I tapped the handle of the knife against the side of my leg as I walked, the flat of the blade pressed against my wrist.
People were about to die. Depending on how this played out, those people could include us.
As experiments, we’d been subjected to all kinds of testing. Most of the time, the testing was specific to us and our individual situations. Helen had started out doing a lot of tests that involved passing muster among her supposed peers, while I’d been tasked with studying up new tasks and long, painful sets of memory games.
One of the tests, however, was one that involved all of us, probably because Hayle liked it, and because he was interested in how we functioned as a group. Each of us were given a set of choices to make, selfish and kind. He mixed it up, added new rules, and organized us into teams, pitting us against regular students. The dilemma was simple, usually. If both parties were kind, both received a minor benefit. If both were selfish, both were punished. If one was kind and the other selfish, the selfish one was rewarded, the kind one punished.
It stuck in my mind because it was, for me, the circumstance of my meeting Gordon and Helen, taking a seat across the table from them, with Hayle introducing us. Curiosity had won out and I’d gone to find and meet Jamie on my own, which had been a lifesaver in many respects.
But that wasn’t my focus right now. It came down to the game. Sometimes we’d played and we’d been allowed to communicate. Sometimes we’d been silenced and forced to communicate through decisions alone. There was even a point in time where we’d played with territories and quadrants, and I’d been the only one silenced, because Hayle was tired of me skewing his results by winning as often as I was.
Right this moment, we were playing the game.
The convict leader walked beside me, periodically giving me curious looks. He was a sadist of the worst sort, and his innate savagery had been given an almost desperate edge. He ruled by fear. A simple show of strength could inspire that fear and cow others, but he’d spent some time in prison, he’d spent some time with his fellow experiments, and at some point he must have realized that others were just as strong as him.
Sometimes people found a kind of uneasy peace with that kind of power. If everyone had a gun, cocked and aimed at the next guy, nobody was willing to shoot. That went for prison muscle and voltaic spikes sticking out of people’s hands.
This was a guy who hadn’t backed down or found that uneasy peace. He’d learned that when everyone else was hitting as hard as he was, he could still scare people by twisting the knife, maybe being a little crazy or a little scary.
No guarantees about particulars, of course, but in terms of drawing up a mental picture of who he was and how he operated, it served. I knew what things I had to watch out for, and foremost among those things was the notion that this was a man who asserted control through fear and pain, and with more than a few ongoing mysteries at present, myself included, he might be feeling a little out of control.
I’d put myself within arm’s reach of him. I was walking in step with him.
He moved the spike in my direction. I watched it, but didn’t flinch.
“What makes you think I’m going to let you do anything?” he asked.
“You’ll do it because you want to see what I can do,” I said. I wiped at the blood on my lower face, doing my best to get as much off my face as possible. It hurt, but I didn’t let the pain show. I left the blood cupped in the palm of my hand. I still had the knife palmed in my other hand.
“It is,” I said. I picked up the pace, moving ahead of the convict leader. And you’ll do it because you probably feel insecure letting the other three out of your sight. Like I did with Mary.
I reached the door. It was a large piece of metal work, thick, with a slot halfway down for paperwork. Whatever was inside wasn’t big enough to escape through the slot. Still, it was very nearly as secure as the doors that separated the sections here.
I stopped, paused, and then knocked. Shave and a haircut, two pence.
No response. Something moved within, rummaging. I didn’t hear words, which meant it was only one person. Probably.
Probably heard the screaming just down the hall.
With two clean fingers, blood still mostly on my palm, I plucked the badge from under my pocket. I passed it through the slot for the papers, and it dropped a short distance before clinking landing in the tray on the far side.
The simplest answer was often the best.
The door opened a crack. The person on the other side took a second to look down enough to see me.
“Excuse me,” I said, pushing on the door. They resisted for a moment, then grudgingly let the door open. Which was good. If the convict standing behind me had felt the need to push his way through, I wasn’t sure I could have stopped his forward momentum.
The man who looked down at me was thirty or so, hair cut short, beard longer, trimmed into a point at the chin, his mustache styled. His white coat was pristine. No doubt one of several.
He was new to this, no doubt new to this sixth floor lab within the Bowels.
His experiment was still in an early stage, within a heated incubator at one side of the room, sealed off behind jail doors and glass panes.
And here is where the game comes to a head. The others are in other rooms, facing similar situations. Convicts nearby, scientists and scholars in the rooms, and between Sub Rosa’s vague instructions and the convict leader’s example, the other thugs are going to want to kill other scientists.
The choice between selfish and kind. If I killed the scientist and the others killed the convicts in other rooms, I’d have a crazy bastard at my back who’d want to put me down the moment he realized what was going on. If I killed the convict and the others killed scholars, they’d be at risk. There were so many variables to take into account. How capable were they of doing one thing or the other?
The trick with Hayle’s game, the reason I’d been able to win so consistently, was that the game was never a standalone thing. There were a hundred or a thousand clues communicated over past iterations of the game, informing the most current game.
It was these clues I relied on now. I could trust Gordon and Helen to match pace with me. We’d faced Hayle’s test enough times as a group to know how each of us thought. Jamie could remember the results of each game he’d participated in, and that would inform his decision. I trusted him more than anyone.
The real question, the test of our group cohesion, was, well, what choice would Lillian make, and what choice would Mary make?
Lillian was kind, a healer more than a killer. Mary was the opposite, though she wasn’t unkind, exactly.
I had to figure out which decision they’d make, and I had to figure out what decision Gordon, Helen, and Jamie would think those two would make.
“I’m going to kill you now,” I told him, giving him a very pointed, obvious wink. With my back to the convict, I kept my hand and the knife in front of me, and scraped up the blood with the blade.
“Huh? What?” the man asked. Then, in a tone more suited to rebuking a very small child for stealing candy from a store, he told me, “No!”
“Yes,” I said. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
“What’s the difference? What are you even talking about?”
“Hard way it is,” I said.
Holding the knife upside-down, I punched the butt-end of it into his nether regions.
Most available, vulnerable spot, given the difference in height.
He made a strangled noise, then fell to the ground.
I turned on the spot, flipping the dagger over, and showed the convict leader the knife that was smeared with the blood from my hand.
“Cut it at the root,” I said. I gave the convict leader a wide smile. “He’s going to bleed out.”
The convict leader didn’t look impressed. “These doctors are good at patching themselves up.”
“Good point!” I said. Upbeat, chipper, still channeling Helen. “Help me. Stand on his hands?”
“You’re giving me orders?”
“It’ll be fun!” I said, smiling, holding the knife up. “Please?”
“What’s going on?” the man managed to speak. Every syllable was colored with pain. “Ohhh, it hurts so much. Please!”
The convict approached. He stepped on the man’s hands.
“Wait, no, on his wrists,” I said.
The convict leader gave me a dirty look.
I waited patiently, keeping the same dead-eyed smile on my face.
He shifted his footing.
“What are you doing?” the man on the floor moaned. “Please.”
I bent down, closer to his head. I was stopped by the point of the skewer, an inch away from my neck.
“Lose the knife,” the convict said. “I don’t want you getting close to me like that, after what you did to him.”
Keeping the knife would have been better. I tossed the knife off to one side, at the desk. It clattered onto the wooden desktop.
Disappointing. I’d hoped it would land point first. Would have been so damn cool, just casually throwing it like that and having it stick.
I bent down just behind the convict. I grabbed one of the scholar’s fingers in both hands.
“Please. What’s going on?”
“I severed something important between your legs,” I told him. “Now…”
I bent the finger back until something gave.
He screamed, thrashed and howled as much as he was able to without moving his legs all that much.
“…I’m making sure you can’t fix it,” I told him.
The convict leader let out a light chuckle at that, looking down at me over one shoulder.
I repeated the process with each finger, faster now. Each one brought fresh screams.
My heart was pounding, but it had nothing to do with what was going on in this room. What were the others doing?
What was Sub Rosa doing, even?
There were so many factors to consider, too many people in play, too many unknowns.
Even on my own team, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I could predict Lillian or Mary. After today, after I saw the decisions Lillian made on what she’d admitted was her worst day, I might have a better idea. Mary, I couldn’t decide on until I’d seen her on her best day, whether that day was the day she finally had a family or the day Percy came back for her.
I broke the last of the fingers, leaving each one curved in the wrong direction, then stood. The convict leader released the man’s wrists and stepped back to admire my handiwork, while the man writhed belly-down on the floor.
I crossed the room to go collect the knife, then sauntered over to the fallen man, hand and knife behind my back. I sliced my own palm, at the base, suppressing a flinch, then worked my thumb into the wound, opening it up.
The more blood, the better.
The rest was posing and posturing. I was fortunate, in a way, that the convict leader’s attention was on the back of the door. The mail slot. He had the badge.
I knelt between the legs of the man I’d maimed, and used my bloody hand to grip his bits.
I look forward to being taller than five feet, so I’m not limited to going after the balls all the time.
He yelped in pain, and the convict leader looked my way.
When I raised my hand, it was covered in blood.
“You’re going to bleed out, sir,” I told him. “You can’t do anything to stop it, now, it’s just a matter of time.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“I could have made this a lot worse. I’m betting he would have put the skewers through you in two different directions and tried to make the points touch. All I did was cut you,” I told him.
I gave him a kick in the side for good measure. He grunted.
“You get me?” I said. “Or do I have to show you how mean I can really get?”
“I don’t understand,” he said. He was panicking a little.
“Thank me,” I told him. “Thank me for going easy on you.”
“I don’t- Thank you.”
I nodded slowly.
Then I kicked him again for good measure.
I walked over to the door.
The convict leader looked more wary than ever. Had I pushed things too far? Left him confused enough that he’d try simplifying his life by removing me from the equation?
I had to put myself on his terms more.
“Did I do good?” I asked. A child looking for a parent’s praise.
His brow knit in a frown.
“What’s this?” He asked me, showing me the badge.
“Before she let you out, she let us out,” I said. “Got that from the guy who was in charge of our experiment.”
“Uh huh,” he said.
I plucked at my uniform shirt. “We got these from some kids who were wandering around. Mine doesn’t really fit, but…”
“Uh huh,” he said, taking it in.
Were the pieces falling in place, or was he contemplating how to deal with me?
“I like you,” he decided.
I grinned, a genuine smile.
“Come on,” he said. “More witnesses to remove.”
My heart sank a little.
While fine, this situation being something I could work with, each room we cleared out was another chance for things to go wrong.
Doubly so when the others were off on other branches of this floor, and we were engaged in our game, our merry dance where coordination was so vital.
I slammed the door closed behind me as we returned to the hallway. The man would hurt, his balls might swell, his fingers would take some time to fix, but he would live.
I walked with one hand in a pocket, knowing that bloodstains were spreading through white fabric, but I had to staunch the minor flow of blood, and pressing it into my hip was the only available option that wouldn’t attract too much attention.
“Badge,” I said, reaching up.
“Hm?” he asked.
“I’m wearing a uniform. I can use it better,” I said.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I’m going to hold onto it, I think.”
That was my badge.
I contemplated killing him and letting the game be damned.
“Okay,” I said, smiling, stowing the dark resentment and anger deep inside.
We reached the next door. This one lacking a slot for files and mail. We didn’t get far enough to do anything with it. My head turned as shouts came from the far end of the hallway.
Did we misstep?
The convict headed that way. I did too, but where he started off walking at a brisk pace, I broke out into a run.
If this went sour, then I wanted enough space between him and me. I needed to be able to act, speak, do something. It wouldn’t do if he could simply assess the situation and then murder me in the next moment.
My head was a storm of possibilities and half-formed plans. I swapped the knife over to my right hand, with the cut at the base of my palm, and held it with the blade between the index and middle finger, handle gripped hard against the cut.
What do we do?
How do we tackle this?
I need more information!
In the end, it wasn’t Lillian.
Mary was backed up against the wall, chin raised. Baldy-beardy had his spike at the base of her chin, ready to penetrate the part just below the bone.
The other convicts were alive. The woman, shaggy-beardy, and the older man. They stood back, keeping the other Lambs from rushing to Mary’s rescue.
Passing the junction in the hallway where Sub Rosa was, I could see that she was still working through the wiring and protections. Whatever was beyond warranted steeper protection.
I got closer, and the woman with the spikes at her hand pointed her other spike at me, stopping me from advancing.
“What the hell are you doing?” the convict leader asked.
“This little bitch just tried to stab me in the back!”
Come on, Mary, I thought. I felt genuinely disappointed. Did you really think I have the ability to surprise and murder the convicts’ leader in a brawl? What did you think the next step was? Were we going to go with Sub Rosa and expect her not to notice that her pet convicts weren’t coming with?
Worst of all, I could see it on her face. That she knew I was disappointed. That she’d been tested, and she’d failed. Under the pressure, she’d defaulted to doing what she’d been created to do.
Mary hated failing.
“That so,” the convict leader said. He gave me a look. “That so?”
“Probably,” I said.
“Freak of nature is still working on the door,” the convict leader said. “Kill the little bitch.”
“No,” I said.
“Do it,” the convict leader said.
Baldy-beardy stabbed, but Mary slipped to one side in the same moment, and the spike only touched the side of her neck. She flinched, strength momentarily going out of her as though she were a marionette with the strings severed. As the spike moved to follow her as she tumbled toward the ground, she put her hands out. Something made a sound, a hard object striking the metal, and the spike was knocked aside. Something in her sleeves that didn’t conduct.
She landed on her back, beside the wall. Convicts with Academy augmentations in front and to either side of her.
She was quick, trained, and she clearly had something in mind, but even in this situation, there wasn’t a lot she could do.
But there was an advantage to the fact that she was surrounded. There was a pause as each of the three convicts worked to figure out who would deliver the final blow.
I saw Gordon tense. He had an avenue for attack here. He met my eyes, and I shook my head.
“She’s a mad dog,” I said, in the most casual tone I could manage.
The final blow was delayed another moment.
I was doing my utmost to avoid rushing my words. If I wanted them to listen, to stop and listen, even, I needed to phrase things carefully. “She’s the most complete of any of us.”
“Complete? What the hell are you saying?” the leader asked me.
“Why are you even listening to the little fuckspittle?”
“Sh,” the leader answered, a short, sharp sound.
“Complete. They wanted to make us all like her. Killers. I think they did too good a job with her. It’s not her fault. Just have to keep her on a leash,” I said.
“Fuck leashes,” the man Mary had tried to kill spat the words.
“Killers,” the leader mused.
“Ones you wouldn’t expect,” I said, quiet, giving him my best deadpan stare. “And right now, we’re just killers who want to hurt the Academy. Your buddy there probably did something like get in between Mary and her prey.”
“Mm,” the leader said, but it was a sound that didn’t come across as particularly convinced.
“From what I saw of those two,” the older man said, indicating Gordon and Helen, “Makes a lot of sense.”
They’d played along. Chances were good the people they’d ‘killed’ were alive, like the one I’d gone after.
“Mm,” the leader said.
“Little girl here didn’t do much,” shaggy-beardy said, indicating Jamie. “Watched while I took a roomful of people to pieces.”
“Boy,” Jamie said, staring the man down through his own long hair. “I’m a boy.”
“Whatever. You didn’t come off like some special killer.”
Damn it, I thought. Not that I was too surprised. Jamie was slow to act when caught off guard. Devising a plan for faking someone’s murder was hard enough. Doing it off the cuff was harder still.
“He’s not as far along,” I said.
“There’s this one too,” the woman said, looking Lillian’s way.
“She’s even less far along,” I jumped in.
“Put ten kinds of needles in people in that room over there,” the convict woman said. “One was foaming at the mouth. It was… something.”
The convict woman wasn’t so bloodthirsty, it seemed. Angry, yes, but not bloodthirsty.
I met Lillian’s eyes.
She looked scared. She wasn’t clever or controlled enough to hide that.
But she’d done it. She’d danced the dance, played the game, and she’d done it even without the benefit of playing a hundred rounds of Hayle’s game with the rest of us.
“You take that girl,” the leader told me, pointing at Mary. “You watch her. If that rabid dog of yours pulls another stunt, I’m finishing off the both of you.”
He jabbed the spike toward my eye. It took more than willpower to avoid flinching. I had to trick my senses, change my perception of what the spike was, so I wouldn’t flinch instinctively.
Only a gesture.
“You’re letting her live? She tried to put a knife between my ribs!”
“I’m fucking letting her live!” the leader said. “You’re arguing with me? I like this little fuck, I want to see what else he’s capable of. If this fucking place created him and he wants to get them back, I want to see it happen! Do you really want to say otherwise?”
Baldy-beardy scowled, but didn’t open his mouth.
“I’ll hear you out if you want to say something contrary!”
“No,” Baldy said.
“No? You sure?”
“I’m sure, yeah.”
“Yeah,” the leader said. “Sure hope you are.”
While they were talking, I walked over to Mary. I gave her my hand. She used it to stand.
I could see the hurt in her eyes, the anger that was directed at herself more than anything.
“Got all the rooms here?” I asked.
There were nods.
“There’s a few more that way,” I said. “We’ll get ’em.”
The convict leader glanced at me, unhappy with my initiative, but he gave me a nod.
I was his buddy now. He liked me, and I doubted he liked any of the other members of his little gang.
Letting me do this, giving the go-ahead, it was a way of asserting his authority in an odd way.
We left the convicts behind. We passed by the door that Sub Rosa was still working on. She hadn’t even started prying at it. She was elbow deep in mechanisms at the frame.
We headed down the hall in the direction the leader and I had gone. Two rooms. I tried to hold Mary’s hand, and she pulled away from me.
I didn’t dare meet the eyes of the others or try to say something. The convicts were watching. We had one ally among them, the most important one, but I didn’t want to foster any doubt.
Two doors. One without a slot, the other with.
I knocked on the one without a slot. I heard a murmur of a response.
“Jo Anna Kelper,” Jamie said. “Let us in.”
There was the sound of a lock. The door opened.
“You,” the woman in the lab coat said. She was older.
“Your life is in danger,” Gordon said, flashing the badge. “We need to fake your death.”
Lillian held up a syringe. “Tranquilizer. I’ll also slow your system. Induced hibernation state.”
“I’m old, I might not wake up from something like that.”
“If we don’t do something like this, those guys down the hall will make sure you don’t wake up at all,” Gordon said.
Jo Anna frowned, then nodded.
Lillian administered the dose.
It was only after the syringe was emptied into Jo Anna’s arm that Lillian gave another syringe.
“This will make her seize up,” Lillian said. “Not fun, but it’s ugly to look at, and they’ll think she’s dying, even as they don’t sense much of a heartbeat or breathing. Turn her on her side.”
Sure enough, the old woman in the lab coat started having fits a couple of seconds after the dose was administered.
We started to vacate the room, and I glanced at Mary, who was standing watch in the hallway, jaw set, an angry look in her eyes.
People were so hard to manage.
Mary wasn’t the entirety of the group. I looked at Lillian.
My hand found hers. I gave it a squeeze.
“Don’t give me that shocked look you give me every time I’m not mean to you,” I murmured, my head tilted to be closer to her ear.
“What are you up to?” she hissed.
“Right now, I’m saying you did a fantastic job,” I whispered. “You came across like a true Lamb. Good work.”
She didn’t react to that. We made our way out into the hallway, and she tugged her hand from mine.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. You get your kicks by being all nice-nice and then the moment I let my guard down, you kick me in the shins or something.”
“No kick, no shins,” I said. “I meant what I said.”
I left her with those words. She stared at me as I went over to Mary. She wasn’t holding my hand, so I bumped her shoulder with mine. She gave me an annoyed look.
Still, she didn’t outright murder me when I put an arm around her shoulders.
In the absence of my badge, I plucked the one from Mary’s uniform jacket pocket and put it in the mail slot.
“We got company,” Gordon observed.
Damn. It couldn’t be easy.
Sub Rosa was on her way, and the convicts were behind her.
The door opened just as Sub Rosa arrived.
The man on the other side, skinny with circular glasses, dark circles under his eyes and tufty hair at the top of his head, let his mouth go agape, his eyes widening.
Recognition. Answers. Yes!
“You’re-” he started.
Sub Rosa reached out and grabbed his head.
It took her relatively little effort to crush his skull with the one hand. Once the bone gave way, the rest followed fairly quickly after.
My answers! No!
“Door’s open,” my new buddy the leader told me. “She apparently wants us with.”
Sub Rosa shook the bits of scientist-head off her hands, turned, and started her way toward the door.
I didn’t look at Jamie, but I knew that he’d be staring at me, willing me to remember that the daughter of the man who had created Sub Rosa was on the other side.
More importantly, the last easy chance we had to get answers was on the other side.
Question was, how did we get the girl out alive?