Lamb to the Slaughter – 6.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The room had been built and grown in such a way that the furniture was an extension of the room, rather than an addition to it.  The only walls that weren’t exterior walls were standalone, decorative more than anything, with benches built into them, facing tables.  Nothing we could lift up to copy the Duke’s trick and form a bridge over fire.

Not that I necessarily felt confident, with the sparks flying around.

None of the walls were connected to any others.  They might have been once, with walls removed as this part of the building was repurposed; an octagon with the diagonals removed.

Two of the walls separated the staircases on either side of the floor from the main area; I was looking past one to see the sea of fire in the center of the room.  The other two walls did much the same thing for rooms on the north and south faces of the building, with balconies extending those rooms.  The two rooms served for private conversation, and one of them was a hiding spot for our quarry.

All that said, we were the cornered ones.

I pulled off my shirt, backing away from the scene until my back was to a wall.  I balled my shirt up in my hands, my eyes fixed on the Duke.

“Lillian,” I said, my voice only loud enough to be heard over crackling flames, “Do you have anything that will make me not flammable?”


“Focus!  I’ve got stuff on me.  Chemical, right?  How do I make it so I don’t burst into flame the second a spark touches me?”

“I don’t know!  That’s not exactly part of what we study!”

“Stitched overseer guys.  You don’t have any junk you can pour on any of your soldiers that go up in flames?”

“It exists,” one of the men in charge of the stitched said.  “We don’t carry it all the time.  Cans are heavy.”

I scowled, irritated.

“But if it’s chemical,” Lillian said, “We can try a dry soap.  I can’t promise, but-”

“Do it!” I barked.  “Me and Jamie.  Before this gets worse.”

“Those floorboards,” Gordon commented.  His face looked drawn, especially in the light of the fire.  “They’re burning.”

My eyes moved to the area he was looking at.  Sure enough, the floorboards were catching fire.

Every second floorboard.

“She modified the room,” I spoke the realization aloud.  “Maybe the building.”

The Duke turned his head, noting our presence, and I saw a smile on his face.  He was cast in hues of orange and crimson, tall enough that the top of his head touched the smoke that was concentrating at the center of the ceiling and slowly creeping out toward the edges.

He leaped from a standing position, and the wall in front of us broke my line of sight.

He’d crossed the pool of fire.  Approaching the other end of the building.

I saw figures in the shadows.

“Ghosts!” Jamie called out.

“I know,” the Duke said.  But he ignored them, approaching the northernmost wall.

Ghosts crept nearer.  The room didn’t offer much cover, and they didn’t seem to know how to use the fire or smoke for cover.  It wasn’t physical enough for their senses to process.

Still, there were five ghosts there, and possibly two more we couldn’t see, if I was keeping count right.  I probably wasn’t keeping count right.

The Duke stepped around the wall, pistol going out, and fired four times.  A large, dark shape darted out, passing around the far end of that wall, leaping well over the wall of flame that cut across her path.

Fast, agile.  That would be the combat drug.

“Okay,” Lillian said.  She approached me, bottle in hand.  She was shaking it.  “Who’s first?”

“Sy,” Jamie said, at the same time I said, “Jamie.”

He gave me an annoyed look.

“Me, then,” I said.   Jamie was impossible to get through to when he got stubborn, and with him being in a strange way of thinking, I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be worse than usual.

With my shirt already off, Lillian was able to rub the ‘dry soap’ on me.  It had a consistency like clay, it burned a little, and it had gritty bits that made it scratch as much as anything.

I clenched my teeth and endured, watching, trying to figure out what Avis was doing.

As she rounded the end of the wall that was furthest from us, I could get a better view of her.

She’d altered herself to the point that she looked more experiment than human.  Four white-feathered wings framed her.

Her hair, skin and clothing were dusted white, too – she’d covered herself in a powder, and much of it had been concentrated on her head.  The effects of the combat drug were obvious.  Her muscles were strained tight, and it included her face and neck.  Her eyes were wide and unblinking, her lips parted to show teeth and gums that were too red.  The bloodshot edges of her eyes and the crimson of her flushed lips were slices of red in an otherwise pale, powder-mottled complexion.

She’d taken off her lab coat, and wore a top that consisted only of a bit of cloth and straps to hold it in place.  The same straps that held her harness on provided a little bit more security in binding the set of wings to her back.  The feathers were slick with fresh blood, and that blood had been covered with more powder in turn.  Bony, insectile limbs reached around her, hooking into flesh of rib and breast.  At her shoulder, one had been shattered, a bullet grazing flesh, leaving the point of the limb embedded in flesh, the other end twitching.

Moving quickly, low to the ground, wings folded close to her back, she leaped through flame.  The feathers didn’t ignite, and she didn’t react to any burn she might have sustained.

The Duke was a matter of steps behind her.  She was faster, she was more agile, and she was apparently fireproof, or fire resistant.  She could presumably fly, or she’d been able to, before the one hook had been damaged by a bullet.

She wants to run, to fly, I thought.  I tucked my shirt into the crook of my elbow, took some of the soap-sludge from Lillian, and rubbed it into my skin.  I smeared a blob of it into the leg of my shorts, where some of the chemical had showered down on me.  I couldn’t tell if I’d gotten all of it, so I merely took more soap and smeared it on over.  I hoped it would be a layer of protection, and that I wouldn’t have to kick off my pants.

“What are we doing?” Helen asked.

“Thinking,” I said.

“Think aloud, Sy,” Gordon said, “Communicate.

“I’m not- I will as soon as I have something to say.”

The Duke’s gun fired twice.  He hurdled one six-foot wall of fire with seemingly no problem, landing on the bench by the western wall, opposite us.  He called out as he picked his way across it, closing the distance, “You gave yourself wings, Avis.  Why don’t you fly?”

“You know why,” she said.

She was so close to us.  Five or six paces.  Three, and I could have possibly had an angle to throw a knife at her.

The ghosts crept closer to the duke, staying just out of arm’s reach.  He didn’t seem to pay much attention to them, except to hold one sword out in the direction of the nearest one, so the woman would run herself through if she lunged.

“I could promise to hold my fire,” the Duke said.  “I’m good for my word.”

There was no answer from Avis.

I followed the Duke’s line of thought to its natural conclusion.  She doesn’t want to fly because she’ll be a sitting duck in the air, without cover.  She knows how good a shot the Duke is.

Was she capable of diving for speed and to put more distance between her and any shooter, using the balcony itself for cover, or rounding the corner of the building?

Maybe she was, but the building was surrounded with soldiers.

How bad did things have to get here, before she was willing to risk death by bullet over a death by fire?

Gordon was saying something to one of the men in charge of the stitched.  The men then turned, moved through the ranks of the stitched, communicating to a few at a time.  Rifles were raised and pointed in Avis’ direction.

To stay out of the line of fire, I bent down.  Lillian started rubbing the soap across my bare back, then along the belt-line of my shorts, where some of the chemical had no doubt trickled down and soaked in.

I gave serious consideration to going into this confrontation naked, just to be safe.  The look I imagined on Lillian’s face was the first thing to bring me near a smile since the conversation with Jamie.

“Sy,” Mary cut into the thought.


“I want to come.  You’re going to say I can’t, but-”

“You can’t,” I said.

“If I-”

“Mary,” Gordon jumped in.  “Do you really think you can hurdle six feet of fire?”

“I don’t think they can, so that’s a moot point!”

“We can,” I said.  “You can’t.  Not with that injury.”

“Painkiller,” she said.

No,” I told her.  “No.  Stay there, have knives ready.  If ghosts come for us, aim for the ones who are busy dodging something else.”

Fire continued to spread along floorboards.  A great ‘x’ had been cut into the room, and the space between the lines of that ‘x’ were filling in.  The flames remained small, but they were gaining traction.

What did it take to change the flooring in the room?  She controls all communication out of Claret Hall.  Did she ask for a work order to be modified?  Did a crew of stitched put in flammable floorboards under the noses of professors, doctors, and wealthy clients of the Academy?

How many small ways had she found to sabotage the lot of us?  Was she the reason our enemies had been so well informed on the Lambs?  The four humors had been pretty up to date.

The Duke had to pick his way across the room more carefully as the fire took over more of the area.  He took a step to one side as flame touched one of the cushions a matter of feet from the Duke, only for the cushion to explode in a violent roll of fire.

A ghost appeared, airborne, taking advantage of the Duke’s turned back.  She landed astride his shoulders, and, so quickly it looked like I’d missed something, she began slamming a knife into the side of his neck, once, twice, three times.

He tossed his sword down, reached back, and grabbed her.

She slammed the knife deep into his face once, as he hauled her around in front of him.

One-handed, he tossed her into the pool of fire at the center of the room.

The Duke made that amused sound.  He turned, a little overdramatically, his coat sweeping out around behind him.  His eyes were wide, the heavy lines in his face catching the light and shadow of the fire and smoke, the veneer of humanity no longer visible.  The gaping wound in his cheek wasn’t helping matters.

He spat out what looked like a full mouthful of blood, directly at the flame.  It hissed in response.

That much blood, the knife had to have gouged the roof of his mouth.

“Reminds me of home,” he called out, to Avis.  His voice was different, with the wound.  He spat again.

“You’re done,” Lillian told me, slapping my back.  “I can’t promise-”

“I know,” I said.  I didn’t waste a second.  “Helen!”

Helen and I left Jamie behind.

Walls with heavy decoration carved into them meant handholds and footholds.  I signaled Helen, then interlaced my fingers.

With a running start, she stepped into my hand.  I hauled her up as best as I could.

Virtually any combination of us would have been better than Helen and I, for this particular trick.  Gordon in particular could have gotten Helen up as high as she needed.  Mary was more adroit.  I would have had Helen boost me up, but her strength worked differently, it didn’t add up to me being able to add her lifting strength to my leaping strength.

I got her up to the point that only her foot and ankle were touched by flame before she managed to climb up another step.  I double checked she wasn’t slipping before stepping away.

What served as a running start for me were moments where Helen was closer to the ceiling, where smoke was thicker, perched on the wall directly above the open fire.  Seared by heat, she nonetheless found footholds, one handhold, and extended a hand my way.

Time to see if the soap worked, I thought.

I adjusted my grip on the bundle of chemical-soaked cloth, then ran.

I was quick, I was lightweight, and I was spry.

I approached the wall in front of Helen, running full-tilt.  I leaped, touching foot to the wall for extra leverage, and reached her hand.

I felt the intensity of the heat as she helped swing me over the fire.  I only barely missed landing at the edge of the fire, and the moment I realized I’d touched safer ground was spoiled as burning floorboards cracked under my weight.

I reached out for Helen.  She lunged off the wall in my direction, and I grabbed her, half-throwing, half-pushing her away.  We sprawled across the floor, rolling over floorboards that licked with only small amounts of flame.

Avis was perched on the balcony, adjusting straps from her dress to tie them to her wing.  In front of us, a ghost materialized from around the corner of the balcony.  She approached us, a weapon in either hand.

I reached for my last knife, and then hesitated.

“She’s running!” I shouted.  “Can I stop her!?”

I saw Avis’ muscles tense.

“Do,” the Duke said.

I hurled the knife.

It caught Avis dead-center in the back.  It didn’t sink in point-first, but the side of the blade did hit.

Wings and limbs spasmed.  She did too, her back arching, already tense muscles visibly twitching and pulling so tight they kinked up.  I worried she’d tumble forward off the balcony and onto the soldiers waiting below.

Whatever it was she was wearing, it was akin to a large bug, running parallel to her spine.  I’d injured it, but I shouldn’t have hurt Avis herself.

Hooked into her nervous system.

The ghost that had stepped out was drawing nearer to Helen and I.  I’d just thrown away my last weapon.  There was only the bundled-up shirt,  which had touched fire and ignited.

Helen and I fought to get to a standing position, an awkward process with growing stripes of flame here and there on the floor.

“Sy!” Lillian cried out.  “You’re on fire!”

I looked.  Sure enough, a section of my shorts was burning.  I’d completely failed to notice, with the oppressive heat from the fire behind me.

I slapped at it with my hand, to little effect.

The ghost drew near, swift, picking and choosing where she stepped.

Touching the toe of my shoe to the bundled up shirt, I kicked up, directing it in the general direction of the ghost’s head.  A fireball.

She sidestepped it in an awkward way, burning cloth brushing past her face, briefly disorienting her.  I wasn’t sure if it was that the cloth was burning or the unsteady footing that led to the mistake.

It left Helen and I with no weapon to throw or use for self defense.  The fire was so close I could have sworn my back was breaking open in blisters.

I reached into a pocket.  Spare change.

I flung it at her.

This, she didn’t even try to dodge.  It touched her and danced off, clattering to the floor.

She stumbled to a stop.  She straightened, partially turning, and I could see the knife in her chest.

Good job, Mary, I thought.

But, lethal as the knife should have been, the ghost didn’t stop.  She stumbled forward, and the stumble became a run.

Bull-rushing us.

I pushed Helen against the wall, while I stepped out, parallel to the line of flame.  The ghost decided to go for Helen, grabbing her, and using forward momentum to carry her directly into fire.  The two stumbled into the blaze together.


I was only a step behind, not quite entering the flame, but getting close enough it hurt.  I couldn’t see, the heat itself stealing away my ability to see as much as the smoke did, I could only intuit, lashing out as best as I could.

I kicked the knee.  That knee buckled, and the ghost toppled.  I grabbed her, tearing her down toward the ground as much as I did anything.  Burned floorboards creaked precariously under her weight as she crashed down.

Helen reached over the ghost, seizing my shoulders, fingernails digging in for a grip.  Unable to reach into fire, I instead hauled myself -and her- away and back, throwing the two of us to the ground for the second time.

She wasn’t as burned as I’d thought she’d be, but it was bad.  Hair singed, skin burned across virtually every part of her that I could see, her dress was scorched, barely intact.

She wheezed for breath, starting to rise, then dropping, writhing until she found a position where she wasn’t touching burning floor.

I stood, grabbing her.  I hauled on her arm, and I wasn’t strong enough to budge her.

The wheezing seemed to be getting worse by the second, and I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or if it was the reality.  It filled my ears, drowning out everything else, even the sound of the Duke’s pistol shots.

I turned my attention to Avis.

She had recovered from the spasming.  One wing already lay curled up on the floor, folded into itself by way of far too many joints, a feathery, bloodstained ball.  As I watched, she hauled on the matching, smaller wing, tearing it out of the socket.  It curled up like the other had, the pair of them like legs of a dead spider furling beneath it.

She flexed her remaining pair of wings, glancing my way.  She backed away a little, I let go of Helen’s hand to approach.

“How many of you are left?” she asked.

“Enough,” I said.

“Is it worth it?” she asked.  “Working for them?”

“I’m not working for them,” I said.  “Not this time.”

Her eyebrows went up.

“The kids you killed to make those ghosts of yours.”

“They’re not ghosts,” she said.  “They’re alive.”

“It’s a name,” I said, annoyed, angry she was going on about stupid garbage when my friends were hurt and in danger.

“No,” she told me.  “They’re alive.  The children you say we killed.”

“You’re lying.”

“There’s no way to bring clones up to speed as fast as we did without a shortcut, Sylvester,” Avis said.  “The bodies were material.  The brains?  It wasn’t much different from making a stitched.  Keep the essentials.”

I thought of what Mary had said about the other Percy.

That he wasn’t him, the little things were different.

Tics.  Muscle memory, way of standing, way of walking.

I believed her.

“The children?  You’ve been killing them, not us,” Avis said.

“No,” I said.  “You took the part that mattered.”

Something cracked as the fire ate away at structural integrity.  There was a violent snap, and something tumbled.

“If you jump,” I said, “Then I’m jumping after you.  I’m going to grab your wings.  I don’t think they’re strong enough to carry both of us.”

“There are reasons,” the Duke said, “We haven’t yet made man fly.”

He’d emerged, stepping around the other end of the wall.  He, Avis and I formed a proper triangle, with Avis at the balcony.

“At best, four wings and some vigorous flapping, she could glide.  Two wings?  She can hope to try and control her spiral to the ground.  With luck, she’d even avoid the worst of the bullets and find a place to run from.  With a Lamb latched onto you, Avis, you’ll plummet.”

“He might not catch hold of me on his way down.”

My gaze was cold.  “I’m willing to try.”

Something told me she believed me.

“Will we have our duel after all?” the Duke asked.  “I’ve been handicapped.  I was stabbed no less than thirteen times.  One pole of some sort was thrust through my leg.”

He barely showed it, though blood ran down his clothing and dripped from a few spots here and there.  There was a steady and unbroken stream of blood trailing down from the wound in his cheek to the edge of his chin, where it carried on.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.”

“I can’t imagine any sort of true satisfaction,” the Duke said.  He was smiling.  He spread his arms, and he looked like the giant of a man he was, especially in contrast to Avis’ frail form.  “A snack of a conflict, rather than a meal.”

“With all due respect, my lord,” I said, not taking my eyes off Avis- I fully expected her to make the leap at any second.  I said, “Where the heck are you taking in your meals?”

“I don’t,” he said.  “Not here.  But home?  I’ve always sparred with my brothers and sister.  That’s a meal.”

“You’re making this out to be something trivial?” Avis asked, eyes narrowed.

“You are trivial,” the Duke said, with the confidence that nothing else was even possible.

She shook her head.  “You’re everything that’s wrong with the world.”

I glanced back at Helen.  The fire wasn’t too near her.  I wondered if it was even possible to talk to the Duke and ask him to move her.

“You were lucky enough to grow up in a world my family created, Avis,” the Duke said.  “One where you haven’t seen the true ugliness of mankind, and you can actually believe what you just said.”

“Even before the Crown became what it is, before Wollstone, the world got better, decade after decade, century after century.  The people of the world were happier, healthier and longer-lived than those who came before.  From stone age to bronze age to iron age-”

“And then the dark age,” the Duke said.

She shook her head.  “No.  We were still progressing.  We had a way forward.  The age of machinery, then the age of blood.  The last age, where we look inward.  But you’ve perverted it.  You’ve made it about power, for you.  Powerlessness for everyone else.  Ask your people, the ones who serve the Crown, and three out of five will tell you you’re wrong, you’re loathed.  The other one or two out of five, I’m not sure they’re just too scared to say it out loud.  Your wars, your breaches of everything that’s right-”

“Is temporary,” I cut in, without thinking.

The Duke gave me a look, his chin rising a fraction.

“In this, we might agree, Sylvester,” she said.  She fixed her eyes on the Duke.  “The Crown is a temporary power.  It has to be.”

“No,” I said.  “No, not like that.  You’re wrong about something.  The age of blood isn’t the last one.  There’s a final expanse.  The mind, the brain.  Once we unravel that, we’ll be able to see a way through.”

“Of course you’d say that.”

“Of course of course!” I said.  I allowed myself a half second to wish I had the Wyvern formula to help me better formulate my rebuttals.  “I know how stupid people are!  I can see it in half the people I talk to, I veer from stupidity to brilliance!  I know!  We have to be patient.  We have to keep from destroying ourselves in the meantime.  We have to keep the likes of you from destroying them.”

From destroying us.

I thought of Helen, of the others, beaten, battered, and in danger.

“That’s how you justify yourself?  That’s really how you see it?”


“You’re such a child,” she said.

“With the abilities of an adult,” I said.

“A far cry from being adult,” she said.  She heaved out a sigh, wings flexing.  “I don’t think I have many ways out.”

“You never did,” the Duke said.

“I’ll chance being shot.  If you want to catch me on the way down, feel free to try.”

Then she started to topple backward over the railing.  The Duke lifted his pistol, aiming skyward, rather than shooting.

I bolted, running.

I felt rather than saw the movement of the knife, just to my left.

It raked her shoulder, and it caught her wing.  Feathers and fire-resistant powder flew into the air.  I saw her eyes, already wide and bloodshot, go wider.

I dropped, throwing myself forward.  I reached past the rails of the railing, grabbing-

I seized a strap of her top with both hands.  Her weight dragged me forward, my head and ribs slamming into the rails.  I managed to keep my grip.

“Let me go,” she said.  Her fingernails bit into my arm.  “Let.  Go!”

My fingers started to give.  She was lighter than she should’ve been, more modifications, no doubt, but I wasn’t strong.  I felt a pain in my hands that suggested they’d be hurting for days.

And then the burden was lifted.

“Power, and powerlessness, hm?” I heard the Duke speak, close.

The Duke loomed over me.  He grabbed her as she kicked and fought, and held her so she was face to face with him.  An angel with the face of a demon and a demon with the face of an angel.

She’d enhanced her strength with the combat drug, but for purposes far from fighting the Duke.  Only to fly, or to make the attempt.  She wasn’t up to fighting the Duke, even as he drew a syringe from one pocket and plunged it into her neck.

I disengaged myself from the railing, clutching hands to my chest.  I turned to face the burning building interior.

It hadn’t been Mary to throw the knife that injured the wing, but Jamie.  He was at the edge of the balcony now, standing by Helen’s body, and by Lillian, who was tending to Helen.  They had to have crossed the fire the same way Helen and I did.

Surprising, on a number of levels.

Helen was breathing.  She was alive.  With Lillian there, she’d stay alive.

“Good enough,” the Duke said.  He was smiling like he’d just had the time of his life.  The fact that Claret Hall was burning down hardly mattered.  He raised his voice, loud enough for the crowd below and the pair’s sensitive ears to hear, halfway around the building, “Dog, Catcher!  The Lambs need a way down!”

He reached out with a free hand and touched the top of my head as he passed by, entering the building to collect the other Lambs and workers.

Jamie and I stared at the surreal image.  When we could no longer see him, his body cloaked by smoke and fire, there was a moment where we were supposed to speak, to look at each other, to joke.

I felt the absence of that moment keenly.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

102 thoughts on “Lamb to the Slaughter – 6.12

  1. I really like the characterization that we get from Avis’ choice of escape method. The symbiote she’s wearing is untested and a dream. It’s the kind of thing she’d hope never to use, so it naturally represents the things she wants the most. She’s an ideological zealot bent on freedom. Of course she’d want to fly.

      • Well considering the whole “Lobotomize Children to speed up the cloning” thing, It looks like the rebellion has gone over the moral event horizon.

        • Stitched feel pain.

          That means essentially *everyone* in Twigverse has gone over the moral event horizon. A significant part of Twigverse science is necromancy by another name: zombies, flesh golems, etc.

          • It’s the heel vs heel problem. When they are all assholes, who do you root for? If you dislike them equally why should you care who wins or who looses?

          • I’m actually pretty fine with this. Given the sheer scale of the Crown and the Academy, it seems pretty clear that the rebellion is less terrible, if only because it’s less numerous. The rebels may not be any nicer (Percy at least is a perfect example of this), but they don’t have the resources yet to be as terrible as the Crown.

            That’s sufficient basis for me to root for the rebellion, even though their side currently seems to have no chance whatsoever.

            I’m aware of the irony that if I want the rebellion to win, they’ll have to match the Crown in strength, which puts us back into the “everyone is equally terrible” scenario — but I see no need to worry about that yet.

          • Admittedly, the Rebellion does still have the ethical advantage in that I can still genuinely believe that they might stop doing terrible things if they win, which puts them well ahead of the Academy.

  2. typo

    “She sidestepped it in an awkward way. I wasn’t sure if it was that the cloth was burning or the

    Leaving Helen”

    • More typos:

      – “and the space between the lines of that ‘x’ were filling in” -> “spaces”

      – “so well informed on the Lambs” -> “well-informed”

      – “The four humors had been pretty up to date.” -> “Humors”

      – “He took a step to one side as flame touched one of the cushions a matter of feet from the Duke” -> “from him” or “from himself”

      – “I hauled her up as best as I could.” -> “as best I could” (I’ve seen this grammar error come up multiple times in recent chapters)

      – “lashing out as best as I could” -> (see above)

      – “folded into itself by way of far too many joints” -> (parts of this sentence seem superfluous

      – “From stone age to bronze age to iron age-”“And then the dark age,”” -> “Stone Age”, “Bronze Age”, Iron Age”, “Dark Ages” (and continuing that pattern, one might also want to capitalize the remaining ages mentioned, e.g. the Age of Blood)

      Other stuff:

      – “She backed away a little, I let go of Helen’s hand to approach.” -> (might want to split this into two sentences)

  3. Typo Thread:

    “She sidestepped it in an awkward way. I wasn’t sure if it was that the cloth was burning or the”

    Sentence unfinished

  4. Hm, so Sy’s motiviation comes to light. He doesn’t believe humanity can come back from a civil war.

    Interesting transformation. Is this the drug Frey talked about?

    The Duke seems to believe in some “Dark Age”. I imagine that it’s the world pre-Twigness.

    • The “dark age,” working from a Eurocentric viewpoint, is basically when everything went to shit after the Roman Empire collapsed. I’m guessing that the Duke doesn’t see it as having ended before his family took power, yeah. Which implies a staggering ego and lack of historical understanding, but that’s to be expected.

      • The irl dark ages are called that because people didn’t keep historical records of the time, or what was written down has been lost or destroyed. They weren’t necessarily bad, just a time in history we’re in the dark about.

        • Also the enlightenment movement kinda demonized it, since they were moving out of it, and it made them look better. But I wouldn’t be so critical of it Duke. One of the big reasons given it was a dark age was because of royalty having absolute power and controlling the spread of knowledge. So Pot, stop calling the Kettle black.

  5. Missing words:
    “She sidestepped it in an awkward way. I wasn’t sure if it was that the cloth was burning or the”

    Both Sy and Jamie kicking ass? They’re growing up!

  6. I think this was probably my favorite chapter so far. The conversation between Sy, Avis, and the Duke helped to flesh out some of the most interesting and complicated parts of the world. Also, it seems like it might give some very broad clues about what the major theme / end game of the story might be. Really looking forward to seeing it develop further.

    The Duke reminded me a lot of Crawler, especially at the beginning of the chapter. Just the absolute (and correct) certainty that he can handle anything that Avis might try. He’s such an interesting character.

    I also just really enjoyed a lot of the prose in this chapter. Wildbow’s skills as a writer have definitely improved a lot since the start of Worm.

  7. It’s interesting how clear it is that Sy hates Avis. He’s willing to risk killing them both just so that she doesn’t escape. Not for the Academy, but for the kids she used as raw materials. It’s not his ideology that’s at work here, this is something more raw and personal. I don’t think we’ve ever seen him feel that way about an enemy before. Fear them, yeah. Admire them, yep. But hate? That’s new. He really did identify with the mice some, didn’t he?

    Speaking of ideology, Sy continues to confirm that he’s only loyal because Hayle has brainwashed him into believing in the biotech singularity so that all his dead friends will be worth it. I note that he’s got a definite divide between us and them in his thoughts. “Us” isn’t the Academy, or the Tower. It’s him and five other people and Sy needs to make it so that their sacrifices aren’t in vain, so that the people he cares about aren’t destroyed, so that there can be more like the Lambs. Sy’s loyalty isn’t even necessarily to the Academy or Hayle personally, it’s to the idea that in the future there will be more people who are better than people.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s hate. Sy seems to have a tendency to self-destructive behavior and may just taken the route that put himself into harm’s way.

      • Sy has been around Hayle his whole life. So of course Hayle’s views set into Sy. Sy hasn’t yet reached the point where he will question them. Like Avis said. He may have an adults abilites, but he is still a child. Like a lot of smart kids he thinks he’s an adult and doesn’t realize it takes more than a high IQ.

        • There’s also another part of that influence to consider: when Hayle was first introduced, Sy equated him to being Sy’s father. And in his own twisted way, Hayle has kind of treated the Lambs like his children at times. Horribly abusive in ways, yes, but much better and more indulgent than the norm for experiments.

          Sy even explicitly said he respects Hayle, when he was getting done with his tantrum right before Mary’s arc. So there might be a touch of “inherited his dream” mixed in with the “influenced by his views”

    • Oh, he’s definitely going to be interested, alright. But if there’s anything the Duke clearly excels at, it’s exactly matching the person with the task, so this should be awesome.

      … for us, that is!

    • Sy isn’t so much a pet as a tool that the Duke can use to help with those fish. The grease that sizzles merrily as it sears the flesh. Besides, I think that we can all agree that Sy is a tool at times.

  8. Awesome read, and I especially love how Jamie decided that he had to stop Avis before Sy did something stupid. Because we all know he would.

  9. Sy’s philosophy continues to be an unjustified and nonsensical mess. I would really like to know if any of the other Lambs share it, or would be convinced by it.

    Sy is a great example of someone whose smarts only benefit him when his assumptions are true – his manipulations work because he actually understands human psychology to an extent, whereas all his worldview (e.g. his continuing loyalty to the Academy) is currently doing is having Gordon expire, and Helen possibly be stolen by the Duke. Sy is like a competent – occasionally even brilliant – scientist who’s simultaneously a religious fundamentalist.

    I don’t buy that Avis had no method of instant suicide available. Betrayal against the Academy can and presumably will be answered with never-ending torture – for instance, we’ve seen that stitched can feel pain, and e.g. Ms. Fray’s stitched had remnants of personality. That’s what happens to people who just ‘die’; what the Academy could do to Avis is orders of magnitude worse. Not to mention that they’ll most likely be able to access her entire memory, so Avis not committing suicide jeopardizes the entire rebellion.

    • It’s not over just yet. She might have boobytrapped herself in case of capture, or swallowed some brain-destroying slow-effect poison alongside her strength booster. In the event of her capture, she turns into a useless sack of flesh – she would only get the antidote from a rebellion safehouse.

      So, the “cloning” process was actually more of a mutating process.
      Take a kid, rewire its brain so it works on a completely loyal quasi-hivemind, use growth accelerants to make it adult… (and female ? I’ll have to reread to check if all the kidnapped mice were girls – or maybe some of these were androgynous male Ghosts) and use the process to sculpt it into roughly the same body musculature and attributes.
      No wonder they weren’t quite as polished as the Bad Seeds.

      • The kidnapped mice were both genders. They must have used a standard body plan and rebuilt almost everything.

        Actually, it’s kind of weird what they’re good at and what they aren’t. They coordinate and exploit their echolocation almost flawlessly, but don’t seem to know how to talk and can’t handle things that they can’t track with echolocation.

        • Feels like the brain process involves some sort of heavy splicing with chiroptera material, to support their new skills. Loss of speech could be a direct consequence.

    • Sy wants a biological Singularity, and he thinks that that Academy can make that happen, but I don’t agree. They can’t even make a flying human.

      • Even if the Academy managed to cause a singularity, they still couldn’t guarantee a non-disastrous one. In this biopunk setting, the likely outcome of biology truly gone amok looks more like a global pandemic to me.

        Though Sy might hope more for something like a race of ubermenschen, for instance via the final outcome of the Lambs project. And in that case, a) the Duke and the Crown family provide a rather unfortunate example of such an outcome, and b) why suppose that these ubermenschen would value anyone who’s less than them? In this case, the Lambs are a great example. By human standards, they’re amoral monsters who value almost no-one but themselves, and otherwise kill with impunity.

        • I think that Sy is not particularly interested in a utopia. He just wants people to be less stupid because stupid people piss him off.

          • This made me laugh. I suspect there is more to Sy’s motivation, but I can see this being a big part of it.

          • A big part nothing, he specifically describes his perfect world as a place where everyone is arguing all the time and improving each other through it like he does.

        • I want to read a fanfic of an old Academy scientist trying to create a better (that is, more moral) person. Trying different approaches and stuff. They need that guy in their brain department.
          I’m still not convinced that the Academy has changed the world for the worse. They’ve probably defeated hunger and a lot of natural diseases that took a heavier toll than all their bioweapons together. On the other hand, I’m just not squicked by biomods, so YMMV.

          • I think that Avis’s point was more that the crown has made life worse through its monopoly and general horribleness towards others, and that it isn’t necessarily that it is worse as much as that it’s the slowest possible improvement from biotech.

      • Yet. The “yet” is the most important thing in science. They seem to only be one or two breakthroughs away from flying humans.

        • Probably just need more wings of various sizes.
          If only they could catch a glimpse from some sort of transdimensional superbeing that would grant them a mere shard of an idea…

      • As I mentioned below, though, I’m baffled that Sy thinks he can get his biotech singularity by siding with the Academy. The Academy and the Crown are not about science at all; they’re about power, which means the power of the (human) people in them and the few nobles at the top. Whatever scientific research they do is clearly secondary to that. Witness how Fray and Percy have freely used intelligence-enhancement and cloning for recursive improvements, whereas Jamie is threatened with death if anyone knows he’s using his enhanced brain for the same things.

        It’s bizarre; in most other things, Sy is smarter than this. I can only assume that he’s brainwashed, as other people have said — his logic simply doesn’t make sense. Nothing we’ve seen about the Academy to date suggests that it’s actually about science or that it would ever support a biotech singularity; it’s primarily about producing weapons to support the Crown’s forces, about preventing anyone else from performing research, and about suppressing any research that could disrupt the status quo. By his own logic, he should have instantly sided with Fray, who was actually attempting a biotechnological singularity with herself as the subject.

        • It should be noted that when one side wins a war, any traces of the opposing side tend to get prejudiced against at the very least and actively hunted down at the very worst. Sure, the rebellion may be using experiments and stitched now, but if they ever get around to winning, anybody calling themselves a scientist should leave. Before the witch hunts start up.

          Anybody blantantly an experiment like Sanguine probably wouldn’t last.

          The society might eventually get back around to Academy level experimenting, but it would be heavily regulated and likely set back any sort of progress by decades, if not centuries.

          • I’m not sure I agree. Most of the rebellion’s leadership, that we’ve seen, consists of scientists and researchers angry at having their research restricted by the Academy and the Crown; Mauer is really the only exception, and he’s made it clear he’s only opposed to the Academy’s methods, not to science itself. Percy, Fray, Cynthia, and every minor character we’ve seen in a leadership position are all driven by a desire for science to be more open. The Rebellion is openly deploying experimental supersoldiers — you honestly believe that not just Sanguine but the hundred of altered men deployed in the last conflict (all of whom seemed greatly respected by the rebellion’s rank-and-file) “wouldn’t last?” That’s just dumb; there’s been no hint whatsoever of any sort of general prejudice against experiments or science in the rebellion.

            Again, I feel that you’re falling for the Academy’s propaganda. The witch hunts are happening right now. The Academy kills far more scientists than the rebellion; the Academy hates and fears its experiments far more than the rebellion does. (Again, look at how tightly Jamie — a relatively minor experiment in the scheme of things — is restricted. He could be executed if it were known that he was performing medicine to save the lives of his friends.)

            Nothing that we’ve seen about the Academy or the Crown has given any hint that their overarching goal, as a system, has anything to do with science; they are entirely about control, and particularly about controlling and limiting science (as well as controlling and limiting people by using science, of course.) The rebellion is mostly people upset about the degree of control, not people angry at science.

            (Now, some people in the rebellion could just want to seize the power for themselves — but they’re not an angry pitchfork mob. For the most part, the rebellion is lead by outcast scientists who the Academy has tried to kill, and from what we’ve seen, them and their creations are respected among the rebellion’s members.)

          • > Again, look at how tightly Jamie — a relatively minor experiment in the scheme of things — is restricted.

            Cynthia and the Humors considered the Lambs to be a superweapon, which puts them on par with e.g. Dog and Catcher or Hangman.

          • “Most of the rebellion’s leadership, that we’ve seen, consists of scientists and researchers angry at having their research restricted by the Academy and the Crown…”
            See what happened to the minor nobility, the leadership of the French Revolution. Most ended up going to the guillotine. The mass of common people are driven by fear of the Academy, of science in general — Maher’s rhetoric is an integral part of the revolution. If the common people win, it won’t be good for science. If the Academy wins, it won’t be good for the common people.

          • The rebellion in general seems highly approving of the Plague Men. Their grievance doesn’t seem to be biotech, but massacres, enslavement, and sterility plagues.

        • You’re assuming that Sy is wholly rational. Sy, like any other human being, does have some emotional responses and subconscious flawed assumptions. It’s just more noticeable in Sy, I think, because he definitely falls on the logical side of the logic-emotion sliding scale.

          • I’m not assuming that Sy is rational. I’m just saying that there are good, logical reasons to support the Academy if you want a biological singularity.

            The fact that the rebellion trends towards anti experimentation is one.

            The fact that the war is encouraging a lot of radical research in that direction is another.

            The fact that the Crown seems to have an interest in that direction would be a third (The way the Duke has been acting suggests at least an abnormal mode of thinking, which is probably supported by some sort of neuro enhancements.)

    • Even if his goal is a biological singularity, siding with the Academy still doesn’t make any sense.

      Sy keeps saying that the Academy system is advancing knowledge, but really, the opposite is true. Most of the opposition aren’t luddites — they’re rival scientists angry that the Academy is suppressing knowledge. The purpose of the Crown isn’t to advance humanity or to spread human knowledge, it’s to control humanity and therefore to limit knowledge. The fact that the Lambs are underfunded and Jamie is so heavily restricted that he had to break the rules just to keep them from dying shows this — the Academy and the Crown didn’t create Hayle; the Academy and the Crown are restraining Hayle.

      Sy is flatly delusional here. He’s on the side that opposes science, limits the spread of knowledge, and is actively trying to prevent enhanced minds from performing scientific research for fear that it would weaken their grip on power. The only people who have really used biotech to accelerate science are Percy and Fray, while we know that if anyone realized Jamie was so much as performing medicine to save people’s lives, he would be killed.

      • I disagree that Sy is delusional. Racism, Sexism, other isms, all extend from ignorance, for failing to connect that other peoples existence is as weighty as your own. I think Sy and so many intelligent people who understand others do so from a place of empathy, and that high enough intelligence makes it unavoidable. I’m not talking technical intelligence, cause there are idiots who are brilliant in some areas, more in terms of generalized intelligence. (of course I recognize that upbringing creates a cognitive dissonance in some which they refuse to overcome) The biological singularity in Sy’s mind I assume is contagious, a pathogen which makes you understand. By going against the Academy, the system is fragmented and this kind of research put aside. Assuming the crown eventually applies the thought-accelerator to the family members then it will spread downwards.

        • Beware: Intelligence and values are orthogonal. Superior intelligence might allow you to more accurately predict another person’s thoughts, emotions, and reactions – but if you don’t value those, you will use this understanding solely to manipulate.

          Sy himself does this all the time, manipulating people with abandon.

          • People have a lot of built-in machinery for morality. Even “more empathy, more long-term thinking, more intelligence, more value for strangers” may get you a better person. And I don’t think it’s impossible for the Academy even as it is now. Needs work, of course. The problem is, it’s not a weapon, so Crown wouldn’t probably fund it too much or even at all.

        • The fact that there’s moral progress (i.e. people in the past did things we consider abhorrent nowadays) makes for a strong limit to that built-in morality, though. We certainly aren’t predisposed to value strangers! In Twigverse, for instance, there’s a clear class system with the Crown family at the top, the Academy system beneath, then common people, then stitched and experiments.

          • Has there really been moral progress? It seems to me that people that we would now consider morale have always existed, and that immoral people have always existed as well. Take the killing of infants. It still goes on today, though largely only with female babies. The story of Abraham decries this practice, however. Homosexuality has come in and gone out as an accepted practice throughout history and different cultures.

            I think the major difference is that our world today is so much more wealthy compared to every other civilization in the past that more people than ever before can afford to live like kings. The very poor and downtrodden are still the very poor and downtrodden, although in the USA today it’s taken as a given that society won’t let a person starve to death, that a person with terrible medical maladies and no money to pay for care should still receive some treatment somehow, etc. — I don’t think that this is necessarily society as a whole becoming more morale, but society as a whole is rich enough that we can afford to do these things.

          • It’s not just that bad things happen less than before, but that the vast majority of people now recognizes them as bad. Take religious persecutions: if one genuinely believes that the followers of a heathen religion will end in hell, then it’s one’s moral duty to convert them to the One True Religion. From *that* perspective, it’s not evil, but virtuous. (Incidentally, the Westboro Baptist Church can be seen from a similar perspective.) In contrast, nowadays most people in Western societies would agree that religious freedom is a good thing.

            Similarly, while the poor still exist, there’s a world of difference between the degree of violence and suffering they experience nowadays than they would have in medieval times. For instance, Western nations are no longer constantly at war with their neighbours.

            Stephen Pinker has a whole book on the topic, called The Better Angels of Our Nature. If you’re interested in the topic, you might want to google a (neutral) summary of it.

      • Excellent points! I hadn’t thought about Sy’s idealism towards the Academy in those terms. To add to your points: the Academy also only seemed to support or encourage science for military use. And Briggs told the Lambs that he’d rather test something until it breaks and then build an improved version. Neither of these notions would help the Lambs.

        To play devil’s advocate regarding the Crown’s restriction of knowledge: limiting knowledge and science is what you should do if you actually expect an otherwise unguided biological singularity. In Twigverse, we’re at the point where anyone can create a bioweapon. From the Crown’s perspective, preventing ‘terrorists’ (i.e. unaffilliated scientists) from creating homegrown pandemics is not without merit. Of course, their world-conquering only makes such terrorism more probable and dangerous, but that’s a somewhat separate issue.

      • …What if Sy isn’t the only one who wants a biological singularity? The Duke seemed really happy with Sy after that argument, after all…

        The Academies, cutthroat places designed to seek out the best of the best, and then to make those people do better, just to keep up with their rivals.

        When that stops working, the rebellion picks up the slack, adds outside pressure and competition to do well. The friction kills off the weak and undesirable results, the Avisis, the Melachonys, and the Briggs, while the more adaptable Lambs and Sanguines and Cynthias survive and see more of themselves manufactured. The neuro enhancements that work become more widespread through sheer necessity, and people allow more and more extreme measures just to break even against their opponents…

        Fray was the second Wyvern, and I think its telling that she’s a scientist. Somebody wanted a smarter scientist badly enough to risk one getting outsmarted. That’s not something that somebody interested in control does. Ever.

        If Fray had played ball, and gone into brain biotech…

      • This has been pointed out to me in other story forums:
        Just because we have an omniscient viewpoint and see some of Sy’s thoughts, that doesn’t mean we see all of them. Sy could be deliberately doing damage control for his earlier insolence by seeming loyal, even to the extent of personal danger. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the only ways he could successfully show loyalty – actions speak louder than words.

    • Sy is not a long-term thinker, though. Premises or brainwashing aside, it’s just not what he does. Long-term plans are another Wyvern’s domain, and i’m very interesting in what that one has cooking.

      I imagine there’s a possibility that each appearance of that person marks the passing of yet another godzilla threshold.

      • His unwavering loyalty, though, is very interesting. For a person who can forget how to ride a bycicle, to not rethink his loyalties on a daily basis?

        • Maybe if he started to rethink his loyalties to the Academy, he would start to rethink his loyalties to the lambs, and that may not be a road he wants go on…

          • The only way Sy controls his unlearning is by constantly relearning the stuff he wants to keep learned. So either deliberately or not, he’s constantly relearning to believe the church of biosingularity.

    • They very likely have aerial combat biotech units that make hard tech airplanes unnecessary. Enough was granted with Gladys’ bugs. Skip 100 years of aeroplane design and go straight to biological UAV’s and cruise missiles loaded with pathogens.

      • We haven’t seen any combat flyers yet, not even for reconnaissance. I think that’s an area where the Academy is seriously lacking.

        • I imagine they would have had no tech problems with making scout birds, but if there are any, i bet it’s a problem of how to relay the information.

  10. So, Wollstone seemed to be the genius behind the biological augmentations. May it be that Wollstone is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley? So in this world either Mary Shelley made a scientific breakthrough instead of writing about it, or the good Doctor Frankenstein didn’t took his secret with him in his grave.

  11. “Jamie was impossible to get through to when he got stubborn, and with him being in a strange way of thinking,” This is such a heavy and hurtful sentence. Ouch.

    I wonder why Mary didn’t participate with her knives until late in the chapter.

    This was a very interesting chapter. The pocket change was an amazing little piece of comedy; Sy should keep pocket sand. I liked Avis. I don’t agree with some of the things he said, but yes, the Duke is really a big part of what’s wrong with the world (and that’s why I love him). It’s also nice how Lillian had this huge promotion in Sy’s mind after saving Mary. Lillian can keep anyone alive.

    Really, I just want to see where this is all going. It’s really damned interesting.

    • It’s odd how there aren’t any humans that can fly. This must mean that there aren’t any big creatures made by the Academy that can fly. I can see political reasons for this; you don’t want your acid spit, poison gas, pest carrying experiment escape because you hadn’t thought of the ways a flying creature could escape and kill everyone. But what are the technical reasons?

      The Academy can do big stuff pretty well. I imagine it’s the finesse they lack; the ability to output a lot of power with a handful of muscles. I think the research that is Helen might provide some insight into this? (I’m calling it now, flying Helen).

      • I’m thinking that the Aristocracy have their own Jurassic/Paleogene Parks as personal big game hunting ground. As for flying experiments, Pterosaur derivatives come to mind.

      • Lifting heavy objects with flapping requires a large wingspan, and the wings need to be at least moderately sturdy, which means they’re heavier, which means they need to be bigger, so they’re heavier and need to be sturdier. Apparently the Academy hasn’t managed to hit a practical sweet spot. Though they might have better luck with a human-sized creature with hollow bones like actual birds.

        • IRL, the scaling works out that a human-proportioned person about 3-4 feet tall would be able to fly in Earth gravity. Basically, you’d wind up with something that physically resembles Papi from Monster Musume no Iru Nichijou (minus the ability to fly while carrying people, which can really only be attributed to “it’s magic, don’t think about it too much”).

      • Since the main method of the academy and other twig scientists revolves about modifying existing organisms, or draw their inspiration in other ways heavily from nature, they are unlikely to achieve flight.
        Aerodynamics work very different on different scales. A plane the size of a car can not fly the same way a bird can, simply because the physics is drastically different.

        That being said they seem able to glide, so their problem is likely only the propulsion.

        • IIRC the most versatile flying organisms in nature are hummingbirds & bumblebees, scaling up from there would make the most sense.

          • You can’t scale such small animals up to human level, just as we don’t have humans as comparatively strong as ants – the physics don’t work that way.

            Here’s an intuitive but highly simplified way of thinking about this: the lift force scales with one’s area, while the force of gravity scales with one’s mass, which at constant density would scale with one’s volume. A sphere with radius r has an area proportional to r^2 and a volume proportional to r^3. So the ratio of lift force to gravity is proportional to the ratio of area to volume, which is r^-1. In other words, as the sphere’s radius (size) increases, gravity becomes more and more dominant, until the lift force can no longer counteract it.

            Granted, animals aren’t spheres with constant volume, but the same logic still applies.

  12. Does it disturb anyone else that the Duke gave Sy a pat on the head as he went past? I think he might be thinking “I like these children, I shall keep them as pets.”

    • Given that Helen was badly burned in the chapter and will probably take a while to repair, the Duke may have picked a new Lamb to bring home as a souvenir.

      • Looks like Sy might be his new favorite. But I wouldn’t count out the Duke going for the whole set. On the upside that might mean better care for the Lambs. Either Gordon goes off looking for Frey now, or never. His heart’s shot, and apparently they can’t give him another, so he’s no good unless something very major is done.

  13. According to Wikipedia, the Dalmatian Pelican is the heaviest living flying bird with a median weight of 25 pounds. Unless the Academy has the technology to revive extinct species, they don’t really have much to work with for making something with human-like weight airborne, and I’m going to assume the Wright brothers either never existed in Twigverse, or mechanical technology never advanced far enough to provide the foundation for their flyer.

  14. ‘“The children? You’ve been killing them, not us,” Avis said.

    “No,” I said. “You took the part that mattered.”’

    I’ve been thinking. This feels like foreshadowing about what will happen to the lambs. Jamie in particular. According to Fray, Jamie can’t be saved. I think we have come to the conclusion that at some point he just can’t keep going; maybe he will run out of memory or something. Could it be that Sy will find himself in a situation where they’ll fix Jamie, but it won’t really be him, because he doesn’t have his memories? Or a Gordon V2?

    • I think you’ve got something there. Jaimie is the character is truest to himself, and Sy is most true to himself in turn when he’s around Jaimie. The worst way to take Jaimie away from Sy would be to make him someone different.

    • The word “virtually” in this sense goes back to the mid-19th century at least. A quick search of my etext corpus shows several uses in the early 20th century and one a bit earlier, an early translation of “From the Earth to the Moon”:

      “The great works undertaken by the Gun Club had now virtually
      come to an end; and two months still remained before the day for
      the discharge of the shot to the moon.”

  15. “Good enough,” the Duke said…The fact that Claret Hall was burning down hardly mattered.
    If the Duke isn’t listed as a “Reasonable Authority Figure” on the TV Tropes page…well, I hope there’s a good reason for it.

Leave a Reply. No spoilers for other Wildbow works!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s