“Gordon’s taking his time,” Jamie remarked. “He wasn’t in his lab?”
“No,” Mary said. One word answer. Preoccupied.
“Did you see him enter the lab?” I prodded her.
“Yes. He left before I finished with Doctor Edith. The doctors were gone too.”
More than one or two words, this time, at least.
“Should we wait inside?” Lillian asked. “It’s too hot.”
“We stay here, where we agreed to meet him,” I said.
She groaned, long and loud.
“Besides,” I said, gesturing in the direction of the security team at the base of the building, “Do we really want to have them run their hands and tentacles and noses all over us? Twice, since we’d have to go in and come back out?”
Lillian made a different sound, groaning and moaning in disgust.
“Let’s not,” Jamie said. “I’ll be glad when the war’s over, and we don’t have to do it anymore.”
Jamie was more conscious about his appearance than any of us. He was private, and that privacy was violated several times a day. Worse, attention was drawn to his scars now and again.
“We’ll work extra hard to make it happen,” I said. “End the war sooner.”
“There he is,” Mary said, perking up a bit.
Gordon. He wasn’t in the building, but was coming from the Rise, the storage buildings and a few labs that were kept separate from the rest.
There were a lot of temporary buildings set up in that vicinity. As Gordon approached with Dog and Catcher in tow, he had a backdrop of very large creations and tents that only barely covered the warbeasts and projects within. These were projects that had very high metabolisms. Started small, highly efficient, they devoured food to grow into hulking beasts that would need the big gate to exit the Academy. They were placed near the Rise for easy access to food, and it was very possible to see one in the morning, then see one at night, and see a noticeable difference in size.
Gordon was talking to Catcher as he approached. They wrapped it up as they reached us.
“You disappeared on us,” I said.
“Hayle said Dog and Catcher were free. I figured I’d ask.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mary said. She raised her hand in a small wave. “Hi.”
“Hello,” Catcher said, with a voice like gravel.
Catcher was wearing a military jacket, his usual wide-brimmed hat replaced with a lopsided military cap with a fold at one side, the other laying flat. His high, modified collar and the skew of his hat left only his eyes visible, milky white and framed by scars that looked like old burns. He cut an imposing figure, shrouded in a long coat that hung open to reveal the curious and very sharp tools that were strapped to his chest. His mancatcher was strapped to his back.
Dog grunted, before making an unintelligible sound that might have been speech. He was outfitted for war, and had more rigging and hooks around his quadruped body that no doubt served to hold bags and containers, or armor, or other things in that vein, when he was out in the field.
“That means ‘hello’,” Gordon said.
“Yes,” Catcher confirmed.
“I figured as much,” Mary said, but she was smiling.
“Shall we?” Gordon indicated the direction to the gate. We started walking as a group, many of us going without our umbrellas. “I’ve already filled them in.”
Mary practically skipped to keep in step with Catcher and Gordon, her attention more on Catcher than anyone. Dog loped beside the group, long and large enough that Gordon walked beside his head, Helen walked behind Gordon, and I walked behind Helen, and I was only beside Dog’s left, back leg.
“To establish the particulars, they’re fast,” Gordon said. “They’re elusive. The trick is going to be finding them in the first place, and they know we’re onto them. I was talking to my team, well, they were talking at me and not saying anything I hadn’t heard before-”
He shrugged, a little too fast, not very convincing. Trying to seem more cavalier than he was.
“-and in the back of my mind, I was wondering what the next step was. How we find them and get ahead of them when they might be leaving, going into hiding, or completely changing how they operate. I thought of Dog and Catcher.”
Distracting himself by focusing on the job?
What exactly had his research and development team been telling him?
“You’re quiet today, Sy,” Gordon said, turning around. “Thoughts?”
I was a little caught off guard. He’d interrupted my thoughts in much the same way I figured he would if I’d been speaking aloud. I took a second to think on the subject at hand.
“Just killing them won’t accomplish anything. We need to capture or follow them back to wherever they’re set up.”
“Mm,” Catcher made a sound. He reached over his shoulder and grabbed his mancatcher, holding it with one hand, then unclipped his coat and reached behind his back to retrieve another head for the mancatcher. Where the head at the end of the thick pole formed a partial circle with teeth pointing in toward the center, the one he’d picked out had no teeth, but did have hooks pointing out and back, like a bull’s horns.
“Can I please see?” Mary asked.
“We haven’t talked, you and I,” Catcher said.
“I’m new. I joined a year and two months ago.”
“I know,” Catcher said, in the tone of an annoyed parent, with the actual voice of an elderly man who’d gargled iron filings. “Take off the head yourself, watch it, it’s heavy.”
He held the pole so it extended toward Mary. She caught it, and she grunted.
He didn’t tell her how to remove it, but she figured it out quickly. She removed pins and then unscrewed the head from the pole, letting the circle hang off her wrist while she adjusted positions. She handed it to Catcher, getting the new head in return and as she turned to do it, I saw the look on her face. There was a light in her eye.
She was having fun. This was her midwinter present. A new toy. A small challenge.
“Hm,” she made a noise, as she got the new head on.
“Speak,” he barked the order.
I almost laughed. It was a fitting command coming from someone who was partnered with a ‘Dog’.
“It needs cleaning, and oiling, this part. The pins are halting as I put them in. If you wait-”
“I won’t wait,” he interrupted.
“Okay. I didn’t want to insult you, saying something bad about your weapon. But-”
“You’re right. It needs attention. Lots of smaller parts and blood in the mechanisms. I ran out of cleaning supplies in the field. I was going to spend the day cleaning my tools.”
Dog snorted, loud enough to startle bystanders.
“I don’t think Dog agrees,” Gordon said, amused.
“Making me look bad in front of the children,” Catcher said.
“I don’t think you look bad,” Mary said.
“Hrmph,” Catcher grumped. “You’re a good one.”
He extended the pole out further. The entire thing was too heavy for just Mary to hold, even with Catcher holding the spiked butt-end of the weapon, so Gordon took hold of the head, with Mary in the center, free to fiddle with it.
“How was the fighting?” Jamie asked. “I wouldn’t normally ask, but-”
“It could have been worse. We were kept busy.”
Mary used the lever. The head of the weapon closed, forming a complete circle that would typically have someone’s neck within it. She toyed with it, switching between open, closed, and locking it.
“The Duke was giving the orders?” Jamie asked. “Assigning you your missions?”
“Have you met him?” Lillian asked.
“No. But there was a dialogue. He gave us tasks. We accomplished them. We would get one or two days to breathe or heal, then he would give us another set of tasks. A lot was said, in terms of expectations and results. I walked away thinking he knows what we’re comfortable doing better than the team that created us,” Catcher said. He turned to Mary, “You like it?”
“When I was being trained, I learned to use and make a garrote on a pole, because I was expected to take down adults, and I can’t always reach the throat. I like this, it’s sort of the same, but it’s so clever! And satisfying when it closes. Like, tch, tch, it’s a solid sound. Do you have a silent one?”
It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d only been giving one word answers, and I’d had to squeeze longer sentences out of her.
“I do have a silent one, and I do have cords, for when I need my target especially silent, too. When we stop to rest, I can get them out and show you.”
Mary’s earlier tractability was gone, replaced by her excitement. I suspected it would return, but there was a lot to be said for Mary being young, with her areas of interest.
“I like the Duke,” Catcher said, to the rest of us, as he took his weapon back from Gordon and Mary, strapping it to his back. “I would not want to be in the same room with him, or have to endure a conversation with him, but I like him.”
“Based on the… what, scraps of paper with written instruction? The ‘dialogue’ of job given and job completed?” I asked. “His intuition and command?”
It reminded me, in a way, of the dialogue between our group and Cynthia, as we’d engaged in the opening foray of strategy and counter-strategy between the forces of Westmore and those of Whitney.
We’d reached the gate, and the team there started hauling it open as soon as they saw our advance.
The team in charge of searches moved our way.
Dog rumbled, a low, long growl. He moved something, and metal slammed against metal on the far side of his body. His head swung to one side, to stare at the group.
“You know who we are,” Catcher called out. “Don’t insult us to boost your own egos.”
“We have orders to-”
“Shove your orders,” Catcher said.
Their group stopped, watching as we kept walking.
I had a wide grin on my face, and turned to make sure they saw it before picking up my stride to catch back up with the others.
“We don’t hang out nearly enough,” I said.
It was a bit of a walk to the area we’d last seen Percy and his ‘ghosts’. Conversation continued, sporadic, sometimes the entire group falling silent, just walking and feeling far too warm.
“How’s your bum?” Lillian asked Helen. “It’s not sore?”
“Yes, thank you,” Helen said.
Silence. Somewhat awkward silence.
I eventually broke the silence to ask, “Did anyone else feel a compulsion to say or do something immensely inappropriate when the Duke was staring us down?”
Everyone present, Dog and Catcher included, gave me horrified looks.
“None of us, then.”
“Don’t even joke,” Gordon said.
“I’m just saying-”
“No. Don’t even entertain the thought.”
“But if you were to pass wind, just really quiet, but long and quiet, so everyone knew what was happening-”
“Sy,” Lillian cut in, voice a little tight. “Please.”
“Or if someone dropped trou? Stared him in the eye, like it was any other day? Don’t you wonder if he would be so amazed at the audacity of the act that he’d reward it? It’s got to be boring, with everyone always saying yes-”
“Sylvester,” Gordon cut in.
“Ignore him,” Jamie said. “He was as spooked as any of us. He’s just using the situation to get a reaction out of you.”
There were one or two chuckles and a few names thrown my way.
“Spoilsport,” I muttered to Jamie.
“They’re already on edge,” he muttered. “Why make it worse?”
“Nevermind,” he said. “I know the answer.”
I frowned at him.
His expression remained placid.
“What’s the answer?” I asked.
His lips firmly pressed together.
I jabbed him in the stomach.
“What’s that at your collarbone?” Mary was asking Catcher. “The metal thing.”
“It goes into the eye socket. Pinch it like this to open it up, hooks go under the eyelids, prying the eye open, and you release, and the rest sits against the socket.”
“Why would you need to pry someone’s eyes open? Well, I mean, I can think of reasons, but why not just have a knife?”
“For psychological effect. To make them watch what I do to their friend. Or I can hold their head still, and let water droplets fall on the open eye. The eyes are the window to the soul. Pry at the eyes, and you can shake the soul.”
“That is so… oh wow. The way you said it, even. And that one?”
“Slide it into an opening, turn the dial… it unfolds from a tube to a sphere.”
“And that one?”
I jumped in, “It’s what he uses to pick his teeth.”
Mary half-turned. “You can’t see what I’m pointing at, can you?”
I shook my head.
“Because if you could, you’d get how funny that was,” she said, and she allowed me a small smile.
“Uproariously funny, apparently,” I said.
She rolled her eyes, turning back to Catcher.
“We’ll see if you can figure out what it’s for, by the end of the task at hand,” Catcher said.
Dog made a sound, garbled, a jaw of metal and wires and oversized teeth, not quite made for speaking.
“What’s he saying?” Gordon asked.
“Ignore him,” Catcher said.
Dog ‘spoke’ again.
“I don’t know what that means,” Gordon said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Catcher said.
Dog ‘harumphed’, which was a pretty impressive sound coming from something as big as he was.
“Alright, alright,” Catcher said. “Fine. Spend this much time with someone, they lose all patience.”
“We spend all of our time together, pretty much,” I pointed out.
Catcher ignored me. “I don’t know what it’s for. I thought it looked intimidating.”
Mary laughed, and the sound caught me off guard.
Beside me, in a low voice, Jamie spoke, “You okay?”
“Fine,” I said.
“Because you don’t seem fine. The way you’re holding yourself, the way you’re talking…”
“Your jokes are falling a little flat. You’re talking less. Teasing less. You were moving a little less fluidly, when we were chasing. I know because I watched you. I’m pretty sure everyone sees the way you’re interacting with Mary.”
“Mary’s a different thing,” I said, with a fierce whisper, my volume minimal.
“I know she’s a different thing. But she’s a thing that I think the real Sy would be more on top of.”
I gave him a look.
“You know what I mean. Actually, I’m surprised you know what you mean.”
“Jamie, come on. I’ve seen the sheep and horses go at it. I’ve seen cats, and there were the warbeasts, too.”
“I wouldn’t start by comparing yourself to a horse or a warbeast, Sy. That road leads to tears.”
“I’ve lost track of what you’re talking about, but I’ll try to keep that in mind,” I told him.
“I started this off asking if you were okay, but I only just now realized you successfully changed the topic and distracted me, which means you’re not too bad off.”
“Just a little bad off,” I murmured.
“Because of Mary, or because of…?” he made a syringe motion toward his head, depressing the invisible plunger with his thumb.
“Girls, poison, what’s the difference?” I whispered.
Helen, walking in front of me, turned to give me a look. Those sharp ears of hers. Beside her, Lillian turned, looking between Helen and I quizzically.
“But you’re the best kind,” I told Helen.
She sniffed, turning forward. “I hope so.”
The confusion on Lillian’s face redoubled.
“You more than anyone, Lil,” I said, smiling.
Her eyes narrowed, she turned away, then shot me another look, as if she could’ve caught me smirking at her back.
I smirked when she was done.
“We really need to get you an appointment,” Jamie said. “Before you get yourself in trouble, trying to be funny.”
“Hate to admit you’re right,” I said.
“They said I could have had my appointment, but I convinced them to put it off, because I knew the rest of you wouldn’t. Better to do it all at once, so the Lambs aren’t shorthanded.”
“Good. I’m glad to have you with us.” I clapped a hand on his shoulder. He smiled.
We were all the way down King street, and now, like the veins and arteries in a human body, things were starting to break down into smaller streets.
“Hereabouts,” Gordon said.
“If you’re looking for specific smells,” I said, “Academy carriage, or something made to look like one, stitched horses.”
“Too common on these streets, both,” Catcher said.
“Child, drugged, in the carriage,” I said.
“Too muffled an odor.”
“Blood,” Mary said. “I threw a knife at one of the beasts at a checkpoint, it attacked the horses. I had another knife hit Percy, at the front. I wasn’t- I didn’t…”
She stopped herself.
And, though I was only able to see occasional glimpses of her face as I watched her, I could see her attitude shift. The glitter of pretty stabby torture things and the glamour of spiked mechanical confinement tools were only meager bandages for a bigger wound.
She hadn’t finished her sentence, and the answers that my mind supplied weren’t kind ones.
I wasn’t sure it was him? I didn’t want to hurt him?
“Bleeding stitched is more distinct,” Catcher said. Dog bobbed his oversized head in a ponderous nod, the metal at his jaw clicking and rattling as he switched from moving his head down to lifting it and vice versa. “Bleeding man and bleeding stitched? That’s a starting point.”
Dog swung his head one way, then the other.
“And he’s got the scent,” Catcher said.
“Excellent,” Gordon said. He was smiling.
Metal at dog’s face shifted, covering his nose. That metal moved, slats opening to let the air in, closing as he moved his head, then opening again when he stopped it.
He turned to Catcher, then huffed, a blast of hot breath.
“Got it,” Catcher said. He tilted his head to one side. “There.”
Dog started moving, loping forward.
“We’re not running?” Gordon asked.
“When we’re closer. Don’t worry,” Catcher said. “Very few slip away when we have the trail.”
We backtracked a bit, then headed down a side street. The buildings here were more apartment than anything else, with the occasional shop on the lower floors. Bakeries, butcheries, furniture stores. The balconies weren’t as clustered together as the ones in the shims, which suggested larger residences, but the area wasn’t quite nice. It just wasn’t awful. A step up from the shims.
Jamie whistled under his breath, then gestured.
In the time it took our collective heads to turn, the blonde woman in the window ducked out of view, only a flash of pale hair visible for an eyes’ blink of time.
“Want to chase?” Catcher asked.
“We’re not fast enough,” Gordon said. “They’re quick.”
“Do you?” Mary asked Catcher, “Want to chase?”
“No. I thought you’d want something to do. It’s your job, we’re just helping,” Catcher said.
“Our job. We share the credit if this goes well, we Lambs suffer any consequences if it goes bad,” Gordon said.
“Says Gordon,” I said. “Heck no. I totally want the credit. But if Dog and Catcher want to take some of the blame, I’m not going to whine about it.”
“It’s a good thing I know you’re joking,” Catcher said.
“Am I? I didn’t realize.”
Jamie made another small whistle, gesturing.
The Japanese woman, also on lookout, this time on a rooftop. Once she realized we’d spotted her, she moved, falling back to a position where we couldn’t see her.
The situation had reversed from what we’d faced before. This time, they were the ones on watch, we were the ones encroaching on their territory. We wanted to make away with a captive we could squeeze for information, if we couldn’t get to Percy himself. They’d wanted to make away with a child.
We didn’t make it another half-block before Mary moved, pointing with a knife-tip.
The red-haired woman. Inside a window.
“Stop,” Catcher said.
Collectively, the group stopped moving.
The woman was already fading into the shadows within the unlit apartment.
“Ghosts,” Catcher said. “I can’t hear them.”
Dog shook his head.
Catcher spoke again, “I can hear most footsteps, can hear some from a distance like this if I focus. I’m focusing and I don’t hear them.”
Dog said something garbled.
“You do?” Catcher asked.
Dog grunted an affirmative.
Dog shook his head. Spoke in that mishmash of sounds and metal against metal that only Catcher and sometimes Gordon could understand.
“A high sound,” Catcher said. “Too high for even my ears.”
“Or mine,” Helen said.
Dog raised one paw, an amalgamation of flesh with metal supporting and replacing the flesh where it hadn’t grown in strong enough, bobbing it in time with noise we couldn’t hear. Up up, down, up up, down down down, up…
A conductor to a silent orchestra.
The paw came down, the claws themselves clacking like so many spurs.
“Silence?” Catcher asked.
Dog nodded slowly, head craning, vents on the lower face opening and closing.
“There,” Jamie said.
The Japanese woman. On another rooftop. She’d managed to cross the street in front of us and travel a distance that would have taken another person four or five minutes, and she’d done it in half that, without being seen.
She didn’t budge from her position, halfway down the street, at the top of a flat rooftop. The wind stirred her damp hair and black dress.
“Okay,” Lillian said, “I’m a little spooked.”
“That’s good,” I said. My eyes were wide, searching, my senses pitched to a painful sharpness. “Sensible reaction.”
“I didn’t think they were that fast.”
“They’re not,” I said, just as Dog began shaking his head. “There’s more than three of them.”
Jamie pointed to the other side of the street.
A brunette. Same clothes, same demeanor, same look in her eyes.
The next building over, another Japanese woman, identical to the one who stood on the flat rooftop.
We shifted positions, our backs to one another, shoulder to shoulder, searching the area.
They stepped out of hiding, one after the other. There was a petite one with dark hair, who I saw four different versions of, another blonde, two more redheads… those were only the ones in the direction I was facing.
Dog raised his paw, bobbed it, then dropped it to the street.
“They’re talking,” Catcher said. Dog nodded confirmation.
“They communicate with whistles? Too high frequency for any human to hear?” Gordon asked. “A unique language?”
“So it seems,” Catcher said.
“So many of them,” Lillian said.
“Yes,” Catcher said.
Mary was silent, her expression dark.
“Communicating like that… they’re pack hunters,” Helen said.
“So it seems, yes,” Catcher repeated himself.
“We can’t get separated,” Gordon said. “Best thing we can do-”
“Hold on,” I said. “Hold on.”
Silence reigned for a long few seconds. The women gathered around us were all utterly still.
I felt like I could hear the high pitched sound, but I couldn’t. But something was setting my teeth on edge, making my head hurt.
I raised a hand, snapping my fingers.
When the others looked at me out of the corners of their eyes, I gestured, fierce.
Silent. Around, enemy scout.
Or, in context, be quiet. They can hear us.
Hear what we say to each other, plan or counter-plan accordingly.
Gordon raised his hand, snapped once, gestured.
Leader chase. I group dog. You go.
There were two options. To decide we were in over our heads, or to go for the leader.
Gordon wanted to go for the leader. He’d group up with Dog. The rest of us, Catcher included, would take another path.
I didn’t technically disagree with the idea. The ghosts were coordinated enough to make use of any weakness or opportunity our splitting up afforded to them, but Gordon and Dog together could be fast, and I trusted them to be effective, for the most part.
Yet his left hand, at his side, was partially clenched, ring and middle finger extended, and the middle finger bobbled up and down as if it wasn’t under his control. He was holding it between himself and Mary as if he hoped to keep it out of people’s view.
“Gordon,” I spoke aloud. He looked at me. I glanced down at his hand. “You sure?”
I didn’t believe him at all.
It was such an awful situation. When I had to extend trust to someone or lose their trust. It took a great power balance and upset it, because it wasn’t a thing that happened once. Gordon and Fray, Mary and Percy.
He gestured. Our gestures for numbers were what they were for much this reason. It wasn’t intuitive.
Three. Two. One.
He grabbed onto Dog’s armor, hauling himself up, heading right. The rest of us ran forward, down the length of the street.
Silent, without fanfare or theatrics, the ghostly sentries of this neck of Radham slid away. Not all into shadow, but perfectly out of view. It was as if they knew where every single one of our blind spots were, every piece of cover that would serve.
Percy was injured. He’d be patching himself up, if he wasn’t already done, and as hurt people tended to do, he would be inclined to find shelter, return home.
The enemy wasn’t the only wild card in this game, not fully understood as a group. Mary counted as one. Gordon counted as another.
Catcher leading the way, Mary at the rear corner of our triangle formation, Helen at the other corner, we ran, making a break for the weakest link, the critical target.
A leap of faith, then another, then another.