“Why me?” Mary asked.
Evette lay on the bed, working hard to breathe. Her vision had cleared up from what it had been, but that only let her see just how extensive the damage was. In the gloom, tubes ran in and out of Sylvester’s chest, leading to an external heart that lay on the table, pumping its mechanical rhythm. The heart was flesh and bone, the bone shell encapsulating the upper left quarter and the bottom right. With every beat, the corners of the two quarters clicked together faintly.
Two men were in the room, a rebellion doctor that stood by the window, smoking, and a soldier who had positioned himself by the door, so he could read by the shaft of light that came in through the crack in the door.
“You’re working on making us available to you again,” Mary said.
“Yes,” Evette murmured.
“You could have picked anyone else for this. But you picked me.”
“The mission comes first,” Evette said. “And you won’t lose track of that.”
Mary, faceless and distorted around the edges, standing in the dark, turned her head, taking in the room.
“Right?” Evette prompted Mary.
Mary seemed angry, but Evette wasn’t willing to push it or wonder why.
Better to muster her forces. Hours were passing, she was supposed to be checking in to rescue Shirley, and instead she was lying in a bed in a dark room with rain pattering against the window. Men’s voices in other rooms suggested an ongoing discussion between Mauer and his men. She couldn’t make out the words, or really distinguish Mauer’s voice from the others, but one speaker’s voice definitely set the pace for the others. There were longer pauses following it as others considered their words, and nobody interrupted or jumped in to add their thoughts to the tail end of any statements.
As discussions went, it was serious and methodical.
Mary spoke, looking in the general direction of the group of men in the other room, “Mauer isn’t cooperating. I’m not sure there is a mission at this point.”
Evette looked at the shadowy lump that was the mechanical heart. It didn’t keep as steady a rhythm as she would have liked, and it made her feel particularly out of sorts as she felt her pulse maintain a different course than her thoughts and feelings did.
“All part of the plan,” she murmured.
“No it isn’t,” Mary said.
“Don’t be that way, hon. You and I, we can learn to dance,” Evette said. “We could have gotten along.”
“There’s something Sylvester and I share in common,” Mary said.
“Yeah. Fine. I get it.”
“If you’d existed, Sylvester wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have.”
“I get it. Lordsy. So you’re keeping me at arm’s length. Fine.”
“And I’m not going to let you pretend. No lies. No disruption. If we do this, we’re going to do it right. I can stand separate and do that because there was never going to be a Mary and Evette. Gordon and Evette? Yes. Helen and Evette? To be sure. But our stories never converged. I was a bad seed and you were the problem solver. At best, you would have killed me.”
“No lies, no disruption. I can try that.”
“Shirley is a priority.”
“Not that I’m arguing, but I didn’t expect that from you. You’re not exactly the warmest or softest.”
“I have my weak points.”
“Lillian. But Lillian isn’t here, nor is she even liable to find out. I can’t imagine that you’re representative of any part of Sylvester that’s compassionate. Not given who you are, where you come from, and how you operate.”
“No,” Mary said. “But we made a promise. We hold to that. Sylvester did when he promised Lillian and Emily that he would kill the Baron.”
“And you’re that?” Evette asked. “That drive?”
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. But maybe a part of me doesn’t want to be used by someone I can’t respect.”
“Percy? No, this is his thought process too. Him and the Academy. You represent that too, even going back to the night he shot you in the knee. I knew my instincts were good when I turned to you. You won’t let us take any garbage from Mauer, either. You don’t like being manipulated.”
“We don’t mind being manipulated if it’s someone we respect,” Mary said.
Evette cocked her head to one side. That line bore some thought. It was true, in a way, but at this stage, there was nobody they respected and trusted enough. Could there ever be? Was it part of why they didn’t want to get involved with Fray?
Did it color their interaction with Mauer?
Looking across the room, she saw the soldier with the book wasn’t reading, but was staring at her. Was it her little head movement that had drawn his attention?
Mauer’s men were good at what they did. Alert and effective.
He lowered his lead, facing his book, but she was pretty sure that, in the gloom, he wasn’t taking his eyes off her. Still watching.
“We’ll need help,” Mary said. “Work on bringing back the others.”
“Not like I can do anything else,” Evette muttered.
Helen first. Helen was safe, predictable as an element. Stable, and relatively unchanging over time. Her act had become more refined, less like a mask she wore, but the monster beneath the skin was more or less the same.
That monster was angrier now, bloodier, more dangerous. But more or less the same. The same measures worked for winning her favor and for staying out of her clutches in the here and now as the measures and safety protocols of four or five years ago.
Jamie was next. Jamie the younger, the one she’d seen as she had blacked out. One of the few old memories that Sylvester held onto with any ferocity or clarity.
She was working on Gordon when the door opened.
Mauer stood there. Two piping hot mugs of tea were in the palm of his oversized hand, which he held with his other hand to keep steady.
“You’re awake,” he observed, as he crossed the room.
“Yes,” she said.
“He’s been awake for some time,” the doctor said. “He’s been talking to himself under his breath. Incessantly.”
“No, and no. Nothing physiological, I don’t think.”
Evette raised her head up to look at Mauer as he came to stand beside her bed. He took care in lowering a mug of tea to the bedside table, just beside the artificial heart, before lifting the other with his good hand.
“If you would, Mackenzie, would you help him sit up? I don’t want to speak to someone that’s lying down.”
Silent, the soldier by the door rose to his feet, put his book down, and walked around to the other side of the bed. He put one arm under each of her armpits and raised her up, propping up pillows behind her.
“Thank you,” Mauer said. “I’d like to speak to him alone, now.”
“Shall I guard the door?” Mackenzie asked.
“You can. You can listen in and interrupt if you think I’m in danger. But give us the illusion of privacy in the meantime,” Mauer said.
The soldier gave him one short nod, then left the room, closing the door behind him.
Evette reached out for the mug, but the handle was too hot to hold. Mauer had held the cups in the one hand? Was it supposed to be a show of strength, or did he just not care?
“You know what I’m going to ask,” Mauer said. “You’ve been talking to yourself, so I would think long and hard before happening to lose your voice now. I’ll end you if you try to be clever.”
“Speak,” Mauer ordered.
“I left West Corinth because I broke from the Lambs. I came here because one of them, a new Lamb, he’d been taken as a child, and unlike many others, unlike…”
She hesitated. Would it be see as a trick to imply she wasn’t Sylvester?
“…Me,” she decided, “he remembered details. He was taken and he remembered what people said. And what they said was that the children went to Gomer’s Island. A number of them. To something called the Block.”
“Strip away everything else I am, everything I’ve been cultivated to be, everything I want to be, and I’m always going to look out for the children. I’m always going to protect them, and shelter them. I tried to set something up in West Corinth…”
The ‘I’ here was Sylvester. Evette wasn’t so invested in it. It made her sound, she realized, very insincere.
“I hope it works,” she said, without passion. Maybe the fact she was relying on an artificial heart to live would explain it.
“If you’re trying to distract me-”
“No!” Evette interrupted. Then, thinking about her position, she softened her voice. “No. It’s just, it was my motivation for coming here. I was intercepted by the nobles. Brought before the Infante. Then things spun out.”
“I almost believe you,” Mauer said. He lifted the tea to his mouth to drink, swallowed as a kind of punctuation, then added, “Almost.”
She reached for the mug at the bedside table. Still too hot to touch.
“What else do you know?” Mauer asked.
“Not much at all. It was a lead, a starting point. I wanted to get away, to focus on something else. In the last moments, when I thought you finished me for good, I wanted to… to communicate it. To not let that thread go untied.”
Mauer walked around the bed, over to the window. With the lights on inside, it would have been hard to make out the world beyond the thick, rain-streaked glass. He stared out at the dark city, drinking his tea.
He was taking his time to answer.
“You know something about it,” she said.
Mary, Helen, and Jamie all watched the man with keen interest.
“I chased down that thread,” Mauer said. “That winding road was what led to me meeting with Genevieve Fray in the first place. Not so long after the mass sterilization and the chemical leash was inflicted on the public. We found two parts of the same lead and followed it. Oddly enough, it started with you.”
“Me?” Evette asked.
“The Lambs. You uncovered Percy’s plot to seed the upper class with sleeper agents, children who would be programmed to kill their parents, he fell into Cynthia’s clutches. Percy found me. Genevieve found Cynthia.”
“From there, we started discussing ideas and priorities. It eventually led to the meeting at Brechwell. The one you joined.”
Evette didn’t interject. She wondered if her selection of Mary had had some prey instinct feeding into it too. Some subconscious connections pointing to Percy being relevant, and thus Mary being key.
Mauer turned around. He leaned against the thickest branch that supported the window, and sipped at his tea.
“You appear slated to walk this path, Sylvester Lambsbridge,” Mauer said. “Every time the topic is raised, you appear as part of the greater picture.”
“Maybe,” Evette said. She picked up her tea, avoiding the tubes and the beating heart, shifted position, and sipped at it.
“Maybe,” Mauer agreed.
They drank their tea, each thinking about what to say next. Mauer seemed very relaxed, not inclined to be aggressive or counterattack. It made her uneasy, because he had seemed agreeable before, before he had turned on her.
Maybe he knew that.
Outside, something screeched. The screech took on a different sound as the source drew near, moving very quickly, before it flew past the window, making the entire building shudder fractionally. The screech took on a different tone as the creature started moving away rather than moving closer.
“A small war started somewhere in this country,” Mauer observed, glancing at the window. “Hundreds or thousands will die because of it. People will lose loved ones. The Crown will, if they don’t win outright, at least take an eye for an eye.”
“But you intend to fight that war? You sacrificed soldiers to kill nobles.”
Mauer drew in a deep breath. “You’re right. It seems to be an undeniable reality. They can never lose. I thought, if they would kill one of ours for every one of theirs we killed, we could at least ensure we killed their best. My comrades and soldiers are prepared to fight on that sort of battlefield, with those sorts of rules. But when it came to Fray, I saw her maneuver against the Academy as a net victory for her. Do you understand? I thought perhaps we had a way of hurting them more than they hurt us. She and I thought that Gomer’s Island was one of the best ways to achieve that.”
“What is it that makes the island special?” Evette asked.
“Imagine that New Amsterdam encapsulates the whole of the Crown States, if you will. Imagine that it is representative of everything from west coast to east, arctic circle to the southern border.”
“I can do that,” Evette said. She held her tea in both hands now.
“Gomer’s Island is the rebellion, in the midst of that expanse. Small, isolated, an ongoing rebuke. A condensation of the Lughs and Wickerhills, the Sudburys and the Lonshires, a place where the stubborn, the pious, and the recalcitrant reside. A pocket of resistance. It has taken many forms over the years, but the name should tell you what it is. Gomorrah. It is a heretical place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“New Amsterdam is a contradiction. It paints itself as one thing while giving evidence to another. In religion in particular, in a city where the Crown should have more control than anywhere else, it has the most faithful. Gomorrah is where the faith is so often centered. They name themselves as a place of sin and wrongness as an ongoing rebuke to the Crown and the Academies.”
“And the Crown allows it?”
“The Crown fosters it. Gomorrah is a feast laid out for the faithful, with poisoned dishes scattered across the table. For the starved, and the people are starved, it’s impossible to ignore. But partaking leaves one vulnerable.”
“And the missing children find their way there?”
“Found. Genevieve and I followed the thread to its conclusion years ago, and it was a trail that ended in Gomorrah. I still keep an eye out for any clues that might allow us to pick it up again, any detail we might chase down. I still hold hope that we could find another way to attack the Crown.”
“There are the children, too,” Evette said. “The ones that are being preyed on. That’s more important than finding a way to hurt the Crown.”
“There will be children who suffer for as long as the Crown lives and the workings of the Academies march forward.”
“There will always be a Crown and always be an Academy,” Evette said.
“And we have a circular argument,” Mauer said. “One I’ve had with myself. Give me a choice of saving children and hurting the Crown or the Academy, and I’ll choose the latter. Their abuses and wrongs will cause more harm in the long run.”
There was a bitter, angry note to his voice.
He sounded spent.
Powerful, dangerous, but there was a faint ragged edge to the tail end of his words that suggested he’d talked himself raw over the past day.
“I don’t think I can agree,” Evette said. She started to speak, then stopped herself. She had to weigh her words before speaking again. “Jamie and I spent the winter and some of the spring in Tynewear.”
“Jamie. He died of plague, according to my intel.”
She smiled sadly. The condolences stung, given how Sylvester might well have lost Jamie forever, given how things stood. He had lost the Lambs.
“We spent our time plotting how best to hurt the Crown. We weighed plans of attack, and decided our priorities. Given the choice, I think Sylvester would choose to spare children before he chose to hurt the Crown and Academy.”
“You referred to yourself in the third person again.”
She closed her eyes, cursing to herself.
“Go on,” Mauer said, glossing over the misstep.
“You spared us because you thought we might give you that lead. We haven’t.”
“You haven’t stayed here, dug, searched, or targeted people. You haven’t gone door to door, searching for answers. You said it yourself. You wrapped up things in pursuing this, and then you went to Brechwell.”
“Nothing so tidy as that, but yes,” Mauer said.
“If it’s so important, then why didn’t you keep looking?”
Mauer didn’t volunteer an answer.
“Or did you make the choice? Leave that behind, wage your war, eye for an eye, breed your primordials, and start targeting nobles with those guns of yours?”
Mauer tippd his teacup back. He didn’t stare at Evette, or at anything in particular. His gaze fixated a distant point.
“Because-” Evette said, before stopping herself. A doubt in the back of her mind told her to stop talking. It was a hard voice to listen to. The phantoms around her weren’t strong enough or complete enough to jump into the discussion and make her stop, either. “Because those guns, right now, they aren’t helping you much, in the grand scheme of it all. This is their battlefield. The costs you’re paying are too great. They adapt to any challenge they’re faced with.”
She expected him to argue. To tell her something about how he could adapt too, or about the choice he’d made and the rationale for it. He was a clever enough man to come up with good reasons, and he was talented enough to frame them in a clever argument.
Instead, however, he simply said, “I can show you.”
Mauer hadn’t joined her in this particular carriage. The beasts that pulled the carriages were unrecognizable, reminiscent of the primordials, but stable, unchanging. Simply ugly, irregular, vat-grown life, with the strength of ten mules and mass enough to bully their way through the streets. Not that Mauer or his people had them do so. The drive was quiet, dark and placid, navigating a loose tide of carriages, carts, wagons and the rare automobile.
They moved onto a bridge. The water over the side of the bridge was only darkness, the sky’s canopy obscured by stars. It was a bridge lit by lamps that were positioned such that they weren’t reflected in the water. A glowing structure that seemed to cross nothing but void.
Something about the mood changed as they entered another part of the city.
People were outdoors, in the rain, gathered in groups. The number of Academy-created monsters increased dramatically from the already dramatic totals in New Amsterdam proper, with seemingly no group going unescorted.
There were more churches here. More religious symbols. On the rarer occasions where a carriage or cart with a lamp mounted on it passed close to a wall, Evette could see the graffiti, and much of it was religious.
A bastion of faith in the heart of the Crown States, but it was an insecure faith. Mauer had elaborated on it some as they had made their way down the stairs to the carriages, but had refused to provide information or influence her expectations about what was to be found there.
According to Mauer, this area was littered with hidden traps. Academy agents posed as the faithful and found their way into groups. There were entire groups that were Academy sponsored, that invited people in, catered to them for months and years, building trust enough to draw in others, before collapsing in on them. The people were killed or happened to disappear.
The wider streets were brightly lit, with stores and buildings on each side, with one in five being a church. But their destination was not on a wider street. They went somewhere where there were few lights at all, where the streets were narrow, and where parked carriages and garbage here and there made them even harder to navigate.
Their destination was a proud looking building, with pillars and broad steps, windows that nearly reached from the floors to the ceilings, and five stories of height. The carriage stopped. Evette climbed out, and Mauer climbed out of a second carriage, which had been following.
There were no lights on, so they took the lanterns from the carriages and brought them with them. Evette walked beside Mauer, the tubing and artificial heart slung over one shoulder and packed into a bookbag she wore.
Mauer’s men opened the front doors, which were unlocked. They entered the hall proper.
A library without books.
Evette looked around, noting the dust. It was thick, and none of the weather that had blown in through the cracks in the glass had really disturbed it, except for one hallway that had patterns like sand dunes forming in the stuff.
The shelves formed something of a maze.
“Almost weeks before we arrived, there was an event,” Mauer explained. “A great many figures were in attendance. If you saw the Infante and his doctors, and all the other doctors that spend time in his proximity, then you would know what they were like. Scholarly men and women in their finest dress, many wearing stylized lab coats. They came here. Men and women brought trays of food and alcohol.”
Evette looked at the rows an columns of shelving, and the shelves that lay against the wall, to either side of the windows.
“Later in the evening,” Mauer said. He reached a set of bookshelves that rested against the wall, found a catch, and then hauled on one shelf with his oversized arm, before switching to his good arm to haul on the next shelf. They swung away, hinges screaming their rusty cries. “The doors would open. The partygoers would make their way to the Block.”
The Block was downstairs. The set of stairs leading down was wider than any of the hallways at Lambsbridge orphanage had been long, leading into a basement.
Evette saw the first of the corpses, lit by the lantern.
She saw the next, all tangled together, arms and ribs interlocking, making it impossible to see where one of the skeletal remains ended and the next began. Not because they were modified. No, they had simply been embracing as they’d died, huddled together. The bodies had collapsed into each other.
Behind Mauer and Evette, Mauer’s men ignited lanterns and lit candles. Slowly, the area grew lighter. Slowly, Evette, being sure to keep the light behind her, was able to make out the details.
Bodies littered the area.
Mauer was a man of words, very effective words, but he’d been unable to convey this scene. It was something he’d needed to show, not tell.
The corpses had dessicated, or been devoured by bugs and by vermin. There were so many, dropped where they’d stood, crumpled on the floor in awkward positions.
“The Block, based on what I was able to find out,” Mauer said, “Was an event held at this location once every two weeks. We counted the bodies of at least eighty children and twenty grown adults here. Our doctors tested the remains and it suggested they were all drugged to be complacent. One by one, they would have their numbers and ratios rattled off, along with grades for psychology, wellness, nutrition, and more.”
We came from a place like this. Sylvester did. Jamie did.
“After each one had their numbers read out, the bidding would start. They would be dragged away, very frequently to be experimented on. Modified. Quotas for the best, the healthiest, the brightest, all were demanded and met. Money changed hands, and that money went to the Academies and the Crown, with a share going to procurers. An endless supply of test subjects, fed through this engine.”
Evette looked around. She could see the bodies, and she could easily imagine it was a hundred.
She could imagine it was more.
“You’re clever enough that I’m sure you can figure out what Genevieve and I figured out,” Mauer said.
The count was wrong, her gut told her. Then, as she looked at some of the bodies, she realized that there were piles that were misleading. A pile of two adults could easily look like three children.
But she saw the black fabric of a lab coat, and she moved it, looking closer at the long-decayed corpse, all bone and dried-on tatters of flesh that the mice and rats hadn’t elected to eat.
Academy people had died too?
She looked around at the bodies, and she realized what had unfolded.
“They killed them all,” she said. “All of the children. All of the adults. And then they killed themselves?”
“Yes,” Mauer said. “The bodies were still cooling when we made our way down here.”
She could look at Mauer, and because he wasn’t trying to hide it, because the pieces were all there, and because he’d hinted at it, she could see how it all came together.
“They killed all of these people, then themselves, all because you came looking? Burning bridges before you could cross them?”
“Yes,” Mauer said, sounding very tired again, even as he tried to put a kind of emphasis on that.
It was, in a word, the end of the story Mauer had been trying to tell her. The final stroke of the picture he’d painted before her.
“No leads? No clues?”
“Some,” Mauer said. “We chased down what we could. There were two, with one we intended to hold in reserve.”
“In reserve? Then this trail isn’t cold.”
“It’s very cold, as trails go.” Mauer said. “There were two people who knew the full story about how this worked, and just why they had a protocol like this in place. One of the two people was the Duke of Francis. I put a bullet in him, destroying his brain. Word from within the Infante’s castle is that he drools and doesn’t eat unless a tube is pushed into his throat.”
“Leaving one person,” Evette concluded. Her mind caught up, drawing connections. Whisperings of the word ‘Noble’ found their way from Jamie’s mouth to her ear. “Oh.”
“The Baron Richmond,” Mauer said. He knelt, his hands moving in a gesture of supplication before he touched a child’s skull, one that had been picked clean by vermin. He took a moment, praying silently, then stood. “You utterly destroyed the man, and with that, you left Genevieve and I with no people to chase, and no people to interrogate. I’d happily spared him in hopes of getting answers at a later date. Not so. I thought I had time to apply pressure on him.”
“Not so,” Evette echoed Mauer. She felt a damaged, non-functional, broken heart plummet into her stomach. The false heart in her bag continued to pump away.
Evette looked at Mary, who stared down at the bodies.
“Percy led you here. He bought from this place, once.”
“He had a friend from the days he attended Radham, who gave him access. It was a way for him to get the funds he needed to maintain his enterprise. Given the chance, Genevieve hoped to slip into their ranks and observe things herself. We never got that far.”
“Sylvester asked the Baron, once, about what happened to the children,” Evette said.
“Did he? What did the Baron say?”
“The Baron laughed, and took this to his grave. I think he liked the idea we’d find our way here, and we’d stumble on this scene, or one like it. Maybe the bodies would still be warm.”
Mauer was only half listening. One of his men had approached, and now whispered in his ear.
“I have to go,” he said.
“It would be hypocritical to blame you for your part in this when I had the other lead killed. I believe you when you say you want to solve this particular riddle. My only concern is that you will get in my way. Swear to me that you won’t, and I’ll leave you here, to make your way.”
Evette couldn’t swear it. Not without consideration.
She looked down at the sea of bodies, dropped where they stood.
“I want you to comb this place for evidence. I want you to find what you can, Sylvester. To share the information, or even covet it for yourself. Search out answers elsewhere. Whoever bought from this place years ago has found a new place to go for the purchase of test subjects. I want you to find them, if you can. You could do it with my blessing. I want to let you. But I need you to promise you won’t get in my way.”
She was being asked to make the choice.
She nodded. “I won’t.”
“I wish you the best of luck, then.”
She remained in the graveyard, watching as Mauer and his men made their way up the steps to the library. In a minute, they would be getting into their carriages, riding off to fight the next battle in an unwinnable war.
Evette spoke to her phantoms. “Two different people were able to find this place, but something was important enough to keep under wraps that they had loyal Academy people kill themselves.”
“It doesn’t add up,” Jamie said.
Evette shook her head.
She moved her hand from behind her back. Her fingers were crossed. She uncrossed them.
She looked at each of her phantoms in turn. She stopped by meeting Mary’s eyes.
“You don’t intend to keep your promise of leaving him alone,” Mary said.
“Not at all,” Evette said. “Does that bother you? I know promises are important to you.”
“Promises from the heart are important to me,” Mary said.
Evette nodded. “Let’s go save Shirley, then. And see if we can’t get my actual heart working again, without them asking too many questions.”