“How many labs have we been in?” Evette asked. “I’m not asking for any reason. I’m curious about the number.”
We? I arched an eyebrow.
“You know what I mean. We’re not going to pretend I’m real. You’re very detached from reality. You’re putting yourself in a very detached, suggestible state where the only suggestions you’re listening to are your own. That the Lambs are here and helping. That you’re not alone.”
“Careful,” I warned, I kept my voice low, so as not to wake Mary, who had fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder.
Two of the three conscripted doctors turned their heads to look at me.
I reasserted my grip on the pistol I held.
“I might not be much of a lab geek, and my memory might be garbage, but I know enough to know that that stuff you’re working with is volatile. I know I’ve seen it used in explosives. I’ve used it to blow up labs very similar to this one.”
Clifton, the man with the mustache, pulled his hands away from what he was working on. “You might know more than I do when it comes to this, then. If you want a weaponized gas, you need to disperse it. The phosphor is the best way I know for doing that.”
I watched his expression for a moment, then nodded.
“Nice recovery. It’s almost like you were talking to them in the first place,” Evette said. The look on her face was intense, but it wasn’t the smouldering intensity I had recently seen on Lillian. It was the wide-eyed, hair-flung-back look of someone who stuck their head out of the window of a fast-moving train.
Her pale face still resembled Mcormick’s daughter, as if my subconscious had latched onto that, but the eyes were larger, the mouth smaller, the teeth exposed by her unending smile different every time I looked at her. They would be overrun by an overgrowth of gum tissue one moment, then the next time she looked my way her mouth would be filed with something very similar to the braces used to align teeth, except these braces were used to hold the gums at bay. Then she would part her lips in a smile and her teeth would be the sort that was badly in need of braces.
I knew that my mind had, at some distant point in time, latched on to the fact that vat babies tended to have problems with teeth, with hair, with the proportions of faces and body, that I’d collected the fact and held onto it where I let so many minor facts slip by. Because it related to Evette, Helen, and Ashton.
Even when human tissue was used as a starting point, it was hard to hit every mark consistently, especially those parts of the body that appeared late in the various stages of growth. That Helen was as attractive as she was said a great deal about Ibott’s talents as a professor. The creation of beauty wasn’t even his specialty, and he’d managed it. She was a work of art, and whatever else I thought of Ibott, I had to to admit he was a true genius, based on Helen alone.
Ashton, meanwhile, was vaguely offputting but still hit the mark, the work of a committed team who could refine and implant the refined pheromones package once they had a vessel to hold and transmit it.
Helen was the actress, Ashton the social manipulator, and both needed to look good, considering the roles meant for them.
But Evette… to make sure they had something workable, they would have had to get her to a later stage in development, grow her to the point that she was able to respond and communicate, then test her. Getting a workable brain and an acceptable appearance, for someone who would primarily lurk in the background as a problem solver, it was unnecessary.
She was the safest one to have out and keeping me company, because of all of the Lambs, she was the only one I was moving closer to. To bring out the others would only remind me of those I had lost or those I was likely to lose soon.
Carmen, the young lady in the trio of scientists we’d recruited, knocked a tool into a pan, startling herself. Mary woke at the sound. She’d fallen asleep holding a knife, and raised it to fend off any attackers, but I already had the pistol pointed at Carmen. Mary relaxed.
Carmen saw the pistol and startled even worse. She was shaking like a leaf, clearly agitated.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said. “Please.”
“You woke up my friend,” I said.
“I’m sorry. I’m so tired. We’ve been working all night. I can’t even see straight. I lost blood earlier, I’m hungry, I’m sore-”
“Shut up,” I said. “It looks like you’re pretty close to done. Just keep working. You’ll be done soon.”
“What- what happens to us when we’re done?”
“One of you gets to be our firstborn companion,” I said. I doubted Carmen was up to it, which left Clifton and Simon as our options. Clifton had ditched his tinted glasses to see his work better, while Simon’s face was stitched up and bandaged. Neither seemed particularly keen on the idea of staying with Mary and I. They shrunk away from looking at me and focused more on their work, like errant students who hadn’t done their homework, hoping to avoid their teacher’s attention.
I left them to their work, dropping the pistol until my hand rested on my knee.
“I fell asleep?” Mary asked.
“I don’t do that. That’s not me. I’m alert when it counts.”
“You’re human,” I said. “Helen can manage without sleep, but she’s different.”
“Did you sleep?” she asked. “Were we asleep at the same time?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t sleep.”
Mary looked genuinely distressed. I gave her shoulder a rub, not sure what to say or add. I could have speculated as to why she drifted off, but none of it would have really addressed why she was so bothered, and a lot of my speculation would have added to how bothered she was.
Whether it was because she was comfortable with me or the emotional cost of recent events had cracked the facade and let the human frailties show, I could keep quiet on the subject.
“You should have slept,” Mary said.
“I tried, but as comfortable a pillow as your lap might be, a metal counter does not make for a comfortable bed, and I was twisted into a weird position. By the time I got comfortable, you’d drifted off.”
Concern was clearly etched on her face. Her fingers drummed her knee, where her leg hung over the countertop.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, keeping my voice low so the others wouldn’t hear.
“I am worried,” she replied.
“You got some sleep, I’m fine. I’ve done more with less in the past. All you need to do is focus on being as excellent as we both know you can be. What we’re doing is going to require it.”
“I feel like you’re subtly manipulating me,” Mary said.
I rolled my eyes and hopped down from the table. Mary wasn’t wrong. I’d downplayed my own fatigue, jamming it in between reinforcing statements that turned her focus back to herself. Ignoring the subject would have left her feeling like it needed to be addressed.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” she said. “My leg fell asleep.”
Evette was hanging around Simon, which was my cue to pay more attention to what he was doing. For much the same reason I could sometimes get a bad feeling by way of ‘prey instinct’, Evette represented parts of my subconscious that were potentially picking up clues that my conscious mind wasn’t. She stood on his right, and I moved around to his left, gun in hand.
“The formula you wanted,” he said. He mumbled a bit, with the way the stitches and glue pulled at his wounded face. One of his eyes was badly swollen. He was tense, for reasons beyond the gun I had pressed against his lower back. “I wrote down the mix and the steps. We’ve used this often enough when the Baron Richmond has been leaning on us. It helps with inspiration, but going too far down that road… bad nightmares.”
I glanced past him at Evette, who had her elbows on the counter.
“Okay,” I said. I glanced up at Simon “I want you to give either Carmen or Clifton that dose.”
I watched his expression, the momentary fear, the arrest of his already warped facial expression and body language.
“I’m patient,” I said. “And, barring bad circumstance, we’ll be coming back to drop off our new firstborn, right? So… test that, I’ll double-check the formula with someone knowledgeable while we’re out, and we’ll either do some more tests or I’ll take the next batch as I return. It’ll give you something to do while we’re gone.”
I watched his expression change, his less-swollen eye moving to his friends.
“Which one?” I asked.
“You keep doing that,” he said. “Making us choose.”
Because I want to ruin the bond you have, I thought. I want to drive in a wedge.
“Which one?” I asked, again.
He turned, looking at his companions. “This would be easier if one of you volunteered. Please? Carm-”
“Nevermind,” I jumped in. I reached out with my free hand, taking the syringe and the paper with notes it was resting on. “I believe you, that this is legitimate.”
If the stakes were higher, then I doubted he would be able to ask his friends to volunteer in good conscience. I wasn’t sure if this formula was as good as I’d get from my personal team, but it was one I could believe to be relatively safe.
Behind me, Mary hopped down from the table.
“I gave you four projects,” I addressed Clifton. “Where are we at?”
“Not done,” he said. “Give me an hour.”
“Not done with…?”
“Any of it. I’m juggling the gas, the drug, the poison, and I’m trying to prepare for an improvised surgery with parts that are swelling as we speak. I’ve got it on ice, in hopes that it’s ready.”
I nodded, looking over the table.
“And Carmen?” I asked. Mary joined me, limping a little where her leg was a little wobbly. She’d taken a moment to fix her hair and re-tie her ribbons.
“This is too big a job. I can’t even keep my hands steady.”
She was breaking down, and even my slow approach seemed to ratchet up her nervousness. I stopped where I was and leaned against the nearest counter. I stared at the flesh that was laid out in ribbons across the counter in front of her.
Clifton spoke up, “It’s a simple job, Carmen. It’s why we gave it to you. You’ve done it twenty times.”
How many families had been altered by this trio of people?
“It would be nice,” Evette said, “If there was a way to make one a firstborn, and force them to take the role for life. Mute, unable to express themselves, wearing the flesh of a monster.”
“How do you normally do it?” I asked. “Putting the firstborn together.”
Clifton answered for the shaky Carmen, “Most of the time, we get the remnants of other failed projects. They’ll have weapons built in, altered physiology, or they’ll be ravaged by drug testing. It gives us a good starting point. We’ll keep projects on hand that we can apply to build on that, add some personal touches to match them to the parents. Don’t always have to do it, just have to do it often enough that we seed the idea in the population’s mind.”
“What about the things in the vats?” Mary indicated one of the more twisted vat babies.
“Have to mix it up now and again to keep it fresh. If they were all variations on the same theme, then they would get complacent. The vat creations let us make something really worrisome, so they always have to worry if they’re going to get one of the really bad ones.”
“How do you keep them in line? They come programmed, don’t they?”
“Another team handles that. It’s the same treatment the stitched get, but they’re obviously alive.”
Lobotomies and brainwashing.
“Something that sensitive, it isn’t handled here, is it?”
“At Richmond House, by the senior doctors.”
It couldn’t be easy.
Simon spoke, still speaking funny with his face as cut up as it was. “What you’re doing here, with the gas, dressing someone up like a firstborn. It’s clear you’re trying something.”
“What of it?” I asked.
“If you cause an incident, the firstborn in the area will react. They’ll hurt anyone in arm’s reach, usually the families they’re assigned to, and then they’ll arrive to help local law enforcement in handling the crisis.”
“What keeps them from doing that when the Baron goes after a family?”
“It’s usually quiet. Most families, they don’t fight back, because they know it’ll hurt their neighbors. But the people here, they’re scum, you know that? They’re criminals, the poor, drunks, child abusers, they’re scrapings from the bottoms of the filthiest barrels. Sometimes they’ll put up a fight, because they don’t have the capacity to be social creatures and care about those around them. But even then, the disturbance of a bit of shouting and furniture being thrown around will only bring two or three, from the nearest houses. Only two or three families will suffer for it.”
“And if someone were to fire a gun?” I asked. I waggled the pistol. “Like this one?”
“I don’t know how loud that is, and we’re underground, but maybe the whole neighborhood?”
“I see,” I said.
It really couldn’t be easy.
Mary had a knife in hand. She was tapping the flat of the blade against her stockinged leg in an agitated fashion.
“We could just make a loud noise, then,” Evette said. “Leave them tied up here, draw the firstborn in, let them get torn to pieces by their own creations.”
“My focus is on this job,” I said. “I’m only saying that because it’s very, very tempting to think about inflicting the worst imaginable fates on you three. My friend here, she’s thinking about a friend of ours, someone who is what doctors should be. She might, like me, be thinking about how very galling it is that you’ve achieved any kind of station or privilege at all, being absolute monsters, while our friend struggles to climb the ladder.”
Clifton set his jaw. Carmen looked away. Simon’s expression was hardened, but what it had hardened into was hard to read, given the damage that had been done to it.
“You call the people out there scrapings of the bottom of the barrels, but you might not know that I’m one of those scrapings,” I said. “And I think-”
I stopped, biting my lip for a second as I shook my head.
“-I think,” I said, my voice low, “That you’re really not in a position to talk about lack of empathy or goodness in someone. I would be very careful about what you’re saying, because talking along those lines, it’s making me want to be creative in how we handle you three.”
“Yesss,” Evette whispered the word.
Mary was nodding. She was listening almost as intently as the trio were, and the knife had ceased slapping against her thigh.
“What we do, we were forced into,” Simon said. “We were students, we didn’t plan to be this, but we got tested, our talents, such as they are, they got noticed, and we were recruited. We’re making the best of a bad situation.”
Was he telling the truth? There was probably some kernel of truth in there. It was even possible that it had been true, once upon a time, when they were new to this city. But the language that Clifton had used to describe the locals of Warrick, and the attitudes the three had displayed before we’d caught them… the evil they were doing had been reduced to a casual sort of wrongness. They had ceased to care a long time ago.
“Well,” I said. I looked at the strips of textured flesh that had been laid out on the table, “That’s good, then. You’ve had practice in this. This situation is similar to what you described. We noticed you. We recruited you. And now you’re going to have to make the best of an even worse situation. Who’s going to be our firstborn?”
None of them wanted to be it. Carmen shrunk into herself, hands fidgeting at her pockets, eyes on the ground.
“Clifton?” I asked.
“I’m still going to be another hour on the gas, and the poison, and the drug.” Clifton said. The answer came quickly enough and smoothly enough that I knew he’d rehearsed it.
“You bastard!” Simon said, wasting no time in realizing what Clifton was doing, and what Clifton had done. Delaying tactics. “No! You’ve walked away from all of this unscathed. Your face wasn’t ruined, you-”
I raised my gun, pointing it at him. He stopped talking.
Ruined as his face was, I could see the resignation on it.
“Unless you’d rather she wear it?” I asked, indicating Carmen.
Simon’s face contorted. He shook his head, before drooping into a defeated slouch.
“At least you’re a gentleman,” Mary said, in her coldest voice.
“Get to work,” I told Carmen, indicating the strips. Then I looked at the man with the mustache. “Clifton. Give me an eye.”
I felt as though I was more conspicuous without an eyepatch than I was with one. My eye was a mess, watering constantly, and it still lacked vision. I’d had a featureless orb beneath the eyepatch for the sake of keeping my overall face in the right shape, and to keep to the Baron’s rules, but it drew attention and served as the sort of thing that people took notice of and mentioned to the people in the know. Eyepatch, featureless orb, neither let me blend into a crowd.
This, at least, was an eye that would look more or less where I looked. The ointments smeared around my eye would reduce swelling and the appearance of redness. It didn’t look pretty, I was sure, but it didn’t draw nearly so many curious glances.
Clifton and Carmen had been left behind, bound with razor wire to the furniture and to each other. If what they’d said about the firstborn was right, then they wouldn’t be too inclined to scream and shout for help. We’d gagged them anyway. The razor wire served as a restraint that could cut them or cut the person they were bound to if they struggled too much.
On Simon’s part, the strips of flesh fit together with barely any seams, sucking close to skin, as though he was wearing leeches from head to toe. His covering of skin was ridged, moist, and already becoming touched with frost where the cold froze the mucous layer. His eyes were deep-recessed, and one of them, thanks to the damage done by razor wire, was distorted slightly in shape, with a notch in the lower eyelid. His mouth, due to the weight of what had been attached to his chin, hung slightly open, his breath fogging in the air.
Now and then, he huffed out a breath or flinched, as though he was in pain. I highly suspected that Simon had gotten the better end of the deal. He was mobile, while the other two were left in the dark, unable to move or speak.
Mary and I led the way to where we had stashed our bags. We pulled them out of hiding, then rifled through the contents, picking out clothes.
“Turn your back,” I told Simon.
Mary and I turned our backs to each other, each keeping an eye on Simon. I shed my outer layer of clothes and changed into something that matched the locals more closely. I found wool socks and pulled them on, before putting my boots back on and lacing them up. Mary added more blades to her arsenal.
“You’re going to have to lose the ribbons,” I told Mary. “I’m dressed, by the by.”
“Three seconds,” she said.
I waited, counting.
Six seconds in, she said, “Okay.”
She was, like I was, wearing nice clothes, but she was dressed in a nice black dress with a white lace collar. She chose to wear a black rain-cloak, the sort with an inner lining for winter and a hood. I’d layered jacket over a dark green sweater, which I wore over a collared shirt.
“I didn’t expect a job,” she said. “I only have the knives I normally wear.”
“Is it enough?” I asked. “We could go looking.”
“I have about twenty of the balanced knives, two of the longer ones with hilts. It’s enough,” she said. “I could do with more wire, but I’m not sure where we could get any.”
She pulled off her ribbons, and was very careful to avoid the wire that was worked into the middle of each ribbon as she stuck out a leg, pulled her skirt up a bit, and tied the ribbons around her upper thigh.
I nodded, tearing my eyes away. I patted myself down, making sure I was equipped.
I had the pistol, I had the gas, I had a knife of my own tucked into my boot, and I had the syringe with the wyvern formula in it. I also had the stimulant and a vial of liquid poison, the remainder of Clifton’s projects, finished after the gas, while Carmen had still been working on our firstborn.
Drugs didn’t work so well on me, be they stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens or the performance enhancing sort. The reasoning for why was much the same reason that poisons, diseases and parasites didn’t find much traction in my system. I’d built up tolerances to most things, and had been given medicines and drugs to help my body cope with the toxic loads that wyvern put into my brain and blood. I could take some drugs, if they were concentrated enough, but once certain volumes and tolerances came into play, there was often a very thin margin of ‘the drug works’ between ‘doesn’t work at all’ and ‘kills Sy’.
But many poisons could double as a medicine, given the right dosage and method of application, and many drugs could double as poisons. That was useful, and poison served as a weapon both Mary and I had some experience with.
In this case, there was also a third benefit. If our ‘firstborn’ Simon started getting antsy for his next dose, as Carmen had been doing as we’d walked away, then the stimulant might serve. I knew it had been made with drugs they’d had on hand for their personal use.
Mary straightened out her skirt, gave me a once-over, and then reached up to fix my hat. Eyepatch aside, my wild black hair was one of the most distinctive parts of me. The cap helped.
I straightened her collar, rather unnecessarily, and flicked at a bit of hair that had fallen forward to drape over her shoulder.
“I’m still mad at you for Lillian,” she said. The cold glare cut right through me.
You’re more emotional than I’ve known you to be since the day we met, or the day you thought we could cut our way past the ghosts and find Percy.
Was she sensing that something was wrong, that my behavior had changed? Consciously? Subconsciously?
“You’d be mad at me, whatever happened,” I said. “It’s okay. I think she’d be happy to know you were mad on her behalf.”
“That’s the important thing,” Mary said. “That she’s happy.”
It was such a simple thing to say, and it cut me to the core, because I knew the consequences of what I was doing, the steps that followed after this job, and I knew that none of it would put a smile on Lillian’s face.
I couldn’t find a response. In a way, I was saved by the ringing of a bell.
Both Mary and I looked at Simon.
“A train,” he said. His transformation slurred his words even worse. “We’re supposed to get out of sight. They evacuate the streets, and only the local law stays, looking for anyone that’s slow.”
I gestured. Mary followed, and Simon hurried to keep up.
I glanced back at our pet monster, with his face that looked like it was melting off, forehead too high, jaw too low, rolls of flesh around the neck, disappearing beneath his clothes.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s just strange. The trains pass at regular times.”
“This isn’t regular?” I asked.
He shook his head, wattles and rolls of loose skin shaking for several moments after his head had stopped. He closed one eye in a wince of light pain as the alien tissues reasserted their grip across one side of his face.
“We’ll watch,” I said. “Mary? Keep an eye out for any officers or firstborn.”
We found a bit of a vantage point, at a rise where several general-purpose stores were clustered. A tailor’s, a grocery.
The train rolled into the station. There were more uniformed members of staff than there had been when we’d departed. That was the first sign that something was up. The soldiers came next. Standing guards, dressed in what would normally be their formal blacks, saved for special events and funerals. Long coats with shiny trim, tall hats, guns at each shoulder. They lined the way from the train to the base of the station, a row of men on each side of the path.
Mary turned her head to look for a moment before going back to keeping an eye out for trouble. “It’s what Mcormick’s wife was saying. The nobles? They were expecting multiple trains to arrive with guests.”
I watched as the people departed the train. Something about their body language. They were dressed well, in some of the highest fashion, but they weren’t dressed like true nobles. They didn’t give off that air.
“No, not quite,” I said. “The upper crust. Politicians, top-tier merchants, military men, the rich. Maybe the most minor of nobles, maybe.”
Mary nodded. She gave up on watching out for trouble. It was fairly clear that nobody was sticking their head out. We were safe for the moment.
“This is the prelude to the real guests arriving,” I said. “I would be very surprised if the Gages weren’t guests of honor down there. I didn’t expect all of this so soon.”
“It’s the wedding party, for the Baron and Emily,” Mary said. “Complete with a small army in security.”
More people and layers of defense between us and the Baron, I thought. This was what it was to be in a position of power. He didn’t even have to try, and he just drifted out of easy reach.
“After these people, after even more trainloads of them with their personal retinues of soldiers, the nobility should arrive,” I said. I took in every detail I could as I stared down at the people who were now moving off of the train platform, not even daring to blink. “Not just a few, but large numbers of them. The Baron’s extended family, at a minimum. Once they start showing up, everything inevitably gets darker, bloodier, and harder for us to manage.”
“What you and Lillian said about Mauer… do you think he’s here, with those guns of his?”
It felt too early. He would still be getting his feet under him, gathering intel.
But Mauer and Fray had surprised me before. I wouldn’t say ‘no’ because I didn’t want to tempt fate.
If Mauer’s men were here with the guns, then the Baron would only show his face for as long as he needed to in order to create plausible deniability. If they weren’t, then we still had a dozen or more nobles to contend with.
“Let’s hurry,” I said. “We have to be in position.”
With every passing moment, our hands would be further tied.