The door slammed shut. The impact rattled her thoughts. Double vision, triple vision, vertigo, but all cognitive, her thoughts alone.
One breath blurred into the next, the space between breaths stretched on, adding together, piling onto one another until she realized she was suffocating. She coughed, gasping and wheezing for air.
Panic surged in her breast. A bird’s flutter of emotion, beating harder and more frantically, until it filled her.
Then, unsustainable, it was gone. Was it the drugs they were pumping into her that quelled the fear? Did they worry that enough fear and anxiety could tax her brain and kill her?
Or had minutes passed, or hours?
She screamed, thrashing against her bonds, a cage custom-molded to her body. The scream bounced off of the walls, joining the fresh screams as she caught breath. A momentary catch, a drawn-out process of panting for breath? Both?
She tried to figure out which it was, scanning her memory, gathering clues, and lost track of time. She gasped for breath again, having let herself slip, letting the time between breaths become too long.
Heartbeat, she thought. She fixated on her heartbeat. The steady pulse, accelerated by her fear. It was meditative, calming, a rope to cling to as she drowned in this new sea.
They stole my sanity, she thought.
They stole my mind from me. They’ve hobbled my brain as surely as they crippled my body. Until I can get this fixed, I’ve forever got one additional ball to juggle.
There were tears in the corner of her eyes. She struggled again against the bondage, fierce enough she was certain she would hurt something.
She had to adjust her mental clock, taking into account the exertion, how it affected the heartbeats she was counting.
The lighting seeping in through the crack beneath the door had changed. Was that the flicker of torchlight, or had she been down here long enough for things to change? A different load on the systems of the Academy, leaving more power to go to the lights in the hall?
Her heartbeat had calmed, she realized, but she was still using the same measure, her judgment of how many seconds or minutes had just passed was dashed to the wind.
Someone moved in front of the door, a shadow passing through that slice of light.
Unable to find the words, she screamed at the door. It was a futile thing, a cry for help with no expectation that that help would come.
Everything she tried, it was making things worse. She was in the Bowels, a place where she’d spent a fair amount of time, and she knew how deep they would have put her, how thick the walls were, and how far the trip was to get to the surface. Even once she was there, she would be surrounded by soldiers, she would have to pass through the checkpoint, and pass more soldiers on the road out of the city.
It was akin to being beneath the ocean, the weight of all of that water pressing down on her, crushing, wearing her away.
Three more times, she lost track of her breathing. Her stomach gurgled, but it wasn’t hunger. It was suction and air, as a tube worked at the side of her stomach, removing waste, tarry and black. She felt a pressing need to go to the bathroom, but it never got better or worse. Tubes coiled up inside her bladder, most likely.
Again, she screamed and thrashed. She wanted to hurt herself, to find some avenue to rub herself raw, do some damage, out of some hope that she could make that damage severe enough to end her existence. It would be a form of control, a way of taking charge of her own destiny.
But it was futile. She’d been trained as a doctor, finishing her education here in Radham. She knew what the tarry black waste meant. She had a bloodspur in her. When her blood pressure was sufficiently high, the device would bleed her, dumping the blood into her stomach. New or artificial blood was fed in through tubes. She couldn’t bleed herself out, not realistically. If she was wounded, the bloodspur would cease working, and the wound would take over its duties of slowly emptying out the blood the tubes gave her.
She was exhausted but unable to sleep. Again and again, she struggled, because there was nothing else to do with herself. Again and again, she lost track of her breathing as she got too deep in thought.
Tears streaked down her face. She recovered.
She screamed again, howling to see if she couldn’t scream her voice raw. The seam in her chest where they’d done surgery threatened to pop from the strain.
The door opened. The light was blinding.
Had she been in the dark that long? Or was it drugs and a perpetual state of blood loss?
The Duke and his coterie.
“I’m sorry for the delay,” he remarked. His expression was placid compared to hers, as she panted for breath. “I wanted to have a conversation with the Lambs.”
She stared at him, uncomprehending.
“Do you remember the terms of our last discussion?” he asked, his voice eerily smooth and deep. Artificial.
“Yes,” she said, and her voice was hoarse.
“I’m going to ask you a question. Yes or no answers only.”
“Yes,” she said, again.
“Will you provide the locations of each of the other cells?”
She considered for a moment, but again, time threatened to slip away from her. After half a second -or was it a minute?- the Duke turned to leave.
“Yes,” she said. She opened her mouth to speak, then remembered his warning and closed it again.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know where Percy is. Cynthia handled the coordination between groups.”
“I see,” he said. He gestured at a doctor, “The mask.”
“You said I had permission to speak!” she cried out, struggling, trying to pull her face away as the doctor lifted the tube and the grasping bloodsucker toward her mouth.
“I didn’t say I’d favor the answer,” he said. “Take some time to think it over. I hope you’ll come up with clues about his whereabouts.”
The tube slid down her throat. The device locked around her jaw and the back of her head, connecting to the table.
The lights went out, and again, the door slammed shut.
This time, she still needed to regulate her breathing, but it was through the nose alone. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t measure her breaths.
There once was a girl named Mavis. People all around her got sick, half the people in the town she grew up in. It got worse and worse, people hacking and coughing, until the Academy arrived. The best doctors, checking, giving care, not unkind people.
Had everything gone according to plan, it would have been a positive experience for her, a reason to respect and favor the Academy.
Except Simon Weltsch had fought in the war, and he said there was a more sinister explanation. The Academy had made them sick, testing a drug on the village’s population without permission.
She never found out if that was true or not, and as head of communications for Radham, she’d made use of every resource available to her to try and find out. It wasn’t to say Simon was spewing utter nonsense. After becoming a student, she had researched the testing of drugs on communities, but the casualties were low to nonexistent, the rate of advancement high. Without paperwork or records to tie back to her community in particular, it never quite hit home to the point that she could get angry about it.
She wished she could say that Simon Weltsch’s unexplained and gruesome death had woken her up to reality. It was accepted across the community that the Academy had done the deed to silence the dissident, but everyone was healthy and nobody had wanted to stick their head up, Mavis among them.
She’d eaten dinner with her parents, gone for long walks and talked with her friends, and flirted with boys. As she came of age, she started studying, and earned a place at the Academy, abbreviating her name as soon as she fixed on her preferred area of study.
No, Avis’ problem had never quite been with the Academy.
Her first winter holiday back home, she had been excited to share her tales of being at the academy. Avis had met with friends for tea. The boys who’d been farmers and laborers trickled into the bar, and she’d remarked on how few were turning up. Then she had heard. No, not gone to war. Had it been that, she might have been able to justify it as necessary evil.
Three nobles had come into town, young ladies not much older than she was, gallivanting around. The noblewomen had asked for the company of young men, and the young men had not been in a position to refuse. When they left, they took the most handsome with them. Avis’ girlfriends had joked that it wasn’t much loss, the noblewomen being so attractive, but she hadn’t missed the emotion beneath the words.
There had been only one letter back since the boys had left, and it had read like it had been written carefully, so as not to offend any who read it before it reached home.
It had taken some time for Avis to come to terms with her feelings over that. Life had gone on as normal, with some farmers getting help from the community to make up for the labor their sons weren’t providing. Where war was a necessary evil, this didn’t feel evil at all, and it most definitely did not feel necessary.
It hadn’t been the blow that destroyed her loyalty to the Crown, but it had been a wedge, and every story or idea that touched on the Crown drove that wedge in deeper.
Avis stared into the Duke’s eyes.
“Do I need to repeat the question?” he asked.
She opened her mouth, then closed it. She felt painful bumps here and there where the inside of her mouth had been rubbed by the gag.
“Will you tell me the location of your loved ones. Your mother, father, siblings, cousins, and the friends you wrote to while you were first studying in the Academy?”
“Yes,” she said.
She’d given up. She was defeated.
“He’s in Iverchester. With my mother and youngest sibling,” she said. His eyes seemed to swallow her up.
“Your older sister?”
“She said she would… she could find work in Burry, teaching.”
“Janice is in Chells, Tory is in Uskham.”
She could hear the damning scratch as the details were taken down by a doctor in the back.
“Please,” her voice was so quiet she could barely hear it. She stared at the Duke’s collar, “My lord. Anything else you want to know, sit me down, take me out of here, I’ll share it if you fix my mind. Please. I will do anything you want. You’ve won.”
“Except sitting quiet and giving only yes or no answers, or answering my questions,” the Duke’s voice murmured back to her. His tone was gentle, a light rebuke, and Avis couldn’t shake the notion that this was what it sounded like when a father told their child that cookies were for after dinner. The Duke’s voice, rich, deep, and authoritarian, was as a child imagined their father sounding.
“You hurt children, Avis. Kidnapped them off the streets, my streets, and put them on the table.”
“That wasn’t me. It wasn’t the people I was working for.”
“A blatant lie if I ever heard one,” the Duke said. He kicked something under the table that held her and then changed the angle, lying her flat.
“Cynthia was hurt, Godwin killed. The group is in disarray, there are two factions now. One side wants to stop the Academy, the other wants to stop the Crown.”
“And which are you, Avis?”
“I’m not- not anymore. I won’t go against you again.”
“Stop stating the obvious. Of course nobody ever goes against me a second time. Answer the question. Which are you?”
“I was –was- against the Crown. The others, the ones who want to hurt the Academy, they’re desperate, they’re angry, they want to win an ever-escalating contest of strength. They have other ideas in mind. Breaking rules the Academy won’t.”
One of the Duke’s doctors was positioning a tool, a mechanical arm, so it was poised above her head.
A needle speared straight toward her.
Her breathing picked up.
“You coordinated for them. Passed on messages.”
“I did, but-“
“You’re bending the truth to put yourself in a better light, Avis,” the Duke said. “You convinced yourself that Percy’s actions were acceptable.”
“No. But it wasn’t like he listened when I sent a letter. If I’d reacted or tried to take action, I risked my life. I had to play along, hope the others would coordinate, pull the two groups together.”
“I know of other things you’ve been complicit in. The white plague in Danes, the ravager of Arwick. You believe in what you’re doing. Short term harm for long-term betterment.”
“It- yes. It’s not so different from what the Academy does?” she made it a question.
The Duke’s expression changed, the light smile fading away. “The sacrifice of a child? No, I suppose not. I do suppose it falls on my shoulders.”
She wanted to inquire about that, but the movement of the machinery and the swaying of the needle occupied her attention. She didn’t find the voice to question what he meant.
“The difference is you failed in the end,” the Duke said. “There will be no betterment, only harm.”
The mechanical arm with the needle came down, dropping a solid foot. It jerked to a stop a half-inch from Avis’ eye.
A doctor gripped her eye in between gloved fingertip and thumb, forcing her to look straight at the needle.
The mechanical arm dropped another inch. Avis didn’t even have time to vocalize a response.
“I believe in justice,” the Duke said. “Punishment where it’s due. I told you the rules, you had enough time to consider them. This is your punishment, just as your decision as a whole have led to you being in this room. If and when it comes to pass that my work ends in more harm than betterment, I hope my reckoning will come.”
Avis managed to find the breath to speak, as a doctor manipulated her other eye, forcing her to stare up at a second needle. “Please. How long have I been here?”
The second needle came down. Her eyes were speared, locked into position. There was no pain, not physical pain, but she knew the effect this would have on her mind and her already impaired ability to track time. She felt the gag slip into place, slithering down her throat.
“How long have you been here? I think that would be telling,” the Duke said.
The door slammed.
She woke, which was a strange thing that had been happening lately. She wasn’t supposed to sleep, but she took it as the resiliency of the brain, finding a way. Her entire body hurt, and she had a headache unlike any she’d ever had before.
She moved her eyes, and her vision was blurry.
Avis raised her arm, as she’d tried to do so many times before, and this time the restraints didn’t stop her.
Pages were scattered around the room. There was a matchbox sitting on a table in the corner, but it looked as though the slamming of the door had generated a gust, blowing it away from the stack of papers it had been weighing down.
Her movements were ginger. She remembered what she’d been told, about alterations to her joints.
Her muscles should have atrophied. Her joints were disabled, the bones shaved or implants put in to make them easy to dislocate. She could feel the pain, which meant the drugs to dull pain were no longer coursing through her, and hadn’t been for a little while.
She staggered across the room, nearly falling. Bending down, she picked up papers. Each was one half of a sheet of paper that had been torn in half.
The order of them was hard to decipher, and the blur in the dead center of her vision made it harder still to read. Ingrained into her by years of education, the habit of reading made her eyes want to slip onto each line of tight cursive writing, instead of holding above the line, piecing together the meaning of each statement.
The Duke has been visiting you less and less. I have been visiting you more and more. Soon, I think, he intends to visit you, to make you useful. If I acted any sooner, you wouldn’t have been strong enough. If I acted too late, you would be his.
She gathered sentences here, fragments there, not sure on the order of the pages, not when she could barely read.
Injections to your shoulders and hips. Minor repairs, some minor surgery. I accessed channels outside of your room, that I knew would feed into your blood supply.
Hands shaking, she sorted through the various pages.
Do not look for your family or friends. You will only find unhappiness at best, and fall into the Crown’s trap again at worst. Be wary in seeking old acquaintances, though reasons are different. What was a war between two sides has become a war between three. Old friends may not be friends anymore.
She trembled, hands unable to find the gap between two pages.
The advised escape route is the drainage tunnel to Claret Hall. From there, you should be able to reach the Tower by using the dark avenues between the storage buildings. The Tower will get you high enough to glide over the wall.
Internal components and tubes have been removed on this visit. I leave you my words, which I hope you will burn, and a present for the winter holidays, admittedly belated.
Two seasons, Avis realized.
I need to act, and I have no freedom. We’re speeding headlong into disaster, and you’re the only person I can think of who could pass on a message. Burn the papers if you have any gratitude for your freedom.
The writing, she realized, was digging deeper into the page as the writer had gone on. Intensity, urgency. She could recognize the difference between papers now, the thickness of letters and amount of excess ink. She’d already read some of it out of order.
She found the last piece of paper.
The tallest hill outside of Radham. It has a view of the approach. The message is such: It is time to step in.
Avis stared down at the paper, then crumpled it, and set it on the table, being careful to put a match to every part of it.
While it burned, she set to looking for her gift.
It was tucked in a corner – a small box.
She reached inside, and she withdrew wings. Not hers, but similar. The bends in the wings had hook-like fingers.
She put them on, feeling them bite into flesh, a little less merciful than her old wings had been.
A single revolver and a trio of syringes, each one capped, sat on the bottom, tucked neatly in the corner, stowed in the gap just left of a set of clothes.
She’d had enough time to think, trapped in a hell of her own making. The Duke’s words rattled around in her head even now, taunting her.
She changed clothes, pulling off the hospital dress and donning the provided clothes. Loose pants like a sailor might wear, boots, and a harness top she could wear with her wings. She touched her head and found her hair short.
Dressing didn’t make her feel more human. She felt cold inside.
Her hatred for the Duke had cooled from a burning hatred to an ice cold hate. She wouldn’t bat an eye if she had an opportunity to hurt him. She knew she might destroy herself for the chance.
Yet, even though she was able to collect the syringes, she found herself hesitating when it came time to collect the gun.
She’d hurt people in a casual way, facilitating what she had. Letting Percy do what he had.
So easy to do when she was in the stride of it, but after having had time alone with her own thoughts, it didn’t sit nearly as easy.
She turned away, hauling open the door, feeling grateful as her shoulder withstood the strain.
The gun was left behind.
Rather than let the door slam, as it had innumerable times before, she gently closed it.
It was the dead of night. There were no people on the staircase leading up and out of the underground labs.
She was as quiet as the situation allowed.
It was dreamlike, and her altered state of awareness didn’t help matters. She wasn’t convinced this wasn’t a hallucination.
Her body was light, she’d altered her bone structure long ago, removing sections of organs to lower her body weight while maintaining the same rough frame. Her diet while lying on the table had been different, but it hadn’t added any pounds that she could notice.
She flexed her wings as much as she was able, given the narrow space between railing and wall, and continued to ascend.
Passing a hallway, she saw a pale expanse, rather than dark, barely-lit hallway.
Her heart skipped a beat as she realized what it was.
Gorger made noise as he hauled himself out of the hallway, a matter of feet behind her.
As quiet as she’d been, Gorger was loud. He covered surprising amounts of ground, feet tromping on stairs, one hand regularly reaching up to seize handholds, moving like a loping gorilla rather than a very obese giant of a man.
She found the needle, squeezed out the air in the syringe, and she jammed it into her own heart.
Strength, energy, perception. It flowed through her quickly, as fast as her heart beat. She was able to move faster, more securely, using her light body to its fullest, as the pain faded away.
Absolute terror at what awaited her if she were caught gave her the extra push she needed. She knew she’d rather fall and die than get caught, and that gave her the courage to step up onto the railing, wings spread, and leap, aiming for a hole in the wall.
Gorger saw what she was doing. Rather than give chase, he slammed his hand against the wall, hard.
The underground labs rumbled. Things began to fall into place, a domino effect expanding out in ten different ways from the place Gorger’s hand had struck the wall.
But the underground labs were built around a massive silo, a cylinder set deep into the ground, and the effect had to reach around the edges of the cylinder.
She didn’t hesitate, even as she saw the slab of stone falling into place.
She passed under the slab, full speed, wings spread, and the slab came down behind her.
With no time to waste, knowing Gorger would be calling the alarm, she ran for Claret Hall.
She passed through one section of tunnel that had no lighting.
And she was back on the table, unable to move, body paralyzed, unable to breathe.
A dream? A hallucination?
She floundered, struggled, and hauled herself to her feet. Without her face down in a half-foot of water, she was able to breathe again.
Only a flashback.
She was still running, still making her escape. But it was too easy to slip back into that same timeless place she’d spent so long.
There were so many questions and not a one of them mattered. Who had rescued her, why?
By fighting forward like this, obeying the letters, she was risking doing the exact same thing that had gotten her in this mess in the first place. Reckless action, lack of forethought, approaching her future at a run, without watching her step or paying attention to what happened in her wake.
She was in Claret Hall, she realized. This was tricky. The way out meant coming up out of the wine cellar, into the building.
She’d plotted escape routes enough that this wasn’t too hard. Into empty offices, through the washroom. A window large enough for her to fit through. She passed into a shadowy space between buildings, and crossed to another.
A distant alarm was getting picked up by closer buildings. As it was heard and people found the switches, the alarm was passed on. It swept past her, and people in uniforms started to exit building in groups.
Soon, the stitched would be roused and directed. The Academy’s security would quintuple at the very least, and she would have nowhere to go.
She was so fixated on watching what was going on that she didn’t wholly connect to the fact that she was tramping on something that crunched underfoot.
Frozen grass. Patches of snow caught mid-thaw, frozen over by rain.
It would have to be spring.
Three seasons, all in all.
It was a realization that spurred her on further, into the labyrinthine maze of warehouses and storerooms. Driven by fear, she made a break for the tower, the biggest open space yet.
She was glad her wings were black, and not white as the old ones had been, as she approached the door.
People left the Tower in a group. A small army of stitched.
She danced away to the side, taking cover against the side of the building.
They were spreading out, organizing into groups.
She had no place to go except up.
With the hooks on her wings and her own frozen fingers, she scrabbled for a grip on the surface of the tower. She climbed, cold stone and petrified wood leeching her body heat with every moment of contact. Fingers scraped raw against mortar and frost, and she hauled herself up, circling around to put the body of the Tower between herself and the rest of the Academy.
Her perception of time was something of a blessing and a curse. It let her climb more carefully, devoting her focus to the moment, but it felt like she was climbing an endless, infinite tower. Blood ran from fingertip to wrist and down to the crook of her elbow.
As she got higher up, there were more windows. She gauged her ability to glide over, and she had doubts.
She couldn’t even guess at her chance of getting spotted, were she to climb up and over.
Avis decided to compromise, raising herself up, so the bottom of the window was at eye level, peering left and right.
She climbed, and was standing with stomach to the glass when she saw him.
A single figure, a boy.
One of the Lambs?
No, this one had red hair.
Paralyzed, she finally managed to move, raising a hand, finger pressed to her mouth.
The boy only stared at her with amber eyes.
It unnerved, and it made her think of the wrongs she’d committed, the children Percy had used, that the Lambs had executed so thoroughly.
As if recoiling, she threw herself back, twisting so her belly faced the ground, wings extending, and glided.
Avis didn’t pass over the wall, but she was able to grab it. She heard shouts and calls, and heard a trumpet, then hauled herself over and beyond, as guns fired from a distance.
She was free.
She’d escaped, but she didn’t feel free.
She made her way to the tallest hill, feeling trepidation.
There were three figures waiting for her. When she landed, it was to crumple into a heap. She didn’t even raise her head.
A hand reached for her. She flinched involuntarily, and the hand withdrew.
She knew who the hand belonged to.
“Fray,” she said.
“Yes,” Fray said.
“We were trying to contact you for a while,” Avis said. Her voice didn’t sound like her own.
“It’s been a while, Avis.”
Avis nodded. She fidgeted, because being too still made it feel like the walls of that room were closing in.
“It’s- I’m supposed to tell you…” Avis started.
She didn’t finish. Her voice broke. She curled up into a ball, folding her wings around herself.
“I know,” Genevieve Fray said.
Another hand touched her, and this one was very warm in the cold winter. She flinched, at first, but this one was persistent. It became a hug, and the hug was welcome.
“You’re with the right people,” Fray said.
Avis shook her head.
“I can’t- I’m not a soldier anymore. I couldn’t touch the gun. I can’t be part of this. I can’t stand the Crown but I can’t fight them either, I-”
“That’s fine,” Fray said. “You don’t have to, to stay with us. The Crown States have two major factions who are trying to destroy the Crown, they don’t need us.”
“What are you doing?”
“We’re saving humanity,” Fray said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Rather than Fray, it was the giant of a man who offered Avis a hand.
Staring at his hand, she felt he was kindred, gentle.
Looking in his eyes, however, she saw a terrible anger, no doubt worse for her being reflected in it.
That was as comforting as anything.