As situations went, it was chaos. People flocked closer to Gordon and fled to the edges of the room. There were shouts, cries of fear, conflicting orders.
Gordon was a good-looking guy, if I looked past the minor details of rips, tears, blood and the goop he’d smeared on himself. Tall, broad shouldered, muscular. He was good at whatever he set his mind to, a step behind me in assessing people, a step behind Jamie in memory, and he had a lot of other talents besides. More than any one of us, he had everything it took to thrive if separated from the group. The lynchpin that would hold us together. Girls liked him, guys respected him.
And this, that he got to be at the center of this chaos, the stone that set the ripples in motion, this was what made me jealous of him for the first time.
That he got to lie there and bleed while we had to do the work, pshh. Salt in the wound.
My eye was on the Shepherd.
To his credit, he didn’t miss a beat. He was already moving as fast as he was able, toward Gordon. As people shouted and argued, some turning toward the door, he properly shouted for the first time that I’d heard.
“Stay inside where it’s safe!” he shouted.
Heads turned, the chaos settled a fraction. People who were heading for the door slowed or stopped.
“No!” Gordon shouted, twisting, turning. He struggled against Lacey’s grip, as well as the grip of two men who’d jumped to his side, and in the process, he made momentary eye contact with me. He maintained it as he shouted, “No!”
When I was sure he could see, and that the Shepherd didn’t have line of sight, I gestured. Ring, middle, and index fingers flicked upward twice.
“It’s going to kill us all!” Gordon screamed, thrashing as Lacey tried to hold him down, steadily ratcheting up the intensity. “It’s going to kill us! It’s going to kill us! It’s going to kill us!”
This was a balancing act. We didn’t want disaster, riots, or madness. We wanted the situation to be almost unmanageable, with emphasis on the word ‘almost‘.
“Gill!” the Shepherd called out. “Through my office to my room. I have four guns. Two pistols in the desk, rifle by the bed, the third-”
“-Shotgun, in the cabinet, will do,” our would-be mayor said. He recruited two people with a gesture.
The Shepherd approached Gordon, but turned to a group by the door. “Terry, Hews, Arthur, I know you’ve done the gardening work for me. You know where the stuff is stored. Pole-saws, pitchforks, chopping knife. Anything that can be used as weapons. Don’t go-”
“We’re going to die!” Gordon screamed. “Please, please, God!”
“-Outside!” the Shepherd had to raise his voice to be heard. “Go through the back, the shed has two doors!”
Clear, sensible directions, giving the people here something to rally to. Weapons gave them back a kind of power. Taking the group that was closest to bolting it and empowering them.
To their backs, as they crossed the church, he said, “We’re counting on you!”
Turning them into heroes.
Gordon twisted, screaming, “Get off me, let me go! It’s going to get me, they’re going to get me!”
I was able to see Gordon, in the midst of pulling ineffectually at Lacey’s grasp, an intentional sort of ineffectual, give her two taps on the side. The universal signal for release. It was discreet, subtle as such things went, in an area where most wouldn’t be looking, and those who didn’t know he was acting might not realize it was an intentional double-tap.
She let up on her grip of him, and he chose that same moment to pull free, still thrashing, playing out a mindless panic.
In the doing, he threw one fist out, and he socked the Shepherd one, right in the jaw.
No! I screamed in my mind, while forcing my expression to match the crowd around me, which was aghast in a completely different way. No, no, why!?
Why does he get to do this part?
It was, as maneuvers went, a pretty damn good one, I had to admit that much. I wasn’t even sure I would have done better, in his shoes. My acting would have beat his, probably, I could have chosen my words better, but I couldn’t have delivered a hit like he did. Even if I’d gone for the Shepherd’s balls, I wasn’t sure I would have hurt him quite as much.
It was something Gordon was good at. When he hit someone, even at almost half the size and body weight he could achieve one day, it hurt. It wasn’t just the punch. It was the fact that his hand was already messy with his own blood, and now the Shepherd was bloodied, his face a reminder of the danger. He wiped his cheek with a handkerchief, but there was still a smear.
The second part of it was that he’d hit the Shepherd in the mouth, and it hadn’t been a tap, either. Gordon was stronger than most.
As if time had slowed down, I could see the Shepherd scooting back a bit, eyes opened wide, moving his jaw as if to test how functional it was. For a man who relied so much on his words, it had to hurt on a complete other level.
I would never say that Gordon was anything but a genius. A genius that was now being pinned down by three grown men, with Lacey close by.
“Stay-” The Shepherd started. He winced a little, then managed to say, not to Gordon but to the room, “Stay calm. We cannot panic!”
“Please, please!” Gordon said. He was winding down, struggling less, perhaps sensing that he’d used up all the leeway and influence he’d been afforded, or he was saving his strength and his words for when he could have more impact.
He twisted around, looking my way once again.
I glanced around the room. I’d situated myself just to one side of the central aisle, standing on one of the pews, so that I had a view of everyone. Jamie, Lillian, Helen, and Mary were all at different points at the perimeter of the room. Gordon and the Shepherd were just beside the altar, in plain view of everyone.
I offered him the same gesture as before. An ‘up’ twitch of the fingers.
The way I saw it, if he couldn’t meet the request and up the tension again, then I got to be smug. If he did have it in him, then we could potentially solidify our hold on the situation before the people came back with the weapons.
I figured there was a three out of ten chance I’d get to be smug. Gordon was too good at thinking clearly through moments of crisis.
“Please,” Gordon said, in an agonized way that might have broken more sensitive hearts in the room. It sounded like he was giving up. “Please. They’re going to come after us. We’re all going to die if we don’t do something.”
“They?” the Shepherd asked. The room was almost silent, every set of ears listening. “A moment ago you said ‘it’.”
“Yes,” Gordon said. “I think it’s a mother? And it has babies.”
Gill and his buddies re-entered the room, carrying their guns.
Gordon was able to intuit that that arrival meant we needed just a little bit more of a push to leave the Shepherd with a little bit less in the way of control. He added, in a hollow, breathy voice, “Lots of babies.”
It was all I could do to avoid grinning. We’d dealt with threats that bred, on two separate occasions. The Fishing Man, so named because of a mispronunciation of ‘fission’, had been bad, though the problem had ultimately corrected itself. The Wise Rats had been worse, another all-hands-on-deck situation, though it had been far tidier, confined to one laboratory building. It had taken three weeks to clean up the mess.
I imagined the people here were now contemplating the implications. They had no damn idea what could happen when something fertile got loose.
The Shepherd might have had a better idea, he’d been part of the war down south, but he didn’t flinch, didn’t crack, but I could see that his attention was elsewhere as the others around Gordon asked a flurry of questions. What was it, could he describe it, how did it happen?
He knew what experiments had escaped, had used connections to reach students and manipulated those students into acting against the Academy. He wouldn’t have urged anyone to release something that bred or multiplied. There was too much chance that things would get out of control.
What’s more likely? Do you think that the Academy is sending the bad stuff after you, or do you think there’s something suspicious going on with Gordon?
How do you process this, how do you move forward?
I was genuinely interested. I respected our enemy. I liked him. I wanted to see how he functioned when the chips were down, the situation bad and inexplicable.
He was stone faced, eyes not focused on anything in particular.
He raised his eyes only as the group from the shed returned. They each carried between two and four tools that served as weapons. Poles with saws on the edges, sometimes used for trimming buildings, sledgehammers, a short chopping sword, bent halfway down the blade, used for tending to growing woodwork, a pitchfork and a two-handed shovel with a pointed end.
They passed them out to friends.
Gordon was still describing the ‘monster’ that had thrown him through the window, in the most incomprehensible, breathless manner he could. “Big, and scaly, and it drooled and it had ears and it picked me up with these smaller arms and carried me up, but when I kicked it, it threw me with the big arms. That’s when I got this cut, then I kicked it again, and it threw me the other way, and then I got thrown through the window. It’s out there! The mother thing and all the babies and-”
“Hush, hush! Quiet. You’re safe now,” a man reassured a seemingly panicked Gordon.
I’d joked with Rick, earlier in the day, that my brain ran hot sometimes. It didn’t, but it felt like it was getting close. There were more than a hundred faces and postures to focus on, people, positions, fashion, track records, all making this moment exactly what it was.
There were people around me. Unfamiliar faces.
Everything had to be balanced and weighed.
Maybe a gentle push to start. The room was paralyzed, caught in indecision. The man in authority was lacking, bleeding. Gill was up there by the Shepherd, now, half-kneeling and talking at a volume I couldn’t make out from the other end of the church.
If the Shepherd wasn’t going to make a move, I’d have to at least act to counterbalance the impact of the group with the makeshift weapons.
“We’re not safe at all,” I said, under my breath.
A woman near me reached out, putting her hand on my head, while saying nothing.
The gentle push wasn’t enough.
“We’re not safe at all,” I said, again, just a little bit louder. “We might be getting surrounded by the monsters. We need to run, before they close in.”
If she said ‘no’, then I’d gain no ground, and would have to find another way to push. But the entire room was hanging on Gordon’s words, the impact he’d made. Maybe, if she was undecided, that would be the deciding element?
It wasn’t her that I wound up pushing into action. A man nearby spoke, “I’m going to peek outside.”
“Is the way clear?” I asked, the words leaving my mouth before he’d even closed his mouth. If I could attach my statement to his, make it seem like his idea…
“I’m not going out there,” he said, without turning. Too much to hope for. People weren’t cogs in a machine. They were milling around, looking for an out. I had to guess how they’d weigh risk versus reward, or one risk versus another, and then use that. I’d guessed wrong here.
The woman beside me touched my head again, smoothing my tousled hair, as if that would reassure me and not irritate me nine ways from Sunday.
I ducked out from under her grip, hopping down from the pew. I’d lost cachet with this particular section of the crowd. I could move elsewhere and try again.
I found Mary, closer to the front. From where Gordon was, up by the altar, Mary all the way over to the rightmost wall, in the corner closest to the stage. Lillian was in the back corner, only a few paces from the door.
Mary was looking my way. I gave her a ‘come here’ wave.
Lillian wasn’t looking my way, and a furtive motion on my part didn’t get her attention. The way she was standing, there were too many people around her who blocked her view of the surroundings. Her attention was on the stage. On Gordon.
Our Mary worked better in coordination with the rest of us than Lillian did. That was after being with us a day. Lillian had been with us for a handful of months.
I shook my head, turned around, and moved through the crowd to get to Lillian. I pushed against people and jostled them aside. Any more agitation was a good thing, even if it was mild annoyance.
I seized Lillian’s hand and hauled her over to the other side of the church.
Gill was saying something. I was only barely processing it. Orders. Aim at the window above, in case it comes through. Organizing people in groups. The words were just noise. People listened, but our would-be mayor didn’t have the clout.
The Shepherd was oddly quiet. Unable to talk? Unwilling?
Jamie had told me that I’d built my personality and means of dealing with people by copying and studying the adults around me. It had been a necessary thing, a scrabbling for control when I’d been subjected to appointment after appointment, the space between filled with every imaginable form of testing, for sanity, for memory, for competence of all stripes.
I’d learned to read people because I’d had to. The Shepherd, though, was the first person I wanted. I wanted him in a box where I could make him perform and glean everything I could.
It was his charisma. It wasn’t the usual sort of charisma like Gordon or Helen might show off when they were ‘on’. Not smiles and warmth. When he spoke, when he acted, he tended to achieve things. When he didn’t speak, as was the case right now, people were left waiting, hanging on the silence, in anticipation of the words.
They didn’t know the particulars, not exactly. He was someone born with an enormous amount of natural talent for something, and after being altered irrevocably by the Academy, its war, and the modifications it made to his body, he’d found the drive to dig deep and utilize that talent.
I was one of the people in his thrall, in a way. I very much wanted to hear him speak, to study him… but we’d left him speechless.
I wanted to push until he found his voice.
With Lillian trailing behind me, her hand in mine, stumbling to keep up, I hopped up onto a pew mid-stride, tugging on her arm as I made my way up. Her hand slipped from mine.
I found the others, hopped down, and crossed the remainder of the distance. Mary had already made it, without Lillian slowing her down.
Half of us crawled under a table that had been placed in a nook, books on top, formed a huddle, heads so close together that the sides of some of our foreheads touched. To onlookers, we were sort of hiding under a tablecloth. Friends finding security among one another, clustered together.
Mary looked far from secure, squeezed in next to Helen. Helen, for her part, was smiling a little, but apparently oblivious.
Lillian was late to arrive, worming her way into the cluster beside me. I gave her a pinch in the side, and she hit me far harder than necessary, in retaliation.
“What do you think?” Jamie asked.
“I think we need a stampede for the door,” I whispered. “I was going to try and move the crowd, spread fear and suspicion, but they feel too safe indoors. If we could take that safety away…”
“We can take that safety away,” Mary murmured. “I can. We cut the power.”
“We need the situation manageable,” I said.
“You want a manageable stampede?” Lillian asked.
“I wanted a manageable riot,” I whispered, “I thought spreading the word through the crowd would make people more restless than it did. The Shepherd is so good, damn it. We need…”
“Start with the basics,” Jamie suggested.
I nodded. “The whole idea was to start a localized riot. If Cecil did his job and avoided getting eaten by Whiskers while running around in the rain, the Academy can arrive, shut down the riot in the early stages, and lay the blame at the Shepherd’s feet.”
“Eaten by Whiskers?” Lillian asked, horrified.
“Not important right now,” I said.
“Not the word I would have chosen,” I said. “Dense, unhelpful-”
“He’s nice, Sy!” Lillian said. “He means well.”
“When someone says ‘means well’, they mean the person is dumber than a stitched chicken.”
“Sy,” Lillian said, her tone suddenly hostile. “Not another word about Cecil.”
“Great!” I said. “Because Cecil doesn’t matter.”
She reached out, grabbed the general vicinity of my nipple through my cloak and shirt, and did a twisty sort of pinch, hard.
“Back on topic?” Jamie suggested, very diplomatically.
“Fuck, that hurts,” I said, rubbing my chest.
“Manageable stampede?” Jamie reminded me.
“Manageable stampede,” I said. I looked over my shoulder at the Shepherd. “No. Even a regular stampede.”
“Regular stampede,” Jamie said, in the same disbelieving tone that Lillian had used when I’d brought up the idea.
“I want to see how he deals with it.”
“I’d like to remind you that Hayle needs you to impress?” Jamie said.
“I don’t need reminders, my memory isn’t that bad,” I lied. I’d almost forgotten. “It’s fine. We’re good. Even if things get sloppy, the Academy should be close.”
“I’d like more confidence than ‘should’,” Jamie said.
“Too bad,” I told him. “Unless you have a better idea…”
He shook his head.
“Trust me,” I said.
“This from the least trustworthy person in Radham,” Lillian muttered.
“Trust me. He has something up his sleeve. We need to rattle him way harder to make him show his hand. We still have cards to play. Gordon is a big one.”
Jamie pursed his lips. “Helen?”
“I trust him on this.”
“Thought not. Mary?”
“I don’t know for sure, but… feels right. We don’t have the whole picture, I guess, if I had to put it into words?”
“Okay,” Jamie said. “Alright. Then I’ll agree. You know this is on your head if this goes wrong, Sy? Not because I want it to be, but because-”
“I get it,” I said. “I really do.”
“I’ll go cut the power,” Mary said.
“Okay,” Helen said. “And I’ll follow Gordon’s lead. We need another victim to make this count.”
“Wait, what?” I asked.
Mary seemed to take the fact that we hadn’t told her no as a signal to go ahead. She pulled away from the huddle and darted off into the crowd.
“Lillian,” Helen said. “Cut me. Give me claw marks, like Gordon has. You do have a scalpel.”
“I’m not doing that,” Lillian hissed. “Ibbot would kill me, and I’m supposed to put you back together, not take you apart.”
“You know how to cut people to minimize the damage, don’t you?” Helen asked.
“Wait,” I said. “Hold on. Why not me? Why can’t I be the next victim?”
“Because I’m a better actor,” Helen said. “And you’re more useful out there, than someone that’s being looked after.”
“Helen,” Lillian said. “It’s going to leave scars.”
“It will not, don’t be a silly-billy,” Helen said. She laid a hand on the side of Lillian’s face. “They’ll make me as good as new.”
“It will,” I said. “I should do it.”
“I don’t feel pain the same way you all do,” Helen said.
“I should still do it,” I said.
“Sy,” Jamie said. “Maybe shut up?”
“I’m doing it,” Helen said, firmly. “This is what I do.”
“But-” I looked at Lillian.
“Am I supposed to tell him no, too? Because I’d rather cut him,” Lillian said.
“Yes,” I said. “And if Lil is more comfortable cutting me, she’ll cut cleaner, and it’ll be more believable-”
Jamie put a hand over my mouth.
“Do it,” Helen said. “Now. There’s no time. Or I’ll do it to myself, and it’ll be messy enough Ibott will be mad.”
“But-” Lillian said.
Helen raised her thumbnail to her eye.
“Okay?” Lillian said, sounding unsure. She drew a scalpel from a pocket.
I glanced back. The Shepherd had seemingly committed to silence. He was looking after Gordon.
People were getting organized, the situation was stable. He was apparently content to let that remain the case until the monster showed up or something happened.
I wanted so badly to make something happen.
Stampede would shake the box. Take us out of the comfort of the church, or spread people out. He would need to round up his flock, do something. I really wanted to see what that something was.
He’d let people get killed, freeing experiments to shake up the community. He was operating to specific ends, and a quiet dislike for the Academy was almost definitely a factor… but that wasn’t the whole story. He was working toward something big, and I suspected that something big would get a lot of people killed. A small war.
Mary worked fast. Lillian was barely starting the second set of claw marks, Helen holding her hand and forcing her to keep moving it, while her fingers held the scalpel steady. The first set had been done across Helen’s shoulder and chest. This set was on Helen’s face, of all places.
She started to rise. I put my hand out, stopping her. I gestured for Lillian to continue.
The fear and panic were reaching a pitch, now.
I wondered what was going through the Shepherd’s mind. If he was thinking the Academy was after him, this was a bad sign, right here.
Lillian finished the third mark across Helen’s eyelid and cheekbone. Blood welled out. Helen smeared it, and grabbed her hair to muck it up.
I moved my hand away. Helen crawled out from under the table.
She took two steps toward the pews, then let out the most perfect blood-chilling scream I’d ever heard.
Then she threw herself into the little table with books on top.
“They’re in the church!” I howled. “Run! Run! Run!”
People ran. The double doors were hauled open, which meant we didn’t get stuck in them. People fled into the rain and darkness.
A gunshot sounded.
I felt a thrill, more than anything else.
In the gloom of the church, lit only by candles, the Shepherd stepped forward. He held his rifle, the butt to his shoulder, barrel pointed at the roof.
Eyes turned to him.
He shrugged back his cloak, where his bad arm was covered.
As new arms went, it was horrendous. Even in the gloom, I could see how it had been rebuilt using fungus or wood, like so many ruined buildings were, but the flesh around the fungus was ragged and ugly, not quite adhering or holding in place.
He raised his arm, then gestured, a crisp right to left movement, one meaty, misshapen finger pointing.
Guns cocked. More than a few. More than just the ones he’d carried with him.
It explained his calm, all this while. From the start, he’d had soldiers in reserve. Hiding, maybe in the crowd, maybe in adjacent rooms. The weapons he was equipping his army with weren’t just improvised ones.
People had stopped in their tracks for the second time, standing in the rain. They watched him.
He advanced down the aisle, flanked by a dozen men with rifles, who were watching the crowd, looking out for monsters that weren’t there.
One had Lacey, holding her arms behind her back.
Believed to be an agent of the Academy. Not wrong, but not quite right, either.
“The Academy is coming,” the Shepherd said. “They’re coming for us. It was always their plan, and I’ve been planning how to stop them for some time. I’m going to need all of you to listen very carefully.”