We deposited our bags at the side of one gate, getting the attention of the soldiers there, asking them to look after the luggage.
While Lillian got her things ready, I quickly grabbed the three books from my bag and put them into a backpack, pulling it on. Heavy, but not so much it would weigh me down or impact my performance.
Wasn’t willing to leave Jamie’s books behind. No way, no how.
“I get to try my new ears,” Helen was telling the woman with the apron.
“New ears?” Gordon asked, turning around.
“My maker gave them to me, after I said I almost couldn’t hear the Ghosts. I don’t know if I hear better, but I hear more, except it’s not like that. The range is different? Oh, but we have to explain who the Ghosts are!”
“The ones with spines inside them,” I said, trying to provide a bit of sanity in the midst of Helen’s ramblings. “Echolocation. Perfect sensory awareness in an area.”
“We’ve run into them,” the woman with the apron said. “We were hired to find and eliminate cells a few months ago. They keep cropping back up, but I think we’re keeping it more or less under control.”
I adjusted the straps on my backpack, ignoring the looks from the others. They still weren’t asking or saying anything about it.
We set off through the gates.
“I got new ears, and Professor Ibott is changing some of my joints around, because he wants to make sure I develop right as I grow up, without anything getting too rigid, so my shoulders and hips feel a little funny right now, and he’s talking about shaving bones and putting in bone spurs, and, um, what else?”
“That’s a lot of changes,” Mary said.
“Because I’m starting puberty!”
I felt a bit of a chill. Just to the side of me, Gordon muttered something along the lines of, “Oh hell.”
“I actually started half a year ago, but Ibott feels like I’m ready now, and because I won’t change unless he makes me change, and I could look really weird without the right attention, he’s been plotting out what I need and what works and things.”
“The Ibott?” the woman with the apron asked.
“Yep! And he’s going to make me more dangerous and he’s going to make me gorgeous.”
“You are gorgeous, dum-dum,” I said. She smiled at me.
“Out of the mouth of babes,” the Wry Man said.
“I envy you your ability to say what comes to mind. It isn’t so easy when you’re a hideous old man.”
“I dunno, I think I’ll still say stuff like that when I’m grown up,” I said. If I grow up. “Helen is gorgeous. She was put together with an artist’s hand.”
Helen nodded, then smiled, “Uh huh, but I’m supposed to be gorgeous enough in two or three years to lure in the sort of man of weaker morals. That’s a different kind of gorgeous.”
“A touch disturbing,” the Wry Man commented.
“Helen’s not usually this talkative, just so you know,” Gordon said.
“I like new people. I get excited about new people, and I’m excited about getting improved!”
“The disturbing part of it is typical for when she does get going, though,” I said.
“Pooh to you both.”
“I envy you,” the woman with the apron said. “It sounds nice.”
“You’re Petey, right?”
“I’ve heard about you. How’s your body doing today?”
“I’m so-so, thank you for asking,” the woman in the apron said. “I’m good to fight if I have to.”
“We might have to,” Gordon said. “There’s apparently enough of them in town that we’re going to run into someone.”
“Or something,” I added.
“I’ll be ready,” Petey said, smacking one fist into the flat of the other hand.
I wasn’t sure but I suspected I could have been more menacing than she’d been in that moment.
“I don’t like the layout,” Mary said. “There isn’t much cover, there aren’t many good vantage points, and everywhere we go, people are watching us from those tiny windows.”
“It’s after curfew,” the Wry Man said. “The fire got a lot of people’s attention. They may be keeping an eye out for clues about what’s happening.”
“I don’t like not having escape routes,” Mary said. She looked up, “Can we get up to the rooftops and use them to navigate? I’d feel like we had more freedom.”
“We can. There aren’t many options to get up onto the rooftops, and the ones that do exist are watched,” the Wry Man said. “Going up carelessly can get you shot.”
“I’m not very athletic,” Petey said, “But we can if we have to.”
I narrowed my eyes a little, trying to figure Petey out.
She smiled at me.
“End of this road,” the Wry Man said. “There’s a tower.”
The winding path and the buildings that blocked the view made it hard to tell just how far the ‘end of this road’ was. As far as I could tell, the road curved to the right fifty feet in front of us. As we made our way forward, I could see around the corner, revealing a gentle left turn, again taking the road somewhere I couldn’t see.
It was claustrophobic, even with the open sky above us and the open paths behind and in front of us. The sky wasn’t a place we could travel, and there was no telling what exactly was around the next bend.
“I kind of agree with what Mary was saying,” I said. “This place sucks. I’m going to get so lost.”
“You can remember the paths and get a sense of the layout,” the Wry Man said.
“Maybe you can, but my memory is bad. The way it’s wired.”
“Then I can see it being a problem,” the Wry Man said.
“Stick with us,” Gordon said. “I should have a sense of Brechwell’s layout, though it’s going to take me a little while.”
Gordon’s memory was strong, but it didn’t compare to Jamie’s. We’d been put together with a certain idea in mind, and one of us was gone now. There was a lack.
I could improvise to fill some of that lack. Gordon could shore it up with his limited ability.
It didn’t feel like enough.
It wouldn’t have felt like enough if all of us had Jamie’s memory capacity.
We rounded the bend, and Helen tilted her head. “Shh.”
Hubris’ ears had perked up as well.
I heard nothing, but the girl and the dog were paying rapt attention.
In the distance, well behind us, a structure collapsed, weakened too much by the fire. Helen turned and gave the blazing Brechwell Academy an annoyed look, as if it was somehow the fault of the buildings.
“Ghosts,” she said.
We moved more briskly now. I would have liked to say we were quiet, but Petey’s boots were heavy on the road. Helen pulled a little bit ahead, paused, then pointed again.
Twice, we changed routes. Paths met, intersected, and branched, and we chased an enemy that never seemed to appear. Hubris’ nose was working overtime, as he snuffled at the ground.
“I hear Dog too,” Helen said. “He’s up there.”
She was pointing at rooftops, further down the street.
“We’ll go up,” the Wry Man said.
The streets wound like snakes in the midst of death throes, lined on either side by narrow two-and-three story houses that bled into one another, most houses set with one directly to the left, right, and behind. I could see tree-tops where there were wider gaps between houses left some space. Secluded patches of green, each one locked off by the triangle or square of houses laid out around them. I couldn’t imagine kids running around in those parks. It made me think of prisons.
But each time a street ended, there was a tower. The towers were military emplacements, sturdy, thick, and taller than any of the buildings around. The front gate was locked, but a ladder led up the side.
The Wry Man went first. He made it up a short distance, only two of us below him, when a spotlight targeted him, sliding down to take the rest of us in. I squinted against the white glare, almost started to adjust, and then it flickered, as electric things tended to do. I blinked the spots out of my eyes, and hoped they weren’t training a rifle on us.
The Wry Man had raised a hand, as if waving, and was poised, holding position.
The light went off, then on, then off again.
He resumed climbing.
Brechwell brooks no nonsense, I thought. The claustrophobic feeling was getting worse.
The light fixed on us as we stepped off the ladder and onto rooftop. The Wry Man gestured, pointing downward, and the light disappeared.
“Paranoid,” Mary said.
“The location makes Brechwell a prime target,” Gordon said. “Military base staffed with students who have their careers riding on this, eager to show their worth.”
My footing on the rooftop was tentative, as I tried to judge how slick the shingles were, and how much traction I had on the sloped surface.
“I dunno,” I said. “I tend to default to assume that people get lazy. We gravitate toward shortcuts. Stick a bunch of people in military academies, they’re going to be good as gold while they’re being watched, but stick them in a watchtower, without oversight? I can’t believe they wouldn’t goof off.”
“You don’t believe in discipline?” Mary asked. “Determination?”
“I believe in it, but I think it’s an anomaly more than the rule. You only get quality if you set people against each other.”
“They get bonus marks for ratting each other out,” the Wry Man said. “And they do get tested with regular drills during peacetime.”
I spread my hands. “There you go.”
The remainder of the group made their way up. Helen had Hubris under one arm, and was climbing the ladder one-handed. She handed off Hubris to Gordon, then stepped up alongside the rest of us. Petey followed, huffing, with Lillian last.
“You’re a solo operator?” I asked Petey.
“I am, yeah.”
“And what you said before, you’ve cleared out an entire cell of Ghosts by yourself?”
“Sy,” Gordon said, “Don’t be rude.”
“I have,” Petey said, in the same moment I said, “I’m not being rude.”
“Be nice,” Gordon said. He kept a hand on Hubris’ side, but the dog wasn’t having trouble walking on the shingles. It was a sheer three or four story drop to the road on either side, and there was little to stop any of us if we were to start sliding.
Petey lurched, and it took two of us to catch her.
I asked, “Okay, so is it hidden weapons, or some plague or…”
“Neither. Well, I’m sort of a hidden weapon, myself,” she said, in that strange voice of hers. “Undercover.”
“Good cover,” I said.
Mary jabbed me.
From our vantage point, I could see the expanse of the city, including the maze-like distribution of streets and houses, with bridges and gates here and there.
“We can go that way,” Gordon said, pointing. The rooftops on one side of the street extended over a bridge to cross to the other. “We could make good distance before we have to go down and back up again.”
“Ugh,” Petey said.
“If we’re quick, we can cut them off,” Gordon said.
“And we won’t have to go up and down,” I said.
“Then let’s hurry!” Petey said, now enthusiastic.
“Two by two,” I said. “Hold hands.”
That got me some weird looks.
“Trust me,” I said.
Mary extended a hand to Gordon, who took it. The two of them took the lead, taking off.
Without wasting a second, I grabbed Lillian’s wrist. She looked a little startled, staring at me with wet hair clinging to the sides of her face and edge of her chin, but she clasped her hand around my wrist in turn. I would have and could have explained my rationale, but time counted.
Our combination left an odd pairing. With a member missing, we had one odd member out.
“Wry, can you go with Petey? Helen isn’t about to slip.”
That said, I tugged on Lillian’s wrist, and pulled her along behind me.
Walking on a peaked roof with its subtle slope, it was hard to run across the peak, with each foot angling out in opposite directions. It led to an awkward, bow-legged run, one with a higher chance of stumbling, not a lower one.
Holding hands, we were each able to angle our bodies slightly to one side, more or less placing our feet flat. With my weight counterbalanced by Lillian’s, I didn’t need to worry so much about sliding. If something happened, she and I together had a better chance of avoiding a fall than one of us alone.
Her hand was so warm, with the weather so chilling. Her breath fogged slightly as she huffed out breaths, working to keep up with me.
Gordon and Mary made it look so easy. Their weights weren’t matched by half, Gordon was growing in a way I wasn’t, but they were both athletic, and both knew exactly what they were doing. Hubris ran just behind them, enjoying the fact that he had four paws for extra traction.
I didn’t glance back at Helen, Petey and the Wry Man.
“Here!” Helen called out.
She was pointing, tracing the path the Ghosts were traveling.
They were moving at the base of the houses we were running on, letting the eaves and the edges of the rooftops block our view.
Gordon pointed to a path, I signaled agreement.
The path available to us was shaped like an ‘H’, with a covered bridge joining rooftops on this side of the street with rooftops on the other.
We traveled along the middle bar, and as we did, the Ghosts came into view. They realized we were getting ahead of them and stopped for a moment to communicate before reversing direction. We adjusted our course, and they stopped once again.
I imagined the claustrophobia I’d experienced before, only it was imposed on our enemy this time. We had the high ground, we could easily spy them, and the fact that we weren’t confined to winding, twisting streets meant we could easily stay ahead of them.
I wasn’t sure we could actually confront them, if it came down to it, because we still had to get from the rooftops to the ground, but if they carried on like this, we could track them wherever they decided to take shelter, or at least flag down the next group of soldiers to travel down the road.
What are you going to do now?
I was surprised at how much venom there was in my thoughts. Not quite anger, but a part of me wanted to see them take a bullet. I wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the fact that they were children.
“They’re cornered. In a sense,” Gordon remarked.
“Where do we take this from here?” Mary asked. She looked at the Wry Man. “What did you do, when you were cleaning up other camps?”
The man used his thumb to pull back the corner of his jacket. Small vials sat side by side, ringing his belt. Each one was corked. “I worked with the locals, but I had some chemical help. Not much good here. Nothing I can drink that’s about to let me hop right down there and kill or capture either of them.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Push someone into a corner, strip away their defenses, and you’ll see their true selves. Them? They’re survivors at their core. They’ll do what it takes to live, and I’m thinking that means they’re going to run like little rabbits, all the way home. All we have to do is keep up.”
“Ugh,” Petey said. “I hate exercise.”
I frowned at Petey, and was about to ask for more particulars on just how she was a weapon, when Helen’s hands went to her ears. Hubris shook his head, and it wasn’t because he’d gotten wet.
“What is it?” Gordon asked.
“Can’t hear you,” Helen replied. “I’ve got my hands-”
Gordon gestured, firm, quick movements.
“They’re screaming. Sounds different.”
I looked at the pair, who hadn’t budged. Their mouths were closed.
“Who has a whistle to call Dog?” I asked.
“I do,” Lillian said, “But it’s in my bag.”
“They’re calling for help,” Gordon said. “They’re not going to run home. They’re bringing ‘home’ here. We should let them go. Everything that’s helping us keep them cornered is working against us if they mount an attack.”
Multiple paths of travel, the exposure, the vantage point.
Hubris turned, facing the opposite direction, and made a growling sound.
“More Ghosts,” I said.
But as the figures stepped out of one building, a cluster of people, I saw a man in their midst. It wasn’t a Percy.
Something about the way they talked, walking briskly along the winding road that would take them to the Ghosts, it was too social, too verbal. Their clothes were too… individual, if I had to say. Three women and a man. One woman and the man had messy brown hair, in dire need of a wash. The other two women were wearing modified military jackets, with badges and everything else removed. Two carried guns.
I instinctively dropped closer to the roof itself.
If they were Ghosts, they would have been using the silent Ghost-speak, I was sure.
Yet they’d responded to the cry for help.
Gordon gestured. He was taking charge. We were relocating, finding a more defensible point. Getting closer to a watchtower with an active spotlight was vital, here.
The trip took us just above the Ghosts, who weren’t budging and who were presumably screaming.
“There, look,” Mary whispered.
We could see further down, along the winding road. A group that wasn’t the messy-haired not-Ghosts from before was approaching, perhaps twenty individuals strong.
One or two Ghosts, but many of the others weren’t.
Plague men, yes, but other things. There were the combat-druggers, who’d altered in shape and form, who had veins sticking out, and who walked a little separate from the rest of the group. Gone feral, made more dangerous, but at a cost of humanity, unpredictable enough that their own allies avoided them.
I could identify leaders by the attention people gave to them.
A giant of a man, with plague man alterations, but something told me that if he hadn’t had the plague man effect, he still would have been something of a monster. He rippled with muscle, wearing only a long coat, and tubes fed into his neck and chest. His hair was long, and he walked in a way that suggested he expected nothing to get in his way.
His weapon was mechanical, long and toothed.
Weaponized birthing saw, I thought.
There were others. Someone who wore a lab coat, with a custom warbeast at his side, and a woman with long hair, fur at the edge of her hood, and draping clothing to the ground.
The woman reminded me of Helen.
Special projects. Scrapped ones, ones that turned coat, and worse.
“Who are they?” I whispered.
“The man is one of the Firebrand’s lieutenants, special project of Orickton’s Academy,” the Wry Man said. “He killed his doctor and was locked up. The Firebrands released him. I don’t know the others.”
“Me either,” Petey said.
I bit my tongue, thought for a second, and then said, “Safe to assume the other two are just as dangerous?”
“That would be a high bar to meet,” the Wry Man said.
In the distance, I could see Dog and Catcher appear on a rooftop. Catcher raised both hands, then moved them.
Gordon started to gesture back, then paused. “We retreat?”
“We retreat,” the Wry Man said, without asking for input.
I bit my tongue harder.
Gordon gestured to Catcher, who gestured back before disappearing.
Then we were gone, putting as much distance between ourselves and the small army as we could.
I knew, instinctually, that it was too dangerous. I knew we were outclassed, and there was so little we could have done. Dog and Catcher would have some input, we could connect dots in the meantime, figure out a plan of action, rally the local forces, even.
Yet a part of me told me that Jamie would have known who they were. Jamie would have known strengths and weaknesses or what the projects were.
We’d still be retreating, but I’d feel better about what came next.
We needed a win, and we needed it soon, if only to prove we weren’t diminished. This was a weakness that would infect the group, influence me, with all of my vulnerability to being swayed one way or the other.
Lillian squeezed my wrist, and I realized I was still holding hers.
I squeezed hers back.