They circled like vultures. I counted six in total that were in plain view. All with effective reflexes and spatial awareness. The screeching as we were circled was mine, however, a scrape of blade against glass, back and forth, a staccato nails-on-a-blackboard noise that made the little hairs on my arms and neck stand on end.
It was giving them pause, but I could read their body language now that I could track them consistently. They were building up confidence to attack. They’d seen one of their own die, and the noise of blade on glass was screwing with their senses. I imagined it was like being thrust from the bright world into darkness for the very first time.
The thought of darkness made me glance at Mary, who was being worked on by Lillian. I really didn’t like the expression on Lillian’s face.
Focus, I told myself. Adrenaline went a long way in helping me to pull my thoughts together. The edges around the thoughts felt sharper and the details more crisp. I felt more like myself, I could touch on a thought in the middle of a running stream of consciousness and that thought was crystal clear.
I tested the knife in my hand, judging its weight.
I’d practiced some, one didn’t spend more than a year in Mary’s company without trying it out, but the benefits of practice had been questionable. I’d pick it up after four or five throws, then I’d actually be pretty good, landing about three in four thereafter. Then I’d try again the next night, and I’d need a few throws worth of practice again.
The women started, making motions like they were going to attack.
‘Feint‘ was my immediate thought.
Catcher reacted all the same. The butt end of his weapon slapped out. he struck a window, hard enough to shatter it, the glass breaking, the crash sharp enough to give our attackers pause.
Not that they’d been going anywhere, not really.
Still, it was opportunity.
I threw, roughly the same time Jamie did.
Our targets didn’t even move. The knives went flying off, far from being on target. Jamie’s went straight over his target’s head by at least a foot.
“We’re doomed,” Mary’s voice was faint.
“Don’t need commentary!” I said.
“Wasting good knives,” she said.
“Shush!” I told her.
“Jamie,” Mary said. “Your arms are shorter than mine are. Release later.”
“Got it,” Jamie said.
“What about me?” I asked.
“I’ve given you advice… hunnred times,” she mumbled. “Waste.”
I really didn’t like how fast she was dropping off, here.
The women moved, I scratched glass with the tool, and they halted. I tried throwing again.
My target didn’t even dodge, for the second time. Jamie’s did, but I doubted he’d been on target.
That was what I was telling myself. No way was Jamie going to be better than me at this and get to be the hero.
They made a move to approach, and I scratched the glass again. I figured they were feinting or uncertain, but I wanted to tell them off all the same. Warn them, feed that uncertainty.
My damn hands were shaking. It wasn’t helping my accuracy or concentration.
Jamie, Helen and I weren’t strong. Catcher was, but Catcher was guarding Lillian and Mary. Each of the ghosts was capable and dangerous.
When our ghostly vultures swooped in, I didn’t think much of our chances.
It was too easy to let my thoughts run away. I wasn’t someone who won fights. At best, I helped find the road to victory.
“No, no, no,” Lillian said. Her voice was breaking. “Please, Mary, no.”
In my peripheral vision, I could see Mary drawing closer to the ground. Catcher let her slump down, easing the drop by slowly relaxing his hold on her. Lillian did much of the work in draping Mary out alongside the gutter at the base of a storefront.
My hand tightened on the knife’s handle. As I turned away, I sensed movement, and moved to react.
Three of them were closing the distance, using our collective distraction as an opportunity. Two women with blonde hair and a brunette, drawing in close, fast enough I wasn’t sure I’d get my arms up in time.
Catcher acted. His weapon reached for one of the blondes, who immediately reversed direction, backing away out of range. He wasn’t striking at her, however. His weapon reached further, and one of the jutting spikes touched the wrought-iron railing I’d pointed out earlier.
Swiping violently away from the enemy, he dragged metal against metal, eliciting a screech that made my vision waver. The two attackers stopped in their tracks, momentarily stunned or disoriented.
I saw opportunity and went for it, knife in hand, the rest of the string of knives dangling, stabbing.
She backhanded the wrist of my knife hand, hard. I didn’t make contact, and the entire string of knives fell from my hand. I reached out to catch it in the middle with my other hand, which still held the round blade, simultaneously trying to grab at her wrist with the hand she’d just disarmed.
I realized, around the time I sort of failed at both, that I was doing exactly what Gordon always accused me of. Trying to do too many things at once. The disarmed hand was still smarting from the blow and was slow to move. I didn’t get a grip on her wrist.
The hand that was grabbing the mess of knives and wire did grab what I was going for, but there were more sharp edges and lengths of wire than there were things to properly grip, and I only got the middle of the length. Wires cut into the webbing between four different fingers as I got a grip on the knife handle between my middle and ring finger.
There was no time to adjust, or move, or do different, or even to make sure the wire wasn’t wrapped around my hand in a way that would make any action on my part hurt me more than it hurt her. I whipped the twin lengths at her upper body and face.
I grazed her. I felt the impact, I saw her flinch, before she retreated well out of my reach. Superficial damage. She didn’t make a sound as she reeled, face twisting, one eye closed, a lick of crimson at one cheek.
Small as it was, it was perhaps my greatest victory in an out-and-out fight yet.
I had to think like they thought, connect the dots, figure out how they operated and mess with that. This was an unrefined project, untested in a combat situation. They weren’t soldiers. They were assassins, and they were still raw enough and new enough to the world that the unfamiliar could put them off balance. The jangle of blades and the nature of my attack had been strange to her.
Strange enough to get the blades a half-inch closer to her face and upper chest.
Jamie and Helen were together, dealing with the other one. She stood close enough that Jamie should have been able to swing and make contact, even with her being as fast as she was, but it wasn’t happening. He tried, she stepped away, and she kicked him, hard enough that he stumbled into the storefront behind us.
Helen maneuvered to corner the woman, keeping one eye out to the side and behind her for any surprise or flank attacks, but the woman easily danced to one side, putting Jamie between herself and Helen, before stepping back a fraction to avoid a furtive slash.
Jamie and Helen were getting further from the rest of us as they tried to keep their distance from their assailant. I wanted to shout something, a warning, but I couldn’t afford to take my attention off the one I’d just injured.
I adjusted my grip on the wires and blades, trying to make sure I was in a position to respond if she lunged for me, and probably failing. I had to work to get one wire out of the webbing where it had bitten down between my index finger and thumb.
Blood ran down my hand and dripped from my fingertips as I gripped the ring. I swiped it against the window, and the blonde woman in front of me lunged. Again, I swung the tangle of wires and knives in her direction.
Too quick, for how slow she was on the approach. I finished swinging the moment before she got close.
Her palm thrust out, slapping my forehead, driving my head back into the window with enough force that it cracked. The effect on my vision was about the same as what they were probably experiencing when I scraped the glass. Distortion, no strange colors or sights, but a momentary loss of the ability to put the pieces together.
She held my head against the broken edges of the window, gripping my head hard enough to bend it back, tilting my chin up.
Her other hand went up like she was going to slap me across the face, but I could see the blade, flat against her palm, held between two fingers. It was my throat, not my face, that she intended to strike.
Efficient, almost surgical execution.
I kicked at her legs. She was able to avoid the worst of it, pulling her legs back out of my way, while adding to the press of my head against glass, jagged shards like a half dozen individual knives cutting me.
Catcher acted once more. Another swipe at the railing, fierce, this time swinging forward, simultaneously swiping at the three of the women who were surrounding him. They would be trying to find an avenue to get past Catcher and attack Lillian and Mary.
It was a distraction, and I saw my attacker wince, but she didn’t let up the pressure on me.
Catcher hadn’t stopped moving, however. He’d pulled another weapon from his coat. The woman who held me released me, stepping back to preserve herself.
And my foot, which had been kicking at her, went up, the toe hooking under the front of her dress. As she tried to back up and evade the incoming attack, I caught her. She stumbled a little, I was hauled back and away from the window, feeling the glass slash me as I was hauled past it.
She slashed at the fabric to sever it and free herself, but the delay cost her a half second’s time and a moment of her attention. Catcher’s weapon, akin to a bear-trap on a leash, slapped against the side of her face. It bit deep.
She didn’t make a sound as he hauled on the cord. She clutched blindly at the contraption, but the teeth had sunken in, and she didn’t have the leverage to remove it. Blood welled out around the edges of the trap’s teeth, too slick for her to get a grip on the metal.
All but one of the women around us were backing off, now. Helen had the other blonde in her grip, the two of them on the ground, Jamie stepping on the woman’s head, knives in hand, watching Helen’s back. Catcher’s distraction had been well timed.
I could see how the women were watching the one in the bear trap.
I could feel it in my teeth, the harshness that cut through the humid air. A sound I couldn’t quite perceive. Different from what Catcher had described as a cacophony.
She was stumbling left, then right, hands scrabbling in a futile fashion, and she was utterly silent, but for the clack of the metal ring that was attached to the cord, banging against bloodstained steel. She reached the limit of her movement, the teeth pulling against flesh, and her entire body arched and spasmed with pain.
“Helen,” Catcher said.
“Yes? Is Mary okay?”
“No. Finish fast,” Catcher said.
I swallowed hard. Catcher’s ‘No’ hit me harder than I’d expected.
“Aw. I never get to take my time.”
Catcher was silent, studying the enemy.
“Please, Helen,” I said. “Next time, I promise. But this is serious. Do it for Mary?”
“I wasn’t going to say no,” Helen said. “Move your foot, Jamie.”
Off to my left, Helen moved. Cartilage and bone snapped and ground together as Helen strained, a torture rack in human form. I imagined I could hear the silent scream from Helen’s victim as her arms were stretched out and to either side, like a bird. Helen’s body shifted, bones standing out in strange ways against skin or the fabric of her clothes, a biological equivalent to a spring or mechanism being set, a trigger cocked. Her hands bit deep enough into skin that I wondered if she was squeezing muscle aside to press against bone. Flesh between fingers was bulging like it might pop.
Then Helen readjusted. It was a sudden, violent movement, the twist of a constrictor snake seizing its prey all at once, contorting itself in knots in a sudden, spasmodic way. Her body could move like that, but the body of the victim that was securely in her grip couldn’t. The wet sounds and the crunch of bone and gristle against more bone and gristle seemed to go on forever.
Helen hadn’t done anything but twist and wrench, but she was still bloody as she picked herself up and off of her victim. Her bones were still in weird places, like she had a feline or a lizard’s skeleton inside a little girl’s skin, the limbs too long, the shoulders oddly skewed. She sagged under her own weight, her muscle structure not lending itself well to standing upright. Slowly, piece by piece, she pulled herself back into a more normal configuration.
The ghosts were utterly still, standing a fair distance away.
Catcher’s captive grew ever more feeble, before sinking to her knees. She hit ground more violently than Mary had, bear-trap first, a sharp impact that didn’t make her move or flinch at all. Passed out.
Catcher used one hand to reel her in as he spoke, a sharp order cutting into the silence, “Stop talking. Listen.”
Rain pattered down around us. I chanced a look at Mary and Lillian. Lillian was moving so frantically, and Mary wasn’t moving at all.
“If you want to pick this fight, we will win,” Catcher said. “And the next time, Helen there will have the leeway to draw it out, to make it hurt-”
“-And I will use some of my best tricks and tools, to make you wish you had her attention instead of mine.”
Helen gave Catcher an annoyed look.
“You hurt one of ours,” Catcher said. “I’m being merciful, because I’m going to give you a chance to run. Leave the area. Go in any direction but that one.”
He pointed in the general direction of Percy.
“Don’t try to be clever, tr- I told you to stop talking.”
I could see the tension in his stance. He looked around him, and as he did, I cocked my head to one side, to get his attention. His eye fell on me as he finished reeling up the chain, the body dragged to his feet. He stepped on her throat and hauled the bear-trap-ish thing up and away. It pulled free, taking generous handfuls of flesh with it, and snapped the rest of the way closed.
He held his hand at his side in a very deliberate way.
“Don’t double back,” he said. “Don’t try to trick us, or notify anyone. If you’re good about this, if you-”
He stopped. His finger twitched.
I scraped the blade across the glass, hard. The women reacted.
Stop talking, I thought to myself. Listen.
“Ahem,” Catcher said. “If you’re good about this, I’ll offer the same chance to any of your sisters who get in our way, and give a quick death to those who can’t or won’t leave.”
The scene was still. I felt the heat and the exhaustion of our exertion now more than I had during, even with the rain running down my hair and face. A glance at my shoulder suggested I was losing a lot of blood, even considering that the water running through it all was making it seem like more.
I didn’t feel it, at least.
“Go,” Catcher said.
The women moved, each heading straight for the nearest piece of cover.
We collectively waited a full three seconds after they had disappeared before turning our attention to Lillian and Mary.
“You’re hurt,” Jamie told me, as he rushed to my side.
“Mary’s hurt,” I said. “Lillian needs to focus on her.”
“I can devote some attention to you,” Jamie said. “Because you look like you need something.”
We collectively made our way to Mary and Lillian. Jamie grabbed some cloth and handed it to me, pressing it down against my scalp. He gestured to Helen, who was probably the worst person present to have my damaged scalp firmly in her grip, and had her keep pressure on the wound.
Lillian looked like panic had overtaken her. She was struggling, fumbling.
Jamie knelt down by Lillian, asking, “How is she?”
Lillian sounded like she was on the verge of tears, her voice wobbled, “She got stabbed right through the middle. In the front and out the back. Organs were perforated. She’s not good, Jamie.”
“Fix her,” I said.
“I’m not- it’s not that easy, Sy.”
“It’s your job to keep us alive. If you fail at this the first real time that’s in question, I’m not sure why we keep you around.”
She set her jaw. It looked like she had tears in her eyes, now.
“You have the ability. But if you don’t have the capability, well…”
“You’re such a penis, Sy.”
“And you’re a good doctor,” I said.
“In training,” she said.
“Who has studied this garbage.”
“Believe it or not, Sy, I’m only fourteen, and I haven’t gotten around to actual surgery. And I’m in the field, too, without an operating room or all the tools. I’m thinking we should try transporting her to a clinic. If we can get Dog to carry her, I think I can keep her going long enough.”
“Excuses,” I told her, “and cowardice. Why go that route when you can be the surer thing? I think you’re lying to yourself and to us, because you’re scared.”
“Of course I’m scared!” she said, her voice too high.
Mary’s chest wasn’t even rising and falling like normal, her breaths were so shallow. Lillian stabbed Mary in the chest with a needle, depressing it.
Lil’s voice returned to a more normal level, “I’m being realistic.”
Mary’s breathing picked up as the injection took hold, though it still wasn’t great.
“You’re being a wuss. You know what Gordon keeps telling me?” I asked her. “Every time I lose a fight, which I do a lot? You have to make a move, or the world will move against you. Take action, be brave, and leave no doubt that you exist. There’s too many people for any of us to fall into the background. Above all, trust your instincts, because you’re better than you think. You are better than you think, Lil, and I’m saying that as the person who was your biggest critic, back in the day.”
Her smile was a grim one.
I continued, “You’ve started fixing her up, you’ve patched up the holes, best I can figure it out, now stop making excuses and get to work, you wuss. She’s supposed to be your best friend.”
“If you’re implying-”
“I’m implying!” I raised my voice. “If you wimp out on this and you let Mary die, then I’m going to forgive you… eventually. We all are. Crap happens! But you? I know people and I know you, and I know that your fears drive and define you. If you give up here, you will never find your way back from it to become a proper doctor, and you are never, ever, ever going to forgive yourself for it.”
Her face screwed up as she looked at me. Fresh tears were squeezed out, running down her cheeks. She raised her arms to try and wipe at the tears with her forearms, but they were streaked with blood. She let her arms drop, before emptying a bottle of powder onto her hand and daubing it around the edge of the wound. Her attention fixed on Mary.
Jamie offered a handkerchief, reaching out to dab at Lillian’s eyes and cheeks.
“Thank you, Jamie,” she said. “Sy? Remember when I called you a penis? I was being kind. You’re the runt of penises.”
“For the record, I agree with Sy,” Jamie said. He knelt beside Lillian. “Don’t focus on what you can’t do. I know you know the stuff. You’ve read up on it, even if you haven’t practiced it.”
Lillian shook her head. Small, nervous shakes.
“There’s an acronym, to get you started. The order in which you do this,” Jamie said.
Lillian’s nervousness seemed to drop away as shock took hold. She looked at Jamie.
“You know the steps,” Jamie said. “First step? A.”
“Assess,” she said. “Jamie, you’re-”
“Focus,” I told her, fully aware of the hypocrisy. Catcher was standing over us, on guard, pole in hand. I knew he was observing and listening.
I knew the gamble Jamie was making.
“Assess,” she said, again, focusing.
“You’ve assessed,” Jamie said. “You know what the problem is. Next.”
“You’ve laid the table as best as you’re going to get it,” Jamie said, his voice soft. “If you need the tools, I’ll hand them to you. You’re surgeon, I’m assistant. Next step?”
“You skipped a step,” Jamie said, without missing a beat.
“Keep. Keep… I- I don’t think there’s-”
“You have the tools,” Jamie said. “She needs blood to replace what she’s lost, and she’s going to need a lot. You know our blood types.”
“My blood is poison,” I commented.
“I don’t even have blood, like you guys do,” Helen said.
“You can’t be my assistant and give blood,” Lillian said, but she was already prepping the tubing and needle.
“We’ll make it work,” Jamie said. “Catcher is a universal donor. Probably not wholly good for Mary, considering what he’s got running in his veins, but if he’s willing, I imagine his blood is better than not having enough blood.”
Lillian nodded. She started the heavier, scarier work, Jamie talking her through it all, keeping her on track.
Even the best doctors had a hard time operating on loved ones.
It was a full ten minutes before Lillian didn’t need Jamie’s help, handing her bottles and the like. Jamie stepped away, grabbing the stuff needed to fix my head. He began tending to my scalp, while trying to keep the tubing that fed blood to Mary in place.
Timid, quiet Jamie, becoming a force in his own right.
Jamie managed to offer me a small smile as I studied him. Lillian wasn’t panicking anymore. I allowed myself to feel relieved. It wasn’t spoken aloud, because nobody here wanted to jinx us like that.
Lillian’s work continued, with the tubing moving from Jamie to Catcher, so the man could supply some blood. The minutes that followed were a little more tense, as Mary started to dip in condition. More drugs and chemicals were injected into the tubing, to offset and counteract the cocktail that Catcher’s blood was dumping into her system.
A good forty minutes passed. I watched Lillian more than I watched Mary, because the tension in her neck and shoulders was a better indicator than the bloody mess that Lillian was digging through. Jamie’s handkerchief, previously used to wipe up Lillian’s tears, was now being used to swipe out the blood in the way. Lillian’s hands were inside the wound as she worked blind, periodically asking Jamie for numbers, which he rattled off.
Catcher made no comment.
Jamie was working on the cuts to my hand and Lillian’s neck and shoulders were showing less and less tension when Mary finally stirred.
“Welcome back,” I said.
“Did we win?” she asked.
“Because that’s our priority, huh?” I asked. “Yes. Sort of. We scared them off.”
“Okay,” she said. “Help me up.”
“Um!” Lillian said. “Not yet.”
“We’re going to lose him,” Mary said.
“You’ve been lying there for an hour while Lillian’s been fixing you. Another five or ten minutes won’t hurt.”
Mary obediently let her head down to rest on the hard surface of the road.
“Do you want painkiller?” Lillian asked.
“Would it mess up my perception, if we run into Percy?” Mary asked.
“You really need to get your priorities straight,” I said. “You almost died.”
“I agree with Sy. For once,” Lillian said. “You shouldn’t be running after Percy.”
I stuck the toe of my foot out to poke Lillian in the butt cheek. She gave me an offended look.
And Mary said Lillian liked being teased? Hmph.
“I don’t want to let him go,” Mary said.
It was a weird phrasing, one that could be taken two ways. I remained silent.
“I believe Dog and Gordon are with the man,” Catcher said. “I don’t know the context, but it’s the only reason they wouldn’t have caught up with us already.”
“With him in a good way or a bad way?” Helen asked.
“It wouldn’t be a bad way,” Catcher said.
“They could be dead,” I said. Death was on my mind, with Mary’s close call.
Catcher turned his head to give me a sharp look.
“Or not,” I said. “Scratch that, ignore me.”
“I trust Dog. You should trust Gordon.”
“Okay,” I said. Too chipper a response. It came off as false, which it was. I envied Catcher his ability to trust his partner as absolutely as he did.
“If he’s there, and Dog and Gordon are with him, then no painkillers,” Mary said.
Or should I have pitied him? Did he really have no choice in the matter? Was doubt dangerous enough that it could cost them at a critical moment?
Lillian finished. She leaned back, and Mary reached down to pull her shirt down. The expression in her face suggested she was momentarily regretting the lack of painkillers.
“Now can I stand?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lillian said. “You are going to need a proper look from a doctor.”
“After. We meet up with the others first,” Mary said.
I didn’t let it show, but a part of me recoiled at the re-emergence of this stitched-like Mary, so fixated on one thing, so detached. That it came when she was weak, wobbly, and her defenses stripped away was concerning.
Catcher and Jamie helped Mary to stand. She pulled her clothing back into order, picking for a moment at the back of her dress, which was soaked through with blood, from the shoulderblades to mid-calf. She looked annoyed.
My attention fell on Lillian, who was still kneeling by the patch of road that had Mary’s blood soaked into it.
I reached down and gave Lillian a pat on the head. “That’s a good doctor. Who’s a good girl?”
Lillian rolled her eyes, tried to stand, and I held her down.
“You’re a good girl, yes you are!” I cooed.
“I have sharp tools, Sy, and I’m right at eye level to stab you where it hurts.”
“That’s the fifth time today you’ve made reference to that part of Sy,” Jamie said.
“Fifth?” I asked, intrigued. I shifted position to better keep my hand on Lillian’s head, keeping her from standing. “Do tell.”
“Ah, no. Some of that was said when you were out of earshot. It would be telling.”
“Aw,” I said.
Now Lillian was turning pink, which was fun. Jamie smiled.
“Let me up, Sy,” Lillian said, flushed.
“Is this worth the risk of being stabbed?”
“It totally is. Say please.”
“Now say you’re the best little doctor in all of Radham.”
“I am the best doctor-”
She reached for a scalpel that lay on the street, I stepped on it before she could pick it up.
“I am the best doctor in all of Radham,” she said. “That’s all you get from me.”
I let her go. “So long as you admit it.”
Her face was even pinker as I let her up. I swiftly backed away before she could kick me. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she might be smiling as she picked up the tools.
Now for the true task at hand.
We didn’t move very fast. Mary probably did need the painkiller, but was too proud to admit it, and Catcher’s legs were feeling the pain from where they’d been slashed. Both he and Jamie had given a generous amount of blood. Lillian and I helped a wobbly Jamie and Mary, while Catcher used his weapon as a staff to help keep himself steady.
Our destination was three streets down, and we didn’t see one of the ghosts en route.
Catcher pushed open the doors.
Glass tanks lined the walls of what had once been a storehouse. The glass was broken, the bodies within cast to the ground, not yet fully formed. Fine, fishlike spears of bone riddled the interiors of each body, almost hair-thin.
Gordon and Catcher were with three children. I recognized the girl who had been taken earlier in the day, swaddled in a blanket, her hair wet. It wasn’t enough children. My eyes fell on the bodies from the tanks.
This would be all we could recover. The rest of the children were gone.
“Everything okay?” Gordon asked.
“Took a hit, Lillian had to patch Mary up,” I said.
Mary visibly rankled at that. To be so close to home, in a matter of speaking, and have her called out on a failure… a mistake on my part.
As we drew closer, I could see around a desk. A smear of blood. At the base of the wall, Percy was propped up. One arm and both legs broken.
“Ended up charging through. Took him down, broke the vats, the ghosts put up a brief fight, then called for a retreat,” Gordon explained, one hand going out to pat Dog’s side. Dog nodded slowly.
“The retreat part might have been related to us,” I said. “Hard to say. We’re going to have to hunt them down. But hey, you got Percy!”
“Ah,” Gordon said, and he sounded a little crestfallen, his expression falling as well. He looked over at the man. “About that.”
Mary crossed the distance. She approached the man, and stopped as he turned his head to look at her.
“No,” she said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “I’m sorry.”
It was an empty look, devoid of recognition.
“Best Dog and I can figure,” Gordon said, “If you’re going to run two or five or ten different matching projects all in different cities, you can’t do it yourself. You need one clone to oversee the growth of the rest. And if you’re going to go that far-”
Mary’s knees gave out. She sank slowly to the ground, kneeling ten feet in front of Percy.
“You might as well clone yourself?” I asked.