“Calipers, measurement… twenty five point four.”
Duncan moved the calipers. His ‘dog’ startled a little at the movement. The thin tentacles that formed its head and extended down its back and sides drew in, coiling, ready to reach out. He had to stop moving for a moment, waiting.
Why had it done that?
Did it perceive the calipers as a weapon?
Keeping his head and body still, he moved only his left hand as he wrote on the back of a page in his notebook. Caliper reaction, Ano#3. Does it see calipers as claw/bite? Instinctive or learned? If former, what aspect of chimera provided? Will that impact training? If latter, where did it learn?
The familiar scratching of the pen seemed to relax number three. He put the pen down and reached into his open drawer for a treat, handing it over.
The experiment had no head, only a wreath of tentacles, and it used five of the tentacles to feed the treat into the gaping, toothless hole in the center. That gave Duncan the opportunity to take a measurement of the legs.
“Forty-three nineteen for leg length. Shoulder breadth to leg converts to…” he paused. “One point seven. Perfect for Wollstone ratio five. The Branck pattern swap must have worked.”
He noted everything down as he said it.
“Are you going to be calm if I try to measure one of your primary tentacles, number three?”
The experiment slowly tensed as he moved the calipers closer to its head.
“Relax,” he said. “Be calm. You know me. I’m where you get your food, right?”
He smiled at the experiment, even though it didn’t see by conventional means, and wouldn’t understand the expression if it did.
“Calm,” he said, “Calm…”
A sharp knock at the door startled him and the experiment both.
He pulled away, but the tentacles were already reaching out. One caught him by the chin, another by an ear. A third managed to find anchorage in a tuft of hair.
Calipers dropped, he gripped the edge of the table, bracing himself, to avoid being pulled closer to the bars. His feet moved out to the table legs, bracing there as well. Once that was done, he managed to move a hand out, fumbling for the tranquilizer needle.
“Be calm,” he said.
A second knock sounded. He could feel the experiment startle, the jerk vibrating down the length of each tentacle.
Four seconds had passed, but it felt like a hundred. His abdominal muscles were already crying out for mercy, as his entire body fought to resist the insistent tug of a creature a third of his size.
Once the syringe was in the right place, he brought it around to what he’d termed the creature’s collar, the rim of denser tissues and muscle that bridged the bases of the tentacles and the creature’s shoulders.
The movement might have startled the experiment, because he felt another tentacle seize his wrist. It pulled his wrist in closer, winding the tentacle around the arm for a better grip as it did so. Not a bad thing, except the jerk of movement made him stab the bars of the cage instead of the creature. The syringe slipped from his hand.
A moment later, it hauled his head just a little closer, reasserted its grip, then hauled his head the rest of the way in. All at once, there was only darkness, no air, and the tight muscles of the collar gripping him around the chin and neck.
Blind, he had to fight to get into a position where he could fumble around with his one free hand. He was already blacking out, and knew it had to do with the pressure on his carotid.
Join the Lambs as a peripheral member and on-site medic, die in a lab at home.
He felt a euphoric rush, his thoughts scattering. He took it to be the ‘light’ he’d heard talk of, the surge of chemicals that was bestowed in the moments before death and oblivion.
But it wasn’t that. The grip on him had been relaxed. The euphoria was blood and breath returning to him. He hauled himself free, surprised at how weak he felt, and gripped the desk and a nearby windowsill to steady himself.
It took him nearly forty seconds to get his bearings. He realized someone was in the room with him. A good foot shorter than he was, with red hair neatly looked after. Not a person, a Lamb.
“Ash-” he said. He stopped mid-word, still gasping for breath and wincing at the pain at his throat.
“Ashton. My name is Ashton, not Ash.”
“Yes. You’re right,” he said. “How silly of me. You knocked, I take it?”
“Yes. I was told to always knock. It’s polite.”
“Not always,” Duncan said. “Not if you’re on a mission, am I right?”
“Yes. I suppose that makes sense.”
Duncan managed a smile. Ashton mimicked the smile with one of his own, and this one actually looked genuine.
“Good smile,” Duncan praised the experiment. Training it wasn’t so different from training the likes of chimera number three. He did hope the end result wouldn’t be so dangerous for him.
Chimera number three, he noted, had relaxed considerably, as if it had been tranquilized after all. Duncan didn’t protest as Ashton reached into the cage and gently pushed at the chimera. At the push, it sat, then lay down, before lying down, letting its tentacles go limp.
Duncan swallowed hard, then, at seeing someone walk past the open door to his little lab, he walked over and closed the door.
“No need for that,” Ashton said. He smiled again. “I’m being careful. Only pushing it out in this direction.”
“You’re getting better,” Duncan observed. His voice was hoarse. How very obnoxious.
“Good job. I like that your smiles are different from one another. Helen has been working with you, hasn’t she?”
“Good. That’s really good,” Duncan said. He slumped against the wall, then raised his hand, looking at the back of it.
A small smile crept across his face.
“Your control is very good, but it’s not perfect,” he said. He showed Ashton the back of his hand. He watched a very practiced look of puzzlement pass over Ashton’s features as the experiment examined the faint stripe of blue that had appeared.
Duncan crossed the room, to his chimera number three, and put his hand nearer the cage. The blue took roughly four seconds to intensify, but it did intensify, until it looked like a stripe of paint.
Ashton stared, silent. The young experiment raised a fist, moving it closer, then opened it very suddenly, fingers splayed.
It took about two seconds for the red stripe to appear, next to the blue. There was something of a pattern as it solidified into a paint-like stripe of color, coloring the points the spores had hit first or in higher concentrations.
Chimera number three reacted, the tentacles coiling as it began to work to stand again.
“Away from the experiment, if you want to keep testing,” Duncan said. He moved away from the cage, and Ashton followed. He tapped his hand, “This is a little pet project. I altered some bacteria that the Academy uses for detecting invisible gases, and primed them to respond to your spores. You remember when I asked for the samples?”
Ashton nodded. He did the motion with his hand again.
Another motion, again, with no response after a few seconds. The red and blue were fading, Duncan was pleased to note.
A fifth gesture, a movement of Ashton’s hands, and the blue and yellow stripes illuminated.
“Which was that?” Duncan asked.
Ashton was quiet, staring.
“Ashton, pay attention,” Duncan ordered. Once he had the experiment’s attention he asked again. “Which spore did you just use?”
“That shouldn’t have lit up the blue. Something to correct. But it’s neat, isn’t it?”
Again, Ashton was quiet.
Duncan moved his hand. Ashton’s head turned to track the motion of the hand, like a dog might do with a good bone that still had some meat on it. Duncan moved his hand left, right, down, then up, until the little experiment could no longer see the patch of color. The little experiment stood on his tiptoes, straining to see, until he lost his balance and stumbled.
He drew a handkerchief from his lab coat pocket and scrubbed the back of his hand until the colors were muddied and nearly gone. A few rainbow traces remained.
Ashton stared at the hand, looking around a little as if he was wondering where the color had gone. Then he met Duncan’s eyes.
“I want some, please, Duncan. Can I have some?”
“It’s very unusual for you to want anything material, Ashton. Usually you want changes to your environment, and even then, it’s pretty mild, like wanting to be warmer, or wanting a fire.”
“It’s very interesting to have some feedback about what you’re doing, isn’t it? More than just people acting different?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Ashton said, very simply. “I asked politely. I didn’t huff and puff at you, because I can’t, but I asked politely and people are supposed to do what you ask if you ask nicely and if you’re being reasonable. Am I being unreasonable?”
“You’re not being unreasonable. Where did huff and puff come from?” Duncan asked. “Wait. Don’t tell me. Helen?”
“Helen, yes. If I’m not being unreasonable, then can I please-”
“I might be able to give you some,” Duncan said, cutting the experiment off. “I’ll give some to your doctors, and if they say it’s okay, either they can give you extras, or I can quickly whip up some vials for you and the other Lambs. How’s that?”
“That is very good,” Ashton said. “I think that sounds very reasonable. Except-”
Ashton terminated in the middle of a sentence. He moved his head a little, staring off into space. His expression did change to suggest what was going through his head, which was an improvement from a few months ago.
“What are you thinking?”
“I would like more than ‘some vials’, please, Duncan,” Ashton said.
Duncan chuckled, then winced, rubbing at his throat. “Do you want a bathtub filled with the stuff?”
“I would like… a paint can. Maybe more than one paint can. I don’t know how many I would need. But I would like enough for my room. I want my room to change colors for me.”
“Ah.” Environmental change after all. But thinking more about the future! Duncan smiled, “I think that would be a bad idea. It would be hard to explain to the others at Lambsbridge.”
So interesting. A human child that was the same age that Ashton was might throw a tantrum, if something they wanted was taken away, but the little experiment was so complacent. No complaint, no grudges, no upset. He wondered why the color was so fascinating, or what process was going on in the experiment’s head.
“I’ll make you a deal, though,” Duncan said. “If your doctors say it’s okay, I’ll paint my lab here. You can do everything you like while you’re here, visiting me. But- but!”
He held up a finger, to make it absolutely clear.
Ashton’s lips moved, echoing the word subvocally. But.
“You have to help me train my chimeras here. With your spores. It can be practice.”
So easily accepting. Duncan looked at his caged chimera. It was still lethargic.
“I almost became one of the twenty-three,” Duncan mused to himself.
“Students, a year, who get killed by their own work. The number is really lower than that, but there were four straight years where it was something like twenty-three, twenty-three, twenty-two, then twenty-three again, so the number stuck. Saying I was almost one of the nineteen doesn’t have the same cachet,” Duncan said. He knew he sounded more amused and confident than he should have. But the nice thing about being around this particular experiment was that it didn’t really matter. No judgment here.
“That was a dumb thing to almost do,” Ashton said, and the judgment was ten times as heavy as it might otherwise have been, coming from a mouth so innocent.
Duncan pursed his lips, walked to the door, and opened it. He pointed to the sign mounted beneath the number plate. “What does this say?”
“Do not disturb.”
“That means no knocking or loud noises, okay?”
“Good. Remember that. Because it’s important. Alright?”
Somewhat satisfied that he’d salvaged his pride and pointed out the reality that it would have been Ashton’s fault for breaking the rules, more than his own fault, Duncan asked, “Now, you came here for a reason, didn’t you?”
“What do you need?” Duncan asked, patient.
“I don’t need anything. But a woman in very nice clothes with a bodyguard and another man with her stopped by Lambsbridge. Ms. Earles answered the door, then she called for me. I was upstairs, looking out the window-”
Duncan gestured for the experiment to hurry up. He watched as Ashton stopped, pausing, as if he needed a moment to process and think about what he was supposed to be hurrying up to.
To his credit, he was a lot faster in making the leap than he had been when Duncan first joined the team. “The woman wanted to talk to a Lamb. To Lillian, but Lillian wasn’t there and neither were Mary or Helen. I talked to her and she gave me this, and this.”
Ashton held an envelope and a slip of paper. Duncan took both, looked at the slip, saw an address pointing to somewhere in the Sticks, then unfolded the paper from the envelope.
While he read, Ashton talked, “I tried to find the others, but Lillian wasn’t in her room, and I got shouted at for being in the girl’s dormitory. Then I made them calmer and happier to see me. Then they were hugging me like Helen does and telling me I was adorable like Helen does, and they were messing up my hair, which I had to keep fixing.”
Duncan nodded, taking in the mental image. He might have embellished it by imagining that some of the girls had been on their way to and from the showers, or the like.
“I envy you,” he said, more to himself than anything.
Ashton gave him a puzzled look.
“Nevermind,” Duncan said. No longer distracted by the mental images, he reread the note, actually taking in the contents.
Sylvester, no doubt. That meant that Duncan had to figure out how to handle this.
“We’ll take it straight to the headmaster,” Duncan said, firmly. “He’ll figure out the best way forward.”
“I was going to ask you where Lillian and Helen and Mary were,” Ashton said. “Because they should read the note.”
“No,” Duncan said. “Nevermind what the lady told you to do, okay? She was a pawn of Sylvester’s.”
“Come on,” Duncan said. Time would be of the essence, if he wanted this to move along smoothly. He suspected things would go more smoothly if the Academy handled it from the start.
He secured the chimera’s cage, unhitching the sections of the lid so they would fold down, forming impenetrable barriers with air holes rather than the bars with spaces between, latched it, then unhitched it from his desk, moving it over to the corner of his lab where three more of the cages sat.
Quickly, he snatched up the vials with the spore-sensitive bacteria in them, and slid them into a pocket. He checked he had his wallet and keys, then made his way out of the lab, ushering Ashton out before locking up. He turned the ‘do not disturb’ sign around and wrote in chalk on the backside. Absent. Academy business. Live experiments within.
That last bit was more for the snoops and saboteurs in the Academy ranks than for anything else.
His lab was prime real estate, on the top floor of the newly revamped dungeon. Not too many stairs to climb, and less worries about accidentally setting off ever-more-dangerous security features, like the doctors and professors downstairs had to deal with.
Claret Hall wasn’t far. He walked briskly and trusted Ashton to keep up.
“You saw my experiment, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I’ve seen it before, when it was in the vat, too. I’ve been to your lab before.”
“Yes. With the other Lambs. Listen, silly question, but I’m very interested in how you answer. I feel like it might give me insight into how your brain works.”
“If I told you I wanted to give a name to that experiment, which I’m currently calling anonymous chimera number three, what name would you give it?”
“Patriot.” Without missing a beat.
Ashton’s speed left Duncan dumbfounded. He mentally groped for an explanation, then for the words to express how staggered he was at the sheer speed of the response, and finally gave up.
“Did you already think of that name?”
“Then why Patriot, Ashton?”
“Because Patriot is Good Simon’s dog’s name,” Ashton said.
“Good Simon?” Every answer left him a little more off balance. He checked his hand, to be sure that he wasn’t getting ‘huffed and puffed’, as Ashton and Helen had termed it, but there were no spores active enough to paint the streaks of chemical. He’d daubed the stuff on when he’d taken his morning pills for resisting Ashton’s influence.
“Good Simon is from ‘Good Simon Says’, it’s a book series. Simon is a good boy and does things right, he’s faithful, true and obedient, and he listens well. He’s polite. Whatever Simon does right, Seth does wrong. Because Seth is bad. Sometimes there are other characters, like Sadie, who is mean and angry, or Sable, who works with animals, and there are lessons with-”
“I know the books,” Duncan said, cutting Ashton off. They were part of a series that taught about social mores, emotions, and patriotism to the Crown. The books were popular with very young children, those with social disabilities, and, apparently, experiments who were learning those same things from scratch. “You like the books?”
Ashton paused. Again, that slight stall before the response. Improving, but still there. “I like the way they look on the bookshelf in the lab, and in my room at Lambsbridge, and in the living room at Lambsbridge. The spines have nice colors and have the character’s faces on them. The third book has Patriot’s face on it.”
Again with the focus on environment. So many other questions. Duncan was momentarily paralyzed by them. He settled for, “You chose it because my chimera is dog-like?”
“Yes. Because it’s part dog.”
“How did you know that there was dog in- no, nevermind.”
“I will,” Ashton said, quiet.
Duncan gave up, rather than subject himself to more confusion. He silently tallied up an unwitting victory for Ashton.
He did allow himself one observation, however. He glanced at the head of neatly-parted red hair that moved up and down as Ashton walked quickly at his side.
“Good Simon parts his hair, doesn’t he?”
Ashton nodded. “Good grooming is a very important thing.”
They were silent as he opened the door to Claret Hall, and silent for the first stretch within.
Duncan recognized a face, and waved at a doctor, beckoning. One of Ashton’s. He did his best to remember the man’s name.
“Duncan!” the man greeted him. “Hello Ashton.”
“Hello doctor,” Ashton said, obediently.
“You’ve got a bruise around your neck, Duncan.”
“Almost twenty-threed myself,” Duncan admitted. He saw the man’s expression change. “Well, not really, it was Ashton’s fault.”
“I disturbed,” Ashton said.
The man looked like he had questions. Duncan cut him off at the punch.
“I’d share, but we’re in a bit of a hurry… George?” Duncan asked, making it a question.
“Yes. That’s alright. Any reason you waved me down in the midst of this hurry?”
Duncan smiled, drawing the vials out of his pocket. “Make you a bet.”
“A bet, hm?”
“Figure out what these do, then figure out how to fix the blue-yellow. I’m busy with my student project. If you can give me the answer, I’ll bring you guys a lab dinner every night for a weekend.”
“And if we can’t? We bring you dinner for a weekend?”
“A straight week,” Duncan said.
“Doesn’t seem fair. A weekend if we win, a week if we fail.”
“But you’ll do it because you’re curious,” Duncan said. “And you can take turns.”
“Sure, Duncan. Maybe I’ll make it an internal bet. Even if we succeed, whoever figures it out last has to deliver to you for a weekend, and if none of us do, we deliver for a week?”
“Perfect. Want a hint?”
“For myself or for the group?”
“You decide. Might be a bit of a red herring, though.”
“Ashton likes it. He really likes it.”
“I really like it,” Ashton echoed.
That got a quirk of an eyebrow in response.
“I might know what this is, we might have done something like it,” the man said.
“Maybe,” Duncan said, shifting his weight from foot to foot, “If so, we’ll compare notes later? I designed it for more rugged field use, and I know I’m giving you a hint there.”
“Deal, and you look like you’re raring to go to wherever you’re going. Don’t let me keep you.”
“You’re a good lad, Duncan,” George told him.
“And you do good work, George,” Duncan said, by way of parting, setting a hand on Ashton’s shoulder. That got him a smile from the doctor.
He walked away feeling upbeat, considering the message in his pocket.
Others felt trepidation in approaching the headmaster’s office. Duncan felt triumphant. He’d achieved a measure of status, a level of access. He was able to approach the secretary and have her recognize him. A thousand people came and went through those doors, and he was a recognizable face.
“Is the headmaster in?” he asked.
“He is. He asked for some peace and quiet.”
“Emergency. Not a big one. Small emergency, if there’s such a thing?”
“If this winds up being frivolous, then it won’t look good for you. He values his thinking time.”
Duncan was already shaking his head. “Small emergency. He’ll be happy to hear.”
The secretary picked up her phone, pressing a button on the side. There was a pause.
“It’s Duncan and Ashton,” she said, into the device. “Small emergency, he says.”
Another pause, and then she hung up. She gestured for him to go inside.
Duncan silently marveled, not just at the technology of the phone, but at the sheer brass tacks of it all. He could understand investing in phone technology to talk to people in other cities faster than mail, birds, or telegraph could, but to do it for someone in the next room?
The room had been refurbished, but improvements were still ongoing. Nine out of ten pieces of furniture in the room had been replaced with ones that had a personal touch. A tree now stood in the corner by the window, its leaves crimson, reaching over the desk. At the other end of the room were tables and desks enough to seat thirty people. Nobody sat there now.
“Headmaster Hayle,” Duncan greeted the man at the desk. The man was older, his hair cut short and well styled. He wore his black lab coat with medals on it like someone who had been born to professorhood. It was hard to picture the stern figure as a mere doctor or student.
“Duncan. Hello, Ashton, I would thank you for staying at the door, please. I haven’t taken pills today, as I didn’t expect you.”
“Yes sir,” Ashton responded. He hung back as Duncan advanced.
“Small emergency?” the Headmaster asked.
Duncan nodded. He fished out the paper from the envelope and handed it over.
He watched as the headmaster read it over.
He saw the headmaster lean back in his chair.
“Years of work down the drain. Project Caterpillar, lost to plague.”
Hayle made a face, frowning. He started to crumple the paper, then stopped, setting it down on the table. He very firmly dropped a fist down on it, raised it up, and brought it down again, repeating the process almost absently, as if he could use the light hits to beat it down into its proper, uncrumpled form.
Duncan waited patiently.
“The problem, when it comes to Sylvester, is that you have to see things from multiple angles. It so quickly becomes a headache. Misdirection, deception, taunts, deflection, and other forms of manipulation. The things that aren’t said.”
“How did the letter arrive?”
“Delivered, by a pawn of Sylvester,” Duncan said. “Ashton received it and brought it to me. He was instructed to take it to the other Lambs, but I told him we’d come here first.”
The headmaster didn’t move at that, but he did punch one hand into an open palm, both of his elbows on the table, then leaned forward. “I hope you never experience this feeling, Duncan, that any move you make will be the wrong move, while you have the weight of an entire Academy and Academy city resting on your shoulders.”
“Yes sir, I hope I’m spared that as well. I’m sorry you have to endure it.”
“In your opinion, if I sent the other Lambs out, would they come back?”
Duncan had to muse on that for a moment. Reluctantly, he said, “If I was forced to give an answer, I would say yes.”
“That is my feeling as well. Sylvester is slippery, and up until now, our best odds at finding him lay in finding a pair of adolescent boys who fit the description and stuck to each other like glue. Now we’re left looking for one alone. One who has changed behavior and approach, apparently.”
A finger tapped the paper.
“I’ve got five new projects in the works, pursuing what I’ve managed to convince the Academy are worthwhile approaches to Academy science, investing in the brain, but they’re nascent enough the risk isn’t worth it. That leaves me with one project that I could use to find Sylvester. Yet I feel as if this is a taunt. He’s claiming to be off balance and mourning, what better a time to capture him, am I right? All I have to do is send the Lambs to track him down.”
“It feels too crafted. The Caterpillar project is deceased. Sylvester is ill and grieving. He plans to go out with a dramatic flourish. The threat is implicit. Whatever option I choose, I face a potential issue. Either I play into his hands, or I stand by and do nothing while he… flourishes.”
Worried about repeating the ‘yes sir’ too many times, Duncan remained silent.
“Take this as a lesson, Duncan. Faced with no right answers, kindness is rarely the worst of them. I want you to go to the other Lambs. Tell them to get their things together. You’ll all start tracking down Sylvester immediately. Assuming he left Tynewear recently, there are only so many stops on the line that are open right now.”
“Yes sir,” Duncan said.
“Tell them that Jamie has died,” the headmaster instructed, “Let them know that I know they are grieving, I do not truly expect results this time. They should feel him out, test the waters, and focus more on getting a sense of his agenda and his current plan of action than about getting him. I fear the latter would play into his trap.”
“That, uh, brings two questions to mind, sir.”
“The other Lambs can be… singular in their focus. Mary is particularly so, and Helen is too, in her own unique way. I don’t think they’d settle for feeling around the edges when the direct route is there.”
“You’re not wrong. Steer them in the right direction where you can. Knowing Sylvester, he wants the Lambs. I’m willing to make the gamble that I may lose one, two, or three fifths of you, in exchange for clues about what he’s up to, and I’d rather avoid pushing them too hard, out of fear of pushing them away. Reconnaissance. No push. Stress this.”
“The second thing?” the headmaster asked.
“Ah. That. Almost forgot. What Sylvester says… he’s a liar. He could be misleading us.”
“He could,” the headmaster admitted. “But my gut feeling is he wouldn’t.”
“I might be falling victim to him being one move ahead, but to convince his friends that their friend and teammate is dead, when he isn’t? That would take a particular sort of self-serving cruelty, wouldn’t it?”
“Based on what I saw and knew of Sylvester…”
“It is hard to imagine,” the headmaster contradicted Duncan before he could get the full sentence out. “We won’t rule anything out, but for now, you can tell them.”
“A lot of pressure,” the headmaster said.
Duncan nodded again.
“How is your student project going?”
“It’s going quite well. I’m weeks ahead of my class. Viable life, I can set the ratios myself. I’m already making notes on the brain stage. Not having to rent out or wait my turn for lab space helps.”
“Good to hear. I won’t ask about the mark on your neck.”
Duncan smiled sheepishly. “Thank you sir.”
Keep that in mind as you go talk to the Lambs. Helen is with her Professor, and I know that Lillian is in lab 2-A, likely with Mary in her company. Be ready to leave before the day is out.”
Duncan nodded. He’d have to pack a bag. He wondered if he should bring his most obedient chimeras.
The headmaster held up a finger, looking down at the paper as he copied it down, then swiveled in his chair to hold it up to the light of his window. He swiveled back around, then tore off the paper he’d transcribed the letter’s contents onto.
“Secret messages, sir?”
“None that I’ve seen so far, but I do have to wonder. I’ll give you the copy rather than the original, to be safe,” the headmaster said. “Thank you for coming to me.”
“Thank you for the opportunities you’ve given me, sir,” Duncan said.
With a short nod of acknowledgement, he turned and made his way out of the room. He opened the door, holding it for Ashton, and noted a faint hue on the back of his hand as he did.
He closed the door behind him.
“Thank you,” he told the secretary, in a low voice, as he passed her.
“You’re very welcome,” she said. “Just doing my job.”
The added very was so important to Duncan, as was the short conversation and talk of the contest with Ashton’s supervisor. He buzzed with the thrill of the little victories and successes, that he’d left both people smiling, and that he’d achieved everything he wanted to achieve in the process. Thriving in the Academy was a question of politics as much as it was science. He’d been good at the science side of things from the time he was little. Being able to tell himself he was laying the groundwork for the political side of things thrilled him.
He exited Claret Hall, Ashton at his side, and they made their way back to the dungeon.
“Ashton,” he said. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Do you know where Professor Ibott’s lab is? And can you find your way to lab 2-A?”
“I do, and I can.”
“Can you get Helen and bring her to Lillian’s lab? I had a bad experience with her professor, and I’d rather steer clear until he forgets my face.”
“That’s fine. I like Helen, and I like getting to walk with her and talk with her.”
Maybe the very first ‘like’ that wasn’t rooted in something environmental that Ashton had mentioned since arriving in his lab.
“I like the hugs, too,” Ashton said. “She hugs me a lot, and my head or my face gets squeezed against her chest, and it’s soft.”
“I envy you so damn much,” Duncan murmured, under his breath. Helen’s good points were why he’d gotten on Ibott’s bad side. He’d been invited to the irritable professor’s lab, with the idea that Duncan would learn the particulars of Helen’s anatomy in case she needed field care.
That had involved Helen partially disrobing so she could be opened up. Given that Helen was an experiment that looked like a sixteen year old girl, and given that she was attractive enough to shame ninety-nine out of a hundred of even the augmented girls in the western Crown States, Duncan had reacted like any other adolescent male might. He wasn’t entirely sure, but Helen might have noticed and made the agony of the situation more agonizing by giving him sly looks, small smiles, and choosing certain postures.
Bad luck, that Ibott had noticed that Duncan was as stiff as a cold stitched while midway through the process of opening up the experiment’s ribcage. The man had taken Duncan to be a peculiar sort of pervert, when it had simply been a particularly stubborn stiffness from earlier.
The small man’s words still rang in his ears, and his face burned at the memory of the situation. A man he’d admired and hoped to impress had condemned him and threatened to alter parts of him beyond recognition.
Best to steer clear of that particular lab for the time being. That was one instance that hadn’t been good politics.
“You envy me,” Ashton said, as if processing the idea, searching for a conclusion or way to parse it.
“Hm?” Duncan asked, pulled out of reminiscing and back to reality. Then he remembered. “Hmm. Yeah.”
After a few moments thought, he added, “And don’t mention that envy to anyone.”
He clapped a hand on Ashton’s shoulder.
They made their way down to the labs and split up. He approached Lillian’s lab, 2-A, a floor below his own lab, which was actually a considerable distance, and he stopped at the door.
Why did he feel trepidation? In virtually every other situation, he felt so capable, like he was ahead of the pack. But here…
No ‘do not disturb’ sign. No notices or warnings.
He heard the reply, almost impossible to make out through the thick door. A ‘come in’.
It was an expansive lab. More expansive than his own. Clay models of bodies, arms, legs, and bodies were set up along one side, some with bone skeletons modeled in white to contrast the flesh-tone clay. There were vats of flesh and tables with disembodied parts strewn out. Various drafts of Lillian’s exo-suit, all taking up three-quarters of the lab. Lillian wore only a camisole and a doctor’s apron, her lab coat around her waist with the arms tied. A hairband kept the hair out of her eyes as she worked.
In the other one-quarter of the lab, Mary had arranged something. Pillars and targets, all suspended at various points.
As Duncan watched, Mary threw a knife. It moved in mid air, turning a relatively sharp left, before slicing along the length of a target that sat with its edge facing Mary. It clattered along the ground.
Mary’s expression didn’t change as she flicked her hand and arm. The knife reversed course, moving around a pillar, then, with another movement, skidding across the floor to her, where she stopped it with one foot.
She used her hands to carefully catch the length of razor wire that was bound to the knife, centered herself, and then threw again. He caught the follow-up motion this time.
Throwing and manipulating the wire so it would catch at the pillar and force a change of direction for the knife. The knife sank into the very edge of the target. Mary froze, watching, waiting, until the knife came loose of its own accord. With grim determination on her face, she reeled it in again.
She was teaching herself to throw knives around corners. Or the wire could slit one throat while the knife flew into another person’s face.
“Come to spy on my work?” Lillian asked. The tone was light, not accusatory.
“If I was going to spy on someone or sabotage someone, which I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t pick you. You’re liable to find your way to the top of the class, sabotage or not.”
“Of course,” Lillian said. “How’s your project coming.”
“Almost got twenty-threed,” he said.
“You didn’t,” she said.
“Your fault,” Lillian said, eyes on her work. Her hands made wet, squelching sounds. “There are always more precautions you can take.”
He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it.
The knife slashed the target but didn’t sink in. Mary reeled it in.
“She’s been at that for hours,” Lillian observed.
“It’s fun, learning something new,” Mary said.
“To your peculiar mind,” Lillian said. “I haven’t seen a smile cross your face since you started.”
“I’ll smile when I can land five out of five. I’ll do it before the end of the day.”
“I believe you,” Lillian said. She even sounded sincere. She returned her attention to Duncan, “We’ve been talking about going shopping. In the interest of team-building, would you like to come along?”
Duncan’s response was cut short. Ashton ran into the room like the mounted legions of hell were after him, scrambling so fast that even his walking shoes slid on the floor. He made a beeline for Mary’s maze of pillars and targets.
Helen followed him into the room. She moved more like a jungle cat, with confidence and easy, graceful movements. The sight of her filled Duncan with very complicated feelings ranging from terror to awe and, again, that stirring of adolescent feelings that anyone would feel when faced with something that looked like a perfect girl, and that only made him feel more terror.
Ever since the incident with Ibott, he’d felt like he was her prey. He’d shown a moment of weakness, and now there was no escape.
He was already reciting Wollstone’s ratios in his head, so as to avoid another moment of bad politics, as he’d come to term it, when Helen tackled Ashton to the ground. She squirmed around on top of him, pinning him by weight rather than by grip, and smothered his neck and face with kisses.
He couldn’t help but imagine himself in Ashton’s situation, and that didn’t do anything to improve his situation.
Not just reciting Wollstone’s ratios then. He started the chemical conversions and listing conversion methods in his head.
A glance at his hand showed a red, yellow, and faint blue bar. Assuming the blue was a false positive, then at least Ashton was enjoying himself. All an act, he told himself, some charade the two familiar, not dissimilar experiments had concocted between them.
“We have a job,” Duncan announced.
Helen, mercifully, stopped messing around.
He had their attention.
“Sylvester,” Lillian said, as if it was already known.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“Timing feels right. It’s felt right for a while now, but when my mom came into my room three years ago and sat on the corner of my bed, I knew right away it was my grandmother. That she’d died. I know this like I knew that.”
“Yeah,” Duncan said. He drew in a breath, then said, “Listen… the headmaster said this is low pressure. We’re going into this as a reconnaissance job, to figure out what Sylvester is doing. We can fail. If we do this right, the headmaster will okay a more serious job, and relax restrictions on the Lambs.”
“He’s desperate,” Mary said. “Spooked, even. We’re leaving soon, I take it?”
“Looks like we’ll be out and about for a while, a few likely cities to check out,” Duncan confirmed.
“Help me get ready?” Lillian asked Mary. She pulled off her apron. She moved over to a side table, and began collecting straps and assorted items and trinkets. A tooth, earrings, scalpels, syringes, vials, and packets of paper. She held up a round band.
“What’s all that?” Duncan asked.
“This?” Lillian replied. “Is a garter. These things are preparations. Whatever Sylvester is up to, he’ll be anticipating us, but we’ve been anticipating him too, right?”
“Ah, yes,” Duncan agreed.
Lillian shifted position, hands on her hips. Mary matched it, arms folded, both of them staring him down.
Had they read his mind? Did they know there was something he hadn’t yet shared?
It was such a hard topic to broach.
Lillian gestured, pointing down, and making a small circle with her finger.
“I thought I’d learned all of the gestures, but that one’s lost on me,” Duncan said.
“Garter. Read between the lines. We’re getting our weapons and tools on and getting changed in the process. Turn around, sir.”
Ah. Not a gesture, then.
Flushing, he turned his back to the pair.
He heard rustling, and began reciting Wollstone’s ratios in his head again. In the meantime, Helen sauntered around, walking slowly, hands behind her back, skirt swaying, taunting, stalking.
He shut his eyes, and heard an amused sound from the experiment.
Females were terrifying. At least Ashton was an ally.
“Bringing your work?” he asked, conversationally.
“Yes. The arms, at least. I’ve got a compact version I can use. It’ll help. You?”
“I was thinking about it. But I’ve got to go to my lab and figure out how to transport it, and I’ve got to go to my dorm room to get clothes, get packed.”
“How long?” Mary asked, voice sharp.
“Thirty minutes? Forty? I don’t know. No more than an hour, I imagine.”
“I’ll be ready to leave in two minutes,” Mary said. “I have a bag stowed here.”
“Same,” Lillian said. “Maybe as many as five. I’ve got to figure out how to get some of this on. Can you help me attach this to my skirt, Mary? Thank you.”
Duncan flushed a little, not at any lustful feelings, but at the rebuke. His pride was pricked. He hadn’t known he would need to be ready to go so soon.
“Lillian commands the team while we’re outside of combat or confrontation,” Mary stated, like it was fact. “I’ll handle orders while we’re in combat.”
“Yes,” Helen said. Ashton echoed her.
“We know his weak points, but he’ll have adapted. Don’t take anything for granted, he may have adjusted his parameters,” Lillian said. “Jamie is problematic for other reasons, but I don’t know how he’ll come into play. I think of what he did in Lugh, the skills he demonstrated, and he was very good at some things. If he’s practiced at all, he could be dangerous. Skilled in a very different way from Sylvester. Inflexible, but supremely reliable in whatever action he’s taking.”
A sick feeling welled in Duncan’s gut. Why hadn’t he mentioned the death earlier?
Because he actually liked the Lambs, even the ones that terrified him, and he knew how this news would be received.
But every second he waited made it worse.
He almost said something, but then Mary beat him to it.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what Jamie brings to the table.”
“Um!” Duncan cut in. His voice caught.
“Jamie is dead,” Ashton said.
The conversation died with those words, and all of the energy that had filled the room became something cold and empty.
“That,” Duncan said, feebly. He fumbled in his pocket, suddenly clumsy, collecting the paper. “A woman dropped this off, earlier, Ashton brought it to me-”
The paper was snatched out of his hand the moment it was free of his pocket. He turned to look, and it was Lillian. Disheveled in fashion with some buttons remaining to be done up, but still clothed, she stared down at the page, the short message.
Jamie died to the red plague. I’m managing, but I’m not handling it well. Seeing things, talking to ghosts of people who are alive. I thought you should know what happened. This may be my goodbye, depending. The anger won’t die. I’m hoping that a monumental action with some dramatic flourish will make for a good send off. -S
Lillians hands shook. Calmly, almost mechanically, she passed on the papers to Mary.
Then, in the next heartbeat, she was a fury. She struck him, then shoved him, then shoved him again.
“You told Hayle before you told us!?”
Life was so good, he felt so triumphant, so secure, up until the Lambs became involved. Every bad moment in the past year had been some involvement with the Lambs. Twenty-threeing himself, Ibott, nearly dying a half-dozen times…
His protest was cut off by the tears he saw in her eyes.
“You prat! You’re the worst!”
“It made sense!”
“No!” Lillian shouted, her voice raw. She pushed him again. “No! No it doesn’t! We’re supposed to trust and rely on each other! Even if Sylvester ran, he still understood that on a level, and I have no doubt he thought he was helping us on some level, or he at least thought about us every step of the way! Jamie understood too- it’s why he left!”
“Ashton agreed,” Duncan protested. He backed up enough that he wasn’t being assaulted. “And telling the headmaster first meant he went easy on us, like I said before, this being only reconnaissance, mild penalties for failure.”
“I didn’t agree,” Ashton said. “I didn’t disagree. I thought we should tell the Lambs first.”
“Because the woman told you to.”
“No,” Ashton said. “That’s what you said, not what I said. I thought we should tell the other Lambs because the Lambs should know first. Jamie mattered most to them. Us. I liked Jamie. He helped me a lot early on.”
“You’re an idiot,” Lillian said, voice raw. “This was important, on so many levels. You got what Hayle was willing to give us, not what we could’ve taken. We’ve been waiting months, and everything about what we do and how the Academy handles us depended on who got to make the first move, on how.”
“Information,” Mary said, simply. There was no anger or bitterness in her voice, only a firm, horrible coldness. “Control of information. The only power we have is the power we take for ourselves. There are few things more important to being a Lamb than coordinating. Being able to trust one another. Being able to discuss, be on the same page, and handle things as a group. You handled this alone.”
“I handled it with the group in mind. I know Sylvester got some discretion to take leaps and do things on behalf of the group without coordinating, I know you get some discretion. What about me? Do I need to pass some imaginary metric before I get some leeway? I’m a Lamb!”
“You are not a Lamb,” Lillian retorted. She seemed to startle. “And oh my god, I’ve become Sylvester from four years ago.”
Duncan seized on the opportunity, “You railed about how unfair that was, how he treated you when you were new.”
He startled as he felt hands on his shoulders. He startled more when he realized, by process of elimination, that it was Helen.
“The difference,” Helen said, calmly, sweetly, “Is that Lillian never claimed to be a Lamb. She earned her place.”
“I kind of did claim,” Lillian said, bitterly.
“Not like that,” Helen said. The gentle, diplomatic tone cut like a knife. “And you never broke our trust.”
Lillian pressed her lips together firmly, dropping her head in some faint semblance of a nod.
Duncan shrugged his way free, backing away a few paces, so he could look at all of the Lambs. “Fine. I made a mistake. Are you saying none of you did, when you were new?”
He could see them react to that, and braced himself for a fresh barrage of criticism. That feeling of being horribly out of his depth had swelled, and now he felt like he was drowning. He’d never felt so out of place, as a cog in the machine.
So many things hinged on this, on his participation in the program. He couldn’t lose this.
“Let’s stop here,” Lillian said, eyes on the ground, barely restraining the emotion in her voice. “Jamie’s dead. I don’t want this to be how I remember the day I learned that. Why don’t you go and get ready, Duncan? Since it sounds like you’ll need some time and we won’t be able to leave right away. Get your pets, get yourself sorted out, and get your head in the game. I’m not criticizing you when I say that you’re the weakest link, you’re new, you’re inexperienced, and you’re not augmented. He’ll target that. Be ready.”
Duncan riled a bit at that, but bit his tongue.
“I’m the next weakest link,” Lillian said, as if to soften the impact of that last statement. “He’ll target me too. There’s no pride or shame in that. It’s the nature of this particular confrontation.”
“I’m surprised you’re even inviting me along,” Duncan said, “Given all of this, my mistake.”
It was Mary who responded. “Like Lillian said. You’re new, inexperienced, and not augmented. He’ll target that.”
“Especially because he never liked you,” Helen added.
“Are you complaining?”
He shook his head. He set his jaw, and said, “However I can help.”
“Thank you,” Lillian said.
“Then I’ll take my leave,” he said, stiff, and turned to leave. Indignation and frustration welled in his chest, and he suppressed it. This job was important. It was hell, difficult, dangerous, and entirely not his element, but he couldn’t back down now. Better to endure, survive it, and achieve something better in the future.
Angry, bitter, he stopped where he was, just outside the door, for a breather, so nobody would see him so emotional. The door sat slightly ajar beside him.
He could overhear, past the noise of water rushing through the walls, and the dull thuds throughout the complex.
“He just ruined so many opportunities,” Lillian said. “Ways to put ourselves in a better situation, sell our merits to the powers above, and get resources. It’s like he doesn’t understand. He raised himself to a better position, rather than help the Lambs. How are we supposed to trust that?”
“He doesn’t understand,” Mary said. “Even you had to learn. I had to. This is a tricky thing to manage, where we scrape out handholds. Take a deep breath.”
“I don’t feel better. This was different from the mistakes you and I made while we learned.”
“I know. But we’re all different. Now, let’s focus on the positives.”
“They’re alive,” Helen said.
“They’re alive?” Ashton’s voice could be heard.
“Sy wouldn’t tell us like that,” Lillian said. “It’s maneuvering. Giving us the information to spread or leak as we need to.”
They sounded so certain.
Was this what they were talking about? Coordination?
Mary said, “It offers the added benefit of getting the bounty hunters off his trail, which he doesn’t want and we don’t want. If Hayle wants the loose end tied up, he has to use in-house resources. We’re sent to chase him.”
“Probably rollicking good fun for him. The little bastard,” Lillian added.
“Probably,” Mary said.
There was more talk, about logistics, about getting things together, and what would work best for dealing with Sylvester. Duncan barely heard any of it.
His pride stung. He felt bitter.
The paper in his pocket with the address on it. He still had it.
He could take it to the headmaster. Another tidbit of information, one that might lead back to Sylvester. A sick feeling stirred in his gut at the feeling.
Instead, he turned around. He opened the door.
He could see the reaction as they saw him. Only Helen was stone-faced. She should have heard him. Had the ambient noise misled her, or had she simply not listened?
Nobody asked the question, ‘did you overhear?’ ‘did you eavesdrop?’.
He reached into his pocket, and withdrew the slip of paper with the address. He handed it to Helen, who was closest.
“Oh. The address of the woman who brought the letter,” Ashton said.
Duncan could see eyes light up at that. A morsel of information, but it was important.
“It won’t lead back to Sylvester,” Duncan said. “He wouldn’t leave a trail like that.”
“Everything he does at this stage, he does for a reason,” Mary said. “Including sending the letter to us, not to the Academy. Just so it’s clear why we were upset. This? This matters.”
“Thank you,” Lillian said. She still looked angry. To think she’d once been a friend of his. “This is a big step forward.”
I gave it to you because Ashton might have told you about it at some point.
The only reason I didn’t give it to the headmaster is because I was too preoccupied, and forgot.
“Thank you,” he said. He couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “I’ll go get ready.”