“Idiocy!” Ibott produced a spray of spittle as he shouted. “This entire project, doomed to fail. All it took was for the weakest link to break.”
“Yes sir,” Helen said.
“I should have made you as something standalone, not hitched myself to this sinking ship,” he said. He paced across the room, then wheeled on her. “My reputation!”
She remained quiet. He was hard to deal with when he was like this.
“Did you know anything about this?” he asked, his voice now low and dangerous. “The runt’s defection?”
He wanted a target for his feelings. Helen understood this.
“No sir, and I don’t think it was a defection. He just ran away again.”
He raised his hand to his nose, pinching the bridge. “I’m irritated enough without you disagreeing with me.”
“No you aren’t,” he said. “You’ve been disobedient lately. Talking back, making comments.”
She remained silent.
“Their influence, I suppose. The other children, trampling on my work, muddying the water, teaching you things you don’t need to know.”
“I try to learn from everyone I can, so I can act better when it comes to the job.”
“And you spend the most time around them,” the professor said. He drew nearer, leaning over Helen, one hand on either side of her head. His voice was a growl, “Don’t try to be clever.”
“How has your range of movement been?” he asked.
“I’m doing the exercises, professor. Improvement is very slow.”
“Mm hmmm,” the professor said. He picked up a scalpel. “Contract your bicardia…”
She did, suppressing her hearts and constricting blood vessels throughout her body.
He sliced her, from collarbone to lower stomach. “Open wide.”
Helen moved her shoulders back and arched her chest and stomach open. The tendon net drew her ribcage open. The act of opening would have torn her skin, but her skin was elastic where it counted.
He was rougher than necessary, raising organs and examining them, pinching slightly as he used the calipers. “Dialimbics are swollen. How are the cravings?”
His glasses caught the light as he looked down at her. His lips pressed together for a moment, before he parted them to say, “Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying, sir.”
“The throughput is clearly more than you’re processing. There’s build-up. Build-up affects your judgment. Tell me again, Helen, how are the cravings? Take a minute if you have to, assess it carefully, but don’t lie to me.”
The ‘cravings’ were her mingled desires, gathered together into one strong force. To eat, to desire someone, to want to be close to someone, to want to inflict violence on them, the feelings were one and the same. They were strongest when she dreamed, though she didn’t dream like others did, and when she hunted with the Lambs. The feeling when she got to satiate the craving had been built into her, made a part of her psychology.
But she hadn’t really had cravings recently. There had been some when she was with Mary, but those were the kind of cravings she thought of as supper cravings. She wanted, then she consumed, and then it was all better. Over and over and over, she’d enjoyed indulging those cravings with Mary. They’d divided up the victims equally, Mary with her knife and wire, Helen luxuriating in that feeling of bone breaking and muscle twisting free of where it was supposed to be. It was the tactile equivalent of eating tasty meats and potatoes and vegetables and breads, her body pressed and wrapped around someone as they shuddered, spasmed, and shivered through their death throes. When they were strangers, ordinary people, then it was just dinner. There was none of the rise and fall, the dizzying feeling of awe and being awed, of earning the fear of people that had the fear of others. They were just suppers. Sometimes they were just tea.
But she had barely tasted the more delicious cravings. Mary might do, but Mary was off-limits. The most she could do was play with the idea and tease herself. She hadn’t had any big enemies lately. Ever since the big interrogation surrounding Brechwell, where she had acted like the cravings were more than they were, just to get out of questioning, Professor Ibott had been watching carefully for altered levels. Now he believed he’d found them.
“I think,” Helen said, interrupting the professor from his examination of tendon nets, “That they’re a little worse.”
“I thought so,” he said, sounding so very self-satisfied. “Whatever the other experiments told you or taught you, you can’t lie to me. I can look at this body of yours that I built and know exactly what state you’re in. Now, be more specific, are those cravings a little worse or a lot worse?”
She started to answer, then paused. “I don’t know.”
“Mm hmm. I’m going to encourage a stricter limbic cycling and extract some of the material from the central limbic gland. This should keep the more aggressive feelings from building up and depress the cravings. Literally less of the emotion circulating through your system, affecting the various systems.”
He was silent as he took a syringe to the organ, withdrawing clear fluid.
“A quick bar test… respiration systems are both working fine. Hearts…” he touched her hearts, one with each hand, and looked to the clock in his office, “Synchronous but beating faster than the norm. Digestion…”
He gripped her stomach. It churned within his hand, to the point he could feel it.
“Digestion is agitated,” he remarked. “Heart rates and digestion should normalize with the dampening of the cravings.”
He carefully set everything back in place, and she craned her head forward to look between cresting ribs and into the inside of her own body, shifting her muscles and tendon nets to hold things in place once they were in the right places. She closed her ribcage without being asked, and waited patiently while he closed her up. The glue would hold the seam closed. He applied powder, and the nutrients in powder and glue would help keep the bleeding at bay while providing nutrients that helped accelerate the healing. Her body would naturally heal it until there wasn’t anything even resembling a scar.
“Stretch tests, then strength tests, then get dressed. You’ll prepare my dinner.”
Dinner with the professor? It wasn’t usual. Still, she would play along. “What are we eating?”
“I’m eating. You’ll eat when I’m done.”
She felt a spike of emotion, coinciding with vivid mental pictures of bones breaking, muscle twisting, blood spilling, and agonized screams.
“Aw,” she said, in a vast understatement of what she was feeling.
“You’re well into your adolescence, Helen,” he said. “You’ve been influenced by lower quality experiments, and the two things combined have left you rebellious. The Academy wants to keep the Lambsbridge project on hold for the duration of all necessary investigations, which I see as a fine idea. Some time away from the other experiments will do you some good, and we can fill the time with some sharp reminders about the hierarchy between you and I.”
“Yes, professor,” she said, holding back the welling emotion and confusion. No Lambs? Delayed meals?
“Stretch while you listen to me,” he told her.
She touched her foot to one shoulder, then the other, then did the same, extending her leg behind her. She switched legs.
“My plan for you was always to prove your worth as part of this insipid project and then leave it in the final years to be my companion, caretaker, bodyguard, and an icon of my talent as a creator. I will not have you be lured down this damaged, broken road that the other experiments in your group have laid before you. Your stomach, above all else, is the easiest way to rebuke you. I will see you be obedient, Helen. You will eat what I deem appropriate, when I deem it appropriate, until we’ve established a pattern of behavior for you that I deem appropriate.”
“Yes, professor,” she said, now very subdued. She used one hand on the table to help rotate her torso around, then rotated it back one hundred and eighty degrees to its usual position. She wanted to say things but she didn’t know what to say. Her own silence felt so uncomfortable. She carried through the routine movements, arms out to the sides, her head dropping down to touch her kneecaps, then reversing direction, to touch the back of her knees.
“If the program is even resumed, I may pull you from it,” he said. “We’ll see how your behavior adjusts in the interim.”
“Yes, professor,” she said.
There was a knock on the door. Helen and Ibott both looked.
“Enter,” Ibott said.
The door opened. Helen smiled as she saw the woman enter. Red haired, pretty, with a white coat. The woman looked at her, then looked away, one hand raised to block her own view.
“Lacey!” Helen exclaimed. She spotted a figure hanging back behind Lacey. “Lillian!”
Ibott gave her a sharp look, and she shrank back.
“No need for shyness, doctor,” Ibott said, voice dripping with derision. “Helen is wearing underclothes, undergoing a routine examination. Have some respect for what your profession means, and don’t be so shy about the human body.”
“My apologies, professor. Ahem,” Lacey said, clearing her throat. She dropped her hand and looked straight at Helen. “Helen. Your presence is requested at Claret Hall.”
Helen looked to Ibott. She didn’t want to do the wrong thing and have her meals delayed.
“I’ll come too,” he said. “Dress, Helen.”
She turned to her folded clothes and quickly put on her stockings, skirt, blouse, scarf, and coat, stepping into her boots. She produced a comb, picking it up and running it through her hair, being careful not to comb out the arranged rolls, and set the comb down before she reached the stairs.
Lillian looked so unhappy. Helen calculated the best smile to give her, warm and sympathetic.
She liked Lillian so. She didn’t ever crave Lillian like she sometimes craved the other Lambs, but she still liked Lillian, which was a weird thing she sometimes struggled to process.
“Mary’s back,” Lillian said, her voice hushed.
Helen’s eyes widened. Mary was back!
“She’s hurt. We think Sy- Sylvester hurt her,” Lillian said.
Helen blinked. There were things she was supposed to say here, but it was complicated territory. Ibott was so close by and he didn’t like Sy at all. Lacey was here and she didn’t like Sylvester much either, but she worked with Sylvester before and she understood him. That was probably why she was here.
But Lillian especially-specially had been close to Sylvester. She’d slept in Sylvester’s bed and Sylvester had slept in hers, the two had kissed and called each other boyfriend and girlfriend, and those things were nice but not too important. What was important was that when Lillian was happiest she used to always look to Sylvester first and when she was saddest, it was the same.
And Mary, in a very similar way, was an important person to Lillian. One important person of Lillian’s had hurt the other, and Lillian had to be feeling like she wanted to turn to someone for comfort. Except the person she wanted to turn to was the source of the hurt and he was gone.
It felt so wrong.
Lillian flinched as Helen moved, stepping in close. She flinched again as Helen wrapped her in a hug.
“Helen!” Professor Ibott barked.
Helen ignored the man. He could punish her and make her eat mush or not let her eat at all, but this was more important. She hugged Lillian tight, but kept it a safe-tight, and she felt Lillian relax, hugging her back.
“Helen!” Ibott shouted, harsher. All around them, students who were going about their business turned to look.
With her mouth a short distance from Helen’s ear, Lillian spoke under her breath, so quiet that ears that weren’t augmented wouldn’t have heard. “Jamie’s gone. They’re looking for him, but I don’t think they realize he actually left.”
Helen didn’t reply or give any signal she’d heard.
Ibott seized Helen’s shoulder. She didn’t let go at that, but Lillian did, pulling out of the hug and stepping back.
Jamie was gone, too? Mary was back, then Jamie was gone, and all this while, Lillian was miserable. Helen processed it, but she couldn’t simplify it down. It was a big, complicated thing that reached into too many parts of her life, from one Lamb to the next, to food, to Ibott, to the future, all like a big branching tree that she had to somehow figure out how to put into a box. She couldn’t, so it loomed, lingering, taking up far too much space in her head.
Ibott kept one hand firmly on her shoulder, steering her as they walked to Claret Hall.
In silence, They made their way to the same place they’d gone during the Brechwell interrogation. Ashton was there, with his team of doctors. So were Mrs. Earles, Sy’s other doctors, and Jamie’s doctors.
Yes. This was a big, nasty, branching tree. It all reached very far, too complicated to put away neatly.
“Helen, stand here,” Ibott said. “You are not to approach the other experiments.”
“Yes, professor,” Helen said. He was still so agitated and upset. She could feel the pain from where he’d gripped her shoulder.
“If I find out that any of you approached her,” Ibott said, standing straighter as he addressed everyone else in the hallway, “I will end your careers or have you put down.”
A moment after that declaration, he knocked on the door and let himself into the big room.
Helen’s ears caught words that she wasn’t meant to hear.
“What a dick,” spoken from one of Jamie’s doctors to another.
“I’d kill for half of his talent,” was the reply.
Ibott was so clever a man, Helen knew, so talented, with the knowledge of whole teams of expert doctors. Knowledge was power, but he didn’t know how to use that power. He puffed himself up, threw his weight around, and achieved so little.
She didn’t love him, she didn’t respect him. But without him to manage the important parts, Helen’s feelings would be unregulated, her body would go askew, and pieces would stop fitting together in a way that let her be beautiful. There would be only cravings, and a broken, awkward body, with angular, distorted joints. Even her organs might fall into disarray.
Leaving wasn’t possible. If she left, she wouldn’t be herself.
Again, that spike of emotion, visions of squeezing people in ugly, unsatisfying ways, an arm around the head, using both hands to ineffectually tear at the chin, jaw and teeth at the bottom of someone’s mouth. A frustrated sort of destruction that would never satisfy.
She’d been stationed far enough away that she couldn’t talk to Lillian or Ashton. It bothered her, churning up that emotion and the images.
The sound of footsteps drew her attention. She fixated on the source. Lillian.
Ignoring Ibott’s orders and threats, Lillian crossed the hallway. She turned her head to look at the other doctors and experiments, paying attention to each one in turn. As if she was daring them, challenging them.
Lillian stood square in front of Helen, opened her jacket, and reached inside. Several napkins wrapped something soft and sweet. Much of it had squeezed out between the napkins. Helen worked to peel away the napkin.
“You squished it when you hugged me,” Lillian said, her voice a hush.
“I like squished things,” Helen said.
“I remembered you said that you never got sweets from Ibott, because he doesn’t bake, and we’re under house arrest, so I thought it might be a while, and-”
A noise made Lillian turn her head, nervous. Just someone coughing.
Lillian’s voice cracked a little, “-And that was a lovely hug, Helen. Thank you.”
Still unsure what to say, Helen put a hand behind Lillian’s neck, leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
That done, she dropped to a cross-legged sitting position in one fluid movement, hunched over the carrot cake.
She shut her eyes as she took a bite, finding and meeting cravings all at once. It was somehow better than it might feel to wrap herself around Mauer and twist his arms and legs off. Better than it would feel to squeeze Sy or Mary until they cracked and popped.
Lillian was such a dear, and this piece of squished cake helped Helen make sense of Lillian and how she could like Lillian so, yet not want to squish or bend Lillian in a hundred different ways. Even when she had to feel so very mixed up, Lillian cared about others. It made Helen feel better in ways that she hadn’t realized she felt bad, to know she’d made sense of this one small piece of the world.
Helen finished and licked the remnants of the cake from her fingers. She hadn’t lost a crumb, but she double checked anyway.
The door banged open. Ibott appeared, and Helen felt a bit sad at seeing him. Being here, even separated from the other Lambs, was better than being with only Ibott.
She started to rise to her feet. The act seemed to upset the already agitated Ibott.
“Stay there,” he snapped. “They want to talk to you. When you’re done, you’ll come straight to me.”
“Yes, professor,” she said, silently elated.
He hadn’t even made it all the way down the hall when others emerged from the room. Mary was one person, looking just as unhappy as Lillian, using crutches to walk.
Other professors and Academy types left after Mary did, taking their leave, many of them looking annoyed and upset.
Hayle was the last to exit. He beckoned Ashton and Helen to draw nearer.
The moment she was close enough, Helen wrapped her arms around Ashton from behind. He smelled so good, almost as good a smell as the cake was a taste. She could smell the puff of good things from him as he reacted happily to the contact, even if his acting was still so very terrible.
Hayle looked at Lacey and Sylvester’s doctors, then heaved out a sigh. “As is so often the case with Sylvester, things have been rendered… very inconvenient.”
“Hear hear,” Lacey said, quiet enough that she probably thought only she could hear it.
Hayle spoke, “For those who don’t know, this should be commonly accepted knowledge amid the Academy and the Crown by tomorrow, because certain parties are going out of their way to broadcast it. The Baron Richmond is dead, as are his sisters, killed in his home territory of Warrick.”
Helen watched Lillian’s eyes widen.
“Mary professes to have gone after Sylvester, who went after the Baron as his last act before running off to places unknown. All signs point to Sylvester being the sole culprit in the Baron’s death, using poisons and almost going out of his way to sign the kill by using a crude overdose of Wyvern, of all things.
“The fact that Mary Cobourn returned and her involvement isn’t otherwise apparent is a point in her favor, as is the note we produced with her handwriting, several days ago. She will remains under suspicion, and a full investigation is still pending. Until some future date that we’ve yet to establish, likely four months to a year from now, the Lambsbridge program is on hold, and the Lambs will not participate in any investigations or activities. Lambs that wish to go anywhere but a home or a lab must be escorted. If any of you are found deviating from this, then we will have to assume the worst, terminate the program, and cancel your individual projects. Believe me when I say I don’t want to do this.”
Hayle looked at each Lamb in turn. Mary, Helen, Lillian, and Ashton.
Apparently satisfied by the degrees of seriousness he observed, he continued, “The Caterpillar project cannot be found, and we suspect he’s slipped away, using a keen memory of personnel, train, and other schedules to simply disappear on us. Given the chance he has departed to some other part of Radham, over distress about Sylvester and Mary’s disappearances, we’re giving him twenty-four hours to turn up. After that, he’ll be assumed a fugitive and traitor.
“As I said, Sylvester has a way of putting people in tough spots. A bounty has been placed on the head of Sylvester. I didn’t have a choice in this. Another bounty will soon be on Jamie’s head, if he doesn’t turn up. I’m left hoping that the bounties prove fruitful and that this situation sees an easy resolution, for your sakes and for mine. Do I expect it? No. More likely is that the Academy will have to rely on the Lambsbridge project to seek out enemies like Fray and now Sylvester as well. You can imagine my dilemma, because it is very, very hard to believe that you would give your all and hunt a former comrade.”
Lillian folded her arms, shrinking into herself a little. Mary let go of a crutch to reach out for Lillian’s hand, placing her hand over it.
“Find him. Bring him home. He will be imprisoned or restrained by some means, and will return to his position as one of the Lambs,” Hayle said. “Admittedly in a way that lets him coordinate, plan, and strategize, I’m sure he can adapt to a change of role, in that. By phone, radio, or other device, he can still play a part in your individual missions. You will be able to continue interacting with him and, if it’s even possible given how insufferable he is, enjoy his company. He will be safe, above all else, with my guarantee on that. Lillian will be set on her accelerated track to get her black coat, which Mary has mentioned is something Sy was upset about, and the Lambs will remain together. The same holds true for Jamie. I’ve talked to Mary and I’ve observed the Lambs, and I believe this is something most or all of you want. It’s the best resolution I can give you.”
“What if we can’t find him?” Helen asked.
“Then it’s a dark mark against the Lambsbridge project,” Professor Hayle said. “I will be sent away, effectively demoted, and the Lambsbridge project will pass on to someone else, who will very probably cease all funding in favor of projects they have a personal stake in, and can claim full credit for.”
There were nods all around.
“Go. Back to your dormitory, to Lambsbridge, or to your respective professors. Helen, you’ll go back to Professor Ibott for the time being, at his insistence.”
“Yes, professor,” Helen said. Others echoed her.
The Lambs departed, making their way to the exit of Claret Hall. The doctors and professors who oversaw their individual projects hung back, talking among one another about the future of the project as a whole, and of the individual projects. Mary’s crutches clacked against the wooden floor as she moved with more force and anger than necessary.
“He’s a bastard,” Mary said.
There was no question or wondering about who she was referring to.
“He was so torn up,” Lillian said, quiet. “I’m so very angry at him, and I feel so bad for him at the same time. I can’t imagine how I’ll ever do what Hayle is suggesting and hunt him down.”
“It feels strange, hearing people talk,” Ashton said, “Because I expect him to say something mean or funny, but he doesn’t.”
“We all miss him,” Lillian said. “But yes, he’s a bastard. I don’t think there’s any argument on that.”
Helen and Lillian worked together to open the doors for Mary to pass through. They formed a group outside of Claret Hall. They were each going in individual directions. Mary to the doctor for her leg, Lillian to the dormitory, Helen to professor Ibott, and Ashton to Lambsbridge or an appointment.
“How are you, Helen?” Lillian asked. Ashton, still in Helen’s embrace, craned his head up to look at his big sister.
Helen offered her best smile. “How am I ever? I liked the cake. I would give you all of the best hugs in the world if you could sneak me more. I think my days to come will be cakeless.”
“About Sylvester, I mean,” Lillian said, quiet.
“I want to hunt him, a little,” Helen said, studying her own feelings. “I’ve always wanted to and it feels a little like I’m allowed to now, and that’s a little fun. But the professor took away some of my cravings because he said my limbic glands were taking in too much and accumulating too much. Even though he was wrong.”
“Your limbic glands?” Lillian asked.
“Yes,” Helen said. She knew Lillian had read the notes necessary to understand her biology and better do field care.
“Were your cravings severe?” Lillian asked.
“No, no they weren’t.”
“Okay,” Lillian said. “Your glands are supposed to process emotion. If it’s not cravings… is it possible you’re sad?”
Helen blinked, cocking her head to one side, and flashed a smile. “I don’t think I get sad, like that.”
“What are you feeling, then? I’m trying to decide if I should tell you to tell Ibott.”
Helen reached up to her chest, and dug her fingernails into cloth and flesh, twisting as if she could somehow demonstrate the sensations that were just sitting there, so easy to ignore but so very big. “I’m feeling… I’m feeling like things are complicated and they’re all snarly and big inside of me, like a tree with hooks for branches, and it’s all caught up in my organs and tugging things wrong, but they’re ideas as much as emotions. I don’t think it’s sad. It’s not the opposite of the good feeling that comes with bending people into impossible shapes or eating good food.”
“Could you say…” Lillian ventured, “That you’re troubled?”
Troubled was a good word. Helen dug her fingers in deeper, twisting at fabric even more, then let her hands drop.
She nodded, feeling her hair bounce with the motion.
“I think we’re all troubled,” Mary said, with anger still in her voice. She stared down at the ground, as if she was imagining Sylvester lying there.
“I’ll get you some sweets when I can,” Lillian said. “If that helps.”
Helen nodded fiercely.
“And Mary, we need to talk, about a lot of things,” Lillian said. “Come to my room, later? If you can? I’ll see if I can be the person that looks after your leg, so we can spend more time together.”
Mary nodded, still not making eye contact. So angry. So very angry and bitter.
Lillian reached out to rub Mary’s shoulder. It seemed to prompt a response, opening the door for Mary to talk.
“The other bad seeds,” Mary said. “My brothers, Percy called them. When it mattered, they abandoned me. They were a group, and I was on my own, and they made decisions without consulting me. Percy told me he cared, and then he walked away.”
“And Sylvester did the same thing,” Lillian said, her voice tight.
Mary nodded, blinking hard.
“Come to my room tonight,” Lillian said. “We’ll talk.”
“He-” Mary started. She cleared her throat. “I understand why he did it, I think. A lot of things he said before he actually shot me, it made sense when I realized he was agonizing over it. That he felt bad and he knew exactly what he was doing to me, to you, and to us. But he still did it, because… remember when Jamie told him he needed to be selfish?”
There were some nods.
“He might have excuses, but he’s still a bastard for doing it like this,” Lillian said, very firmly. “And if we have to hunt him and drag him back, he deserves it. But we have a little while to figure it out, and to see how much worse this gets.”