I reached Helen. She hung from one hand, still holding Gladys, looking abjectly unconcerned with the immense drop below her. Wrist had dislocated from elbow, which had dislocated from shoulder. The skin stretched, and muscles stood out in odd ways in the space between the bones. Not that her bones were the usual sort.
Because of the way the arm and shoulder were stretched so thin, her face was contorted, the skin pulled down toward one side of her neck.
“Did we get her?”
“Exactly right,” I said, quiet, bending down. “Line, hook, and sinker.”
I took hold of her wrist with both hands.
“You’re not strong enough, Sy,” she said. She craned her head around. “Help is coming. They’ll help us up.”
The people who had lowered Gladys down, Gladys’ partner included, coming down the stairs from the level above.
“Bring them down to me and Jamie?” I asked.
“Okay, Sy,” Helen said.
I abandoned her. Down the stairs. My legs were tired, my brain was exhausted, my whole body ached from what had to be the lingering effects of getting shocked, and all of the pent-up emotions were dissolving into something approximating exhaustion. My hair stuck to my forehead, my clothing stuck to my back. My knees were rubbed raw from the way they’d rubbed against the sweat-damp uniform slacks. My skin prickled where I’d rubbed it with the chemical stuff.
There was no big plot to focus on now. I was Sylvester and nothing more. I wanted every one of my fellow Lambs to be okay, and nothing more.
By the time I reached Jamie, some of the people from downstairs were already making their way up. A few were clustered around him. Others were standing at the ready, with improvised weapons in hand. Shirts had been pulled off to double as headcovers, cloth was wrapped around hands, and still, they had to fight to keep the bugs off.
My thought processes and feelings were horribly confused as I wrapped my head around the scene. They wouldn’t be doing that if he was dead, so he was okay. Heart soaring. But he was hurt. Ugly feeling in my middle. And, perhaps the hardest thing to process, I wanted to be the person by his side, helping him. Resentment and anger. The feelings mingled and it felt bad.
It must have shown on my face, because expressions changed as people saw me drawing nearer.
Jamie’s breathing was ragged, audible from several feet away.
If you idiots hadn’t tipped off the monster, Jamie would be okay, I thought.
“He’s a tough one,” a man told me. He had his sweater and a shirt pulled up in such a way that only his eyes were visible, but the skin around those eyes was black. His lab coat was buttoned up to the chin, cinched tight with a tie. A black man in a lab coat – an oddity in the Academy. “He’s breathing on his own, and that says something.”
I nodded, mute.
“You should cover up,” the man said, all business.
“I did,” I told him. “Covered myself with kerosene. Bugs don’t like it, neither do the, uh, things on the walls.”
“This boy too?”
“Thought he smelled off. You know kerosene will burn you, smeared on like that?”
“Diluted,” I lied. Jamie’s had been diluted, Helen hadn’t cared at all about the strength of the stuff, and it was slow to really get to me.
“You look flushed. If you-”
“I don’t care about me,” I cut him off, before adding, “Sir.”
I gave a pointed look to Jamie, to make it absolutely clear where my concerns were.
“Pupils are dilating. He follows my finger with his eyes. But his heartbeat isn’t strong, breathing is taking work. The bleeding at the side of his head makes me worry about a cranial bleed. Spiderweb crack of the skull, complete shoulder break, several rib, arm, and pelvis fractures. His stomach is firm.”
“Firm is good?”
“Firm suggests internal bleeding.”
He had a stern, matter-of-fact way of delivering the bad news. Combined with his skin color, and I could guess his history. Black soldier, with duties of a field medic, possibly because of things he’d picked up from his father, or another family member. When things had gone poorly, the medics had received advanced training.
Much as was the case with the women who’d worked at the Academy during wartime, the Academy had decided that even if someone was black, knowledge was knowledge.
That he was here in the Bowels now, that was notable. That he was the one looking after Jamie, that was something else altogether. People who’d had to fight for power so often set everything but their work aside, even decency and kindness.
Sub Rosa was one such person, I suspected.
“He’s going to need surgery,” the man said. “I’m doing it right here. I don’t like the idea of moving him, with this many breaks.”
In a very serious, low tone, he told me, “It isn’t going to be pretty.”
“I’ve seen worse,” I said, in that same tone.
It was Jamie.
“She’s gone, Jamie. Helen and I got her.”
That turned heads. Fuck it.
“Sy. I talked to her… I told her lies,” he said. His voice was reedy.
“I know, Jamie. I was there for the start of it.”
“No. I… kept talking… wasn’t thinking… not straight… rambling… lies.”
“I’m not following.”
“Stupid lies… contradicting… myself… she knew… she listened… stroked my face…”
“She hurt you,” I said.
“Don’t think…” he said, but he didn’t find the word or the breath to finish the statement.
“She hurt you on purpose, Jamie.”
“I saw her fall…”
“I told you, Jamie, she’s gone.”
“Started out… telling her about… her dream… things she might have wanted… but after… was… ugh… hurts.”
“Words can wait, son,” the doctor who was sitting with Jamie said.
Jamie continued, oblivious. “Was telling… her… about my dreams… things I wanted… things… never told… anyone.”
“You did good, Jamie.”
“She… was gentle. Made me comfo… comfortable. Without hurting…”
He was still on that?
The fingers of his good hand twitched. I reached out to take it.
He panted, as if speaking had meant he lost more air than he took in, even with the ragged gasping breaths, and he needed to refill the reserves.
I thought back through what Jamie had said, trying to find the main thrust of it.
“You reached deep,” I murmured. “To her, and inside yourself, in order to survive, and to help us survive. You were hurting, your defenses were down. The same thing happens with people who are kept as prisoners of war, or kidnapping victims.”
“No. She was…”
“Sub Rosa was bad, Jamie. She hurt an awful lot of people, and when it came down to it, she went after Shipman, and that was how we beat her.”
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” I said. Then I realized what Jamie was saying. It wasn’t concern for Shipman’s welfare, or for Gordon, who liked the girl.
He was trying to gauge whether his estimation of Sub Rosa had been right or wrong.
I opened my mouth to revise my statement, to clarify, but Jamie cracked his eye open in that same moment. It was barely open at all, squinting against light and pain, and it was so bloodshot it made me think of Sub Rosa’s eye socket, filled with clotted blood.
“Don’t… lie, Sy,” he told me.
Even in this state, he had enough of a sense of me to gauge that I was venturing into the territory of dishonesty. For his sake, to soothe his conscience, but I’d been on the cliff.
I shut my mouth, holding back the lie, and gave his fingers a light squeeze.
We sat for a good minute.
I didn’t like how things sat. Jamie was squirming more, and I wasn’t sure it was physical pain. Much as I’d suggested, his defenses were low. This, lying in a broken heap on the staircase, was Jamie laid bare.
I’d done nothing to assuage his worries.
“Down there, Sub Rosa killed people, right?”
“Yes,” the doctor said.
“What did she have you doing?”
“The wall came apart. We were pulling out slabs. There were crates at the back.”
“Explosives. Sticks of dynamite, stacked high, inside the wall.”
“Did she want to bring this whole place down?” I asked.
A bystander spoke up, “I wouldn’t think it’s that easy. There are mechanisms in place. Sand, water. There’d be damage, but…”
But she knows this place too well, I thought. She would know the dynamite wouldn’t necessarily do the trick, and the Academy wouldn’t store enough dynamite to destroy the Bowels.
“Maybe blowing an escape route out of here,” I said. “Or setting a trap for when they opened the seal and came down here.”
“No,” Jamie wheezed.
I looked at him.
“No. Walled up… tunnel… I think. Layout of… Academy, only… one place… she could go… ow, ow.”
“This deep?… Radham’s monster…”
There were murmurs.
Jamie wasn’t being discreet, but he had an excuse, and I was beyond the point of caring.
Radham’s monster. Sleeping away in a chamber beneath the Academy.
“Did she intend to wake it up and destroy Radham? Or was she risking waking it up to get out?”
I watched Jamie breathing, worrying he might stop at any moment. He was squirming less than before. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I hoped that his conscience regarding Sub Rosa was clearer, and that he’d been reminded what she’d been.
Which wasn’t to say that who she was and what we’d faced weren’t entirely different things.
A fresh group of people began making their way up the stairs, carrying tools and kits.
“If you stay there, you can’t do anything, you can’t move, you cannot get in the way,” the black doctor told me. “No matter how bad it looks, or how violent we seem to be acting.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve seen worse, really.”
“Sy, was it?”
“Sylvester. Sy or Sly to friends.”
“Sylvester, then. Sit tight. We’ll do what we can.”
I watched as they got all the tools ready, kit and kaboodle all laid out. There were murmurs from the bystanders, all Academy trained, commenting on what should be done first, where the priorities were, approaches and methods. Yet it was this man who’d stepped forward to help Jamie.
I wondered how much there was at play in that. Was it the sort of thing where people thought that blame might be laid at the feet of a doctor who tried and failed to save Jamie?
There was a refuge in thinking about that sort of thing. The mechanisms at work inside people’s heads.
This was a man who stood alone.
“Doctor,” I said. “If you save him, you can call me Sy.”
He didn’t take his eyes off Jamie, but he murmured, “Willard D.”
I made a mental note, not that my mental notes were reliable.
I saw Willard’s hands go to the buttons at Jamie’s collar.
“Everyone else,” I said, “If you don’t have something to contribute, get lost. It’s still dangerous, and enough stings from those bugs will stop your heart. Go to your labs, close the doors, and block any openings.”
The warning was enough to scare most off. Only a few lingered, out of ego or curiosity.
I watched as Jamie’s uniform was alternately unbuttoned and cut away. The scars were on full display.
Willard looked up at me.
“Don’t cut across the scars,” I said.
“Can I ask what they are?”
“Classified,” I said. “I don’t think you have permission to know.”
“Looks like I signed on for quite a task, then,” he said.
I watched him making the initial incisions in Jamie’s belly. My eye didn’t leave that scalpel, until I felt a hand on my hair.
Helen, sitting on the stair above me. She’d mostly fixed her arm, but the wrist hung limp and there were light bruises.
She stroked my hair again.
I returned my eyes to the scalpel, as if I could will it to be steady.
The agreement had been to take turns watching Jamie. When this had been decided, Gordon, Gladys, Lillian, and Mary had insisted that they be the ones to watch, as they’d slept through the finale with Sub Rosa.
I lay my side with a rolled up lab coat for a pillow, another lab coat draped over me, lying on the floor of the lab where the others had dozed off, now free to rest and recuperate, exhausted to the bone, but instead I’d spent hours watching the rise and fall of Jamie’s chest, and watching Mary.
Mary’s watch had been spent sharpening a knives, until Gordon muttered something rude at her. After that, she’d taken to coiling the remainder of the razor wire, unwinding it, then fixing it, over and over.
I watched through half-lidded eyes as she suddenly rose, walked over to the clock on the desk, lit a fresh candle, positioned the case around the new candle to reduce the light, then went to rouse Lillian. Without compunction, Mary took the space Lillian had been using to sleep, makeshift pillow and the fire blanket both.
Lillian didn’t fidget. She didn’t read or pace or do much of anything. A few times she rose from her seat, she checked on Jamie, then returned to her perch on the stool.
About thirty minutes in, I heard her making small sounds.
Thirty-five minutes in, I roused. In the gloom, I approached her and put my arms around her. She started squirming, trying to wipe away tears, but I shifted my grip to hug her tighter, holding her arms to her side.
“One of the worst things that could have happened to you happened yesterday,” I whispered in her ear. “You made it, Lil.”
“Lil. You made it, and you did well.“
“I’d be the first person to tell you if you didn’t,” I said. “Right?”
She made a small incoherent sound that might have been reluctant agreement.
“You did well. Carry that with you. You faced your worst fear… now leave it behind,” I told her, voice soft, with cadence, soothing. “Today, you made great strides toward being the very awesome Lil-the-adult you’re going to become.”
She nodded, the back of her head rubbing against my chest.
“Come on,” I whispered. “Over here.”
I led her to the spot where I’d been lying down. She obeyed, wiping again at her face now that I wasn’t keeping her from doing it. I’d meant it to be a kind of permission to keep crying, but she’d gone and stopped. Silly.
“Lie down,” I whispered.
“I’m on watch,” she whispered, in an even quieter voice.
“I’m not sleeping anyway,” I said. “Lie down, rest easy. You’ll wake up tomorrow, and this whole thing with me being nice will have been a dream.”
She let out a hiccup of a giggle, then wiped at her face again, but she did lie down.
I helped her fix the lab coat blanket, then sat down, my back to her stomach, arms around my knees, watching Jamie.
For his part, he watched me. He’d seen it all.
I’d chosen a position, unfortunately, that didn’t give me a good view of the clock on the desk. I didn’t want to move for fear of disturbing Lillian, so I stayed where I was.
The hours passed in a vague, dreamlike way. I didn’t once come close to nodding off, sitting there listening to the pattern of breathing from the six Lambs.
I sat there watching, as Gordon and Gladys roused together, taking a seat on the table opposite me, and spent a while watching together. I gave him a little wave, to let him know I was awake, and he waved back.
I could have gone to sleep, knowing they were on watch, but I didn’t. I might have done it or pretended to do it to give them privacy, but as much as I liked Gordon, I didn’t like Gladys enough to go to the trouble. They talked amongst themselves, confiding, Gordon keeping the periodic chuckle quiet.
There was no way to track time, but by the movement of the candlelight and shadows, I might have guessed it was two or so hours later that we felt the tremor.
Every sleeping individual stirred awake as it built in intensity, making the room rumble.
Gordon stood, crossed the room, and flicked the light switch. The lights that came on were the ordinary ones, not the emergency ones.
“Gorger passed on word, I guess,” Gordon said. “Problem solved. The released experiments have been caught or contained. They’re letting us out.”
There were nods and people rubbing at eyes in response.
“We should wait, there are going to be a lot of people rushing to get out.” Helen said. She looked far less disheveled than someone who had just been sleeping was supposed to look. She had minimal bed hair, and her clothes weren’t even that much more wrinkled.
I could imagine the pushing and shoving at the top of the staircase.
“Still sitting tight,” I said. I looked at the others, and saw Mary’s hair. She did have messy hair. I grinned and pointed.
She smiled back, and set to trying to fix it. Apparently a comb and ribbons were part of her arsenal, tucked away on her person.
“It’s too bad,” he said. “Feels like it’s been too long. I’m looking forward to some fresh air.”
I wasn’t the only one to nod agreement.
There was a knock at the door. Gordon, sitting by the door, opened it without rising from his perch. When he saw who it was, he stood so he could open it wider.
“Gladys?” Gladys’ coworker asked. “I’m going. If you want to come?”
Gladys glanced at Gordon, then nodded at the woman.
“I’ll walk you to the edge of the crowd,” Gordon said, glancing back at us. “And report back to these guys about how things look.”
“Sure,” Helen said, brightly. “Have fun!”
Gordon smiled, then left with the two doctors.
I watched the door slowly swing closed. Mary craned her neck, shifting over from her seat on the stool to match the movement of the door, looking, and I saw her eyes momentarily light up, legs kicking in excitement.
“What?” Lillian whispered.
Mary pursed her lips in a kiss, and I felt my heart sink.
As if to symbolize something, like entombment, the door shut with a woof of air, sealing by way of a tight fit and sheer weight.
“Not a fan,” I said.
“Of Gladys?” Mary asked, still smiling a little.
“Of them. As a pair. I don’t get it.”
“He got his moment as the knight in shining armor,” Helen said. “I bet he’s the kind of boy that likes that idea. But I think she’s more appreciative of the fact that he explained things after. She seems like the type that’s ignored relationships in favor of work. He must have found a chink in the armor, awakened that interest.”
“Are you miss Cupid now?” I asked. “You pay attention to this sort of thing?”
“I prefer Aphrodite,” Helen said, still smiling. “And I’m working on it.”
I shook my head.
“Grumpy this morning,” Jamie muttered. He was awake, but he hadn’t roused.
“Jealous?” Mary asked.
I wheeled on her.
She grinned, showing me all of her tiny perfect white teeth.
“Uh, no,” I said. “Definitely not. Not on any level. I’d take Sub Rosa on a date before I took Shipman, and I’m not jealous of her for having Gordon because I’m a guy and Gordon is most definitely not a girl. No and nope.”
“But she’s taking him away from the group,” Lillian said, behind me. “It’s okay to be jealous of that.”
“I’m not jealous!”
Jamie slowly, painfully reached out, his fingers and hand extending toward my foot. I put the toe of my shoe further out in his direction.
He gave it a pat. “There there. There there.”
“I’d hit you if I wasn’t worried it would kill you.”
I shook my head, resolving to ignore Jamie. “Is this a long term thing? Him and her? How does that work?”
“We’ll find out and we’ll figure it out,” Mary said.
“Ugh,” I said. “You can. I’m going to live in happy little Sylvestertown, where this isn’t a thing.”
“He’s growing up, our golden hero,” Helen said.
I shook my head. “First one of us to reach that point, I guess.”
The moment of silence that followed the statement caught me off guard.
“Which point?” Mary asked.
“Liking someone?” I asked, back, a little confused.
“No,” Jamie said, softly, head down against his pillow, eyes closed.
“No,” Mary said.
“No?” Lillian said, uncertainly.
“Gordon’s a late bloomer, all things considered,” Helen said.
All eyes fell on me. The latest of bloomers, it seemed.
“No,” I said. “No way. That’s not fair!”
“You’re one of the youngest of us, and you’re a boy,” Helen said. “Don’t worry. Your time will come.”
“You’re all a bunch of dirty liars, you’re doing this to mess with me!”
“He is grumpy,” Mary commented.
“There there,” Jamie said, patting my foot again.
I pulled it away, and mimed like I was going to kick him in the head. It prompted the softest of laughs, which became a hacking coughing fit.
The door opened. Gordon. He gave Jamie a concerned look.
“Way is clear,” he reported.
We started getting ourselves pulled together, the people who’d slept without shoes pulling them on. I hadn’t taken mine off, and helped Gordon with Jamie. I was actually a better choice than some of the girls, because I was short enough that he could put an arm around my shoulders without reaching up and over.
Once we were all sorted, Gordon told the girls to go ahead and make sure nobody would jostle or bump us.
Our movement as a trio was excruciatingly slow, and I knew it would be worse once we reached the stairs.
As we hobbled and limped forward, trying not to jar Jamie too much, Jamie spoke up. “Sy.”
“Hm?” I grunted.
“Based on recent events, I think you’re- ah! You’re in good shape.”
“Mmf,” I grunted, again. “How so?”
“I’ve seen the better side of you. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Mm,” I grunted, bearing as much weight as I could while trying to keep Jamie from bobbing up and down.
“Her crying was annoying me,” I said.
“Hm?” Jamie made an inquisitive sound. “Ah. I’m sure.”
As a group, Jamie now in a wheelchair, we met Hayle and Briggs. Rather than going to them, we’d apparently earned the right to have them come to us, a short distance from the exit to the Bowels.
The leaves were bright, the rain light, and the sun even penetrated the clouds to a degree.
“Gorger communicated that you played a big role in this,” Briggs said.
“Sy, Helen, and Jamie, toward the end,” Gordon said.
“Jamie,” Briggs said. He gave Jamie a once-over. “There’s an operating room waiting. You can go. I’m sure the others will catch you up.”
“No,” Jamie said.
“You’d rather stay?”
“I…” Jamie made a face. “I forgot something. Missed something. I need an appointment.”
I saw his hand shake as he moved it toward his book.
“I see. Appointment first, then operation?”
Jamie nodded, a movement made jerky by nervousness and anxiety.
Rather than make him keep reaching, I stepped close. I took the battered book I’d recovered while he’d been getting set up in his wheelchair and checked over.
Briggs signaled someone, and they approached to wheel Jamie away.
I watched him go, a sick feeling in my middle.
His appointments were worse than mine, in a way.
“In his absence,” Briggs said, “I’d like written reports from each of you on the incident.”
There were a few suppressed groans, mine was one.
“It’s a third strike in the last year,” Briggs said. “I’ve already been told there will be changes. Radham Academy’s underground laboratories will be refurbished and redone entirely. Radham Academy’s staff will be overhauled.”
I felt a note of alarm. I looked in Hayle’s direction.
“Rest assured, Professor Hayle will retain his post,” Briggs said. “However, I will not.”
My eyebrows went up.
“The sentiment across the Crown States is that there is something brewing, and apparently I am unfit to lead the Academy through it. It may be right,” Briggs said.
I didn’t miss the hint of bitterness in his voice.
This was a demotion he would never recover from.
“Radham will be looked after by a Duke, I believe the man is sixteenth in line for the Crown, and he has led armies in war,” Hayle said, looking at me. “If I actually have to convey to you why you are not to get on his bad side, I’ve failed on multiple levels.”
“I understand,” I said.
“I really hope you do,” he said.
“The transition period will be difficult,” Briggs said. “At Professor Hayle’s recommendation, I’m assigning you a task in the meantime. A task for which you’ll need these.”
He reached into a deep lab coat pocket and retrieved a small bottle. He shook it, making the pills rattle. Though the glass was thick, I could tell that the pills were a deep purple.
“This is the same material we feed into the rain and the drinking water,” he said. “Without it, you’ll find yourself quickly sickening and dying.”
“We’re leaving Radham?” Gordon asked.
With a time limit, I thought. Only so many pills.
“As soon as Jamie is out of the hospital and you’ve each had your appointments,” Hayle told us.
“What for?” Mary asked.
“This time, we’re dealing with a young woman on the run,” Briggs told us. “She was one of several in line to become a professor, a young one, and a woman, no less. When she didn’t get her position, we had to take measures, given the knowledge she’d picked up. A brief incarceration, then work in the underground labs until an opportunity came up.”
“She was a prisoner,” Gordon said.
“With emphasis on ‘was’, Gordon,” Briggs said. “She escaped, with the head of another prisoner. Her name is Genevieve Fray, and she has a deep grudge against the Academy.”
“Okay,” Gordon said. “We find her, we stop her.”
“I would very much like you to do that,” Briggs said, “But there’s another concern at play.”
He turned his eyes to me.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“To make sure everyone is on the same page,” Hayle said, “Mary, I know you don’t know the full details about the other projects, unless they’ve told you things they shouldn’t.”
“Sylvester was an extension of an existing project, one that used minute amounts of chemicals and poisons to maintain and stimulate brain liquidity. Faster learning, faster adaptation, more connections. Many students opt into this program, taking small amounts. Sylvester was a stress test for the program, to discover the effective maximums and breaking point.”
I swallowed hard.
This wasn’t news to me, but…
“With his inclusion to the Lambs, we stopped pushing as hard as we were. We left things be as they were, and another Academy took on the task of testing the limits of the Wyvern project,” Hayle said.
“Miss Fray was someone who benefited from what we thought were small doses. Part of the reason for her loss of professorship was that she was manufacturing her own doses, for herself. We discovered this, among other things, and thought her too dangerous.”
“When you say she’s manufacturing her own doses,” I said, “Is she taking as much as me, or…”
“We don’t know,” Hayle said.
“She’s angry at the Academy, her brain is working very much like yours does, Sylvester, and she’s running. We have a dim idea of where she is, but she’s proven too evasive for Dog and Catcher. You need to find her, and you need to do it fast.”
But my brain was only fixated on one thing.
I have a sister.