I slowed in my run as I saw a man forced to kneel by a pole. His arms were already bound behind his back, his raincoat was open at the front, and there were smears of blood on his shirt. He fought, struggled, and was overpowered by the four men in similar outfits. Not quite uniforms, exactly, but they were close.
They lashed him to the pole, cords encircling the space where a crude knotted gag covered his his mouth. The cords were cinched tight enough that skin split, blood seeping out past the gag to touch his chin.
Hands behind his back, ankles and head bound to the pole, he was unable to do more than wriggle as a haggard Chinese man approached. One syringe penetrated one side of the throat, another penetrated the other.
Blood drained out, other fluids flowed in. The new fluids would reduce the shock to the system when the man died. The blood would be used for other things, if they didn’t return it to him to make him a stitched.
The pole was one among many, all in a row by the outside wall. The ground had once been hard packed earth, but water collecting around and beneath the people who had been bound to the poles had made the base of each pole a mud pit. The mud probably consisted of more things than dirt and water.
A minute into being drained to death, the man started convulsing. The violent jerks made the cords bite deeper into the corners of his mouth.
A man in a uniform similar to the dying man approached, head bent low so his hood could help protect his pipe. He took shelter under the same awning I was occupying, experimentally puffing before letting himself be at ease. His hood was down, his hair and glorious mustache both wet, small eyes nearly hidden beneath heavy eyebrows.
A rifle with a bayonet hung behind his back. I’d heard people refer to the particular brand of rifles as ‘exorcists’. They were single-shot, heavy, ugly weapons, but they made big holes, they were easy to reload, they were reliable, and they were well made. The name ‘exorcist’ had probably come up because they were supposed to put spirits to rest. Or was it because they were supposed to help the little guys stop the real devils of the battlefields?
I watched the convulsions slow. The man seemed at least dimly aware as he raised his eyes to stare through me.
The head sagged. The Chinese man noticed, craning his head to look, but kept doing what he was doing, fiddling over at a table. He gave an order to an assistant, who cleared things off the table.
If he wasn’t dead, the man at the pole would be dead soon. Within the hour, he would be up and walking again.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” the man with the pipe asked me. He gestured the bag that hung at my side.
“Waiting for the rain to let up,” I said, adding a belated, “Sir.”
“It won’t. Git.”
I didn’t ‘git’. I watched the dying man rouse, then sag a bit. “What did he do?”
“He didn’t listen to a superior officer,” the man with the pipe said.
“You’re not my superior officer,” I said. “I don’t have any.”
“You’re on a military base, I’m militia. You do what I say,” he told me.
“Oh,” I said, feigning ignorance. Being smaller and appearing younger than I was proved to be a small asset here. I could play dumb. “What did he do, really?”
“Traitor,” the man with the pipe said, puffing. “Tried to help the Crown. Stupid bastard.”
“Why would he do that?” I asked. “The Crown is bad.”
The man puffed on his pipe. “Greed, maybe, or he thought he’d be on the winning side, whatever happened.”
“But our side is going to win, isn’t it?” I asked.
Another puff. “Not about winning.”
“Isn’t it? I don’t really understand about what they did to the water, but shouldn’t we stop them?”
“Can’t stop something as big as that. People wouldn’t have it. We do this right, let them know there are consequences, make them change how they do things.”
The rain continued to pour down. The Chinese man approached the man at the pole, taking a knife to the ropes that bound him. A soldier joined him in hauling the body to the table, each of them holding one of the bags that had been plugged into the man’s throat, one nearly empty, the other half-filled with blood.
It was a better answer to his statement than I could have come up with on my own.
“Don’t you have a place to be?” the man with the pipe sounded annoyed as he addressed me, and his tone suggested he might give me a smack if I didn’t take the hint.
I moved on, pulling my hood down to avoid the worst of the rain.
The soldiers didn’t match, but all of them had exorcists, and the clothing was of the same general style, even if little details differed. I passed one man who wore no coat or jacket, with only an undershirt on. His chest, shoulders, and face were mottled, covered in pustules, and his lower face had a glass mask fit to it, with a tube running off one side, over his shoulder and down to his belt, where he had a small tank in place. His eyes were closed, his face turned upward.
I was seeing a lot like him, with increasing frequency, and I hadn’t gotten any good answers as to what they were or where they came from. People simultaneously avoided them and kept mum when it came to the subject. There were benefits to being young, but there were drawbacks too.
My route took me down a side path. The town was a small one, more quaint than anything, but blockades had been erected, there were as many open flames as people could sustain, lighting the surroundings, and every open space that wasn’t already occupied by buildings was now home to tents, piles of crates, or collections of people. The number of people in this lazy little town had dectupled, easily. It wasn’t weathering the extra presence well. Plants were dying, there was trash in the water that flowed along the gutters, and the aroma of the town was of faint human offal and less faint blood, sweat. It was all laced with the smell of the cheap, mass-produced foodstuff that probably wasn’t fit for proper humans. Starchy, nutrient-packed beans or some such.
I found a house with a makeshift fence erected around the front portion, the gate locked. Looking past the fence and into the window suggested a whole gaggle of kids. They ran around and played. Only a few had ventured outside, their raincoats and rainboots on.
I approached a girl who stood at the corner of the fence, a flower in her hand. She was picking it to pieces.
She didn’t look up as I came to stand beside her, my shoulder touching hers through the fence. A few petals disappeared, drifting down into the water. It looked like the same kind of flower that was growing off of the tree above. A parasitic species, if I remembered right.
“Worst job yet,” Lillian said.
“Really?” I asked. “Worse than the whole interviewing thing before Sub Rosa?”
“Worse than when we had to deal with the creeping mimis?”
“The creeping mimis were interesting,” Lillian told me.
“They were a pain in the ass, crawling on the walls and ceiling, and the parents were screaming, and then one got the family dog, and… ugh.”
“I liked their design, if nothing else,” Lillian said. “And it was my third job with you guys? It has some sentimental value.”
“Sure,” I told her. “I guess I get that.”
She huffed out a sigh, and shot me a death-glare that wasn’t intended for me. It was just Lillian being an unhappy Lillian. “Rescue me.”
“They want you in there.”
“Please. I got into an advanced stream and I still know more than the teachers, Sy.”
“That’s perfect,” I said, upbeat, just to annoy her.
“Sy,” she said. She reached through the bars of the railing to grip me by the front of my coat. “Please.”
She used her grip on my coat to shake me. I let my head loll back and forth for a moment.
She abruptly hauled me in her direction, and my forehead banged the bars of the railing.
“I’m not joking, Sy. Please.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Start something. Set the town on fire. Spread a plague. Murder somebody important.”
“Shhh,” I said, “Keep your voice down.”
“The teacher had to look in the books to remember how the second ratio worked, Sy,” she said, almost moaning. “Please, please. Rescue me, and I’ll do whatever your twisted little mind can conceive of. I will be in your debt, and you can lord it over me for as long as you know me.”
“You’re getting better at negotiating. That’s tempting. But no. The job comes first.”
Her forehead banged the bars just above mine.
She remained like that, her eyes scanning the surroundings, then surreptitiously reached into her jacket and withdrew an envelope.
I checked behind her. “The kids in the window are watching. They can’t see the paper, but they’re watching”
“They saw you come before. They think you’re here because you like me.”
“Laugh all you want,” she said. “You have to kiss me.”
“What? No I don’t.”
“If we don’t sate their curiosity, it’s going to run wild, they’ll start talking. Teachers hear talk, and they’re ridiculously overprotective of the outdated books and half-complete knowledge they’ve put together there. Give our audience what we want, and they’ll stop wondering. I can take a little bit of teasing.”
“Ew,” I said. I started to back up, but she had a grip on my jacket, still, and she was stronger than I was. Enough that it mattered.
That was an unhappy realization.
“Yeah. Ew. Suck it up.”
“I don’t think you should suck anything up while kissing. I mean, you can, but-”
She gave me a look, a ‘get serious’ one.
I gripped the bars, and then my face as far as it would go between them, giving her a peck on the lips. She tightened her grip on my collar, holding me there, turning it from a peck to something else.
She let go, leaving me to stumble back.
The hoots and cheers from within the building reached a volume we could hear outside.
Lillian was pink in the face as she glared at me.
“Happy?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, sounding anything but. She hadn’t dropped the glare. “Everything’s in the note. How far along the students are, the quality of the teaching, the texts, my observations of other projects I’ve seen around town, not that they let us out of here that often… Keeping us out of the way, they say.”
“Got it. Will pass it on.”
“Rescue me,” she ordered. “Every time you come, now, you’re going to have to steal a kiss. Until this is over with.”
“That was my first kiss, you know,” I told her.
She didn’t budge an inch. She was trying so hard not to convey a tell that she gave me one.
“I can see why people like it,” I said, to needle her.
“Shut up,” she said, with venom, face going pinker. “Get me out of here. I don’t care how. But don’t leave me here. I can’t take another week.”
“But you gave me so much fuel for teasing you,” I said, grinning ear to ear. “You can look forward to the next time you see me, when you con me into kissing you again, over and over-”
“Go get caught and die,” she said.
“I could tell the others. ‘Oh, did you know, Lillian apparently gets lonely for the company of boys when she’s bored.”
“I did it for the sake of the job,” she said, voice firm. “The kids were already speculating it was something romantic, it was the easiest route.”
“The moment your face turns that pink when I mention it in front of the others, they’ll see right through-”
She raised her hand between us, a gesture.
I shut my mouth, brain switching gears. She flicked her eyes to the right, and I turned, as casually as possible, looking.
I didn’t see anyone. I turned a few times, searching for possible threats.
When I turned back, Lillian was fleeing back to the improvised schoolhouse. The gesture she gave me as she stalked off was anything but a secret one.
“That’s not allowed!” I called after her.
The finger remained raised as she hauled the front door open with one hand and closed it firmly behind her.
It was a short distance from the schoolhouse to the main street, and I arrived with much of the midday traffic. Carts were being checked thoroughly by squads and sniffer dogs, and the barking was incessant.
My eyes roved over the carts, looking over the people…
Nothing. Gordon wasn’t here yet.
I picked up my pace to get out of the way of a regular old horse that was pulling a cart, reached the other side of the street and inadvertently chose a path that saw rain pouring off in curtains off a tent-top. I squinted as the water spattered me.
I heard a whistle, and I saw Mary with Gladys Shipman, standing under a tent, with a counter and register in front of them, unpacked crates arranged around them. A heavyset man was lifting crates down from the bed of a wagon with a stitched helper. Mary whipped an apple at my head, and I caught it.
“He’s late,” Mary said. She looked more concerned than Shipman did.
“That happens. Lots of rain. Wagons get stuck in mud.”
“No mud between here and there,” Mary said.
“I’ll see about swinging back this way,” I said, flashing her a smile before I took a bite out of the apple.
“You look like you’re having a merry time,” Shipman said.
“Lillian kissed me,” I said, grinning. “Well, she told me to kiss her.”
Mary’s eyebrows went up. Her expression was interesting. More curious than anything.
“She’s really bored, apparently,” I said. “Nah. We had to, the other kids were starting to get curious about her and me meeting up. Might as well, you know?”
Mary nodded at that, eyebrows going down. “Is she okay? Other than being bored?”
“She’s worried about the teachers,” I said. “Watchful eye and all that.”
“When I last saw her, she had a lot of names for them. Watchful wasn’t one of those names. Bumbling, incompetent, depressing…” Mary said.
“It would be ironic if-” I started, I stopped as footsteps splashed behind me. In a low voice, I finished, “If those buffoons were the undoing of us all.”
“Not funny,” Shipman said, terse.
Such a sourpuss.
“I gotta get going, or people are going to wonder,” I said. Then I reminded her, “I’ll swing back.”
The two of them nodded.
My path zig-zagged between buildings. Someone larger might have had trouble, given how little space there was at times, and someone less nimble might have struggled with the crates and other supplies that were piled up in the spaces, protected by the overhanging roofs, but I was perfectly suited.
The moment I was out of sight of people, I pulled on the stem of the apple. It popped out like a cork, and I stuck a finger into the tight hole where the core had been removed. When I withdrew it, there was a roll of paper around my fingertip. I unrolled it.
Boxes beneath 16 houses. – M
Up from nine, yesterday.
Gladys’ note was very similar to what Lillian was providing, but she had eyes on the market. Her handwriting was meticulous, legible even when written at a quarter the scale I could have managed. She packed a great deal of information about her observations about the town’s grasp of Academy tech onto a single slip of paper, with a fair bit of shorthand. The backside of the paper discussed the contents of the boxes in brief. Good health on arrival, high toxicity, slightly dehydrated. One box sealed too tight, contents D.O.A.
I made a mental note, then replaced the papers, folding Lillian’s envelope in half before coiling it up and slipping it inside. I popped the cork back in place.
I could hold on to the apple for a little while longer.
As I exited the space between two buildings, I saw a trio of men, their skin pocked and scarred, boils here and there. Unlike the one I’d seen earlier, they didn’t have masks. They looked like plague victims, but each was eerily calm, the expressions on their faces severe. Each wore the same uniforms as the men I’d seen earlier, and each carried an exorcist and a handgun.
They didn’t talk, and simply watched as I walked by.
I hated not knowing things.
The city hall.
I approached the door, lifting the apple to my mouth to bite into it, like a pig on the dinner table, before raising my hands over my head.
The guard at the door bent down low, patting me down. He took the satchel-bag from me, then opened it. I didn’t miss the slight puff of air from within.
He went through every piece of paper within, one after another, meticulous.
Wordless, he returned the bag to me, and I hurried inside, raising a hand to the apple to leverage it and tear off another big bite.
The entrance was a big hallway, and where it might normally have made for a nice view and perhaps a place for the mayor to give a speech, it was now crowded, a makeshift war room. Tables with maps, soldiers, mobile fences erected around boxes of weapons, and three different experiments were all present, each one leashed out of the way.
I moved throughout the room, grabbing envelopes from the satchel and delivering them to the right people.
Every single one of them paid very close attention to the wax seals. I already knew the reasons. The wax responded to oxygen. I was given sealed satchels, and from the moment the bag was opened, which was supposed to be at the front door, microbes on or in the wax started reacting to the air, altering in color.
One soldier, a captain, used a knife to remove the seal. I noticed how he put it off to one side on his desk. He’d watch the color change over time, just to make sure it wasn’t a false one.
It would be a big win if I could snatch that up, supplying it to the Academy’s people so they could figure it out and produce something equivalent, but I didn’t dare take the risk. I had a cushy gig.
“You, boy,” one man said.
I stopped in my tracks.
“You’re done. You don’t come back tomorrow, you hear?”
I blinked. “What?”
“New person in charge. Says no children.”
“But…” I said. There were a lot of clever things I could have said, biting retorts, making excuses, asking questions. But in terms of being a bewildered kid, staying silent was the best option.
“You’ll get paid, don’t worry,” he said.
I nodded, but I wasn’t happy and I let the emotion show on my face. I headed up the short set of stairs to the Mayor’s office. A double set of doors, ornate. Academy-provided wood. Amusing, given the general lean of this place. This town was one holdout in the rebellion against the crown.
When the doors were shut, I knocked, a set pattern.
Jamie emerged from another room, a book in hand. It wasn’t his notebook.
“I just got told I couldn’t come back,” I said.
“I know,” Jamie said. “I heard when the order first came in. New person in town, and a lot of the leaders are listening to her. She handed out something or other, and told them to find strays, dose them, and release them again.”
“Countermeasure against Whelps?”
“She might know about us, then,” I said.
“The way things are going, this might be our last undercover job,” Jamie said. “The Lambs are a known element.”
“Sucks, but there’s no getting around it,” he said. “Hayle brought up an idea of how to use it, still preliminary. Propaganda. I already have notes, they’ll give me a writer to ensure it’s readable, though I always was good with a pen and paper. We release a more palatable version of the Lambs’ previous files, win over the public.”
I shook my head.
“I sort of like the idea. But maybe that’s because I don’t get many chances to show off, compared to the rest of you,” Jamie said.
He put his book down. I angled my head to get a look at the cover. “Local herbs.”
“By the mayor’s uncle.”
“Do you really need information on the Mayor? He’s a non-entity. Ames is in charge.”
“I’m picking up everything I can. All I can do here is manage Ames and read.”
“Lonely?” I asked.
“More than a little,” he admitted, half-sitting on the desk, one leg down, toe just barely touching the floor.
I hopped up next to him, roughly the same position, and my legs didn’t reach the ground. He leaned over to bump my shoulder with his, and I did the same to him.
I thought about telling him about my earlier meeting with Lillian, then decided against it. I wasn’t exactly sure why.
“Fourteen boxes, under the houses,” I said.
“Fourteen?” Jamie asked, giving me a curious look.
“Something like that,” I said. I removed the cork from the apple and dug out the notes. I smoothed them out on my knee, my foot braced against the front of the heavy wooden desk.
“Sixteen,” Jamie said, “Yeah, that fits. I was wondering if Mary got hurt or if she almost got caught.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“I wouldn’t have the nerves to do that,” he said. “Every night? One mistake getting you caught?”
“Do you know if we’re close? Lillian is getting a little stir-crazy.”
“We’re close,” he said. “But you don’t have a reason to be running around, and if they’re being wary of kids, then the others are going to come under some scrutiny at some point.”
I nodded slowly.
“While you’re at it, tell the others that the new leader of this particular branch of the rebellion hired people. Mercenaries.”
I frowned. “Show me?”
Jamie hopped down from the desk. I followed.
He led me through and around, to a separate room. There were stacks of books by an armchair. He found his notebook, opened it, flipped to the right page, and then handed it to me.
“Secondhand,” he said. “I grilled Ames as best as I could, even used some of the retention techniques I was taught, but…”
But it was still damn good. Not that Jamie could really grasp that. He was a perfectionist in many of the same ways Mary was.
“She arrived, and immediately started laying down the law,” I said.
“No kids was, hm, the fifth or sixth thing she mentioned. She’s expecting trouble.”
“Rightly so. We beat her here, though.”
“And the mercenaries were on the tail end of that,” I said, “Before she moved on to a new topic, restructuring things.”
“It could be attached to that idea. Bring in mercenaries, change who’s in charge…”
“Why would she want to do that, unless she wanted to make enemies? It’d be unconscious,” I said. “Mercenaries are a countermeasure as much as the ‘no kids’ rule and the poison she’s leaving for the whelps.”
“Huh,” Jamie said.
“I’m in a bad position until I can find a job,” I said. “You don’t figure Ames can find a role for me?”
Jamie shook his head. “He’s on thin ice already. He lost an important battle before coming here. Got ahead of the news of his failure, got established, but now the new leader is here and it’s catching up with him.”
“Are you okay, then? Is Helen?” I asked. We’d managed to ‘convince’ General Ames to give Jamie shelter and a spot to eavesdrop from, with full access to everything that passed Ames’ desk, but it looked like that setup was starting to wear thin.
“I’m okay. She’s not kicking him out, and he still has a command-”
A trump card we can only use once, before they remove him from service.
“-and she’s set up elsewhere. She doesn’t want to interfere with the military types.”
I thought about that.
“Where is she?”
“The theater. There’s an event going on right this moment. A luncheon. Everyone’s invited, and it lets her meet and greet.”
“With Ames. You’re going, aren’t you? You’re spying on her?”
“I’m coming with,” Jamie said. “If I read one more book, I don’t think I’ll be able to read for a year after this job is done.”
I offered him a mock gasp. He jabbed me in the stomach.
“Worst case scenario, you’re too slow, we get caught, we fuck everything up, and we start a war,” I said. “Not so bad.”
“Not so bad?” he asked, pulling on a raincoat.
“If I give Lillian an excuse to leave her position, I get to lord it over her forever. She said so.”
“Ah, uh huh,” he said, smiling. “Window? It’s not exactly common knowledge I’m here.”
“Window,” I agreed.
The banter and jokes continued as we made our exit.