I watched Helen and Gordon chatter, joining in now and again with a comment. The topic was our etiquette and presentation class. It still put me off, having known Helen for a few months, how she could switch from eerie deadpan to animated and normal, demonstrating the very subjects that Gordon was bringing up. The two of us gave her tips, and she demonstrated each of them with an uncanny accuracy, shaping and refining her body language, tone, and overall presentation.
They were as different as night and day, at the fundamental level, human and inhuman, but they had still found a connection.
I realized we had a fourth member present. The new kid. Quiet.
“Have you had the class yet?” I asked him, to make conversation.
He shook his head, then raised a hand to push the glasses up his nose.
“They make us do it, so we can fit into more situations, and so we don’t embarrass Mr. Hayle, I think,” I said.
“Seems like Helen and Gordon took it to heart,” the boy said.
“Yeah,” I said. “They know their stuff.”
“You don’t? I’m still trying to figure everyone out. I think I understand them, Gordon more than Helen, but she’s-“
“An experiment,” I finished.
He nodded, looking guilty for even saying it.
“To answer your question, I think they’re trying to decide if I should keep going or if I’m a lost cause.”
“Oh,” he said.
I cracked a smile. “I’m more interested in the professors than anything. They find really interesting people, four so far, and I’ve made it a challenge for myself to see how fast I can get under their skin.”
“I’m starting to get the picture,” he said.
I smiled wider.
“I still feel so lost,” he said. “And I’m not catching up. I sleep sixteen hours a day, I have more appointments than anyone, I have less time in class, less time with the rest of you, it’s not helping. They say it’s going to get better, but…”
He trailed off.
“Whatever happens, we’ll help,” I said. “We’ll understand. Honest.”
He probably wasn’t aware how much doubt came across on his face.
There was something he wasn’t telling me.
“I’ll start,” I said, smiling. “I’ve completely forgotten your name.”
“I’ve told you four times.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What is it, again?”
“Jamie,” I said. I closed my eyes and tried to commit it to memory. “They tell me this will get better too, as they fix the dosages. And it is. But right now it sucks. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re falling behind.”
“Speaking of,” he said, “I think I’m dozing off. I can barely keep my eyes awake. Those two talking is putting me under.”
“Then sleep,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
“I’m afraid to sleep, sometimes,” he said, his voice soft, still watching them. The sudden onset of fatigue was obvious.
“Sometimes, I fall asleep, and when I wake up, they’ve got me hooked up, and there’s nothing I can do before they throw the switch.”
I remembered the chair, the cloth-covered tanks. I’d snooped. I’d met Ashton and Evette, in a way. I’d seen the aftermath, the labs where their remains were interred. Evette dead before she even awoke, Ashton an effective abortion, left in a tank that now smelled of formaldehyde. On bad days I’d slept on the floor in their rooms, or stayed up all night with them, talking to them, knowing they couldn’t ever respond.
That thought on my mind, I spoke without thinking, “Whatever happens, as long as I can help it, and I can help a lot of things, I will not let them do that again. At the very least, I’ll wake you up before they take you.”
He smiled for the first time. A real smile, anyway. “You sound so serious.”
I reached out and took his hand, squeezing it hard enough that it made my own hand hurt. When that wasn’t enough, I grabbed it with my other hand, squeezing his between the two of mine. “I am. I’m promising.”
“I owe you for one good nap, then,” he told me.
“You don’t owe me anything. That’s not how we do this.”
“I stand corrected.”
“And that’s a promise that applies to every nap, every time you sleep.”
He frowned a little, eyes opening more as he studied me.
“We’re going to go live somewhere else starting this summer. Until then, I know how to get out of my room. I know where your room is.”
“It’s not that important. You’ll get in trouble.”
“It is important,” I said. “I’ve promised, and I can’t break my first ever promise to you. Not when we’re all going to be together for the rest of our lives.”
He nodded slowly. I thought for a second that he was nodding off.
“Who were you, before?” he asked me.
“Before all this? Don’t remember.”
“I can’t imagine that. Isn’t it scary, not knowing?”
“I found my file, I read it. I know they didn’t expect me to look for it, so I don’t think it was a trick,” I said. “I wasn’t anybody special.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
I shot him a look. “That line is so lame. Oh, I don’t even have words-“
He gave me a light push.
He pushed me harder. I nearly fell from the edge of the table I was sitting on.
I settled down, still laughing, dragging my fingers down one side of my face. Gordon and Helen were staring now, but I hadn’t distracted them sufficiently to break the stride of their conversation.
“What can I do for you?” he asked me.
“Forget what I said! Really. What can I do?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“It’s okay if you can’t do what you said. I’ll understand-“
“-I’ll do it. I promised.”
“Then I want to know what I can do to help you. I’m going to find a way to help you, Sylvester.”
I shrugged, shaking my head.
“Nothing bothers you? Nowhere you need help? When I first met Gordon, he said you have a hard time after your appointments?”
“Oh, did he? Yeah, I guess.”
“It hurts,” I said. “It hurts so much it makes me feel like there’s nothing else. After, I feel like less of a person. More like I’m a piece of metal, thrust into the fire, over and over.”
“And they’re hammering you into shape?”
“No,” I confessed. “Mostly, I get to hold the hammer. There’s that, at least.”
He was nodding off, now. Slumping forward.
I could see the ridged scar running up from the collar of his shirt to the nape of his neck. His head had been shaved for the last surgery. It was still so short that I could see his scalp.
“Wish I could help, somehow,” he murmured. I gave his shoulder a push, and he roused enough to shift position, leaning back against the wall, the ends of each leg dangling off the edge of the table.
“Nothing you can do to help,” I said. I didn’t speak my thoughts aloud. Except maybe talk. Beats talking to Ashton or Evette, at least.
He was already out. He’d fought it and lost.
Now it was more like talking to Ashton. I murmured to myself, “It’s up to me. I’ve got to get used to it somehow, make friends with the pain.”
I nearly fell as the other two urged me through the door. Jamie let go of me to close the door, very softly, and Helen wasn’t strong enough to hold me up. She did what she could to ease my collapse to the floor.
Pain. I’d thought I’d achieved a serious tolerance to it over the years, but the very real imagery suggested a lapse. I’d nearly passed out, drifting into memories.
Was this what it meant to see my life flashing before my eyes? It was as good a starting point as anything else. I didn’t have many memories of things that came before. Some games with Helen and Gordon, some antics after I broke out of my room, time with Evette and Ashton. Less meaningful things.
“You with us, Sy?” Jamie asked.
“Yup,” I said, putting all my effort into sounding casual as I let my head sink back to the floor. I was in a kitchen, I realized. Checkered drapes at the window.
The small pinpoint of pain had spread and expanded until it felt like my stomach was three times the size, filled with agony. It wasn’t swollen, though. It was a regular, too-skinny tummy with a hole in it and a lot of blood leaking around it, into my shirt and the top of my pants. I had blood that had dripped around the side of my body and into my butt crack.
This kind of agony was something I was used to, though it limited how I could move and pull my thoughts together. Blood in my butt crack somehow drove the point home better than my life flashing before my eyes. It was a signal that things were horribly, horribly wrong.
People should never ever have blood in their buttcrack.
“They’re close,” Helen said.
“I know,” Jamie replied. He stared down at me. “I’m going to find a way to help you, Sy.”
I nodded. I winced as I inhaled and swallowed at the same time and that somehow made the wrong thing move, touching on the area where I’d been shot. “We should go.”
“We should,” Jamie said, “But we need to stop the bleeding, at the very least.”
“Need Lillian, but she’s too far away,” I said. I blinked with more force than was needed, because I didn’t want to have my eyes close and stay closed.
A very deep, male voice cut in, “Who’s Lillian, and what the hell are you doing?”
I saw Jamie go limp, his head bowing. Defeat.
Helen, of course, was Helen. I looked over in the direction she was staring, and I saw a man in the doorway of the kitchen, a wife and child behind him, staring.
I looked back to Helen, and tears were falling down her cheeks. Crying on command.
I met Jamie’s eyes, then spoke, “The Academy’s attacking.”
I watched the expression on the man and woman’s faces. The wide eyes of the child, who was young enough to be of indeterminate gender. The man was young. He’d probably had the child in or just after his teens. He was like an older Gordon, if Gordon had a weak chin. His expression changed as he wrestled with fear and trying to summon his courage.
He only needed a push.
“Help me,” I said. My ability to almost take the pain in stride made it more difficult to find the piteous tone I needed.
He rushed to my side, twisted around, and told his wife, “The kit! It’s under the sink!”
The woman took the little kid with her as she left. Hopefully to get the ‘kit’.
“They attacked in the street,” Jamie said. “You heard the gunshots?”
The man nodded. “We were looking out the window at the other side of the house.”
I spoke, wincing as I did, “They looked like the resistance members. Black coats, black shirts, those rifles-“
“Exorcists,” Jamie said.
“I saw one standing there. His face changed, eyes and nose and mouth and ears going all wonky,” I said. “Then he saw that I’d seen him, he shouted something, a signal, and then he shot me, before he started shooting at the crowd.”
Tension lines stood out in the man’s face and neck. He didn’t move his eyes from the bloody hands that were pressing down on my wound. It damn well hurt, but I could push through the pain, I could find the presence of mind to lie.
Might as well foster paranoia and propaganda while I’m lying here bleeding.
“They looked normal?”
“Yes,” Helen said, still crying. “It scared me.”
The man didn’t budge. I could imagine he was processing, trying to grasp the situation, and what the course of action should be.
His wife came down, with a large kit and no child trailing behind.
“I don’t know what to do,” the man said.
“I do,” Jamie said.
I watched as Jamie opened the kit. I could see the label on the lid. It was the sign of some Academy or another, ironically enough. A full kit for medics. Many had been sold to the public after the last war. By the time another war rolled around -this one, as it happened- there would be better kits, with better tools and components.
He moved with a quiet assuredness as he picked through the various things. I watched him, periodically blinking with more force than was necessary, breathing shallow breaths to keep my stomach from hurting. He gathered special pliers and a long syringe with two handles, powders, and metal clamps.
He met my eyes, and there was an awful lot communicated in that look.
Among them was an unspoken agreement.
Had I let slip that he was trying to figure out Latin, after our little trip down to the Dungeons with Sub Rosa, Jamie would have gotten in serious trouble.
This was something else entirely.
“Never done this before,” he murmured.
“You said-” the man of the house started.
“My dad is a doctor,” Jamie lied. Then he told the truth, saying, “I’ve watched and learned.”
“If you’re not sure-“
“I’m sure,” Jamie lied, again. He lied for a third time as he said, “I was talked through procedures worse than this.”
You’ve seen, you remember, you piece it together, I thought.
“The powder smells different,” Jamie said.
“Could be old,” the man said.
Jamie made a face, then tossed the powder. He rifled through the kit until he found a liquid, instead. He set a match on my chest.
“Uh,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. “Going to have to do it like it’s done on the battlefield.”
“You’ve never seen a battlefield, you butt!”
“I’ve heard,” he said. He didn’t respond to the insult. I realized how scared he was.
The problem with this piecemeal knowledge. He knew the moves he needed to make, but he didn’t have a foundation. One day, all going according to plan, he could have that foundation. He couldn’t trust a medicine that smelled different. But that he could even figure out the right tools, that he was this far along, and he’d kept it a secret?
The Academy couldn’t know. We were forbidden.
The man moved his hands. Jamie took the scalpel to my injury, opening it up enough for the pliers to go in.
He looked so terrified I couldn’t bear to look at him. My head dropped to the floor, and I reached out to pat his knee, grunting and gasping now and then as the pliers moved. A small sound escaped my throat as I held my breath.
“Isn’t there something you can give him?” the man asked.
“No,” I said, a moment before Jamie said, “No.”
“There!” I jumped in, and the volume and suddenness with which I’d spoken made the pain explode through my abdomen. I groaned, long and loud, clenching my fist and squeezing Jamie’s knee hard, making little sounds with every pant.
“Easy,” Helen said. She gave my forehead a pat, and pushed hair out of my eyes. It was sweaty, and stayed out of the way.
“Talk to me,” Jamie said. “I’m not good enough to find it on my own.”
The man spoke up, “You can’t possibly-“
“Close,” I said. “No, other direction.”
“I feel it.”
He found it, he got a grip on it, locked the pliers’ grip, and he pulled the modified pliers free, a bullet the size of a grape held in the prongs.
I wasn’t privy to the particulars of the clean up job, but he dumped the contents of the bottle in, daubed it around with a swab to get the parts the match couldn’t reach, then seared the bleedy bits with the match.
“Now I’m hungry,” I murmured, as I smelled the seared flesh.
“But we just ate,” Helen said. “We had treats!”
“I was joking.”
She gave me a disapproving look. The tears had dried up, and she was smiling a little. All an act, of course.
He glued me together and closed me up, using the clamps to hold things in place until the glue could set.
“I’m not sure how much blood you’ve already lost,” Jamie said. “There’s no aqua nucifera, and I wouldn’t trust it if there was.”
“Don’t move too quickly,” he said. “You’re going to be weak.”
“Like that’s anything new,’ I said.
He put the tools aside, leaving a bit of a mess. The man looked a little concerned, as if things didn’t add up, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
Helen gave me a hand in getting to my feet. The man and Jamie moved to the kitchen sink to wash their hands.
I still had blood in my butt crack. I probably looked like a wreck.
“There haven’t been more gunshots,” the man observed.
“There was one with a knife,” I said. “One with claws, and one with some weapon on a chain.”
“A censer,” Jamie said, looking over at me.
I gestured for him to ease up a bit. I saw him nod.
Riding a high. He did what he wasn’t supposed to do, he even succeeded and saved me, hopefully. Whatever special kind of person Jamie might’ve been, he was still a person. He got a rush of adrenaline from a success like that.
It didn’t show that much, though. Jamie was quiet and reserved at the best of times. He cleaned himself up, leaving his sleeves still rolled up, and grabbed his bag.
“I should go,” the man said. He turned to his wife. “If we’re under attack, I need to do something.”
“They attacked a child,” he said. “If we’d been out instead of here with Edmund-”
She nodded, spooked.
I let the drama play out while I gently prodded my stomach. I pulled clothing back into place, wincing at the pain, took a cloth from beside the sink and began to wipe at my shirt where it was all bloody. Jamie handed me my jacket, then helped me pull it on.
I was well and truly ready to take something for the pain now, now that Jamie didn’t need help to find his way to the bullet.
The man went to a cabinet, and came back with a gun. He took a moment to put it together, checking for various components, most definitely not a person with more than a few hours of practice, and then gave his wife a kiss.
“Be healthy,” he told me, “Thank you for the warning about the attacks. Will you look after my wife?”
“Of course,” Jamie said.
“Good man,” the soldier said.
“Sir!” I cut in, before he could head out, gun in hand. He paused, and I told him, “Warn others.”
He nodded, then headed out the door.
I pointed, and the others nodded. As the wife stepped over to the door to lock it, peering out the window to watch her husband, we headed out the front door.
There was nowhere to go but forward and out. The residential road had people gathered in clusters, talking, and we used them for cover, watching.
“Stop,” Helen said, but it was less the order and more than fact that she grabbed us and hauled us back that stopped us. Breaking our forward momentum. I jerked, and my stomach clenched inadvertently. I bit back a gasp of pain.
The crack marked a bullet striking something hard. I didn’t see where.
“Go!” I called out, “Go, go!”
We hurried as much as we were able, with me hurting and sucking at everything. An alley offered cover from the gunshots.
They had a gunman that could see well enough through the rain to target us. He was sharp enough to notice us just moments after we’d emerged from the house.
“Jamie,” I said. “Where is he?”
“You know where he was? First shot? The one that hit me?”
“And the shot just now?”
“Less that I know where he was, more… I can eliminate possibilities.”
“Eliminate,” I said. We hurried down the alleyway. There were people there, more clusters. I studied each group, watching for potential trouble.
The others had to have heard about the gunshot. They’d look after Lillian, if Lillian was even in danger. She was well camouflaged. Short of them killing every child in the town of Whitney… which wasn’t impossible…
“Fuck,” I said.
“Are you okay?” Jamie asked.
“Not that,” I said. I knew my voice sounded more tense than it usually did. “We’re stuck.”
“We’ve been stuck before.”
“We need to get out, rendezvous with the others. We can’t do that without stepping into an open area. If we stay put, the other two might track us down.”
The rain was coming down harder now. I wasn’t quite able to hope that it was making life harder on our enemies.
“If we think about the things that make them stand out,” I murmured, “Nose, eyes, the guy with the scarf might just be fingers, touch, and the guy Jamie shot is probably ears.”
“Was,” Helen said. “Past tense.”
“I’m not willing to bet anything,” I said. “There might be a fifth, taste, and I’m going to assume the one Jamie shot is alive until we see him dismantled on some Academy autopsy table.”
“Five,” Jamie said.
“There are more than five senses,” Helen said. “Balance, sense of one’s own physical state…”
“It’s possible,” I said. “But these buttheads aren’t even supposed to have three pieces of work this good, let alone four or five. Experienced soldiers, each with custom modifications?”
“Academy work,” Jamie said.
“Traitors,’ Helen said.
I nodded slowly. “That changes things. I don’t feel so good about Helen going after one.”
“I can do it,” Helen said.
“Probably. And you’re going to have to,” I said. “But I don’t feel good about it.”
She nodded. She was holding herself in a way that I was pretty sure was Helen for ‘anticipation’. Her expression was still normal, smiling, but her body was ready for the attack.
“Let’s head in Lillian’s general direction,” I said. “In case the others can’t cover her. And because it’s the direction they’re liable to be going in. We assess the situation, then we go in. If we spot one, we bait.”
The two nodded.
Through winding alleys, awareness of our surroundings pitched to a painful degree. I wasn’t at my best, and I was focusing my thoughts and my own un-altered senses on every gap, readying myself for an attack at any moment, knowing it was futile even if I was fast enough to react.
We paused at a pile of debris, while Jamie turned his attention to figuring out a plan that worked, then went down a side-alley. The street was packed with soldiers. Another side alley was mostly empty, wagons that were usually there now cleared away. No cover to hide behind.
As we returned to the four-way intersection, the woman appeared.
Helen indicated, and the three of us crawled into a space beneath a house, belly deep in mud. I used one hand to hold Jamie’s raincoat down over the injury so it wouldn’t get too dirty.
We were as good as caught. She had the ability to smell.
I signaled. We collectively abandoned our attempt at staying silent, and crawled for the other side of the space. The floor above us scraped our shoulderblades as the ground rose to meet it. Jamie squirmed out of his backpack.
“Children,” the woman spoke, from just in front of us.
She’d circled around. She could do it again, as fast as we could crawl.
“You killed Phlegm,” she called out to us. “My brother.”
Jamie reacted to the name. He’d connected two dots.
He didn’t seem to have a ready answer.
“I have his belt,” the woman said.
The cans of gas.