“I told you to trust me,” I murmured.
Lillian pulled her arm out of my grasp and hit me.
“I couldn’t say anything without tipping them off,” I said. “Too many hand signals would’ve been telling, too.”
“You know they can probably hear you now,” Gordon said.
“So?” I asked. “They would have realized something was up when Catcher went there and we weren’t knocking on the door. They know we know, and they can’t make another move without being obvious.”
“Damn it,” Gordon said. “I liked them.”
“I like them now, no need for past tense,” I said. “They’re good guys. They’re just doing what we’re doing, trying to survive, find the best way forward.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Mary murmured.
A few distant gunshots sounded. From the direction of it and the answering rumble, I guessed the local cadets and soldiers were trying to steer the Brechwell Beast.
“This feels like a continuation of last night,” Gordon said.
I shook my head.
“You careening around like a stray bullet, ricocheting off surfaces? All the rest of us can do is try to stay out of the way and trust you to bounce in the enemy’s general direction.”
I shook my head again, watching the building across the open space. “It was eye opening, what Helen said. That I’m mimicking Jamie. I’ve put that on the back shelf. This is pure Sylvester.”
“Is it now? Because it doesn’t seem like you.”
“It is me. But Fray has a sense of who I am and how I operate. Think. Right now, what is she doing? What does she want? What does she expect?”
“Preparing for her massacre,” Mary said, counting on her fingers, “She wants a victory, to get out alive and do that thing with the books, she expects us to make an approach and discuss, and maybe to convince us?”
“Not victory,” I said. “She wants to prove she’s the person with the answers, ideally by swaying people to her side with her rhetoric. But yes. That’s where she is, her attention is split, even if she had it mostly in hand, she’s going to be stressed and distracted, trying to coordinate. Now she got a short phrase or a note from Catcher, she’s expecting us to be there, and we’re not.”
“She’ll adapt,” Gordon said.
“Which requires time, attention, focus!” I said, poking my finger against the glass-littered windowsill to punctuate the three words. “Where are the Lambs right now? Are they elsewhere in the building? Is security good enough? What does she need to do to ensure we don’t derail everything? From now until we show up, if we show up, she’s going to have to second guess everything against us interfering.”
“Everything you said was just to throw Dog and Catcher off?” Gordon asked.
“Or whoever the mole was. Half truths,” I said. “Catcher might have noted something about the Lambs using labs and facilities in the building to start a fire and disrupt her group. Is it another ruse, is it possible I got enough info in my visit? Right now, I imagine he’s signaling to Fray. Either a light or gestures that can be seen with binoculars. A simple, crude system, or he wouldn’t have to go down to deliver a note in person. He’d let the people on the wall fill those stitched with bullets.”
“Okay. Let’s assume you’re right-”
“We’re running out of time. We’ve been arguing, we aren’t any closer-”
“Let me stop you there,” I said. “First off, Lillian, sorry. I had to take a hard stance, or your stubbornness would have derailed our shot at ferreting out the mole.”
“Uh huh,” she said. She was frowning at me.
“Gordon. We have two options. Option one, we use the next hour to figure out the key figures in this and we remove them. Shake the box of bugs here, on the perimeter, see what stands out. I don’t think Fray has been talking to each and every person here at this Academy. She would have had to have targeted a few key people, teachers or commanding officers, people who resent the man at the top or who are jaded from the war, much like Mauer, and she turned them.”
“That’s predicated on a lot of assumptions, Sy,” Mary told me. “There’s nothing guaranteeing you’re even right about the mutiny.”
“True,” I said, “And we’d be working against the other experiments. Assuming they can hear us, they’d be trying to stop us. If things come down to a he-said, he-said with us and Catcher, I don’t think people are going to listen to the kids. It’s how things work.”
“What’s option two?” Lillian asked.
“We signal another drop, we cross over, and we confront Fray,” I said. “Ideally, we do it as close to the deadline as possible.”
“What?” Lillian asked. “Close to the deadline? When the signal is given?”
“We just talked about it,” I said. “What did you call me out on?”
“Time constraints,” she said.
“Fray created her own time constraint. She wants us to come in. She knows reinforcements are coming in by train. Maybe they’re hers, maybe not, but the time window is small. Now, assuming I’m right, I’ve got her number, my estimation of the situation is on target, soldier turning against soldier, traps going off, whatever else, the safest place for us to be isn’t here. The safest place is there.”
I pointed at Fray’s building.
“If your estimation is wrong, that’s the most dangerous place to be.”
“If she has absolutely no plan, no escape route, no options?” I asked. “Yeah, worst place to be. But a war is about to erupt here, it’s tense enough that Helen’s hair is standing on end-”
“-and honestly, the best options available to us are to either be as far away from this as possible, or turn to the smartest person in the area and do what they’re doing.”
“That’s predicated on us joining them,” Lillian said.
“We’re not joining them,” I said. “Not while you’re against it. But I don’t think we’re capable of stopping them, either. We might need to play along just a bit-”
“Uh huh,” she said, in a way that sounded very far from agreement. “I see your angle.”
“No angle,” I said, looking at the building again. “I swear. But we need to get close. For a lot of reasons.”
“I don’t know,” Lillian said.
Mary spoke up, “If what Sy said about me getting to make the final decision on Percy is right, then I want to go. It makes sense, and I think we can do more there than here.”
I nodded, smiling a bit.
“I don’t feel confident making a decision,” Gordon said. “I believe you, I trust you, but we’re just charging in?”
“You love charging in.”
“With no plan in mind? No. I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll break the tie,” Helen said.
A few of us turned to her in surprise.
“You’re usually content to go with the flow,” I commented.
“Usually,” she said. “But I couldn’t sleep normally last night. I felt funny.”
“Oh no,” Gordon said, hand going to his face. “When Helen says that…”
“It was a squirmy, warm feeling, all nestled in my belly, and I kept drifting in and out, thinking about the people we saw. The man with the birthing saw. I want to hold him.”
“Hold him?” Lillian asked. She’d gone a little pale.
Helen had a smile on her face, warm, like a little girl looking at her new sibling. “And Genevieve Fray, and the others. I wanted to hug them and break them, open them and wrap them around me and me around them.”
I murmured, “This is the point where I’d normally tell you to stop.”
“Oh?” Helen asked. “Normally?”
“But I think it’s dangerous to cut you short and move forward blind. Finish talking,” I said, knowing I was going to regret it.
“I wanted to know what the inside of their skin feels like, kind of? If I could make a cut and slide my hands between the skin and the meat, and feel all of them with all of me, while they writhed? I suppose I’d have to break them first, like I said, and it would have to be multiple cuts, if-”
“Getting off track. Try again. Focus.”
“I had really interesting dreams,” she said.
“Let’s steer things back to what you were feeling. You want to go inside?” I said. Early, in my first interactions with Helen, I’d made the mistake of assuming that she didn’t feel. It wasn’t the case. Helen had an emotional spectrum, but it didn’t translate to what we felt. Priorities were different, the goals and construction of it were different, and it was only with practice and training that she and Ibott had crafted an end result that could be seen as analogous to a human’s.
In this case, she was describing a more engineered end result, one where her killer instinct and her first flickerings of feeling for others had mingled into another sort of emotion or drive.
“Oh, hum. I want to feel that want again. Even if we don’t hurt them, it felt more more than most things I feel, I want to try it, so I can understand it better.”
“I’m already dreading having to write this down for the paperwork for Ibott,” Lillian said. “I’m going to have to ask follow-up questions and I really don’t want to ask follow-up questions.”
“I was sad, sleeping in a bed all alone,” Helen mused, talking more to herself than to us. She turned to Mary so suddenly that Mary startled a little. “I thought about going to your room and crawling under the covers with you, Mary, since Lillian was with Sy. To hold you, and not feel like there was so much dead, empty darkness around me. But I didn’t want to disturb your sleep, so I decided not to.”
“I appreciate that,” Mary said. “You don’t, uh, feel that way about me? Wanting to feel the inside of my skin?”
Helen shook her head. “Silly Mary. Doing that would probably kill you. I like you, I don’t want you to die.”
“Silly Mary,” I echoed Helen. Mary shot me an offended look.
“You’re warmer and less empty feeling than a bed and covers are. That’s why I wanted to go.”
“Uh huh,” Mary said. “Can someone change the topic?”
“I think that empty what you’re describing is loneliness, Helen,” I commented.
“Was it? Is it?”
“I think,” I said.
“The mission is important,” Helen said, eyes wide, very serious, sounding like a small child espousing what they saw as an absolute truth. “I don’t want to get in the way of that, no matter how big and, um, swirly my feelings feel.”
“Good Helen,” I said, reaching out to give her a pat on the head.
She beamed at me.
“That’s one more person wanting to go in,” Gordon said, as if the prior conversation hadn’t happened. “If you three are that certain, then I’m willing to go along with this. Delaying and arguing is going to put us in as much risk as anything else, at this point.”
“It feels like whatever we do is the wrong choice,” Lillian said.
“Trust me,” I said. “I don’t ask that lightly. I remember losing Jamie. I know what we’re doing is dangerous, and I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Lillian pursed her lips.
“I don’t think we can stop whatever she’s engineered from happening, but if we’re going to, it’s going to be with us there,” I said. “The more likely result is that we go there, we talk with her, we borrow her plans and safeguards to survive whatever happens next, and we go our separate ways, with us having convinced her that the Lambs might change sides.”
She didn’t answer for a long minute.
“Someone needs to go ask for them to drop more artillery shells,” Lillian said.
She’d agreed. We were on track.
“Hubris can go,” Gordon said. “He’ll deliver a note.”
Gordon had paper, I had a pen. He scribbled down instructions, consulting Lillian’s pocket watch.
“Take this to the officer we talked to earlier,” Gordon said. “Then come find us.”
Hubris made a sound low in his throat, a huff of response, then ran off, twice as fast as any of us could travel.
We were left in silence.
Bells started to sound, one or two distant knells, before stopping.
Not a signal. There was no gunfire, no sound of any device going off, no chaos. Even the Brechwell Beast was quiet for the moment.
“Probably the Beast entering a new area,” I said.
“Probably,” Gordon said. “I wonder if she coordinated that. If the people in the tower are helping to steer and bait it, then she might want the Beast further away if reinforcements come.”
Another awkward silence.
“What you said before, about me acting like an abusive husband,” I said.
“Sy, no, I was angry, I was-”
“Right. You were right. Partially,” I said.
“No, I don’t want you to think like that. That’s not right, it’s not what I meant.”
“I hope you know I’d die for you,” I said, meeting her eyes.
Her mouth opened, but she didn’t manage words.
“Any of you,” I said. “I’m not saying that in order to manipulate or serve some complicated goal, I’m saying it because it’s true. You’re important to me. If I hurt you, genuinely hurt you, I want to know. I might poke fun or tease and mislead or lie or be an utter bastard, but I do it for you, for all of us.”
“You are what you are, Sy,” Gordon said. “We never had any illusions. I’ve never harbored any hard feelings.”
I chanced a glance at Mary. She didn’t speak, but she offered me a small smile.
“I didn’t want this,” Lillian said. “You acting different, feeling guilty.”
“You wanted it, you pushed me to face it,” I said.
“I don’t want to hear you say you’re going to die for me,” she said, insistent. “That’s messed up!”
“You became a Lamb,” I said. “You earned your place with us. I know you have a family, and that’s something the rest of us don’t have, but you’re one of us. If it comes down to it, I’d lay my life on the line.”
“No,” Gordon said.
“No? You’re saying I’m lying?”
“I’m saying I hear you,” he said, eyes on the road. He reached for Lillian’s pocket watch and checked the time. “But that’s not allowed.”
“I get to decide, Gordon, not you.”
“How do you think we’d feel, if you traded your life for ours? No. If you’re going to trade yourself for us, then it’s only allowed if you get a two for one deal. Same goes for you, Mary. I’ll do it too.”
“Me too,” Helen said. “Though Ibott would probably kill you, so maybe it should be three to one.”
I gave her another pat on the head.
“Or if the mission is on the line?” Helen asked.
“Don’t overcomplicate it,” I said.
“I thought you were okay with the teasing,” I told Lillian.
“I am, mostly.”
“I was told you liked the teasing, even, by two different sources. That you acted different when there wasn’t any. I paid attention, tested the hypothesis, and it seemed right.”
“If you have to talk about this, let’s do it when the others aren’t around.”
“They know, you know.”
“Yes. Of course. So long as we’re okay?”
“We’re okay,” she said.
Her head turned as Gordon reached for her pocket watch again. I reached out and took hold of her hair and gave it a light tug.
She hit me. But when I saw her face in profile, she was smiling.
Looking at her, Helen, and Mary, all I could think was, girls are so weird.
“Be ready,” Gordon said.
My hands went over my ears. I crouched, using the wall for cover.
I felt a touch at my rear end, and wondered for a moment if Helen was in a dangerous mood, or if it was Lillian feeling me up for some perplexing reason, or-
Hubris, nosing around. He licked me as I turned around. Why did I keep getting licked?
Gordon got Hubris’ attention, and covered the dog’s ears.
Any moment now.
Any moment, then there was no going back.
“How long do we have, once we’re there?” I asked. Gordon wasn’t covering his own ears. I supposed he figured he was resilient enough to deal with the noise of the blast. I pulled a hand away to listen.
“Before the final scheduled blasts? Thirty minutes, if we decide we need to leave.”
Eyes closed, ears covered once more, I waited.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Movement from Hubris brushing against my backside was the second indication something was wrong.
I twisted around, and I came face to face with Catcher, or as close to face to face as was possible, when he was twice as tall as I was, the two of us crouching.
His rag-wrapped hand was pressing Hubris down, pinning the struggling dog against the ground. His polearm was extended toward Gordon.
It made sense he’d find us. Even ignoring his exemplary tracking abilities and enhanced senses, he would have been able to follow Hubris.
“What gave us away?” he asked me.
“You specifically? Fray did. Once I start assuming the most inconvenient result, my guesses get a lot more acccurate.”
Catcher nodded, taking that in stride. Mary had her weapons drawn, but wasn’t using them. The scene was a still tableau, about to be broken by an artillery shell.
“Let us go,” I said, calm.
“Without knowing what you’re planning? I heard some of what you said. I don’t know if I like any of it.”
I wondered momentarily if he’d heard what Helen had said. The half-second I spent briefly entertaining that thought was a window of opportunity for Gordon to speak.
“Catcher,” Gordon said. “Nothing good comes from this. If you attack the Lambs here, you get hurt, we get hurt, maybe we die now, at your hands, maybe one side or the other wins, and we get assumed to be on the wrong end of things, and we get executed. But that’s bullshit.”
Not quite the argument I would’ve made in Gordon’s shoes. Still, I let him continue without me chipping in.
“We’re friends, Catcher.”
“I always liked you, Gordon,” Catcher said. “Dog too. I heard what Sylvester said earlier, about how we’re all trying to survive. I wondered if it was a trick of his, but it sounded genuine.”
“It was,” I said. “You’re closer to being one of us than the common-”
The artillery shell came down, close. I fell over, senses momentarily obliterated.
Don’t attack, don’t fight, I thought.
I managed to start seeing straight again, and focused on the scene. Catcher hadn’t flinched, he still had Hubris, and Gordon was still crouched a few feet away, the length of the pole between him and our old friend.
Mary hadn’t attacked either.
“Let us go,” Gordon said. “If you believe in what she’s doing, then trust her to convince us.”
“I don’t believe in what she’s doing,” Catcher said. “I’ve only done this because I’m so very tired.”
In the words, the way he spoke, if I listened beyond the shrill noise in my ears, I could hear that fatigue.
“I can’t have the stalk and the manhunt be the beginning, middle, and end of my existence,” Catcher said. “Whatever I’ll do, it won’t live up to what I was created to do, but I won’t be able to go peacefully if I don’t at least try and fail at another course.”
“And Dog?” Gordon asked. I could barely hear him with my ears suffering as they were.
“That’s your course. Let us choose ours,” I said. “Let us go, before the dust settles.”
The second shell came down. Not as violent as the first, being further away, but it rattled the senses once again.
“-lost Jamie, I thought you would break,” Catcher was saying, as I started being able to piece together words once again.
The mention of the name made me cringe as much as the last shell had. He understood that it was a true loss. That our Jamie was gone. He didn’t have to ask, or evade, or insinuate. He understood.
“I thought you might be on the same course as I was. Exhausted. That you’d end up reaching your limit. Maybe you would have, if they hadn’t given you the time to grieve and find yourselves. But I reached my limit first, in the end.”
“Maybe,” Gordon replied.
I was itching to just turn and go, but that wasn’t a reality. If the dust cleared, we wouldn’t get a third shot, I was pretty sure. The pattern would be too obvious.
“It was the futility of the Ghost hunts,” Catcher said. “A chore, find one group, another would spring up. One time I went, and she was waiting. The leash had already loosened, because she’d leashed everyone else with the same chemical. She offered to free me.”
“Catcher,” I said, not sure if I was speaking at the right volume. My mind was racing, trying to piece together his psychology, his motivations, and figure out the best possible argument.
He wasn’t trying to deter us or hurt us. He was justifying himself.
“Catcher,” I said, again, more firmly. “We understand. I understood without you needing to explain. When all of this has settled down, we’ll find you, and we’ll play cards and share a meal, maybe a drink.”
He met my eyes with his own rheumy cataract-white ones. Old scars, but the eyes were sharper than they looked to the untrained eye.
“Holding us here is going to push us away, maybe get us killed,” I said. “Let us go, so we can find you later. So it can be like old times.”
“It’ll never be like old times, Sy,” Catcher said, voice soft. “That’s the problem. Time runs out. It’s gone.”
He let go of Hubris. The dog snarled, tensing, and Gordon made a small sound. Hubris relaxed in an instant.
The polearm moved away from Gordon.
Without wasting an instant, we turned. Gordon went from a crouch to hurdling the window, Hubris under one arm, into the dwindling smoke, rain and dust without even checking if the coast was clear. Mary was right after him, then Helen.
“You were right,” Catcher said, behind me. “About what comes next. That it’s a massacre.”
“Live,” I said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, Sy.”
I could see, looking at it, that the smoke was too thin. If anyone was looking, and there were an awful lot of eyes to be looking, the shadows of our movement would be visible.
I reached for Lillian’s hand and pulled her after me. If she hesitated, it might be too late.
Into the road. An open area with soldiers on two sides that might reflexively shoot if they spotted us.
I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see clearly, and my heart was hammering. A blind run, where I could get shot at any moment.
The smoke was thinning out too fast.
I heard a gunshot, and I heard the impact, very close by.
Lillian didn’t falter. I didn’t hurdle over any dead Lambs.
Then, behind me, I heard the horn.
It cried out, a warning, that superweapons were on the field. Hold your fire.
Encouraged, I pressed on, tugging Lillian behind me.
The smoke and rain made it too hard to see a short distance ahead of me. I almost ran into the door, but Mary caught me, before reaching out to grab Lillian.
Gordon banged on the door.
Long seconds passed.
It cracked open, and we passed inside.