The rain was heavy, drilling against carriage roof and street around us. The streets were smooth, but the roads were wet and the carriage skidded with every turn and adjustment in direction, the wheels squeaking and grinding as they ran sideways across the road with every skid. Each of the wagons had lanterns mounted on them, and it was just getting dark enough for the lanterns to be lit, making for fleeting, passing lights that illuminated the raindrops on the windows like hundreds of individual, tiny light sources.
“…going to need some warbeasts. Can you modify them so they’re loud?” Evette and I continued what had been a long discussion.
“Make them loud, then. Mauer is a communicator. He’s an orator, and every time I’ve seen him, he’s had a way of commanding the crowds. People look to him for direction. So we have to deny him that. If we’re going to get him, we have to deny him that role. We blitz, we steal his voice, and we steal their ears.”
Kinney shook her head, “The modifications to the warbeasts would have to be post-fact, there are drugs, there are machine augmentations, and there are likely resources we could tap into for alternate organs or physical structures, but there would need to be time in the lab, surgery-”
“You can’t?” Evette and I asked. “I thought you guys were good, I thought we had resources.”
“We can,” Kinney said, patiently. “But the one resource that isn’t in our hands is time. If you assign arbitrary tasks-”
“I was asked to hunt Mauer by the Lord Infante because I know Mauer better than anyone the Infante has at his disposal. I have spent more than half of my life, nine out of about sixteen years, hunting people like him. When I talk about the measures we should deploy, I’m doing it for a reason. Not to be arbitrary.”
“I have doubts,” she said, very calm, “I’m voicing them, full disclosure.”
“If you’re questioning me on this, you’re questioning your noble.”
She gave us a very unimpressed look that suggested she knew full well what we were doing, then matched the look with tone of speech as she said, “Perhaps it would be better to tell us what you’re looking to accomplish, and we can suggest the tools to accomplish those things.”
“No,” Evette and I said. “Because I don’t have time to run everything past you. We’re dropping me off shortly, and then you’re taking the carriage to go straight back to the lab to start getting everything ready. Some of the things I name have reasons that aren’t just for the obvious purpose, so I want you to strive to give me what I want, not just close approximates.”
“Evette,” Gordon commented. “You’re not making friends.”
“And you want warbeasts that make noise, of all things?” Professor Kinney said. She looked over at Arandt, as if checking for confirmation.
He was remaining quiet, arms folded, listening while letting the younger Bette Kinney handle the negotiation.
“We want warbeasts that make enough noise to drown people out,” Evette and I said. “Things like this-”
We tapped at the canisters that were still connected to our belt. “Smoke that chokes, for obvious reasons, and some smoke that nauseates, to disrupt focus and, again, potentially steal their voices. You and Professor Arandt will work on more smoke generation vehicles. Smoke with drugs, things to cover other bases, I want them to suffer if there’s even a whiff of the drug.”
“Something effective in lower doses?” she asked. “We could kill them in low doses. Why hold back?”
“Anything that potent would likely kill me. I’m going to be in the thick of things.”
“In the thick of things?” Arandt asked, his eyebrows rising. “Against Mauer? A trained soldier, capable combatant, religious and military leader with a small army of revolutionary soldiers at his back.”
“Because Evette,” Jamie said. “Because her default approach is the unexpected, chancey one.”
“It’s because of the scale and nature of his forces that I’m going to be there,” Evette and I said. “It’s part of a greater plan.”
“I note how they doesn’t even have a good reason ready to supply for why they’re going to be in the thick of it. They just want to do it,” Gordon commented.
“Shh,” Evette urged the spectres.
“That ‘greater plan’-” Professor Kinney started.
We interrupted. “Stop. Look. Mauer expects the out-of-proportion response. It’s how the Crown and the Academy operate. If we kill his people, we make ourselves a bigger, more intense enemy. If we kill him, he becomes a martyr. That carries weight, especially with the way he positions himself. That means taking his strengths and turning them into weaknesses. It means giving him no room to find or keep his balance. We break him, and we break him by being soft, ephemeral.”
“By getting you in close proximity to him, and leaving him unable to command?”
“Among other things,” we said, thinking. I looked up. “Is there a drug we can use to induce ringing in the ears? What’s it called?”
“Do that. Gas form, if possible. Enough to be uncomfortable or disruptive, without destroying. I want a cumulative effect with that and a number of other drugs, with no contraindications. Choking smoke, nausea, lights or sparkles in the eyes, mild pain, hallucinations, a little bit of bleeding from orifices?”
“All doable. It’s a question of asking for the right chemicals from the right batches, keeping an eye on management, packing it into canisters like the one you have-”
“No,” we said.
“Not canisters. No. I’m thinking… it needs to be stitched. Or warbeasts, if you think you can get enough set up. But probably stitched. Fill them with gas. Set them up to explode, or exhale it, or leak it when shot. It’s about pressure, having bodies on our side that we can expend while still accomplishing our objective. And the gas needs to be thin, easily dispersed into the air and still effective when dispersed at those concentrations.”
“You’re asking for a great deal, again, stitched would have to be modified to carry a payload.”
“And you’re worried about time, you said?” we asked. We weren’t as good as some of the others at going on the offense, or at manipulation. All we could do was seize on something and push for it, and run them down with quantity of words and ideas. “Recruit more people. I’m sure you can do that, can’t you? Just use the Infante’s name, bring some people on board?”
“It’s in the realm of possibility,” she said. “And you’re introducing complexity now.”
“I’m not even halfway done. The next phase is parasites. The worst thing that could happen is that I capture Mauer and we get to the stage where they’re on their heels, and then his very well trained and very dangerous lieutenants immediately make a counter-play. Mauer will have plans up his sleeve, things he’s discussed with his lieutenants. We get Mauer, they enact the most viable plan, and suddenly they have a person, place, or thing hostage.”
Gordon commented, “And they get the hostage or they take away something that hurts-”
“The nobility won’t pay ransom,” Kinney said. “It would have to be a very valuable hostage, but it’s more likely that we don’t pay, and we lose something that hurts.”
“Very likely,” I agreed. “Which is why we step it up. We need longer-term problems. Something to delay. Parasites. Something that’s time consuming to get rid of.”
“Fisteria,” Professor Arandt suggested.
“Would it be hurt by the smoke as proposed?” Evette and I asked.
“Most things would.”
Evette and I nodded, “Find a way to make it so they’ll stay at peak effectiveness. Hamper Mauer’s men, don’t kill. We want them to stop, hurt, and think, before they decide on their next move. We’ll also need a deployment. Something different from the stitched.”
“I have to ask,” Kinney said. “Why aren’t we outright killing them?”
“I covered that,” Evette and I replied.
“No, you suggested roundabout reasons why killing the men and leaving Mauer alone would give him grounds for further aggression, and why taking out Mauer alone would make him a martyr. Killing the men and killing or capturing Mauer in a massive assault would prevent both.”
Evette and I stopped. There were reasons, but spelling it out meant having a better mental footing. Implementation was easiest.
“Theoretically,” we said, stalling.
Gordon spoke, “You want a reason her approach won’t work? Mauer’s forces are too spread out. They won’t be concentrated in a way that can be easily attacked.”
Evette and I repeated it, virtually word for word. We were speaking with a delay before we spoke, and our attempts to cover it with body language and manner of speaking weren’t perfect. Far from.
“The gas and the parasites, distributed well enough, will be able to reach or inconvenience most of Mauer’s men on the fringes. The lookouts and the groups that are waiting to flank us as we attack Mauer in the heart of his group.”
We repeated Gordon’s phrasing.
“With a distribution that wide, you’re talking about affecting civilians,” Professor Kinney said.
“Definitely,” Gordon said. “Mauer’s men, they’ll be in tall buildings a block or two city blocks away, watching over things with those guns and some binoculars or telescopes to give them the ability to watch things unfold. We want to catch at least the closer ones in the course of the general assault. We’ll want fast moving troops with guns. Expendable ones. Limber stitched, where possible.”
We repeated for him, sentence by sentence.
“Stitched, as a general rule, emphasize durability over agility.”
“But you can,” Evette and I said.
“We can, yes. But I happen to wonder if we should. A lot of this makes me wonder if we should. I’m not seeing the thrust of it, and I’m not a member of your little team of like-minded experiments. Why should we go this far? Explain your rationale.”
Evette and I answered, not waiting for Gordon, “You should, because you want to make an impact. You should recruit as many people as you can under your banner for the sake of this attack, because you want to enjoy the power, however briefly, that comes with working under a noble. That ability to say ‘jump’ and have a crowd of people obey in unison.”
“Arandt,” Gordon said, with a hint of urgency.
We wheeled on Arandt, extending a pointing finger.
He’d just opened his mouth to speak, his arms still folded as he sat in his seat in the carriage.
“Yes?” he asked.
“He was going to interject,” Gordon said. “He’s been waiting all this time to find a point to jump in and devastate your argument.”
“You were going to interrupt us,” we said.
“I was going to add a comment,” the gaunt Professor Arandt said.
“A comment about your recklessness,” Gordon said. “You’re painting a picture, staking everything on this plan, the drama of it, and he’s too conservative and careful to truly want to be a part of it.”
“You have your doubts,” we said, speaking over the last few words of Gordon’s commentary. “I understand. But there’s more to this. Aspects I can spell out later. What we need for now is for you to get started. Mauer just took major action. There’s two ways he could go from here. He either escalates, seizing on prior advantage, or he does something to cement that advantage and burns every bridge behind him as he disappears. One of those actions is imminent, and hitting him while he’s in the process of preparing for it may be one of the few times we catch him with his guard down.”
“I can’t help but notice the infrequent use of the royal ‘we’,” Kinney observed.
“And that last part is complete and unmitigated bullshit, Sy,” Jamie commented.
Gordon was gone, and Jamie was present. He wasn’t lurking in my peripheral vision anymore, but I still couldn’t look directly at him without him dodging off to one side, like an afterimage from a very bright light very close to my eye.
“That isn’t how Mauer operates,” Jamie said.
“Sy doesn’t get all of the credit for the unmitigated bullshit,” Evette said. “I helped.”
“You helped,” Jamie conceded.
Kinney had said something in the midst of the conversation between Jamie and Evette, and my observations of Jamie. She was looking at me expectantly.
“You said something,” I said. “What was it? I was thinking.”
“Timing is sensitive, then,” Kinney challenged us, allowing herself a private smile at the irony.
“This is doable. You have your black coats. I know you’re capable of recognizing that something is achievable and making it happen,” we retorted.
Arandt dryly commented, “It’s a question of motivation, I think. We serve the noble lord Infante, of course, and we do our utmost to produce the best work possible for him and his extended family. But the best work possible looks very different when we truly want something ourselves, and when we are simply doing our duty.”
“There it is,” Gordon commented.
“This isn’t entirely untrue,” Kinney said. “That motivation factor might make the difference in this being achieved.”
“Do we really want to tap vast resources and personnel and reinvent the wheel for a risky gambit that might make an impact?” Arandt asked. “And might make us look bad if we’re deemed to have any part in its failure?”
“The best way to avoid looking bad is to do exemplary work,” we challenged him.
Arandt shook his head a little, and didn’t venture a reply.
“We will, rest assured, do our best work,” Kinney said, with an notable lack of sincerity and a look in her eye that suggested she was testing us. The ‘best work’ she was talking about was best work that was liable to see most but not all of the required work done, with time constraints being their very real and unavoidable reality. They wouldn’t do any more work than was necessary to meet their goal.
Leaving it like this meant that she and Arandt won the argument, and it meant that Evette and I weren’t achieving our goal of keeping them sufficiently busy and out of our hair.
“What you’re doing doesn’t make sense as an approach, Sy,” Gordon said. “And why would Evette be clever about planning and strategy and treat social problems as if she’s bashing her face into a wall and hoping to win?”
The carriage came to a stop. The driver knocked on the carriage roof.
We looked over at Shirley, who was sitting beside me, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.
“I can do this,” Gordon said. “And criticizing you two as you’ve stumbled through this conversation has given me renewed life. I’ll get the professors on the same page as us. Swap out with me, Evette. I don’t want to keep doing the thing where I talk and you two repeat after me.”
I relaxed, shifting my thoughts to allow for the swap to happen.
“No,” Evette said.
The syllable rang in my head for long seconds in the midst of the uneasy pause that followed. My skin crawled as goosebumps took over.
Evette remained sitting beside me. When I looked, there was nobody in the space of the carriage that we had allocated to Gordon, where Jamie had appeared. Where Helen would appear if she wasn’t so uncomfortable to look at, so unnecessary to this current situation.
With only Evette at hand, faced with prospective allies who might well be uncooperative, we had no idea how to convince them. I reached for things and there was a distinct nothing instead of the Lamb that should have spoken up, a void in place of the part of me that should have fielded that aspect of the problem.
Stiffly, we rose out of the seat, opened the door, and stepped down onto the rail beneath the door. We stopped there, already getting drenched in our brief exposure to the rain. Shirley had partially risen out of her seat.
“You stay,” we said.
“What?” she asked, eyes wide.
“Stay. With them. If they go back to the labs and I’m out here handling things, they’ll think I’ve absconded, and they won’t work. It’ll be my word against theirs. If you stay, then they have reason to believe I’m coming back.”
“I need to be active out here, they need to be active in the lab. My plan will work, and it will make a lot of old problems manageable.”
“I’m collateral,” Shirley said. She stared at me, quietly horrified. “You’re treating me like some thing you might pawn at a store to have some money, Sy?”
That’s not wholly wrong, I thought. I felt a pang of conscience. This was where the other Lambs were supposed to speak up.
Evette started speaking, and I moved my lips to match. “That’s not wholly wrong, except you’re a lot more valuable than any item. You’re priceless, because you’re that close to me-”
The only one that was close to me. We were playing it up a little to exaggerate, but only a little. We weren’t good manipulators like this, me and Evette.
“-and the Infante himself recognized that you had that value to me. Which is why they won’t and can’t touch you, and why this will even work in the first place.”
She shook her head, staring at me.
“I will be back,” I said.
“Browsing the pawn stores in Tynewear, I saw a lot of people who lived beyond their means pawning treasured and sentimental items to cover debts and make bets. All of them convinced themselves in the moment that they would get the money, they would return, and they would have what they wanted and their personal treasures too.”
“Yeah,” we replied.
“There’s a reason those pawn stores stay in business, Sylvester. It’s not because they routinely give back those treasures they held as collateral.”
“Yeah,” we replied, our tone less confident, less proud.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“But there are still ways to make sure things work out,” we said. “Big picture and small. Trust me.”
We looked at the professors.
“You’ve memorized what we want?” Evette and I asked.
“Yes,” Kinney said. She smiled, self-indulgent. Not because of the exchange between Shirley and us. Because she wasn’t being wholly sincere.
“I’ll be back later. I’m most comfortable skulking around on my own, and I need to get my head around the shape of what Mauer’s doing, and what the battlefield might look like. I’ll come back with more ideas on what we need to tackle this, and a more exact idea of what his big move might look like,” I said.
“More ideas,” Kinney said, in mild disbelief.
Evette and I smiled, and we shut the door with some force.
The chill that had come with Evette’s refusal to vacate hadn’t wholly left me, even though the evening was hot. It was warm enough that the rain didn’t cool us down so much as it got us thoroughly drenched.
We were free, in a manner of speaking. There was an indistinct time before we had to return for Shirley. We would come back to find that the professors had churned out some but not all of the work. Much of it would be the easiest tasks. The gas, the chemicals, produced in large quantities. The stitched would be put off. The warbeasts too. Perhaps they would have students recruited to do the grunt work.
It wasn’t ideal, but we were free.
“You’re building a house of cards,” Gordon said. “You realize this? They’ll interrogate the soldier you convinced to lie, and they’ll use drugs, the same ones they used on Lillian.”
We ignored him, walking briskly. The numbering of the streets made navigation fairly easy.
“Putting Shirley at stake like that, it’s not good,” Gordon said. “You would never do that.”
We continued to ignore him.
“This isn’t sustainable, Sy. You’re going downhill, hour by hour.”
I could have pushed him away, but I didn’t want to.
I should have been able to push Evette out, but I couldn’t, even though I wanted to. There was a part of me that refused to let go of that aspect of her.
We walked, moving through the crowd. Even in a city where people walked with purpose and a brisk stride, we were faster, which meant having to navigate the people, the warbeasts, and the other obstacles. A fast moving zig-zag through the forest of moving bodies nearly saw me walk into more than one stationary obstacle that I hadn’t seen until it was too late.
“Maybe, maybe this works,” Jamie said. “Maybe you find all of the pieces you’re looking for, you arrange everyone perfectly, keeping in mind that Mauer is clever and capable, and the Infante is monumentally powerful with the wisdom to use that power at its most effective. Maybe the stars align, and absolutely nothing goes wrong. And maybe, just maybe, you accomplish this.”
He paused for emphasis.
Moving through the crowd, I saw a girl that looked very much like Lillian had when Lillian was young. The same face shape, the same nose shape, enough that I thought she was a very distinct spectre. Then I saw the blonde hair, and the features that didn’t quite fit, the fact that her upper arms were thicker, implying a different body type, and that Lillian would never dress that way, and, and, and-
And then she was gone and the image of her flew from my mind, and I was left with only annoyance at myself that I’d seen any resemblance at all.
Jamie spoke softly, in a voice I shouldn’t have heard through the hustle and bustle of it all. “Maybe you even achieve your quadruple-cross, with all of the pieces of your and Evette’s intricately constructed setup serving their roles, playing out with grace and impact and all of the desired fallout. In part, what you and the other Jamie were plotting during that long winter and spring in Tynewear is achieved.”
“That’s a lot of maybes, Sy. A lot of gambles, with narrow odds. On another day, with help, you might achieve it. Might. If you were at your best.”
We’d found the intersection that Mauer’s soldier had mentioned.
Jamie was gone. Helen was there. Twisted up, but capable of speaking, despite having no mouth half the time. I only saw fleeting glimpses of her in the midst of the crowd. A person would walk between us, and I’d see Helen mostly intact. Then the next instant she disappeared from view and reappeared, blocked by intervening bodies, she would be a twisted ruin again.
She spoke in her cold, reptilian voice, the one without inflection or emotion, only delivery, “You’re not at your best, Sy. Gordon is right. You only slept because you were drugged. You haven’t eaten. You’re getting steadily worse, with more flaws in this crutch you’re employing.”
Evette and I looked at the houses. We judged which one Mauer would prefer as a spot to camp out in, one of the places his followers had gathered, stockpiling resources while using windows to monitor goings-on. Perched on a corner, it was a spacious house that might have been a home once, but broken down into individual apartments within. Red brick, with branches crawling through the woodwork.
“I’m inclined to back Duncan’s mutiny,” Gordon said. “Even knowing what it might cost.”
“It costs Sy Sy,” Jamie said. “We oust him, and we take up residence, taking our turns as needed. There’s not even any guarantee it works. We might try as a subconscious craving on Sy’s part to utterly change, and leave ourselves a collective vegetable. Or something worse.”
“Are you saying all of this to him or to me?” Evette asked.
“To both,” Helen said. “The two of you were supposed to bring Shirley. But you seized control, you discarded her. We don’t want to be that person. We need Shirley.”
Evette and I hopped the fence, in broad daylight. We approached the side of the house, peering in through windows. People were staring.
Who was going to act, though?
“Give us time,” Evette said. “A few hours.”
“We won’t last a few hours,” Gordon pointed out. “At the rate we’re crumbling, the rebellion on Duncan’s part, and now on yours, refusing to cede ground to us? Pushing us further away? Sy’ll be gone in one way or another before the night is half over.”
“An hour, then,” Evette said. “Two.”
“An hour,” Gordon said. “Then the rest of us start talking extra measures.”
“One hour, but if we’re doing okay, you extend the time,” Evette said.
“And, in the meantime, you help,” Evette said.
Evette and I nodded, as we found an entrance that might have worked. A window was slightly ajar. The sill of that same window, we noted, had glass shards worked into it, the points sticking up and out. Deterrence for would-be thieves.
We climbed up, careful, using other aspects of the building, and peered into the room, checking all was clear.
There was a mechanism in place, tucked into one corner of the window.
It took some doing to fiddle with the mechanism and raise the window up without cutting me on the glass shards. We managed it, then held the mechanism firm while climbing through the window.
Gas and chemical, sorted out into containers, all arranged in a battery that was reminiscent of the Caterpillar project’s brains. Wires and mechanisms fed from every entrance and exit of the house to the battery.
The window had been a decoy. Shove it open and boom. Fire and death.
Even if it were a real, unwitting thief, the explosion would distract the Crown.
We moved through the house, careful for more traps. There were signs that many people had slept here, many people had stayed. Beers had been imbibed in great quantities during off hours.
With Jamie helping, we identified the chair that had been Mauer’s by positioning, quality, and the damage to one of the arms. His massive arm had rested on it, clutching at the handrest. He had been standing by it, drawing attention, helping to form the connection.
Mauer had been here once. Perhaps it had been a headquarters before, before he’d made a routine change of location?
Eminently believable that he would be here, all in all, but nothing useful.
“The man who led us here might have expected us to trigger the trap and die,” Gordon said. “I’m very curious what we plan to do if he talks about you asking him to lie about Mauer’s location.”
“We can handle that,” Evette and I said, “It’s part of the quadruple-cross. Everyone is aware of how smart they are. They’re aware of how smart we are. The Infante is expecting a betrayal. We’ll give him this one, mild and enough to draw his curiosity. Then we give him what he wants and deliver a fatal blow at the same time.”
“And Shirley?” Jamie asked. “She’ll be okay in the midst of this?”
“The Infante doesn’t see the point in hurting her,” Gordon said. “He didn’t see the point in using our relationship with Lillian against us, threatening her. I still don’t like sending her back there. I don’t like hurting her. But… if we’re cooperating with Evette in this, I’m ninety percent confident she’s safe for now.”
“I don’t like that ten percent,” Jamie said.
Helen was silent, standing by a table. We approached.
There were fruits, set in a bowl. They hadn’t rotted, though they looked a touch ripe, which meant Mauer had been here somewhat recently.
Helen being there meant something. Instinct, needs. We reached for the fruit, sating hunger by biting into an apple.
Thick juice ran down our chin. The apple tasted like coins and raw meat. The texture wasn’t apple, either.
Nothing like biting into an apple and realizing it was a blood apple instead.
Proteins, all the same.
“There are clues in the situation here,” Gordon observed. “The sheer quantity of explosives here. It means he’s not detonating any bombs or anything in the near future. If he’s making further moves, he has something else in mind.”
“He should,” Evette said. “We should find out just what that is.”
“That so?” Gordon asked. “How do you propose we do that?”
“We ask, clearly,” Evette said.
Seizing paper and a pen, we began scrawling out a message. We found our way to a window, and we observed the surroundings before moving to another face of the house. Once there, we found our target -a high building nearby-, and we raised the paper to the window, holding it there. We fixed our eyes in their general direction, so that if they looked at us through any binoculars, they would see is looking more or less at them, and they would see our message.
Even as damaged as I was, with the various voices in my head commenting at how badly things were drifting to pieces, I felt a little bit of excitement at the prospect of talking to Mauer again.
Two long minutes passed, no doubt while they debated whether or not to shoot me.
Evette was fairly certain they wouldn’t. It would cost too much. The gunshot would bring countermeasures into play, things like the wall-wolves coming out of hiding to collapse in on the place the noise had come from.
On the eighth floor of a ten-floor spire, lights turned on, then turned off.
That would do.