Armed men led me out of the building, with Warren joining them. We made our way across the more open street, until we were just beyond the point where I’d been made to kneel, a coat over my head.
The Lambs were there, in the shadows, smoke and the rain, the group spaced evenly apart. I saw them before my escorts did. The men started, reaching for guns, and it was Warren who stopped them.
Gordon stepped forward.
He was hiding it, but I could see the smouldering anger in his eyes.
“Everything good?” his voice didn’t have a trace of that anger.
A nice vague question, conveying teamwork, expectations, while giving nothing away.
Gordon was a good guy.
“It’s good,” I said.
He nodded before turning his back. I followed him back into shadows, leaving the men and Warren behind.
Mary, Gordon, Helen, and Hubris knew what was up, and they moved easily from areas of shadow to areas of deeper shadow, or to places where there was more smoke and cover. The art of disappearing, honed over a long time, for the humans. For Hubris, I imagined it was training. I wasn’t positive that dog had the brain of a dog.
Lillian, though, was just walking away. I could imagine how the onlookers could see her, and I was pretty sure she wasn’t disappearing properly.
I reached out to grab her sleeve, and tugged her into deeper shadows.
We made our way to the nearest tower, then climbed to the roof.
The Brechwell Beast was just close enough to give some cause for worry, but not so close that I was worried about my footing on the roof.
I was one of the last ones up. I knew what to expect when I reached the top.
Glares, folded arms, concern.
I got out of Lillian’s way as she got off the ladder, and being mid-step on more precarious footing, I wasn’t in a position to dodge as she slapped my arm hard.
“What did you get?” Gordon asked, quiet. The anger hadn’t really subsided, and he was still talking in that cool, collected way.
“You’re not going to get on my ass, sock me in the face, or anything like that?”
“At this point I’m suspicious you enjoy the reactions,” he said. “No. The mission. What were you going for, and what did you get?”
“Because if you didn’t actually have an objective,” he said, pausing as the Brechwell Beast struck a wall, “I am going to be upset.”
“I wanted to know what they were doing.”
I nodded. “Bring the Academy’s knowledge to the masses. Bring the war to a close with a few final, major events, distracting us from the distribution of very easy to understand texts. Hurts the Academy in terms of the power gap in what they’re making, in terms of control, in economics, makes for more competition over the resources the Academy wants.”
“No. We have classes on ethics, procedure,” Lillian said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! Of course! So much would go wrong so fast, if you just started handing out these books and basic starter kits like the ones they sell to young Academy students. It would be horrible, Sy.”
“Oh,” I said. “Because my gut instinct was to maybe not fight as hard as we might otherwise fight, when it comes to this. I’m not sure, but Fray might be willing to negotiate a trade, here.”
“A trade?” Mary asked.
“A few key players from their side, in exchange for letting this thing happen?”
“Fuck,” Gordon said, under his breath.
My eyebrows went up. Harsher language than his usual.
“We lost Jamie,” he said. “Not in the final sense-”
“Yes in the final sense,” I said, my voice low.
“Whatever. However you look at it. I’m bringing it up even though we’ve been dancing around the topic for months because I don’t want to lose you, Sy.”
“You won’t. I knew exactly what I was doing. I know how Fray thinks, I know how to dance on this razor’s edge. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“You’re here and you’re talking about entertaining her ideas.”
I couldn’t keep meeting his eyes, so I turned away, only to find myself looking at Lillian. I ran my fingers through my hair, fixing it, as I paced a little.
I came face to face with Mary and stopped in my tracks.
I talked to Percy, I thought. But I couldn’t say it without it coming across as manipulative.
“What are you doing, Sy?” Gordon asked.
I turned away from Mary to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve been acting different all night. Changing your pattern, increasing the tempo and intensity, making calls and now you’re working against us like you’re trying to keep us off guard?”
“That’s not what I’m trying to do. But I knew you’d try to stop me-”
“For good reason!” Mary said, startling me.
“I’m here!” I said. “I walked in, I walked out.”
“Without the bag?” Mary asked. “Without the bag with Jamie’s books in it?”
“Oh. Gosh,” Lillian said, under her breath.
“We’re going back tomorrow,” I said, annoyed. “We’re going to walk out then too. With Jamie- ‘s books. Okay? We walk away with an idea of what Fray is doing, with an idea of how to counter it or steer it in the right directions. Mary gets to look Percy in the eye, we confront Fray, and with her preoccupied like she is, trying to juggle two factions and a half-dozen plans, we’ll have her at a disadvantage. It will be the one and only time, maybe, that we ever have that.”
I looked at each of the Lambs. I even looked at Gordon’s dang dog, in hopes of seeing a glimmer of understanding.
Gordon approached me. I could see the anger in his eyes, the frustration. I steeled myself.
Pretty much expected this since I’d realized I could walk inside those doors down there.
But Gordon didn’t hit me.
When his arms wrapped around me, I wondered if he was intending to simply toss me over the edge of the roof. The size difference, the strength difference, my chronic low weight, I was willing to bet he could.
“What are you doing, Sy?”
Mary stepped closer, putting a hand on Gordon’s back, her expression unreadable. Lillian hung back, both hands on her satchel with the medical equipment inside. Helen was perched on the peak of the roof, slightly above us, staring, more old Helen than new Helen, just for now.
Seeing them, I was choked up in a way that made me feel like I was in the midst of drowning. I wanted to get out of the hug, to have space, to have a chance to explain, and it didn’t feel like they were giving it to me.
“I’m trying to say it right. The thing with distributing the books, it’s the second phase of a greater plan. She’s got another plan. I think, and maybe Lillian can say if I’m on the right track or not…”
I reached out for help. Lillian didn’t give any indication she was going to play ball.
“…the work that comes out of the books. Could it have a signature? Give everyone the tools to make stitched, to create life, to create the right drugs, grow Warbeasts, I don’t even know, but in a way that sets them apart from the Academy. Then, when she makes her next move, it’ll be easier to frame the Academy for it, like she did with the sterilization and the chemical leash, because that precedent exists. She can establish a narrative, at a time when the Academy has less credibility, when it’s damned itself by trying and failing to control the spread of this information. That the Academy is worse than it is. The next war comes around, the rebellion is better armed, the Academy is hurting. Step four drives a wedge into the cracks that become apparent. I’m not saying this is it, but it’s- don’t you see the scale we’re operating at, here?”
“Sy,” Gordon said.
His tone suggested he wasn’t listening to me at all.
“Let go of me!” I said. I fought my way free of his arms. I backed away a few paces. “Listen to me!”
“I hear you,” he said. “We all do.”
“I’m right. This is what I do, this is what I’m for. I can figure a way forward, find what we need to do to exploit and derail her plan, and this war will be over, no more mice will have to get thrown into vats to make ghosts, people won’t end up conscripted by the Crown and find themselves facing down a cousin of theirs in a gunfight!”
“Probably,” Gordon said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about.”
“It’s the mission! It’s what we’re made to do. I’ve been explaining for something like three or four minutes and we’re not talking about it?”
“No. We’re not.”
“Because I seem to recall the last time we met Fray, you were thinking about defecting,” I said. “You were close, too. If a single snowflake had fallen on your back, it might have been the push you needed.”
The words hung in the air.
Gordon didn’t flinch. The reaction wasn’t even all that profound with the other Lambs. A turn of one or two heads, looking at our tallest, strongest member. Curious looks, but it was almost as if they were wondering what his reaction was, more than they were wondering if it was true.
“I’m not even talking about going that far,” I said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “I hear you.”
“Then what’s the problem!?”
“The problem,” he said, and his voice was quiet, “Is that I’m worried you’re falling apart even more than I am, and I have seams, Sy.”
“I’m here,” I said, my voice low. “I’ve been in top form tonight.”
“You’ve been in a form, Sy,” he said. “I’m just not sure it’s yours.”
I could have hit him, if I didn’t know it would be futile.
“What do you want, Gordon? You’re getting on my case, you’re making me play this dang-blasted guessing game, like I’m supposed to unravel a riddle that isn’t even a riddle. Tell me what you want me to say or do, and I’ll say or do it.”
“Just tell me, Sy. What are you doing?”
“Trying to do the mission? Trying to figure out how to beat a woman that’s smarter and on better footing than I am? Apparently without the help of my team?”
There was no response. Mary kept one hand at Gordon’s arm, barely inches separating them. His dog stood on the other side of him.
“Okay,” I said. “Forget the mission. You want me to bare my emotions? I’m trying to figure out how things work with the group being a different shape, one man down, one dog up, and two more members on the way. I’ve been worrying ever since the last time we saw Fray that the group might splinter. Thanks to you, by the way. You did start that.”
“Is that the answer you’re looking for? I’m trying to hold things together, that’s all.”
“I think we’ll both know the answer when you give it. But that doesn’t seem like you’re answering the question.”
I might have screamed in his face, if I didn’t think it would cause problems.
The Brechwell Beast was tearing at another set of houses a short distance away. Widening the gap made by some of Fray’s explosions, it looked like.
I wondered if any people were dying in the process.
“Sy,” Mary said.
I snapped my head around.
“When you went down there, were you running to, or were you running away?”
“Don’t do this, Mary. Don’t throw cryptic questions at me and expect answers I don’t have.”
“Because the rush, the recklessness, the fact you’re so adamant about wanting to get this done before the new member arrives… before Jamie arrives-”
“That’s not Jamie,” I said.
“-it seems like you’re running away. And now you’re talking about working with Fray?”
“Not working with, just not working against as hard as we might. Everything we’ve done to this point, what has it been for? Does Fray really hurt the future of the Lambs and the betterment of mankind? Are we really going to sit here and pretend we like the Academy, the Duke is an all-around stand up guy?”
“I think you’re evading.”
“I evade. You might as well accuse Helen of acting.”
Gordon spoke up, “I just want a satisfactory answer to the question. You, someone, just convince me that you’re not losing it, and I’m open to further discussion, whatever you guys want to do.”
“What am I doing?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said.
I threw my arms up, and I started walking away.
My body felt oddly light, and it wasn’t because of the exercise or the fact we hadn’t really eaten since early evening on the train. The bag of books wasn’t on my back anymore, and the absence made me feel weird, eerily disconnected from the ground at my feet.
Jamie wasn’t at my back.
The others were following me, I knew. I could have bolted. Gordon and Mary would have caught me.
I ran my fingers through my hair again, then jammed them into pockets that had only just started to dry out while we were indoors. Late in the evening, late spring, soaked through, I felt cold to the bone.
I wheeled around. The others stopped in their tracks, but for Lillian.
I waited patiently as she made her way across to me, carefully striding so one foot was on each side of the gently peaked roof. She pulled off her coat and extended it to me.
“No,” I said.
“You’re a girl,” I said.
“It’s unisex, Sy. Nobody’s going to poke fun.”
My finger touched the ring at my thumb. “I meant you’re a girl, so it wouldn’t be right.”
“I’ll live, Sy. Just hold my hand so I don’t fall off this roof, okay? And so I know you won’t run off?”
I nodded. I was too tired to fight. The last few minutes of conversation had sapped all the fight from me, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to even try for flight, either.
“You were going to say something,” Gordon said. “When you stopped there.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. Forgot.”
“What were you going to say?”
“What if I don’t have an answer for you, Gordon? What if there’s no magic answer that makes sense of what I’m doing in a way that satisfies you?”
I shrugged. “Well?”
“I don’t know, Sy. We adapt.”
We adapt. He said it in a way that made it sound like we were talking about his body failing on him. A inevitable, growing disability.
“Gimpy boy and his dog and Sylvester end up on the bench, while the new Lambs look after the next few missions?” I asked. “And then someone else ends up benched, a new Lamb comes out of the Academy and replaces them, and so it goes, until we’re all reminiscing about the old days? Doing the same tests we did back in day one, testing our cognitive ability as it slips away or our bodies fail?”
“I remember those days,” Gordon said. “The days we first met, the tests. I hated those things.”
“I found ways to make it interesting,” I said.
“I know. You did. I realized what you were doing after a bit, and then tried to mess you up, or throw a wrench into the works. Then you made it harder to figure out what sort of games you were playing while we were playing other games, and so it went.”
“Is that what you’re afraid of?” Lillian asked. “Being benched? Being replaced?”
“No,” I said. “No, that’s… not at all it, no offense. That’s the human condition. Parent replaced by child, except we won’t ever be parents, so this is a different sort of legacy. The only thing I’m afraid of is losing you.”
I looked at the other Lambs. “Any of you.”
The Brechwell Beast roared, not so far away. I watched and listened for a second.
“Sucks,” I said.
Lillian squeezed my hand.
“Always thought it would be you guys falling to pieces and I’d be putting my brilliant mind to task with figuring you out and how to handle it,” I said. “Goes to show how good I am, if Gordon’s right and there’s some riddle to my behavior I can’t answer. Can’t even understand myself.”
“If I’m wrong,” Gordon said, “If there’s no complicated riddle to unravel, then that’s worse. Because you can’t keep going like this. You can only dance on a razor’s edge for so long.”
“Complicated? I don’t think it’s complicated.”
All heads turned to Helen.
“Uh, clarify?” Gordon asked.
“Not complicated,” Helen said. “It’s very simple, I think.”
“No, clarify about what ‘it’ is,” Gordon said.
“Sy is acting,” Helen said. “He’s playing at being Jamie, and he’s doing a really bad job of it.”
“You might be getting confused,” I said. “The longer hair, carrying his books around, it’s not an act, it’s a homage. I don’t know. A way of keeping him around.”
“It’s an act,” Helen said, firm. “A bad act, because you don’t have the right tools. You said you didn’t want to see the Lambs die. The only thing any of us can do is hold someone in our hearts. There’s an emptiness when they go, and we fill in that emptiness with memories. Or drink, or work, or violence, sometimes, but mostly with memories.”
“Poetic,” Mary said. “Where did you hear that?”
“I’ve been studying! Ibott says it’s useful for when I’m older and I have to lure in men,” Helen said, smiling. “But it’s true! Sy is filling his heart with memories and he has a crummy memory.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Gordon said.
“Yes! It is!” Helen drew closer. “Sylvester is trying to fill the empty space in the group’s heart, too. He’s doing what he was made to do. He’s trying to cover for the things that Jamie used to do. The map, drawn on his shirt, that’s Sy being Sy to give us something that Jamie would have known like that.”
Snap of her fingers for punctuation.
“And walking into Fray’s meeting?” Gordon asked.
“Jamie would have known who the people are and he would have had ideas about what they were doing. He could have drawn connections. But Sy knows that if he just walks in and introduces himself, he will get an idea of who people are and what they’re doing. He can draw connections.”
The others turned their eyes to me.
“It sounds awkward because it is,” Helen said. “Jamie is probably the worst one of us to try and make up stopgap cover-ups for. What Sy is trying to do, all the other stuff, like letting the Brechwell Beast out, he’s trying to get control. Because he’s insecure.”
“Hey,” I said.
Lillian squeezed my hand.
“Control through chaos?” Gordon asked, still staring at me. “Yeah, that sounds right.”
“It’s not about insecurity, thank you very much,” I said. “But I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to cover the gap that Jamie left. How to keep things working smoothly, so the group stays effective.”
“You’re doing it,” Helen said. “In a weird way, but you’re doing it.”
More than I realized?
“The first part, anyway,” Gordon said.
“Jam- the replacement might be coming tomorrow,” Gordon said. “This thing with Fray, is it you wanting that control? Impact the world, even secondhand, let them know ‘we’re still here’, ‘we still matter’?”
Even without Jamie?
“It’ll have to happen before he shows,” Gordon said. “If we decide to do it. We’ll need to discuss this thoroughly. Come to a consensus.”
“In the morning, Sy,” he said. “We come up with a game plan in the morning.”
We turned and started moving as a group. There were soldiers and weapons gathering on some rooftops nearby. They were surrounding the perimeter of Fray’s building. Some of them had equipment to hook them to the rooftops, with long guns that were screwed into the roofs.
Dog and Catcher were waiting not too far away, with a Wry Man who was slightly hunched over. The Wry Man was flushed, veins sticking out of his face, and jerked in reaction to the movement of me withdrawing a hand from a clammy pocket.
“Status?” Catcher asked.
“No update,” I said, leaving out any mention of my visit with Fray. “They’re not budging.”
“They’re talking about mounting an attack.”
I shook my head, “No. She’s got a maneuver she’s going to pull. Moment we try, half our soldiers turn on the other half. I don’t think she plans to leave at all. Her soldiers in the towers are going to subtly guide the Beast away from her for the meantime, and they’ll be part of the uprising if and when she makes a move. When the dust clears, she’s the one in charge of Brechwell.”
“How sure are you?” he asked.
He nodded. He stared off into the distance.
“Don’t attack, then.”
“Bad idea,” I said.
“What do we do?”
“Wait. Bide our time. Gives more opportunities for the soldiers in towers to make mistakes. In daylight, the Beast won’t be guided by any lights from the towers. With a lucky roll of the dice, he might head in that direction. Without that lucky roll, the Lambs will make a move.”
Catcher nodded slowly.
“You look tired,” he said. “Go sleep.”
“You’ve been at this for longer than we have, you were here when we arrived,” I said.
“This is what we do. We’re watchdogs,” Catcher said. “You rest so you can do what you do. Tomorrow.”
I was pacing in the bedroom when the door cracked open. I stopped in my tracks.
I turned, a little confused. It was Lillian, wearing the raincoat I’d given back to her.
“Doctor’s visit?” I asked.
“Do you need one?”
I looked at my bandaged hands, then shook my head.
“Then no,” she said. She closed the door very gently, then put down a bundle and pulled off her raincoat. “I talked to Mary earlier. She explained about what Rick was saying.”
“Ah,” I said. “Rick. That.”
“Me as some tug of war rope while you and Mary engage in a competition or something to prove something.”
She blinked, looking startled. “Sy, no. That’s not-“
“Can we not? I don’t think I’m in the mood.”
She shook her head, collecting herself. “You’re in a mood. Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Thinking,” I said. “About tomorrow.”
“Stop thinking. Relax,” she said.
“Give me something, then.”
“I’m not going to give you something,” she said, sounding exasperated. She crossed the distance to me, grabbed my arm, and hauled me over to the bed. She shoved me down onto it. “Stay.”
“Staying,” I said.
“And don’t look,” she said. “I didn’t want to come here in a nightgown with all of the soldiers standing guard between here and the other building.”
“It’s my room,” I said, pointedly turning my head to look at her. “Who are you to make rules about looking or not looking?”
She didn’t have a reply to that, but her face flushed pink. She began unbuttoning her top.
When things reached the point where I might have seen something, I simply muttered, “Whatever,” and looked away.
“This isn’t a competition,” she told me. “She encouraged me to come.”
“Sure, in the interest of playing fair,” I said.
“That’s not- stop that!”
“Fine,” I said. “Mary sleeps nude most of the time she sleeps over, you know.”
Lillian froze. I could see in my peripheral vision, and turned my head slowly to look her way. She was holding the nightgown up in a way that protected her modesty, yet to pull it on.
If it’s not a competition on any level, that shouldn’t matter, I thought. But it is, so you’re considering your options.
“Just kidding,” I said.
“You’re the worst. You really are. Look away.”
Lillian finished pulling the nightgown on. I climbed under covers and scooted over. She climbed in next to me. Where Mary had found a natural configuration beside me, often with her back pressed to me, Lillian curled into me. She positioned herself lower down, head on my shoulder and chest, arm reaching across my torso, one leg draped over my legs. The fabric of the nightgown at her knees got in the way, so she hiked it up.
It took her a few seconds to find the exact right position.
“Mary always wear scratchier stuff,” I said. “Lace and stuff. This is softer. It’s nice.”
I plucked at the hem of her nightgown. She swatted it out of my hand and slapped my chest.
“Go to sleep,” she said.
I lay there, staring at the ceiling. After a few minutes, she raised her head to look at me.
“What were you even doing?” she asked.
“Normally I’d be reading,” I said. “but I don’t have the books.”
She nodded, head rubbing against me. Her breath was warm against my chest.
“Doesn’t it get boring? Reading the books over and over again?”
She nodded again.
“I miss him too,” she said. “We got along.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was a good guy.”
“I’m really scared about tomorrow.”
“I know,” I said.
Then she didn’t say anything more.
It took me far too long to realize that there was a damp feeling against my chest, little movements. I shifted position, lifting my head up.
Pulling my shoulder out from under her, I changed position, so I was facing her. I wiped tears from her cheeks.
She hit me.
“Come on,” I said. I pulled her head against my chest, and she burrowed close, clinging tighter.
I stroked her hair, over and over, rhythmically, but I was the one who was lulled into sleep.
Alongside the nights I’d had Mary stay over, it was the fifth night of sleep I’d had in two weeks.