The hallway was wide enough that Jamie and I could have held hands and stretched our arms out to either side and only barely touched both walls. The ceiling was high enough that Sub Rosa didn’t have to stoop down to avoid banging her head.
Gorger filled the entirety of that space. His physical structure was organized to let him move forward at a good speed with the use of his arms and legs. Abrasive skin, thick enough that bullets would be stopped or slowed, resistant to fire, resistant to chemicals, and immune to all known forms of disease. His body was hostile to parasites, and his stomach was a holding chamber for tough specimens, a compactor for smaller ones. His weak points had been minimized, and the ones that could be buried deep within his center of mass were. The remainder of him was self sustaining and built to last. Raw mass and power for the sake of such.
We backed up until we were nearly touching him.
“Hi Gorger,” Gordon said, “Good to see you, mate.”
“Mm,” Gorger grunted.
“You’re in our way,” I said.
“Mm,” he grunted.
Sub Rosa was approaching, one hand pressed to the one side of her head where the injuries were more severe. She moved in a jerky fashion, unpredictable, lunging and lurching forward in a zig-zag fashion, every movement violent, and the convicts were keeping their distance.
“Don’t suppose you can back up? Or squeeze over to let us by?”
“Mm-mm,” he grunted.
I almost took it for assent, but I looked back and saw his head, pulled back into his neck and shoulders, as protected as he could get it, moving from side to side. Rolls of fat moved with the action.
“Bloody hell,” I said.
“Who are you?” the woman that had been working with Gladys asked.
“Official Academy problem solvers,” I said. “So all of you shut your mouths, be quiet, and let us solve this problem.”
“Sy,” Gordon said, with a warning tone.
“Untie her,” I said, not taking my eyes off of Sub Rosa. “Reload, shoot more?”
“Out,” he said. Then to Gladys, he added, “Got more bullets?”
“In my coat.”
“Rats,” I said, with emphasis. “Mary?”
Mary gave me a look over her shoulder. It wasn’t the Mary I was used to. She looked a little uncertain, even. Lost, hurt. Her confidence was still shaken from earlier.
“You with us?” I asked, my words carefully chosen.
“I’m with you,” she said, stumbling a bit with the odd placement of the words.
“I know I’m thinking about ways out. Jamie’s wracking his brain for anything in her files we could use. Gordon’s thinking about what to do if worst comes to worst. If I know you, you’re thinking about what to do to hurt her.”
Mary broke eye contact, looking at Sub Rosa. Thirty feet away, twenty-eight, twenty-six… not moving in a straight line, the experiment was periodically reaching out to touch a wall and steady herself.
“Hurt her,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Gladys asked.
“I don’t-” Mary started.
“You can do it. And it’s going to be awesome. I promise,” I told her.
“What is she going to do that six bullets couldn’t?” Gladys asked.
Come on, Mary, shut this girl up. Please.
Mary was already stepping forward. Her fingers touched the sides of her legs, reached up beneath her Academy uniform skirt, and plucked knives free. Her right hand stayed at her leg, fiddling for a second, while still holding the knife.
A coil of something dropped from her upper thigh to her ankle. She rotated her foot to position it, then kicked it up into the air with her toe. She caught it out of the air, not breaking eye contact with the incoming Sub Rosa.
Sub Rosa was close enough that Mary could have reached her in three or four running paces. The experiment paused to touch the wall for balance and twist to stare at us with her good eye.
“Oh god,” Gladys said. There were similar utterances from the others.
“Oh god,” Lillian echoed her, but she added a, “Please, Mary.”
Mary let the loop uncoil, extending into a crazy mess that sagged to her feet. Her wrist made three quick circles, and then she threw, right as Sub Rosa made her final lunge for us.
The knife sank into Sub Rosa’s eye socket.
The woman barely flinched. If anything, it egged her on.
Mary turned, having already drawn a third knife, one meant for close-quarters fighting, and held the blade, extending the handle above her head while using her other hand to throw the second knife. It was a fierce throw, and it wasn’t aimed toward Sub Rosa. It was aimed the light above us.
The light flashed as it broke, and shards of glass joined sparks in raining down onto our heads.
Two more lights further down the hallway went out.
We were cast into relative darkness. I saw Sub Rosa’s form in only the split second the light flashed. She was stricken, rearing back.
I heard her hit the floor, rather than seeing it.
“What the fucking hell?” the convict leader asked. He’d seen Sub Rosa drop too.
I threw my arms around Mary in a hug.
“Careful,” she said. “Don’t touch the wire.”
Wire. Tying the knives together. One knife in Sub Rosa, one in the light socket.
“Knife fell,” Gordon said. “You’re safe.”
“Good,” Mary said. “Let go of me, Sy. She’s not dead.”
I let go of Mary as quickly as I’d grabbed her, backing away to give her exactly as much space as she needed.
A small flame appeared.
In a moment, there was a second flame.
I heard her throw it more than I saw it. A small vial, hurled in Sub Rosa’s direction.
It didn’t hit Sub Rosa, but the wall above her. Glass broke, and the liquid ignited before it landed on her, where it promptly spread out to cover a fair amount of surface. We were soon treated to a view of Sub Rosa, midway through the process of finding her feet.
She didn’t scream. That was the eeriest part. It was an almost silent dance, thrashing, arms flailing, striking the wall with enough force that I could hear mechanisms rattling, wanting to kick into motion and seal this section off.
“Great,” I said. Sub Rosa was stumbling around, largely blind at this point, but she managed to touch a wall, find some orientation and stagger toward us, while struggling to wipe away the flaming liquid with her hands. She only partially succeeded, and her hands ignited. “Now she’s on fire.”
“More fire?” Lillian asked.
She handed something to Mary. Mary hucked it at Sub Rosa.
Whatever it was, it ignited marvelously. It made Sub Rosa’s movements more frantic and crazed.
“Not helping!” I said.
“She’s not dying!” Mary observed.
“She can’t,” Jamie said. “You’re looking at two lifeforms. The cocoon and the woman. The cocoon keeps everything going, no matter what. Only way you can make her dead-dead is if you utterly destroy the medulla oblongata or utterly destroy the heart.”
“Tell us that sooner!” I said.
“You were busy electrocuting her and setting her on fire!”
She was close, now.
Gordon threw the pistol, tossing it over Sub Rosa’s shoulder.
The sound made her stop, twisting.
She began moving in the other direction.
“No!” the convict leader shouted. “The little bastards are behind you! Don’t be fooled!”
Sub Rosa twisted back around, but staggered, leaning against the wall. I could smell the burned flesh, now. There was an acrid undertone to it, something chemical. One of the tubes of fluid that had been pumping in or out of her was emptying contents on to the floor.
I fixated on that.
“The tubes?” I asked. “Weak point?”
“The fluids adjust chemical balances,” Jamie said. “Without them, she’ll die.”
“Great!” I said. “Mary-”
“In a few days or weeks.”
“Hell!” I said, frustrated.
The sound of our voices was getting her attention. She was still burning, still in agony, largely blind and bleeding from open wounds in her skull. She even had brain damage from the bullets, probably. But she was lurching our way.
“Lillian?” I asked.
“I don’t- what?”
“Ideas!” I yelled at her.
“No!” She said, a non-sequitur. As if she was refusing to give them, rather than having none.
But, short of an actual idea, it was the best response she could give. Short, sweet, and to the point, letting me move on to other options.
“Gladys!” I called out. “If you know what she is-”
“I don’t! I know who she is but I don’t understand any of this!”
“It’s your dad’s work!”
“Uncle’s! My uncle’s work! And we don’t talk!”
“Helen?” I tried, though Helen was more about instinct than anything else. “Anything?”
“Yes,” she said. “But can’t just yet. Gorger? A hand?”
“Mm,” he said.
I realized he’d backed up a good ten feet. I joined the others in making haste, working to put as much space between us and Sub Rosa as possible.
In the gloom, lit only by the fire that still licked Sub Rosa’s upper body, I could see Gorger twisting, revealing and then extending a meaty hand. Helen hopped up to it.
“Up,” she said. Gorger raised her up toward the ceiling.
I saw her reach up to pry at a ceiling panel that Gorger had just revealed.
Bring an entire block down on us?
Beside me, Mary whipped more knives at Sub Rosa. It was pretty ineffectual.
“Gordon,” Helen said, very simply. “Please help.”
Gordon did, abandoning his Shipman, stepping on Gorger’s face for a foothold before stepping onto Gorger’s arm, then moving up to the hand, standing beside Helen.
Sub Rosa was too close.
There was nothing predictable about her movements. She was broken, not thinking clearly, if she was thinking at all. Yet, if I was going to save the others, I had to take the gamble. Not once, but twice.
In moments like this, I had to have a simple set of goals. If I didn’t, I tended to overthink.
Goal one… don’t get hit.
“Keep at it!” I called out.
Then I dashed for Sub Rosa.
One long arm flailed, reaching low to the ground. I saw it coming, but even then, there was precious little I could actually do about it. I was fast on my feet, and it wasn’t an asset here. To actually stop moving, I tried to drop low, sliding, but ended up flopping onto my back, my tailbone cracking hard against the floor.
The hand swept just above me. She stepped closer, and her other hand came perilously close to touching me.
“Little bastard’s at your feet!” the convict leader howled.
I supposed I wasn’t his buddy anymore.
Sub Rosa was blind, but she could apparently hear. She bent low, hands groping. I rolled to one side, bumping up against the wall.
“Your right!” Baldy-beardy called out.
I scrambled back, toward my compatriots and the other scientists, as Sub Rosa fumbled toward me.
The flames were dying down, and her eyeball was revealed, bloodshot, oozing, but it didn’t look nearly as damaged as I’d hoped. Poor woman, not being able to blink or close her eyes while her head and upper body were on fire.
I saw the eye move, focusing on me.
Another throwing knife struck Sub Rosa. She twisted, looking away from me to see Mary.
I used that chance to dart close, moving past Sub Rosa, putting myself between her and the convicts.
Goal two: distract her, buy the others time.
I still had the knife I’d gotten from Mary.
Gripping the knife in both hands, swinging it from behind me, over my head, and forward, I slammed it into Sub Rosa’s back, near a point where it looked like things unfolded from. Closer to her own tailbone.
I was already backing away, moving clear when she swung her hand my way. Her hand hit the wall hard enough to leave cracks and do some substantial damage to her.
Goal three, optional: don’t die while seeing goal two through.
“Little bastard. Lied to us, didn’t you?!” the convict leader bellowed. “Killed Old Craig!”
That was Mary, not me. Throwing her knife as we made our getaway.
But I made you look like a fool, you fool, and you can never forgive me for that.
“What I told you wasn’t all a lie!” I said.
I had to leap back to avoid Sub Rosa’s swipe. She turned her back on the others while pursuing me.
Leaping back unfortunately put me closer to the convict leader and his three remaining cronies. Baldy-Beardy, Shaggy-Beardy, and the woman convict, who looked especially wary and concerned.
“Remember everything I told you before!?” he roared. “I’m going to do worse, you hear me!?”
“Then she continues her rampage, she kills you, and everyone dies!” I said.
“I don’t care! I’m going to make it slow! If I have to suffocate down here, I’m going to take my time with you! You’ll crave the times I’m making you twitch with these spikes, because at least then I won’t be carving bits off you!”
Ticked off Academy experiment on one side of me, ticked off Academy experiments on the other side of me.
I backed out of the way of another swipe.
I saw the convict leader smile. A mean, sadistic sort of grin. A cat grin. As much as the younger kids at the Orphanage liked to coo over kittens, I knew what cats really were. I was aware that they were one of the rare species out there that killed and tormented other animals to death for their own amusement, be they barnyard cats or house cats. One cat, left to its own devices for a few days, would chalk up scores of kills that it didn’t eat, and not all were vermin.
Cats were detestable, viewed objectively.
I could respect that side of cats. I didn’t like seeing those same elements in a man three or four times my size, especially when that man was pissed off and using the Academy-designed weapons that had been built into his body. Left to his own devices, I had no doubt he could amuse himself doing exactly what he’d threatened.
A tink sound marked the collision of one glass bottle against the ceiling. It dinked off of Sub Rosa’s head and clattered to the floor, a few feet from me.
“It was supposed to break!” Mary called out. “Is it broken!?”
I only had a few feet of space, now.
The convict leader stopped, grinning at me, arms spread wide.
“Come on!” he said. “Right into my waiting arms!”
I moved in the opposite direction, toward Sub Rosa and the fallen bottle.
I got a foot from the bottle when her arm came down, overhand. I stopped just in time to avoid having it come down on my head. I snatched for the bottle and missed.
“What are you doing!?” Mary called out.
“Trying to grab-”
I moved out of the way of Sub Rosa’s reaching arm, which meant throwing myself belly first into the long flaps of skin that surrounded her legs. My head was only a short distance from the fire that still burned at her left breast.
Her arms came down to embrace me, wrists crossing behind me, hands reaching out to block my escape routes, or to clutch at me if I tried to slip by.
It was a smarter action than many of her actions had been recently. Was she recovering? Was she more able to think, now that she wasn’t on fire?
I stopped to think, to try and process a way out, and the conclusion I came to was that I might have managed it if I hadn’t stopped to think.
Mary hadn’t thrown another bottle or vial.
Something about this one, she’d hoped to use it.
I felt the fingers close around me. In the split-second before I was heaved up off the ground, I kicked the bottle, sending it skittering along the stone floor, in Mary’s direction.
Sub Rosa hauled me up, her wrists uncrossing as she did, turning me upside down in the process.
I could have cut her face if I had the knife, but I’d left it embedded in her lower back.
Held aloft, I was face to face with her. Well, face to upside-down face. Or vice versa.
It hardly mattered.
“If you really want to hurt Shipman, I can tell you how,” I told her.
There was no response, no recognition. She moved one hand to grab me by the ankle, then swung me back over her shoulder. I realized where I was, fumbled for my knife, and didn’t find it. She changed the angle she held me, and I realized what she was doing.
This is the part where she swings me into the ground and dashes my brains out.
That’s kind of fitting.
It was eerie, the quiet that came over my thoughts, even as my body was caught in the grips of almost pissing itself, hand scrabbling for a knife that I cognitively knew was out of reach, my heart pounding, breath catching in my throat in preparation to say something, or maybe to scream one last time.
For the first time in a very long time, my thoughts weren’t noisy or conflicted or stumbling over each other in a constant interweaving. My brain was a spot of tranquility in a setting of fire, meat, blood, and chaos. That world moved in slow motion.
I wanted to say something witty, but the words caught in my throat, because I didn’t have enough time, because I knew the others would take my words for more than they were supposed to be.
Instead, I let out a long sigh, and I felt my body find the stillness, or something approximating it. I stopped searching for the knife. My arms dangled.
I heard the crash.
I felt her tense, moving me, swinging me up and forward.
She released her grip. In the end, I wound up doing a backflip or two before cracking my head on the floor.
I saw her move, her hands clutched into claws, back arching. Foam was bubbling up where the liquid had landed.
She was covered in burns, and burns hurt. Whatever Lillian had provided for Mary to throw, it was one of those things that stung like nothing else when poured over an injury.
I knew, because Lillian had used those ones on me when I’d spent the day annoying her and happened to get hurt in the field.
It had taken me a few times to catch on.
I lay there on the ground, belly up, staring at Sub Rosa.
“Move, you imbecile!” Gordon bellowed.
“Run!” Mary shrieked.
With the passing of that endless quiet, I felt almost sick to my stomach. My body felt disconnected, as if I were at the controls of some monstrosity of flesh and metal and something had jarred me, leading me to forget which lever moved which extremity.
I figured out the controls. I flipped myself over, crawled, then ran away, while Sub Rosa was still standing there, twisting in place, as if there was some specific configuration of her body that she could discover that would make all the pain stop.
We just keep making her madder.
Gordon and Helen had opened up the ceiling. Gladys, Helen, Jamie and the other scientists were already up, and Lillian was in the process of climbing up Gorger’s arm.
It struck me that the ceiling escape route wasn’t an escape route at all. It wasn’t a ventilation tube or anything of the sort.
No. That would be one of the channels that gas, water, or other sterilization measures would use to cleanse an area of any ongoing problems.
Sub Rosa knew the security measures. She knew how to disable them, and it stood to reason she knew how to enable them. I’d seen glimmers of residual intelligence in her. However much damage those bullets had or hadn’t done, I didn’t like the gamble we were making here.
I hope Gorger can handle this, I thought.
Except Gorger is one of those measures.
Mary made her way up. Gordon, ever the gentleman, averted his gaze as her skirt brushed past his head.
I still had to scale Gorger’s arm to reach the ceiling. “Go!” I called up to him. “Help me up when you’re up!”
He obeyed. The moment Mary was clear, he hauled himself up.
Sub Rosa chased me, though it was hard to tell. With the fire dying, the world around me was rendered in black and slices of a grey that was best described as almost-black.
Funny thing, when being chased, when one had to run toward the threat. Much as Gordon had, I had to step on Gorger’s body to get up to his shoulder and arm, though I was a touch graceless in the process, dropping to all fours to find a surer grip.
Sub Rosa drew nearer. A few feet away, reaching around the arm for me-
Gorger dropped his arm, swinging clumsily at her. I nearly lost my balance, grabbed at his thumb, and when I felt myself nearly falling, all the same, I stuck a foot out, planting it on Sub Rosa’s face.
It made for a terrifying moment.
What drove me to move, the thing that set every nerve to firing well before Sub Rosa lashed out or before Gorger started raising me up toward the section of ceiling where the stone tile had been pulled free, was a horrible, core-of-my-being fear of that alluring quiet I had experienced. I felt that uneasy sickness accompany my movements as I made my way up.
I found Gordon’s reaching hand, slapped my wrist into it, and gripped his wrist. With his help from above and Gorger’s from below, I found my way into the shaft.
Looking back over my shoulder, I saw Sub Rosa backing off.
I saw her point.
“You’re kidding me,” the convict leader said.
Another point, a sharp gesture, pointing.
They were her measure against Gorger.
I saw the convicts approach Gorger, spikes held out, jabbing, their movements uncertain.
I saw Sub Rosa turn, lurching down the other direction, to the far end of the hall.
We needed to get as much distance as possible from them before that measure worked.
“Sy. Are you okay?” Jamie called back.
“Head hurts. Tailbone hurts. Body hurts. I legitimately thought I’d die,” I said.
“You and us both, Sly,” Gordon said.
I thought of Mary. Of how despondent she’d been. She needed a win. “Mary saved me there, I think. Or Lillian did. Or both.”
There was only silence.
“For the record, Gordon, you’ve officially lost the right to call me out on mistakes and bad calls.”
“We needed to save Gladys.”
“Right, because we’ve never had to deal with acceptable losses before.”
“Who are you?” Gladys Shipman asked. “I know that girl interviewed me before, but none of this- What was all that? What acceptable losses have you dealt with before?”
The channel was narrow, only about two and a half feet by two and a half feet. Two of the others further up had some light, and it reflected off of moisture that clung to the walls and floor, giving me some illumination.
Of course, all I had to look at was Gordon’s butt.
I really hoped that Sub Rosa didn’t manage to activate the sterilization protocol we were presently navigating. I didn’t want the last thing I saw before I died a fiery or drowning death to be Gordon’s butt.
Mary’s butt? Maybe.
Lillian’s butt? Now that would be my pick. I imagined Lillian would hate it if she died knowing I was staring at her butt.
I felt giddy after my near slip from death, and the musings on butts of all things made me giggle a little.
“Gladys,” Gordon said. “You said you knew her?”
“Yes. Anyone who’s been down here for twelve or so years knows her.”
“How old are you?” Lillian asked.
“Your uncle had you down here as a kid?” Helen asked.
“Yeah. I heard the stories.”
“Who is she?” I asked, impatient.
“She’s the woman who built the Bowels,” Gladys said. “She made the initial decisions on how to design Gorger, though she didn’t do the actual work. Which is how she operated, really. Or so I heard.”
“Not useful,” I said. “Clarify, explain.”
“I am,” Gladys said, her voice sharp.
I was glad I didn’t have a view of her butt.
“She made this place, she designed the security, she designed Gorger,” Gordon said, voice calm, as if trying to guide by example. “And when it all came down to it, she became an experiment? That’s dedicated.”
“It’s… no,” Gladys said.
We stopped, and I managed to avoid headbutting Gordon.
“No,” Gladys said. “She didn’t make this place. She oversaw it all. The deep excavation of the shaft and individual labs, she decided the protocols for security and what Gorger needed to be, and she decided who got to work in the Bowels. She was the overseer more than anything.”
“But?” Jamie asked.
I snickered to myself.
“Ignore him,” Jamie said. “What happened?”
“It’s a long story,” Gladys said. “I only heard bits and pieces. I remember seeing her as a kid. I’ve seen pictures that are mounted in the stairways at Claret Hall. She was a tyrant. She demanded security protocols that nobody could follow, and canceled working projects when those protocols weren’t followed. Everyone hated her, and it got… it got bad. A lot of things that are wrong with Radham Academy today, they can be traced back to her.”
Helen managed to open the grate. Easier from here than there, apparently. Light flooded the shaft from the lit hallway below.
Helen dropped down. We began to edge forward, each of us dropping down, one by one. The adults would be able to catch the rest of us.
It was painfully slow, and I didn’t know what was going on with Gorger and the woman that had decided how he would work.
When I finally dropped down, Gladys was still explaining, “I didn’t put the pieces together until I saw her. I knew she died down here… not so long ago. More and more, as time went on, she became an administrator. But she was always this horrible tyrant. Things have been better since, less stringent, workable.”
According to your uncle, I thought. It was a biased, one-sided story, and I didn’t like Gladys enough to take her side.
Still, I kept my mouth shut for Gordon’s sake.
“She died, and my uncle always said these cryptic things after…”
“He kept her alive,” Jamie said.
“Yes,” Gladys said.
“He kept her alive, eyes open, mouth clamped shut, trapped, with her brain mostly in working order,” I elaborated.
I saw the woman who’d worked with Gladys raise her hands to her mouth.
“Yes,” Gladys said, and it was a testament to her humanity that she sounded as upset as she did. Her fingers clutched at her lab coat, right over her heart.
Gordon reached out to take her hands, reassuring.
I was right! I cheered in my head. Go, Gordon!
“Look,” Lillian said, pointing.
Ever the killjoy.
Gorger’s back. He was retreating.
“We need to go,” Gordon said.
There was no disagreement.
But, being the last one down, furthest back from the direction we wanted to go, I also happened to have the best view of the group and our surroundings.
On Gordon’s back was a bug.
Looking down on me, I saw two. Akin to a honeybee, but black from head to hind-end.
“Bugs,” I said, almost absently.
I saw Gladys turn, her eyes widening.
At the vent above us, more swarmed.
A scuffling sound echoed. We were being followed.
The scuffling became a snuffling, a snort, a grunt, and then a nails-on-blackboard scrape of something against stone.
I saw one of the other scientists in our group blanch.
She’s letting everything out, now.
How fitting, that the woman who argued so fiercely for better security down here was the one exploiting it all.
We didn’t dare shout, for fear of agitating the swarm or luring something after us.
Silently, collectively, we ran.