“I- I- Um,” Walter started. He winced as Helen changed position, repositioning and squashing Walter’s future children in the process. “Agh.”
“Start talking, Walter,” Gordon said, “We have all day. You most definitely don’t.”
“I’m think- thinking,” Walter said. “It’s kind of hard when- Ow! Augh. I might… throw up.”
“I wouldn’t,” I commented, still giving our man a cold, dead look. “Every second counts. You need to give us something your father won’t.”
“What- who are you?”
“That’s not helping you, Walter,” Gordon said. “You need to focus on the answers, not on coming up with questions.”
“I… what do you want to know?”
“That’s another question!” Helen chimed in, chirpy and cheerful, sounding just like a little girl on Christmas morning.
“Urrgh!” Walter grunted. He kicked, twisting, very possibly deciding the momentary agony was worth pulling himself free of Helen’s grip.
He was underestimating how strong Helen’s grip could be.
The pain was bad enough that he did follow through on his promise of throwing up. I winced a little in sympathy.
Mary leaned closer to me. She murmured in my ear, “Why didn’t you send her after us like that?”
“Her musculature and joints are different,” I murmured back. “In configuration and type. Mostly, she’s bad at exerting a lot of strength very quickly. She’s almost weaker than me when it comes to throwing proper punches, and that’s with her being bigger than me.”
“She’s almost weaker,” Jamie remarked, leaning in to join the conversation.
“I said almost!” I protested, annoyed. “Geez.”
“Give her a few years and some practice, maybe she’ll be dangerous in a scrap,” Jamie said, ignoring me.
“If she can get her hands on someone, we’re good,” I said, not taking my eyes off Helen. “You could use a prybar and you wouldn’t make her let go, and the sudden strength she can employ lets her take advantage of any openings.”
We watched our man flounder. He was only just finishing puking.
“I-I thought there was going to be a trial,” Walter finally said.
“Who do you think we are?” Gordon asked. “We’re your trial, Walter.”
Walter managed to focus, raising his head to peer at Gordon through disheveled red hair.
“We’re the Judge…” I said. Really, really, hoping someone else would pick up the tail end of the statement.
“Jury,” Jamie said.
I love you, Jamie.
“And executioners,” Mary said.
You’re awesome, Mary.
“If need be,” Gordon tacked on.
Eh. You’re alright, Gordon.
It made sense, to give the man a little hope, maybe, but I would have rather ratcheted up the tension another notch or two. As it stood, the man looked like he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea, and Gordon’s softening of the blow wasn’t helping to hammer it through and make Walter’s situation crystal clear in his very confused mind.
“Executioner?” Walter asked.
“You intentionally freed your little project, Wally,” I said. “Gorger is out doing what Gorger does. You know what Gorger does, right?”
“He cleans up messes,” Lil said, when Walter didn’t respond quick enough.
“He cleans up messes,” I said, staring Walter down. “Well, Gorger’s doing just that. But while he’s away, we’re here. Filling in his shoes. Are you going to help, Wally, or are you going to be a mess that Gorger’s temporary replacements need to clean up?”
I saw the light dawning in Wally’s eyes. The realization.
Yeah. You’re in a much, much worse situation than you thought. All the pieces are fitting together. You were wondering who these children are, and now I’ve connected the dots for you. The only way it all makes sense is if we’re with the Academy, same as Gorger is. When we talk about being possible executioners, you now know we’re telling the truth.
Now how are you going to react, knowing more than just your balls and dignity are on the line?
It was visible across his body. The adrenaline rush, the fight-or-flight response.
He was a big guy, and as launched himself into a mindset that was all ‘survival’, the pain of being crushed between the legs apparently disappeared. He flipped himself over, so he was on his back rather than all fours, and kicked at Helen.
I winced at that. Not because Helen couldn’t take a bit of abuse, but because Ibott would get fussy and maybe hit me again. That last bruise had taken a week to fade.
Helen was like a rag doll, sagging, leaning heavily to one side, letting herself be flexible enough that the relaxed motion absorbed the impact more than her head did.
Walter lurched forward, slamming Helen against the wall, forearm against her throat.
Mary started, as if she was going to run forward. I put my hand out, stopping her.
Walter was tall, and he was muscular, probably someone who did sports to get away from the hassles and stresses of spending much of the week in the Bowels. With his ruddy complexion, it was probably something like horseback riding or a field sport. His belly suggested that it wasn’t all muscle, either. Women tended to like a guy with a barrel chest, broad shoulders, and Walter was very much that.
All in all, our man was fourteen stone, maybe. Maybe as much as seventeen. Helen was less than half his weight, and he was leaning hard, the vast majority of his weight pinning her down, pressing down on her windpipe. It made for an awkward, hunched position, as Helen still hadn’t let go of him.
Frantic, a little nervous, Walter looked back over one shoulder. Worried about being attacked from behind.
Gordon hadn’t moved from the side of the table. Lil, Mary, Jamie and I were all by the door.
Nobody was moving a muscle to react. Even Mary had relaxed at my suggestion.
“This is looking more like a mess that really needs to be cleaned up,” Gordon commented, calm. “Don’t hurt him too badly, Helen. Even if he doesn’t decide to talk, the Academy could use him for raw materials.”
I couldn’t resist smirking at that line. It was a good one. Very Gordon.
Walter turned back to Helen, and found her smiling, sweet as she ever was, while he tried and failed to crush her throat, strangling her.
Slowly, he began to slip, huffing, panting, tearing at the eyes. His arm moved, jerking. He started to groan, and the groan became a scream.
Then he broke away, releasing her, falling onto his back. One of his legs was twitching, as if the pain was bad enough it couldn’t stay still.
Helen released him, then grabbed one leg, holding it still while she wiped the blood off of her hand, where it had seeped through cloth. She apparently didn’t think he was up to putting up a fight.
She flashed a smile to our little group by the door, rubbing at her throat. She didn’t seem to be having trouble breathing.
Gordon, for his part, stood over Walter, looking down. Walter would be seeing him upside down. The man was heaving in breaths.
“People died, Walter,” Gordon said. “The blame is going to fall on your shoulders. Other students are going to think it makes them look bad. The Academy is going to want to make an example of you. Just to be safe. Because this sort of thing can’t happen again. Not with regularity, not ever.”
Walter shook his head.
I chimed in. “When a mistake happens, that’s bad. But intentional sabotage? Boy oh boy, Walter. Not good.”
“And… I’m supposed to talk, get you to take… take it easier on me?”
“That ship might have sailed,” Gordon said. “But given where you are right now? Circumstances and all? I’d really recommend trying.”
“They… we spent a long time talking about it. Hypotheticals. What if.”
“What if you let something loose?”
Walter nodded. “We, my dad and I, we… I almost didn’t attend the Academy. There were problems, my… dad never liked it. But we thought I’d join, I’d see how it was, what could be done.”
“Destroy it from within?”
Walter made a face, like he was going to laugh, but there was only pain and agony instead.
“Well?” Gordon asked.
“No. We didn’t think that big. The Crown has come closer than anyone, anything, to actually controlling the world. The Academies are what let them do it, mostly. I’m… I’m strong, smart, but not so damn deluded that I think I can destroy them, damn it. Damn it.” His voice cracked with those last two words. Emotion.
“Take them down a peg, maybe,” Gordon said.
Walter nodded a little. He let out a little whimper of a sound, looked over toward me, Jamie, and Mary. “Was going to steal some books, make a run for it, go to another country, sell the knowledge for enough to get rich. My father had everything ready, I thought. But I didn’t get far enough.”
“Every student thinks about how much they could get for the sort of knowledge the Academy has,” Jamie said, holding his book and the file that Hayle had given us. “Not many actually try it.”
“It’s suicidal,” Lillian said. “You had to know you’d get caught.”
“We talked ourselves into it,” Walter said, he gave us a smile, one that was awfully sad. Self-pitying.
“Just you and your dad?” Mary asked. “That’s as far as it went?”
Walter made a sound of pain, by way of response.
“Doesn’t really make sense,” Mary said. “Him going this far, using his own son as a tool, then discarding his son as soon as he got caught.”
It doesn’t make sense because it’s a lie, I thought, tensing up a little bit. Maybe we shouldn’t make Wally think too hard about it.
Walter wasn’t responding. I wondered if he was in the process of passing out.
“Why did he care so much about the Academy?” Mary asked.
“He… he’s powerful, he’s rich, but he’s only a man in the middle,” Walter responded. “Servant to the people, servant to the Academy.”
“Servant,” Jamie echoed him.
“And it bothers him so much he’d sacrifice you as a pawn,” Mary said, her voice soft.
Was Mary clutching too hard to her past, failing to see and interpret this situation for what it was?
If it was the case, if I couldn’t fix it, then she was useless to us.
We’d have to discard her, and I’d have to admit to Hayle that I’d been wrong to invite her.
I was in the process of trying to analyze that situation when I realized that Walter hadn’t replied.
I looked at Jamie, then Gordon, then Helen.
Were they all thinking the same thing I was?
I decided to prod, knowing it was no longer Mary that was risking pushing him too far and shattering our deception here, but me. If I got this wrong, it would be my fault.
I looked at Lil, “Want to step outside and pass that on? If Wally Gund’s daddy is that angry, it’s something they can use in the interrogation.”
Lil frowned, but nodded.
Gordon withdrew the key from his pocket and threw it.
Our field medic moved to catch it. Mary seemed to sense that Lillian would miss, and caught it instead, before handing it over.
Lillian smiled at Mary before letting herself out.
Our man, crumpled on the ground, fearing for his life, red faced and sweating, was watching the door, focusing on Lillian, who had just left.
Why did it feel like Walter was the one concerned with this lie about his father standing up? Not about himself, not about reconciling who his dad was, or the betrayal…
He was lying about something.
Gordon opened his mouth to speak, I moved my hand, where it was right by my pocket, a small spreading of my fingers, and the motion was enough to catch Gordon’s eye.
“Tell me, Wally, do you really think what you’ve given us is good enough?”
“It’s true!” Walter said, suddenly alarmed.
People rarely sounded more like they were lying than when they protested like that.
“Maybe,” I said, stressing the word. “But it’s not the whole truth.”
“I don’t know what you want from me,” he said.
“Me?” I asked. I stepped closer, spreading my arms a little. “I don’t want much of anything. I admit, it would be easier if you talked and gave us something juicy. I could take whatever you said to people who matter, and that would make for less clean up work for us. The only thing that matters here is you. The only one you can depend on is you. The one who suffers the worst the Academy has to offer, if you don’t convince your jury here…”
“Me,” he said.
I nodded slowly, putting my hands in my pockets.
“You’re not supposed to talk about what happens down in the Bowels of the Academy,” Helen said. “But people do it anyway, don’t they? You know the sort of things the Academy can do.”
He was starting to break, now. I could see it.
Before long we could well have a grown man weeping.
I could have said it was okay, if only because he’d killed people by releasing Whiskers, but the truth was I didn’t care all that much.
I didn’t feel bad, no pit in my stomach, no pain for my fellow man.
Maybe a bit of sympathy pain for what Helen had done to him, but that was something else altogether.
He was only another job.
The door lock clicked, and the door opened. It was heavy enough that Mary had to help Lil to pull it open. She rejoined us.
I held my hand where Walter couldn’t see it, and beckoned Lil.
She hesitated, most likely because she didn’t trust me, but she did eventually summon the courage to come close. I leaned close, and managed to make it look like her bringing her mouth to my ear was her idea.
To Lil’s credit, she got what I was trying to do. She whispered in my ear, “It’s really creepy being out in the hallway alone.”
I nodded, smiling.
“Don’t smirk,” she whispered, sounding annoyed.
I turned to Walter, as if it was a logical progression from the whispering. “Your dad is talking. There are others involved. He hasn’t named names, but he will.”
“He-” Walter started. He stopped himself.
“He what?” I asked, noting that Walter hadn’t told me I was wrong. “You don’t think he’ll say?”
“I agree with my friend there,” Gordon said. “I want to do this without blood and cleaning. It means I can go back outside and enjoy the nicest day Radham has seen since last fall. Your father will talk. He’ll continue selling you upriver, and he’ll name names. Do us all a favor, here. Talk. Share what we need to share, our Academy student over there has the skill and the tools to mend some of the damage Helen did to you and give you complete and total relief from the pain, you get to live, and we get to go out and enjoy a very nice day.”
“I don’t-” Walter said. I was suspecting we’d pushed him too far. He wasn’t operating like he should. “I…”
“There is no good ending if you don’t wake up and act,” Mary said. “Stop thinking of him like a father. Start focusing on yourself. That’s all you should do right now. Focus on you.”
“And us,” I pointed out. “Judge, jury, blah blah. Getting on our good side is smart.”
“I don’t-” Walter said again.
Is he completely broken?
“I don’t need her help,” Walter said, looking at Lil. “I’m Academy trained. I’m older. I can do the work myself.”
“You’re assuming we’ll let you have tools to attack us with,” Gordon said.
Walter paled visibly, making the redness in his cheeks, chin, and the center of his forehead more pronounced. Fear. He was in the palm of our hands.
“Sorry,” the man said.
Gordon’s voice was calm, gentle, “It’s fine. You can have everything you want. We’ll let you patch yourself up, administer the medication. We can even leave you something, if you want help sleeping, so you don’t have to lie awake wondering what’s going to happen.”
“We can’t let you leave, of course,” I said.
“Of… course, yes.”
“Now, before we get a call and a knock on the door saying that your father spilled the beans…” I said, trailing off.
Walter hung his head. “It wasn’t father who instigated it. He and I were roped in together. My access, my father’s money and resources. My friend, he works on other projects, but he was part of it too. Keller.”
He seemed to find the singling out of his friend the hardest thing to do.
“The instigator was a man called Reverend Mauer.”
“He’s local,” Jamie said.
“As of recently. He wanted more access to… he dislikes the Academy. He says it’s a perversion. Which it is, but-”
“Are you calling me a perversion?” Helen asked, still in her best ‘good girl’ voice.
Again, Walter paled.
I signaled Helen to back off, a flick of my fingers, as if I were shooing something away. Hands behind her back, she sauntered backward until she stood in a corner.
“Keep talking,” Gordon said.
Walter nodded. “It’s not about stopping the Academy. I don’t think anyone can do that, even the Academy itself. Even the Crown. But if we could make people wake up, let them know what’s happening inside the walls of the Academies, here in the dungeons, other things in other areas…”
He trailed off, as he stared at Gordon.
One of those other things.
“…There’s no way you let me go,” Walter belatedly realized. He looked at each of us in turn.
“You killed people. Academy students. Some were connected, some weren’t. Some of the people you tried to wake up are going to die, if we can’t stop…”
“Whiskers,” I said.
“Yeah,” Walter said. “I thought…”
He was acting like he was very, very tired. I might have suspected blood loss, but it was more likely his emotions had taken too many turns, and now he was running out of steam. It was defeat that was the telling blow, here.
“You weren’t thinking,” Mary said. “You don’t seem like a man with a plan. You were convinced to take action, your dad joined in. Your friend, too. How do you step back and realize what you’re doing is wrong, when everyone around you is caught up in it, agreeing with it and spurring you on?”
“When you think back to the person or thing that was pushing you forward the hardest, stepping in when you started to have doubts, was it the Pastor?”
“Mauer?” Jamie asked.
“You told him things you shouldn’t?” Gordon asked.
“Things the Academy would prefer were kept under wraps.”
Gordon looked at Jamie. “You know where this guy is?”
“Yeah. Hear about him sometimes. If I think about it, I think I even know his routine.”
“Good man,” Gordon said.
“Tell us about the monster, Walter,” I said. “What was the end goal?”
“Means to an end,” Walter said. “That’s all. We wanted to do work on senses, but we couldn’t get budget without giving the Academy a weapon. We made… Whiskers.”
“Making it a weapon, you had to justify it,” I said. “How it operates, how it’s meant to be used.”
“Low cost from raw to vat. Relatively short time. They come out at half size, and steadily grow over the course of days as long as food is available. After a few more development cycles, we thought it could be something we mass produced, dropped or deployed near enemy lines. Up pressure, soldiers can’t go to use the latrine alone, have to move in groups of two or three if there are full sized ‘Whiskers’ around.”
“Just tell us it’s not pregnant,” I said.
Walter shook his head. “Male.”
I exhaled in relief.
“No tricks to catching it? Weak points?”
“No,” Walter said. “Fire, maybe. Even then, I’m not sure, and it can sense heat from one hundred and fifty meters away, even ambient body heat. I don’t think you’re going to catch it. I don’t think the Academy is going to catch it.”
“But you said something about other development cycles,” Lil said. “Why? If it’s that good, why did it need more work?”
“Lifespan,” Walter said.
“Tell us it’s hours,” I told him.
He shook his head. “Weeks. Maybe months. We never got around to it with this version.”
I exchanged glances with the others.
A long moment passed, and nobody volunteered any more questions.
Gordon walked away from Walter, gesturing at Lillian.
Lillian, for her part, stepped over to the table, reached into her bag, and fished out a syringe and two small pills. They were lumpy; she’d probably made the pills herself.
“Needle for the pain,” she said, as she continued rummaging in her bag. “Pills for sleep. I’ve got a fresh, sharp scalpel I was saving for surgery.”
“Lillian,” Gordon said.
“No scalpel. Nothing he could use on himself.”
“Hayle or the other professors might want something more from him.”
“The syringe is probably a bad idea too,” Lil said. “I’m going to use it and then take it with me, okay?”
“You won’t grab me?”
He shook his head.
When Lil turned around to double check, it was me she looked at. I was a little surprised.
Lillian ejected a bit of fluid from the needle, bent down and used her fingers to measure spacing, touching the base of Walter’s gut. She jabbed the needle in, then depressed the plunger.
He didn’t move or grab at her as she finished up and backed away.
She fled back to us, double time, finding safety in the assembled group.
Gordon opened the door, we stepped out into the hallway, and we waited while he locked the door.
“Mauer lives and works at the church on Flax avenue,” Jamie said.
“We’ll update Hayle before we leave,” Gordon decided.
We moved in formation, heading for the spiral staircase.
“Mary,” Gordon said.
“That was good work. Really. I had doubts, but… good job.”
Mary didn’t seem able to find words. She nodded, a little too fast.
“I thought you were going too hard on him, but turned out to be just right,” I commented.
She had to turn around to give me a smile, and it proved to be a hesitant one, as if she thought I might pull a ‘just joking!’ on her. But I didn’t say anything more, and she smiled again, with the expression sticking this time.
Jamie reached out and tapped Mary’s head with his book. She flinched, maybe a bit too much, but then she saw his small smile. The playfulness.
He hugged his book, and she turned away, walking with a bit more bounce in her step, close enough to Lillian that their arms touched. The camaraderie there was already established.
Helen, walking beside me, was the only one who didn’t say anything, but she was the furthest one from Mary, in a manner of speaking.
Still, I didn’t need to interfere. Better to let her have her taste of the group, like this. If we could give her a sense of belonging that she hadn’t had with the puppeteer, there was a possibility that he could come back, reaching out, and she wouldn’t want to leave.
As a group, the six of us headed up the stairs, back to the closest thing to daylight that Radham ever got to enjoy.
Off to see our Reverend Mauer, I thought. He has the ears of the masses, a way with words, and a hell of a lot to say.