In the wake of the biggest seal coming down, breakers, locks, and defense systems could be heard, one after the other, throughout the complex, each one a distinct ‘boom’ with a long series of echoes following it. The room vibrated with the motion of water through the floor and ceiling, before something filled up or the flow became consistent.
“Just to make it absolutely clear,” I said. “I wasn’t here when this happened.”
“What?” Lillian asked. The look she gave me was a bewildered one.
“First thing Hayle or Briggs are going to think is, ‘Sy did it.’ Guarantee you. I’d like to point out, for everyone in the room, except maybe the dead guy there, who isn’t listening, that I’m innocent this time.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Helen said. “You weren’t here.”
“How is that a priority?” Lillian asked, her voice tremulous, like she might break at any second. “Why does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” I said.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. She was gesturing far more than usual, and her hands were bloody. She shoved them in my direction, “This is one of the very worst things that could happen, and it happened in the worst way, and you’re assigning blame?”
Lillian wheeled around and lunged for me. Gordon swept her up and caught her in a tight hug, holding her back, and holding her at the same time. It served as emotional support just as much as it was keeping her from trying to strangle me with her gore-smeared hands.
“I can beat you in a fight, Sy!” Lillian shouted, still struggling. “Just give me an excuse!”
I spread my arms helplessly, unsure of what to say.
Outside the door, a long train of people in lab coats ran down the length of the hallway, shouted instructions flying between them.
Lillian had seen her share of crises. Yes, she was young, and being very good and spending a lot of time around us did influence her behavior to sometimes mask how young she really was, but I’d honestly expected a response similar to the other doctors, rather than this.
I looked at Jamie, one eyebrow raised.
“She’s claustrophobic,” Jamie informed me. “Right now she’s-”
“I’m not claustrophobic,” Lillian cut him off. “I’m phobic of this, whatever the phobia is for being trapped in a dungeon with dangerous experiments and sterilization procedures!”
“Understandable,” Jamie said, gently.
“When I think of worst case scenarios and I think of those a lot because I work with you guys, when I think about the stuff most of it starts like this and I’m in the Bowels of the Academy,” Lillian said, and she put an awful lot of emotion into her voice at the end.
Mary approached, and Gordon handed off Lillian to her. Lillian buried her face into Mary’s shoulder.
The emotion in Lillian’s voice carried over as she continued speaking. “I like to be prepared just in case so I can be strong, but in the worst thoughts I’m here and there’s almost no point to being strong because I’m here, and if I feel like imagining something especially bad to test myself, then sometimes something’s loose and we have no idea what it is, and if I feel like being really, really mean to myself, then I imagine Sy being there and he’s making fun of me all the while. And it’s happening!”
“Why?” Gordon asked. “Why do that to yourself?”
“Because it sucks being the only one that’s freaking out! Just like this, right now! I don’t want to stand out when you all are saying, ‘that’s one big spider, do you think it eats horses?’ But no, I get freaked out and Sy acts like a penis, and Helen acts like she’s seen worse because she has and that doesn’t make me feel better at all! The rest of you are okay and nice about it. I want to mentally fortify myself, so I don’t get scared anymore.”
“We can work on it together,” Mary offered. “We’ll get through this, and we’ll work on it together.”
“I don’t want to be scared anymore,” Lillian mumbled. “I’ve heard too many stories from my classmates and stuff.”
“Dumbass,” I said.
Jamie punched me, giving me a glare. Everyone else stared at me in shock.
I pressed on anyway. “You’re valuable to us because you’re normal. Mary should know as well as any of us, how we need people to remind us how normal people act. The day you stop being scared and become one of us, we won’t need you like we do.”
The counterpoint is that by being around us, she’s absorbing our qualities, trying to emulate us.
“That almost sounds comforting,” Mary said.
“It isn’t,” Lillian said. “Sy doesn’t do comforting. He does manipulation.”
“No, Sy does comfort people,” Jamie said. “He just does it in his own special way.”
Everyone has a weak point, I thought. Everyone has good days and bad ones. It’s only when we’ve seen someone on their best and worst days that we can truly know them.
This was Lillian’s bad day, it seemed.
“You want to be a professor someday, right?” I asked. Her good day. The day she gets her coat and degree.
“If you’re going to be the best Lillian you can be, it’s not going to be by trying to fit in with us. Take another step closer to being the woman that wears a black coat. That doesn’t mean being fearless, it means doing what needs to be done.”
Lillian nodded again. She seemed a little less distraught than before. Mary gave her a reassuring squeeze of the shoulders.
“…So tell us what’s going on,” I told her.
Her face fell.
I expected Jamie to hit me for that one, but he didn’t. Perhaps he wanted to know as much as I did.
Lillian started explaining in a way that made me think of a stitched, very deliberately, without a whole lot of emotion, “I said this happened in the worst way. These first few floors are supposed to be for stuff that isn’t so dangerous. The lockdown protocols here have to be manually activated by the people in the labs. Something that dangerous shouldn’t be here, and it shouldn’t have gotten loose.”
“Further down you go, the more there is to keep things contained,” Helen added. “With some exceptions. It gets wobbly with people trading for lab space.”
“What was this experiment, exactly?” Mary asked.
“Project codename Sub Rosa. Another attempt at reviving the dead,” Gordon said. He had the file. Jamie reached for the papers, and Gordon handed them over before continuing, “They pitched it for weapon funding, saying that it had uses in feigning death. Spy dies in an obvious and undeniable manner, pulse stopped, heartbeat stopped, gets placed in the cocoon, revived. Or the Academy removes one of its enemies, steals them away from the morgue, and then revives them for questioning.”
“Does it work?” Mary asked.
Lillian shook her head. “Destroyed brain structures are still gone. We were asking the doctor about this inhibitor that was reported to vastly speed up brain and muscle cell regeneration, but even if it rebuilds, it won’t rebuild the exact same things that were there before. Some, but not all.”
“Blank slate,” Jamie said. “Heal the body, restore the brain’s capacity, but the person doesn’t just magically grow back.”
I gave him a curious look.
“Yes,” Lillian said. Though she was oblivious to my exchange of glances with Jamie, she was more focused on the task at hand than she had been. I wondered if it was my advice or the fact that she was talking about something she was passionate about.
“She doesn’t have any offensive weapons?” Mary asked.
Gordon shook his head.
“She’s strong,” Helen said. “There wasn’t anything about that in the file.”
Lillian said, “Doctor Shipman-”
“Him?” I asked, pointing at the body.
“Him, yes. He had to know that Sub Rosa was exceeding expectations,” Lillian said, “But he chose to keep it secret. Why? Telling the Academy would have meant extra funding.”
“Excellent, Lillian,” I said. “That’s a question we need to answer. Secrets within secrets, with that experiment at the center of it.”
Gordon nodded, “We should probably check in with Gorger, then figure out how we can help.”
We nodded, though Lillian seemed reluctant.
“The experiment is probably killing everyone she comes across,” Gordon said. “If we’re going to contribute, it can’t be in a face to face confrontation. We gather information, disseminate that information, and see if we can’t work with Gorger to keep the problem contained.”
A bunch of us started to speak all at once. It was Lillian who came through the clearest. Or Lillian that Gordon chose to listen to, anyway.
“Without us in the containment?” Lillian asked.
“Exactly,” Gordon said.
Mary, Jamie and I spoke up at exactly the same time. He deferred to us.
I let Mary win. The nebulous benefit garnered by being the one to bring it up wasn’t worth getting on the wrong side of Mary’s competitive spirit.
“She isn’t killing everything she comes across,” Mary said. “She walked right by us as we were coming up. We weren’t even really hiding, we were on the stairs.”
“Yep,” I said. “That’s what I was gonna say.”
“She went down?” Gordon asked.
“It’s reassuring that she didn’t go after you, but why go down? Why is she being selective about who she kills?” Gordon asked. “Something happened to make someone call for an emergency state. They must have found a body. She would have moved on, or they’d have locked down one specific area.”
Helen nodded. “Code blue. Or a code indigo is possible. Or a code white. Code brown, even? That doesn’t narrow things down. There are any number of reasons they could have locked everything down.”
“I know what those codes mean,” Lillian said, quiet. “This is moving closer to me getting all panicky again.”
“All I meant was that something happened, and it wasn’t just a strange creature wandering around that made people react,” Gordon said.
We headed out the door. After a moment’s pause, glancing at each other to make sure we were all together, we started down the stairs. Gordon and Mary took the lead, Helen and Lillian second, with Jamie and I at the rear.
“We need to find Gorger, first of all,” Gordon said. “He hangs out more at the lower levels. Eight or nine.”
“Stop at floor six first,” Jamie said. He handed the file back to Gordon. “Our scientist here has relatives. You guys interviewed one a month ago.”
“We did?” Gordon asked.
“Bug swarms, tranquilizing and anaesthetic venom. Helen, Lillian, and Sy.”
“I remember,” Lillian said. “The girl, right? I liked her.”
“Okay,” Gordon said. “Sounds like a plan.”
With the way the stairwell was constructed, the Bowels constituted a deep, circular shaft that disappeared far, far below. The stairwell spiraled down the exterior, with doors at set intervals. Floor two, labs one through twenty four. The entrance to labs twenty five through fifty was a bit lower.
After floor two ended, there was a gap where there were no openings at all. A given floor or ceiling was very, very thick, loaded with sterilization and containment measures.
“Don’t forget to watch walls and ceilings,” Mary said, pointing at the space under the stairs to her left. “Is that old hat for all of you? I’ve only done the one job with you, and a lot of interviews, but those aren’t really a job, I don’t want to keep giving advice that you’ve all heard before.”
“Definitely not a job. Torture, more like,” I said. Mary turned and flashed me a smile.
“Walls and ceilings,” Mary said, again. “Tip Percy gave us when we were planning how we would deal with various weapons the Academy might send after us.”
“It’s a good tip,” Gordon said. “But I don’t think she can climb on walls or drop down on top of us.”
“I like being extra careful,” Lillian said. “Being extra careful sounds fantastic.”
She said fantastic with a dismal tone. If she hadn’t actually said it, I would have heard the inflection she gave her words and thought that ‘fantastic’ was a word that was never going to leave her mouth.
We passed floor three, the hallway that led to labs one through ten.
Long, long way down.
“Tetradeleocleithrophobia,” Jamie whispered to me.
“She said it wasn’t claustrophobia. It was a phobia of being trapped in a place with monsters and life-exterminating deathtraps. I really wanted to take a stab at it, but then she would’ve been trying to strangle me, not you.”
“Take a stab at it?” I asked. “You memorized a dictionary when you were eight. I’d think you’d know.”
“They don’t let me learn Latin, like how I’ve been forbidden to read Academy texts. I pick some up, just like I’ve glimpsed textbook pages now and again, but I’m not sure.”
“I don’t like not being sure. Not about day to day stuff. But about my head. Either I know something, or I don’t. But I think tetradeleocleithrophobia would be right, right?”
I gave him my best shrug.
“That’s going to bother me for a long time,” he said.
“If we make it out of here, I’ll find a way to double check it for you,” I said.
“Yeah. They don’t expect me to retain much, memory-wise, but I can figure it out and keep track of that much.”
He threw an arm around my shoulders.
We passed the start of the fourth floor like that, Jamie with the book under one arm and me under the other. I could see Lillian getting more agitated as we got further down. Gordon and Mary were in their element. Helen didn’t tend to show much at all.
Footsteps pounded on the stairs, echoing up the stairwell. We stepped into a hallway to get out of the way and take what little cover we could.
A group of men and women in white lab coats fled up the stairs. One glanced at us, but was too out of breath to say anything. Fear and concern marked her expression, and her unwillingness to stop for even a few seconds helped fill in the rest of the story.
The start of the fifth floor was a little distance below us. On the stairs around the hallway, there were pieces of bodies, smears of blood, and more dropped pieces along the way.
Bloody footsteps marked the passage of the escaped experiment into the hallway.
“She went this way?” Mary asked.
“Seems too easy,” I said. “Too obvious.”
“Sometimes things are easy and obvious,” Gordon said. “If she is in here, we can close off the section.”
“Requiring a sacrificial pawn,” Jamie observed.
It was a heavy concept. Which of us were we willing to sacrifice?
Why did I feel like one or two of the others might nominate me?
“Or we could try to convince someone else to do it,” I offered an alternative. “Yeah?”
“Maybe,” Gordon said.
He led us into the hallway.
We’d spent some time down here already. I knew that the hallways on the lower levels were more complex. There were thicker doors, heavy ones that would be hard for even a stitched with a battering ram to smash down. Beyond would be more hallways, ones with safeguards, sterilization and elimination measures. Stitched guards, probably. At least one of the corpses that had been used to decorate the surroundings had been a stitched, going by the dry flesh and the wires that had been pulled free here and there, sticking out of the flesh like porcupine quills.
Things had changed since then. Lightbulbs had been smashed here and there, and there were sections of hallway where a surprise party could have been laying in wait, complete with cake and clowns. Or monsters.
Monsters were more likely to be lurking in the shadows. We could walk into the darkness and bump noses with her. Even Mary or Gordon wouldn’t be able to achieve much if that were to happen. Torn to shreds.
“This screams ‘trap’,” I said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. He’d already stopped advancing. “I was thinking something along those lines.”
“Sub Rosa was human once. Probably isn’t very human anymore,” Jamie said. “Blank slate syndrome, unlearned skills, partially retained skills. She might be more similar to a fevered stitched. Odd patterns of behavior, with brief and narrow moments of brilliance. It’s not impossible that she could be capable of laying traps.”
“Including preparing ambushes,” I said.
“What are your instincts?” Gordon asked.
“Leave,” Mary said. “Better to live to fight another day.”
“I don’t disagree,” I chimed in. I was actually glad that Percy’s philosophies and mine lined up here. If they hadn’t, I would have been put into the awkward position of either going with a dumb plan or possibly disturbing Mary.
Not upsetting or angering or anything like that, but disturbing her. Moving her from a place of peace and balance to something she was less easy with.
We backed out of the corridor, heading toward the stairwell.
As we retreated, a silhouette formed out of the shadow. Our missing experiment, taller than even a tall man, adorned in folds of skin. She had more blood on her now than she had when we’d last crossed paths.
A knife had appeared in Mary’s hand. She didn’t throw it, but spun it around one finger, catching it, spun it, caught it.
From the look of it, and I’d seen most of Mary’s knives at this point, I took it to be a throwing knife.
“No,” Gordon said, under his breath. “If she was passive toward you earlier…”
Mary nodded. The knife stayed where it was, but the periodic spinning motion continued. A comfort thing?
Sub Rosa advanced, then stopped. She turned her attention to a set of double doors, heavy, built to interlock and seal.
She gripped the handles, fluid churned in the tubes that riddled Sub Rosa’s body, and the experiment hauled, her entire body contorting to maximize leverage, simultaneously forcing her body toward the ground and hauling back on the doors.
“No,” Lillian said, under her breath. “This is bad, this is bad. Run.”
“Run,” Helen echoed her.
That was a special word, coming from Helen. We ran.
We reached the stairwell, and I was moving fast enough that I had to catch the railing to come to a halt.
“The security measures,” Lillian said. “This far down, if you damage the doors, cause too much disturbance knocking things around, then the slabs built into the ceiling fall down and the gas gets pumped in, and worse stuff.”
“How automatic is that little feature?” Jamie asked.
“Very? There are places we’re not even supposed to run because the tremors can disturb mechanisms.”
“Look,” Jamie said.
With the lighting so bad in the hallway and Sub Rosa being as far away as she was, things were barely more than smudges, dark grey on black, easy to miss when joined by spots in my vision and the throbbing of my heartbeat against my eyes.
The noise gave context to the vague images I was seeing. An eerie scream of tearing metal, followed by a metal-on-stone collision.
“If everything’s automatic, why isn’t she triggering the safeguards here?” Jamie asked. “She just tore a metal door off its hinges.”
“I don’t know,” Lillian said. “It should go off.”
“But it isn’t,” Gordon stated.
“I don’t know.”
Screams echoed from the other end of the hallway that Sub Rosa was in, overlapping with one another.
“We should go down.”
“We’ll corner ourselves,” Jamie said.
“We’re already cornered. If we go up, we’ll be out of options and still won’t have a way out.”
“We could ride it out,” I said, “find a lab to lock ourselves in, but I don’t think that would go over so well with Hayle and Briggs.”
“We’d have a better chance of living,” Lillian pointed out.
“If you want to do that, Lil, don’t let me stop you,” I said. I watched down the length of the hallway that Sub Rosa had gone down. “You’re a free person. Still, I can’t think of anything more miserable than being in a locked room and being unable to do anything but wait for the monsters to come find us. It would be nice to have you along.”
“I can think of a lot of things more miserable,” Lillian said. “I’ve been practicing imagining terrible things.”
“We should go,” Mary said.
“Not until we figure out if the group is splitting up,” I said.
The screaming stopped. Another sound quickly picked up in its place: the sound of tearing metal.
“Question is, is the Lillian you want to be in six years the type to go upstairs and hide, or is she the type that solves problems?”
“That’s a stupid question. I want to be alive, you idiot!”
“Up, down, split up. Pick one,” Gordon said, with more stress than usual in his voice.
“Lillian isn’t deciding,” I said.
“I did, I have, you’re the one making this sound more complicated than it is!” Lillian told me.
“You want to go upstairs? Go, then. Maybe Mary or Gordon can go with you, keep you company and keep you safe,” I said.
“I can,” Mary said.
“I’m going downstairs with the rest of you,” Lillian said. “That was my choice!”
“You didn’t-” I started. Gordon clapped a hand over my mouth.
Things were emerging from the hallway.
Not Sub Rosa.
They were men and women, and none of them looked like they’d eaten well at all. They didn’t shamble, they didn’t limp, but many were hunched over. Glass cases and canisters were fused to their backs and shoulders, ranging from the size of a fist to the size of a breadbox, each one filled with a urine-yellow fluid, and each one housing what looked to be a sinuous aquatic lifeform, black and periodically uncoiling in the murky fluid. Octopus, eel, or a combination of the two.
Each had long tracks of stitches on their arms, legs, and chests. Their wrists were bent perpetually at right angles, metal spears forced out from beneath the flesh of their forearms and through their palms.
Modified stitched? They didn’t look well looked after.
The men and women with the jars implanted into their backs picked up speed. They were too malnourished to be fast, but it was a good indication that they’d decided to come after us.
“Down!” Gordon hissed the word.
We turned and made our way down. With one hand on the wall to steady myself, I could take the stairs three at a time. The others weren’t far behind.
Mary flipped a throwing knife around in her hand, then whipped it at one of the tinted lightbulbs. The light died, leaving an entire section of stairs in near-pitch darkness, while leaving me to almost miss the stair I was planning on stepping on. We fled into the makeshift shelter that the darkness provided, then stepped into the first hallway for the sixth floor.
Mary didn’t come with us into the hallway. Seeing her only in silhouette, I could see how she was pulling the ribbon from her hair. She knelt by the railing on the stairs, and then slowly backed up, joining us in the hallway.
A tripwire. Crude, but effective, especially when the experiments looked as fragile as they did.
Lillian and Helen stopped at a heavy metal door, much like the one Sub Rosa had torn off the hinges. The keypad clicked audibly as each button was punched.
“Damn it,” Lillian said, under her breath.
Our pursuers emerged, grabbing the railing for support, or shielding their eyes from the light right above them as they scanned the stairs above and below them, looking for fleeing children. That same light made the cases on their backs and shoulders seem to glow, and the jaundiced color of their skin became especially apparent, a sallow yellow marked with dull grey tattoos.
Prison tattoos. Convicts. They weren’t stitched. They were people. The Academy needed its fodder for human experimentation, and prisoners of war, the worst criminals, and ex-slaves deemed unfit to be citizens of the crown were all candidates for such.
Meaning they were people with cause to be angry, desperate, and above all else, they were people who were an unpredictable sort of dangerous.
Sub Rosa exited the hallway, and came to stand in the midst of the group, head and shoulders above the rest.
She’d let them out.
“She has a strategy?” I murmured the question out loud. “She knows where she’s going, who she’s going after, and she knows how to bypass the quarantine measures?”
“Let’s not forget about her friends,” Gordon said. “She might have left you three alone, but it’s not likely they will.”
“Too many questions, no answers. We need to talk to Shipman’s relative, and find out anything we can,” I said. I checked over my shoulder.
Lillian punched a finger at the keypad once again, then mashed her fist into it, forehead coming to rest on the door.
Her bad day kept getting worse. I’d seen Gordon’s bad day, I’d seen Jamie’s, Mary’s, and I’d seen Helen’s, in a way, though Helen’s concept of ‘bad’ was different from ours.
Would it be consolation to her if I told her that I might start thinking of her as one of us if she could just see this through?
Best not to test her when she was this close to breaking.
“Seems we can’t get through,” Helen said, turning my way to offer a cute smile. “Whoever took shelter inside changed the code.”