The footsteps sounded, drawing closer. Heavy feet striking stone, the periodic bang of metal spikes on the railing, a muttered curse from one of the convicts.
We were in the dark, halfway down a hallway with only a bit of light coming through a slot above and halfway down the door. An angled piece of metal at the ceiling caught the light from above the door and reflected it down onto the door’s surface, making the keypad visible. At the other end of the hallway was the cylindrical shaft, deep, with stairs spiraling down the exterior, but Mary had destroyed one of the lights and the others were far away and out of sight.
Sub Rosa and a gang of Academy-modified convicts were making their way down toward us.
“We need to run,” Mary said. She was closer to the opening, crouching, holding one end of the tripwire in one hand, a knife in the other.
With luck, barring any surprises, she could remove two of our pursuers. If we ran, we could slip ahead of Sub Rosa’s group and try to make our way down the stairs to another level.
“If it was just you, me, Gordon, maybe Helen? Sure,” I said. “But I don’t think half of us would make it.”
“What?” Lillian asked.
“You, Jamie, maybe Helen, I don’t think you three would be fast enough,” I clarified.
“No,” Lillian said, breathless.
“Staying might mean we all die,” Jamie said. “I’m okay with trying running, that in mind.”
“I’m not,” I said. “If Mary wants to, or if Gordon wants to, then okay. We can split up. But I’m staying with.”
“I’m staying,” Gordon said, voice firm.
“Me too,” Mary said. “If we lose too many members of the team the Lambs might be disbanded, anyway, and I don’t know what happens to me if that happens. I like you guys.”
I smiled a bit. Mary was coming up with excuses, the group being disbanded, but something told me she was more attached to our little ‘family’ than any of us.
“All or none, then,” I said.
“All or none,” Gordon agreed.
“Which means our only option is to get through,” Jamie said.
“Except we can’t!” Lillian said, with a note of panic to her voice. She hit the keypad. “Damn it!”
“Let me,” Gordon said.
Lillian and Helen got out of the way. Gordon set about dismantling the keypad with his pocket knife.
I could hear the footsteps approaching, not just the echo, but the actual knock of foot on stair. I looked back and forth from one end of the hallway to the other. As I looked in Mary’s direction, she met my eyes, her grip on the knife tightening.
I could see the ways this might play out, though things got a lot less predictable when the convicts got close. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I was willing to bet that Mary and Gordon together wouldn’t stand up to four or five of them and one experiment that could tear steel doors out of the frame.
“Mary,” the word left my lip before the thought had fully coalesced.
I gave her a shake of my head.
“No?” she whispered.
The footsteps were drawing closer, to the point that I could make out the individual footfalls between the scrapes and bangs of Gordon’s attempts at working with the keypad. They were just around the corner.
“No,” I whispered. I reached out.
She abandoned the makeshift tripwire, stood, and crossed half of the length of the hallway to reach me, taking my hand. My hand was more sweaty than hers, which caught me by surprise. I held her hand tight, being careful not to hurt her fingers.
My heart thudded in my chest, making my entire body rock with each beat. I was jittery, and I wasn’t normally a jittery type.
The Lambs, my friends, my gang, my family.
I didn’t want to see them get hurt.
Come on. Down the stairs, I thought.
The footsteps got closer, and shadows moved just beyond the exit of the hallway.
Sub Rosa was foremost among them. She reached the broader stair that was just beyond the hallway’s exit, then turned, facing us.
The convicts surrounded her. I could only barely make out their eyes in the gloom, as they stared down the hallway at us.
I heard a snicker.
I gave Mary’s hand a fierce squeeze, then let go.
In a fight, I was useless.
Better to give the group as much warning as possible, if this went sour.
I stepped forward, putting out a hand to tell Mary to stop, to urge her to keep back.
Another step forward. It put me at the head of the group. The rest were behind me, a few steps away from the door.
Might be nice if you popped that door open, Gordon, I thought. Would rather run at this point than put my life on the line for you guys.
Sub Rosa advanced, in the lead of her group. A woman in robes and habit of flesh, eyes permanently open, mouth permanently sealed, stained with blood.
The convicts were jaundiced, malnourished, but what remained in their ravaged bodies was a hard, scary sort of ranginess, as different from normal people as snarling mutts chained up in a graveyard were from house dogs.
A big fellow broke the silence. He stood a head taller than everyone, only a foot or so shorter than Sub Rosa. He looked like he’d eaten better than the rest. The leader? His voice was soft, but it had a whine to it, not suited to how large he was, the kind of tone I expected to hear from one of the youngest kids at the orphanage, telling Mrs. Earles how his toy had been stolen, except it came from the throat of a man. “Academy brat.”
I kept my mouth shut.
“Look what you did to me,” he said. He raised his hand, showing me the spike that speared out of the palm, forcing his wrists into a permanent right angle bend. The flesh around the spike looked red and infected, and there was a great deal of black and yellow fluid there.
I’d thought it was a giant needle, connected to the jars of fluid on his back, but it wasn’t. It was solid, without a hollow part to it. Almost as long as his arm.
“Look,” he said, more insistent, his tone more of a mewl. Then, fierce, he raised his voice, “Look!”
I kept my mouth shut. Damn him. He wasn’t the one I wanted to be focusing on right this moment.
Oblivious to the man’s cries, Sub Rosa strode toward me. Now that she was closer, I could see the odd musculature on her body, highlighted by the thin shafts of light that made it through the door. Of her entire body, only the face seemed ordinary. The rest was put together in an odd way, with a strange aesthetic to it.
I swallowed hard.
But I didn’t move out of her way.
As strategies went, this wasn’t one that was well founded in fact and a deep understanding of our opposition. This was one that was very likely to get me killed or maimed.
But she was acting with deliberation, not quite as if following a script, but not rampaging either.
She’d left us alone before.
She had been following a set course of action. Now I was putting myself in the way of that course. Testing it.
Behind her, the soft-spoken, mewling convict spoke up, looking past her to stare at me. “You did this to us. I’d give you the worst spanking of your life, little boy, but I can’t, because of what you all did to my body.”
“Our bodies,” the one woman of the group said, with a hard sort of anger to her voice. She didn’t have the same whiny tone, so it wasn’t a part of the changes that had been made to them. It was only the one guy.
I didn’t take my eyes off Sub Rosa, I couldn’t. The convict’s words were reminding me that I didn’t have a course of action planned for what came next. I was laying odds on Sub Rosa killing or striking me. If it came to that, at least the others would know they had to fight if they were going to have a chance to make it out.
Between me and the others, there were only about ten paces of hallway between Sub Rosa and the door. The six of us were confined to that space.
I still had my hand out a little ways behind me, the flat of it facing Mary,
“Sy,” Gordon said.
“Door?” I asked him, still staring Sub Rosa down. Her eyes moved down to look at me for the first time.
“I can’t. If you gave me two or three more minutes, maybe, but… I’m sorry.”
I didn’t turn away.
“Can’t spank,” the convict mused aloud. “Next best thing, if I stick this down your throat, you think I can get the spike coming out the other end?”
I resisted the bait.
Sub Rosa was only a short distance away. She was my focus.
“Breakfast was nice,” I commented, for the benefit of the others.
Eating together with everyone.
Silly last thing to be saying, as I put myself in front of a brain-damaged, door-rending killer, but I didn’t have time to really come up with better.
I could hear the sucking of the tubes at Sub Rosa’s face, chest, and stomach.
She turned, walking around me.
Her hand reached out, touching the top of my head. She absently smoothed my hair down in passing.
If I was shocked, showing it would have been a terminal mistake. I stayed still, my expression steady as the convicts approached me. The others had to handle Sub Rosa on their own.
The soft-spoken giant with a heart of perverse violence approached me. He touched the metal rods together, and they sparked.
“I’ll give you your breakfast,” he said, under his breath. Just for him and me.
I was between him and Sub Rosa now. He picked up the pace, raising his hand, spike extended right for my face, thrusting.
I could have sidestepped, but I didn’t see that going anywhere good. I stepped back, instead, and bumped into Sub Rosa. The spike came right for me. His steps were bigger than mine.
He was aiming for my lower face.
In one end and out the other.
I opened my mouth, and the spike touched my front teeth, something cracked, I felt like a vein in my face had leaped out the front of my head and torn away everything in the way, followed by a wave of clenching pain gripping the other side of my face, until I thought my own muscles would destroy themselves.
“Sy!” Mary cried out.
I sprawled to Sub Rosa’s left. My face clenched again, as if the one side of it was a fist. The spike wasn’t even still touching me. I gasped in a small breath, and realized I could make a sound if I needed to.
If she was kind enough to fix my hair, could I ask for help here?
But instincts told me no.
The thoughts that played out in the next few seconds told me why my instincts had told me no. Of all the possible outcomes that followed, Sub Rosa standing up for me and fighting the convicts was the only good one, and I couldn’t explain why she would.
I couldn’t explain why she wouldn’t either, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a shot in the dark when I wasn’t even sure what I was shooting at.
I moved my tongue, trying to figure out the extent of the damage, and felt a large chunk of tooth roll between my tongue and the roof of my mouth.
My gaze was fixed on the convict as I spat out the little bit of tooth.
Stare him down, show no fear.
He was an animal, he barely had opposable thumbs anymore. I had to communicate by the most basic means available. Body language, expression, eye contact.
If I acted as afraid as I was, I became a known element. Even if every single one of his victims had fought back, even if he was an innocent man, if he’d been in prison long enough to get the crude, washed-out tattoos that I saw on his arms, he had to have learned about pecking orders, hierarchies, power.
If I spoke, if I tried to convince him, if I used logic, then I became a student of the Academy, and it was a very unfortunate thing that I was wearing a white uniform. They had cause to be angry at students of the Academy.
The remaining action I might have taken would have been to appeal to emotion, to communicate in terms of desire and drive, hopes, mercy. It was a shot in the dark, I had no idea who he was or what he’d done, but from his words and situation I didn’t trust his ability to give mercy. Still, it was the first choice I would have made, if I’d had to do something, like if he were to move on to threaten Jamie, Mary, or one of the others.
Instead, lying on my back, staring up at him, I spread my hands a little, turning my palms upward, fingers spread.
The man approached until his feet were to either side of me. The spike moved over, until it pointed at the base of my throat.
I wanted to smile, laugh, taunt him, but that was as dangerous as any appeal to logic or emotion might have been.
My sanctuary here was in being alien, in making him as unsure as possible. I channeled Helen. The cold stare. Well, a cold stare with my one eye twitching involuntarily from the last grazing touch of the spike.
He didn’t seem to care. He brought the tip close enough to my throat for the energy within to make contact.
Man, that hurt. My back arched as I found myself involuntarily pulling back, trying to pull my head and throat down through the floor. A trace of whatever was within danced down the back of my head, making my thoughts explode into white noise. He moved it toward the center of my body, making my arms, then one of my legs kick. He left it like that, my leg going nuts, my body unable to move away without me heaving my chest up and into the waiting point. Any second now, I’d lurch up and forward and impale myself.
The woman of the group stepped forward. She couldn’t use her hand, but she reached out and nudged the convict’s arm with the back of her hand.
My leg kept kicking and cramping up, even as the spike moved away from my chest.
“Hm?” the convict asked her.
He followed her gaze. I did too, raising my chin to look above me.
Sub Rosa had stepped forward, into the midst of the others, a few paces away from the door, and her upper body was twisted, looking back at me, at the leader of the convicts, and the woman.
Her expression was largely fixed by the modifications to her face. Still, an intensity radiated from her.
The convict who’d had me at spike-point looked down at me, as if debating his options. His gaze moved over the other Lambs. He spat to one side, then stepped over and around me.
It wasn’t like it had been with Mauer. These convicts weren’t with Sub Rosa because they knew her. She was as much a mystery to them as she was to us, and the discovery that she didn’t approve of this sort of behavior was as much a surprise to the convict leader as it was to me.
A nice surprise, for me, but all the same…
Nobody gave me any help in standing. Given the modifications that had been made to the convicts, that was a good thing.
My leg kicked once as I used the wall to help myself to my feet, nearly forcing me to the ground again. I recovered, straightened, and wiped at the corner of my mouth with the back of one hand. It came away with far too much blood on it.
I kept my expression still.
The others had backed away from Sub Rosa, and were standing on either side of the hallway. Lillian looked scared, Jamie’s expression betrayed concern for me but not to the point I was positive the convicts would notice, and the others were managing to stay stoic and calm.
Sub Rosa stepped closer to Gordon, who stepped away, giving her space.
She reached into the simple mechanisms of the keypad, past them, and gripped something else.
The ceiling shuddered. Something heavy fell above us, inside a hollow space.
With a glacial, careful set of movements, Sub Rosa pulled out a length of what looked to be mummified intestine. Past the worn, shredded lining, wires were clearly visible, clustered together.
She pulled a little from the top, and the ceiling shuddered again. Dust streamed down in plumes from the spaces between slabs of stone above us.
Sub Rosa pulled some from further below. Something fluid moved through the walls and ceiling. Lillian shrieked a little.
The fluid stopped as quickly as it had began, but I could hear the trickling as the remainder found a way out.
She’s brain damaged, even.
What if she forgot a step?
Sub Rosa’s fingernails tore away the lining around the wires. She seized one, gripped it, and tore it.
Even with her incredible strength, she had trouble keeping the individual pieces from pulling up and down, respectively. Still, she hauled it together, closer, and tied it into a crude knot.
Far too crude a knot for my liking, given everything that those mechanisms were apparently designed to do.
My eyes met those of the other members of the group. They were watching as much as I was. They were thinking the exact same thing I was.
She knows exactly what she’s doing.
Sub Rosa gripped the door that Gordon, Helen, and Lillian had been trying to open, then contorted her whole body to shove it. It rattled violently in the frame.
She adjusted her grip, then heaved, pulling back. Every muscle in her body, including some beneath the robe of flesh she was cocooned in, seemed to stand out in relief as she put everything into hauling back on the door.
Something within the door snapped.
Push, pull, heave, ho. There was a mechanical kind of motion to it, it was so steady, precise, and relentless. Each motion seemed to bend things only a little. Stress lined appeared around the edges of the frame. Those stress lines became folds.
The convict who’d been threatening me was giving me a sidelong glance. I didn’t do him the favor of meeting his gaze. He didn’t know who I was, he didn’t know why Sub Rosa was interested in my welfare, and I wasn’t interested in informing him either way.
The handle came away in one piece, mangled screws sticking out the other side. She tossed it back and to the side. Gordon stopped it from sliding along the floor with one foot.
Sub Rosa had a singular focus. She hooked her fingers into the holes before resuming the forward-and-back motion. I thought her fingers might break from the movement, with the positions she had them in, but she didn’t seem to mind or care.
She heals fast, if nothing else. I wasn’t sure if that meant she healed in seconds, minutes, hours or days, but either way, she didn’t seem to mind.
The door folded toward the middle, and she placed hands inside the gap, forcing it wider.
Once she got that far, the door didn’t stand for long. In a matter of seconds, she was standing with arms extended to either side, muscles flexing against flesh until they looked like cords of rough-spun rope, thick as my leg and spun out in darkest crimson.
Shouts echoed from further down the hall.
Sub Rosa advanced, each step sure, oddly graceful with her abundant natural strength.
The leader of the convicts sneered at me as he walked by. The woman stared me down, an angry expression, dismissive.
It might have been rebelliousness that made me do it, but I was inspired.
I turned, and I walked in formation with Sub Rosa and her group of convicts, beside the woman of the group.
“The fuck are you doing?” the woman asked.
I gave her a sidelong glance, but I kept my expression as still and as cold as I could manage it.
She frowned, but she didn’t press me further.
Without a word on the subject, the others fell in step, joining the crowd that had gathered around Sub Rosa. Even Lillian followed suit, miraculously enough, though her hands clenched her bag and betrayed her fear. Gordon was the last to join the group, and walked close to Lillian, so his body blocked the others’ view of her.
Apparently, the alien nature of the rest of us was enough to keep the convicts from making something of it.
“What the fuck’s going on?” one of the other guys asked his buddy. Both had scraggly beards, but one was bald, and the other had long hair.
“Whatever the fuck it is, it’s better than where we were,” the leader of the convicts said. He gave me a dirty look.
We made our way down the hallway, and more shouts joined the first, people ducking into labs, shutting doors. Locks clicked. The hallway extended into branches, forming a loose cross shape.
Sub Rosa stopped before stepping into the middle. She found another piece of metal on the wall, and pried it free. The work she did this time was faster, simpler. Again, a tearing of one wire, tying it.
Her head inclined up, looking at the singular slab of stone that hung over the branch. She shifted her weight carefully onto the next section of floor, then lowered her gaze, turning to face us.
She pointed at the convict leader, then the baldy-beardy, down one length of the branch.
At the next two convicts, including long-hair-beardy, second branch.
At the woman. She pointed and started walking in the same moment. Toward the next set of reinforced doors, protecting the next section of hallway.
The first door to our left was swiftly kicked open by the convict leader. I heard the commotion, the taunting, and the scream that followed.
The others were already working to kick in doors, punching at wood or prying at metal with their spikes.
The woman was hanging back, halfway between us and Sub Rosa. Watching both, a concerned look on her face.
Maybe not a violence-happy killer like the leader was. The individual most interested in figuring out what was going on.
I glanced at the others. Speaking was dangerous, if it could give us away to the woman. All we needed to be utterly ruined would be a single word from her.
Mary was standing next to me. My hand touched her hip, traced down her leg, and reached the bottom of her Academy-uniform skirt.
I slid my hand under it, along her leg, and found the sheath with knives placed along it.
She gave me the funniest look as I plucked one knife from the sheath at her inner thigh. Mingled curiosity and suppressed outrage, all bound together into a quirk of the eyebrow and a smouldering look in the eye, so small an expression that the convict woman wouldn’t see it.
I looked at Jamie, who was as cool as Mary was heated. His eyes flicked over in Sub Rosa’s direction.
I had to read so much from so little. Jamie had a focus, he remembered. What was he remembering? What was he dwelling on, more than any of us?
We were on the sixth floor. The relative of the dead scientist, Sub Rosa’s creator, was somewhere on this floor.
And he was looking over in the direction of the deeper sixth floor labs. Which Sub Rosa was in the process of breaking into.
I gave him the slightest of nods, my chin moving by hairs.
He blinked confirmation.
The convict leader stepped out of the one lab, and his weapons were splattered in blood. Had things gone differently, it might have been mingled with my own.
With a spring in my step, blade palmed in my hand, I headed in his direction.
“Next one is mine,” I told him, my expression cold and flat, as I headed to the next door.
He didn’t respond right away. He finally offered a begrudging, confused, “We’ll see.”
The others were already moving in their individual directions. To other convicts and other people who were slated to die.
It was a merry dance, dangerous, but merry. Each of us moved in coordination.
And we still lacked answers. We were dancing in pitch darkness, and one misstep here could end us all.