It’s him. Not him.
Worst timing possible.
Greet him with a smile. Figure out what to say.
My expression remained blank, eyes turned up to the pair on the stairwell. No words left my lips.
Something screamed atop the rooftops. The gunfire was incessant.
He came down the stairs, with Ashton following just a step behind him. He stopped at the base of the stairs, looking us over.
Hubris growled. Gordon touched the dog’s head, and Hubris went quiet, though his posture was still aggressive. He moved closer, until he was between Gordon and the pair, on guard.
He reached into a pocket, withdrawing a flat leather case, thinner than most wallets, and no longer than his hand was. His fingers curled around the end as he held it up.
“I’m supposed to give you this,” he said. “But seeing what we saw-”
“It’s complicated, Jamie,” Gordon said.
“I’m sure,” was the reply.
That’s not Jamie.
He took a moment, considering, feeling the weight of the little package, before tossing it ten feet over to Gordon.
Gordon unzipped it. He handed out vials small enough that a finger couldn’t slide into them. One to Mary, one to Lillian.
“Sy doesn’t need one,” the boy with Jamie’s face said. “Helen either. That’s three days of doses for the rest of you, Hubris included.”
Gordon nodded. He removed the stopper from the vial and downed it. He grimaced. Lillian and Mary did much the same.
“I know,” the boy said. “It’s just for a little while.”
His eye moved over to Percy’s body.
“What did you hear?” Gordon asked.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened, first?” the boy asked, calm. “I’ll see if it matches up to what we saw and heard.”
He was confident, wary. Jamie had always hung in the background, quiet, nose in his books. Jamie’s confidence was a different sort.
“Sy?” Gordon asked. “Feel up to taking a stab at explaining?”
The words caught in my throat as I stared at the boy.
Anything else, I could have managed. I could have found the words, braved my way through, been clever, whatever needed to happen.
But he was here, staring at me with Jamie’s eyes, no familiarity, loaded to bear with accusation.
That, I couldn’t deal with. It penetrated every defense I had to hit me right where it hurt most. A part of my mind and feelings I hadn’t figured out how to patch up the missing pieces, fix the pieces that weren’t working with, or even muster the feelings I needed to cope with it at all.
“Guess not,” Gordon said. “Sorry.”
I shook my head a little.
“Might be for the best,” the boy said. “I’ve been reading the books, trying to get caught up. I’m not sure I’d believe what Sy said.”
“Not being sure about Sy? Eighty percent of what you need to learn, when it comes to Sy,” Gordon said, a light smile on his face. “Realizing you have to take that leap anyway? That’s another ten percent. The rest is crammed into the remaining ten percent.”
The boy smiled a little. Too similar. I looked away.
“Um,” Lillian said. “Hi, Jamie.”
“I’ll try explaining? Because I’m probably the worst liar here, I think?”
“That would be great.”
“It’s good,” Gordon said.
“A while back, Fray reached out to us, too, back-”
“Dame Cicely’s,” the boy said. “It’s in the books.”
Lillian nodded. She fidgeted nervously with the strap of her satchel. “We didn’t take that offer. But she reached out to Dog and Catcher and some others. They switched sides.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed. He looked up at the ceiling. “Dog and Catcher told us to wait here for you.”
“Did they say anything else?” Gordon asked.
“Yes,” the boy said. “They said, ‘it’s a shame we have to say goodbye so soon after saying hello for the first time’.”
“They’re leaving,” Mary said. “We found them out, they can’t stay, so they’re going to do what they have to do and then disappear.”
“It makes sense,” the boy said. “The tone, the wording.”
He said it like it was a prompt to keep going.
Lillian fidgeted more. She glanced at me, then looked away, the eye contact equivalent of touching a hot pan handle. “We realized we were in a bad situation, that what’s happening up there was about to happen. No way to avoid it, unless we left the area and abandoned the mission. We debated whether or not to take her offer to join, and we decided not to. But the fact that she’d asked, it meant we could get close.”
The boy nodded.
Lillian continued, “Being there was better than being here, especially when we weren’t sure how she would get bullets to start flying and bombs exploding. Being there in the other building meant we could talk. Mary could talk to Percy, we could talk to Fray, try to guide things…”
“We got them to kill Percy, at Mary’s request, and we got information, coming from there to here with each side holding the other at gunpoint, in a manner of speaking. We let them go because there was nothing we could do against their numbers and the kind of force they could bring to bear,” Gordon finished. “They left us behind because Fray wants to keep an open dialogue.”
The boy looked between each of us, then looked back at Ashton. Ashton was giving Hubris a a pat on the head. He looked at his companion, and very softly said, “It makes sense?”
The boy in Jamie’s skin nodded in response. He was agreeing, but still didn’t look sure.
“I know it looks bad,” Gordon said. “But there weren’t any options that were great, once we realized what was happening.”
“I know,” the boy said. “I believe her, and I know what you mean, about the options. I’ve read the books. The ones I had, that is.”
“Ah,” I said.
One syllable, that was better than nothing at all.
I took the backpack, and I held it out.
He crossed the distance, and he took the bag from me. He checked the weight, then handed it back.
“Keep it for now?” he asked. When my expression was one of confusion, he said, “I’m tender. Too many days in the chair.”
I nodded. I took the bag, and slung it over my shoulders, stepping back. Lillian touched my upper arm.
“Like I said, I read the books,” he said. “I’ve got this mental picture of each of you, all from words on the page. Months and years of writing and notes. Mentally, I can sort it, the dates, I can pull all the details together into something that should be…”
He gestured, unable to find the word.
That was odd.
“Three-dimensional?” I asked.
He smiled, a soft, easy expression. “Thank you. I haven’t met any of you, and it feels flat in my head, even if I try to pull it all into a shape. I know the particulars, how the Lambs operate, how each of you operate, the hand-signs, the details of past missions, but it’s all still images, broken up. I know exactly what you mean, about the issues you run into during a mission, except in a very page-turning, pen-on-paper way. I understand there aren’t many great options, sometimes. That we scrape by when things get bad.”
“You’ll pick things up,” Gordon said. “It’s good to have you both with us.”
Gordon extended a hand. The boy shook it, then pulled Gordon into an awkward sort of half-hug.
Then he hugged Mary, Helen, and Lillian in that order.
I was the last one he approached.
In the background, Helen was greeting Ashton. “It’s so sad! They gave you red hair!”
“Helen!” Mary rebuked her, while keeping one eye on my imminent exchange with the new boy.
“Everyone says that a man can’t be truly handsome if he has red hair! And freckles too!”
“You don’t say that to his face, Helen.”
Oblivious to the ongoing conversation behind him, he stood a short distance from me.
“Ashton doesn’t mind,” Helen said.
“I don’t mind,” Ashton said.
My view was partially blocked by the boy who stood in front of me, but I saw Helen throw her arms around Ashton, hugging him. He stayed there, arms limp at his side, as she rocked him back and forth. She said something I guessed to be ‘little brother’.
I returned my focus to the boy. Everyone that wasn’t Helen or Ashton seemed to be watching us. More pressure.
There were a hundred things that were going through my head, things I could say and every single one of them had bad implications.
Whatever. I would try one. Starting simple.
“Is there something I can call you?” I asked.
“Jamie,” he said.
I flinched. My eyes found the ground and I couldn’t bring myself to look away from it. Not even his feet.
“Oh,” he said, realizing. “It’s the name they gave me. I think they would be annoyed if I used a different one. I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t respond to that.
He would have to be Jamie. Just like there were other Sylvesters in the world. A different person with the same name. He just so happened to have the same face, voice, and expressions.
It was hard to breathe, like I somehow had the weight of ten bags of books pressing down on my chest.
“Did they keep, find, rebuild anything?” I managed.
“Not the things you’re asking about, Sy,” he said. “They gave me lessons, while digging for the key things. How to walk again, how to speak, how to read, how to get dressed. When it got too hard, they focused the lessons on re-teaching it from scratch, hoping that I’d be able to dredge up those memories if I could meet them halfway. Some I did, others I… learned how to do all over again. There are gaps, simple things I’m still re-learning, but they thought I was ready enough.”
“That’s why they didn’t want you to see us?” Gordon asked. “Because you might have met us halfway to rebuild memories?”
“They thought it would muddy the waters.”
I looked up, meeting Jamie’s eyes, “Then there’s a chance that, if you have an appointment after this, having met us again…”
I realized what I was saying. That weight on my chest wasn’t going away. I faltered, falling silent again.
“I think, if that chance existed, they wouldn’t have let me out to see you. They’re more focused on other things. Skills, background knowledge. How efficiently knowledge can be pulled from the tanks when the slate is clean.”
I could still hear the muffled violence and noise outside, fire, destruction, screaming, unheard orders to do this or do that, all while men died. It felt like a pretty good match to what I was feeling inside of my chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You’ll have to tell me about him,” he said. “Okay? About the first Jamie?”
I exhaled, a long shuddering breath.
Somehow, the fact that he’d asked that question, it made this bearable. Meeting halfway.
I extended a hand. I felt Jamie’s hand in mine as he shook it.
That done, I stepped around him, putting him behind me. I approached Ashton, who Helen was now hugging from behind. The heel of one hand wiped tears out of one eye. The heel of the other hand wiped at the other.
Ashton. He stared at me with those amber-yellow eyes.
My voice didn’t come out at full strength or even half-strength as I spoke, “Hi Ashton. I’ve been wanting to meet you for a really long time.”
“You’re sad,” he said.
I felt like my voice would catch if I spoke out loud, so I just nodded.
“I can make you happy again.”
“No you can’t, dum-dum,” I said, my voice still faint and hoarse. “I’m immune to you.”
“Me too,” Helen said, still hugging Ashton from behind, rocking him slightly from side to side. “But that’s because I’m not human.”
I extended a hand. Ashton took it.
“No,” I said. “Like this. Firmer. Grip harder. Keep your wrist straight, not floppy.”
It took three tries before it was right. On that one firm shake, as was proper between men, I pulled him closer, into a one-armed hug, a little more graceful than Jamie’s had been with Gordon. Helen let him go just in time.
He received it with the same enthusiasm and effectiveness as a wet rope.
I released him, backing away and stepping to the side, turning around to look at the Lambs as a whole. Helen reached out to pat down Ashton’s hair where it was sticking up, post-hug. Then she wrapped her arms around him, one cheek pressed against the side of his head.
“He’s so new,” Helen said. “Like a newborn calf who’s learning to stand, or a chick fresh out of the egg.”
“He’s doing a lot of the learning-from-scratch I’m doing,” Jamie said. “We had some of the same lessons. They sent him with me because they thought he’d learn better in the field than in a sterile room.”
“We’ll make do,” Gordon said. “Speaking of…”
“What’s next?” Mary asked, more to finish Gordon’s question than to ask it.
“We could hunker down, keep our heads down, and wait this out,” Gordon said.
Please no. Not with Jamie here. Too difficult.
“Or we could go after Fray,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “That. Great. Let’s do that. She said the North road. I don’t know where that is, but we can figure it out.”
“I do,” Jamie said. “The road, I’ve seen the city’s map, I know the layout.”
I felt a momentary dissonance. How could I forget we had that resource, when I’d been having trouble remembering we didn’t when he wasn’t here?
“Okay, alright, that’s great, of course,” I said. Speaking too quickly. Calm down. “We’ll have to catch up to her, anticipating her route, we still have to figure out a way to deal with the small army that is keeping her company, and we need to get away alive afterward. But that’s not too hard. The Lambs have done worse.”
“Not easy,” Gordon said. “We’re in a warzone. The rooftops aren’t free to roam on. We’d have to take the streets. Keeping in mind she made a few shortcuts with those bombs.”
“Where?” Jamie asked.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Gordon said. “Not off the top of my head. General direction, maybe.”
“Then it doesn’t work,” Jamie said. “If she’s more familiar with the shortcuts than we are, then we’re not going to catch up.”
“We can,” I said. “We can figure it out on the way.”
“No,” Gordon said. “My heart doesn’t feel great, Hubris was nudging my hand earlier. If we were sure, I’d go for it, push just a little while longer, but we aren’t sure.”
Damn it, no. I don’t want to stay cooped up here, feeling like I’ve got a weight on my chest and someone’s hand around my throat, pushing the knot at the front of my throat in.
“It’s more problematic than that,” I said. “The other experiments turned coat, they’re leaving. In the wake of all of this, we’re going to come under scrutiny. If we don’t have actual results, something a little bit better than Percy’s corpse, then that’s going to hurt us.”
“That bird has flown the coop,” Mary said. “We’ll manage.”
“No,” I said, my voice firm now. “No. Not like that, not like this. We’re not giving up like that.”
“You think we can catch Fray?” Gordon asked.
“No,” I said. Then I thought again. “Yes. It depends.”
“Everything that’s going on up there,” I said. “We should split up. Two groups.”
Mary spoke, “Sy, I understand if you need space, but-”
“Listen,” I said. I’d been too forceful, in saying it, like I was telling her to shut up. I was letting emotion seep into my words, fighting too hard to avoid being sad, speechless, useless. I wanted to do something. “Listen to me, treat this as part of the mission, then decide if I’m doing it for ulterior reasons.”
“Okay, Sy,” Mary said.
“Two groups. We need to balance the groups. Group one, Ashton, Gordon, Helen.”
“You sure?” Gordon asked. The quickest on the draw, at least while Mary was still slightly preoccupied with Percy’s death. “You-”
He saw me start to react.
“Listening,” he said.
“My group, Mary, Jamie, Lillian. You’re up to climbing?”
There were nods.
“I’m not athletic, but I’ve been exercising, trying to keep the scars flexible, so the sessions in the chair are easier,” Jamie said. “I’m pretty sure I can climb.”
It was another person in Jamie’s body. I couldn’t remember Jamie ever putting in extra effort to exercise, nor did he like talking about the scars.
Had he, I reminded myself. Past tense.
The books on my back felt like a dead weight, devoid of personality, or even familiarity. There was no association anymore. The thirteen year old boy that stood a few feet away was a constant reminder and yet the furthest thing from a comforting presence.
“Sy?” Gordon asked.
I’d been staring off into space, thinking too hard.
“We’re listening,” Mary said.
“Gordon, you and Helen are babysitting Ashton. Get him to the allied command. He’s going to stretch his legs, practice in the field for the first time. Let’s see how good of a manipulator he is. We’re ending this conflict.”
“Easier said than done,” Gordon said. “Bullets are flying, we don’t know what the battlefield up there is like.”
“You can get across fairly easily,” Jamie said. “We got up and made it this far, but there’s a hole in the roof up there, and we needed the help of Dog and Catcher to get from the roof to the safer part of the top floor.”
Just like that, we were making our way upstairs. The Lambs, greater in number to what had been originally intended. Minus one Evette, plus one Sylvester and a Mary.
And a dog.
The second floor was empty. A living room, a kitchen, filled with dust and black smoke, to the point that our footfalls were swiping away stretches of soot and powder.
The roof had been blasted open. The attic-level floor was just as dirty, with floorboards scorched black, blackened lumber still smouldering, lying scattered here and there.
“That side is harder to climb. My group will take it. You guys, go the opposite way. Keep going until you find someone in charge, at least two people at the highest points up the ladder who’re directing the armies are in Fray’s pocket, perpetuating this stupid civil war. Get control over that situation. It shouldn’t be hard, once you find them – I doubt they want their own people getting shot any more than is necessary. Fray’s superweapon moles are going to be running by now, there shouldn’t be too much interference.”
“Once that’s settled, catch up with us,” I said. “We’ll see how well this works.”
Gordon gave me a mock salute. Helen, meanwhile, had Ashton climb on her back, arms around her neck, while she prepared to climb.
When I turned to look at the slope of wreckage my team had to scale to get to the rooftop proper, I realized Jamie was staring at me.
Focus on the mission.
If I focus hard enough to block everything out, and my effectiveness is going to skyrocket.
“You’re sure it’s safe?” I asked.
“Not sure, but we weren’t getting shot at. The focus seems to be along different flanks. Two pairs of major groups limited in movement by the destroyed rooftops, focusing on each other,” Jamie said.
I nodded, turning to stare out at what mostly amounted to a ring, loosely circling Fray’s building. I could see smoke here and there, and damage elsewhere. Muzzles flashed and fires periodically sprung up.
It wasn’t fast going, but I was fixated on the task. I checked every handhold and foothold as I scaled the blackened rubble. Some was still hot or warm to the touch. Other parts of it were slick with a mingling of damp and the film on the burned wood.
Once I was firmly on the rooftop, I stood straight, surveying the battlefield and the city beyond, squinting to try and make out what I could of the city at large. Rain streamed down through my hair and down my face. Refreshing and cold. Very, very cold.
The Brechwell Beast was close.
The others finished climbing up. Mary and I both gave Lillian a hand. Mary helped Jamie.
We ran as well as we were able, heads down, making sure to keep our balance where we could, skirting around a hole in the roof.
The nearest group of soldiers were aiming guns at us by the time I was able to see them.
Badge in hand, I held up my hands, slowing to a walk.
I could see the confusion on some of the soldier’s faces. I could see bodies strewn on the rooftop behind them, the furthest point from their front line. This was only the rear guard.
“Take me to your commander,” I said.
“Who the hell are you?”
I wasn’t in the mood for this. I extended the badge in their direction. “I’m the only person here who knows exactly what’s going on.”
He took the badge, squinting at it.
“While you’ve been shooting, the people you were supposed to be watching for got away. That building down there is empty now. Partially your fault, partially ours, but I want to remedy that. Take us to the person in charge.”
“Stay put,” he said, before turning to the other men. “Watch them.”
He took my badge away with him.
I didn’t like that.
I didn’t like standing still. I was very aware of the people behind me.
“Lillian,” I said. “Can you help the wounded?”
“I can,” she said.
“You stay put,” one of the soldiers said. “And stay quiet.”
I closed my eyes.
That last part. The ‘stay quiet’. I appreciated that.
It meant I didn’t have to talk. Didn’t have to explain.
Mary and Lillian were huddled together, both wearing raincoats. They were talking. Saying a lot that I wasn’t privy to.
I doubted they had ever been closer. Mary doing what she’d done, for Lillian…
Even the fact that Mary had put her head on Gordon’s shoulder, that was something. She’d been gravitating towards him, a stiff arm’s-length relationship, she hadn’t let herself get close.
And then, all of a sudden, with Percy gone, she’d let down that guard.
She’d decided. Closure, something that had been agonizing her put to rest.
I looked at Jamie, who was staring off in the direction the others had gone, standing straight, hands in his pockets. Water had beaded his spectacles to the point I doubted he could see through them, but they were the reading type, easy enough to look over, with a change in the angle of his head. His hood was up, but his hair was still getting damp at the very ends of the very front.
Minutes passed. I was glad for the quiet. I was disappointed to see the soldier that had ordered us to stay quiet stepping away.
Well, perhaps not the worst thing.
“Which way to the North Road?” I asked, breaking the silence.
There were no barked orders or threats. The other men were too cold, stressed, and scared to be bothered, it seemed.
Jamie glanced at me. Then he turned, taking in the city, and pointed. His finger traced a line, and I matched that line to the curve of one street. Now that I looked, it was twice as wide as the others.
“Sy, are you sure she went that way?” Mary asked. “Fray could have deceived us, said one thing, while planning another.”
“When under that much stress? No. At most, she’s expecting us to expect that.”
“It’s gone quiet,” Jamie said.
I looked at him.
“The gunfire from that end. It’s faltering.”
“Already?” Mary asked.
“It’s Ashton’s specialty,” I said.
“Does that mean you’re going to adjust how you operate again?” Mary asked.
“No,” I said, with a heavy heart. “No need, not yet.”
“You,” a soldier spoke behind me.
Mary and Lillian stood. Jamie and I turned.
It was the officer we’d spoken to earlier. He was with another man, blond, young, and wearing a very ornate outfit with less decoration on the breast. Less medals, less accomplishments.
The most hated man in Brechwell?
I took my badge back.
“Does this man serve under anyone but you?” I asked.
The blond man raised his eyebrows.
“No,” he said. “Why?”
“Then he helped instigate this infighting,” I said.
I saw the man’s expression change, and in that flicker of surprise, I knew I was right.
“He what?” the Headmaster General asked me.
“My colleagues are already rounding up one or two of the others. We’re about to find out half of the superweapons are gone, if not more,” I said. “Working with the enemy. I’ll explain in time. For now, I would recommend arresting him.”
The Headmaster General looked at the man, who was turning red, visible even in the rain and the gloom.
“Lies,” he said.
I didn’t flinch, only waited.
Everyone wanted something, everyone had a weakness. I’d identified Brechwell’s weakness fairly soon after visiting. Which reminded me…
“He helped goad the friendly fire, he helped enemy forces slip through and operate unnoticed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he helped let the people through when the Academy was set on fire, or changed what was stored where, to help the flames spread,” I said.
“The fighting has stopped,” Jamie said, just behind me. “You can hear there aren’t as many bullets being fired, and the explosions are slowing down.”
“You lose nothing by arresting him now,” I said. “Question him later, after facts have come to light. You’ll find he’s trying to make you look bad. You can blame us if we’re wrong, and take the credit if we’re right.”
The man’s face was getting redder still. For all that people seemed to hate him, the Headmaster General seemed to be holding his composure.
“Arrest him,” he ordered the men.
There wasn’t a fight. Face red, glaring, the man was quickly seized by four lesser officers.
“I hope you’re right,” the Headmaster General said.
“There’s another part to this. The allied forces and reinforcements are coming from the southwest, primarily?”
“The enemy is gone, they’re making a run for it. Let’s make life harder for them, or see if we can’t reveal some more of your traitors.”
“Have the men in the towers direct the Brechwell Beast along the North Road.”
He stared at me, analyzing.
“If people in the towers shoot to change or confuse its course, then you know they’re on her side. You can’t have people like that at your Academy while you rebuild,” I said.
The Headmaster General nodded. He leaned close to one of the remaining officers, whispering orders, and then sent the man scampering off.
“I’m staying with you, until this is all resolved,” he said.
“It’s as resolved as it will get,” I said. “We pick up the pieces, now, and pay mind to the aftermath.”
It wasn’t fast, the transmission of orders, or the initial movement of the Beast. Despite his promise to stay with us, the General stepped away to coordinate the passing on of messages.
Jamie pointed the way, figuring out the routes Fray might have taken, the places she could be, assuming she was making a beeline for freedom.
“This won’t stop her,” Mary said. “A surprise attack by the Brechwell Beast? It won’t remove her from the picture, she’s too canny.”
“Her? No. But she has a small army with her. Can all of them get to cover? There’s got to be an inverse to the cats and cockroaches principle.”
“We don’t have one,” Lillian said.
“You need one,” I said. “Always count on some degree of incompetence, in a sufficiently large group.”
The Brechwell Beast was moving. Picking up speed.
“It’s on the North Road,” Jamie said.
It had been quiet too long, my focus elsewhere. The sound of his voice made my heart leap, then fall three times as far as it had risen.
I had never missed my best friend more.
“Lowering its head,” the General said. “It spotted something.”
It took three seconds. One attack.
Then the Beast continued on its way.
“We’re done,” I said. “Nothing more we can accomplish here. Let’s go find the others. You can break the news to them, Jamie.”
“The news?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
My heart was heavy. “I know. I’ve figured it out, why they would go for Ashton and not Evette.”
“What?” Mary asked.
“Redundancy,” I said. “Two social manipulators, two people who can fight. Why? Think about it.”
“I’m thinking about it, but, they don’t expect any of us to die? Or are they- they’re not canceling a project?”
I could hear the alarm in her voice. I could see the relief as I shook my head.
A few ‘pops’ of gunfire suggested that things hadn’t entirely settled down in Brechwell.
“They’re going to split up the Lambs. Or at least prepare for it to happen soon,” I said.