Letter opener, get close, stab, doing any damage at all can make the difference, get low, make better use of shorter stature-
The eldest boy stepped closer. I ducked, drawing my arm back to stab, and he kicked me. He caught and twisted my wrist while I was trying to catch my balance and before I grasped what he was doing, he’d grabbed the letter opener.
He pushed, and with the way my arm was twisted around, my head pointing forward rather than up, I was put in the position of having to let him destroy the arm or letting myself fall.
I toppled, landing next to Gordon. He was hunched over, his hand to his chest. I didn’t like the amount of blood I saw.
Mary was standing back, between me and the Headmistress, who was kneeling on the ground, trying to help the little boy who had been shot, her eyes wide, paper in one hand. Mary’s expression was unreadable, but her body was tense enough I could visualize every muscle being tight, ready to spring. The headmistress was the opposite, as if she would have fallen to pieces with a touch.
The others were still around the corner, half-crouching, caught between running and trying to do something.
Helen was the one who stepped up.
We’re better as a group. Just need to put him off balance, give Helen the best opportunity possible.
I found my feet, half-walking, half-stumbling over to Gordon, where I grabbed one of the knives he’d stowed in his belt. I paused, behind the clone, watching, waiting for the best chance.
He reached forward, to his belt.
Helen took a step, and I lunged in the same instant.
“Behind you!” Mary called out.
My instincts told me that Helen saw me, that she was capitalizing on the eldest clone’s distraction and my position. Together, the pair of us might be able to accomplish something, whether he was drawing a knife or loading his pistol.
But Helen stepped back, instead.
I found myself on a collision course with someone almost twice my size, who was better armed than I was, far better trained. He followed Mary’s warning by turning and spotting me.
Situations like this were where I felt like the Academy had screwed me over. The thoughts were in place, I knew what I had to do, and I could see everything play out. Knife in hand, my enemy’s soft gut in plain view, almost in reach, nothing to stop the knife from punching deep. Let the pain and the damage done slow him down.
But thoughts ran away, I started naturally thinking about cause and effect, follow-up, what to do to maximize the damage done and turn the situation around. What if he made that one in a million movement to knock my knife aside with the letter opener or the barrel of the one-shot pistol?
While talking it wasn’t a problem, I could say one thing while thinking about the next step. A fight moved too fast. It slowed me down, made it feel like my hands and body were a step behind my thoughts. Enough to make the difference in a fight against someone ordinary.
This guy wasn’t ordinary. He swept his arm out, holding the pistol high –more thoughts about complications, predicting what he was doing, countering it– and letting his cloak fan out. The fabric of the raincloak caught the knife. His arm moved and helped the cloak naturally fold around the knife and my knife hand. He bent his arm and used his elbow to force both hand and weapon to one side.
Before I could try to pull away, he was twisting, bringing his knee into my hand, driving it into the wall.
I grimaced in pain and followed through on backing up, aware that I’d lost my knife in the tangle of his cloak.
The letter opener clinked to the ground as he straightened his arm, fixing the flow of his cloak so his own limb wasn’t trapped in the folds.
Before I could catch my balance and pull my thoughts together, he was leaning forward, chasing me faster than I was retreating. My knife was in one of his hands, freed from the cloak, filling the hand the letter opener had just been dropped from. The pistol was in his other hand.
Good job, Sy. Pick a fight, achieve nothing except arming the other guy with successively larger weapons. Shall we go find a sword to give him?
He kicked me, hard, and sent me stumbling backward. Keeping me off balance.
I was in the middle of thinking about how to regain it and turn things around when I stumbled over Gordon. I hit the ground, the back of my head cracking hard against the floor.
One of the best minds the Academy can produce, still no better in a fight than a typical underweight, underdeveloped eleven year old.
I felt a little better knowing that Gordon was now between me and the clone, even if he was crawling on the floor, one hand held tight against a bullet wound, my feet on his back while I lay on the floor.
Then I felt guilty for feeling better.
I shot a quick glance at Mary and the headmistress, and saw that Mary was on the approach.
“Mary,” I said, backing away.
“Don’t even try,” she said.
“Do you want this? Do you want to be-”
I was cut off by the slam of a door. The eldest clone had kicked a door that Jamie was trying to use as a shield. The door closed, and Jamie, Lil and Helen backed up.
“Do you want to be that?”
Her expression was still blank, unreadable.
I knew she had emotions. I’d seen them, or I’d seen hints of them. The problem was that she only let herself be vulnerable with her creator. The same man that had turned his back on her.
She lifted up her skirt at one side and slipped a knife free from a garter.
Gordon moved, straightening, and my feet slid off his back to drop onto the back of his legs. I pulled them out of the way as he got one foot under him and started to rise up to a standing position.
Mary, for her part, backed off. Her hand moved at the side of her skirt, and she held another knife. Smaller, less fancy, and probably weighted for throwing.
“Gordon,” I warned.
He didn’t seem to notice, and he didn’t seem to notice Mary either. He headed for the older clone.
Mary threw, and in that moment, Gordon stopped in his tracks. The knife carried onward, striking the wall. Gordon barely spared Mary a glance before grabbing the knife from the wall and throwing it at the other clone’s back.
The teenaged clone stumbled. Helen started to move toward him, but he held up his knives, warning her off.
Gordon, for his part, made it another two steps before something refused to support him. His upper body went askew, seemingly twisted more by pain than anything else, and he stumbled into the wall. I saw him look at the others, then Mary, then me, a measured study, taking it all in. His eyes lingered on mine.
One of the first lessons students learn in the Academy, is that life wants to survive. We’ve been at the survival game for a terribly, terribly long time. Against hostile environments, against predators. So long as a student doesn’t work against that impulse, either on the fundamental level or while dealing with the individual, they can trust that life will find a way.
Meeting Gordon’s gaze, I was shocked to see just how hard walking that way was. His eyes had dark shadows under them as if he hadn’t slept in a week, and his skin was pale, his pupils narrowed. Each breath he took was laborious, the sort of ragged hauls for breath I’d expect someone to take after being underwater for minutes, but they each came right on the back of the last, with a phlegmatic cast to it, prompting his entire body to jerk a little, as if something kept getting stuck and coming unstuck as he strained himself.
Best of the best, I thought. I want to take your place, so you don’t have to do this.
Gordon didn’t seem to be up to talking. He looked at Mary, who was reaching for another throwing weapon, and spread his arms to either side, stepping away from the wall.
“I wouldn’t,” I told Mary, which was the truth. Then I lied, “When he’s like this he’ll just catch them out of the air.”
Though her expression was blank, I saw the pause in her follow-through. A moment of doubt.
Gordon pushed himself away from the wall, taking advantage of the bend in the hallway to escape Mary’s throwing range and advance on the clone he’d thrown a knife at.
I saw Mary grab the knife and hurried to duck into the classroom where the youngest clone had been propped up against a wall.
She didn’t throw the knife.
Gordon drew closer to the clone he’d knifed. Both were injured, Gordon suffering from a gunshot that had very possibly danced around the inside of his torso, the clone shot in one shoulder and knifed in the back.
The clone, however, seemed largely immune to pain, the killing phrase driving him past such mundane things, putting him in the mind for efficient aggression and murder and nothing else. He was using his wounded shoulder to a reasonable extent, a stark contrast to Gordon, who wasn’t using one arm while he held a hand against his injury, though both arms were in good working order.
Our clone had about three inches and twenty-five pounds on Gordon, who was already of a good size.
To top it off, it seemed he had a pistol and the wherewithal to use it. While Gordon limped his way, he drew a pellet out of his pocket and slipped it into the gun’s chamber, pulling at the lever along the barrel.
Helen appeared behind the clone, doing exactly what I’d intended when I’d come up behind him, earlier. She caught the clone’s arm as Gordon drew closer, hauling it back and forcing the pistol off course. I ducked lower in the wake of it going off, though I knew that by the time I heard the thing it was already too late.
I saw a flurry of movement as Helen scrabbled for a grip on him, only to get elbowed once, kicked, and slashed at by the knife.
Gordon collided with him, keeping him from doing anything further.
They’re still nascent, I thought. Gordon was still undeveloped. Still young, largely untrained. Our exercises and adventures in the ass-end of Radham weren’t sanctioned, but weren’t discouraged either. Gordon had been hungry to put his brain to work, and he’d done it to good effect.
I’d been less hungry, more desperate, but my own studies at the back-alley brawl had been far less effective. I’d stuck it out for far too long before the others had stopped letting me come.
Gordon had put himself chest-to-chest with the clone. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fancy. It was exactly what he needed to do to reduce the effectiveness of the skills the clones had learned in the ring.
This was how he operated, and this was how he thought.
The Academy hadn’t gone out of their way to make him especially tough, but they’d given him a good head and a good body and that counted for something. They had, however, equipped him so he would pick up the skills he needed and master them faster than most. Part of having a good head and a good body was that he had the coordination between both, no matter the situation, moving and thinking quickly with neither suffering for the other.
Knives were terrible weapons, and our two brawlers each had one. They were messy things, messier when the one wielding them was good, and both fighters here were good. Tentative slashes were fended off, hands of one boy gripping the wrists of the other, to try and limit the movement of the knives, but even the chance cuts were gruesome, parting skin. Blood dripped from Gordon’s chest wound to the floor now that he was no longer holding his hand there.
I yelped a little as I saw Gordon take a knife in the side. I saw him bring one arm down, away from the clone’s wrist, pinning the knife in place. With the slickness of the blood and Gordon’s sheer tenacity, the clone couldn’t pull it free.
Gordon, for his part, still practically hugging his enemy, was able to stab several times, despite the clone’s efforts to keep his arm still.
This is the puppeteer’s mistake. Take away something’s will to continue on, no matter how strong it is, no matter what else you do, you create a losing battle.
The clone didn’t try to stop Gordon, instead striking out with hands, striking at head, ears, even at Gordon’s bullet wound.
But Gordon kept stabbing, and soon reached the point where the clone wasn’t resisting as the knife went in and out of his midsection. The clone soon dropped, and Gordon went with him, having been leaning so heavily on him for support.
Jamie and Lil went immediately to his side, looking after Gordon while dealing with the dying clone. Helen, badly cut, didn’t move from where she’d fallen, but a glance suggested Lil had given her some preliminary care. All three of them were around the corner from Mary and the headmistress. Joining them meant crossing the breadth of the hallway. I decided that wasn’t too wise.
“Mary,” I said.
I didn’t get a response.
I glanced out of the hallway, then pulled my head back as I saw a flurry of movement, out of the corner of my eye. A knife hit the doorframe.
I tried to grab it, found I didn’t have the strength to pull it away where it had embedded into the wood, removed my hand, and saw another hit the spot where my hand had just been.
“It’s over, Mary,” I said. “What are you even doing?”
“I’m doing what the Academy needs me to do,” she said. “Protecting the children of this school. I just… I have to buy time and make sure you don’t get away, before the quarantine.”
“What are you even talking about?” Jamie asked.
I raised a hand, urging Jamie to hold back.
“Mary,” I said. “Forget the headmistress. As pawns go, she’s mostly used up.”
“Pawn?” I heard the woman utter the word. Outrage had pushed her to speak where she’d been caught up in silent horror, watching children shoot, stab, and use weapons on each other, spattering her school hallway with blood.
I ignored her. “Where do you go next, Mary? The puppeteer is gone. He left the headmistress with a paper that was supposed to turn you into weapons, presumably one by one. Something about that tells me he didn’t plot a way for you to meet again.”
“I’ll do what I’m supposed to do, and then I’ll find him,” she said.
“Oh, you want to prove your worth, after being discarded?” I asked. “Prove that you worked as an experiment? He’ll be so overjoyed at how good you are that he takes you back in with open arms?”
“Something like that.”
“Oh come on, Mary,” I said. “Come on. I bet I’m describing almost exactly what you’re hoping for. You don’t care about the boys, this kid who’s unconscious next to me, or the big guy that just got carved up by Gordon. You just figured you’d stand there and let them throw themselves at us, do as much damage as possible, and then you’d clean up. Go back to the puppeteer as the one who succeeded.”
There wasn’t a response.
“Thing about you being created for one thing and one thing only, you’re pretty easy to figure out. You have a reality and the puppeteer is at the center of it. You’re trying very hard to avoid thinking about what it means, that he went out of his way to plug a special sequence of sounds into your head, and set it up so that you’d kill. The lies, the basic underlying thought process that he had from the beginning. What he’s doing right this moment, leaving you… and what lies in the future. Even in your perfect hypothetical world, what happens?”
Still no response.
“Let’s say you kill each of us. Gordon’s dead, Helen can’t fight so effectively, Jamie’s almost as bad in a scrap as I am. Then you go to him, and he welcomes you with open arms. But you know he’ll have his doubts. He knows you know that he abandoned you. What you are. Can you picture the tense conversation, the rules he sets in place so you don’t go running the mouth and filling in the next generation of clones? How grim is that life, the two of you never speaking about what happened tonight, and how things changed?”
She was still silent.
I frowned. Did I lose her? Had she slipped away?
“The reality of existence, of life, in every sense of the word, Academy or literal or figurative, is that things change. Nothing is static. Your relationship to the puppeteer has changed, and-”
I chanced another look out into the hallway.
I thought I saw a movement, and flinched, ducking back.
When no knife appeared, I looked again.
There was only the headmistress, clutching her hands in front of her. I saw her eyes move.
To the broken window. After Gordon had come into the classroom with the littlest clone, he’d made a dramatic exit-
And Mary had made a silent entrance.
I scrambled to move out of the way. The knife that hit the door wasn’t a throwing weapon. Larger, burlier around the handle. She’d still managed to throw it hard enough and accurately enough that the blade stuck in the wood.
She came through the aisle of the dark classroom, ducking low, a weapon in each hand.
I didn’t need to see anything more. I escaped into the hallway.
Jamie’s eyes widened as he looked over my shoulder.
Before his mouth was even open, I was reacting to the warning he was about to communicate. No overthinking possible in this, at least. ‘Get out of the way’ was a ‘get out of the way’, and it didn’t need to be fancy.
I turned, and in the process I fell awkwardly against the corner where the two hallways met.
Mary stopped in the doorway, looking at all of us. She had one knife in hand. The other hand was empty, clenched.
Her facade was slipping. There was emotion in her eyes. Anger, hatred.
Many of us were beaten, battered, and bruised. Jamie and Lil had avoided more than a few simple scuffs, but Gordon, Helen and I had taken our individual beatings, roughly in that order.
I wasn’t so sure we could put up a fight. Especially if she played it clever.
“Don’t say it,” Mary said.
Don’t say what? I thought. My memory wasn’t that good, for me to know what she was referencing.
But whatever it was, it was something I’d said that had stuck with her, something she was afraid I’d say.
I offered her a sympathetic expression, while my brain raced to try and piece it together.
The sympathy hurt her. It made her fist clench tighter. I’m pegging her wrong, I realized. The anger, hatred, and fear all stemmed from something else, flowing from a source that ran deeper and left more painful wounds.
“I won’t say it, then,” I told her. “But put the weapon down.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“There’s nothing left for you here. If you hold on to it, whatever futures flow from there, they-”
I saw her flinch.
“…I said I wouldn’t say it,” I told her.
“And you’re a villain,” she said. “A liar. Just say it. Out with it. Say it, or I will.”
“Alone,” I said. “If you move forward, you’ll be alone.”
Her head snapped to one side. I saw the pain in her expression. The facade was broken, the vulnerability exploited and trampled.
“Headmistress,” she said.
“Headmistress!” I called out. “No, nope, don’t listen to her!”
“Read it,” Mary said, pointing.
“Don’t!” I called out.
I saw the indecision on the headmistress’ face.
In the midst of a situation she didn’t comprehend in the slightest, she held the means to turn Mary into the weapon, a mad, reckless one, but one we might not be able to properly fight. For Mary, though, it was an escape.
Something to take the dissonance and simplify it. Reduce everything to one basic, self-destructive impulse.
“If you don’t,” Mary said, “They’ll kill us both and escape before the Academy gets here to draw up the quarantine.”
That seemed to be the needed push.
“Mary,” the headmistress said.
I couldn’t step forward without Mary lashing out. Couldn’t run and leave the others. A few sounds, and we were utter goners.
I needed to convince the headmistress.
But I couldn’t think of the words to do it. If I could figure out what the puppeteer had said, the line of logic… professing to be from the Academy, maybe, a long-time plant, protecting the students.
Start with what I knew she knew.
“The office was locked,” I said. “Doors and windows. The letter was signed in blood. Look, blood!”
I showed her my hands where the thorns had injured them.
She didn’t even flinch, glancing up, then back to the paper.
Notecard, cards, pen-
“Letter opener!” I called out. “Your letter opener. I have it from when I left the note!”
“Nah-” She stopped partway. I saw a blink. The moment where she wondered.
I pointed, but Jamie had already noticed the letter opener. Before I’d even recalled exactly where it fell, he was sliding it over the tiles.
I stopped it with my foot, then kicked it toward the headmistress.
It stopped a few feet away from her.
“It’s yours. I know it’s yours. But I have it. Think. Why would the Academy shoot and hurt your other students?”
My eyes fell on the one student who had been shot. The one I’d helped into the line of fire, letting him take a bullet for me. The headmistress looked down at him. Her own hands were bloody from trying to staunch the flow of blood, though his stillness suggested it was too late, the damage done.
She let the bloodstained paper fall to the floor.
It was as if the words had been read, all the same. Mary charged, mindless or unwilling to think, knife in hand.
I ran, but Mary was taller, and she wasn’t running backward.
She closed the distance, knife ready.
I knew escape was impossible, futile.
But I reached the others, where Helen had joined Jamie and Lil.
I grabbed Helen and, before she could react, thrust her in Mary’s general direction. It wasn’t a very good thrust, but it served.
Better her than me.
Helen winced as the knife pierced her side or back. Mary raised the knife up to Helen’s throat for what would have been a quick and terminal cut, and Helen caught the hand, stopping the blade before it could make contact.
Mary settled for taking her hostage. She was breathing harder than the momentary exhaustion justified. I imagined her thoughts were chaos and noise and pain.
“Alone,” she said. “That’s what you said?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice soft.
“Acting like this, throwing allies away when it suits you, I think you’re going to end up more alone than I am.”
I nodded slowly. “Maybe.”
“Never denied that.”
“No right to say anything to me.”
I watched Helen tighten her grip on Mary’s wrist.
“I already said most of it,” I said. “We’re works in progress. Helen, Gordon here, Jamie, even me, in a lesser way.”
I saw Mary’s expression change. She raised a hand to try and pry Helen’s hand loose, but Helen grabbed her other wrist. The knife strained to move, but Helen didn’t let it.
Helen wasn’t a fighter, but that wasn’t to say she wasn’t strong.
“Helen isn’t really an actress. Well, she is, but that’s not the end result. I planted that seed, reinforced an idea you had already.”
Helen rolled her shoulders, and I could see movements beneath her school uniform, as bones shifted and found new configurations. Her limbs moved in ways they shouldn’t have, joints bending the wrong way.
I looked to one side as Helen raised one leg up, over her own shoulder, and wrapped the foot around the back of Mary’s neck. Had I been looking, I would have seen up Helen’s skirt, and that would have been rude of me.
Mary made a sound as her struggles failed to make progress.
I walked past them, still averting my gaze, and approached the headmistress.
“Go,” I said. “Take the boy and go.”
I saw the confusion and fear, and the momentary relief at having an escape. She fled, carrying the boy in her arms.
“Back in the furnace room, I mentioned Doctor Ibott. You cut me off before I could say more about him. See, he’s the one who handled Helen.”
I saw confusion join alarm on Mary’s face.
“But-” Mary started. She didn’t get further. Helen raised her other leg, and the shift in weight made Mary tip forward. Helen snapped her leg around, taking advantage of the fall to slip herself around behind Mary. Arms moved and twisted, and at the end of it, Helen was on top of Mary, who was face-first on the ground. Mary’s arms were caught beneath and in front of her, Helen’s hand around hers, forcing her to hold the knife at her own throat.
Every muscle and bone seemed to be straining in the wrong ways against Helen’s skin. It conjured up ideas of an insect, or a starved jungle cat, perched atop its prey.
“But Ibott only does big things. Monsters that can win wars. Juggernauts and ship sinkers. Well, the guy who heads our project poked at Ibott’s pride, and got Ibott to do something smaller and cleverer. Helen’s the only one of us who isn’t human, you know. Vat grown, like you, but built from scratch. She’s only an actress because she had to learn from the beginning.”
Mary made a strangled sound. Helen was choking her, staring down at her with a blank expression.
I bent down, and I picked up the bloodstained paper the headmistress had dropped.
I read it.
“We’re works in progress. Helen’s still growing into her role. The femme fatale. A little odd when she’s still a child, but she’ll be something when she’s older.”
I glanced over at Mary, who was struggling and failing to escape Helen’s embrace, then folded up the paper and stuck it in my waistband. I reached for Mary’s file folder, and withdrew a paper. I’d thought I’d use it to compare notes if I could find Percy’s place and break in, but this would do.
I reached down and touched the bloodstain where the shot child had fallen. I gripped the paper, crumpling it in my hands.
“Let her go, Helen.”
Helen did. When she let go of Mary’s hand, Mary let go of the knife. Helen collected it.
Mary didn’t move as I approached. The fight was gone out of her.
I held the bloodstained paper.
Then I tore it, slowly, for dramatic effect, into very small pieces.
I let the pieces fall in front of Mary.
“It’s your call,” I said. “Fight to the death like he wanted, or stick it to him. Join us.”
It took a long time before she found the courage to nod.
I sat in the rain, watching the Academy’s students gather around the school. Individual members of our teams had come, looking after their projects and keeping us from being discovered, and I was enjoying the fact that Lacey was here for me and unable to find me.
My fingers unfolded the paper I’d collected. The puppeteer’s note. Instructions to the headmistress, useless. The kill command for a dead clone, useless. And his command to Mary, which was an interesting puzzle I’d have to work out in the future. Something to discuss with Hayle.
Mary. You do not have a command like Clyde does.
I won’t say I didn’t try, but only managed to induce short fits to reset your mind.
I grew fond of you, I admit. What I told you was not lies. If it comes down to it and Clyde fails, run. Find your way.
I will find you. We will be together, and we will succeed.