“He modified the Smythe Bullard,” I said, under my breath, “He filed down the seam.”
“Catcher likes to fiddle with his gadgets.”
“It’s my go-to practice lock when I’m re-learning and I can’t get it.”
“You can’t get it because it’s your go-to,” Jamie said. “Muscle memory. I run into snags like that, things that should feel natural that catch me every time.”
“So I should forget? If I had a fresh dose of Wyvern, I might be able to, but-”
“Keep at it,” Jamie said.
Five locks down, six if I included the hand-lock Catcher had placed on my left hand. I was almost done freeing Jamie.
On my sixth attempt, probably owing to the fact that my previous attempts had scratched a faint groove in the tin of the lock, I was able to get that hair of traction I needed to get the lock to start rotating.
I turned around to check the next lock – the cuffs were like manacles, attached to his upper arms, with a bar running between them instead of a chain. I’d seen it as Catcher had pulled it out of his jacket. The lock was more about strength and having a configuration that could be neatly packaged together than it was about being fancy or hard to crack. I shut my eyes, and did it by feel. Three pins to lift. Nothing complicating my attempts.
I could hear the guard making his way down the hall. He didn’t even have the courtesy to walk slowly.
“Got you,” I said, gripping the bar so it didn’t fall apart and clatter to the ground.
“Give me the picks,” he said. I took a second to put the lock down. Before I’d even set it on the bed, Jamie had snatched it from my hand. He grabbed for the picks. “Hurry.”
“Hurry, you say, like I haven’t been,” I griped.
“The fellow across the hall is getting worse, fast enough that I can tell,” Jamie said, under his breath. He removed the first lock at my wrists, then tugged the next lock down.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I can remember what those welts looked like when I last saw them, and I can look at them now-” Jamie said, pausing as he looked over my shoulder, picks still working at the locks. “They’ve spread. More spots, old spots are bigger, and there are dark centers to the biggest ones.”
“Right,” I said.
Jamie removed the second lock. The clatter momentarily drowned out the guard’s footsteps.
“Damn,” I said, quiet. “Did he put all of the easy ones on me? Is this like the barber with the bad haircut?”
“No complicated ones so far,” Jamie said, his voice a hush. “Same ideas apply to most. Moment I run into one with an unfamiliar concept, though, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I heard a sudden shout, then a string of cuss-words.
“It hurts,” the sick man mewled the words. I leaned forward to see better, only for Jamie to jerk me back in his direction and continue picking. The guard was a matter of six steps from our location.
Jamie very quickly and quietly removed the cuffs he’d been picking.
“Stand back and away from the bars! Move! Now stay there!”
There was an edge of panic to the man’s voice.
The guard strode past us, straight for the door, not even looking our way. I shut my eyes and shook my head.
We hadn’t been fast enough. Now things got harder.
“I’m stuck,” Jamie said. “There’s a lock I don’t know how to crack. I try to apply tension and it just rotates. I think I have to have it at a specific rotation with specific pin placement?”
“I dealt with one of those. Do a full rotation, tap the first pin as you go around, see if you can find the space it’s supposed to go into. Once you get it, hold it as steady as-”
“I already did the full rotation.”
“Then do the second pin. The tallest pin will end up being the one that works,” I said.
“The rotating cylinder is sitting inside another cylinder. It might be that both cylinders have to be at the right rotation?”
“What?” I asked. I tried to twist my head around to see. “How the hell does that work?”
“I don’t know!” Jamie said. “And hold still! I’m checking and I think there are a few false notches to catch the pin.”
Catcher’s gravelly voice came from the other end of the hallway. “Having fun?”
“He can hear us,” I said, speaking quieter.
“I can, Sylvester,” Catcher said. He sounded smug.
“You’re a butt, Catcher!”
“I had those custom made, you know,” he said. “Call me names all you want, Sy. You’ll still have your hands bound behind your back until I hand over the keys.”
I glanced at Jamie.
“There’s only one slot for a key,” Jamie said. He double checked, moving my arms this way and that.
“Cylinder nestled in one cylinder… one key nestled in another key? Mechanical key, changes form as the other key slides in. A wedge shape, or-”
“Got it in one, Sylvester,” Catcher taunted me.
I knew what the problem was, and I knew just how unlikely it was for Jamie to figure out a way to pick the lock. Alone, at least.
“Do me a favor,’ I said. “Help me get a good look at the thing? I might be able to get my thumb around and hold something or jiggle something.”
Jamie slid the cuffs as far down my wrists as they would go. They’d been around the thickest part of my forearm, and now sat around my wrists and a portion of my hands. Jamie held the cuffs still while I contorted my shoulders, striving to see around behind me to the cuffs.
The guard who’d been walking the length of the hallway returned. He carried a stepladder and a sheet that could have been a flag if the dimensions were different. It bore a asclepius symbol in white, snake wound around rod, contained within the belly and head of a red bird that had its wings outstretched. The bird was crowned in red.
“Quarantine,” Jamie said under his breath.
“Guard,” Catcher said, his voice carrying. “You should know the boys in the cell behind you are escaping their restraints. They will be out of their cell shortly.”
The guard turned, giving us a look. Jamie didn’t even bother to hide his lack of restraints. I could see the guard’s expression change. He was young, fresh faced, with eyebrows that had been plucked very neatly. He was handsome, but a very artfully and effortfully put-together sort of handsome. I suspected there were girls out there who very much liked that.
“I’ll get to it in a minute,” the guard said. He stepped up onto the little ladder and hooked up one corner of the sheet on the wall.
“Help me!” the man in the cell begged.
The man ran his hand against the edge of the sheet as he stepped down off the ladder, fixing it to the wall. He then walked to the other side of the cell, then stepped back onto the ladder, hooking up another corner and sealing another side of the sheet.
His efforts to seal the bottom edge of the sheet were frustrated by the man’s hand sticking through the bars. Fingers clutched at one bottom edge of the sheet, fierce tugs coinciding with pleading cries. The soldier had elbow-length gloves on, but he still seemed shy of the reaching hand.
“Can’t figure this,” Jamie said. He let go of the shackles.
My attention went back to the shackles, my wrists, fingers and thumb working to move the shackles back up to where they were more comfortable and weren’t squeezing my hands.
“Give me your foot,” I ordered Jamie.
“My foot?” Jamie raised his shoe, while I stooped down. He got my intention immediately, and put his hands on my shoulders, setting the shoe on the chain of the shackles.
I had to fight to stay upright and not have Jamie’s whole body weight drive me backward with my knuckles and fingers striking the ground behind me. It got even harder as I felt the damage the shackles were doing as they were driven down and past my hands.
They slid down past my hands clattering to the floor.
The benefits of being small. The cuffs had been cinched as tight as they could get, and they were still too big around.
Jamie had the remaining shackles off a moment later.
I gingerly rubbed my wrists and arms, with much of the gingerness coming from the fact that I’d scraped off much of the flesh at the base knuckles of each pinky and thumb. I was bleeding a fair bit.
I flashed Jamie a grin. His returning smile was more reserved.
Right. The quarantine.
The soldier was just finishing up. Jamie and I turned our attention to the bed.
I removed the case from the pillow. Jamie, meanwhile, moved roughly half of the collected shackles to the upper end of the bed. He folded up the top sheet so it had the shackles in it, while I moved shackles into the pillowcase.
“They’re up to something,” Catcher observed.
“I know!” the soldier said. he was still working on sealing the sheet in place. Not a perfect seal. But if there was anything airborne, it would help to keep things contained. The glue at the edges of the sheet would also slow smaller parasites. “I’ll deal with it in a minute. Hell, if you lot couldn’t have waited another ten minutes to start getting sick and causing trouble, I could have finished my shift. Now I’m stuck in this quarantine with you for the next three to twelve hours-”
His words elicited insults, shouts of dismay and other commentary from the collected prisoners in the little jailhouse.
“-while the next shifts lock down the building. It can’t be easy.”
The jeers and insults continued. Some people were throwing balled up paper at the soldier now. Some of that paper was wet.
I glanced at the little toilet in the corner of our cell. I knew where the other prisoners were getting that water.
I was glad I’d kept the biggest of the lockpicks. I turned my attention to the cell door, both picks in hand.
It didn’t take long. There were no tricks. Only an inordinate number of very heavy pins.
“They’ve opened the door,” Catcher observed, his tone patient.
The soldier was still ignoring us. The sticky part at the edge of the sheet had stuck to the man’s arm, and he was doing his damndest to hold on to the sheet. With the clumsy gloves he wore, the soldier couldn’t retrieve the sheet. All his efforts were doing was keeping the man in the cell from tearing down the sheet altogether.
I hefted my sack of shackles. I paused.
A month ago, I’d moved the ring at my thumb to my finger. It felt out of place there, but it being out of place was a good thing. It made me aware of it, and colored my actions. I might have paid far more attention to it, had Jamie not been around, but he was, and for most occasions, that was sufficient.
This was different.
I rapped my knuckles against the back of his head. “I got you. Sack of shackles to the back of the head. Brains splattered out across the floor.”
He twisted around, giving me an incredulous look.
“We’re going to help you, and relieve you of your keys,” I said. “Then you’re going to take about five or six steps that way, and we’re going to lock you in the cell we were just in. Agreed? Because the alternative is that I pick up this sack, or you stop doing what you’re doing and deal with both of us at once, and… you don’t want to do that.”
He shifted his grip on the sheet, rising to a standing position, and kicked at the bars, trying to strike at the man’s hand.
The red blotches on the wrist were angrier than before. Now that I was close, I could see the protrusions at the center. Like Jamie had said, there were dark spots in the center of the largest, ugliest spots. Each spot had a little spine sticking out of it, barely thicker than a hair.
“Maybe you’ve got a whole line of people who’ve said the same thing, but I don’t think my pride as a soldier of the Crown will let me do that,” the soldier said.
He winced and ducked his head a little as someone threw sodden paper at his face. It smacked against his temple.
“I’ll tell you what’ll happen if you press this,” I said. I indicated Jamie. “He and-”
I indicated the hand, “And he are going to keep you occupied while I walk away. I’m going to go to the cells, and I’m going to open them just like I opened mine. Then it’s going to be… three and a half against one. I’ll open another cell, and it’ll be four and a half against one. Do you see how this goes?”
He diverted his attention as he focused on keeping the man from tearing down the sheet.
“I’m playing nice. I don’t play nice very often,” I said. “Please don’t make me take the other course. Because at least one of the guys I free is going to hurt, maim, or kill you.”
I could see him draw in a breath, puffing himself up, tensing as he drew together the courage to stand up to me and face his fate.
“Take the offer,” Catcher said.
The soldier looked over.
“I’m on your side,” Catcher said. “I want to take them in, keep the peace, maintain the quarantine. But this isn’t worth fighting. You won’t stop them, and you won’t change their minds. The best you’ll be able to do is take out the one with the glasses fast and tackle the smaller one with the mouth. But it’s not worth the risk. Poison, hidden weapons, deceit, surprising displays of skill… let them help you, for all of our sakes.”
It was perhaps the most I’d ever heard Catcher say in one go. His rough-edged voice made him sound like the grandfather to end all grandfathers, but was still strong enough to be a dad or an army sergeant. He commanded attention when he wanted to, which was relatively rare. Most of the time he simply used his voice and a few choice words to scare messes into the pants of people he was tracking.
I saw the soldier set his jaw, then turn his back to Jamie and me, bending down to adjust the cover.
“How important is this damn thing anyway?” I asked. I stuck a leg through the bars to step on the sheet with the toes of my shoe, adjusting as needed to give the soldier slack when necessary.
“It’s important,” the man said. “Don’t let him touch your skin.”
“Won’t,” I said. “Even odds it won’t affect me.”
“It hurts!” the man inside the cell screamed. He reached for another part of the sheet and I stepped on his fingers. I shifted my weight to trap them for the seconds the soldier needed to fix the sheet in place. Jamie was fixing part of the sheet that had come away from the wall.
“There,” the soldier said, as I pulled my foot back and he pressed the sheet down. The prisoner’s hands pressed against the sheet and pried against the place where it met the floor and found no leeway.
“It’s inside my veins!” the man’s cry was ragged.
The soldier stood. He faced me.
“You going to cooperate?” I asked. “Stick to your word?”
“I didn’t make any promises,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m going to cooperate,” he said, before I could say anything further. “But I want you to listen to me.”
He dropped his voice so that others wouldn’t easily hear. “The warbeasts that came back from Lugh? They had some skin problems. The skin problems became growths, and the growths flowered. We think that it spreads by air once it flowers. But we’re not sure. We can’t know yet. It’s still early, understand? You need to stay, until they know.”
“I know the approach the Academy takes to problems. I’m- ” I said, stopping short, before indicating Jamie, “we’re one of those problems. They burn everything down. They kill the bystanders. It’s what they tried to do in Lugh.”
“I was in Lugh,” the soldier said.
“So were we,” Jamie said. “You know it’s true, then. You know what they’ll do here, if it’s that serious.”
“I trust they’ll find an answer,” the soldier said. Stubborn to his core.
“I don’t,” I said. “How long do the symptoms take to show up?”
“I don’t know,” the soldier said. “It’s random. That one there in the cell was fine for hours. No sign. For others it was quick. Within an hour.”
Of course the people who’d designed this thing had gone that route. It had to be as nasty as possible. I wasn’t an Academy student, but I’d spent enough time around the doctors to know the basics. Diseases that killed their patients too fast killed off the populations before those populations that could spread them. Diseases that took too long left too big a window to be cured. But something variable?
Assuming this disease even killed. Assuming it was a disease.
“There’s no reason to assume it’ll have spread to any of us here,” I said. “No reason to believe it was airborne.”
“We can’t know,” the soldier said.
“I do know that if my friend and I stay and let ourselves get caught, then we’re going to get dragged back to the Academy and for all intents and purposes, we’ll be dead. We’re going to make a break for it.”
I glanced at Jamie as I said it, almost but not quite making it a question. He nodded at me.
The soldier shook his head. Then he walked over to the cell Jamie and I had occupied. He started to shut the door, and I hurried to put my foot out, blocking it from closing.
“Keys,” I said, holding out my hand.
He folded his arms.
Man. For a pretty-boy, he was stubborn. Bulldoggish.
I reached past the door and to his belt. He didn’t fight me as I lifted the key-ring free of his belt.
Quickly, I walked down the length of the hallway. I surveyed the prisoners as I passed them, giving them a quick read. Then I began unlocking cells.
“You could break out of that cell,” I observed aloud, as I drew nearer to Catcher.
“I could,” he said. “But I told the Academy I would cooperate with its every order. They’re looking for any excuse to take me in after I deliver my quarry. I think they think they can grill me for information on Fray. I’m not going to give them anything they can use.”
“They’ll cheat you anyway,” I said.
“They’ll try. I know how these games are played, Sylvester.”
I nodded slowly, then turned to the next prisoner and unlocked the cell.
“My group isn’t the only one after you two,” Catcher said. “They’ll be on you the moment you’re outside. There are others who were watching and waiting to see if we failed and if they could swoop in. Scavengers. They’ll brave the quarantine because they think they’re immune, like you or me should be, or because they’re reckless.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. He took a step back away from the door, then sat down on the bed.
That was that, then. He’d warned me. The rest was up to me.
As I walked away, I heard him mutter, “I can’t believe you slipped those cuffs.”
Warily, the prisoners were gathering in the hallway. A pair of them were advancing on the cell that held the soldier.
“Touch him, and we’re going to have a problem,” I said, in my best ‘authority’ voice, hoping to impart something similar to my voice that Catcher had managed with his.
I was a little surprised when they listened. Mauer would have been proud.
“You listen to what we say,” I said, indicating Jamie again. “You stay close, and we get free. They won’t have too many armed men handling the quarantine, so listen to me and be smart about this.”
Nobody talked back. A few people shifted position, clearly uncomfortable. The ones I’d have to watch.
It reminded me of my motley group in Lugh, though these guys were mostly thugs. I found myself wishing I had a regular supply of people to draw from, instead of having to constantly work with improvised groups and read the people I was commanding to look for the tells. It would be so convenient.
I looked at Jamie.
“Thinking about the building layout,” he said. “We’ll want to go around to the side. They’ll be setting up the main quarantine point out front, something on each of the ground-floor windows, doors barred, barricaded and sealed.”
I nodded. “Punch through?”
I addressed the group. “We move on the side door. Disable but don’t hurt or kill the guards. Once we’re through, we go our separate ways.”
There were a few nods.
Jamie and I worked in concert to push open the doors at the end of the hallway opposite Catcher. There was a sheet erected to seal the doors, much as one had been used to seal that particular cell.
“This is a bad one,” Jamie said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Fray?”
Jamie ended up leading the way, negotiating our path through the hallways and stairwells. We caught some brief glimpses of people, but with only a little wariness and care in how we picked our path, Jamie, the five enlisted criminals and I were all able to slip by without hearing any call of alarm.
We started down the hallway, and Jamie raised a hand, warning. He pointed at the door and gestured for my benefit.
End of the road.
I picked the two biggest guys. “You two through the door first. They won’t have that many guards. One or two doing the seal, probably. Get your hands on their guns before they do. If they’re wearing the gloves, they’ll be clumsy. Be confident, be fast, and grab them.”
That got some nods.
I raised my hand, fingers extended, and then dropped it, giving the go-ahead.
Funner still to have two beefy bastards charge down the hallway and through the door, with Jamie, me, and the other criminals right on their heels.
The effect was surprisingly anticlimactic. The guards outside were dealt with fast enough that Jamie and I didn’t even get to play a role. I reached for one’s belt and collected a gun, then grabbed Jamie’s wrist, tugging him along as we changed course, using the short wall that surrounded the police station for cover as we put some distance between ourselves and the door.
People were staring, but their attention was on the bigger criminals and the fight. There were other soldiers and doctors approaching the building, likely to help with quarantine measures, but we were small and we were non-threatening. There weren’t enough people on the street or near the building to point the finger at us and let out a cry of warning.
The convicts I’d enlisted had been the ones with the tattoos and the body language that had suggested they would follow orders. They hadn’t been the types, going by my gut, that I’d felt would easily slip the noose and escape into the city. Maybe one or two would, given some luck, but that was a dim ‘maybe’.
Given the unlikeliness of the disease spreading by air or proximity or the most chance of chance contact between glove and shoe-sole, pre-flowering, I suspected we weren’t about to be the ones who were unleashing an epidemic.
I didn’t feel great about it, but I did feel great about being alive and free.
“Sy,” Jamie said, cutting into my thoughts.
He had my attention, and with a pointed finger, he directed it.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, as I saw a man walking down the street. He had a hat and a raincoat on.
“His neck,” Jamie said.
I looked, and I saw. A red dot, big around as a thumbprint.
I checked the coast was clear, then made a detour, approaching the man.
“Sir,” I called out. “Sir!”
He turned his attention to me.
“You’ve got the rash,” I said, a little breathless.
“What?” he asked. “Where?”
“I’m not going to tell you,” I said. “Because then you’ll touch it and it’ll be on your hands. But go to the police station, back that way. They’re distributing the cure already. If you hurry, you can get it before it spreads and gets painful.”
He looked deeply concerned.
Jamie added, “I hear it’s so painful you can feel it moving through your veins.”
I nodded fervently.
The man reversed course, heading to the police station.
We’d ruined his day, but at least he would be quarantined.
Why was I getting the impression this thing was the furthest thing from being under control, even with this small bit of assistance on our parts?