The room flooded with light. I opened my eyes just enough to glimpse Gordon sanding there, curtains in hand. He was wearing a white Academy uniform, minus the jacket. He took his time, tying each curtain back with the ribbons that were hooked into the wall. Past the rain-streaked window, the trees and the leafy branches on buildings were a breadth of colors; mostly red and red-black for the buildings. The color green was all but gone from the view.
I pulled the covers over my head.
“Up,” he said, tearing the covers off me in one sweep. “Mary can’t wake you up every day, much as you’d like her to.”
“But I don’t want to go to school!” I groaned, pulling the pillow over my head.
“I don’t care about orders! I’m the black sheep of the lambs, the rebel, the villain! I can play hooky!”
“You’re coming,” he said. “I’ll drag you along in your pyjamas if I have to.”
“I’d make it work,” I mumbled into my pillow.
“I’m betting you’d revel in it. But you’d stand out, and we’re already on shaky ground there.”
I moved the pillow and looked at him, “You’d sabotage the project? Reveal us for what we are?”
He looked very casual, leaning on the footboard at the end of Jamie’s empty, neatly-made bed. He didn’t flinch at the question, but instead asked, “Aren’t you already doing that, trying to skip out on this job? Professor Briggs said he’d make use of us. He followed through on his word. This is our assignment.”
“I didn’t think he meant this!” I said. “It’s so horribly, awfully, agonizingly boring!”
“It has to end soon.”
“Nuh uh!” I said, flipping over and sitting up a bit. “We finish and, oh, guess what? We have to start over! He’s sinking the project and he’s trying to keep a leash on us. This pointless busywork is exactly that.”
“I wouldn’t say pointless,” he said. “If you’re not going to get up because of the project, how about getting up because you don’t want to look like a baby in front of Mary?”
“I can play head games too, Sy. If you want to whine and throw a tantrum-”
“First of all, that’s not a good head game, if I know you’re playing me.”
“It’ll work,” he said.
“Second of all, I’m not throwing tantrums, you dick.”
“You’re not acting like an adult, either.”
“Yeah? Are you sure? Because I think a lot of adults groan and moan behind closed doors.”
“Do you really think those hypothetical adults are the ones you want to turn to as role models?”
“Especially considering that you’re a sponge when it comes to that sort of thing?”
“Yes! Because the alternative is ending up a tightwad who doesn’t know how to express himself or have fun,” I said, giving him a pointed look. “If I live to be an adult, then I want to be the kind of adult who skips work and goes and gets drunk and knows how to enjoy the good with all the rest of the murky, bleary day-to-day garbage. I want to do work that’s exciting and interesting and me. Not this kind of work!”
“There are times when I don’t understand you at all,” Gordon said. “But I do know that you don’t want to look like a baby in front of Mary.”
“Stop saying that.”
“Is it getting to you?”
“No,” I lied.
The look he gave me told me he knew I was fibbing. I wasn’t at my best first thing in the day.
“You and I both know you’re going to get out of bed, you’re just stalling at this point. You have three seconds before I head down to the breakfast table and casually mention that you’re being a brat and a baby.”
“That’s dirty. I’m going to get you back for this.”
“I mean it. I will get you. Today, even.”
“I know,” he said. “One.”
I swung my legs over the side of the bed, bringing them down to the floor and standing in the same motion.
When he didn’t react, I flourished a little.
He gave me a short round of clapping, though his expression didn’t change. “Come on. I don’t trust you not to go back to bed if I leave you alone.”
I grumbled, but I went with. He clapped a hand on my back as I walked beside him.
“I hate it too,” he said.
“But you don’t hate it enough to do something about it,” I said.
“It’s been three months. Three! This is the worst job.”
“Life is short!” I said.
I belatedly realized what I’d said. I bit my tongue, literally, with enough force that I might have drawn blood.
But he didn’t get angry, and he had gotten angry in the past, when I’d said similar things. He only sighed out the words, “I know.”
“Sorry,” I said.
He didn’t respond, but clapped a hand on my back instead.
We reached the dining room. Even with two tables, we couldn’t seat everyone at once. What tended to happen was that the older kids looked after the youngest, who were given something simple and quick to eat, then moved along with something they could carry with them as they ate. In the summer, the place of choice was often outside, under the eaves. Now that it was getting cooler, only a few went out, and the rest were relegated to the stairs and front hall, where dropped bits of toast and fruit were easiest to clean up.
The good stuff was available on a first-come, first-serve basis, which meant I rarely got any bacon or grilled tree jerky.
Jamie, Helen, and Mary were already seated when we arrived at the table. Jamie and Mary were looking after the little ones. Jamie’s long hair was wet, combed and parted, and he had drops of water on his glasses, and he was still wearing his pyjamas. Mary was wearing a cardigan over her nightgown, hair tied back with one ribbon.
Helen, both washed and dressed, like Gordon, was generally disqualified from the breakfast duties. None of the kids were privy to who or what we were, but somehow, by some clue or cue that I couldn’t figure out, the littlest kids had a way of reacting to Helen like a rabbit might react to a swooping hawk. If she tried to urge them to eat, they tended to stop doing anything but acting nervous and focusing on her. She often helped watch the food or turn over the toast, instead.
“You’re up,” Mrs. Earles greeted me. The food on the stove was only being kept warm, and her focus was more on cleaning up than anything else.
“Good morning, Mrs. Earles,” I said, still half asleep. “I didn’t get a chance to say last night, but I think your haircut looks nice.”
“You got your hair cut?” Rick asked, twisting around on his bench.
“Just a trim,” Mrs. Earles said. “And it was very kind of Sylvester to notice and say so. That doesn’t mean I’m going to turn the stove back on to cook him some bacon.”
“Early bird gets the bacon,” Rick told me, in the most smug manner possible.
Fat bird arrives early enough for the bacon and takes up table space until everyone else is done.
“Wasn’t trying for bacon. Just saying,” I said. I collected a bowl and plate, holding them out. “Oatmeal?”
“Oatmeal,” Mrs. Earles said, plopping a too-generous helping into my bowl.
“Fruit,” she said, using a ladle to deposit mystery fruit on my plate. Something from the Academy that they were trying on the public of Radham.
“Toast,” she said, reaching over to the side of the oven to grab the long-handled wire setup that had toast trapped within its lattice. She popped the wire configuration open and dumped the toast onto my plate.
Boring food for a boring day.
“Thank you, Mrs. Earles,” I said.
“Work hard today,” she said.
I gave her a weak smile.
I sat down with the others, making a smaller kid scoot over to give me more room, so I wasn’t forced to take the spot next to Rick.
Mary was sitting beside Helen, and didn’t seem to remember that she was supposed to be afraid of the girl. Things were bound to go one of two ways as time passed, with Mary’s fear of Helen escalating or dissipating, and it was perhaps a testament to Mary’s character that she’d found a way to take it in stride. Her focus was more on Ally, a six years old who was staunchly refusing to eat her oatmeal.
“Eat fast,” I chimed in. “It only gets grosser if you let it get cold.”
“It is cold, and it is gross,” Ally told me, which I’d expected.
I rose up from my seat a little, peered over, and checked her bowl. I stole it from her.
“Sylvester,” Mrs Earles said. “No tricks.”
I spooned most of my oatmeal over into Ally’s bowl, then gave her what was left of mine, still hot, noticeably less than she’d had before. I passed it back to her, then looked at Mrs. Earles, waiting.
She huffed out a sigh, then went back to cleaning dishes.
It was the perfect response, because I could look at Ally and give the girl a wink.
It was clear that she didn’t want to eat, but in this small battle of kid versus adult, I’d sided with her. She couldn’t refuse now without betraying the covenant of kids everywhere.
Still, she was noticeably sullen as she took to shoveling the oatmeal into her mouth.
“Ready to face the day?” Mary asked, now that she was free of her charge.
“Are you?” I asked.
She made a disgusted face, tongue sticking out. I smirked, then set to eating, mixing the cold oatmeal in with the hot.
It was pretty quiet as mornings went. I wasn’t the only one that was feeling a general weariness. It was visible in Jamie, in Mary, in Gordon to a small degree, and even in Helen; Helen wasn’t putting a lot of energy into acting. She’d slipped back to her default: smiling, cheery, coy.
“I believe I was the one that mentioned Mrs. Earles’ haircut to you last night,” Jamie commented.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Did you tell her?”
“No,” Jamie said.
“Joint effort, then,” I said. “Mrs. Earles?”
“Yes, Sylvester?” she asked, sounding way too tired for the early hour of the day.
“Jamie likes your hair too.”
“Thank you Jamie,” she said, in a way that made it sound routine. More for the benefit of the littler kids than anything else.
I looked at Jamie. “See? Teamwork.”
“Thank you,” he said, but he rolled his eyes.
I ate quick, but as one of the last to the table – Gordon had already eaten before waking me up – I was still one of the last to finish. Ally finished her oatmeal, which freed Mary to head upstairs to wash and change, with Helen and Jamie a few steps behind. I’d timed things well enough that I could go up with them.
I looked at Rick, who was still seated. The look he gave me was a curious one. Not the usual.
Something had changed. He was studying me, and I didn’t know why.
We passed Gordon, who was working to manage the kids and help Mrs. Earles. It would probably be my turn tomorrow, and sleeping in wouldn’t be an option. Blah.
“You look nice too, Mary,” I commented, quiet.
“I haven’t even washed up.”
“Even so,” I said, shrugging.
“You too, Helen, of course, but that’s only natural, right?”
Helen gave me a warm, coy smile that made me shiver in a less-good way. Then, to make me more uncomfortable, she added, “Naturally.”
Jamie gave me a curious look. I nearly missed Helen taking Mary’s hand.
“Come on. Let’s wash up, and I’ll brush your hair for you,” Helen said.
The look on Mary’s face suggested she wasn’t entirely used to Helen yet. She said, “I can do it myself.”
“Please. I get so bored doing my own hair,” Helen said, pleading. “I want to do yours.”
You don’t get bored at all. I know for a fact that you can sit and stare at a wall for hours without a problem.
Mary had to know the same thing. She gave me a helpless look, but all I could do was shrug.
Jamie and I headed to our room, leaving Mary to be dragged to the girl’s washroom by Helen.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” Jamie said.
“Girls are scary,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure that it’s only those two.”
We reached the room, and I went to close the curtains that Gordon had opened because of me. Idly, I mentioned, “Okay, I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way.”
“Do I do that? Take things the wrong way?”
“No. You’re good about that. But you do get weird about some stuff.”
“Okay. Say or ask me whatever you’re thinking, and I’ll try not to get weird about it.”
“I wish I was a girl.”
“Look at what Helen does. It’s so much easier to manipulate people. So many more levels of nuance and ways to abuse people’s expectation of you.”
“Uh huh. You do that well enough as a boy.”
“And if I was a girl, I’d be going to the girl’s washroom right now.”
“Ahhhh, that’s what you were getting at.”
“I could protect Mary from Helen, and I’d be closer to her. Lillian’s close to her, and Helen’s getting closer to being a real friend of Mary’s. It’s… what’s the word for building a relationship through closeness?”
“Sure. Propinquity. That’s why I think I’d want to be a girl.”
“One of these days, Sy…” he said, trailing off.
“You said you wouldn’t get weird!”
“I’m not getting weird. I’m trying to decide if I should pity or fear the person you’re going to be in a few years.”
“Pity or fear,” I said, snorting. “You’ll feel friendship, because we’ll be friends. We’ll be together. What’s to pity or fear?”
“You’re assuming we survive that long,” he said. “And no, that’s not an excuse for you to tell me when my time is supposed to be up. I won’t ask until Gordon does.”
“I guarantee you,” I said. “You and I, together. You’re my best friend.”
I gave Jamie his space, keeping my back turned, while he got dressed. Reaching into the wardrobe, I pulled out two Academy uniforms on hangers. Both were badly wrinkled, and one was stained with blood. I started measuring the two to figure out which one was most wearable.
Cloth rustled against my hand. I didn’t look, but felt it, then seized it.
Jamie had passed me his spare uniform. Unwrinkled and clean.
“Might be a little big, but it’s gotta be better than that.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Best friends, right? Or chalk it up to teamwork.”
“Yeah,” I said.
White shirt with the Radham emblem on the lapel and sleeve, light gray uniform jacket, dark gray pants. Socks, shoes.
Same as I’d worn six days a week for months.
I fished my badge out of one pocket, a silver etching of Radham’s coat of arms, backed by a black piece of leather, connected by a buckle at the top so it could flip up. Both sides of the leather were marked by a script, though general wear and tear had made it hard to read. Clearance to do what I needed to do
The badge went in a pocket, out of sight.
When we were done, we stepped back out into the hallway, where we waited for Gordon, Helen, and Mary.
“I’m not suited for this,” I said. “Uniforms, schedules, routine.”
“Make a game of it?”
“I’ve made so many games of it,” I said. “I’ve made games about the games I’ve made of it.”
“I don’t know what to say. I feel like you’re buttering us up. You’re being too nice.”
“I’m trying not to be an asshole,” I told him. I had to choose my words carefully to avoid letting details slip to an overhearing ear. “I’m so god-damned tired of this thing we’re doing at the Academy. I’m cranky and I’m feeling spiteful, and it’s almost that time of the month.”
“For my appointment,” I whispered. “And after my appointment I’m going to be worse. I can’t take much more of this. Something’s going to break, or give, or something. I want to make sure I’ve established who my friends are before it happens.”
He reached up and put his hand on my head, mussing up my hair, side-to-side. I let my head rock with the motion.
The girls emerged, radiant in white, Mary with her hair done up in a slightly different style, two thin braids reaching behind her head, where they met and were tied into place with a ribbon, trailing down at the back. The rest of her hair was brushed straight. She was smiling in a way I hadn’t expected. Whatever magic Helen had worked, this was above and beyond. Mary looked like an entirely different person, from an emotional standpoint.
“Looks nice,” I said.
She leaned close to Jamie and I, smiling all the while as she whispered, “We figured out how to hide knives in there. Can you even see them?”
“No,” I said, as Jamie shook his head.
“You would not believe how many weapons I’m carrying right now,” she said, smiling like the cat with the canary.
Jamie and I glanced at each other. I knew we were thinking the same thing, an echo of our earlier conversation.
Girls are scary.
Lillian met us at the entrance to the Bowels. She was holding a small stack of files. Without a word, she joined our rank and file, handing the files to Gordon.
We descended the stairs into the more dangerous laboratories of the Academy. Gordon passed one file back to us. “You do one, we do one?”
“Who’s you and we?” Mary asked.
“You and Jamie go with Sy. Helen, Lillian and I work on this one.”
“Sure,” Mary said.
Odd, that he’d put me together with Mary and Jamie. Was he going easy on me? Did he sense that I was close to my limit? Suggesting I join up with the people I got along with best?
Good guy, that Gordon.
“Two-eighteen,” he said, pointing off to one side. Two floors deep.
“We’ll be in Three-twelve,” I said.
Our groups parted.
We descended another floor, then went to find the right lab.
Mary knocked on the door.
The man who answered wore a grey coat, and had a patch of skin on his face that was paler than the rest, with a frost-like pattern to how it was discolored and no hair growth on that part of his head, just above and behind the ear. I was pretty sure that it was from a few decades back, when they were still experimenting with new skin growth. When I’d had my skin melted off with the Snake Charmer’s special venom, I’d had the newest kind, and it had been uncomfortable for days. This guy would be that uncomfortable for the rest of his life, very probably.
“I know you,” he said.
“You do?” Mary asked, surprised.
“Word’s getting around. The audit.”
“Where’d you get the word about this audit?” I asked. “Or that we were the ones doing it?”
He smiled. “I can’t name names. But you can’t expect to interview every single notable staff member and project team leader without someone letting something reach the wrong ear.”
I frowned. Well, that took any potential fun we might have out of this.
“I’ve even heard that you’re a special project yourselves,” he said.
I didn’t give a tell, and I knew Mary wouldn’t either, but he still smiled as if we’d given something away. Jamie?
“How does that work?” Jamie asked. “Are we supposed to be killing machines?”
“I’ve heard you’re adults in kid’s bodies. To catch people off guard.”
Well, they’re wrong, but that’s still a really bad sign.
I spoke up, “Are you going to tell us who you heard that from?”
He shook his head. “Oddly enough, I don’t think I can remember.”
“Yes. Very odd,” I said, suppressing a sigh. “That’s stupid.”
“It’s really, really stupid. It sounds like you don’t even know how the Academy works. Funding experimental kids. Is that why they think you’re doing something wrong in that lab of yours?”
The table was successfully turned. Patchy frowned. “My work is exemplary. I’ve been supported every step of the way.”
“Exemplary,” Jamie said, while writing in his notebook, more slowly than usual.
“Show us?” Mary asked.
The man nodded. He invited us in.
It smelled like a barn inside, which probably wasn’t a bad way of putting it. The lab was one of the larger ones, but iron bars blocked off one side from the other. On our side, there were tables and notebooks, slates with equations and notes written out in chalk, and a full set of Ratios by Species.
On the other side, the experiment lurched. It was five-legged, unbalanced, it had no less than ten heads. The body was patchwork, some areas feathered, some furred, some scaled. With every movement, it made a hoarse whine, or a high pitched growl. It was hard to say.
“Doesn’t look very viable,” I said.
“Not… viable,” Jamie echoed me, penning it down.
“Hold on,” Patches said. “Do you even grasp the very basics of what we’re doing here?”
“Um, yeah,” I said. Then I added a lie for good measure, “Our project, like all the other groups going around, is to summarize your projects, take notes, and do reports on them for class.”
When what we’re really doing is scouring the university for Mauer’s moles and spies. Investigating and interviewing every single damn person who might know something Mauer might be able to use or pass on.
Checking ten to twenty a day, out of thousands of relevant doctors, teachers, students, and staff members. Six days a week, for three months.
We’d only caught one.
This is my personal hell.
“I’m talking about method,” he said. “It starts with a goal.”
“Making a weapon,” Mary said.
The doctor gave her a very condescending look. I prickled a little at that.
“No,” Patches said. “That’s one option. It’s an easy way to get bonus funding and extensions. But if someone can contribute to the greater scientific knowledge in a demonstrable way, we can use that. Right here, we have my study on ratios. Common lines of thinking are that all sustainable lifeforms naturally fit into certain configurations on the macro or micro scales. So long as the scale is maintained, or not deviated from too much, the lifeform should survive, even as other life is grafted into it on the micro and macro levels.”
“Doesn’t look very sustainable,” I said.
“Seeing when, where, and why it fails is my goal. It’s very possible that thousands of doctors and professors around the world are operating under a flawed assumption,” he said. “In the process, I’ve cataloged whole texts with numbers on the ratios pre- and post- graft. I have support from four different professors in Radham, and two more in other institutions.”
“File has details on your past,” Jamie said. “We’re getting a sense of where things stand at present-”
“Four papers and one text published in the last three months,” Patches said, with pride.
“What’s in the future?” Jamie asked.
The creature made a noise, louder than before, a guttural whine.
“Next step in determining sustainability. I’ll have my creature impregnate itself,” Patches said. “It’s a chimera, actually two sets of compatible DNA in one creature. It won’t bear a clone, but a genetically distinct member of its own species, I’m hoping. If it can carry offspring to term, that’s the last major benchmark in sustainability.”
Jamie nodded, but I noticed his hands as the giveaway, clutching pen and book.
“Any other questions?” I asked Mary and Jamie.
They shook their heads.
We stepped out of the room, and the door was shut firmly behind us.
“Nope,” I said.
“Didn’t get any impressions he was hiding anything,” Mary said. “He even knew we were investigating on a more official level, didn’t flinch.”
“I was thinking it was more to do with his personality. That’s a long-term project, ties him in pretty deeply to the academic community. He had some idea who we were, even. That’s not someone who gets caught or used by the Shepherd.”
“No,” Mary said.
“What do you think, Jamie?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, absently.
“Okay, I’ll rephrase. What are you thinking?”
“The animal in there. What he was talking about. Doesn’t sit well.”
“Our sensitive soul,” Mary said. She stepped over and gave Jamie a kiss on the side of the head. He smiled at her, still clutching his book tight to his body.
“Wuss,” I said.
He hit me with the book.
I amended my statement. “Nah, I’ll back what Mary said. I think I get it. You’re a good person like that.”
We reached the staircase, and started our way back up to Gordon, Helen, and Lillian.
We were only partway up when we saw the woman coming down.
Half-again as tall as a woman should be, she wore clothes that were a part of her, waves of raw-edged, scar-tissue flesh flowing back to cover her hair, wrap around her arms, encircle her legs like a dress, and cover her feet. Only her face was normal, and it was a very pretty face, though the eyelids were fixed open with staples, and her mouth sealed shut by the same. Tubes ran out of her cheeks, down from her tear ducts, and out of her ears, while more extended from belly button, each tube feeding out a constant supply of black or bile-yellow fluid. The tubes themselves disappeared into the folds of the cloth covering.
Her arms were bloody, up to the elbows. That same blood was splattered all over her front and legs, with droplets on her face.
She made her way down the stairs at a brisk pace, crimson hands clasped in front of her. We hurried to get out of her way.
We were silent as we watched her continue her herky-jerky descent deeper into the Bowels, perfectly upright throughout, though her head bobbed with each step down she took on the stairwell.
We exchanged glances.
We bolted. Up the stairs, down the hall.
Jamie knew the room number, though I’d forgotten. It didn’t matter in the end. The door was open.
Broken glass was everywhere. Helen was sitting against the wall, Gordon and Lillian were kneeling over a mangled body, Lillian doing what she could to help the man, though it didn’t look like it was enough.
“Mole?” I asked.
Gordon shook his head. “But he was hiding something here. Moment we started asking questions, he panicked.”
“His panic agitated the experiment,” Helen said. “The experiment agitated his insides with her hands.”
“Please,” Lillian was whispering. “Please, please, please…”
“I don’t think you can save him,” I said.
“He’s… I wish I could, but that’s not what I’m worried about,” she said. She looked at me and whispered, “Lockdown.”
A silence followed her word.
“Let’s go,” Gordon said. “Get out of here before-”
The siren went off. All through the complex, throughout the Bowels, the lighting shifted.
“Oh,” I said. I slapped my face with my hand. “Oh. Well, you just had to go and jinx it, didn’t you?”
Heavy thuds marked the barricades dropping down. With the experiment loose as far down as she was, chances were good that they’d only sealed off the exit.
“I’m sorry,” Lillian said, in a small voice. “I’m really sorry.”
Like we haven’t spent enough time down here already, I thought, as I heard the loudest thud yet, a final, terrible impact, burying us inside.