The stitched gave each of us a pat-down. I bit my cheek rather than protest at the pain as clumsy hands prodded my side. It wasn’t worth it, the stitched wouldn’t care, and I didn’t want to seem weak, when we already had two members down. The older man, now with his helmet doffed, was studying us. Jamie and Helen were looking less than stellar, even with their injuries looked after. I could put on a brave face.
“It would be easier-” Mary started. She made a face as the stitched pulled a knife out from her beltline. “If you’d let me remove the knives myself. Or I can tell you where they all are.”
The stitched didn’t react or respond, and the Brigadier didn’t give the order.
We waited in silence while it found eight more knives, each belted around Mary’s upper thighs. It gave her a quick pat-down, then stood straight.
“If I may…” Mary said. She reached up and pulled a long, thin knife out from the thickest part of her hair. More a needle than a blade. She raised one foot up, bracing calf against knee, and pulled another knife free of the heel of her shoe with a bit of a jerk. Rather than a handle, it had a t-shaped configuration, more a knife that was punched with than thrust. A matching knife came out of the other shoe.
She deposited two more, another punching knife from behind her belt buckle, and one with fluid in a reservoir in the handle from behind her back. Finally, she provided the garotte-wire that had been curled around her body, hidden on the other side of her belt.
Absolutely, utterly unnecessary. She could have kept the items on her person and lost nothing for it, but I suspected she wanted to make a point.
“We’ll have to teach them to do better,” the Brigadier observed.
“Yes sir,” Mary said.
The Brigadier was old, a caricature of a man with a puffed out chest, bedecked in a uniform jacket, with tight leggings beneath, making it seem like his upper body was meant for a different lower body than the one he had. He had kind eyes, as he appraised us.
I instantly disliked him.
He looked at the man who still sat on the bench of the coach, his ankles bound. The man looked deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed.
“See that Specialist Timothy gets care. Patrick, see that your stitched search the vehicle for more spiders. Lambs, you can come inside,” he said. “We’ll talk.”
We passed through the doors, joined by the stitched guards. Formations seemed to have been ingrained into them. As we moved two-by-two, the stitched did as well, two between Jamie and I and Mary and Lillian, and two at the rear.
Past the doors was a coatroom, and we quickly removed our things. Adult-sized shoes were on the floor. The Brigadier paused, taking in the shoes, examining us and our feet, then said, “if you wouldn’t mind carrying on the rest of the way in socks and stockings?”
Dutifully, we peeled off our raincoats and boots. I stepped onto the wooden floor beyond the coatroom, lifted up one foot, and saw a muddy print. The grime and the wet had soaked into my boots. My socks were just as dirty as the soles of my boots, if not dirtier.
I peeled off my wet socks and progressed barefoot, which was only slightly better.
The Brigadier had chosen a lodge as his base of operations. It was one of the largest buildings, one of the sturdiest, and I suspected that had little to nothing to do with his choice. The exterior was stone and mortar, up to a point that was just over the top of my head, with logs extending up the rest of the way. The roof had a tree growing across it, augmented building, and swept up at an angle, the lowest point just over the front door, the highest point of the roof at the far end, where a chimney speared up from a stone fireplace-cum-stove. It looked like a bedroom and bathroom were to either side of the coat room, tucked in at the front. The remainder was an open living space, with tables surrounded by nice chairs and a couch, a desk was positioned near the fireplace, and the only piece of furniture that didn’t match the decor had been placed opposite the desk, a heavy table.
A stitched boy was feeding the fire. No older than I was. Probably the Brigadier’s personal servant. He looked like he’d been around for a while, a stitched with actual stitches.
The Brigadier was a man who liked his comforts. A candle burned above the desk, and a glass held ice but no drink. If I smelled him, I could smell a trace of drink, but not the sour tang of an alcoholic. As the boy and his style of dress suggested, he was a man who took care of things.
Hard to read, when it came to this situation. He was so wrapped up in himself that I couldn’t get a good sense of who he was as a strategist.
Maybe that was a hint unto itself.
We walked all the way to the end of the room, passing the area that served as a sitting room or a tea room, where books and maps were laid out. The wood of the floor got progressively warmer as we approached the fireplace. By the time we reached the end, it was hot enough to be on the cusp of uncomfortable. I glanced over the table opposite the desk, and saw far more maps, as well as various letters. Pens were scattered here and there.
He took a seat at the desk. “If the injured feel the need to sit, you could take one of the chairs behind you and turn it around.”
Jamie did. He dropped his backpack on the floor by the chair. Helen remained where she was.
I did, too.
“Whitney is under attack, then,” the Brigadier said.
“Yes sir,” Gordon said. “We moved too soon. We hoped they would be active late at night. When the majority of people were deep asleep, and we hoped there would be more. Enough that their first few attempts to eradicate the spiders would fail.”
“But you were nearly ready. You said as much in a recent missive.”
“Not that close. Account for the fact that they’ll respond faster in the daytime, it won’t be enough. I’d say we have less than a day before the window of opportunity closes,” Gordon said.
“I think you’re underestimating what that kind of psychological warfare will accomplish,” the Brigadier said.
“We’re well versed in that kind of warfare, we’ve dealt with experts in it for as long as we’ve been working together,” Gordon said.
“Which obviously isn’t that long,” the Brigadier said. “Not to belittle what you do, of course.”
“Of course,” Gordon said.
Only those who knew Gordon would be aware of the subtle change of tone, or the hints that he was working just a little too hard to keep his words carefully crafted.
“They’ll break,” the Brigadier said. “It’ll put them on their heels. People will leave Whitney, too afraid of a repeat performance.”
“Sir,” I said. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“Of course it is!” he said, in a laughing tone. “There are always nuances and complications. This is war.”
Brigadier Ernest Tylor lifted his glass, drinking the water from the melted ice, then opened a drawer to retrieve a bottle of what might have been scotch. He tipped it into the glass.
He saw us watching, and he smiled. “The ice is a travesty, I know, but I allow it because it goes so well with the heat of the fire. I’d offer you drinks, to thank you for your hard work, but…”
He gestured, a kind of up-down motion.
“But we’re too short?” I asked, feigning confusion.
Jamie elbowed me from the left, and Mary kicked my leg. It hurt more than if she’d been wearing her shoes. Somehow.
“It’s fine, sir,” Helen said. “Two of us can’t even drink, and I can’t even enjoy it in the same ways, myself.”
“Strange group,” the man said. He was barely drinking what he’d poured for himself. One sip. A gesture of power? Habit?
I watched and waited for him to take another sip.
The moment he did, I opened my mouth, knowing he couldn’t cut me off without sputtering.
“Sir,” I said, “In all seriousness, what I was saying before, about complications. They’re more prepared than you may be giving them credit for.”
He swallowed, stayed like that, glass in hand, then set it down. “How so?”
“Three or four assassins, skilled, each augmented. One of them was an uncanny shot with a rifle from about a kilometer away.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded.
“They’re confident. They know the resources you have to bear, they have countermeasures in place. They have resources, some ace up their sleeve that we weren’t able to uncover before we had to flee the assassins. They think they’re going to win this.”
“Then they’re idiots,” the Brigadier said. “We outnumber them threefold.”
“Virtually every soldier they have has a gun they’ve nicknamed the Exorcist. Designed to put down stitched and augmented creatures.”
“Not a concern. I’ve led armies in battle. I’ve even managed situations like this. A fortified position, an insurgent groups with numbers on their side. Those numbers swiftly dwindle at the first hint of defeat. You’ve delivered that, and I’ll see that you get medals for it.”
Mary reached out and took my hand. I squeezed it.
The look she gave me out of the corner of her eye was one of worry. The hand-holding was for reassurance, not for some desire to celebrate the recognition and the victory.
Yeah. That feeling we’d had was getting worse.
“There were scientists. Ex-Academy. This isn’t rabble, sir,” I said. “They have knowledge they can bring to bear. Experiments of their own.”
“Louis Peralta,” Jamie said. “He specialized in pain. Leopold Pock, produced modified, vat grown humans, of a different type than the assassins we encountered. Edwin Grahl, John Durant, Christina Wilder, Ian Roy, Wesley Vas-”
“I get the picture,” the Brigadier said. “How many total?”
The man nodded, rubbing his beard. “At a certain point, it becomes academic. Assuming the guns are twice as effective as the norm, the experiments all Academy class, they still have to reach us before they can take action.”
“Reach us, sir?” Gordon asked.
“They’re mounting an attack against an entrenched position. We have a number of tools at our disposal, and we can frustrate their efforts. Trust me when I say this, war is a psychological game. Once they realize the cost of attacking, on top of your clever work with the spiders, their numbers will dwindle. Without the support of the group, their hired scholars will drop away as well. There will be nobody to hold the guns you’ve mentioned.”
“You don’t intend to attack,” Mary said, the disappointment and disbelief clear in her voice. “You want to stay, fight from a defensive standpoint.”
“Exactly so,” the man said, smiling.
“Why?” she asked. She didn’t even try to hide the accusatory tone.
I squeezed her hand, a warning.
“How refreshing,” the old man said. “I’m not usually made to explain myself.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
He waved a hand. “I always firmly believed that every person in a position of power should have to explain their rationale. Your name, if you don’t mind?”
“Who are we fighting against, Mary?”
“Yes. Rebels, revolutionaries, insurgents. But who makes up the bulk of their number?”
Mary took a second, then connected the dots. “The Crown’s people.”
“Assume we fought every fight by wiping out the enemy. What would happen after? The Academy would suffer, the Crown would suffer. There would be long-lasting repercussions. Resentment, hatred. If we can minimize the losses on both sides, and still break their stride, if we do it with care, then we could very well leave them feeling thankful that we were as merciful as we were.”
“Yes, sir,” Mary said.
I wondered if the higher-ups at Radham were laughing. Hayle had made a gambit, sending us here. He’d believed we could be useful. Had someone with experience with the Crown’s military allowed him to do just that, knowing just what we’d have to deal with?
There wasn’t a Lamb present, I knew, who wasn’t filled to the brim with frustration. We’d gathered information, we’d positioned ourselves, we’d set up a trap that would lay them low enough that an army could sweep over them without much contest, and here we were.
I looked either way, down the line of Lambs. Lillian, at the far left end, was staring down at the floor. Her neck was rigid enough I wondered if she’d start trembling.
The others weren’t much better.
So very little gained. He wasn’t paying attention to the information. Lillian and Shipman’s notes on how far along they were in terms of knowing about the Academy were effectively being ignored, as was Jamie’s information on the local threats, and my details on the assassins.
“The spiders were a good ploy. I’m glad I extended you the trust and signed off on it. Tell me, what’s next for you? If you want it, I’d be happy to extend you some freedom.”
“Freedom, sir?” Gordon asked.
“I imagine the Academy keeps you busy. If you’d like, I can tell them I have need of you, and keep you for a few days. It’s a little drab here, mines and lodges, a lot of damnable rain, but you could rest and recuperate.”
Gordon glanced at the rest of us, then said, “Speaking for all of us, sir, the offer is appreciated-”
“But I think we’d prefer to be useful, if you don’t mind my saying so. Those of us who aren’t injured.”
The man nodded. “Any particular duties you have in mind?”
“Something pertaining to the upcoming situation, sir?”
“Nothing to be had but turns at the watch, and trust me when I say you don’t want that task. It’s a punishment detail.”
“Yes sir,” Gordon said.
“Let me get back to you on that tomorrow, then?” the man asked. “It’s getting later in the day. Recuperate, take a well-earned rest. You’ll be staying in the Miner’s camp. Nicer place to stay than you’d think. Some officers and specialists there, but you’ll have enough space that you shouldn’t want for privacy.”
He was the first person I’d met who could take the Lambs in stride at first meeting, recognizing what we were and how we operated. Gordon’s letters might have helped with that. He was also gentle, and not above treating us with kindness. That he’d actually considered offering us drinks said a lot. There was no deception at all in what he was saying. He believed it all, deep down. That veteranship of experience had layered and ingrained it all into him. A very rare species, no doubt a grandfather, and a veteran of the Academy’s wars, his experiences mingling into someone who actually almost understood us.
I could count the number of people who fit that label with three fingers. Hayle was the first. This man was the third.
Yet, in my frustration, there was nothing I wanted to do than jam my thumbs into the orbs of his eyes and hear him scream. Because he was too kind in expression as he looked down on us, because I was sure I saw a glimmer of pity that came from a place of actual understanding.
It was a surprisingly violent line of thought, even for me.
We’d been dismissed. The others were already turning to go. I hadn’t turned, and I still held Mary’s hand, so she hadn’t gone either.
“Sir,” I said.
“Yes. Do you mind mentioning your name, while we’re talking?”
I took that as my cue to continue. “If you’re really grateful about what we’ve done-”
“I am, Sylvester.”
“Then I’d like to maintain a responsibility, in the meantime. I’d need a bit of help. I want to do some patrol rounds around Westmore, personally.”
“It’s bigger than it looks, you know. It worms between hills and mountains.”
“I know, sir.”
“What help do you need?”
“We’re each carrying silver badges. They have the Radham emblem on them,” I said. I fished mine out of my pocket. “Would you pass on word to your soldiers, that we can go where we need to and make minor requests?”
He considered. “If it were to fall into an enemy’s hands…”
“There aren’t any children among them, as far as we know,” I said.
He rubbed his beard, musing. “Why, then? We have the patrols covered.”
“Because they hired assassins. As we mentioned earlier, there are three or four,” I said. I paused for effect. I wished this would sink in, convince him that this was a different sort of battle, that the enemy was smarter. “I doubt they hired assassins to keep them in Whitney.”
“If you deem it necessary, then I’ll spread the word down the chain of command. You’re free to go where you need to, and to make minor orders.”
I nodded. “Thank you sir.”
“Thank you, Sylvester.”
I had the vivid mental image of the eye-piercing and screaming again. Mary let go of my hand to head to the coatroom, leaving me behind.
I turned and crossed the length of the Brigadier’s lodge to join the others, who were flanked on either side by the stitched who had come into the door, now standing on either side of the coatroom. I ignored the discarded socks, depositing them into the raincoat pocket, and simply slipped my feet into my boots. There were tiny rocks in there with the silty mud, but it was far from the most irritating thing to happen today.
Among the Lambs, there was an odd kind of rush to get out the door and get away.
We covered a lot of ground before we were far enough away from the Brigadier’s men to talk.
“Why?” Mary asked, sounding genuinely lost.
“Because the Academy doesn’t lose wars,” I said.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mary told me.
“It makes all the sense in the world,” Gordon said. “He’s never lost a war. He could lose this battle, sure. He could lose the next five. But if the dust settles and he’s alive, which he probably will be, then what can the Academy say? The failure is theirs, not his.”
Mary made a fist, then moved like she was going to punch a wall. She stopped just short.
A moment later, Lillian slammed the side of her fist into the wall, a few feet from Mary’s. She waggled it, wincing in pain, looking like she’d regretted the gesture.
“You really hated that school, huh?” I observed.
“I thought hitting things was supposed to help relieve anger,” Lillian said. “Ow.”
“It doesn’t,” I said.
Lillian made a face.
“I need to teach you how to throw a punch,” Mary observed.
“Don’t make me feel worse,” Lillian muttered.
It was getting dark, the rain was coming down hard.
“It’s about risk and reward,” I said. “Going back to our earlier topic, not hitting things. Attacking Whitney is a risk. His career, life, and control of the situation come into jeopardy.”
The words weren’t helping with the general aura of frustration that seemed to linger. Only Helen and Shipman seemed able to be able to handle it. Shipman had a few years of maturity and probably some experience in seeing her hard work thrown away. Helen might not even experience frustration in the same way we did.
We could have stood there in the rain for hours, kicking at the mud with our toes and grumbling. It was Gordon who got us moving.
“We might be arguing about nothing at all, if the man is right.”
“He’s not,” I pointed out. “He’s missing just how angry and dedicated our opposition is. They won’t break as easily as he thinks.”
“Sy,” Gordon said, sounding exasperated.
“Gordon,” I replied, mimicking his tone.
“I’m not arguing with you. I’m inclined to agree. But there’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s go see where we’re staying,” he said. “Get our wounded looked after. Yourself included, Sy.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I lied.
“You were,” he said. He paused. “The patrols.”
“No ulterior motives,” I said. “I just didn’t want to get cooped up.”
“No. Wasn’t going to ask about that. Was just going to ask, do you mind if any of us come with you?”
“You want to patrol,” I said.
“Yeah. And from the looks of it, Helen and Mary do too.”
“We’ll make a thing of it. Go in pairs, maybe. We’ve been split up for too long, doing our individual things, be nice to talk.”
The crack of a dozen rifles firing.
Another shout, ordering a reload.
A violent explosion, screams.
It was so dark we couldn’t see, except when the explosions lit things up. The dead of night.
Gordon and I were on the wall overlooking the sloped, waterlogged road that led down through the mountains to Whitney. We peered over the top, watching the scene unfold.
From atop the wall, an entire regiment’s worth of rifles fired.
Bullets weren’t weightless. They dropped as they traveled. Having the high ground counted for something, I imagined.
Not that I was much of a fighter, or an expert on guns.
I watched as a series of explosions ripped out. Something was coming up the path. Stitched, but big, not all human. It probably had a short lifespan. But it wasn’t intended to live out an extended life of servitude. It was about shock, awe, and giving our side a reason to doubt, if only for a minute. It was holding a modified cannon in its arms. It nearly fell as the cannon fired.
The collision shook the wall. I could hear stones from the wall falling to the road below.
Gordon and I had been mid-patrol when the alert was sounded. Now we watched.
Westmore’s stitched were firing in barrages. I watched them, saw another flash of light as an explosion occurred further down the road, the scene highlighted in oranges and reds.
Another explosion. The group of stitched was one fewer. It took me a second to spot why.
“Head down!” I shouted in Gordon’s ear. Louder than was necessary, maybe. The explosions and gunfire was making my ears ring.
He ducked down with me, a quizzical look on his face.
“The rifleman with the eyes, the same one who shot me. He’s picking off the commanders of the Stitched’s squads.”
I looked at the scene. Just when I spotted a person who looked like he was in charge, he turned, walking the other direction, gesturing.
A group of specialists in a nearby building opened a cage.
The thing that came out was a dog without a head. The stump was an open void, and tendrils spilled out and peeled back over the dog’s body, streaming behind it as it ran.
Sharp whistles directed it, two for left, one for right, volume guiding it.
It went over the top of the wall, pouncing.
I heard gunshots, listened, trying to identify the rifleman’s. Knowing the dog would be taking the man’s focus, I dared a look over the top.
There was a crowd at the end of the road, approaching with makeshift shields up to cover them. They’d reached the collection of sandbags furthest down the road, the same one that the poor sod that had gotten his legs stitched together had come from. It became cover for them.
I imagined someone was supposed to keep that from happening, but the people who were supposed to make the call were getting picked off.
The tendril-dog was limping forward, momentum broken. Stitched were dying in droves. They were supposed to take a half-dozen bullets before going down. They were taking one or two at most.
The ‘exorcist’ rifles were doing their job.
Gordon pulled on my shoulder, and I ducked down. He gestured, and I gestured back.
We descended the stairs at our side of the wall, back to the ground level. A gun was briefly trained on us, before we were recognized.
We had to cross the length of the street before the sounds on the far side of the wall grew muffled enough that we could talk. I spoke, looking at the forces massed on our side of the wall. “They need to sound a retreat.”
“No retreat,” Gordon said. “They won’t. They can’t. It’s only a half-dozen men out there who die, and a lot of stitched. If they open the gate, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to close it.”
I shook my head.
“They won’t get through,” Gordon said. “Not tonight.”
“Probably not tonight. This was them saying they’re here. They’re angry, they haven’t given up. Someone in charge probably stirred them up. People who weren’t committed to the fight picked up guns, even.”
“Maybe,” Gordon said. “Sy. I want to ask everyone, but since you saw, I’ll ask you first.”
We were getting further away from the site of the battle, the volume was dying down, and the horrible ringing in my ears seemed to be getting louder in comparison.
“Ask what?” I told him.
“Do you think he’ll change his mind?”
“No,” I said, without missing a beat. “He’ll adapt his strategy, he’ll make an excuse.”
“That they expended resources. They’ll be weaker on subsequent attempts,” Gordon said.
“Something like that. You were thinking the same thing? That he’d say no?”
I had a funny feeling about the way he was acting, which was strange. Gordon wasn’t a guy I usually devoted a lot of brainpower to figuring out, and now I’d done it twice in recent memory. Thrice if I counted Fray.
Okay, I was lying. A million, six hundred thousand and two times, if I counted Fray.
But the strange mood in the market, how he’d been oddly out of sorts and avoiding the heavy lifting when I’d seen him earlier in the day and how this?
“Why does the group need to make a collective call about what the Brigadier is doing?” I asked. “It would have to be important, for you to ask for something like that.”
Except I already knew the answer. The look in Gordon’s eyes, faint as it was with only the streetlamp to go by, was telling enough. He knew I’d figured it out.
“Right,” I said. “Hm. It might be hard to convince some of the others.”
“Treason is typically pretty hard to sell,” I told him.