The weather was hot enough that the air shimmered in the distance, heat rising, a light rain falling. The city was covered by a haze, giving it a dreamlike quality, yet my adrenaline was focusing my senses, making the immediate surroundings extra sharp. Reality was a dilapidated neighborhood, crowded together, surrounded by walls and a city crowned by tree branches. The heat shimmer and the movement of the rain made it seem to be growing by the second, yet it never went anywhere.
The carriage was at the checkpoint. It was stopped, being checked, and it was going to take us several minutes to reach it, even while we used every shortcut at our disposal.
That said nothing of Jamie slowing us down, and the fact that we had to watch our backs.
A whistle, distant. Gordon.
Warning? Drawing attention?
I leaped up to a rooftop, grabbing the gutter for a handhold, then climbing the rest of the way up. I was glad my feet were bare – they offered more traction on the shingles of the roof than any shoes would. While I was turned around, reaching for Jamie’s hand, one foot already braced against the little chimney, I studied the surroundings.
Further back, down the road, the Eastern woman had been alone, her companion branching off, very possibly flanking us or hunting for other prey. If I followed the path she was taking to its logical conclusion, she wasn’t there. I couldn’t see her anywhere.
Two in the wind, now.
I caught Jamie’s hand, hauling him up as he half-climbed, half-ran up the side of the building. I made sure he was secure before standing and stepping away.
Mary was quick to follow, faster to climb than I was. Her new clothes were already stuck to her, and a loose strand zig-zagged across her face, between her brows and down a bit of her nose, to reach the other side of her face, plastered there by moisture.
“They’re gone,” I said. “Could be anywhere.”
She gave me a curt nod.
We ran, with me taking the lead. My feet slipped on some wooden shingles, but I caught myself, legs moving as if I were running at double the speed, the knife in my hand stabbing at a gap between shingles to give me the necessary hold and traction. I had to twist the knife to get it free. I ascended to the peak of the roof, ran along the spine of it, and leaped onto a branch that jutted out the side of one building and used it to cross the street, leaping onto a balcony. The bag with Jamie’s book banged against my tailbone as I landed, feet skidding on a puddle, making me land on my ass.
Jamie was already running, leaping. I scrambled to get my feet under me so I could catch him if he missed.
He missed. I ended up catching him by the shirt-front, gripping it so it pulled tight against his body.
“Thank you,” he breathed, as he took hold of the railing and got a foothold. “Mary said to copy what you did.”
“You’re not me,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “But it’s a way to do things, worth trying out. Sort of works.”
“Except you don’t know why I’m doing things. If you step on a patch that’s wet or muddy because I just stepped in it?”
“Right. Drawbacks. But it sort of works.”
Copying me to the point that he was actually almost effective? That he could actually do that…
I shook my head, parting from Jamie.
We started to make our way over the balconies, hurdling railings, me occasionally stepping on them, an up-down movement that made my legs burn: up to the railing with one leap of a stride, down to the middle of the balcony with my other foot, up to the far end of the balcony. It was only doable because the balconies were so close to one another that they might as well have been attached.
I kept my eyes on the carriage, still at the checkpoint, still being searched and questioned.
“Mary!” I called out.
“What?” she called out. She was only a short distance behind Jamie, who was a longer distance behind me.
“How close do you need to be to throw a knife?”
“At the carriage!?”
There was a pause.
“That house with the branches,” she said.
It was that far. A few rooftops down.
“To be accurate?” I called out.
Another brief pause.
“Green roof with red moss!”
I saw it. Further along. Ten rooftops to cross. Halfway between here and there. No slips or delays allowed.
I would have crossed my fingers, willing the carriage to stay put, but I needed those fingers to ensure I had a grip as I hurdled gaps between buildings.
“Throw?” Jamie managed.
“We won’t get there in time. A knife might!” I called out.
We approached the house with the branches. It stood out because wood had been used to grow the exterior, with four treelike growths at the four corners of the building, but the branches had been left to grow long and tall, a mess and a tangle that limited the view beyond. I noted a surprise clothesline I hadn’t seen from a distance, no clothes on it. I searched for details, clues that might inform my imminent jump and landing, my race beneath that strange canopy, and the leap to the building beyond.
In the midst of that search, I saw motion.
I was in the exact wrong position, moving too fast and already too close to the edge to actually stop. It made for a dozen conflicting thoughts and priorities in the span of a second. Warn the others and where was my knife and can I fight her and is it really one of the ghosts and what do I say and what do I do!?
Warn the others. My hands went out to the sides, fingers spread, palms facing the others. I said the first words that came to mind.
I had the knife Mary had thrown at me in hand, already badly battered for my use of it in climbing. Reminding myself of it, making sure I had a grip, it took attention away from my landing. I stumbled.
The red-haired woman in a gray lab coat was blocking my way, standing at the edge of the roof.
Fast. To get here from there? They’d been behind us.
She had an empty, cold look in her eyes that essentially confirmed that she wasn’t human. An experiment, or a modified person. She didn’t blink at the water that ran down her face, beneath the hood of her coat.
“Who are you!?” I called out.
In answer, she stepped back, over the edge. She dropped out of sight.
One of Mary’s throwing knives hit one of the branches that was still swinging from brushing against the red-haired woman.
Fast, fearless, and knows what she’s doing.
I picked up speed, pushing myself, my legs screaming for me to stop, reached the edge where she’d just been standing, and leaped to the next building, as if she’d never stood in my way.
Mid-leap, I looked down.
No balconies to drop down to, no apparent holds, no hiding spots. The flat side of a building, a two-floor drop to the road, and nothing to take cover behind for ten feet in any direction.
I landed, and the twist of my head as I’d looked down and over skewed my body to one side. I dropped onto a slanted roof, and spun out, dropping to all fours, almost belly-flopping in my attempt to get some traction on the wet shingles.
I found the right orientation and clawed my way forward. I didn’t make any headway for a full two seconds as momentum and my downward slide won out over traction and hurried movements. Then I had traction, and I bolted. Jamie landed to my left, hitting the crest of the roof, feet and hands planted on either side.
He fell behind, which was probably a mix of intent on his part, letting me lead the way, and just him being a little slower as a rule.
I was impressed that he was keeping up this well, as it was.
Another rooftop, then another.
I saw the red-haired woman on the far side of the street. She’d been running, and she was slowing to a walk. She didn’t pant for breath, she didn’t say or do anything. She only watched, her head turning to take us in as we made our way forward.
As we passed her, she picked up speed again. A light jog, then a sprint, then a faster movement, her coat flapping behind her. Pulling ahead, moving to cut us off.
She crossed the street, drawing nearer to us. The perspective of the building we were running over blocked our view of her.
I made the next leap, watching. With the space in between buildings, I should have had a glimpse of her as she ran alongside us.
She was already gone.
No way was there anything that accurate or effective in modern science.
“Sy,” Jamie called out, huffing for breath.
I could see.
The women weren’t our focus. The carriage was.
It was starting to move, haltingly as it had to navigate past bystanders and a carriage in the immediate vicinity. Not far away at all, a hundred feet, but there was no way we’d get down from the roof to the street, across to the cart and past the checkpoint before it pulled away.
We were close to the house with the green shingles and what I’d taken for red moss, actually an algae now that I was close enough to see. It grew on the rooftop and gave an appearance very similar to raw, open wounds.
“Mary!” I called out. “Throw! Doesn’t matter if you hit, just throw!”
I heard the short, whip-like noise as she whipped the first of the knives out and over.
I leaped over to the house with the green shingles, glad that the algae offered more traction rather than less. I collapsed, no longer running. There was no point.
A hail Mary, I thought, joking with myself.
Not the kind of joke that was worth getting in the habit of saying, considering the Academy’s relationship with religion. Young children among the hoity-toity got lectures for saying ‘oh Jesus’, much as adults lost friends or jobs for mentioning religion. At best, it was a lower class thing to say, only the peons dwelt on such things, as Mauer’s followers had. At worst, it could offend someone with ties to the Academy.
The weapon flew through the air. Mary was already throwing more from the rooftop behind us. She had the threads out, and was spinning the knives in whirling circles before casting them out sending them more up and skyward than over.
Her aim was better than I’d thought. I had weighed the odds, and considered a civilian with a knife in their shoulder or head to be worth it, but Mary was better than that. The first two knives didn’t veer far off course, and they didn’t hit anyone. Crates, boxes, and the side of one cart, striking violently enough to interrupt conversations and turn heads.
The third hit one of the larger monsters that were serving as guards, just a little past the front of the carriage. Solidly built, with a bulging, translucent forehead and reptilian cast to its horned skin, it was nonetheless humanoid. I could hear it roar, see it react with pain. It lurched forward, lashing out, and shouldered its way into the horses at the front of the carriage, and the ensuing movement and chaos made one side of the vehicle rise up. Forward movement arrested.
We were going to have to apologize to people.
Mary grunted softly as she hopped over to the rooftop I was on. She walked past me, picking her way past one arm I had outstretched to grip the cusp of the roof, a thread and knife spinning within a few inches of my head.
“Kill?” She asked. She had a cold, dead look in her eyes, as she stared into the distance, focused on her quarry.
I wanted to say yes.
But we didn’t know for sure if they were Academy or not, and murdering someone who was in good standing with witnesses watching could get us in trouble.
“Wound,” I said.
She made a face, then released the string.
The knife flew skyward.
“You ask a lot,” she said.
“I’m a jerk like that,” I said. “And I know you’re capable.”
Jamie stopped panting long enough to whistle, “Is it too soon to say nice throwing?”
“No,” she said. “Unless he moves.”
The man driving the carriage twisted, shouting something to people behind him.
But his legs were where they were. The knife came down, seemingly right on top of him, and he screamed, doubling over.
“Thigh,” she said. She sounded oddly detached from things. No joking, no follow up comments. Like a stitched might sound.
My mind was switching gears, thinking about the social dynamics, the challenge of dealing with a crowd of people with guns, now at high alert, convincing them to give us the man in the carriage.
It was complicated because a part of me was stuck interpreting Mary, trying to read her. She was stuck in my head, for the time being, persistently, stubbornly occupying a portion of the mental real-estate.
“We should go, before he gets away,” I said.
The group of soldiers was busy trying to get a wounded, angry monster under control, simultaneously trying to locate the threat.
Some were pointing at us. They had weapons in hand. Rifles.
Reluctantly, my legs protesting, still a bit short of breath, I stood up. I was careful to move slower to avoid posing any threat.
I sheathed my knife in my belt, slid down the roof, searching below for any sign of the red-haired woman before I let myself fall. I dropped down to the street, raising my hands the moment I was able. Mary was the next down, and I lowered my hands enough to help catch Jamie as he dropped down, before passing him his bag with the book. We walked as fast as we were able, hands raised.
The soldiers weren’t pointing the guns at us, at least.
The carriage was still there. Once we were in earshot, I’d have to give them a warning. Make something up? I could tell them a portion of the truth, show them my badge. If it didn’t convince them to arrest the man, it could make them keep the man, his carriage and us in custody until a higher-up could arrive.
With that arrival, we’d have answers.
But things couldn’t be that simple.
The red-haired woman stepped out of a space between buildings, eyes fixed on us. She stopped, back to the men with the rifles, her full attention on us.
Her eyes looked feral. She was curved and flawless in a way that made me think she was crafted rather than born. With her hood down, her hair was getting wet. She’d cast off her coat with the hood at some point, no longer wearing it.
Definitely not a proper human being, yet something about her seemed familiar.
Blocking our way.
“Who are you?” I tried again.
No answer. She backed away a step, then another, eyes still fixed on us.
“Wound?” Mary asked, from beside me.
I signaled with a gesture rather than speak.
Mary threw out an arm. A knife soared through the air, straight as an arrow, aimed at the heart. The knife’s target stepped to one side, pulling one shoulder back and away to let the knife fly past her. It hit the road a distance in front of the men with the rifles, skittering, spinning, before coming to a stop.
They recognized it, and one shouted, “Hey! You!”
Mary tried again, not caring about the rifles.
Another dodge, to the point that it looked easy.
This ghost was untouchable, it seemed.
We were drawing closer, though. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Twenty feet away, then sixteen, then twelve- the red-haired woman was retreating without running. She was a short distance from the men with rifles, enough that Mary was reluctant to throw.
“Behind us,” Jamie said.
I half-turned to look.
Not just fast, but strong.
The Easterner was directly behind us, approaching at a brisk walk. She had a small child in her arms. A grubby child, no older than six, or perhaps a malnourished eight, a girl. The girl was unconscious or dead. Again, the woman wasn’t wearing her lab coat. Only a simple black dress.
And way, way, down the street, almost beyond my ability to make them out, I could see the others, giving chase, trying to catch up.
Turning my attention forward, I could see the man at the carriage, turning to stare at us, his expression flat. He had longer hair and a widow’s peak, his beard cut so there was no hair on his cheeks, round specs on his nose, and a doctor’s lab coat draped over him.
He was pulling ahead, moving. He’d been given permission to go.
“Hold!” I called out to the riflemen. “That carriage!”
The red-haired woman bolted, turning a hard right and sprinting for an alleyway.
I twisted to look, saw the Eastern woman doing the same. They’d moved in the same instant, and she moved just as fast with her burden in her arms.
We moved to give chase, Mary drawing her knife-
-and stopped altogether as one of the men at the waypoint fired their gun. Aiming it into the air.
We came to rest, watching as the ghosts disappeared from view, the carriage moving further down the street, beyond our reach.
“The carriage-” I started, raising my voice.
Another rifle shot.
I scowled, falling silent.
The men with guns approached, and we waited patiently as they drew near, hands raised.
One day, we’re going to invent a better brain. Then we’re going to put that superior brain in everyone’s heads, and stupid things like this aren’t going to happen, I thought.
I considered it for a moment, then amended the thought to add, as much.
Bayonet blades and rifle-nozzles prodded us as they drew close.
“Don’t suppose you could send someone after that carriage?” I asked.
“Shut up,” a soldier said.
“Or tell us who was in the carriage?”
“Shut up!” he said.
We were searched, and Mary relieved of the blades they could find. When they realized they had to reach under her clothes to get at her knives, they opted to bind her hands behind her back instead. They did the same for me, rough, and were working on Jamie when Gordon’s group caught up with us.
“It’s okay!” Gordon called out. He had his badge out and was holding it up.
They’d already found mine in the pocket of my shorts while patting me down. It was sort of irritating that they actually gave Gordon’s a proper look.
“Hunting enemies of the Crown,” Gordon said. “You can reach out to Professor Hayle at the Tower if you need to confirm our identities.”
“You attacked us,” the soldier said.
Gordon gave me a look.
“We had to stop the carriage at all costs,” I said. “All costs.”
“And my aim is good enough that I wasn’t going to hit anyone important,” Mary said.
“Uh huh,” the soldier said, in a way that suggested Mary’s statement hadn’t helped our case.
All of us were panting, except for Helen, and all of us were sweaty and dirty. My hands were bleeding in places from the scrabbling, violent climbing and running on rooftops. I had a skinned knee. Jamie and Mary weren’t much better off.
“The carriage,” I said. “Who did they tell you they were?”
“We didn’t question him,” the man said.
“Isn’t that your job? To question and search?” Gordon asked.
A little too accusatory. It didn’t go over well with the soldier. Tensions and frustrations were already high between our two groups.
“Shift change. We got updates and debrief on recent goings-on from the last shift, which pretty much is jack shit all and gossip. Last shift processed the carriage. It looked like he had papers.”
I panted, eyes roving aimlessly, searching for clues or cues that I could use to formulate a better question, squeeze an answer out of the soldier.
“Have you seen the cart before?” I asked.
“In passing,” he said.
I could have stabbed him for being so unhelpful.
“The women,” Jamie said, voice soft. “The red-haired one and the Japanese woman with the child? Have you seen them before?”
“Sure,” the man said.
“Sure?” I asked. “Could you be more specific?”
“I wouldn’t brook that tone,” he said, now hostile. “I’m not sure I trust any of you, yet.”
“Please,” Helen said, stepping forward. “Children might be dying. Friends of ours.”
Helen knew how to provoke reactions, to play the social game or change the tenor of the conversation. She put the soldier on his back foot with one deft verbal thrust and a little bit of emotion injected into her words.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” the man said, “And I don’t like not knowing what’s going on, considering it’s a part of my duties here. Perhaps you should have your turn at doing some explaining.”
I felt the urge to stab him again.
“Someone may be posing as a member of the Academy, using experiments to find and kidnap children from the shims,” Gordon said. “The man in that carriage is one. The two women you saw are two more. There’s also a blonde woman. They’re attractive enough to draw attention. Surely you’ve noticed them before?”
“From a distance,” the soldier said, relenting a little. “Usually during night shifts.”
Gordon pressed, “And the carriage? When you say you see it in passing, does that mean it usually passes through just before your shift begins?”
“I suppose,” the soldier said.
“Does the time you start your shift change, or is it set?”
“It changes. You’re implying some conspiracy here?”
Gordon nodded. “If they have a pattern of passing through when you’re busy and preoccupied, that says they know a dangerous amount of how the Academy and our military is operating.”
Now we had the soldier’s attention.
And now that we had it, my attention was on the people in the background. The captain’s subordinates.
They looked uncomfortable.
“Speak up,” I cut in.
The captain gave me an offended look, shifting to a hostile state in a flash.
“You,” I said, pointing at one man in the crowd. “Say what you’re thinking.”
“Excuse me?” the captain asked, on behalf of his soldier.
“I’m not thinking anything,” the man said.
“Your eyes slid to one side as you said that,” I said, “That’s a sign of evasiveness. You’re lying.”
An utter lie. His eyes hadn’t moved at all. But now he was thinking about his eyes and not his words. More pressure, on top of the attention of his captain and the rest of the squad.
“Your buddies here are looking at you, your captain is looking, you know something and you’re not saying it,” I said. “Why?”
“I’m not thinking anything,” he said, with even less sincerity than before.
“Your gaze moved again,” I said.
“James,” the captain said. “What’s this about?”
“It’s not- it’s…”
“Do we need to go to the barracks and bring others into this?” the captain asked. Now he was on my side.
“I- no. No sir. It’s just… the women.”
“What about the women?”
“I’ve seen them before.”
“Did they have kids with them?” Jamie asked.
“Sure, but that’s not so strange, is it? Given that it’s the shims? Even when women work?”
“Work? You mean prostitutes?” Gordon cut in.
The man startled.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “That almost makes sense.”
The captain gave him a curious look.
“They’re weapons. Evasive ones. They’re aware of their surroundings to the point that they can avoid trouble and isolate targets, they pass as either employees of the Academy or as prostitutes, to slip past our defenses, whichever works. Individuals you don’t question, ones that can distract, or ones that you’re afraid to pay too much attention to, depending on who your commanding officer is. Probably different identities for different checkpoints and situations. Chameleons.”
The captain’s look hardened into one of grave concern.
“I think you should notify people further up the chain,” Gordon said. “Because this is as serious as it gets. If they’re capable of doing this, they’re capable of worse, and with a war going on, they might not just have three. Or they might have these in cities other than Radham.”
“Stay,” the captain ordered. Then, as an afterthought, he ordered his men, “Watch them.”
We watched as the man broke into a run, heading to the nearest phone or superior officer.
“I’m exhausted,” Jamie said.
There were a few nods. Lillian was among them.
“It’s rare for me to have a feeling and be unable to pin it down,” Jamie said. “But does this methodology feel familiar to anyone else?”
My eyes went straight to Mary. She had a dark look in her eyes. Before I could speak, she did.
“Yes,” was all she said.