We weren’t going to get away this time.
She was taller, stronger, and as hurt as she was, she kept going without faltering. Her face still had a gaping hole in the side of it where several bullets had hit, filled with what looked like a big blood clot, and she had other injuries she might have sustained doing battle with Gorger, but she wasn’t staggering anymore.
I’d expected that, even if we’d been seen, we could outrun her or match her pace. She was healing, however, or she’d pulled herself together. She was making good time. Better than we were.
I was quick on my feet, and I had a good sense of where my body was and how to move. Jamie and Helen weren’t runners. Humans had evolved not to outrun prey, but to keep running. Helen wasn’t human, and as fine a piece of craftsmanship as she was, there were tradeoffs when playing to different strengths. Jamie just wasn’t quick or coordinated, he stumbled, I caught him, he faltered, and I pulled him onward.
She was going to catch us. The next hallway was still a little ways up, the canisters of water vapor and plague more than a little ways up. We wouldn’t reach it first.
Those people who had stared at us and warned us to run had doomed us.
I looked back, still running, and I saw Sub Rosa’s steady advance. She kept one hand on the railing, hauled herself up with arm strength as well as strides.
I contemplated throwing myself toward her. Ascending the stairs, there had to be a point where, with a push or a collision with a leaping eleven year old, that she’d tip over backward.
The fact that she was gripping the railing, hauling herself up, gripping it, hauling herself up, a steady pattern, it narrowed that window of opportunity.
What were the odds? One in twenty? One in fifty?
Wait for the right moment, pivot, leap. It would barely inconvenience her, maybe break the glass cases attached to the body that she was using for the spike. It would kill me, or she would kill me shortly after, yet the other two would have a chance at getting away.
An hour ago, I wouldn’t have waited to do it. Jamie’s speech made me hesitate, want to be absolutely sure there was no other choice. I glanced back, gauging distance, helped Jamie run, then checked again, to see how fast she was gaining on us.
In the spaces between where her lips were sealed together, the lips parted, sucking in and huffing out breath. The fluid flew through the tubes that had been implanted in her.
I let go of Jamie’s hand.
Jamie seized my wrist a heartbeat later, and this time, he was the one that hauled me up and forward. A second wind, or a surge of desperate strength.
I kept going, only because I didn’t want to slow him down by fighting him or lagging behind. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t enough, but I couldn’t simply acknowledge the fact, accept it and carry on with the original plan when he was trying so damn hard.
Somewhere along the line, I failed to estimate things right. I misjudged how much time had passed, or Sub Rosa had managed a second wind or burst of speed in the same way Jamie did.
Jamie startled, his uniform jacket pulled tight against his chest, and he let go of my wrist.
He looked at me, not Sub Rosa, in the moment before she swept him into the wall. A swiping motion, right to left, but it had enough force to break him. Two dozen individual parts of Jamie cracked and percussed against the wall all in one horrible sound, before his body slumped to the stairs at the base of the wall. His book tumbled down the stairs, and it just kept going, end over end, opening, carrying down, then closing itself before sliding down another few steps.
I continued another few steps up on momentum alone, tripping and almost falling because I wasn’t looking where I was going, before reality caught up to me. Sub Rosa had stopped, so I stopped and turned to confront her.
Jamie’s book came to rest, the hard cover bent.
Bugs swirled, the wall-crawlers continued their eerie movements along the surfaces around us, but we were still. Sub Rosa was just a step away from being exactly in between me and Jamie. Helen was further up the stairs, but only by a bit.
My blood pounded in my ears, my mind raced so much I wasn’t sure I trusted it, as I tried and failed to see a way forward, something that would help Jamie.
I couldn’t get by Sub Rosa, bait her downstairs, and keep her busy somehow while sending one of the doctors to help Jamie, assuming he was alive. I wouldn’t make it. I knew it. I couldn’t outrun her, I didn’t have the tools, and the doctor wouldn’t risk Sub Rosa’s wrath by going. She’d had them cowed, down there. The dead bodies suggested how.
I couldn’t scream for them to come up and help him, again, because they wouldn’t go, because they wouldn’t hear.
I couldn’t go down and force one to come with me and help Jamie on pain of death, because that would mean Helen had to deal with Sub Rosa.
I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t. The thoughts dissolved into a haze of couldn’ts and the haze was an angry one, the pounding of blood in my ears and eyes intense enough that I could see my heart beating, my field of vision throbbing.
It was the polar opposite of what I’d experienced in my moment of near death. My thoughts then had gone quiet. I’d been able to stop thinking. Right now they were anything but quiet.
My thought was crystal clear, and it was well modulated, not a scream or an incoherent shout.
This is what it’s like to see red, was my thought. Which was odd, because things seemed more blue-green, as if we were underwater.
I wished it was more productive. That my surge of emotion and the clarity for my most destructive thoughts could provide a way to end her right this moment.
“Sy,” Helen said, behind me. She sounded so normal.
“Yes?” I asked, my voice just as everyday as hers.
“There’s nothing you can do.”
Sub Rosa wasn’t holding onto the railing anymore. If I could knock her down the stairs, so she might fall like Jamie’s book had… no. It wouldn’t hurt her enough.
“Sylvester,” Helen said, with more emphasis.
I want to tear those staples out of her mouth so she can talk, then challenge her, call her out, break the arrogant, insane bitch.
“I know,” I admitted, aloud. “But Ja-”
I stopped, cleared my throat so I could speak more clearly, found no word came out, and only managed something on a third try, changing the affect of the word, making it flat, whisper-quiet. “Jamie.”
“You know he doesn’t want you to.”
Doesn’t, not wouldn’t. I looked at the body, my eyes automatically moving away from the broken form, then made myself look again. I blinked, and my eyes stung with the sweat mingled with the stuff I’d rubbed on my skin and in my hair to keep the bugs off and make the wall crawlers less inclined to hold on to me.
He was breathing.
The relief was so profound I found myself grabbing the railing to steady myself.
Anger was replaced with fear.
Sub Rosa still had the spike extending from her left hand. She was closer to Jamie.
“I’d like to talk,” I said.
She shook her head slowly.
“Sylvester,” Helen said. “Jamie doesn’t want you to take the risk. Let’s go.”
Jamie doesn’t want to die. If we leave him with her, he’ll die. If we leave him without getting him help, he’ll die. We’re all supposed to live, aren’t we?
I couldn’t voice the words. I needed to open a dialogue with Sub Rosa, find a chink in the armor, a weak point, or something.
Her attention moved to Jamie. Helen’s fault.
“Supervisor,” I said, my voice firm, authoritative. A desperate stab at evoking something from the days when she’d had a different sort of power.
It worked. Her head turned a degree.
“Earlier, not long after we crossed paths, you stroked my hair. The others, the people who remember, they’ve painted you as a monster, the person you once were and who you are now. They laid the blame at your feet, saying you’re why the Academy is so strict and results-focused.”
I could see the tension in her face building with each statement I made.
“But a real monster doesn’t have that gentleness to them,” I told her.
My eyes strained to find a sign that I was getting through to her. If there were any changes, I couldn’t be sure if I was really seeing them or if I wanted to.
I was usually so good about these things.
Just as I’d done against Mauer, I fell back on fundamentals. ‘Us versus them’ was an approach that almost always worked, framing an enemy, making myself and the others out to be part of ‘us’. But we’d betrayed that expectation when Gordon had shot her.
Something else, then.
Establishing a rapport, humanizing. A good technique for a hostage to use against a hostage taker, it could mean a turnaround in a situation, being released, or it could buy a moment of hesitation.
In this case, the humanizing was anything but, because I had to talk about monstrous things.
“I know what the Academy does,” I said. “I’m not like other children. Neither is she, and neither is he, that much should be obvious. Believe me when I say that we know the sort of pain you’ve experienced.”
Her hand went up, and it touched the wounded eye and side of her head, where the blood had congealed to a jellylike consistency, the overall structure of her face devastated and mostly caved in.
“I’m talking about the other kind of pain. Being slowly and surely twisted for the agenda of others.”
Her body language was all the reply I needed. Her hand was slow to drop away from the hole in her face, as if to say, but this isn’t forgotten, or you deceived me once.
She turned back to Jamie, and I felt a yawning hollowness inside at the realization that I probably couldn’t stop her, whatever happened next.
“You-” Jamie croaked the word.
Sub Rosa moved the point of the spike toward him. I hated to think what convulsing might do when so many of his bones were probably broken.
“You have… a nephew,” he said. Each word or pair of words was labored, forced.
She didn’t stab him or touch him with the spike.
“His name… Edward. Year older… than me.”
There was no reaction on Sub Rosa’s part. Her expression was already warped by the staples and the portion of the cocoon that was draped over and around her head. A bug-eyed stare.
Behind us, one of the wall crawlers got a little close. Helen hissed at it, scaring it off.
Sub Rosa didn’t need to hiss. She was big and scary enough that she apparently didn’t look like prey to the wall crawlers.
“He… not… Academy. Works…”
Each word seemed more painful to get out. He wasn’t twitching a muscle as he talked.
“Runs errands… passes on messages… for factory owner. His uncle, named Baxter.”
The pieces fell into place with that.
Baxter was a known name. The family was wealthy, well liked. The job of assisting a factory owner was believable, but paralleled Sub Rosa’s own experience to a slight degree. She was the supervisor, and it was obviously a core part of her identity.
Everything Jamie was doing was calculated using known variables. Probably some I hadn’t considered or ones I wasn’t aware of, drawn from Jamie’s recollection, and some informed by my desperate stab at gaining sympathy or connecting to her better side.
I felt Helen touch my shoulder. She’d drawn closer.
Everything he’s doing, including the plodding, speed of his every utterance.
There was no saying how long we had. I feared it might be no time at all, that Sub Rosa’s anger might outweigh her attachment to family. That, as Helen and I made a run for it, leaving Sub Rosa and Jamie behind, she might give chase, and that one of us might get caught and utterly destroyed in the same way Jamie had.
My hand found Helen’s. As she stumbled, fatigue catching up with her, I caught her with my shoulder in her armpit, bracing her with my entire body, scraping a shin against a stair while the both of us recovered.
“Brave boy,” she said. She wasn’t talking about me.
How long before Jamie ran out of things to say, or worse, said the wrong thing, and tipped Sub Rosa off to the fact that he was lying through his teeth?
Or even worse still, how long before he succumbed to his injuries?
We had some time, be it a minute or five, but I didn’t like trusting luck. It was a fickle mistress, whatever that meant.
“What do we need?” Helen asked.
“Shipman,” I said. “One or two adults from the next room, to carry her. The glass cases. I need to get back to the others.”
“I’ll get the adults and Shipman, you do that thing,” Helen said. “What are we doing?”
“Fishing,” I said.
“I’ve never gone fishing,” she said. She was breathing hard, but she wasn’t panting, either. Different means of breathing. “Harpoon?”
“Hook,” I said, meeting her eyes.
“How fun!” she said.
Something to bring up later, if I could figure out how to word it. Yes, this was probably fun for her, and yes, I suspected she was worried for Jamie in her own peculiar way, but the nature and tone of the statement were at odds with the fact that we were in as bad a situation as we’d ever been.
Up the stairs, to where the others are.
My legs felt like lead. I doubted I had another run in me.
This would have to be the final confrontation. All or nothing. If we screwed up on any level or if something went too wrong, there would be no more tools left to play.
We reached the others. I pulled ahead of Helen, pounding on the door that hid the adults as I passed it. I tried to give it a cadence that would sound less like the knock of an immortal abomination of nature and more like something people could open a door for, but I rushed it a bit in the process.
I let myself into the room where Lillian, Gordon, Mary and Gladys Shipman were. Quickly, I stopped by each, checking that they were still warm and breathing.
Mary was the last. I helped myself to knives, because knives were useful, and then I reached up her skirt and pulled the loop of wire free.
The fishing line.
I could hear Helen outside, talking to the people in the other room. Two words. “Please help.”
My attention fell on Gladys.
I bent down and began winding wire around her ankles.
Gordon’s hand moved. He barely had his eyes open, but he touched my elbow.
I kept winding.
His touch became a firm grip, hard.
“Jamie’s dying,” I said, very quiet, my voice as firm as his grip.
The hand fell away. His eyes were closed, but there was an expression of deep concern on his face.
I was still working on the tie of thin wire when Helen came into the room with three of the male scientists. Gladys’ partner, the older woman, was at the tail end of the group.
She saw what I was doing and pushed past the others. I pushed back, hard.
“No,” she said. “No! Whatever you’re doing-”
“I’m stopping that monster and getting every single one of us out of here alive,” I said.
I’m going to try, I revised my statement in my head.
“We are,” Helen said, in a very particular voice that was probably modulated and calculated to win the adults over. Confident without being threatening. “Please trust us. Do as we say, and we should all get out of here alive.”
I almost believed her, before I remembered that she was basing that statement on her belief in me, and I knew I didn’t have that much trust in me or my own plan.
Helen knelt by me, then leaned close, “If you do it like that, the wire’s going to pull taut and cut her to the bone. She’ll lose her feet.”
Maybe the blood will help, I thought.
“They can give her new feet later. There’s no time,” I said. Jamie was down there, doing everything he could. He was probably dying, he could die if his concentration or consciousness faltered for a moment and he said the wrong thing, or if Sub Rosa figured out he was lying or tired of him.
“Here,” Helen said. She took the wire from my hands. “Ibbot hired a trainer to teach me to tie people up properly.”
“Why would tying people up be useful?” I asked. “You tie people up with… you.”
She smiled. “I know. I do. It’s for the end goal. The me I’m supposed to end up as, a nice skill to have available.”
I thought about it. Helen as the dangerous dame, using her attractiveness and appeal as a weapon to get close. I blinked a few times.
“Now I’m even less sure why you’d need to tie someone up,” I said.
She didn’t answer, as she tugged at the wire, but she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek, which only confused me more.
She slipped few metal tools into the gap between wire and leg so the sharp edge of the wire would press them against Shipman’s legs rather than cut into flesh.
She did the remainder of the tying up and knotting, probably faster in the end than I’d have been on my own, and the knot looked strong, the extra ropes hooked into, under and around Shipman’s shoulders and clothing.
I gauged the remaining length of the wire. About twenty feet?
It would have to do.
“Carry her,” I said, to the adults.
One balked. “How old are you?”
“I’m eleven,” I said. “Almost twelve. And we’ve killed more monsters than you’re even aware existed. Carry her.”
I was anxious for Jamie, and my anxiety was transforming into a crazed anger and impatience. If I had to let Gladys Shipman lose her feet or murder one of these idiots as an example to make this work, then I’d damn well do it.
“Please,” Helen offered, as an addition to my order.
They picked up Shipman.
“Gloves?” I asked, looking around “Thick ones… they’ll need something.”
I didn’t see anything. Fuck it.
We walked as a group, me in the lead, Helen a little behind me.
“I’m going ahead,” I said. “You set up at the fourth floor. Use your lab coats or something to protect your hands. Tie the other end to the rail. Lower her down.”
“What?” one of the men asked. He was older. “What are you talking about?”
“Sub Rosa only wants a few things. That girl is one of them. Sub Rosa spent a long time tearing down doors and making her way through the Bowels to reach her,” I said. “We’re going to give her what she wants.”
“Like hell you will,” the woman said. Gladys Shipman’s partner.
“Not in reality,” I said. “But we need to position her right, to set the hook.”
I looked at Helen.
“She’s stronger than me,” Helen said. “I don’t think I can hold her.”
“You don’t need to hold her for too long,” I said.
“Oh,” Helen said. “Okay then.”
She took me at my word so easily. Helen wasn’t, as far as I was aware, possessed of the capacity for frustration or exploration. She had something she was good at, she knew her niche, and she was profoundly comfortable within that niche. Ibbot had done some things right.
In the briefest possible terms, she trusted herself, and she trusted me.
I trusted her instincts. There were a few ways this could go, which would require far much explanation to cover in detail without confusing matters, and that same explanation would probably upset the natives.
We reached the spiral stairs. I grabbed the railing, holding on, and slipped under, leaning over as far as I was able to look down the circular shaft. Gorger was a pale speck down at the bottom, and Sub Rosa was far from a speck, a considerable distance closer.
She’d left Jamie behind, and she was coming up.
I felt a sickness roiling in my stomach, a feeling that refused to clarify itself.
“Get in position,” I said, as I moved to do the same. “Lower her when I whistle.”
I hurried, though my legs were too tired to properly run.
Here we were. It was hard to know what to do, if Sub Rosa was even hostile, but the consequences for assuming she wasn’t hostile and then being wrong… I wasn’t willing to deal with them.
One way or another, this was the final confrontation.
Thanks for buying us time, Jamie, I thought.
I picked up the canister of plague with ginger care. I felt a thrill of power, simply from holding it.
In a confidence game, one of the first things to do was to create a sense of urgency. The second thing to do was to put the other party off balance. Clever men who made their illicit living manipulating others didn’t tend to do it while keeping their targets clear headed and focused.
I sat down, then lay back, and flipped over until I was on my belly, before creeping forward, looking through the supports for the railing and down.
When Sub Rosa was directly beneath me, I threw the canister down at an angle, so it would hit the wall just above her.
It didn’t break on the initial contact, but it hit the stairs and cracked.
The pressurized contents exploded into a cloud far, far larger than I’d expected. I scrambled to get up and back.
I had to hope it wouldn’t reach Jamie, who was a few floors down. There were the people on the ground floor too, but Jamie.
I really hoped none of the wall crawlers appeared. I was vulnerable like this. They couldn’t kill me, but they could distract at a critical moment.
The cloud stopped billowing out. With all her injuries, Sub Rosa probably wouldn’t like it, though it might not take effect immediately.
That’s for hurting him, I thought.
I headed further up the stairs. I grabbed the thing with water inside, then advanced back down a little, watching and waiting. Better to have another canister behind me if I needed to make a run for it.
If she went down, I could hopefully disturb her with this. She didn’t know it was harmless, for one thing, and she didn’t know I only had the three.
With luck, I could convince her that the only way to deal with the problem was to come up.
She didn’t go down. She emerged from one end of the red-brown cloud, rubbing at her eye, snorting to breathe through her nose.
She managed to clear her vision enough to make me out, a full floor above her, and picked up her pace.
If she came up, angry and ready to kill, I had an option for that as well.
I threw the canister with the compressed water vapor inside, aiming for it to land between us, closer to me than to her.
Like the last, it cracked and released its contents, with glass flying everywhere, before a thick mist enveloped that part of the stairwell.
I saw Sub Rosa back out of the lower end of the cloud.
Can’t charge ahead recklessly, can’t ignore me. Do what you’re so good at doing. The steady and implacable advance.
I turned and retreated further, to the entrance to the fifth floor hallway, where the last vial was.
This was more defensive than offensive.
I had to wait for the mist to clear. My heart was beating so hard in my chest I thought I might throw up because of it.
Come on. Come on.
It took time for the mist to clear. I fidgeted, waiting.
When it had mostly cleared, Sub Rosa forged ahead, wiping again at her eyes and nose. The edges looked red and inflamed.
I whistled, still considering everything I needed to do. If Sub Rosa came for me…
I picked up the last glass container. My just-in-case measure.
Dangling from her ankles, Shipman was lowered into view. I saw Sub Rosa crane her neck to look up and see. I noticed how she picked up the pace.
Sub Rosa came up, Shipman was lowered down, and I waited, tense.
“Let’s deal,” I told her. “We want to live, you want revenge. You don’t need to be able to talk to make this deal. It’s as simple as these things get.”
“Revenge?” I heard one of the adults above asking. They’d heard.
Sub Rosa continued her advance, not stopping. I tightened my grip on the glass canister and backed up a step.
“If you come after me,” I said, “You don’t get her. They’ll drop her. She dies, never the wiser. Hardly a revenge against anyone who did this to you.”
She slowed a touch.
“She knew,” I lied. “She was there. She knew what you were. You saw the recognition in her eyes when you saw her on the sixth floor. It would be ridiculous to think she wouldn’t know, with her uncle working down here.”
Sub Rosa looked at Shipman, who wasn’t being lowered anymore.
Were the adults too busy fighting and arguing?
We’d told them all they had to do was follow orders.
“She told me those things about you. She was one of many who’ve taken your legacy and twisted it into something ugly. Lies, and untruths.”
But Shipman was several feet out of reach, dangling, skirt closer to her ribcage than her knees, and I, unfortunately, was closer.
Sub Rosa drew nearer.
I raised the glass canister over my head.
Sub Rosa lunged forward, fast and hard enough that she couldn’t aim, and tapped me in the ribs with the spike.
My knees went out from under me as the shock rippled through me. The glass canister slipped from my grip a moment too late, falling in the wrong direction, hitting the stairs above me.
I’d hoped to use the cloud of mist to beat a retreat, either into the hallway or up the stairs. Let Sub Rosa have only Shipman in reach when the mist cleared.
But now I was at her mercy.
My breath caught as I tried to bring it into my lungs. When I finally found air, I screamed, “Lower her!”
“Barely any wire left!” I heard back.
Sub Rosa stared down at me, her one visible eye clear. A thick rash had already spread over her exposed skin.
The look in her eyes was a sad one, which caught me off guard.
On the other hand, her fist was clenched, her hand shaking.
Not enough mercy in her to spare me, not enough anger in her for her to go straight after Shipman.
I stood to be a casualty of the middle ground.
Shipman suddenly dropped another three feet. The movement caught Sub Rosa’s eye.
The woman looked away from me, the spike pointed in my general direction.
She walked over to the railing, leaning forward and reaching up and out to seize Shipman by the collar. She tugged, hard, and Shipman came free entirely, the wire from the grip or tie or whatever they’d done up above.
Hopefully Helen wasn’t too busy lowering Shipman to-
No. Helen wasn’t too busy. She appeared, hair and skirt fluttering as she dropped from the stairwell above, seizing Sub Rosa’s reaching arm and Shipman both.
My heart leaped. This hadn’t quite been the plan.
Sub Rosa was strong, but leverage was leverage. Helen had to weigh about seven stone. Gladys maybe eight. Both weights tugged down on Sub Rosa’s arm as she was reaching over the rail.
The top end of her went down, the other end went up and over the railing.
I found my faculties, and half-crawled, half-walked over to the ledge, praying that I wasn’t going to find out that I’d lost Jamie and Helen in the same day.
Staring down, I saw Helen another floor down.
If I or another human being had reached out and grabbed the railing after falling nearly thirty feet, I might have lost my fingers or my arm. But Helen was built differently. She hung there, her arm a few feet longer than it should’ve been, a limp Gladys Shipman dangling from her other hand.
At the bottom of the shaft was a dark blot that marked where Sub Rosa had hit ground. The pale blob that was Gorger inched forward, until it reached her, and then consumed its meal.
Helen had made it. Shipman too, maybe. Sub Rosa was gone.
I wasted no time in heading to Jamie’s side.