The only sound was the rain coming down, and the periodic sucking noise of mud as Helen, Jamie or I shifted position.
“You have the canisters Mr. Phlegm had on his belt,” Jamie said.
“Not my preferred weapon,” the woman said. “But it’s somehow poetic that Phlegm might get a last laugh. Not that he is the laughing type. Was.”
She made a noise like she was spitting.
Also poetic, all things considered.
I swallowed, then spoke. My side was still hurting like nothing else, even after being patched up, and my voice faltered at the start, the strength to get the air past my lips not there when I reached for it. “What’s your name?”
“Not telling,” she said. “Goodbye.”
“Wait!” I said, raising my voice. My stomach rewarded me by cramping up in new sorts of pain, clutching like a fist around all the hurt.
She didn’t use the canister.
To my left, Helen crawled forward, not with her arms and legs, but fingers and feet, pushing and pulling herself by painstaking half-inches, periodically reaching up to grab onto the roof and use that to slide herself forward. The lack of speed was balanced by the fact that she was nearly silent. I was right next to her and even I couldn’t hear her raincoat scrape against small stones and mud.
She’d been wearing a nice dress for the event. Now it was ruined. What a shame.
“We used to be on the same side, didn’t we?” I asked.
“I’m not the laughing type either, little boy, especially not with Phlegm dead,” the woman said. “You’re wasting my time if you’re making jokes.”
“You were Academy,” I said, not because I knew, but because I had no choice but to follow the same track. I couldn’t change the subject without her deciding I was stalling and deciding to off us. Or whatever that canister did.
“Yes. But that’s different from what you said before,” she said.
I noticed how she was walking. She was lingering more at the places where posts held the house up off the ground, which kept her out of sight and protected her ankles from any further gunshots.
“We’re related,” I said. “We’re family. We’re experiments, we’re conn-”
She cut me off. “We’re alone, little boy. Everyone is. The act of being born is a separation, so is dying. For experiments more than anything else. At least they get to have doctors use sterile scissors to snip their connection to their mother, after they’re squeezed out into the world, covered in blood and landing in shit. Us, we’re made, or we’re born like they are and then we’re reborn on a table or in a vat.”
“That’s an experience we share, it’s-”
“It creates a gulf between us. You can pretend to have some greater connection to the world, but that’s a child’s fantasy. We’re as different from them as a cat is from a dog, at least. Compare a cat to a dog and a dog to a lizard and you’re not going to find a connection between the cat and the lizard. They’re a social species, but we’re all species of one, or of two, or of four.”
Helen, our lizard, crawled forward. She was crawling across from me, now, her body in front of my face.
“A year and nine days ago, our species of four added one more to our ranks. In the next couple of years, we’re going to have a sixth.”
“Twelve days,” Jamie murmured. “A year and twelve days.”
“Shut up,” I whispered. Louder, I said, “Listen, I think we’re similar in how we approach the world. The differences, the focus on the team, even if my idea of what the ‘team’ is happens to be different-”
“One of my colleagues, you’ve crossed paths with him, he keeps a tiny black notebook filled with tickmarks, you know. He counts the number of times people try the ‘we’re the same’ line on him. A different line or phrase or word for every page.”
“I’m betting he has whole pages dedicated to ‘please!’ or ‘god, no!’,” I remarked.
She was silent.
“Was I on target?” I tried. Her being silent and taking time before she offed us was fantastic, but talking and hurrying things along was better than three seconds of silence followed by her deciding to kill us.
“No,” she said. “Not quite. You made me think of Phlegm.”
Double damn and dang-blast it. The thought crossed my mind, but I held the emotion at bay. My focus was on her and on our conversation.
“Alone,” she said.
“If you’re alone, it’s by your own choice, your own way of looking at things.”
“I’m more alone than I was since you killed my partner,” she said. There was a pause. “I’m done entertaining you.”
Helen was a few feet away. She wasn’t picking up speed, even with that announcement. Still the slithering crawl through the mud. She had to be getting it in her mouth, her nose, even with her lips closed, but she was calm, glacially slow, and eerily focused.
We had one option. It was one I hated to use.
“You can’t afford to take the time to do that,” I said.
I heard something snap or crack from the woman’s direction. My hopes that she’d been attacked were dashed when she shifted her footing. She was getting something from the belt.
“In less than an hour, you’re going to need all of the cans you can get,” I told her. “All of the bullets too.”
I’m sorry, Gordon, Mary, I thought.
“The reason we went to go pick up our girl here was because we’re done. The traps are placed, boxes under half the houses in Whitney. Soon, really soon, the things occupying the box are going to wake up. The city falls, and if you’re here, if your buddies are here, then you get to watch them die, maybe, and then you die alone.”
“Assuming you’re telling the truth, what’s in the boxes?” she asked.
“I think they started with spiders,” I said.
Jamie added, “But, like you said, they’re as comparable to spiders as cats are to dogs.”
There was a pause.
“Look under the house on the other side of the alley,” I said. “Chances are pretty good.”
Between the rain, the distance, and the lack of lighting, I couldn’t see under the house across the little alley.
The chances weren’t good at all. My heart pounded.
Helen crept further. She was about a foot from being able to lunge for the woman’s ankles. A crocodile in the mud, with styled hair, at least to a point. It was thick with muck after a certain length.
The angle of the woman’s legs changed. She was looking.
“Hm,” she said. Noncommittal. Leaving me in the dark.
“Those cans, whatever they are, they’re bound to be helpful. If you don’t want to grab your buddies and get out of dodge.”
“No, not at all,” she said. “I’ve decided I can spare one of these.”
She shifted her stance, and I tensed.
Helen reached, lunging.
The woman was quick, and Helen was forced to change her target. One of Helen’s hands reached out for the woman’s, a metal can already smoking in her pale grip. When the can went airborne, the wrist Helen was reaching for now disappearing, Helen shifter her weight, reaching up and out with her other hand.
She slapped the can down, and Jamie lunged, bringing his backpack down on top of the thing.
The smoke was still rising. The mud bubbled, and when the bubbles popped, a yellow-green smoke rose.
“Out,” I said, “Out!”
Right into her waiting clutches.
I wasn’t wholly right, but I wasn’t wrong either.
She was waiting, but she wasn’t clutching. She’d covered a lot of ground without her feet being visible as I crawled. Agile. She’d walked or leaped off of the side of the building, or stepped on the tops of the posts. Now she faced us, the belt held in both hands. She was ready to step around the corner at a moment’s notice. Still wary of the gun that had downed Phlegm.
She raised the belt to her mouth, and she bared her teeth. Muscles stood out in strange places as she bit clean through the thick leather of the belt. She brought her hands together, and flung one end of it at us. Three or four canisters were hooked to it, and all were smoking. She’d grabbed the keys with one hand and pulled them out as she threw with the other.
I didn’t want to know how good Phlegm had been with this crap, if his sister here was this quick on the draw.
The belt flew through the air, plumes following it, and it was Helen who stepped forward to catch it.
Our Helen tried to throw it back and failed.
It took a few seconds, as Helen tried to fling the belt and failed to remove it. I could see it in how her hair moved, the sheen that appeared on her raincoat, scintillating points of light, rainbow hued, like some chemicals made in water, but the droplets were small and clustered together. Whatever it was, it had made the belt and canisters sticky, and was doing the same thing to Helen’s skin, her hair, and her raincoat.
The woman with the belt stared at us, watching as Helen flailed, almost invisible in the midst of the multicolored smoke. Each little canister was something different.
Helen made a frustrated sound, stumbling and falling to one knee in the mud. The woman turned and left, disappearing around the corner.
I took a step forward. Jamie’s hand blocked me.
“We have to-” I started, my tone much more like a child’s than I normally liked.
“Tell me what to do,” he said. He was already striding forward. “You’re too slow like that.”
“Her coat,” I said. “Pull it over her head.”
Jamie was muddy, and he’d given me his raincoat. He was wearing the white shirt, but it was soaked through. I could see the scars, and I could see his narrow chest expand as he drew in a breath, prior to entering the cloud.
“Use the coat to grab the belt,” I said. I couldn’t see him anymore, and I couldn’t see her.
Jamie would use the coat, he would pull it away-
Then what? It would be stuck to him, or stuck to Helen.
I turned, looking. The street was empty, people had fled the initial gunshots.
“Then come to me!” I called, still searching. “As fast as you can!”
Jamie had left it behind, while crawling through the mud.
A thin bit of wood framed the bottom of the nearest building, so it didn’t just end, but had some decorative flair, even if it was a strip of painted wood, an inch and a half across.
I braced myself, knowing how much this would suck.
Kicking the little strip of wood was painful enough that I nearly forgot what I was doing. My focus was dashed, I very nearly threw up, and only managed to stop with the realization that throwing up would make my stomach hurt more. It was a primal realization, one that reached all the way to my reptile brain, that little bundle of instincts and impulses. Through that mechanism, I managed to keep myself from heaving my meager breakfast and bit of apple onto the muddy span between the two buildings.
I found myself staring at the wood, still affixed to the wall. Maybe looser than it had been.
I thought of Ashton. I thought of Evette. My promise to Jamie, to guard him while he slept, which I’d kept up since I’d met him, and I thought of that horrible calm that had overcome me when I’d been in Sub Rosa’s clutches.
Calm, away from the noise, away from the expectations and the people and the demands.
It was, much as the sniffing woman had said, a very alone sort of calm.
I made myself kick again.
The agony in my middle was worse, but somehow I found it easier to deal with.
Pain punctuated my existence. I threw myself into danger. I got hurt for the others. I had pain inflicted on my body and mind on a rote schedule, with checkmarks on paper and doctor’s signatures.
Pain was only pain. Pain meant I was alive.
Another kick. This time something came free.
Jamie was stumbling toward me. Apparently blind, his skin raw and bleeding, clothes crumpled and stiff, he had the bundle of raincoat, which was still billowing with gas.
I grabbed the strip of wood and heaved. I landed on my ass, but with a spear of wood in my hand. Seeing Jamie suffering lit a fire in me, and I found it in me to swing the end of my spear at Jamie and catch the bundle of raincoat and canisters.
It didn’t take much doing to knock Jamie to the ground, pushing with the spear as I found my feet. He almost willingly went, as if the strength was gone from him.
“Stand,” I said, still sounding far too young. No confidence, no bravado. “Jamie.”
He struggled, and I gave my all to simply pinning the bundle down, my face and head turned away so my hood might delay the moment when that growing cloud of smoke reached my face.
He found his feet, but couldn’t let go of the bundle. He tugged, pulled, but didn’t have the strength or the range of movement to break the bond.
“Break free,” I said. “I’ve got it pinned down, just- please, Jamie.”
Again, he tried. Again, he failed.
It was Helen who came down the alleyway, stumbling at a running pace, more or less blind by definition herself. She had her arms out to either side, bridging much of the alleyway. She caught Jamie in the crook of one arm, embraced him, tackling him, and tore him away from the bundle. The skin of his hands was left behind, I suspected.
The two of them landed dangerously close to the opening of the alley. I thought of the gunman, perched on a building.
I heaved my bundle-on-a-stick, only to have my stomach nearly give out. I switched my grip and swung instead of bringing it up. It wasn’t too heavy, only unwieldy, and I managed to toss it out into the street, off to one side.
The gas continued to billow. I could only hope it would break the man’s line of sight.
Jamie and Helen were mostly blind, though Jamie a little less than Helen, thanks to his glasses, and both of them were blistered and bleeding, though Helen had gotten the better end of the deal, despite far more exposure. Her skin wasn’t really skin, I supposed.
I watched them, saw them lying there, then looked at the cloud of smoke.
My stomach was bleeding, I could feel it at my shirtfront. I’d need more medical care.
Still, I went under the building. I checked that the first canister wasn’t producing any more gas, then collected Jamie’s bag.
His book. It was important.
As I crawled forward, pausing before I tried to find the strength to stand, I looked under the house opposite.
Mary’s box wasn’t there. There was something that might have been a toolbox or a tackle box at the far corner.
It had been enough to convince her. She was on her way to warn the others, to make alternate plans.
Gordon and Mary were going to be upset.
“Come on, you two,” I said. My voice felt too light and feathery, mingled worry and relief. “We can’t afford to laze around.”
Jamie pulled his lips open, and the skin bled where the lips had bonded together, the airborne resin or whatever had collected there, as well as on his eyes and in his hair. “You’re a jackass.”
I’m a jackass with a gunshot wound. I’m allowed to be flippant,” I said. “But seriously, we can’t waste time.”
He nodded. I handed him his bag, which he felt around until he had the shape of it. After he clung it to his chest, I grabbed the straps and hauled. I’d already re-opened my wound, I couldn’t make it worse, right?
Helen found her feet on her own, one hand on the side of the building.
With only the hope that the gas would block the gunman’s view of us, or that he was busy relocating to another perch, I led the others into the street. Helen could hear the gunshots, the sound apparently traveling faster than the bullets did, but I wasn’t so lucky.
Haggard, hurting, and lost, we made our way to Lillian’s.
“She had an influence on you,” Jamie said.
I thought about joking, remarking on the sniffing woman.
But Jamie wasn’t talking about the sniffing woman. Jamie was talking about the ploy I’d used to try and buy us time.
“Doesn’t everyone?” I asked.
He made a sound that might have been a laugh, but came out more as a heavier breath. He coughed.
“You didn’t breathe that shit in, did you?”
“No,” he said.
“No,” Helen said.
“I know you didn’t,” I told her. I saw her give me a smile, and it was odd to see her actually face the right direction as she did it. Good ears.
“One day,” Helen said, “You’re going to make a girl very miserable.”
“Well we all knew that already,” I said. “Not sure why you’re bringing that up now.”
“Not you-you,” she said. “You two.”
I looked at Jamie, a part of me expecting to exchange a shared glance, except he was blind. It sucked a little, driving the situation home.
“Don’t give a girl any hope if you can’t put her before Jamie,” Helen said. “As you are right now, I don’t think you can.”
“You’re bleeding in fifty different ways, you’re blind, and you’re judging me?” I asked.
“Always,” Jamie said. He laughed a little, then coughed again, harder. “Always judging you.”
I didn’t like that cough.
Without Jamie’s eyes, I was left to do all of the looking out on my own, while making sure I was leading them properly, Jamie holding on to the raincoat at one elbow, and Helen holding on to my other forearm. Another chance encounter with any of Phlegm’s buddies might not go so well.
“It’s a good thing I don’t like girls then,” I mused, trying to take my mind off of the open wound in my side, the danger, and the others.
“You do,” Jamie said.
“Yes,” Helen said.
“Right. You know me better than I know myself?”
“I’m going to leave you guys behind if you keep that up. Besides, there aren’t any girls out there for me. Gordon can do the thing with Shipman, but-”
“There’s Mary,” Jamie said, quiet. “Lillian too.”
“Lillian isn’t one of us. Well, she is, but she isn’t. She-”
“She what?” Helen asked.
“Doesn’t seem fair, or real? Real’s not the word, but expecting a girl to like me, when I’m not guaranteed to live that long.”
There was no response. Jamie and Helen were silent. The rain was washing away the thin trickles of blood where the skin had been eaten away or had blistered and the resin had pulled on the blisters to open them, and diluting the mud, so it slid off in handfuls. Their clothing was being stained, where the mud hadn’t already caked it and turned it a dark brown-black.
I turned around, and moved my elbow accidentally, leading Helen to think I was turning. She stumbled a bit. I couldn’t see any buildings through the downpour, now, which I hoped was cause to believe that the gunman couldn’t see us, over the top of the cloud of smoke.
“You’re too nice a guy, Sy,” Jamie said, finally.
It was dark, wet, and cold, the rain was an outright storm, now, and the clusters of people were hard to make out. Each one we approached had the potential to be a threat. We were far enough away from where the gunshots had been that people weren’t actively hiding or fleeing, but close enough that they were concerned, huddling, trying to puzzle out the situation.
Heads turned. People started to approach.
It was more harm than good, potentially. If people crowded around us, the man with the scarf could slip in close, use one of those knives…
“Stay away,” I said, as they got closer. “Don’t touch them. Don’t touch me.”
Then I said the magic word.
The word repeated itself through the crowd.
The way opened before us.
“We’ve been told where to go,” I said. I kept talking only because we couldn’t afford questions. “Rebellion members turned on each other, or they’re Academy plants, or there’s a parasite, I don’t know. But Whitney is under attack. Spread the word.”
Phobos and Deimos. Fear and Panic.
Nebulous ideas, nothing certain.
But a point that was driven home with a few key words, and the imagery of small children, hurt, bleeding, and impossible to help.
Lillian wasn’t so impossibly far away, but we were moving so slowly.
As it turned out, we didn’t need to get that far.
Gordon, Mary, Lillian, and Shipman all appeared, a distance down the street. They picked up speed, approaching.
The looks on their faces. It was a fluttery, uncertain expression, much as my voice had been earlier.
“We’ve been discovered,” I said. “They know, they sent assassins, three or four left. We can’t stay.”
“We’re not done,” Shipman said.
“We’re done,” I said, my voice low.
“Are you okay?” Lillian asked, cutting in.
“Not very, gunshot,” I said. “They’re bad too. They need help. Three gases, from one of the assassins. Glue, don’t touch them, something flesh-eating, definitely don’t touch them, and a third. Might be poison. Jamie’s coughing.”
“Because blood keeps dripping down the back of my throat from my nose,” Jamie said.
“They need help,” Lillian agreed.
“Coach,” Gordon said. “There was one-”
He stopped, craning his head. “Come on!”
We moved as fast as we were able, but at least I was able to let the others look after Jamie and Helen, while I stumbled along on my lonesome.
Gordon was talking to a coach driver. As we approached, the man opened the side door.
As a group, we climbed inside.
“Hospital it is,” the man said, before closing the door. The latch clicked.
“How do we activate your project?” I asked.
“We’re not,” Shipman said. “It’s too early.”
“You were supposed to be nearly done.”
“We are,” the sourpuss told me. “But for this to work, we need to reach a certain critical point. We gauged how fast their response time would be, their resources here, the scientists in the area. If we start it too early, they’ll be able to counteract it before it becomes a real issue. It’s too early.”
“The other side of it,” Gordon said, his voice level, “Is that we were supposed to signal the Academy, so they could time the activation with an attack. Something clean and simple, while they can’t put up a fight.”
“Minimum deaths,” Shipman said.
Minimum deaths. She cared about that sort of thing?
Surprising. I hadn’t expected that to be one of her priorities.
“Mm,” Jamie murmured. He pulled his lips apart slowly, but there was still tearing and bleeding. Lillian was rummaging in her bag, trying to find things.
“What is it?” Mary asked.
“We’re approaching turn toward hospital. Sy’s right. We can’t stay.”
“Which way is the turn?” Mary asked, turning to try and look through the front window, which as barely the size of an envelope.
“He’ll turn right. We want to leave. Turn left.”
Mary nodded. She stepped to the side of the coach, opened the door, and swung outside, still holding the handle. The door slammed, Mary clinging to the outside.
Three seconds passed. A larger body dropped off the opposite side of the coach.
“Ouch,” Lillian said. “I hope-”
The carriage bumped as it rolled over the larger body.
“-he’s okay,” she said, in a smaller voice.
The coach abruptly picked up speed, the horses trotting briskly. Mary turned us to the left.
“We can still sneak in, leave boxes,” Shipman said. “Activate it after. We don’t have to be in the city. It would help, but we’ll make do.”
“They know,” I said. “I know they know because I damn well told them. There’s no other choice. They’ll dismantle it.”
I saw her expression change. Gordon reached over to put a hand on her knee.
Then he opened the same door Mary had. He raised a thin whistle to his mouth, and he blew.
A long, high, sweet sound.
Ten, twenty, thirty seconds.
There was an art to it, almost. Such a convenient activation method.
The whistle was picked up elsewhere, mostly behind us, now that we were on the outskirts, heading out. Each box of creatures was capable of mimicking the tone, passing it on, so it swept over the city, a single, sharp tone.
I saw the first of the spiders, the size of my fist, but black and bulbous, the center body almost tumorous. I knew it had to be light if Mary had carried whole boxes of them, or it had absorbed ambient moisture, perhaps. It didn’t matter.
From under one house, one box, just looking at the nearest wall of the building, I could see dozens of the things.
As the rain poured down, the spiders rose up, searching for windows and doors to crawl through.
“You owe me, by the by,” I told Lillian. “I got you out, in a roundabout way.”
“This doesn’t count,” she said.
“Does so,” I said.
“Does so,” Jamie added.
“I think I’m going to treat Helen first,” Lillian commented. “Fine. I owe you one.”
“Technically, the deal was-”
“I owe you one, Sy.”
I nodded, turning my attention to look out the window.
The little envelope-sized slot slid open. I could hear Mary speak.
I glanced at Gordon. Different as we were, even with the rift between us, the unanswered questions I had, and his anger over the way his project had ended, I knew we were on the same page.
“Westmore,” Gordon said. “It’s time for them to attack.”
I nodded at that.
We wouldn’t be working behind the scenes, this time. This was going to become something else entirely. An environment the Lambs had never faced.