Dog, Catcher and the Engineer were able to pull ahead, as much by virtue of their sheer speed as the fact that they had a straighter road. The trio of them were waiting for us at the base of one of the towers that overlooked a bend in the road. The spotlight swept over us as we approached, then moved on.
As we came to a stop, I let go of Lillian’s hand. I paced a bit, waiting for the stragglers, Petey, to catch up. Disgusted with the state of things, I screwed up my face and spat over the edge, the little wad of spit joining thousands of individual raindrops.
The Engineer watched us. His skin was as raw as a fresh burn, but he wore a mask that covered and sealed his mouth shut, a loose-fitting and incomplete metal shell surrounding much of his body. Mechanical parts were worked into biology, open enough that I could see wet muscle and turning cogs. It was a similar sort of project to Dog, I expected, but instead of going the warbeast route, they’d enhanced the man until things broke down, and they’d replaced the broken-down parts with machinery. I had little doubt that there was at least one machine attached to his body that dispensed powerful painkillers at regular intervals.
All that said, looking past the glistening bits I could see between gaps in the heavy armor, the Engineer was a work of art. The mask had a flair to it, the machinery gleamed, and there were traces of silver lining the edges of darker metal. Even his gun looked impressive and ornate.
“They’re not following us anymore,” Helen said. “I’m pretty sure?”
Catcher looked at Dog, who shook his overlarge head. “Dog doesn’t think so either. Tell me, what happened?”
“Nothing,” Gordon said. “We had them cornered, and then they came out of the woodwork.”
“These Ghosts are getting on my nerves,” I said. “Dealing with them alone, we’ve shown we can do that, but apparently our enemies have the scariest bastards around working under them? We have to deal with the lot at once?”
“We saw some of them, too. Hitmen, thugs for hire,” Catcher said. “A couple of the most wanted in the Crown States. We couldn’t close in on them. Each of them had escorts.”
“It’s hard to stay unnoticed when you’re as ugly as some of those bastards are,” Gordon said. “How are they infiltrating this city? Checkpoints, standing guards, patrols, any one of those guys should have raised alarm bells.”
“Secret routes?” Lillian asked.
“I wouldn’t think, with how the city is put together,” the Wry Man said.
I nodded in agreement. “They wouldn’t have security holes like that and not guard them.”
“Leaves only one option,” Mary spoke. Gordon was already nodding beside her.
“Infiltration,” I said. “A group of students, a commanding officer, or an entire faction within this city is working with our enemy. Say what you will about the Academy, it has its strengths, but engendering loyalty isn’t one of them. It’s not a problem when we’re winning, but when people see opportunity, they don’t exactly feel bad about taking action against the Academy, or twisting their perspective around to justify making some money or getting some power at the Academy’s expense.”
Gordon gave me a curious look, then said, “Yeah, something to watch out for. We don’t talk about this with anyone until we find out more. If we tip them off before we have proof or leverage, we’re suddenly going to find that it’s very hard to get anything done.”
There were nods all around.
Can’t trust the locals. Meaning we’re even more outnumbered.
“What did you discover?” Catcher asked.
“We waited for them, and then we went looking. The blonde one-”
“Helen,” Helen said.
“-can hear the screeching, like you can.”
“Alright,” the Wry Man said. “Should we head back, regroup, figure out where we’re sleeping tonight?”
“What?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Catcher said. “What is it, Sy?”
“I don’t want to double back,” I said. “We have the entire night head of us, we’re not going to accomplish anything by going back home.”
“Sy,” Gordon said.
“We have a job to do,” I said.
“I’m not disagreeing, Sy,” Gordon said. “But you summed it up. They have Ghosts. We can disrupt them, make noise that bothers them, but all reports suggest they’ve adapted to that trick, and we’d still be broadcasting our location. We can’t sneak up and observe or try to follow them without them knowing.”
“We can,” I said, “but we don’t know how, yet.”
“Same thing,” he said.
“If one group made a distraction while the other circled around,” I mused.
“No,” the Wry Man said. “That’s suicidal.”
Petey cut in, “This might be the time to mention that our friend here is very experienced at the trade. He’s been at it for-”
“Thirty years,” the old man said.
“Thirty years,” Petey said, in that high voice of hers. “He’s… wary.”
“That is not a word people tend to associate with me,” the Wry Man said. “But I won’t throw my life away for this.”
I frowned. Was this where different mentalities, personality types and approaches all clashed? Herding the Lambs was difficult enough.
“How do you prefer to operate?” Gordon asked Petey.
“I’m reckless by nature. Every time I make a move, I’m taking a risk,” Petey said.
A reckless undercover agent?
“Can we help?” Helen asked.
“Yes,” Petey said.
“I always thought you should be a Lamb,” Helen said.
Petey looked at our group, turning her head to look us over. A group of dripping children and a soggy dog. “It looks exhausting.”
“Let us show you how much we can help you,” Helen said. “What you’d get, if you were one of us.”
Petey sighed. “Yeah.”
“Then we use Petey,” Helen said. “We go after them, bait them out-”
“They’ll run,” Gordon said.
“Then we catch them,” Helen said, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.
“They have the advantage on raw information,” Gordon said. “If they think they can win, then they’ll hit us with an unreasonable amount of force. If they don’t think they can win, they flee.”
“Stop,” I said.
The pair of them stopped.
“Let’s ignore that part, or we’ll keep arguing in circles until the sun rises.”
“Sy being the level headed one?” Lillian commented.
I stuck my finger out, pressing it against her lips. “Shush.”
She slapped my hand away.
The rain ran through my hair, and I pushed my fingers through it to get it back out of my face. I pointed at the Lambs, “Stay,” pointed at the Wry Man, Engineer and Petey, “stay,” and pointed at Dog and Catcher, “wait here.”
A glance skyward told me the spotlight in the tower well above us was glowing, moving over the streets and rooftops.
I crossed the roof and grabbed the ladder. I started climbing, making my way up.
I was only part of the way up when a light touched me. It flickered for a moment as it settled on me, the living battery skipping a beat.
Still on the ladder, I stuck my arms out to either side, showing my empty hands.
The light moved to the others. The Wry Man raised a hand, apparently the signal that all was well. He was a known element, clearly.
I remembered what we’d said about trustworthy and untrustworthy elements, that there were far too many people who had critical positions in the Academy and very little loyalty to the institution.
I knew full well that I could drive myself crazy questioning every ally we had, but it would do to remember that these three strangers were just that, strangers. Whatever Helen was spouting off to Petey, it was hard enough to imagine adding two new Lambs to the group that I couldn’t bring myself to extend my trust to these people.
Solo operators, very good at what they did, but there was no guarantee someone else hadn’t reached them first with a better offer.
What did a Wry Man want out of existence, after thirty years of working under the Academy?
I continued making my way up the ladder. The light fell on me again, then moved up to the tower top above me, streaming into the room there. The light flicked off, on, off, and on again.
I pulled out my badge as I neared the top, and I banged my hand on the hatch. I was working under the assumption that, even if the soldiers in here were working with our enemy on some level, they weren’t going to blow their cover or take a risk by attacking me here.
The hatch opened. I was greeted by the sight of a weight overhead and men with rifles aiming at me. Young men, students only five or so years older than me, but men all the same.
“Do you have a map?” I asked, in my best ‘innocent’ voice.
“This is no place for children,” one of the men said. “And there’s a curfew, no less. Climb up, unless you want us to help you on your way down.”
The blade of the bayonet touched my shoulder, suggesting just how he’d ‘help’.
“And keep your hands where we can see them,” another told me.
This is why people don’t like the Academy.
I climbed up, and held my hands out as they frisked me.
“Take a look through the hatch,” I said. “On the roof beneath you.”
“Dog and Catcher? We were told about them, we saw them coming.”
“Everyone,” I said. “Not just those two.”
One of the men stepped past me, peering down and over to see the group.
Catcher raised his free hand in a kind of wave.
“They need a map,” I said. “It’s semi-urgent.”
One of the officers crossed the room, “What kind?”
“Of the city.”
“Restricted,” he said. “Maps can’t leave this room.”
Of course it is.
A city designed to be a maze, to make effectively attacking it as difficult a process as possible. Letting maps of the layout out to possibly find their way to enemy hands was a security risk.
Except our enemies included Ghosts, who had a powerful sense of spatial awareness. In this particular circumstance, it was more trouble to friend than foe.
Brechwell’s leadership at work, in a way.
“Can I see, at least?” I asked.
He gestured. I approached the counter with maps laid across it. They covered different neighborhoods, included full views of the city, topographic views, and views of the region, with symbols to mark the most likely avenues for entry. There were maps that were more legend than actual map, with lists of names. Probably families in a given range of streets.
The really interesting one had details on switches for the portcullis gates throughout the city. If we could only get access to those controls, they’d have no chance. But our enemy is likely thinking something very similar.
“There are wanted criminals in this city, they set fire to Brechwell Academy earlier tonight,” I said.
“Yup,” one of the soldiers said.
“They’re camped out elsewhere in the city. We ran into a bunch of them just now, right here.” I touched the map. I was developing a story in my head. “We saw some bad people, and I was told to come here and get a map so we could say where.”
“Uh huh,” the soldier said.
“Do you have a sheet of paper? I don’t want to draw on your nice maps.”
“You most certainly don’t,” another soldier said, gruff. “But we do have paper for you.”
“Trying to figure out where they might be based,” I said. I pulled my raincoat off, draping it on the edge of the counter, and rolled up my sleeves. “Ink, pen?”
They slid a pen and some ink across the length of the counter.
“I can’t take this with me, huh?” I asked, as I took offered paper, placed it over the map, and began to trace the most essential sections.
“You can’t. No maps leave. That means maps you draw.”
I made a face. “I’ll have to do my best, then. But getting it out of my head and on paper will help.”
I won’t remember, it won’t help at all.
I sketched out the Academy, and then drew lines for the major roads and rivers. I circled the area where I assumed we’d seen the gathering.
“Any idea what neighborhood this is?”
I sighed. Couldn’t even be a memorable thing. Any numbers would slip out of my head before I was halfway down the ladder.
I finished tracing out more of the city. As I drew, I moved my hand down the pen, which wasn’t hard. Pressure on the end of the fountain pen produced more ink, and it got ink all over my finger.
“Okay,” I said. “I think I’ve got it. If I send them up here to see, can you show them?”
“Sure,” one of the men said.
“Ugh, I’m bad with pens,” I said, shaking my hand. The blob of ink that covered the end of my finger spattered against the window and dotted a few of the maps. “Oh, shit! Sorry!”
Injecting just enough of a sense of alarm that they might think something was really wrong. I could see a half-dozen ways to play out this situation, but if I got them anxious-
“What did you do!?” one man shouted. He rushed closer, hurrying to see if there was any damage to the maps.
I took the opportunity to hug my completed maps against my own chest, running my forearms down the length of them. I let them fall to the ground, snatching up my raincoat.
“Did he do any damage? If we get in trouble for this-” one was saying.
“Fucking little kid, shouldn’t have given him ink,” another said.
I pulled my raincoat on as quickly as I could, trying to look as guilty and upset as possible, to deflect attention from what I was actually doing. “Don’t- please don’t throw me down the hatch.”
One gave me a look, annoyed. “We’re not going to do that.”
“You said you would earlier, please… Just let me go.”
“Go,” was the order.
I left, down through the hatch, observed by one while two fussed over the maps and the trouble they’d get from their superiors if they were decided to be at fault.
Partway down the ladder, I reached fingers through the rungs of the ladder, and drew an ‘x’ on the knuckle of my thumb, just a short distance from Melancholy’s ring.
Hopefully that would be a reminder. They’d been nice enough, all things considered. Wouldn’t do to get them in trouble.
Jamie wouldn’t have.
“Taking your sweet time?” Catcher called up to me, as I made my way to the rooftop again.
I walked around the point where the rooftop met the tower until I found a position where the tower’s bulk blocked the incoming rain. I pulled off my raincoat, then pulled off my shirt. I held it up. Excess ink had translated to the shirt, and though some of it had bled into the fabric, expanding out into fatter lines, and some of the finer details had dried too quickly to translate, the general image of the city was there.
“Have to mentally flip it left to right,” I said.
“Can’t see, needs to be higher,” Gordon said.
I raised it up..
I raised it as high as I could.
I realized what he was doing.
“You’re a dirty buttplug, Gordon,” I said.
“And you’re short,” he told me.
The Engineer reached forward and took the shirt, holding it flush against the tower wall.
I shivered a bit, shirtless, but still proud of my handiwork. I dabbed a bit of moisture on the wall and touched the spot I’d already marked with my ink-wet fingertip. I left a faint blue mark across the cloth, thin and dark at first, then fading as I applied more pressure and applied more of my finger.
“The drug-takers, had guns, sixty-somethingth neighborhood, approaching from the southwest, I guess? And the strong men, led by one of our Most Wanted, along with creepy lady with the flowing dress, and the warbeast tamer.”
“Ghosts,” Gordon said, drawing his finger along the road I’d sketched out.
“More Ghosts,” Catcher said. He touched the shirt, and his fingerprint came away a muddy yellow-black.
I glanced at him. “Where’d you get ink?”
“Weapon oil,” he said.
I smiled. I liked improvisation when I saw it.
The Engineer moved one hand and tapped the shirt. Catcher marked the spot. “Rifleman at a perch here, ducked out of sight when the searchlight swept his way. Saw us, and hid. Didn’t see him again. And here, strange looking stitched sitting outside in the rain. And here is where we lost the Ghosts we were chasing after the Academy fire….”
The dots and lines and marks were starting to form a picture. It was shaped like a wobbly crescent moon. An unfinished picture.
I touched the center of the incomplete circle. “What’s here?”
There was no answer but the patter of rain.
“They are?” Lillian guessed. “The bad guys?”
I traced my finger around the circle’s rim. “Defensive perimeter. And in the center there, we have critical figures. Wanted men, leaders of different factions of rebellion. Mauer. Maybe Fray.”
I glanced at Mary.
“Percy,” she said.
“It’s possible,” Gordon said. “But Fray has outsmarted us before.”
“The factions have been fighting for months. Over three nights, they’ve banded together. Either they’ve reached an accord or they’re getting there,” I said. “When things are that tentative, are you really going to get complicated and take risks with how you station your guards?”
“Actually…” Gordon said.
“…Fray might,” I finished. “You’re right.”
“And,” Gordon said, “It doesn’t fix our problem with how we get close enough to them to do anything.”
“It’s true, Sy,” Mary said. “Using Petey, attacking with our massed forces, spying, our hands are tied.”
“Then we don’t use hands,” I said. I tugged on my shirt. The Engineer let it go. I pulled it on, and shivered again at how clammy it was against my already wet skin. “We use-”
Helen stepped close, all of a sudden, her face an inch from mine.
She licked my forehead, brow to hair.
“Uh,” I said, my train of thought broken.
“Go ahead, don’t worry,” she said.
“You had ink on your face. I wanted to get rid of it before it stained. Keep talking.”
“That’s what you use a handkerchief for.”
It was a glimmer of the older, frustrating Helen. “I don’t have one and my spit would work better anyway. Go back to what you were saying.”
“What was I even saying?”
“We don’t use hands,” the Wry Man said, patiently.
“Right,” I said. “Yeah. Damn it, Helen, and I had a good one-liner planned.”
“It would have sounded silly if you said it with a blue stripe on your face,” she said, very sensibly.
“Sy,” Gordon said, “Focus. What are you thinking?”
“We use horns,” I said.
“You’re right,” Mary said. “That doesn’t sound nearly as cool after the interruption.”
I sighed, then shivered again.
“Horns?” Petey asked.
My eyes scanned the surroundings. The city, laid out like it is.
“You don’t build a city like this without a design in mind. Winding roads, claustrophobia, gates to control movement, towers to observe… all done with a point in mind. If they seriously didn’t give the capstone of this design horns, I’m going to be ticked. Gotta tie it together.”
“The Brechwell Beast,” Gordon said.
“Please tell me it has horns.”
“It has horns,” Gordon said.
I smiled, spreading my arms. “Perfect. Then let’s give them a distraction.”
“It’s a last ditch measure,” The Wry Man said, unimpressed. “Not something we use right away. We’re supposed to observe and report back so the Academy can take action, not take action ourselves.”
My eyes were wide, I was smiling, and I was shivering from excitement as much as cold, now. “It’s Genevieve Fray. She’s two moves ahead of us, every damn time. I’m done playing chess. Let’s kick over the damn table. Right now.”
“I’m not sure,” Petey said. “This isn’t how I operate.”
“Like I said,” Helen said, reaching out to take Petey’s hand. “You’re with us for now.”
“This isn’t what I was imagining,” Petey said.
“I’m gathering Helen is for Sy’s plan,” Gordon said.
“I want to see it,” Helen said, the excitement clear on her face.
“Do you?” he asked. Gordon reached out to touch the side of Helen’s face. “No act, no games. Because I know you don’t want like we understand it. Say it again.”
The enthusiasm drained away from Helen. Her eyes still glittered, but her expression was cold. The angle of her head, the way she held herself, it all shifted in the moment. More reptile than mammal, wearing raincoat and a dress.
She nodded once.
“Alright,” he said. His hand settled on Hubris’ head. “If Sy wants to do it, and if we can get the cooperation of the Academy, then I’m for it too.”
Helen smiled, resuming her act as if nothing had occurred.
“Yes, then,” Mary agreed.
“Yes,” Lillian said, which was a little surprising. “Let’s get that bitch.”
Mary reached out to squeeze Lillian’s hand, smiling at her best friend.
As one, the Lambs faced the others.
“Do you think this will work?” Catcher asked.
“No idea, but I’m fairly sure that anything else we do, biding our time, it’s not going to work,” I said. “I know Fray, and we can’t give her the opportunity to make the next move at her leisure.”
Catcher nodded. He looked at Dog, who didn’t give any apparent sign, then looked at us. He nodded once.
The solo operators were silent.
“I’ll go up,” the Wry Man said. “I know the signals. I’ll flash a message to the other towers. They’ll pass it on. If I say we know where Fray is, they’ll act.”
I smiled wider.
“Go,” he said. “I’ll catch up after I’ve given the order. We’re creating a window of opportunity here.”
I remembered my doubts from earlier.
“Can we trust you to do this?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why? Why are you with the Academy? Why are you loyal?” I asked.
“That question could get you killed, if you asked it in certain places, or asked it in the wrong way,” the Wry Man said.
“Are you deflecting?”
“I don’t even know what that means,” the man said.
“They saved my life,” he said. “Not the Academy as a whole, but people who are tied to it. I have to repay those people, and I will probably never manage it before I die. If I have to serve the Academy to do it, I will.”
My brain was pulling on every hint and detail on tells that I’d learned over the past several years. Every lie I’d identified.
“Okay,” I said. “I trust you. I told them to expect someone. You could tell them we spotted the enemy ringleader and they’ll believe you.”
He nodded once, then started climbing the ladder.
“You two don’t have to come,” Gordon said, to the other solo operators.
“I think I do,” Petey said.
The Engineer nodded.
I’d have rather they’d stayed, or gone back to the Academy to report in. I didn’t trust them, and they’d be at our back in this.
We were halfway back to where we’d seen the ghost when the beam started flashing, pointed back at the Academy. The dark, overcast night sky glowed orange on one end and reflected a dim yellow-white on the other, passing on a message.
Our enemies would see that light in the same way we’d seen the fire.
In a short time, I hoped, they’d hear the roar of the Brechwell Beast, and they’d react with concern and fear.
The box would be thoroughly rattled, the inhabitants set to scurrying, dangerous and mad as they were.
This was what I lived for.