Cat out of the Bag 2.11

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“You should really put your hood up,” Jamie told me, as we got out of the coach.  Lacey and Cecil were just behind us.  We’d been picked up on our way back.

I frowned.

“I know Rick got on your case about it earlier, but it’s cold out.  I worry about you.”

“If I get sick, the Academy will make me better.”

Jamie pointed at the Hedge, which we were just now approaching.  “And if you have to come here or somewhere to get a few shots, then they’ll keep you and set you up for an appointment, just like they did when you burned yourself with flesh-dissolving spittle.”

“Technically, the Snake Charmer burned me.”

“I don’t know why you insist on correcting me on the details,” Jamie said.  “I know the details.  I don’t forget the details.  I have the details in writing, even.”

“I do it to annoy you when you’re being annoying.  Quid pro quo.”

“That’s not what quid- you’re doing it again.”

I grinned.

He was too tired to hit me, so I threw an arm around his shoulder instead.

We stopped as a group in front of the four guards by the Hedge’s doors.  We remained silent as Lacey and Cecil approached the guards.  Lacey handed over the paper that Briggs had given us.

A moment later, the doors were open, the paper returned to us, and we were free to enter the Academy’s most public area.  A hospital for the people of Radham.  The Hedge was, perhaps for the first time in a year or two, staffed by a skeleton crew.  Empty benches filled the lobby, with a student sleeping on one, a book left open across his chest, a few doctors in gray coats stood by with some students in their white lab coats, attending to papers and doing what they could to get organized.

“Travis,” Cecil greeted one.

“Cecil.  You came in through the front door?”

“Things are mostly resolved, I think.  Wouldn’t be surprised if those doors open soon, with word from the higher-ups.”

The doctor Cecil was talking to, an older man, looked fairly annoyed by that.  “I was hoping this would go on for a bit longer.”

“People were dying and getting hurt,” Jamie said, quiet.

Doctor Travis blinked.  “Good to know.  Becca, would you go wake up some of the other doctors?  With the backlog and these injured parties coming in, we’ll be busy tonight.”

“Actually,” Cecil said.  He took the slip of paper from Lacey, then showed it to Travis.  “We need to talk to Professor Briggs first.  As soon as possible.”

Travis frowned, looking at the note.  “Why do you have this?”

“Can’t say.  I do need it back, though.”

“Nick, then,” Doctor Travis said, returning the paper.  “You’re a fast runner.  Go find Professor Briggs.  On your way back, wake up the other Hedge Doctors.”

A young man that wasn’t much older than eighteen sprinted from the room.

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Jamie said.  “About people dying and getting hurt.”

“I know what you meant, son.  It might seem callous, but the work comes first, feelings second.”

“I like to think they mingle,” Cecil said.

You’re a prat, I thought.

“They can,” Doctor Travis allowed.  “But when you work in the Hedge, you can’t tie your emotions to every piece of work that comes through those doors.  Half the time they’re mostly gone by the time they make it here.  When you know you could save everyone, but the money and resources aren’t so plentiful, and you have to make choices.  Even when it’s a child, or someone’s mother.”

“There’s a good reason I don’t work in the Hedge,” Cecil said.

“Do those children behind you need some attention?” Travis asked.

“It’s why we’re here,” Cecil said.

He was talking about Gordon and Helen, who were cut up, though they’d received preliminary treatment in the coach with Lillian, Lacey and Cecil tending to them.  I was bruised, scraped, and filthy, while Mary had scuffed up hands, though I wasn’t sure the Doctor could see that.

We were taken to benches, where we put our feet on the seats and sat on the backs, the doctors and students looking after us.

The student who was looking after me informed me that, “This bruise will turn a very fun orange color later tonight.  It will be gone by the morning.”

“Fun?”  I asked.

“Isn’t it interesting?” he asked me.

“No,” I said.

“Don’t be a dick, Sy,” Gordon said.

I shut my mouth, frowning.

The student wheeled over a cart, where a dozen implements were laid out on top, wires with insulation coils running down to the covered box on the cart’s lower half.  He picked up a woodpecker,screwed on three vials, each with a stylish, flourishing letter printed on it, the contents colored for further clarity, then flicked a switch to start the needle to its back and forth motion.

Urgh.  I hated needles.  Even motorized ones.

My mind started running through scenarios, much as it had at several points earlier in the night.  Possibilities, where things were, where people were, tracking details, plotting.

Jamie’s hand settled on mine.

I let the train of thoughts unspool, each idea running off course until they collectively dissolved into a general air of negativity and resentment.  I flinched as the woodpecker started stabbing me, then grit my teeth.  There was a painkiller in there, making the pain of the needle’s stab a fleeting one.  He covered what would have been the full breadth of the bruising thus far.

“I take it this is your stitching work, Cecil?” Travis asked.  He was removing the stitches in Gordon’s face.

“It is.  Miss Lacey did most of the work on Helen over there.”

The female doctor who was working with Helen commented, “Who did the collarbone and upper chest?”

“I did,” Lillian said, quiet.

“Really?  Well applied binding emulsion with minimal stitching.  Applied outside of a hospital environment?  Mix?  Antibacterial base, I imagine.”

“No need,” Lillian said.

We weren’t so clumsy to actually turn our heads and give her shocked looks, but I could sense the reaction from the others.  Jamie’s hand tightened up a bit where it was holding mine down against the top of the bench.

“She was already on a regimen,” Lillian said.  “P base, A, D, E mixes.”

“Mmm.  Overall, very nearly perfect.  The kind of work I’d expect from a year ten student.  A year twelve might not do this kind of work out in the rain,” the doctor said.  Travis looked over to investigate and murmured approvingly.

“We were in a coach, and I’ve focused a lot on field care,” Lillian said.  She kept her expression placid, tone modest, but I could tell from the agitation of her hands and the slight kicking movement of her feet that she was inordinately pleased at the praise.

“Nonetheless,” Travis said, turning his attention back to Gordon.  “What are your plans for the future, honey?  I’d like to steal you.”

“Ahem,” the female doctor said.

“We’d steal you,” Travis amended his statement.  “For the Hedge?”

“Um.  I may have other obligations,” she said.

Travis made an annoyed ‘tsk’ sound.

“Who?” the female doctor asked.

“Professor Hayle is sponsoring me,” she said.

The silence was telling.  Had she given another name, the response might have been a ‘Good choice, good choice’ or  a ‘Promising!’, but Hayle’s department was seen as a doomed one.

The woodpecker stopped, and I felt muscles relax where I hadn’t even known they were tense.  I raised a hand toward my forehead, and the student slapped it away.  “Don’t touch.”

He turned his back to wheel the cart away, and I raised my hand toward my forehead again.

Jamie slapped it away this time.

My student returned, and turned his focus to Jamie.  “Do you need care?”

Jamie shook his head.

“You have a mark on your collarbone.  It looks like it goes lower.  If you’d take off your shirt, I can look after that.”

Jamie shook his head again, with more force than before.  He fixed his shirt.

“Are you sure?  I won’t hurt, I can apply-”

“No,” I said.  “No, thank you.  Jamie’s fine.”

The student gave me a curious look, but didn’t say anything further.

Jamie gave my hand a pat.

“And you?” the student asked Mary.

“My hands are a little scraped up.  I’d rather Lillian look after them.”

“Ah, your friend?  I imagine you would,” the student said, smiling.  “She’s good.”

Mary gave an awkward smile back.

It didn’t take long for Briggs to arrive.  He came in the company of a stitched and a young female doctor.  The stitched carried an oversize umbrella and a set of files, while the young doctor had three birds on her arm, each one hooded.

“Leave us,” Professor Briggs said.

The doctors and students left the room as quickly as they could without actually running.  Equipment was left behind.

“You too, Cecil,” Briggs said.  “The young lady can stay.”

Cecil frowned, but he made his exit, following Doctor Travis.

“Explain,” Briggs said, which was probably the least positive way he could have asked.

Gordon spoke up.  He wasn’t stitched up anymore, but had wet streaks over the cuts that were now virtually invisible, they’d been pressed together so neatly.  “He’s running, and he has Whiskers-”


“Um.  The first escaped project.  We didn’t know that it was possible to control it.  We would have given chase if we hadn’t been surprised.”

“Wally, the guy we interrogated, he left out the critical detail, sir,” I said.  “If you need a test subject for parasites, look no further than him.”

Briggs nodded.  He didn’t look happy, thought.

“Mauer went due east from the church,” Gordon said.  “He has thirty soldiers that we saw-”

“Thirty seven,” Jamie corrected, quiet.

“Thirty seven,” Gordon said.  “If the other projects aren’t in that area, they’re wasting their time.  If you direct them after him, they could get both Mauer and Whiskers.  Or they could get killed, depending.”

Briggs reached into a voluminous coat pocket to retrieve a notepad no longer or wider across than his hand.  He picked a pen out of the pocket on the other side, then scribbled out a note, tearing it off and handing it to the girl with the birds.

He kept writing as he spoke.  “Soldiers?”

Gordon continued, “Mauer was an ex-soldier.  He kept in touch with old colleagues.  Years of resentment adding up to a loathing of the Academy.  He wanted the Academy to attack so that he’d have ammunition to use in future efforts.  This was a long-term plan, working against the Academy.”

I added, “Sir, he has or had moles inside the Academy walls to sabotage us, he was actively working to turn the public against us, probably to cut off supplies and make life as hard as possible, and he had soldiers with knowledge of the Academy and its methods to disable our best efforts.  I think he wanted to play the long game.”

“To what ends?”

I shrugged.  “Demanding concessions, getting into a position of power where he could hit the Academy where it hurt and walk away untouched?  I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t say for sure until we catch him and get him in an interrogation room.”

“I was alerted to the fact that the riot did start, despite your efforts.”

“No, sir,” Gordon said.  “It started because of our efforts.  We set things in motion in a controlled way, with the idea that we could turn the tables on Mauer.  We did.”

“He’s neutered,” Helen said.

“He’s a villain to the people, now, sir,” I clarified.  “Someone who cuts children, lies, makes up stories about escaped experiments, tries to make innocent women into scapegoats, and puts a gun to the head of a wounded little girl.”

“That last one was me,” Helen said, wiggling a bit in her seat, smiling.

“The anger over what happened tonight should mostly be directed at Mauer, not at us,” Gordon said.  “Short of getting him and getting all the answers, it’s the best resolution we could hope for.”

Briggs nodded.  He finished writing the third piece of paper, then worked with the young doctor with the birds.

“Go,” he said.

I craned my head as the girl with the birds headed out the door.  “Are those messenger birds?”

“The birds are modified to be able to smell the other projects.  They’ll find them and deliver the messages, provided they’re in or near the city,” Briggs said.  “There’s no good way to communicate with them in the field, this was the means we devised.”

“Is- do we have a bird, sir?” I asked.

“No,” Briggs said.

“Can we, sir?”

“Sy,” Gordon said, in a tone that made it sound less like he was going to kill me and more like Gordon killing me was an inevitability.  No.”



I slouched a bit, then leaned forward, elbows resting on my knees.  I was still sitting on the back of the bench, Jamie standing behind me, Mary a short distance to the side, silent and nearly invisible.

“Lacey, was it?” Briggs asked.

“Yes sir.”

“You can confirm all of this?”

“It seems accurate, based on what I witnessed.  I should note that Cecil was accused of being in league with Mauer.  Measures should be taken to keep him out of the public eye for a time.”

“That’s something we can do.  I’m sure he’ll be content to be in his new laboratory.”

He seemed to consider a moment.

“Good,” Briggs finally said.  “The Lambs project will get those badges that were asked for, if it means they can keep up this degree of work.  I was told they could resolve this better than we might have if I’d sent a regiment of stitched to quell the riot, and the Lambs followed through.”

“Yes sir,” Lacey said.

“Hayle can have the budget increase and additional staffing I know he intended to ask for.  I’ve also signed off on the requests.”

Briggs took the file folders from the stitched beside him, shuffled through them to find one specific one, and then handed it to Lacey.

Sounds too good to be true.

“Is there a catch, sir?” Gordon asked.

“Catch?  In a way, yes.  Professor Hayle has been going on at length about your collective merits.  My own methodology when building something is to test it until it breaks.  Then I repair or start it anew.  I repeat this process until it cannot break.  The superweapon that sleeps under our feet is evidence that this can work.”

There were some nods from us.

“I will be making more use of you, in coming weeks and months.  I will be testing you.”

Until we break.

“And,” he said, “I don’t want it said that you broke because I didn’t give you or Hayle the necessary resources.  Change is afoot, a firm hand will be needed to keep things steady.”

More nods.

“Go.  Miss Lacey, if you could deliver that to Professor Hayle?”

“I can.” she replied.

“Thank you for your hard work.  The Lambs can go home.  I don’t expect they’ll be much use against a squadron of ex-soldiers and an experiment on a leash.”

“Mauer is the most dangerous of them,” I said.  “Um, sir, sorry.  He’s brilliant, he’s good at manipulating people on a large scale.  You really shouldn’t underestimate him.”

Briggs’ expression didn’t change.  He really liked his long pauses.  He had the clout to make others entertain them.  He finally said, “We’ll deal with him to the best of our ability.  Your part in this is done, however.  You should rest.  Tend to your wounds.  I may call on you as soon as tomorrow morning.  I have things to look after.”

Tomorrow morning.

His bird-woman crossed the room to his side, joining Briggs and the stitched.  The three of them headed for the other side of the Hedge, where it exited into the Academy grounds, inside the walls.

Lacey looked us over.

“Thank you,” I said.  “You did well.”

“It’s annoying, being patronized to by a child, but that’s probably intentional,” she said.  She frowned.  “But you’ve thanked me and apologized several times tonight.  I get suspicious when you act that way.”

“Probably smart,” Gordon said.

“Yeah,” Jamie said.

“Pretty much,” Helen said, chipper.

“Sy’s a jerk,” Lillian said, with a hair too much emphasis.

Lacey rolled her eyes.  She turned to go.

She didn’t make it three steps before I started following her, flashing a quick grin to the others, who sat and stared.

Three seconds later, when we were almost out of the room, Lacey stopped, spinning in place.  I wasn’t quite quick enough to duck into cover.

“Huh?” I asked.  “Do you have eyes in the back of your head?”

“No,” she said.

“I didn’t make a sound.”

“You didn’t,” she said.  “But they didn’t either.  And when the room is that quiet and I have that niggling feeling of doubt deep inside…”

“You get suspicious enough to act on it,” I said.

“What were you doing?” she asked, sounding as tired as she was stern.

“The file.  I wanted a peek at the file.”

She held up the file that Briggs had given her.  Supposedly whatever Hayle had been so emotional about earlier in the evening, when I’d undercut him in going to Briggs for the badge.  Part of it, at least.

“It isn’t classified,” she said.  “And I know Briggs is strict about those things.”

She opened the folder.  She took her time reading it.  Rubbing it in, making me ache from head to toe with the yearning to know.

She could get revenge for everything I’d subjected her to by turning around and walking away right then.

I sensed it.  That she was going to do it.  It was in her body language, the tension in her legs, the angle of her body.  It was in her expression, which was far from being a proper poker face.  A smirk in hiding.

The expression changed.

That put me off balance.  I shifted my weight from foot to foot.

“Okay,” she told me.  “Hands behind your back.  I don’t want you running away with this.”

I nodded, hands going behind my back.

“I wasn’t going to show you, but you should read it,” she said.

Which only piqued my curiosity before.  If she pulled it away now, I probably would have jumped her, improvised weapon in hand.  I wouldn’t have gotten the information I wanted, but I would’ve at least burned off some of the nervous, frustrated energy in me.

She lowered the file to the point where I could read it.

My eyes scanned the page.

Nothing special.

Nothing special.  Boring legal wording.

I felt a chill at the third offered provision.

The fourth jarred me to my core.

My hands, previously behind my back, dropped to my sides.  I swallowed hard.  “But…”

“You’re not surprised, are you?” she asked, and her voice was soft.  “You know who Hayle is, how he operates.”

I shook my head, “But… really?”

“I can’t say,” she said.  “It wouldn’t be until next year.  Even then, it would take some time before you had to worry on any level.”

“I almost- I thought-”

My hands went up to my hair, clutching at it a little.  A part of me wanted to cry, all of a sudden.  The buzz from our successful dealings with the Shepherd was gone.

She reached out to put a hand on my wet hair, knocking my hands out of the way in the process.  Again, they dropped to my sides.  I left them there.  She gave me a tentative pat on the head, as if I were a stray dog.  Her voice was gentle, a kindness that I would have called hypocritical, before.  “Go home.  Get your new Lamb settled in.  Tell them, so they know.  I’ll tell Lillian as I walk her to her dormitory.”

Numb, I nodded.

I felt like I was in a daze as I rejoined the others.  They clustered around me.

I knew that they were hungry for information in ways that were very different from how I was insatiably curious, but they didn’t push.  Their concern was for me.  Whatever my expression or body language was like, it seemed to worry them.

Even Lillian seemed reluctant to step away and join Lacey in heading into the Academy grounds.  She cast me a backward glance.

The others ushered me out the door.  The coach we’d taken to arrive was still there, manned by a stitched driver.  We climbed in, Gordon the last to file in through the door, stopping to give the driver instructions on where to go.

It wasn’t a long ride.  Just down the road.

I was so used to my thoughts running along multiple tracks, too busy to stay on one subject, but in this, I didn’t have the energy.  I watched out the window, and my brain was slow, chugging along, the majority of my focus set on trying not to think.

I’d taken the expiration dates in stride.  I’d expected it almost from the beginning.

This was harder to handle, in an ironic way.

The others murmured in conversation the entire way back.  All the same, the words were noise, my thoughts were on some musing about how Radham worked as a kind of motte and bailey, which was a safe way of thinking, unless I thought too much about Radham Academy.  The loosely defended city, the fortress that residents could retreat to if they had to.  In time of serious attack, people could enter the Academy, wait out the enemy while bombarding them and defending the nigh-impenetrable walls, and then exit to rebuild and live in the city once again.

Safety.  Safe way of thinking.  My brain was tired.

I was surprised when the coach stopped.  Time had passed too quickly and too slowly at the same time.  I felt dazed.

Mary, I thought.

“Welcome home, Mary,” I said.

My words seemed to startle a few of the others.  Only Helen smiled throughout, unflinching.  The others looked concerned.

“Thank you,” Mary said.

“I’m really glad to have you with us,” I said.

She nodded.  But she looked disconcerted.

We made our way inside, not opening umbrellas, but flipping up hoods and dashing for the door.  Again, Gordon was the last to follow, giving word to the coach driver to return to the Academy.  He should have been trained to go back anyway, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.

Mrs. Earles was waiting up for us, and joined us in the hallway before we had all of our coats and boots off.  In hushed tones, so as not to wake the younger ones, she urged us upstairs, promising us tea.

Mary needs attention, I thought, and this was the new focus.  Not idle thoughts, but getting her settled.  I found her hand, and was surprised at how tightly she clutched it.

“Mary’s sharing the right corner room with Helen,” Mrs. Earles said.  “We’ve moved Helen’s stuff and Mary’s luggage over.”

Mary nearly tripped, she was so startled by the announcement.  I had her hand, and Gordon put a hand out to catch her.  When she straightened, she had a look in her eyes.

“Don’t worry, I’m harmless.” Helen whispered, then she made a tiny, excited sound, barely keeping her volume down, “One room for the two of us!”

Our resident monster skipped ahead, stepping exactly where she needed to step to avoid the creaking of floorboards.

Mary looked more disturbed in the wake of it.

I was puzzled more than anything, and the puzzlement added to my general lack of focus.  Helen was different, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I resolved to ask.  But, again, Mary was the priority.  I tried to pull myself together.

“Can I share a room with Mary?” I asked.

“Not at all.  That wouldn’t be proper,” Mrs. Earles said.  “You stay with Jamie.”

I wished I had the badge, so I could show her and make her listen.  She was an Academy employee, in a roundabout way.

“We need to talk before bed,” Gordon said.  “And we haven’t eaten.  Could you please get something?”

Mrs. Earles gave him a disapproving look.

“On my word,” he said, with utmost sincerity.  “It’s important, and I’m ravenous.”

“Get changed, I’ll have crackers, cheese and meat, with some treated tea.”

“Thank you,” he whispered.

She gave him a pat on the shoulder.

We headed into our individual rooms.  Gordon already had one corner room, but it was a tiny space, cut off by the stairs that went up to the third floor, where Mrs. Earles’ bedroom was.  Mary and Helen’s room was usually reserved for older girls or girls who were expecting to be adopted out.  It was a treat.  No sleeping in a room with four or five other girls.

Jamie and I changed as quickly as we were able, which meant I was done before Jamie had his shirt off.  I went out of my way to avoid looking, though I’d seen many times before.

When he pulled his pants off, though, I turned my back altogether.

We all had our burdens, we all needed support in our own ways.  This was one of Jamie’s ways.

He put a hand on my shoulder, signaling it was okay for me to turn around.  He had pyjamas that buttoned down the front.  My own was only a sleeveless and undersized workman’s shirt that showed how horribly skinny my shoulders and arms were, along with pyjama bottoms.  I hated being confined in clothes while I slept, but Jamie tended to wake me up by swatting me with his book if I slept without anything at all.  It didn’t help that I kicked my sheets off, most nights.

“I’m so tired,” Jamie admitted.  “And I have so much to write in my book before bed.”

“Let me,” I said.

He gave me a look.

“No mischief, I promise.  I’ll write down everything as I remember it.”

“I don’t think I can read your handwriting.”

“I’ll try, for real,” I said.  “You can add stuff after, fill in blanks as you need to.”

He frowned.  “Maybe.”

“Okay.  Maybe.  That thing with the names, starting the riot?  That was incredible,” I said.

“I was terrified.”

“It was incredible,” I said, again.

We reached the kitchen and began to dine on salty crackers with slices of cheese and meat.  I went for the cheese first.

Gordon joined us, but he went for the meat, naturally.

And then there were the two girls.  Helen and Mary.  Both wore long nightgowns, white and riddled with lace, though Mary’s had a ribbon at the collar.

I drew in a deep breath.  I felt a horrible pressure on my chest.

The others didn’t push, and Mary seemed to be following the others’ lead.

“Helen,” I said.  “I have to ask…”

“Yes?”  Unlike Gordon, who was eating about three pieces of meat to every piece of cheese and every cracker, she was eating exclusively meat slices, gathered together and rolled up into tubes.

“What’s with this new you?  You’ve been different.”

“Oh!  Oh.  I had my thing with Professor Ibbot last month, and a check-up just a couple of days ago,” she said, smiling.  “He got upset with me.  He hit me a few times.  Not hard enough to do any damage, but, just because.”

I was silent.  I had a lump in my throat already, and I didn’t like hearing this.

Her smile widened a bit.  “He said I shouldn’t slack off.  That I couldn’t just stop acting.  It was something I had to practice.  So I’m practicing.  I’m trying to figure out who Helen Ibbot should be when she’s not acting for someone else.”

“Oh,” I said.  “You’re a perfect actor already.  You don’t really need to practice.”

“He told me to, so I will,” she said, very firmly.

“I liked the old Helen,” I said.  “The one who didn’t feel like she had to smile.”

There were nods from Jamie and Gordon.

“That’s too bad,” Helen said, in a very matter of fact way.  “You’re going to have to get used to the new me.”

I nodded, feeling a touch more lost than before.

I didn’t like that.  I wanted to hurt Ibbot for it, but I wasn’t sure how, or if it was even possible, or right.

“What’s going on, Sy?  Does that have anything to do with the file?”

“No,” I said.  I ran my fingers through my hair again.  “No.  I’m just… not wanting to dwell on it.”

“What is it?” Jamie asked.

I drew in a deep breath.

“There were provisions.  Things Briggs was giving Hayle, things Hayle wanted.  The first was money, funding.  The second was manpower, extra space.”

“We knew that much,” Gordon said.

“The third, it’s not fun to hear, but I already talked to you guys about this.  About the expiration dates.”

“You brought it up,” Gordon said, his tone suddenly different, very careful.  “And I told you that if you ever dare to tell me or hint to me what my date is, I will never forgive you.”

“And I believe you,” I said, very quiet.  “I’ll never tell you, and since the others aren’t asking, I won’t tell them.”

Gordon nodded.

Even though you’re supposed to die first, I thought.

My expression didn’t betray a thing.  I sighed.  “Briggs authorized replacements.  When we die, when we break, according to Briggs’ terminology, then there will be new, better Lambs.”

“Not so surprising,” Jamie said.  “I’ve heard hints of that before, from my caretakers.”

I nodded.  “But it’s not fun to hear.”

“No,” Gordon said.  Mary nodded.

“That’s not it, is it?” Jamie asked.  “What got to you this badly?”

“I… I almost fucked it up,” I said.  “I… uh.  Ugh.  I can’t get over the fact that I almost fucked it up.”

“They’re reviving the other projects?” Helen guessed.  “Evette or Ashton?  They’re going to take another try, start over from scratch?”

She was clever enough to connect the dots.  Head in my hands, I nodded.

The silence that followed only added to the weight on my chest.

“One project,” I said.  “Hayle wanted to revive one project, and in my dicking around with the badges, I almost took that away.”

“That’s not surprising at all,” Gordon said, leaning back in his chair.  “We always knew you were a disaster waiting to happen.”

“Wow,” I said, sitting straighter.  “Wow.”

But the words lifted the burden, in a small way.

“You’ve almost gotten any one of us killed a half dozen times already,” Jamie said.  “Why does this matter?”

“Because I trust you guys to handle yourselves.  But these two…”

“Yeah,” Gordon said.  “I get it.”

“Our little siblings,” Helen said.  “We’re going to get one of them back.”

I nodded.  I smiled a little, even.  “But that’s a year off.  We already have one new Lamb.”

“Hear hear,” Helen said.  She would be second last to go.

We raised our mugs and clunked them together.

“Hear hear,” Jamie said.  He wouldn’t die, but he would expire a year after Gordon, if the files were right.  I suspected he already knew, and that knowledge defined him on a level.

Mary smiled, and it was genuine.  She was one of us, and it was the sort of thing she’d craved for a very long time.  It was like a warmth was flowing out from within her.  Our little killer, and I had no idea when she would expire, there was no way to find out, and there was something safe in that.

She met my eyes, and I smiled at her.

Me, who would outlast the rest, and who would wish I hadn’t.

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66 thoughts on “Cat out of the Bag 2.11

  1. Well, shit, that got depressing fast.

    “He wouldn’t die, but he would expire a year after Gordon, if the files were right.” What’s the difference between expiring and dying in this context?

      • They’ll start to reboot every three hours. Then later they won’t turn on. Unless they’re OS X preview builds, in which case idk.

      • I just assumed he was commenting on the thing he has going with the rest of the Lambs. He needs them to be who he is. In some sense, they all need each other, but he needs them the most to function, as mainly a support character (so far, anyway). Beyond that, they are very close, emotionally, and it’s not hard to imagine Sy would break down without them, even without the pain of losing them.

    • I think it has something to do with dying on the battlefield, maybe? Since Jamie is mostly support, he has higher chances of surviving? It’s just a wild guess.

  2. This was a nice wind down from the previous few chapters. There are so many dominoes lining up, pieces and players slowly being arranged. It will be fun when it all comes together, and the world is inevitably dragged kicking and screaming into some sort of fleshy, bio-horror darkness.

    Poor Helen, the actress without a script. Also, Lacey’s got mom-vision, whether she wants it or not.

    Finally, is it just me, or does anyone else think that Lillian’s a little obvious (as children tend to be)? You’d think Sy would pick up on it. Unless he just doesn’t want to pick up on it…youths.

  3. For a small “after-action” chapter, this one sure packs quite a punch. Expiration dates DO exist, Sy is the last to go, and they’re getting a new brother or sister… Damn!

    • Yup. Never been so pleased-unhappy-miserable to have got part of that horribly wrong. Think I’ll settle on miserable.

      What else is Sy trying to do as the designated (and reluctant) Little Big Bro?

    • “Me, who would outlast the rest, and who would wish I hadn’t.”

      Quite possible that he does not have an expiration date. That he is doomed to see his friends expire, and their replacements after that, and so on.

      “…who would wish I hadn’t.”
      (The tenses seem a little bit off here…)
      He has his build-in matyr/villan-complex: he _wants_ to die.

      • The tense is just fine — it’s saying that he anticipates that there will be a time in the future when he will wish that he hadn’t outlasted the rest of the Lambs.

        I don’t think that’s a martyr complex at all, and I don’t think he WANTS to die. It seems more that he doesn’t want to be alone.

        • I think Sy has been specifically designed to be unnaturally loyal to the others. It feels that way, at least. Maybe they all have, but him in particular. Hayle might have thought it necessary to ground all that creativity and scheming with a strong anchor to keep him focused and make sure he wouldn’t go rogue. Outliving the others could be the worst possible thing to happen to him.

          Also, wyverns are dragons, right? Could mean he was designed for longevity as well. That could also be why his memory is so dull, to keep his mind from getting bogged down in the long term by memories that aren’t relevant to the mission. Such as long-dead comrades…

  4. I’ve been thinking for a while that the Lambs should defect to the anti-Academy faction. Percy’s a jag, but if Mauer is being honest when he says he hates the academy for making weapons and not bettering human life, maybe the anti-Academy faction isn’t the worst place for a group of loving, feeling orphan-weapons to go. They’re the only ones who might have the know-how on squeezing a few more years out of the Lambs (their survival past their expiration dates is a frikkin’ necessity), and when Sy finally snaps and shoves Ibbot into a vat of acid they’d be good friends to have.

    Do not go gentle into that good light, dammit! Monsters, turn against your masters!

    • I’m dubious about Mauer’s honesty given that he released a monster and deliberately got people killed in order to blame it on the Academy. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s as simple as he says — there clearly are people in the academy who are genuinely trying to heal the sick and injured or to make a better world.

      I’d go as far as to say that the problem isn’t the Academy itself; the problem is the empire behind it, which is what’s really driving it to produce such dangerous weapons and use them in war. Hayle isn’t making weapons because he wants to, it’s because that’s the only way for him to get funding. That doesn’t excuse it, of course, but it means that he (and the academy itself) is not the true root of the problem.

    • Yeah, well, they still expire, aren’t they?

      You have a way for “darkness induced audience apathy”, Wildbow. Man, shit didn’t even hit the fan yet!

    • More typos:
      – “Which only piqued my curiosity before.” -> Which only piqued my curiosity more?
      – “You’re a perfect actor already.” -> actress

    • A grammatical matter I noticed just now:

      She met my eyes, and I smiled at her.
      Me, who would outlast the rest, and who would wish I hadn’t.

      ‘I (who would outlast the rest, and who would wish I hadn’t) smiled at her’
      Here, he’s the subject rather than the object, so ‘I’ rather than ‘me’; it would be ‘me’ if it were ‘she smiled at me’ before that. Alternatively, it might also work if it were part of an ongoing list in that format ‘Gordon, first to go’ ‘Helen, second last’ ‘Me, last’, but the format differs each time, so its format isn’t taken from a common format along those lines.

      –And I just realised that from Gordon/Helen/Jamie I should have known Sy’s position for a certainty, rather than as a growing hunch, before he got to it. *laughs* With Lillian and Mary, I think I sometimes forget that the original Lambs only number four in the overall group of six.

  5. My interest’s been piqued by the “superweapon that sleeps under our feet”.

    It’s sad about the children, but then again, from the Academy’s POV, they’d always be more useful as children, than operating in a group as adults, or even teenagers. I expect they’re going to expire mid-teens or at their 20th birthday, at most.

    • I dunno. It seems like the Lambs could make a pretty good special forces team once they reached adulthood.

      • Not really, I don’t think. For one thing, what would a group of adults with their capabilities actually do on the modern battlefield? A group of children would be more effective, and if they wanted an adult special forces they’d just clone Gordon and do some tweaks for the role.

        This gives me some ideas for bioengineered weapons of war…….

        • But… they have never been intended to go out into the battlefield. They only take on small missions, those which require subtlety, or only a handful of people to carry. Assassination, disruption, intelligence gathering, deception. That’s what they do.

    • He’s implying that it’s his own project, which makes me think it might be the hangman that’s been namedropped a couple times so far? I seem to recall the reaction to Mary knowing about “the man with the hands” (= hangman?) was a lot more intense than her knowing about the lambs, which also sort of implies a very secret project… like a superweapon.

      • I don’t think it’s the Hangman. From 2.5 :

        “[Briggs] was, in an indirect way, responsible for the existence of the Lambs, for Dog and Catcher, for the Hangman, Gorger, Foster, the Whelps and all the rest.His pet project, however, wasn’t out and about, hunting for Whiskers.”

        As far as I can remember, no other projects have been named. You can just tell that it’s going to be something monumental. What’s the bet it ends up causing a problem for the gang at some point?

        • Huh, I forgot about that part! Yeah, my “future plot point!!” senses are tingling here >.> We’ll just have to see!

    • My guess is that it’s the chrysalis-analogue hinted at by his project name being “Caterpillar”. Jamie’s metamorphosing and probably knows it.

  6. I generally try not to make comparisons with other series when commenting on people’s works of writing, but when we first learned about the expiration dates of the lambs I was suddenly reminded very strongly of the stuff they did with the artificial intelligences in the HALO franchise. Not sure where they took it in the newest game(s??) but there was a whole background storyline in a couple of the books about how the AIs eventually use up all their “brainpower” and literally just “think themselves to death” and cease operating or begin behaving erratically at the end of their functional lifespan because the structures and functions that human brains have (and which an AI might possibly be based off of– or at least, that’s how it worked in that particular universe) don’t play nicely as computer programs in the long term.

    Jamie is designed for storing information. There have been mentions of biological computers. “not die, but expire”. Hm.

    • So Jamie thinks himself to death as his neural structure develops into adulthood and his cognitive processes increase?

      • Or his body morphs into a bag of life-support for his growing brain, which is integrated into a bioware computer system.

      • That was my thought! Though I’m also liking the other theory that’s been mentioned about them just eventually repurposing him into a computer, which sort of ties into the whole “caterpillar” name (and his scientist team talking about reproducing him/the lambs?– maybe they’re testing a new method of creating their biocomputers literally grown as a human brain instead of however they were making them before?)

  7. You know, I had the idea that Sy considered himself too… independent to rely on his siblings for emotional support. I’m glad that throughout the story I’ve seen that isn’t the case. It’s sweet seeing how they all get along when they aren’t trying to murder others, or Jamie supporting Sy in this chapter.

  8. We’re only barely done with the second arc and I find myself caring a lot about a good amount of characters.
    Nice work, wildbow.

    I’m getting a nagging hunch I’d better save up on tears, though.

  9. I’m getting more and more curious about the time scale that Twig is going to end up operating on. We’re getting things set up that are supposed to happen in a year, with the new member, and the expiration dates starting an indeterminable amount of time in the future, although I’m getting the sense that it’s a few years before that starts happening (at the very least for Sy).

    Will this unfold, or will something happen to accelerate the timeline, or stop these developments? According to Walter, Whiskers has a lifespan of “weeks, maybe months”, so presumably we’ll be seeing the Shepherd sometime before then.

    We’re also getting a lot of references to retreating into the Academy in case of a siege, so that should be pretty fun. Although I’m not sure what purpose the lambs could serve locked away from the threat. Maybe they end up locked outside? (assuming it happens)

    To throw another thought out there, does anyone know what’s up with Jamie’s book? If he has a perfect memory, why does he need to write thingsdown, and why are the records so precious to him? Maybe he needs a trigger for the older info? Any other thories?

    • I’m expecting timeskips – probably one after Briggs breaks them, seeing them rebuilt. Probably one through an extended campaign e.g. the Lambs go to war.

      I think Jamie uses his book as a means to express his memories to other people, as with the picture of Sy. May also be a security blanket, solid proof that he’s functioning the way he’s supposed to – I suspect Jamie has a firmer grasp on how important it is that they behave as expected than the others.
      May just have sentimental value too

      • I imagine his journal is more personal. I mean, he remembers virtually everything he sees and experiences, the sheer amount of information he has at hand would be overwhelming. I imagine his own memories tend to get a little lost in the avalanche of random overheard information and sensory input. The journal acts as a reminder of the things that are important to him specifically.

        It could be used to track his progress, yes. And maybe that is why he originally started doing it, back after he was “born” and they were testing to see if he worked. How can you be sure he remembers everything? Make him keep track of it. They don’t require it of him anymore, as he has proven his capabilities now, but he keeps doing it so that he doesn’t lose the things important to him.

        It’s also possible that there is a limited amount of memory available, so older info gets overwritten as new stuff comes in. He’s afraid that eventually he might start forgetting the important things. Assuming he regularly reads his own writing, that would constantly refresh his own memories so they aren’t “deleted.”

  10. I’ve read Worm (binge read, came in near the end), Pact, and this is the first time I’ve posted…I got emotional at the end of this chapter…damn good writing to provoke that for a set of characters we’ve really only just begun getting to know.

  11. Hopefully this will teach Sy to know when to KEEP HIS MOUTH SHUT and bide his time. Sometimes the most effective thing to do is nothing.

    And yeah, I want to hit Ibbott too. Please let him get eaten alive by a kittyconda or something.

    Finally I wonder if we’ll ever see an Old Lambs vs New Lambs match?

  12. The feels at the end… I agree with Gordon, if I knew I was fated to die before a certain date I would certainly NOT want to know the date.

  13. Nice!

    Curiosity about the superweapon.
    I like and agree with Briggs’s approach (ethical implications aside)–that’s pretty much what I want to do with the human lifespan, brute-forcing every point of failure, one by one, until there’s nothing left. (Well, near the end catching certain things is going to become tricky, granted. In the long run we’re going to need some sort of external backup system…)

    Jamie-related curiosity (the hiddenness). ‘Expiry’: at the least, he’s probably not going to have his memory ability any more. Ah, and I wonder if the book is related to that–/right now/ he doesn’t need it to remember all these details, but some day it’s going to be all he has of this..? –In which case crossing out Rick’s information is even deeper, as it means he’s erasing it from his own future memory in exchange for it never being learned by others.

    Gordon: Fitting, in a way. The one who excels at everything, blazing bright and fast, going out soon. Ah, that prompts me to think about the scale of the ‘expiry dates’–earlier parts implied or directly stated that their intended state is as adults, that they’re still developing as children. I could be wrong, though.
    Incidentally, if I could know an expiry date for myself/this body/this brain I would _definitely_ want to know it, both in case anything could be done beforehand and so that I could get all loose ends tied up that I would regret leaving loose otherwise.

    I’m very curious about the loyalty to the other Lambs shown–Ashton and Evette, it means a lot to him (understatement) that they’re trying again for one of those. (No hints yet about what Ashton’s role was to be, even if Evette’s description was accurate… hmm.) ‘start over from scratch’, so it’s not as though they were kept in comas or stasis and brought back out. In that case, you’d think that if Gordon died they could replace him with another Gordon, each person replaced as they wore out, and Sy wouldn’t be left alone–he wouldn’t be left without the other Lambs, he’d still have the other Lambs, even as he mourned their memories. Why wouldn’t he care for a new Gordon in a similar way to how he cares about a new Ashton/Evette, especially since he never even met those two and they mean so much to him..? Speaking of which, something that makes me very curious here is why he /doesn’t/ react in this special way to the replacement (‘new, better’) Lambs. Something to do with the ‘gestalt’–the new Ashton/Evette will be in a gestalt with them, but the new Lambs will only be in a gestalt with each other? Is it that the new Lambs /can’t/ be in a gestalt with them, different names and characteristics, or that they’ll have a Sy/Gordon/Helen/Jamie of their own who just aren’t in a gestalt with Sy?

    Great curiosity…

    Mentally prepared in case there’s a sudden time-skip at any point to Sy being more grown up, with Percy’s clones and the like grown and ready for deployment.

    The gradual teasing of information is frustrating and enjoyable at the same time. I really like it because I trust that there _is_ the information already known, and that it _will_ be revealed in time. (Well, some might not be need to be and might not, but ideally I would want to learn even insignificant things–but the significant things, in any case.) There are fictions which spread mystery alone, in contrast with those that draw a cloak of mystery over juicy details to be given out piecemeal. I’m enjoying and looking forward to these juicy details… juicy details satisfying past curiosity even as future curiosity is stoked regarding diffrerent juicy details… *wide smile*

  14. Bird lady!
    Other events of the chapter kind of overshadowed, but bird lady!
    -bird lady is a mole from the anti-academy division
    -anti-academy folks have birds for tracking experiments
    -anti-academy folks are actually academy folks who set up this fakey shadow organization to benefit off the work of independent actors

    If the doctor with the birds is working against the academy, we can be Mauer isn’t getting caught

    • It’s stated that the birds are designed to send messages to the special experiments in the field. If she is a traitor, there’s no evidence of it yet.

  15. Hey-ho, people of Earth! I’m kinda new around here, but I’ve managed to read both books before this one, and everything of this current series. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely on board at first, but it does seem as though this book will be interesting in a lot of ways. Great work wildbow!

  16. Glad to see that Wilbow is back at it with a fresh new serial! Your work ethic is impressive and I am glad to be a part of the journey as you continue to improve as an already awesome writer.

    I am a huge fan of Worm and was lucky enough to read it “live” and have read it a few more times since. I still enjoy it every time and still recommend it to people.

    I did’t make it all the way through Pact. I read it live for a couple arcs then lost interest and haven’t gone back to finish. I am not a big fan of the genre and just didn’t feel the same connection with the characters as I had with Worm. Most of the time I felt a bit lost and found myself relying on the comments section to make connections and point out all of the things I had missed. I don’t feel that this was due to Wilbows writing, but rather a matter of personal taste and a lack of knowledge of the genre on my part.

    Twig has been great so far. I am starting to feel a connection with these characters and this world. I am again finding myself waiting anxiously for the next post. I am looking forward to seeing where this new adventure takes us. My hats off to you Wildbow, I don’t know how you do it but I am glad that you do.

    Also, looking forward to the Worm book and any other material you create for the Worm univers. Waiting patiently for it to come out so I can buy a copy for myself and a bunch for friends and relatives.

  17. I don’t quite understand.
    Why does the fact hayle is allowed to revive one of the failed projects mess up sy so much? I get that he realizes he almost lost that for hayle, but I don’t quite see a reason for him to care.

    He’s just reviving the project right? Not like he’s bringing one of the dead children back to life. If that’s correct, I don’t see a reason for him to care at all, let alone to shake him to his core. It just means another kid experiment, and another toolset that was originally intended for this gestalt.

    Yeah, Helen said they were getting a sibling back, but since she said they were starting over from scratch, I took it to mean that they are getting back a fourth (or fifth, if we count marry) lamb, not as them actually getting back a dead sibling. But if that reasoning is right, I really don’t get why sy was so shaken up about it… Was there a reason I’m missing for him to be so worried he almost lost that opportunity? Was I wrong and it means that hayle is actually reviving a dead child?


  18. Uh, guys, the way I see it, these expiration dates are not the dates on which they die. They are approximations, and they only mark the start of a rapid decline – hair and teeth fall off, eyesight falters, immune system fails, and so on until a major organ shuts down.

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