As before, Warren served as the escort. The musclebound man wore a suit that hadn’t been put together by a true craftsman. I could see, here and there, how the suit jacket pulled and where there was a bit of clumsiness at the seams. It was good work, all the same, but whoever had done it probably wasn’t a seamstress.
Our destination wasn’t the same room I’d gone to the previous night. We passed down a hallway, and there were people in the rebellion’s make-shift uniform, predominantly men, sitting and standing on either side of the long hallway. Groups of humans, groups of stitched, and plague men stood apart, one or two paces separating each from the other. The stitched had a smell when they congregated in numbers or were in bad shape, and both were the case here.
They waited at the ready for real conflict to unfold.
A hand touched mine, grabbing and nearly taking hold before I slipped mine free. My first instinct was to think it was one of the soldiers we were passing. I looked and saw that it was Lillian’s.
I gestured. Question. Why?
Fear. Me. Scared.
I saw a few curious looks from nearby soldiers, and wondered if they might see it as us plotting something. I leaned closer to Lillian, and I murmured in her ear. Ironic that it was very possibly less suspicious than the gestures. “We need to look strong, stand straight, look confident. We shouldn’t hold hands. That looks weird, and weird is something they’ll notice.”
She gave me the slightest of nods, averting her eyes.
I could see her trying to pull herself together, but the tension was etched into her expression. When she saw a movement, her head turned all at once, eyebrows going up and together in concern. She realized it was just a man changing position, and that heightened tension didn’t fade, it only climbed and built up into something.
I suppressed a sigh and reached out for her hand, squeezing it.
It was our first serious mission since we’d lost Jamie. The loss hadn’t even occurred in the field, but now we were in a dangerous situation, there were other things going on, and Lillian wasn’t coping.
Working to help her was at least helping me feel more centered.
I looked at Mary, and I could see how tense she was. I reached out to touch her arm, and she flinched.
Then she saw me and relaxed. She managed a smile. I let my hand fall.
Warren opened the door, inviting us to step into the back room.
The room I had been in before had been for larger gatherings, a space large enough to dance in, or to set up a stage and have room for audience. This room was something closer to a large dining room, and tables had been placed against tall windows with curtains on either side, the table legs making the curtains poke out.
The tables weren’t long enough to cover the entire window, and the top two or three feet of each window was left exposed. The light from outside was meager, the sky already overcast, rain pounding down, and periodically, one of the lights from the towers moved over the building, too diffuse in daylight to be distinct. It still made the room just a little bit brighter, now and again.
Fray and Avis were at one end of the room, Fray leaning back against a table, hands gripping the edges, while Cynthia stabbed a finger in her direction, it sounded heated. Fray was dressed similar to how she had been dressed last night, with a knee-length dress, stockings, and a shorter coat. The only changes she’d made were to tie her hair back and to don a belt that had equipment hanging from it. An octopus was out of water, set on the table just a half-foot from her hand.
Cynthia, by contrast, had foregone the dress and stockings for a tight-fitting jacket, sweater, and what might have been riding slacks, tight against the leg. She had a gun at one hip, a short sword at the other, and a long rifle slung over her back. She looked like an entirely different person, even though her face was still that same eerie, ill-fitting mask, her hair covering much of it.
Fray looked at the Lambs as we entered, and she seemed almost relieved to see us.
She held up a finger. Wait.
I realized I was interpreting that as a gesture, when it was a common shorthand.
It made sense to take control of the situation by making a visitor wait. Professors and barons of business did it all time. Fray would’ve been right to do it here, even acknowledging how little time there was.
But she wasn’t doing it for that reason. She really couldn’t abandon the ongoing discussion with Cynthia.
I turned my eyes away from that scene. There were other players who posed more immediate danger, people who might take advantage of Fray’s distraction.
As was the case with Cynthia, many had changed clothes with a purpose. The gigantic fellow with the birthing saw, I was having trouble placing his name, he was wearing a military outfit now, and he’d gathered with others of his ilk. There was a man with short hair and very thick glasses who stood by his cat-like warbeast. The warbeast’s head was at just the right height for his hand to settle on while it sat beside him. He’d traded out his coat for one of the rebellion’s black jackets, not quite long enough to be a lab coat. I saw a man covered in scars, in a very different way from the plague men, and a burly woman with things crawling just beneath her skin, glowering at anyone nearby, wearing men’s clothing.
Those unique cases out of the way, there were another half-dozen people who passed for human. Men, all of them, they had to be generals or squad leaders.
Among the ordinary men were Mauer and Percy. The pair were the same as they had been last night, in the most general sense, a worn down old academic in nicer looking clothes, and a soldier with a deceptively fresh face and military clothes that had seen some use.
That said, both had dressed as if they expected to see conflict. Mauer wore his jacket, having had pulled it over the one arm, with a chain across the lapels keeping it in place, where it simply hung over the mutated arm. He had an exorcist rifle, and unless I was missing something, he hadn’t burdened himself with vials and medical tools like some had.
Percy wore his long coat, and he did have a gun at his hip, a long-barreled pistol, the holster attached to the two belts he wore to hold all of the myriad pouches and tools.
Mary stepped forward, coming to stand beside me, and I could see the movement of her throat as she swallowed.
Gordon’s hand went out, resting on Mary’s shoulder.
As a group, we approached the pair.
The me of a year ago might have tried to talk to Mauer, regardless of the circumstance. I recognized how important this was, however, and held my tongue.
“Mr. Percy,” Mary said.
“My girl,” the long-haired academic responded.
I shivered a little at the choice of words. From the look of it, the effect was far more profound for Mary.
I’d known Mary for long enough to know all of the tells, and even I couldn’t get a good read on her, seeing her now. It worried me that I wasn’t exactly sure what she would say or do.
The conversation had already aborted, in the messiest use of the word. Neither seemed able or willing to speak, and none of the bystanders, Lamb or Shepherd, were interjecting. I was glad. If Mauer jumped in, the conversation would likely be his, with the pair on the periphery.
“You’re well, Mary?”
“I’m… overall, I’m well. Right now?”
She seemed to flounder for words.
The tells were for anger, excitement, impatience, insecurity.
“I don’t know what to feel right now.”
“Speaking for myself, I’m glad to see you. When I first joined Cynthia’s group, they told me the Academy’s group had eliminated all of my, ah, children.”
“Misinformation or lies?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Sylvester,” Percy said. He looked at Cynthia. “I’ve wondered which it was.”
“You worked for her before, but now you’re on opposing sides?” Mary asked.
She sounded younger than she was, as she asked the question.
Mental note, Sylvester: her mental and emotional guards are down. Mary is vulnerable.
“Let’s not go that far,” Percy said. “We were on opposing sides, but a big part of the meetings over the past half-week have been about mending the fences.”
“We hope,” Mauer commented. His attention had passed to Cynthia as well, and I was guessing he was viewing the situation with forward-looking eyes, where Percy had been looking to past events.
My eyes were on the present.
If I had to guess, Fray seemed anxious. That crimson-painted smile of hers seemed a little too relentless in the face of Cynthia’s fury to be anything but fake, and her lower eyelids were raised, her focus fully on the discussion as she picked her words, speaking to Cynthia with purpose.
That anxiety was very interesting and it was very worrisome for the Lambs as well.
“The Lambs did a very good job of executing some of the more educated members of Cynthia’s contingent,” Percy observed. “That night in Whitney? Or is that so commonplace you don’t remember?”
“I remember,” Mary said. “We remember.”
There was a comment to be made about Mary possibly forgetting that she was part of a we, even for a moment. That comment was not to be spoken out loud.
“Military leaders took over, resources were shuffled around, projects were canceled, until more academic minds gathered to share resources and ensure the work on projects could continue. Cynthia returned, saw the way things had changed, and adapted, as she does so marvelously,” Percy said. “She took control over the military group, hand picked a few key minds and personalities to bring to her side, and left the rest of us to continue to fend for ourselves. When we created something worth using, we sold it to her side. Those of us who were still willing to deal with her after the insults and dismissiveness her people had directed our way, that is”
“I expected more hard feelings,” I said.
He shook his head. “Like I said, we’re mending fences. For the sake of bigger things, I’m willing to leave the past in the past.”
Which isn’t to say there aren’t or weren’t hard feelings.
“The schism over our ultimate goals and a competition for resources broke us. Fray intends to mend us,” Percy said.
“And Cynthia doesn’t agree?” I asked.
Mauer smiled. The thumb of his good hand was tapping arrhythmically against his leg, something I might have taken for a signal or code if I didn’t know better. His face didn’t betray the anxiety. “I’ll say this: for someone so adaptable and clever, she’s proving remarkably stubborn in the here and now.”
He turned to look at us, then gave Helen a double take. “The little girl I nearly shot.”
“I’m not sure where we stand, me and the Lambs. You’re enemies in our midst, but we’re being civil. In my case, because Fray and Percy have demanded it of me.”
“I’m always civil,” Helen said. “Mostly always. Sometimes I get excited, but even when I’m twisting people apart or stalking or killing them, I try to be polite.”
“That’s important,” Mauer responded. “Self control.”
“Yes,” Helen said.
Percy tilted his head. “Have you decided how you’re feeling, Mary?”
She put her tongue between her lips to wet them where they had dried. Cleaned of the smoke and the touch of dust from when we’d sprinted through the dust cloud, the lips had more color. “I’ve always been good at doing the job. Focusing on a task. Do that. Have certain enemies, have certain allies. I’ve never-”
Percy didn’t interject. I realized I was holding my breath, and let it out.
She abandoned the sentence she’d cut short, “I don’t know what to feel.”
“You know that I trained you to be as focused and goal-oriented as you are, yes?”
“After making the initial headway, training each of you, I started to think about the next part of the plan, and I wondered if I had overdone it. If I’d made you too narrow, incapable of operating outside of the bounds I’d defined.”
“I don’t think I am,” Mary said.
“I don’t think you are either,” Percy said, glancing at each of the Lambs before looking back at her. “But I did have a time where I worried if you’d be well-rounded enough for the leadership of my next generation of children.”
The first of the lies I told her.
“And I failed?” Mary asked. I caught the hint of hurt in her voice.
“What? No, not at all. I was a novice then, you were still learning, still innovating and developing your own techniques with the tools I had given you. I put that worry behind me very quickly.”
“But you decided, in the end, that I was nothing more than a tool? To discard me?”
Again, the hurt.
I could see the realization hit him. His eyes met mine for the duration of a lightning’s strike.
“I regret leaving you behind,” he said. “I very nearly got captured before Cynthia stepped in, and then I was told you were gone. I did mourn. You were a major part of a pivotal and lengthy chapter in my life.”
It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth. He could see and I could see that Mary wanted more.
“You made promises to me,” Mary said.
My heart pounded. I was the rabbit in the snow with a predator looking on. Calling any attention to myself at all with movement or sound could see that predator lashing out.
Would he disrupt the uneasy truce in this room and simply tell her the truth? That he had intended to keep his promises?
“Once, I meant to keep them,” he said. “You were too clever, I was too arrogant. I remembered stories about mistakes made fifty and a hundred years ago, when the Academies were newer and more callow, and I let those stories influence my judgment. What use did my work have for me, once you had blossomed into your true self?”
My heart was beating faster, hearing his explanation. He was helping me. Supporting my lies.
To have an answer that sounded that good, was it truth?
No. Not the truth.
But a fear that he had harbored, made out to be fact, maybe.
“So you would have had me kill my parents and kill myself, lost like all of the others?”
“Yes,” he said, and the emotion he injected into that one word was real, but likely to be something else entirely. Pain, perhaps. His words were insistent, driven, as if he was hammering in each point as he might a physical nail, “When I made you, when I gave you that drive and that focus you just described to me, I made you in my image. To be too focused, to feel as though there is one thing to do, one thing to focus on, one thing that answers the question? That is my struggle as much as it is yours. The clones were designed with a purpose in mind, and I thought that if I only stuck to that plan and that purpose, I could see my way forward.”
Mary’s expression had changed. The tells of anger and anxiety had faded. Her hawk-like eyes were focused on him and his every word.
“Even,” he said, “To the point of sacrificing you.”
“I see,” she said. “Thank you for saying so.”
“If it means anything, I’ve come to regret the decision. Working for Cynthia, staying out of sight and out of the way of Dog or Catcher’s noses, cooped up in my lab, I had time to think. To see how short-sighted I was.”
“I appreciate that,” Mary said, with very little emotion.
“Tell me, please,” he said, “Have they treated you well?”
He looked at me as he said it.
I could imagine him communicating with me through that glance. The short exchange we’d had about Mary, about the lies we’d both told, with no specifics given.
He might as well have said it to my face: I’ve lied for your sake, if you haven’t looked after her…
“They have,” she said. She looked at Gordon and then raised a hand, overlaying his where he’d left it on her arm.
“I’m glad. When I worried about your aptitude as a leader, I remember thinking about how you hadn’t bonded with your brothers. You always seemed very lonely, dear Mary.”
“I wasn’t while I had you,” she said.
There was no affection in the words. A simple stated fact.
The lingering threads of the puppeteer had been cut.
“While you grow, you’ll need to change your diet,” he said.
“I have a team working with me,” she said.
“Supplements? The builder’s acids, the concentration-”
“Twenty percent. Type F.”
“C,” he said. “C. Tell them. Twenty-five percent should do it. You grew quickly in the early stages, you’re growing a little bit faster even now. The Type C should include a good calcium mix, and it will keep byproducts from accumulating in your joints. Without it, you’ll find yourself with arthritic symptoms.”
“I’ll remember,” she said.
“You’ll hit a wall before too long. Rapid growth, tissue regeneration, byproducts from the non-human cells, organ failure, cancers-”
“I know I have an expiration date,” Mary said, her voice quiet.
Gordon’s fingers tightened on Mary’s arm. I found I couldn’t look at anyone in particular, my focus destroyed by recurrent visions of Jamie, the reality of expiration dates.
His face was taut with concern and repressed emotion as he spoke, sounding as if he were twenty feet away rather than five. “I was callow and stupid, starting out. Arrogant and narrow-minded. I thought a few years less of having to care for infants was worth a vastly shortened lifespan in my creations, that there was no point, because you weren’t to serve any use after a certain point.”
“If I had grown slower, I might not have met the Lambs,” Mary said. “Or found where I belonged.”
Percy didn’t respond to that. He moved his hands, as if he were going to put them into pockets, realized he was wearing a different coat, and folded his arms instead. He swallowed, cleared his throat, and nodded.
“My friend seems to be speechless, as that might be the next best thing to forgiveness he will ever get,” Mauer said, smiling, “I’ll ask the question he would ask: are the Lambs going to join Fray? I imagine he might like to have you over for tea, if nothing else.”
“I-” Mary started. She glanced at me. “I don’t know. My feelings are… mixed.”
“I abandoned you,” Percy said. “It’s understandable.”
“No,” Mary said. Then she shook her head, “Not that, not only that.”
“The children,” Mary said.
Percy’s eyebrows came together. “Which?”
“That’s just it,” Mary said. “There’s so many. The ones you kidnapped and cloned, the ones you raised and used as weapons, myself included, now the Ghosts? Always children.”
“Does that bother you?” he asked. “Or does it bother you because it bothers them?”
The statement ‘I didn’t design you with a conscience’ was so implicit in the question that he might as well have said it out loud.
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “But it’s not about me. I’m trying to understand you, Mr. Percy, and I don’t know if I understand this.”
He smiled. “I won’t sway you from this topic any more than you could be distracted from your duties, I don’t think.”
“Answer the question, please,” Mary said, that last word applying only a veneer of civility to the demand.
“It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, with-”
“Why children, Mr. Percy?” she asked.
“Because they’re the easiest to use, Mary. They’re the most malleable, the easiest to shape. That’s the pat answer, isn’t it? You have only to look at the Lambs to know this is a maxim the Academy believes in, too.”
“What’s the not-pat answer?” Mary asked. Her voice was firm. She still wasn’t relenting.
“If I’m a little bit poetic in how I phrase this, you’ll have to blame the Reverend,” Percy said. He looked sad, even as he joked, “In wartime, children suffer the most. I think a part of me knew that, that it was most efficient to get that out of the way, perhaps?”
“I don’t think that’s right at all,” Lillian said. “That’s demented.”
Percy smiled a sad smile. “Then we’ll go back to the first answer, as pat as it might be. I took very few Academy classes, and the ratios and numbers involving children and childhood were fresh in my mind when I started work. Narrow minded as I am, I didn’t think to change course.”
“Yet you said you spent time in Cynthia’s service, regretting past choices. Now, with the Ghosts, you’re making the same choices again.”
“No, dear Mary,” the puppeteer said. He reached out, to put a hand on her face, and she stepped back out of the way. He recovered, and he said, “For what it’s worth, I made the new ones dumb. I didn’t want to become attached to them, only to lose them. I learned that much.”
“I see,” Mary said. As she was wont to do, she’d shifted to a more imperious stance and tone, the young lady, the Mothmont girl. “With all due respect, Mr. Percy, I don’t believe we’ll be joining you for tea, whatever happens.”
I could see the hurt on his face. Even with that hurt, he managed to respond with decorum, “Then I wish you the best.”
Mary turned to Gordon, and the two of them turned away, with Lillian and Helen following.
I was the last to step away. Percy’s eyes bored into mine.
I might never know all of his reasons for why he’d done what he had, but I could guess as to some.
I gave him a nod. He didn’t move.
I hurried to join the others.
Cynthia and Fray were still embroiled in their private discussion, the rest of the room standing well clear, but for the men I took to be Cynthia’s lieutenants. This had gone well beyond the point where a delay was comfortable. The attack was imminent, and we hadn’t had a chance to talk yet.
We were counting on Fray for an escape route and options, and when she looked as troubled as she did, it left me feeling anxious too.
Trouble, I signaled Gordon, as he looked back to see where I’d gone to. I caught up with the others.
We-go away-talk-question. Should we break away, plan?
I shook my head. We wouldn’t get a chance, anyway.
Helen stood in front of the man with the birthing saw. She seemed to bounce on the spot as she said, “Hi!”
He glowered down at her.
A chair clattered to the ground. The room was tense enough that more than a few hands went to guns, though only one or two were drawn from holsters.
Cynthia had pushed it over.
She pulled herself together, standing straighter. One hand went to the front of her jacket, fixing it at the collar.
“Thank you, everyone else, for your time. I appreciate your efforts and the sentiment. I would wish you luck as well, but it wouldn’t be sincere.”
I looked from her to Fray. Fray’s eyes were on the ground. I knew that look, though I’d never seen it. I’d worn it on my own face when I’d been up to my neck in trains of thought and permutations and complications.
“We’re leaving,” Cynthia said.
Mauer chuckled. Every set of eyes in the room went to him. “Retreating to your room like a child?”
“No,” Cynthia said, her voice low and dangerous. “Not to my room.”
“We’re surrounded,” Percy said.
“I’ve been fighting through warzones since I was old enough to walk. I’ve fought my share of monsters, experiment and human alike,” she said. “I don’t plan to die.”
She gestured a wave of one hand, and her people joined her. A little under half of the people in the room migrated in her direction, following in her wake as she made her way through the door. The man with the birthing saw walked past the Lambs, followed by his ‘brothers’, putting a hand on Helen’s head as he passed her. He had to duck low as he reached the door, lest he smash his collarbone on the frame.
The room was nearly silent, though we could hear Cynthia barking orders to her people in the hallway. A significant share would be hers.
I looked at Fray, and she hadn’t come out of that state of focus, her mind going a mile a minute, yet to find a way out.
Not part of the plan, huh? I wondered.