Convicts, as it happened, smelled. Problem was, I was now the convict leader’s new best friend, and he was staying close to me.
It had its benefits and drawbacks. For one thing, so long as I kept Mary close, it meant our new benefactor was protecting her. For another, it meant I didn’t have a great range of movement. He was keeping me close, he was talking to me, and I couldn’t wander off and try to get ahead of Sub Rosa.
On the plus side, we had a few minutes. The Bowels were built around a cylindrical shaft, a few hundred feet deep, two-dozen feet wide. The hallway here extended in a semicircle around to the far side of the shaft. Extra protection, extra thickness, and more room for someone to pull a lever or seal off the area.
Sub Rosa had to stop to work with another panel in the wall. It gave me a second to think.
My new buddy elected to distract me, instead.
“I was a skinny little fuck like you, once,” he told me.
“Really?” I asked, more to be polite than anything else.
“Bad combination, being tall and scrawny. Tried to eat and even did some farm work when I coulda done something else, just to bulk up. But all the energy went to making me taller. A lot of people learn they can make themselves look better by messing with someone taller than them.”
“Gotta hurt them bad enough they don’t try it again,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Something like that.”
Sub Rosa resumed walking, another set of safeguards effectively cut off and removed.
“Is that how you wound up in prison? Because you hurt someone?” I asked.
“Eh,” I echoed him, acting disinterested.
“Was a woman. Around the time I started being able to fight back if someone messed with me, I was working on a factory floor, went out for drinks. Guy picked a fight with me to impress his woman, I won, I took my prize. Spectacular piece of work, and at the start, that was only in the best way… but I don’t suppose you get that sort of thing, young as you are.”
“I do. I get it,” I said. I realized I sounded a little defensive, then said, “I spend a lot of time with these girls. They’re pretty.”
“Thank you, Sy,” Helen said, brightly, from the tail end of the group.
Mary gave me a look I couldn’t read.
He gave me a condescending look, and I mused about possibly sticking him with my knife.
“Well, good for you,” he said, sounding very unimpressed. “My girl was top notch, as girls go. Raised the standard for womenfolk everywhere. But she wanted a bad boy and didn’t realize it. She’d yelp at me and growl at me for most everything I did, for drinking, for being rough, she’d get fed up, run away, and she expected me to chase her, tell her I was sorry, that I was reforming my ways.”
“I didn’t. I told her straight-up who I was, how I was. If she didn’t want me, she could go, and she did… except she kept coming back. Hoity-toity dad, y’know? Rich, laid down the law with her, so she’d run off to slum it with me. Decided she didn’t like me, went back home. Would’ve been annoying, but oh, she was gorgeous, and when she came running back, hungry for me…”
He paused, looking down at me. I met his gaze.
“Yeah,” he said. “I figured it would do. She decided otherwise. One night, she ran off home to her daddy, only she told tales. Charges laid against me for shit I didn’t probably do. Old man even pulled strings, I’m betting. I didn’t spend more than a year in prison before I got brought here.”
“What do you think you’ll do to him when you get out?”
He gave me a funny look. “Out?”
“Sure,” I said. “Out.”
“I gave up on getting out a while ago,” he said. “Don’t lie to me. Don’t lie to yourself. This is where we live out the rest of our very short lives before we die.”
I glanced up at him. I could see the hardness in his features, the look in his eyes beyond the simple anger on the surface. A kind of hopelessness that went beyond simply being a monster.
That hopelessness was, in part, the source of his inhumanity, the willingness to hurt others.
I suspected he was irredeemable, if this was left alone. As a human being, flawed and violent and probably beating his girlfriend on the regular, he’d probably been fixable, but that was no longer the case. His humanity had taken too much of a beating, and there was no light of hope in his eyes.
“We’re going to get out,” I said, in a matter-of-fact way, turning my eyes forward.
“How do you think that works?” he asked, and he sounded almost angry.
“How many Academy students are down here, do you think?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Enough. Hundreds, probably. Now think, each one of those people has family. They have connections, friends who will ask about them,” I said. I would have been lying if I said I wasn’t touching on the convict leader’s past, and the circumstances of his incarceration. He’d been caught because his girl had had connections. I was doing my best to speak in a language he understood.
I was also bending the truth. Not everyone was guaranteed to be down at their stations in the Bowels, and I wasn’t sure that the Academy would value their lives so highly. It would be easy to sentence all of the people down here to death and then point to legal documents they’d signed.
“Uh huh,” the leader didn’t sound impressed.
“Now think, how many projects are down here? We’re one, you’re one, she’s one. How much money is invested in all of this? It’s not like they can just take a new student and tell him to go pick up where someone else left off. The question is, are they really willing to abandon all of this, all these people, all the money and investments?”
“You don’t think so, huh?”
“No,” Gordon said, backing me up.
“No,” I said, echoing Gordon. “It costs them too much.”
The convict leader gave me a look. I could tell he was having doubts. It was only natural – he’d accepted his death, and now I was giving him a new lease on life. He was experiencing dissonance.
In reality, though, it was easier and safer for him on a mental and emotional level to hold to his old ideas, that death was certain. To hold onto those ideas, he had to doubt me.
“One of the scientists that worked on us, Lacey, she was terrified of being down here. It’s what the scientist in charge of us told her,” I said. “I overheard. Of course, things are different if an entire section gets locked down, since then they can evacuate the rest, but we have her.”
Sub Rosa, still leading us down the extended, curved hallway, glanced back at me.
“And she’s making it so we can’t get locked inside one part of this place,” the leader said, as if I hadn’t implied it already.
“Exactly,” I said. “Eventually they’re going to have to decide whether it’s better to condemn everyone and everything in here, or if they’re going to open things up and let us out.”
The convict leader was quiet.
“Sounds too easy,” the woman convict said, behind me.
“It’s not easy at all,” I said. “There are a lot of problems. For one thing, they’re going to have a lot of stitched and a lot of guards up there.”
“Uh huh?” the leader grunted.
“Probably. And there’s probably other safeguards down here. Supposed to be a big monster.”
“Glutton?” the leader asked.
“Gorger,” the oldest of the convicts said.
“Gorger, right,” the leader said. He looked back, as if expecting Gorger to be coming down the hall behind us. “If she can get us past the protections, she might have a way of dealing with that thing.”
That’s not completely out of the question, I thought. I mulled for a second on whether it would be better to disarm him and leave him worrying more or whether I liked him thinking Gorger wasn’t a problem.
“She seems to know a lot of stuff,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, though it came out more like a ‘yeh’. “That leaves the question of what we do to get out, once they open things up and meet us with a small army.”
And quarantine measures, probably, if things even get that far.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If we could find some super valuable experiment and threaten to destroy it, or use it against them…”
I scratched the back of my head, sticking my thumb straight down.
Behind me, Gordon picked up on the cue. “Doesn’t work. No saying what’s valuable enough, or scary enough, or if they have a way of dealing with it, or any of that.”
“Yeah,” I ‘conceded’ the point. “And if we did it out in the open, nobody would blame the Academy if they put a bullet in us.”
“Not an object, then,” the convict leader said. “People. Hostages. You think people down here have friends? People would blame the Academy if they died, a bit away from getting free. And they won’t be shooting at us without being especially careful.”
I nodded, as if it hadn’t been my idea in the first place. I’d all but directly told him.
Sub Rosa stopped to work on another panel.
The big guy looked at the other convicts, as well as my friends. “Hostages, you hear me?”
There were nods.
That would save some lives. Sure, some of my motivations had to do with, well, saving lives and crap like that. Human decency and whatever. But really, I figured alive people were more useful if we were going to figure this out, it would be brownie points with the faculty if we saved as many lives as possible, and if we had to do more bullcrap interviews to find moles for Head Professor Briggs, then living people we’d already interviewed were better than new people who needed to be screened.
Sub Rosa finished tearing the console apart and rejigging it in a matter of seconds.
It was interesting to see: she’d been tentative before, but now was finding her stride. This was something she was learning to do, based on some previous knowledge.
She knew how to disarm the safety measures, and she’d known where to find the convicts.
She’d gone after the man who recognized her. She’d gone after her creator.
Our mysterious experiment was working with some foundation of knowledge.
I had questions I wanted to ask Jamie, but I didn’t dare ask with the convicts and Sub Rosa in earshot. I imagined there was a dim possibility that Sub Rosa had been down here from the beginning. It would explain why she was on an upper floor, if she’d never been moved. She would have had a chance to overhear things about the security measures.
A dim possibility, I reminded myself. Sure, the security measures weren’t too complex, and some employees down in the Bowels might have heard how to disable the security in an emergency, if an earthquake or something shook things up, but an experiment hearing such?
Hard to justify, and it didn’t explain the man’s look of recognition, not so long ago.
Sub Rosa was striding forward with purpose now, toward the girl who had our answers. We were nearing the end of the hallway, by my recollection. I hadn’t been here, but I had seen similar hallways on upper floors.
Maybe she knew because she’d been told. The Academy had enemies, and the Bowels had already been identified and used as a weak point. If one such enemy had found a convict or a dying woman who was to be sent to the Bowels to be used as an experiment, they could have equipped her with knowledge provided by previous moles and spies within the Academy, then have them cause as much damage as possible.
If that someone was angry enough, then they might delight in having the chance.
Still, it didn’t explain the recognition. She was an element known to some.
Had the man known her as an experiment, or the person she had been before? If the former, what had happened, and why was she on this rampage? If the latter, who the hell was she?
We were nearing the end of our destination. Jamie was picking up speed, moving forward in my peripheral vision, so I slowed down, until I was a step behind my smelly buddy.
Jamie was hugging his book. I glanced at him, and I saw him shift his grip. On the corner of the cover was a mark in pencil.
“Hey, c’mon,” the leader said. He reached out for me, hand turned backward, and rubbed my head with his knuckles, deliberately avoiding touching me with the spike, while still urging me forward. “Almost showtime.”
The far-side labs were larger, more comprehensive, and specialized. When they’d originally been put together, they’d been built for specific tasks. Many had even been put together for the superweapons that were now unique to each specific section of the Academy. At this point in time, very few of the old experiments were still running.
Labs sixteen through twenty.
All of this hinged on what Sub Rosa did.
If she went into one lab, could we escape? Reach Gorger?
The instant the thought crossed my mind, she stopped in her tracks, standing in the middle of the hallway.
She raised an arm, pointing. She was giving us an instruction. She fully intended to block anyone from fleeing. We were supposed to go fetch, or go kill. She’d let us know soon enough.
There was no tidy way to do this. Five labs, five convicts, six of us, with me watching ‘mad dog’ Mary.
I heard the words in my head before they left his lips.
“Each of us gets someone from a room,” the leader said. “Take the kids with. I’ve got these two. Remember, we’re taking hostages.”
There were nods.
Our last chance for answers.
Gordon and the woman took the first door, and Gordon hammered on it, a heavy knock, and also a way of cluing in people further down the hall.
Helen and shaggy-beardy took the next door, seventeen, with Helen peering down to the mail slot and opening it to speak through it, shaggy standing back, tense.
Eighteen was Jamie and baldy-beardy. Jamie used the badge.
I approached the door and stopped. While I stood there, thinking, the old man and Lillian walked past us to the last door in the hallway.
Sub Rosa was watching, staring with eyes that could no longer blink. An intensity radiated off of her.
She’d come here for this. For our source of information. The relative of the man who had altered her.
The door opened, without hesitation.
There were two scientists within. One was middle-aged, a woman, brown-haired and stout in build, the other was a wisp of a girl, small and light in every sense of the words. The girl, our source, had opened the door. She was sixteen or so, blonde, hair so fine and insubstantial that it looked like she was underwater, the hair that had come free of her ponytail floating around her, free of gravity’s pull. Her eyes were dark, glasses cleaner than most, with fine rims. She had a lens on her forehead, something that could be flipped down over one eye to view small things.
“What?” she asked, in the most impatient, bitchy tone I’d heard in some time. She looked from me to Mary to the convict leader, then back to me.
I hadn’t expected this attitude. Everyone up to this point had been scared, worried about possibilities.
“You’re aware there’s an escaped experiment?” I asked.
“That usually goes hand in hand with the facility being sealed,” she said, in a very condescending way. “Whatever. It’s fine, I do hope things open up soon, but I came expecting to put in a full day or two of work with minimal sleep. This doesn’t change my plans.”
“Studying bugs,” I said, eyeing the glass tank in the center of the room. There were flies swarming within.
“Yes,” she said, giving me a curious look. “I’m sorry, kids, but if you want someone to hold your hand while you freak out about being stuck down here, this isn’t the place for it. I have work to do.”
“That’s, uh…” I started.
“Things are more complicated than that,” Mary said, her voice soft.
The convict leader behind me spoke up, “We’re taking you hostage.”
“No you’re not,” the woman on the other side of the room said. She was studying the tank so intently she’d barely glanced at us. “We just reached the breeding phase. We’ve been building toward this for four months.”
“I see you need convincing,” the leader said. He pointed the spike forward. The girl at the door backed away as the leader advanced, weapon ready. I caught the door as she let go of it, but I also stayed in the leader’s way, so he couldn’t attack her. I needed her cooperative.
“I’m starting to see how it is,” the girl said.
“Yeah,” the convict said. “Move, kid. I want to drive the point home.”
Here was the moment of truth. I moved suddenly, toward the spike. I’d build up a rapport with him. Now I tested it. Would he instinctively protect me?
He moved the spike out of the way, lifting his arm.
But the door- I’d let go of the door, and now it swung shut. It was metal, it was heavy, and the convict leader lacked hands.
He was caught between the door and the frame for a moment, unable to use his shoulder to bump it open without risking the breakage of the glass tank of yellow fluid.
I backed across the room as he grunted, moved his leg and kicked it open.
In backing away, I moved between the girl and the older woman. Mary followed suit. Where the girl tried to back away, Mary helped me corner her.
The convict leader kicked the door open, stepping into the room. Gordon and the convict woman appeared behind him, and Gordon caught the door, keeping it from closing.
Two convicts, our two scientists, and Gordon, Mary, and I.
The leader gave me an ugly look, but he didn’t say anything. Was he conscious of the other member of his group, just behind him?
“The experiment is here,” I informed the girl. “I heard someone call it Sub Rosa.”
No sign of recognition at the name. The older woman didn’t seem to take special notice either.
“Project by Shipman,” I said.
“I’m Shipman,” the younger girl said. “Oh. You mean my uncle.”
The convict leader frowned at us, a momentary look of puzzlement on his face.
“How is he?” Ms. Shipman asked us.
“Dead,” I said, my voice cold for the leader’s benefit. “Very, very dead.”
“His creation offed him before starting her rampage through this place. She came for you, it seems.”
“Enough talking,” the convict leader said. “Grab them. Tie their hands.”
“With?” Mary asked.
He jabbed one spike in her direction. “Don’t go talking back to me, brat. I haven’t forgotten you attacked one of mine.”
He’s insecure. He’s realizing he doesn’t have total control, and he’s acting on it in the way I figured. Violence and threats.
“Get the other woman,” I told Mary. The woman convict was over there, spikes ready, and I wasn’t sure I trusted her to keep those weapons to herself. Things were manageable, but the moment they started prodding these two women with spikes to try and make them compliant, the convicts would have their control, and the Lambs wouldn’t be able to do anything.
“Got wires?” Gordon asked from the door. “Ropes? Cord?”
“No,” Ms. Shipman said. “Resin gun, but that would burn flesh.”
“We could tear the lab coats into strips,” Mary said, holding up a knife.
“I like my lab coat, thank you very much,” Ms. Shipman said, in a very prim, uptight way. “I earned it.”
“Do you like living?” I asked. “Because this is a very real choice.”
I was growing to dislike her with a startling speed.
“I’ll live, and I’ll keep my coat,” she said. “If I may-”
She bent down, unclipped a stocking, and then began rolling it down.
Was she exceptionally cunning? Because the convict leader was suddenly paying rapt attention. Yes, she was young, but the closest the man had been to a woman had probably been his yellow-skinned fellow convict and Sub Rosa.
Gordon was paying a great deal of attention too, I noticed.
“Gets cold down here,” she said. “But, ugh, skirts are expected. I’d rather wear trousers.”
“Me too,” Gordon said. A stab at humor.
Ms. Shipman didn’t laugh. She stood straight, stocking in hand, and handed it to me. I balled it up and tossed it to Mary.
The young lady started on the other one. The one I’d be using to tie her up. I looked at her legs, but I didn’t see the magic that had others so enchanted. Maybe because it was attached to such an unlikable person.
“Heads up!” I heard Gordon comment, in the same moment Ms. Shipman drove her shoulder into my ribs.
I tipped over, landing on my ass, and saw her running in the opposite direction, toward the closet in the corner.
She was going for her bag?
She didn’t make it. Gordon reached her, wrapping his arms around her upper body, pinning her arms to her side. She had years on him in age, but she was petite, and Gordon was an early bloomer. He was bigger, and he was strong besides. He was able to lift her bodily off the ground.
“Nice try,” he said.
She bent her head down, mouth yawning open, to bite at the spot where his neck met his shoulder.
He practically tossed her, heaving her up and away, then catching her again, this time with her head too high and far back to reach him to bite.
She kicked, she struggled, but he didn’t let her go. After about twenty seconds, both were left panting into one another’s faces, Ms. Shipman red in the face with spent fury.
I reached her and tugged off the stocking that was halfway down her leg. Gordon shifted his grip until her wrists were crossed behind her back. I tied them.
She kept struggling and kicked at his shin as he let her down, gripping her by the binding.
Idly, I walked over to the closet and found her belongings.
Her bag was empty, a quick search through her wallet suggested nothing pertinent. “Gladys Shipman.”
“Hi, Gladys,” Gordon said.
“What the hell do you want? Something came for me? Are you delusional? I’m not important.”
Her tone rubbed me the wrong way. It was a perfect storm of condescension, arrogance, and sheer bitchiness. My skin crawled with it.
I wish I could gag her, but I really want to hear what she says.
“First room was empty, by the by,” Gordon said.
“Right,” I said.
I searched the remainder of the things in the corner. In the pocket of the smaller of the two raincoats, I found a pistol. Six-shot. I held it up for Mary and Gordon to see.
“Gimme,” Gordon said. “I’m a better shot than you are.”
I turned it around until I was gripping the barrel, pointing it away from anyone, and held the handle toward him. He took it, used one hand to check the ammo count, and slipped it inside his uniform jacket, all while keeping hold of Ms. Shipman’s arms.
“Don’t suppose you feel like talking?” I asked the young lady.
“Talk? I don’t know what’s going on!”
“That’s too bad,” I said, meaning it. I reached for her, but Gordon didn’t hand her over.
“I’m good,” he said.
“You’ve got the gun.”
“She got you once, while you were looking at her legs, and I’m stronger,” he said.
“Right,” I said. I didn’t correct him about the leg thing.
Mary had the older woman, who was quickly taken over by the convict woman, who held spikes to the woman’s neck. I was left with my hands in my pocket as we retreated from the room.
Mary clapped a hand on my shoulder in a gesture of support, which was totally unnecessary, but I let her do it for her benefit.
We stepped out into the hallway. The others were there. Two scientists were with them. One was badly bruised at the forehead.
Ms. Shipman turned her head to give Lillian a quizzical look. She opened her mouth to say something, and I jabbed her in the side, giving her a warning look.
Sub Rosa reacted the instant our Ms. Shipman was brought out into the open. She drew nearer.
The intensity we’d experienced was ratcheting up by the second. Something like fury, but not anger. Something parallel.
“Oh,” Ms. Shipman said, her voice suddenly, mercifully very small.
Sub Rosa reached out for Ms. Shipman’s head. I felt my heart sink.
Repeat performance, I thought. No answers.
At least we had a game plan.
Gordon moved, a sudden, swift motion, reaching into his jacket.
He fired from the hip. Sub Rosa flinched, her entire upper body twisting, with blood spraying the ceiling.
Gordon fired again, turning as the bullet left the chamber, to aim at the convicts.
But Sub Rosa had taken a second shot to the face, and she hadn’t died. The damage was grievous, immense, but she hadn’t fallen. She continued reaching out, with one hand for Ms. Shipman and one now meant for Gordon.
He raised the gun, aiming, and fired. Four more shots, in quick succession, all aimed for the head. One hit the neck, but the rest were on point.
What are you doing?
“The hell!?” the convict leader shouted.
Sub Rosa collapsed against the wall.
Gordon returned to using the gun to try and scare off the other threats behind us.
The rest of us took the opportunity to run. I saw Sub Rosa reach weakly for Mary’s leg, and leaped on top of her wrist, pushing it down before carrying on my way.
I nearly lost my balance as she heaved herself to her feet again, the angle of her arm changing in the process. Mary caught me, twisted, and flung a knife.
One convict dropped.
Gordon, why? We were having enough trouble with coordination with Mary’s screwup. Why this?
We were being chased, and it was an unfortunate fact that Jamie and Lillian weren’t the fastest of us. Helen’s physical structure was different, and sustained running was hard for her. We also had a set of scientists from the Bowels with us. Ms. Shipman, her companion, and the ones from the other rooms.
The convict leader shouted something about six shots.
He knew as well as we did that we were out of bullets.
It was a long journey down the long hallway, but as it turned out, my concerns about our ability to outpace the convicts and a still-alive Sub Rosa were unfounded.
Gorger stood at the other end of the hallway.
To be more specific, Gorger filled the other end of the Hallway. He was a massive physical form, a living seal to occupy the entirety of the hallway, capable of advancing, reaching to hold, and devouring to contain, though that last option was meant for hardier things than mere humans.
He’d arrived at the worst moment, blocking our only escape route.
All things clicked into place as I saw Gordon tighten his grip around Ms. Shipman, keeping her steady as she ran.
Of all the times to develop a first crush, Gordon my man. Of all the damn times…
Had to figure out a way out of this, and we had to do it while keeping Gordon’s crush alive. Matter of principle, really, questions of taste and approach aside. Guy didn’t have that long left.
With nowhere left to run, we stopped in our tracks, turning to face down our pursuers, who included Sub Rosa, bleeding openly from six bullet wounds.
Damn it, do you ever owe us for this one, though.