The cell was dark, dry, and spacious, with very nice furniture, all considered. There was a desk and chair that would be fit for any of the more respected businessmen or politicians in Radham, a modest bed with nicer sheets than I’d ever had, a stocked bookshelf, and some basic lab equipment.
My hands moved through practiced motions, putting together smoke canisters. We only had the materials for three, pieced together from canisters that were intended to be thrown at fires to extinguish them and from basic chemicals in the kits.
We only worked with the basics anyhow. No education to draw from, only what Marv and Jamie had been able to impart, with a little bit of ingenuity and problem solving.
Problem solving could get us 90% of the way there. The trick, it seemed, came down to either luck or having the right resources to tap.
We were in a very interesting place when it came to resources.
“Smoke bombs, smoke bombs,” Evette and I said. “Smoke bomb with nerve poison, smoke bomb that suffocates, smoke bomb that nauseates, smoke bomb that suffocates, again…”
Pause. Wait, listen.
We smiled, setting the four bombs in a line on the desk.
We reached out, and set one of the tall glass cylinders to spinning precariously on its end before snatching up a piece of paper.
“To… do,” we said, penning down the words. “Get Mauer. Capture. Have a chat. Kill or deliver him-”
We reached out and stopped the wobbling canister from toppling over and falling to the floor in the process.
“See how much damage we can do to our enemies and to ourselves in the process. Wouldn’t be Sylvester if we didn’t get him hurt in the process, am I right?”
Only silence answered.
Wyvern had originally been intended to help with learning language and other things that were so frequently shaped in childhood and then ‘locked in’. Academy students were often pushed by their families from a young age to learn their ratios and study texts, attend tutoring, enroll in academy prep schools, attend summer classes, and to treat every experience as a learning experience, without a spare moment to play or to draw. They often reached the point where they could do the work, they could study well, but with all their prior experience, they hadn’t been equipped to have an original thought or idea.
When those students stumbled, if they’d curried enough favor, then that little green syringe would be dangled in front of their noses, with the promise that it would hurt more than anything the student had ever experienced, and it might give them the ability to cross the hurdle in front of them and revive parts of the brain that had atrophied in childhood.
We knew there was another use that had come up before. Compulsive behaviors, habits, and surgeon’s jag, when those actions that someone performed a thousand times a day coupled with pressure to introduce a crippling compulsive twitch or jerk to the precise actions. Wyvern could soften the brain to allow the person to work out the mental wrinkles and knots.
But it was a double edged sword. Things that had worked before could so easily slide into that same domain. Tics, new habits, forming deep grooves with very mundane actions or roles that were only temporary. For most, it was one small dose to correct the major issue, then two or three doses more to steer back onto course, with the subject learning how to direct things and being very, very careful.
Or, in cases like mine, the doses were ongoing for long periods of time, and the risk of the wrong things crystallizing in a bad way was minimal.
Minimal wasn’t ‘nonexistent’, however. And Evette and I had no idea if I was that much more susceptible to problems in this less stable state.
“Food,” we noted, penning it down. “Still haven’t eaten. Need food.”
We snuck a glance at Helen, who was in the corner.
She was Helen in the same way that a towel was a towel when it was soaking wet and wrung tight into a coil. There was hair on the head and there was skin and a long neck and a pretty dress, there were arms and there were legs, and they were all roughly in the right positions, but even though the figure stood still, things were twisted and stretched as if she was mid-movement, everything turned around and wrinkled in action and bent straight. Abstract, the distillation of the individual puzzle pieces that put a physical Helen together as a dream might provide in the midst of a flurry of chaotic events and impressions.
But the prison cell was quiet, the flurry had stopped.
Our Helen, silent and completely without a face.
We couldn’t let this crystallize. We couldn’t fuss, let ourselves get upset, or give this moment any emotional resonance. That would make it more likely to stay this way.
“Sugar. Brain food. Cake,” we spoke aloud, penning it down.
The hope that we might be able to snap our imaginary Helen back into being was dashed when the image didn’t respond to the prompt.
We couldn’t let ourselves be disappointed. Disappointment could be an emotional connection, something that tied this impression of Helen to our emotions. We had to control how we thought and felt, to avoid this broken image tainting the deep-set impressions of the Helen we knew.
The trick was to keep moving, and not dwell too long on any one point.
“We’ll need information. Two ways we can go about that. We’ll probably need to go after his people, see if we can’t trace them back to him. We’ll need to get the shape of his approach. What he’s doing, the moves he’s making, what his group structure looks like, the resources he has, the direction he’s thinking…”
“How we position in respect to that,” Gordon said.
“Yes!” Evette said. Her glee mirrored my own relief that this was sort of working.
“And how we position in respect to that,” Evette and I said, noting it down on the paper. The scrawled letters joined the other points that were scattered around the page, including a large, angular shape, labeled ‘the shape of his approach’.
I looked up at Gordon.
Gordon, in response, only stood there. He wasn’t all twisted up and wrinkled into ambiguity like Helen was, but the spectre lacked a face. There was only an irregular expanse of skin.
Nope! Not about to dwell on that. Couldn’t let myself worry about what happened if I lost that face in my head forever. Were there even pictures of Gordon anywhere, to let me remind myself? In Lambsbridge, perhaps, but that was a tricky place to get into. A hell of a task. In Radham Academy, in his files, perhaps.
I huffed out something that might have been a laugh if there had been any humor in the moment. Radham academy, easy peasy place to go, if we needed a reminder.
“Focusing on the task at hand-” Evette started.
Yes. The task at hand.
“Mauer. We like Mauer,” she said. “He’s fascinating, and he probably enjoys the brilliant moments where it all comes together just as much as we do. We’ve run into him before, we know he likes the slow burn, setting everything up, then the flare.”
My hand shook as we brought the pen closer to the page. We wrestled for a moment, working to try to get it steady enough to write something proper.
Giving up, we embraced the messiness, drew exaggerated, sketchy circles around ‘resources’ on the paper. Then added notes. Time, materials, people.
Multiple sketchy circles around time, then, leading to ‘moves’.
Together, we diagrammed it out, dipping the pen into the inkwell a few times to make some bolder, sloppier lines where needed.
It was likely indecipherable to anyone but us, but it was, on paper, the ‘shape’ of the problem.
“That scrawling,” Jamie’s voice came out of nowhere, “is not a good sign, Sy. It’s worrisome.”
“Genius usually is, to a mere layperson,” Evette and I said.
“A mere layperson. You two are lucky I’m a ghost, Sy, because I’d normally punch you in the shoulder for that.”
Evette and I grinned.
I looked for Jamie, and the spectre was there, intact as far as we could tell, but the image jittered, darting to the side, like a spot of light on my vision, remaining in my peripheral vision.
We took a deep breath. In. Out.
This was doable. Disheartening, but it was progress. We’d been thrown off balance when our guard was down, and it had hit us where we were already hurting. The coherency had suffered. I had built the images in the first place, and they were something we could rebuild. But we couldn’t push, and we couldn’t let things settle in a bad way. We would have to put off sleeping, make the most of our recent dose of Wyvern, and ideally, we would need a distraction.
It was hard to say if five seconds or a quarter hour had passed when the knock on the door sounded, but the sketched out ‘shape’ had doodled wings, courtesy of Evette, that hadn’t been there when Jamie started talking again.
“Come in,” Evette and I said.
The door was ajar, and someone pushed it open.
Doctors. Ones with black coats; one male, one female. Both young-ish. Younger than thirty, which was pretty damn respectable.
“Sylvester?” the woman asked. She wore a stylish dress beneath her lab coat, and her hair was coiffed with tight rolls down one side, the other side pinned.
“Yes,” we replied.
The man was a very staid, stoic man who looked more like a stitched than a man, with hollow cheeks, a long face, and deep-set eyes. He was silent, frowning as he looked over the room.
“I’m Professor Bette Kinney, this is Professor Arandt. We are apparently at your service.”
“You weren’t the doctors for any of the recently deceased nobles?”
The mention of the nobles’ deaths made Professor Kinney’s expression visibly darken. “No. We happened to be around.”
Evette smiled. “You’re rolling the dice.”
“They had to have told you. Full disclosure. If you work with us, you’re putting your lives in the hands of a known enemy of the Crown. I’m a fugitive, but the Lord Infante wants to equip us to do as much damage as possible to his enemy, to Mauer.”
My finger tapped the page that still lay on the desk. Kinney gave it a dubious look.
“Us?” she asked.
“Yes,” Evette and I said. “No. Nevermind that. You’re distracting from the point.”
“Evette was always going to be miserable at the social graces,” Gordon observed. “That was a niche that Ashton was planned to fill. If she made it and Ashton didn’t, I was going to be the face. If Ashton made it and Evette didn’t, I was going to be the problem solver, but when the both of them didn’t make it…”
The pair looked uncomfortable. Evette and I watched them as Gordon’s voice continued in the background.
“The point,” we picked up the so-called thread that had dangled, “Is that you know this is a risk, but the Infante asked if people were interested, and you said yes. A random invite here is nice enough, but an opportunity to place yourself on a noble’s radar? All you have to do is make it through the next few days without humiliating yourself, getting killed, or fates worse than death.”
“Essentially,” Kinney said. “Except Professor Arandt-”
The gaunt Arandt interrupted, “I wasn’t ‘randomly’ invited. I was coerced into helping a colleague, and I’m happy to have an unassailable excuse to fuck right off and do something else. The risk of dying is a small price to pay for the confidence that my colleague is going to humiliate himself in front of twenty professors and five different nobles without my help.”
Kinney sighed. “I can’t understand that mentality. He may well die.”
“The mentality is that the asshole has reveled in being a festering cyst in my nethers for half of my life. He placed second in the class every year I placed first, but he has enough rat bastard in him that he’s been able to reach up and snatch the positions, accolades and jobs I want most from me, take credit for my achievements,” Arandt said, his expression grim, a skeletal glower. He didn’t smile in the slightest as he said, “This is the best day of my life.”
Evette and I, however, smiled.
“I like you,” we said, steering clear of the ‘we’. “Let’s try to keep you alive.”
Arandt bowed slightly.
“And me?” Kinney asked.
We gave her a blank look.
“Nevermind,” she said. “I couldn’t help but notice you were talking to yourself as we came in?”
Had I been? I remembered pausing, noticing the doodles, but I hadn’t been talking, had I? A blackout?
“Duncan,” Evette and I realized, aloud. You bastard.
“No, I’m just thinking aloud,” I said.
We had to stop. We drew in a deep breath, then centered ourselves. We were erratic, all over the place, and things were spotty. Evette was largely unstructured by design.
I had to slow us down. Decide on a direction, lest everything we do in this state was left as messy and incoherent as the parchment we’d scrawled on.
“May I ask another, unrelated question?” Kinney asked.
“You can,” we said.
“Why the prison cell? With the door open?”
“Because I wanted some space of my own with some quiet. It was the Infante’s suggestion,” Evette and I said. We paused, then added, “Eerily prescient.”
“Prescient,” Kinney said. “I won’t ask. We’re doing lab work with you?”
“For now, you can come with,” we said. We clipped the canisters to my belt at my right side.
“Come with?” she asked.
“We’re investigating. But we’re picking up my friend first,” We said. We echoed August the Ogre as we spoke, voices firm, “Follow.”
It was fun to do that.
“Beg pardon?” Kinney asked. “You may have the wrong idea if you think you can give me orders.”
We paused in the doorway, half-turning.
Arandt was the type to watch carefully before doing anything. His caution might well have been why his nemesis of a coworker had been able to snatch opportunities away from him, but it earned my respect here.
“Follow,” We said, with no subtlety, no grace, and no real manipulation that wasn’t granted to us by the situation alone. “Or go and tell the Infante that you agreed to help and then decided you weren’t willing to.”
With Jamie lurking in one corner of my eye, Gordon faceless, and a wrung-out Helen, Evette and I led the way out of the cell.
The scene of the crime.
Starting from the first concrete point, and seeing where it led us.
It was the same area as the shooting. The area had been blocked off, leaving it empty of all people, and a firm Academy presence had been set in place. Soldiers and academy experiments filled the area. Stitched with cleaning supplies were sloshing out buckets onto the street to help encourage the bits of bone and splinters of wood to find their way to the gutters and drains.
It was dark, with overcast skies, but there were lights here and there, even in late afternoon, and there would be witnesses who were in the buildings and watching the entire process.
It felt wasteful, this kind of presence being deployed to a place that Mauer wasn’t going to strike at again.
Shirley, Arandt, Kinney, the Lambs and I all entered one of the buildings and stepped into a lift. After a word from Arandt, a team of stitched atop the lift began hauling on the pulley system, raising us up floor by floor.
We could smell the faint ozone wafting off of them.
“This is intimidating,” Shirley said. “And I’m not sure I like the height, and the empty space beneath our feet.”
“You were never in the tall buildings near the theaters?” Evette and I asked her.
She shook her head.
“Heights never bothered us,” we replied.
“Are you actually using the royal we, now?” Kinney asked.
“We being the Lambs,” we lied. “I was a member of a team of experiments working for the Crown, once.”
We passed each individual floor. Through the stylized wooden door of the elevator, which was very easy to see past, I could see the individual floors we were passing. Each one had a different Lamb standing in the hallway, facing the elevator.
I was a member of the team. Emphasis on was. Once.
None of the Lambs were intact. Intrusive images, abstraction, incompleteness, it riddled the whole package.
Evette and I watched them. My heart rate was picking up, and it had nothing to do with what Shirley was complaining about. Nothing to do with height.
“I’m not sure I understand what’s going on, Sylvester,” she said.
“I know,” we said. “I owe you answers.”
We passed another two floors. Nora and Lara, in turn.
I’d meant to ask Lillian what the inspiration for Nora’s name had been. I knew Lara was derived from Larva. Nora had me drawing a blank, and my mind wasn’t in the right frame to dig through and find the right connections. I might have recruited Jamie’s perspective, but I wasn’t sure things were on a solid enough foundation.
Evette. Just Evette, for now.
“Things made sense a few days ago,” Shirley said.
“Things were good, a few days ago,” Evette and I agreed.
“Something happened,” she said.
We didn’t volunteer a response.
“Months ago, you and I got to talking. You helped me find a kernel of courage. I thought, if I stayed with you, then I could repay you for that, by helping in small ways, and I knew I could learn things from you. Because I admired you.”
The elevator passed a floor where Jamie remained out of view, peripheral. I only barely caught Jamie saying, “Past tense.”
“I want to repay you, still,” she said. “So long as I’m able, I’ll try to repay you.”
Arandt and Kinney were in the elevator with us. Shirley wasn’t saying everything she wanted to say. She knew full well that something was wrong. Had we been alone, she no doubt would have said more.
She wanted to help.
The lift took us up to the higher floors before stopping. We stepped out into a hallway.
These tall buildings were offputting. These floors were too high off the ground, to the extent that it wasn’t a useful kind of height, where we could work our way downward to affect what lay below. Things were out of reach, and it was oddly difficult to move downward, or upward, or through any of the hallways or rooms, without constant obstruction or space considerations – too much or too little.
Crown officers were waiting in the hallway. Arandt handed one a note, and they waved us through.
“When you took this task,” Evette and I asked the pair, “Did you think you’d just have to do some lab work with a troublesome fugitive, or did you realize you’d have to go out into the field?”
“I didn’t expect it, but I can adapt,” Kinney said.
“Past experience?” Evette and I asked.
“I went on field trips,” she said.
Evette and I laughed, short, abrupt, and deeply offensive to the proud Professor.
“I didn’t care,” Arandt said.
“Didn’t care?” we asked him.
“About whether this was field work or lab work.”
Gordon spoke, “You have to appreciate the single-mindedness.”
We entered the room.
It was the scene of a battle. The wall-crawling warbeasts had come tearing in through the windows, bringing broken glass and three-fourths of the frame into the room with them. Each was roughly a hundred pounds, all muscle bound around four spike-like limbs, with a fanged head. Light, mobile, and made of nothing but power and natural weaponry.
Roughly six had entered the room and summarily died as they were stabbed and shot at. The sheer damage to the room and the wall around the windows suggested that something close to another six had been in the room at another time. Deep gouges I could hide a hand or foot in carved through every surface and cut through furniture. The force of the mass of muscular forms tearing through the wall had turned the windows into gaping holes. The wind and a steady patter of rain blew into the room. Eight to ten men had died here.
Shirley hung back, staying away from the bodies and the blood.
Four Crown officers, two doctors, and five different experiments were in the room. The experiments wore masks with filters and heavy coverings, akin to robes, with hoods, leather boots and gloves. They were also my height.
The officers marked down things in their books, the short experiments pawed through evidence and brought their faces down close to it, and even rubbed themselves in it.
Evette and I pointed, raising a quizzical eyebrow at our accompanying professors.
“Scratchers,” Professor Kinney said. “Brought over from the heart of the Crown by the Infante, then replicated by his teams. They can tell the difference between dirt from one patch of earth and dirt from a patch of earth on the other end of the same field.”
“Ah,” we said. “Enhanced senses?”
“No. Another sense entirely. The closest analogues would be smell or touch.”
“No,” Kinney said.
“I like this,” Evette added, “The investigation. Taking it all in.”
It was good. A relief. Something to occupy the senses.
“I wish we could have seen this play out,” Helen said. “The chaos, the looks on their faces.”
“Without being a part of it, you mean,” Jamie said.
“Do I mean?” Helen asked.
We turned my head to look at her. She had a face now. Her dress fit better, instead of being a choked mass of cloth.
How long before we take another two long steps back?
We approached the guns that lay by the windows. Destroyed.
“Intentionally destroyed,” we observed. “By Mauer’s men?”
The Crown officer nearest me glanced in the direction of Kinney and Arandt. He must have received a signal or a nod, because he answered, “Yes. Built into the guns. They twist a key and haul it out along with a band of metal, and it melts internal mechanisms.”
We looked across the floor, at broken glass, at rubble, and bits of flesh. We picked our way carefully past the dead warbeasts.
Evette and I spotted a band of metal with a key attached lying beneath a warbeast, and toed at it until it was out in the open.
The officer bent down and picked it up, carrying it over to the scratchers.
“You’re welcome,” Evette said, sneering.
I kept my mouth shut, but it was hard. If I hadn’t been able to maneuver in very comfortable territory, doing something very much like I’d been doing all my life, I might have lapsed, and fallen too closely into step with the Lamb that wasn’t.
Helen chirped, “If I may say so, this is going much better than we anticipated. Sylvester and Evette have been paired up for several hours, and nobody is dead yet. Not even Sylvester.”
“I’m offended,” Evette said.
“You had to say it, Helen,” Gordon said.
“Just keep us alive, Evette,” Gordon said.
We finished picking our way over the broken bits of wall, furniture, and window frame. We glanced through the open window at the incredible distance to the ground below, then pulled my head back.
The corner of the room we’d approached had an open door. We stepped through, with the two professors a few paces behind us.
There was a bathroom, with a claw foot tub set at one end.
Two Academy doctors were tending to a grievously injured man who had been placed in the tub. Bags and tubing with blood were hooked up to the man, along with more tubing and mystery fluids.
The man was muscular, his hair short, and he was missing more flesh than I could have carried in my two outstretched arms. The wall-crawling warbeasts had done their damage.
Mauer’s man, captured alive, but not quite so well that he could be easily brought down and out of the building.
He was why we were here.
“You,” he said, fixing his eyes on me. He sounded remarkably well, all considered. The fact that his genitals, stomach, upper thighs and some of his chest were all mangled didn’t seem to have put any waver into his voice.
“Me?” Evette and I asked. “We’ve met?”
“You set the lab I was in on fire,” he accused.
“Ah,” we said. That would have been in Lugh.
“Go fuck yourself,” he said.
The part of me that was Evette wondered momentarily if that was even possible on any level. With enough work with spectres, enough disconnection from myself…
“I’d say you’re thoroughly fucked enough for the both of us,” we replied.
“I wish I could step in,” Gordon said. “Negotiate.”
His face was back, we realized.
The relief was palpable, and put a smile on my face.
Only a moment later, we realized that the smile would seem taunting to someone we’d just accurately described as fucked.
“Fuck you,” the man said.
“You know they’ll get the answers out of you,” we told him.
“They’ll try. They’ll find drugs and inject me, and they’ll push me, and maybe eventually I’ll slip. But it won’t be soon. It took them this long to get me conscious,” the man said. “And don’t think you’ll do any better.”
“By the time someone figures out what you know, Mauer will be gone,” we said.
“He’s gone already. But by the time someone figures out what I know, he’ll have a head start.”
A fanatic. He would die for Mauer.
Mauer did a good job of fostering this kind of loyalty.
“Maybe,” we said. “But you know who I am. I’ve spent the entirety of my life getting answers. Understand? I’m a better torturer than some people who torture as a trade, on behalf of the Crown. Because I grasp people. I know how people tick, and I can find the weak point that breaks them in an instant.”
He narrowed his eyes. It was clear he was faintly drug addled. He’d been given chemicals to help him survive despite the damage that had filled the bathtub with enough blood to cover the less mangled bits of his unmentionables.
“Yeah,” he asked, setting his jaw. “Some people aren’t that weak.”
“You’re a zealot,” we said. “You believe, both in Mauer and in his cause. A lot of the soldiers under him have been with him for a very long time. And, to top it off, you’re winning, after getting two nobles in one day. A task you were willing to die for. All we have to do to break you is to target the one weak point in it all, and everything unravels.”
Evette, it seemed, like the monologues.
He was silent, forcing me to volunteer the nature of the weak point. “Mauer. I tell you one little thing, and you’ll know it’s true. You’ll realize a fact that you’ve been keeping from yourself for years, and your world will crumble.”
“Try me,” he said.
We smiled, and we leaned forward, over the tub, shooing back the doctor that was working on the man. One hand went on his shoulder for stability as we leaned close.
In his ear, we murmured, “Working on a double cross against the Crown, on Mauer’s behalf. I want you to give me a location you know he isn’t.”
He frowned, looking up at us.
Gordon, too, was frowning, sitting on the ledge at the other end of the bathtub. “You had to jinx us, Helen.”
We glanced back at the professors and crown officers at the other end of the bathroom. Kinney was standing on her toes to look over and around and try to get some sense of what was going on between us.
“We’ll convince them Mauer just left. That will give me time to take action. I can set some things in place in the meantime. But I need help convincing them I’m cooperating-”
“Sylvester,” Kinney interrupted.
“Look confused,” we whispered, before leaning back, turning to look at Kinney.
“What’s this?” she asked. We saw her look between our conspirator and us.
She’d seen the mock fear.
“Give me another minute,” we said.
Leaning close, we provided some verbal instruction to the soldier on how to look properly horrified.
“Swear at me,” we urged him.
“Fuck you!” he raised his voice. We realized a moment later it might have been genuine, because he reached for us with a good arm, seizing us and trying to drag us into the tub with his naked, bloody self. “Fuck you!”
Hands seized me, and hauled us back and away from the tub. The grips remained strong even after we were well away from the tub, securing me.
We stared the man down. Willed him to cooperate.
If I were anyone else, I might have been able to manipulate it out of him.
The force of will proved fruitful.
A full minute passed, and we could see the surrender gradually take him over.
“There’s an apartment block on Thirty-first and Queensway,” he conceded. “He won’t be there anymore, but there was enough stockpiled there that he wouldn’t have left right away either. The tail might be warm. Fuck him, if you’re not lying to me.”
We liked this guy, even if his loyalty wasn’t to me or to us.
We looked over at the professors.
“I guess we’re visiting the next location,” Arandt said.
“No,” we said. We left the bathroom, stepping into the living room. “The Crown police can go, confirm or deny. But I’ve been thinking. We need you in the lab. We have ideas-”
And, we thought, We need you out of the way.
“One of us can work on projects,” Arandt said. “Depending on what it is you need.”
“Special stitched. With gas inside.”
“It’s been done,” Arandt said.
“I need it done in a few hours,” we said. “And we need something that can produce a disruptive sound, and we’ll need equipment. Lockpicks, knives.”
Evette and I continued to ramble, but we were aware of the grumble of dissent.
“Turning on the Crown, just like that?” Gordon asked.
“I don’t object,” Jamie said. “But it feels precarious. A double-cross?”
“If this isn’t a quadruple cross by the time we’re done,” Evette and I mused, internally, “Then we’ve shamed ourselves.”
“A quadruple cross?”
“Getting everything lined up so that we can take out every major player in this city with one bullet, lined up to pass through all of the bodies,” Evette said. “And we’ll see if we can’t find the Island with the missing children while we’re at it.”
“You’ll get us destroyed before you’ve set up half the cards,” Gordon observed.
“Probably. But if we don’t get destroyed, it’s going to be glorious,” Evette said, clasping her hands together.
We blinked hard. Focusing on reality. We were standing in the room with all of the bodies, staring out the window.
The professors waited patiently by.
Another blackout? No, this had been brief.
We turned to Shirley. “Doing okay?”
It was the wrong question, awkward, out of place.
“Not so well.”
We reached out and took her hand. It was infantile, but it reassured at the same time. She smiled uncertainly at it.
“Let’s get out of here,” we said, feeling as if we’d failed, that the question and the hand holding were far, far too little, even misleading, considering what we needed in the greater scheme and solution to this puzzle. We needed to give Shirley kindness, to reinforce the connection, lest she run away from us.
Chances were good we were going to need her to save us from ourselves.