Reaching the main shaft of the Academy’s dungeon-laboratories did remarkably little to quiet the creeping feeling of claustrophobia, if that was even the right word.
Before, the Bowels had been a deep, complicated hole, sealed tight, that just so happened to have hostile enemies in it. I could process it as I would with any other place in Radham. There were always dangers. Sometimes less, sometimes more, and sure, a nine foot tall, undying killing machine with a deep understanding of how this place functioned was more, but it wasn’t too far from business as usual.
We immediately headed up, winding our way around the interior of the cylindrical shaft. We had people of different sizes and ages, some old, and some, mainly us were young.
Short legs sucked. I couldn’t wait until I grew.
The madness that spilled out of the corridor we’d left a few minutes ago was why I felt claustrophobic now. The surroundings were actively hostile, and they were hostile in a way I couldn’t grasp yet. It was already dark there, where Mary had destroyed the lightbulb, but the darkness now came alive. The dark bodies of large bugs spread out to nearby stairs, railing, and wall, and they were soon followed by small humanoid figures.
The humanoid things were sleek and black, like eels, gaunt, the things crawled on the walls. Where they touched a surface, earthworm-like tendrils snapped out, each tendril turning regularly at sharp right angles, never overlapping or coming too close to one another. The walls beneath their hands and feet became maze-like patterns, snapping out into existence in a half-second, then disappearing just as fast as they moved forward.
I’d seen something like that in some sea creature.
Their eyes were as dark as their skin. They snorted and snuffled, and they scampered along the walls with a surprising speed, more visible from the way the light caught on the tendrils than for their actual bodies.
I saw some pause and crane their heads around almost one hundred and eighty degrees to look back and up at us, as we continued to make our way upward. Three of them immediately started moving directly up.
We were making our way up the spiral staircase, and by going straight up, they were able to reach the section of stairs we had yet to reach, further ahead of us.
“Who made those!?” Gordon asked.
“We did,” one of the scientists with us said. He had an accent. German, possibly, or Dutch. Jamie would know, if I were to interrupt and ask.
“Explain! In brief!” Gordon said.
“The tendrils are supposed to maximize surface area. They saw into flesh on contact and on leaving, and they apply a contact poison. It’s injected through the injury, and it breaks down the fat in the hypodermis. It’s meant for night raids, Phobos and Deimos approach.”
“Lillian,” Gordon said. “Translate.”
“Cuts skin into- um, into those patterns you see them making on the wall. Breaks down the part under the skin, enough to make it slough off?”
“Yes,” the scientist said.
“Skin comes off in strips and squares?” Lillian said.
The things had reached the stairs above us. As they climbed on the underside and railing, the tendrils snapped around, forming a weird, geometric, spiderweb-like connection between the individual pieces of the railing, before they hauled themselves over.
Our forward progress slowed. They were waiting for us, two of them climbing up the wall so they would be above us, the other standing on the stairs, tendrils wrapped around the railing.
“I can’t,” Lillian said. “I can’t, I can’t.”
Mary seized her hand.
“The projects are down here. They’re not done,” I said. “Why? Why haven’t you been able to finish these little bastards and give them to the academy?”
“No,” I cut him off. “No dilly-dallying, no shifting blame, no ego. What’s wrong with your work? Be straight, be fast, or we might die.”
The doctor huffed. “Control. They go to the battlefield in boxes, yes? We use pheromone, drive them away, they run, far, to enemy camp. After time, or full belly, pheromone smell good, draws them back in. Straight to cage. Out, wait, back in. Every night, until the enemy breaks.”
“But too unpredictable, Academy says. Do not move out in straight lines. The weapon is not devastating enough to be worth using without ability to aim.”
The cloud of bugs below had stopped expanding, but they were now buzzing around in the darkness of the shaft, impossible to catch unless the light just happened to fall behind them in the right way. I felt one land on me, and decided on the usual approach for bees. Leave it alone and hope.
The small black creatures below us were crawling more aimlessly, grabbing and snapping for bugs. Their gums were black, but their teeth and tongues weren’t. The teeth weren’t white, though, but gnarled nubs, eroded, ill-cared for. It made the stark pinkness of their tongues all the more alarming.
Above us, one of the creatures stuck out its tongue. The member moved just like the tendrils did, snapping out, all right angles, without seeming rhyme or reason, clinging to a surface. In this case, the surface was the creature’s face.
Those same tendrils would snap out all maze-like and unpredictable over their victim’s skin, they would cut, break down the exterior layer, and then recede, sawing in again. Shortly after, their skin would fall off in pretty patterns.
“Got any of the stuff? Pheromones?” Gordon asked.
“No. It’s not like what you describe.”
The cloud below was growing thicker, drawing closer, and I was pretty sure some of the little bastards below us had realized we were above them.
The ones that had crawled onto the wall above us were inching closer, tentative. Still, every little movement of their hands or feet prompted the tendrils to snap out and cling to the side of the wall.
“How. Do. You. Kill. Them?” Gordon asked.
“We used all the fire.”
“Then, we don’t kill, we disable. We… if we can get to room with something we might rub on skin, affect taste, smell…”
Mary gave Lillian a bit of a push. It seemed to get Lillian moving where she’d been shutting down.
“H-Here,” Lillian said.
She set her bag down on the stair in front of her. She fumbled her way through it, hands shaking so badly that she couldn’t even reliably grab anything.
The scientist who had been filling us in on the creatures pushed her aside and began rummaging through it.
“There isn’t much left,” Lillian said.
“No,” the man said. “No, no… no. I don’t see… no, not this, either. Even if we crushed it-”
Helen moved, reaching out. It wasn’t a fast movement, but it was sudden enough that it made me jump.
One of the things above us had pounced. Its hands touched Helen’s arm, and the tendrils spread out, over and under the sleeve of her Academy jacket.
She caught it by the wrists, and pinned it down on the stairs beside her. The tendrils retracted, then snaked out again, as if trying to find an appropriate grip.
It was only after the third retraction and reapplication that beads of blood began to form on Helen’s face, neck, hands, and bare legs, tracing fine lines in those maze-like patterns.
Gordon found his way past the others, leaving Gladys behind, to get close. He raised his foot, prepared to step on the thing’s throat.
“No,” Helen whispered the word.
Gordon backed away, touching the railing.
Helen had the thing’s gaze, and brought her face closer. She didn’t flinch as its tongue snapped out to cover her face.
Instead, she leaned closer, mouth opening too wide, teeth bared, and hissed.
Something in that flipped a primal switch in the black thing. It struggled, flailing, tendrils retracted, and kicked to try and get away. It squealed and snorted like a pig crossed with a baby all the while, a fear sound.
Helen ratcheted up the aggression, twisting the thing’s arms to inflict pain, her back arching, before she let it go.
It fled, and it fled with enough speed that its buddies joined it, our way now clear.
Helen composed herself as fast as she’d gone feral, one hand going to fix her hair at one side, where it had fallen across her face. She looked at us, her face now running with blood, smiled, and made a pleased little half-giggle sound in her throat, before leading the way upstairs.
She was most definitely doing that routine on purpose, just to freak people out.
“Her skin,” the scientist said. “If she moves too fast, too quickly-”
“Her skin is different,” Gordon said. He helped Lillian gather up her bag and the contents that had been pulled out, then grabbed her arm, helping pull her forward.
“She’s different,” I said. “Obviously enough.”
I didn’t miss the fractional hesitation before the others followed the Lambs on the way upstairs. Logic dictated that we were less dangerous, but a trace of fear and concern had held them back for just a moment.
Far below us, Gorger was forced out of the tunnel. He was a massive creature, and the stairs weren’t wide. His grip on the railing was born of many years of practice, as he swung himself down. He found some foothold and flung himself clear across the shaft, to plunge a hand into a handhold that was impossible for human eyes to make out in the darkness.
He hung there, a vague pale shape in the gloom, seemingly suspended by nothing.
Sub Rosa emerged from the corridor. She was different.
Hunch-backed, she had two heads, and one of the metal spikes jutted out from the ‘sleeve’ of her robe, behind her actual hand.
“What the…” I breathed out the words.
She turned her head away from Gorger, scanning the surroundings. Her face was still damaged. She wasn’t healing any of the damage we’d done, though it looked like a clotted mess from a distance. It was essentially what Jamie had said: whatever else happened, the Sub Rosa cocoon kept the brain more or less operational and the heart pumping. If she could die of blood loss, she hadn’t yet.
“She’s sharing the suit,” Jamie said. “Whatever she released killed her underlings, or left them unable to fight, so she made room.”
I looked again, noting the hump at her back.
But the arm… her arm was longer than it should have been, and yet, with the hump at her back, somehow the blade reached out that far?
She dislocated it. Took it to pieces, stretched everything out, and then bound the hand to her wrist.
And just like the suit was keeping her alive, if the mechanisms or biological parts of what made the convicts electric were still in operation…
Poor bastard was probably alive in there.
“Bugs,” Mary said, interrupting my train of thought. “I got bit, what’s going to happen?”
“Stung, not bit,” Gordon’s new beau replied. “I don’t know. The payloads are mild, for testing purposes with animals, but, I don’t know how to put this, you’re small?”
Gorger leaped across the considerable gap between the wall and the stair where Sub Rosa was. He grabbed onto the frame of the gate that marked the entrance to the sixth floor tunnels, and avoided collapsing the stairs, sliding into the tunnel, an arm extended for Sub Rosa.
“A little toxin goes a little further,” Mary said.
A moment passed, and Gorger stumbled back, grunting in pain.
He could crush her so easily, if he could get to her, but… something was wrong. The shock of the metal spike bypassed the rest of the immunities and protections he’d been built with. His reaction seemed very human, a flinch, a recoiling.
We were rising high enough that I was losing my ability to pick out details.
“Yes. If it forms a bump on your skin, it’s anaesthetic, it’ll numb, maybe partially paralyze.”
“If it doesn’t?”
“Then it’s tranquilizer,” Shipman’s partner told us.
“That’s good?” I asked.
“Bad,” Gladys Shipman told us. “Tranquilizer, applied without adhering to the ratios? One bug, a grown adult might feel woozy. For you? Or even the boy with the glasses there? I’d be worried it might depress your heart rate too much.”
“Death,” I said.
“Possibly. And there are an awful lot of the bugs around,” she said.
“So many years of work, scattered to the wind,” her partner said.
I’m more concerned about dying, I thought.
“How long?” Lillian asked. “Before we see bumps, or effects?”
“Not long. Minutes.”
Gordon seemed to make a decision, hearing that. He pointed to the next set of tunnels.
We’ll get cornered again, I thought.
The thought had to be pushed aside. I knew why he was suggesting it. I didn’t argue.
We made our way into the tunnel, and then people gathered inside the first available lab. Our ‘help’, including Gladys Shipman’s partner or supervisor. Whoever the older woman was.
I could hear the furniture being moved before we reached our destination. Two labs over, the door was ajar, the lab empty. Us younger folk gathered inside.
We shut the door.
Time to see who gets knocked out, who dies, and maybe come up with a plan.
Lillian immediately set to looking after Helen, who cooperated remarkably little. A wet cloth passed over her face, and came away crimson.
A lot of blood, but it wasn’t from one clear source. It was beads of blood adding up to a veritable pool.
“We should all check each other over,” Shipman told us. “Better to find out now than later.”
Removing my jacket, actually Jamie’s that he’d lent me, I draped it over the back of a chair.
I saw Jamie point.
Two marks at my elbow.
“It didn’t even hurt,” I said, quiet.
“We marketed them to the Academy as weapons, but we designed them to be a means of vaccinating people en masse,” Shipman said. “It was supposed to be a good thing, or a neutral thing. Help the people who needed it, without hurting them. Are there bumps?”
“No,” I said.
“Wait. Let’s hope,” she said.
But I nodded while secure in the knowledge that I’d been among the first the bugs had reached. I’d been at the tail end of the group, the first available target.
The bumps had had enough time to appear.
There were parts of our bodies we couldn’t check ourselves. Jamie looked me over, as I pulled my shirt up over my head, then lifted up my trouser legs, and found another on my thigh. We finished by having him run his hands through my hair.
I finished and pulled my clothing back into place. Gordon had been mirroring my actions, so Jamie could check us both at once, but the hair took more time. The look seemed cursory, but I trusted Jamie’s eyes.
He was faster with Gordon than it had been with me. Those eyes learned fast.
I could see how some parts of Gordon were ever so slightly different in tone. Where most people saw, it was normal, impossible to notice, except for maybe a hair of difference in tone from one hand to the next.
Gordon had gotten off easy in that respect. I had too, though I had suspicions.
I looked at him. I expected a flinch, a downward glance, and I saw neither.
“If you want someone else,” I told him. “That’s doable. I won’t mind. Lillian’s seen.”
“Lillian is busy with Helen,” he said, voice soft.
Lillian was powdering Helen’s skin with something she’d collected from the shelf. It was tan in color and fine in grit.
“You really need better taste in makeup,” Helen was heard to comment.
“Shut up,” Lillian retorted, with a little more emphasis than necessary. On edge, but she had something constructive to do.
“You’d rather have Sy?” Gordon asked.
I worked quickly, my body positioned to block the view from the other side of the room.
He pulled up his shirt, and I saw the tracks of scars, the largest and deepest running in parallel with his spine. Smaller ones reached out, like branches from a tree, gnarled, puckered, angry.
There was a knot at the base of his neck, gnarled, lopsided.
He turned around, and I saw how the scars reached around to embrace him, and the healing had been poor. It had gotten infected, I knew, and there had been other priorities than getting the tissue to heal perfectly.
Helen had been grown from scratch. Whatever she looked like, there was precious little in her that was exactly like the human equivalent, from her hair to her skin to her internal organs or muscular structure, or even the composition of her muscles.
Jamie had been born human, but they’d decided to make modifications. It had involved removing part of his spine and brain, cloning the spine and brain with augmentations, and then replacing them.
While Gordon, Helen and I had been playing ‘naughty and nice’, getting to know each other, Jamie had been lying face down on a table in a sterile environment, conscious enough to converse, waiting to see if things would take when everything was put back into place, or if he’d be paralyzed and lobotomized, if he lived at all.
Helen was vat-grown, Jamie had received a graft.
Weeks. Maybe months. He’d never specified.
I pulled his shirt down for him, pulled at the back of his pants to check his rear, glancing at the second of the gnarled scar points at the tailbone, then replaced them.
“I can check my front,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
I ran my hand up the back of his neck, along the scar that his long hair helped hide, and into his hair.
Something told me the physical contact was important. Maybe it was how he loosened the deathgrip on his book a fraction.
I combed his hair with my fingers, searching with my eyes.
“No stings,” I said, my hand still on his head, hair between my fingers.
He nodded against my hand.
I mussed up his hair, then pulled away.
“Thank you,” he said, the statement far enough removed from the deed that it had a different meaning.
“Of course,” I replied.
The girls were done faster than we were, but Helen required a fair bit of powder. Lillian, showing that canniness that lurked beneath the surface, had done Helen’s legs and the parts that clothes covered, and had only the hands left. Helen looked like a ghastly doll, now, the sort of doll that was left by the side of the road, scuffed by weather and being kicked around. Paint flecking off, scuff marks buried under that same paint, covered in muck that was assuredly blood and dirt.
“Here we are,” Gordon said, as Lillian continued her ministrations. “Sy’s stung. So am I, but I think it’s mostly anaesthetic, and I’m pretty tough.”
“I’m stung too,” Mary said. “Lillian’s already feeling woozy, but she’s knuckling through. Gladys has two stings on the legs.”
Lillian nodded. Her jaw was clenched.
“I’m fine,” Helen said. “I don’t think they like me enough to sting me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too sweet for them.”
She flashed me a ghastly-doll smile.
“The situation is bad,” Gordon mused. “Whatever Sy was telling the big guy, they aren’t going to open things up again until Gorger gives the signal, and I don’t think Gorger can.”
The memory of the tranquility I’d experienced at Sub Rosa’s hands was still uncomfortable, ominous, and alluring. I’d already stated my concerns with being in a locked room, thinking that our escaped experiment could come through at any moment. I wanted to be doing something proactive.
Talking and planning was good, but it wasn’t quite good enough.
“You said she deserved it,” Gordon said.
Gladys made a face.
“She’s to blame for the worst parts of the Academy?” I asked.
“It’s a long story,” Gladys said. “I’m not sure we have time before things start taking effect. I’m already…”
“Start sooner,” I said. Gordon scowled at me for that.
“It’s complicated, it’s not something I can sum up quickly,” Gladys said.
If I had my knife, I would hold it to your throat and make you talk, Gordon be damned. Stop stalling!
I smiled, waiting patiently.
“She was rigorous. Ruthless in deciding who got labs and who had their projects canceled early. It was all about the end result. Nothing to do with the process, didn’t matter if you were sick or had a death in the family, if your wife was in the delivery room, you were expected to give your all, or she would replace you with someone who would.”
In a way, the foundation of the philosophy that had made us so hard to sell.
That philosophy had meant it had taken nearly four years for Hayle to get one of the failed Lamb projects restarted.
I hated Sub Rosa a little, now.
“I think, my uncle thinks-”
Thought. She’d forgotten the details in the heat of the moment. Death was like that. We spent so long assuming people were alive.
“-That she liked having new projects. Old projects, ones that were brought in from elsewhere, she pressured them. Replaced them with things that were hers. When she couldn’t do that anymore, she put pressure on everyone, demanded more results, faster. She got them, which pleased the people in charge, but things down here reached a breaking point.”
“What broke?” Gordon asked.
“Standards. Ethics. People started taking shortcuts. Cheating. There was a month, when I was young, that my uncle was home for all of it. Because some people got desperate, and they got test subjects from Radham. Not the Academy, but-”
“The city,” Lillian said.
“Even children,” Gladys said. “My uncle was so torn up about it… friends of his, they did it. Starting with the elderly, but then…”
Gladys drifted, nearly nodding off.
“What happened in the end?” Mary asked.
“She fell over the railing, straight down to the bottom of the shaft. She was on a lower level, but… it was enough. Or almost enough.”
“Before we go further or run out of time, the bugs, same question we asked about the nightmare creatures,” Gordon said. “Why isn’t it in use?”
“We were close. We designed the mechanism, we were waiting on a breeding phase to see how effectively it carried across generations.”
Absently, my fingers brushed over the two red blotches on my arm. No bumps. I felt my leg, and didn’t feel any raised bump.
“Not enough for us to use, and I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Okay,” Gordon said. He flashed her a smile. “Good job, then. Keep thinking.”
There was something in his expression that I might have taken for lovesickness, but he wasn’t that bad. Even his plan to shoot Sub Rosa hadn’t been terrible. We’d been particularly unlucky, that she hadn’t gone down with six bullets, and that Gorger had shown up. Had either one been different, Gordon would have been the hero.
The hero that didn’t communicate, but eh.
“You’re acting drunk,” I told him.
“I’m just a little tranquilized,” he said. “I’m feeling it, I’ll deal.”
“Gorger can’t do anything. Jamie, can you think about any projects we could use? Places we could go?”
Jamie shook his head. “I’ve been trying, nothing springs to mind, and I have things pretty organized in my head for the job we’ve been doing down here.”
A slow, lazy nod.
Worse than before.
I bit my tongue, watching the conversation continue. Lillian was holding her hand, which had formed a palsied sort of fist, but she was drifting away too.
The conversation was sporadic, and it wasn’t my focus that was faltering.
“Cover your skin with something caustic,” Gladys was saying. “Wasn’t a bad idea. It’ll hurt, but it’ll keep the bugs off, but it’ll hurt…”
I watched in quiet silence as she faded away, slumbering.
When Lillian, Mary and Gladys nodded off entirely, I forced myself to face the reality.
I looked at Gordon, who was going down the same path.
“You-” he slurred the word. “Damnashin.”
“We can’t stay here and wait and hope,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he said. “Can’t fight eever.”
“Either,” Jamie corrected.
“Yush,” Gordon said.
And he was out.
A full minute passed in silence, Jamie, Helen and I with our sleeping companions. I knew they were doing what I was doing. Watching to make sure everyone kept breathing.
I found a handhold and helped myself to my feet.
“You were stung three times,” Jamie said.
“Yeah, probably,” I said. “But my casefile was the Wyvern for a reason, and it’s not the parallel with my own name.”
“I know,” Jamie said, sounding a little annoyed.
“Let me have this,” I told him.
“The Wyvern is the dragon with a barbed tail. I’ve been stung every month for years. Everything under the sun put into my body. I have tolerances.”
“Yeah,” he said.
We looked between us.
Helen, Jamie and I.
The three of us were probably the least well equipped to handle Sub Rosa, in the grand scheme of it all.
“Let’s find something to rub on ourselves to drive off the bugs, and see what we can do,” I said. “Let’s hope things haven’t gotten too much worse while we’ve been distracted.”