Overshoot, Percy mused. A species finds itself with no predators and an abundance of resources. The species grows by leaps and bounds, oftentimes exponentially, and quickly reaches a point where it vastly exceeds the space and resources available.
Percy held his umbrella up at an angle, pointing it against the rain that was driving down, now. His eye fell on the Academy. This late in the evening, it was one of the only points of light in this dark little city, walled in, with enough lights around the Hedge that the front wall was illuminated.
He turned away, shifting his grip on his umbrella. His free hand reached up to tenderly prod his own damaged face. The moment he’d been hurt, he’d chosen to exaggerate the severity of it. He’d trusted his Mary.
His walk was brisk. Running was a giveaway, walking was too slow. He compromised on both fronts. Living here, one got used to the rain, walking on slick sidewalk and road. The Academy had wanted rain, they had devised a method to get it, algae that were now part of the water system. Buildings at the periphery of Radham spouted out fumes that would catalyze the bacteria.
When Overshoot occurred, the end result was often a devastating collapse of the system that had formed. Populations often died en masse.
The wind nearly tore his umbrella from his hand. He had to pause to fix the arm at one side, where it had inverted, turning one side of the umbrella into a cup rather than a shield. While he did so, he took the opportunity to glance over his shoulder, double-checking.
He didn’t see anyone that shouldn’t be there. He kept a particular eye out for children, and saw nothing.
He felt both relief and disappointment. To see Mary there would have lifted his heart and it would have made him feel safer. To see all of the boys with Mary would have left him ecstatic. Given him hope.
Only rain and shadow in equal proportion.
Radham worked so hard to portray itself as something good and proper. He’d known that much already, spending the better part of six years at Mothmont, but he’d never been one to wander the street in the worst weather. He’d been aware of the existence of such stitched, but he’d never seen how many stitched were active late at night, collecting trash, bodies, or simply going about on predetermined errands, especially now that he was in the shadier part of Radham.
A stitched was picking through a can of trash that had been left outside of a business, moving as though drunk, too loose, prone to swaying. When it found something, a broken clock, a child’s toy, a pair of scissors, it fumbled to fold back a waterproof cloth that had been draped over a crate, placed the item inside, and then replaced the cloth.
Percy wanted to help it. To give it an hour of his time, or find its owner and tell them how to maintain it better. Some individuals were prone to complaining about how their relatives, friends and neighbors were collected before they ever touched a coffin, or dug up at the first opportunity by grave robbers looking to make some coin by selling to would-be-students. Oh, but if they knew that stitched were sometimes used like this, ordered to go through garbage for anything that might be of value, taking the materials to a location where the valuables could be sorted out and sold?
A stitched wasn’t easy to make, but the attempted and ultimately partial revival of the dead had been one of Wollstone’s first projects, and had consequently been one of the most detailed in Wollstone’s literature. All one had to do was obtain the materials that the Academy controlled and follow the documentation to the letter.
The materials were inexpensive, the end product lasted years, longer if kept dry and maintained at the right temperature, which this poor thing wasn’t.
He appreciated few things more than good work. A craftsman with care regarding their trade. This wasn’t that kind of good work.
The creator no doubt had access to a great many bodies, and thought it easier to go to a third-rate Academy graduate and have another made, than to work to keep this one functioning.
Flesh was cheap. Dead flesh cheaper.
The stitched turned its head, looking in Percy’s direction. The eyes were nearly gone, the pupils and irises clouded with milky white.
It wasn’t, however, looking at Percy himself.
He followed the gaze of the stitched creature, and he saw two figures in the rain.
The first and most obvious was a monster. Four-legged, It stood tall enough that if it walked against a building, its shoulder would brush the upper end of a doorframe, but it was narrow enough that it could fit through the doorway itself, if it ducked its head down. It had parts of a human face, writ large, the features largely concealed by long black hair. Here and there, where flesh wasn’t sufficient, large amounts of metal had been set in place, fixed to flesh and bone. Light from a streetlamp reflected green in its eyes.
The other figure was a man, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a long jacket. The light from the streetlamp reflected green in his eyes as well. He carried a stick with a collar fixed to one end, ready to snap shut once touched to the throat, a bear trap without the teeth. Sometimes it had spikes, Percy knew, but no.
No, Dog and Catcher wanted him alive. To question. To take his work, repurpose it. It was only a matter of time. The only reason they hadn’t noticed him was that they were distracted by something else. It seemed Catcher was saying something, though the collar of his jacket was high enough to hide his mouth.
Dog nodded, and the sound he made in reply was deep and loud enough to be almost audible. Speaking was impossible for the thing, given the mangled metal wreck that was his lower jaw.
How could Percy even describe the feeling that came over him, then? The dread, the misery. He imagined the feeling being very much like what he might experience if confronted by the family of the children he had replaced with his own. If he had been cut down mid-stride, before accomplishing his goals.
As if a weight had been dropped on him from high above, smashing all he was to pieces, while leaving his body intact.
But dread didn’t help him. He circled the garbage-scrounger and used the creature’s bulk and smell to hide him from sight and nose.
With a note of regret, he folded up his umbrella, subjecting himself to the rain. Bone handle, properly waterproof. Too large to go in the crate, too obvious a thing to be carrying.
“I hope your master rewards you by tending to you,” Percy murmured. “So please forgive me for this.”
He pulled the waterproof cloth away from the top of the crate, where it protected the contents, threw it over his head and shoulders, then hefted the crate. He contemplated kicking off his boots, but decided against it.
Visually, it would mask him from their view. But their eyes were the least of his problems.
They could see better than him, they could track scents as well as any bloodhound, they could hear, as rumor went, a leaf settling on the ground, and they had the wits to use that information.
If they were this close, they had his scent, and if they had his scent, that mancatcher was as good as around his neck.
A sound behind him almost made him startle, but jumping or jerking could well be a giveaway.
Dog disappeared into an alley, traveling parallel to him.
Percy stumbled forward, box in hand, his thoughts a dull roar. There were no good options. Even if Mary or Clyde were here, the best they could hope to accomplish would be buying time. If the stars aligned right, perhaps they could put down Catcher.
But victory wouldn’t happen. Escape was out of the question.
Dog revealed himself by making a clatter, three floors above the ground, walking on a nearby rooftop. With each step, shingles broke free and skidded down the roof to sail toward the ground below.
There were only three building lots between Percy and the war machine. It had stopped at the end of one rooftop, and now strained, head raised, broad, bat-like nostrils flaring.
Dog almost casually leaped from rooftop to road. Metal braces in and around the legs locked, sprung, and slammed into new configurations, absorbing some of the impact. Muscle and mass handled the remainder.
Now that Dog was closer, Percy could see how tubes ran up and around the legs, disappearing into metal-framed slits in the side. Two tubes carried blood, while the third carried what might have been water.
Dog was an ugly piece of work, which was odd, considering that Dog was one of the best known of the Academy’s ‘secret’ projects. There were experiments that were done with care, thought through from the beginning. This was not that. It was a project that had been started, one largely doomed to failure. When structural integrity had failed, crude metal engineering had been set in place. When circulation was poor, things were rerouted, tubes set in place to serve where veins and arteries couldn’t, sometimes outside the body.
Little doubt there were other problems. The Academy was probably happy that was the case. A Dog couldn’t run if it needed regular drainage or a specialized diet.
The Academy had overshot. In this case it had made effective use of that fact.
Dog turned his head, staring at Percy with those eyes that caught the light, the eyelids moved, providing a smile the mouth couldn’t.
It was fruitless to resist, or even try to run, but it galled Percy to know that it would be this that ended him. He turned and prepared to go, when he saw Catcher drawing near.
The man toyed with the mancatcher, the collar on a stick. The collar section of the tool spun, whirling so fast it was a blur in the gloom, sending off a spray of water droplets.
Catcher’s voice was rough-edged, a man who had smoked or was speaking through a bad cold. “You changed coaches twice, walked through deep puddles. Even wore a maggot-ridden blanket.”
Percy pulled at the piece of cloth he’d put over his head, but it still took a second for his eyes to adjust. He saw the maggots wriggling, and flinched, casting the cloth away.
His scalp crawled, now, his neck and face. Once he felt it, every drop of rain he couldn’t verify with his eyes was potentially a maggot, vermin, filth.
Catcher shifted his grip on the mancatcher, and Percy stumbled back, only to find that Dog was behind him, mouth open, teeth ready to bite.
But he still held the crate. Using it for Dog would be useless, but-
Catcher thrusted, aiming for Percy’s throat, and Percy raised the box, the opening facing the weapon.
The crate was torn from his hands, thrown a distance away by a violent swing of the pole.
Too strong. Catcher alone would have been enough, but there were two of them.
Wollstone’s work had caught hold of him from an early age. It had defined his life. Now it would, in a roundabout way, end it.
He thought of his creations. Of Clyde, and of Mary.
In the same moment he realized his own mortality, he knew his legacy was gone.
He felt a flare of anger.
Percy nurtured the feeling, used it to find courage, and reached into his jacket for his pistol.
Catcher seized his wrist, then stopped, glancing down.
“That was…” Catcher asked, trailing off. His head turned.
Dog growled, then darted off in the same direction.
A fog was rising around them.
No, it was a gas. Pea-soup thick, the cloud rose steadily despite the downpour.
Catcher started using his grip on Percy’s wrist to pull, tugging him away from the swelling cloud. Percy used his other hand to reach across his front for the gun, only to have Catcher move the mancatcher to prod his arm.
The collar, slightly too wide around for Percy’s upper arm, slammed shut. The hole was large enough that he could have pulled his arm free if he’d been given the chance, but he wasn’t. The weapon rotated, the edges digging into his arm, and the implicit promise was that trying to pull free despite the pressure might see skin scraped away by the weapon’s edges.
Out of the same flame of anger that had driven him to reach for the gun, Percy found himself fighting Catcher. His opponent was strong enough to lift him, but Percy hauled himself downward, made every step a difficult one with one of his feet braced against Catcher’s thigh. He strained to move toward the gas that had alarmed these two abominations so very much.
It was stupid, reckless, and it was ugly, everything Percy had worked against. Every step of the way, he’d fought against the current, and every step of the way, he’d done things with care. Not all of it was things he could be proud of, but he’d weighed his options, and had never done a thing he felt he could later regret, in the grand scheme of it all.
Even his dealings with the children.
This, he instinctively felt, was something he might very well regret more than anything else, even if it only left him minutes or seconds more of life.
In the end, he succeeded. His head moved too far back, and the gas washed over his face.
In an instant, he was blind, seeing through a veil. Foul, acrid tastes and smells flooded his nose and mouth.
His struggles with Catcher continued, less effective now that he was blinded.
When he was dropped, he kicked and flailed into the blurry darkness.
When a hand pressed around his mouth, he struck out, hit flesh. He struck again, and felt long hair.
His hand moved more gently through the hair, with a degree of caution this time, with care.
He opened his mouth to ask, but whatever it was that had filled it with foul taste, it was like a thick flour, caking his tongue and inner cheeks, making them stick to his teeth. His lips bound together, cracking and bleeding as he pulled them apart.
The hand over his mouth moved, until only one finger pressed against his lips.
The fingers seized his bleeding lower lip and tugged. Leading him like a mutt on a leash, and he knew it wasn’t his Mary.
He obeyed all the same.
A few staggering footsteps, not knowing where he was going. A ruckus occurred behind them.
The hand took his wrist, instead, and he followed, for what seemed like an interminably long time, but was likely only a handful of minutes.
The hand freed his wrist.
Another minute passed. He started to feel his heartbeat pick up. Fear, humiliation, worry. He was dirty, covered in maggots, bloody, and except for his silent companion, he was alone.
He heard a woman’s sigh, not one of exasperation, but relief.
“It’s water,” she said, and her voice was muffled. “Right in front of you. Rinse your face, try to get your nose and ears as well, or you won’t see or hear very well for a long time.”
He obeyed, fumbling until he found the rain barrel. He made use of the water, rubbing at his eyes, only to pull away long strings of goop. It snapped before he could get much of it. He pulled away as much as he could, checked his vision, and still found it blurry. His second attempt suggested that absolutely none of it had dissipated.
“It uses the mucus membranes,” she explained. “Binds to to the mucus itself. You’re going to be congested, and you’ll be pulling gobbets of the stuff from your nose and mouth for a long time. Give it an hour or two and it’ll be more solid. The rinse is meant to clear things up.”
“How long?” he managed. He still felt as though his tongue was coated in wax. He blinked and made out a raven-haired beauty in a close-fitting jacket.
“Long enough you might worry I lied to you and that permanent damage was done. Wash with regularity, it will get better.”
He looked back over his shoulder.
“They’re gone,” she reassured him. “It affected them worse than it affected you. They still put up a fight, which I didn’t expect. I had three stitched with me, and Catcher took them to pieces. The Academy will diagnose the problem and mend those two within a day, and then they’ll devise a means to prevent it, but…”
“But you saved me?” Percy asked.
He could make out enough of her face to see a smile.
“You saved me, and you sacrificed three stitched and a trump card to do it. You’re with them.”
For the first time since the anonymous note had informed him the Academy was coming for him, he felt himself relax a touch.
He dunked his face again, then shook it violently in the water, side to side, splashing, trying to free up any of the substance that might be clinging.
When he stood straight, he put his hands to his hair and then combed it with his fingers.
His vision was still only half of what it had been.
“Come,” she said, smiling.
The destination, as it turned out, was a nondescript store with an old cowboy’s hat over the door.
“Ever been to a place like this?” his companion asked, ascending the stairs ahead of him. She shot him a light smile over one shoulder.
“I, ah, never have, believe it or not.”
“I believe you,” she said. “You’re more the type to find someone of that calling and invite her to your place.”
She knew him that well?
“During daytime, no less,” she said.
Ah. “You’ve been watching me that well, then.”
“The man that walks around your home outside of the school hours, pulling the cart? Ours.”
They’d reached the top of the stairs, two floors up, and reached a door with another cowboy’s hat above it. Rather than open it, his companion turned around, then wiped at his face, touching his hair.
His blood still pumping and face already hot from the humiliation of his futile struggle against Catcher, just after hearing intimate topics raised so readily, he felt more than a little flustered.
From the smile on her face, she seemed to know it. Perhaps she had been watching him even more carefully than he’d known. Enough to know he liked to be in control, to steer things, and she was denying him that chance.
Before he could ask a question, she opened the door.
The walls were draped with red velvet or silk or something very close to it, traced with gold. The pillars had branches reaching up and around them, and one branch had a small bird on it. The light was electrical, cast through red glass.
Scattered around the room, in a very haphazard fashion, there were eight or nine people in chairs, on couches, or standing.
“Cynthia,” an old man greeted her. “And Mr. Percy.”
“Catcher and Dog were there. I used my blinding powder, they’ll know what it is for next time. Louis is going to tell you I didn’t let him set the Academy’s Dog on fire, but it seemed too risky. Every time we made a sound, Catcher would charge at us. I let the stitched make all the sounds they wanted, and we left. It was the best option, Catcher wasn’t slowing down.”
“He doesn’t, that is his design,” the old man said. Percy blinked to try and get a better view. Changing his tone, the old man spoke again, “You did well.”
Talking to me.
“I failed. My creations are dead.”
“Mmm, I’m afraid so,” the old man said. “We confirmed for ourselves. Three boys and a girl, killed by the Academy’s set.”
Percy felt a wrench in his chest. He managed to keep his expression calm.
It was good. The deliberate act of control helped to center him. He felt more like himself.
“What were you doing?” a woman asked. She was surrounded by cages. The shapes within suggested birds.
Percy opened his mouth to answer, then shut it.
“You won’t say?” Cynthia asked, and her tone was teasing.
“You brought me here for a reason.”
“We did,” the old man said.
Percy chose his words carefully. “I feel as though I’m being judged.”
“We all are, always,” the woman with the birds said. “Are you weak, strong, useful, a fitting romantic partner, a friend, an enemy?”
“I’ll reword. I’m on trial.”
“No,” the old man said. “Wrong word, that.”
“It matters, what I say, how I say it. And don’t say it always matters. You know what I mean.”
“Yes,” the old man said. “I know. Tell us, what were you doing?”
Percy remained silent, considering.
When Cynthia spoke, her voice was soft, but it wasn’t uncertain in the least. “There is nothing you can say that is worse than saying nothing at all.”
Percy didn’t speak right away, but he did make the decision to speak. “I’m not proud. I started out wanting to prove myself to them. I had an idea, I wanted to see it through, and show them that they were wrong to refuse it.”
“Yes,” Percy said.
“Your work seemed impeccable, considering your limited access to Academy resources. They protect their texts and charts with a dangerous passion. It’s half of what Dog and Catcher do, rounding up those who have or copy the books. Every academy has projects that do, dressing them up as patriots and protectors of the Crown.”
“There were teachers who brought sections of the texts to the school. I caught glimpses, and I held phrases and numbers in my head until I could write them down, sometimes hours later.”
“Impressive,” a man in the corner said. “Why? You started out wanting to prove yourself to the Academy, then you started killings. To hurt Mothmont, and to hurt the Academy too?”
“To become Headmaster. Once I could dictate policy, I planned to mass produce.”
“Mass produce clones?”
Percy managed a smile with his cracked, gummed-up lips. “Imagine, please, a new method of warfare. One where a single man or clone can infiltrate, they can target children, replace them, the clones would educate their new peers in how to act like children, and slowly but silently capture an entire generation. One command or order, all in one night, and an entire city would be brought to its knees.”
“I do like this sort of imagining,” the old man said. “The Academy likes its weapons, as you saw with it’s pet Dog.”
“The Academy didn’t like my weapon. Not because of what it was, but because they had a vision in mind, a group of children working together. My idea was too slow for Hayle.”
“You wanted to make it work. The lives of children meant nothing to you, you sold them without a care as to what we were using them for?”
Is it a trial after all?
“The lives of my children mean something to me.”
“Do you want revenge for them, Percy?”
“Then you’ll have it. You’ll carry out your plan.”
“They know how I operate. They’ll be checking, to be safe.”
“Let them waste their time, then. There are other routes.”
Percy narrowed his eyes, felt the film in them, and rubbed at one with the knuckle of his thumb. “Other routes?”
In answer, Cynthia reached up and tapped one of the red lights.
Percy nodded in realization.
“We’ll be working together,” she said. “To create beautiful pieces of work.”
“And you’ll be doing it with more resources,” the bird woman said.
“While staying well out of sight,” the old man said, with a little more emphasis. “I’m sure you understand.”
Percy nodded slowly, taking it all in. He allowed himself a smile.
“I’m sure it won’t take much convincing to have you act against the Academy?” the old man asked.
Percy mused for a moment. “Whenever I think of the Academy, I think of the concept of the Overshoot. You’re familiar with it, I presume?“
“I was a professor,” the old man said, “you can trust I am.”
Percy smiled a little. “They’re treading dangerous ground. Verging on collapse. Hayle sees it too, but he thinks he can make minds brilliant enough to solve the problem. I think he’s only going to wind up contributing to it. No, I most definitely don’t have a problem acting against them.”
The demeanor of the others in the room told him he’d passed his trial.
“Can I wash my face?” he asked, as others settled in, and the din of conversatino rose. “Again?”
“This way,” Cynthia said. “You have a room.”
She led him to his quarters. His eyes went as wide as the blinding film let them.
A complete set of Academy texts. Large vats, sufficient to house a person.
“The basin is this way,” Cynthia said. “You have an bathroom adjunct.”
He almost didn’t hear her. His finger traced the closest vat.
He would create life, play the littlest of gods.
Clones, he thought. From Ancient Greek Klon-. Meaning Twig.
He smiled at the thought, before going to wash his face.