“Can you please put it back?” Lillian asked.
“It’s not viable,” Candy said. “Even if it was, we have metal hooks going through its limbs.”
“Please?” Lillian asked.
Candy nodded. She let the chain slide through her grip, and the primordial thing descended, disappearing into the hole, with the hatch finally settling down, slightly ajar.
Candy walked over and toed at the hatch, until it fell into the space that had been carved out for it.
“Thank you,” Lillian said.
“It’s not viable,” Candy said, not for the first or second time. “It can’t move of its own volition, it isn’t strong enough to break good chains.”
“What are we dealing with, Lillian?” Gordon asked.
Candy looked annoyed, her eyebrows furrowing. Drake had the weapon, but she still clenched her fist, as if violence remained a consideration. Drake put a hand on her shoulder, and she eased up.
Your project, and we’re deferring to Lillian. It’s not going to win you over, I thought to myself. I also noted the anger and frustration. I was getting a better sense of her as a person, where she’d come from and how she’d been shaped by her life circumstance.
“Primordial life. It’s… most people in positions of power view it as the next big leap in science. They saw it as the next big leap thirty years ago, when they first started working with it,” Lillian said.
“Too many problems, too many disasters,” Jamie said. Lillian nodded.
“Problems?” Gordon asked.
“Look at it this way. We work for the Academy,” Lillian said. She looked at Candy and Drake, “You two, maybe you don’t like or you hate the Academy?”
“The world would be better without it,” Drake said, in a wary way that suggested to me that he wasn’t sure what we were going for, or the danger we posed. Tempering his response, knowing he was dealing with admitted agents of the Academy. He had a hand pressed to his stomach, where Gordon had hit him, and he now held the axe Candy had picked up and left behind as she’d changed and grabbed the chain, though it wasn’t held ready.
“I’d say I hate the nobility more than I have any feelings about the Academy,” Candy said. “But I’m not so sure they’re that different. Some groups were arguing about the distinction, months ago, but it felt like a distraction, more than anything constructive. And now I’m saying that it’s one and not the other, contradicting myself.”
Lillian had to jump in, because it sounded like Candy was about to get on a topic where she would be hard to interrupt. “Okay. You have a sense of the measures the Academy goes to. You know that the Crown has taken over a third or a quarter of the world, and there isn’t a community or a region that doesn’t feel the Crown’s influence in some way or another. I don’t think anyone here would disagree that the Crown is very committed to spreading its influence, advancing things wherever possible?”
“They’re warmongers,” Candy said. “And they’ve caused more misery and pain than anyone else, in the past century.”
“That’s a biased way of putting it,” Lillian said. “Not every war was started by them, not even half the wars, and they-”
“Lil,” I said. Candy was getting tense again, ready for a fight that had nothing to do with muscle.
Lillian pursed her lips together, paused, then said, “I know the Crown is far from perfect. Very far from perfect. They’re hungry for power. We agree on this?”
“Yes,” Candy said, her voice harder than it had been.
“As hungry for power and advancement as the Academy is, after the first experiments with the primordial life, life created from scratch and very quickly brought up to speed with current standards, they looked at the results, at the dangers, and they said no. Not yet. Not with the risks involved,” Lillian said, her voice as soft as Candy’s had been hard.
The rain pattered on the roof. As if it knew we were talking about it, the thing beneath the hatch moved. The chain scraped against the narrow opening it had been allotted in the hatch.
More likely, it was restless, after having been lifted up into daylight, then taken back down beneath. Woken from sleep?
“We weren’t told about dangers, except that we had to keep it secured,” Candy said. “We made some headway, we told, uh, the guy during the regular meeting, and then he came by. He checked things, told us what to do, sent some people to help set it up. Now he comes here every week, double-checking. I thought things were safe.”
“Scientists working for the Academy have been more careful than you’re being and still been surprised,” Lillian said. “Um, back in…”
“1903,” Jamie supplied.
“Thank you. Yes, back in 1903, there was a bad incident. The problem is, once it becomes a problem, it becomes a runaway problem. Not in that it runs away, but that it gets more out of control with every passing moment.”
“What is it?” Gordon asked.
“A colony,” Lillian said. “A hundred or a thousand individual lifeforms, operating as a coordinated being. There are some very basic and very complex principles at work here, but once you create a balance, and get it to the point where it’s capable of self-advancement while maintaining a stasis where it doesn’t destroy itself while doing so…”
“You get life that designs itself,” Jamie said. “Sometimes very rapidly.”
Lillian nodded. “Right now, it’s trying things at random. It barely has any intelligence at all. If something works to any degree, then it’s going to keep that, but it’s going to keep stuff that doesn’t work, that gives it false impressions. It’s going to run into dead ends, and it’s going to reach the limits of its confines and shed or self-cannibalize parts at random, hoping to discard loose ends. This kind of thing crosses a certain milestone, and then it starts developing with purpose. It starts to recognize the dead ends.”
“And then it’s off to the races,” I guessed.
Lillian nodded. “It’s already off to the races, like Sy said. It’s got a kind of nervous system or communication system running through its body, it’s developing parts with individual, coherent purpose. It might be inspired on some level by what it’s been fed or given…”
I saw a glimpse of the Lillian I’d seen the night prior, as she worked it out in her head.
“When you say it isn’t viable, what do you mean?” Lillian asked, very suddenly, turning to Candy. At this stage, we were collectively standing in a loose circle around the hatch.
“It can’t stand on its own. It’s not coordinated. It’s weaker than I am,” Candy said.
“Okay,” Lillian said. “Well, right now, it can’t even walk on its own. Maybe. In a week or two, it might be as strong as a warbeast from yesteryear. That’s bad enough, because you can’t be sure how far along it is or what it’s capable of. How would you know? You’d have to dissect it, take it to pieces, and research the individual parts. So it might be weaker than a modern warbeast, but it’d still be a mystery. Maybe it gives off toxic fumes. Maybe it’s just strong and flexible, capable of escaping those chains. Give it another week or two, and it’s still a mystery, but it might be scarier than a modern warbeast of equivalent size. Give it another month, and it could double in size, or maintain the same size and get more efficient, or it could develop capabilities we haven’t yet invented.”
I nodded, staring at the hatch. The image of the thing was burned into my eyes.
“It might take longer,” Lillian said. “It probably would. But there are no guarantees. It could develop the ability to reproduce. Or to think, like we do.”
“And you went and made it immortal?” I asked Candy.
It was apparently the wrong question to ask. I saw a flash of alarm in Candy’s eyes as she looked at me.
Her boyfriend doesn’t know.
Drake’s eyebrows went up. “Immortal?”
“Not like that,” Candy said, too quickly. “It can die, we can hurt it. Just like I can be hurt. I can die.”
The ‘I think’ was on her lips, left unspoken.
“What are they talking about?” Drake asked.
“They’re using the wrong word. Immortal isn’t right.”
“It’s the word your parents used,” Gordon said.
“It’s not accurate!” Candy raised her voice. She looked more wild animal than person for an instant, in the flare of anger. She appeared to try and visibly calm herself down. “No. They hired doctors to experiment on me, they extended my lifespan, made me more susceptible to some problems and resistant to others. They’re trying to pass it off as something it isn’t.”
“Extended it how much?” Drake asked. “Ten years? Twenty-five? Fifty? A hundred?”
“I don’t know!” Candy shouted, wheeling on him. “I won’t know until I get there! If I get there. The doctor said I might become ugly and said I might lose my mind to a kind of treatment-related dementia before I’m forty and then in the next breath he said I might live three-”
She stopped herself.
She remained there, panting for breath.
“Three?” Drake asked. “Unless you were misspeaking, and you were going to say three-ty years…”
Candy didn’t budge an inch or give an answer.
“Three hundred?” he asked. “Three thousand?”
“Three hundred,” Candy said. “At a minimum, the doctor thinks. Probably longer. Maybe three thousand. Maybe thirty thousand. I don’t know. I think the doctor didn’t know either, he said one thing to my parents and another to me, I got the impression he didn’t care so much about what my parents thought, so long as I outlived them and they never saw if it was real immortality or not. All I know-”
Her voice hitched.
She tried again, “All I know is that they did it without asking, and when I said no, they went ahead and did it to me all the same.”
“I’m so sorry,” Lillian said, quiet.
Candy wouldn’t even look at her. She was agitated. The anger she’d been displaying all along, it was fed by a deeper, longer-burning rage. One that extended back further than even the treatment she was talking about.
Fury without a target to unleash it at.
The changes she’d had done to her own body looked different, in that light. Less an aimless rebellion, more a frantic attempt to decorate herself with some means of exercising that anger, the pointed teeth, the hooked teeth, the horns, fingernails, the muscle and whatever else, as if she’d gone for whatever was available for the lowest price at the time, that might still be able to hurt someone or something.
“I’m not going to give them the only few decades of sanity and memories I have left,” she said, to nobody in particular. “I was going to do something. Get the money to live well. I thought this was it.”
One arm started to raise, as if to point at the hatch, then flopped down at her side.
“I’m sorry,” I echoed Lillian. “For bringing it up.”
Candy shook her head.
“You only ran away a short while ago,” I said. “Late summer?”
As abjectly miserable as she seemed, she didn’t shed a tear.
“You joined the project late. Met a boy, latched on, then offered a piece of yourself for the project he was working on?”
“Yes,” Drake said, apparently recognizing that Candy wasn’t willing or able to answer. He put an arm on her shoulder. “We distilled the formula from her blood, applied it, and we started to make headway, not long after. Before, we didn’t have the stasis. It would develop an individual piece and then that piece would die. Two aborted attempts, where a nodule dying would spark a chain reaction and kill the entire thing.”
“If I had to guess, that was a success,” Lillian said. “Well, I mean, it means you’re on the right track, but it’s not a success success, because any success for the project is bad for everyone else. If it was developing a network to communicate with itself and carry over changes, then I’d imagine you were already a few months or years off from getting it off the ground. It would be a question of luck, if the primordial life chanced on a configuration that was viable, one time in fifty or a hundred…”
She trailed off. I saw her eyes widen.
Luck. Rolls of the dice, looking for triple sixes. A lot easier to stumble on the right combination if one was making a lot of rolls.
“Yeah,” Drake said. “Some of the others we talked to said something similar. Not that it mattered, back then. It felt like a pretty massive failure.”
“Others,” Gordon said, voice sharp. He was apparently thinking along the same track as Lillian and I. “Other people are doing this.”
Drake nodded. Candy looked up.
“You’re in communication with them?”
“Some. One other group. We use some of the same suppliers for things, we talked shop, realized we were on different versions of the same project, working from similar materials, these texts, and we’ve kept in touch, kept each other updated.”
“Did you give them any of… whatever she was given?”
“No,” Drake said. “It was a matter of pride, and because we’re going to get rewarded if we succeed here. Money, enough for our entire group to live comfortably for a decade. If we could reproduce the results, then they offered more. Positions in their group, more funding, power.”
“Access to their scientists,” Candy said.
If they can reproduce results, then you’d damn well better make sure you keep them happy, Mauer, I thought.
“Okay,” I said. “You didn’t give Mau- the soldier anything from her? He didn’t take samples?”
“No,” Drake said. “We told him, and he didn’t seem to care. He was more interested in continued results, and in making sure things were secure enough.”
“That’s good news,” Lillian said. “It sounds macabre, but it’s a good thing if that’s as far as things have gotten. In scenarios similar to this, according to the Academy, most experiments along these lines will catch their creators off guard and kill them. Then the creation dies, having bitten the hand that feeds it, unable to escape its own confines, lacking the food, water, and resources it needs to continue evolving. There’s a chance that might happen here.”
“If things get that far, then the soldier might pay his regular visit and find the creators dead, the beast hungry, and bring another team in to take over,” Gordon pointed out.
“Might interrupt some successful projects that haven’t gotten to the point of getting regular visits, though,” Gordon said.
Lillian nodded, but the frown didn’t disappear.
“You know a heck of a lot about these things,” I said.
“Because I thought we’d eventually run into one,” Lillian said. “And later, because I was trying to think about what I might do for my big project, to get my white coat. A lot of innovations have come about from this sort of thing. It’s inspiration, if nothing else.”
“Inspiration incarnate,” Jamie said.
“Priority one is killing this thing,” Gordon said, indicating the hatch. “Fire usually works.”
“It probably would,” Lillian said. “But we shouldn’t. The best thing to do is to leave it down there. Let it weaken and eventually starve. Cut off the food supply, if any, make sure it doesn’t have access to light, or even warmth. It’s a good thing that winter is on the way.”
“Just like that,” Drake said.
Lillian turned to look at him. “You had to have known. There had to be a moment where you saw the rate at which it was growing or going from being a lump of flesh to having eyes, where you got scared, where it felt too easy?”
“It didn’t feel easy at all. I spent ten or more hours a day here, all summer, most of this fall,” he said.
Explains how they can come here and mess around like that. They probably don’t even notice the smell anymore. Or the weird, I thought, eyeing the jars.
Or maybe they do and they like it.
“I can get some sand,” Drake said. “Do a pour, through one of the holes in the hatch. Or we… the samples on the shelves. We can toss those down first, if opening the hatch is okay? Then the sand?”
“Then burn the building,” Gordon said.
“Burn the-” Drake started. He stopped when he saw the look on Gordon’s face. “This is a second home to me. To us.”
Candy nodded. Both of her hands held onto Drake’s upper body, but her expression was resolute.
“Your sponsor pushed you to make these things because he doesn’t care about the consequences,” I said. “To put thousands of lives at risk. I don’t think you can stay here. They’re going to come looking for you.”
My thoughts touched on the subject of just who the sponsor was. Mauer was ostensibly the person distributing the books and providing the soldiers, but Fray, Fray might well be the one to engineer this plan from the outset. I could somehow imagine Mauer being brazen enough to try, willing to gamble that the Academy could answer the problem, willing to watch as the primordial life did some real damage. It was harder to imagine with Fray.
“Okay,” Drake said. Then, contradicting himself, he said, “I don’t know where to go. The others, they’re going to show up here, expecting to get to work for the day, they’re going to need answers, and I’m supposed to tell them they can’t stay in Lugh?”
“Lie,” I said. “Tell them something that will scare them. Mix it with something embarrassing. That you were here, together, messing around, naked, when it started to push its way out from under the hatch. That it spoke. Something. Tell them you panicked, that you’re out.”
“Or tell them the truth,” Lillian said, giving me a look. “Because the truth should be enough. This isn’t for tampering with.”
The pair looked so defeated. My finger touched the ring at my thumb.
“We’ll give you funds,” I said. We didn’t have much on us. “We’ll- heck, what’s a nearby city? A day or two of travel away?”
“Tynewear,” Jamie said.
“Go to Tynewear. The post office, a week and a half from now, we’ll courier you a package. Funds enough to get you all started again,” I said. I looked at Jamie. “Paper, pen?”
He provided both, tearing a page out of a small notebook.
I wrote down a series of passwords. I reached out, “So you know the courier is the real deal. And so nobody else happens to get those funds.”
“Why more than one password?” Drake asked, without moving to take the paper.
“Because the funds come with a condition. You don’t settle down in Tynewear. You don’t resume work, you don’t start to wonder if you should start working on this again, because you won’t be in one place for long enough to get a lab set up. When the funds arrive, they’ll come with another location. If you want more funds, you’ll have to relocate again. At least three times.”
“And after that?”
“After that, either we’ll give you a means of communicating with us, we’ll find a way of checking on you, or I’ll give you another series of locations. Whatever happens, you’ll be together, you’ll get a chance to explore the world, experience things.”
My eyes were locked onto Candy’s by the time I’d finished talking.
It was a good offer, but somehow, by the time I finished talking, she looked terribly sad.
“We’ll need the book, too. The materials,” Gordon said.
I expected that to make them buck, fight a little. To ask if this was a trap, second guess our intentions.
But they weren’t that. They weren’t soldiers or spies. They hadn’t raised themselves on a battlefield or anything like that.
They were survivors, a little lost, who’d thought they had found direction, something to strive for.
Drake reached out for the paper. He didn’t take it, hesitating, his fingers almost but not quite making contact with the paper.
A buck? Resistance?
“I should tell you about the others, too,” he said.
“Others?” Gordon asked. “You said there was the one group.”
“There is. One group we know of, that we’ve met. But the soldier who comes to check on things, he made comments. He talked about our setup, compared to the others. He was recommending burying the thing, because it was easier to dig a deep, wide hole and trust the surrounding ground than it was to build a container strong enough, and he talked about how the others had gone about it. One of them used a well. The other group did the digging themselves. The stitched we used to do the dig, we got them from that group, he brought them over.”
“Two groups?” Lillian asked. “That are this far along? Or farther along?”
“At least two,” Gordon remarked.
“That’s all I know,” Drake said. He took the paper from me. “I’d tell you more if I knew anything.”
“Because of what you said about pride, about wanting to be the ones to succeed? If you’re backing out of this, then they should have to too?” I asked.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he said, giving me a look.
“Or that,” I said.
“Do you know when he’s due to come? The guy who visits?” Gordon asked.
“Five days from now,” Drake said. “He arrives in a carriage, sometimes with armed guys who stay in or on the vehicle. Usually later in the evening.”
Five days. With Gordon in the state he was in, it felt like an eternity.
Drake folded the paper carefully and put it into a pocket.
Candy, meanwhile, had turned to face Lillian.
“You came for me, because my parents asked, you said.”
Lillian nodded. She looked almost ashamed.
“What are you going to tell them?”
“I don’t know,” Lillian said.
Candy nodded. From her reaction, I suspected any definitive answer would have been met with suspicion, or picked apart.
“Is he nice?” Lillian asked, her voice quiet. “Worth spending the next forty years with?”
“He’s the first person who ever listened to me, and I needed someone to listen to me more than anything,” Candy said. “He could have been the biggest asshole on the planet, and I would have stayed with him just for that alone.”
Lillian nodded, as if this made all the sense in the world.
“It’s a good thing he’s nice,” Candy said. She broke into a smile for what might have been the first time since we’d interrupted her moment.
I could see the look on Lillian’s face. The relief, the joy.
It wasn’t the right decision, if she wanted that black coat. Committing to a longer-term exchange of mail with fugitives was dangerous for the Lambs.
I imagined, seeing that smile from Candy, Lillian imagined it was worth it.
“What’s your name?” Lillian asked. “You gave up the one your parents gave you.”
“Emily. It’s dumb, I know. Looking like I do, I should have chosen something tougher.”
“It’s nice,” Lillian said. “It’s a good name.”
There was a brief exchange of plans and expectations, Drake and Emily would be meeting with their group to share the news, to lie or tell the truth, whatever it took to convey how bad an idea it was to stay with the project.
We would have to loop back before leaving, to make sure things were done. It was good that it wasn’t a very portable experiment.
Plans made, we departed. Two experiments, at the very least, to track down. Five days could be a dangerous length of time to delay, for Gordon’s sake, and because the people in charge could well be invested enough in the project to be watching over the situation, checking in more discreetly. If they caught on before we caught sight of them, then we would be on the back foot.
Burning the building was the best way to make it difficult to get to the hole in the ground with the primordial inside and to make it difficult to resurrect the project, but it would get attention. Hopefully the sort of attention we could take advantage of.
“She’s good for you,” Gordon said.
I looked over, then looked around. I’d been lost in thought, trying to figure out the best way forward. Lillian was hanging back, talking to Jamie.
I thought of being crammed in a dark corner, Lillian squished against me. My heart picked up a little. I found myself smiling a little.
I felt guilty about it too, as Jamie glanced at me.
“Just saying,” Gordon said, very casually.
“Sure,” I said, equally casually.
He ventured, “Hearing Lillian express just how bad of a situation this is, I’m more worried than usual.”
“We may need to call in help. The others might not be so cooperative, and if Mauer’s involved, we can expect resistance. Coordinated resistance. Normally, with the full complement of Lambs, I’d say we could manage, but I’m not at my best, and we don’t have the full complement of Lambs.”
“…Which makes things complicated,” I said. “If we call in that much-needed help and they follow up on the most basic leads, which they are, they’re going to find Drake and Emily.”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked back at Lillian. “I know you’ve been advocating telling the truth, but if time really is of the essence…”
“If she draws the conclusion on her own, we won’t lie to her,” Gordon said, firmly. “If she doesn’t realize that we’d be setting the Academy on their heels, we don’t tell her.”
I nodded. She would resist, or even if she didn’t, it would poison things.
“I don’t like it,” I said. “We can hope they get enough of a head start, and maybe make them harder to find, but… I don’t like it.”
“Yeah,” Gordon said, “Me either.”