “Helen/Sylvester has been set aside in favor of Sylvester/Mary.”

            I thought we’d moved on ftom that to Sy/holy Toledo this post was published over a year ago. Catch up so we can have this conversation without spoilers because those of us who are current really can’t say anything without possibly spoiling it for you.

  6. Seems like Syl gets damp at some point every chapter. Wonder if that’s an aspect of the setting, or of it serves a symbolic purpose.

    On an unrelated note, someone pointed out to me recently that you’ve basically been taking YA tropes and brutally deconstructing them- first was “teenage girl gets superpowers,” the “boy discovers he comes from a family of wizards,” and now ” plucky orphans with complementary personalities and skills solve mysteries.” I’m really impressed at how well you’ve been able to make these somewhat overdone concepts work so amazingly well by injecting them with such amazingly unique ideas. Shows that these stories can still be done well (and very well, at that.)

      • The Princess Diaries, rags to riches girl finds out she’s a long lost princess, but the diary tries to eat her face and the other nobles are box trolls which survive by feasting on the dreams and tears of sleeping children. It’s your standard coming-of-age novel, really.

  7. One third of the world covered in red and with a crown? Is that the British Empire? What I find interesting is that the crown. If they were anywhere outside the Empire, I would find it unlikely for it to be honored.

    How mean that Sy now calls Lillian “Lil” in his mind. Lil’ Lillian, eh?

    It’s interesting, that Helen seems to not be just a blank slate. She does have a personality, and we got to see some of her sense of humour here. Unless that’s faked to. I was very confused for a second that she was being serious!

    Poor little boy :/ I don’t think he is going to survive, what with the terrible case of poison and the bullet that supposedly shreds his insides apart. Sooo… Ouch.

    So, my knowledge on decision and game theory is pretty, very rusty, but I don’t think that Mary would give a 50/50 probability to the noise being a way for Sy to go after the Puppeteer, or otherwise. Mary knows a bit about Sy, she knows that Sy isn’t that great of a fighter and that Sy knows Mary has three brothers, so he might be less inclined to seek out a confrontation. Thus, I think Sy’s assumption wasn’t really well made. Mary might have also had time to made plans with her brothers, which might make her give a smaller importance to the Puppeteer, and Sy didn’t consider this.

    The Lambsbridge gang is panning out to be the most morally ambiguous group of protagonists in a Wildbow story so far, even more so than Gnlybe naq ure pevzvany sevraqf. Mary does make a good point that they are just tools, but so far they seem to be used mostly for good things.

    Finally, I found the first chapter tough to digest because of the lack of context, and I didn’t quite like Sy in it. I remained sceptical for two or three chapters, worrying I would get tired of this work. But now I have warmed up to Sy, and I am totally hooked. Great job!

    • I not sure how “good” the whole Academy system actually *is*. Sure, as part of their consolidation of power in the field of the semi-soft sciences, the Gang is tasked to go after completely mental rogues who could cause major harm. However, corporate espionage is rarely morally upstanding, even if it uses an ethical framework.

      And, for some strange reason (child experimentation), I’m doubting the whole relationship between the Academy and Ethics. Big time. :/

      • Just because Percy is nuts doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some valid points. The chances of the Academy being pretty bad are very easy to see.

        Worm dealt with the dark side of high school. Pact with the dark side of small towns. So I’m guessing Twig will deal with the dark side of acadamia. (Well they did at first anyways)

      • Oh, almost certainly the Academy is super duper evil without any care or regard for the well being of anyone. It is… probably a cut-throat academic environment where people will do anything, even murder and mental manipulation, to get ahead. But at least the gang hasn’t been used, so far in the story, for evil purposes. I mean, sure, they kill their targets… but they were bad people to begin with? Kinda?

        • The snake charmer was guilty of reckless endangerment and possibly manslaughter, although I suspect it couldn’t be proved in court. In return, they murdered him and may have left his experiment to run loose.
          The Academy/Mr. Hoyle are definitely not good guys.

      • We haven’t seen much of how the Academy operates but from what can gather they’re probably amoral if not outright evil. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn out to be the big bad in the end.

        • From what I’ve seen, I actually like the Academy. I think they will turn out a bit like Pnhyqeba: qbvat nzbeny guvatf, ohg znxvat gur uneq qrpvfvbaf gung ab bar ryfr jnagf gb znxr, naq raq hc qbvat n ybg bs tbbq.

      • Re: child experimentation

        Considering the ridiculous developmental advantages children have over the rest of us geezers – not to mention their resilience and fast recovery – it’s entirely possible the Academy really doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Unless you consider leaving the most powerful branch of science unknown and unexplored a real option. Which it isn’t (if you don’t do the science here, somebody will somewhere, and after a few breakthroughs you’ll wake up one day and find you’re their bitch now).

        The Academy could conceivably abhor the ethics they’ve been forced into. Maybe the Five’s long range goal is to position themselves to police this unlicensed child experimentation. Maybe they themselves were confiscated from one such rogue scientist, and are being put to excellent ironic use.

        • They do seem to have a more varied background than it first appeared… But, still: even if the represent a movement within the field to change an entire culturalnpractice, it says much that there is currently little in the way of a basic consent at various stages.

          None of the experimental children have guardians in a position to have consented, for one thing. It’s like the early days of developmental psychology or still current US interest in “interrogation techniques” and it sucks. 😦

          • I could see Academy higherups giving this the moral green light. “We’re going to take penniless orphans who’d probably end up homeless prostitutes, give them training, culture, food, everything someone of their social status might want. Yes, the experiment will undoubtedly come with a new expiration date, but orphans? They likely weren’t going to live long anyway, and now look at all the great stuff they get before they die.”

    • It was sufficiently brick-like for our resident “not usually the person who hews closest to the truth at all times and in all situations” person.

  8. Theory: Helen is reflecting towards Sy a family-that-is-not-family feeling. If Helen projects what the beholder wants from her, then Sy wants a fake big sister.

    • Sy asked for that behaviour during this mission. You may be on to something, but we cant really assume that because of her behavior in this mission.

  9. I wonder if Gordon is going to die from that injury? Point blank bullet wound that is specifically designed to be hard to treat. A shakeup to the status quo by removing the group’s main muscle would make sense for an end of first arc event.

    • And be replaced by Mary…

      I really like Mary’s character, plus her knowledge of weaponry could only be useful. Based on what we’ve seen so far and Percy’s speech I don’t think the Academy would let her just join up though.

      Wildbow didn’t specify where the bullet hit, so my guess is that Gordon will survive (at least that shot) but be down for the count. Also, short of the Headmistress having something up her sleeve (basing it a lot more on her role than her character thus far), Mary turning at the Kill Phrase is the only way I see out of this for them.

  10. Fun. Very fun. I’m fairly sure the reason Mary cut off her brother there was because he was going to say the puppeteer wasn’t there to comment. I’m at 20% that there’s something going on between Percy and the headmistress.

    I am very curious as to the shape this series is going to take on. Right now it seems very monster-of-the-week, which I know is not how Wildbow usually does things. Hopefully we get to see more of the academy.

    I am also wondering if Mary will end up a part of our little gang. I don’t think she would fit in. They could use a ranger, though

    Note: fighter – Gordon, rogue – Sly, cleric – Lillian
    Helen and Jamie don’t fit directly into the rpg classes, but I’d put her as sorcerer (CHA) and him as wizard (INT) (if there were magic)

    • *correction, Wildbow absolutely does monster of the week stories, there’s just generally something else going on as well

    • Well depending on how bad things are for Gordon there might be an opening in the group for a fighter. Though I kinda doubt the academy would give her the chance.

      • I rate Lillian’s first aid: she’s their Medic for a reason. 🙂 But, he’s probably going to be out for about the same amount of time Sy was after his enzyme escapade. :/

    • Jamie would be an Archivist and Helen would be a Bard. A keeper of knowledge and the consummate actor, respectively.

        • Stop. Just stop. You’re attempting to shoe-horn Wildbow characters into D&D classes. For those of you that don’t already know, Wildbow has an incredible talent for subverting tropes and generally smashing convention and reader assumptions. – One of the few assumptions you can make as you read is that if something seems to fit perfectly into some cliche or another, you’re either missing something or there’s a plot twist incoming.

          • Not shoehorning, that’s genuinely where they belong – it’s already been revealed they’re based on certain archetypes, and unless you’re about to tell me they would’ve been a 5 man band…

          • I think you misunderstand something: it’s the other way around. Finding great characters, then roughing them out CS style is how you work out not to produce cardboard cutouts of boring that’ll make the DM drop Elder Dragons on you early. :/ It’s self defence. 🙂

  11. I definitely have gotten into this story the fastest of the serials so far… First and second chapter did not grab me, but it’s been a rollicking ride since three.

  12. Given that we have a group of protagonists and that this arc is turning out to be quite large, I am wondering if this serial will have 5-7 gigantic arcs, each one told from the POV of a Lambridge kid.

  13. Given Sy’s untrustworthiness as a narrator, I’m wondering if he grabbed the kid as a genuine rescue attempt or as a human shield. Or both, if he considers it worth it given the model of pistol he’s dealing with has low penetrative power.

    • I think the kid grabbed him, sy was inconvenienced, didn’t want it or like it, the kid kept grabbing on to him, Sy ended up reluctantly trying to pull the kid to safety, then felt a sense of loss when the kid didn’t move fast enough and ended up basically taking a bullet for Sy.

      I could be wrong. 🙂

    • He seems to be narrating the events as they happen, and not after the fact. So unless he’s fooling himself it would seem to trustworthy enough.

  14. Hmmm,so Helen does have feelings,even if she was joking,she felt the need t joke,and I am retty sure she acted like that because she cared

  15. Sy and Helen are an adorable orphan family unit.

    “It’s exactly our business! It’s what we do. We do it to make money. The definition of business.”
    I love Sy so much.

    Gotta love those Wildbow cliffhangers.

  16. Kill phrase, that’s scary to have. It’s weird how I was beginning to like Mary, I was hoping Sy could get her to abandon puppeteer.

  17. After going straight to this serial directly after archive binging Pact, it is slightly weird to have such a directly dishonest narrator.

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