The two bodies were each held by four of the Academy’s soldiers. With a shout and a very practiced motion, the bodies were heaved up and onto freshly wiped granite slabs. One was Phlegm. The other was dressed as a stitched, complete with our uniform.
The doctors and scholars of Westmore were already collecting around, many wearing their coats and aprons, masks covering the lower halves of their face, goggles over their eyes. Black, elbow-length gloves were pulled over freshly washed hands. The room was open-air, a shelter for wagons, very possibly a drier point for coal to be offloaded, but canvas cloths had been tied down and sealed it off, with sandbags up to the four foot mark, providing some insulation and walls. The floor was packed soil, and was caked with old blood, shit, and other detritus. Kits off to the side had all of the material needed for stitched, while toolbox-like constructions were in one corner, providing other tools for more conventional medical care.
“Out of the way,” a man told me, as he wheeled a cart over to the foot of the table. He had more than enough room. He was just bullying me, indicating that I was not supposed to be here, in a way that meant he didn’t have to say it outright.
I hopped up onto a stack of sandbags in the corner. I offered Mary a hand in climbing up next to me. Totally unnecessary, but I had to be gentlemanly. Gordon, Lillian, and Shipman stood at the other side of the enclosure, pulling back into the corner a bit, where they were clear of the normal footpaths.
“No children in the room,” one of the scholars said, getting in Mary’s way. Black coat, black apron, black gloves, a pin at his collar marking his rank, Field Surgeon. He was surrounded by grays and whites, some with pins, some without.
“Ahem,” Lillian said. She took a quarter-second too long to say something, reaching for the badge in her pocket.
“Out!” the man said, raising his voice, more at the fact that I hadn’t budged. Gordon and Mary were taking my cue. I pointed at Lillian.
Lillian spoke up, “I’d like to-”
“John, Troy, see that the children go,” the Surgeon said, turning his back. It was what I would have done. Deflecting and dismissing her, forcing her to appeal to more people, people who were in service to authority, a hard chain to break.
Lillian looked at me for help. I stayed quiet, watching.
Sure enough, two of the doctors who hadn’t yet washed up approached, ready to usher us out.
“Sir,” Shipman said, her voice stronger than Lillian’s had been. She grabbed Lillian’s wrist, pulling Lillian’s hand from the pocket. Lillian was holding the badge. “We’d like to stay. Pursuant to the Brigadier’s orders.”
The surgeon turned to look back at the badge. He made a face, then raised his chin. “Sir?”
We turned, and we could see that the Brigadier was standing in the street with a few other men.
“They can watch. Have them bring me the write-up when you’re done,” Brigadier Tylor said. Then he was gone, looking after other business.
The surgeon’s face was hidden by the mask and goggles, but I entertained myself by imagining that it looked like he was sucking on a lemon while he had his balls in a vise.
Probably wasn’t the case, but it was funny to imagine.
Mary and Shipman hurried to get to a vantage point where they wouldn’t be in the way. A tough job, considering how packed the space already was.
“Troy, would you take the notes?” the surgeon asked. Troy, still wearing the apron and coat, but not scrubbed in, picked up a pen and paper. John hurried to get to the sink and wash up. I presumed it was a constant competition to get recognition from the surgeon.
Another doctor took scissors to the clothing of the men, cutting away what they couldn’t open on their own. The men were soon left naked on the table.
Phlegm had a broad stomach, the sort where a strong man also ate too much. The muscle was there, underlying it, but it was insulated enough that the lines werent’ readily apparent. Thick neck, strangely spaced facial features, and odd earlobes, with messy hair. He was covered in deep, recognizable scars.
“Subject appears to be stitched, standard ‘Y’ cut. The work looks as if it was done only hours ago. Trepanning method of lobotomy, holes still present, with skin flaps covering. This was a fast job.”
“We killed him earlier today,” I commented. “They needed a decoy.”
“If I want commentary, I will ask for it,” the surgeon said.
I raised my hands in the gesture for surrender.
“The word ‘Phlegmatic’ is tattooed along the first subject’s collarbone,” the surgeon said, prodding the flesh. “Bone structure stands out as differing from the norm. Fused collarbone, ribcage has flat affect across the front and back, with broader sternum and fused spaces between ribs. Vat-grown. Older scars suggest the changes are the result of grafts and prior work. Layered, different types of scars. The previous work was done over a long period of time.”
“John, White, see to the staples.”
Two others at the slab got pincer tools and began removing the staples.
The surgeon bent down, examining Phlegm’s face. “Changes are of a type expected from nineteen-ought attempts to modify the living code, rewriting the fabric of a grown individual. The grafts, to speculate, were part of efforts to repair the damage done with the system-wide changes. Subject had limited vision, with occlusion of the ocular cavity, sinus cavities, mouth -enlarged tongue- and-”
He pried Phlegm’s mouth open.
“Intentional,” Lillian said.
“Beg pardon?” the surgeon asked.
“I’d bet you dollars to pennies it’s intentional, and it can be controlled. He used weaponized gases, I think, before he died. The blockages would have been a casualty of the changes to his facial structure, and they were modified to serve a purpose.”
“If true, that will be verified at a later point,” the surgeon said. “No more commentary from the gallery, please.”
“I’ve seen work by students who were trained by Phlegmatic’s creator, very similar. Efficient lungs, improved circulatory system, every orifice can be closed,” Lillian said. “He’d be made to hold his breath underwater for twenty minutes. Or in a cloud of noxious gas for twenty minutes.”
Was she like this around her classmates? I wondered how many of them wanted to throttle her.
“Thank you for that observation,” the surgeon said. “I’m sure we’ll see for ourselves when the time comes.”
“You should pay attention to the ears and eyes,” Lillian said. “Most of the work would have been there. The eyes would need protection, which means there’s some interesting work-”
The surgeon cleared his throat.
“There’s some interesting work done there, with eyes made immune to most airborne issues, or the eyes were sealed and he used another sense. Probably the ears.”
I was willing to bet that if the Brigadier hadn’t given the okay, the Surgeon would have grabbed Lillian and literally thrown her out of the enclosure himself, even knowing he’d have to scrub down all over again.
“What an insightful set of observations,” the surgeon said, sarcastically. “Do you have anything more to say, or may I continue with the investigation?”
“Oh, I’m done for now,” Lillian said, smiling, as if she had no idea he was upset. “I’ll say more as things come up.”
“I’ll thank you not to,” the surgeon said, somewhat under his breath. “Before we were interrupted, I was moving on to the ears.”
Which was probably true, I imagined. It had to rankle. I noted that Shipman was murmuring something to Lillian, who was smiling.
“Ear canal and normal ear structures are present, with little modification. The area surrounding, however, suggests a latticework of tympanic membranes, of varying size,” the surgeon said. “Barring another situation of heavy occlusion, he would have possessed exceptional hearing ability, both in terms of sensitivity and range. Moving on…”
The surgeon moved away from the head. On to the torso.
“The body is probably booby-trapped,” I commented, idly.
The surgeon reacted like he was going to lash out and say or do something, but then the words sank in. He remained frozen where he was, scalpel hovering over Phlegm’s chest.
I shrugged, very casually explaining, “He was already dead. They made him into a stitched to bait us into thinking we’d caught one of their assassins. He’s resistant to many gases and poisons.”
“Ooh! Of course!” Lillian said. “He’d have bladders in his body, for holding reserve, or for buoyancy control, if he’s aquatic at all. Which is probably. Any one of the bladders could be pumped full and sealed. Would be.”
The surgeon stared down at the body, scalpel still in hand.
“Just so you know,” Lillian said, smiling wider than before. She met my eyes.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I told the surgeon and Lillian both.
Lillian, I was realized, was having a great deal of fun.
She and I didn’t get to play off each other like this, ever. The earlier attitude had been intentional, needling the man.
Not that she was necessarily wrong about the booby trap.
“Perhaps,” the surgeon said, very carefully, “You children would want to leave, to be safe?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“There’s nothing to worry about, so long as you’re careful,” Lillian said.
Shipman cleared her throat. “I think I’ll step out.”
Gordon reached out for her hand. I wasn’t sure if it was to hold her back or to offer reassurance of some sort, but the gesture was ignored. Shipman stalked out, flipping her hood up as she exited into the downpour.
He didn’t look at any of us as his hand fell back into his lap.
The surgeon went back to work. The staples were removed, and the man took a scalpel to the existing incisions, which had been glued shut. A very careful cut, with several slices, each one cutting only a fraction deeper. The skin parted, and a rank odor filled the enclosure.
People were alarmed, stepping back, hands to their masks.
But it was only the stench of death. This would be why the enclosure wasn’t properly indoors. It was a more ventilated space.
“Low cook temperature for a stitched,” the surgeon observed. “Rot setting in already. The wires are visible, recently implanted, with no overgrowth. A crude job.”
He moved a flap of skin. In the lower stomach, an oblong shape was nestled in just beneath the skin, anchored to fat and stomach wall. Stretched thin enough to be translucent, it had veins running along the surface. It had been inflated.
I saw the scalpel tremble a little as the surgeon pulled it away.
“Two air-bladders have been discovered. One penetrated by a bullet and explosively emptied when the stitched was incapacitated. The other remains active. The examination will be terminated here, due to observable risks should rot or infestation penetrate this or any other bladders inflated with airborne poisons. ”
He stepped away, hands raised, scalpel in one, and gave the order, “Close him up. Seal him, wrap and bag him, dispose of him. Treat the body with care.”
The people he’d given the instructions to didn’t look very happy to be assigned the task. Not just because of the traps, but it smelled worse with every passing second.
The surgeon went, removed his gloves, washed his hands, donned another pair of gloves, and then turned to the next body.
“Anything I should know before examining him?” the man asked.
“He was quick,” I said. “But he wouldn’t be booby trapped. Probably.”
The surgeon began cutting away the mask of flesh. “Fresh. From one of ours, if I had to guess.”
“Removed on the battlefield,” I chimed in, mostly to nettle him. “Impressive improvisational skills.”
“Ahem. Troy? The notes. This is our second patient. Choleric, according to the label at his collarbone. The patients are named after the four humors, presumably. There are subtler signs of the same rewriting of the individual’s pattern, and similar means of grafting, likely from the same time period, suggesting they were worked on in concert. Academy level work, judging by quality. The goal varies, but the methodology matches our prior patient, Phlegmatic. Rictus smile-”
“Because of changes to musculature and nervous system,” Lillian jumped in. “No occlusion this time, of course. I think if you look at the eyes, you’ll find…”
The surgeon’s grip on the scalpel tightened.
Gunshots rang out in the distance as we entered the Brigadier’s lodge. The man was there, talking to some of his officers. Jamie, Helen, and Shipman were at the table, Helen bundled up, Jamie with a towel around his shoulders.
Gordon handed the Brigadier the papers on Phlegmatic and Choleric. I hung back to see the Brigadier’s reaction and hear his response, while Mary and Lillian headed to rejoin the others. Lillian was smiling.
Something told me that if I hadn’t been there for the autopsy and analysis, Lillian wouldn’t have been a troublemaker. I’d rubbed off on her a little, and the surgeon had suffered for it.
“Gunshots,” Gordon observed.
“Another attack from the front,” the Brigadier said. “We’re aware of the possibility that it’s a distraction. Guards are stationed elsewhere. We have eyes on all mineshafts and tunnels.”
“It’s too quiet,” I observed.
The Brigadier gave me a curious look.
“It’s almost timid, isn’t it? No explosions, only bullets. Getting our attention, but nothing more.”
“It feels like a distraction, rather than a proper attack. A handshake more than a ploy.”
“The enemy’s shaking our hand? Explain.”
I shook my head. “We expected an attack to cover another attempt at getting an assassin inside our walls. They’ve answered that expectation. They might as well have a flag unfurled saying ‘distraction’, but that’s a communication of it’s own. That they know what we’re thinking. And because they know, they can meet us halfway.”
“They’re saying hi,” Gordon said. “To us more than to the Brigadier. They’ve recognized that the style of leadership changed. The ambush, the assassin they tried to get inside didn’t make it and hasn’t given the signal they expected. The way the posts have a different distribution of guards. Something tipped them off.”
“You’re acting like this is a game,” the Brigadier said.
“They have only a peripheral idea of who they’re dealing with. Same goes for us,” I said. “They’re feeling things out.”
The Brigadier looked at the commanders who he’d been talking to, and indicated for them to leave. He leaned against the front of his desk, arms and ankles folded.
“Should we expect this to continue?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They’re breaking from pattern, just as we are. It’s hard to say. Can we share this conversation with the others?”
The Brigadier nodded. While Gordon and I rejoined the others, the man poured himself another drink.
“Thought exercise,” Gordon said, as we took our seats at the table. “If you were on Whitney’s side, what would you do?”
“I’m not a fighter,” Lillian said.
“Give it a shot,” I prodded her.
I could see her squirm a little, uncomfortable. I’d been nice to her recently, we’d had fun with the surgeon, and she was probably lonely after all of her weeks in the school, separated from most of the rest of us.
Now I was asking her to do something outside of her comfort zone.
“Jamie and I were talking earlier tonight,” she said. “Looking at the resources they have, how they might use them. Peralta specializes in pain. If the winds blew differently, or if they found a way to get further up into the hills, a vaporized spray to deploy a toxin could incapacitate us.”
“We have masks,” the Brigadier said. He’d joined us. Jamie had the papers Gordon had given the Brigadier. “Every post, all of the men have their own individual masks.”
“There are a lot of vectors,” Shipman said. “If it could be absorbed through the skin…”
“Or if it obscured sight,” Gordon added, “Or if having to wear the masks played a part in things? Limited vision, mist or smoke, assassins can creep in. It could be the trump card we were worried about.”
“Could be,” I said. “But I feel as if they’re a little more cohesive than that. This isn’t slapdash. They brought in people and those people are meeting and talking. They’re discussing, making a strategy, and that woman Cynthia is at the top, somehow. I think that their movements will be more in step. Not sending in an assassin without a mask on a city they intend to gas.”
“The assassin can steal a mask,” Gordon said.
I made a gesture, indicating my lack of confidence, then remembered the Brigadier wouldn’t be familiar with it. Shipman either, for that matter. “Don’t think so.”
“Alright,” Gordon said. “Jamie? What do you think is coming? What would you do?”
“I’d continue to feel out the enemy. Go in with as much information as possible.”
“Then?” I jumped in.
“Then attack. Keep the trump card in reserve. You said, uh, Sy said, that their biggest strength right now is how angry the people are. The soldiers are ready to kill because they don’t have any other choice. But that fighting spirit is easily broken. They throw themselves at these walls and gates enough times without a success, they’ll lose that fervor.”
“At which point they pull out the trump card,” I said.
Jamie’s voice was soft, “reignite the anger and the passion.”
“It would have to be something offensive,” Mary said.
“Mary, what would you do?”
Assassins, I thought.
“Use the assassins,” she said. “They just lost their second.”
“You think they’ll throw good money after bad?” I asked.
“They’re people. They have feelings, and they just lost two of their own. Use the mineshafts, use the plague men, two assassins, and fight past any guards. Chaos in our camp, coinciding with another hard attack. Gun for our leadership, behead us.”
Mary paused, looking at the Brigadier. “Sorry, sir.”
The man was silent.
“Helen?” Gordon asked.
Helen perked up a little. “What Mary said. But no gunning. Poison. Bombs. Traps. Get to the food supply, the meat lockers we use to feed the warbeasts and other experiments.”
“I kind of like that more, now that I hear it,” Mary said. “The attack from the inside sounds romantic in my head, but in execution…”
“I agree,” the Brigadier said. “I’m more concerned about subtler attacks than a direct attack aimed at me and my immediate subordinates. We have people stationed as guards. We can maintain that guard, but I have to echo what I said to Sylvester earlier. People can’t maintain that level of focus for too long a time. The mind and the heart won’t have it. Mistakes will be made, people will slack, convince themselves they can.”
“The condition of being human,” Gordon said.
“One the enemy has to worry about,” I said. “It’s really the same problem they have with keeping the fires stoked, keeping the people hurt and mad. Which is really very easy, considering the spider thing. And the sterilization. And the leash. But it is a weak point for them.”
“What are you thinking, Sy?” Gordon asked. “You’re the best to ask, when it comes to this sort of thing, I was saving you for last.”
“Ah,” I said. “What Jamie said. We can expect another hour or two of harassment. Gunshots, maybe an explosion or two. But all this while, they’re going to be telling people, wait. Wait. Wait. Get some rest. Be prepared. Because the real attack happens later.”
Gordon nodded. “The first attack was a foray. They forced our hand. But they didn’t commit resources or show their own hand as they did it. A big stitched here, Sy’s rifleman with the eyes, too, but none of the weapons the scientists might have been working on. The second attack, with Choleric and stitched-Phlegm, that was only a small squad. This, right here, it’s a tease, a handshake, according to Sy.”
“And while they’re holding our hand, and our guard is down, they use their other hand and slap us full across the face,” I said. “The next attack is going to be the decider. We’re gong to find out what the plague men are, and what the scientists have been working on.”
“We don’t seem to have a consensus,” Gordon said. “But an indirect attack seems-“
“They’re going to attack head-on,” I said. “Full-force.”
The Brigadier paced over to the fire, holding his drink. We watched in silence as he paced for a moment.
He looked like he’d aged years over the course of the evening.
I wondered how old he really was. It was a hard question to answer sometimes. There were sixty year old women who maintained the appearance of someone a third their age. Brigadier Tylor was the opposite, in a way. Fitting, for someone who existed on the periphery.
He drew in a deep breath. He already had our full attention. “Sylvester.”
“Your fellows have been talking about all the possible vectors of attack. Including attacks from the flank, using special weapons, and attacks from within. There’s nothing we can do to block up mine shafts.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“You’re anticipating a frontal attack. Why?”
“Because they have no idea why the prior attack failed. We didn’t leave survivors to go back and report. As far as they know, the side roads are a deathtrap. They default to what they know and understand, and what they know is that the way is clear to the front.”
“This current attack is a handshake, according to you. They know or assume our current organization was able to figure out their move with Phlegmatic and Choleric. What guarantee is there that they won’t change their plan here, in anticipation of a similar prediction?”
“Ah,” I said. “That’s a fun question.”
The Brigadier wasn’t smiling.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s no guarantee. I don’t know her well enough to predict her. But when that woman Cynthia came after Jamie, Helen, and I, and Choleric signaled for her to back off, she was champing at the bit, and only barely restrained herself from coming after us. That’s the person in my mind when I picture them coming for us. A snarling dog in a pretty evening dress with pretty hair. Someone who knows types like Choleric and Phlegm, who arrives in town with the likes of Leopold Pock and Peralta.”
“She knows the dark underground of the Academies,” Gordon said. “The disenfranchised, the monsters who’ve lurked under the radar and avoided the likes of Dog and Catcher.”
“You believe this firmly enough that you’d put the bulk of our defenses at the front doors?” the Brigadier asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Not soon. Keep guards where they are. But I’d say that in about an hour, you’d want to start moving them to the front gate. Skeleton guards on other defenses.”
The man turned back to the fire, then finished off his glass, which had only been one-quarter full to begin with. He placed the glass on the top of the hutch that held spare firewood.
“I’ll trust your read on her, but I’ll manage the distribution and logistics myself,” he said.
“Probably for the best, sir,” I said.
Didn’t want to lose him now. Hell, he was probably right. He did know better than I did.
“I’ve already told the others. After they let up this time, we press the attack,” he said.
An attack against an unknown enemy.
“We follow them home, right on their heels. We can’t keep playing this game. We don’t have the resources for it, and so long as they have the scientists and doctors, they’ll always have more tricks up their sleeve. We need to squash this.”
There was silence in response to that, but we nodded as he looked back at us. The man mas serious. There was a bit of fire on our side, now.
I just wished it was better directed.
We’d armed him with all the knowledge and perspective we could.
I was already planning and plotting, not just against our enemy, but trying to work with the man. I doubted he’d budge, and we had to follow him, or find a reason to make him change course.
“Thank you, for your counsel on the defense,” he said. “Jamie, I understand you have maps? Of Whitney, and the enemy positions therein?”
“I’ll have a look at them, if you please.”
We need information we don’t have, I thought. On the plague men, on the trump cards.
We need to survive this incoming attack. We need to guarantee that our attack on them isn’t fruitless.
What are you thinking, you snarling dog of a woman? Do you see us coming?