Avis raised her head, groggy, her vision unfocused. Chains and bands of metal clinked.
The table she was bound to was set on a hinge so it could be laid flat, or tilted so she was standing up. Bars sat between toes and fingers, locking them in place, and a network of wires had been worked into her mouth and around her shaved head, locking jaw and tongue in place. Tubes fed clear fluids into her and drained out dark ones. Mechanical arms with more tubes, syringes, and other tools hung around her, poised like a dozen scorpion tails, ready to strike at her.
Her gradual struggle, waking up to find out how firmly she was bound, made for a backdrop of clinks and grunts, quickly growing more intense.
“Avis,” the Duke spoke.
The noises ceased. Her eyes found us. The Duke stood, his doctors behind him. His wounds had been patched up, now virtually invisible, and he’d changed both shirt and coat for something less bloodstained. Jamie, Lillian, and I were there, Lillian beside Jamie, me off to one side, nearer the Duke, sitting on a table.
“If your chest hurts,” the Duke said, “It’s because of the day’s surgeries. I imagine the drug you took was intended to kill you if you didn’t take a very specific antidote, but my doctors are very good. You are going to live, Avis Pardoe.”
She was breathing harder, but she wasn’t physically struggling.
He glanced at a piece of paper that sat on the corner of the same table I did. “Capsule embedded in your leg, I assume it would be activated with sustained flexing of the calf muscle, that has been removed. We have also removed, for the time being, your ability to use your thumbs and fingers independently. If and when we release you from your bondage, you won’t be able to stand, crawl, or make any vigorous movements without assistance. Should you try, your hip and shoulder joints will come free of the sockets.”
He turned his attention back to her.
“The bonds you’re in now are a formality, and I do like formalities, Avis. I’ve been told by my doctors that it is kinder to keep you like this, so you won’t accidentally hurt yourself. You’ve been given our best drugs to dull pain. I want you to think very clearly about things between visits.”
She tried to speak. It was garbled by the wires in her mouth.
“You had your chance to speak earlier. This isn’t a stage for you to say anything except what I want you to say. One of my doctors is going to remove the gag from your mouth, I am going to ask you a question, and you will answer either yes or no. If you take too long, I’ll consider it the same as you giving me the answer I don’t want to hear. You do not want to say anything but that yes or no.”
She nodded a little.
“Don’t lie to me,” he said, as he signaled one doctor, “I don’t believe in torture. I don’t like it, even as I recognize just how common it is. Our own bodies torture us with hunger and pain if we put ourselves in the wrong circumstances. If you’re smart about this, you won’t experience either. You can say you won’t give me an answer, and nothing will be done to you, but don’t lie, and don’t say anything but ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
One of the doctors stepped forward. Two keys were inserted into either side of the gag, latches clicked, locks came undone, and the entire thing jumped in the man’s hands. He withdrew it, and with it came a two-foot long cord of interconnected metal and tubes, with what looked like a lamprey worked out into the center of it all, thin streams of blood trailing from tiny teeth at the one end.
Avis coughed and sputtered, gagging as the end of the tube came out. Her head bowed as she dry-heaved, coughing.
The Duke spoke, very clearly, “Will you tell me where I can find the other cells of Percy’s enhanced clones?”
She looked at the Duke, then at each of us. I could imagine the cogs in her brain turning, over and over, trying to figure out the trick, the catch. She coughed, trying to clear her throat.
“No, I assume?” the Duke asked.
“No,” she said, voice hoarse and gravelly to the point she sounded like an old man.
The Duke nodded. “Doctor, I don’t believe there’s a need for the gag. You can leave it out. Avis, I’ll be back soon. Take some time to consider your next response.”
She opened her mouth as though she was about to speak, then closed it. She looked between us, wary, before fighting her bonds anew.
The Duke gestured to the door. I hopped down from my seat. The way things went, I wound up right beside Jamie as we passed through the door together, the doctors behind us.
Not that ‘together’ was the right word.
The Duke let the door shut.
“My lord,” I said. “May I ask?”
“Lord, time is kind of of the essence, isn’t it?
“It is. Time is the operative word, as it happens, Sylvester,” the Duke told me. “You know, I’m very interested in the brain. You raised the topic with Avis Pardoe, and the timing felt serendipitous.”
“Time and brains, my lord?” I asked. I felt as if he was getting at something.
“While you were looking after your fellow Lambs at the Hedge, seeing that they got the care they needed, I was busy looking after Mrs. Pardoe. All four of my doctors worked on her. One worked on her brain. She’ll experience time in a very different way from now on.”
It dawned on me. “With utmost respect, my lord, I’m assuming she won’t think you were gone for a few minutes?”
“She won’t feel as if I was gone for a few minutes, no. In terms of raw thinking ability, I’m sure she’ll be able to rationalize it and logically work out that time is passing normally. But she’ll think faster in some ways and slower in others. Perhaps she’ll feel as if it has been days. Weeks, more likely?”
He made it a question One of his doctors gave him a nod, and a murmured, “M’lord.”
“Months aren’t out of the question?”
“No, my lord. Not out of the question,” the Doctor said, quiet. “Without patience or pacing, years or decades aren’t out of the question either. It depends on her coping mechanisms. If she tries to keep count of passing seconds and minutes, it will seem more pronounced. The watched pot, in this case, never boils.”
“No torture, no pain, no mutilation,” the Duke said. He looked pleased. “I’m doing nothing more than giving her the time she needs to reconsider her stance. After that, I will let her consider whether to turn in people she worked with, and whether to join the Academy in earnest, working to put herself back in our good graces. I suppose we might have her report the whereabouts of her family and acquaintances, for future leverage. I imagine it will be a productive night.”
“My lord,” Lillian said.
“Lillian, was it? You’re the student.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Speak your mind, child.”
“I don’t- I think what you’re doing is torture. Worse than anything you could do to her body, my lord.”
“I’d think a student was more on top of what the Academy is capable of doing, Lillian,” the Duke said. “Is it truly so bad?”
“I wouldn’t wait too long, my lord. You may be underestimating how frail the average person is.”
“Good advice,” he said, nodding. He touched her hair. “Good child. I’ll see to her after we’re done talking, then, rather than waiting the full thirty minutes.”
Lillian ventured a smile.
“I hadn’t considered. My doctors said it would be effective, and I almost didn’t believe them, but the principle wasn’t unsound, giving her more time to think, so to speak, or giving that time a different sort of meaning.”
It was a weird thought, one that I couldn’t quite frame, in the context of who the Duke was. He hadn’t considered, which meant he couldn’t empathize, which meant…
“My lord,” I said, “Was something similar done to you?”
The Duke smiled. “It was. I do suppose I’ve had the advantage of it being the case from birth, something I’ve learned to harness, while our guest is experiencing it new, not a shift from a walk to a canter, or vice versa, but to a different vehicle altogether. Even I wouldn’t enjoy the deprivation of sensation she’s experiencing now. Doing nothing with my time is an alien idea to me, and wouldn’t have been permitted regardless. I wouldn’t say I think faster, but I can devote exactly the right amount of time to a problem as is needed. Brains are so fascinating, aren’t they?”
“Yes, my lord,” I said, my voice falling in with the others.
“When my brothers, sister and I were asked who was willing to come to Radham, the research being on brains here was one reason I volunteered,” the Duke said. “As clever as this small alteration to my own brain is, it’s crude. I often find myself wondering if my own heirs will have better brains. If it’s possible that one of you will be the model for the next generation of nobles. Or perhaps one of you will, when given permission, explore other options and open the doors to a new age.”
“Yes, my lord,” we said. I was very cognizant of Jamie, who hadn’t had that permission to explore the options he’d dipped his toe into, and of Lillian, who knew about Jamie, but was a far worse liar than Jamie was.
“Tell me, Lillian, what’s your end goal?” the Duke asked.
“My goal, my lord?”
“Do you want to become a noble’s doctor?” The Duke indicated the doctors standing at attention just behind him.
“My lord, I’d-” Lillian started. She stopped abruptly as the Duke’s hand went up.
“No, my lord. I don’t mean any offense, I-”
Again the hand went up. I was annoyed on Lillian’s behalf. Me, I could deal. I’d earned the man’s ire earlier, and I had no idea if I’d patched it up by courting his favorite topic or if I had a sword looming over my head, ready to fall. But he’d asked a question and he wasn’t letting her answer. He didn’t truly know her, and he was setting her up to fail. It was a blatant test. With three Lambs being patched up, I felt a little more protective of the ones who’d remained. Even if one was Jamie, who I had no idea how to deal with.
“No, my lord,” she said, again. She stopped there.
“Were I to start talking about the Lambs and how things work, my hopes for the project and the possibility for the Crown, heads would turn. I know how I was when I was young, my brain working the way it does, and I have many family members who are roughly your age,” the Duke said. He arched one eyebrow and looked at Lillian. “My younger relatives might well want to be Lambs, as a lark, or to have a way of stretching their legs as I did earlier today, I would imagine you’re the easiest one to replace, should we need to make room on this team.”
Lillian was so bad at hiding her tells. I could see the horror on her face.
I felt it, myself.
“Or to move to a new team formed of nobles and higher quality work, now that I think about it,” the Duke mused. “Counsel, an unbiased perspective able to inform the new group about how things are done. You and three or four young nobles?”
“My lord, I wouldn’t be worthy,” she said. She was trying to keep her expression straight. She tried a smile and failed. She cleared her throat, though it wasn’t her voice that had gone funny, but her face, as if she could make the sound and distract from what her face was doing.
The Duke took it in stride as if it was something that happened daily.
I felt a weird kind of jealousy and irritation at that. If he was doing that unintentionally to Lillian, then it wasn’t right or fair of him. If he was doing it intentionally, then he was bothering her in a way that was usually for me to do. Not to mention that I was a lot more careful about how I did it, while the Duke didn’t seem to understand any of the nuances here.
“Hmm,” the Duke made a noise, considering. “The reason I ask, dear Lillian, is that you’ve earned my attention and my respect. If you know where you’re going, it could inform my choices, so I leave you as happy and close to your end goal as possible.”
“A-a black coat, my lord,” Lillian stuttered.
“A political appointment as much as it has anything to do with status. You could learn to navigate the playing field by studying certain Lambs,” the Duke said, indicating me.
Had she given the right answer? Did this lead the Duke to think she belonged with the Lambs?
“But,” he said, “You could well earn your professorship in record time, no matter where you are.”
Nope. That’s the kind of conclusion that leads the man to think she could be put anywhere.
Lillian managed the most insincere smile I’d ever seen, and she was trying.
Was this man going to casually tear the team asunder, just like that?
“My lord,” Jamie said, pulling attention off Lillian. “Is there a particular reason you’re thinking about restructuring the team?”
“Yes,” the Duke said. “I’ve been reading your files, as well as the latest updates. It may be time.”
I was approaching the limit of my patience.
No, wait, scratch that. I’d reached it.
“Lord Duke,” I said. I took a half-step to position myself forward and to one side, putting myself more in front of Jamie and Lillian, between them and the Duke. Jamie touched my arm, an instinctive movement, before he pulled away. I spoke, “You’re wrong.”
Behind the Duke’s back, the noble’s doctors broke their stoic composure to give me looks as if I were insane.
“You disagree,” the Duke said. Voice cold and dangerous. “I haven’t forgotten the insolence earlier. You test me.”
“With all due respect, my lord, you were testing her. We all have default behaviors we go back to when we’re on unstable footing. Lillian’s a good soldier, she defaults to shutting up and following orders, to insecurity and not speaking up when she needs to. If you move forward with either of the options you’re thinking about, you will utterly destroy her. You will hurt the Lambs, lord Duke.”
“A strategic break, nothing more.”
“We’re growing, my lord, we’re still young, we’re not fully developed. Jamie’s improving by leaps and bounds, Lillian’s getting better. We’re evolving the team dynamic.”
“‘Evolving’ may be the wrong word,” the Duke said. “Going by reports and what I’ve seen, things might be trending in the opposite direction.”
He’d noticed. The realization almost took my breath away, stealing my ability to argue.
I did what I could to hide my tells. “We’re effective as a group, my lord.”
I felt a hand touch the small of my back, insistent.
“As an experiment, you’re too muddled with one another to assess independently,” the Duke spoke. “I have the distinct impression you’re arguing with me.”
“My lord, I would say I’m arguing for the Lambs, not arguing against you. Forgive me, but when I talked about my views in front of Avis, I couldn’t help but feel you and I are on the same page, of similar views on where we should be collectively headed. Let me add my views to yours, and yours to mine, my lord.”
“Presumptuous, too,” he said.
Oh. Well. That was that. I’d gone and offended him.
“I’ve had others challenge me like this,” the Duke observed. “Trying to appeal to my desire for excitement and challenge by arguing points, being reckless in conversation with me, foregoing custom and formality.”
I didn’t dare speak at this point. I’d let my mouth run off with me.
“I’m trying to decide if you’ve crossed the line that the rest did in trying to challenge me,” he said.
“My lord,” I said. I waited for an indication I had permission to continue. He gave it, raising his chin a fraction. “I wasn’t actively trying to challenge you. I swear this.”
“I’ve read your file, Sylvester,” he said. He touched the side of my face. “You talked about the behavior we all return to when we’re on shaky footing. I know this is where you go when you’re insecure, how you function as a living being. I do believe you when you say that, and it does inform my answer.”
As much as you know and believe that that, I know that you default to playing with the lives of those around you. When the world doesn’t suit you or make sense, you reorder it. You’re good at reordering it. A builder more than a destroyer. But you’re too big of a man, Lord Duke. You’re a giant among mere mortals, and the most trivial actions you undertake are ones with massive ramifications for the rest of us. That’s how you function.
Except you’re not a dumb giant, trampling over everything in your path. You know just how small we are.
“You’re seeing me as a threat, you’re studying me, and you’re working out a plan of attack,” he observed.
“Sy,” Jamie said, just behind me.
No, couldn’t dwell on Jamie, had to focus. As if mirroring the thought, the Duke raised a hand, indicating with a raised finger that Jamie should stay silent and stay out of this.
In this, too, the Duke and I were on the same page.
“What are you thinking, ‘Sy’?” the Duke asked me, staring down at me with eyes that showed too much white.
“My lord. I’m thinking that you’re smarter than you’re acting right now.”
If Gordon had been present, I was pretty sure he would have socked me one right there, to shut me up, then worked to beg for mercy. He was being looked after for his heart. Mary might have stabbed my butt like she had Helen’s, just to make it clear I was being stupid.
But this wasn’t a man who accepted half-measures.
“Precious Sylvester,” the Duke said. His body language and voice softened. He smiled, and his tone became something very dangerous, alongside the gentle phrasing and volume. “I think you should explain yourself very carefully.”
“The Lambs are a unit, my lord. We developed to cover each others’ weaknesses. I, myself, was pushed forward to patch a gaping hole in the group. But splitting us up now is like clipping a rose branch when it hasn’t budded yet. You know you can let us reach a more complete state before evaluating us. You have people come to you wanting to challenge you because you want to be challenged, you signal it, you outright asked for it with Avis.”
“I signal this?” he asked. Not a question so much as a challenge.
“You’ve talked about home. You want what you had there, on a deeper level. Back home, I have to assume, if you bared your throat like you’re doing here, someone would seize the opportunity. You’re doing it here, I’m seizing, and I’m hoping I’m doing it well enough you’re going to accept it where you’ve rejected others.”
He stared down at me.
“First of all,” he said. “You forgot to call me ‘lord’. I have a grave appreciation of formality, Sylvester. It signals respect. Forgetting something so simple is a telling blow to your attempt to earn my respect by challenging me.”
I didn’t budge an inch or give any outward sign or change of expression, but interally I was screaming and running around in circles.
“Second, your argument hinges on the notion that you’re not yet done developing to your full strength. Yet your Gordon is near the end. You’ve had more injuries. Your group dynamic is reportedly and observably breaking down.”
He let that point hang in the air.
I ventured a response. “My lord.”
He gave me consent to continue, a dismissive backhand swipe with the fingers of one hand. His eyes and body remained stone still, not budging.
I lowered my eyes. “We’ve had more injuries because we’ve been taking on more challenging missions. If the Lambs are breaking down, if we’re dying or nearly done, let the first Lamb die or break away before you take any action. You only lose the opportunity to work on the most perishable of us, and you stand to gain our loyal service in the meantime.”
My eyes still lowered, my heart pounding, I couldn’t see his expression, nor how much I’d succeeded or failed in swaying him.
It was a massive weight on my shoulders, wondering if I’d doomed myself or doomed the group. I let that weight be something real, driving me to the ground. Eyes fixed on the floor of the hallway in the Bowels, I dropped to my knee. I heard and felt the movement of Jamie and Lillian behind me.
“That was my plan already, Sylvester,” the Duke said, above me. “You’re not entirely wrong in your judgment of what I was doing. The Lambs are not ready to be broken up. We already have enough experiments capable of acting independently, too few who work as a collective. I was thinking aloud, wanting to see your response.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said.
“You’re forgiven for this. Stand.”
I stood. My hands shook a bit as I did. I hooked my thumbs into the pockets of my shorts. The fact that my shirt stuck to my back had nothing to do with the summer heat – we’d spent the last while in the Bowels, and it was cool this deep underground, if not quite refreshing.
“You are not, however, forgiven the transgression earlier. I know it is your nature, but I did say I would punish you, and I do what I say. I will decide on something fitting.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said.
“Your fellow Lambs should be going straight from getting care to having their appointments. Have yours as your doctors are able. I expect you to be ready for another task before the week is over. The war wages on, and our enemy is catching up to us in fits and starts.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. My voice was joined by Jamie and Lillian’s.
“I give you leave to go,” he said.
“My lord?” Jamie asked. “Forgive me.”
“What is it?”
Jamie’s eyes remained fixed on the ground. With just a bit of sweat on his nose, his glasses slid down the bridge of the nose. He pushed them back up into place. “It’s customary for the Lambs to fill each other in, so none of us are in the dark or lagging behind the others. Most often that’s me. But we’re going to talk to the others, and we’re going to talk about this conversation. May I ask, if Sy hadn’t spoken up, would this have ended differently?”
“I would have given it thought first, much as Avis is giving her matter some consideration right now. My instinct is that you would have been disbanded,” the Duke said. “Dear Lillian thrown to the nobles, perhaps, Helen ordered to my apartments, the rest of you left to fend for yourselves, with every expectation you wouldn’t fend for particularly long, but you’d see to the most essential tasks in the meantime.”
“Yes, my lord,” Jamie said. “Thank you, my lord. Knowing that will make this easier to convey to Mary and Gordon.”
The Duke declined his head in acknowledgement. He swept his fingers to one side to dismiss us, and we were gone.
We fled, leaving the Bowels and heading off to our individual, long-postponed appointments. Lambs to the Tower.
The exit from the Bowels and the first half of the walk was painfully quiet. We walked among soldiers and warbeasts, students and stitched.
Halfway there, Lillian started crying. Heads turned, curious, but nobody stopped for us.
I reached out for her hand, and she squeezed mine so hard it hurt. She kept wiping at tears, only for new ones to show up. Had she simply let them fall, they might have been blamed on the light drizzle.
“Crybaby,” I said.
She kicked me far harder than was necessary. Doing it while walking meant having to take a quick half-step forward and a twist to one side. She pulled her hand away from mine as she did it, but I held it firmly. I tugged her closer to me, and put my other hand around hers, until I held one of her hands firmly in both my own. I squeezed hard.
I was aware of Jamie, so much quieter than usual, a little to my right.
“You stood up for me.”
“You’re a Lamb,” I said. “I wasn’t going to let him throw you to some group of golden-haired sociopaths so they can torment you to death. Tormenting you is my job.”
“I can do without that part,” she said.
“Pretty sure,” she said. “I like you more when you’re nice.”
It was very possibly the worst thing she could have said or brought up with Jamie there, overhearing.
She sniffed again.
“Here,” I said, letting go of her hand with one of mine and extending a sleeve, my hand pulled inside. “Blow.”
“On your shirt? Eww, Sy.”
“I’m changing first chance I get anyway, and I don’t have any handkerchiefs to offer. You want me to try being nice, take what you can get.”
She sniffed, gave me a wary look, then took the cuff of my shirt and blew her nose into it.
The moment she released my hand, I wiped the snot on the fabric at her shoulder.
She shrieked and came after me, kicking and pummeling me with fists. I dodged as best as I could, up until she pushed me into a puddle. She kicked me when I was down, as much to splash me with muddy water as to drive the toe of her too-hard shoe into my thigh. Proof as much as anything that she was learning stuff from being with the Lambs.
But she was smiling, and Jamie was smiling too. I raised my arms in surrender, and the two of them approached me, offering their hands.
Jamie hadn’t said a word since we’d left the Duke’s company.
We passed the checkpoint at the tower, the guards giving me suspicious look as I dripped liberally with mud. I kept an eye out for the proboscis as it searched Lillian, and saw it pause at the mucus on her shoulder. She gave me a look.
But we were cleared to pass inside. Here, at least, we were regular enough to be known to the guards.
Checking on the other Lambs was priority number one. The door to Mary’s lab was closed, the doctors absent. Ibott and Helen weren’t present either, but I fully expected her to still be at the Hedge or deep in the Bowels, getting replacement skin after the burns.
Gordon was awake.
He lay on a table, his chest open. Tubes fed into it, crimson fluid churning and bubbling within. Doctors milled around him, chattering.
“Sy had a long conversation with the Duke,” Jamie reported, as we drew next to the bedside.
Gordon blinked. He lay his head down on the table, staring at the ceiling. “Good thing my heart’s not in my chest. I might have had a heart attack at the idea.”
“Really?” I asked. “Is it? Can I see?”
He grunted, then eased himself up, until his arms propped his upper body up. The tubes fed into his chest, showing some metal clips and bits here and there, the blood-pumping tubes were connected to the major ins and outs around where the heart should be.
“You’re dirty,” Gordon remarked.
“You’re a heartless bastard,” I said, pointing at this hole. “Is that permanent?”
“No,” Gordon said, lying back down, staring up at the ceiling. “I’m getting the same heart back. They’re changing some things, but the problem might recur.”
I nodded, but I didn’t feel happy about the news.
“I might be getting a dog,” he said.
“What?” Lillian asked.
“Dog-dog or dog-dog?” I asked.
“That makes no sense, Sy.”
“You know what I mean.”
“A dog. A Gordon dog, for me. I told them that Dog could hear the heart going before I was even fully aware of it. They’re going to put something together for me. Inconspicuous, but built like I am, and a dog. If I know about the problems, I won’t jump into the fray and only realize I’m having problems when I can’t get out of it.”
“Not guaranteed to be a dog,” one Doctor said, passing by with clipboard in hand.
“It better not be a cat!” Gordon called out to the man’s back.
“What’s wrong with cats?” Lillian asked.
“You can’t do anything with cats,” Gordon said.
“Sounds like a good stopgap,” I said.
“Maybe good enough for them to find another good heart, or a way to keep my body from hurting too much as it rides out the rejection.”
Gordon held up a hand, fingers crossed.
I did the same. Jamie and Lillian did too.
“How’s Mary?” I asked.
“Grumpy. She stopped in. She’s getting surgery.”
I nodded. “And Helen?”
“Alright. Look, I’ve got an appointment I’m itching to get done.”
“And a shower, apparently. Did you roll in mud?”
“And Lillian’s been gross and got snot all over her uniform.”
Lillian kicked at me. I jumped out of the way, bumping into a doctor.
The man physically picked me up, carried me two steps, and planted me firmly down with the others, pressing down as if it would keep me in place, before carrying on with his business.
By the time I’d figured out what was going on and turned around, he’d disappeared into the mill of Gordon’s doctors.
I’d wanted to get revenge on one person. Maybe I’d have to get revenge on the whole bunch of them.
“I’ll stop in when you’re through the worst part,” Gordon said. “Hopefully. I don’t want to be here too long.”
“Sure,” I said, “Thanks.”
“I’ll fill the rest of you in on the conversation with the Duke,” Jamie said. “Felt important. A sense of where we’re going.”
“Good going or no?”
“Not as bad as it could have been,” Jamie said. “But elaborating on that would require sharing the whole conversation. After.”
“Alright,” Gordon said. “But you’re okay?”
“Bad day, but I’m okay,” Jamie said.
“Whichever one of us finishes first, we meet the other?” he asked. “Maybe grab Mary when she’s done. With Percy coming up today, she might need to talk.”
Lillian, Jamie and I headed over to Jamie’s lab next. The silence was oppressive, and even my attempt to shake like a dog and get the worst of the mud-brown water off only provoked smiles, not joking conversation.
As we reached the lab, Jamie grabbed his bag with the book. He waved at his team of doctors, then pulled the book out, and then bent down, to put it down, so it would lean against the doorframe.
I was there before he did. I put a hand between book and frame, grabbing the book.
“You don’t have to, Sy,” he said.
“I promised,” I said. I watch you as you go to sleep.
“I know you want your appointment right now more than anything, and with the Duke and everything else, it might be a question of our group’s survival. That whole thing was too close for comfort.”
“The promise was that you’d…” he glanced at Lillian, then his doctors, obviously uncomfortable. “It doesn’t matter if I’m here. It’s different. You shouldn’t put your appointment off.”
“Bullshit. I shouldn’t break my promise,” I said. I tugged the book from his hands. “I promised. Now I’m going to take the book and I’m going to look after it, and I’m going to sit here and if you try to convince me to do anything different, I’m going to rub snot on you.”
He met my eyes, a searching stare.
I only withstood the discomfort for a short while. I broke eye contact, looking at Lillian. “Not that it matters, you strip down anyway and they launder your clothes for you in the meantime. Lillian should move over.”
I turned my focus to Lillian, repositioning her much as the doctor had me, moving her to one side of the doorframe.
When I turned around, Jamie was heading to his chair, a throne with tubes and connections running into and through it. He didn’t open his mouth as one of his doctors led him up to the seat.
He pulled off his shirt, then pulled off his pants. A doctor draped a cloth over his lap in time to protect his modesty. Lillian wouldn’t have even blushed.
I took a seat in the doorway, back to one side, feet propped up against the other, book in my lap.
“What happened?” Lillian whispered. She hadn’t budged from where I’d moved her.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Feels like something happened between you two.”
It was your fault, I thought, but the thought had no meat or merit to it, I knew. She’d just been the unwitting catalyst to this whole mess.
“It’s nothing,” was all I said.
“Okay, Sy,” she said. “Thanks for holding my hand and making me laugh.”
“What about the other stuff?”
“I think I got you back. It’s okay.”
Then she was gone. Back to her dorm to wash up and let reality sink in. I imagined it was really lonely, and I was surprised at the level of empathy I felt in that regard.
No, it shouldn’t have been surprising. I turned my attention to Jamie, who waved.
I gave him a small wave back.
Then my eyes dropped to the book. I avoided looking at Jamie as the Doctors set everything up, pulling cloths off of the vats. A faint bioluminescent glow filled the room.
I knew that if I looked at him, he’d gesture my way, and I’d have to respond. I didn’t know how to respond.
Instead, I looked down at his notebook. Annals of past events, from someone with a perfect memory. I looked across the room at the bookshelves that ringed it, still avoiding looking directly at Jamie, and thought about the way things had been. All of the memories in there.
I saw the men walk up the steps. In keeping with the promise, I watched carefully as they put the mask on, and put Jamie to sleep. I wasn’t sure Jamie saw me looking.
All the same, when they threw the switch, it made me jump.
Jamie was under. He sagged slightly, the cords and connections running into his back and all down his spine, tension tight, holding him mostly upright. I could hear the humming, see the overlarge brains in tanks move slightly, reacting to altered blood flow and temperature.
I nodded, then opened the book, paging through it.
I wanted to find an answer, and I didn’t. There was an insight into Jamie’s eyes. A drawing of the rat with grass and flowers growing out of it, other things he’d seen – creatures I’d missed, people in the street. The Lambs recurred, over and over again. The strokes were bold and harsh, sketchy more than anything.
A perfect memory made for that kind of harsh view of things, maybe. You couldn’t forget the ugly little details.
I closed the book. The answers I needed weren’t in there.
I spent a while looking at Jamie, then a while looking across the hall and out the window.
“Hey,” a man’s voice said.
I raised my head. I saw a bruiser of a man in a lab coat that didn’t fit him. “Oh. Yeah. I was supposed to stop in.”
“Don’t fucking waste our time, Sylvester,” Huey said.
“I didn’t mean to. I was thinking.”
“You’ll think better after your appointment.”
“Yeah,” I said. I nodded to myself. “Yeah. That’s true.”
“Let’s get it done.”
“Now? Huey, look, if we can’t-”
“That’s not my name.”
“Dewey,” he said.
“It hasn’t been that long, Sylvester,” he said.
“No, probably not,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”
“I seem to recall the last two favors ending up-”
“Not like that,” I said. “No. I just… I need to think, without Wyvern. To see if I even can figure out this problem in my head, when I’m like this? Do you get what I mean?”
“Okay,” I said. “Yeah, look, can I stay? You can dick off and do whatever, or get caught up on whatever.”
He gave me a level stare.
“Please, Dewey. I need to be here, I think. Or I won’t be focused on the problem.”
“We use the restraints this time. You stay put, after getting dosed, you stay quiet, you don’t bitch, you don’t get clever and try to run off while you’re working through the worst of the pain. Think you can manage that?”
“I fucking hope so,” he said. “Fuck with us on this and you don’t get any favors again.”
He tromped off, heavy feet clumping down the hall.
Avis was enduring her own mental gauntlet, caught with nothing else to do but try to endure, to figure out what her answer to the Duke would be. Mine touched on unfamiliar territory. On Jamie, and a divide between us that I couldn’t ignore.
It hurt, that things couldn’t be what they were. I was angry, I was confused. There was no right answer to give, yet if I couldn’t one, then things would be broken like this forever.
That he’d think I wouldn’t look after his book or keep the promise after everything we’d been through, it scared me. Some things were inviolable. It made me feel uneasy.
Hours passed. It was dark, but for flickering lights and the glow from the room, the doctors rotating so that one was observing at all times.
The entire time, I was trying to unravel the problem, though the edges of my brain had dulled. I wasn’t sure why I was so stubborn about wanting to do it without a full dose of Wyvern, but I’d started the journey and wasn’t about to abandon it.
I looked deep within, trying to find a glimmer of something, as if I could pry out some part of myself that could see Jamie in the way he seemed to see me. I thought back, memory by memory, trying to figure out when things had changed, knowing my memory was weak at the best of times. I thought about looking in the books, but somehow I knew I needed to find the answer here, not there.
As the third doctor came in for their night-shift, stepping over me in the doorway, I asked the time, and was informed it was four in the morning.
Perhaps an hour after that, I realized what it was I was trying to do.
I couldn’t have one more minute like the past afternoon and evening had been. Not another second of that painful awkwardness. I wouldn’t be able to endure it.
I had to greet him with a genuine smile as he woke. Nothing more. I could do that much. I was sure that it would at least open the door for things to get better, and that was all we really needed.
Secure in that knowledge, I finally drifted off.
Hands seized me and dragged me, pulling me out of the way. I stirred, annoyed, knowing I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, that it was far too early and I’d fallen asleep too late.
Then I realized where I was, my attention turned to where I was supposed to be – sleeping while sitting astride the doorframe, and I connected the dots to what was going on. The Lambs were coming down the hall at a run – Lillian, Gordon, Mary, a patchy Helen.
There were far too many doctors in the room.
The shock of being pulled from deep sleep didn’t seem to go away. I felt detached as I pulled myself to my feet.
Gordon was shouting my name.
I ignored him, pushing my way through the doorway, into the room.
So many doctors here, talking, chatting. I’d seen all of them at one point or another. Hayle was just entering the room behind me. He gave me a passing glance, then headed over to talk to Jamie’s doctor.
I turned my attention to the throne.
Jamie wasn’t there.
There was a person, and that person looked down at me, but there was nothing there. No glimmer of recognition, no personality.
He moved his hand, and it was a movement that suggested he was figuring it out.
I could hear the chatter as two dozen disparate voices, talking about the same sort of thing. What had been retained, what would be in the tanks, what to keep. Project caterpillar this, project caterpillar that.
Everyone on their best behavior, with the Duke leaning against the wall in the corner, arms folded, observing.
Jamie’s name didn’t seem to come up once.
I spotted the doctors in charge of Jamie’s care.
They were taking it in stride. Upset, as anyone would be when they had a bad day at work, but hardly upset enough.
I passed by one doctor, bumping into them, and my hand found their pocket. A scalpel was clipped to the inside. I grabbed it and popped off the tip.
A short distance later, I repeated the same process, finding another. I drew nearer to Hayle and the other doctors.
The closer I got, the more sure my steps were. I walked briskly, head down, scalpels hidden so they wouldn’t be too obvious.
I was tackled all the same, thrown to the ground, arms hugging my arms to my sides, scalpels gripped to either side of my waist.
I fought, squirming, elbowing, wrestling, mad and incoherent and not even sure what sounds were leaving my lips. Tears were streaming down my cheeks.
It was Jamie, damn it.
I managed to flip over, got my wrist free of the grip, and stabbed, only to get caught again, and swiftly disarmed.
I stopped when I met Gordon’s eyes. I saw the tears there. I saw the Lambs huddled behind him, the expressions in their faces. They were standing, and I was the one that was breaking. I stopped struggling and went limp.
“The one fucking time you put up a half-decent fight, Sy,” Gordon said, soft words all too audible in the hush.