The sun was already setting, and the clouds that hung on the horizon meant that it was getting dark especially early, as a result. From dawn to dusk without the kindness of a sunset. Not that Lugh was a bright city on even the best of days. The freezing rain was coming down harder, and the clouds were massing, the spots of open sky between them shrinking.
Jamie was out of breath, and for once, I wasn’t doing much better than him. We stopped where we were, and I turned, taking in the crowds on the road, people keeping to the very edges of the road, where overhanging rooftops provided some shelter from the rain and the cold, the middle of the streets left mostly empty.
One of the initial experiments I’d done with Professor Hayle had been to focus my mental clarity. I’d had to sit down, and imagine a perfect white rectangle, and draw it as sharply in my mind’s eye as if it were real and I was looking at it with my eyes. As the lessons had progressed, I’d had to hold multiple images in my mind, add details, add movement, and more. It was only one of a long and varied series of tests, one that the others had had to try their hands at, and I’d suffered for my lack of short- and long-term recall as the images had gotten more complex.
That lack of ability to hold things in my mind meant I had to pick and choose what I kept. Certain talents, such as climbing and manipulating people , were things I kept myself up to date on. Keeping clear images in my mind’s eye wasn’t so important as keeping more than one thought process running at the same time, without the individual trains of thoughts colliding.
Still, as I stood there, trying to figure out where we were and where we needed to go, I could see the scene as it might be in anywhere from an hour to ten hours. Clouds of noxious gas, fire, people running, stumbling over one another, trying to avoid the gunfire.
I slowly closed my eyes, cleared the images from my head, and then opened my eyes again. People here and there were laughing, talking, huddling in groups, but mostly they were only trying to get from one place to another.
I hadn’t committed the location of Drake and what’s-her-name’s laboratory to memory in the first place. I might have recognized a key object or landmark, but that was getting harder to do.
Across the street, a homeowner lit a candle on a little plate that hung from a chain, then set a dingy metal cover over top, the metal raking against the chain before it settled into place. The wind was brutal enough I had to wonder if the candle would even stay in place. The light that reflected off of the metal was a deep orange-red.
“I’m lost,” I said.
“I can lead the way,” Jamie said, hands on his knees, facing the ground. “Just give me a second. Not up to running.”
“Walk?” I asked.
He nodded, before pushing his spectacles up his nose.
“I was surprised you asked me to go with you, instead of going with Lillian,” he said.
“Gordon’s heart,” I said. “If something goes wrong, it’s better if she’s close. He’s working too hard to hide the problem. I think he’s trying not to let on how very bothered he is by it.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “Not that I know him that well, but I sort of noticed. Okay, it makes sense. Let’s turn this way.”
I glanced at the street. “My memory is bad, but I don’t think it’s that bad. We haven’t gone that way. Or even been in that area. I think?”
“We haven’t. Shortcut. I have a sense of how the roads are laid out.”
“When did you see a map?”
“I didn’t. But I know these streets and I know those streets, I think I have it figured out.”
“Huh,” I said. I shoved my hands in my pockets, keeping my arms close to my body, “You- he used to have a harder time doing that. It was possible, but it took time, and he couldn’t be distracted.”
“I’ve been improving,” Jamie said.
My eyebrows went up. “Huh.”
“Too much time at the Academy, rote lessons to teach me to listen, speak, use my body properly. But what I had in memory retention? Didn’t lose that. They made sure I kept that, so things wouldn’t slow down too much.”
I avoided making eye contact, moving my head, or giving any kind of response. I could come to terms with the fact that Jamie was gone, but this treaded into uncomfortable territory. I was already regretting bringing it up.
I was inadvertently drawing a mental picture of the scene, not a memory, not accurate, but a good play-by-play of how things might go, if I were back there, hearing the incoherent murmurs about preserving X or losing Y. A scalpel in my hand.
I shook my head a little. Jamie was talking.
“…n’t allowed to roam much at first, not with all the soldiers and everything going on with the war being in full swing at Radham. But I’d go out with members of my team of doctors, and we’d go to Claret Hall or somewhere in the tower. I didn’t have time to see everything in one go, but I would remember what I did see, and try to figure out what lay in between. Important figures, where they’d been, where they were, places and layout…”
“And… people are hardest.”
I nodded. “People are hard.”
“Sorry, about earlier, being so harsh,” he said, skipping to another topic, along a line of thought I could see very clearly.
I shook my head.
With that, we were back to awkwardness.
Jamie raised his hand, pointing at a building.
I recognized it. This was it.
We hadn’t even crossed the street to the building when I heard the arguments and shouting. I signaled for Jamie to stay quiet.
The door was open.
I pushed it open, careful to stick to the shadows. Most of the lights and lanterns were collected in one portion of the room, surrounding the hatch. I could make out the side of a wheelbarrow, a collection of buckets, and some digging tools.
I could, beyond the hatch, closer to the makeshift bed, make out a group of people.
There wasn’t a single one of them that hadn’t stepped beyond the constraints of the human form. Candy’s horns, tattoos, and sharp nails, Drake’s scales, and now a large man, a Bruno, who either had large patches of scarring or something inserted beneath the skin, and three others with heavy tattoos and modification. One had eyes that flashed like an animal’s did in the dark.
“You were the last one to show up, the first one to leave! You had no authority!”
“That’s not-” Drake started.
He was shoved, and landed awkwardly on the pile of wooden beams and pallets, his fall only cushioned slightly by the blankets.
The girl I’d called Candy grabbed the Bruno’s wrist, snarling, “Don’t touch him!”
She’d been augmented with muscle, and even treading the line between adolescent and adult, average height for a woman, Candy was no match for the Bruno. He’d taken the muscle thing all the way, and now that I could see him better, I could see how his skin strained, as if it would split at the extremes. His face was heavily lined, and it looked like he didn’t really have lips, or he otherwise struggled to bring his lips together to meet over his grit teeth. His enunciation suffered accordingly as he spoke, “Fuck you.”
He shoved her, and he did it in a casual way that was reserved for the worst assholes. There were men who didn’t see women as people, but some of them at least treated women like they’d treat a pet dog. Of those men, some did levy some physical punishment, but they at least had the decency to feel bad about it after.
This guy, though, he treated Candy as if she wasn’t even that. Not a person, not an object, but an afterthought. I mentally marked him for the lowest rung on the ladder.
Candy went sprawling. I could see her flounder momentarily, trying to figure out which way up was, before she switched right back to a more aggressive mode, teeth bared, looking like she was going to throw herself right back at him.
“Christ, Horace,” one of the others said.
‘Horace’ shot them a look.
Candy shifted her weight, tensing-
“Emily,” Drake said, his tone a warning.
Emily, right, that was her name.
“It was not your call,” the big guy said. “God damn it, you’re the stupidest motherfuckers I’ve had the displeasure to meet. This takes the cake.”
More or less embraced by the darkness at this end of the warehouse, I was able to draw closer, which made it easier to hear things and to see details. Horace the Bruno had plates of something stuck under his skin, like great big fingernails. The ends stuck up and out, and had been carved, matching the tattoos that covered the back of his neck and spilled out his sweater sleeves to cover meaty hands. His sweater had been cut and tidied up so the plates could jut out, like the back of one of those dinosaurs, or the fins on a fish. More framed his face and hairline.
The girl with the glowing eyes was dressed somewhat shabbily, which stood in contrast to an ermine she wore around her neck. It took me a moment to register that the ermine was alive, and not an ermine. The mouth was too pronounced, filled with sharp teeth. She was heavily tattooed, too, with the tattoos of varying age. From the way she positioned herself, near Horace and Emily but not getting in between them, she was probably girlfriend to the former, and friend to the latter. She’d been the one to comment on Horace shoving Emily.
The other two guys were larger. I didn’t have a good view of them, and wouldn’t until they stepped into the light. They seemed to back Horace more than anything. It could have been a long-standing reality, or something new, stemming from Drake’s grave crime.
I approached the hatch, careful not to put myself between a lantern and the group. Doing so would have cast a long shadow. I glanced back at Jamie, who had stopped halfway to the hatch at the middle of the warehouse.
Sand and gravel lay around the hatch, and the hatch cover was ajar. I could smell sharp chemicals – something akin to burned flesh.
They’d been thorough.
“We talked about it,” Drake said. “A few nights ago, a week ago, it’s not like it hasn’t come up. We drink, and just about every single one of you has expressed doubts. I have. Emily has.”
“We talked about it,” Horace retorted, “And we decided things were fine. Each and every time, we decided we were in the clear. Stanley knew what he was doing, nothing was outside of the norm, we’d invested too much into it to back out, we stood to gain too much.”
“And I’m saying the risks were no longer-”
“You decided!” Horace shouted, voice booming through the warehouse. He lowered his volume a bit, but continued to shout, stabbing a finger at Drake. “Without us! You made the call! You went behind our backs to do this because you knew we wouldn’t agree face to face!”
Horace kicked something, and it broke into pieces.
“Fucking stupid idiots,” Horace cut him off. “They said there might be trouble. People prying, children, magpies, people with guns appearing around here. But the children did come up. We were told they’d lie. And what happens when they turn up and start telling you things? You buy into it wholesale.”
“It made more sense than anything and everything Stanley and the books were telling us,” Candy said.
Horace kicked something. “Of course it made sense, you stupid cunt! You think you’re going to get a warning about some child that does a really shitty job of lying?”
“Calm down,” Ermine said.
Because that always worked.
“Months of work just got doused in corrosive chemicals and buried in sand and gravel,” Horace said, not sounding an iota calmer. “The chains we need to bring it up and out are somewhere at the bottom of all that. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s something salvageable. Even if we were willing to excavate that thing, which I don’t think any of us are, considering the danger of getting too close to it, it’s going to take so long the bastard thing is going to dehydrate, if it hasn’t already suffocated. These stupid motherfuckers did a pretty thorough fucking job!”
He kicked the pile of pallets Drake was still sprawled on, and wood gave way. Drake startled as the pile shifted to compensate.
“We can recover,” one of the other boys said.
“You can recover without me and Emily,” Drake said. I could see the effort he was going to to sum up the courage. “We’re out. I tried to tell you why this is such a bad idea, what the kids said. If you don’t want to listen, fine, but we’re not about to give you Emily’s blood to jump start the next trial.”
“Do we need your permission?” Horace asked, no longer shouting,
“Horace,” Ermine said, her voice soft. “You do need permission.”
Horace turned to look at her and scowl.
He froze, and his head turned, his eye moving over to focus on me. With that, the others noticed too.
“This is the kid?”
“Horace,” Emily said.
“Shut up. Drake, is this him?”
“You don’t want to pick a fight with them. Emily and I tried and we regretted it. Or I did.”
I saw veins stand out, even though his expression was calm.
He started to stride toward me.
I chose not to move.
“Horace!” Drake called after him.
Horace ignored him. I made eye contact with Drake rather than Horace.
“Stop!” Drake’s shout bordered on a shriek.
And Horace stopped, mercifully.
“You’ll die,” Drake said.
Horace eyed me. With his sheer mass, my head only came up to his belly button. He had to weigh six times what I did soaking wet, which I was.
“You look like something the rain washed in,” he said.
“Is that blood on your hand?” he asked.
I raised my hand. The rain had helped, as had constantly putting my hands in my pockets and rubbing them together for warmth, but there was indeed blood there.
I needed to speak Horace’s language, and I had only limited data points to go on. I had to trust that he was a true citizen of Lugh, and fill in the blanks accordingly.
“I killed a man, just a short while ago,” I said. I drew my fingers along my inner thigh. “Cut him here and here.”
Horace nodded. He didn’t take his eyes off me.
“There’s more than just him,” Drake said. “They’re like a wolf pack. Two of them showed at first, and we ran-”
“-and the others were waiting,” Drake finished. “If you go after him, they’ll be ready for that too, I think.”
“Mmm,” Horace murmured. He was still staring me down.
“Sorry,” Drake said, and the way he pitched his voice suggested he was making sure I heard, more than Horace. “We should have told them before we started working, but we talked about it and we agreed it wouldn’t go over well.”
“Damn straight,” Horace said, with venom.
“We went ahead and did it though. I know this might mess things up, but I was worried you’d come back and nothing would be done.”
“You did right,” I said, without raising my voice.
“Bullshit,” Horace said.
“You did right,” I said, raising my voice only a fraction. I was emulating Mauer a bit, making myself harder to hear so people would listen more. “You saved a few thousand lives tonight, at least. Now I’ve got to ask, do you have weapons?”
I could see faint confusion on Horace’s face.
“What are you talking about?” Emily asked.
“What we talked about? It’s coming to pass. Reverend Mauer, his lieutenant Stanley, and the Ridgewell soldiers, people who used to work for Tim something or other-”
“Tim Dancer,” Jamie spoke, from the shadows. Horace’s eyes flicked away from mine, darting this way and that.
“Thank you,” I said. “That group. They had plans to release the Ridgewell group’s primordial and let it loose in Lugh.”
“Had?” Drake asked. He finally got himself up off of the pallets and blankets. Emily too had risen to her feet.
“If we’re lucky, they burned alive,” I said. “I don’t think we’re going to get that lucky. They probably got free and are on their way here. Or some of them are. Men with guns, professional soldiers like Stanley. They want a primordial. There were only three available. You did your job, we did ours, now there’s only one.”
“Who?” Horace asked, in the same instant Drake asked “Guns?”
“We need to go,” I said. “Even if you don’t believe me about everything I’m saying, you need to believe that these guys are serious enough that they will kill you if you get on their bad sides. Which you have.”
I indicated the hatch and the now-buried primordial.
The others were drawing closer, behind Horace’s back. It was as if I had a very physical representation of how much I had them listening to me.
“We’re not going with you,” Horace said, cutting straight through that illusion.
“Then you’re going to die,” I said.
“We’ll stay out of their way. We have places we can go.”
I thought of the black-skinned man that Mauer had left in charge here. “Somewhere outside of Lugh. Right now, if your employers are to be believed, the Academy has an army gathering at the east end of Lugh. If you don’t get out now, then you won’t get the chance. You will die. If you try to get out now and go down the wrong road, or run across your former employer, then you will die. I’m repeating myself because I want to make this absolutely clear. There are no maybes here. Before the night is over, there will be a horrific body count.”
“They are sticking by me,” Horace said.
I shook my head. I turned to Emily, “In a matter of hours, the Academy is going to storm Lugh like nothing you’ve ever believed possible. The guy you were working for? He wanted to let the primordials loose and cross his fingers the things do more damage to the Academy than to all of the innocents and the guilty in this dumpy city. I warned you out of good conscience. Please listen. You listened to the girl I was with earlier, you know she cared. I’m doing this for her, and you should too. Take my word on this, let me get you all as far as Tynewear, and everything will be okay.”
I saw Emily meet Drake’s eyes. She looked at Ermine.
Then my heart sank, before she even looked my way, or opened her mouth to speak.
“We’ll stick with our friends,” Emily said.
With that musclebound asshole? The one who shoves you around like you’re nothing?
“We can go to the city outskirts,” Drake said. “More north, there are ways out if it looks like something is happening.”
I saw Horace tense, ready to start a fight. I was seeing how Emily was as defensive as she was, if she was around this guy on the regular.
“Let’s do this. The project’s dead in the water, we lose nothing,” Ermine said. “We camp out for one night, act wary. Figure out where we’re going next.”
The tension left Horace. He seemed to take a few long seconds to work through his need to argue the point, then simply nodded.
“That might not be enough,” I said. “But whatever. Get there now. We came straight here from Ridgewell, and if Mauer is coming, he won’t be far behind us. Don’t go to pick up clothes or belongings, don’t try to pack up notes. Just leave.”
“You sure like telling us what to do,” Horace said.
“Whatever,” I said. I turned to go. I halfways expected him to attack me from behind, and I didn’t have the energy to fight or even plot what I’d do if he did.
“Who did the third project?” Horace asked.
I almost didn’t want to respond, let him wonder.
But not having an answer would hurt our credibility.
“Old crusty asshole, I forget his actual name, started with H,” I said, without stopping or turning around.
“Harding,” Horace said.
“I believe you less than I did,” he said, voice almost taunting.
I shrugged, for dramatic effect.
He reminded me of Rick from Lambsbridge. Someone who had a particular view of reality, where everything had its place where it belonged, and he fought tooth and nail against anything that challenged that carefully arranged image. There was no use fighting, because any argument I made to paint a different picture would only lead to more resistance.
Jamie was waiting at the door, standing there, keeping an eye on the goings-on outside. We made eye contact, and then passed outside. A paper-thin sheet of ice on a puddle cracked under my boot.
We walked down the street until we had a spot to stand in where we were out of the rain and mostly out of sight, should Mauer come marching down the street with soldiers in tow.
“Old crustybutt’s?” I asked. “Know where it is?”
“Okay. We’re going to need to be careful. Mauer’s men could be anywhere between here and there, and it’s not just about us getting caught and catching a stray bullet, but Gordon and Lillian are going to be laying low somewhere around there, observing. We don’t want to reveal them.”
Jamie nodded again.
He shifted position, stepping deeper into shadow as a group approached.
Horace, Emily, Drake and the others.
Ermine saw us in the shadows, and Horace followed her gaze, spotting us. He smirked, “Where are the rest of you?”
“Looking after Old Harding,” Jamie said.
Horace continued to smirk, shaking his head a little. He looked at Drake, “Wolves, huh?”
I turned back to Jamie as the group moved on. The primordial project was cleaned up, they were leaving. It was the best we could hope for. I tried to envision how things would play out, where Mauer would be, based on my rough mental image of the city, and the thoughts weren’t as sharp or as clear as I’d thought they would be. The proverbial waters were muddied.
I ran my fingers under my hood and through my hair. “I need an appointment.”
“You’re just tired. You’re soaked and you’re freezing, we’ve been running around for half the day…”
“That’s part of it,” I said. “Lead the way?”
As we ventured forth, however, we saw Horace’s group, dead in their tracks. My first thought was Mauer. That he’d caught up, and they’d stopped because of guns.
But their attention was on Ermine, who had turned her reflective eyes out toward the west. To the water, which was so gloomy and dark as to be impossible to make out.
She could see in the dark.
“What do you see?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Heard something, seeing… the ships out on the water, there aren’t many with the weather being what it is, but, they’re turning?”
The low, dull horn of ships in the water sounded, carrying over the choppy water and up the sloping sprawl that was Lugh. The lowing of a dying beast.
I used a hand to block out the light, trying to make sense of things. The spots in my vision mixed up with the choppy waves, the spots on the ships which the dim light did catch, and the lanterns on the ships, so far away as to be nearly impossible to make out.
Then I saw it. A constellation of spots and blurry patches lurched, then broke apart.
Another lowing, shorter, or cut short.
“The biggest ship on the water,” Ermine said. On the docks, people were ringing bells, small ones, a shrill clatter, intent on getting the attention of just about everyone in earshot. She went on to add, “Something pulled it under.”
My eyes traveled to the great sea beast of Lugh, the corpse of the experiment that now sprawled over a third of the city.
Too soon. Too early. Had to be lying in wait already, listening for some signal none of the rest of us can hear.
They’re coming, and we’re already running out of escape routes.
“Change of plans,” I said. “Warn as many people as you can. The Academy is coming, and they don’t plan for anyone in this city to be alive by the time they leave.”