“Is Mr. Howell expecting you?” the stitched asked.
Warren stared. There were so few of the stitched in Pontiac, and they were the sort of thing that was ignored and people who used them were looked down on. Pontiac was still a city in the Crown’s dominion, but it was a good distance from any of the Academies and there wasn’t much love for the Academy’s work there.
Now he was home, and a dead man stood in his father’s entryway, dressed in a footman’s clothing. Warren glanced back over his shoulder at his companion, Harry, who quirked an eyebrow in response. Harry’s sandy-hair was tucked beneath a cap, and he wasn’t clean-shaven, unfortunately. They’d stepped right off the train and made their way straight there. Warren had decided to shave while braving the periodic bumps and jostles of the carriage, and had made out with only one nick at his jaw.
“I’m his son,” Warren finally managed, still a little dumbstruck. “I sent a telegram ahead, he should be expecting me.”
“This way, sir,” he told me, stepping back and gesturing.
The stitched in Pontiac hadn’t been so well made. They were haulers, dirty and covered up with heavy clothes and caps, they did the dangerous work until they overheated and fried. Even before the overheating, though, they were rarely able to speak more than one slurred word at a time. Warren had always avoided them.
It walked just a little bit stiffly. Harry fell into step beside Warren, exaggerating the stitched’s gait. Warren elbowed him, hard, and Harry resumed walking normally, still maintaining a shit-eating grin.
On a good day, Harry was such a character. On a bad one, he was incorrigible.
Warren hoped Harry could lose the smirk soon. The were just now approaching the sitting room.
The manservant opened the double doors, and Warren’s hopes were dashed.
The sitting room itself was as he remembered it. There were three sets of arching double doors opening to the outside, partially made of glass, a large window, and more archways that hid slightly recessed bookshelves. The hardcover books had gold lettering, some faded more than others. The furniture was ornate, some of which had been antiques when his grandfather had been young.
His father and another man stood in the middle of the sitting room, beside what looked to be an eighteen year old girl in a state of undress from the waist up, only a brassiere covering her.
Warren’s father looked at him with a moment’s surprise, then smiled. Harry’s grin was ear to ear, positively delighting in Warren’s situation.
“Warren!” his father said, approaching. “So good to see you!”
Warren accepted the hug stiffly, not quite sure what to do. His father was a tall man, but he’d dropped some weight, and felt surprisingly frail under Warren’s arms. His father was from Cardiff, tall, dark, and surprisingly genial for how grim he could look.
His mother, not yet present, was short, but of brawny English-speaking German stock. Warren had been blessed with the best traits of both, putting him above average in height and of a respectable solid build, and years at university had put some muscle on his frame.
“You look different,” his father said.
“I feel different,” Warren said, trying not to look at the elephant in the room.
His father smiled.
“It’s been a long time, Warren,” the other man in the room said.
Warren paid attention to him for the first time, an old man with a very thick beard and a white lab coat.
“Doctor Pegram? You’re right. It’s been forever.”
“Not since you were small. I watched you grow up, and now your father tells me you’ve just finished your studies?”
“Halfway across the Crown States, Doctor, yes. I’ve been learning about machines and machinery,” Warren said, feeling a little embarrassed at the admission.
“Good on you. Not enough young people working with the hard sciences. It’s all chemicals and biology, ratios and balances instead of numbers and calculations,” the doctor said, gesturing at himself. “Why machines, Warren?”
“I, uh, always liked cars, sir,” Warren said. His eye flickered toward the woman.
The doctor smiled. “Don’t mind her.”
“It’s rather hard not to,” he admitted.
“Ah, of course,” his father said, “Wendy, get dressed, please.”
The woman moved, and immediately Warren recognized her as a stitched. The movements were slightly off. Her scars, however, were so faint that they only appeared in the right light, light pink and faintly reflective.
When she raised her hands up to pull her hair out from beneath her shirt, he saw how there was a piece of metal embedded into the side of her neck, back near the spine.
“Yes. She cleans and runs small errands. She requires a little bit more care when instructions are given,
“I’ve been gone five years, and when I return, you’re employing stitched?”
“Times change, son. All the arable land surrounding Radham is being co-opted by the Academy. I manage the farms and farmers as best I can, to give them work, but the Academy grows bigger, stronger, better crops. Blight doesn’t touch their plants, and they use stitched labor. I have to make concessions if I want to compete.”
Warren glanced again at Harry, worried it was too sensitive a discussion when they had a guest. Two, if Dr. Pegram was included.
“It’s alright, Warren. There were a few bad years, but we’re managing well enough. Using stitched for the field work was a hard choice, it meant turning some laborers away, but…”
The man sighed.
“No other choice?”
“No good ones. I forgot what it might look like to someone coming at this from an objective standpoint, I don’t think of them as anything more than tools.”
Warren nodded. He felt uncomfortable with the notion, but he couldn’t put his finger on why, or how he might fix it. Instead, he changed the subject.
“I almost forgot. Father, Dr. Pegram, this is Harry, my friend from school. Harry, this is my father, Mr. Clifford Howell, and Dr. Pegram, the man who pulled me into this world and looked after me for the first ten or twelve years after that.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Howell, Dr. Pegram,” Harry said. He stepped forward, hand extended.
“Is Harry only visiting Radham?” Warren’s father asked.
“I’m here to stay, as a matter of fact. Warren and I are starting our own business, building and fixing up cars.”
“I was top of my class in the building,” Warren said. “Harry’s grades were… less stellar, but he’s a salesman through and through, and he knows just where we can get started.”
“Excellent,” his father said. “Might have some competition from the academy. There’s something to be said for the carriages we’re all used to.”
“There’s something to be said for cars, too,” Harry said.
Warren half-turned as he saw a movement in the doorway. His mother. Smiling, he met her halfway and wrapped her in a hug.
She had to raise herself up on her toes to touch his face, and she put one hand on him to steady herself as she plucked the cap off his head. “No hats indoors.”
“Sorry, mother,” Warren said, a little abashed to be talked to like a little boy while Harry was around. He saw Harry snatch the cap from his own head, lightning quick.
“Sit, please,” his mother said. “Wendy.”
The stitched girl turned.
“Fill the teapot with the boiling water from the stove, I’ve already got teabags in there. And, let me see-”
“Don’t count me among your guests,” the doctor said. “You’ve already been so hospitable, and I’m on my way out the door.”
“Four cups, then, Wendy. Farewell, Doctor,” she said, giving the man a brief hug.
They settled themselves on armchairs and couches that had been positioned around the little coffee table.
The small talk never happened. Warren’s father sat, giving him a peculiar look, then squinted.
“You look different, Warren. I thought it might be your hair, or your brow, but…”
Warren felt his heart skip a beat as his father circled the table. The grip on Warren’s chin was surprisingly strong and fierce as his father forced his head up at an angle, so he was looking up at the man.
No geniality now. Only the grim.
“Ah, heh,” Warren said. “Harry convinced me.”
“It’s true, I did.”
“Blue?” his father asked, no humor in his tone.
“My vision is sharper, too. The change in color from brown was purely cosmetic.”
“It looks wrong,” his father said, and there was something in his voice that made Warren feel deeply uncomfortable.
“Clifford,” his mother said. “Don’t make mountains out of molehills.”
“This isn’t a molehill, if my suspicions are right. Or are you going to tell me this will go away on its own.”
“It’s permanent, father.”
“It was a lark, sir,” Harry said. “I convinced him it was cheaper to change his eyes than to buy eyeglasses every few years.”
“Changed how?” the man’s words had a hollowness to them. “Torn out and swapped in with another man’s?”
“They rewrote the language that determines how my eyes should be,” Warren said.
Warren’s father let go of his chin as if he’d been burned.
“I know you’re more conservative, father, but if you’re employing stitched-”
“This and that are two very different things.”
“It’s a very minor change.”
Harry chimed in, “An attractive one. I told him it would get him all the girls, an ice blue stare, but-”
“Please,” Warren’s father said, in the gentleman’s way of saying something polite while declaring that Harry might get struck if he kept talking.
Harry dutifully shut up.
“I’ve heard about this,” the older man said. “Rewriting our very being. I’ve heard the concerns. It carries forward, Warren. When you have a child, there is a very good chance it will have the same sort of eyes. This alien blueness.”
“I… yes. I’ve heard that,” Warren said. The blueness was a remark on the deepness of the blue. Most had a pale blue color to their eyes, but Warren had elected for a shade and hue that was closer to what might be found on a flower.
A moment’s decision, after drinking with Harry and several other friends. A lark, as Harry had suggested.
“Clifford,” Warren’s mother said, standing and reaching out. But the man was so filled with repressed anger that she seemed to hesitate to approach.
“Father,” Warren said, trying to use the moment, “It’s easily changed back. Same process. A needle in the arm, and a few weeks to adjust.”
“Oh?” his father asked. “Do you have the, what do you call it, the language, the script of your eyes as they once were? Or are you simply trying to mime the old color? A guess on the part of whatever doctor you subject yourself to? How is that different?”
“You make it sound like the end of the world!”
“It’s the end of us!” his father said, suddenly shouting.
The statement seemed to bring everything in the room to a standstill.
The stitched girl stood in the doorway with tea on a tray. Her head was bowed, and the plates on the platter rattled as her hands shook.
Warren’s mother flew to the stitched girl’s side, to console and to take the tray, the murmured words indistinct.
“The end of us?” Warren asked.
“You’re the product of your mother and I, as we’re the product of those who came before. But any child you have now will be a product of you, your wife, and the Academy’s work. We don’t yet know how these little things will carry forward, or if there will be long term repercussions, for you or your children. Such a stupid thing.”
The word was like a slap. Stupid.
“It’s minor. Nothing of importance in the grand scheme of it all,” Warren said, a little more obstinate now.
“It’s important to me. Do you understand? You’ve tainted the bloodline. You’re not truly my son anymore, not in full.”
If the word ‘stupid’ had been a slap, this was a strike to the gut. Warren felt all of the tension that had built up over the argument now seizing him. In shock, he was no longer sure how to move or properly think.
“Warren,” Harry said, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Perhaps we should go.”
“That might be a good idea,” Warren’s father said.
Warren nodded, dumb. He looked at his mother, on the other side of the room, still consoling the stitched girl.
He and Harry left, Warren more stiff than either of the stitched had been. Down the long hallway, past the stairs, and out the door, into bright sunlight. Radham was just on the horizon, past the patchwork white-brown and white of snow-dusted farmland, ringed by buildings that spewed dark fumes into the air. A perpetual raincloud hung over the city.
“Warren,” his mother said, behind him.
She pressed a slip of paper into his hand.
He looked down at it, too caught up in a storm of emotion to process it.
“Money. To get you off the ground and tide you over the first year or so, if you’re frugal. It was intended as a graduation present from me to you. It is a graduation present.”
“Thank you,” he said, but he still felt adrift, confused.
“I’ll talk to him, Warren. He cares, but he’s had to adapt so much so quickly, this caught him off guard, so soon after he’d already made monumental sacrifices. Send us another telegram so we know where you are, so I can reunite you two when he’s calmed down.”
“Will he?” Warren asked.
“He will,” she said. She gave his arm a squeeze.
He nodded, but the wound still felt raw.
“Take Wendy and the carriage. Go where you need to today, to get yourself situated and run any errands. Wendy can help you, and she can do a surprising amount of carrying. Send them back tomorrow, if you can. She knows how to use the carriage and how to ask for directions if she needs them.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, eyeing the young stitched dubiously.
“She needs it, frankly. Her disposition always improves after a good carriage ride. It would be a favor.”
Warren nodded. His mother was lying, but perhaps she wanted to keep an eye on him. Not an entirely bad thing.
“Look after him, Wendy,” Warren’s mother said. “Do as he asks, okay?”
“Let’s go,” Harry said, a hand on Warren’s shoulder. He used the hand to guide Warren into the horse-driven carriage.
Warren sat and stared blankly at the wall. He blinked as Harry slammed the door, then again as Harry sat across from him.
“Let’s go,” Harry said. “I think you’re in dire need of an unhealthy amount of drink.”
Every morning, it was the same. Replaying the discussion with his father, fragments of memory about the afternoon and evening that had followed. Drinking, meeting Harry’s friends in Radham.
Some had altered themselves, more than very blue eyes. A girl with horns, a young man who had added muscle to himself. Among Warren and the other students in Pontiac, Harry had been the roughest around the edges, too clever for his own good, always a little disheveled.
Harry’s friends in Radham were a dozen long strides in that same direction. Smart as a whip, all of them, but not in the academic sense. Quick to insult, joke, jibe. Warren hadn’t been able to keep up, especially as the drinks had added up.
He remembered blood, and he wrested his thoughts away from that particular sequence of events.
He tried to raise a hand to his face, and felt it move, felt the air against it, the shift of muscles. But the sensation folded on itself, the sensations continuing onward in his psyche until they had dissolved into smoke.
Every morning, it was like this. Discovering how badly things had gone, one way or another.
It was the movement in the corner of his eye that usually did it, or movement in front of him, sleep-bleary eyes making out the general shape of the surroundings.
Waking up like this might never become routine. Perhaps because it was too far removed from the reality he understood. Perhaps because he didn’t want to realize. Waking up in confusion, with a dawning feeling of horror, that was better. It was best, all things considered. It hinted at how low his expectations should be.
There was no dawning feeling of horror in the pit of his stomach.
He didn’t feel sweat run down his back.
His hands didn’t clench.
His toes didn’t curl.
His heartbeat didn’t pick up in speed.
His blood didn’t run cold.
None of those things were, not anymore.
He turned his head, and it was difficult. He had a limited amount of mobility, and the skin pulled tight with even a small turn.
The surroundings were dark, lit only by a slice of light that cut between curtains. It looked to be a cellar or a basement. One he had seen every morning for the last week.
It was the smallest of blessings that things changed locations once every week or two. A change of scenery.
As his eyes focused, he saw the movements. Shapes in his immediate peripheral vision, and in front of him. Tubes, wires, and heads.
Heads without bodies, hair shorn, mounted on a piece of metal, tubes running into the spaces and mounts, giving blood, hydration and nutrients, drawing everything else out.
They moved, jaws opening wide, teeth clacking, the ones that weren’t asleep in the midst of a silent, mad rage.
He opened his mouth to speak, and the air didn’t come as he bid it. The only tongue that moved was the one his mind conjured up, made of smoke. His tongue had been removed a long while ago. Too easy to bite it off and attempt to bleed out or choke.
The thought provoked the flurry of images he’d tried so hard to push out of his mind.
He remembered himself, partying with Harry and Harry’s friends.
He remembered seeing them talking among themselves, every time he came out of the washroom, or every time he found himself occupied with something or someone. Furtive talks. He’d imagined them discussing his situation at home, his father’s rage, and he’d deliberately ignored it, drinking more.
He remembered how, late in the evening, when it had been just them, Harry’s friends had grabbed him.
Harry had helped himself to the note that would let him access the money, then he had given the signal.
The group had lifted Warren up, then tipped him over.
He’d dropped several stories. He remembered seeing Wendy on landing. She and the carriage had been just outside the building.
When he’d woken up, it had been like this.
Body ruined, head salvaged, kept indefinitely on life support.
He stared through bleary eyes as a man pushed a curtain aside, where the curtain served in place of a door. Disheveled, with a thick beard, the man wore no lab coat. He looked more like someone who might be found sleeping at the side of the road, a bottle in hand.
“Tea,” the man said. “The usual. Then brush their hair and sponge them off.”
“Yes sir,” Wendy was heard to say.
Warren had only a glimpse of the stitched as she went about her day. Left untended, she was fidgeting more, anxious. Something about dealing with the heads left her more concerned each time, and her poor condition was part of it.
Had Warren been able to speak, he would have insisted she be taken care of, or sent back where she came from.
He doubted he would be heard. No man that could do this had any mercy in him.
The man approached the table, and though he couldn’t breathe, Warren could smell the rank odor of the man. He saw the man reach out and stroke the hair of one of the heads.
“Good morning, my pretties,” the man said. He consulted a notebook. “Thinking Machine project, version three, day… hm. Day fifty-three.”
It wasn’t the numbers that mattered, the number of days or even the implication that there had been two versions before this.
The horror that he experienced, a frustrated horror that had nowhere to go but his head, nothing to do but compound itself, was because of the words ‘good morning’.
Twelve to sixteen hours before sleep could claim him again.
Warren started screaming, twisting, face contorting, best as he was able, though no sound came out.
Sweat ran down his brow. He felt the coolness of the water as his scalp was gently dabbed.
Wendy fidgeted. She’d been maintained, but it had been a rough job, and had left deep scars in her flesh, where before there had been only faint ones. The ongoing damage to her strange psyche was something else altogether.
“I’m supposed to watch over you,” she said. “Madam said so. I very much look forward to going home, as soon as you give the word. This place is dark and…”
She leaned close, as if to share a secret.
“…I don’t like the dark, sir.”
Warren did his best to nod, a sympathetic look on his face.
“I have a teddy bear I hug when it’s dark. It was a gift. I know I’m a young lady now, but it does make me feel better,” she said.
He nodded, though it made his jaw and neck hurt. His brain felt fried. Wires ran in and out of his skull, connecting to the others, and several times a day, the thinking machine was put in use. The machine would play out a long stuttering series of clicks, the madman who’d put him down here would make a few notes, then take them with him as he walked into another part of the building, peering at them and scratching his head.
“I don’t think I know how to go back,” Wendy said. “I’m supposed to get directions to the Ossuary, then I go down… I can’t remember the road. Then… I can’t remember what comes next.”
Every day, she talked to him. Most days, she said the same things. When her pattern changed, it was because she was breaking down, running too hot. What he hadn’t picked up from idle curiosity before, back in Pontiac, he’d learned from the madman’s occasional comments.
Warren held onto this, but he wasn’t sure why. A part of him hoped she would snap, go crazy, and end all of this, or murder the madman. Stitched did that, didn’t they? Or was that rumor, heard in a city that didn’t like stitched?
A part of him hoped she would leave, forgetting that she had to look after him.
And, running contrary to that, a part of him feared her leaving, above all else.
He was supposed to have lost his mind by now. He already had, to a degree, and the memories he pulled up now and again were too real, dreamlike, while his dreams were indistinguishable from memory, or they simply brought him back here.
He was being drugged, he suspected, to keep him from panicking or having a stroke, but he still panicked with regularity, his thoughts looping over and over. Sometimes hours passed in the blink of an eye, like that, and sometimes what felt like hours of mad panic were only as long as it took the madman to leave, cook, eat, and return.
“I miss music,” Wendy said. “There’s this tune, it plays in my head, and it goes, ba ba ba, ba ba, ba ba ba…”
A body with only a partial brain, and a head without a body, Warren still had the phantom sensations of movements or feelings his body might have experienced, and he’d learned that, unburied by fever and stress, Wendy had phantom traces of an identity, complete with memories.
Silently, with all the focus he could bring to bear, he scrawled promises on his brain with a permanence that he might use to etch words on stone tablets.
To make amends, to show gratitude, because he couldn’t bring himself to pray and he needed to do something of magnitude to have an iota of vision for the future, he promised her a teddy bear, he promised her her music…
The cell door slammed shut. He stirred to wakefulness, blinking, though he hadn’t been asleep. Reality and dream blended in together, now.
He was fantasizing, or dreaming. The madman having his world turned upside down, screaming about the loss of his life’s work, the thinking machine.
Men of the law arresting the madman, then approaching the board, where three of the original nine heads were still functional, the number of wires tripled to compensate.
No. The smells and tastes and touches…
Wendy was standing beside him, stroking his hair.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said.
He didn’t dare hope. Easier to think he was still in the basement, and that reality had slipped away entirely.
He realized that someone was staring at him. The world seemed so distorted. He was higher up than he was used to, almost five feet off the ground.
He’d once been six feet tall, he remembered. That life felt so far away.
The person in the cell was a young woman, not much older than he was. Or older than he’d been. He wasn’t sure he was a he anymore.
His thoughts were rambling, he knew.
Her hair was black, a contrast to Wendy’s blonde hair, cut straight, and tucked behind one ear, while it obscured the other. Her eyes were narrow and dark, her mouth curved in a light smile, painted crimson.
She wore a lab coat, he realized.
He looked away, bothered. The science, the doctors, all of it, he’d seen what it came to, in the end.
Not just what he’d experienced, but Wendy.
So many horrors, so many lines crossed.
He couldn’t turn his head away, not really, but he averted his eyes, watching the officers patrolling the room. Half of it was desks, half of it was cells, a single row with one occupant per cell.
He was good at letting time slip by, now. He knew the techniques. Count the cracks, count the bars. Study the people. The guards, their habits, their way of dress.
There were so many new sensations and things to experience that he wasn’t able to process it all. He was free, but he wasn’t sure what that entailed. He didn’t dare hope for one thing or the other, out of fear that if he hoped for death and got a second chance instead, or vice versa, it might break him.
The clang of the cell door opening was startling. He’d been watching the people, but the people had taken action without him noticing. There was a man in a grey coat in the cell in front of him, with guards gathered loosely around.
“You’ll be getting these injections twice a day for a week. You know what these do, Ms. Fray.”
“You want to make me forget.”
“Even if it does damage to other parts of my mind in the process.”
“Nothing has been proven on that front.”
She made a scoffing sound. She sounded so cavalier. Did she not realize what the Academy’s people were capable of doing? Even without a lab coat, the madman and his thinking machine had been the Academy’s doing.
Warren had had enough time to puzzle that much out.
“If you do this, you can go to the underground laboratories, you can work on projects, live in dorms…”
“A half life. I made my bid for professorship, I failed, and you take half of everything.”
“Some people would kill for this much.”
“Or carry out a crazed experiment in their basement with limited resources? Trying to make nine heads think as one?” Ms. Fray asked.
“No. I’ll take a lifetime of imprisonment if it means keeping my brain.”
“You don’t get a choice, Ms. Fray.”
“I can tell you that I took a dose of the Wyvern formula just this morning.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Contraindicated. Don’t tell me you got your grey coat without knowing what contraindicated means.”
“I know what it means. I’ve never heard of the formula, and quite frankly, after having read your files, I suspect you’re lying, to delay the inevitable.”
“Ask Professor Hayle. He’ll know.”
There was a pause. Then, “Lock her up. Watch her. I’ll be back later this evening after I’ve confirmed.”
Warren watched as the guards and the doctor in the grey coat vacated the cell. The door clanged shut, making Wendy flinch, and they went about their way, the grey-coat exiting through the door at the far end of the building.
Long minutes passed. Ms. Fray paced, leaned against the bars to peer further into the building, and alternately watched Wendy, watched Warren, and studied the guards.
Some time had passed before she cleared her throat, standing straighter.
Within the cell, the woman raised a finger to crimson lips.
Wendy did the same, echoing the gesture.
The cell was equipped with a toilet behind a short barrier, intended for privacy. Ms. Fray approached the toilet, then bent over it, hand going to her throat.
Warren still felt like this was all a dream. Too surreal.
He saw Ms. Fray stand up, now with a writhing tentacle coming out of her mouth. She gripped the tentacles, grunting and making choking sounds, as she hauled it out, excruciating inch by excruciating inch.
It took a minute and a half, by Warren’s estimation, before she’d retrieved the entire thing. It coiled and uncoiled, tentacles reaching out and wrapping around her hands and forearms.
“What are you grunting and moaning about?” a guard asked.
But as the guard reached the cell, Ms. Fray was sitting on the toilet, the tentacled horror pinned between her back and the toilet’s tank, blocked from view by the barrier.
The guard shook her head, turned, and walked away.
Ms. Fray reached under her dress.
Warren averted his eyes, horrified.
He heard a titter.
When he looked up, she had what looked to be a large piece of glass. No more tentacles. From the speed with which she’d acted, he suspected it had been tucked into the band.
Again, she raised a finger to her mouth, the universal gesture for silence. This time, however, she had a piece of glass in her hand, and the tentacle-thing held behind her back.
The second guard paced down the building, then headed back up toward Ms. Fray.
The moment he passed by the cell, she reached out, and the tentacles did as well, snaring him by the head and throat, pulling him tight against the bars.
“Feel that?” Ms. Fray asked.
“Mmph,” the guard said.
“Then don’t touch your pistol.”
The other guard had heard the crash of skull against bars. The woman approached at a half-run from the far end of the building.
“Keys,” Ms. Fray said, calm. “You can reach the door. Work fast. If she gets here before the door is open, I’m going to cut your throat so my pet is free to stop her.”
The guard fumbled, keys rattling. He reached up, holding the keys at an awkward angle to see which one he was selecting.
The key went into the lock. He turned it, and the door came open.
Ms. Fray hauled him in a touch deeper, then gripped the sliding door, hauling it open. With the man’s head between the bars, the sliding door caught him in the side of the head or the neck.
Warren saw the other guard approaching at a swift run.
She rounded the corner, standing back this time, pistol raised.
Ms. Fray was crouched, the other guard’s pistol in hand, tentacles coiling at one side.
The woman guard had to take the time to figure out what was going on, the position of her target, and adjust before pulling, aiming between the bars.
Ms. Fray only had to pull the trigger as soon as the moving target came into view.
Three shots, in quick succession.
Covered in a light spattering of blood, Ms. Fray stepped out of her cell.
“You. You saw what I just did,” she said. “I’m going to keep doing it, over and over, in ways both dramatic and subtle. You can come with me and help, or you can stay here and be at their mercy.”
“Me?” Wendy asked.
Mercy doesn’t exist.
“I’ve got to go. They’ll have heard shots. Yes or no, do you want revenge?”
He thought of Harry.
He thought of the Madman.
She reached out to scoop him up. Wendy got in the way.
Warren rolled his eyes over to Wendy, then back to Ms. Fray, then to Wendy.
“You too, then. Bring him.”
Ms. Fray collected the keys. She walked backward, facing Warren, pointing at the cells.
A stranger. Another stranger. Empty. A stranger.
He must have given some tell. Another shot from the pistol rang out. The madman died, a shot through the head.
The gun twirled on Ms. Fray’s finger as she turned her back on Warren and his stitched friend, marching for the exit.
The creature squealed as it died, crushed under a meaty fist. Bird, bug and reptile blended together, it was the size of a large dog, and surprisingly hard to kill.
Warren stretched, then heaved out a heavy breath.
“Is it safe?” Ms. Fray asked.
“Yes,” Wendy said.
Ms. Fray opened the door and stepped out of the washroom. She looked down at the stain in disgust. “Whelps. One of the Academy’s weapons.”
“If there’s one here, there’ll be more. They have our scent. We’re relocating.”
Warren nodded, again.
Ms. Fray led the way, but she usually did. She always walked briskly, she rarely held back, if she was even capable, and she expected everyone else to keep up.
Not that Warren had much difficulty. He was taller than he’d been with his original body, to the point he almost had to bend double to get through the door.
The city swirled with snow. Mad creatures and doctors were everywhere, and he felt his head hurt as he glanced at each. It wasn’t a pleasant place, this, but it was good for camouflage. Ms. Fray and Warren looked entirely normal walking down the street.
“I keep expecting them to lose interest, but they up the ante each time. Academy investigators, monsters, The Hangman, Dog and Catcher… now the Whelps. They really, really want me,” she said.
He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye.
Stray cat. He might not have seen it if it weren’t for his sharp eyes.
A second later, a fanged beak snapped out, consuming half of the cat. A tongue snaked around the rest, and hauled it into the creature’s gullet.
“I saw it too,” Genevieve said. She gave him a pat on the arm, where his striped sweater was rolled up to the elbow. His forearm was bigger around than her upper body, his fist large enough that when he held Wendy’s hand, it consumed the hand and most of her forearm. “It won’t come out into the daylight.”
His strength and new body was of her design. She’d asked what he’d wanted, and with a writing implement in his temporary hand, he’d scrawled out a simple word. ‘Strength’.
He didn’t trust his sanity, but he trusted his mind. It had always been sharp. The only flaw had been that it had been too trusting. No longer.
Now he had a body to match the mind.
They approached the train station, amid a light snowfall. Ms. Fray led the way toward a side street. If they were catching a train, they’d hitch a ride in a car carrying crates or hay, so witnesses wouldn’t be able to report on them. It had bought them some time in the past.
She put a hand to his chest, stopping mid-stride. He had to go to some effort to stop fast enough. Had he been any slower, he might have forced her wrist or arm backward and snapped them.
She didn’t seem to notice or care. Her eyes were on the train station across the street.
Passengers were getting off. Young, old, many of them women and girls attending the local women’s Academy. A small school, but popular. Many a father conceded to his daughter’s wishes to study, but insisted on something like this. A quiet, safe town and an unthreatening learning environment.
“There,” Genevieve said. “They got off a few seconds ago.”
“The Lambs,” she said.
He frowned, then realized she was talking about the children. Just on the verge of adolescence, all six of them, they walked with purpose, working their way through the gaps in the crowd.
“They finally caught up,” she said. “This is good.”
He glanced at her.
“Change of plans,” she said. “We’re staying.”