I could feel the soreness from the previous night as I ascended a ladder for the whateverth time. Up roughly four stories, shoes and hands slipping on wet, cold metal rungs. Each time, there was that precarious moment where I had to transfer over onto the roof, letting go of the ladder and putting my weight firmly on a slanted surface.
Gently slanted, but all the same, it didn’t leave much room for maneuvering or catching myself.
Eyes were focused on me as I stepped onto the roof. Men and boys in uniform, some only a couple of years older than me, some middle-aged, were giving me the once-over, smirking, and murmuring to their buddies.
We’d been getting those looks and smirks for a while yet. Approaching this perimeter, we’d ended up practically swimming in soldiers and cadets, along with other civilians who were making their belated evacuation from the area. It had been hard to make headway and harder still to talk about sensitive matters, and the irritation of those two things was compounded by the smug and condescending attention we’d gotten.
They were frustrated, stupid military cadets who’d had it drilled into their head that society was all about hierarchies, and they saw an easier target in us, a way to relieve tension and stress.
“Nice gun,” one commented.
I touched the rifle I’d slung over my back, and declined to respond.
“Guy your size, you’re going to shoot that thing and the recoil will send you flying off the roof.”
The soldiers in the area broke into laughter.
“When they said we’d have more people coming to help today, I thought the help would be bigger.”
Gordon got off the ladder behind me, offering a hand to Mary.
“A girl with a rifle, now!” the comedian commented. “Do you know which way to hold that thing?”
That was worth a chuckle from the gallery. Kind of sad, really. He had the ear of everyone nearby, and that was all he could do? A wittier person could have had them laughing uproariously.
Mary gave me a sidelong glance. I kept my mouth closed, standing at ease as we waited for Helen and Lillian. She took my lead.
“They just keep coming. Look at that! Hello beautiful! You brought your dog?”
Light chuckles, this time. Bored soldiers, amused at an odd scene of children visiting the… I wasn’t even sure what to call it. The inverse of the trenches.
“Good boy,” Helen murmured, as she put Hubris down. She glanced down at Lillian.
“What’s going on here?” a man asked. He stalked toward us, moving with surprising ease on the rooftop. He had an officer’s coat and two medals on one side of his jacket, a helmet tucked under one arm, clearly not yet worn as his black hair was oiled and slicked back. Spectacles were perched on his nose.
Not high ranked. A half-step above a captain? I could remember when the ranks had been neat and ordered, but special cases came and went, sub-ratings and capabilities, like Academy training and a core understanding of the types and dangers of superweapons, or the ability to manage stitched. In a place like Brechwell, I imagined it was worse. Teaching officers and non-teaching officers, to complicate things further.
Rather than answer the man, Gordon withdrew a badge from the coat of his raincoat, and handed it to the man.
I was willing to let him take point here. It conveyed a better picture, as fun as it might be to toy with phrasing and really drive the point home.
“Mm,” the man murmured, taking the badge and opening it up. It was a little bit of silver with a leather flap to back it, and the latest version had writing inlaid in the leather, visible if the metal was lifted up. I had no idea how Gordon’s was legible – mine had so much wear and tear that most of the lettering had flaked off.
We waited patiently. The joker and the other soldiers had fallen silent.
“If you look over there,” the officer pointed. “The autonomous weapons are gathered over there.”
“I see them,” Gordon said.
“I trust your accommodations were suitable?”
“Yes, thank you,” Gordon said.
“If there’s anything you need, I can relay your requests to the Major.”
“We may take you up on that,” Gordon said. “Where can we find you?”
“I’m looking after several groups. Ask anyone here, they’ll know where to find me.”
“Thank you, sir,” Gordon said.
Navigation across the roof was treacherous, as groups were now camped out. The little rises where the roof extended over windows were flatter than the rest, and served as points to congregate, with sandbags and weapon emplacements set down, and soldiers clustering there, so close together that knees and shoulders touched. In other places, men with guns and binoculars were sitting on the roof’s peak, normally the easiest ground to tread on.
It struck me that the way the city was laid out made it easy to set a perimeter around a given location. Pick any point in the city, and the constantly curving and looping streets allowed a circle to be established, with relatively few gaps.
There were gaps here. Fray’s destruction had opened several, and I could see the distant shapes of people and emplacements on distant rooftops, covering those gaps. Less effective than a 12-metre wall with gunmen perched on top might be.
With the streets being wider hereabouts, there was more room for Fray’s group to move around if and when they stepped out of the building, but less cover. Some of those streets had scorch marks and craters. There had been artillery fire in the night. Some had been close to the building.
Scaring her people, keeping them off balance. It was good. A night without sleep, staring out windows and looking for signals from their double agents in our midst that something was going to happen, rattled by periodic artillery fire, wondering if that was the blast that preceded an attack, knocked down a wall, or wiped out a group of defenders.
I imagined Fray was very calm and collected throughout, but I had to wonder about Cynthia, who’d seemed shorter on temper, and about Mauer, who was a soldier, intimately familiar with these situations and this kind of pressure.
A crack and explosion made me think someone had fired an artillery shell. Instead, as I looked to the source, I saw the Brechwell Beast. I looked at its routes. To get to Fray, it would have to travel for two minutes down one path, decide to turn down one path instead of continuing forward through a hole in a series of houses, turn right, and decide to turn left instead of taking the more convenient ‘forward’ path.
I was willing to bet it was designed to go forward when it had a choice. Were there other aspects to it? It couldn’t be solely limited to the city. If they sought to bring it to bear in a confrontation outside of the city, how did they pilot it? Were there ways it could be exploited?
Gordon raised a hand. Stop.
We all, Hubris included, came to a stop.
“This is our best and possibly last chance to talk without being overheard,” he said.
I looked back, then further down the length of rooftop. It was true; there was a wider gap than before, between the soldiers and artillery emplacement about seventy-five paces behind us and the group of Academy weapons about seventy-five paces ahead of us. Provided we didn’t raise our voice, there wasn’t much chance we’d be overheard.
I saw Dog and Catcher among the Academy weapons and mentally revised my estimate.
I raised my hand in a pair of signals I was pretty sure Catcher didn’t know. Subtle – careful – speak.
Watch your words.
Gordon nodded. “We’ve had a chance to think. We’ve got eyes on the situation. There are squads of soldiers stationed every fifty paces, except for here, and any enemy that attacks this part of the wall is going to be sorry.”
Dog, Catcher, the Engineer, the Wry Man, others I didn’t recognize. No shortage of weapons who could and would extract said apologies from errant enemies.
“From my guess, we used the attic windows to access the roof,” Gordon said, “I don’t think anyone is up to carrying sandbags and mortars up ladders. If we’re going to get to Fray, that means going down through the house, crossing the open plaza with two hundred eyes on us. From there, depending on where we exited from, there is another expanse of open space with even more eyes on us before we can reach her place, or we have to get around a row of houses on the way.”
“If we get seen, it reflects badly on us,” I said. “Problematic, whatever route we take. But I want to get in there.”
“Which is another thing we need to think about, the route we take” Gordon said. “You’ve said your piece, Lillian and you have very different ideas on what the ramifications might be. Now, keep in mind…”
Hand signs. Subtle. Careful. Speak.
“What are we thinking?” Mary asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I want to talk to Percy,” she said. Her eyes were focused on Fray’s building. “I want to ask him things, why, and how much of what he told me was true. I want closure, but…”
“But?” Lillian asked.
“My reasons are bad. It’s not in tune with the mission. It’s for me.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” I said.
“It is when we’re here, and there’s this much going on,” Mary said. “The closure I want… I’m not sure it isn’t me sticking a knife between Percy’s ribs. But I’m not sure it is, either.”
“That would be a poetic end,” I said. “To be killed by your own creation. There’s probably a Latin term for it.”
Jamie would know.
“Probably,” Gordon said. “Okay, Mary doesn’t think we should do this. Does that mean we start thinking about other approaches? Arguments that could convince Mary or Lillian?”
“Percy killed the mice to make ghosts,” I said. “Time and again, he preys on the vulnerable. The Mary before Mary, rendered into fodder for experimentation by… it would have had to be Cynthia’s group. Sometimes it feels pathological. The way he preys on children.”
“I didn’t know your feelings on the subject were so strong,” Gordon said.
I shrugged. I couldn’t make eye contact with the others, because admitting to a more personal vendetta against someone, a justification, it felt wrong, awkward, doubly so because I was speaking it aloud. I crouched, straddling the peak of the roof, one hand fidgeting at my knee.
“Sorry, Mary, to say all that.”
“No, Sy. It’s fine. I want you to say it.”
I nodded. I didn’t think it was fine, but I didn’t say so.
“He’s a fox,” I said. I ran my finger down the outside of my raincoat, collecting water droplets, and drew out the symbol on my knee. There wasn’t enough moisture, so it barely worked. A series of blobs and lines instead of a proper triangle with two little triangles for ears. “If we move forward with my plan, what I’m arguing for, it doesn’t rule out working out how to remove Percy.”
At my knee, my hand made a gesture. Speak.
I looked up, and the others were looking down at me. No signs to ask for clarification. I trusted they understood what I was saying.
We talk to Fray, and we make a deal, where Percy gets removed from the picture, in exchange for our help.
I ventured, “I don’t know how that works for you, Mary. I know there’s the emotional component. He was-”
“He is my father,” Mary said. “My maker. Everything I am, just about everything and every skill I’m proud of, he gave me.”
A knife had appeared in her hand, blade resting between two fingers, handle extended back over her knuckles and the back of her hand. She rolled it along her fingers until it fell off the side, let it fall, and caught the pommel.
“We’re running out of time,” Gordon said. “The discussion with Fray won’t be short, and things get more complicated when the reinforcements arrive.”
When the new Lamb arrives.
I’d spent so long so committed to the Lambs, living and dead. Now, as I thought about the new member joining, I couldn’t be sure where I stood. I felt more disassociated than attached. An unfamiliar feeling not unlike nervousness had settled in my chest and it felt very ugly and very negative.
“The plan on the most basic level has to happen,” I said. “Whatever we’re doing, we need to get in there. We get close, we do our thing with Fray, I have ideas on how we get out.”
I signaled the half truth, my fidgeting hand at my knee.
I need those books back. Mary needs to talk to Percy.
An artillery shell fired, distant.
It didn’t hit the building, instead hitting the street. Only a few nearby windows were intact or mostly intact, and they shattered with the force of the explosion. A plume of dust and smoke was kicked up, only to get beaten down by the rain.
I watched it, studying.
“We might have to decide on a plan as we act. Come to a decision there. Decide on our own,” I said.
“I don’t like that,” Mary said.
“That includes making a decision on Percy,” I said. “If anyone doesn’t want to move forward, if Mary wants to spare Percy, then we retreat here. Pretend we never left.”
“I don’t know,” Mary said, but she said it in a way that sounded like she was actually considering it.
“I don’t want to lose you,” I said, not looking at her. “I don’t want to lose Lillian. I swear to you, on my membership in the Lambs, that I’m not going to manipulate you when it comes down to the decision. We get close, then we decide on a course of action. But we can’t stay here, we can’t just sit and wait and let things unfold. That serves nobody and no-one.”
“I agree,” Gordon said. “I’m on the fence about this, I need to know more before we make a call.”
Lillian was only shaking her head, a small gesture, nervous.
“I know you have commitments to the Academy,” Gordon said, his voice soft.
“Yes. And to the people,” Lillian said. “To my family. I might only see them once or twice a year, but-”
Gordon signaled. Stop.
Lillian shut her mouth.
He shifted the signal to careful. Listen.
The gesture for listen was loose, fingers unfolding to indicate the general area. Listening ears.
“I can’t do this,” Lillian said. “Please believe me. It would be… so horrible.”
Fray’s release of the books, made out to be an apocalyptic event.
“Do you want to stay behind?”
“No! I want- I want to… I need to know that the Lambs are who I thought they were. That they understand, and when it matters, they take me at my word, about the very things I’ve studied.”
“Is that because what you studied is right and real, Lil, or is it propaganda?” I asked.
She whirled on me, as upset as I’d ever seen her. “You just promised, Sy. You wouldn’t manipulate me. That’s manipulation. What you just did.”
“No,” I said, very calm. “Manipulation would be pointing out how you getting upset right now is telling, and that you’re more insecure than you’re letting on. My promise was in regards to when we were there, deciding. At the pivotal moment. Not here. Here I’m going to argue my case.”
“Sy,” she said, and her voice was terse. “I’m fond of you, I’m fond of every one of the Lambs. But I have parents to think about, I have aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have dreams, and if you want to risk everything so you can make a grand dramatic play, then I’m saying no.”
Another artillery shell came down. It was on the far side of the building. I heard something crack and crumble, but the soldiers around the perimeter didn’t act like it was anything special. A close call.
There were no underground tunnels, supposedly. Fray couldn’t fly. A literal army surrounded her. I imagined the Academy forces saw it as an easy victory, a bird in the hand. They could let the train come with the monsters, and use only the expendable assets to eliminate the enemy. Only stitched and superweapons.
It had to be eleven thirty or thereabouts. An hour and a half, and the reinforcements would arrive. Those huddled men taking cover under canvas and by sandbag were probably discussing their strategy now. So easy to do. The way they mingled, sending men over this way and that under the premise of getting and sharing information, latrine breaks and grabbing quick bites to eat, they could be communicating a greater plan.
One signal, and there would be slaughter. Fray would play her gambit, and if I was right, the army here would turn on itself. Mortar shots fired at rooftops. A coordinated strike, removing the major players.
“It’s not about the play or doing anything fancy,” I said, as my ears stopped ringing from the recent explosions.
“I heard what you said before. I know you’ve got justifications. But Sy, you’re smart enough that you’re going to come up with perfect, convincing reasons to do something you want to do, and you’re going to come up with perfect, convincing reasons not to do something you want to do. When Fray or Mauer or whoever else come into the picture, you get caught up in their gravitational pull, because they give you the ability to make your mark, to make bigger, clearer actions and bigger, clearer justifications to do those things.”
“So, what? Does that make everything I say invalid? I’ll always have good-sounding reasons to do something or not do something? My rationale doesn’t matter?”
“It breaks down to what Gordon was trying to get at last night. The root of the issue.”
“We’re not going to play twenty questions again, are we? Because the way you guys play, Gordon plays, is to ask the same question twenty times.”
“No,” Lillian said. “We’re not going to grill you. That’s not what I’m getting at. I just think… we’re walking into the lion’s den, and I don’t know how we’re getting in or out, or if I like the Lambs going there when I know I won’t like what I hear.”
“I know how we’re getting in,” I said. “Helen… wait, what time is it?”
“Hold on,” Lillian said. She reached into a pocket, and pulled out a pocket watch without a chain. “Eleven forty.”
“Okay, Helen, run a quick errand. Tell the nearest artillery team to drop a shell between the ensconced building entrance down there, and the shop under us here. Then further out, same thing, but between the building entrance and Fray’s building. You see what I mean? ”
“They shoot at eleven-fifty, eleven-fifty-two, as fast as they can load a shell and fire again, then do it in reverse, at twelve-twenty and twelve twenty-two.”
Then she was off.
“Cover of smoke and debris?” Gordon asked. “A lot of ground to cover.”
“We can make it,” I said.
“If Fray delays us…”
“She won’t,” I said.
“You’re sure? Because-”
“She won’t,” I said. “Trust me. She won’t have a choice in the matter.”
Gordon frowned at me.
“Trust me,” I said.
“I do,” he said. “As much as I trust anyone. But I’m an old man, Sy. Trusting you isn’t good for a weak heart like mine.”
“Don’t joke,” I said.
He gave me a slight smile.
“I know what you’re doing,” Lillian said. “Ten minutes, you scheduled us to leave. You’re setting a time limit, putting pressure on me. I pay attention, Sy. I’m a good student. It’s why I’m here!”
“That’s not what I’m doing.”
“Now that she points it out, it sounds like she’s right on the mark,” Mary said.
Not you too!
Before I could open my mouth, Lillian was on me. “It’s like you’re an abusive husband, you act mean, you tease, you taunt, you manipulate, then you start saying and doing all the right things, you lure me back in, you make me let my guard down-”
“Husband is a little bit forward, I think.”
“No! No jokes, no teasing, no manipulation. I’m sorry I’m not cooperating, and this apology is for Gordon and Mary and Hubris and Helen who isn’t here, but no. You’re not going to budge me. The only way to win against Sy for sure is to not play his games. I’m staying right here. I’m not coming, and if you leave, I’m going straight to the people in charge and telling them what’s happening.”
Lillian folded her arms.
“Even if it kills us?” I asked.
“If you do this, if you’re really considering this, you’re dead to me,” she said.
I could see from her expression that that wasn’t true in the slightest. That it killed her to say.
“Lillian,” I said, and I dropped my voice to a whisper, stepping closer. I reached out to pull her hands free and take them in mine, and she refused to give them to me. “She’s going to make this happen.”
“Not with our help,” Lillian whispered to me.
“I saw their setup,” I said, “Okay? Where their stuff is. I know where the labs are, you know what’s flammable. No grand plays, nothing fancy, we get over there, Mary gets to confront Percy, I get to hunt for the books, we burn them out.”
With all the strength I could muster, I pulled one of Lillian’s hands away from her arm. I clasped her wrist, and put my hand in hers, palm up.
I signaled. Ruse.
Her eyes narrowed.
I looked over my shoulder at Gordon and Mary. They’d seen the gesture.
“I don’t trust you,” Lillian said.
“We’re doing this,” I said. “We don’t have long. Come on.”
Helen was already on her way back.
I had Lillian’s wrist. I pulled her behind me.
In through the access window that let us into the attic of the building.
The hatch leading from the attic to the building below was locked. I got my lockpicks out, but Mary pushed me aside.
“Sy,” Gordon said.
“Trust me,” I said.
It wasn’t a hard lock to open. Less than a minute’s time. The hatches were common to every attic in the area, and the real purpose was to delay invaders, they could afford to be cheap.
The building was a set of offices, smelling strongly of cigarette smoke and firewood. We were quickly down the stairs to the third floor, then the second.
I stopped. The others, intent on continuing down to the first, bumped into me. I stopped them.
I raised a finger to my lips, and led the others to the window. Still pulling Lillian behind me, I crouched there.
My fingers tapped Lillian’s pocket. She withdrew her pocket watch.
Two minutes until.
Crouching, hands over my ears, I waited, the others with me.
The explosion rocked the building, knocking me on my ass. Gordon’s hand kept the bayonet blade of my rifle from stabbing Mary. They helped support me. I watched the plume of smoke, then looked to either side, studying the surroundings.
The next explosion came before the debris from the first had cleared. Easier to bear.
“What’s-” Gordon started.
I put a finger out, shushing him.
The retaliation from the rebels came shortly after. A band of stitched, carrying heavy rifles. The rifles of the people at the perimeter and the rifles of the stitched didn’t quite reach each other, with intervening buildings and everything else. They were firing at people on the rooftops.
How does this work?
A horn, as it turned out. It blared from above.
My heart sank as I saw. Dog and Catcher reached the ground level in record time. They plowed into the group of stitched.
One stitched ran back toward Fray’s building, dropping the weapon and disappearing into the smoke.
I held up my fingers, counting.
One. Two. Three. Four…
“Sy?” Gordon asked, noting the fingers.
Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven…
Twenty seconds in all passed before Catcher returned, his quarry in his mancatcher’s grasp. The smoke was clearing, and as it did, he picked up the pace, running for cover, snapping the stitched’s neck and tearing head from shoulders with a movement of the mancatcher.
He passed out of our field of vision.
“You expected that,” Gordon said, voice quiet.
“I don’t understand,” Lillian said.
“It wasn’t the plan to cross over and wing it,” I said. “I suspected we were being watched or listened to. I wanted them to think we were coming. Fray’s mole, if she had any, would want to pass on information about us sabotaging her, blowing up labs, the fact our group was split. The trick was to give them a reason and an opportunity.”
I looked at each of the Lambs.
“If they didn’t have a mole, nothing lost, we talk it through and schedule another crossing. If they did, then maybe something like that happens. A signal, asking for a reason to go down to ground level. Dog and Catcher signal they’re going down, dispatch expendable troops, and relay a message, while they think we’re not looking.”
“They’re working for Fray,” Gordon said.
I nodded. “And, given who was in their company, I’m not sure the other experiments aren’t either.”