As organized as Westmore had been at the start of the evening, things were devolving. The warbeasts were out of their cages, and every time they set foot on an area that wasn’t roadway, they left the ground torn up. Those areas soon became cesspits of mud. Stitched were gathered, but there was less rhyme and reason than before. Rank and file in hooded jackets, steaming in the rain, guns in hand. Weapons were being rolled into place, and officers were having to work harder to enforce discipline.
It was too late in the evening. People wanted sleep, and in the absence of sleep they were smoking or sitting down at their posts – more in the posts off on the side gates and the little buildings that were housing supplies than at the gate and along the streets.
Gordon, Mary and I chose our route to be unpredictable, weaving and winding, aiming to get a view of the areas where assassins might lurk. Now and then, Gordon would walk off a short distance and kick at a fallen set of planks or a bit of cloth, to identify anything hiding beneath. The three of us had guns in holsters, our coats on, not so dissimilar from the stitched in appearance, though we were almost half the size. I was less than half the size, myself.
We passed a set of doors, and Mary did the bending-down, touching the small rigging of sticks and wire under the first door. A motion of her hand indicated that it was fine. We passed to the second door. No issue.
At the third, she gave the flat-handed gesture for negation.
I gripped the handle of my gun.
Gordon snapped his fingers to get Mary’s attention, then gestured at the side of the building. She and I trained our guns on the door while Gordon walked around to the side, found a way to half-climb up the building, and peered into the little window.
As he dropped to the ground, with only the smallest splash, he drew his own gun, hurrying to join us.
Meaning there was something to be concerned about.
I stepped to the side of the door, back to the wall, hand on the knob, other hand holding my revolver. My eyes scanned the short street we were on, looking for trouble. Gordon and Mary were poised.
I turned the knob. They rushed the room, while I covered their rear.
Tense seconds passed, with no gunfire.
“Sy,” Gordon murmured.
I entered the building.
A man was slumped on the floor. He was snoring softly. ‘Man’ might have been too generous. Older than fifteen, younger than twenty, with only a ghost of a beard and mustache.
Mary bent down and picked up the little twist of wire and branch. ‘L’ shaped, not much longer than any of my fingers, it was small enough to go unnoticed, but if a door was opened, the little twist of wire would get moved across the floor. If we couldn’t find it, someone had been inside since the last time we passed through.
“Rest well, soldier,” Gordon murmured.
We shut the door gently behind us. Mary bent down to put the twist of wire back into place.
“What was that noise you made?” I asked, my voice soft enough it was almost drowned out by the march of boots on the road a street over. Forty or fifty people, probably stitched from the noise they were making.
“Noise?” Mary asked.
“After Gordon’s ‘rest well’?”
“Oh. Doesn’t matter. I kind of wanted to kick him in the ass and yell at him,” Mary said. “That kind of behavior makes me antsy. Knackering off when there’s a battle to be fought.”
“We don’t know his story,” Gordon said. “What might be driving him, what happened earlier in his day.”
“He’s sleeping while there’s a battle to be fought,” Mary said, again. “Everyone is tired and anxious. Why does he get to sleep?”
“He found a way,” Gordon said. “If he gets caught, he faces the consequences. If he doesn’t, he gets to sleep.”
“Rules are in place for a reason,” Mary said.
This time I snorted a little.
Gordon bent down to check the next door. “Talk to Sy about that one. He could talk your ear off.”
“But seriously,” Gordon said. “I agree with him. Sometimes the only good a rule does is weed out the people who can’t figure out a way around it.”
“I like how I’m being dragged into this conversation, and I’ve barely said anything,” I said.
“That person’s presence in the next fight might be the factor that makes or breaks our victory,” Mary said.
Gordon shrugged. “His being well rested might make or break it, too. Or it might give him a chance to stand out. Be a little bit sharper. I’d rather have clever people who know how to break the rules in charge, over people who’ve only ever done as they were told.”
“I wouldn’t,” Mary said. “Because those clever people would be in charge of people trying to take shortcuts and skip out on work.”
“And that’s why we love you, Mary,” I said.
“That’s deflecting,” she said. “You’re trying to distract me by throwing the word ‘love’ out there.”
“Sure, but I’m not deflecting so much as I’m trying to take the reins of the conversation and get it away from a debate that’s never going to end. Gordon’s on one side, he prefers the fastest, most expedient method of getting results, and we’ve got you on the other, striving toward perfection and order.”
“You could be the tiebreaker,” Gordon said. “Settle it.”
“You’re an ass,” I said.
“Why?” he asked, and he actually managed to almost sound innocent.
“Break the tie,” Mary said, before I could voice a response. She wasn’t about to let it go, now.
That was why Gordon was an ass. Mary had a way of obsessing or fixating, and it got worse when she was tired. Something about the way she’d been raised, the very minor changes Percy had made to her brain as she developed, it made it so she could and would keep practicing or training or studying when someone else would be too exhausted to keep going. It was possible for her to push her own limits to the point where she damaged her own body. It was even likely, if the people around her weren’t careful to keep an eye on her or set strict rules.
I stepped ahead a bit to bend down, my stomach still sore, using the excuse of checking the wire under the door to try and delay having to give an answer.
“Sy,” she said.
I could imagine Gordon’s smile, in the shadows of his hood.
“You win,” I said.
“Too easy,” she said. “I don’t believe you.”
“Fine. Gordon’s right. Better to let the guy keep sleeping.”
“Give me a real answer,” Mary said.
The rumble of gunfire in the distance saved me. Our heads turned, and then we were off, running, boots splashing in muddy water.
The gunfire was different from before. The last attack had been the ‘handshake’. Feeling us out. Tentative, bullets spitting and spraying here and there, an already-injured beast unleashed to see how fast it died, and to show them that we were confident enough to sacrifice it.
This was a swelling. Answering one exchange with something bigger and louder.
Off the side street, onto the main. A long-haired warbeast with horns bigger than I was saw our movement out of the corner of its eye and turned its head in our direction, snapping. Gordon stumbled, with the speed and amount he had to duck the swinging horn. Mary ducked a little. I was happy to let the horn pass over my head.
The specialist in charge of the thing rebuked it, provoking a drawn out and guttural moan from the thing, but it was well behind us by then.
We reached the wall. I held up my badge without breaking stride.
Within one second of my stepping on the stairs to go up to the higher portion of the wall, an explosion rocked the area, and I ended up slamming my shin against the third stair.
Gordon grabbed me and unceremoniously hauled me to my feet, holding me by the back of my pants until I had my feet under me and was keeping up.
The area was lighting up. Bioelectric lamps were on, shedding light on the battlefield, but liquids were leaking out as stray bullets caught them, and they were of the sort that flickered a lot, even left alone. It was unreliable lighting.
The enemy was here. It looked like a lot of them. Maybe every able bodied person in Whitney and many who weren’t able bodied, all camped out on the road, far enough back that our bullets wouldn’t reach them, and vice versa.
I’d been right. This was the full-frontal attack.
Problem was, this was a situation the Lambs weren’t suited for.
If we were still in the enemy camp, it would be a different story. We’d handled the strategy, informed the commander. Our only hope was to gather information or hope they made a mistake we could exploit.
I didn’t even try to talk, with the noise around us. One of the warbeasts was getting agitated by the sound of the battle it wasn’t being allowed to join, and I wondered if it hadn’t been injected with stimulants; perhaps a chemical to help an already pain-tolerant, bullet-resistant creature of war cover the distance between us and them.
I gestured instead. Open hand to fist. Fist tapped to chest. Two finger flick gesture toward the other side of the wall.
Want, claim, take, for the first gesture. Then me. Then over there, moderate distance.
I want to get over there.
Gordon gave me a cool look, ducking his head below the rise of the short wall between us and them, but he didn’t gesture in response.
I knew it was dangerous and suicidal. But our only ability to truly control this situation depended on information. The Brigadier seemed set on attacking the enemy, and if we decided we needed to change that course, then we needed new details to bring to him. If we decided the attack was the right plan, then that information could only help.
If there was a chance we could figure out what they had up their sleeves in time to prepare our side, that could be the most important thing.
It all hinged on our ability to actually obtain that information. Simple observation wouldn’t do. The explosions and the vibration of one wall-mounted gun at the far end of the wall were making it hard to focus.
As Gordon and Mary had been tense and poised to attack as I’d prepared to open the door, I felt a sense of readiness now. One opportunity, one event, one clue.
A different sort of attack, this. On our end, at least.
They had stitched. So did we. Eight out of ten people at the top of the wall were stitched. Two specialists, a commanding officer, Mary and I were the only ones who weren’t. Gordon was a grey area. Forty or so stitched were shoulder to shoulder along the top of the broad stone gate.
Something roared, from their side.
That was a surprise.
A warbeast. I chanced a peek, and I saw it charging up the road. Not Academy material. Weaker and less refined than any of ours: slower, smaller, and uglier. Hornless, it more closely resembled a cross between a rhino and a naked mole rat.
Still, it had all of the right characteristics. Thick hide sufficient to stop most bullets, tons of raw muscle, hostility.
I realized I was holding my breath, seeing its approach. I could hear the specialists on the wall calling out orders to the stitched in their charge.
Bullets fired, targeting the thing. I couldn’t see in the gloom, not with all of the rain, but I saw its head jerk to one side as a black smudge opened around one eye. Blood. Blind in one eye?
It veered to one side as its head jerked – it had a habit of running where it was facing, and then it self-corrected, not slowing down.
“Hold!” one of the specialists screamed. “Hold!”
The enemy wasn’t following up on the warbeast’s attack. Had they attacked with all of their massed forces and the beast, perhaps using a few other tricks, they would have forced us to either mow them down or kill the beast, either option giving them a shot at breaching the wall.
My mind turned over the options. Was it a leadership gambit? A promise made by Cynthia, to energize the forces, that the lives of the people of Whitney wouldn’t be thrown away?
Did she think she could win without sacrificing soldiers?
Or was there another explanation?
“Hold!” the specialist called out.
A bullet caught him.
The man with the eyes, I realized, before ducking down.
Bullets weren’t clean. They weren’t tidy. The shot had struck him in the upper chest. Too high for the heart or lungs, I thought, but he dropped, letting his gun fall, hands to the wound as blood poured out.
He was trying to speak, calling out.
When he failed to get the words out, he raised his hand, pausing, making awful choking sounds, aiming to be heard by the other specialist on the wall-
Another bullet struck the upraised hand. Two fingers were ruined, left hanging by trace amounts of skin and muscle, the shocking white of bone exposed.
Mary raised her head. I grabbed her with both hands to try to haul her down, but she raised herself up with more confidence, rather than less.
“He’s on the cliff!” she called out, raising her voice. “He just changed locations!”
I raised my own head up to look, trying to see the cliff.
The specialist dog with the ruined hand let it drop. The other specialist was too busy giving orders to reload to pay him full attention.
Not enough human brains on this wall.
“Now!” Gordon hollered. He’d been watching the scene unfold, had a sense of the timing.
Stitched lobbed small objects over the wall. Grenades or bombs.
The warbeast was closing on the wall. It got within fifty feet, then forty, then thirty-
The grenades and other devices went off. Detonations kicked up mud and moisture, and the other devices erupted in collections of flame that danced over the water’s surface instead of being extinguished by it.
The thing’s course was altered. As before, it turned its head to one side, perhaps trying to protect the one remaining eye, and it lost virtually all of its momentum. It walked through fire without seeming to care overmuch. Some of the flames crept up its feet and legs.
It slammed its head into the front gate. The entire wall vibrated. One elephantine warbeast, and it hadn’t even had a full charge backing it.
The specialist dog who’d missed the intent of his partner was giving orders, bidding the stitched to rain down guns
More explosives and accelerants were dropped down on top of it, a steady, constant rain, more aimed toward the thing’s rear than it’s front, to avoid damage to the door.
“Hold off!” the commander called out. “Guns only!”
The specialist relayed the order to the stitched.
I must have had a confused expression on my face, because Gordon leaned close, raising his voice to be heard, even though he was right in my ear. “They’re opening the gate. Our warbeasts against theirs!”
Why did I feel like that was exactly what the enemy expected and wanted?
I rose to my feet, ducking low to keep my head out of the way of flying bullets. Down the stairs. Gordon and Mary came with me.
It was madness on the lower level. Sandbag emplacements were going up on the road, people and experiments were trying to navigate the spaces between. I made a beeline for the warbeasts, scanning the crowd.
With the volume of the noise and the amount of distractions, I had no choice. I grabbed the man who seemed to be talking to the warbeast handlers, as a smaller child might grab for their mother’s legs.
He turned his attention to me. One eye twitched, not because of me, but because of an explosion. Maybe a dud bomb that the beast had crushed underfoot.
The gate rattled as it swung its head into the iron-reinforced wood.
“Trap!” I called out. “They want you to open the gates!”
“No choice!” the man said, with complete confidence.
That doesn’t mean this is the right decision. It just means they’ve maneuvered us into a corner.
“Bullets!” I said, still raising my voice to be heard. The rain was coming down harder, but it was like there was so much going on that the individual rain drops were being broken up into a harsh, downward spray. “Bombs! That thing won’t get through the door! It’s small!”
“It’s going to do damage if we don’t put it down fast!”
“Let it!” I called out.
“And the next time? The time after that?” the man asked.
The man shook his head, sweeping his arm out to push me out of the way.
I found my badge and held it up.
A stitched threw itself off the top of the gate, dropping to the ground between us and the door. It twitched and thrashed as it fought. I looked back, staring, while Gordon hurried over to the body.
I turned my attention back to the man, and saw him focusing on the badge.
“It’s an order!” I said.
He made a sound that might have been a laugh. “You can’t give orders!”
Frustration seized me. I had a distinct mental image of myself cutting him down right there, consequences be damned.
But the cost was too great. I’d lose other opportunities.
The gate rattled again. Headbutt after headbutt. But it wasn’t making significant progress. It would die before it did.
The commander was weighing things in terms of cost. The damage to the gate, the damage the enemy might do later in this fight, or in future ones. He was thinking about how many bullets and explosives we had, and how many we wouldn’t have, if we tried to gun this thing down.
I was thinking in terms of the enemy’s strategy. Their eerie confidence that this, right here, was a battle they could win.
This felt like step one of that battle plan of theirs.
I grabbed his jacket. He pushed me aside, turning to someone, giving an order while pointing at me. I could barely hear over the ringing in my ears.
Gordon stepped up. He reached up and grabbed the man’s collar. One fierce tug, and the man bent over, almost tipping over face first onto the waterlogged road.
Mary stepped closer, a knife in hand, touching it to the man’s throat.
“Listen,” she said.
While I desperately thought of a way to convey the sense of alarm I felt in a way he’d understand, men in our vicinity had drawn guns, with us now in their sights.
“We took one of their creatures apart!” I told him, “It was packed full of gas. Human sized experiment, could have killed a roomful of people! That thing could have enough gas in it to kill everyone at the gate and on the wall-top above it!”
I watched, waited, stared at his eyes, and refused to betray the slightest bit of doubt. I had to convince him on every level.
“Right!” he said. He pulled himself back up to a standing position, one hand on Gordon’s shoulder, and both Gordon and Mary let him straighten up.
Mary and I backed off, stepping to the sidelines, where row and column of stitched stood waiting, shrouded in their black coats and hoods, guns in gloved hands. Gordon was still kneeling by the fallen stitched.
It was cold enough for my breath to fog in the air. The last traces of winter, joined by freezing rain. Whether we won or lost, there would be frost on the ground for the sun to melt, come morning. The world would keep turning.
The world didn’t feel like it was turning. The gate wasn’t opened, the warbeasts on our side weren’t sicced on the smaller one on their side. It was a slow wearing down of two very durable targets: the warbeast on their side and the door on ours. Two immovable objects.
Well, theirs could bleed, at the very least.
Our forces bled in their own way. A stitched stood, arms flailing, and then collapsed onto the surface at the top of the wall. Still thrashing, it rolled over the edge, dropping to the ground. Still alive, it moved too violently to be approached. They left it like that, struggling.
“Backing off!” the commander on the wall shouted.
I felt like Jamie, a step behind. It was an unfamiliar environment, my senses were overloaded. I belatedly realized what they were saying.
The enemy warbeast was retreating?
Surprisingly complex behavior for a creature to display on its own. To decide it was too hurt to keep going? That wasn’t the usual warbeast psychology. That was counterintuitive, if anything. Who wanted a warbeast that ran?
Part of the plan?
Gordon straightened, running toward us, an object in his hand. The stitched he’d approached had died on hitting to the ground. Durable as they were, a snapped neck was a snapped neck.
When Gordon was halfway to us, he was knocked to the ground by a thunderclap of an explosion, trumping any we’d felt this night, with the exception of the one to hit the rooftop.
I saw and smelled smoke, billowing in from the gate.
A bomb. Had the warbeast been rigged?
No. I connected the dots, too late.
The warbeast wasn’t alone. It had been given instructions.
Sleight of hand. Distract someone with the flash, something impossible to ignore, and the other hand moved subtly at the scenes.
Someone or something had accompanied the warbeast. Inside it, under it, hiding on top, I couldn’t guess. That figure would have had to have hidden in the shadows at the very base of the wall, knowing that the rifleman with the bugged-out eyes was picking off anyone who raised their head too high or leaned too far over to look down. To work in concert, with that kind of trust, it had to be the woman with the teeth. The sniffing woman. Melancholic.
She’d brought a bomb, something larger, she’d waited until the explosives and fire raining down from above had slowed in amount, ordered the warbeast back and out of the way-
Had the gate been open for our warbeasts to go through, she might have had her creature carry the bomb into our ranks, or planted the explosive further in, during the chaos, to make it a difficult or impossible to defend our wall. If we didn’t have the stairs up to the platform at the top, to shoot over and see what the enemy was doing…
As it was, her explosion had damaged the gate.
No, worse than that.
Her warbeast renewed its attack.
It struck the gate, and the gate did more than rattle. It knocked. Something was loose, banging against the frame. A second strike made a louder knock, with a creak marking something straining, falling out of place.
The explosion damaged the gate -enough-.
Enough that the warbeast could make headway.
That the people on our side couldn’t haul it open.
Enough that the enemy felt confident in mounting a proper attack.
“Repair teams!” a commander called out.
Men and women with wood, metal, tools, oversized stitched with them to do the heaviest lifting and work.
They’d patch things up, but they needed room.
The warbeast charged, and the billowing smoke expanded out of the way, showing its head. It had rammed through loosened wood and planks, head sticking through the gate.
An order was given, one of our beasts, the energetic one, lunged. It gripped the enemy warbeast in its teeth, holding onto the thing’s head, twisting and wrenching. The struggle damaged the gate further, but the enemy warbeast quickly faltered, its skull being crushed at an agonizing rate.
Our beast won, tearing the enemy warbeast’s head free of its neck. The amount of blood was astonishing.
No gas, thankfully. I’d been wrong.
“We shoot the gas canisters through, keep them at bay! Send the stitched in to do what they can!” the commander was saying. “When the gas dies down, step in to work and direct the stitched!”
The repair crews gave their affirmative, but I could see the nervousness in their body language. The enemy could be marching on us now. More weapons, more beasts, more surprises. It was hard to say.
This was going poorly, but if we could get the wall repaired-
Cannons fired, aiming for the opening in our own gate. I could see the gas rise, higher than the wall on the other side. Something lethal, poisonous.
Our stitched approached the gate, ignoring the thinner streams of gas that filtered through the damaged parts. There were a lot of damaged parts.
“Be ready!” the commander called. “If they have stitched, they might try sending them through the gas! They won’t be commanded, so concentrate fire and be smart!”
Mary reached out and clutched my sleeve.
Gunshots sounded, close, and from the other side of the wall.
A stitched laborer on our side dropped.
A bullet caught a non-stitched laborer on our side.
It was surprising, and the surprise accented the awfulness of it. The shock, the blood, the wrench of agony in the woman’s features.
More bullets came. Through the cloud of vapor and the rain, I could see the shadows of legs, people ducking low, the flash of rifles firing through the gaps.
Our side fired back. The enemy ducked out of the way. Grenades flew in through the gap, and when they exploded, they didn’t produce fire or explosion.
Gas. Like we’d deployed.
Mary’s grip tightened. I grabbed her wrist, and grabbed Gordon’s sleeve. We backed away, taking cover.
It was the inverse of the situation the commander had mentioned. As we hurried to fight back, pulling warbeasts out of the way and trying to organize our stitched in the midst of the chaos, our stitched were left leaderless. The exorcist rifles did horrific damage. One or two shots to down each stitched.
As the gas crept closer to Mary and I, I pulled my shirt up around my nose. A sad measure, but the stuff hadn’t been aimed at us. It wouldn’t reach us, short of the wind changing direction.
The men strode out of the gas. One or two rubbed at rheumy eyes and scarred eyelids. A mild reaction for the danger the gas should have posed.
I was reminded of Mauer’s speech on the horrors of the battlefield. I realized what might have driven a soldier to subject themselves to that kind of ugliness.
They’ve made their elite soldiers immune to the plagues, poisons, and parasites the Academy might use against them.
They’d traded away the secret, but they’d seized the front gate in exchange.