The spot we’d chosen to hide ended up being one of the worst possible positions, short of actually standing in between the two forces.
Stones, planks, sandbags and barrels had been set down by the side of the road. We crouched there, using them for cover, while bullets flew. They smacked against the sandbags and stones intended for use in repairing the gate. Others struck the street and the dirt a matter of feet behind us, likely ricochets more than anything.
It was hard to see, with both sides using noxious smoke and gas. Both sides were fighting more or less blind, only a hundred or two hundred feet from each other. What my ears told me, however, when I strained to process what was out there behind the shouting and the report of gunfire, was that the plague men were silent, the only noise being the tramp of boots as they shifted position and took cover. Our side was doing the same, but they had to cede ground to the gas, sending the stitched on and forward.
“Idiots,” Gordon said, right in my ear. He was closer to the end of the pile of supplies, nearer to our people than to the gate. I strained my eyes to see what he was seeing.
Whatever it was, I couldn’t make sense of it. As smoke swirled, I was only able to make out vague shapes, but the rote movements of the stitched and the fact that they didn’t move or reposition let me gradually put together a mental picture of what I was looking at. Stitched knelt behind sandbags, methodically reloading, aiming, firing, reloading, aiming, firing. They didn’t flinch as the larger bullets of the plague men’s special guns put massive holes in sandbags inches from their heads. When one stitched died, the rest kept on working.
It seemed dumb to be raising my voice to be heard over the gunfire when we were supposed to be hiding, but there was no other way to manage, and I doubted we would be heard.
He shook his head. “Gave ground!”
I could sort of see what he was thinking, now. The plague men were advancing, returning fire until the stitched weren’t shooting anymore, then moving up to take defensive positions. The stitched remained where they were, but they operated on simple rules and instructions. Face forward, shoot the enemy. They couldn’t improvise, and they didn’t have the basic creativity or problem solving ability to figure out less conventional defensive positions. They didn’t use the corners of buildings or the drop of porches, they didn’t realize when their cover was whittled away.
There were a lot of reasons stitched were a terrifying weapon in war. In this fight, they weren’t being wielded right. They were being deployed to the rows of sandbags that had been placed in the road. They weren’t lasting long at all. They went down thrashing.
While our side kept sending more into the clouds of gas with orders to take up the first available set of sandbags and open fire, convinced they were pushing the enemy back.
Doing the same thing over and over again.
Soon, the plague men would reach our cover, and there would be no chance of hiding.
There were two likely options for our side, now, provided they realized the mistake they were making. They could pull back, secure positions, maybe even burn buildings that the enemy could use, regroup and make a concerted effort to use the stitched as they were supposed to be used, durable shock troops. We had enough of them, but without the coordination we would lose more than we killed.
The second option was that our side might well release the warbeasts and other experiments.
I was really hoping they didn’t release the warbeasts.
An explosion in the vicinity of the gate nearly knocked me over. Blind gunfire touching the ground a bit behind me told me I could very well have died if I’d lost my balance and fallen.
Another explosion touched down. It said a lot that I wasn’t sure which side was using it.
“Careful!” Mary shouted.
The explosion had stirred clouds of gas. All three of us turned away from the blast, so our backs were to the wind and the onrushing gas, hoods pulled up.
I held my breath, even after the wind passed. I waited as long as I could, and when I could breathe again, I exhaled forcefully, for the little good it did. I kept one eye tightly closed and relied on the other, the knuckle of my thumb pressed to a nostril. Head down, moving as little as I had to, to keep my heart rate lower.
Standard precautions, when dealing with unknown toxins.
It was a mistake to be here, but the ebb and flow of the fight had moved faster than we’d been able. Now we were pinned down. There was nothing clever we could do to get out and away, because there were no people here. Nobody to manipulate, no tools to use, outside of sticks and stones. No place to run.
Horns sounded. Warbeasts roared. The ground shook.
My head was already bowed, hood pulled down, back hunched over. I was already in a pretty defeated posture. There weren’t any options for expressing my absolute dismay.
My nostrils and eyes were burning. When I blinked, my vision streaked, as if I were looking through a smudged window.
The rumbling of the ground intensified as the warbeasts drew closer.
I heard Gordon’s alarmed grunt, felt his shoulder touch me, and with no idea what to do, I let myself go limp, trying to fall so I was lying along the base of the stack of wood and stone.
The crushing impact was powerful enough that I was left momentarily breathless, and it wasn’t even a direct hit. I felt something collide with the construction supplies we were using for cover, and the power of the blow passed from the pile to the ground, and through me.
I looked up, and I saw the warbeast charging on, into the smoke and gas by the gate. Wood and stone flew through the air, some fragments clinging to the single horn that had struck the edge of the pile.
Our cover was mostly gone.
This wasn’t why I’d hated the idea of sending the warbeasts. This was a bonus. A crummy-ass bonus in a crummy-ass situation.
The problem was that they weren’t realizing the problem.
This wasn’t a dumb, thoughtless attack. We were fighting people who knew us, knew the tools the Academy had. Why the hell would they attack if they didn’t think they could deal with the warbeasts?
Near the gate, another of the rebellion’s warbeasts lunged out of the smoke. It collided with ours.
Two-thirds of the size, the rebellion warbeast was furless, thick-skinned, and functioned like a blunt weapon. A crude club, used for smashing.
Ours was thick skinned, but had thick fur at the head and shoulders, a bison’s mantle or a lion’s mane, massive, sweeping horns, and pirahna teeth. It could bite, bash, rend, slice, and it could likely do any of the four better than the smaller one could smash against things. Combine traits of the four, and it was a devastating work of art.
I wondered if the student who’d made it knew how carelessly it was being thrown away.
We had armored vehicles. Just as there were cars on the road, there were armored cars with guns mounted on them, and powerful engines. There were armies that had relied on them.
The problem was, warbeasts like these were built to last. They could take the gunfire offered by the armored cars, close the distance, and then there was nothing the armored car could do. One headbutt, and the car could be rolled. Claws could tear at doors or hatches, and powerful limbs could tear at guns.
That had led to a series of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures. Bait cars were rolled into the field, set to explode when a warbeast attempted to roll it. Warbeasts got smarter and tougher, or they got mass-produced. It was too expensive to make those bait-cars compared to how easy it was to grow the beasts. More inventive countermeasures had to be developed.
It was hard to wage a war when one side was forced to constantly outdo itself in being inventive and devious, and the other simply had to do the same thing they were doing, only a little bit better every time. Stronger, faster, tougher.
Plague men moved out of the noxious gas, the exorcists dangling from straps. They were holding other, smaller guns, spreading out and firing at our warbeast.
Two more of the Academy’s warbeasts joined the fray. One collided with the wall, claws scraping against stone. Another aimed for the plague men, who moved out of the way, too spread out for the beast to go after more than one or two at a time. With the gas blocking some of the view, I wasn’t sure if it was making any contact at all.
What had come first? Had they possessed the eerie calm and ability to focus wholly on this fight first, leading to them agreeing to be modified, or had the mental changes been part and parcel of it?
A combination of the two?
The rapid report of a higher-tech gun marked more bullets being fired. The warbeast closest to us twisted around a hundred and eighty degrees, switching the side that was exposed to the gunfire, and then reversed direction, unable to escape the hail of fire.
It roared and then abruptly charged with no provocation. It collided with the wall, to the left of the gate. I was pretty sure it had caught one of the plague men between its head and the stones. It wasn’t the smoke obscuring my view, but the blurriness in one eye. It was getting worse.
Gordon was reaching over me. I raised myself up out of the puddle at the base of our meager cover, to get a better look.
It was black, and it looked more like a crystal than anything, pointed at both ends, more akin to a needle than anything. Almost akin to obsidian, but not quite so sharp at the edges of each plane.
Where had he picked that up?
The stitched. The one that had fallen from the wall.
“Bullet?” Mary asked.
Gordon nodded. I couldn’t make out what he was saying over the chaos of the combat.
They examined the thing between them, each keeping half of an eye on the situation, half on the bullet. My focus was on trying to track how the situation was unfolding.
I blinked hard, trying to clear my vision. My nose and eye were burning, and it was a surprising amount, considering how resistant I tended to be to most poisons and chemical weapons.
“-to go!” Mary said.
Stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needed to be stated. The problem wasn’t the enemy – they were focusing on the warbeasts. It was our side, shooting blindly.
The gas canisters and weapons that had opened the foray were long out of juice, and wind was carrying away the worst of the gas. The area was clearing up, which made us easier to spot.
The distance to the next set of structures that could provide cover was two hundred feet. Short grass, torn-up dirt, mud, and loose, crushed stone.
I heard a shout from the among the plague men. A sharp crack marked an explosive going off in their vicinity. Heads were turned away, hands raised to faces.
“Can’t see,” Gordon said, rubbing at his eyes with a sleeve.
With my shoulder pressed up against Mary’s side, I felt rather than heard the affirmative sound she made.
There was no happy ending here. Even if the Brigadier stepped in and got the Academy to start fighting back properly, and if Helen, Jamie, Lillian and Shipman knew enough to start an effort to extract us, I wasn’t sure it was possible. We were too close to the enemy, our side had given ground, and we’d been left behind.
The warbeasts were struggling. They spent more time flinching and snarling at the gunfire than attacking. I heard the louder fire of the exorcists going off. The warbeast farthest from us staggered and dropped. A moment later, it was on fire, ignited by something thrown.
In case of parasites more than anything else, I suspected.
I reached out, pushing my fingers into Gordon’s closed fist. He was gripping a handkerchief.
He loosened his fingers, then held his hand out as I unfolded the handkerchief and took the black shard from within.
I pricked the back of my hand.
“Mf,” I made a sound.
It burned like fire. Within a few seconds, the muscle was twitching involuntarily, the burning sensation like a thousand papercuts a second.
“Mmmmurrggh,” I started off making one sound, then ended up making a guttural noise instead. My voice was tight as I managed an, “Okay.”
“The heck are you doing?” Gordon asked.
“It’s poisoned,” I said, my voice still tight. “Or it’s crystallized poison or it’s something. Ow.”
“Peralta?” Gordon asked.
“Peralta,” I said, in a strained, intense way.
There was a detonation closer to the wall, aimed at one of the beasts. It didn’t do much more than kick up dirt. The cliff-side was only a dozen feet away, and both debris and moisture bounced off of the wall to land on and around us.
Shorter ranged guns, delivering only pain.
I remembered how the stitched had acted.
That had been the aim. It was why our lines were disintegrating as fast as they were. Faced with stitched and warbeasts who felt only as much pain as they needed to be able to function, Pock had given the enemy a weapon that delivered it, distilled.
The alarm on Mary’s face suggested she was very aware of just what that meant. The look on Gordon’s face, as he stared at the ongoing fight with the Warbeasts, was one of deep concern.
The beasts didn’t know how to process the experience. Their well of experience might have been limited to experiencing only a moment of pain, enough to know where the harm was coming from so they could lash out. Except now they were feeling that moment over and over, from all directions. They lunged, swung their horns around, howled, and attacked nothing in particular, only periodically going after the plague men.
The pain in my hand was fading. Whatever it was, it didn’t last forever.
But that had only been a trace contact. Getting shot by one of these, it would be more than a trace contact.
Agony the dead would feel, apparently.
We were losing the cover of smoke and gas, and even with the less affected eye, the one that I had kept closed, I couldn’t make out the enemy as more than smudgy abstracts. I doubted they were suffering in the same way.
I put the black crystal on the ground, then grabbed a stone from the pile.
I smacked it, aiming for only the tip. The motion got Gordon and Mary’s attention.
Lifting the rock, I saw that the crystal had broken up.
Which suggested that getting shot by one didn’t mean having to extract one shard, but possibly dozens.
I grabbed the longest, narrowest one, and bent it until it snapped in two.
“What-” Mary said, before gunfire drowned her out. They were exorcising the third warbeast. “-ng?”
“Knife,” I told her.
She had a knife in her hand in less than a second. She looked at it, then at me, as if only now questioning it.
“Cut my stitches,” I said, lifting up my shirt.
“Can’t see, Sy,” she said. Well, I was pretty sure it was what she’d said.
“Cut,” I told her, again.
“-Idea?” Gordon asked.
The exorcist’s fire had died out, and the third warbeast was dead. Scary to realize the plague men had dispatched three of the things, and I wasn’t sure they’d lost more than a half-dozen of their own.
It was more alarming to realize that the primary source of gunfire was in the other direction from the gate. A little ways down the road. Hopefully it was because our side had pulled back to regroup, and not because the plague men were crushing us underfoot as they advanced.
“Idea,” I confirmed for Gordon, lowering my voice now that the gunfire was further away.
“Try to cut,” Gordon told Mary.
I saw her head bob.
Her vision was bad enough that she had to lean close to use the knife. Her nose touched my stomach, making one muscle twitch in a ticklish reaction. Her hot breath swept over my cold, wet skin.
She had steady hands. I flinched as she cut one suture, then another.
“Stop,” I said.
She did, without moving her head away. She turned her face upward, to look at me.
“How sure are you?” Gordon asked.
“Make the wound bleed,” I said, then, barely able to hear even my own words, I admitted, “Not very, but there’s not much room for cleverness here.”
“Yeah,” Gordon said.
Mary cut. My stomach moved of its own accord.
Too much of this plan depended on factors I couldn’t control or wholly predict. Educated guesses.
“Lose the weapons,” I said. Rather than try to work my holster off of my belt, I simply undid my belt entirely, hauling it off. I jammed it into a gap between stone and wood.
“All the weapons?”
“Keep your knives.”
There were shouts and calls. More people at the gate. The enemy was moving up. I couldn’t tell if it was ten or fifty. My vision was suffering too much.
I judged distance, took the broken black crystal and poked a hole in my shirt, so it stuck through. I did it with more of the shards, spreading them out.
I looked at the black crystals. If they were poison, and I was resistant to poison, were they worse for someone else? Or were they not poison at all, their design a detour of sorts? A way to simulate pain without using the regular channels?
Either way, this was going to suck.
Fingers placed alongside the fabric, spikes of black crystal poking through and pointed inward, I slapped the fabric against my own stomach, the biggest shard touching the wound Mary had opened up.
The pain was immediate and mind-altering.
I screamed without even meaning to, keeling over, landing in mud. I might have drove shards deeper as I landed on the ones at my side.
I’d experienced agony before, on a monthly schedule. I knew how to deal, in a way. This blew that out of the water, made it impossible to turn my mind to reach for any of the tools. I’d stabbed my side, and I felt it in my bones and in my brain, in the nerves of my teeth.
I was glad I’d fallen forward, because I screamed until something changed in my throat and I heaved up my stomach contents.
I was dimly aware of an enemy soldier standing over us. One of the plague men.
Mary was screaming. About being blind, unable to see what was happening to me.
The plague man stared down, expression unchanging.
Variables I couldn’t predict or control.
Educated guesses alone.
Failing any other variables, anything at all, human beings tended to favor the simplest, clearest options. The easiest thing for him to do, without emotion or orders saying otherwise, was to shoot and end us.
That was only one of a half-dozen things that could go wrong.
But he had to have a reason to fight. A reason to change himself so drastically. There was an answer to that question that could see us through.
An iota of mercy?
He grabbed me by the arm, dragging me, weapon in one hand. As my body stretched out, the shards making contact with me touched me areas of my gut. They weren’t deep, except for the big one, but all the same, it renewed the pain twice over.
It was almost transcendant, taking me out of myself. I was wide-eyed, incapable of moving. Processing the little I could see and hear and storing almost none of it.
Dim light and noise, darkness.
A flickering light so bright I couldn’t look at it. My head lolled to one side, and I focused on the darkness there, and the square of faint orange-purple light.
Mary’s voice, again.
The pain was getting easier to bear.
A man’s voice. Soothing. I was trying to scream, I hadn’t stopped, but the energy wasn’t there. My chest jerked, and only small sounds came out.
I closed my eyes. The pain was receding more.
I could process. I was in a tent. The wall to one side was stone. The exterior wall of Westmore. By the gate.
I was on a table. A doctor was extracting shards from my side. One of the rebellion doctors.
My head turned. On the other side of the room, Gordon and Mary sat in chairs. Their hands were bound in front of them.
A plague man with a gun was standing beside the pair, weapon in hand. I still couldn’t really see. Nothing had fixed things from before. The only improvement was that there was light and we were out of the rain.
Cynthia had to have told them to watch out for children. My educated guess had been right, however. These were men who’d undergone changes for a reason. There was a rationale, partially driven by fear, but partially driven by a desire to oppose the Academy. They were almost an incarnation of that.
Opposing the Academies meant opposing the way the Academy operated. There had to be a sense of conscience in there. A child wounded with a weapon meant for monsters, even if they had orders to kill children on sight? I’d gambled on them showing mercy.
This one had a parasite living under his skin on one side of his face. It kept moving, making his facial features change each time. One of his eyes didn’t close properly.
Parasites that would prey on other parasites? Chemicals to counteract other poisons or stave off disease, all with their severe side effects?
“You’re more alert?” the doctor that was working on me asked. “One big one, then we take off your shirt and see if there’s more to dig out.”
“Is he okay?” Mary asked. “Please. I can’t see. I can only see your shape, kind of, because the window is behind you, but I can’t see Simon, and he’s not screaming any more and-”
“Hush,” the doctor said. “He’ll be fine. The shards never penetrate too deep. They’re a nonlethal measure.”
When the victims don’t commit suicide to end the pain, I imagine, I thought.
Mary hadn’t been saying what she’d said for the doctor’s benefit, but for mine.
Already thinking about how we might find our way out.
My back arched, the pain searing me as the shard was pulled free of the wound, making a sucking sound.
“There we go, hold on, wait,” the doctor said. He pressed something to the wound to absorb the welling blood. I would have lost more blood and had it welling around the site of injury, thanks to the extra damage Mary had inflicted. Part of my attempt to draw pity.
All of it calculated, in a way. If Mary had been the one injured, then we would have been two scraggly boys. This way, there was one hurt child on the table, and one girl in the chair.
There were more factors, but this was the ideal combination.
“Okay?” the doctor asked.
I opened my mouth to respond, but my words didn’t come out. I’d lost the ability to speak.
“Any pain, still?”
I made a face and nodded.
“Let’s take a look, then.”
He peeled my bloody shirt away from my stomach.
I turned my head away, and met Mary’s eyes.
I reached out to the pair of them. And I gestured.
“You’re going to be okay, Sy,” Mary said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said.
Two affirmatives. We were good to go.
I blinked, very deliberately.
On the other side, the doctor said, “What the hell? You’re already-”
Her bound hands went over her head. She brought them forward together, simultaneously. A two-handed throw for a lone knife.
The knife caught the doctor in the throat.
I tried to move, and realized I was bound with cord- enough I couldn’t move freely, but loose enough I could be repositioned.
Gordon brought his knees to his chest. Rope that had bound his ankles to the chair was loose enough to fall to the floor. He was up and out of the chair, hands still bound, moving past Mary to where reference books sat on a military travel chest. He grabbed a book and threw it like he was thrusting it into the air more than anything.
The plague man only managed a short sound of alarm before the book caught him in the lower face. I was betting Gordon was aiming for the throat, but a smack to the mouth served for a moment.
Gordon threw his whole weight against the man’s knee. He hit the ground, and the plague man fell over top of him. Gordon used the rope that bound his wrists to choke the plague man.
Nobody had responded to the yell of alarm. I wondered if there had been enough screaming from this tent to desensitize.
Three seconds passed, the doctor gurgling, the plague man choking, trying to throw Gordon loose and failing, and Mary- I couldn’t make out what Mary was doing.
The ropes were severed, I realized. She was free. She bent down over the plague man and cut his throat.
Gordon’s hands were freed. He extricated himself.
I was next to be freed. I held the bandage to the thrice-opened wound as I lowered my feet to the ground.
“Sometimes I think you do that to yourself on purpose,” Gordon murmured.
I opened my mouth. No words came out.
“I like you like this,” he said.
“We need to get out of here,” Mary said.
I nodded. I gestured again. This time it was something less obscene.
“Don’t know what you mean by that one,” Gordon said. “War, battle?”
“Fighting our way out?” Mary asked. She’d bent down over the plague man.
I sighed, shaking my head.
Bending down, wincing, I picked up the book. I tore out a page and balled it up. I held thumb and one finger together under it. Not a gesture, but I hoped the idea was clear.
“Fire,” Gordon said.
“We can’t do too much damage. Westmore needs to be able to use the location.”
I shook my head.
I shook my head again. I blinked hard, trying to clear my vision and failing.
“We’ve lost this one,” Mary said. “Plague men, black bullets, they have answers to what the Academy can bring to bear. Best we can do is cut our losses.”
I could have hugged her. I nodded.
“Okay,” she said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “We should try that way, if I remember right.”
The three of us, with probably one set of working eyes between us, moved to the other end of the tent. It was getting brighter outside. The orange and purple light I’d seen was the sunrise.
We ducked under the bottom of the canvas flap, peeked into the adjoining tent, and then moved through there.
The enemy’s focus was on the front lines of the battle, from the sounds of it. There were barely any figures in the makeshift camp they’d set up at the gate.
But they’d brought some supplies and they’d left some behind. The incendiary weapons they’d used to dispose of the warbeasts were among them.
Any building we passed that had a window was on fire moments after we’d left it behind us. Nearly blind, we passed through the freezing rain, heading straight for their back lines and for the other Lambs.