Jamie walked down the hallway while reading a book. I tackled him, throwing my arms around him, pinning his arms to their sides. Mary joined me, clapping a hand over his mouth, her other hand making sure he didn’t drop his book.
“Shh,” Mary said. “We need your eyes.”
We led him over to the window. Helen was already standing by the window with Lillian. We were on the second floor of Claret Hall, overlooking one of the grassy open spaces where students were eating their lunches, most doing it while looking over papers, making notes, or having discussions. Always working, working, working.
A canopy of slanted glass panes set between interwoven branches directed the rainwater onto stylized grates, with the water disappearing into some underground reservoir. There was a steady patter of rain, but it was also a hot summer day, making for the kind of humidity where clothing stuck to the body. Gordon was there, sitting on a bench beneath a tree, unfolded paper on his knee, a partially eaten sandwich in hand. Shipman was on the other end of the short bench, arm’s length from Gordon. Brown bottles of Sassafras Beer had been placed on top of Shipman’s papers as a kind of paperweight. Meeting for lunch, between their individual tasks.
“You’re better at lipreading than I am,” Mary said.
“Why am I lipreading?”
“Because,” I said. “Their breakup has been a long time coming. I want to know which of them makes the call.”
“That’s perverse,” Jamie said.
“Come onnn!” Lillian said.
“Come onnnn!” Helen echoed her.
Down on the bench, Gordon raised his head, looking around. He’d heard us.
I shushed the others, then told Jamie, “If we know, we can tailor how we respond to him.”
Mary nodded enthusiastically.
“Or,” Jamie pointed out, “We can let him decide how and when he wants to let us know.”
“They’re talking,” Lillian said. She grabbed Mary’s arm. “Mary, Mary.”
“I’m looking,” Mary said. “I’m watching.”
Jamie sighed. He didn’t walk away, though.
“I’ve been thinking,” Mary recited, her voice deeper.
Shipman looked at Gordon.
Mary switched to her ‘Shipman’ voice, “The way you said the maids-”
“That,” Jamie corrected. “Makes.”
“-makes me think it’s important,” Mary finished. “You asked to eat lunch with me for a- reason.”
“Good,” Jamie observed.
I would have thought he’d forgotten that he’d been objecting just moments ago, but he wasn’t one to forget.
“I respect you a lot,” Mary said in ‘Gordon voice’, then switched for Shipman. “Gordon…”
She trailed off, apparently struggling to figure out the words.
“I’m a big girl,” Jamie said. “I know what you’re going to say, there’s no need to try and soften the blow.”
“Sorry,” Mary said, Gordon voice.
“I feel like you and me together has been more apologies than…” Jamie said. Shipman had paused, hesitating. Jamie resumed a moment after she did. “I don’t know the right word. But a relationship should be about being secure with one another and not having to apologize. There should be that security.”
“Yeah,” Mary said. “I wanted this to be a positive thing for both of us, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
They were taking turns now. Mary for Gordon and Jamie for Shipman.
“This is going a lot better than I thought it would,” I remarked.
“Shh,” Lillian shushed me.
“It’s to your credit,” Shipman/Jamie said, “I didn’t think this would be anything serious. You saved me, back in the dungeons, with Sub Rosa. I was curious about you and your friends and I thought I’d humor you, but I actually liked you quite a bit.”
“I’ve never been good at talking to people. I’m good at my work. That’s what I do.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Gordon/Mary said.
Gordon leaned back against the tree behind the bench.
“When you went to Whitney, I shouldn’t have gone with you,” Shipman/Jamie said.
“Do you think so?”
“Too much time around each other, woke me up to how different we were. The world you lived in. If I’d been ignorant, we could have stayed together.”
“We still wouldn’t have been a perfect fit. Only difference is it would have taken us longer to figure out,” Gordon/Mary said.
“Maybe that’s true. So is that it? We’re over?”
“I’d like to work with you in the future. I respect the work you do.”
Shipman reached over, touching Gordon’s cheek.
“Something something fatter girl? Her head was turned,” Jamie said.
“You know how to flatter a girl,” I guessed.
“And now she’s saying, ‘If you find another girl and she needs a reference, send her my way?”
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t think relationships work that way, Gladys,” Gordon/Mary said. “And they’re laughing.”
“This is going a lot better than I thought it would,” I remarked.
“You sound glad,” Jamie said.
“I am. Really. I thought Gordon would charge the problem head-on, offend Gladys, and this whole thing would end in tears.”
“You don’t give him enough slack,” Mary said. “You haven’t for a while now.”
“I’m just saying. Gordon is a problem solver. When he solves problems, he does it in ways that keep that problem solved. Hammer through the brainpan, broken legs, smashed glass… even social problems, he likes his firm solutions. His handling of this is a lot more delicate than I would have expected.”
“We’re all evolving,” Lillian remarked.
It was a strange statement, coming from the only one of us who wasn’t augmented, altered, or inhuman.
Gordon raised his bottle of beer and clinked it with Gladys’. The pair weren’t smiling, but they weren’t upset either.
“What are the rules for this?” Mary said, in her Gordon voice. “Breaking up?”
“What do you mean?”
“We can be civil to each other, say hi when we cross paths?”
“See?” I said. “Firm, solid solutions. Making sure everything is settled. Very Gordon.”
“Shh!” Lillian shushed me.
“Yes,” Shipman/Jamie said. “We can be civil.”
“Stay in touch?”
“And, if there’s someone else, somewhere down the road, there won’t be any…”
“Hurt feelings,” Jamie supplied.
Gladys was smiling. “Do you already have your eyes on another girl, sir?”
“No. But I want to make the most…” Mary started. She hesitated. “…of the time I have, and I don’t want to hurt you or anyone else if I happen to move on more quickly.”
Shipman reached out, touching Gordon’s face.
The group was quiet. Shipman and Gordon talked for a solid ten or fifteen seconds, and there was no translation via. lipreading.
My heart felt uncomfortably weighty in my chest.
It wasn’t just the words, the idea behind what he’d said. That he’d told her, that he’d changed the mood to do it? He’d been holding on to that. He’d needed to express himself, share that, and he had chosen Shipman over the rest of us, to do it.
I saw Shipman’s body language change. She was using her hands more, and her volume had raised a fraction.
“Wait, what’s she saying?”
Mary had a hand to her face.
“She said she might introduce him to someone, what kind of girl does he like?” Jamie said. “He said he wanted someone more mature.”
I slapped my hand to my own face.
“She was asking him what he means by that, she’s two years older than him, he said two and a half, she said she wanted to know what he meant, was she immature?”
“Gordon, Gordon, Gordon,” I said.
“He says no, that’s not what he meant. He meant he would be more interested in someone who knew how to handle themselves in a situation like we had in Westmore, and now they’re arguing. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to figure out exactly what they’re saying.”
“He was doing so well,” I said.
“Guess we’re not evolving that much after all?” Lillian asked.
“We are,” I said. “But… journey of a thousand steps, I guess.”
Shipman stood up, snatched up her drink and the papers she’d brought with her, letting Gordon’s drink fall to the ground. She turned on her heels and stalked off. Gordon remained sitting.
“Sad thing is, he’s a brilliant guy,” I said.
“Mm hmm,” Mary made a sound of agreement.
“We’re all idiots, when it comes to first romances,” Helen said.
Every head present turned to face her, a little caught off guard at the profound statement, coming from Helen of all people.
“Speaking from experience, Helen?” Jamie asked, very carefully.
“Nope! No romance here, and there never will be. Instead, I get the-”
“Stop,” I said, putting my hands out to mash her mouth shut, both of my palms pressing against the lower half of her face. “No. Don’t finish that statement.”
Her eyebrows furrowed into a frown.
“Because it’s going to be weird and disconcerting,” I told her. “Let the rest of us live in ignorance.”
I released her mouth.
Down on the bench, Gordon picked up his fallen drink, wiped dirt from the glass, then tipped it back to finish it off. He folded up the paper he’d wrapped his sandwich in and set it aside with the bottle, one hand resting on it to keep it from blowing away. He heaved out a deep, profound sigh.
A moment later, he reached out to touch his thigh. He rubbed it, hard, as if he was trying to rub the bone beneath the muscle, then doubled over a little, expression changing, eyes shut, jaw clenched.
I turned my back to the window, and Jamie did the same. I saw Mary staring, and touched her arm, steering her away.
“I should help him,” Lillian said.
“Nothing you can do,” Jamie said. “He’d be more upset that you came to help than thankful.”
“It’s my job to look after you. All of you.”
“Leaving him be is looking after him,” I told her. “With Gordon, if he doesn’t ask for help, he’ll resent it.”
“That’s stupid,” Lillian said.
“He’ll get looked after during his next appointment,” Jamie said.
“Whatever,” Lillian said.
“He’s going,” Helen observed. She was right. Gordon was limping just a little, but he seemed able to walk it off, or at least pretend it wasn’t a problem. By the time he reached the end of the field, his umbrella going up to shield him from the rain as he passed from under the canopy, he was walking normally.
“Let’s catch up with him. Drag him out to the city,” I said.
There was no argument. We moved as a group, down the hallway, passing the occasional student. People were wearing their summer uniforms, but even the people proudest of their lab coats and the prestige those coats afforded them had doffed the things, leaving them in offices and dorm rooms.
Passing outside, though, the heat was like a physical wave of water, except this wave smelled like hospitals, blood, and that vague pungent smell of fresh manure. The opposite of refreshing, really. It made me feel disgusting the moment it swept over me.
“Blahhh,” Jamie said.
We walked the gauntlet, no less than five different experiments sniffing, touching, or waving digits at each of us. Prehensile limbs, antennae, and long-fingered hands gave us each a thorough search. One limb snaked through the armhole of my shirt, before sliding down my back, sweeping sweat free.
“Ow,” Mary said, as long fingers tugged at a knife she’d worked into her hair. “Careful, you.”
Other fingers from the same lumpy figure poked at knives resting flat against the small of her back, the outlines just barely exposed by the humidity-soaked clothing.
“I’m reaching for a badge,” she said, moving slowly, talking to the Academy student who was overseeing the things. She raised the badge, to show the man.
“Let them on through,” he said, sounding disinterested.
The morass of various creatures that had investigated us were quick to listen. I wondered if they had human brains in there, or if someone had gone to the effort of making a nonhuman brain that understood speech.
We walked, and half of us didn’t flip up our hoods or raise umbrellas. I was part of that half. It was so humid that I figured I’d be dripping anyway, and at least the rainwater was a cleaner dripping.
Hot as it was, the Academy was far from sluggish. People milled this way and that, hurrying, all with things to do. The population was different, too. Before Fray’s war had erupted, there had been perhaps a ten to one ratio of ordinary people to experiments or stitched, not counting ourselves. Now it felt like half-and-half. Unlike Dame Cicely’s, however, there were two discrete groups. It wasn’t student paired with experiment, but whole groups of experiments, weapons of war, and regiments of stitched, churned out and ready to be carted off somewhere. Specially constructed wagons carried the resources that would go toward making more. Cart upon cart of food for feeding the newest and greatest weapons of war. The students were cogs in this machine, heads down, their thoughts on their work and the expectations of their superiors.
We walked with purpose too, but our goal was to find Gordon before he went and disappeared off on his own.
“There,” Mary said.
Gordon was walking, oblivious to the rest of reality. We caught up with him, falling into formation, walking as a group in the most natural way imaginable. He arched an eyebrow as he looked at me, to his left, and Mary to his right.
“Appointments?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Lillian said. “Sorry.”
“Why would you be sorry?” he asked.
“Um. Because I know you probably want to get back to work.”
“Getting away wouldn’t be so bad,” he said. “Maybe some place by water, where we can swim in this kind of heat.”
“That sounds nice,” Mary said. “We’d need swim clothes.”
“We’re going into the town,” I said. “Want to come with?”
“Sure,” he said.
We reversed direction, to pass around Claret Hall. The concentration of experiments and idle weapons of war was even greater, and the air was heavy with smells that I couldn’t entirely place.
The Duke was there, and as royalty, he was surrounded by a guard of sorts. The gauntlet of creatures investigating each and every person that came or went was part of it. Some of the weapons were top of the line, too. Two giants were sitting on either side of the door. Skinless, with three or four layers of muscle and bone set atop one another, with gaps suggesting what lay beneath. Humanoid warbeasts, capable of using weapons. Probably from another Academy. They didn’t move much, probably to reduce the amount of resources they consumed.
As we approached the gate beside the Hedge, we were subjected to another battery of searches. As the tentacles and prehensile noses stretched toward her, Mary heaved out a sigh.
For my part, I got the one with a sense of humor. It prodded at my face, repeatedly, apparently aiming for my nose and eye. I squinted and tilted my head a few times, dodging the pokes.
I couldn’t begrudge it that, though. If the roles were reversed, I would have annoyed people all I could, knowing there was nothing they could do about it.
I snapped my teeth as it got too close, again. As the experiment overseer rose from his seat, I drew my badge.
He waved us on through, the search ending prematurely.
“So glad I got these,” I said. “Aren’t you glad I got these?”
“You’re glossing over the amount of trouble those badges caused us, when you picked them,” Gordon said.
“But,” I said. “Short term trouble, long term gain. Seriously, how much trouble have these badges spared us?”
“Uh huh,” Gordon said. “That doesn’t make up for it.”
He reached out for me, probably to muss up my hair, but I dodged his hand.
Normally he would’ve got me anyway. He didn’t. Slower to move. Was his leg still bothering him?
I made a mental note of that.
We made our way down the path, past Lambsbridge Orphanage, and into the city proper.
It, too, had changed over the months we’d been away. With a given job taking weeks or months, a brief visit back home to report in, then another job taking weeks or months, we’d only really seen glimpses of the transition. Now we were back, there was no job waiting for us, and we had more of a chance to take it in.
If there was a fifty-fifty split of people to experiments in Radham Academy, it was even more pronounced in the city. An experiment on every corner, armed, uniformed stitched walking the streets in pairs, and more choking the street itself. Some buildings had been torn down or retrofitted, the new buildings grown for expediency’s sake, leafless branches still spearing up and out, the building features themselves vague: too-narrow windows, lumpy protrusions around where the doors had been set in. It was thick material, clumsy in construction, but it was durable.
Military emplacements, placed at regular intervals.
The Academy was often described as being laid out like a living thing. The spread of Radham around it was little different. But this was a living thing which was trying to anticipate an attack from within. An uprising, sabotage, revolt. How did a body protect against such things? Antibodies.
The effect on the city was oppressive – no doubt intended. Should there be another Mauer-like issue, Radham was fully prepared to squash it. But there was such a thing as an overactive immune system. The body could rebel. Things could start falling apart. The system originally meant to protect the body could destroy it.
“Where are we going?” Gordon asked.
“I’m open to whatever,” I said, “But I thought we could visit an old haunt.”
“I thought you were up to something,” Gordon said.
“What? Who? Me? No.”
“You have this way about you when you’re being sly, Sy.”
“Damnable lies. I know that psychological trick. You convince someone they have a tell, and they work so hard to reverse it that they develop one. I’m pretty sure I told you about that, even.”
“Yeah, uh huh.”
“Uh huh,” I mimicked him. “Nope, you’re wrong. There are other reasons for this.”
“Yeah? I break up with a girl and before I even figure out how I feel about it, you guys come out of the woodwork to show me special attention?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He narrowed his eyes at me.
“You broke up with Gladys?” Lillian asked, feigning surprise. I don’t think she could have sounded less convincing if she’d spoken in a monotone.
Gordon gave me a knowing look this time.
“Hey, Lil,” I said.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Your fault he knows we know. I’m obliged to punish you,” I said.
“Something slimy down the back of your shirt, maybe?”
“Or an ice cube in your underpants, Lil?”
“What? No! I don’t even know how you would, but no! Don’t you dare.”
“Or something in your ear…”
“Gordon,” Lillian said, “Don’t let him.”
“I’m just really fascinated by the insight into how Sy thinks,” Jamie said, his voice dry. “It’s all very physical torments, two out of three for getting under Lillian’s clothes, no less.”
“That’s fascinating,” Gordon said.
“Wait,” I said, “Hold up. “We’re tormenting Lil here, not me.”
The discussion continued, with a lot of back and forth and everyone getting their turn as the one made fun of. We were interrupted as we had to pass through a waypoint to get from one district to another. Another brief search and questioning. A mark made in a book.
Into the shims. The more dilapidated end of Radham.
“Same old markings,” Gordon said, touching a wall. The wood had been carved with a triangle, given two eyes and two circles for ears.
“Nostalgic,” I said.
“What does it mean?” Lillian asked.
“Safe spot for the young,” Gordon said. “Every generation or so, you’ll get a group that look after each other, not as an organized thing, but it’ll just happen. Because there’s too many kids who don’t have a good reason to go home and they have to spend their time with someone. Every other generation or so, you’ll get someone who ‘makes it’. Who has a shop or a house or something and they aren’t hard up for cash, and who looks after kids. The mouse is for places like that, or for groups that’ll look after you if you’re young.”
Lillian nodded. She’d left her hood down, and her hair was wet. She brought her hands up to tuck wet hair behind her ears.
“Three triangles for a fox,” Gordon gestured at the corner of one building, near to the ground. There were two such markings there. “Is the fox. That’s not one you used to see very often, and you’d never see it in pairs. Usually people would work together, deal with it, and the only fox mark you’d see would be crossed out.”
“There was one earlier, too,” Jamie said. “By the waypoint.”
“What’s the fox?” Lillian asked.
“The fox preys on the mouse,” I said.
Lillian’s eyes widened.
The rain was worse here, kind of. It wasn’t that it was technically heavier rain or anything, but the buildings didn’t necessarily have gutters, the water streamed off of the rooftops, and it spattered as it landed in puddles, where the water hadn’t drained completely.
The houses were dilapidated, falling to pieces, many uninhabitable. Even the poor had started migrating toward the city center, leaving the edges a little lonelier.
Jamie pointed, indicating another fox scratched into a doorframe. I nodded.
We came to a stop.
“Hey!” Gordon shouted. “Buttholes!”
There was a pause.
A window opened, on the second floor of a building across the street. A boy about our age poked his head out. “What, dickstink?”
“How about a hello, huh? Open the door,” Gordon said.
The kid smirked, then pulled his head back inside. I heard him give an order to another kid. A few seconds later, the door opened.
“This is meant as a bit of a treat to you, Mary,” I said.
She arched an eyebrow.
“Show you a bit of what Gordon and I used to do, back in the day,” I said.
“I like that,” she said, smiling. She folded up her umbrella.
We passed into the house. There were three kids on the ground floor, and an older, shirtless boy at the top of the stairs. I recognized Thom, and the young Daisy. The house was scattered with knick-knacks and detritus. I was being polite, given that it was ninety percent trash.
“And,” I added, under my breath, “I thought you might like to get some tips on lockpicking, among other things.”
Her eyes lit up. She gave me a happy little wiggle of the shoulders.
We made our way up the stairs, to a floor of the house that had little more than scattered bedding without beds, blankets, and discarded clothes.
“Long time, Gordon,” the shirtless boy said. “Hi Helen.”
Helen gave him a wave.
“Craig,” Gordon said. He threw an arm around Craig’s shoulders in a half-hug, Craig doing the same.
“Hi,” Lillian said, as the blonde girl Daisy approached. She was seven or eight, if I had to guess. Not that anyone had ever known or cared about Daisy’s birthday, to keep track.
Daisy ignored Lillian, talking to me instead. “I’ve been keeping an ear out.”
“I can tell you who’s who, now, and what happened with the Byron Boys, and how Miss E is sleeping with the pastor’s sister,” Daisy said.
“You gotta ask for cash before you drop tidbits like that.”
“Setting the hook,” Daisy said, looking up at me. “Like you told me. There’s enough more that I’m not worried.”
“Alright, fair. Hook’s set,” I said. “Curiosity piqued. But give me a bit to get caught up before I start grilling you. I don’t want to pay for information I can pick up for free.”
She made a face.
There were several more kids on the upper floor – six in all. A card game was underway. Most were just staying in the darker corners, enduring the heat. Many heads turned as Helen came up the stairs.
Thom came up the stairs behind us. I clapped a hand on his shoulder as he passed me. He’d helped me get my hands on the others’ files, back around the time we’d dealt with the snake charmer. He’d helped me many other times, besides.
“Someone’s going to break out the old practice locks for this pretty girl to learn lockpicking,” I said, indicating Mary. “And they’re going to do it for free.”
“That so?” a boy I didn’t know asked.
“She’ll show you a cool knife trick,” I said. “After she’s learned something.”
He mulled it over for a second, then waved her over, lifting up the bench under the window to pull out some stuff.
The rest found their places, Helen watching the card game, distracting both of the players. Lillian stuck closer to me, while Jamie found a seat, pulling out the book we’d interrupted him from reading earlier.
I started to fill Lillian in on particulars. Rules, expectations, groups, with Daisy nodding along and enjoying being able to offer her own input, while being very miffed at Lillian being there at the same time.
I was distracted from my explanation as I overheard Gordon talking with Craig in a low voice.
“Girl troubles,” Gordon said.
“I know those troubles,” Craig said.
Gordon smiled. He looked more at ease than I’d seen him in a while.
“You’ve got other troubles?” Gordon asked.
Of course he’d find other work to do. It’s not like we get a proper day off.
“Lots,” Craig said. “Be more specific.”
“Last I was aware, you had a lot more kids up here, that was half a year ago.”
“Ah,” Craig said. “Yeah.”
“It’s not because of the waypoints or anything, is it? Kids being unable to get from there to here, because of curfews and checkpoints and all that? There’s something else going on.”
Jamie was looking up from his book, watching. Most of the others were distracted.
“I saw four foxes scratched into the scenery on the way here,” Gordon said. “Kids in here, not out and about?”
“Who’re you hiding from?”
Craig made a face.
There were more ears listening, now.
“Come on,” Gordon said. “Out with it.”
“It’s awkward, given you are who you are,” Craig said. “Don’t know if I should. Don’t want to hurt our ongoing relationship.”
Gordon punched Craig, hard, in the arm.
“Try again,” Gordon said.
Craig frowned. “The Academy. Pretty sure it’s the Academy. Picking off the little ones. They go, they don’t come back, they don’t turn up at that Orphanage of yours.”