Cut to the Quick – 11.15

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A cup of fresh tea sat in my hands as I sat at the window above my bed.  I watched as stitched and Academy soldiers in special outfits made their way through the streets in a systematic fashion.  The outfits were black, covering them from head to toe, but for pale masks, akin to the beaked plague doctor masks of the last century.  These beaks were far less pronounced, only a stylistic choice to house and protect the filters around the nose and mouth.

I thought of them as crows.  Black and beaked, they picked their way through the dead, carrying guns that spit out flame and chemical in equal measure.  The result, even past sealed glass windows, smelled like a very chemical, very personal, and very insulting letter to Mother Nature, telling her in no uncertain terms that we were done with her.

I sipped on my tea, watching as one group of crows knocked heavily on a door.  While they waited for a response, I reached down to a saucer I’d perched on the windowsill, picked up a sugar cube and placed it on my tongue.  I let my saliva dissolve it.  It had been a couple of months since the plague hit, several weeks that we’d been camped out here, specifically, and the good snacks had run out a good week ago.

Further down the street, the crows put up a kind of quarantine seal over the front door of the house they’d knocked at.  They got under the curtain, making it bulge with the bodies beneath, then found their way inside.

“That’s the third contingent of people who’ve come through the city to get people out,” Jamie observed, from the other end of the room.  “They might come knocking soon.”

I nodded, still letting the sugar cube melt on my tongue.

“Are we leaving this time, or do you want to wait and see?”

I watched as the Crows emerged from the house, with a family of three in tow, each member of the family wearing a kind of disposable cover-all with a mask on their lower faces.  I’d seen that particular family as I roamed the city.  A short ways into it, I’d realized they were frightened of me, as if I was some kind of bogeyman.  I wondered if I’d been seen walking around with a knife in hand or blood on me at some point.

As scared as they had been of me, the family talked openly with the crows, who seemed to be talking back.  One crow put a hand on the family patriarch’s shoulder.  Reassuring.

“We can leave,” I said, after swallowing.  “Going to suck, leaving our place behind.  I’ve grown attached.”

“Yeah.  We spent more time here in the last six months than you spent at Lambsbridge in the year before we left.  The road trips and the little, stupid missions,” Jamie said.

I craned my head, looking over the room.  It was easy to let things slide when there was virtually no chance of anyone stopping by.  Papers were strewn everywhere, some weighed down.  The entire place was sealed, but there were tiny drafts here and there, and having wood in the stove tended to stir the air around and send some papers floating this way and that.  The weights were handy.

“Thinking about our notes?” Jamie asked.

“Be nice to have,” I said.

“You have me,” he said.

I glanced at him and rolled my eyes.

“You want the papers, fine,” he said.

“It’s good for organizing my thoughts,” I said.  I walked over to the music player and set the scroll to turning.  Music filled the place.  That done, I picked my way through the papers by hand, taking them up in a specific order while being especially careful of where I set my feet so I wouldn’t kick any of the paperweights.   The papers were organized with a pattern in mind, and the paperweights had a general theme that helped me trace the intent of each note.  Knives and some guns for targets, books for information, and so on.  I didn’t want to stub my toe on a tome that was holding down a corner of four different papers, and I definitely didn’t want to kick or step on a knife with bare feet.

I collected papers in one hand while holding my tea in the other, walking a precarious path across the floor.

“You’ll have to get those through whatever they have in place for getting people out of quarantine,” Jamie said.

“It’s worth it,” I said.  “I have things I want to do.  I don’t want to lose track partway through.”

I collected the last of the major target orders, carefully kicked and slid a few of the dangerous items I’d used as paperweights under the bed, and then paused, surveying to decide what I’d need to sort out next so that the papers were in some sort of order.

While thinking, I took a sip of my tea, then grimaced.  Getting cold, and it was bitter with only a quarter of a cup left.

I walked over to my bed, and balanced on one foot, bracing my left shin against the bed as I extended my right foot out.  I picked up a sugar cube between two toes, extended the cup, and dropped the cube in, only wobbling a little once.

“You’re so gross,” Jamie said.

I grinned, “I had a bath an hour ago.  How dirty can my feet be?  And so what if they are dirty?  Oooh, germs!  Wait, germs don’t affect me.  Oooh, parasites-”

“You’re lame too.”

“-Parasites don’t affect me.  Dirt?  What did a little bit of dust or dirt ever hurt anyone?”

“A lot, actually,” Jamie said.  “Even here in Tynewear, sufficient dirt in the right place can give the red flowers a chance to grow.”

“Semantics,” I said.  I bent down to pick up more papers.  I used my toes to seize a knife handle, passed it up to the hand with the papers, and used that hand to put the knife on a table.

“Not doing anything to shake my mental image of you as a hairless monkey, Sy.”

“Ha ha,” I said.  “It’s not like you’re going to get off your ass and help me, is it?”

“Nope,” he said.  “I can remind you to disable the traps before anyone comes knocking, though.”

“Good point!” I said.  I put the papers down on a table and made my way to the door.  I’d set up a few traps there to be safe.  I disarmed the makeshift incendiary traps, and put a lid on the mason jar of chemicals I’d set beneath a dangling string of cloth-wrapped packages.

The pounding knock on the door made me jump a solid foot in the air.  Jamie laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world.

Rolling my eyes again, I swiped a hand at him, and banished him to the recesses of my imagination.  The ass-end of it, I liked to think.

I took a second to catch my bearings, listening to the music playing in the otherwise quiet apartment, before I opened the door.

Crows loomed at the front of the house.  They were flanked on either side by stitched.  In any other circumstance, I might have wondered if they were the equivalent of mob enforcers, ready to pound my face in.  They had that aura of menace and intimidation.  The curtain surrounded the doorway.

“We’re evacuating the area,” the lead crow said.

I hadn’t even had time to get things cleaned up and sorted out.  The place was riddled with things I didn’t want them to see, and there were a dozen more things I wanted to grab before I left.

I remained silent, thinking.

“Are you sick?” the man asked.

I shook my head.

“Roll up those sleeves,” he said.

I pulled up my sleeves.  He indicated my legs, and I pulled them up, too.  I lifted up my shirt until it was at my armpits.

“Good enough.  We’ll give you a more thorough looking over at the gate,” he said.

I nodded obediently.  “Can I get ready?” I asked.  My thoughts were turning to ways to stall.  I wanted to get things in order before I left.

“If you don’t take long,” he said.  “One bag, no more.  And you’ll need to wear this.”

He reached back, and one of his fellow crows handed him a sealed bag, presumably with one of those simple, disposable suits inside it.

I took it.  I  put up a hand to tell them to stay, but they ignored it, inviting themselves in.  They closed the door behind them.

I felt hostile.  Protective of the space.  Nevermind that it was largely furnished with stolen goods, packed to the gills with incriminating evidence, and had traps specifically set out to catch nosy individuals off guard.

No, none of that really mattered, even if these guys seemed intrusive and nosy.  No, what mattered was that this was my place.  A place Jamie and I had shared.  The very first place that was ours.

These strangers just letting themselves in and acting like they had a right to be here was like a provocation, one that I instinctually wanted to answer in homicidal ways.

I just wasn’t sure if I could get away with it.  I bit my tongue.

“Unusual number of guns and weapons lying around,” the lead crow said.  “What are the papers?”

He was turning his attention to the desk with the stack of papers detailing all the people I was interested in killing and doing terrible things to, people I wanted out of the way, people I wanted to interrogate for details that would help me find and kill more important people… nine out of ten of which would look very bad to someone in service to the Academy.

I didn’t say anything to that, not right away.  Instead, I pulled off my shirt, then undid the button of my pants.  I shucked off my underclothes as well.

“‘hem,” another crow said.  A woman.

I looked back at the crows, and saw they were all averting their gaze.  I’d successfully gotten the attention of the lead crow, and then made him feel uncomfortable enough to turn his eyes away.

“My uncle rented this place.  He got a lot of weapons because we had food and he knew a lot of people didn’t.  He wanted to be ready if they got desperate and came after us,” I said.  “He got sick, went out, and didn’t come back.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman crow said.  “Why are you naked?”

The question was so disjointed in contrast to the condolences I wanted to laugh out loud.  I didn’t.

“I’m getting changed before I go out.  I don’t know when I’ll have the chance again and I wasn’t wearing my good clothes.  It’s fine, isn’t it?  You’re all doctors?”

“We’re soldiers, not doctors,” the lead crow said.  “Soldiers with some training on quarantine procedure.”

“Oh,” I said.  I feigned being in more of a hurry to get some underclothes, slacks, a shirt and a sweater on, with a note of embarrassment.  I grabbed a bag and began getting clothes together.

I grabbed a few papers from here and there, anticipating the question well before it arrived.

“What’s the story with the papers everywhere?” the lead crow asked.

“Memory game,” I lied.  “The things I put on top are part of the game.”

He glanced at the stack of papers I’d put on the desk.

“Staying sane,” the lead crow observed.

“Not in the slightest,” I said.  More for my benefit than for theirs.  “Cabin fever.”

“Not a good joke to make in the wake of a plague,” the third crow said.  Quiet up until now.  A taciturn fellow.  “Joking about ‘fever’.”

“True,” I said.  I saw the lead crow look again at the papers.  I suspected he was going to reach for them and snoop.  I added, “It looked like you crows were all going down the other side of the street.  I thought you wouldn’t come knocking here until the next time around.”

“Crows?” the lead crow asked.  He sounded almost amused.

I was amused, in my own little way, that I could drop that tidbit, create a little question, and command the man’s attention.  Just like my temporary nudity.  Successfully nudging their attention away from the papers each time.

“It’s what I called you.  I saw you come before, a week or so ago, and I shouted, and you didn’t come knocking on our door,” I said.

Creating another question.  Leading them by the nose.  That, and I was curious why they’d come knocking here.  I’d thought I had time, and was very annoyed to be wrong in that.

“Your neighbors across the way said there were lights on in here at night.”

Ah.  The family.

Sometimes the most obvious answer was the right one.

I gathered my things, and walked over to the desk, picking up the stack of papers.  I slid them in between clothes and the side of the bag.

“My uncle said I should keep his work notes, so I can find family members after we leave,” I said.

I felt like I’d pushed things too far.  Something about their body language and silence.

I didn’t need a jacket, as we were nearing the end of spring.

I walked away from them, nervous, and approached Jamie’s bed.  I kicked it, hard.

Jamie was already lying on his side, head on his pillow, looking out at the room and my side of things.

“We’re leaving,” I said.

“I know, I heard,” Jamie said.  He worked at sitting up, testing one shoulder that I knew was tricky after the surgery.  He wore a shirt, but I could see the multitude of faint scars and the shiny burn scar with some branching paths running off of it where I’d jolted him with a live current.  The scar at his collarbone was a particularly bad one.

“You have someone there?” the lead crow asked.  “Is he sick?”

“No,” I said.  “He’s okay.”

“What’s he doing in bed in the middle of the day?” the crow asked.

Recuperating.  Sleeping more, because it’s the closest thing he can get to treatment now, for consolidating memories.

I left Jamie alone as he got himself out of bed.  I’d chosen to wake him up later as part of my stalling tactics, and now capitalized on it.  While Jamie got himself ready and fielded a few questions and some light investigation, I managed to slip a few weapons into the bag, while collecting a few more of the important papers.

“-scars?” I heard a crow ask.

“I was sick.  I recovered,” Jamie said.  “In a loose sense of the word.”


“Knife, voltaic current through the worst areas.  Stopped my heart, apparently.”

“Who handled all of that?”

“A doctor.  He worked in a brothel,” Jamie said.  “He was apparently one of the only ones to figure out a way to deal with it.”

“Wasn’t easy or pretty,” I observed.  “We almost lost you a few times.”

Jamie looked at me and smiled.

“Alright.  We’ll keep an eye out for him,” the crow said.

It sounded ominous enough that I wondered if I should steer them away from Marv.  But the fact was that Marv had eagerly taken on the job of treating who he could, using what I’d told him.  I’d handled some of the cases like Jamies’ had been, that seemed impossible to save, but Marv had plugged away on it.  Keeping his hands and his head busy, as I understood it.

“He’s not in trouble?” I asked, to double-check.

“No.  He’s not the only one to figure something out.  But they said to keep an eye out for anyone who figured out ways to stave it off or remove it, they want to share knowledge.  You said he was a doctor?”

“Student doctor, I think,” I said.

That got a nod.

Hopefully they would pay for that knowledge, and Marv would get a leg up.  Money, or status, easier access to better classes.

Jamie finished pulling on pants and a shirt, ran his hands through his hair, and then cleaned his glasses.  He bent down to get clothes out and I bent down to help him.

“Sleep well?” I asked.

“You talk to your ghosts incessantly,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I take it that’s a no?”

“It was fine.  I was mostly thinking.  Not that that was easy either.  You worry me sometimes, Sy.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I was talking to you,” I said.

He gave me a funny look.

“You’re sleeping more, I don’t sleep much, I got lonely,” I said.  I shrugged.  “So I talked to you.”

The funny look remained, intensified briefly, and then broke, with Jamie turning his focus wholly to stowing away his clothes with more intensity than before, as if he was annoyed.

“Don’t- not that shirt,” he said.

“It’s a good shirt,” I said, shoving it into his bag.

He sighed, pulling it out.  I was about to fight him over it, but he neatly folded the shirt and put it away.

Once we had him packed, he stood.  They’d gotten another of the cover-all suits out, and we pulled the things on, tying them down in places we were supposed to tie them down, and putting the masks on.

I was still fixing the little things the crows were telling me I’d done up wrong when Jamie, dressed and okayed by the woman crow, got the scrolls from the music machine and carefully stowed them away in his bag.

I supposed I’d have to get another scrollphone when we arrived at our next semi-permanent destination.

“Ready?” the female crow asked.

Jamie and I checked with each other, then nodded.

The crows headed out.

“I really don’t want to get sick again,” Jamie said, hesitating at the door.

“I know,” I said.  I put my hand on his shoulder.  “Not to worry.”

Jamie almost flinched as we stepped outside into the sunlight.  It was warm, but something about Tynewear now seemed hostile and dead, less a glittering beetle shell and more a husk.  The parts were mostly there, but the color had dulled, little things were missing and broken, and it lacked animation.  It had been bleached by sun, lack of care, and by the dust and fine splinters that had been shed by the creaking walls that sectioned the city off into districts.  Windows were no longer glimpses into stores, restaurants and homes, but glass panes with sheets hanging behind them.  Trash collected here and there, in corners and by the sides of the roads.  Cracks and peeling paint that would have been dutifully mended before had been left to get worse.

The city smelled like tentacled waterborne warbeasts had been left to rot and were taking two months to do it, with a chemical undertone from the sprayers they were using to blast the plant into oblivion whenever they spotted a red flower.  We were outdoors, but it didn’t smell like fresh air, even past those other odors.

I looked at the crows.  “You said they wanted to get ahead of the problem?  It’s not under control?”

“It’s spreading.  Every time it seems to slow down with one city, it picks up in three more.  Most of the west coast has felt the bite.  Big cities, too.  Las Reinas is going the wag of Lugh.”

“Have they found out who did it?”

He gave me a curious look.  “You think someone did it?”

“Feels mean enough, my uncle said,” I said.

That got me a throat-noise that sounded vaguely like the agreeing sort.

“The rebel groups are apparently to blame, but with the way it’s going out of control, people are saying the group that’s responsible doesn’t want to admit it.”

Jamie glanced at me.

It was disappointing that there wasn’t anything more concrete.  A lot of my dialogue with Jamie over the past few months had been musing about where Fray, Mauer and the nobles individually stood, trying to figure out what their next moves would look like if they were the source of this red plague and what their moves would look like if they weren’t.

Figuring out where the Lambs would find themselves was a not-insignificant part of that thought process.

“Did the plague touch Radham?” Jamie asked.

“Little ways off, that.  Do you have family there?”

Jamie nodded, once.

“They handled it well there,” the crow said.  “They handled it well here, believe it or not.”

They handled it well here?

I half-turned, still walking with the group, and took in the scene.

Half of the city was burned.  Maybe a fifth of the city was overgrown, now, tinted red with an overgrowth of the red flowers, but those areas were contained by walls that seemed to be holding steady.  For reasons I couldn’t discern, possibly a lack of bodies, the remainder of the city was dotted with red flowers here and there, but the infection hadn’t quite managed to get a foothold.

Part of the city still stood, I supposed.  The rain had made a difference.  The quarantine measures had helped keep things constrained.  It hadn’t been great to be in the city during, but…

“I’d hate to see the cities they handled it poorly,” I said.

“Mostly the cities where the Academy doesn’t have as much of a hold,” the lead crow said.

I glanced at Jamie again.  I knew he could read my mind on this one, after all of the discussions.  One point toward this being the Academy’s work, then.

It was a long walk to the ‘gate’, where we joined two hundred other survivors.  Jamie and I joined the tail end of the group, and remained silent for several minutes, watching the crowd and the crows that stood on the fringes.

The crows gave the signal, and counted off people.  Twenty five men, twenty women, and five children going with the women.  Fifty in all.  Each was led single file into separate tents.

“You’re tense,” Jamie observed.

“Aren’t you?”

“For different reasons, I think,” he said.  He rolled his shoulder, wincing a little.  “What are you thinking?”

“That maybe the academy wants to clean up this mess.  Gather up the people, infected or not, and eliminate the problem.”

“You’re not sure, though.  You said ‘maybe’.”

“I said maybe,” I agreed.  “I don’t get that feeling.  I just… I guess I can’t wrap my head around why they aren’t doing it.  Did leadership change?  Or did circumstances change while we weren’t paying attention?”

Jamie nodded.  I thought he was dismissing me or he hadn’t heard, as his eyes roved over the crowd.  In the end, however, he pushed his glasses up his nose, and remarked, “Jamie made note of something Gordon said, once.  About how important people are to the Academy.  That without them, it falls to pieces.  We can say that people are often expendable, especially in cases like Lugh, but what if it’s bigger than a city?”

“They create crows as a unit to go and collect the people, just in case this situation ends up being so bad that they end up needing a few hundred extra people?”

“If it’s spreading like it’s spreading, and they get a few hundred to a few thousand people from every city, that adds up,” Jamie said, his voice muffled by the mask.

It was sobering to think about.

I glanced back at the city, and at the areas of it that were clearly overridden.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Do you feel good about our odds?” Jamie asked, indicating the tents that waited.

I drew in a deep breath, and winced.  That damn chemical smell made it impossible to smell most of anything.  I saw Jamie draw in a deep breath as well.

“I don’t smell blood or shit,” he said.  “Not much, anyway.”

I nodded.  “We’ll go ahead then.”

It took a while to get far enough along.  More people appeared behind us, better-dressed sorts from the cliffs, the higher-income area that had been less touched by plague.  They were also the ones to push their way forward in the crowd.  Jamie and I didn’t fight particularly hard to get ahead in the line.  We’d waited months already to get out, and the way I saw it, the longer we waited, the more tired people would be.  Tired eyes wouldn’t recognize a face as being from a wanted poster.

Finally, we were included in the people sent forward and into the tents.  There, we disrobed.  We were checked over, poked with rulers to move our arms and legs this way and that, and then given clothes to change into, still covered in the powder.  My clothes didn’t fit well.

I worried they would look at my bag, but they just blasted it, outside and in, with enough powder to asphyxiate anyone within five feet of the bag, and then let me claim it.

I didn’t see how it went for Jamie, but he took a little longer to make his way through, and looked deeply uncomfortable, hunching over slightly with his arms folded, as he emerged.  I clapped a hand on his shoulder.

On the other side, mercifully, were benches and seats to sit on, gathered in a loose fashion around long tables with food.  The faint babble of talking I’d heard while in the tent became a low roar.

The gesture of offering food and rest, nice as it was, spooked me as much as anything.  That the Academy was working to curry favor.  Them offering a small kindness, to me, was as if the bastard professors that were in charge had talked among themselves and had openly admitted that things were unstable enough that they couldn’t afford a riot or a problem on the ground level.

We made our way through the maze of tables and benches and found Chance, Drake, Candida and Lainie, sitting with a few of the girls from the brothel.  Shirley was among those girls.

On seeing me, Shirley hopped to her feet and threw her arms around me in a hug.  The suddenness of it made some of the collected powder puff out around us, from beneath our clothes.  Her hair had grown out a touch in the last three months.

“I cannot believe they let you walk out of there,” Lainie said, sounding very much like a girl who had gone to school with the elite and taken classes in snobbery.

“Don’t sound so disappointed,” I said.  With a bit of an edge to my voice, I added, “Really.”

“I’m not disappointed,” she said.  “I’m not very enthused either.”

“Ha ha,” I said, without humor.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” Candida said.  “Thank you, for bringing us supplies last week.”

I waved her off, plunking myself down on the bench.  Jamie sat with me.

To go from months of relative isolation, talking to a half-dozen people at a time, at most, to being in the midst of a crowd again, it felt strange.  Stranger still for the bustling city to be empty, the outskirts to be where the denser portion of the population was.

“The next train arrives in a few minutes,” Drake told us.  “Listen, they’re gathering up the orphans.  The children without parents to look after them.  There aren’t many.  The last train came through and they didn’t put any on there, letting the number build up instead.  Elaine was on the cusp of being put on that train, but with Chance vouching for her as an older sibling-”

“They released her into my custody.  If I’d been a year younger, I’d be on there,” Chance said.  He gave me a pointed look.

I was younger.  Or I looked younger.

“When they organized us into groupings of man, woman, and child, for the tents back there, I was a ‘man’,” I said.  “I’m fifteen.  Or sixteen.  Give or take.”

Jamie snorted.  I punched his arm hard, in retaliation.  “Estimated age!”

“You’re young enough,” Chance said.

“We’ll go on the train with you,” Drake offered.  “Get you and Jamie out of here, while keeping you from going where those children are going.”

I nodded.  “Thank you.”

“I know you can fend for yourself, but if you want help getting settled, then-”

I was already shaking my head.

“Didn’t think so,” Drake said.  He looked utterly unsurprised at the refusal.

“We turned them down too.  We’ve imposed for too long as is.  Lainie and I were going to leave around the time the plague hit, ended up cooped up with those two for a few months.”

“Sorry,” Candida said.

“We’re going north,” Elaine said.

Chance added, “I have some friends over there who’ve offered me a bit of work.  Lab assistant.”

“Best of luck,” Jamie said.

Chance gave him a mock salute.

“Where are you going?” I asked Candida and Drake.

“One of the big cities,” Candida volunteered.  “Not sure which, but one with a big Academy, since they seem the most able to deal with the plague.  We even thought we might get on the train and just see how each city looked before deciding whether to get off.”

“You won’t get much of a chance to do that,” Jamie said.  “Crowds at the front of the train, fighting to get to your luggage in time… I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Candida nodded, frowning a little.

“I don’t want to push you or anything,” I suggested, “But if it was all the same to you, could I suggest Radham?”

“Radham?  Possibly.  Why?”

“Your appearance has changed, and if you kept to the right areas, I don’t think people would recognize you as the Baron’s would-be wife.  Even if you were only there for a short while, I could do with someone I trust passing on a message,” I said.  “You could say hi to Lillian while you were there.”

“I’d like to do that,” Candida said.  “But you talking about people recognizing me has me nervous, now.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said.  “I can tell you where to go and what to do, and give you tips on disguising yourself.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I feel like I owe you, so-”

“You don’t owe me Jack shit,” I said.  “You helped with the situation in Lugh, which was heroic, and endured the Baron, you gave me your trust, and-”

“You-” she started.

Jamie stuck his hand between Candida and me.

“We’re friends,” Jamie said.  “Friends don’t count favors.”

I hesitated to agree to that, and I could tell at a glance that Candida was hesitating for very much the same reason.  As we both recognized that we were very much on the same page, we relaxed.  Candida laughed, baring sharpened teeth, and it was a good sound.

“I’ll pass on the message,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Give me a few minutes to think of what it would sound like.  Probably something simple.”

She nodded.

From there, as if we’d laid out the key things, we settled into easy conversation.  None of us were easy companions, we didn’t mesh particularly well, but we’d been pushed together by circumstance and we’d stayed together for a fair amount of time, with a lot of emotion and tension binding things together in the midst of that proximity.  Detaching took some work, talking things through in a kind of prolonged goodbye.

“The madam of the house stayed behind, a captain with her ship.  She wants to make sure everyone makes their way out without trouble, and then she wants to get things sorted out.  Say goodbye to the house.  From what I hear, they won’t be letting us go back,” Shirley said.  “Tynewear is being evacuated, and nobody will be allowed back in.  They’ll bury it.”

“Are you going with her when she leaves?”  Jamie asked.

Shirley shook her head.  “I think there are other girls who will help her get established somewhere else, but that’s not me.  I love her, don’t get me wrong.  She’s a dear, and she’s one of two people who’ve ever really cared about me in any way.  I want to say goodbye to her, but I don’t want to stay with her much longer, I don’t think, or I might find myself staying at her side until I’m old.”

She took a deep breath, then clenched her fists in front of her, as if miming some display of strength.

“Stretch those wings.  Take a leap of faith,” I said.

She smiled at me.  “Not a big leap.  I was wondering if I could come with you for a time?”

I raised my eyebrows at that.

“Sy is pretty intolerable to be around for extended periods,” Jamie said.  “I’m Academy-augmented, I’ve had just about my entire lifetime to get used to him, and I can barely tolerate him.”

“I’m tougher than I look,” Shirley said.  “But I want to learn things so I can face the world, and I like what Sylvester has to teach.”

I glanced at Jamie.  “Plan C?”

He sighed.

“Plan C?” Shirley asked.

“Building something,” I said.  “If you want to stay on for a while, it… wouldn’t wholly conflict with what we might end up doing.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  “You’re going to regret this, but I’m not saying no.”

Shirley smiled, as if she was only hearing the good parts.

The conversation continued, meandering here and there, and I took a bit of a backseat as Jamie did more of the talking.  It was like he’d revived a little, surrounded by people.  I’d have to surround him with even more good people to keep him in high spirits.

My thoughts preoccupied along several tracks, many having to do with the list of targets and the notes in my bag, I found my eyes wandering through the crowd, looking at the people and analyzing them.

As I heard the train whistle, I saw the collected orphans of Tynewear getting guided along into a waiting train car.  I thought for a bit about my own origins, and about the original Mary Cobourn, and the Baron’s mocking refusal to answer when I’d asked where the children were going.  I knew that while there wasn’t much I could do to disrupt those particular orphans getting on that particular train, but that I wanted to be in a position sometime in the future where I could keep those children from disappearing.

Plan C was to start a rebel faction.  Put ourselves on the map, in a position to have leverage, and be invited to meetings.  In the wake of the plague, I expected it would be very easy to get people on our side.

Either way, I wanted soldiers of my own as something of a buffer when the Lambs came calling.

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118 thoughts on “Cut to the Quick – 11.15

  1. Typo thread

    Los Reinas is going the wag of Lugh.
    Change wag to way

    My thoughts preoccupied along several tracks, many having to do with the list of targets and the notes in my bag
    Change preoccupied to wandered

  2. an excellent chapter!! i do like the cut. jamie got fixed, there was a slight tension when he was a figment of sy’s imagination, we know what the problems with him are, we’re moving on to bigger and better things, all of sy’s friends are alive.
    I’m super excited for Plan C though. This is basically what I’ve been waiting for since Fray was introduced, Sy takes matters into his own hands. Sy is gonna become some kind of Fray/Mauer hybrid

  3. Okay, I’m curious. Maybe I missed something, but why exactly did Jamie get through the quarantine procedure without raising hell? Not because of the (burn)scars, but because of the caterpillar incisions. He’s clearly academy-augmented… And not in an usual back-ally-doctor way like Emily/Candy. I would have at least expected the quarantine crew to ask some questions… UNLESS there’s something we don’t know yet. Like… Sy and Marv hid them under layers of new skin or something… Or they took them out altogether. Or something else entirely…

    • Eh. I guessed the Crows are soldies not doctors and just assumed it was a really gruesome anti-infection operation.

      Wildbows grown fond of fakeouts. First Gunther, now the Jamie hallucination.

      • Not Really fake-outs,more like torturing his loyal readership with hints of Sy going senile. Bad Wildbow!
        But good job putting us to the worst scenario immediately.

    • There are other ways to cosmetically disguise scars and even “sockets”. To something more explicably gruesome… like a past as a guinea pig of a student, or something. <_<

    • You have to take note of how carefully Sy handled that. He dropped in the “doctor” question very naturally, so naturally that perhaps it felt like idle talk, but it was in large part for Jamie’s sake.

      I’m sure there were contingency plans if one of them had been a doctor to distract, maim, or confuse.

  4. Jamie’s made it, but… I do wonder what that cost him. How long does Sy have before there isn’t a Jamie anymore?

  5. I have to wonder if Jamie II is actually alive or Sy is just lugging around his remains and talking to it, creating yet another delusion of Jamie II when he pretends the remains is asleep?

    • Don’t worry; the soldiers would have noticed if he was lugging around a corpse. Sy is hallucinating but still aware of what is real. He’s not that crazy.

      • They seemed oddly more concerned with Sy’s notes than siezing a Sample of of someone who survived an incurable plague even through amputation. This makes me believe that Sy is somehow in a semi-functional fague state between illusion & reality, remember, Sy is an unreliable narrator.

        • From their conversation, a not-insignificant portion of the survivors of the plague were people who contracted it and then were cured – they’re barely even interested in Marv, since more than one surgeon’s been curing people. Jamie is just another survivor to them, albeit one who probably had it worse than most.

          • Wonder how the Lambs handled the plague? I imagine Lillian got pressed into helping treat it. Ashton should have been immune, and possibly Helen. That just leaves Mary.

          • My guess is that when the plague hit Radham went into quarantine lockdown and they eluded infection completely; according to the soldiers Radham handled it pretty well and they’d be a priority for secure transfer to shelter.

        • Time will tell whether Sy is hallucinating a cured Jamie or not. He already knows that he’s hallucinating, but can tell the difference, probably. In the meantime, I believe that the soliders and the cured Jamie are real.

          The soldiers mentioned that there were other doctors doing treatments throughout the city, so Jamie’s not unique. I think they care more about the evacuation than medicine. The reason that they were curious about the papers was because Sy didn’t have time to hide that he’s plotting against the Academy, so he’s covering madly. He probably leaks subtle signs of crazy.

          • Oh come on, Sy is not imagining Jamie. Notice how Chance, as well as others in the group, interacted with Jamie? Sy might be an unreliable narrator, but he isn’t THAT unreliable. Otherwise WTF is the point of having a narrator at all, if literally anything could “really be happening?”

    • Ah the time has come for Sy to create his own faction. He’s going to need to acumulate resources. I imagine doing something to help Jamie is going to be one of the first priorities.

      But will he be able to face the Lambs? And do so without anyone getting killed? At least he seems to want to send a message to them, and maybe Lillian in particular.

    • How would Sy form his own faction? Speculation:-

      1. Criminal Empire – Going into business seizing control of the Underworld back-alley medical trade, gambling houses/ loansharking with ground forces supplemented with (ex)mice & those disenfranchised by both Crown/Rebel factions.

      2. Mercantile Empire – Criminal Empire complete, begin legitimization through debt buying &/or blackmail (see aforementioned criminal enterprises) merchant houses dealing in medical supplies that Crown/Rebel factions heavily require.

      3. Profit!?

    • I get the sneaking suspicion their first henchwoman doesn’t have any noteworthy skills. She might need some on-the-job training.

      • Hooking is a noteworthy skill, do you know how many troop movements are leaked to sex-workers through careless pillow ralk? It’s even in The Art of War! Granted that section actually targeted commanders & rulers but it still applies given how the Viet Cong coordinated their intel to perform ambushes during the Vietnam War.

      • She survived being a whore. In a city. During a plague. For months. Girl haz mad soshuul survivul skillz.

        The first to drop like flies during plagues are usually those who contact others the most. 😛 She must have picked up useful tricks from her Madam beyond the best handjobs in town. <_<

  6. I’m actually somewhat surprised that we didn’t have a gruesome description of Sy operation Jamie in true Bonesaw fashion. Jamie actually made it through mostly intact, who could have seen that one coming.

    But I do like the description of the crows and their “message” to mother nature.

    And will Sy’s atrocities in future be named in one breath with Mauer, Fray and the nobles? As a faction leader it’s going to be interesting and true that it’s gonna be easy to get some people behind himself with the Wrath of God going around.

  7. Oh no, Sy, you got your Shirley, and want to start a rebellion against the Crown, while your friends are on the other side… this won’t end well.

    • Oh I’m thinking it’ll go something like this. Sy will end up alone with Lillian who is all tied up. Then…
      Sy: “Struggle all you want. None of the other Lambs are coming. Mary is busy killing her way through my generic stitched soldiers. That will take a while. Helen has been distracted by cake. And Jamie should be taking care of Ashton as we speak. There will be no one to disturb us…” Start’s approaching Lillian with scissors in hand.
      Jamie comes in.
      “Okay Ashton’s been taken care of…” Sees Sy threatening to cut Lillian’s hair. “I am so dissappointed right now.”
      Lillian: “Not as much as I am.”


    • You sir are awesome for making that connection! Sylvester of the rebellion! The idea for Sy in a Lelouch role has me giddy. You think Wildbow has seen code geass?

    • C’m on ^ ^ His life till this very moment wasn’t “going to end good” ^ ^ Frankly – any changes from his general routine would make Sy’s end better than if he’d let things flow as they were… ^ ^

    • @_@ damn you for reminding me of that, sir, damn you to hell… pardon my language it is unsuitable for proper crown fearing ears…. but you’re right.

  8. So, curious little thing. Sy’s memory is getting worse, but Sy’s ghost of Jamie seems to have a keen enough memory to remind him of his traps.

    Also, I’m surprised Sy doesn’t understand why Jamie would feel bad about the whole Sy talking to an imaginary version of him.

  9. Oh that fake-out was nasty. I had to go back and check the last chapter. Beautiful touch.

    I’m very excited to see Sy make his own faction. Similar elements were most enjoyable to read in other works.

  10. Oof, that fake-out opening. You’re a cruel, cruel man, Wildbow.

    So, I take it the plague doesn’t have a “wandering zombie” phase, then. No need to worry about pretty red flower zombies running around and touching everything.

    It escaped quarantine and is apparently slowly progressing despite all efforts to stop it, but at least one working treatment has been found and the Academy is being suspiciously proactive in saving as many non-infected as possible before melting the town, so fewer people are likely to hide an infection or attempt to escape while infected. That’ll slow down the spread a little bit.

    And now, rebel army! Kidnap Fray and force her to fix Jamie? Kidnap Jamie’s doctors and let them continue Project Caterpillar, but under Sy’s control instead of the Academy’s? Rob an Academy library and juice Sy up with more Wyvern, then see how long it takes for him to go full singularity? Man, having a small army of loyal underlings opens up a lot of options.

    • You know what a small army also does? Makes it harder to hide or work stealthily, aka the Lambs general strategy. It’ll be really fun to see how Sylvester handles operations on a larger scale.

      An army might be the wrong way to look at this though. Now that I think about it, Sylvester’s organization would probably work better as a spy network, in the same vein as Varys and his little birds (Sy and his little mice). Can’t wait to see the Enemy Lambs chapter where they scratch their heads trying to figure out just how far Sy’s reach is.

    • I get the sense that the Academy is being so proactive in gathering survivors before torching towns because it’s full-on apocalypse time and soon there will not be any pre-Red Tide population centers left.

  11. Yay! At last it has begun! They started to move in a proper direction ^_^ I mean, you can’t defeat Academy without a proper faction. And of course having Sy+Jamie as a crime lords would be a bit better but rebel faction? Nice direction too. No problems here.

  12. Am I the only one who think Sy would be crappy at building/leading an army? He’s (devilshly… derogatorily? deceptively?) really really good at reading people, and at getting an immediate reaction, sure. But on the medium-to-long term, he’s going to have the same problem has Lelouch: he doesn’t give a shit about his underlings, and kind of shows.

    • I don’t see Sy actually building something big and organised. Probably try to have his own personal team of mercenaries (a mercenary only cares about money after all, not if their boss is shitty or insane. They can always refuse a job if they think it’s too risky) and try to promote the anti-Academy, anti-Crown sentiment.

      Sy (mostly) alone can take down Nobles. With a small group or a handful of small groups, glued together by a strong hate for everything Academy and a strong love for money, I think he can make a name out of himself and Jamie.

      • The Nobles he took down were inferior products compared to guys like the Duke.

        Also Sy has outgrown his “Lambs vs everyone else” mentality just look at the attachments he’s made now. So while I don’t expect it to be a large force I’m sure the Lambsbridge bros can inspire loyalty.

    • He would make a pretty terrible figurehead to the organization, which is why he probably wouldn’t take that role. He’s good at finding the right people for jobs, and dealing with unpredictable situations, so he’d probably do HR and flit around from crisis to crisis, wherever he’s needed. Jamie can do the large scale strategy, and they can find some intimidating looking adult to be their spokesperson. Also, he seems to care a lot about pretty much everyone he’s worked with, even random people who got mixed up in his schemes.

    • Well with Shirley he’s at least starting with someone he kind of cares about. I guess it’s a bit much to ask him to care about a bunch of random mooks he’s been put in charge of, but Sy actually appears to start caring about others relatively rapidly – he just likes to hide it under a veneer of Sly-ness.

      I’ve been expecting Sy to build some kind of counter-team for a while now, one that contrasts with the original team somehow – just not sure how Wildbump will do it, if he does.

  13. In their rebel faction they need somebody. Not anybody. But Peabody. Don’t tell be they will swap Peabody to Shirley. No. No way.

  14. That fakeout had me worried. Sy’s a real son of a bitch without a moral compass, and Lillian isn’t in any position to be it for the time being.

    That said I don’t envy Jamie at all, legs or no. He’s gotta be looking like Freddy Kruger at this point.

  15. Well, this chapter was a horrible roller coaster of emotions that ended in a very decided high note. Yes, finally, thank you Sy, you starting your own faction has been long overdue. Burn the world down with you on the way, hm?

  16. Ok…. Sy’s faction….. is gonna be fucking beautiful. An army of Dicks, Duechebags, and Dastardly Devils. And i can EASILY see Sy turning Shirley into a Black Widow. Or at least an infinitely more sane version of Helen…
    Speaking of Helen… who do i owe cake for Helen. Cuz i lost the chapter bet.

  17. Awesome! The devastatingly intelligent Sylvester creating his own faction. The anticipation is killing me once more.

  18. There is going to be hell to pay once Sy finds out what the Academy/Crown is doing to the children and babies they’re collecting. i have no idea what it is, but people will die, and it will be glorious.
    My money is on the project being linked to Infante.

  19. Not really a fan of the fake out, not playing fair with the audience to create some false conflict seems like just a measure for the sake of chapter filling alone.

    This arc was good though, definitely moved interestingly in terms of big plot building and character development. As always, things are more dire than ever.

  20. Surprised noone else got a Final Fantasy 7 vibe from this chapter. I’m starting to imagine the Academy as Shinra, the all-controlling, evil corporation who turns out to be working toward the same goal as the protagonists in the end, when that goal is “preserving human life on the planet”

  21. I swiped a hand at him, and banished him to the recesses of my imagination.
    Not everyone liked it…but in my opinion, it was one hell of a wham line. I like a little unexpected gut-punch: makes the punch more effective. Let’s be honest, at the end of last chapter, who would have been surprised if Jamie died mid-operation, or succumbed to plague later?

  22. We’re friends,” Jamie said. “Friends don’t count favors.”

    Jamie is the best. I’m so glad Jamie made it out. I don’t think I could take his second death.

    Also love the idea of mob boss Sy. He’d be terrifying.

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