Gordon touched Lillian’s shoulder, then touched his wrist. Lillian retrieved her watch from her pocket and popped it open to show Gordon. When I craned my head to see, she turned it so the rest of us could see.
Genevieve Fray’s contingent was at one end of the room. Fray was still dressed up, staring a hole into the ground while her mind searched for answers. Warren was wearing his suit, Avis wore a strappy evening dress with grafted wings on her back, and the stitched girl, Whitney or Winnie or whatever it was, was wearing simpler clothes with an apron. The clothes were clean and tidy, and her hair looked nice, combed into a side braid that helped hide how dry the hair was.
A gulf separated her group from the rest of us, Mauer’s people, a number of soldiers, three or four civilians, Percy, and the doctor with the cat-like warbeast. Four paces of empty space between us and them. The people who had been standing there were making noise out in the hallway. I could hear the sound of guns being prepared, orders given, and a discussion of strategy, though I couldn’t make out particulars.
“Lambs,” Fray said. “I did promise I would talk with you.”
Mauer spoke from the other end of the room, his voice low, “Given the circumstances, we should overlook old promises and focus on our immediate future.”
“Be patient,” Fray said. “Lambs, a word?”
We started to cross the gap between the rest of the room and Fray.
“I took countermeasures before coming here,” Mauer commented. “Politics are something I understand. I expect them to take me alive, where possible. You? I’m not so sure.”
“You could be shot on sight,” Avis said, “Or killed by accident.”
“That would be the reason I’m talking to Fray and looking to cooperate and see if her strategy is still intact,” Mauer said. He had a dangerous look in his eye. “But if she wants me to be patient, then I can give her a few minutes.”
We reached Fray’s group. There was a table set against the wall, with a teapot, cups, and candlesticks on the top. I pushed a candlestick out of the way and hopped up onto the table. It gave me a good view of the whole room.
Gordon leaned against the table beside me, Mary beside him. Lillian stood by the table’s end, at my right shoulder, Helen just a little further away. Hubris was under my dangling feet.
“The books, give,” I said.
“Contingent on us actually having a talk,” Fray said.
“Then talk,” Gordon said.
Fray nodded. “I received a note from a little birdy-”
“Doggie,” Helen said. She reached down and scratched Hubris’ head.
“Yes,” Fray said. “I wasn’t sure if you were wholly aware it was them, but I suspected. I was confused for a moment that it seemed to think you were here already, and it didn’t help that I was preoccupied with Cynthia.”
“Were we responsible for that confusion too?” Gordon asked.
“No. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it was a question of ideology,” Fray said.
“How so?” I asked.
“Cynthia started on the bottom, at one of the lowest points a human being can occupy, orphaned, alone, barely more than an animal. She fought her way to the place she holds now in the world, and she plans to keep on going. I believe she wants to supplant the Crown, even in a token manner. To be the new ruler or a major power when the Crown is ejected from the western Crown States. She doesn’t like my plan because giving everyone the power to study Academy sciences takes away from her exclusive power. Raise everyone else up, and she is effectively less powerful. She would rather control that power, utilize some of the best and brightest minds she can collect, and be well situated to take power as it becomes available.”
“Until the Crown brings all the force it can muster to bear,” Gordon said.
“Yes,” Fray said. “I underestimated her hunger for that taste of true authority, however transient it might end up being. I’d hoped rational argument would sway her, and I was proven wrong.”
I wanted to jab at Fray, just to see how she reacted. If I commented on how poor her ‘rational’ argument might be, if my estimation of her was right, then it would sting, and she might show me a glimmer of what she was really thinking.
Instead, I frowned and only said, “That night I burned her alive, I didn’t just hurt her chances in politics. The Lambs killed some of those best and brightest minds. No wonder she was upset with me.”
Fray nodded her head in agreement. “Telling you more would be unfair and rude, when she was at least kind enough to hear me out. I think you can draw the appropriate conclusions.”
“What you’re doing,” Lillian said, “Giving everyone access, you’re going to cause complete and utter chaos. There are rules the Academy won’t break that novice students will. Uncontrolled growth, real monsters, real weapons of war.”
“I was on track for a professorship,” Fray said. “I got close, close enough that I heard the stories. I promise you, Lillian, there are people crossing those lines every single day, in various places around the world. One or two of the people you’ve gone after at the Academy’s behest have been among them.”
“I can back this,” Avis said, her voice soft. “A lot of the messages about the worst crisis situations crossed my desk. For every one the Lambs saw, there were four more within two days of train travel from Radham Academy.
“That’s a fallacy,” Lillian said. “Just because people are crossing the line, that doesn’t mean it’s okay if you increase the problem a hundredfold.”
“Tenfold at best, but in talking to the others, the expectation seems to be a much more conservative doubling or tripling in the number of madmen and dangerous minds,” Fray said. “Only a select portion of the population have the means, motive, inclination, and ability to truly take advantage of what I would be putting out there. Not so much the Academy couldn’t respond, but enough to keep them and the likes of you busy.”
“Except,” Gordon said, “You’ve got Dog and Catcher, very likely Petey and the Wry Man, all on your side. You’ve been working to strip the Academy’s ability to respond to an upswing in the number of problem elements.”
“They’ll bounce back. It does mean they’ll have a hard time controlling the spread of the books at the outset.”
“I’m seeing what you’re doing,” I said. “Okay, let’s say that the numbers do double. Very conservative. But you told everyone here that the two factions would be attacking one last time, playing all the leftover cards they have left to play, to distract the Academy and apply pressure to them. That alone would occupy the resources that would control the spread of the book. But you’re also denying them those resources, getting Dog and Catcher and some of the others on your side. If you actually turned Dog and Catcher and some of the others against the Academy, or used information they’ve given you to lash out at key targets…”
Fray’s expression wasn’t giving up many tells. She seemed amused, insofar as her anxiety seemed to be allowing her to enjoy herself.
Yeah, let’s not puff you up and make you feel too happy and in control, I thought.
“…You’re being disingenuous,” I said. “There’s more to this. You don’t intend to push them over. You want to break their back on your knee.”
“I want to hurt the Academy,” Fray told me. “Slow them down, give the rest of us some time to gain ground. Yes.”
“Then say it straight,” I said. “You trying to mislead us here makes me think you’re bending the truth when you give Lillian your expectations. Forget the others. What do you think the numbers will be like? How many dangerous minds are going to go too far with your books?”
Lillian nodded. I saw her shoot me a glance, and I suspected it was a grateful look.
I’d backed her where and when it counted.
“More than a fivefold increase in what you’re dealing with now,” Fray admitted.
“And how many people are going to die?” Lillian asked.
“There’s no telling, it’s too variable,” Fray said. “But you’ve heard of the cockroaches and cats principle?”
Gordon put it succinctly, “We’ve discussed it.”
“I think,” Lillian said, “If you’re talking about cockroaches and cats, what you’re doing is a very bad thing! You’re talking about killing nine in ten people? Nineteen in twenty? People only survive because of sheer numbers?”
“As you can see, the medic of the group is opposed to what you’re doing,” I said.
“And the rest of you?” Fray asked, very casually.
It was Mary who spoke up, “If you can’t convince her, then you aren’t going to budge the rest of us. The Lambs stick together.”
Fray nodded. “I see.”
There was a pause. An explosion outside made the entire room jump. Too close to the deadline.
Fray turned to Warren, murmuring in his ear. I caught the essential bits, enough to piece it together after a second of thought. “Go check on Cynthia. Let me know if she’s getting ready to go or waiting.”
Warren nodded, then left the room.
Fray composed herself, taking a second before turning to look us over. “I don’t think there’s time to have a full-fledged debate on the merits of one course or another.”
“Disingenuous again,” I said. “There are a lot of courses, a lot of decisions to be made.”
“I didn’t say there were only two courses,” Fray said, sounding annoyed, “My point was that we’re short on time. I expect only fifteen minutes, if the news about the train being early wasn’t Lamb trickery.”
She gave us a look as she said those last words.
“It’s not,” Gordon said, firmly. “And it’s less than ten minutes, not fifteen.”
He put his hands in his pockets as he spoke. I could see his thumb move. Not a true gesture, but damn close to the movement of a ‘lie‘ gesture.
Giving her less time to work with, more pressure.
“We would have shown up twenty minutes before the real deadline if it was, after we’d let you stew and worry for a while, and after we’d complicated your communications with Dog, Catcher and the others.”
“As you tried to do with the Ghosts,” Fray said. She sighed. “You did force us to sacrifice a large share of them, so Petey could maintain his cover. The release of the Brechwell Beast was much the same. I believe you when you say the deadline is real.”
“I hear actual anxiety in your voice,” I said.
“A tightness?” Helen said. “I think I hear it too, but I’m not that good with my new ears yet.”
Warren returned. He rejoined us.
“Is she leaving yet?” Fray asked.
He changed the angle of his head a fraction.
“If all else fails, we might have to let her be the vanguard, and simply follow in her wake,” Fray said. “Knowing her, it might prove difficult. She’s as liable to be as dangerous to us as the enemy forces are.”
Warren nodded again.
“Avis, we’ll need you to deliver the signal soon,” Fray said. She looked at us. “Catcher’s note said you had deduced that I plan to turn the forces of Brechwell against one another.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m flattered you think I could convince that many people. I’m afraid I didn’t.”
“Then I think you’re kind of an idiot for getting into this situation,” I told her.
Provoke, push, test boundaries. I’d passed up a chance earlier, because it was too hard, too harsh. This was a softer touch.
I’d expected to gauge her response to the casual insult, in hopes of gleaning some insight into her mental state. Fray didn’t betray anything, however, and it was Warren who seemed to take offense at the slight against Fray.
Worth remembering. Maybe I could write it down. My memories seemed to slip most between when I went to sleep and when I woke up. Since the girls insisted on sleeping with me, I couldn’t stay up and achieve a balance of recall and alertness. I wouldn’t be able to trust my brain to hold onto the little strategic details like Warren’s defensiveness of his savior.
“I do have a plan,” Fray said. “It achieves very similar ends, but without the need for me to target and convince however many soldiers, officers, and major figures I would need to organize a true mutiny.”
“Fantastic,” I said. “But you made a miscalculation, you’ve lost Cynthia’s help. You’re worried, because what you did have planned doesn’t necessarily work that well without her.”
“We’ll manage,” she said. “The real question is if you’re coming with us. It doesn’t have to be permanent. Follow along, I’ll give you the books, and we can have a more in-depth conversation in the aftermath of Brechwell’s fall.”
I didn’t respond. My mind was taking in new information, ticking over possibilities.
“I think that would be dangerous,” Mary said. “If we came with you, how much would it delay our return to the Academy? Would we be assumed to be one of the turncoat special projects?”
“That’s for you to decide,” Fray said. She stood straighter. “I suppose you’ll have to make do. Decide what you will, I need to focus on the matter at hand.”
Not a mutiny, but similar in execution. What’s she planning?
“Wait,” Mary said.
Fray had started to walk away, Warren, Avis and the stitched girl following. She paused.
“I said it was dangerous, I didn’t say no. If the other Lambs agree, maybe I could propose a deal.”
“Time is short,” Fray said. “What deal?”
“We’ll come with you, hear you out, have a serious discussion with no time limit, but…” Mary dropped her voice, “Percy dies.”
My breath caught in my throat. I almost sputtered.
I wasn’t the only Lamb reacting with shock. All eyes were on Mary.
“And,” Mary continued, meeting Lillian’s eyes, “You promise to excise all portions of your work that deal with the biology of children. The ratios, the specific formulas, growth charts, scales, proportions…”
“All of it,” Fray said. “A concrete loss of both an ally and resources, a loss in time to ensure the books are properly edited, in exchange for a discussion where there is no guarantee I’d be able to convince you all? What makes you think I’d accept?”
Mary opened her mouth to speak, paused, and glanced at me.
“Sylvester briefed you on me,” Fray concluded. “I see. I want to ask why you want me to kill your creator, but there’s no time. I’ll take your proposal under consideration. Excuse me.”
Like that, she was gone.
I blinked a few times.
“Sylvester is a bad influence on you,” Gordon commented.
“Probably,” Mary said. “Sorry, to throw that out there, but-”
“You need to cut ties formally,” Gordon guessed.
Lillian walked past me, reaching out to give Mary a little hug, before taking Mary’s hand.
“She’s actually considering it,” I said. “Percy is a known element, he’s one-note, only effective right now because of the ability to incorporate the work of others.”
“You said she wanted to convince others,” Mary said. “I thought we could offer her a way to convince us.”
“It was smart,” I said. “You hit the mark.”
But Percy isn’t as guilty as you think he is. By letting you sign a deal paid for in his blood, I can never tell you the whole truth. You’d never forgive me.
Well, eventually, she might, but a theoretical five-year grudge was a long time in respect to our short lifespans.
Something to worry about later.
“I was surprised you seemed to drop out of that conversation,” Gordon observed. He was watching the people on the other side of the room, who were watching us while they talked with Fray.
“Me?” I asked.
“Thinking,” I said. “Trying to decipher what she said.
“Do tell. Thinking aloud is a good thing.”
“Not a mutiny, but similar. She said she couldn’t convince that many people.”
“Yes,” Gordon said.
“Okay. Turn that around. What’s the bare minimum she needs, in order to turn the tide of the battle?”
“Bare minimum?” Mary asked. “Five hundred people? Once they start shooting, they don’t know who is friendly and who isn’t, it throws everything into disarray.”
“Fewer,” I said. “Fewer. Didn’t one person just risk derailing this entire thing Fray was trying to accomplish? Cynthia walked away. She’s waiting to execute her own plan. Fray doesn’t know what to expect. What if… what if Fray only talked to two or three people? And the secret experiments, but…”
I trailed off, thinking. Experiments. Why? They’re the ones who provide information, they execute critical missions, they wipe out stragglers…
I was staring off into space the same way Fray had been, sitting a matter of feet from where she’d been standing, and smiled at the realization. The difference between her situation and mine, however, was that I was asking a question which had a very real answer. Fray had had to invent an answer.
“Commanding officers?” Gordon asked. “They’re the only people here with enough clout.”
I nodded. “Yeah. But if you give orders and the people you’re ordering balk, then you lose that clout. You need to convince them…”
Weapons of rhetoric. How to make people act the way they wouldn’t normally? Rage? Easy but not applicable here. Revulsion? Took time to sell a seeming ally as truly repulsive and deserving of acts beyond the pale. Terror? No, not quite, and I couldn’t imagine a way of creating that sort of effect. Grief? Mauer had tried it, using the deaths of children to turn the people of Radham against the Academy.
More complex emotions, then. Outrage, cornered-rat feeling, horror, empathy, desperation, devastation, disappointment…
I looked up, meeting Gordon’s eyes.
Betrayal, panic. Hadn’t I just been thinking recently about how I kept going back to fire and destruction?
“You have an idea,” Gordon said.
I watched Avis leave the room. Ready to give the signal.
I would’ve liked to follow behind and interrupt Avis before she could follow through, just to see the look on Fray’s face, but it would have been too obvious.
All of the tension in the Academy’s ranks, it was building up to a crescendo. The people on the wall, guns in hand, cold, waiting for a battle to start, they were coiled like snakes, ready to strike.
Their eyes faced forward, but when the attack came from the sides, from allied ranks, it would be pandemonium.
“Just the commanding officers and sufficient chaos, so the rank and file look to the leader,” I said, my voice low. “And all you need to convince the commanding officers is to assure them that the blame can be pointed at the man who is nominally in charge.”
“Who everyone hates,” Gordon said. “How do you create sufficient chaos?”
“Without Dog and Catcher-” I started.
Fray cut me off, from the other end of the room. “Lambs.”
We turned our full attention to her.
“I’m trying to convince these men that you’re trustworthy enough to have behind us,” Fray said. “It’s a hard argument to make when I’m not sure myself.”
“Percy convinced me to hold back and treat you gently,” Mauer said, “Hearing your response to him, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just have my soldiers shoot you.”
Some of the men shifted their grips on their guns.
I could see the look on Percy’s face. The man looked troubled.
“He doesn’t seem convinced.”
“Sometimes we have to sacrifice a friendship in the name of being a true friend,” Mauer said.
“This would be easier if you agreed to come,” Fray said.
“And our deal?” Mary asked.
“If you’d rather remain here and try to convince the Academy you were acting in their interest and not mine, feel free,” Fray said. “Otherwise, I might leave this up to the Reverend Mauer. No deal.”
“I’m not a Reverend any more.”
That is a problem, I mused. If there was treachery afoot, and if any experiments did find themselves in question, people would wonder about us. We were badly situated for that.
She was genuinely nervous, now, and it came through in how ruthlessly she was throwing her weight around to remove uncertainties. Fray was a perfectionist, she overthought her plans and covered every base, until she was capable of managing any crisis that came up. But when two came up at the same time, the loose ends of the Lambs and the issue of Cynthia acting on her own, then she couldn’t be sure she had an escape route or sufficient distraction to escape. Too many angles to watch.
That wouldn’t do, not for her.
No, for this to be a true success, she needed to walk through a battlefield and disappear. That could only happen if she had a measure of control over every side present.
“What do you think?” Gordon murmured.
“Option one is to reassure her that the Lambs aren’t a threat. Join her, give up power and the little advantage we hold,” I said.
“Option two?” Mary asked me.
“We make her more unsure,” I said. “I like option two more.”
“How?” Gordon asked.
“Last chance,” Fray declared. “Come with us, or-”
“There’s a problem with that,” I said.
“I thought you’d say, not demonstrate,” Gordon hissed in my ear.
Fray spoke, “Mauer, you can tell your men-”
“We disarmed one of the bombs,” I said.
I saw her eyes fix onto a point in space, as she turned over the possibilities in her mind.
She didn’t detonate every bomb in the city when she paved the way for the Brechwell Beast.
She had the experiments patrolling the city at night, perfect for setting up more bombs. Explosions in friendly ranks, from bombs placed in the tops of attics like the one we entered, detonating through the rooftops, multiple commanders shouting that it’s friendly mortar fire, maybe even shouting about fire from once-friendly teams, the insecurity of new teams joining, unfamiliar faces, and the intelligence gathering bodies turning tail and giving false info or helping Fray navigate her way through, while all the smoke and debris blocks the view of the street…
Pandemonium. The man at the top gets blamed for not having control of an uncontrollable situation.
Fray looked up, meeting my eyes.
Searching for the lie.
But if one bomb doesn’t explode, she can’t predict the situation. The tide of the fight can’t be predicted. One side could be free to open fire on you.
“Warren,” she said. “Find Avis. Stop her from giving the signal. Run.”
Warren charged out of the room. The man with the cat warbeast leaned close to Fray, and got one word out before she indicated for him to go too. He and his cat fled the room.
“Mauer,” Fray said. Her eyes didn’t leave me. “If he doesn’t say which bomb the Lambs disarmed-”
“You’re going to have to come to us for a way out,” I said.
I could see her thinking her way through the options.
She didn’t get a chance to finish her train of thought.
Nearby explosions rocked the building. Guns fired. I could see the concern on the faces of the others.
Had Avis given the signal already?
“That would be Cynthia, charging for freedom,” Fray said.
Then, one by one, other explosions sounded. I could hear the tumble and crumble of falling masonry. Shouts, gunfire, distant but so unanimous that it had to be the forces arranged at the perimeter.
“That would be your bombs,” Gordon observed, dryly.
I cleared my throat. “Now, please, give me the damn books, Miss Fray.”