Gordon, Shipman, and Mary came in from the rain. The rest of us were already present and waiting.
“No activity,” Gordon said, raising his voice to be heard from the other end of the room. “Double guards are stationed, and ambushes are laying in wait outside the gates.”
“Only stitched for the ambush?” I asked.
“Only stitched. Both sides of the path.”
There hadn’t been an attack yet. Gordon and Mary had left to do another circuit around Westmore, checking for anything suspicious, and now they were back, having picked up Shipman from the residence at the tail end of their route. The rest of us had gathered, but we were in a position where we were tired and lacked many concrete things to do, but not quite able to relax. Jamie was at the table with the maps and some books spread in front of him, filling his head with any knowledge that might be relevant.
Lillian was with Jamie, and the two of them were talking in low voices, as Jamie explained something or other. They were both very good at the ‘library whisper’, and had a way of looking like they were sharing a secret when they did so. It had something to do with the energy they had when they talked, Jamie finishing sentences, helping Lillian’s verbal stride rather than harming it, yet not getting so excited that they forgot how others might be bothered.
I walked around to look over their shoulders.
A list of the various projects ongoing in Whitney. Jamie was supplying additional details, some major, some minor. Even noting the people that some of the scientists had been talking to at the gathering we’d passed through.
Lillian looked up at me and smiled as I walked around the table. I walked past my empty cup of tea and the plate with a shortbread cookie on it, both provided by the Brigadier’s stitched. I collected the one piece of shortbread I hadn’t eaten.
Helen was at the opposite end, curled up in a chair that had been grown rather than carved, shaped as the branches grew. For a large man, it would be snug, but Helen was curled up rather comfortably, feet under her, a heavy blanket surrounding everything but her head, which was already healing a lot of the damage that had been done earlier. A few red patches with the skin loose at the edges, darker circles under the eyes, but she was mostly alright.
I jabbed the shortbread at her face, and she opened her mouth in time to intercept it, clamping down with her teeth. She ate it without pulling her arms free from the bundle of blanket.
Walking past Helen, I intercepted Gordon, Shipman, and Mary.
“Brigadier is out ordering some minor changes to organization,” Mary said. “I think he’s doing it to have something to do more than out of real strategic reasons.”
“It can be both,” Gordon observed. “By giving the orders and changing the organization, he gets to refresh himself on who is where.”
“And he changes things up, which makes things harder on spies,” I said. “Spies and infiltrators thrive on consistency. Being unpredictable here helps.”
“This was your idea,” Gordon said, realizing it out loud.
“Yeah,” I said. “He was suspicious, but I convinced him that he would only be waiting around here, and we could send anyone important his way.”
“You’re pleased with yourself,” Gordon said.
“A win for everyone involved,” I said, smiling. “Except the losing side. Or a loss for everyone and a win for them, if our guess is wrong.”
“If they don’t attack tonight, we lose some clout with the Brigadier,” Gordon said.
“They will,” I said.
“And you had no ulterior motives in getting rid of the Brigadier, hm?” Mary asked, one eyebrow arched.
“He’ll be back,” I said.
“That doesn’t answer the question,” she said.
I made a face. “We need to plant our feet here. This can’t be a prolonged engagement. They’re too angry, and that’s a fire that burns hot and fast. Once they get past the wall, it’s going to be over. Not guaranteed to be a win for them, but it’s going to be over.”
“That has what to do with the Brigadier, exactly?”
“I figure there’ll only be two or three big clashes before this swings one way or the other, the upcoming ambush excepted. If we lose the Brigadier’s trust, we can’t be certain we’ll get it back before things are over. So I figure we set down roots, work ourselves into the greater scheme of things. A little signal or change of plans that makes this lodge more our base of operations than his, if you will. He leaves, we stay.”
“That’s an awful lot of thinking and work for a pretty minor advantage,” Gordon observed.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Wasn’t a compliment,” he told me, jabbing me with his elbow on his way to the table. I turned and kicked at his rear end with a sock-clad foot.
“You’ll thank me later,” I said. “Or, or! You could thank me now. Because you got what you wanted.”
“Thank you Sy,” he said, in a sing-song voice.
Helen excepted, we gathered at the end of the table near Lillian and Jamie. I waved a hand a few times to get the attention of the Brigadier’s fire-tending stitched and then asked for tea.
He wasn’t as clever or animated as Wendy was. When the fire dropped to a certain temperature, he put a log on, and poked it or used the bellows. When there weren’t any logs, he went out and collected some from the stockpile. He could make tea and presumably handle a small handful of other errands. He likely couldn’t dress himself – his outfit was simple and probably wasn’t changed more than once a blue moon.
The world was so backwards in some ways. We hadn’t progressed a slow and steady path from the normal to the horrific. We’d jumped headlong into the horrific, with stitched like these preceding ones like Wendy, and an advanced project like Gordon, who was in many ways a stitched who had never died.
“We have a few big questions that are hanging over our heads,” Jamie said. “The next attack is the big one. Where, when, how, and which one?”
“Which assassin,” I clarified.
“Yes. Which brings us to what and how, if the assassin gets past us,” Jamie said.
I always liked seeing Jamie when he got going. It usually took a while, some prep time with information at his fingertips, but the rarity of these moments made them all the more fun.
“There isn’t much we can do to answer those questions before the attack happens,” Gordon said.
“No,” Jamie said. “No, there isn’t.”
“But we can think about what we do if and when things get that far,” I said.
“Sure,” Gordon said.
“But we can’t do that until we raise the other questions, which tie in or complicate things,” I said. Handing the ball back to you, Jamie.
“They have a trump card,” Jamie said. “They were confident about their ability to take Westmore. It might have something to do with the plague men.”
“The men with the boils and scars,” I said.
Jamie nodded. “But we don’t know much about them.”
“They were physically and mentally affected,” I said. “Off kilter from the rest of the soldiers, isolated, excluded. When they appeared in groups, they were with stitched or they were with others of their own kind. Usually.”
The others nodded. They’d each seen the men around, to varying degrees depending on how much they roamed the city, and what I was saying didn’t seem to conflict with their own observations.
“I noted the presence of about a hundred in total,” Jamie said.
“That many?” I asked, surprised.
“There might be more,” Jamie said. “There might be less. I’m wondering if any experienced swelling, which would alter their faces, maybe lead to me counting some of them twice. It would be easier to say if I got out more, but I wasn’t really wanting to explain why I was always coming and going from Ames’ headquarters.”
“A hundred,” Gordon said. “We have no idea of what they do or why they’re there. Were they voluntary or forced?”
“Might explain the mental issues, how some of them were almost catatonic when they weren’t actively doing something. Alterations made to keep them compliant?” I suggested.
“Creepy,” Lillian said.
“But I’m wondering if it’s something else,” I said. I thought for a second, trying to find the words.
“What is it?” Gordon prompted me, impatient.
“I can’t put a finger on it. But they had a kind of respect from others? Someone walks down the street, other people get out of their way. But someone commands your attention, like a pretty girl might-”
I gestured in Mary and Lillian’s direction, not ignoring Shipman, but not really indicating her either. Mary smiled, and Lillian looked shocked and a little confused. Which was why I’d done it.
“Ahem,” Helen said the word rather than make the sound, sitting at the other end of the table.
“You’re ugly right now, with the marks all over your face. You don’t get to play that card,” I told her.
“Aw,” Helen said, at the same time Lillian gave me an indignant, “Sy!”
“She doesn’t mind,” I said.
“I don’t mind,” Helen said, blithely. “Sy’s good in my books. He gave me one of his cookies.”
Lillian glared at me, looking very uncomfortable, yet she couldn’t formulate an argument as to why or to make her point.
“Are you done interrupting me, girls?” I asked, mostly to needle Lillian.
She opened her mouth to protest, but the front door opened. The Brigadier, with a retainer of stitched guards.
I cleared my throat. “Just like a pretty girl draws attention, being noticed and then holding some sway by some invisible rules, I feel like maybe the plague men had that sway. But it was respect. No hard facts, like I said. I’m not Jamie. But that’s my interpretation.”
“Going by what you said before, you think this was voluntary.”
“I think it might have been,” I said. “Might be a project that was supposed to end up different than it did. But I think those are men that know how to use guns. They had bearing. A part of me wonders if they aren’t veteran soldiers.”
“I put the image in my mind’s eye together with what you’re saying, and I can see how you’d make that connection,” Gordon said.
The stitched boy brought tea over. He began pouring it into mugs. I was still standing, so I walked over to Helen and collected her cup, bringing it down to the other end of the table.
The Brigadier joined us, stopping by his desk to collect an empty cup from there for his own tea. He didn’t place it with the other cups, but held onto it, waiting for us to be served before he was.
“We can’t make assumptions,” I said. “We can’t assume that one thing is going to work or that another will lead to certain victory. They have a trump card, and they have the plague man soldiers. When they attack the side gate, we can’t assume we stopped the assassin from getting in.”
The Brigadier’s deeper voice cut in, quiet and confident. “The problem with that approach, and I’m speaking from experience here, is that you can’t do that without taxing yourself. Covering every possibility, all of the angles, every eventuality, it exhausts you, opens you to mistakes.”
“That’s true,” Gordon said.
“To an extent,” I said. “But there are two things to keep in mind here.”
“I’m very interested in hearing this,” the Brigadier said.
“The first thing is that this is likely to be a short engagement, not wanting to assume, but going with common sense.”
“I don’t disagree,” the Brigadier said.
“The second thing is that we, as a group, are six individuals with experience not just in working together, but in thinking together.”
“There are seven of you,” the older man pointed out.
Gordon, with Shipman right beside him, was giving me a hard look.
“Those two are two peas in a pod,” I said, in a very cavalier way. “Semantics! We think well as a unit. Fourteen eyes and seven brains on the situation”
The man nodded. “If you prove that, I’ll be glad to rely on you for that.”
“How are the soldiers?” Gordon asked. “Morale-wise?”
“How is anyone, after a fight like that?” the Brigadier asked. “Thirty of ours were injured, seven killed. The injuries can be fixed, the deaths…”
“The dead can be made into stitched,” Lillian said. “Or were they using those special guns?”
“The exorcists you described,” the Brigadier said. “Big exit wounds. Looking at it, I’d guess we’d get six stitched out of them. Take one man apart for replacement parts. But we’re not going to do that.”
“It’s a strength of the Academy, being able to recycle its soldiers,” Mary said.
“In terms of the raw numbers it can bring to bear, yes. But if a man fights and realizes the stitched fighting next to him is a face he recognizes, he starts to have doubts,” the Brigadier said. “You’ve promised him that if he falls, he’ll end up the same. That’s a doubt that works its way deep.”
“Fear of that fate could push someone to fight harder,” Mary said. “Sir.”
The man waved his hand. “Let’s dispense of those formalities while we’re in private. I’d rather focus on giving my enemies something to fear. No need to bring it inside these walls.”
Which is why we’re in this situation in the first place, I thought.
The Brigadier held his tea, poised as if to drink it, but he talked instead. “The six soldiers we’d gain aren’t worth the hundreds of soldiers we’d lose, from a loyalty perspective. Not that they’d leave, not like this, but their hearts wouldn’t be in it, they would stop being wholly ours, and they’d end up turning a share of their time, thoughts and energy to self-preservation…”
He punctuated the thought by finally drinking that tea.
I wanted to like him more now that he was debating with us and challenging us, but I could remember the look in his eye from earlier, and the softness of his approach.
I respected jerks more. I wasn’t sure if this guy would have what it took to cover my back if and when it really counted.
I looked over to what Jamie had in front of him. It looked handwritten, with black letters. The Brigadier’s notes?
I reached out and moved the paper to a better angle so I could read it, saucer with tea in my other hand.
“Oh,” Jamie said. “The notes from previous skirmishes. Warning shots, sightings, scoutings…”
“It wasn’t all peace before you arrived,” the Brigadier said.
Jamie nodded, “They didn’t want to provoke a fight, but they weren’t hiding either.”
“They have new leadership,” I observed. “That woman-”
“Cynthia,” Jamie said. “Not sure if she’ll be deferring to the rebellion’s military leaders when it comes to strategy, or if she’ll be doing it when it comes to the particulars of leadership, or if she’ll be doing neither or both.”
“After we observe their movements, do you think you’d be able to tell who’s behind them?” I asked.
“That’s abstract,” Jamie said. “I work better with concrete things. I can try, but I’d rather give you guys the knowledge you need and let you make the calls.”
I made a mental note to ask Jamie. When things got hectic, he could often get lost in the shuffle, wanting to say something but not getting a chance.
“I’m also trying to keep track of this. If we can gauge the weapons, units, or devices our opposition is using, we can try to figure out what each of the rogue scientists they brought in has been busy working on,” Jamie said. “I’ve been trying to draw a connection between one of the scientists and the plague men, and Lillian was helping, extrapolating. I was thinking of Leopold Pock, but if you’re right about them being veterans, that would eliminate the possibility.”
“Explain?” the Brigadier asked.
“Augmented soldiers we observed in Whitney. Sy thinks they’re soldiers that voluntarily underwent some augmentation. A lot of soldiers, choosing an augmentation that makes them hideous, and does something to their minds. Likely a permanent change, or as permanent as anything we do to our bodies is. We’re trying to figure them out. Why they’d do it, who did it, specifically. Pock is tentatively ruled out. Doesn’t fit the working theory.”
“No idea about their capabilities?” the Brigadier asked.
“No,” Gordon said.
“A lot of soldiers,” I said. “A hundred, at least. What makes that many men want to change themselves that much? Enough that a small child might cry to look at them.”
“Hmm,” the Brigadier made a sound.
“Expert opinion is welcome,” I said. “What does every soldier want?”
“To go home,” the Brigadier said. “Safe and whole.”
“In their eyes, we attacked them at home,” I said. “They’re no longer whole, either. In fact, they’re less whole after the procedure.”
The man nodded.
“Next best thing to going home,” I said.
“To not have to be afraid anymore,” the Brigadier said.
He said it so readily, as if he didn’t even have to think about it. He simply knew. They were heavy words, and we were quiet as the words sat with us.
“Lillian,” I said. “Shipman too, I guess-”
Shipman looked irritated at that. Gordon too.
“-Any ideas on what-”
Gunshots sounded in the distance. A few shots at once, then a veritable torrent.
From the right direction, no less.
I was the first one to the front door. I hopped into my rain-boots rather than pull them on, catching the door for balance as my stomach protested where I’d been shot.
Lillian said something to rebuke me, but I was already pushing the door open, hurrying outside with my raincoat in hand but not yet worn.
My stomach continued to throb now and again, and I forced myself to slow down. The others caught up with me, the Brigadier among them. Even Helen and Jamie.
It was the gate I’d predicted. It was human nature to default to the simple, and to take shortcuts. Sending people further down the network of roads was risky. It was more opportunities for our side to spot them, or for them to get stranded if things came down to it.
This one was a gimme.
Just as the Brigadier had sought to break our enemies’ will, they were putting pressure on us now. The attack was meant to keep us on our toes, to wear down on morale, and getting an assassin inside the doors would give them a chance to drive the wedge in.
The Brigadier broke away from our group to talk to some senior officers. We headed to the stairs that led up the one side of the wall. I had to hold up my badge to get through the little doorway and gate that blocked off the stairs.
Reaching the top, I could see flashes of red and yellow as guns fired. The road stretched along a pass, the floor of it loose, but too rocky to be proper mud. Crushed stone, provided from elsewhere. Steep rocky walls rose on either side.
The enemy had come up one side of the road, it looked like, taking shelter in the shadows beneath the rock wall on one side of the road. They’d discovered, too late, that stitched were lying in wait, kneeling in those same shadows. The stitched had reacted, firing, and a matching group on the other side of the pass did the same.
Someone from the rebellion had managed to start a fire before dying. A makeshift bomb, perhaps. Four or five stitched had fallen. Minor in the grand scheme of it all.
“Thirty or forty,” Jamie said, his voice soft. “Dead.”
“I don’t know how you can even tell,” I told him. It was the middle of the night, and the heavy rainclouds weren’t letting any moon show.
The smell of blood, feces, smoke, and gunpowder were thick in the air. I could imagine the rock walls on either side of the path were a funnel, bringing the smells in, in a very concentrated way.
“I can see them well enough to count them,” Jamie said. “We gave the instructions that led to the deaths.”
“The decision to-” Gordon started.
I raised a hand, gesturing. He stopped.
Gordon would have argued, and shoved his way of thinking at Jamie, and Jamie would have agreed. It probably would have sunken in. Jamie would have internalized it, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing.
But I wanted to talk to Jamie about this, not to Gordon.
“We did give the instructions,” I said. “Me, mostly, but we all played a part, yeah.”
“It feels impersonal,” Jamie said.
“It is. It was.”
“It feels worse for being impersonal.”
“You’ve killed before,” I pointed out. “Personal kills, you looked them in the eye. Even Phlegm.”
“It feels worse for being impersonal,” Jamie said.
“How?” Gordon asked, all at once. “Why?”
Jamie shrugged. He didn’t have an answer.
“Whatever the reason,” I said, “It’s allowed to feel however it feels.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Never a problem.”
The silence was broken up by handlers on the wall-top shouting down to the stitched below. We hadn’t lost any actual lives down there, and stitched were more expendable, tougher. Easier troops to field.
“Didn’t see anyone climb the wall,” Mary said. “But if they did it at the start-”
Still fixated on the assassins. Not a bad thing.
“We’ll assume someone got in and take measures,” I said.
“I kind of want to see the vat-grown humans that Polk made,” Helen said. “I wonder if they can have babies? Jamie, do you know? Lillian?”
Lillian made a squeaking sound as her name was mentioned.
“Do you?” Helen pressed.
“Why do you want to know?” Jamie asked, very cautiously, then before Helen could answer, he quickly added, “And do I want to know why you want to know?”
“I’m just curious,” Helen said.
“Do you want babies?” Jamie asked.
“No. Why? What does that have to do with anything?” Helen asked.
Which all added up to the Lambs being very confused.
I wondered if Ibott had instructed Helen to practice psychological warfare. Her talk at the teahouse, and now this? If he’d given the order, she’d picked up on it remarkably fast.
The stitched turned on little lamps they had with them, and more were tossed down. Each lamp had mirrored metal around the majority of it, so a beam would be cast out in a cone. The light that was cast was a yellow-orange, and danced as the wind blew.
As the lamps lit up and the stitched spread out, we were given a view of the battlefield in all its garishness. The road was too rocky with too many gaps, and the rain had pounded down the blood that hadn’t slipped into the gaps. The bodies were just lying there, and without the right amounts of blood, they looked artificial, even posed. A little girl’s dolls, dropped and left in whatever position they fell.
I studied the cliff face, looking to see if maybe one of the assassins was utilizing it to climb. Nothing.
How were you planning to get in? I wondered.
Jamie reached out, grabbing my upper arm.
There. At the rear of the group. A figure with features spaced too far apart, strange earlobes, and a girthy belly.
No. I didn’t buy it. The reactions of the woman with the teeth…
“Guess we won’t find out,” Gordon said.
The rain continued to pour down. I continued to try and think of all of the different vectors for attack.
I turned and headed down the stairs, approaching the Brigadier.
“You were right,” he said.
Last thing on my mind.
“One assassin fell, it looks like. But the man is supposed to be dead.”
“The dead can come back,” the man said. Rain was streaming off his helmet, and collecting in his wooly chin-strap of a beard.
“Guess so,” I said.
“Just sent my men out to get reports from each of the other gates. If this was a distraction, something might have happened elsewhere.”
I nodded. We did have security measures at the other gates. The Academy forces of Westmore weren’t going to be sleeping tonight.
“We’ll see if your next prediction is right,” he said.
Someone gave a shout, and the gate opened. The other Lambs were gathered together in clusters, or meandering down the stairs. Jamie and Helen were a little slower to move.
The stitched that had been stationed outside filed in, carrying the dead.
“We’ll have some replacement stitched that won’t be hurting morale any,” the Brigadier said. “Might even come out ahead.”
“Might even,” I said. “Can I have a bayonet?”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve been right twice. I get to ask for more favors, don’t I? Things that might be a little questionable or inconvenient?”
“I suppose,” the Brigadier said. He gestured for a soldier to come closer, then took the man’s weapon.
“Hold on,” I said. “Don’t give it to me yet.”
It took another minute before the stitched had made it inside the walls. The gate creaked as it swung closed. Bars were lowered into place.
I reached out, and the bayonet slapped into my hand.
As I approached the line of stitched and bodies, Mary fell into step beside me. I extended the bayonet to her, and she tossed it into the air in front of me.
Gordon, appearing on my other side, caught it. By the time I looked back at Mary, she had knives in her hands.
“The bodies,” I said, clearly, my gaze on the corpses that were being dragged. I raised my hands to my hood, pushing it back and running my fingers through my hair. My tone was weary as I said, “Check the dead bodies.”
“Mm,” Gordon said.
Gordon lowered the bayonet blade, aiming for the first corpse.
At the last second, before stabbing, he raised it, stabbing the stitched.
Mary moved fluidly, throwing her knives, hitting the second and third stitched in the line.
They reacted as anyone might. Alarmed, hurt, they reached for their weapons.
“Stand down!” the Brigadier hollered. “That’s an order!”
The specialists on the wall and beside the line repeated the order, though they looked confused.
Gordon was already moving, aiming for the fourth stitched in the line. Mary threw knives at the fifth and sixth.
The sixth ‘stitched’ moved fluidly, knives in its own hands, as it struck the throwing knife out of the air.
Faster and more graceful than any stitched was.
Mary threw more knives, sprinting forward. The stitched hit them out of the air once more. It approached, picking up speed as it made a beeline for Gordon. It didn’t seem to care that he was armed, or that he was raising the gun to aim.
It wasn’t Gordon that shot. Others on the sideline opened fire. As much as the man could knock a thrown knife out of the air, he couldn’t do much against bullets. He jerked, stumbled, and tripped over a corpse that lay on the ground behind him.
The rain continued to pour, the sound of the gunshots ringing in my ears.
No assumptions, I thought.
Now the dance really began. With this ploy failing, our enemy would be forced to get creative. I’d get to see what kind of tacticians we were up against, and we’d have to match them in kind.