“The creatures have gone,” the Shepherd lied. “Mother and babies both. It was a shock tactic, nothing more.”
The restlessness of the crowd was intense, but in the exchanged words, the glances out into the darkness, I didn’t make out much that seemed to be doubting the Shepherd’s words.
“The fear and confusion you’re experiencing right now is theirs. So is the anger, and the that deep seated feeling of frustration that there’s nothing you can do about it all. You’ve all heard it before. The Crown doesn’t lose wars. When they fight, they do it using monsters.”
I’m almost offended.
“They do it using people like her, who would put children in harm’s way for her goals,” he said.
The man who had Lacey stepped forward. She struggled a bit before freezing. I assumed she felt a gun at her back.
He pointed back at where two of his soldiers were holding the injured Gordon. “Two children have been harmed tonight. At least two more have been killed, earlier today. The Academy is walking a dangerous path, one that starts with claiming our dead for their work, then starts using us as pieces in their great machine. Lives are being lost.”
He paused for dramatic effect. I wanted to signal Lacey to interrupt, break his stride, but she couldn’t see. Her head was bent down, red hair falling around her, and the silence belonged entirely to the Shepherd.
“I kept in touch with old friends who fought in the war with me, the men you see standing behind and beside me. I’m sorry to have kept this secret from you, but we’ve lived the last decade working out means and methods of stopping the Academy from doing so much harm. We have been devising a plan. I do this out of faith, and I do it out of fear. Fear that if we do not act now, together, decisively, then they might give up the last gasps of decency.”
Another pause. Lacey started to speak this time, but a hand covered her mouth, and she was pushed to her knees, held there by two firm hands on her shoulders.
“If you run out into the rain and darkness tonight, you will be running straight into their embrace,” the Shepherd spoke. “They’ve used fear as a weapon for a century now, and they’ve gotten very good at it. Trust me, I’m not asking you to fight. I am asking you to take a stand.”
There were murmurs, hesitation. He had them on the hook, but they weren’t caught by any means. Something told me that was intentional. Probably the vague tail-end of the statement. ‘Take a stand’, what did that mean? He’d leave them wondering, and then give them what they wanted. He probably did that a lot. It was why they were so well trained to listen to him. Oratory skills at work.
“Stand at our back, respond to fear not by pulling away, but by banding together. The Academy is built with flesh and blood as its foundation. With people. We have the power to dictate what we need, the boundaries we expect, and the lines that should not be crossed.”
He’s been building toward this for some time. Seeds of doubt and concern, building on those doubts anyone might have when the world was actively changing.
With the heavy clouds and the later hour, it was dark enough that people were barely more than silhouettes, only illuminated where light reflected off the water that streamed off of them. The water was coming down hard enough that there was a definite weight to it, pushing every single one of us down, heads hunched over, shoulders bent in. I didn’t mind it so much, as it was warm. My hood stayed down, and the rain washed through my hair and down my face.
I turned to move away. Small figures in the crowd joined me. With them, with my fellow Lambs, a few doubters found the courage to turn away.
“The Academy is already making its moves!” the Shepherd called out. “The monster the little boy described was not one of the escaped experiments that were described to us! It was a weapon the Academy uses, just as Dog and Catcher are. I saw enough of them when I was a soldier, and I know what they look like, what they do. My comrades know that the Academy and the Crown have no reservations about using those things on their own people, if they deem fit. Very soon, they’re going to act. They’re going to do something more to scare you, because they don’t want to see us united!”
The holy man makes a prophecy, I noted. He did know how the academy operated, even if there was no way he could know that Cecil had run off to go call for help. He’d anticipated this move on our part, in a general way.
The other Lambs reached me. We were minus Helen and Gordon now. We stood off to the side of the road, huddled in the alcove by a door, where we could still peer out and watch the crowd.
“The Shepherd didn’t seem to notice that both of the cut up kids were from our group,” Mary said.
“He noticed, at least with Gordon,” I said. “I don’t know if he even saw Helen, though. She wasn’t acting for his benefit.”
“Where is Helen?” Lillian asked.
“Back in the Church,” Jamie said. “Or making her exit by a side door.”
“Are you sure?” Mary asked.
“Yes,” Jamie said, very patiently.
I sensed doubt from her, and cut it off. “If Jamie says he’s sure, then we go with that.”
“Thank you,” Jamie said.
I glanced over. By Jamie’s estimation and what I could verify with my own eyes, that put Gordon in the midst of the Shepherd’s group, while Helen had free range at the Shepherd’s flanks and rear, assuming nobody spotted her.
I’d have to make do with this.
A distance away, we could hear the crowd. A part of me very much wanted to hear every word the Shepherd was saying, but we had other issues.
“Okay,” I said. I was doing my best to piece thoughts together. “Okay. Much as I hate to say, same trick won’t work again. Only so many times kids can get cut up and scream.”
“Condolences,” Jamie said.
“I’ll manage somehow,” I said. “He’s too damn good at handling them. We can’t shake up the crowd without him calming them down, turning them into this tool he can use against the Academy.”
“If I’d managed to dose him, we’d be a lot further along,” Mary said. “And that woman-”
“Lacey,” Lillian volunteered.
“She wouldn’t be under suspicion, probably, or be caught.”
“You care about that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Uh,” Mary said.
“Nevermind,” I said. It’s a mark against your abilities more than anything else. “Listen, nothing goes according to plan. Humans are weird. Trick is to adapt the plan.”
“The plan will work if you’re good enough,” Mary said, in a tone that made me think she was mimicking someone. I was guessing his name started with P and ended with -ercy.
“That so?” I asked.
“I think so. You just have to work at being good enough.”
“Well then,” I said. “Let’s be good. Can’t shake the crowd. Would be great if we could get at the Shepherd, but I’m not sure how to do that. He surrounds himself with people. It would be awfully nice to have a riot happening when the Academy deigns to arrive. If it’s out of the Shepherd’s control but still within the Academy’s, then we’re good.”
“If they arrive,” Lillian said. “There’s the chance Cecil couldn’t get help, or people might not believe him, or something.”
Or Cecil could be dead, I finished the thought in my head. I’d raised the idea earlier, and Lillian had reacted rather strongly to it. Didn’t bear bringing it up again.
“If they don’t arrive, we adapt,” I said. I looked over to the crowd. “For a holy man, he mentions faith a lot, but he doesn’t leave much up to it.”
As if in answer to that, a horn sounded from within the crowd.
“Ugh,” I said.
“What was that?” Mary asked.
“A horn,” I said.
Mary and Jamie hit me across the back of the head, with Mary being a step faster.
I winced, and added, “He’s got other friends. Whatever he had planned tonight, he’s doing it. Calling in other groups. Calling in the Academy too, while he’s at it. Anyone looking for him knows exactly where to go.”
“We’re out of time,” Mary said, looking in the opposite direction, down the street. “Only a matter of minutes now before the Academy gets here, if that.”
“Why?” Jamie asked. “Why do this?”
“He knows the Academy can’t just slaughter it’s people. Even with all the weapons they have at their disposal, the Academy can’t get everyone, and if they let some slip the net, then word spreads. It cripples Radham and it hurts the Crown as a whole.”
“Professor Briggs was willing to,” Mary said.
“I don’t think he would be, looking at this. The side that makes the first move loses. If there’s a riot, actively harming Radham, the Professor is justified. If the Academy moves first, the crowd is free to protect themselves and word can spread about the brutality of the Academy, how it hacks down its own people. We need to take down the man at the center of it all, and we need to do it fast.”
We headed back toward the crowd.
The Shepherd was talking. “…years of infiltration, we quickly discovered that each of the major buildings had a special project. Dog and Catcher are but one of an assortment. In my time fighting in the war, I saw some of the ones from other Academies. There’s a pattern, almost always a pattern in how they operate.”
Willing to bet you’re wrong, I thought. You’ve got exceptions to the rule, like us.
“The first and biggest one, one that convinced me I needed to rally the people, rally you, was the knowledge that with a small few exceptions, big and powerful weapons, the special projects and weapons the Academy uses are less effective against groups. In wartime, Dog and Catcher might attack supply lines, the Gorger might attack trains and coaches, or plow through regiments to attack leaders, Foster would bolster a group’s numbers, and the Whelps might scout.”
Having difficulty when there were too many people around.
Okay, well, I was willing to cede this one to him. It was proving to be an obstacle. Couldn’t get to him without getting past all these people.
Another man spoke out, one of the Shepherd’s comrades in arms. That the Shepherd was deferring to him suggested that the group was being prepared for another kind of leadership entirely. “In case of gas, anything airborne, anything you can smell or taste, hold your breath. One of my men is handing out cloths. Tie them over your noses and mouths. The fluids we put on them will help filter out the gases.”
“Smells like piss!” someone shouted.
“You can use your own piss and a handkerchief if you prefer,” the man said. He was wearing a raincoat, but his expression had a military cast to it, as if he’d held a grim and serious, staring-past-you expression for far too long, and his face was forever stuck that way. Something about him was very similar to the Shepherd. Disconnected, too calm given the situation. It was strangely compelling, because it seemed like something was missing, or he’d once been very lost, deep inside himself, and he’d come back having found something.
Most people didn’t manage that. Whatever didn’t kill us tended to leave us hurting, rather than making us stronger. But something had happened to the Shepherd’s regiment that left them harrowed, all the emotional or mental fat flensed away. Parasites? Psychadelics? A horror unlike any other, that they’d been forced to survive?
The soldier spoke, “They’ll try to scare us with the Stitched. March them at us to make us retreat. We must hold the line. We have allies moving into position, they’ll break the ranks of the Stitched instead. If you have the courage.”
Allies moving into position. That’s who the Shepherd was signaling.
“It is fine to be afraid,” the Shepherd said. “God-fearing is praise for a reason. Fear makes everything clearer. But do not panic. This is the first momentous step among many to making it so that the Academy’s wrongs and mistakes no longer weigh on our minds. We do not build or change something without care.”
Another horn sounded in the distance.
“The Academy is coming,” the Shepherd said. “They’re meant to be serving us, bettering mankind with great truths and brilliant discoveries. Instead, they crush us under their heels. You’ve felt it in your bones for a long time. Maybe you’ve felt it since the day you opened your eyes and looked at the world. Maybe you’ve wondered if it could be different. I’m promising you that it can. You get one chance, and this is it. Turn around. Be ready.”
The soldiers were passing through the group. People were being handed weapons and the cloths. They didn’t all match, like a proper military regiment. Many were improvised.
“If we do this right, if the Academy has any humanity at all, it shouldn’t come to a fight. Hold firm, defend yourselves if you must, but don’t act without need. They’ve made you afraid for a long time. Pay attention to that fear, make it yours again.”
There were maybe two hundred people present. Maybe slightly more. Each stood in the rain, gripping the weapons they’d been given. There was silence.
There was going to be blood. A lot of these people were going to be hurt, if not outright killed.
You’re all sheep. You were the Academy’s sheep before, and now you’re his.
I needed to get close. Close enough to say one or two things to the Shepherd.
I turned away, pushing through the crowd, every individual of which was now facing away from the church. People didn’t get out of my way, and some even tried to stop me, still me, and make me conform.
“The Academy,” a man said.
I stopped. No.
“One coach?” another man asked.
“I recognize the coach,” Jamie said, a few feet away. Then he piped up, “Teacher!”
Jamie wasn’t fast to move when the situation called for it, but he wasn’t able to move very fast while he worked his way back out of the crowd, anyway. I looked over my shoulder and saw him sprinting across the empty space between the crowd and the coach.
Jamie had a plan.
I needed to do something. To stall, to execute, to buy time.
Being small had its disadvantages. As easy as it was to move around, I struggled to make headway through a mass of bodies, people who’d been asked and ordered to stand resolute. People who collectively smelled like piss.
I reached the perimeter of men that were around the Shepherd. Hands seized me, stopping me.
A moment later, one hand was off me, then another. I heard a man cry in pain, saw him twisting his arm and hand in a weird way, and realized that a small hand had a grip on it.
“You leave him alone!” Mary shouted.
Mary was with me, facilitating.
I broke past the soldiers, stepping into the space between the Shepherd and the crowd. There wasn’t much of an audience like this. People might hear my voice, but they wouldn’t see me.
Gordon and Helen had enjoyed their moments in the spotlight. I wanted mine, damn it.
I found a short wall, dodged one soldier’s reaching hand, and hopped up onto it, grabbing an overhanging tree branch for balance.
“You never believed in God, did you?” I called out.
With the crowd so quiet and expectant, the words rang out. Heads turned.
The Shepherd was silent.
It was a powerful tactic in arguments, especially when one had the position of power. Let another person make their arguments, exhausting themselves, then shut it down, one decisive blow.
Which meant I had to make as strong an argument as I could.
“You just want to manipulate us!” I cried out. “You chose a job that would mean we listened to you, you used us, you lied to us! You never told us any of this!”
Problem was, I had to make my argument while sounding like a child. Could I call this Emperor out on his new clothes?
“You didn’t give any proof that she did anything, you only needed a- a scapegoat! Why are you hurting my teacher, Reverend Mauer!? Why!? She’s nice!”
On the other side of the crowd from the Reverend, I saw Cecil do the saddest, stiffest, ‘lift the child up by the armpits and whirl them around’ act that I’d ever seen. Jamie must have asked him, to play into whatever Jamie’s plan was.
The two of them stepped into the shelter the coach offered, talking. Again, very stiff, the doctor reached out to touch Jamie’s head.
With Cecil so close, I had to do what I could to disarm the Shepherd on that score. Defending Lacey or forcing him to argue in her favor would play into that.
While I was dividing my focus between the Shepherd and Cecil, a soldier grabbed for me. With me up on the wall, and Mary so low to the ground, she wasn’t able to stop him or interfere. Not without doing anything fancy.
He lifted me down.
“Hush, boy,” he said, gruff. “This isn’t the time for that.”
“It’s like he said,” I said, louder than was polite or socially acceptable. The benefit of being young. “If not now, then when?”
“It’s fine,” the Shepherd said. He gave me a hard look, and I knew that he was suspicious now. He hadn’t missed seeing Jamie and Cecil either. Between Gordon, Jamie, Mary and I, we were doing too much to work against his ends. “Sid, I want you to listen, and hear how much I mean it. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I didn’t truly believe.”
“You don’t sound like you mean it much at all!”
“I do. You’re scared, and you’re hearing only what you want to hear. I don’t think any regular member of my congregation has any doubt how much I believe, or how much I care for their welfare.”
It was a cheap, dirty tactic, and it was a cheap, dirty tactic that worked. Retreat to the unassailable position. An argument so vague and seemingly from-the-heart that it couldn’t be taken to pieces. Emotion-based arguments were annoying like that.
“Your teacher used your friend,” he said, in that same calm voice.
“She was with you and me the whole time! You saw! Why are you lying!?”
I had so many listening ears, I was changing minds incrementally, instilling doubt where there had only been loyalty, and I was taking all the joy I felt in the moment and translating it into a kind of outrage, more emotion to feed into my words, accusing.
“I-” he started. He paused, his head turning. I couldn’t see through the crowd to follow his line of sight.
The soldier that was holding on to my wrist turned to look, and I chose that moment to pull myself free. I danced back and hopped back onto the wall. He reached for me, and I ducked back. The same branches I’d held onto before poked at his face and shoulder, almost invisible in the darkness.
It was Cecil, approaching the crowd, Jamie a step behind.
“Come!” the Shepherd called out. “Over here, let’s talk!”
Cecil started forward. Jamie held firm onto his hand, keeping him from following the offer. The Doctor paused, then shook his head. “I’m… I’m not talking to you, I’m sorry.”
“You were in my Church earlier. Before the boy was hurt.”
Working on tying him to Lacey. But my defense of Lacey and the show of familiarity with Jamie gave Cecil a kind of protection. The Shepherd would look unreasonable before his flock if he wasn’t careful.
“I’m not- no,” Cecil said. He bowed his head. He seemed to compose himself. “There were more riots. Men, boys and women from other areas got hurt.”
“If there were more riots, we would have heard more horns,” the Shepherd said.
“I don’t know,” Cecil said. “I’m just reporting… reporting names.”
His words were halting. He seemed terrified before the crowd, sensing the latent hostility, the strangeness of it. But the terror seemed to work for him. It gave him an authenticity that he might not have had if he were speaking in monotone.
He fumbled for a paper, unfolding it. “L… J.J. Bridges. K. Downs. I- I can’t read in the dark, with this rain.”
A man broke rank, stepping forward to raise his cloak up over Cecil’s head. A lighter glowed, illuminating the paper.
“R. Hartman. D. Estrada. M. Mayes. D. Thomas…”
With every other name, there were noises from the crowd.
“What happened!?” a man cried out.
“I just know that they were hurt or killed.”
“The full name. Was that Doug Thomas!?”
“I don’t know the full names,” Cecil said, and in his fear, his voice was small and hollow, almost powerless.
My eye fell on Jamie.
We all saw so many people over the course of the day. We heard names.
Jamie knew names, he knew faces. He’d actively gone looking for them, in quiet moments, had listened for them. He’d asked questions over the years. He’d pieced together a mental picture.
Not complete, I was sure, but he knew important people and he knew who their children were. The faces that weren’t in the crowd.
Jamie just stood there, rain streaming off his glasses and rain-cloak, having served as the harbinger of the worst kind of news anyone with a family could get.
A restlessness grew within the crowd. These were people they cared about, people neighbors cared about.
“Calm down!” the Shepherd called out. “Nothing is proven, nothing is certain!”
But the crowd was beyond the point of listening.
“If you react to this, you’ll be doing exactly what they want!” he said.
But there was no response. He was shouting at a force of nature, now. He knew it.
The crowd made a noise. A growing roar.
They had an enemy.
The Academy was here.
Guns fired, where people in the crowd had been given such. Too early, shooting at the wrong targets.
A formation of stitched, twenty-strong, each in uniform.
People broke rank, hurried to grab things they could throw at the Academy’s beasts.
We had our riot.
We also had a problem.
In this scenario Jamie had painted, the Academy had made the first move. It helped that people would go home and find their loved ones safe and sound. But if we couldn’t correct the interpretation, things would go sour. Hayle would be upset with me, because this wouldn’t be a perfect execution.
We had a second issue, now that I thought about it, figuring out where things stood. The Shepherd was one to position himself carefully, so any piece that we took was well defended. That made me think about his men, and thinking about his men made me think about the fact that he now knew that we were working against him. His flock was scattered, turned into something wasteful, soon to be shut down, and he had nothing to stop him from dwelling on us.
He met my eyes, and there was something there I hadn’t seen before.
He was looking at me. Not as a child, or a member of his flock, but as the person on the other side of the chess board. Or one of them, anyway. He knew what we were, or he had an idea, now.
I gave him a smile.