Jamie nudged me. His hand moved, gesturing.
We were being tailed.
By the modified ghost. It had to be the hardest individual to shake. Something with keen enough hearing to have something like echolocation, as fast as a buttered cat down a steep slope.
If she was one of Percy’s, then she’d survived after Percy had been eliminated, she’d been picked up, modified, trained or readjusted, and given new targets. Made from a child, accelerated growth in a vat, and modified with spines and fine hairs that gave her extraordinary hearing and brain structures that gave her incredible reflexes. She was Mary’s successor, in a way.
I liked imagining the situation as a test run for Mary. It made it easier to frame in my mind. Except it was Mary, possibly without assistance, and with the enhancements. Mary had promised me that she would never let me get the drop on her, and I believed that she’d try, that the anger would push her to train and to throw herself into her work.
The scenario was the same. There was virtually no way to get the drop on the ghost. She was talented, came from the same creator’s hand, and she’d changed hands, only to be shaped by an organization.
“A second Jamie, a second Mary. A second Ashton, now that I think about it. Lillian made a leap sufficient to mark a transformation, too.”
“Hm?” Jamie asked.
“Just thinking out loud,” I said. “The Lambs keep on leaving versions of themselves behind, or pushing versions of themselves forward. Or… something. Abstract thought.”
I gestured. Close?
He made a gesture in a fairly lax, lazy way.
She was tailing us at a distance, it seemed.
“Helen?” Jamie asked.
“Not Helen,” I said. “Not Gordon either, unless you count Hubris.”
“I’d count Hubris.”
“Okay,” I said. “But it doesn’t really… hm.”
“Trying to put it into words. Lillian transforming herself, actually becoming a Lamb, the viable Ashton after the aborted first try, then you, and even Mary being inspiration for the Ghosts, in a way… it feels like it’s pushing out, reaching further. But Hubris didn’t feel like that reach. He stayed so close to Gordon and died so soon after Gordon did. Maybe this is why I was so bothered by Hubris’ death, at the time?”
“Maybe,” Jamie said. “We had a remnant, and then we lost that remnant of Gordon.”
“Gordon would have come with me,” I said. “With us.”
“I think he would’ve.”
“He wanted to leave with Fray, back when we first met her. I think I convinced him not to? My memories of that period are fuzzy, but I think back and I feel guilty.”
“I think if you were going to force his hand, you would have. It’s how you operate. You would have told the rest of the group sooner, when it mattered, forced him to choose and manipulated him to stay. Based on the pieces the old Jamie put together, it seemed very much like you let him make his own decision.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But then why do I feel rotten about it?”
“Because you let him make his own decision?” Jamie suggested.
She was making her approach. That said a lot about her goals. She would lash out, and we wouldn’t know exactly what she could do with those modified hands until she had them on us.
I needed ways to immobilize her. I didn’t want to kill her, but I would if I had to.
Putting her in the water? Something to do with the landscape? I imagined shutting her in a room with two locked doors. I couldn’t think of anything resembling that.
I moved my hand along the side of the messenger bag, considering the options there.
“Pretty extreme,” Jamie commented. He’d seen my hand move. “You don’t want to put that on yourself.”
Noise. Light. Smoke. Anger, aggressive, us.
Yeah. If we blew one up, then they’d come after us hard, Catcher’s request be damned. With a ‘dead or alive’ noted beside my name, that was a bad end result. We might remove the ghost, emphasis on might, but the rest would come after us hard.
I indicated an alleyway.
No run building, Jamie gestured.
“What?” I asked, out loud.
Death. He gestured. Building. We trap we.
I grabbed his arm, hauling him along through a tunnel that ran between buildings. It opened out into a triangular space between three buildings, open to the sky. One of the three sides had the tunnel we’d just passed through, a second had a tunnel leading elsewhere, and the third had what looked like a now-disused trough, which had some filthy rainwater in it that was taking its time to thaw out. There was likely only ever direct sunlight in this area when it was noon or nearly noon, and that had been an hour ago or so. The fixtures suggested that this had been used as a place to park horses or keep a pet outside.
I pointed at the window that looked from one of the buildings to the triangular space. “Need a minute,” I said.
I reached into my satchel. Already, I was running through most of what I’d packed into it. I’d used two grenades for Jer, and this time, I was using a mine. I turned it over in my hands, investigating it.
“I don’t know if you caught what I said earlier, but this is a little over the top,” Jamie observed. He dutifully scratched at the glass with the edge of a knife, over and over.
“Nah,” I said. Looks like it’s based around a cord. I just need to figure out how to use it for something else, without setting it off in my hands.
Words had been etched into the outer rim, with directional arrows, as part of the casting process. They’d been worn down, however. Weather, maybe.
Craftsmanship, from the American side, during the war for the Crown States. More focus on machinery and innovation than on the biology side of things. Neatly labeled so the soldiers knew exactly what to do while they were tampering.
Turn to remove.
Flip over the bar on the top to arm.
I raised it up to my face, smelling it. It smelled faintly of earth. With a gentle shake, I couldn’t hear anything rattle.
Alright then. I tried to turn the top, and found it didn’t budge. I investigated the join, and found it packed with old dirt. Dirt that had been there so long it had practically become a part of the thing.
“Sy?” Jamie asked, as I shifted my grip on the thing.
“Minor snag,” I said.
I kept my thumb over the switch to keep it from flipping over, then banged the side of the mine against the nearest wall.
“Sy!” Jamie said, alarmed. “What are you thinking!?”
“All good,” I said.
“It’s not good at all!”
I’d cracked the packed earth. I drew my knife out of my boot and wedged it into the crack, and jiggled it along the rim, two seconds of work to remove the worst of the packed earth.
I worked to turn it until my fingers and wrist hurt. Finally, it made a horrible grinding sound, with coarse dirt getting ground between the two halves as it unscrewed.
Glancing down the length of the alley, I saw the ghost. She moved with a kind of uncertainty.
Are you learning how to function without your sisters? I thought.
This is something pretty new, hearing the sound, having to resist your instincts, being almost blind…
“She’s coming,” I said. “Go, move fast.”
Jamie did. We headed into the second tunnel. A dark space, with debris and junk stacked along one side of it, leaving only enough space to squeeze by.
Jamie collected an empty picture frame from the top of a pile.
“Go,” I said.
“I don’t know if you got my hand signal, but-”
“Go!” I said.
He left me behind.
No cloth, which made my job harder. I pulled off my jacket, watching as the ghost appeared at the end of the tunnel, standing in the space with the trough.
I looked back. Jamie stood at the end of the tunnel, knife and glass in hand. He was working it while I surveyed the situation and prepared.
I pulled the rubbish down, bringing it down into the space, leaving bags of bundled branches, garden tools, and some old construction materials littering the tunnel floor. With the dust that went up, I could no longer see her, and she could no longer see me. Perfect.
Two garden tools with long handles, a broom and then the mine. I made the necessary adjustment to the mine, snatching up a nail for extra effect, and then set it down, with the cloth partially covering it, using the sleeves to bind the garden tools together, resting them on top.
“Sy,” Jamie said. “I think this is a bad idea.”
“Just slightly,” I said. A plank would have been so much better.
She was making her way over the rubble, now, barely a sound as she adjusted herself.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Sy, but I don’t really trust your brain when it counts. Enclosed space, explosives-”
I continued to back away until I bumped into him.
“Oh,” I said. I took in our immediate surroundings. “That’s what you meant. Dead end.”
Jamie’s voice was tense. “Of all the times to get the hand signals wrong, Sy, you do it now? I thought you knew what you were doing, so I went with it.”
The dust cleared, and we could see the ghost, perched at the highest point of the fallen rubbish.
“You didn’t sound all that confident,” I commented.
The tunnel didn’t actually have a proper destination. Just around the corner to our right were two steps leading up to a door. There was a railing, but the space was little more than a balcony that overlooked one of the city’s canals.
We were ten feet from the ghost, with nowhere to go.
Jamie continued to scratch the glass, and the ghost remained where she was, surveying the situation with a hundred times the care she might otherwise have used.
She was lighter than normal people were. She thrust herself forward, off of the rubbish, one foot extending down to safe ground, clear of rubbish.
In that instant, I moved, raising my hand.
She moved as if she’d predicted my movement. With the way the ghost’s heads worked, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if she considered an attack every tenth of a second, and the movements she’d need to make. A push against the wall, a movement to the opposite side of the narrow tunnel.
One of her feet came down on the tool I’d laid forward of the mine. It pressed down on the mine, and the nail came loose, flying out to ping against the wall. Jamie and I both flinched, our hands going up to protect our faces. Jamie stopped scratching the glass in that same moment.
“Don’t move,” I told the Ghost. “You’re standing on a mine. Your weight has pressed it down and closed the connections. If you move your weight off of the mine, then you’ll blow yourself and us into a messy, bloody pulp.”
She didn’t move her head, but I imagined she was screaming the silent echolocation scream that let her identify her surroundings, down to the materials things were made of.
“In long and in short,” I said, “You’re in checkmate.”
Her expression didn’t change. Wind blew through the tunnel, and her blonde hair moved. I had a glimpse of her hands, thicker, with scar tissue down to the elbow, and metal and glass at the hands themselves. Through the glass, I could see yellow-tinted fluid, almost like urine.
No guarantees, but past experience told me that was something voltaic, the same technology that lit up whole segments of Tynewear in the evening.
One of those altered hands moved, resting against the wall, securing her balance. Then the other came up.
She gestured, slowly, with the metal and glass hand.
I cold you. Big man voice.
“Right,” I said. I felt silly now, using the gestures to communicate with Jamie. We’d taught Catcher the fool gestures. He, in turn, had taught the recruited ghost some words.
Not that what she was saying made much sense at all to me. I could understand the words, and I expected most were accurate, but I didn’t get how her head worked, and a lot of the gestures’ interpretation was based on precedent and experience.
“Winter?” Jamie asked. “I don’t think that’s right.”
She shook her head. Her gesturing hand moved, very slowly, toward her wrist. She seized it hard.
“I’m not seeing the connection,” Jamie said.
“The cold slows you down, it gets a grip on you, on the surroundings,” I said. The ghost nodded slowly. “I can see it. Kind of. I think Catcher’s been butchering the gestures though. Capture, seize, hold, imprison?”
The ghost gestured the affirmative. A head nod might have done just fine, but whatever.
“Big man voice,” I interpreted. “You’re supposed to take us. The boss said so?”
“Well you can’t,” I told her, matter-of-factly. I gestured as I talked, matching ideas to gestures, to drive the point home.
I glanced at the door, checking it. I held back cusses. It didn’t even have a proper lock that I could pick.
This narrow balcony and the adjoining tunnel was the equivalent of the space between houses. It probably had deadbolts, and when the space was in use, the door was left unbolted.
Leaving us only one exit.
“Excuse me,” I said, gesturing. “If you try those gloves, and they do what I think they do, then I’ll fall down, and I’ll bump you, and then we all go boom.”
She didn’t gesture the affirmative, leaving me less than positive that she’d understood.
“Right,” I said.
To get past her, I had to slink down and under the arm she’d extended out to the wall for balance, then go up and over the rubbish without bumping her arm or shoulder. It wasn’t hard, with my small frame, but I was worried about those gloves. If she got clever, or if she had tricks I didn’t understand-
My heart pounded, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing.
I climbed over the rubbish, careful of anything that might slide or fall. Jamie was right behind me, and I moved to the side of where he was going, to let him go ahead, so I could keep an eye and a hand on those same details and things that might fall.
“Catcher is in the prison cell, he didn’t want to leave because it would have been going against the Academy, and he wants to do what they ask without any room for error. He seems mostly content to be there,” I told the ghost. “I’m just saying, in case you like the guy, which is easy to do, and are worried about him.”
For a good five seconds, I wasn’t sure she was going to respond. Then her hand raised. A gesture. The affirmative. Yes.
That was going to be all I got, I supposed.
“When one of your buddies gets close to us, we’ll tell them where you are. If they’re good buddies, they’ll backtrack and find you. Then you can defuse the mine and walk away,” I said.
No response this time. I wondered if it was less worthy of a real emotional response than hearing Catcher was okay, or if she wasn’t as optimistic about how helpful the others would be.
I finished climbing over the rubble, glanced back at her, then carried on my way.
One more threat dealt with, for the time being.
“What about you?” Jamie asked.
“Just wondering, about what we were talking about.”
“If you think I remember much of anything past the last two minutes right now, you’ve got another thing coming,” I said.
“The reaching, the Lambs projects becoming something more, finding ways of evolving past their initial limitations, often in new packages.”
“What about you?” Jamie asked.
“What about me? I asked, with a different emphasis on the question. “I figure I’m closer to Helen than anyone.”
“Fray,” Jamie said.
“Fray? Am I an offshoot of Fray or is Fray an offshoot of me?”
“I dunno,” Jamie said. “That’s a good question.”
We reached the space with the trough. I peeked around the corner, then pulled back. Two Brunos were at the street outside. I gestured to let Jamie know.
“I’m digging through a lot of meaningful conversations, trying to find a good answer to that question,” Jamie said.
“Rein in those horses and tell me if these rooftops lead anywhere,” I said.
Jamie paused, looking up. “Sure.”
I nodded, glanced around the corner again, and then darted over to the window that was over the trough. It latched on the inside, and thus it took me about four seconds to get it open.
I climbed up and through, then helped Jamie.
“They saw me. They’re coming,” he said, as he came through the window.
“Got it,” I said. I reached into my bag, and pulled out another mine. This one I used as it was orginally intended to be used, with the cord pulled out. I hooked the cord around one corner of the window, then closed it, pinching the cord in place between the window and the window frame. I let the mine dangle there, resting against the glass, in plain view.
Jamie and I backed well away from the window. We watched as the Brunos appeared, making their way to the window. By the time they reached it, I had my finger pointed straight at the mine.
One of them moved very suddenly as he saw the thing, dropped a short distance in height very abruptly, then stumbled back and away from the window. I could see the top of his head as he shook himself.
“He put his foot in the trough,” Jamie said. “Poor guy.”
“Come on,” I said.
We took the stairs, heading upstairs, while the Brunos went looking for alternate means of entry.
“When Gordon died, you described yourself as being like water. Flexible,” Jamie said.
“Are we talking about this because of the trough, or…”
“Because of the conversation. About the Lambs, and about you and Fray.”
“I’m not keeping up with you at the moment, Jamie.”
“Funny how the tables turn, isn’t it?” Jamie asked. “Your memory has been worse.”
“It’s only worse because I’m focused on things.”
“That’s not it,” he said. “I think it’s the lower quality Wyvern. The liquid brain is coming at a steeper cost.”
“Nothing we can do about it in the meantime. What were you saying? Me and Fray. We’re like water. We’re flexible. Sure.”
“You adapt to the containers you find yourself in. You’ve adapted to Tynewear, to me. Fray adapts in her own way. There’s no chicken and the egg. You intermingle. You’ve said something in the past about being afraid to go to Fray’s side, because you would adapt too much. She would adapt to you, in a way, and you would adapt to her. Two liquids, and you aren’t exactly oil and water.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’ve completely lost track of the main thrust of this conversation.”
“It doesn’t have one,” Jamie said.
“That’s annoying, then,” I said. “Don’t be annoying.”
“You started the conversation,” he pointed out. “With a random thought you spoke aloud.”
“Lies,” I said. “You remembered wrong.”
I could hear his audible sigh as he followed me up the stairs to the top flight. We were just reaching the top floor of the four story building as the Brunos came charging in the front door.
All considered, we were in pretty good shape. We needed a way down, but Jamie had given the all-clear on that.
“Your bag is empty,” Jamie remarked.
I patted it.
“Two grenades,” I said, “And the guts from the first mine.”
“I wouldn’t actually make her stand on something live,” I said. “She’s Catcher’s.”
“Temporarily Catcher’s. You make me wonder sometimes, Sy.”
“I have to, you know. I pretended to get the hand signals wrong so you’d be more nervous. I wanted her to buy into the shock and believe the mine was real.”
“Take some of my stuff,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You seem to have your own ideas on how you want to use these things. I’m not going to get in your way while you’re getting your jollies.”
He handed off some of the items as we strode across the top floor of the building, heading to the window.
I opened the window, and climbed out and over from the window to reach the roof. I stuck my hand out for Jamie.
I talked while he took hold of my wrist and climbed out, “Based on what he said before, they haven’t been together very long, and he already started communicating with her, using what he remembered from the jobs with us. Gordon probably sat down and taught Catcher and Dog some stuff, knowing Gordon. The bastard. Finding ways to get in the way even from beyond the grave.”
“Sure, Sy,” Jamie said. “What are you getting at?”
“Communication is important. She’s a social creature, a pack animal, made to work alongside her sisters to accomplish tasks. She hasn’t had that, she joins a job working with Catcher, and he starts giving her a voice, a way to communicate effectively? I promise you, absolutely guarantee, she’s going to stay with him to the ends of the earth.”
“Hm,” Jamie murmured. “I’m glad he has that, then.”
“And that she has that. She might be an abomination borne from the death of a child, but, aren’t most of us, on some level? The Lambs, I mean? I sort of like her, just because of how broken a creature she is.”
“The end of a childhood would be a better way of putting it,” Jamie said.
He smiled a little and pointed, “This way.”
We moved along the rooftop. Jamie lagged behind a little, but that was okay. I was happy keeping an eye out and scouting for both trouble and opportunity.
“Is it even possible to find a hiding place at this point?” Jamie asked, from behind me.
“Probably not,” I said. “We’ll need to find a way out of the city. If that’s even possible.”
I turned my eye toward the outermost edge of the city. I could see the concentrations of troops and resources, and the movements of the warbeasts in the water.
Looking toward the Marina, I slowed my pace, letting Jamie catch up to me. I stared.
Smoke. The Academy was burning its own military buildings.
“Jamie,” I said. “Loo-”
A crack beside me made me jump, and nearly made me fall from the roof.
“The hell?” I asked. I turned around to look.
Moving up beside me, Jamie looked in the direction the sound had come from.
“A bullet struck the roof, right there,” Jamie said, pointing. “I didn’t hear a gunshot.”
Sniper, I thought, as I spoke, “Move.”
We jerked into motion, heading forward. I heard another bullet cut through the air, though it didn’t hit the rooftop.
“Not Catcher’s friend,” I said.
“No,” Jamie said. “Change direction! This way!”
He grabbed me, and he hauled me off balance. The two of us moved down to the slope of the roof and skidded down tiles that were wet with damp and still crusted with traces of ice, picking up speed. Out, out, over-
And airborne, with no more roof beneath us.
I reached back and belatedly caught the gutter with one hand, catching Jamie with the other. I only barely managed to arrest our forward momentum. We went down, from four stories up, and we landed on a balcony, crashing into the railing hard enough to break the more decorative bits of wood.
“Tell me-” I said, gasping for breath, the wind knocked out of me. “Tell me you knew this was here.”
“Remembered,” Jamie said, gasping as well.
At a space between our heads, the railing splintered, with another fierce crack to mark the impact.
“Fucking hell!” I shouted, as I ducked, moving back and away, looking for cover and finding very little.
“Doesn’t make sense,” Jamie said. “The direction-”
“What?” I asked.
“The direction of the mark on the shingle, and the railing just now, the bullet-”
Jamie peeked his head out from the meager cover of the post of the railing, looking.
He looked over the cityscape, in the direction of the cliffs. The nicest part of Tynewear was perched on a rise, with cliffs separating them from the lowest portion of the city.
The nearest cliff was a clear mile away and some immeasurable distance up.
A bullet struck the finer lattice of the railing just to Jamie’s left.
“He’s up there?” I asked.
“Even with the fastest, longest-range bullet they’ve got available, it takes the bullets two seconds to reach us. He’s leading like crazy, the wind has to make the bullet move like nuts, and he’s still getting awfully close.”
“Good sniper,” I said. “I can remember meeting one.”
“Sanguine?” Jamie asked.
“That was the name. I wonder if he’s got enough bullets to shoot at us for the rest of the time we’re in-”
A bullet nailed the post I was resting against, hard enough that the back of my head bounced away from it.
“Safe bet,” Jamie said.