Black Sheep – 13.1 (Lamb)

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The three recruits climbed out of the carriage to join Duncan and Ashton.  Duncan squared his shoulders, straightened his shirt, and looked around, taking it all in.  His pets remained at his side, harnessed, with chain leashes extending from the harnesses to Duncan’s hand.

Abby watched and waited, her companions on either side of her.  Ashton looked back at them and smiled reassuringly.

“I should have known,” Duncan said.  “I haven’t really worked with Sylvester or Jamie, mind you, but I should have known.  It looks like a good share of this city burned down in the last few days.”

The other girl, enshrouded in a hooded shirt with overlong sleeves, fidgeted nervously, then turned around as if she was going to walk away, before turning around again.  Ashton went straight to her, clasping the extra length of sleeve in his hands as someone else might clasp hands.

“It’s okay, Lara,” Ashton said.

He had to move his head to peer beneath the hood, even though they were the same height.  Abby emulated him, matching the tilt of his head.  Crammed within each of Lara’s eyes were several lesser eyes, two visible, the other two only really visible when she opened her eyes wider, for eight smaller eyes in total.  Individual pupils dilated to very different extents, each surrounded by gray concentric rings.

Ashton drew in a deep breath and then sighed.  “I know you don’t like new places, and all of this travel has been hard, but we’re close, and they won’t hurt you.  They absolutely can’t and won’t.”

Duncan surreptitiously glanced at the back of his hand.  He did that when Ashton was making spores, and sometimes when Ashton wasn’t.  Abby tried to pay more attention to Duncan, because Duncan was in charge.  There was a hierarchy and in the here and now Duncan was the one to listen to.

He looked concerned.  He gave Ashton a curious look.

Lara?” Duncan asked, raising his free hand to cover his mouth as he spoke.  They were supposed to do that when they thought that Sylvester might be watching.  Sylvester could read lips.  Abby did too, but it was because she understood the mouth movements better than the sounds.

“She needs a name,” Ashton said, moving his hand to his mouth to cover it.  All the mouth-covering made Abby restless.

“We were explicitly ordered not to name it.”

“I know.  I’m disobeying orders,” Ashton said.  “I have been for weeks now.”

Duncan held back frustration, then worked through it before responding, “Why would you do that?”

“She needed a name,” Ashton said, simply.

“So I gathered,” Duncan said.  Patience.  “Why are you revealing this secret name now?”

“Because,” Ashton said, “It’s stupid to not have anything to call her when we might need to say a lot very quickly.”

Again, the barely-withheld frustration on Duncan’s part.

“And because by letting you know now, you’re more likely to let it go because we need to focus on more important things,” Ashton said.  Beside him, ‘Lara’ had stopped fidgeting so noticeably.  Ashton’s spores were working.

“Are you actually being shrewd?” Duncan asked.

“No,” Ashton said.  “Helen and I talked about it and she suggested it.”

“I see,” Duncan said.  He made a face, looking at the group of four.  “I suppose she’s right.  I’ll have to let it go.”

Ashton nodded.  He squeezed Lara’s sleeve, swinging his arm a little.

“But why call it Lara?”


“Because they called her a larval form and if you take the ‘v’ out of larva then Lara,” Ashton said.

“Ah,” Duncan said.  He looked at Lara.  “Lara?”

Lara’s head barely moved beneath her hood.  A faint nod.

Duncan moved his hand from his mouth to her hooded head, giving it a pat.  “Alright.  We should go.  Grab your bags.  Emmett, if you could take mine, it would be appreciated.”

Emmett gave him a nod in response.  The boy had the build of a stocky fourteen year old and the face of an eight year old.  He was only slightly shorter than Duncan, who was three years his senior.

“Follow,” Duncan ordered, leading the way off the main road.

All of the buildings were pale stone traced with curling branches.  There were lawns and gardens, but in many the grass had wilted a little.  In others, there were pebbles and stones laid out to take up a portion of the yard, set so that rainwater would collect on the grass.  Those yards were the healthier ones.

Not so many trees.  Abby liked birds and squirrels and some of the Academy-made things that sometimes lurked in the trees.  She missed home, a little.  Back at Sous Reine, she had slept in a lab and the lab had had a window, and she would spend hours at a time watching the things in the trees and how they moved.  She had been on this world for eleven years, growing at the same rate a human did, and she had learned to identify every last one of the squirrels and birds who visited the trees, who their parents were, where they nested, and how they acted.

Over the course of this journey, going from city to city with no explanation about why, she sometimes thought about the birds and squirrels and she would feel her brain go dark and would have fits.  Ashton would come into her room, calm her down and in their own, strange way, communicating despite their very different brains and perspectives, he would guide her through the experience.  Other times, when she judged that he was in a good mood, she would go to Duncan and seek the more rational, scientific explanation.  She’d done it after having the fits the second time around.

His explanation was that her brain was different, very like a human’s, but with more of some things and less of others, and there were a few parts that didn’t work like they should.  When she experienced strong emotion, she had seizures.  He’d called the sensation ‘feelings’, but she preferred ‘experience’, because it wasn’t so much something that she could touch as a room she seemed to pass through.

So, with all of that taken into account, she had stopped thinking about the birds and the squirrels, even though that made the experience even worse somehow, and had tried to watch for other things to pay attention to instead.

Duncan’s animals weren’t that interesting.  They didn’t have much personality.  No heads, no brains.

No, she couldn’t see much of anything, or hear much of anything.  She sniffed the air-

“Smoke,” Abby piped up.

“Mm hmm,” Duncan agreed.  “Probably set the fires to distract so they could blow up the train station.  I’m not sure why.  I would be happy-”

He paused to move his hand to his mouth, feigning a bit of a scratch of his cheek, while glancing quickly at nearby windows and alleyways.

“-to have a conversation with the other Lambs and touch base.”

Lara turned her head to him.  The hood hid her eyes.

He reached out and gave her head another pat.  “Soon, Lara.”

Abby scrunched up her nose at the lingering smoke smell.

“When we get to Radham,” Ashton said, to nobody in particular, “We can spend more time with the others.  We can teach you all things, like the gestures.  There’s something nice about being part of a group.”

“They aren’t part of the Lambs project, Ashton,” Duncan corrected.

“I know.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t spend time together and talk.  We can all make each other stronger and better.”

Duncan narrowed his eyes a little, thinking.  “Mary.”

“What?” Ashton asked.

“Mary said that, I’m guessing.”

“No, I said it,” Ashton said.

“Mary probably said that about the Lambs making each other better and stronger, and you heard it, and you just repeated it.”

“Oh.  Yes.”

“Yes,” Duncan said.  He sighed.

“Emmett can get stronger and Lara can become braver, and Abby can get fixed so she actually works.”

Duncan looked at Abby.  Checking to see if she minded.  She didn’t.

She had met the other Lambs, and Lillian had explained the situation, sitting with Abby and her makers.  The Headmaster of Radham Academy was looking for experiments of a certain sort, and while the Lambs project had spent the last little while going here and there to look for two of their own, they would sometimes collect one of the projects that fit.  Lara was one, Emmett was sort of one, and Abby had been the last to be collected, weeks ago, even though Abby wasn’t a successful project.  The only reason she was being raised to maturity was the Sous Reine’s ethics board and the possibility that she might develop the talents she was supposed to manifest at birth.

And now, with her inclusion in this odd group, she was the so-called ticket for her creators to have a better funded lab at Radham.

There wasn’t to be much danger, they were mostly meant to act as decoys.  This group would go ahead, checking ahead and drawing attention, while the other group with Lillian, Mary, and Helen stayed behind.  Abby knew she was here because of the way she looked more than because she was anything special.  Black hair in long braids, her features distorted, her teeth wrong.  Because she was the right age, and she was just obviously enough an experiment.

“I don’t think I’ll get braver,” Lara commented.  Her bag was the lightest, despite her wearing the most clothes, as a general rule.  The strap of the bag disappeared inside the sleeve that hid her hand.

“But you’ll get bigger, and more dangerous,” Ashton said.

“I’ll pupate, and then I’ll change, but I don’t think I’ll be any braver,” Lara said.

“No pupating until we’re secure within Radham,” Duncan said.

“I know,” Lara said.

They had to cross an intersection of side streets.  Duncan stopped at the corner, looking around.  Abby mimed him, because she was good at miming people.  Still, she wasn’t used to cities.  Academie Sous Reine had been surrounded by acres of farmland, all of it experimental crops and forms of cattle that had been experimented on.  It had been great plains of one crop or another, or grassland dotted with animals, and trees, and green, punctuated by great wooden buildings.

At the memory, she felt herself pass into the dark room, where a pressure pressed in on her and threatened to send her into fits.

Ashton seized her hand.  She was surprised enough that she forgot to feign surprise.

He was pushing out calm.  She closed her eyes, breathing deep.

With some concentration and Ashton’s help, she was able to turn her thoughts away.  The city was different.  There were more details to pay attention to.  More windows, any of which could have harbored their quarry.

Across the street, an animal bleated.  Abby stood on her tiptoes, looking to see.

She couldn’t see it, but she could see the people.  The way their heads turned, the expressions-

“Coast is clear, I think,” Duncan said.  “We should go.”

He flicked the leashes.  His pets started to move.

“Um,” Abby jumped in.

“What?” Duncan asked, stopping short.  The leashes jerked tight against the harnesses.

“The bleat.”

“I asked around.  There’s a lot of farmland around the perimeter of the town,” Duncan said.  “They hold regular farmer’s markets.  Bleating isn’t unusual.”

“But people are acting like it’s unusual,” Abby said.  She pointed at the crowd, then wasn’t sure what to point to, exactly, and let her hand drop.

“I think it’s best to stick to the game plan that Mary and Lillian outlined for us,” Duncan said.  “No distractions.”

There was another bleat.

Abby broke away from the group, heading straight for the sound.

A hand grasped at her shoulder, then seized one of her braids instead.  Her head was yanked, and she felt an awful pain at that.  She squeezed her eyes shut, her mind and body hurled into a room that was unpleasant and throbbing.

“Shoot, sorry!” Duncan said, letting go of her hair.

Ashton reached for her, and she swatted at his hand, turning her face away.  She swiped at the air between Duncan’s hand and her braid.  Off to the side, Emmett had stepped in, shoving Duncan against the wall, separating the two of them.

“Sorry.  I am very, very sorry,” Duncan said.  “I legitimately didn’t mean to do that.  I meant to grab your shoulder.”

Abby hunkered down, shoulders forward, eyes screwed shut.  She wanted the pain to go away, and to leave that pulsating red room that she wasn’t really in well behind her.  But, paradoxically, she held her breath, because she didn’t want Ashton to be the one who dragged her out of the room.

“Sorry,” Duncan said, his voice softer.  “I won’t grab at you again, okay?”

Abby nodded.  She opened her eyes, found them watery, and then squeezed her eyes shut again, the moisture squeezed out and onto her cheeks.

She felt a hand on her back and flinched.  But it was a big hand, and a gentle one.  Emmett.  She nodded again, and the hand rubbed her back.

“We’ll take a detour, okay?” Duncan asked.  “Go investigate?  But we’ll do it as a group.  We can’t run off and get split up.”

Abby nodded.  She opened her eyes.

“Good,” Duncan said.  “We’ll go directly there in just a minute.”

There were people in the street that were now staring.  In the background, there was another bleat.

“Not to sound callous, but I do wonder if Sylvester and Jamie saw that, and what they made of it,” Duncan said, looking out beyond the buildings and street for vantage points that their quarry might be watching from.

Abby rocked a little with the motion of Emmett’s rubbing of her back.  She eventually raised a hand, and gently moved his hand away.

Her voice was only barely a whisper to Emmett, inaudible to Duncan, “Don’t hurt him.”

Emmett nodded.

She turned to look at Ashton and Lara, who were standing together.  Lara reached out, using a hand that had cloth draped over it, and dabbed at Abby’s tears.  The now-faintly-moist cloth went into Lara’s mouth to be sucked at.

“Okay,” Duncan said.  He glanced back to verify everyone was with him.  “We’ll investigate.”

They moved as a group, heading across the street, weaving past people and wagons.

Their target was hard to reach, because a crowd had gathered around it.

“Excuse me,” Duncan said, pushing through the crowd, his two animals helping spook people into moving out of his way.  Emmett made use of the opening Duncan had created by wedging himself into it, then using his arms and body to help provide a path for the other three members of the group.  Ashton, Lara, and Abby were all about the same height, and moved in single file.

It bleated again.  White and wooly.  A lamb, but not the sort they sought.  It had been left here, leashed to a parked wagon.

“This yours?” someone asked.

“It’s not mine,” Duncan said.  “But it might belong to someone I know.”

“You sure?  Why?  Ran off, he did.”

Duncan raised his head, his interest piqued.  “A boy with wild dark hair?”

“A giant rabbit,” someone commented.  Another person, Abby saw, nodded in agreement at that.

“Of course it was,” Duncan said.  He heaved out a sigh.  “That makes enough sense to me.”

“You know what this is about, then?” a bystander asked.

“A prank, if anything,” Duncan said.

The explanation seemed to serve.  The crowd dispersed, the mystery solved.

Duncan looked back at the group.  “He’s already a step ahead of us, it seems.”

“Mary said he would be,” Ashton said.

“Emmett, would you?” Duncan asked, while holding the leashes for his pets out for Emmett to take.  There was no expectation that Emmett might say no.

Emmett didn’t say no.  He took the leashes, and Duncan stooped down over the bleating lamb, searching it.  He came away with a folded paper.

“Ah,” he said.  “A dire warning.”

Abby stood on her toes again, craning her head to try to read and to see the lamb better with Duncan in the way.

“Oh,” Duncan said, on seeing her straining.  He stood, holding the paper.  “The local gangs are apparently very upset, after some very targeted instances of arson.  Sylvester thought it diplomatic to warn us that we should watch our backs, in case there was trouble.  He wants us to know he was expecting the other Lambs, not us, he’s sorry, he doesn’t want to put us in danger, so he’ll be actively steering trouble away from us, best he can.”

“That sounds like Sylvester,” Ashton said.  He reached over to squeeze Lara’s sleeve and arm more.  “Don’t worry.  We’re still okay.”

Duncan stared down at the note, frowning deeply.  Abby watched his expression carefully.

“We’ll touch base,” Duncan said, covering his mouth, “Talk to the other Lambs.  We should find a good place to do it.”

“A high place,” Lara said.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  “I think I saw a place we could use a little bit further on.”

He turned to go, expecting the others to follow.  They did, but as Abby turned away, her attention and hands reaching for the little white lamb, the others hung back.  Ashton spoke, “Duncan.”

“What?  Oh.  Abby, come on.”

Stubborn, ignoring him, Abby worked to untie the leash from the wagon.

“Abby.  Listen.  We can’t take that with us.”

“Bleeaah,” the lamb bleated.

“Bleeaah,” Abby bleated back.  She was good at animal sounds.  She reached out, and the lamb nuzzled at her hands and forearms.

“Emmett, would you please get Abby standing and keep her with us?” Duncan asked.

Before Emmett could move, Ashton spoke, “You hurt her.”

“I did.  I still feel bad about it.”

“Make it up to her,” Ashton said.  “That’s how one of the longer Good Simon stories might end.”

Duncan lowered his head, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers.

“You want to be a good person, don’t you?” Ashton asked.

“Life isn’t a storybook, Ashton.”

“You’re right,” Ashton said, then continued with his relentless attack, “But wouldn’t it be nice if it was?”

Abby tried to shut her ears to the ongoing conversation.  She lowered her face to meet the little lamb’s and nuzzled it.  The room she felt herself passing into was bright and made the world lighter and warmer, and a lot of that warmth reached deep into the center of her chest, to the point she almost worried she might have fits.  She tried to put it out of her mind while enjoying the presence and the smell and the movement and the warmth of another living creature.  She rocked side to side a little as the lamb rubbed its face against her neck and shoulder, then tried to bite her braid.

“I think it would be a horrid and thrice-lanced pain in the ass if life was a storybook, honestly,” Duncan said.

“Lillian says that good things are never easy,” Ashton said.

Duncan let out a long and drawn out groan.

“Bleeeh,” Abby bleated.

“Bleaa!” the lamb responded.

She shut her eyes, trying to capture the moment in her memories.

Duncan spoke, “You’ll have your own team, Duncan.  Ashton likes you and cooperates with you, so you can keep him with you, Duncan.  You’ll be able to show off your leadership skills, Duncan.  There won’t be as much friction.”

“That’s a yes?” Ashton asked.

“Yes,” Duncan said, tersely.  “Yes.  Abby.  You can bring the damned thing.”

Abby gave the lamb a scratch behind the ears and along the neck before standing, her dress flouncing with the movement.  She bumped the lamb with her leg, to let it know where she was, and then tugged the rope leash.  It resisted at first, but after she offered it a scratch of the neck and retreated, it followed.  With only a little more guidance, it moved happily at her side.

Duncan looked particularly sour as he looked back at her and the lamb, walking between Emmett and Ashton.

“Bell tower,” Duncan said, pointing.  “Old watchtower, I think?  If we can get inside, we can head up.”

“Okay,” Ashton responded.

It was seemingly true that the city had more farmers and people with animals, because the only strange looks they got were the usual ones, reserved for a boy too big and strong for his age, for hooded Lara, and for Abby, who was put together in an odd way.  If anything, she got less strange looks than usual as she walked briskly along the trotting lamb.

All of the lingering bad experiences from earlier had dissipated with this.  She’d harbored some worries when thinking about their quarry, before.  The way that Lillian and Mary and some of the Doctors had talked about Sylvester and Jamie, the concern, the way that everything became so complicated, it had been like she was in a room where she was flailing, trying to get her balance but with nothing in arm’s reach to hold on to, or in a deep place with the surface too far away.

But they had somehow given her a gift, and now she still felt like she couldn’t quite figure these two people out, but maybe they weren’t all bad?  She was warm inside, and tomorrow might hold more moments like this, not more minutes and miles spent away from the place she knew.

“Smile,” Ashton said.

Abby looked over.

“When you’re feeling good, you should smile.”

Abby smiled as best as she could, with her strange teeth.

Ashton smiled back, reached out to squeeze her hand once, then let go.

They reached the tower.  The building ended up being occupied by Crown forces, but that ended up a positive, because Duncan was able to show some identification.  The soldiers stood by, staring curiously as the group went up the stairs.

It was extra positive because the soldiers would guard the ground floor.  There were reasons for being up high, and one was that it made it very hard for them to be listened to.

Once they’d reached the top and Duncan passed on some instructions and a note, the guards up top passed downstairs.  Duncan tied up his animals and headed to the railing.  He walked around the perimeter of the towertop, looking down at nearby rooftops and buildings.

“Lara,” he said.

Lara nodded, then settled down onto the floor.  She hunched over, then cocked her head this way and that.

“Bleeaah!” the lamb bleated.

Abby settled on the floor as well.  Emmett sat beside her, and reached out to give the animal a pat.

After a moment’s consideration, Abby handed the animal over, helping to get it settled so it was lying in Emmett’s lap.  He cupped his hands around it to help keep it in place.

And, because it made sense on a strange level, she gave Emmett’s back a rub while he enjoyed having the animal there.

“Okay,” Lara said.

“Yes?” Duncan asked.  He smiled.  “Great!  Lillian?  Mary?”

There was a pause.

“Lillian: We’re here, Duncan,” Lara said.

“Excellent!  We’re currently at the northwest watchtower.  Arrived more or less without incident, but he’s already on us.  He dropped off a warning and an… inadvertent present.”


“Helen: Ooh, present!” Lara said, mimicking the inflection in a stilted way.

“A lamb.  Because he apparently thinks he’s funny,” Duncan said.  “Abby took an immediate liking to it.”

“Helen: Awww.  Mary: What was the warning?”

“A note.  He started a gang war.  There are thugs around who would be very happy to get their hands on anyone young and vulnerable, with special mention for any Lambs.  Set fire to their headquarters and baited them out.”

“Lillian: Of course he did,” Lara reported.

“He promised protection for our group, because he thought it would be you who turned up, and that you could handle it, albeit with some distraction.”

“Mary: Charmer.”

“Charmer,” Duncan echoed.  “I wanted to let you know we’re situated, and we’ll be moving out.  It’s getting late, and it’s getting considerably darker.  We’ll probably roam a bit, eat, figure out how to get our new pet fed, and then get settled.”

The lamb bleated.

“Lillian and the others are laughing because I transcribed the animal’s noise after giving them your message,” Lara said.  She stopped abruptly, turning her head a little, then said, “Lillian: I’m crying.”

Abby saw a smile pass over Duncan’s face.

“Mary: we’re in the city too, but we’re staying out of sight for now.  Your plan sounds good.  Stay on course.  We’ll try to find an angle to get at him.”

“Thank you, Mary.”

“Mary: We’ll be getting our dinner now, so good night for now.”

“Good night,” Duncan said.

“Helen: Baaaaa.  And they’re laughing again.  Now they’re gone.”

Duncan smiled at that.  He gave Lara a pat on the shoulder, stood, and crossed over to where Abby and Emmett sat.  He bent down and gave a light stroke to the side of the now-sleeping lamb.

“Thank you,” he said.  “For making them laugh.  It’s been a tense few months of trying to track those two.”

“It can’t understand you,” Ashton pointed out.

“I know, you pedant,” Duncan said.  He straightened, stretching.  “What do you guys say about some dinner?”

Nobody in the group was going to say no to that.  Duncan gave Lara a hand in standing, then did the same for Abby.  Abby remained virtually glued to Emmett’s side as the boy held the sleeping lamb cradled in his hands and arms.  The smile Ashton had encouraged earlier didn’t leave her face.

They headed down the stairs.

They were a short distance from the ground floor when they heard the faint murmur.

Duncan stopped in his tracks.

“No,” he said, after a moment.  “No.  That mother-cunting little bastard.  He didn’t, no.”

The murmuring grew more distinct as they got closer to the ground floor of the tower.

“Sir,” Duncan greeted the captain in charge of the tower.  “Is that what I think it is?”

“I have to imagine so?” the captain answered, sounding unsure.  “Bizarre.”

“Yes,” Duncan said.  “I imagine so.  At least we know we have his attention, so we’re doing our job as proper bait.”

“The most curious thing-”

“Was the giant rabbit?” Duncan asked.

“The rabbit man,” the captain confirmed.

Duncan set his jaw, glanced back at Abby with a hostile, deeply annoyed look, then pushed open the door to the tower.  The rest of the group was quick to follow.

Three young lambs and one chicken were tied up at different points outside the front of the tower.

Abby felt the warm and air-light room warm up even more, the lightness becoming a fluttering feeling that might even buoy her into the air.  Her smile widened.

“No!” Duncan said, pointing at her.  “No.  One pet.  One.”

The feeling dissipated a little.  Some of it lingered, however.  The smile remained on Abby’s face.

“He thinks he’s funny,” Ashton said, echoing Duncan from earlier.  Duncan glared daggers at the little red-haired boy.

“It’s a little funny,” Emmett said.

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132 thoughts on “Black Sheep – 13.1 (Lamb)

    • That he is.:/ I worry he’s rubbing off on Ashton a bit too much. Keep listening to Aunties Helen and Mary, Ashton! And, keep looking after Abby and defending Lara like a good big brother.

      Seriously, Ashton rocks as a Lamb.🙂

      • Duncan’s the reason I actually like Ashton now. When he was first introduced, I was pretty apathetic to his existence.

      • No, Ashton was already like that when Sy wanted to mess up his hair. Ashton’s stubborn personality is just fine.

    • I have sympathy for Duncan here. He’s been a third wheel in the lambs project since he joined and he knows it. The other lambs know it too.

      Where Lillian came into her role organically with all of the crazy mayhem she experienced, the academy wanted a “second Lillian” without having to go through all of the craziness first so they posted Duncan. So Duncan is supposed to be having a role like Lillian’s, except he hasn’t earned it. Which isn’t quite his fault since the Academy essentially promoted him.

    • I do not really see it? he is kind of incompetent and unable to read people, as well as too stuck to the academy’s teachings, but its obvious he means well.

      • Most of my bad will towards Duncan is how he is treating all experiments as objects. I know that that’s the environment he was brought up in, but it doesn’t matter. It still feels icky every time, and he is the only person we know well enough to see that from.

        Consider that this is the same as calling anyone with a mental disorder a tool that cannot think for itself.

        • considering slavery normal today=reprehensible and monstrous.

          Considering slavery normal in ancient greece = not exactly virtuous, but not a huge flaw, as its just an internalized societal value.

          I disagree with lots of societal values, but I wouldn’t hate someone for internalizing them, its just human behaviour.

      • Ethics concerns within the academy have been mentioned before though, right? I think it was when Lillian was arguing against Fray’s plan to release Academy Science to the masses, she was saying that having the knowledge contained to the Academies was better because they had ethics.

      • I’m reminded of how stunned I was to discover that Radham doesn’t routinely prey upon its population of Mice. The Academy is indeed capable of putting up a facade of decency at times.

      • Well it may not be an ethics that focuses too much on whether or not something is “righteous”, but whether or not things are done right. Wasting resources is probably not reccomended, or using academy assets for personal projects (without permission).

        • Ah, but she was a failed experiment they didn’t kill because of “ethics.” That sounds at least something like our ethics to me

          • It sounds more like she didn’t display designed traits at birth so they having a “wait and see” to determine if those traits would manifest at “puberty” before dissecting her to see what went wrong or right if she does.

    • This is!! Actually a really interesting detail. Sous Reine is a very french name?? I don’t what kind of bearing that has on it but. The very existence of an ethics board implies that Sous Reine is significantly different from other academies. Or perhaps, the brutality we’re used to is only an artifact of the more military-oriented academies we’ve seen. Sous Reine is agricultural, apparently.

      • The focus and evaluation of their projects would seem to be based on “long term growth” and “right time to harvest/cull” then.

      • The ethics board could be a pretty standard feature.

        Remember that so far we’ve seen the Academy and the Crown in total war mode and then Radham. My feeling is that Radham operates under looser rules then many other academies due to the style of work.

        The “rot at the top” as personified by the baron isn’t indicative either. The story has shown clearly that the royals have a “Do as I say, not as I do,” relationship with the rest of the country.

        So every academy probably has an ethics board, and people who have noble ties or money can probably get around them as a matter of routine.

    • The fact that the Academy has an ethics board is part of what makes it less bad than unauthorized experimentation. SOMEBODY has to stop people from making Primordials!

  1. So, Lara’s some sort of living communication system, Emmett seems to be some sort of Bruno, and Abby seems to have some sort of sensory enhancement that’s prone to overstimulating her. Interesting.

    Also, four lambs and a chicken. He’s acknowledging four of the five of them as being legitimate Lambs, while one is not. I’m guessing that the chicken was Sy saying that Duncan’s a cock?

      • Yep, that could be nice. Her mind seems to be well-versed for better communication with mammals and intelligent warbeasts. I assume that with proper training she would get good with humans and Helen-style experiments too. Abby could develop into tamer, beast trainer, translator or coordinator (as of now she is shy and doesn’t work but Lambs change). She could become an interesting communicator – shades of Sy and Gordon. Gordon’s communication was strong because people either were swayed by his heroic image or broken by his brute-force approach. Sy’s communication was strong with his “box shaking” methods and his abilities to read people. I don’t know what would be Abby’s selling point. Perfect voice mimic/perfect mirror? Gaining trust with kawai-ish type of charm? Detector of lies? Any of those can gain extra weight if used with extra augmentations, supported by Lambs, resources and good old physical training. (Sy left behind piles of dead bodies even if his physical conditions and martial skills are not that apex)

        There were mentions of ‘spy-birds’. Also Twig’s world has lots of warbeasts used for security and military purpose. Proper beastmaster would be sought after – be it for front-line jobs or as behind the lines specialist.

    • I guessing there’s another copy of Lara with the other three Lambs and the Laras can somehow talk to each other over a long distance. But Lara is still in a larvae stage and is supposed to ‘pupate’ so I can’t imagine that that is her only function.

      Emmet’s got to have something else aside from being big for his age, no clues so far though. As for Abby, she’s just weird. She’s the one with eight eyes? We know she’s most likely vat grown but isn’t working properly. We’ve already had a lot of experiments with enhanced senses as their augmentation, I’m willing to bet she’s something different.

      • Wildbow edited and it’s more clear that it’s Lara with the eight eyes. That makes more sense, fits with the insect theme.

        Even less info on Abby then. She’s good at miming people, but that’s likely because she’s had to pretend to act normal since she was created. He augmentation is likely mental, considering her not understanding what emotions/feelings were and constant fits when experiencing strong emotion? The last part is up in the air since it was Duncan that suggested it and he’s been notoriously unreliable so far. Her ‘room’ also seems more triggered by memories, not emotions.

      • >Emmet’s got to have something else aside from being big for his age, no clues so far though.

        The reason Brunos have reduced lifespans is because of the strain their augmentations put on their systems, right? Maybe he’s an attempt at creating a longer-lived Bruno by making someone who’s been augmented since infancy.

      • Methinks Lara is supposed to be a hivemind. One where they can walk into your town disguised as humans, until they aren’t.

    • Nope. That would havr been a rooster. Sy’s calling him a chicken and needling him about not fitting in with the Lambs.

        • It could just be that he couldn’t find enough sheep on short notice, and took a random extra farmyard animal. Having three lambs and one chicken doesn’t make much sense as a symbol for anything; there are five people in the group, one of them is accepted as a lamb, one of them isn’t but is supposed to be, and three just plain aren’t lambs at all.
          Also, while I won’t argue against everyone’s raving hatred of Duncan, we’ve seen Duncan and Sy interact earlier. Sy doesn’t have any major dislike of Duncan, that we could see from his internal monologue, and hasn’t seen him for months anyway (therefore meaning that he probably believes that Duncan will have improved since they last interacted).
          The “chicken for someone who’s always scared” idea seems unlikely, too: Sy didn’t know who tentacles and Iron Maiden were when they met, so it’s unlikely he has any knowledge of the characters of three completely new experiments who haven’t seen action yet.

          • It’s four lambs, with the one he left earlier. Sy never does things by half measures (and gets annoyed when he falls short of “completely over the top”), and his definition of “Lamb” doesn’t necessarily match the Academy’s. Methinks he just adopted three new siblings (four with Ashton), and left a pointed message that Duncan isn’t a Lamb. He may not hate Duncan, but he certainly doesn’t have any respect for him.

            Sy’s respect is earned. Lillian earned it. Duncan just assumed it was his due without ever earning it.

          • So… the other three who he’s never met or interacted with have earned his respect? They could be complete arseholes for all he knows. He’s probably just “going over the top” by moving various farmyard animals right up to an academy guarded building, while the five of them are inside the building, with no-one the wiser as to where he came from or went afterwards.

          • They’re family. Doesn’t matter if you respect your family; they’re still family. And the other experiments are family by blood, not by choice.

            Lillian is adopted family. She earned it. Duncan is neither family by blood nor by choice, but he keeps insisting on showing up for the reunions.

  2. Hmm. I think I’ve finally come to a conclusion about Duncan’s personality.

    Duncan’s not malicious, and he’s not overtly willing to throw others under the bus to advance. To accuse him of that would be untrue. He also likes it when others close to him are happy, he experiences reciprical joy. He feels bad when he hurts people accidentally, even people he doesn’t really think of as ‘people’. He’s definitely not a sociopath or overtly narcissistic.

    But. Duncan doesn’t really display an active interest in others’ happiness. He doesn’t actively seek out ways to make those close to him happy and he doesn’t pay close attention to other’s moods except insofar as their moods affect him. I get the impression that he often feels the opinions others form of him are unfair, because he feels like he did the best he could socially. Which is part of the problem. His lack of attentiveness means that he doesn’t notice boundaries he ought to and he doesn’t notice social opportunities he ought to take, so he screws up and then doesn’t even know why people are treating him like he did anything less than his best. Which is exasperated by the fact that he’s not mature enough and not aware enough of his problems to not get defensive when called on his shit. He’s the kind of person who would feel attacked when told his apology isn’t enough, or when somebody took offense at a statement he hadn’t meant to be hurtful.

    So I think calling Duncan an asshole would be incorrect. Rather, I think his sin is more that he lacks the active attentiveness and care for those around him that we take for granted in decent people. He’s insensitive, not malicious. He could really use a good kick in the ass, someone with authority to call him on his defensive bullshit and tear down the way he shifts blame away from himself.

    TL;DR: Duncan isn’t the kind of person who would pile dishes in the sink and never do them, he’d feel bad for breaking his roommate’s plate, and he’d be genuinely happy for his roommate if they got a date or something. But it would never occur to him to offer to take on a frazzled roommate’s chores. It’d never occur to him that right after a roommate’s breakup isn’t the best time to mention taking out the trash and he’d probably feel hurt when said roommate lashed out.

    And it makes sense to me why this behavior has been met with so much vitriol from Twig’s readers. It’s hard to call someone out on this kind of behavior, because they tend to think of calling them out as an attack. Which makes it supremely annoying to be around such a person in the long run, like water drop torture. We’ve all dealt with a Duncan, and that frustration definitely carries over to this Duncan. But it’s also particularly annoying because it’s purposeless. We can excuse far worse from other characters (I’m thinking about Noreen having Syl freaking stabbed) because their actions have reasons (good or bad). Duncan’s insensitivity and low-level douchebaggery doesn’t happen for any purpose or any cause it just … is. Which I think makes it easy to hate, because it’s indefensible.

        • That’s a topic I wish more schools would cover. It’s the most important life skill if you aren’t actively secluding yourself from all human contact.

          • Eh. I would have failed that class, back in high school. Right along with all the other other important life skills, such as discipline and pragmatic decision making.

            Now, when it comes to the stuff that’s useless outside of college entrance exams, THAT I can do.

        • I would definitely agree with your comment here! As someone who has taken a course modestly covering emotional intelligence a little, thinking of Duncan having a lack of it makes a lot of sense. Seeing as emotional intelligence is partially how well you measure and react to the emotions and stuff of other people or something like that… I would say that Duncan definitely needs to develop better emotional intelligence to survive/be accepted in the Lambs, especially considering how close-knit and sensitive they are to each other.

    • Wow…. Now I feel like I’ve actually been a Duncan for a significant part of my life, and I may still be in other respects.
      However, even as one with similar flaws, other people with those flaws are still unbearable. I’m sure Duncan would punch his double in the face.

    • Agreed people are too willing to hate him for what are minor and, seemingly unintended, acts of unpleasantness and being a bit too willing to stick to the Academy’s rules. He’s a fairly typical type teenager a bit too self-absorbed and ambitious.

    • Duncan is also a kid, and currently trying to head up a special op mission. He seems to be a rule follower too, and wanting to do things all proper.

    • Huh…… yeah… that explains it. I still don’t like him…. only hate him for the danger he’s posing to the LilVester. Especially with him smiling when Lillian speaks…. STAY AWAY FROM SY’S BAE! Still…. He’snot really evil. I could learn to tolerate him…. with conditions….

      • Lillian can do soooooooooo much better than Duncan. Fortunatly as a real lamb she knows better.

        And yes, SyXLillian forever.

    • The defensiveness is definitely a character flaw, but I’m particularly confused about you treating him as someone who doesn’t display an active interest in happiness, particularly in the context of this chapter. If you had stated it earlier, the timing would have made more sense.

      They are in a city that is clearly in the middle of an underworld war featuring obvious signs of arson, and without any communication at all, one of them opted to leave the group to untie a sheep.

      Yes, I get that Abby is cute to readers. She is cute to me as well. But she is a huge liability, and Duncan’s frustration would be warranted even if he were far more mature or emotionally aware. The fact that Ashton continues to have this disturbing mode of arguing where he isn’t even saying his own thoughts, but rather those of other lambs, is incredibly disconcerting. That Ashton would argue in favor of life being like a story in this situation isn’t just disrespectful, it’s patently absurd.

      Duncan is demonstrating remarkable restraint and patience, and even checks in with some of Ashton’s stranger comments to make sure that Abby doesn’t mind and isn’t offended.

      I know a lot of you are creeped out by Duncan referring to experiments being “it” and how that is condescending or objectifying, but what about Ashton’s straight up telling Abby how to emote when he’s barely out of training himself? Duncan actually is being careful to avoid assumptions and is checking in with all of them, communicating with them, etc. Ashton just gets straight to molding her, and none of you found that creepy. Why? Because he is simultaneously using spores to affect her neurochemistry? Because he is holding her sleeve-hand? Because she finds him helpful (of course she does that is his biological niche)?

      It’s immensely frustrating to see all the commentary on Duncan being “creepy” or “emotionally insensitive”. Ashton TERRIFIES me with his behavior this chapter, and all of you are just like “oh so cute” and then Duncan uses the wrong pronoun and we get up in arms about him being insensitive.

      If the Devil of Corinth were paying attention Abby and Ashton’s shenanigans could easily have gotten all of them killed. Still could.

      • Not surprising, that the guy who can control our emotions gets a free pass, while the guy who isn’t being nice to him does not.

    • The frustration we oft-maligned “Duncans of the world” exhibit is totally warranted by lack of emotional intelligence others display. Like, sure, you’re going through a breakup but please take out the trash? Just ’cause you’re going through a rough time isn’t an excuse to be a useless sack of shit to literally everybody else in the world. We’re tired of emotionally draining people too wrapped up in their own drama, but sometimes we hold out hope that they’re not unmitigated sociopaths.
      Look, Duncan’s respected to an extent by the Academy system because he’s got a degree of social/emotional intelligence better than Lillian, seeing as she needs to dose with Wyvern to be able to sort herself😒
      It seems most readers don’t like him because the Lambs reject him. The Lambs don’t feel they can trust him not because he’s untrustworthy, but because he’s too trusting. They don’t ever really trust each other, honestly. Sure, they operate on blind leaps of faith all the time, but it’s mitigated by their own safety nets. A basic one like, “You won’t let me die here because then you’ll die too.” Duncan, on the other hand, will put a sign on the door saying “Do Not Disturb” and expect respect from his peer group. Which I guess he hasn’t “earned” making him a horrible person. Or just a liability because he’s not conniving enough.

  3. the lambs thing is hilarious and exactly what sy would do. Also, I believe Wildbow messed up the names a bit in the beginning. “Abby emulated him, matching the tilt of his head. Crammed within each of the orbs were several lesser eyes,” should be lara, no?

    And most importantly, since this is arc 13 does that mean this arc will alternate between sy and lambs? god i hope so

  4. Anyone have any good guesses as to where Sous Reine might be? Or where the current story is taking place geographically? Just at the start of the last arc we had Scale and his bounty hunters that seemed to have a very cajun influence, but they weren’t necessarily from the same area just because of the French naming influence, and the geography descriptions for Sous Reine are making me wonder if that academy would be in the Great Plains in our world, like say Iowa. Or maybe closer to Quebec. Just how big is this current British Empire anyway?

    • It’s been state and implied in various ways that the story takes place on the North American west coast. The British Empire rules about half of the world I think? Or a third? it was also off-handedly mentioned.

      • East coast you mean, no? It said “Eastern Crown States” at some point, also Louisiana (where this arc is probably set) is on the East coast.

        I’m still surprised that NONE of the real-world names of cities have sticked around though.

        • It wouldn’t surprise me if the nobles intentionally changed all of the cities’ names. Stripping a region of its history and its culture can be very useful for a conquering force, provided they have the overwhelming strength necessary to force compliance.

      • I’ve always thought that the story took place in Britain proper.

        The Western Crown States are the American colonies… which revolted and lost.

    • “Academie”, “Sous” and “Reine” being french words, you can try and place it wherever that’s spoken/written.
      Surely the empire conquered what used to be France, alongside any french-speaking territories in the Crown States.

  5. Really cute and interesting chapter. Even if by any bizzare chance Wildbow would end up finishing a book with exploring characters like kid-experiments with skewed logic – it would be interesting to read.

    Adorable chapter. New Lambs’re nice.

    I have a weird feeling that bizzare rabbit will become a running joke at some point…

  6. Hmmm an interlude arc? It’s always fun to see Sylvester from the outside perspective, and I can’t wait to see what he’s been planning.

    Really intrigued by Lara. Is she telepathic? How was she communicating with the other team?

    Sort of amazed that the Lambs were able to pull the wool over Sy’s eyes and get into the city undetected. The fake (or decoy, I guess) train schedule worked too easily. Sy should have seen right through it – maybe he was too distracted by everything going on, or maybe he was so excited that he just wanted it to be true.

    He delivered Duncan a message within minutes of their arrival. Man, Pierre is fast.

    • I don’t think there’s ‘proper’ telepathy in this setting. I suspect that it’s to do with her very weird eyes…. imagine two of Sanguine doing semaphore or lamb-signals across great distances, but with a very ‘indirect’/hidden signalling method.

      • I assumed it was an insect thing. Like how a queen can control and communicate with a hive seemingly telepathically. Like in “Ender’s Game”

        • Hive mind telepathy doesn’t actually exist exactly per se, (unless you’re an Alien bug queen of course,) but rather the queen gives off chemical signals that the rest of the hive obeys. Which, in fairness could be how Lara(s) work.

  7. New Lambs? New Lambs! And Ashton is growing up nicely, using his pheromones to help Abby. Sy must be so happy right now. I bet he wants to kidnap the newbies.

  8. It was a little funny.

    Also, a typo:
    If anything, she got less strange looks than usual as she walked briskly along the trotting lamb.
    Add with after along

  9. Abby, Lara, Emmet, and Ashton were very likelable in this chapter. Very cute chapter. Duncan still creeps me out with how he calls all of the experiment kids ‘it’ but besides that he didn’t seem too bad this chapter (except I’m not so sure him grabbing Abby’s braid was an accident so much as him temporarily losing his temper with her for disobeying him). Jamie, Sy, Helen, Mary, and Lillian weren’t even technically in this chapter, yet they still managed to be cute and likable in it.

    • He doesn’t call them all ‘it’, just Lara. Lara sounds like she’s not very human at all under that hooded shirt, so I’m not sure that’s inaccurate.

      • She seems to identify both as a she and as Lara. Hence, she is Lara. Going for “it” is just dehumanizing for the purpose of “empirical neutrality” in the same vein as discussing people as “subject ##” is just dumb outside papers. And, particularly insensitive in face-to-face meatspace.:/

        That Duncan doesn’t seem to realise this is rather sad.😐

        • Duncan did the same thing to Ashton in the last Lambs chapter, refusing to think of Ashton as having actual feelings that weren’t mimicry. Experiments are people too, Duncan!

          • I don’t believe that Duncan grabbing Abby’s hair was an accident, but I absolutely don’t believe he meant to hurt her. He clearly was sorry about it afterwards.
            As for Lara, it seems to me that Lara doesn’t talk much. Given that the name is new, there’s no reason Duncan would know about it. In addition, he’s been instructed not to give her a name. Once Ashton brings it up, he’s pretty quick to give in and allow the name to stick.
            As for Ashton being an it… Does Ashton have real feelings that aren’t mimicry? Yes. Does he have feelings that a human being can empathise with or understand, that aren’t mimicry? I’m not sure. He feels pleasure, and displeasure, but other than that he’s completely alien. Calling him it seems pretty reasonable, logically speaking.

          • It’s not that Duncan has done anything really bad, it’s just that he’s a bit self-absorbed, and lacking in tact and empathy. By thinking of the experiments as “it”, he’s showing that he aligns more with the Academy than with the Lambs as friends.

            I think that the hair-pulling was actually a mistake. He panicked because his mistake could have accidentally sent her into a fit.

  10. I wonder if that little lamb was originally for Mary?

    Abby seems way to sweet and easily upset for the kind of field work the Lambs get into. Or maybe we’ll all be surprised when she walks out a room covered in blood.

    Lara seems to me like some sort of human sized insect, with the multiple eyes and talk about pupating. And now I’m imagining Ashton with a giant cocoon stuck to him in the future.

    It’d be neat to see this arc done from the eyes of the various lambs that aren’t Sy actually. Then again if it is from Sy’s point of view we might get him gushing about how much he likes Lillian’s new outfit.

  11. I love Duncan, I really don’t get the hate for him. He’s so adorable, and from what we’ve seen he has every right to distrust experiments. He’s just a big clumsy teddy that’s been shoved into a leadership position he’s not ready for.

  12. (Bleating intensifies) BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

    Anyone have any theories on how Lara’s communication works? I am outright discarding ESP. I don’t think sound would have a very far reach, so maybe radio? Tiny little bugs?

    This is one of the cutest chapters in the entire story. I immediately fell in love with the new characters and Abby is just the sweetest. She really, truly is. It made me very happy to read about how she perceives her world. It also makes me happy that she got an animal companion. I hope she keeps the lamb, it will probably help her out a lot :3!

    • OH! Lara wanted a high place, and she cocked her head to try and locate the other group’s signal. It doesn’t say much about the medium she used, though.

      And I wonder what’s up with the chapter name. We didn’t get an interlude, and this arc starts with a Lamb chapter…

      • Also, Ashton seems to be showing a surprising amount of emotional intellingence, or knowledge since his emotions aren’t those of other people. He has learnt a lot, which is super neat :3

        • I think part of Ashton’s competency with the other experiments is that it’s easier to get drastically different mentalities when you yourself have a drastically different from normal headspace. (Gordon probably had a similar advantage). Most people only ever interact with people who’s minds are fairly similar to their own, which makes understanding people with drastically different minds rather difficult. But when you yourself are a deviation from the norm, when every interaction you have is with people who have completely foreign mental processes, another different foreign headspace isn’t that hard.

          (At least speaking from my own personal experience. I’m missing a couple mental gears that most people have and I’ve ended up being friends with a lot of other people who are neurodivergent too. And even though our individual issues don’t overlap much at all, we still tend to get one another much better than the average person does.)

      • I was assuming that she was attempting to find a counterpart in Lillian’s group, at which point they can do a long-distance communication thing. (Maybe encoded in subtle eye twitches? It’d depend on how many ‘pixels’, so to speak, that impressive visual apparatus can produce)

        • I think that she might have just been lip-reading using her telescoping multiple eyes, with a counterpart that was doing the same.

          • She describes it as “transcribing,” though, and things like the lamb bleating wouldn’t necessarily cross over if it was just lip-reading.

    • Some thoughts about communication media: it can’t be pheromones or chemicals: too slow to be practical, too easy to be blocked by terrain.

      I feel those fit to Twig’s mix of realistic and fictional technology:
      – radio waves
      – sound waves (outside of spectrum perceptible by human’s ear like Ghosts)
      – light waves (think laser communications – must be direct visibility between emitter and receiver)

      My bets on radio medium. Radio waves showed to be practical in real world. It also fits with voltaic branch of Academy research.

  13. Hehe. Duncan seems to have some outdated ideas about the Lambs’ command structure. The slightly-broken experiment that was chosen for the mission based solely on her looks needs to tell the Bruno not to hurt him.

    Probably even the sheep outranks him now, and he doesn’t even notice. He’s going to get eaten alive once shit hits the windmill.

    • I’m thinking that he might redeem himself, personally. Maybe stay on as Helen’s personal doctor after they defect, or something.

        • Helen seems to like to use him in the same way a cat likes ping pong balls. Nothing serious, but it’s fun to bat them across wooden floors. Or in his case, his miserable attempts at hiding arousal are funny.😄

          • It’s OK when Helen is free to flirt or hug him to death as much as she wants, but having him checking her internal organs while getting turned on is too much. I totally agree with her creator* when he kicked Duncan out. I also found him creepy, but not as creepy as Duncan in that moment.

            (*I wish I could blame Wyvern for my inability to remember the Professor’s name.)

          • Helen’s creepiness is part of her charm. Having a personal doctor be creepy is not charming at all! Helen is in much better hands (literally) with Lillian.

  14. Honestly, I think Duncan is my favorite non-Lamb, non-experiment character in this story, and I could totally see myself shooting the breeze with him in the academy quad between classes. That said, he’s even more out of his depth than Lillian was way back in arc 1, and he definitely has a temperament better suited to office/academy politics than field duty.

        • Oh, I’d forgotten about the people who were introduced over the last arc. I’d remembered Hayle, Shirley and a few others, but I guess all the children slipped and orphanage staff slipped my mind.

  15. It strikes me that Sy has the perfect opportunity to haze Duncan for all he’s worth. If he’s not a proper Lamb by arc’s end, he never will be.

    • Hah, I like that idea.

      I’m hoping Duncan’s role in the story changes in this arc, either he properly isolates himself from the rest of the lambs, betraying them badly enough to act as a catalyst for them to break away from the acadamy; or though a possibly quite literal trial by fire, he becomes a proper Lamb.

      I both like and loathe Duncan. I can sympathise with his social awkwardness, and blithe lack of social awareness. But I want to smack him, too, for the same reasons. I hope he suffers. But I hope he changes substantially because of that suffering.

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