“It’s more halting, like this, but higher pitched,” Helen said, before making a series of high-pitched squealing noises that made sparks appear behind my eyes.
“Got to warn you, Helen, I almost hit you on reflex there,” Gordon said.
“Shh, Petey’s trying it. Good. That’s close. But make each sound shorter, I think, and you’ll have to do it loud when it counts” Helen said, “that’s ‘many’, they did that when the building back in Radham was surrounded. Now do this.”
Helen squealed again, in a way only young girls and very talented babies could. She maintained the noise for three seconds, then five, then ten.
Gordon clapped his hand over Helen’s mouth just as she reached the ten second mark, which made me think he’d also been counting the seconds until she stopped.
“You could weaponize that,” I said.
Helen’s response was muffled. Unable to turn her head, she pointed at Petey, then raised one thumb in approval.
“Think you got it,” I said.
Helen tapped twice on Gordon’s hand. He moved it away.
“That’s a big threat. They keep making that noise when the Superweapon is close. Don’t do that willy-nilly, okay? They’ll figure out you’re faking.”
“Petey knows what he’s doing,” Gordon said.
My estimation of Petey wasn’t very high. Everything I’d seen about his coordination, his work ethic, his communication, the amount he whined, it didn’t inspire confidence. I was left to wonder if he really did know what he was doing.
We reached the ladder, and started our climb. The Brechwell Beast was in Fray’s general vicinity, if our experiment with the map was right. Shots from the tower were a regular thing, now, though none seemed to be directed at us.
Further down the ladder, Helen was still coaching Petey, making an assortment of sounds. It felt like each one was specifically designed to drill at a particular set of nerves. Gordon was already getting irritable, but my mood, at least, was improved by the fact that things seemed to be at least partially on track.
“What’s next?” Mary asked, from above me.
“We get as close as we possibly can,” Gordon said. “Track what they’re doing.”
“Yep,” I said. Gordon’s on the same page as me, at least.
“We either move as a group to try and get ahead of them and disrupt their retreat, or we send Petey out alone or with a friend and do what we can independently.”
“I prefer the latter,” I said. “They’re shaken up, there might be vulnerabilities, or information, or something we can use.”
“Thought you’d say that,” Gordon said.
The rote action of climbing up a ladder was starting to tire me out. Muscles here and there had been strained or pushed to their limits by my earlier fall and a night of full-body exertion. The repetitive movements were slowly and steadily making it worse.
My mind was in five different places at once, free associating. There were too many notes to hit, here, and too many little details that tied my hands. The rampaging superweapon wasn’t one of those details, oddly enough. The possibility that Petey or the Wry Man could sabotage us, maintaining the general safety of the Lambs, and the time constraint were issues that I kept running into.
Start with the obvious, see if I can’t see other angles. Frontal attack. Obviously no. Why not? They’re strong, they’re prepared for a fight, we’re weak, risks the well being of Lambs.
Bait, sacrificial play. We have three solo operators, and even only raising the idea might reveal things about them. Too willing, unwilling, lack of cooperation.
Resources, resources, where do we have resources? Lillian’s stuff, not good enough, Academy burning…
Environment, then. What can we use? What can Fray use? She’s going to want to take the towers. She probably already planned to. Surest way to turn things around on us.
My thoughts continued to turn over in the back of my head, sometimes switching back and forth at a moment’s notice, while my mind’s eye was on the current prize.
Well, my eyes were on Mary, who was higher than me on the ladder. She was wearing hose, which denied me the ability to poke fun at her and get a reaction. Alas.
“Thinking aloud,” I said, very slowly.
“Good,” Gordon told me.
“Petey goes ahead, we flank. The less time they can spend discussing and cooperating, the better. If we can ratchet up pressure, distract, capitalize on their weaknesses or change their priorities, we win. Best case scenario, they implode. Worst case scenario, they lose time.”
“I prefer to think in terms of hard victory conditions,” Gordon said.
“If they’re still here when everyone else arrives, we win,” I said.
“Will that really do it?”
“It might not be so bad if they evacuate as a group, if they split up after, but our true ‘win’ is if they’re confined in the city when the soldiers and superweapons congregate. After that point, things are out of our hands. Maybe we keep going, maybe not,” I said. “But if they can escape with everyone else here and surrounding them, then it’s really not our fault, is it?”
The question inspired a thought. With Fray, we had to consider if we were playing straight into her hands. Right now, assuming she wasn’t preoccupied as the mediator between two factions, she was busy anticipating my and everyone else’s next steps. Was she counting on all of our forces assembling? Would we surround her, only for one side to turn on fellow soldiers or deploy a weapon?
I felt like something was missing. We needed to catch her off guard, but she’d already planned so much for what was happening right now, she had traps and countermeasures already in place, and there was no amount of thinking I could do to catch up to her. She’d had a chance to study the area, she’d had a chance to think on this at leisure.
Every time my mind touched on the vague image of the situation I needed to contrive to put Fray on her heels, there was a lot of violence, fire, and there was a vague mental image of the Beast bearing down on her, which was an amusing mental picture, if a dark one.
It was like having my thoughts caught in an endless loop. Needed to pressure her, catch her off guard, that was best done by tearing down everything around her, but her gathered forces probably beat the Lambs and our temporary allies in a fight, and I didn’t trust the various superweapons or soldiers on our side. I needed to find another way to pressure her, then, but my mind kept going back to blood, explosions and tragedy as the way of achieving that.
I wondered if I’d accidentally imprinted my malleable brain with that particular pattern, creating a rut of sorts I kept falling back to.
Change tacks, abandon that line of thought. We scout. Need to put ourselves in the best possible position to spot any vulnerabilities, and there have to be some. Not necessarily with her.
“We split up,” I said. “Gives us more chances to capitalize on any mistakes or fractures.”
“Can I go with Petey?” Helen asked.
“Bad idea,” Gordon said. “You two have a lot of the same weaknesses.”
I could have hugged Gordon. I didn’t like trusting any of the Lambs to the company of the solo operators. Instead, I just nodded, “Let’s say, Petey goes with… the Engineer. Then Lambs in two discrete groups. Not that sure I like that, I have to admit, but-”
“Why?” Mary asked. “Why don’t you like it?”
“Because it’s… because I don’t trust myself, I don’t trust Gordon, and I don’t trust you. Too much at stake, and I feel like we’re all emotionally compromised.”
“Gordon is?” Mary asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe don’t pay attention to that part,” I said. But I brought it up and you brought attention to it so it’s definitely in mind. I lied, “He’s been working at a different rhythm all night. Trying to prove something?”
“Have I?” Gordon asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“Take my word for it?” I asked.
“I can,” he said. He seemed very accepting of the possibility.
Not so much it matters, but I’m not about to go into detail about the fact you wanted to go with Fray last time. This is the next best thing.
We’d reached the top of the ladder. He climbed off, then let Hubris climb down from across his shoulders. I wondered how tired he was, lugging a large dog up and down ladders like he was. Anyone would be exhausted, except he was the most athletic of us.
“Well, I already know how I’m compromised,” Mary said. She stepped off the ladder and extended a hand, helping keep me steady as I stepped onto the roof.
I could see the little mannerisms, the fidget of fingers, the way she stood a little straighter, a little more rigid, the young lady who had been raised with culture and forged into a weapon by Percy.
She didn’t like admitting personal flaws. Gordon could do it, but for Mary, it stung.
“Sorry, Mary,” I said. I ran my fingers through wet hair and then made a gun with my hands and touched it to the side of my head, “I’m in this weird place. Trying to be honest, but I’m not very good at that. I figure it’s better to say it badly or say it while stepping on toes than not to say it at all, right now.”
“Not that I’m disagreeing with this specific scenario, but don’t compromise what you’re good at,” Gordon told me.
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what he was saying, or why, but I had the gist of it. Maybe he’d noticed Mary’s reaction to how I’d pointed out the Percy situation.
“Which brings me to the subject of, well, you said I was off-rhythm.”
“Different rhythm,” I said. I was a little proud of myself for remembering the exact phrasing I’d used no more than a minute ago.
“Whatever,” Gordon said. “You called me on that, I’m calling you out. I feel like you’re trying too much. This doesn’t feel like our Sy. How you’re acting isn’t quite natural or fluid. This thing with being honest is part of it.”
“Forced,” I commented. I extended a hand and seized Lillian’s wrist, leading her up to the apex of the roof.
“Nine months of ‘gimme’ jobs leaving you a little rusty? I know you slip easily without practice-”
“That’s not it,” I said.
“Oh. Okay,” he said. He shrugged. He wasn’t pressing any more. He’d raised the idea, he seemed to grasp that I had a bit of an idea of what was going on, and was content to leave it at that.
In the spirit of honesty, I said, “I’m just trying to adapt.”
He clapped a hand on my shoulder.
The little gesture only made me feel an ache for Jamie, in a weird way.
I took in a deep breath, and took note of where the Beast was. He was near another area where an gray plume of smoke was rising into the sky, periodically flickering orange from the flames beneath it. Would he press on through and escape into another part of Brechwell?
While the other members of the group reached the rooftop, I pulled my shirt into a better position. It was wet enough to cling to me.
The Engineer made it over the top of the ladder and handed over the rifles he was carrying. Gordon and Mary each took one. Petey took a third.
“That’s the sound for death, right? If you mix the two, like you did with ‘new’ and ‘threat’, yes. Exactly,” Helen was saying. “Exactly like that.”
Petey only seemed to glower back in response, mouth slightly parted.
“Is Petey good to go?” Gordon asked.
“Almost,” Helen said. “Trying to cover the bases. Studied the captured Ghosts in Ibott’s lab as practice for my new ears. Complex parts of the language might be tricky to do, but being loud can make up for not being very subtle, right?”
“Right,” Gordon said.
“So, just to try it out, maybe ‘new’ and ‘big’? Follow with the lighter ‘back’ cue, without the bob. Loud as you can.”
“What’s this?” Gordon asked.
Helen’s expression changed, as she went wide-eyed, almost horrified. She reached out and grabbed Gordon by the shirt front. “There’s something here! Surprise attack, and it’s big, I’m getting out of here!”
Even knowing it was an act, I almost believed her.
“Who’s Bob?” Gordon asked.
“Bob is a verb, silly Gordon. Like a pigeon’s head?” Helen asked. “Except it’s a sound?”
Gordon shook his head, confused.
Lillian was the one with the answer. “I think I might know what she means. When a pigeon takes flight, if it’s just flying off for whatever reason, it will bob its head first. If it’s flying off because of danger, it won’t bother, and every pigeon that sees is going to take that as a cue to fly off too-”
“-Without a bob,” I cut in.
“Yes. Without a bob, which cues others. That way, if one pigeon spots a predator, they all have the best chance. Except the Ghosts do it when vocalizing, I presume,” Lillian said.
Helen nodded, emphatic, “Every time they go someplace new, they communicate it. They ‘bob’ when it isn’t important, but they’re still letting others know where they are. When they don’t bob, then it’s saying-”
“That others should follow their lead,” Gordon said. “Got it.”
I found myself wishing that worked with people.
“Petey knows some of this, probably, but doesn’t know all of the communication. That makes it hard to be a sneaky sort of Ghost,” Helen said. “If he keeps misusing bobs or forgetting to use them, he stands out.”
“Is he going to do the scream, the command you just did?”
“He did,” Helen said, smiling. “They’re running.”
“And,” Mary observed, “It looks like we also signaled our friends.”
It was Dog and Catcher, with the Wry Man trailing behind. Their initial approach seemed hurried, but as they drew nearer and had a better view of the situation, they slowed to a somewhat more relaxed pace.
“Petey, Engineer,” Gordon said. “Figure out what you need to do to stay close enough to each other while being able to cover each other’s backs. You can hold your own if it comes to it, Engineer?”
The Engineer nodded once.
“Better not waste any time. Helen’s prepped you as good as you’ll get. Go.”
“That way,” I said, pointing.
We met Dog, Catcher, and the Wry Man halfway. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. They covered more ground, by virtue of having more raw strength and longer legs.
“Found her,” Catcher said. “Looped back to look for you, found him instead.”
“Any problems?” the Wry Man asked.
I shook my head. “Got Petey a convenient new body and some quick lessons in speaking Ghost more effectively. She’s going to throw a wrench into their ability to scout.”
“Okay,” Catcher said. “We-”
A violent impact shook Brechwell, worse than any we’d felt yet. I traced the roads with my eyes until I saw the plume of dust and debris further away. It seemed the Beast had run down one city street, but from the look of it, the road was one only accessible through Fray’s hole in the wall, and the creature had charged straight into a T-shaped intersection. Without a smooth curve in the road to guide it, it had struck a row of buildings at full force.
I looked at Gordon, Helen, and Mary, and I squeezed Lillian’s wrist. I suspected we were all thinking along the same lines.
The Beast had escaped the track it was meant to run, free of its cage, so to speak. The city was built to guide and confine it, and it had found a way out.
If Fray was going to make a move, assuming she knew, saw, or could intuit what had just happened, then this was her opportunity to evacuate.
“Show us where she is, now,” Gordon said.
The rain was coming down harder than before, and that had the effect of making it harder to see, our footsteps more prone to slip just a fraction.
Gordon seemed content to fill Catcher in, explaining the plan, that we’d be splitting up, what we were looking to achieve.
Having a strict goal in mind for victory was very Gordon, and in this situation, it was very useful, too.
What does Fray want? What is her goal for victory?
I had spent far too much time thinking about Fray over the last months and years. I had a sense of what she wanted on the surface level, to shake things up, to change the order of things. I had a sense of what she wanted on a deeper level, to convince others that her worldview was the right one, to prove herself right.
Starting the war, releasing the experiment to sterilize and chemically leash whole swathes of the Western Crown States, it had been a way of bringing everyone around to her point of view, creating that same righteous anger at how things worked, making every man, woman, and youth feel the need to buck against the Academy’s control, retaliate against the Crown’s callousness. She’d used her enemy’s tools against them, forcing things into play too early.
But there was a big difference between proving oneself right and proving the other guy wrong.
Bringing two factions together like she was served as another kind of validation. Being so very right that others came around to her point of view. I could see why she was here and why she was doing what she was doing. I could imagine that her drive was focused by the drugs she’d taken, honing ambition and perfectionism that had already been there, as evidenced by her gray coat and the self-medicating with Wyvern. It let her spend ten or more hours a day focused wholly on the tasks at hand.
I wished I knew her better. I wanted to get inside her head, hit her where it hurt, peeling away the veneer, and then figure out if there was something fragile, mad, or awe-inspiring lurking beneath.
“We’re close,” Catcher spoke in his gravelly voice, the sound carrying back to the rest of us. “See it? She was there!”
His weapon pointed the way, the spiked head aimed at a squat, broad building. It was part of the concentric rings that encircled another, taller building, not invisible, but easily overlooked. To look at it, I imagined a bank or a school.
The cluster of people around the building painted the rest of the picture. Standing guards, nervous, all keeping within a few paces of exits and escape routes. The Beast was rampaging through nearby streets, and many of the people on the ground were flinching at every impact, as if expecting the Beast to emerge or crash through at any moment.
I imagined it was an immense amount of psychological pressure, being down there.
The rifle shots I could hear throughout the city each marked one person who’d broken and made a break for a ladder. I could hear some close by.
A spotlight swept over us. I saw heads raise, heard voices on the ground, and tugged on Lillian’s arm, pulling her way and over to the other side of the roof. I ducked low, and she mimicked me, just in time for some gunshots to sound.
We were under fire, but their vantage point was awful, especially as we kept away from that side of the rooftop. We crossed over a gate and reached a forking path.
Around the time the spotlight swept over us, momentarily blinding me, more gunshots sounded from the closest tower. I wondered for a moment if they were firing on us, which was not impossible or even unlikely. Then I saw him.
The man with the modified birthing saw. I could smell fuel and see the flicker of machinery he wore, all of it keeping the weapon going. Saw-teeth rotated around the edge of the thing at a blur, periodically sparking. He carried a shield as tall as he was, holding it up in the direction of the nearest tower. Bullets struck the shield and bounced off.
Mechanical saw in one hand, shield in the other, he advanced on Catcher, Dog, and the Wry Man, smiling wickedly.
The Wry Man backed away a few steps, flinching as a shot caught the edge of the roof five feet to his right. He drew a vial from his belt and tossed it back in one gulp.
“Lambs!” Catcher called out. “Circle around! We split up as planned!”
We took the other path in the fork. It seemed fairly clear that Dog, Catcher, and the Wry Man were taking the most attention. Gordon raised his rifle and fired, but one more gunshot was lost in the noise, not even drawing any particular attention.
The Beast slammed directly against another wall, only a few streets over, and I heard the sound of glass shattering on windows beneath us, glass and frames warping with the force of the impact.
“Stay low,” Mary spoke, only loud enough that people on the ground weren’t likely to hear. She gestured at the same time, indicating the Beast, a relatively short distance away.
Was it frustrated?
Fray’s actions regarding the Beast didn’t quite feel like it fit into her usual pattern. Everything else she’d done had been about changing minds, often in a very aggressive manner. Who did she convince, doing this?
It hadn’t been timed the way she’d wanted, or it wasn’t being used the way she had originally planned.
Was there a weakness? Could I shake or break her using that desire to validate and prove her way was the right way?
I felt a bit of a chill as I considered the flip side of that same question.
There was a way to get to her.
Gordon and Mary both aimed and fired. Those shots did get attention. We ducked low and used the peak of the roof for cover as we made our way around. We were close, but the number of guards had increased.
And, if I admitted it, I was feeling hurt and tired. I wasn’t up to running around. We were close enough to see, and that had to be good enough, at least until we decided on another move.
“Stop,” I said.
The group drew to a halt. Gordon used the time to reload his weapon.
“Last bullet,” he said.
“Want one of mine?” Mary asked.
He took a bullet from her and pocketed it.
“You okay, Sy? You look cold,” Lillian said.
“I am,” I said. My teeth chattered a little from adrenaline and cold combined.
“You look hurt too,”
“Do you want my coat?”
I shook my head. “No thanks.”
“No sign of Fray,” Helen commented.
I stared at the building.
“Did she get away already?” Gordon asked. “We could spread out further, if you guys want. Sy stays, maybe with Lillian, so he can keep an eye on this place. Mary and Helen or me and Helen go explore, see if there’s any trace of them.”
The ground rumbled as the Beast paced through darkness, five or six streets over. The fumes were accumulating faster than they dissipated, and the Beast was slowing down.
The last time it had stopped moving, it had ignited its gas.
There was a lot of gas, by the looks of it.
“She’s here, I’m positive,” I said. “We stay low. Spread out over the rooftop here, so we have more vantage points to see. Gordon far left, Mary far right. Make sure that you aren’t thrown off if the Beast makes another explosion. Dig in, keep eyes forward.”
“Alright,” Gordon said. “You’re positive?”
I wasn’t one hundred percent sure, but I felt sure enough. If Fray was a mirror of me, she probably felt the same sort of insecurities. I’d worried about how fractured the Lambs were, and she was dealing with a fractured group. Would she call for a retreat, if she wasn’t certain that she’d be able to reunite the two factions in the aftermath of the retreat?
“Yeah,” I said.
Gordon gave me a dubious look.
But he retraced his steps, heading left. Mary went right, each of them with a rifle that each had, by my count, two bullets.
“Shoot only lieutenants or Fray,” I said, “Or in self defense.”
They each signaled the affirmative.
“Helen, that way, between me and Gordon. Lillian, that way.”
My heart was pounding.
Dog and Catcher were drawing attention, the rest were taking cover, looking in all the wrong directions.
We were free to act, but action was lunacy.
We needed one master stroke, something Fray wouldn’t anticipate.
Did I have a grasp of who she was? Who the major players were? The current volatility of their organization?
“Lillian,” I said.
She’d started walking away. She stopped, turning to listen.
“I’m okay, okay?”
She frowned at me.
“Okay? I want you to know that.”
“You’re being cryptic.”
“You were being too honest before. Was that a lead-in to you being particularly dishonest?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not intentionally, but now that I’m here, with a plan in mind… yeah.”
“What are you doing?”
“Easier to show and tell,” I said.
I slid down the roof until I reached the gutter.
“Sy!” she said.
“Shh! If you shout, you’ll get us both shot.”
“Sylvester,” she hissed, a strained whisper.
“I’m okay,” I said.
As I’d done after being thrown down the roof, I lowered myself down until I hung on wet wood by my fingertips.
I shimmied over to one side, until there was a broken window in front of me.
Too much glass on the sill.
I shimmied over some more.
I swung forward, and felt the heart-stopping moment as I let go, flying toward the window. I grabbed the too-thin crossbar in the center, a surer point to grip. Then, the moment I had contact, slapped my hands out to catch the sides of the window instead.
I passed into a darker office.
The Beast’s movements made picture frames and furniture rattle and shift.
It was easier to get out of the office than it would have been to get in.
Down the stairs, to the front door. I would be forced to leave it unlocked, but there was no way to be polite.
A mailbox sat just inside the door. I picked my way through envelopes until I found a nondescript one, then I waited, periodically looking outside, assessing who and what was nearby.
The ghosts weren’t there. Petey might have sufficiently distracted or herded them.
The detonation caught me off guard. Even with streets and solid stone buildings between me and the detonation site, it left me briefly stunned.
I pushed the door open.
Outside, onto a street shrouded in smoke and darkness, where I could barely see ten feet in front of me, envelope in hand.
Walk, don’t run.
I made it three quarters of the way to the building before someone spotted me, walking with my hands out to the side, an envelope held out between index and middle finger.
Their gun pointed at my chest.
I continued walking.
“Stop,” he said.
The Lambs were going to be so pissed at me.
“I’m accepting Fray’s invitation to sit in on the meeting,” I said.
He whistled sharply.
More people approached. Two kept guns trained on me. The first guy got close enough to take the letter. I let it fall from my fingertips.
“That has nothing to do with this. I just needed a white flag so you wouldn’t shoot me before I got close,” I said. Then I lied, “I am telling the truth.”
“Lamb,” one of the men said.
“We’re told to treat all children as suspicious, and not to listen,” one of the men said.
“You’re one of Cynthia’s, I’m guessing.”
He raised his jaw a fraction. I was right.
“One of you go inside. Talk to Genevieve Fray. She’ll tell you what’s up.”
Appealing to a higher authority.
Except Genevieve Fray hadn’t invited me.
Well, not in anything but the loosest sense. She’d extended an invitation a year and a few months ago, before the war had started.
I didn’t remember much, but I remembered that.
I watched the men exchange glances.
“Turn around,” one of them said.
Hm. This wasn’t a good sign. I knelt.
I felt a gun press against the back of my head.
Then a coat was draped over my head. I moved my hands to adjust it, and got a fierce poke with the bayonet blade, alongside a sharp, “No!”
I was having my head covered. I supposed they didn’t want to show the way to Fray.
I could hear the Beast tearing at building, I could hear the bells, I could imagine Lillian hurrying to communicate to the other Lambs about what I was doing, if they couldn’t see me down here.
Fray wanted to change minds, she wanted to prove her worth, she collected the vulnerable, and her past interactions with the Lambs and with me had played off of that.
Here, I was expecting she would keep to that pattern.
I was expecting that, whatever else happened, her authority and power here would override the lesser players, some of whom had reason to loathe the Lambs. To loathe me.
I was using the word ‘expecting’ because hope sounded awfully flimsy, and thinking too much along the lines of hope and maybe would set my teeth to chattering far more than they were right now.
Voices started up a murmured, muffled conversation behind me.
I was hauled to my feet, the jacket left in place. I was walked, a grown man on either side of me.
It was only after doors were shut that the jacket was pulled away. I moved my arms as much as I was able and tried to fix my hair. Nothing I could do about my shirt. If I had to look wet and bedraggled, I could look a crazy wet and bedraggled. I opened my eyes wider and smiled.
Another set of doors was opened.
A hundred sets of eyes fell on me.
At a table at the end of the room, I could see the major players. Fray, with Warren, Avis, and her stitched standing behind her. I saw Percy, and Mauer at one end of the table, and Cynthia at the other, with a new and too-artificial skin covered partially by hair, a high collar, long sleeves and gloves, each of them with a half dozen I didn’t know or recognize.
The other eighty-some people I didn’t know were civilians, standing and sitting in chairs. An audience for the forum. I felt more accurate about my assessment of Fray, now.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said.
Genevieve smiled at me, and it was a smile of a shared secret. There had been no invitation. She and I were probably the only people in the room of any importance who wanted me to walk out of the room alive at this point. Not that I was entirely sure about her feelings on that matter.