Taking Root 1.11

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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 surviveWe’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.

Oh no.

“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.

“Yu du-”

Notecard, cards, pen-

Letter opener.

“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.”

“You’re despicable.”

“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.

– Percy

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106 thoughts on “Taking Root 1.11

  1. Hi guys, had a long weekend with family and some tough stuff going on, got back, wrote, and the chapter had a formatting error. My slog through the fixes for the formatting was particularly frustrated and slow because of my headspace. Decided to give things the extra fifteen minutes for a once-over to make sure it was passable and fix some minor things, rather than rush it or muck it up and release something I wasn’t happy with.

    Sorry for the late release. It’s not a usual thing for me, but this wasn’t a usual Easter weekend/evening.

    On the upside, just totaled donations and marked down the donations for Easter. I’m blown away, as they reached a record high that we haven’t seen since Worm ended. While there *is* a third chapter that should come out this month, I’ve got some other stuff going on (including aforementioned goings-on, my birthday this coming weekend, and my dad’s birthday, with a bit of travel), and I’ve got taxes to do, and think it’s just not sensible to squeeze three chapters in amid it all. There will be an additional bonus chapter chapters in May, where I anticipate things will be quieter and less disorganized.

      • Hmmm… But what is it supposed to mean? That the letter was actually supposed to activate the command? That the command the Headmistress was reading was just Percy amusing himself?

          • If Percy wasn’t lying in his letter, then the command either did nothing or just reset her mind. I somewhat doubt resetting her mind in the middle of battle was the idea, so it was either a phony command or Percy was lying.

        • The Headmistress was not reading a command. She was reading the beginning of “You do not have a command…”

          • You’re right. That’s why the Headmistress blinked, why she wondered. Her eyes were moving faster than her mouth and she knew what she was about to read.

        • Credit to Panster for ACTUALLY spotting this, but if you look closely what it actually read was “Yu Du Nah…” or rather “(yu du nah)’t have a command”. It was just the first three syllables of the letter, which since we didn’t have the whole letter at the time, we didn’t string together.

  2. Wow.

    This chapter man.

    Helen being a weapon, Mary joining the gang, and Percy accepting her as someone he legitemately cares about.

    Yu du naht have a command eh?

  3. Mary Honette, the puppeteer’s doll
    Dancing, dancing, four feet tall
    She’ll toss in the towel and throw in the knife
    Run away, run away, for your life.
    Sy you little bastard, what have you done?
    Found a peeping keyhole, turned the lock in one.
    You’ve got a dancing puppet on your string
    The puppeteer’s gone, and now you’re king.

  4. Aw, so sad, poor Mary, and to a lessor degree Sly. Also woot, Helen is a genuine monster, that is neat, did not see it coming, probaly in part due to my own inattentiveness. Whole tiger thing makes more sense now.

    Though I guess at least Sly could also be called a monster. Fun chapter overall.

    • The sort of sad thing is Sy doesn’t immediatly understand what the note means. Most people would first assume that it means what it says. A suspicious bastard would immediatly conclude that can’t be right. Sy sees it as a puzzle. Says a lot about his life. He’s not an absolute 100% bastard. At least 85%. But he’s got the potential to go either way.

  5. Wow. This is going to go down as one of my favorite of your arcs (Yrivnguna, Avar Vagebf, Fpubby Bhgvat, Nyrknaqevn/Gntt, Xurcev,Ebfr/Oynxr cnegarefuvc, He, FrevnyXvyyre!Oynxr amongst others). First arc too; Sy is going to be fascinating to follow along, villain that he is. No way this does not come back to haunt him.

    So could they have adopted the Cataconda? I am interested in seeing how Mary, officially or not, gets incorporated into their group by the Academy.

    Sy’s trepidation around Helen seems well founded as well.

    • I don’t think the Cataconda was a private cuddle-bunny in the way anybody could survive, somehow.😛

      Poor Mary wasn’t helped by Percy’s showing her the affection she got: it wasn’t enough, and it led to a massive lever to pull. She is such a screwed cuddle bunny, poor thing.😦

      Well, at least she’s with other misfit projects who know what it’s like. For good, ill or hard to tell.😐

    • I wouldn’y calll him a villain…

      Gnlybe jnf punbgvp tbbq,ohg unq gb znxr n ybg bs uneq pubvprf.

      Oynxr jnf punbgvp tbbq,ohg unq gb pbzcrgr jvgu n angher gung pbafgnagyl fgrrerq uvz gb qb rivy npgvbaf.

      Sy,on the other hand,is clearly selfish,self interested and caring only about his family….but he is not out to send people under the bus,he genuinely thought that letter was a trick,and even if he didn’t,it was a situation when he had to protect his family,and Mary was likely to get killed for opposing them even if they did survive…I’d say he is chaotic neutral,not a hero,not a villain.

  6. Amazing chapter. I wonder how Sy will avoid the pupeteer coming back for his creation and telling her the truth.

  7. Nice!

    Like the others, liking the reveal about Helen’s combat abilities (I wonder why she moved back rather than attacking with Sy, before? Inexperience..?) and Mary’s syllables. I do wonder what the Headmistress was thinking–assuming she’d glanced over the note (including the instructions, including the part for Mary) when she got it, there wouldn’t have been much advantage for her to read aloud a note saying ‘Abandon everything and run away!’ at that stage.

    This seems to make clearer the roles of Sy and Jamie; Sy the cognition, Jamie the memory? Jamie has seemed smarter than Sy on certain matters sometimes, though. (Just laziness on Sy’s part since he normally doesn’t have to think methodically?)
    An intereresting phenomenon (and story effects) of the thinking/fight-reflexes matter.

    I find myself curious about how Sy and Jamie compare to Taylor and Lisa (not necessarily with the same boundaries)

    In any case, pleasant!

    • Maybe the reason Helen didn’t attack was something about her biology makes her a bad pack hunter. But yeah, she doesn’t seem to be a good team player.

      For the roles of the various people, Sy seems to be the profiler (for more about profilers, there’s this really good YA novel called The Naturals.) Gordon seems to be a brawler, Helen the sneaky-sneaky backstabber. But Mary? Mary’s the sniper.

  8. Huh, so Helen is the only one made from scratch, and by a guy who specializes in warbeasts, but Gordon is the one they rely on for muscle in most instances.

    I can’t help but think there was an error in judgement in the planning phase.

    • I think it’s more that she isn’t fully grown yet and that means she’s not at her full capacity to kill.

    • Gordon is a warrior. Helen is an assassin. The skillsets have overlapping features, but they aren’t equivalent. Much like Sy and Jamie, who are essentially strategy and intelligence, respectively.

      Plus, I’d imagine they keep Helen’s abilities under wraps specifically for this reason. She looks the perfect hostage, but can tear people apart if she has to. Sort of a one-woman Trojan horse.

      And yes, my name is actually Gordon.

    • Well… Gordon is the everyday muscle who everyone can see is capable. Helen is the war beast who everyone can see is …just a girl with no particular combat ability. That’s a pretty useful structure, especially when Helen needs to avoid outing herself as non-human.

      • Keep in mind the team is designed to function as a gestalt and that there is a social component. In Helen’s case, think seductress/black-widow.

  9. Mary is either more resistant or a failed experiment In this regard. Better than being a mindless killing machine.

  10. “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”. I’m surprised that he’s not mentioning Lilian here, especially since he had Mary believe she also was one of them.

  11. Hm. Did girls wear garters back then?

    I find the quote “life will find a way” particularly worrisome coming from the Academy. Sure it will, that’s everything you do! But sometimes, life finding a way might not be a great thing.

    “Better her than me”. Holy shit, Sy. She is actually capable of defending herself, as opposed to you, and I wouldn’t argue against what you did, but that’s shitty anyway.

    “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.” I don’t think this is Sy speaking. I think this is WB talking directly to us xD I’m not sure I follow. Unless Helen has gone through accelerated growth, she would have had as much time to learn how to act human as anybody else. So… I guess the conclusion is that she went through accelerated growth. Given the fact that Sy talks about the group growing into their roles, I am more confident in saying that their expiration dates are not so much biological, but funding related.

    “Had I been looking, I would have seen up Helen’s skirt, and that would have been rude of me.” OH COME ON.

    Great chapter, as always. I hope that things get calmer for you, Wildbow! I feel kind of bad for Mary. The puppeteer was… a puppeteer. But I am not sure Mary will be that much better off with the Lambsbridge gang, and Sy kept from her the only thing she cared about.

    • Modified though they may be, the others still have a basically human psychological makeup as a fondation. Helen, I suspect, does not. At least, to any normal degree. We don’t know much about what it’s like in her head but I imagine it’s a rather worrying place.

    • It could be that humans have an inbuilt intuition for emotion etc due to experiencing it themselves, while Helen does not benefit from this. So while Sy, Jamie, and Gordon understand emotion intuitively, Helen has to learn it (even from the basics like upwards curved lips means they are feeling good).

      • Sy is kinda programmed to be a bastard, both by the academy, and his experiences. On the other hand Helen is sorta a killing machine, so really he wouldn’t be making the best choice being rude to her.

    • “Had I been looking, I would have seen up Helen’s skirt, and that would have been rude of me.” OH COME ON.

      Made perfect sense to me. Sy intentionally antagonized Lillian like that in the first chapter, but Helen is different. From what I can tell, Sy legitimately cares about her – like the other fellow experiments, he considers her one of his siblings, even though he may not say so openly.

      • Part of me wonders about that. Jamie and Gordon: Nerd and Jock; logistics and front line, wallflower and Face. The two are better foils for each other than Sy is for either. I suspect Sylvester’s real partner-in-crime is one of the ones who didn’t make it… possibly Evette? He might be tipping his hand by joking about a Big Sister.:/ And, trying to find one in either Helen or Mary.

      • I’m getting the feeling that he’s less fond of her and more afraid of her, from how very respectful of her Sy is in his internal monologue, and the way he reacts when she touches him. Not sure why, specifically, he would be, but that’s how it seems to me. I suppose she WAS created in a lab by a mad scientist who normally works in kaiju, but you’d think Sy’d have gotten used to that after a few cases in the same orphan sleuth team.

        Anyway, I can’t really think of a reason Helen would care about Sy looking under her skirt, although maybe she’d think it appropriate to adopt an offended persona.

  12. Scary Helen is scary. On the other hand an assaissain can be far more deadly than a battleship sinker, and influence history in far greater ways. But hey, we got an explination for why Sy sucks in fights so much. He’s too busy processing all the possible outcomes to just do it. He’s like a tiny, evil, not made up of combining alien robots version of Computron.

    • Since Sy suck so damn hard at fighting due to overanalyses and sub-par physical attributes, he should just do the following:-

      1. Read up:- http://www.ep.tc/problems/46/
      2. Come up with a training regime for every technique above.
      3. Train, train, train and train some more until he can let his mind wander and have his body go on automatic.
      4. Use that analytical brain of his to vary the training type, repeat Step 3.
      5. Go back-alley brawling.
      6. Analyse results and adjust training regime accordingly, repeat Step 3.
      7. Repeat Step 3 to 6 until victory rate against physically superior unaltered humans is at 85%.

      Yes its overspecialised against humans and he will suck ass 1-on-1 against non-humans but given his design, if he’s stuck in that kind situation, the shit must have hit the fan already.

        • Actually, just thought of a solution to that. Sic Helen on him in the role of Big Sis Trainer From Hell. She’s more than capable of dismembering him if he gets too distracted or forgets why he’s doing it.😛

          • Big sister will teach him. With pain.

            The other thing would be for Sy to learn to switch gears. A combat mode where he isn’t crunching all the variables, and his regular one. Or one where he focuses on exactly what he’s doing and goes with whatever has the best probablility. Won’t make him the greatest of fighters, but might help. Or give him a shotgun. Not many variables there. Course he’s still ninish.

          • @negadarkwing: Or Sy can simply integrate Equivocation and other Mentalism tricks into his melee fighting repertoire but given his unimposing stature, his feints will likely be ignored leaving him worse off than before.

            Which now leaves the option of contact poisons like Psychoactive toads and other poisonous amphibians.

          • Note that Sherlock Holmes is an over-the-top pulp detective character with the combined abilities of all three boys in the Lamb Gang. No matter how good you are at planning, you need to be able to improvise, and Sy’s improvisation is locked at conversation-speed rather than fight-speed.

          • Note,also,than in an all out no rules brawl,his oppoments would have finished him off while he was down.

  13. I feel like there’s always the ‘glorious bastard’ character in Wildbow stories (Regent, Peter and now Sy). Maybe this is the link between the Wildbow multiverse?😉
    But it’s nice that the bastard is finally the protagonist, I feel like this is something Wildbow has been wanting to do for a while now.

  14. Next up, Jamie reveals what he’s actually good for – we’ve gotten ‘good memory’ so far, but I don’t buy that that’s all of it

    I might buy that Gordon’s entire role is the warrior, and that he’s just underdeveloped, but something tells me he has a few extra tricks, too – I’m guessing he’s got a talent for picking up skills including dance and tightrope walking

    Also, very glad Wildbow has easy access to healers for this story

  15. Long time reader, first time poster. Just wanted to thank you for your awesome writing, Wildbow.

    As for the chapter, Sad and triumphant in equal measures. Bittersweet, really. Sy is a lot more dangerous than his garbage fighting skills would lead you to believe. His manipulations saved the gang this time (as well as Gordon being awesome and Helen being a creepy vat-bred assassin-femme-fatalle-in-training)

    Here’s some speculation: Gordon is most likely the better fighter of the group because he has the skills for it. Helen technically has more potential from her unique body, but her learning has focused on other things, like pretending not to be an emotionless vat-bred monstrosity. Gordon on the other hand, has the training AND a mind specifically designed for fighting. Beats me why Helen was the one that got the abomination treatment, and not Gordon. Perhaps Gordon was already done when Dr. Ibott entered his contribution to the project. Maybe teaching the inhuman one acting skills served dual purposes: to have a member who could act well AND to conceal the fact it’s a vat-bred creature.

    This arc is either done, or almost done. Next comes (maybe) an interlude. Then next arc. One thing that could potentially be truly awesome is if each arc was told from the perspective of one of the group, which rotated regularly (and now I am remembering Animorphs rather fondly…). I think Twig is a big improvement over Wildbow’s past works in giving the main character a different voice and personality than his usual. If not, at least an interlude with each of the others somewhere in the future would be nice. Really curious on how each of them sees the world.

    • I would hope we at least get a debriefing, and a bit more of a look at Percy’s lab notes and motives. Some downtime between constant action is good, keeps the action and suspense from growing stale.

    • I just speculated about rotating POVs in the previous chapter. Really wondering if Wilbow is going to actually do so.

      And yeah, when I finished reading this chapter, I also got the feeling the arc is about to wrap up soon.

      • It would make some sense if our look at Lambsbridge itself, and the other kids there, came from an outside perspective.

    • Helen is handicapped at the moment by being the height, weight and having the reach of a prepubescent girl. In a straight-up or prolonged fight without the element of surprise, this is a problem… regardless of the surprisingly freaky things she can do with limb rotation and what have you that can give her an edge in the initial phases.

      In short, she’s built for ambush and guerrilla tactics rather than good, old fisticuffs.:/

      • Euo, you’re everywhere! I’ve trawled around Batoto for a bit, especially the Tower of forums, and I’ve spotted you there. I go take a look at Stand Still Stay Silent and who do I find in the comments? You! Now you’re here too. Are you some kind of omnipresent force of nature and patron spirit of speculation on stories?😄

        Regardless, you have good taste. All these are excellent.

        • And Kubera — Currygom is just as good as SIU, if in different ways. xD I do warn people: I’m a troper and plot-junkie.🙂

          For those interested in Korean mentions, Tower of God, Trace, Kubera and Black Haze are all worth time and effort.

          And, SSSS is just as good. Go. Read. Enjoy.😉

          • I’ve read all of those except for SSSS, so I’m off to read that xD You’re awesome, girl.

  16. More information about the group:
    —Sy can’t fight because his thinking gets in the way.
    —Gordon isn’t a programmed fighter – he was given good base abilities and allowed to self-direct his learning. Looks like he is succeeding.
    —Helen has trouble aping human emotions because she isn’t human. She’s some sort of weapon created by a designer who usually does bigger nasties.

    I called Helen being a femme fatale as an option in a previous chapter. I only guess right on Wildbow’s stuff about once in blue moon, so it is nice to occasionally be correct.

    Sy convinced Mary that she had no future with Percy. Later on, he saw the note and found out that Percy did want her to survive. Of course, that doesn’t help him, so Sy lied and got Mary to join them. By the time they run into Percy again, Mary might not believe that Percy wanted her. Still, a truth like that is a vulnerability until Sy has time to solidify Mary’s loyalty.

    Sy called the Headmistress a pawn. He won’t be welcome in the school anymore, and that will likely cause some resentment on her part, not that she can do anything about it.

    I don’t know why Sy would want to discuss Percy’s note to Mary with Hayle. It seems obvious that most of it should be taken at face value:
    —Percy was going the route of Pygmalion. This is probably not surprising or worth noting.
    —Percy says he can succeed against whatever forces are against them. That strikes me as a useless platitude just for reassurance’s sake. The Academy is simply not going to believe that Percy could threaten them.
    —The knowledge that commands can’t always be implanted seems to be something that Sy would want to keep to himself, figure out, and exploit to the full.
    So most of the note’s contents are unremarkable but there is one potentially nasty secret in there. Why is any of this a puzzle? Why let the one possible exploitable secret out?

    • As I understood it, the puzzle he wants to solve with Hayle is that Mary *does* have a command (though it doesn’t kill her), but it’s not stated in the note, so they’ll have to determine it by other means.

    • Actually I’m not so sure the Headmistress isn’t going to be sacked. Helping the wrong kids, letting Percy escape, not noticing anything while he was right under her nose… And she’s at just the right place for a scapegoat to boot.

      • Good point. I think it depends on how much of a public stink the Academy wants to make. If they want to cover it up, sacking the most visible member of the school would be too much publicity. That still leaves options like quietly-forced “early retirement”, but Percy is a better scapegoat then, partly because he is the real culprit. If the Academy wants to make a public example, the Headmistress is probably toast.

        • Apparently a lot of the kids are from important families too. Including the clones that didn’t get the kill trigger yet. They are not going to be happy at all about their kids getting killed and replaced, and they are going to want to punish someone.

  17. Hey Wildbow. I haven’t commented in a while, because I don’t have the time to read through all the comments and participate properly. But I just read the end of this chapter, and said, “Wow.” Out loud, even. With true awe in my voice. That was fantastic.

    It seems almost stupid to say, because you always do anyway, but keep up the good work.


  18. I can never keep track of people’s locations in physical space. I was so confused in this and the last chapter about whether people were in halls or classrooms, and what relation they had to each other.

    • I have the same issue – it appears Wildbow typically has mind-maps of locations (so I trust location descriptions are consistent). I’m sure I could figure out the geography of a place given a bit of time, but I generally can’t be bothered. If you or another commenter would make floor maps and share them, I expected it would help out a lot

  19. So rather than a straight-up fighter, Gordon seems to be more akin to Uber in terms of his specialty

    Also, the fact that Sy didn’t want to peek under Helen’s skirt was extremely funny. The relationship between those two is both hilarious and adorable.

    • Given what Helen is, looking up her skirt may be the equivalent of viewing a Lovecraftian horror. That’s sarcasm – I presume she can pass for human, even in the genital area, but I also presume that area of her body is also weaponized. Things that come to mind are vagina dentata, retractable tentacle, excreted neuromodulators/neurotoxins, etc. Ugh, brain bleach time.

    • Helen’s position as my favourite of the gang has been further cemented. Looking forward to more of their teamwork.

      Fate: 0, Sylvester: 1. Nice work, kiddo. Keep it up.

    • So Sy is what, the debuffer/crowd control? I guess he can also be a rogue, the sneaky bastard.
      Lillian is obviously the healer though.

  20. A couple of comments I recently came up with.

    It would have been nice to learn about Mothmont’s faculty and curriculum more. What classes are taught and who teaches them. At least, I would have liked to learn more about Percy’s job at Mothmont.

    I wonder, what happened to little brother? If he goes back to the Puppeteer… well, we can expect a comeback from both of them, and a lot of struggle for Mary.

    Fridge logic? What was the point of teaching and training the children self defense if they were meant to commit suicide? If Percy was expecting to be persecuted by the Academy, it might have been wiser to spend his time covering his tracks and being more careful. Or… training clones not _meant to die_.

    • He did need them to kill multiple adult humans before they died, some of whom had military experience. It’s mentioned that several of the victims tried to fight back.

      • Mmm. It’s not that hard to put a bullet into someone’s brain while they sleep, doubly so if they have no reason to feel insecure, triply so coming from what they think are their own children. I assume the reason they didn’t do that is that Percy wanted these people to die in a certain manner. But I’m not sure that is reasonable. I remember his goal was to make Mothmont and the Academy look bad, and not only kill certain targets? There are other ways to achieve both things.

        But I guess I’m a little confused. You said that they were meant to kill multiple people. I thought they were just meant to kill their putative parents and set up a fire. So… I guess I gotta stop reading Twig at three in the morning?

  21. Damn, can’t tell if Sy is an anti-villain or anti-hero. I’m going to invest my like into Mary, I hope it doesn’t bit me back later…

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