My first indication that there was something wrong was the corpses. Citizens of Lugh lay scattered on the street, skin crimson, blistered, and eyes bugging out. The light shimmered on and around them in a way that made it look as though I was viewing them through a screen or filter, or if they were laying at a river bed, with silt running over and around them. They were still, and the shadows were alive in a very detailed, particular way that I couldn’t define easily from this distance.
The second indication was the smoke, which wasn’t behaving like the smoke from the fires. It crept close to the ground, heavy, rolling downhill, and the ‘living shadow’ element was doubly true there. Most telling, however, was that it wasn’t hot. There were fires here and there, but the air wasn’t heated to the point that smoke-dirtied snow was turning into grimy rain.
I ventured closer, focusing on the clouds. The image I saw reminded me of hand-cranked projector video that I’d seen in the big presentations with professors and doctors. The silence, the crank and whirr, and the image, moving even when the subject was unmoving, showing some warbeast or operation at work, behind dancing flecks, flickers, and dust on film strips writ large.
I gestured for Jamie’s benefit.
Plague, was the sign. Disease, sickness. I wasn’t sure I was right. It could have been parasite, or, more problematic, an airborne chemical or poison. Whatever it was, some small form of life was moving within the dark smoke and serving as a transmission vector. Where the smoke touched a surface or a person, it left the thin covering of shifting, dancing life painted over that surface.
The only men who walked in the midst of the low clouds of smoke were distinct in appearance. They wore black military jackets and heavy boots, and their skin was scarred and pocked. I recognized them as plague men, armed and moving in formation. There were some on either end of the street, effectively trapping us.
One fired a gun at a body. The city around us was so chaotic and noisy that I almost couldn’t make out the sound of the solitary gunshot.
I edged down the alleyway, aiming to get a better view of the situation.
I could see modified wagons, with special containers on the backs. Some had been blown up, and others lay askew, with a wheel gone or the stitched beast at the front laying dead. Squadrons of stitched soldiers had been laid low, joining the officers in heavy clothes and masks who had been in charge of them and the plague boxes.
Some of the gunfire we’d heard earlier had been from an altercation between the Plague Men and the Academy, apparently. They walked without trouble in the midst of the clouds, periodically stopping to drive a bayonet into a throat or kick at a gun that lay in a twitching hand’s grasp, putting the weapon out of the owner’s reach.
The Academy had set up here, using the boxes as both a defensive position and a means of keeping Mauer’s people back and away. Clouds of heavy smoke and whatever else that killed, walling off entire sections of the city. Then the Plague Men had come striding through those same clouds with a viciously effective flanking maneuver and explosives.
Now we were surrounded.
I’d already jumped down from the window to the foot of the building, and now I didn’t have a way out that didn’t involve running past a squadron of armed soldiers. Jamie was still at the window, legs dangling, a handkerchief held to his mouth.
He gestured. Question. I didn’t have an answer.
I crept further along the alley, fully aware that if I was spotted, I would be shot. There would be no questions, no hesitation, and no mercy. I couldn’t trust my enemies here to make mistakes, like I might hope for with stitched or people who had been ordinary citizens an hour ago, before a gun had been pushed into their hands.
As I reached the street, I positioned myself closer to the ground. Newly dry, I still crawled through muck, blood, and water. The crawling smoke provided me some cover from the plague men.
There was a body here. A man had fallen, and lay face down in the same large puddle I was crawling through.
I searched him, slowly and carefully, investigating pockets and belt. I avoided any fast movements that might tip the soldiers off, and I kept my face pointed toward the ground, the hood of my coat hanging low over my brow. In the gloom, I didn’t want them to see the paleness of my face or ears.
Pocketknife, I could take. A notebook, I’d take for now. A small medical kit, well worn, I’d hold onto that until I had something else to occupy my hands with. A flask. I could keep that too.
Lighter and cigarettes. I kept the former, and left the latter be.
I couldn’t hear footsteps, but I saw what could have been a shadowy figure moving against shadow, in the midst of smoke. They were vague shapes, ones that could so easily be mistaken for tricks of the light and deceptive play of my eyes and brain. I didn’t wait to clarify the image, instead pushing back with the heels of my hand and crawling backward. I backed into garbage, and collapsed into position, curling around a sour-smelling black paper sack of waste.
I couldn’t see up without raising my head, and my eye was only afforded a view of the slice of street and building, visible between ground and the edge of my hood.
If shadowy figure moving against shadow was hard to make out, given the circumstances, then that figure’s shadow added another step of obfuscation to the mix.
I remained where I was, until I could be reasonably sure that he was gone. I raised my head.
Two more figures were there, but they weren’t facing my direction. I remained still, watching and waiting, until they were gone.
I got the flask and lighter out, and put them neatly by the pile of trash, waiting at the ready.
Then, with the same care as before, I edged closer to the end of the alleyway that opened up onto one of the streets with the plague boxes.
My skin prickled. I wasn’t in the midst of the smoke, but some of it was touching me. That it prickled made me want to swear. It could have meant something very bad, but it wasn’t so bad or so telling that I could be certain about how to move forward.
I reached my position from before, by the body. This time, I crawled almost on top of it.
The smoke that flowed down the street reached the body, and it collected with more strength along the far end of the corpse. Heavy and close to the ground, it reached the side of his leg, torso, and his armpit, and pooled there.
I extended one hand down into the dark smoke.
The prickling was roughly ten times as intense, there.
I turned my attention to the body. A Crown soldier. He wore gloves, a turtleneck, a heavy coat, and a metal mask to allow safe breathing in the midst of plague.
I had to lift his face up off the ground to get the mask off. With it firmly in hand, I retreated back to the shadows.
A series of rapid-fire explosions in the distance suggested that someone had burned an ammunitions cache or a storehouse of something combustible had caught alight. The noise echoed like thunder, and every set of eyes on the street turned in that direction.
Back in the shadows and cover of the pile of trash, I looked up for Jamie. He wasn’t sitting in the window, but standing back from it, looking down at me.
My fingers brushed against the flask, lighter and medical kit.
The tingling in my hand had dwindled. An investigation suggested the skin wasn’t any puffier, more sensitive, or less sensitive than it had been before.
I gave it a long moment, ready to act. Mentally, head to toe, I took measure. My thoughts were clearer, if anything. My breathing and heartbeat were fine. I was hungry and thirsty, but that wasn’t anything new. I was cold, but the snow gathering around us was a good indicator of why that was appropriate.
I could see the visual noise of whatever was in that crawling smoke, now that it was actually on me. Bugs, individually smaller than the dot left by a sharp pencil on paper, winged and capable of crawling, they were falling off my hand and fleeing to the street instead.
They didn’t like me, it seemed.
No other symptoms. For a weapon of war, if I was going to experience symptoms, it would need to be faster and more comprehensive. There was no ruling out some accumulation of chemical or substance, symptoms appearing later, simply because I had immersed myself in this smoke for too long, but if that was a problem, I suspected even the plague men would be giving it a wider berth.
No, this was a weapon meant for culling the weak, cutting down ordinary man and animal.
I gestured nothing in specific to get Jamie’s attention. He drew closer to the window, glancing left, then right, to make sure nobody had seen us. He gestured back at me, question. Opening the medical kit, I found a bandage. I pulled it out, removing the metal clip that kept it fastened in place, and in a few motions of finger and wrist, wrapped it partially around my hand. I pointed to Jamie, before raising my hand, fingers extended.
I put the bandage back in the kit. I checked the coast was clear, then tossed the full kit up to the window. He caught it.
While he busied himself, I turned my attention to the mask. Lighter and alcohol in hand, using my hunched-over body to keep the light of the flame from being seen, I burned the metal surface of the mask that sat in between my crossed legs. The smoke, dirt and moisture that had accumulated on it made it clear to see where I had burned it. If I squinted, I could even see the metal changing color as it got hot enough.
Inside and out, with straps included, I burned the mask as clean of the microscopic bugs as I could get it. I stared at it by lighter-light to make sure it was clean enough.
When Jamie reappeared in the window, I gestured to him, and then tossed him the mask as well.
Hands covered, the bandage even binding the ends of his sleeves to his wrists, jacket zipped up high, with mask on and hood up, cinched close to his head, Jamie hopped down to the foot of the alley where I was.
We retraced our steps, my third visit to the alley’s end.
Further down the street, plague men opened fire. They unloaded a dozen shots, walking rather than running to cover, bending down slightly, and then waited.
Whoever or whatever they had been shooting at had been scared off, if their targets weren’t outright dead.
That small distraction would have to do. Signaling Jamie, I indicated the way.
Straight into the crawling smoke.
Augmented as they were, their eyes weren’t so special that they would see two dark figures in the midst of the thickest part of the smoke.
I held my breath as I ran, blind, one hand on Jamie’s wrist, the other extended out in front of me. I moved my feet and shifted my weight to dissipate the impact of boot on road and move as silently as possible. The noise around the city made it easier, obscuring the sounds I did make, but I didn’t want to let my foot come down too hard and sharp in one of the moments where bullets weren’t flying and crowds of people weren’t hollering to be heard over everyone else.
I tried to hold on to a mental image of the scene, where I’d last seen soldiers, where they might be, and what I might do if we were caught. Time spent thinking about that took my thoughts off of the prickling that was now feeling more like a burn.
My lungs strained as we ran. The act of running meant bringing my feet down, and as quiet as I was trying to be, every strike of boot on ground was threatening to jar my mouth open, and allow a gulping of air to enter my mouth, to be later swallowed. If it was an airborne threat, I couldn’t afford that.
My hand touched wood. I stopped running, and ducked low. Jamie was so fast in matching suit that I suspected he’d both been anticipating it and had known where we were.
The smoke rolled downhill, and here, under the wagon, we were upwind and above the worst of it. I allowed myself to breathe, and felt the prickling extend inside my mouth as I opened it to gulp in air.
Beside me, Jamie crawled into position beside me, and collapsed, making a dangerous amount of noise in the process. One arm was pressed up against his hood. He’d been adding the bulk of the arm to minimize how much might slip through that gap. His breath hissed almost imperceptibly as he breathed through the mask and filter.
I watched him, unmoving, unable to act or speak to verify if he was alright.
A bandage-wrapped hand grasped at the ground, as if he could find purchase there.
The precautions hadn’t been enough. I felt cold inside, my stomach knotting.
If I had to watch him writhe and die here…
I grit my teeth until my jaw hurt. The more the prickling faded from my skin and scalp, the more sick I felt, and that sickness had nothing to do with the crawling smoke.
There were soldiers no less than ten feet from us. The noise he’d made as he collapsed hadn’t tipped them off, but they were still there, and our options were few. I couldn’t drag Jamie to safety, I couldn’t help him. We had no Lillian.
I saw him move, fighting to avoid making noise or moving too abruptly, writhing in pain. Behind the tinted lenses of his mask, his eyes were wide and staring.
I thought back to the old Jamie, on the day he’d… what even to call it? Departed?
Reaching to his belt, I patted him down. Nothing in front, on the sides-
The medical kit. I popped it open.
Before I’d even looked at the contents, he reached out, pushing the lid closed. He managed a shake of his head, before he squeaked.
His hand went out, and touched the underside of the wagon. Fingers extended to move against the surface above us, once, twice.
He gestured, and the gesture was worrying. Fingers curled at the first and second knuckle, thumb tucked in.
We’d started out with six or seven gestures, and had let the rest evolve organically. The first six or seven were intended to be broad, encompassing a wide range of things.
Jamie wasn’t one to forget things, or to lose control of his mental faculties. That made the fact that he was being this vague and unclear very troubling.
Fingers curled and thumb tucked in was the face. Look, sense, attend, and, in cases, apply our particular talents.
I tried the most obvious means, and reached for his mask, ready to pull it off. If it was a problem-
He shook his head. He made a small noise of pain. My head turned, eyes searching for the movement of boots, the approach of soldiers.
Again, he touched the wagon’s underside.
Look, I understood.
I knew where the soldiers were standing, having just checked a moment ago. I grabbed the wheel of the wagon and hauled myself out from under it. I moved more quickly than quietly, trusting the ambient noise to cover any slip on my part.
Think, Sy. How do the designers of these wagons think? What’s the logic to how this was put together? There has to be a mechanism to open or close the doors for the plague at the front of the box, or something that activates them and makes them start billowing out and forward like this. An outside of wood with metal to catch and stop bullets, so they can function in a warzone and double as cover, and at the back, for the people using that cover, boxes of ammo, things to use to repair the wagon…
I reached the back of the wagon, double-checking the coast was clear before climbing within.
A team of Academy students or doctors put a lot of thought into this, debated it into the ground, presented it to a professor, who tore the concept to shreds and then rebuilt it. This is how the process goes.
The sides of the box were doubly reinforced and lined with boxes of ammo and two spare rifles. Not what I needed or wanted.
In case of an emergency, some rookie gets in the path of the smoke or the wind blows the wrong way, they want to be able to reach the medical supplies quickly.
I touched the floor of the wagon, and gauged the dimensions.
It was thick. A very deep floor, between what I was standing on and the part the wheels were connected to.
I ran my fingers over the surface, and found gaps I could fit my fingers in.
I lifted it up. The boards of the wagon’s floor doubled as the supplies for fixing anything that took a bullet. Lengths of metal and wood.
Beneath those lengths of metal and wood were more kits, each branded with the Academy’s symbol.
I collected three of the kits, checked that the coast was clear – which wasn’t too hard given how close the wagon was to the wall, and how the plague men were gradually moving themselves further up the street – and then headed down to Jamie.
On the last day I’d talked to old Jamie, he had demonstrated some knowledge of Academy tools and procedure. He’d known how to operate, with information gleaned from textbooks.
Now, while he was suffering, I was hoping he knew how to treat himself.
I opened up the kit, double checked Jamie, and saw his eyes were closed behind the tinted lenses of the mask. I grabbed his mask and shook his head back and forth until the eyes opened.
He saw the kit, and with hands tense, tapped one finger down.
I lifted a syringe, pre-filled. I used it, squeezing out a portion, and Jamie extended a finger, pointing to a point on the side of the syringe.
I squeezed out more.
He touched his heart, and began fumbling with the coat. The pain he was suffering from was making it clumsier than it should have been.
All those people the crawling darkness had touched, it seemed, had died in a horrible way. The Academy, it seemed, had wanted to tip the scales of morale in their favor.
I pulled at the surgical tape he’d plastered over it to seal it and then undid the coat.
I held the needle poised like a dagger over his heart. He nodded and closed his eyes.
I stabbed him, then depressed the syringe. It was slow going, and I could see his discomfort.
All of this trouble, to just make our way halfway up the street. The soldiers were thinner, and had we both been able-bodied, we could have made a break for it, waiting for them to move to a certain point or turn their attention one way or the other. With Jamie like this, though…
Parasites, poisons, and diseases didn’t affect me like they did most. I’d badly underestimated how they would affect even a covered-up Jamie.
I heard shouts. The plague men were moving, taking cover. One hurried to the very wagon we were on, using the front and sides in the same way another soldiers on another battlefield might use sandbags.
His voice was muffled, very nearly drowned out. My earlier observations about shadows and tricks of the mind applied to the sounds here.
I couldn’t hear what he said, or even make out how he said it, but my brain told me that it was an exclamation of confusion and surprise.
Now that I was here, crouched under the belly of the wagon, I wasn’t entirely sure I had put all of the metal and wood panels away, nor had I stowed all of the emergency treatment kits.
I might have, but I might not have. I hadn’t been paying attention to it.
I really needed the Wyvern formula.
I shifted position, poising myself beneath the wagon, knife in hand, staring at the soldier’s one foot, as it came down to rest on the road behind the wagon.
The other would come down, he would stoop down to look under the wagon, and I would cut.
If that cut wasn’t sharp and effective enough to silence him, or if he, an expert soldier, was quick enough to get out of the way or block my cut, there was nothing more I could do.
I heard the clack as something settled into place in the wagon above me, and then, in a lunging movement, the foot went up and away.
I could hear the plague man above us shoot his rifle.
Like I had, just moments ago, the plague man had more pressing concerns.
I turned my head and looked at Jamie, slumped over, trying to breathe, disconnected from everything around him as he tried to deal.
It struck me that, but for the clothes he was covered in now, from head to toe, he had looked almost exactly the same the very first time I’d seen him. That same moment that I’d realized my best friend was gone.
The realization made me want to jump out of my skin, it was so sharp and uncomfortable. We’d talked yesterday, we’d hashed out our issues, and we’d found a tentative peace, but with the realization, the memory, I felt resentment boil up and over. I knew the resentment was unfair, that he didn’t deserve it.
I knew he was a Lamb, and he deserved, at the very least, the affection I had showed even Evette, who I had never truly known or talked to. She had been an idea, and I had given her my time and attention. I had slept in her room and talked to her, because she was a Lamb. Yet when it came to this Jamie, I couldn’t bring myself to extend that.
I hated that contradiction in myself, but I equally hated the fact that my brain was like a broken machine, constantly tripping up, failing to learn from its mistake as it drew on familiar impulses and memories, only for logic and reason to kick in and wake me up.
It would be so much easier if you died, I thought. Then I could mourn him and be done with it.
The thought was real, crystal clear in the same way as any rectangle or scene I might envision, and it was matched by an equal and opposite impulse, that wanted to do right and fairly by him. Because he wasn’t a bad person, and he had been thrust into a bad situation. Because Jamie had left him to me as a legacy, and he’d been so kind about the things that mattered, even if he was as challenged by me as I was by him.
My mind could run on multiple tracks at once, and it felt like my feelings were doing the same, divided, split, and periodically clashing in uncomfortable ways.
Leave him behind, that part of me that I hated told me. You can accomplish more if you do. If he dies in the meantime, it isn’t really your fault.
The idea sickened me to the point I thought I might vomit in self revulsion. The other side of me was so uncomfortable with this reminder in close proximity that it hurt to be around him. Both ideas made me want to flee, to take that first step that would set me to running, one foot in front of the other, every step making it harder and harder to change my mind and turn back.
I shifted position, moving the kit I’d collected from the wagon into Jamie’s reach, laying the syringe on top of it.
I turned my back on him, and made my way out from under the wagon, checking if the coast was clear. It was.
Twisting, I climbed up onto the back of the wagon.
One rifle extended along the side. Gently, I lifted it free, the end and the blade of the bayonet passing beneath the elbow of the plague man a matter of feet in front of me. He knelt behind the wall and the reinforced box at the front of the modified wagon, shooting over the top.
Wait, I told myself, aware that a glance from the plague man would alert him to the fact that there was someone right behind him. Wait.
I was impatient, the discomfort hadn’t gone away as I left Jamie behind.
Wait, and take all of that anger and resentment, all of the bad feelings…
He finished reloading and started shooting once more. I cocked my rifle, and I aimed it at the back of the plague man’s head.
…and let it go. At least for now.
I squeezed the trigger as he finished his burst of shots. Blood sprayed, and he slumped over, collapsing onto the floor of the wagon. That he was dead would be explainable, given he’d been in the midst of a gunfight. If they were clever enough to figure the bullet had come from behind…
Well, the risk of that was lower than the risk that he’d comment about the theft of material and presence of nearby enemies, after this current distraction was done with.
I exhaled slowly, turning to move to the back of the wagon.
Then, with focus and effort, I made my way beneath the wagon once more.
Jamie’s eyes were open, as if the bullet I’d fired had woken him. He was still slumped over.
I shifted the position of the rifle I held, and I gestured. You. Okay. Question.
He winced as he leaned forward, shifting position. Fire. Pain.
I nodded. The feelings I’d put into the bullet were only a drop in the bucket. But I could put on a civil face.
Us. Run. I signaled.
He nodded, moving again.
While the plague men were focused on the fight, we slipped away, Jamie moving slower than before.
Moving from street to street, we could see how the damage got worse. A city burned, besieged and littered with bodies. I had no idea who was winning or losing, and the lights and torches that one side or the other held were no longer any indicator of things. The distinctions blurred as things burned. By the placement and nature of some of the fires, I had to wonder if any had been set by Mauer.
Looking over my shoulder, I almost missed seeing a group that had no lights at all. Stitched. Jamie elbowed me in the same instant I saw them.
I indicated a bit of cover, looked back over my shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed, and that there was enough distance between us and the plague men, and then fumbled in my pocket for a whistle.
With the whistle in my mouth, I looked at Jamie, who still wore the mask.
The mask helped, I had to admit.
He showed me the signal. Short, short, short.
I blew. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet.
We waited, wet snow falling around us, melting as it touched warmer ground, and rain falling, only to freeze or pool over already frozen puddles.
The reply came back. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet.
Jamie nudged me.
This was risky. I was holding my breath, and there was no plague smoke here, or anything of the sort.
I stepped out of cover, and approached the stitched.
In that same moment, someone else emerged from a place behind the stitched. Their handler.
He looked at me, tensed, and then barked out the order, “Guns up!”
The stitched raised their guns. I raised my hands, Jamie doing the same beside me.
“Friendly!” I called out. “We’re experiments!”
He didn’t give the order for stitched to shoot.
“There are plague men further down this hill!” I called out. “I thought you should know. There’s a lot going on, and we need to talk to your commanding officer!”
To deter them or to interfere with them as subtly as we can get away with, depending on how cooperative they are, I told myself.
“Further down that hill-”
“Was a crew of Crown soldiers and plague boxes, holding the line. They got ambushed by plague men. The disease resistant soldiers. Now the plague men are using the boxes against the Crown.”
“Plague men? That’s not what we call them,” the handler said.
“The immortals,” Jamie called out, voice muffled by his mask.
The handler nodded, but he didn’t give the order for the stitched to lower their weapons.
“They’ll have heard the whistles,” I said, “And they’ll have found their buddy that I shot, and might figure out it wasn’t a stray bullet from that last firefight. Can we move somewhere out of the rain and potential danger, at least?”
Something about what I’d said seemed to get through. He nodded. “Guns down. Be ready.”
In unison, the stitched lowered their rifles, holding them in front of them instead.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll reach out to my commander.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Jamie and I moved past the rank and file of stitched.
“I’ll tell him you have, what, information to share?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And we’ve got comrades somewhere in the midst of the fighting I’d really like to find.”
“Mm,” he said. “Not much chance of that, but I’ll mention it.”
Beside me, Jamie pulled off his mask. He reached into a pocket for his glasses, and put them on.
The Crown army was drawing the perimeter inward as they cleared buildings and secured streets. They were a ways into Lugh, now.
The handler approached another soldier, indicated me, and then gave the order, “Go tell the Baron that there’s a child experiment here who wants to talk to him.”