“Depending on who was part of our trio here, I’d adjust my strategy,” I voiced my thoughts aloud. “If it were Gordon and Mary, I’d talk to them about battle plans, where we could get weapons, stuff we could improvise. I’d turn my own talents toward finding and putting together something that would buy the two of them an opportunity. If it was Lillian that was part of the group, either of them, and me, I’d have Lillian use her knowledge of science stuff to do the finding, and I’d be a distraction, while Gordon could be point man.”
“Uh huh,” Jamie said.
The hallway was dark. The bugs were everywhere, but they weren’t landing on us, as far as I could tell. We also lacked any strange guests. The wall-crawlers hadn’t followed us up this far.
“And with us?” Helen asked.
“You’re intimately familiar with the Bowels, Jamie remembers the past interviews we’ve done?” I made it a question, directed at Jamie.
“I remember what I was told about. I sat in on half the interviews we’ve done, I glanced over some of the files for the other half. Seventy five percent? Give or take?”
“How many labs is that, that you’re aware of?”
“Two hundred and two.”
“How many labs are you unfamiliar with?” I asked.
“Ninety eight. Two were unoccupied.”
I nodded. “We’re armed with knowledge. The trick is to find out how to use that knowledge.”
“She’s armed with knowledge, too,” Helen said. “She knows more than I do about this place. I don’t think we can beat her that way.”
“No,” I said. “But let’s keep our eyes open for opportunity. I don’t suppose there’s anything we could access or cut that would let us shut down an area without actually being in that area?”
Helen shook her head. “Things were built like they were built in case of invasion. If the enemy or enemy agents came in and tried to get at some of the labs to obtain tools to use against the Academy, those within could drop the ceiling and seal things off.”
“What about the mechanisms upstairs, then? They have to be able to raise the stone blocks after.”
“Teams of stitched at a wheel, and a switchboard,” Helen said. “Need the right configuration on the board for a given tunnel, or it locks up when you order the stitched to turn the wheel, and only certain individuals can order the stitched.”
“One way to stop Sub Rosa for good would be to follow her into one of the hallways, get to one of the panels where she reworked the security, and undo that work. Seal ourselves in with her.”
“No,” Jamie said.
“It’s an option,” I said. “Depending on how Gorger is doing, we could do that, sacrifice one of us to remove her from play, then let Gorger clean up the bugs and the wall-crawlers.”
“No,” he said, more forcefully. “Do I need to list reasons, Sy? I know you’d want to be the one to sacrifice yourself for us, and I’m not willing to let you do that. If one of us dies, we grow weaker as a group. Whatever comes tomorrow, or next week, next month, next year… we need everyone. I expect that every single one of us is preparing on some level for what you’ve talked about. The expiration dates. You most of all, Sly.”
“I don’t know if I’ve been preparing,” Helen said. “But I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
“That’s what I meant,” Jamie said. “Just like with any problem, when things start going south, we’ll each approach it from our individual angles, we’ll support each other’s strengths and shore up each other’s weaknesses. But everyone, anyone that we lose, that weakens us.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I can see that.”
“We’re not losing anyone,” Jamie said, and his voice was tight. “Not if there’s a chance of saving them. You’re not sacrificing yourself for the sake of the rest of us. Especially when it’s not guaranteed to work.”
His voice cracked a little, and I didn’t think it was puberty.
For once, I didn’t have a ready reply. The emotion he was exhibiting, it made it hard to say something, when I wouldn’t be able to match it or acknowledge it.
It was Helen who leaned close and gave Jamie a peck on the cheek, leaving behind a kiss mark of the powder Lillian had used mixed with the chemicals we’d covered ourselves in. A pale version of the mark lipstick might leave. I saw the tightness disappear from his shoulders in response to that simple gesture. The tension was broken, and I was free to comment and speak.
“What about manipulating some sap into doing it for us?” I asked.
“God, Sy, really?” he asked, incredulous.
But I was already cracking a grin. I saw Jamie shake his head, but he allowed himself a smile.
I’d lightened things up a little. That paved the way for more serious discussion. Jamie was more sensitive than the rest of us. He had the least blood on his hands, next to Lillian.
“You’ve been holding that in for a while,” I said, no longer poking fun at him. “What you said before.”
“Just a little while,” he said. “It’s been worse for the past bit. Past hour, I guess.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Seeing you almost die?”
“I’ve almost died loads of times,” I said, cavalier.
“That’s not the first time you’ve said that,” he said.
“Uh huh. Because it’s true.”
“It’s not the first time you’ve said it, and yet you said it differently here,” Jamie said. “I just thought back to all the other times, your expression, your body language, your tone-”
“You said it in a different way because you feel different about it. This time was different, it was closer. You know it, I know it.”
I chewed on that for a bit, as we headed to the stairs again. When we reached the staircase itself, I stopped. We needed to decide where to go and what to do, but with Jamie feeling emotional and the current topic of conversation, I doubted I could get him to let things lie.
No, that was a fib. I could get him to let things be, but no matter how gently I did it, I would be dropping a conversation that was critically important to Jamie. I would be acting evasive, and that would hurt him, given the situation.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I came closer than ever. For a second or two, I knew there was nothing I could do, and I was okay with it.”
“I experience that moment sometimes,” Helen said. “When I’m strangling someone to death, I see it in their eyes, I hear it in the noises they’re making, when they stop straining for breath. I feel it in how they fight and twitch and struggle.”
“I don’t ever want to experience that moment again,” I said. I looked at Jamie. “Believe me.”
“I believe you,” he said.
I nodded. I could have changed the topic, hurried us along, but…
“Our friends are unconscious, and I nearly died. Is that why you’re wound so tight right now?”
Jamie made a face, raising a hand to fix his goggles. It didn’t look like he was planning on responding.
“I told you my inner thoughts,” I prodded him.
“Yeah,” he said. For a second, I wasn’t sure if he was admitting that he was wound tight, or if there was more to it. There was more to it, apparently, because he said, “I didn’t recognize Sub Rosa.”
“I recognize everyone, Sy. I’ve walked by that picture that Gladys mentioned…”
He trailed off.
“Jamie?” I asked, and I felt genuinely worried. It was a weird place to stop talking, and he wasn’t immune to the stings. Not that I was, but still.
“Sixteen times,” he said. “I’ve walked by it sixteen times. I looked Sub Rosa directly in the eyes, several times. The connection didn’t happen.”
I nodded, putting a hand on his shoulder.
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“I haven’t talked about it before, because Gordon really doesn’t like it being brought up, but I do know how I probably expire.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m supposed to remember things, Sy. And now we’re down here, and I know I’m supposed to be thinking things through, sorting through all the maps and details about the labs, all the paperwork I glipmsed, to piece together a plan or find a way out, but all I can think about is… I’m supposed to remember things.”
My hand on his shoulder became a hug. He was clutching his book, so he didn’t return it, his knuckles jabbing at my chest as I squeezed him as tight as he could bear.
When I pulled away, I saw that Helen was stroking his hair, patting him like a dog.
“Nothing we can do about that right now,” I said.
“We need to figure out a plan of attack,” I said.
“I know,” he said. Helen nodded.
“Where are you at, in terms of thinking through the options with the labs you’ve seen or read about?”
“I’m going over it a second time, more in depth,” he said. “I’m not finding much.”
“The paperwork, about Sub Rosa? Do any people the creator has worked with work down here? On similar projects, even?”
Jamie shook his head.
“I already considered it.”
“Damn,” I said. “That leaves us three options.”
“Option one is that we knock on doors. Visit all the labs you don’t remember reading about, hope there’s a weapon, tool, or threat there that we can use.”
“Shot in the dark,” Helen said.
I nodded. “Option two is that we turn to you, Helen. If this place was prepared for wartime, it’s not inconceivable that there could be secret tunnels, defenses, or stockpiles that might help in the event that the Bowels were attacked.”
“Not inconceivable,” Helen said. “But if those things existed, Sub Rosa would know about them. I don’t.”
I frowned. That was a spooky thing to consider. Sub Rosa with access to weapons and secret tunnels.
“What’s option three?” Jamie asked.
“Option three depends on you being a little less clever than you are,” I said.
“Less clever?” Jamie asked.
“This isn’t going to go over well with the Academy,” Jamie commented.
“Probably not,” I agreed.
“It’s not even guaranteed to work.”
“No,” I agreed. “No guarantees.”
I took the stairs two at a time. Helen followed. Jamie was a bit slower, relying on the railing to keep himself steady as he tried to match the pace.
A pack of wall-crawlers surrounded us, many on the walls, and we kept making our way up, helping to put more of them behind us.
“It’s a shame we didn’t have paint,” Helen commented.
“Bright colors. Most things know that you don’t eat the bright colored animals. Bees, poisonous frogs, caterpillars… We could have helped ourselves out by painting our skin.”
“Doesn’t help with stealth, and we might need to be sneaky,” I said.
“Might,” Helen agreed. “But those things hurt. I’d rather get caught and deal with that than have ten of them grab me.”
They dropped down around us, reaching out to grab the railings, and to grab us.
It stung like a hundred bee stings, and I stumbled, falling onto the stairs I’d been ascending.
But it stung the creature, too. The tendrils didn’t cover much of my arm at all before they retracted, the creature pulling away, backing off, snorting and honking violently, like some bastard offspring of a goose, pig, and cow.
I screamed at it, a sound not nearly as good as Helen’s hiss earlier, but I wanted to drive the point home, bully these things.
The others were receiving the same reaction. The creatures that had attacked them retreated, making an unearthly series of violent noises.
Helen lunged out, grabbing the one that had attacked her. It struggled, tendrils automatically going out, then pulling back just as fast. She heaved it toward the gap in the railing.
Tendrils surrounded the railing.
Helen kicked out, catching it in the stomach with her foot. Its feet flailed, but it was just small enough it couldn’t find purchase. It held on by the tendrils alone.
Helen screamed in its face, then pressed the back of her hand to the stem of the tendrils.
The creature made more noise, squealing, squawking, kicking harder. Tendrils went out, touched her leg, and retreated.
When the pain became too much, it retracted the tendrils that were holding the railing.
Without hands or feet to grab with, it dropped down the length of the shaft.
All of the creatures near us backed away a fraction.
Helen turned her attention to a smaller one, probably looking to make another example, driving the point home. But my focus was on the largest of them, the tension in its arms, and the way that it had retreated less than the others.
It wasn’t courage alone. This one was the leader of the pack. Or if it hadn’t been, it had been promoted with the demise of the one Helen had sent to the bottom floor.
“Helen,” I said.
“Yes, Sy?” she asked. Her hands were out to her side, painted fingernails spread out.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than she reached out and grabbed the big one.
It fought harder than its predecessor had, legs catching the railing, hands flailing, striking out with both hands, neither one getting any particular surface area with the reflexive reaction to the chemicals.
Helen ducked down, grabbed its ankles, and hauled it down. The tendrils resisted, holding on firmly.
I lunged forward, and slammed my left hand down on the tendrils, probably doing more damage to my hand than to the tendrils.
Still, the tendrils retracted, and Helen had her opportunity. She hauled down on the leg, almost tearing the creature off, but it grabbed on with both hands, and snapped at her face.
She didn’t brook such nonsense. She caught the thing around the neck, then twisted it back and around.
Once she had her grip on the necessary parts, it was essentially over.
The creature was pulled against the railing, genitalia sticking straight out, something resembling the inside of a conch shell, though it protruded. Hermaphroditic.
It struggled. Helen screamed at it, and briefly tightened her grip, twisting it further, then relaxed.
She held it like that.
I’d expected her to kill it. But she wasn’t. While she had the biggest of the group, the rest were holding back, waiting and watching.
She let it try struggling a few more times. Each time, she screamed at it and twisted its limbs a little more. On the third time, she bit it on the ribs, then hauled it off and away, heaving it over to the exterior wall to our left.
It started to scramble away. She made a start toward it, screaming once, and it froze.
It looked at me, and she screamed at it.
It was all hunched over now, tendrils spread out about as far as it seemed they could go.
Helen bent low, one hand going automatically to her skirt, pressing it down, the polite way of avoiding flashing people when bending down, the other hand going around the creature’s throat.
It started to react, and it got another sharp screaming sound from Helen. It stopped, all limbs touching ground, simply accepting having its throat held.
She had it firmly in her grip, and it was nothing to do with her muscles or hands.
She pointed, then shoved it down the stairs. It didn’t tumble, but it did move. The remainder of the pack moved in the same direction, and one got too close to Helen. She made a lunging motion at it, screaming, and it scrambled over to the wall to get away, over, and to the remainder of its pack.
We started back up the stairs. The wall-crawlers went in the other direction, down.
“I thought you were going to keep him for a pet,” I commented.
“I’m not allowed pets,” Helen said.
“I meant more in the sense that you’d take over the pack, then we’d have a few soldiers to use against Sub Rosa.”
“Wouldn’t work,” Helen said. “Too slow, getting from here to there while trying to keep them in line.”
“Then why not toss him?”
“They’re social. They communicate, I think. It might help, having them communicating to the others, telling them we’re dangerous.”
“Hm,” Jamie said.
“Don’t you think so?” Helen asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Interesting that you’re thinking along those lines, though,” I told her.
She gave me a smile and a curtsey at that. “To be interesting is the highest of compliments when coming from you, sir Sylvester.”
I smiled back.
“I’m bleeding,” Jamie said. “You are too, Sy.”
I felt the back of my neck, where I’d been touched, and my fingers came away crimson.
“Here,” Helen said. She handed me the jar of powder Lillian had been using.
Rather than use the dabbing sponge, I reached in, grabbed some, and slapped it on the general area where it was sore, before handing it to Jamie.
We made our way through, my eyes following the number of each lab.
Twenty-two, I thought.
We reached the lab, and I pounded on the door. It swung lightly ajar at that.
“If this turns out badly, I’m going to be silently judging you,” Jamie said. “While we die, anyway.”
“Noted,” I said.
I ventured into the lab, and scanned the surroundings. A small size, as labs went, ten paces by ten paces in size.
The counter on one end of the room featured a glass tube, capped with metal at both ends, the two caps held together by a locking mechanism. Crimson fluid swirled within.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Gas. One more weapon for the Academy created weapons of war to use on the enemies of the Crown,” Jamie said.
“It won’t stop her. It might distract or weaken her, but that’s only going to buy us a chance,” Jamie told me.
“And, I feel the need to stress this, we’re not immune.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. I looked at the fluid. “I get that.”
Jamie had been searching through every memory of paperwork and every interview he’d participated in, to figure out what we might be able to use against Sub Rosa. Things that might hurt her or set her back.
But he was too clever a boy. He searched through his head, but he did it with rules. He didn’t allow himself to consider weapons that were as likely or more likely to hurt us than to hurt Sub Rosa.
This was one such weapon, the size of two paint cans, stacked one on top of the other.
While Jamie and I talked, Helen was going through cabinets. I joined her in doing the same.
We found two more canisters, much like the first, but the fluids inside were crystal clear.
I looked to Jamie.
“Water,” he said.
My face fell.
“But we can use it,” he said.
I smiled. “How?”
“It’s a dispersal system. We’re filling the air with a thick gas, diluted with water vapor. We use these, we dilute it further, but we make the cloud bigger.”
Decreasing the chance we miss.
The mental pictures were becoming clear in my mind’s eye. This wouldn’t kill her, it wouldn’t even hurt her that badly.
If it touched us, if we screwed up, then it would hurt us badly, if it didn’t kill us outright.
My struggles with Sub Rosa thus far had been because she’d been implacable, unstoppable.
Now I had the means to push and pull. I had the strings with which I could move Sub Rosa, for the briefest time.
But what play to enact with the puppet, for the greatest effect?
“What are you thinking?” Jamie asked.
“What exactly does this stuff do?”
“Flesh eating virus,” Jamie said.
I looked at the red tube with a newfound respect.
“Don’t drop it,” he said.
“You could. In fact, I think I’ll take it, just to be sure.”
“I won’t drop it!”
“Let me have it. You can hold my book.”
“No. I wanna be the one to unleash the flesh-eating plague!”
“I’ll hand it over when it’s time, but I don’t want you unleashing it on us.”
“Not intentionally, but-”
“Boys,” Helen said.
Our heads turned.
“I’m taking it,” she said. “I’m physically incapable of dropping it by accident.”
“But-” I started.
“Carry the other ones, please,” she told us.
“But…” I said, trailing off. She met my puppy dog eyes with that infuriating, cute little smile of hers.
I walked to the cabinet with the canisters of water, then grabbed the first.
I was sweaty, and I had the powder on my hand, which hurt traction rather than helping it. The glass case tipped over and clunked hard against the floor.
“Shut up,” I said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Jamie said, in the smuggest of tones.
“It didn’t break, anyway.”
“Uh huh,” Jamie said.
“Shut up,” I told him, again, before grabbing the thing and heaving it up and off the ground.
Jamie considered a moment, then left his book behind, taking the thing in both hands.
“We have the means of moving Sub Rosa the way we need her to move,” I said. “We could bring her up. With the right tools, we might even be able to send her down. We can make her stand still…”
“We don’t have the means of stopping her, when it comes down to it,” I said.
Therein lay the rub.
A person was only technically dead when their heart stopped, but even that definition was vague, because the Academy had kept people alive without hearts in their chests, using machines to pump.
Heart and brain. When one or both ceased to function, Sub Rosa stopped.
We lacked the tools to destroy either. There might be guns here and there, but that relied on luck. Severing the brainstem, or striking the heart, through the armor-like layer of the cocoon.
“Ideas, Sy?” Jamie asked.
“Some,” I said. “It depends on things.”
“That’s amazingly vague,” he said.
“I’m feeling inspired by some of the villains from the dime store novels,” I told him. “We need to think big.”
“How mad do you think Gordon would be if I used Shipman as bait?”
“He likes her,” Helen said.
“I don’t think he fully grasps it,” Jamie commented, “But yeah.”
“Yeah. That’s why I’m asking,” I said.
Jamie nodded. “He’d probably forgive you, but…”
“But he’d be mad,” I said. And what we’re not saying is that time is limited. Do I really want months or years of time with Gordon to be eaten up with him upset at me?
“It’s something Sub Rosa wants,” I said. But we can work around it. We should drop these off and scout. See where she is and what she’s doing.”
There were nods from the two.
This felt doable. The lack of a means to deliver a sure killing blow was a big hole in the plan, but one that could be worked around.
The possibilities that unfolded in my mind were good ones, fun ones.
Ones that people would remember.
We carried the glass canisters halfway down, to the fifth floor, and we left them at the exit of the hallway, just by the stairs.
Slowly, we crept down, past the swarm of bugs who refused to land on us, past the black wall crawlers, who snorted and honked, while refusing to draw near. Warning sounds, I presumed, passed from one group to the next.
Past the sixth floor. A whole section of railing and stairway was broken. From the fight between Sub Rosa and Gorger.
From the bodies in the hallway, though, I could assume that Gorger hadn’t gone into the hallway. If he had, he would have scraped them against the floor.
Down another floor. Seventh. The way was locked, the door broken, but not broken away. Gorger hadn’t gone there either, and I doubted he would have left Sub Rosa to her own devices.
Down to the eighth floor.
Sub Rosa was there. People in lab coats were working to tear away wall panels, while she stood there, a metal spike extended in their general direction. Another cluster of people in lab coats was gathered against the wall, huddled together. Twenty, thirty, maybe forty.
Gorger lay against the opposite wall. He breathed, but he was limp, the fight gone out of him.
He’d lost to Sub Rosa, who had been his father in a way. Yes, she was female, but she’d had a fatherlike role in his creation, providing the seed and the means for the man to become the monster, and now she had struck him down.
We couldn’t use the gas like this.
“We need to use Shipman, to draw her up,” I whispered.
There was no response from either of the others. They were studying the scene.
Are they making a way out? Or is this like something I suggested to Helen? A weapon cache? A tunnel? A last-ditch measure?
On the broad bottom of the shaft, a doctor happened to look up, and saw us. I could just barely see the whites of her eyes.
She gestured. Telling us to run, maybe.
Rescuing the children.
She gestured again.
“Let’s go,” I whispered. My legs were already feeling like lead, from so much travel up and down stairs in short time. I had the information I needed to put a plan in action.
But my memory wasn’t good. Just to be safe, I looked back, ready to commit the scene to memory, so I could better move the pieces when it came down to it.
It was only that last glance that let me see the subtle events unfold.
The gesturing movement, urging us to run, it had been seen by others in the crowd. Many of them looked up at us.
Sub Rosa, watching over the crowd out of the corner of her eye, turned. Not all of the heads were fast to look away or distract.
She followed their gaze, and she saw us.
It seemed she was still angry. She moved, as fast as she was able, ascending the stairs.
At least we won’t have a problem baiting her upstairs.
Problem was, I now had zero minutes to pull off a serious deathtrap I’d expected to take ten or twenty.